Raquel Lojendio’s Song Recital

cover - IBS-22020

P’RA VOCÊ / OVALLE: Modinha. Azulao. VILLA-LOBOS: Melodia Sentimental. Cançao do Marinheiro. Lundu da Marqueza de Santos. PAGLICHI: A Casinha Pequenina. FERNÁNDEZ: Tonado pra voce. GINASTERA: Canción le la Luna Lunanca. Triste. Zamba. Arroró. Canción al árbol del olvido. GUSTAVINO: Cuando acaba de llover. El Sampedrino. La Tempranera. Pueblito, mi pueblo. Pampa sola. Pampamapa. Ya me voy a retirar. Préstame tu pañuelo. Bonita rama de Sauce. La Rosa y la Sauce. Se equivacó la paloma / Raquel Lojendio, sop; Chiky Martín, pno / IBS Classical 22020

Spanish soprano Raquel Lojendio here presents a collection of Latino songs, including several by Brazilian composers such as Jayme Ovalle and Heitor Villa-Lobos. Most of them are tonal and lyrical, but most of them also contain interesting turns of harmony and Lojendio is an interesting enough singer to keep the listener engaged.

Those expecting the second coming of Victoria de los Angeles are in for a surprise. Not only is Lojendio’s voice brighter than hers, but she is a much more emotional and engaged interpreter. Not for her the mere production of a smooth tone from top to bottom, though the voice production is even enough. Lojendio is much more interested in the words and in communication than de los Angeles although, at certain times (i.e., Azulao) her mellifluous legato, riding apparently endlessly on the breath, can make one recall the earlier soprano. Lojendio is a singer who can do both, then: produce a gorgeous sound and interpret a song.

It would be unfair not to mention the contribution of pianist Chiky Martín, who plays so well on this CD, but unfortunately Lojendio’s voice is so good, well controlled and expressive that one’s attention is almost always focused on her except for those passages when she does not sing. I have written volumes on this blog about the vocal weaknesses, and often deficiencies, of modern singers, but in Lojendio’s case I have absolutely nothing to say but positives. Just listen, for instance, to Villa-Lobos’ Melodia Sentimental with her perfectly-controlled soft high notes, perfectly integrates into the voice, to understand the difference between a master-singer and a wannabe. Lojendio can even sing rings around such a fine soprano as Carolyn Sampson, and that’s saying quite a bit.

Another great piece of singing (and interpreting) is Ginastera’s Canción de la Luna Lunanca, in which she “arcs” the voice in a manner I’ve not heard from a living singer in close to 40 years.

The only drawback to this album is that most of the songs are ballads, and often in the same keys, which detracts from the recital’s interest on a musical level, but that clearly won’t bother those who love great singing. Raquel Lojendio has IT.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Álvarez “Reframes” Hölderlin

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AwardHÖLDERLINFENSTER / ÁLVAREZ: Vorspiel. Der Nekar. Wie Meeresküsten. Ihr Sichergebaueten Alpen. Der Spaziergang. Die Asyle. In Liebliche Blaue. Der Ister. Lebenslauf. An Zimmern. Die Wanderung. An die Parzen. Vom Delphin. Das fröhliche Leben. Die Heimath. Burg Tübingen / April Frederick, sop; Alessandro Viale, pno / Sheva Contemporary SH250

“And now, for something completely different,” as John Cleese used to say: a modern British composer of Latin heritage writing modern music to the words of one of Germany’s most revered 19th-century poets, Friedrich Hölderlin. As the composer put it in the notes, the title of this cycle of 15 poems and an introductory letter “refers to the window of a picturesque tower overlooking the Neckar River in which Hölderlin lived from May 3, 1807 until his death on June 7, 1843.” He then continues:

This period, known as the “Turmzeit” (“Tower Period”), resulted in a style of rhymed verses that for some is particularly attractive – the composer Heinz Holliger, for instance, set words of Scardanelli, Hölderlin’s persona of this period. Many others have been drawn to the poet’s work after 1800 and the fragmented writings in the Homburger Folioheft (1802-07), seeing in their disjunctive procedures a foreshadowing of the angst-ridden uncertainties of the 20th century. Conversely, Hölderlin’s output seems to me a coherent whole: the earlier, less “fashionable” works such as Burg Tübingen as vivid as the superficially “modern” later fragments such as the odes and Ihr sichergebaueten AlpenAccording to noted English translator, Michael Hamburger, his desire was not to be modern, but to “return to the source” (“Quelle”, “Ursprung”) – a principle which resonated with my own ambitions and seems to permeate his entire oeuvre.

Geoffrey Álvarez’ musical language is bitonal but not forbidding; the soprano’s lines are gracious and lyrical. It is primarily in the piano accompaniment that he uses bitonal harmonies, and they complement rather than clash with the vocal line. We are very fortunate that the soprano used here, April Frederick, has a fine voice…no wobble, no strain, and crystal-clear diction, all of which make her a pleasure to listen to throughout. The composer was an award-winning finalist and soloist at the 2006 Tansman Composers’ Competition where Krauze, Holliger, Penderecki and Nyman played a chamber version of his piano concerto. Despite his British roots and Hispanic surname, this score by Álvarez fits comfortably into the more lyrical side of the modern German school of composition. I’m also thinking that at least some of his inspiration for this cycle stems from the fact, as he puts it in the liner notes, that “Significant to Hölderlin is the projection of a German poetic sensibility through ancient Greek windows, specifically Pindar.”

At times, such as the third piece on the first CD, Álvarez’ music explodes into powerful, edgy waves of sound. In this piece (“Wie Meeresküsten,” or “As on the seacoasts”), the vocal line is also more atonal and less graceful than usual, but these are occasional excursions and not the norm. Were he to have written more conventional tonal accompaniments to most of these songs, they would fit neatly, but not as interestingly, into the standard song literature.

