Brian Giebler Traces an Old-Fashioned Lad’s Loves

cover - BCD9542

A LAD’S LOVE / GURNEY: Ludlow and Teme.* In Flanders.* BRITTEN: Canticle II: Abraham & Isaac.+ Fish in the Unruffled Lakes. WARLOCK: In an Arbour Green. QUILTER: Love’s Philosophy. IRELAND: Ladslove. We’ll in the Woods No More. VENABLES: Songs of Eternity and Sorrow: Because I Liked You Better* / Brian Giebler, ten; *Katie Hyun, Ben Russell, vln; *Jessica Meyer, vla; *Michael Katz, cel; +Reginald Mobley, counter-ten; Steven McGhee, pno / Bridge 9542

Young American tenor Brian Giebler, a graduate of the University of Maryland, Eastman School of Music and the Royal Academy of Music, has a light but attractive voice and, better yet, crystal-clear diction. In this recital he gives us mostly older British songs on the loves of various lads down through the ages, mostly focused on songs of the 1920s.

Ivor Gurney’s song cycle for tenor, piano and string quartet, Ludlow and Teme, owes its configuration to Vaughan Williams’ famous early cycle, On Wenlock Edge. I smiled to myself recognizing several turns of phrase within these songs (as well as several modulations) stolen outright from Vaughan Williams. (Even the third song in this cycle is titled “’Tis Time, I Think, By Wenlock Town”!) Well, at least the music is pretty good in itself, and since my download copy of this CD didn’t include a booklet it was fortunate that Giebler’s diction was so good that I didn’t need it. The pick-up string quartet plays very well behind him. In Flanders, though a separate song written five years earlier, is in much the same style.

Next up is Benjamin Britten’s famous Canticle II: Abraham & Isaac, apparently representing a lad’s love for his father who is about to sacrifice his ass to his god. I was very upset by the use of a countertenor in this piece; Britten clearly wrote Isaac for mezzo-soprano, though he was close friends with countertenor Alfred Deller and in fact wrote the role of Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for him. Why ruin a piece of music by going against the composer’s wishes? I thought all you classical folk were into Historically-Informed Performances? Happily, Mobley’s voice isn’t too “hooty,” and he has good diction, but I didn’t much like the change and cut the performance short at the five-minute mark.

The next five songs are all by excellent British composers of the period, Warlock, Quilter, Britten and Ireland, and these, too, Giebler sang extremely well. Britten’s early (1937-41) Fish in the Unruffled Lakes, an excellent song cycle, was new to me, and I must also give praise to pianist Steven McGhee for his excellent, lively accompaniments. We end with a song in the old style by the more modern composer Ian Venables (b. 1955), Because I Liked You Better.

A good recital overall except for the desecration of Britten’s Canticle.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Hemmerlé Plays Roger-Ducassse

MLS-CD-013_Ducasse_Hemmerle_Cover_rectangle

ROGER-DUCASSE: Barcarolle Nos. 1-3. Études Nos. 1-3. Arabesques Nos. 1-2. Rythmes. Sonorités / Patrick Hemmerlé, pno / Melism MLSCD013

Up to about a dozen years ago, I would have said that Charles Koechlin was an even more forgotten composer than Jean Roger-Ducasse, but David Zinman’s landmark recording of the former’s complete music for The Jungle Book and several recordings of his piano cycle The Persian Hours re-established him, and of course there have been many recordings of his work since. Yet although most of Roger-Ducasse’s music is available on CD he is still, as Patrick Hemmerlé points out in the liner notes, a stranger in the concert hall. Examining my catalog of recordings, I previously had only two works by him: Clarionerie played by the great pianist Nadia Reisenberg, and his Sarabande in a broadcast performance from the 1940s conducted by Arturo Toscanini (a champion of French music of that period).

Hemmerlé gives us some idea of why he is ignored and why he became forgotten, and both are tied to his somewhat surly, misanthropic personality. “He did not court potential performers of his music,” he writes. “Although he was played regularly whilst he was alive and very much a part of the musical scene, he had not the prepossessing personality which would have helped the diffusion of his music. If anything he rather hindered it. Furthermore, this side of his personality is reflected in the music and renders it difficult. A work by him is never given to the listener. Even when the message is in appearance quite a simple one, one still has to make an effort to go towards it, to assimilate the layers of complexities behind which the heart of the composer hides. I believe this is actually what he wanted.”

The opening piece on this recital, Barcarolle No. 1, opens with a surprisingly loud chord before descending into Impressionism. My reaction was that his music was more rhythmic than that of Debussy or even Koechlin; this piece, at least, also has an attractive melodic line, something that those other two composers did not always create. But it’s also true that there are “hidden” complexities to his music, particularly in the sense that his writing fir the left hand is, to my ears, much more complex than that of Debussy, Ravel or Koechlin. This doesn’t mean that those other composers wrote simple music for the right hand, only that it more often than not matched the rhythm of what was happening in the right. Roger-Ducasse often has two contrasting rhythms going on at the same time, certainly more often than the others. In fact, at least in the first Barcarolle, one could actually just play the left hand music and hear a complete, separate composition, something that is clearly not true of Debussy or Koechlin. But, again as Hemmerlé says, he does this subtly. He doesn’t come to you; you have to come to him.

