More Chamber Music by Hvoslef

Hvoslef Chamber Works Vol 7

HVOSLEF: Trio for Sopano, Alto & Piano / Mari Galambos Grue, sop; Anne Daugstad, alto; Einar Røttingen, pno / String Quartet No. 3 / Ricardo Odriozola, Mara Haugen, vln; Ingrid Rugesæter, vla; Ranghild Sannes, cello / Sextet for Flute & Percussion / Eivind Sandrgind, fl; Craig Farr, Sigvald Fersum, Gard Garshol, Mathias Matland, Ola Berg Riser, perc; Ricardo Odriozola, cond / Lawo LWC 1200

It’s been nine months since I last had the chance to review a CD by Ketil Hvoslef, but this new Lawo release luckily came my way (it wasn’t available for online streaming or download, even for reviewers). so here we are with a new look at his chamber music output.

In the notes, Hvoslef says that the opening Trio “was commissioned by the Goethe Institute for two German ladies and the pianist Einar Steen Nøkleberg. It was written in 1974, and is my first attempt at writing instrumental vocal music”—i.e., wordless singing, in this case using nonsense syllables such as “ta,” “pa,” “do,” “ma,” etc. Hvoslef informs us that he has since developed, for this kind of writing, “whole meaningless words, formed in such a way that they clarify the MUSICAL meaning.” But this trio is a lot of fun to listen to, thanks primarily to the strong yet asymmetric rhythm that is set up and partially sustained by the pianist hitting the instrument with the palm of his left hand while the right plays. There’s also a strange, almost jazz-like interlude at 1:50 that adds to the bizarre quality of the piece. Our two singers happen to be students from the Grieg Academy; Hvoslef praises them for following the musical instructions of pianist Røttinger to arrive “at a singing style that is an indispensable prerequisite for this work.” Both singers have light, fresh voices, and they handle their assignment exceedingly well. A lot of fun to listen to!

Believe it or not, it is the opening of the String Quartet that cuts across your ears like a razor, with a strong unison Db played by the group before gentle but no less strange motifs and themes float in and out of our consciousness. Most of the ensuing section, however, is taken up with glissandi, which Hvoslef admits was one of his principal ideas in writing this quartet. “This is definitely urban music,” he writes. “We, as listeners, seem to be experiencing a large city on foot. What we witness is not always pleasant or comfortable, but it accrues a peculiar beauty by giving us the time to properly observe it.” Like so much of his music, it’s a strange piece and much more challenging to the listener; in addition to the glissandi, Hvoslef also has his strings play aggressive grinding sounds as well as edgy upward scale passages. Lost of road construction going on in this city, with string-powered jackhammers! And again, the syncopated rhythm he sets up around 14:30 sounds suspiciously like a jazz rhythm. Towards the end, at 19:10, we hear simulated police sirens.

But if you think that’s bizarre, when was the last time you heard a flute piece start out with a loud rim shot on the snare drum? Yet this is what we get in the Sextet, and although the flute is in there pitching, its role almost sounds subsidiary to the five percussion players. Yes, there are a few nice little phrases for the flute, but nothing that really coalesces into a theme per se. Trying to describe this piece is sort of like trying to catch sand that is running through your fingers; now you have it, now you don’t. Better to just listen and ride it out. One of the percussion instruments is a marimba, but you don’t hear it until about 6:40 into the piece, and even then it only plays a repeated rhythmic figure, not a real theme as such.

As in the case of the previous albums of Hvoslef’s chamber music, this one is a wild ride. Get the CD and fasten your seat belt!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Flamme Plays Buxtehude

Buxtehude cover

COMPLETE ORGAN WORKS Vol. 1 / BUXTEHUDE: Praeludia in C, g min., F, G, f min., d min., e min., E. Nun bitten wir den Heiligen Geist, BWV 208 & 209. Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren, Auf meinen lieben Gott. Ciaconna in e min. Jesus Christus, unser Heiland, der den Tod. Ich dank dir schon durch deinen Sohn. Magnificat primi toni. Magnificat nonin toni. Ach Gott und Herr. Ich dank dir, lieber Herre. Toccata in d min. Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin. Passacaglia in d min. Toccata in F. Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott. Canzonettas in a min. & C. Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. Fugas in C & G. O lux beata Trinitas. Mensch, willst du leben seligich / Friedhelm Flamme / CPO SACD 555 253-2

This is the first of a proposed series, which will undoubtedly run to three 2-CD sets, of the complete organ works of Dietrich (or Diderich in the original Dutch) Buxtehude. My readers know how fond I am of Buxtehude as a composer; one critic referred to him, once, as “Bach in the raw,” and that’s an apt statement. Buxtehude—who, incidentally, was highly admired by J.S. Bach—preceded old J.S. by several decades (he died in 1707), but made an indelible impression on the younger composer who once traveled a great many miles to go and visit him in person.

The principal competition for this set is the one on Dacapo by organist Bine Bryndorf, which is already completed and sells as a 6-CD boxed set on Amazon for only $31.46, but I listened to a couple of pieces from the Bryndorf set that are on this first volume by Flamme and there’s just no comparison in performance quality. Everything Bryndorf plays sounds mushy and indistinct, and it doesn’t help that Dacapo has recorded the set with too much space around the organ which further gives it an even mushier sound. Flamme’s performances are crisp and detailed, with bright sonorities and great clarity for the inner voices which, after all, are the heart of Buxtehude’s art. And he’s not playing a wheezy little organ, either, but the very impressive Christoph-Treutmann organ of the Klosterkirche of St. George, which has a wide variety of stops, all of them listed in the booklet, piece by piece, for the edification of other organists…most of us really don’t care as long as it sounds good.


The biggest problem I have with the music, as in the case of the dozens of Bach chorales, is their religious connotation. Unlike some of the Masses. Passions, Magnificats, Requiems etc., which can have a generic connotation related to one’s personal relationship with the Deity that created the Universe, a great many of these pieces are tied to a specific form of religiosity, i.e., the Lutheran hymns that both Buxtehude and J.S. Bach bought into the concept of, and these often have plodding, heavy-handed melodic lines set to primarily minor keys which create an oppressive feeling in the listener. Perhaps they might strike you somewhat differently, but I know from talking to others that I am not alone in this feeling. Yes, Buxtehude’s treatment of these hymns is exceedingly clever and imaginative, but a hymn is a hymn is a hymn, and I’m just not into them.