Interestingly, most of the harmonic writing in this cycle struck me as often using a whole-tone scale to move up and down in addition to the unusual chord positions, but Álvarez does not get “locked into” this as a constantly recurring device. After two stormy numbers, “Der Asyle” again returns the soprano’s lines to more melodic, less strophic territory, and here the piano part also sounds closer to tonality and less abrasive on the ear. The one common trait to each of the songs presented here is rhythmic impetus. Unlike so many modern composers, Álvarez seems to understand that rhythm is the basis of all music, even music in which the rhythm is extremely subtle and/or constantly shifting, and this anchors the cycle throughout, even within the sometimes varied styles of the individual pieces. Also, although the piano accompaniment is challenging, it is not so much so that its complexity overwhelms the lyric line, and only rarely does he bring the accompaniment into such a range that it interferes with the voice. This allows both parts of his pieces to be heard in a good balance. Once in a while, as in “Der Ister,” he occasionally has the piano line follow the soprano line, but for the most part the two pieces are discrete. Later in this same song, Álvarez has the piano play solo for an extended period of time, music that connects the music and continues its progression while the vocalist is silent. And a bit later in the same piece, he has the rhythm run “backwards” in the piano part for a period of time.

“Lebenslauf” uses a galloping rhythm and “a rising and falling musical arc mirroring life’s trajectory as described by the poet.” This is immediately followed by a slow, moody piece, with an extended piano introduction, linking the “river journeys of Lebenslauf with the numinous powers of Der Ister,” darkened by “a Bb minor brooding on lost love whilst gazing at the beloved’s image.” “Die Wanderung,” or “The Journey,” is by far the longest piece in this cycle, running over 21 minutes. It depicts “the meeting of East and West and the consequently engendering of a race of beautiful people, but “might also be understood as the beautiful synthesis of thesis and antithesis, a process developed by his friend Hegel.” Though somewhat bitonal, this piece alternates between B and Db major and an underlying harmonic base. At the 15:42 mark, the vocal line also rises and falls in a scalar fashion. The first piece on CD 2, “To the Fates,” is an almost violent piece in a strong 4/4 with the singer opening up proceedings by shouting her lines in a Sprechstimme manner. Álvarez sure knows how to write peppy tunes!

Although “Der Wanderung” is the longest piece, most of the songs on CD 2 average greater lengths than their counterparts on CD 1. After the first two, the remaining three songs clock in at 11:17, 11:38 and 18:23, and as a result the musical structures are more developed and complex. And, curiously, the first of these long songs, “Das fröhliche Leben,” opens up sounding entirely Schubert-like, though Álvarez assures us that his model here was the end of Mahler’s “Der Abschied” from Das Lied von der Erde, and a bit into the piece we do indeed hear chord sequences that come closer to Mahler than to Schubert. But the point is the same: the music is more tonal here than anywhere else in the cycle, and the piano accompaniment, consisting mostly of successive major chords, is the simplest as well. “Die Heimath,” or “Homeland,” is also quite tonal, and in this case the composer it reminded me of most was Hugo Wolf. The piano accompaniment, however, is busier than in “Das fröhliche Leben,” using rapid eighth note runs in the right hand over chime chords in the left. Sometimes the left hand stops entirely to put the spotlight on the busy right hand, and again the soprano line is lyrical and gracious.

In the last song, “Burg Tübingen,” Álvarez admits to being inspired by Schubert’s “Die Taubenpost,” but here the Schubertian influence is mingled more with his own proclivities. The harmony leans towards tonality but is not always dead-center in it, the rumbling left-hand piano runs sometimes moving a bit away from the home key. The vocal line is initially very simple, primarily sticking to the note D, sometimes an octave up, and even when it changes somewhat D remains the “home note.” By 8:24 the harmony becomes a bit strange, leaning towards whole tones and, later, towards diminished chords. Then, at 15:13, the tonality magically changes from D minor to B major as we end in a sunny mood.

Both Álvarez and Frederick are fortunate to have Alessandro Viale as accompanist. I have praised Viale several times in the past, both as soloist and chamber music player, most recently in the Rest Ensemble’s new recording of the chamber music of Riccardo Malipiero. Having such highly skilled and enthusiastic performers helps any music, but particularly new music with which most listeners are unfamiliar, as in this case. This is a truly great modern song cycle, and I commend it to your attention.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Orchestral Works of Richard Rodney Bennett

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BENNETT: Troubadour Music. Piano Concerto.* Aubade. Country Dances, Book I. Anniversaries / *Michael McHale, pno; BBC Scottish Symphony Orch.; John Wilson, cond / Chandos CHSA 5244

This, the fourth volume of Chandos’ ongoing Richard Rodney Bennett project, is one of the more interesting since it includes his Piano Concerto, though it does also include some short, splashy pieces of lesser interest, among them the opening Troubadour Music. It isn’t that such music is poorly crafted, because it is, so much as that it is in-one-ear-and-out-the-other music, the kind of thing you’re likely to hear on your local classical music radio station. But the Brits surely do like their pretty music, and pretty the Troubadour Music is, full of lively little motifs, peppy rhythms, and the ubiquitous slow wind melody in the middle. What it has to do with troubadours, however, completely escapes me. It’s mostly the kind of fanfare piece you expect to hear as the opener for a BBC programme.

As I expected, however, the Piano Concerto is a fine piece. Unlike some composers who work best in miniature forms, Bennett was one of those who was most inspired in larger ones. The concerto opens in a tonally ambiguous sea of string figures, against which the piano plays upper-register swirls of sound, eventually taking over as the sea of strings ebbs and flows behind it. One of the things I liked about this first movement was that the music has a lyrical sweep about it despite the atonal feeling; another was how well it was developed, adding brass fanfares to the strings as it progressed. Written in 1968, it is clearly one of his finest achievements. Even the first-movement cadenza for the soloist is woven into the fabric of the surrounding music with expertise. Towards the end of the movement, the music becomes slower and quieter, eventually fading into nothingness. The second movement begins quietly, but with a sort of jumping rhythm that shifts around while more and different swirls are played by the piano. It was clear to me, at this point, that Bennett viewed the piano part as simply a prominent solo extension of what the orchestra was playing and not an “extra added distraction” as is so often the case. Eventually, the high strings and winds take up swirling figures of their own, which are then developed, while the piano adds its own commentary. After a quiet interlude, the piano’s bass notes propel an entirely new rhythm, which is then taken up by high strings with low brass and timpani throwing all they have into the mixture. This is an utterly brilliant piece.