In the Étude No. 1, in fact, the right hand plays mostly fluttering figures, dancing little arabesques, while the left hand provides the complete melodic line. This is an even more extreme case than the Barcarolle No. 1. And once again, his sense of rhythm is stronger and much more clearly defined than in the cases of those other composers mentioned. Perhaps, though French, he was influenced just as much or more with the Russian Scriabin as he was by his own peers. Incidentally, Roger-Ducasse was the star pupil and close friend of Gabriel Fauré, but even Fauré’s music lacked the clear rhythmic profile of his pupil.

The Étude No. 2 opens with a falling and rising chromatic figure (again, played by the left hand) that is closer in feeling to Debussy or Ravel, but he takes it on a chromatic journey all its own. The left hand plays the slow-moving melody as well as several of the chords while the right continues to trace those falling and rising chromatics. At about the 2:30 mark, however, he reverses this, giving the chromatic movement to the left hand while the right plays more melodic figures. Very strange! Eventually, the chromatic figures venture into modal scales to which Roger-Ducasse applies extended chords in the harmony. Eventually, the two hands create a really complex web of chromatic movement up and down against each other.

Indeed, this kind of cat-and-mouse game with the listener seems to be at the heart of every piece, as if Roger-Ducasse purposely set out to tease the listener with the way his voices “move” within each piece. At least in the works presented in this recital, no piece is anywhere near as complex as Debussy’s late Préludes or Koechlin’s The Persian Hours, and Roger-Ducasse never engages in the kind of impressionistic subtlety in which both melody and harmony are deconstructed the way Koechlin did, but it still requires some concentration to get the most out of his music. Unless your ears are following what both hands are doing, you’re missing at least half of the music at all times. These are miniatures, but miniatures put together with the skill of a master clockmaker who knows how to make his clockwork run sideways or backwards when he feels like it.

And, to be honest, the titles he gave his pieces don’t seem to be meaningful in any way. His barcarolles don’t really have a barcarolle rhythm, on the contrary, you could just as well call any of the barcarolles here an etude, or an arabesque, or a fantasie for all the difference it makes. All are in 4/4/ time (except for the Arabesque No. 2 in triple meter, though Sonotrités also begins in 3), most in medium tempo, and all play the same game with their clockwork. This doesn’t mean that each piece sounds alike, however: Roger-Ducasse clearly knew how to vary his approach to keep his pieces from sounding alike, but they certainly all do sound similar. Of course, the pieces that Hemmerlé chose here were all written within a fairly narrow period of time, from 1914 to 1921 with the sole exception of the first Barcarolle from 1906, but I have a feeling that this cross-section pretty much describes his working methods in general.

Hemmerlé plays all of this music with not only great digital facility but also with a wonderful forward momentum and a legato flow that keeps the clockwork whirling perfectly in synch. A very interesting CD.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Krommer’s Surprising Symphonies

Entwürfe cpo-Cover Februar 2020_cover.indd

KROMMER: Symphonies Nos. 6 & 9 / Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana; Howard Griffiths, cond / CPO 555 337-2

If I were to ask you to name three major composers of symphonies and string quartets between the last decade of the 18th century and the third of the 19th, the first two would be easy answers: Beethoven and Schubert. But I’m willing to bet you, unless you’ve heard the previous two releases in this series, that you’d puzzle a long time without every coming up with the name of Franz Krommer.

In his once widely read characterizations of famous composers, Heinrich Riehl wrote:

Hardly any musician has given me so much trouble as this Krommer: sometimes his works attracted me, sometimes they repelled me, and yet even when I disliked them they kindled my lively interest. […] But it was not only Krommer’s compositions per se that posed riddles: I found it an even greater riddle that this once so popular master of chamber music could be so utterly forgotten soon after his death. By that I mean forgotten not only in the sense that musicians dropped his quartets from their programmes […], but in a larger sense: that he was hushed up by history, that even his name no longer appeared in histories of music.

KrommerSo who was this man? He was born in Kamenice u Jilhavy, a small market town in the Czech Republic, as František Vincenc Kramář on November 27, 1759. Between 1773 and 1776 he studied the organ with his uncle Antonin, later playing the organ alongside his uncle the next year. In 1785, now also proficient on the violin, he moved to Vienna to plauy that instrument in the orchestra of the Duke of Styria, In 1790, he was named Maestro di Capella at the Cathedral in Pécs, Hungary. Five years later, he returned to Vienna, later performing the same role for Duke Ignaz Fuchs in 1798. From 1813 until his death in January 8, 1831, he succeeded Leopold Kozeluch as composer for the Austrian Imperial Court. Like Schubert, he composed nine symphonies of which one is lost, but in his case it’s the Eight Symphony rather than the Seventh (although Schubert’s Seventh Symphony has indeed been found in piano score and orchestrated by Felix Weingartner), but in the field of chamber music he was astonishingly prolific, writing no less than 79 string quartets and 35 string quintets.