Given the extraordinarily high quality of both these performances and the recorded sound, however, I can easily recommend this as the start of a preferred set of Buxtehude’s organ works for those who enjoy this sort of music better than I. As for me, I will stick to the two-CD set I have on the Apex label by the late, great French organist Marie-Claire Alain. That’s enough of Buxtehude’s organ music to last me a lifetime.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Weinberg’s Wir gratulieren!

cover OC 990

WEINBERG: Wir gratulieren! / Katia Guedes, sop (Madame); Anna Gütter, mez (Fradl); Olivia Saragossa, mez (Bejlja); Jeff Martin, ten (Reb Alter); Robert Elibay-Hartog, bar (Chaim); Kammerakademie Potsdam; Vladimir Stoupel, cond / Oehms Classics OC 990 (live: Konzerthaus Berlin, September 23, 2012)

I’ve always been a huge fan of Mieczysław Weinberg, but his opera about a newly-married woman aboard a ship who discloses that she was a prison guard at Auschwitz, The Passenger, has always struck me as way too dark, possibly because a childhood friend of mine was a prisoner in a concentration camp, but this one intrigued me because the plot is lighter. This recording, scheduled for release August 8, is the very first of this work.

Based on a story by famed Jewish writer Sholom Aleichem (1859-1916), whose story of Tevye the Dairyman became the basis of Fiddler on the Roof, Wir gartulieren (which translates into Contratulations in English or Mazel Tov in Yiddish) is a much lighter story. Written in 1975-82 and premiered in 1986, Weinberg had to include some extraneous praise of Communism against capitalism in his libretto, but otherwise it is based on Aleichem’s story. The plot is as follows:

In the rich home of a Jewish lady in Odessa at the turn of the last century, Bejlja the cook is busy preparing a festive dinner in the kitchen, because the engagement of the daughter of the house is imminent. The widowed cook complains of her laborious work and her lonely life without a husband. A book distributor appears with new books, and Bejlja gives him food and drink. She entrusts him with the latest gossip about her life. With every glass he empties, the bookseller becomes more talkative: first, he advertises his socialist books, shortly afterwards suggesting to Bejlja to found a community with him in view of her savings. Chaim, the neighbor’s servant, comes in and begins to blaspheme about this. Finally Fradl the maid, with a funny little song on the lips, appears in the kitchen. Chaim, who was initially hiding from her, comes out and starts flirting violently with the maid. An exuberant celebration and drink begins, and when the mood reaches its peak, Bejlja and the book distributor decide to quit their service and become engaged. In high spirits, the book distributor reads particularly beautiful passages from the books he brought with him. Inspired by the happiness of the newlyweds, Chaim suggests a wedding shower and then spontaneously turns to Fradl with a marriage proposal, which she finally accepts after initially resisting. Surprisingly, the lady of the house appears and stops the joyful singing and joking.

This performance, given in German rather than Russian, and the score has been reduced from a full ensemble to a chamber orchestra, but the flavor of the music is kept intact. Those readers familiar with Weinberg’s music will understand what I mean when I say that, despite its comic bent, the music is not entirely or consistently “comical” in the sense that Italian comic operas, or older German ones like The Merry Wives of Windsor or Martha, are. Weinberg was much more intent on writing continuous musical lines that change and morph to match the words; when the words are not particularly funny, neither is the music, but when they are his music is lively and energetic—but, again, not in a really conventional manner. His deep interest in and admiration for the music of Stravinsky, Bartók and Shostakovich led him to create music with vacillating minor and major keys and quite a few passages of bitonality. Let us say, then, that the opera is humorous in an amusing way but not something that will make you laugh out loud, and there are, of course, numerous touches taken from Jewish folk and even liturgical music throughout the score.

WirGratulieren_KonzerthausBerlinThis live performance was given at at the Konzerthaus Berlin on September 23 2012. (The photo from this production is reproduced here.) A German-only libretto is included in the booklet, which puts us English-speakers at a disadvantage; as a favor to my readers, I am including an English translation of the libretto HERE. Oehms Classics, in keeping with most record companies nowadays, also doesn’t seem to think that identifying the voice range of the singers on the back cover matters, so I had to spend 10 minutes searching the net to find out what range these singers’ voices were. (Note: The booklet, which came to me after I wrote most of the review, does identify the singers’ voice ranges–in the back). All the female singers have solid, bright voices, and tenor Jeff Martin has a compact, brilliant timbre that reminded me of Mark Panuccio. This is particularly good news since the bookseller gets the lion’s share of the singing in this relatively short work.

The chamber orchestra reduction doesn’t seem to harm the music at all, since Weinberg seldom used thick textures even in his symphonies. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of his orchestral writing is a use of the orchestra almost as if it were a large chamber group, with an emphasis on the brass and winds playing either singly or in small choirs that play off each other. Like Wagner, however, he found a way to write continuous music that, although it includes solo monologues that one can identify as ariettas such as the bookseller’s “Guten Tag, ich will nicht stör’n, meine liebe Bejlja!” or Fradl’s “Hab geweint drei Bäche Tränen” in Act I, does not really have full arias that set off the singer for two or three minutes at a time while nothing of import is going on behind him or her. I actually like this, but I know a few opera lovers who will complain that “the music never gets started” because unless one has a discernible pumping rhythm and set arias, music like this doesn’t really strike them as being “operatic.” There’s also a very nice quartet for the three female singers and the baritone at the end of Act I, but again, it’s short and doesn’t linger any longer than the lyrics and the dramatic situation call for. And the first act ends quietly, stopping on a dime. Surely this is not Good Opera!…except that it is, because that’s what the situation calls for.