The slow third movement is a bit more tonal, or perhaps I should say bitonal, but certainly not as up in the air as its predecessors. The eerie, shifting string melody is pretty much ignored by the soloist, who simply overlays his own sprinkles on it as a form of musical garnish. Eventually, the soloist settles into a more conventionally rhythmic (but not conventionally harmonic) pattern, then takes over for another brief cadenza. Eventually, the music becomes even slower and quieter, with the solo piano trickling short, amorphous figures towards the end. In the fourth and last movement, which begins with timpani and trombones, Bennett comes up with even more complex rhythms than in the second movement, pushing the music through various pyrotechnics. The trombones, horns and tubs then interact in an interesting hocket-style passage, after which the piano stops their nonsense with a brusque chord which leads into yet another cadenza before resuming the staccato rhythms of the opening for the development section. It ends on a brusque, unresolved brass chord.

The Aubade for orchestra, dating from 1964, is thankfully not as light a piece of fluff as was Troubadour Music. Indeed, it is in much the same harmonic language as the Piano Concerto, and inhabits the same general atmosphere. The music moves forward and develops slowly, using clarinets and French horns within the orchestral texture. There is also, surprisingly, a nice but brief violin solo along the way. Flute and clarinet flurries introduce a second subject in a faster tempo which is then moved along in its own fashion. The solo violin returns amidst a sea of soft winds and strings a the music returns to the original pace. Another excellent piece!

Unfortunately, we then return to folderol with the Country Dances of 2000-01. Apparently, as he aged, Bennett became more conservative and plebian in his musical language. These works, too, are pretty much in one ear and out the other.

Happily, the CD ends with Anniversaries, composed in 1982 and in a style somewhere between his modernistic, amorphous style of the ‘60s and his resolutely tonal, populist style of the early 21st century. This, too, is interesting and engaging music, well written and continually fascinating to listen to.

A mixed review, then, but only because the pieces are a mixed bag. The performances given here by Wilson and the BBC Scottish Orchestra are first-rate.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The Music of Vyacheslav Artyomov

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ARTYOMOV: Hymns of Sudden Wafts / Igor Abramov, s-sax/t-sax; Alexei Semionov, hpd; Yuri Smirnov, pno / Sonata / Oleg Tantsov, cl / Litany I / Lev Mikhailov, s-sax; Alexander Oseichuk, a-sax; Alexander Nabatov, t-sax; Vladimir Yeriomin, bar-sax / Litany II / Vladimir Pakulichev, Alexander Timochin, Albert Gofman, fl; Sergei Khokhlov, a-fl / Sunday Sonata / Valery Popov, bsn; Piotr Meschaninov, pno / 4 Armenian Duets / Ruzanna Listsian, sop; Karina Listsian, mez; Vyacheslav Artymov, pno / Capriccio on New Year’s Eve ’75 / Mikhailov, s-sax; Yeriomin, bar-sax; Ilia Spivak, vib/flexatone/bells / Divine Art DDA 25198

Vyacheslav Artyomov (b. 1940), a name formerly unknown to me, is apparently considered to be one of Russia’s greatest composers. Judging by this music, it’s a miracle that he escaped some of the Soviet “purges” of non-populist art music during the 1960s and ‘70s which beset the careers of Shostakovich and Weinberg. His music is described in the booklet as a sort of “Russian stream of consciousness.”

Judging from the opening selection, Artyomov’s music appears to be quite modernistic and atonal but not serial. Artyomov himself prefers not to call his music “contemporary,” but rather uses a specific term for including it into the tradition musica perennis (eternal music). He also seems to revel in unusual sonorities, mixing the harpsichord and piano in unusual ways under the soprano/tenor saxophone soloist. In the much longer second section, a “Lento,” Artyomov calls on the saxist to switch from soprano to tenor and play long-held notes while the keyboardists play sparse, atonal notes and chords beneath him. The music has an eerie sense of spaciness but never devolves into banality; the suspension of notes on both the saxophone and the piano with the sustain pedal on create a strange, ambient world. Shortly after the middle of this second section, the music becomes temporarily wilder and more agitated, with the wind soloist switching back temporarily to soprano sax, calming down slightly to allow the piano to play rapid descending triplets before the tenor sax and harpsichord re-enter. No matter what you call it, it’s very strange music!

With this opening piece taking up almost a full half hour, we move on to a five-and-a-half-minute solo clarinet sonata and two Litanies, both under four minutes, for wind instruments (the first for a saxophone quartet, the second for three flutes and an alto flute). The first of these is what I would refer to as “lonesome” music—a bit bleak, melancholy but in a wry sort of way. It consists mainly of rapid little figures, or motifs, played by the clarinetist in rapid succession, some of them repeating themselves but most not. One interesting thing about Artyomov’s music is that, somehow or other, it seems to go on longer than the allotted time although when one watches the sound wave play it is no longer than the time notated on the CD inlay. Litany I uses the saxophones in such a way that they almost, but not quite, sound like a conventional wind quartet, the soprano sax almost sounding like an oboe and the tenor sax playing lines that could easily have been assigned to a bassoon. Most of the time, Artyomov has the quartet play more or less together, although the baritone sax tends to stand out rather than blend smoothly with the others. Sometimes, he uses “bell” effects in which the top saxophone holds a note while the others come in underneath him, a half-beat off, until all are playing a chord together. Being written for flutes, Litany II has a somewhat perkier sound profile, although in this case the alto flute doesn’t have nearly the sonic impact on the whole that the baritone sax did in the first one. Probably due to the nature of the instruments, the lines are also longer, with only occasional interjections of music in a quicker tempo. Despite the occasional rhythmic passages, this music, too, appear to float through the listener’s mind.