This presentation of his Sixth and Ninth Symphonies reveals an absolutely astonishing composer. His music is exciting and vital; even in the slow movements he, like Beethoven, maintained a dramatic profile, and in addition his musical thought process is exceedingly original. Also like Beethoven, Krommer’s music is strongly rhythmic, but in his case the rhythms are based on Czech folk music and not German or Austrian. And although his music is indeed tonal and melodic, the melodies are not strongly memorable ones as in the case of Beethoven or Schubert. This is one possible reason why they were forgotten, although Riehl has a point that he should never have been erased from the annals of musical history.

Like Beethoven, he made surprising changes of harmony, but in his case they are more frequent. Also, both his thematic material and its development move along corss-current lines; it does not flow forward in what seems like an inevitable progression. Add all these factors together and you have a composer whose music would still have sounded modern had it been written in the time of Smetana or Dvořák, though its lack of memorable melodies would probably still have made it less popular.

Perhaps, then, it is better that he be revived today when our more modern ears can appreciate his individuality without criticizing him for not following the set models of his time. Apparently, his first symphony of 1797 came out of the tradition of Haydn and Mozart, as did Beethoven’s First, but like Beethoven he developed his own working method by the time of his Third Symphony. Krommer’s music is full of jagged edges, frequent brass and string explosions, and other devices generally unknown in music history with the exception of Hector Berlioz, who undoubtedly knew nothing of him. Interestingly, considering how many years he lived and worked in Vienna, his symphonies not only weren’t much influenced by Beethoven but Beethoven and Schubert seem to have either ignored or not known of his innovations. Just as there is only a bit of Beethoven in Krommer, there is little if any Krommer in Beethoven and practically none at all in Schubert’s works.

Indeed, once Krommer sets his rhythmic whirlwind in motion, it scarcely ever pauses for a breather through to the end. This undoubtedly irked those listeners who wanted to hear their warm, mooshy-gooshy slow movements, which Krommer failed to provide. His Ninth Symphony, ostensibly in C major, starts out resolutely in A minor before changing over. The first movement has a slow Adagio introduction, but by the end of the first minute Krommer is already throwing in loud string-brass-tympani bombs to warn the listener that one his musical storms is coming. Yet for all this, the Allegro section of this movement is for the most part very jolly despite the frequent outbursts, and once again his musical progression is very original, again dipping into the minor here and there.

In short, Krommer didn’t really fit into the Teutonic school of composition so prevalent, and popular, in Austria and Germany of his time. This, too, probably contributed to his being erased from history after his death. But upon listening to some of his earlier symphonies, as well as a couple of his string quartets, I found the problem. Krommer was essentially a one-trick pony. Everything he wrote followed the same pattern, and although the daring key changes and explosive orchestration is exciting, there’s really little variance from work to work. Perhaps this was the reason why his name was erased from the annals of history after his death, although it has been my experience that there are quite a few gooshy-lyrical Romantic composers whose work, though inferior to Krommer’s, is artificially kept alive for reasons that escape me.

Nonetheless, these are two symphonies worth checking out for an alternate school of symphonic writing within the Austrian Empire.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Collins Plays, Conducts Vaughan Williams & Finzi

7318599923673

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 5. FINZI: Clarinet Concerto / Philharmonia Orch.; Michael Collins, cl/cond / Bis SACD-2367

Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony both delighted and puzzled listeners. Essentially melodic and warm, it made a stark contrast to his edgier Fourth. Some welcomed this as a return of the “old” Vaughan Williams while others puzzled over such a melodic work in the midst of the Second World War. But Vaughan Williams had poured himself into a number of relief efforts during the war, including the safe passage of German-Jewish refugees; he saw this symphony as a means of providing some hope and uplifting of spirits during a very dark time. Eventually he would write his even more angst-ridden Sixth Symphony, a powerful piece which is still not played as often as it should be.

My favorite recording of this piece is the one by Sir John Barbirolli with the Hallé Orchestra, but in this new recording conductor Michael Collins makes a strong case for his reading as well. And of course, Bis’ SACD sound is far superior to the old Barbirolli version. The modern-day Philharmonia plays extremely well under his guidance, and despite its generally genial surface Collins manages to bring out the shades of gray and darkness that the composer put into it. I was especially pleased by the bright playing of the horns, something that has deteriorated in recent decades in other orchestras.