Surprisingly, Act II opens with a very lively (for Weinberg) little dance in an odd meter played mostly by trumpets and winds, albeit with a violin cadenza that comes out of nowhere. It’s not overly jocular music, but if you’re a good musician you’ll have a chuckle at the way he handles it. Not too far into this act is a rather jocular but bitonal tenor-soprano duet (“Verlobung”) that eventually evolves into a real melody that conventional opera-lovers can enjoy (if they don’t mind the stiffish rhythms played by biting, Stravinskian winds behind the singers). Again, however, I can only go by the general plot description since I don’t have a libretto. The bookseller (Reb Alter) also has a fairly bouncy, Yiddish-sounding arietta, “Zu hause waren wir zehn,” which evolves into a trio with two of the ladies and then a quartet with the baritone. The music morphs and evolves, changing its melody and slowly increasing the tempo, eventually turning into a bitonal hora. What a wonderful piece! When “Madame” comes in to stop the revelry, she sounds like a screeching shrew—and I mean that literally, with high notes that will make the fillings in your teeth ache—but this may possibly be intentional. After all, she is a party pooper.

My sole complaint of this release is that Oehms Classics chose to stretch it over two CDs, which runs the price up, whereas at 80:23 it fits comfortably onto one CD. (Even I can burn CDs as long as 81:20 with Nero.) Still, this is clearly a must-have for Weinberg collectors and even a work to investigate for those who may not normally like his heavier, often sadder music. I would encourage other opera houses to perform it but, as a somewhat short opera and a comic one at that, I can’t think of too many other works one would pair with it save Ravel’s L’Entant et les Sotrileges.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The Horizons Jazz Orchestra Swings Out

Horizons Jazz Orch

HARRIS: Red Apple Sweet.* The Runner.+ Fourth Dimension.+ The Brite Side.  BRICUSSE-NEWLEY: Pure Imagination.+ TURNER-LAYTON: After You’ve Gone.+ ROSS-LEVINE: The Sound. GERSHWIN-HAYWARD: Summertime. BERNSTEIN-SONDHEIM: Maria. STRAYHORN-HARRIS: A Train Bossa+ / Horizons Jazz Orch.: Dennis Noday, Ryan Charman, Jack Wengrosky, Fernando Ferrabone, Chaim Rubinov, +Carl Saunders, tpt/fl-hn; Michael Balogh, Jason Pyle, Tom Lacy, tb; Steve Mayer, bs-tb; Scott Klarman, a-sax/fl/s-sax; Mike Brignola, a-sax/fl/cl; Billy Ross, t-sax/fl/cl; Joe Mileti, t-sax/fl; Randy Emerick, bar-sax; Gary Mayone, pno/org/kbds; Ranses Colon, bs; Luke Williams, gt; George Mazzeo, *Jonathan Joseph, dm / Pineapple Arts (no number)

The Horizons Jazz Orchestra is a surprisingly massive (19-piece, plus frequent guest soloist Carl Saunders) jazz band founded by first trumpeter Dennis Noday, an alumnus of the Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson bands and co-founder of Superband. The orchestra’s director is trombonist Michael Balogh. This particular CD highlights the jazz compositions and arrangements of the late baritone saxist Lee Harris who, except for Leonard Bernstein’s Maria, arranged all of the pieces in this set that were not his compositions.

The music, not surprisingly, is straightahead jazz with a 1960s and ‘70s flavor. The orchestration is pretty standard—nothing here as imaginative as Kenton’s Neophonic Orchestra, Toshiko Akiyoshi or Rod Levitt—but well written for all that, and the band is propelled by an ungodly powerful rhythm section that sounds for all the world like the one Buddy Rich had with his big band. Indeed, I would say that Ranses Colon’s bass could make a mountain swing and Jonathan Joseph, playing drums on this track, is as potent as those of any big band drummer you’ve ever heard. This is a power band, all right!

Harris’ compositions have some intriguing features in them, however. Red Apple Sweet starts out like gangbusters, the melody resembling Wade in the Water, but halfway through the tempo is halved and trombonist Balogh plays a gorgeous solo, his tone reminiscent of Tommy Dorsey before the uptempo kicks in again. In his arrangements of the old chestnut After You’ve Gone and his own composition The Runner, Harris uses the flugelhorns in an interesting way to create a softer, more pastel sound. The latter is a 6/8 tune with an intriguing melodic line and an even more interesting B theme that complements it. Saunders is listed as the only soloist on this track, but the first is clearly one of the alto saxes. Once again, Harris slows the tempo down later in the piece, and also changes keys when Saunders does enter on flugelhorn.

One might be forgiven for assuming that Fourth Dimension might be a moody, atmospheric piece; in fact, it is a straightahead swinger with a simple but catchy melody. Nothing fancy about this one, just fun to listen to, with good solos by Gary Mayone, baritone saxist Randy Emerick, Saunders again (now on trumpet) and Luke Williams on guitar. By contrast, The Brite Side is an odd sort of funky tune that makes little impression, going in one ear and out the other. Not even the now-expected downshift of tempo impressed me very much. Even the quasi-funky electric piano solo is routine and unimpressive and, at nearly 10 minutes, it is a long-winded piece of nothing. The Sound is a ballad and also unimpressive, but at least it only lasts 5 ½ minutes.

Of course Summertime is also a ballad, but here Harris has cast it in a quasi-samba rhythm which gives it a new flavor. The first soprano sax solo by Scott Klarman just plays the melody pretty much straight, and even his later playing seems rhythmically tentative, as if he were afraid of hurting the music by projecting himself too strongly. I almost missed Sidney Bechet’s playing on his famous 1939 recording of the tune…that playing had guts and drive. With Leonard Bernstein’s Maria from West Side Story, the tempo comers down again, but the song has such an interesting structure that you really’ can’t hurt it. This is the only tune on the CD not arranged by Harris, but rather by Don Sebesky; again, the voicing isn’t very original (it sounds like standard 1950s big band in that respect), but the setting is dramatic and sets up the soloists extremely well. Trumpeter Dennis Noday plays a sort of Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White cadenza at the end.

We end our excursion with a really clever arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s Take the “A” Train with a bossa nova beat. Harris clearly had fun deconstructing the original tune and putting it back together again with an entirely different meter and redistributing the stress beats. It’s possible that, in a blindfold test, a knowledgeable jazz listener might not even identify it as “A” Train, but merely comment that it sounds like that piece. Billy Ross’ tenor solo is laid-back and warm, and at one point he almost humorously tosses in a little quote from The Girl From Ipanema. And good old Carl Saunders returns, playing trumpet rather than flugel horn but doing so in the middle and lower range of the trumpet so that he almost sounds like Bobby Hackett. It’s a really inventive solo that builds in each chorus and creates an entirely new structure around the same chords, and the ensemble writing in the ensuing chorus is really inventive, some of the best on the entire album.