Such is also the case with the Sunday Sonata for bassoon and piano, a somewhat lugubrious piece whose first movement is quite slow (quarter=54). We hear the bassoon a cappella for two minutes until the piano comes in with a crashing chord, after that falling away to soft, sprinkled notes in the right hand, before the bassoon returns solo once again. The piano then returns to take over for a while, alternating stabbing chords with soft, floating passages in the treble, using the sustain pedal, until we finally get both instruments playing at the same time. The second section is quicker (dotted quarter=63), but the increased tempo does not mean that the music is sprightlier or sunnier. The broken piano motifs intermingle here with the low-range grunts of the bassoon. This is a fairly dark Sunday sonata.

The 4 Armenian Duets have more in common with Ligeti than with Rachmaninov, which makes them interesting but not terribly folk-like. Thankfully, our soprano and mezzo have firm voices and good diction. The piano plays strange atonal music as accompaniment.

We end with Artyomov’s tribute to New Year’s Eve 1975, a strange yet lively piece that starts out with bells ringing before moving into some strange, fast, soft percussion, over which the soprano saxophone wails and shrieks. Then things quiet down to allow the soprano and baritone saxophones to interact by themselves, the former playing in its lower range and the latter in its higher range to simulate an oboe-bassoon duo. Strange percussion effects continue to com and go, but the music now is moodier. I can only assume that New Year’s 1975 was a very strange time for the composer. At 7:50, we quickly shift to fast, interweaving lines between the two saxists while the vibes occasionally interject sad little chords in the background. The music eventually becomes busier and noisier, with interjections from the flexatone and bells as the saxes madly cackle in the foreground. Ummm, so you had some LSD on New Year’s ’75, huh?

All kidding aside, this is an interesting disc that one should hear.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Holloway & Seabourne’s New Music for Horn

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BRITISH WORKS FOR HORN / SEABOURNE: Mille Fiori, Fanfare for 4 Horns.1-4 Encounters for 2 Horns.1,2 The Black Pegasus for Horn & Piano.1,4 Julie Dances for Solo Horn.1 HOLLOWAY: Partitas Nos. 1 & 2.1 Lament for 4 Horns1-4 / 1Ondřej Vrabec, 2Hana Sápková, 3Daniela Roubičková, 4Michaela Vincencová, Fr-hn; 5Mio Sakamoto, pno / Sheva Contemporary SH 241

 This CD, scheduled for release in June, combines the talents of Czech hornist and conductor Ondřej Vrabec and three other talented horn players with the music of British composers Robin Holloway and Peter Seabourne, teacher and pupil.

Although Holloway is a well-known figure of modern British music, his two Partitas here are written somewhat in the style of Bach’s cello suites, meaning that their harmonic language and construction are more conservative, almost Baroque in style. Seabourne’s music, for the most part, is more modern in style and more adventurous, though the opening fanfare is in a more traditional form. The works are not presented in the same order as in the heading; rather, Mille Fiori is followed by the first Holloway Partita, then Seabourne’s Encounters, Holloway’s second Partita and Lament, then Seabourne’s Black Pegasus and Julie Dances.

When I point out Holloway’s admitted indebtedness to Bach, I do not wish to impugn him or the music. It is clearly more modern in its use of harmony, by which I do not mean that it is bitonal or atonal but, rather, that it moves easily and audaciously between keys—subtly but still noticeably—while retaining a strong tonal bias. One of the things I liked about these Partitas was that Holloway created real melodies for the horn to play, but they are not cloying or sentimental. On the contrary, they are interesting and have a wonderful sense of development within them. Nonetheless, as a pupil of Alexander Goehr and a student of the music of Wagner and Debussy, he is just a bit more traditional although, in addition to the adventurous Seabourne, his composition pupils also include Thomas Adès and Huw Watkins.

Vrabec is recorded in a fairly resonant space, almost but not quite at the level of over-reverberation. He has a sterling technique but also a nice, bright tone and plays with emotional commitment. One can hear him at his best in the fourth piece, “Loure,” of Holloway’s Partita No. 1, where his perfect legato and instrumental control are simply breathtaking, or in the ensuing “Gigue” where it is his technique that grabs you.

Interestingly, Seabourne’s Encounters include bits of Holloway’s music in them. As he states in the liner notes, “These brief glimpses are woven into the musical discourse and not intended to be ‘spotted’ in any clever, informed sort of way – they are just chance encounters in the street with an old friend as it were.” Harmonically, they are more advanced than the Holloway Partitas but not as outré as some of Seabourne’s other pieces; they have a tonal bias but some of them lean more towards bitonality. There is also some humor in them, such as the “Scherzo.” In this piece, Vrabec is joined by hornist Hana Sápková, who also boasts a nice, bright tone. Seabourne also uses rather more rhythmic devices in these pieces than Holloway did in his Partitas, to good effect. The “Finale Serioso” is perhaps the most harmonically adventurous piece in the suite, using “rootless” chords and falling figures that somehow always fail to find a home tonality.

The opening Prelude of Holloway’s second Partita also leans a bit more towards bitonality, thought several passages are clearly in C major. This Prelude also sounds, to me, the least similar to Bach in its construction, though it is quite formally laid out; rather, it is the ensuing “Gavotte & Musette” that sounds more Bach-like, certainly so in its rather formal rhythms. The “Sarabande” here is another of his warm, attractive but not-quite-catchy melodic lines. I was particularly impressed by the subtle gradations of volume and breath pressure that Vraec brought to this piece; this is masterful playing on a very high order. Why Vrabec is not as well known internationally as Marie-Luise Neunecker, who is also an outstanding hornist, is beyond me. The Lament for four horns has a nice bittersweet quality about it that I liked very much, and here all four of our hornists produce a mellow blend.