Perhaps the most interesting and telling movement in the work is the Scherzo. Despite its brisk tempo, this is clearly not a jolly scherzo but a somewhat dark and muted one. Wind figures leap out of the shadows of the muted strings to play semi-grotesque figures, suggesting an undercurrent of menace within a purportedly happy front. The harmony, too, shifts back and forth between the major and the minor, and there are a surprising number of long-held notes and chords that belie its scherzo-like qualities.

Gerald Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto is a work of contradictions: the lyrical, placid melodic lines, particularly those written for the soloist, contrast with the sharper, more dramatic orchestral scoring. Finzi also moves the harmonic base around a bit, shifting the harmonies underlying the orchestra—but, again, not those underlying the clarinet. Collins has a bright tone, which I liked very much, and his phrasing on this instrument is as smooth and unruffled as that of his conducting.

If I seem a little less than enthusiastic, however, it is because in many spots within both the symphony and the concerto Collins is a bit too smooth for my taste. As slow as Barbirolli’s conducting was, he brought out more edge in the Fifth Symphony than this, but if you are looking for a superb-sounding recording of these scores, look no further.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Wallfisch Plays Weinberg

Entwürfe cpo-Cover Dezember 2019_cover.indd

WEINBERG: Cello Concerto, Op. 43. Fantasy. Concertino, Op. 43b / Raphael Wallfisch, cel; Kristiansand Symphony Orch.; Łukasz Borowicz, cond / CPO 555 234-2

This is only the third recording of Miecyzław Weinberg’s Cello Concerto, the first being Mstislav Rostropovich’s landmark recording from the 1960s (he premiered the work in the Soviet Union) and a recording from eight years ago by Claes Gunnarson and conductor Thord Svedlund on Chandos. Both of these previous recordings have received rave reviews. Let’s see how Raphael Wallfisch fares.

Although the cellist has a leaner, more “pointed” tone than Rostropovich, his playing is in no way inferior in feeling. Indeed, he uses a relatively wide vibrato, certainly wider than one is used to from other “compact” cellists such as Feuermann or Fournier, and moreover, he uses this vibrato expressively, modifying it to convey a broad range of emotions.

The interesting feature here is Borowicz’ conducting, which is leaner and more straightforward than that of Rozhdestvensky with Rostropovich or Svedlund with Gunnarson, yet I liked it because it revealed the underlying structure more clearly. I’m sure that some Weinberg aficionados will not like it for that reason: so much of the composer’s music is amorphous, with a loose structure built around slow tempi and frequently shifting tempi, sort of a sad Polish-Jewish Mahler, you might say, but I personally liked it very much. And surely the scoring, which emphasizes the low strings and winds in particular, is not glossed over in this presentation. In fact, it helps in the second movement where Weinberg gives us a sad sort of Yiddish tango. Indeed, I liked this approach to this work very much indeed.

The somewhat early (1943-44) Fantasia for Cello & Orchestra was also recorded by Gunnarson, but once again Wallfisch’s interpretation matches his. For a “fantasia,” it’s an incredibly slow, sad piece…not unusual for Weinberg overall, but somewhat unusual for young Weinberg. Apparently, he saw an opportunity to write for the cello in those years as a chance to spread his wings in terms of depth of expression.

The Concertino is an early (1948) draft later expanded for the Cello Concerto, using much of the same material but considerably shorter. This, too, is a fine performance that compares well to Gunnarson’s.

All in all, a fine representation of Weinberg’s music for cello, neatly played and recorded with excellent sound.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Levy & Ogawa Do Cole Porter

4 - Ogawa, Levy

PORTER: I Get a Kick Out of You. My Heart Belongs to Daddy. Just One of Those Things. What is This Thing Called Love? It’s Alright With Me. So in Love. Too Darn Hot. Anything Goes. Love for Sale. In the Still of the Night / Shimpei Ogawa, bs; Noe Levy, voc / Belle Records BEL-002

Jazz singer Noe Levy, who studied at the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley, here takes a page from the Sheila Jordan Handbook in singing only with a bassist, Japanese-born Shimpei Ogawa. A blurb about Levy online says that she also likes to sing pop and rock. I’m grateful that she doesn’t include any of that here.

Cole Porter was certainly a good choice. He was one of those rare songwriters of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s who penned the lyrics to his own tunes, as did Irving Berlin, but although both of them became favorites of jazz musicians and singers, Berlin hated jazz renditions of his songs. He thought that jazz musicians ruined them. Porter had hipper blood in his veins and enjoyed the variations he heard on his songs.

Levy sings out more than Jordan did and puts her emphasis on altering the beat, sometimes obviously, sometimes subtly, and swinging pretty hard. On the other hand, Jordan’s extreme subtlety in stretching and condensing the beat was a world unto itself; no one has come close to her since. At the same time, Ogawa is a much more extroverted bassist than Jordan’s favorite partner, Harvie Swartz (nowadays simply known as Harvie S), so as a duo they match each other perfectly in style. Given the myopic long-range view of many millennials, however, I wondered at the inclusion of My Heart Belongs to Daddy. Young listeners are sure to think that this is an incestuous song, whereas “daddy” was slang back in the 1930s for a “sugar daddy,” a rich guy who “kept” a woman by buying her expensive clothes and accessories, “useful things like bonds and stocks and Paris rocks.” Just saying.