A pretty good CD, then, except for a very few tracks that missed the mark.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Ciccolini, Orvieto & Rappetti Play Busoni

cover 8574086

BUSONI: Fantasia contrappuntisca.1,2 Preludio e Fuga in C min.2,3 Capriccio in G min.2,3 Duetto concert ante after the Finale of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 19.2,3  SCHUMANN-BUSONI: Introduction & Concert Allegro.2,3  MOZART: Die Zauberflöte: Overture (arr. Busoni) 2,3  / 1Aldo Ciccolini, 2Aldo Orvieto, 3Marco Rappetti, pno / Naxos 8.574086

I’ve always been a bit puzzled by and suspicious of Ferruccio Busoni as both a composer and as an interpreter of others’ works, particularly those of Bach. His composing style, though reflecting a good understanding of musical principles, has for the most part struck me as turgid and bombastic, neither in a good way, and his surviving piano recordings show a Romantic approach to Baroque works that just doesn’t fit. He greatly admired conductor Arturo Toscanini but the admiration wasn’t entirely mutual; the great conductor programmed but two of his shorter works, the Berceuse Élégiaque and the Rondo Arlecchinesco, which he performed several times, but nothing else, and he described Busoni as an odd man who seemed to purposely distort music in some of his concerts to get a rise out of his audiences.

This CD combines a recording made in March 2000 of his Fantasia contrappuntisca by first pianist Aldo Orvieto and second pianist Aldo Ciccolini that appears not to have been previously released along with the other pieces, played by Marco Rapetti (piano I) and Orvieto (piano II) recorded in July 2019. The Busoni Preludio e fuga and Capriccio as well as the Schumann-Busoni Introduction & Concert Allegro are first recordings.

I found myself enthralled by the Fantasia; this is a work that, at least in this very clean and unmannered performance, relies on the principles of Bach and extends them into a 32-minute work of great invention and interest…you might say an Italo-German counterpart to the long, involved pieces that Kaikhosru Sorabji was soon to write. Everything in this piece is tightly written and brilliantly conceived, the minor-key theme sometimes played by the right hand of one of the pianists alone, sometimes with two single-note lines going on together as counterpoint, and at other times as a succession of chords. Having two pianists involved gave Busoni a lot of leeway in writing counter-voices, and halfway through the third section of the work (“Fuga”), he changes keys audaciously, something that J.C. Bach only did on rare occasions and in short passages. The performance is also excellent; the only reason I can see as to why it was never previously released was because no one seemed interested in having Orvieto and Ciccolini return to the studio to record other Busoni works for two pianos before the latter’s death in 2015.

One difference between Busoni’s and Sorabji’s working methods, it seems to me, is that the former placed limits on how far he would go in extending his pieces. Aside from his mammoth Piano Concerto, which I’ve never liked, Busoni tended to be more terse in his musical statements and variations on same whereas Sorabji, an amateur pianist who only played his own works occasionally in public, was more than happy to bowl over his listeners with the sheer magnitude of his invention. In the fourth-section fugue, Busoni builds up a tremendously complex variant to a great climax, resolves it, and then moves on to an almost bitonal “Intermezzo.” In a similar place, Sorabji would have continued to build on that fugue for another 12 or 15 minutes before letting go of it, and his Intermezzo would surely have been eight or 10 minutes long instead of just 1:09.

Yet as one listens to this piece, the sheer invention of it really awes you. Busoni seemed to find in this work an incredibly rich series of harmonic as well as melodic sequences and variants, and his frequent excursions into bitonality and his ability to use pivot notes inside the chords to shift key at a second’s notice keeps your ears glued to the speakers, wondering what he will do next. Yet by the time we reach Fuga IV (track 10 of 12), we sense from the strict march rhythm and almost inexorable push forward that Busoni is reaching the climax of his work. Although divided into three sections—Fuga IV, Chorale and Stretta—this entire final section comprises only a total of five minutes, and unless you are watching for the change in track numbers it sounds all of a piece. Interestingly, Orvieto and Ciccolini suddenly increase the tempo in the final Stretta, but since I have the highest regard for Ciccolini as a musician I have to believe that this is in the score.

Busoni’s arrangement of the Schumann Introduction & Concert Allegro is really just an arrangement for the second piano of the orchestral score; the first piano plays Schumann’s original music. It’s nice but superfluous, as most transcriptions of orchestral works are. (I also have zero interest in Liszt’s arrangements of Beethoven Symphonies for the piano.) The same goes for his 2-piano arrangement of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte overture that closes this disc. Who cares? A waste of his time to have written it and a waste of your time listening to it.

The Preludio e Fuga in C minor is built on a single musical idea. The prelude sounds very much like Bach, but the fugue uses very audacious chromatic movement far beyond anything Bach or Liszt would normally have done. I found it to be a very interesting piece, and was stunned to discover that he wrote this piece when he was only 12 years old. The equally early Capriccio in G minor, written a year later, is even more interesting: Busoni channels Bach in the slow opening introduction but, once into the caprice, uses a running figure in both hands, sometimes independently of one another but often together (though sometimes running in opposite directions) as the two pianos play a very long and sophisticated “chase chorus” with each other. At the 2:08 mark in the second section, the fast tempo suddenly relaxes and we get almost a fantasia-like piece. This, too, was for me a fascinating and absorbing work, and it is played flawlessly by the two Italian pianists.

Busoni wrote the Duettino Concertante after the finale of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 19 for a concert in England “to keep myself busy,” but ended up very proud of it. Busoni believed that Mozart’s original score was “full of unworked passages, clearly written in great haste, harmless but brilliant. And I believe it has now acquired even greater splendor.” It actually must have been quite a challenge for this modernist composer, reared heavily in the German classical tradition, to move his musical mind back in time nearly 150 years to a style that was foreign to him (he had earlier said that it would be a mistake to try to transcribe the works of Mozart and Haydn, since they belonged to a style different from his and complete in itself). It’s a very ingenious piece, however, and for the most part I liked it.

Thus we have here an excellent album of mostly excellent works by Busoni, a worthy entry in that composer’s discography.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Who Was Walter Kaufmann?

cover CHAN 20170

KAUFMANN: String Quartets Nos. 7 & 11.1,2 Violin Sonata No. 2.1,4 Sonatina No. 12.3.4 Septet 1,2,4,5 / ARC Ensemble: 1Erika Raum, 2Marie Bérard, vln; 2Steven Dann, vla; 2Thomas Wiebe, cel; 3Joaquin Valdepeñas, cl; 4Kevin Ahfat, pno. 5Jamie Kruspe, vln; 5Kimberley Jeong, cel / Chandos 20170

When I first saw the cover of this album, I rolled my eyes. Here we go again: another record company milking the Holocaust to push a Jewish composer banned by the Nazis, and this one, like several others being pushed nowadays, survived the era and in fact lived until 1984. I’ve said many times that as someone of Jewish descent who knew someone who was in the camps, but wasn’t a composer, that I find this not merely distasteful but disgusting. How dare a record company try to make a buck by exploiting the misfortunes of others? And, on top of that, about a third of the composers pushed this way were neither great nor original.


Kaufmann in his twenties

The real tragedy in Kaufmann’s life was that most of his immediate family had either died of privation or been killed in one of two Nazi concentration camps. I can well imagine that this was extremely traumatic for him, and it must have weighed on his mind throughout the rest of his life, but he himself was one of the lucky ones who always seemed to land on his feet. In 1934 he fled, not for England or America, but for Bombay, India, where he became Director of European Music at All India Radio. He spent a fruitless two years in America trying to establish himself as a Hollywood composer, but unfortunately his music was too complex and not in the same vein as the wildly popular Erich Korngold, so he returned to India. After the war, his long-standing position in this, still one of England’s colonies at the time, made him eligible to be considered a British citizen. He then finally moved the Great Britain where the warm-hearted and generous conductor Sir Adrian Boult performed some of his music and allowed him to guest-conduct British orchestras. Armed with a strong recommendation from Boult, Kaufmann landed a post as head of the piano department at the Halifax Conservatory in Nova Scotia. From there, now armed with an endorsement by Sir Ernest MacMillan, Canada’s most distinguished musician and conductor, Kaufmann became music director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. Over the course of a few years, Kaufmann built this orchestra up from a rag-tag assemblage of part-time musicians (some of whom were window cleaners or shoemakers) into a first-class ensemble. After his first wife divorced him, he met and married a glamorous and talented pianist, Freda Trepel, and they lived happily ever after. In 1956 he landed a position teaching at Indiana University’s School of Music in Bloomington, Indiana, a job he kept for 21 years. So except for his fleeing Germany for India and having his family wiped out, neither Kaufmann nor his music were “suppressed” after the War.

Which is a shame, because his music was utterly fascinating. Here, roughly 40 years before John Mayer came along, Walter Kaufmann fused the scales, modes and melodic contours of Indian music with Western forms. He had been very well trained in the latter by Franz Schreker and particularly Curt Sachs, a disciplinarian who taught the young composer to “organize my thoughts first before I wrote down anything.” (Sachs had also introduced Kaufmann to Indian music via recordings.) The opening piece on this CD, the String Quartet No. 11, is a perfect example of what I mean. After a slow, melismatic opening, the music suddenly gains energy, the tempo increases, and off we go with Kaufmann developing his very Indian-sounding themes along strict Western classical lines. It was a stunning fusion of Eastern and Western cultures; it was ahead of its time; and it was clearly not something that the majority of contemporary classical listeners were going to appreciate. Yet even when the languorous pace resumes and stays in the second movement, Kaufmann was not a composer to wallow in sentiment (no wonder he failed in Hollywood) or waste a single note or phrase. Everything is concise and clearly structured, yet the infusion of the Indian element makes the music deeply affecting emotionally. Oddly, the quick last movement almost has a jazz “push” to the beat; whether coincidental, purposely put in by Kaufmann or the whim of the interpreters on this performance, I do not know, since all of these are first recordings.

By the time he wrote the Violin Sonata No. 2, sometime before 1946, Kaufmann had refined this style a bit further. The music here also breathes the air of India, but there is somewhat more Western influence in the manner in which he develops it—but note how the first movement here echoes the String Quartet No. 11 by moving from a slow introduction to a very fast theme in a minor mode. It’s still interesting, however, particularly since in this movement Kaufmann alternated back and forth between fast and slow sections more often than in the quartet.

The String Quartet No. 7, also based on Indian music, has a different profile, starting out with an edgy, exciting passage in which Kaufmann mixes in a bit of bitonality with his Indian scales, then becoming more relaxed although the tempi and the tension go back and forth throughout the first movement.

And yet, as the CD wears on, one begins to realize that Kaufmann’s obsession with Indian music led to a certain stagnation. He never really moved beyond what he had done in the 1930s and ‘40s, and for better or worse, much of this music sounds alike. Had you not heard the preceding works, the Sonatina No. 12 (here transcribed for clarinet and piano instead of violin and piano) would sound quite fascinating, but after the two string quartets and the violin sonata it sounds like much of the same.

I did, however, very much like the Septet. Though in the same vein as much of the preceding music, it has a sort of Stravinskian edge to its mechanical neo-Classic rhythms, and Kaufmann’s manipulation of the inner voices is simply masterful. This piece, and this one alone, shows me a distinct advance on his earlier style because it is more varied in its rhythm and more complex in its texture.

My impression of Kaufmann, then, is of a good, solid composer who came up with one great idea and worked it to death. I would recommend that his String Quartet No. 11 and the Septet become occasional repertoire pieces for chamber groups; they’re the best-conceived pieces on the CD, and make an excellent impression. But most of the other pieces sound too much alike to suit me. I’d describe him as a clever rather than an inspired composer, yet this CD is definitely worth investigating since he was such a pioneer in fusing Eastern and Western classical music.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Anthony Gatto’s “The Making of Americans”

cover FCR265

GATTO: The Making of Americans: A Radio Opera / Anna Dagmar, voc (Martha as a child); Pamela Stein, sop (Julia Dehning); Rachel Calloway, mezzo (Julia’s mother); Elizabeth Munn, mezzo (Martha Redfern); David Echeland, ctr-ten (David Hersland); Michael Mueller, ten (Alfred Hersland); Bradley Greenwald, ten (Old Man); JACK String Quartet; Zeitgeist; David Pinkard, cond . New Focus Recordings FCR265

The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress is Gertrude Stein’s modernist 1925 novel, actually finished many years earlier. It traces the genealogy, history and psychological development of the fictional Redfern and Hersland families. In a March 1934 review in The Capital Times, the unidentified critic made these comments:[1]

The style is confusing until you get used to it. The words and sentence structures are simple enough yet the odd phrasing and unique combinations of words, the driving repetitions are upsetting to a reader who is accustomed to having things move along in the orthodox fashion.

Yet if you have patience to stick with it, you’ll begin to realize that by this method Gertrude Stein is able to give the reader a sense of human relationships and emotions which are ordinarily intangible and almost impossible to characterize in straightforward prose.

Here, American composer Anthony Gatto (b. 1962) attempts to reconcile Stein’s odd prose forms with music, as Virgil Thomson had done in the 1940s with Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of us All. I happen to like the latter more than the former, but even in that case the listening experience is unnerving, not just because of Stein’s odd prose style but because several characters are singing all at the same time and their lines have different words.

By creating his own libretto from Stein’s novel, Gatto has tried to rectify this by picking and choosing what he wanted from the novel, alternating spoken words with singing. His style, in this work at least, combines mid-20th-century American, not to dissimilar from Thomson’s, with modern-sounding “soft rock” beats. These are not as annoying as one might think, largely because Gatto sustains a lyric line above it as other singers indulge in group rhythmic singing.

Stein’s minimalist sort of word repetition falls easily into this musical pattern, but although the singers portraying the various characters are all identified, there seems to be no identification in the booklet for the female narrator of “Every one who ever was or is or will be living.” Not that it makes a huge difference, but still, an identification would have been nice. I swear that I hear a countertenor (ugh!) in the ensemble, but what the hey, it’s Gatto’s opera. At least he’s not desecrating Handel or Bach.

The novel is broken down into scenes as follows:

Part I: Progress of American Families

  1. What is a normal American?
  2. Family living can be existing.
  3. Every one who ever was or is or will be living.

Part II: The Marriage and Divorce of Julia Dehning and Alfred Hersland

  1. David Hersland’s song for Julia.
  2. Once an angry man dragged his father.
  3. I like loving, sometimes (The Divorce of Julia and Alfred)

Part III: The Funeral of David Hersland

  1. If any one is sad enough.
  2. Sharp knives and sharp scissors.
  3. Some were very pleased.
  4. Changing is existing.
  5. He was not one who had been one fighting.

Part IV: History of a Family’s Progress

  1. Family living can go on existing.
  2. Any one has come to be a dead one. Any one.
  3. Some are not believing that any other one can really be only doing the thing that other one is doing. No. Not every one is doing something that any family living is needing.

The music continues to morph and change as we move from scene to scene. Happily, most (but not all) of the singers have good diction, so that following the libretto isn’t terribly difficult. Gatto’s musical building blocks are often edgy but not always, and except for the passages in which several characters are speaking or singing against one another, not terribly difficult for the ear to follow. If you like The Mother of us All, you should like this as much if not more. If you don’t like The Mother of us All or Gertrude Stein in general, you’ll either like it but have difficulty or not like it at all. Except for the hooty countertenor who sings the role of David Hersland, I liked all of the singers.

Since the accompaniment consists of a string quartet and Zeitgeist, a quartet consisting of a bass clarinet, pianist and two percussionists, the instrumental textures are clear and unmuddied. This also aids in hearing the various strands of the music. One of the most atonal and rapidly-moving sections is section 10, “Changing is existing.”

This is an extremely interesting work and certainly worth hearing. I came down against keeping it because there was just too much countertenor for me.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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A Louis Jordan Retrospective


HORTON-DARLING-GABLER: Choo Choo Ch’Boogie. BRADFORD-WILLIAMS: Keep A-Knockin’. BRESLER-WYNN: Five Guys Named Moe. JORDAN-CASEY-CLARK: Ration Blues. AUSTIN-JORDAN: Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby? DEMETRIUS-WILLIAMS: Mop Mop. MERCER: G.I. Jive. ROBIN: My Baby Said “Yes.”1 BAXTER-JORDAN: Buzz Me. JORDAN: Caldonia. DAVIS-STEWART; Don’t Worry ‘Bout That Mule. W HOUDINI: Stone Cold Dead in the Market.2 PAPARELLI-PACK-LEVEEN: Petootie Pie.2 GREENE: Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Cryin. DEMETRIUS-JORDAN: Ain’t That Just Like a Woman. EDWARDS-HILLIARD: That Chick’s Too Young to Fry. KRAMER-WHITNEY: Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens. THEARD-JORDAN: Let the Good Times Roll. WOLF-FINE-HIRSCH: Texas and Pacific. MILES-BISHOP: Jack, You’re Dead! BUSHKIN-DeVRIES: Boogie Woogie Blue Plate. GRAY-JORDAN; Barnyard Boogie. BARTLEY-HICKMAN-JORDAN: Early in the Mornin’. MERRICK-WILLOUGH-JORDAN: Run Joe. LOESSER: Baby, It’s Cold Outside.2 JORDAN-WALSH: Saturday Night Fish Fry. THEARD: You Rascal, You  3 / Louis Jordan & his Tympany Five; 1Bing Crosby, 2Ella Fitzgerald, 3Louis Armstrong, voc / Retrospective (Nimbus) RTR4364

Louis Jordan (1908-1975) is often hailed as the father of rhythm & blues and grandfather of rock ‘n’ roll, but not that many rock buffs nowadays have heard much of him. Were it not for the fact that actor Dan Aykroyd played his Decca recording of Let the Good Times Roll in the hit movie The Blues Brothers, many people (myself included) might never have heard him at all.

Of course, being the father of R&B and grandfather of R&R brings him much closer to being a pop artist and not a jazz one, but like Lionel Hampton, who also helped usher in R&B with his 1940s big band, Jordan had strong jazz roots. In fact, before starting up his “Tympany Five” in 1938, he had played alto sax with Charlie Gaines in Philadelphia, later for Chick Webb’s famous jazz orchestra between 1926 and 1938, but left when he realized that his value as an entertainer was being overshadowed by young Ella Fitzgerald. Webb’s philosophy was that Jordan appealed only to black audiences but that Fitzgerald’s voice appealed to whites as well as blacks. He was right about Ella but, as it turned out, wrong about Jordan. From the time that Jordan’s recording of Knock Me a Kiss was released in 1942, he began to hit the big time and, by 1946-48, was outselling Fitzgerald on the same label (Decca).  Ella didn’t hold it against him, though, and as you can see from the above header, she recorded several songs with him, including the smash 1945 hit, Stone Cold Dead in the Market.

CaldoniaBut Chick Webb and Ella weren’t the only two jazz artists to take the rather funny jazz songs of Jordan seriously. Woody Herman’s first Herd recorded cover versions of Don’t Worry ‘Bout That Mule and Caldonia, the latter becoming as big a hit for Herman as it had been for Jordan—a million-selling record, at #1 on the R&B charts for seven weeks and a #6 pop hit. Dave Dexter Jr., publicity director of rival Capitol Records, wrote the lyrics for another of Jordan’s biggest hits, Buzz Me Blues. Although I purposely did not list the exact personnel for these recording sessions in the header, the musicians in his group—sometimes a quintet as advertised, sometimes a sextet and sometimes a septet—included such bonafide jazz musicians as pianist Wild Bill Davis, bassist Al Morgan, former Fats Waller drummer Slick Jones and trumpeter Idrees Sulieman, who played on several of Thelonious Monk’s early Blue Note recordings. And Jordan himself played very good, if not exceptional, short jazz solos on several of his records.

Thus Louis Jordan fits somewhere in between the jazz and rock axis. It was undoubtedly due to the fact that he used more conventional jazz instruments and only one electric guitar that his popularity fell off the cliff after 1951. With such rock screamers as Little Richard and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins coming up and the guitar-laden band of Bill Haley and his Comets coming up, even the most energetic of Jordan’s recordings sounded somewhat pale and passé. He kept on plugging away until the day he died, recording another 114 singles, but none of them clicked. By the time he died in 1975, he was already a forgotten man and musician. Nowadays he has a cult following among those who investigate the “roots of rock ‘n’ roll,” a pretty large minority, thus the impetus for this album.

Jordan created his style by essentially slowing down the “shuffle beat” rhythm made popular by the famous swing band, the Top Hatters, led by former classical violinist Jan Savitt. His gutsy alto style grew out of the “soul” sax players of his day. But his real interest to us today comes from the funny-but-sad character of the lyrics of his songs. Although he sang his songs and didn’t just narrate them, Jordan was also a precursor of rap music. His songs described the sad, funny, whimsical and sometimes heartbreaking condition of African-Americans in his era. Barred from acceptance in both white society and the job market, the unnamed characters in Jordan’s songs took to drink, bad women, fish fries and grabbing chickens out of a farmer’s hen house as a way of getting by in life, and did it all with a smile on his face. The fact that his songs broke so often into the white mainstream of the Top Ten tells you two things, that white society knew what he was singing about but thought it was comical as long as he wasn’t complaining too much about it. In only one song, Mop Mop (a #1 R&B hit that didn’t cross over to the Billboard list), are the lyrics a bit questionable, referring to the black orchestra the musician in question played with a “Zulu band,” but in New Orleans culture it was an honor for a black musician to be made “King of the Zulus” during Mardi Gras (Louis Armstrong was the king c. 1947 or ’48), and of course G.I. Jive was really Johnny Mercer’s smash hit on the pop charts (though Jordan’s version was #1 on the R&B charts for six weeks).

Saturday Night Fish FryFor all its hard-driving R&B beat, Five Guys Named Moe is, in the instrumental break, as exciting a ‘40s jazz record as you’re likely to hear, and in several records one is impressed by the trumpet solos of the little-known Courtney Williams (1939), Eddie Roane (1942-44) and Aaron Izenhall (July 1945, replacing Sulieman, through 1950). Personally speaking, despite my admiration of Bing Crosby as a laid-back, jazzy-styled singer, I thought that My Baby Said “Yes” was a real stinker of a song. It’s also too much Bing and not enough Louis. Of the three duets with Ella Fitzgerald, Stone Cold Dead in the Market is the funniest but most pop-oriented, Petootie Pie has some good scat singing by Ella, and Baby It’s Cold Outside (now considered a taboo song because the feminists think it involves date rape) is excellent, a more swinging alternative to the more famous recording by Dinah Shore and Buddy Clark. Jordan also recorded two duets with the lesser-known but bluesy-styled Martha Davis (Daddy-O, which hit #7 on the R&B charts, b/w You’re on the Right Track Baby). Possibly the most R&R-like song on the album is Ain’t That Just Like a Woman (including a very rock-music-like guitar solo by Carl Hogan), one song I had never heard before. The lyrics of the Tommy Edwards-Jimmy Hilliard hit That Chick’s Too Young to Fry are definitely wrapped up tightly in double entendre. Early in the Mornin’ is an early example of Calypso beat. We end this retrospective with another record I hadn’s heard before, I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead (You Rascal You) with the great Louis Armstrong, and yes, Louis does play the trumpet in addition to singing–and quite well, too.

This is one of but six reissues of his Decca recordings to come out since MCA put out the first in 1975, the year of his death. The most comprehensive is the 9-CD set of his complete Decca recordings issued by Bear Records in 1992, but there are also one-disc compilations on the Polygram, Jasmine and Vinyl Passion labels as well as a 3-CD set on the Big 3 label and a 5-CD set on JSP Records. The latter is particularly enticing since it is selling for an exceptionally reasonable price on Amazon, but for the non-R&B collector this one-disc compilation might fill the bill. The only recordings missing here that I wished had been included are Do You Call That a Buddy?, Knock Me a Kiss (another tune played by other jazz artists), What’s the Use of Getting Sober?, Somebody Done Changed the Lock on My Door and Open the Door, Richard, but in their place we have his duets with Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong that aren’t on most other one-disc collections…and these were huge hits.

A good cross-section of Jordan in his prime. The transfers are clean and the liner notes informative. If you don’t already have one of the collections mentioned above, this is a good place to start to understand and assess Louis Jordan. Influential he may have been, but all by himself he was unique.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Mark Stone Sings John Ireland

cover 5060192781007

THE COMPLETE JOHN IRELAND SONGBOOK, Vol. 2 / IRELAND: Songs of a Wayfarer. A Song of March. Spring. Marigold: Impression for Voice and Pianoforte. If We Must Part. When I Am Old. When Lights Go Rolling Round the Sky. Alpine Song. 3 Songs to Poems by Various Poets. Sunset Play. Slumber Song. 2 Songs to Poems by Arthur Symons and Dante Gabriel Rosetti. 3 Songs to Poems by Arthur Symons. Santa Chiara / Mark Stone, bar; Sholto Kynoch, pno / Stone Records 5060192781007

Most of the time I review CDs due to the exceptional musical content; sometimes I review them for the exceptional playing or singing of individual artists. The latter is the case with this disc.

John Ireland was a British composer of veddy veddy British-sounding drawing room songs and piano pieces. The only five songs of his that I have in my collection are all performed by Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten; had they not recorded them, I would undoubtedly have no Ireland in my collection because I am not by nature drawn to such music, but baritone Mark Stone has such an exceptional voice that I felt the need to cover this disc solely to praise his singing.

Mark Stone is a 50-year-old British baritone who originally studied mathematics, of all things, but after working for five years as a Chartered Accountant he studied voice, graduating from the Guildhall School of Music in 1998. In addition to his operatic activities in Great Britain, he has also sung at the Santa Fe, Philadelphia, La Scala, Leipzig, Deutsche Oper Berlin and Montpelier Opera Companies, covering such roles as Escamillo. He is, indeed, the founder of this record label, which was originally created to record himself.

Mark StoneStone has an exceptionally warm, rich voice with excellent diction and an exceptional range from the top baritone notes (G# and A) down to a somewhat Lawrence Tibbett-like low range. Listening to him in this recital, it’s difficult to imagine why he hasn’t sung in America at the Metropolitan and San Francisco Opera Companies; he’s that good. The only thing I can’t judge from this song recital is his power of expression in opera; Ireland’s songs are lyrical and melodic but entirely lacking in drama. They rather go in one ear and out the other except for the fact that Stone is singing them. At the end of “I Will Walk on the Earth,” he cuts loose with a ringing high G of exceptional quality. His accompanist, pianist Sholto Kynoch, is also outstanding throughout this recital.

Thus I recommend this CD for the high quality of Stone’s singing, which is apparently unimpaired after 21 years of professional singing.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Krzysztof Meyer’s Piano Music


MEYER: 24 Preludes for Piano / Marek Szlezer, pno / Dux 1609

The Polish label Dux (is it pronounced “Ducks” or “Doo”?) issues a lot of interesting music and performances, but unfortunately they don’t often make their recordings available to reviewers in the form of downloads and streaming, which is how I get most of my records. This one features the 24 Piano Preludes of one Krzysztof Meyer (b. 1943), former Dean of Music Theory at the (Krakow) State College of Music and also former President of the Union of Polish Composers. He later served as the composition professor at the Cologne Hochschule für Musik from 1987 until his retirement in 2008. Despite all this, he is little known in the West.

According to Wikipedia, Meyer began composing in the vein of the Polish avant-garde of the 1960s (think Penderecki), but later moved to a somewhat more traditional style, using more expression though avoiding romantic effects. Only two of these preludes have titles: No. 2, “Liberamente” and No. 7, “Lento.” The other 22 pieces only have tempo indications, i.e. quarter note = 60, eighth = 126, etc. Annotator Thomas Weselmann goes even further, stating that “Meyer’s Preludes are not neo-post-Romantic music. Quite the contrary. Their har­mony is rather austere, closer to the tradition of young Prokofiev and Bartók. The approach to the piano is in the spirit of Stravinsky, who saw it as a percussion instrument rather than one predestined to sing lyrical melodies (although the Preludes contain Impressionist-like twinkling moments, too). The orchestra of 10 fingers moves around an extensive register, in various kinds of articulation and dynamics.”

Nonetheless, Meyer often produces a lyric top line that complements rather than slavishly following the spiky harmony. Among his other devices here are rolling arpeggios in the left hand, which add to the hints of late Romanticism. The similarity to Bartók is, I think, stronger than his similarity to Stravinsky; in the second Prelude, he opens with a running figure in the right hand that, except for the suggestion of bitonality, sounds more lyrical than anything Stravinsky wrote for the keyboard. It’s an odd high-wire act, balancing the structure and feeling of past music with strong elements of the modern, and he is a good enough composer to maintain a tight structure in each piece that the mind can follow without difficulty. Indeed, after the first Prelude, which acts as a sort of introduction to the entire series, I found that Meyer wrote a number of intriguing, almost but not quite charming vignettes, some of which hark back to the style of Szymanowski who was neither like Bartók nor Stravinsky, but like a more modern Scriabin.

The fourth Prelude (quarter = 88) is a cat-and-mouse game with the listener, using brief motifs with pauses in between that eventually chase each other, some moving to the bass line, eventually coalescing at the 1:43 mark to produce a brief, continuous forward momentum at a quicker tempo and louder volume before retreating from the sound barrier and giving us a development on the cat-and-mouse of the beginning. The fifth Prelude (quarter = 52) also plays a similar game with the listener, using sparse notes with luftpausen between them. In this manner, Meyer goes through the other Preludes that follow in a similar way—to my ears, a bit too similar to each other, and that, I think, is his one weakness as a composer. At least in these works, he’s just a bit too clever for his own good.

It’s not that the listening experience is entirely repetitious, mind you, only that, by the time you reach Prelude No. 7, you’ve caught on to his method and can begin predicting where the music is going, and that’s not a good sign. In Prelude No. 8 he varies his approach a bit, using descending pentatonic scales in the opening, but in Prelude No. 9 he returns to his old ways. No. 10 again breaks the pattern with dramatic right-hand tremolos, but they seem to be more for effect than contributing to the structure. No. 11 uses a quasi-boogie beat in its 8-to-the-bar structure, but only intermittently.

What started out so promising, then, turned into an intermittently interesting listen. I would assume that pianist Szlezer does a fine job with this music, but not having a point of reference I can’t say for certain. It’s interesting to hear once, but that’s about it.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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