Yet it is Seabourne’s The Black Pegasus for horn and piano that really grabs one. This music is edgy and adventurous; it reaches out and grabs the listener by the throat in the opening bars, eventually relaxing the tempo a bit but still retaining an undercurrent of menace. Part of this is due to the way the piano is recorded, with a very bright, almost metallic sound, played with drive and commitment by Mio Sakamoto. Even in its slowest and quietist passages (it’s in one movement but contains several different sections), the music has an ominous quality about it. I was riveted from first note to last. The piano accompaniment consists largely of rapid, single-note bass figures with sharp chords injected by the right hand, only moving to more melodic treble figures during the “quiet” heart of the piece. Seaborune’s jagged melodic line and continued use of unresolved chords keep this quiet section from becoming warm or comforting in any way. A bit later on, the horn plays strange muted figures that almost sound as if he s giving the raspberry. Once he takes the mute out, the music jumps into a vivace theme in which the piano pounds like the galloping of a runaway horse and the music moves to its conclusion.

The Julie Dances for solo horn, inspired by a photo of Vrabec’s daughter dancing (here given as the cover of this CD), is also a somewhat strange and very imaginative piece. The second part, “Incy Wincy,” simulates a “creepy” spider climbing and falling from a wall, while “Ladybird, Ladybird”  finds the spider running back to his web in a panic. All of these little vignettes are wonderfully captured by Vrabec’s horn playing. We end this little suite with “Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses,” in which Seabourne creates swirling figures that contrast with an spill over one another.

An excellent album, particularly recommended for horn fanciers!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Malov Plays Bach on the “Shoulder Cello”

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BACH: Cello Suites Nos. 1-6 / Sergey Malov, cel da spalla / Solo Musica SM 343

Just when you think you’ve heard everything, here comes an entirely new take on the Bach Cello Suites.

Russian cellist Sergey Malov gives us here the six suites complete as played on the “violincello da spalla” or “shoulder cello,” an instrument that I hadn’t even known existed. But exist it does and exist it did even in Bach’s own time. It was invented sometime during the 18th century, yet the terms “violincello da spalla” or “viola da spalla” tend to appear in theoretical works rather than as instrumental designations from composers (pace Wikipedia). One use of the instrument was for violinists who wanted to play a ground bass but weren’t comfortable with a large cello played in a sitting position. Another was for “strolling musicians,” generally at the courts of Dukes and Princes. A third was for use in Bach cantatas where he specified the use of a “violincello piccolo.” In these scores, Bach used a variety of clefs to signify the wide range of this instrument, given the fact that the cello da spalla has five strings rather than four and thus can more easily produce a wider note range. Wikipedia also suggests that the Cello Suite No. 6, in particular, was designed to be played on this instrument.

Malov always felt that the intimate feeling of the Bach Cello Suites sounded too heavy on a standard cello, but had no idea of the cello da spalla until he ran across a video recording of Dmitry Badiarov playing the “Allemande” of the second suite. Interestingly, Malov recalls his mother taking him to a violin maker when he was a child to make sure that he had an instrument he could handle. That violin-maker was Dmitry Badiarov.

Yet what the cello da spalla gains in note range and ease of flexibility, it lacks a bit in sonority. As you can see from the photograph, it is only about half as large as a regular cello, thus the richer, more booming sound of the cello’s low range is somewhat constricted. Moreover, the smaller size means that even the middle range is less full in tone, thus one will listen in vain for the kind of sound produced in these suites by Pablo Casals or Zuill Bailey. But in its place there is much greater control of the strings, since they are closer to the upper body of the player, and this is especially true of the fast passages, which absolutely fly on this instrument. For once, one can hear these movements as really being similar to the fast movements of the violin sonatas and partitas.

With such pinpoint control of the instrument, then, Malov is able to make all six suites fit onto one CD, an achievement that I, at least, have never seen from a conventional cellist. It would be easy to say that playing them at these rapid tempi “cheapen” the music, but such is not the case. On the contrary, the faster pace helps the listener hear the music as more “bound” and structured. In addition, the dance-like elements of certain movements (i.e., the “Menuet” and “Gigue” of the second suite) have a really lively feel to them, whereas one normally can’t imagine anyone dancing to these dance rhythms.

Do I miss the sensual quality of Bailey’s cello? Only in the slow movements where, alas, Malov insists on the historically wrong use of constant straight tone—but such is also the case with Tomás Cotik’s splendid recording of the Bach Violin Sonatas and Partitas. By and large, the music gains not only sprightliness but also intimacy when played this way. Listen, for instance, to the Prelude of the Suite No. 3, and the way in which Malov articulates each note and binds each phrase. With the rhythmic accents so sharply defined, the music bounces along at an excellent pace—clearly not too fast despite the quicker tempo—and in fact makes the ensuing “Allemande” sound all the more natural in context.

In short, Malov’s performances of these suites are actually enjoyable to listen to whereas most cellists, however good, have dull spots in their performances. I know of only one exception, an unfortunately little-known recording on the Town Hall label by Yehuda Hanani, whose lively phrasing and rhythmic emphasis, though slightly different from Malov’s, are quite similar using a standard cello.

As in the case of Cotik’s Violin Sonatas & Partitas, the more I listened to this recording the more I was convinced that, regardless of the instrument being used, Malov was on the right track musically. Partly because of the “reverent” approach taken to Bach in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, we became so used to “heavy” performances of his music that the few light and brisk ones were often dismissed as being “shallow,” but now we can listen to the Brandenburg Concerti conducted by Anthony Bernard in the late 1920s or the set conducted by Karl Richter in 1967 as being “on target” when compared to others of the same vintage, just as we can now hear Wanda Landowska’s 1930s recordings of the Goldberg Variations and the Chromatic Fantasia & Fugue as almost sounding contemporary except for the constricted 78-rpm sound quality. When Sigiswald Kuijken became the very first to record the Bach violin works using a Baroque bow and holding the instrument against his shoulder rather than tightly under his chin, I predicted that this style would become the norm for future performances of these works, and I was right. There are a lot of things I don’t know, but music isn’t one of them. For better or worse, music I know very well, perhaps too well to put up with constant straight tone!