Ogawa gets his first extended solo on Just One of Those Things, and it’s a very rich, swinging solo, too, though he stays within harmonic bounds fairly tightly. Not so Levy, who flies high above him with some very neat little variants, a few of which use extended chord positions. The duo surprised me by including the rarely-heard verse to What is This Thing Called Love? In fact, even I had never heard it before!

It would be nice to say that this is a laid-back summertime listening album, but happily, it’s better than that. Levy’s flexible voice, excellent scatting and harmonic daring make it much more. In the middle of What is This Thing, for instance, Ogawa gets hold of a Charles Mingus lick and rides it under Levy’s scatting. I was also delighted to see that Levy included such hip Porter songs as It’s Alright With Me and Too Darn Hot, the latter my favorite song from the Porter musical Kiss Me, Kate, yet one that jazz musicians seldom if ever play. “According to the Kinsey Report, every average man you know / Prefers to play his favorite sport when the temperature is low / But when the thermometer goes way up, and the weather is sizzling hot / Mr. Adam, for his Madam, is not!”  They also turn So in Love into a mini-masterpiece, with Ogawa playing the jazz equivalent of a ground bass while Levy limns the melody beautifully.

Those readers old enough to remember the folk-pop group Harpers Bizarre may remember their hit recording of Anything Goes, which I really liked. Ogawa and Levy turn the music on its head, breaking up and redistributing the original rhythm into something much more complex (with an extra beat or two thrown into a few bars). As in Too Darn Hot, Levy updates the lyrics somewhat. I didn’t feel that was really necessary, but just the thought of Cary Grant “turning into Kevin Spacey” was funny enough in its own way.

My sole complaint about this album is that, at roughly 37 minutes, it was too darn short. A couple of more tunes would have been just about right, but every track on this disc is a jewel. As Levy sings in Love for Sale, their approach to the music here is “fresh and unspoiled.”

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

Standard

Ogawa Vexes Us With Satie’s “Vexations”

cover - BIS-2325

SATIE: Vexations (142 rounds) / Noriko Ogawa, pno / Bis SACD-2325

Is this work, and thus this CD, a hoax? Vexations is a short piece scribbled on a small piece of paper, without meter indication or bar lines, that was found after Satie’s death. No record of a performance during his lifetime has been found; it may never have been meant to be performed at all. As the liner notes tell us:

Vexations consists of a motif comprising a melody in the lower register that is to be played four times. According to the instructions, on the second and fourth occasions the melody is heard accompanied by a tritone harmony (an augmented fourth / diminished fifth), without resolution. To render the work in its entirety, the performer must play this motif 840 times, which would take between 12 and 24 hours. A hoax? Or, in the words of the American composer John Cage, a work ‘in the spirit of Zen Buddhism’?

Well, to begin with, I wouldn’t trust anything John Cage said because he was purposely a charlatan who bamboozled the entire classical world into taking him seriously. Just watch and listen to any of the surviving videos of him speaking, and you’ll immediately agree with me. To his most outlandish and baffling “compositions,” he often said, publicly, “You see I’m grinning like a Cheshire cat!” He simply put the entire classical world on for 30 years, and somehow manages to hold them in thrall post-mortem, but he was simply getting even with the academics for not taking his REAL compositions of the 1940s, which were modern and innovative but not practical musical jokes, seriously.

Vaxations

Vexations (That’s all there is, folks!)

The listening experience, at least at first, is fascinating; the simple melodic line, which somehow divides itself into 4/4 without trying to, is certainly one of Satie’s most harmonically weird pieces, and since Ogawa plays each repeat/variant without a break, it becomes the classical equivalent of Shari Lewis’ This is the Song That Doesn’t End. On and on and on and on and on and on and on and on it goes, for 80 minutes and 32 seconds. For me, however, the unhappiest feature of this performance and recording was Ogawa’s insistence on using a crappy-sounding tack piano that sounds as if she found it in a church basement. This audio horror is described as an “Érard 1890” thing. If it were up to me, I’d have them all destroyed and erase Érard’s name from the annals of piano manufacture.

Putting the sound of this “piano” aside, however, I found the music to actually be hypnotic in its own weird way. Would I want to hear it for 12 or 24 hours? Hell no. But it made a pretty nice form of musical wallpaper for as long as it lasted. Ogawa does vary the dynamics as well as his touch (although discussing “touch” on a poor tack piano is like comparing Jo Ann Castle to Annie Fischer), which makes at least some of the listening experience less of a carbon copy of his previous excursions through the piece.

I’ll bet you don’t know that Erik Satie used to play compositions by Jelly Roll Morton. His friend, conductor Ernest Ansermet (who also happened to be an early admirer of jazz musicians), brought him back sheet music of Morton’s pieces when he was in America in the late ‘teens/early 1920s, and Satie apparently loved them. I challenge Ogawa, or any other pianist for that matter, to put out an album juxtaposing Satie’s own pieces with those of Morton. THAT would make an interesting listening experience…as long as you play it on a real piano, and not the little toy one that Schroeder played in the Peanuts comic strips.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

More Emilie Mayer

Entwürfe cpo-Cover 03-2017_cover.indd

MAYER: Piano Trios in B min., Op. 16 & D, Op. 13. Notturno for Violin & Piano / Trio Vivente: Anna Katherina Schreiber, vln; Kristin von der Goltz, cello; Jutta Ernst, pno / CPO 555 029-2

Following my discovery of Emilie Mayer’s music through her first two symphonies—and other works online—I decided to go back to 2017 and review this album of her piano trios. I ignored it when it first came out because, I figured, she would be just another competent but uninteresting Romantic composer, as so many of those whose work is revived today out of oblivion are; but coming to know her through her symphonies and string quartets, I decided to take the plunge.

From the first section of the Piano Trio in B minor, I knew that I was in for a treat. Here again was Mayer’s gutsy, very non-feminine musical voice channeling Beethoven and Schumann in her own unique way, throwing in startling, abrupt key changes whenever and wherever she liked. I tell you truly, this woman was shafted in her time and shafted by posterity. She definitely deserves to be much better known and appreciated.

One thing I’ve noticed is that Mayer’s best music seems to be set in minor keys. The use of the minor seemed to bring out the best in her, but as with Beethoven and Schumann this shouldn’t be taken too literally, since she constantly shifts back and forth between the minor and major, even in the slow movements which often begin, and stay, in the major for long stretches. In certain respects, she almost seemed to be the precursor of such composers as Strauss and Mahler, though I doubt that either one of them knew her works. It was, you might say, a trend of the time, but since Emilie’s music came out during the 1850s, ‘60s and ‘70s, she was clearly ahead of them. Indeed, the slow movement of the Op. 13 Trio is as much in the minor as that of the Op. 16.

Trio Vivente is one of those modern chamber groups that plays with little vibrato in the strings and an overall lean, very rhythmically direct profile. Since rubato and rallentando were part and parcel of the 19th century (as was string portamento), of course these performances are not stylistically authentic, but who cares? Mayer’s very emotional approach to writing is brought out fully and very satisfyingly, and that’s all that counts.

She also seemed to be a stickler for the four-movement form. I’ve yet to hear a symphony or chamber work by her that is not in four discrete movements. Much of the time, the second movement is the Scherzo and the third movement the slow one, but in both of these trios she reverses this, so it wasn’t a constant, but her amazing leaps of key and pitch were. Yet I think that what surprises me most was her penchant for strong and oftimes syncopated rhythms; she clearly had a restless musical mind and refused to be pigeonholed into writing “women’s music” in the pejorative sense of the term. She was clearly the equal of any male composer of her time, and this includes Brahms, and she wanted to assert her individuality.

The Notturno for violin and piano seems to be the one piece of hers that is most frequently played, possibly because it’s short and only involves two instruments. Yet even here, Mayer’s keen ear for rhythm and color serves her well; it is by no means one of those placid drawing-room ballads a la Amy Beach, but a meaty piece that holds your attention.

This disc, too, is highly recommended. If you like really creative Romantic-era music, you’ve got to discover Emilie Mayer!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

The Pacifica Quartet Plays Contemporary Voices

cover - CDR 196

CONTEMPORARY VOICES / RAN: Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory – String Quartet No. 3. HIGDON: Voices. ZWILICH: Quintet for Alto Saxophone & String Quartet* / Pacifica Quartet; *Otis Murphy, a-sax / Çedille CDR-196

This new disc from Çedille features the excellent, sleek-sounding Pacifica Quartet in three modern works, all by women composers…and on top of that, American women composers (Ran was born in Israel but is an American citizen) and all composers whose work I like.

Unfortunately, my download did not include any liner notes, but I was able to glean a few things from the description of this disc on Çedille’s website. Ran’s String Quartet No. 3 was written for the Pacifica Quartet and commemorates painter Felix Nussbaum, who died in 1944. Both this work and the Zwilich piece are first recordings. The music is unusually edgy even for Ran, though it starts out calmly before running into fast-moving modal figures with harsh, edgy downbow strokes. The music consistently tends towards the minor, and many of the passages in it are descending figures as if to emphasize the painter’s anguish. Nussbaum was a surrealist whose work showed some skill without quite reaching the heights of Dali or Magritte (see picture below), and in the second movement, titled “Menace,” Ran creates a very edgy waltz that hovers on the brink of bitonality without ever quite arriving there, but in the third movement, “If I perish—do not let my paintings die,” we again tend towards minor modal music, this time in a sadder mood than in the first movement although with no less edgy figures played occasionally by the upper strings. By and large, Ran seems to create this entire quartet more out of juxtaposed gestures and motifs which somehow fit together rather than using development in the traditional manner. The last two minutes of the third movement are almost gut-wrenching in their emotional power while the fourth, titled “Shards, Memory,” is for the most part quite slow, although with the cello playing sharp rhythmic figures with his bow very close to the body of his instrument near the beginning. This, however, dies down in tempo and fury until only sadness is left, with the first violin playing whistle tones in its extreme upper register.