It may take you a few minutes to adjust your ears to the leaner, drier, “smaller” sound of the cello da spalla, but once you do I think you’ll find it quite engaging. It’s somewhat analogous to the way we adapted our ears away from such huge-voiced Mozart tenors as Leo Slezak, Helge Roswaenge and Jan Peerce to such lighter voices as Heddle Nash, Peter Schreier and Werner Hollweg. Lighter voice production helps breath support and agility, and such is the case here.

This is not only an excellent recording in and of itself, then, but one that may very well set a standard that will be used in the future by other Bach cellists.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Henry Robinett’s Jazz Standards

Jazz Standards (low res)-cover

JAZZ STANDARDS, Vol. 1: THEN / FRAGOS-BAKER-GASPARRE: I Hear a Rhapsody. CARRILLO: Yellow Days (La Mentira). MANCINI-MERCER: Days of Wine and Roses. KERN-FIELDS: The Way You Look Tonight. ARLEN-KOEHLER: Ill Wind. BOWMAN: East of the Sun. KAPER-WEBSTER: Invitation. WALDRON: Soul Eyes. KERN-HAMMERSTEIN: Why Do I Love You? HARLINE-SMITH: Pinocchio / Henry Robinett, gtr; Joe Gilman, pno; Chris Symer, bs; Michael Stephans, dm / Nefertiti Records, no number

Although recorded 20 years ago, this is the first release of Henry Robinett’s album, Jazz Standards, Vol. 1: Then. Why did it stay on the shelf for so long? Because Robinett wasn’t sure if the world needed “another” album of such music, so he moved on to more adventurous territory.

But this album is superb because Robinett is superb.

My readers know how few jazz guitarists I review, and even on some of the albums I do write about I complain of one thing: most jazz guitarists plays in a soft, mushy style because that’s what became “the thing” in the late 1940s and has continued to be the standard ever since. But I don’t care for mushy jazz guitar playing any more than I care for mushy jazz pianists, so obviously Robinett is cut above the average.

He certainly is. He really swings, and although some of his playing is gentle he does not shy away from pickin’ that thing with occasionally hard strokes to propel the music. His playing reminds me of some of the best guitarists of the past such as Oscar Moore and Barney Kessel.

And he is an INVENTIVE player. His improvisations are highly original and take unexpected twists and turns. Moreover, on this disc he also has a nice sparkplug of a pianist, Joe Gilman, in addition to a perky rhythm section to move things along. Thus, in a sense, the tunes used here do not really matter as much as what he does with them, and what he does is absolutely superb. Only on Yellow Days did I feel that he got stuck in a repeated rhythmic pattern which I felt he could have varied a bit, but even here what he plays is interesting. And just listen to Gilman on piano! Without going too far outside the written chords, he plays such interesting chromatic runs, and turns the song so much inside-out, that he almost steals the thunder away from Robinett on this one track. Bassist Chris Symer also contributes a nice solo on this one, though it is not quite on the same plateau as the guitarist and pianist.

 This fresh approach is heard in every track. Nothing is glossed over or given short shrift; Robinett and Gilman are so good that they even make first-rate jazz out of Henry Mancini’s Days of Wine and Roses, upping the tempo and pushing the beat on one and three throughout the first chorus, then switching to a swinging 4 underneath Robinett’s absolutely brilliant solo. He really takes off here in his three choruses, so much so that one is astonished at how different each of the three are. When Gilman enters, he clearly has his work cut out for him, yet he manages to hold his own, particularly in his second and third choruses where he almost equals Robinett’s brilliance. And even Symer is really inspired on this one!

Given the brilliance of these first three tracks, I was really looking forward to hearing some of the songs I like best, such as The Way You Look Tonight, East of the Sun and Why Do I Love You?, and I was not disappointed. The first of these takes off like a rocket and swings with an almost manic drive from start to finish. I think even Django Reinhardt would have really enjoyed what Robinett does here, and there is no higher praise from me than that. As far as I’m concerned, Django is the apex of jazz guitar, the instrument’s Art Tatum or Clifford Brown. Indeed, here Robinett again inspires Gilman to some really good playing, particularly in his first chorus, which has more than a little Bud Powell in it.

Harold Arlen, who for a white guy was an awfully good writer of jazz tunes (he had, in fact, started out as a jazz pianist in the late 1920s with a group called the Buffalodians), contributed Ill Wind which Robinett plays in a nice medium tempo groove with a bit of funk in his step. Here his solo is not quite as busy as on previous tracks, to good advantage since he puts a little “space” between his notes here and there which help kick the beat even more. Gilman throws in a quote from Mercer Ellington’s Things Ain’t What They Used to Be in his solo, which also nice space in it, and Symer plucks his bass with an unusually aggressive touch to propel the beat even more. In his last solo, Robinett and the band really kick the beat hard towards the finish line. And oh boy, do they do a number on East of the Sun, playing it medium-up with yet more of a funky kick to the beat, and Robinett’s solo is absolutely dazzling.

Bronislaw Kaper’s Invitation was not a tune I was very familiar with, but once again this band rose to the occasion. The rest of the tracks are in much the same vein: brisk tempi, inventive solos and a hard-driving beat. This is surely one of those rare albums where “conventional” jazz meets high creativity, and this marriage pays off in spades.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Perelman & Shipp—Again!

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AwardAMALGAM / PERELMAN-SHIPP: Amalgam, Parts 1-12 / Ivo Perelman, t-sax; Matthew Shipp, pno / Mahakala Music MAHA003, available at Bandcamp

From the Bandcamp page:

They just can’t stop, these two.

Ivo Perelman and Matthew Shipp have threatened, on more than one occasion, to cease and desist. Each time they enter the studio together, just the two of them, they have considered whether it will be the last time for this most engrossing, uncannily linked, long-lived duo: this binary star that, once again, renews itself on Amalgam.

For those of you new to the Perelman-Shipp Duo, keep in mind that the music you hear has arrived, literally, from nowhere. Especially in the last decade or so, they have embarked on voyages of total spontaneity in which nothing is predetermined. They work without written music, without themes, without discussion of tempo or texture, or . . . anything, really. These improvisations create their own form as they unfurl; each dictates its own length and mood, its color and complexity. If you hear Perelman and Shipp arrive together at a climax, or meet at some harmonic plateau in their separate flights, the credit goes to a communication that brooks telepathy. At this point in their shared history, they not only complete each other’s sentences. They also start them.

If this seems too remarkable to be true, rest assured that it is both that remarkable, and completely true.

And yet, before creating the pieces on this album, says Perelman, “We had to ask ourselves, like we always do: ‘Was it time to stop doing this? Did we dry up?’ Because we’re always contemplating the end, and because we have a pact – that if and when we stop producing music that is fresh, we’ll stop recording as a duo. This will never be only some indulgence for us.”

Normally, I don’t quote this much from album promo material, but in this case I think it’s appropriate to do so, because it says so much about their musical relationship, which now extends far beyond what Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines did between 1928 and 1950—a longer period of time but a more sporadic relationship—as well as what Al Cohn and Zoot Sims did for more than a decade, or what Miles Davis and John Coltrane did for approximately six years. Their body of work as a duo just keeps growing, and most of it is simply incredible.

One more bit from the promo material:

On previous albums, these two displayed a breadth of improvisation that proved marvelous, expansive and explosive. But here, they have turned that intrepidity inward; instead of exploring outer space, they send their music hurtling through the space between molecules. This is fusion, not fission. On Amalgam, Perelman and Shipp do not split the hydrogen atom; rather, they dive down into it. They have stripped away discursive ornamentation, no matter how delightful it has proved in the past. The material is compressed; redundancies recede.

“We play less now and say more,” Perelman agrees. “We are having a new appreciation for the space between notes and between chords. So now each note carries more weight in the overall structure; each note breathes because of the space around it.”

In Part 1, at least, there is also somewhat more of a jazz beat, something that much of their music ignores as much as key. I’d also say that, on this track at least, Perelman’s playing is even more lyrical than usual, though I feel that Perelman’s tone has sounded fuller and richer on some other releases. The theme snippets used by him here almost make up a complete melody, something else that’s different from many past outings with Shipp, and the pianist feeds him a few more chords than usual, evidently enjoying the resultant stream of ideas.

In Part 2, it is Shipp who starts things off, and at first it sounds as if they are playing another ballad, but as soon as Perelman enters the tempo increases dramatically. The saxist is more his usual self here, pushing the envelope both melodically and harmonically, and Shipp is quick to pick up on his rhythmic idiosyncrasies, playing mostly staccato chords behind him for some time. The saxist adds several squeals and buzzes towards the end of the piece before Shipp suddenly starts playing somewhat more conventional piano.

By Part 3, the duo is well and fully engaged in duo-creation, building this track around what can only be termed partial ideas which are later fleshed out by improvisation. Part 4 is built around shifting rhythms, almost as if they were jazz versions of Stravinsky; all semblance of the order one heard in track one is gone. There are stops and starts in this one, too; I can only assume they were really experimenting in their minds before playing the next section or phrase of this piece.

This hesitancy continues in Part 6, but when I say “hesitancy” it is not a negative connotation. They pause and reflect before moving on not because they are entirely unsure of their path but because, as Perelman mentioned in the notes, they now have a “new appreciation for the space between notes and between chords.” In brief, their music is less of a headlong rush into the maelstrom than it is now a matter of reflection and greater thought. Even in a piece such as Part 7, where the tempo again increases and the pauses are not as evident, you can hear how they are thinking about every single note they play. It all has to have meaning; it all has to fit like interlocking pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

By Part 8, we have almost returned to the lyricism of Part 1—almost, but not quite, since the melody line is more fragmented and leads much quicker into being broken up into smaller pieces, first by Shipp and then by Perelman, who also plays many more high-register overblown passages. Indeed, upper harmonic extensions seem to be at the heart of this particular piece. In Part 9, they are both out on a limb, playing rapid, breathless, short phrases and motifs in quick succession, yet always changing pitch and rhythm as they go along. I could give equally detailed descriptions of the final three pieces on this album, but to what purpose? The thrill is in the listening, not in the verbal descriptions of listening.

In a jazz world where, increasingly, the music has become more like pop music than it even was during the Swing Era or, worse yet, used as a “calming influence” of soft, banal playing and singing supposedly “from the heart,” it is utterly refreshing to hear music that is REALLY from the heart as well as from the mind.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Lozano & Gentiane’s Free Jazz

cover - MCM046

CONVERGENCE / LOZANO-MG: My Steps. Era. Hurry Up. Furtive Thoughts. Stablemates. Salut d’amour. Quick Fix / Frank Lozano, t-sax; Gentiane MG, pno / Multiple Chords Music MCM046

Ottawa-born Frank Lozano, who studied with Pat LaBarbara and Jerry Bergonzi, teams up here with the younger Montreal pianist Gentiane MG (Michaud-Gagnon) to create an album of freely improvised jazz, but their aesthetics are far different from such outré duos as Ivo Perelman and Matthew Shipp.

Where Perelman and Shipp fly into the atmosphere of atonal jazz, trying to create form out of the formless, the Lozano-MG duo is rooted in traditional jazz rhythms and melodic lines that sound at least somewhat similar to the standard jazz styles of the 1950s. In other words, the music they improvise on has more form in both melodic lines and harmony than their atonal counterparts. Lozano does not squawk and squeal overtone high notes while MG stays within the general framework of what one heard from such pianists as Lennie Tristano. This gives their pieces a clearer frame of reference for the listener to hang onto.

Considering the more conventional nature of these pieces, then, it’s a bit surprising that they chose not to include a percussionist of some sort, but they clearly provide a good sense of swing all by themselves. This is largely achieved through rhythmic accents, some from Lozano but most from MG. Perhaps they felt that adding a drummer would make their music sound even more conventional than it really is.

Listening carefully to these tracks, I found that MG’s improvisations were a bit more adventurous than Lozano’s. The saxist plays very much in the Jerry Bergonzi style, which is certainly not a bad one but tends to stay within a certain range of ideas, whereas MG takes more unexpected turns of phrase.

The CD is beautifully recorded, the microphone placement being fairly close to the instruments while still giving us a little bit of resonance around them—just perfect. This increases the intimate feel of the album, particularly on a ballad like Era. Occasionally, as in a piece like Hurry Up, the music seems to be built from the rhythm up rather than from the melody down, and on this track in particular Lozano extends himself a bit more than usual to produce a really interesting solo. Salut d’amour is a surprisingly nice ballad, with Gentiane playing the opening chorus solo before Lozano comes in over her.

Quick Fix opens with an extended chord played by Gentiane as Lozano improvises around it, then the pianist, before the tempo picks up to become a rather complex tune with the piano’s left hand constantly playing syncopations against the right. The piece then moves into somewhat more conventional rhythm and harmony for the development.

A fine little album with interesting tunes, interestingly played.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Koukl Plays Harsányi, Vol. 2

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HARSÁNYI: 3 Pièces Lyriques. 3 Pièces de Danse. Suite Brève. Petite Suite de Danse. Étude. Rythmes, Cinq Inventions pour Piano. 12 Petites Pièces. Improvisation sur la Chanson “Je vais revoir ma Normandie.” 13 Dances: Fox-trot. Valse, Op. 2 / Giorgio Koukl, pno / Grand Piano GP807

Hungarian composer Tibor Harsányi (1898-1954), virtually forgotten in the West, is one of several pet projects of the great Czech pianist Giorgio Koukl, who for some reason flies a bit under the radar of most classical listeners. This is, perhaps, because most of the material he plays is off the radar of most pianists to begin with (Harsányi, Kapralova, Lourie—lots of Lourie, and Martinů), but he is clearly a major talent and needs to be recognized as such.

As in the case of Vol. 1 of this series, the titles of these works—“lyric pieces,” “dance pieces,” “little dance suite,” “little pieces”—belie the extraordinary invention and originality of the music. In fact, there’s probably a good chance that the harmonic and melodic complexity of these pieces, when heard in concerts, put many listeners off even during Harsányi’s lifetime. Like the “small” piano pieces of Erwin Schulhoff, the music is quite complex, requiring a sharply-honed musical mind to appreciate them. Even Beethoven’s bagatelles, most of which (“Für Elise” excepted) are amazingly well-written, are more audience-friendly than Harsányi’s constant shifting of meter and harmony.

HarsanyiIt’s not that his music is forbiddingly atonal…in fact, it’s not really atonal at all. It’s more that although he occasionally lands in tonal spaces, more often than not he is shifting the notes within chords and using what progressive jazz musicians of the 1950s and ‘60s called “rootless chords” to keep tonality slightly at bay. Moreover, he adds to this very strong rhythms, just as Bartók did, and unlike Bartók’s “Easy Pieces” and Mikrokosmos which are indeed audience-friendly, nothing Harsányi wrote can be said to fit into that category. Sometimes his music “climbs the scale” chromatically, or maintains a somewhat lyrical top line while the harmony continually clashes not only with that top line but also with the other chords surrounding it, and none of this, combined with his strong rhythms, provides any “comfort listening.”

Even the first of his 3 Pièces de Danse, a tango, could never appeal to an Argentinean looking for sensual dance music, despite the fact that in this piece Harsányi’s harmony is not as spiky as it usually is. He uses close seconds in his chords that always seem to be clashing with each other and with the top line, a rhythmic but not terribly melodic theme seemingly comprised of mostly arpeggiated figures. And yes, of course we get another dance piece called a “Boston,” which I’d love someone to explain to me since American dance music of the 1920s had no such thing, though Eastern European composers all seemed to think so. (Yes, I have researched this online, and no folks, there wasn’t any such dance as a “Boston.”) Here, too, Harsányi indulges in some very strange harmony, a bit less spiky than the “Bostons” of Schulhoff but abrasive nonetheless. But if you thought these are strange, wait until you hear his “Mouvement de Fox Trot,” which is sort of a ragtime piece from the Twilight Zone, using both chromatics and whole-tone harmonies in a fashion that is truly bizarre.

The fox trot that opens the Suite Brève is rather more conventional, using open fourths and fifths to produce almost an American folk song sound, presaging Aaron Copland by nearly a decade. The “Andante” in this suite is also rather tame for Harsányi, but the “Presto” is a sort of bitonal perpetuum mobile of rapid eighths that one could not dance to unless one were a centipede on uppers. “Mouvement de blue” is a bit of an enigma, in which Harsányi combines the American blues form with both Hungarian and modern classical harmonies that alternate, while the concluding “Vivace” doesn’t really seem to be a “dance” piece at all. And the whole of this suite takes a mere eight minutes!

Although bitonal harmonies are also used in the 1924 Petite Suite de Danse, this is some of Harsányi’s most attractive and least complex music, except for the third piece, titled “Démence,” with its jagged rhythms and strange harmonies. The last piece in this suite, titled “Fête,” sounds very Debussy-ish, but like Debussy hopped up on cocaine, with much stronger rhythms and a louder volume level. The second piece in his Rythmes, the “Allegretto scherzando,” is another attractive and relatively uncomplicated piece, and the following “Allegretto ma non troppo” is not far behind, but with the “Allegretto ritmato” Harsányi again plunges us into exotic and somewhat abrasive harmonic territory.

One could give just as detailed descriptions of every piece in this recital, of which only the 3 Pièces de Danse are not first recordings. Harsányi may yet have a long way to go before he begins to show up on pianists’ concert programs, but at least we can appreciate what he had to offer on Koukl’s remarkable recordings.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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