felix-nussbaum-banner

Artwork by Felix Nussbaum, from https://artpil.com/felix-nussbaum/

Jennifer Higdon describes her Voices as “the telling of three different images,” and the first of these, “Blitz,” is surprisingly edgy and powerful for her, quite a difference from her usual style which is inventive but more lyrical. Indeed, this almost sounded like a continuation of Ran’s quartet except that Higdon uses stronger, more regular motor rhythms here. Apparently, this is the voice of an insane person screaming in an asylum! The music does a complete 180 in terms of mood in the second piece, “Soft Enlacing,” which she likens to “a walk through the house in the middle of the night.” Interestingly, this movement begins right on the heels of the last bars of “Blitz,” almost as if it was a continuation, and Higdon’s night walk through her house is not a calm journey. On the contrary, there’s something ominous lying just beneath the surface that bursts out once in a while, then retreats into the constant flow of rapid sixteenths played by the violins until that, too, dies down—yet the high pitch and bitonal figures Higdon uses keep the tension up. In the last movement, “Grace,” she finally presents us with a calm musical surface, simulating (in her words) “the giving of thanks at a meal; the grace seen in behavior or in a personality; the grace of movement; the bestowing of one’s self unto others…” Yet even in the first two edgy movements, as in the slow, relaxed last one, Higdon tenaciously clings to a more traditional sense of musical development than Ran. Even in its edgiest moments, the connective flow of the music is apparent. Taking away the composer’s own descriptions of these pieces, the cumulative effect is clearly a gradual movement from anxiety to calm, from insanity to lucidity, from angst to inner peace, and that is how I heard this music.

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, my favorite of living women composers, created the Quintet for Alto Saxophone and Strings as the result of a challenge from saxophonist Jean-Paul Bierny of the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music. And yet another coincidence: jut as the first movement of Higdon’s piece sounded like a continuation of Ran, the first movement of this Zwilich Quintet sounded at first like a continuation of Higdon, but after the slow introduction Zwilich sets up a gentle, bouncing waltz rhythm (possibly in 6/8) which contains the seeds for the remainder of the first movement. Interestingly, the alto sax is often used in ensemble with the strings rather than as an “outsider” instrument playing against the strings as if in a concerto, though of course it does get solo spots. I found this interesting in itself: who else would think to blend an alto sax in with a string quartet? Of course, saxist Otis Murphy plays his instrument in the accepted classical manner, with a very pure, round, almost hollow tone, sounding like a lower sort of clarinet rather than emulating the rich, beautiful alto sax tones of Johnny Hodges or Willie Smith.

As the music progressed, however, I wondered whether or not Zwilich even considered the timbral qualities of the alto sax other than writing within its range ; by and large, she uses the instrument, musically speaking, almost like a tenor violin, which has an almost identical range. In the second movement, quarter = 132, she uses strong backbeat syncopations but does so in a non-jazz manner—or perhaps, to be more accurate, in almost a ragtime manner, which of course is not jazz. Yet I found this particular movement extremely interesting, particularly since one rarely hears the saxophone in any solo capacity in this jagged, fast-moving whirlwind of sound. In terms of construction and development, however, the third movement was, to me, the most fascinating, and not just because it varied its pace between 60, 126, and 120 beats per minute. Here, Zwilich quite consciously introduces strong syncopations that do resemble jazz, and all I could think of was someone like the late Lee Konitz, who played jazz but also loved classical music, playing this movement. Although both the themes and their development are highly rhythmic, it is easy to follow Zwilich’s train of thought through the constant tempo and rhythm shifts. It’s an excellent piece, and proof positive that her powers of invention have not waned in the 21st century.

All in all, a truly superb album and one of those rarities in which each of the three pieces played seem to be part of a larger fabric.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Emilie Mayer’s Stunning Symphonies

Entwürfe cpo-Cover Februar 2020_cover.indd

AwardMAYER: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2 / NDR Radiophilharmonie; Leo McFall, cond / CPO 555 293-2

Emilie Luise Friderica Mayer (1812-1883) is one of those women composers who seem to have fallen through the cracks, though there are several commercial recordings out there of her music (all, not surprisingly, on German labels). The third of five children born to well-to-do pharmacist Johann August Mayer, her mother died when she was two. She received a musical education at an early age but only as a performer. When she was 28, her father fatally shot himself, after which she developed an eating disorder which plagued her for the rest of her life. A year later, now a single woman living on her parents’ inheritance, she moved to Stettin, the regional capital of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, to study composition with famed composer Carl Loewe. In one respect this was an emotional reaction to her loss; she wanted to bury herself in work; but as time went on, she developed into a skilled and then quite an original composer.

To his credit, Loewe recognized from her first lesson that Mayer had it in her to become a great composer. He said, “You actually know nothing and everything at the same time! I shall be the gardener who helps the talent that is still a bud resting within your chest to unfold and become the most beautiful flower!” When she asked him if she could share her lessons with other female pupils, his reply was, “Such a God-given talent as yours has not been bestowed upon any other person I know.” She took this very much to heart, and from that point on promised him that she would work very hard to be as fine a composer as she could.

Emilie Mayer

Emilie Mayer

I don’t remember who it was, but some male churl in the music world asked, a few decades ago, that if women were inclined to be composers, where were the large works, the symphonies, string quartets, concerti and operas that men wrote? Decades after Mayer appeared on the scene, Ethel Smyth came along and provided the operas along with a Mass in D and a few concerti, bit Emilie Mayer, in her lifetime, wrote eight symphonies, an equal number of violin sonatas plus a Notturno for violin & piano, 12 cello sonatas, six piano trios, seven string quartets, two string quintets, a piano concerto, 15 concert overtures, six lieder (including two settings of Erlkönig) and, yes, one opera, Die Fischerin. As in the case of Ethel Smyth, she was able to accomplish this in part because she remained unmarried. She later became the Associate Director of the Opera Academy in Berlin as well.

Her Wikipedia page claims that her early symphonies were based on classical models, but later became fully Romantic in scope, but in listening to her first symphony here one can only compare her work to that of the early Beethoven symphonies, and not the first two. There is a clear dramatic narrative in her work that is both convincing and compelling. Although her later pieces would show dramatic shifts in tonality, even from the start she had “it,” that indefinable something that makes a composer’s music sound both well-structured and emotionally charged. Moreover, though this first symphony uses Beethoven as a model, it also includes the kind of surprising juxtapositions of themes that one finds in the work of Schumann. Yet early reviews of her music by male critics show their bias against women composers. One such review by Flodard Geyer in the Neue Berliner Musikzeitung, quoted in the booklet, said “That which female powers – powers of a second order – are capable of attaining, Emilie Mayer has achieved and brought to expression,” but the public reception to the concert was wildly enthusiastic. Nonetheless, Mayer continued to suffer gender bias throughout her life and career. Had she managed to write something as massive and impressive as Das Lied von der Erde, she would undoubtedly still be characterized by the male hierarchy as second rate because she wasn’t a man. According to annotator Bert Hagels:

Mayer suffered bitter disappointments in her further path as a composer. Although her symphonies were occasionally heard out­side of Berlin, and although the concerts she later organized for her music in Berlin were warmly received, none of the great Berlin or Leipzig publishing houses showed interest in her orchestral works. Her eight symphonies remained unpublished, except in the case of the Fourth in B minor, which, though premièred in Berlin in 1851, did not appear in print until late summer of 1860, and then in an arrangement for piano duet. Of her at least 15 con­cert overtures only one appeared in print toward the end of her life, issued by a tiny Stettin publisher in 1880. In the latter half of the 1850s her composer’s career had already begun to stagnate.

A true artistic tragedy, but in recent years her music has been recorded with some regularity by German orchestras and conductors—not even close to her full output, but at least enough to make people aware of just how great a composer she was. Although I could not find any claim in the booklet or notes for this CD that these are the premiere recordings of her first two symphonies, I checked thoroughly on the Naxos Music Library, Arkivmusic and Amazon and could not find another recordings of either of these two works. One very interesting aspect of the Second Symphony comes in the finale, where Meyer introduces a brief but spirited violin-cello duet.

Leo McFall

Leo McFall

Leo McFall, listed everywhere as a young conductor though I could not find a year of birth anywhere online, does a terrific job with these symphonies. Under his direction, the NDR Radiophilharmonie plays with fire and drive to every bar. I look forward to hearing much more of him in the future.

In addition to these two works, you can also find a number of Mayer’s other compositions on YouTube. Here is a partial but somewhat comprehensive list:

Symphony No. 7 in F min. (1856)
Kammersymphonie Berlin
Jürgen Bruns, conductor

Faust Overture (1880)
Neubrandenburger Philharmonie
Stefan Malzew, conductor

Symphony No. 4 in B min. (1851)
Same as Faust Overture

Cello Sonata No. 4, Op. 47
Thomas Blees, cellist; Maria Bermann, pianist

String Quartet No. 1 in G min., Op. 14
Klenke Quartet

String Quartet in E min.
Steve’s Bedroom Band

Notturno
Laura Colgate (violin) and Andrew Welch (piano)

I urge you to explore the music of this great and unjustly neglected composer. I promise you, you won’t be sorry.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard