The UNI Wind Ensemble is Inspired by Art

cover - 54689-MCD

INSPIRED BY ART / TIAN: Petals of Fire.1 ADAM SCHOENBERG: Picture Studies.2,3 J. DAVID: Swing Landscape: Rhapsody for Piano & Winds.3 I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold.1,4 DAUGHERTY: American Gothic 4,5 / 1Andrey Floryanovich, sax; 2Andrew Wiele, Eb cl; 3Sean Botkin, pno; 4Kim Abetya, fl; 5Nathan Jones, tuba; 5Ross Winter, vln; University of Northern Iowa Wind Ensemble; Danny Galyen, cond / Mark Records 54689-MCD

From the notes:

Inspired by Art presents the music of four contemporary composers who were influenced at separate times and places by over fifteen pieces of visual art from eleven artists. The art that influenced this music is stunning – and the recording is best heard while gazing at the art that inspired the imagination of the composer (all of which can be found online). Despite the physical differences between an art form that exists in permanent visual form and another art that must be aurally recreated in time for each experience, visual and musical arts share many common ideas. Form, color, shape, rhythm, depth, intensity – the list of common attributes is endless. Both art forms create a mood, express deep feelings, and provide an emotional experience for those searching for one. Visual art has its own composition, and music paints on its own temporal canvas. The music on this album gives us a special opportunity to live in both worlds.

But of course, Mark Records only reproduced one of these artworks in the booklet for the CD. Fortunately, images of all of them were available online, so I am able to present them here in this review. Just consider this CD to be a sort of modern-day “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

Twombly Petals of Fire

Twombly, “Petals of Fire”

1. Zhou Tian’s Petals of Fire is inspired by Cy Twombly’s painting of the same name. The rapid, bitonal music, full of busy eighth-note figures that swirl and overlap, does a good job of capturing the feeling of the painting. In terms of substance, it is a well written piece that finally develops around the middle of the piece, beginning with soft flute and clarinet figures. The rhythm also shifts and changes, and there are some surprisingly lyrical episodes.

2. Adam Schoenberg’s Picture Studies is a 10-part piece for piano and wind ensemble based on several different pieces. The opening, and the Interlude, were inspired by the same Hartmann painting that inspired Mussorgsky’s Catacombs; the second piece is inspired by an Albert Bloch painting, Die Drei Pierrots Nr. 2, and is rife with humorous clarinet and flute figures set against heavy brass and lower winds. The UNI ensemble plays this in a highly virtuosic manner, as they do the quieter but no less complex Repetition, based on a Kurt Baasch photograph of the same title. I was pleased to hear that Schoenberg did not just write endless minimalist repeats of the same figure, but actually developed this music. Olive Orchard is based on a lesser-known van Gogh painting, reproduced on the album cover above; this is moody and atmospheric, with a long-held trumpet note (possibly a couple of trumpets overlapping their sound) while the harp plays soft, slow rhythmic chords and solo clarinet, flute and oboe play music that sounds, to me, quintessentially American…van Gogh transformed from a Dutchman into Grant Wood.

Hartmann_Paris_Catacombs

Hartmann, “Paris Catacombs”

Baasch Repetition

Baasch, “Repetition”

Die Drei Pierrots Nr 2

Bloch, “Die Drei Pierrots Nr. 2”

Perhaps surprisingly, Rose with Gray, inspired by a Kandinsky painting of the same title, is comprised of loud, sharply-attacked brass chords interspersed with bitonal scale passages up and down played by the clarinets with further top-line figures played by the flutes. It then slows down to present us with a long-held, edgy chord in which the inner voices shift. There then follows an alternation of these two moods, mostly leaning towards the long-held chords, before a return to the opening figures at 2:34. Calder’s World is based on a peculiar sculpture by Alexander Calder that looks like a huge mechanical insect. This is simply music that presents a quixotic mood and sticks with it throughout. Schoenberg then transforms Joán Miro’s Women at Sunrise from a piece of Spanish impressionism to a hip modern jazz-like piece. The Catacombs-like piece then returns, in a different garb, as an interlude to this exhibition before we move into Cliffs of Moher, based on a Sugimoto photo, and then into Pigeons in Flight, based on a photograph by Francis Blake. This is clearly an imaginative and varied suite, with each piece somehow contributing to the whole despite the varied musical styles involved. I should point out, however, that another hand was involved in this project, as the music was transcribed for wind band by Donald Patterson of the “President’s Own” United States Marine Band.

Kandinsky Rose with Gray

Kandinsky, “Rose with Gray”

Calder Untitled 1937

Calder, Untitled 1938

Miro Women at Sunrise

Miro, “Women at Sunrise”

Sugimoto Cliffs of Moher

Sugimoto, “Cliffs of Moher”

Blake Pigeons in Flight

Blake, “Pigeons in Flight”

 

3. James David’s Swing Landscape was inspired by a mural of the same name by Stuart Davis that captures the exuberance of the “Swing Era.” Pianist Sean Botkin and one of the clarinetists try to swing in this performance but come off as ragtime players. This was one of the few disappointments for me on the entire record, particularly since it was obvious to me that David was at least trying to capture a jazz flavor in his music. But this is a problem with many young musicians nowadays: they were all brought up on rock music but don’t know a thing ‘cause it ain’t got that swing! The latter part of this composition is slower, moodier music, and this comes off much better by the pianist and orchestra, but the coda also contains jazz-like figures played in a classically stiff fashion.

Davis Swing Landscape

Davis, “Swing Landscape”

Demuth 5 in Gold

Demuth, “I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold”

4. I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, also by Davis, was inspired by Charles Demuth’s painting. After a crashing orchestral opening, the music becomes soft and glittery with a nice tenor sax solo playing against a backdrop of low brass and winds. The music evolves rather slowly and in stages, juxtaposing themes and motifs as it goes along. It is as much of a mood piece as one that is developed along conventional lines. The music becomes gradually louder and faster in pacel there are punched-out brass and wind chords against which one hears a celesta and soft trombones, then high winds and trumpets playing alternating figures in a syncopated rhythm. Then, at around 6:20, the music becomes even slower and softer than before. A fascinating piece.

Grant Wood Winter in Iowa

Wood, “Winter in Iowa”

large_American_Gothic

Wood, “American Gothic”

5. American Gothic, by Michael Daugherty, is obviously based on the artwork of Grant Wood: in addition to his famous painting of the same name, also by his paintings of rural Iowa and those of Iowa in winter. Opening with a drum roll and then moving into a brisk tuba solo (followed immediately by winds), the score has a somewhat choppy rhythm and typically American-style themes, which Daugherty intertwines very cleverly. The harmony is purposely kept tonal and uncluttered by anything in the way of bitonality or atonality, though there are some quick changes here and there in the underlying harmony. Oddly, however, much of the opening section (“On a Roll”) is in a stiff rhythm reminiscent of the Burt Bacharach song Promises, Promises. The second piece, “Winter Dreams,” opens with a low flute solo (possibly alto flute) around which one hears soft instrumental flutters and a xylophone in the background. Then an oboe solo as the music finally coalesces into a theme, slow and delicate and sounding a lot like the folk song “Down in the Valley”, with sleigh bells in the background. But of course there are further shifts and changes in the music as it progresses, and the orchestration by Daugherty is wonderfully evocative. At around the 5:28 mark, the lower brass plays a slow-moving variant on the theme while high winds play a syncopated figure in eighths. The third piece, “Pitchfork,” was inspired by the American Gothic painting itself, and is replete with fast, snappy figures played in part by low clarinets against high flutes and even a down-home fiddle solo. Different sections and soloists make their contribution, the entire orchestra falls in again but then falls away to let the fiddle have its say in a fast-paced solo before returning to comment on it. In all, a very good piece that ends with a permutation of the Shaker song, “Simple Gifts,” and yet another hoedown from the fiddler against the now-quite-loud orchestral backdrop.

So there is my review of the CD, along with the appropriate images that go with it!

—© 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

New CD by the Paquin-Saiz Vega Duo

cover IBS-92020

awardXENAKIS: Dhipli Zyla. KODÁLY: Duo Op. 7. VASKS: Castillo interior. RAVEL: Sonata for Violin & Cello. BARTÓK: Romanian Folk Dances, BB 68 (arr. Paquin-Saiz) / Marc Paquin, vln; Orfilia Saiz Vega, cel / IBS 92020

The duo of violinist Marc Paquin and cellist Orfilia Saiz Vega, happily, seem to specialize more in contemporary music than the Same Old Same Old, thus the oldest piece in this new collection is the sonata by Ravel. In the liner notes, cellist Saiz Vega states that “This [project] came into being about 25 years ago from a desire…to spend more time together sharing the best pieces in the repertoire…Regarding the music chosen, it would be impossible not to include the two great pillars in the repertoire for these eight strings, Zoltán Kodály’s Duo and Maurice Ravel’s Sonata” in addition to the much more modern pieces by Xenakis and Vasks.

Tellingly, they open with the edgiest piece here, Xenakis’ Dhipli Zyla, which has a strong Greek rhythm combined with quasi-rock-style backbeats. There are also some very interesting shifts and changes within its four-minute duration, and this duo is certainly locked into the music, playing with great intensity of feeling and a propulsive rhythmic thrust. It’s sort of like slapping down an Ace of Spades before you show the rest of your hand.

Their performance of the Kodály Duo is also very dynamic, although here I thought that a bit more relaxation would have given the music more of a Hungarian feel and make it sound less like Cereal Shot From Guns. Nonetheless, there is something to be said for this taut reading, which pulls the work’s structure together brilliantly. They really make it almost sound like a contemporary piece of music, and I liked that about it. I also appreciated Saiz Vega’s incredibly rich cello tone, which offset Paquin’s silvery-bright violin superbly.

Next up is Pēteris Vasks’ Castillo Interior, a typically slow, moody piece by him. I’m not crazy about most of Vasks’ music, but coming as this one did between two upbeat works, it made a very effective contrast.

The duo’s performance of the Ravel Violin-Cello Sonata will be shocking to many ears: it is a crisp, no-nonsense reading that guts all inferences of Romanticism from the score. I found it exciting and invigorating; it certainly sounds different here from the performance I already owned by Arthur Grumiaux and Hermann von Beckerath, which has a much more delicate French sensibility about it, and Paquin’s bright, lean violin tone has more tensile strength in it than that of most French fiddlers.

We end with the duo’s arrangement of Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances in a lively and surprisingly idiomatic performance. Truthfully, there’s not much to say about these performances because each and every one of them is terrific. This is clearly one of the finest chamber music CDs of the year, a real gem that deserves to be in everyone’s collection.

—© 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

Elizabeth Austin’s Windows

cover - NV6304

AUSTIN: Symphony No. 1, “Wilderness” / Melinda Liebermann, Anthony King, reciters; Krakow Radio & Symphony Orch.; Szymon Kawalla, cond / Symphony No. 2, “Lighthouse” / Moravian Philharmonic Orch.; Joel Eric Suben, cond / An American Triptych. Puzzle Preludes / Ulrich Urban, pno / Sonnets from the Portuguese / Melinda Liebermann, sop; Cornelius Withöft, pno / 3 Rilke Lieder / Amanda Kohl, sop; Christopher Grundy, bar; Elizabeth R. Austin, pno / Navona NV6304

Elizabeth R. Austin is an organist and composer born in Baltimore in 1938. She studied at the Peabody Conservatory as well as with Nadia Boulanger at the Conservatoire Fountainebleau after the famed pedagogue heard her 3 Rilke Lieder.

Her first symphony, subtitled “Wilderness,” opens with a startling chord before progressing into atonal territory. This one-movement work presents a rather stark and menacing wilderness indeed; Austin uses sparse orchestration using biting brass and string tremolos to make her points. It’s certainly a fascinating piece, with themes somewhat juxtaposed and some quite short, resembling much of the avant-garde of the 1950s and early ‘60s (i.e., the music of Easley Blackwood and others). A male voice provides a narration from a poem by Carl Sandburg: “There is a wolf in me / fangs pointing for tearing gashes / a red tongue for raw meat…” Then a female voice picks up the narration: “There is a fox in me / a silver gray fox / I sniff and guess / I pick things out of the wind and air…” The alternating narrators dominate much of the work’s progression. It’s a very interesting piece though I personally wondered at her titling it a symphony; it struck me more as a tone poem with narration. At the 14:40 mark, there’s a brief quote from Stravinsky’s Petrouchka in the winds—an interesting but strange allusion which returns later. In toto, this is a strange and very original piece.

Austin’s second symphony, subtitled “Lighthouse,” is in three movements which, according to the composer, “contains many quotes, all related through pitch,” among them Debussy’s La Mer, although identifying the quotes (including Wolf’s Mondnacht) isn’t half as interesting as hearing what Austin has done with them. In fact, most of them are not as obvious as the Petrouchka references in the first symphony. Although the inspiration for this work was a quote from Wolfgang Borchert’s poem of the same name, the poem is never narrated in this work.

An American Triptych is a piano piece using, as Austin puts it, “the Bach family’s party amusement with musical quotations called a ‘quodlibet’. Their musical high spirits produced a rowdy juxtaposition of familiar tunes in patchwork style.” But by this time, folks, I was getting tired of her using musical quotations from others. This is the kind of head game that Alfred Schnittke played for 30 years, and to be honest this was a piano piece that didn’t go anywhere.

Sonnets from the Portuguese are, of course, based on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poems, and are sung by Melinda Liebermann who was one of the narrators in the first symphony. Liebermann has a pretty tone but a very strong flutter in the voice, her highest notes are rather strained, and her diction is unclear. I’ve certainly heard worse singers but also much better, and to be honest, this music, too, really goes nowhere. It just sort of stays in one place and ruminates for a period of time, then stops.

The concept behind the Puzzle Preludes is that they are based on (you guessed it) more musical quotes, “cited either verbatim or intentionally ‘bent.’” As in the American Triptych, the music ruminates a bit too much, causing listener fatigue before each of these sort pieces are over. The only one I kind of liked was No. 4.

We end with the Rilke Lieder that caught Nadia Boulanger’s ear. These are sung by baritone Christopher Grundy, who has a grundy kind of voice (number 1 and in duet on 3), and soprano Amanda Kohl, who has a very pretty voice. These are better music than much of the preceding, though Grundy’s unsteady, muddy-sounding voice is an impediment.

A rather mixed bag. Much of the music in the symphonies and the Rilke Lieder is quite good, but the other pieces are not.

—© 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 Bosphorus Trio Goes Turkish!

747313907175

ALNAR: Piano Trio. TÜZÜN: Piano Trio. BARAN: Dönüşümler {Transformations). BALCI: Piano Trio No. 1 / Bosphorus Trio / Naxos 8.579071

This new CD features works by four Turkish composers previously unknown to me: Hasan Alnar (1906-1978), Ferit Tüzün (1929-1977), Ìlhan Baran (1934-2016) and Oğuzhan Balci (b. 1977), played by the Turkish Bosphorus Trio. Needless to say, all are world premiere recordings.

The Alnar piece, though leaning towards late Romanticism, is informed with the harmonies of traditional makam music, which give it a very exotic flavor. Alnar was one of a group of composers known as “The Turkish Five” which also included Cernal Rey, Ulvi Erkin (who is better known than Alnar) and perhaps the most famous of them, Ahmet Adnan Saygun. After the slow opening, the first movement becomes rather lively, and Alnar, interestingly, treats the instruments of the trio as separate entities playing against one another like sections in an orchestra rather than combining their talents in a unified musical statement. Much of this movement is dominated by the violin and occasionally by the cello; even rarer are those moments where the two strings play together. The piano seems to act as commentator, playing its own very different music while the others go along their merry way, and this piano part is for the most part highly rhythmic with almost “jumpy” rhythms in rapid eighth-note passages and chords. Although the second movement, marked “Sollerando,” involves different thematic material, it follows the first almost without a break and almost sounds like an extension of the first. It’s very clear that Alnar was a fine composer, as his music had a good balance, although perhaps not the most inspired composer. The slow third movement is the longest at 7:06 but also the most conventional and least interesting. The last movement is dance-like but, again, not terribly interesting.

By contrast, Tüzün’s piano trio is a very terse musical statement, being only 6:32 long. This is built around a sort of 6/8 (or perhaps 9/12) rhythm and, although Tüzün did not directly quote Turkish folk melodies, he alluded to them in his music. This trio is one of his earliest works, written when he was only 21 years old. The Bosphorus Trio gave its first performance in Turkey in 2018 after finding the manuscript score in the library of the Ankara State Opera and Ballet Orchestra in 2012. I liked it immensely: it has verve and a certain amount of originality, its bouncing rhythms provided by the piano keeping things moving.

Ílhan Baran, a pupil of Saygun, was a member of a later generation of Turkish composers and an important teacher as well. As annotator Gökçe Artar puts it, his music “often portrays abstract presentations of elements of folk and the traditional makam music of Turkey.” His Transformations, though in a single movement, is a very long piece…in fact, a few seconds longer than Alner’s entire four-movement Piano Trio and is in fact divided into discrete sections. It’s very difficult to describe the thematic material but easier to describe the harmonic base, which uses several different scales and modes including whole tones which constantly morph and change underneath the lively but simple top line. In one section, Baran sets up a pizzicato cello line that simulates a jazz bassist while the pianist sprinkles chords. The violin adds a few very soft pizzicato lines of its own after one chorus. Eventually the volume gradually increases and Baran creates an entirely new rhythm underneath different thematic material while keeping the lively rhythmic base going. Indeed, in most of this music, as is true in the music of Saygun and Erkin, you might use the old Jimmie Lunceford song title, “Rhythm is Our Business.”

We end with the piano trio by Balci, only 43 years old as of this writing, which was composed last year. Graduating at the top of his class, he too took up the study of Turkish music which he incorporates into his pieces. This trio, which was commissioned by the Bosphorus group, begins in a retro-Romantic style, again moving into rhythmic music with a Middle Eastern flavor as it evolves. It would be nice to say that Balci’s music shows great originality, but alas, my impression is that it borrows so much from the past that it sounds like the past. Not that it isn’t well composed, mind you, but it isn’t terribly original in concept or execution.

A fairly interesting CD, then, with some highlights and a few low lights.

—© 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

Exploring Sokolov’s Chamber Music

cover TOCC0560

SOKOLOV: Violin Sonata No. 2.1,4 Reminiscence for Piano 4 Hands.2,4 13 Postludes for Viola & Piano.3,4 Élegie for Solo Viola 3 / Karen Bentley Pollick, 1vln/2pno/3vla; 4Ivan Sokolov, pno / Toccata TOCC 0560

Composer-pianist Ivan Sokolov was born in 1960 to a cultural family; his father was an ancient art historian. Yet, in one sense, this release is as much a showcase for American musician Karen Bentley Pollick, who plays the violin, viola, piano and (not represented on this CD) the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle.

Pollick

Karen Bentley Pollick

Sokolov’s music is by no means avant-garde. It has a strong tonal bias but also a good sense of structure and an interesting use of harmony related to, but not as widely varied as, the music of Nikolai Medtner. At about the 3:40 mark in the first movement of the Violin Sonata No. 2, for instance, Sokolov goes through a fairly lengthy sequence of linked harmonic changes, shifting voices within the chords to make these changes. One thing I found interesting in Pollick’s violin playing is that she sounds as if she is playing the viola: it has a full, rich tone, almost in the German tradition rather than the Russian, Italian or French schools. The second movement of this sonata has a desolate, melancholy quality built around minor keys, again with several key shifts within the movement, particularly at the climax (approx. four minutes in) where things become less opaque and more overt in feeling. Interestingly, the third movement is a relatively relaxed “Moderato” rather than a scherzo, but the last movement is a fairly frenetic “Allegro molto” with plenty of spiky harmonies. The composer accompanies her in most of the music on this disc.

Reminiscence for Piano 4 Hands features both Pollick and Sokolov at the same piano. It, too, is in the same mold as the Violin Sonata, romantic but with many fascinating harmonic shifts and a few dramatic outbursts. The Postludes for viola and piano follow much the same pattern as the Violin Sonata but on a smaller scale. This, I found, was Sokolov’s one real weakness, the tendency to write music that sounds too much alike. The second postlude, in 3/4 time, features spiky harmonies like the last movement of the sonata. Apparently, Sokolov is also a synethesiac who “sees” music in terms of colors. The various postludes are ascribed such colors as red (No. 1), green (No. 2), orange (No. 3), light blue (No. 4), yellow (No. 5) etc. Postludes Nos. 4, 8 & 9 were the most musically interesting to me.

A nice album, then, with some very interesting moments among some fairly mundane ones.

—© 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

Miles Osland, From One Vice to Another

cover 55671-MCD

COLLABORATIONS Vol. 1, FROM ONE VICE TO ANOTHER / LOBO: Pontelo.*1,3 PETERSON: Sonata for Alto Saxophone & Guitar.*2 DAILEY: Mu Dance.*1,3 monk by twelve.* WETTRE: Sann.+2 MINTZER: 3 Pieces.2 Duo.+2 LIEBMAN: Elvin.+1 PICKETT: Borneo Horns 2,4 / Miles Osland, 1s-sax/2a-sax/3fl; 4Lisa Osland, bar-sax; Dr. Larry Nelson, t-sax; *Dieter Hennings Yeomans, gtr; +Paul Deatherage, dm / Mark 55671-MCD

Miles Osland, the outstanding jazz saxist from the University of Kentucky whose “Stinkin’” big band I have praised in the past, first dipped a toe into classical waters two years ago with his Intrinsic album. There, he played works by Debussy, Hindemith and Stravinsky in addition to such third stream composers as Clare Fischer, Mike Mower, Anders Åstrand and John Williams. On this new CD he taps fellow UK musician Raleigh Dailey for two pieces and adds others by Eduardo de Góes “Edu” Lobo, Russell Peterson, Petter Wettre, and well-known jazz musicians Bob Mintzer, Dave Liebman and Lenny Pickett, none of whom I’ve heard of previously, in a collection of works for saxophone and guitar and saxophone and drums.

But these are not specifically classical works so much as third stream compositions: they have structure and are written, but they swing and have a jazz sensibility about them, much like the oeuvre of the late Russian composer Nikolai Kapustin. Annotator Ramon Ricker informs us that Osland is playing the soprano sax on this piece; that would be the only way I would have known it, because to my ears it sounds so rich that it could be confused for an alto. Towards the end of the track he switches to the flute, an instrument I didn’t even know that he played, and he’s superb on it. What impressed me more than anything, however, was the gutsy playing of guitarist Dieter Yeomans: no wussy, lounge-jazz picking here, but a full-blooded style that almost sounds like flamenco guitar. The piece itself largely sticks to two chords throughout, but what Lobo was able to do within that limitation is simply amazing.

Next up is Peterson’s Sonata for Alto Saxophone & Guitar, and in the first movement we hear a beat that is decidedly funky and has nothing to do with classical music. Moreover, some of Osland’s playing on alto in this track is so high up in the instrument’s range that it almost sounds more like a soprano sax than his playing on the first track, yet he retains the purity of sound of a classically-trained alto player while still swinging like a jazz pro. Jazz pedagogue Jamey Aebersold would be very proud of him. As for the music, it is developed more in terms of rhythm than in terms of theme in this movement, but this changes in the slow, sinuous second movement. Here, Osland plays some wonderful glissandi on his horn that Johnny Hodges would have been proud of; by the 1:30 mark, the duo switches over to a plaintive melody that Rodrigo might have written, and the music develops along classical lines. The last movement is primarily made up of a string of fast upward sixteenths played by the alto which are interspersed with long-held notes, mostly in the upper register. The beat as well as the harmony still retains a certain Latin feel to it, and again Yeomans plays with strong downstrokes on his instrument.

Dailey’s Mu Dance refers to what is called the “Mu chord,” an extended major chord which includes an added second played as a ninth. Basically, it sounds a bit like modal music, particularly since there are also some chromatic passages thrown in for flavor. The piece has a sort of pop-music feel about it (the Mu chord was developed by Steely Dan musicians Donald Fagen and Walter Becker), which for me devalued it just a bit (I like mixing jazz and classical but not pop and classical), although Osland, again on soprano, is simply phenomenal in his drive and swing. (Knowing that Dailey also writes jazz pieces, I wonder if some of this may not have been open to improvisation?) As in the case of Pontelo, Osland also switches to flute for one chorus on this one. I particularly liked the mini-chase chorus that emerges at about the 6:45 mark, which keeps getting shorter and shorter until it almost sounds as if they’re alternating single notes and not phrases.

The first “Sax N Drum” piece, Wettre’s Sann, opens with Osland shouting out the downbeat—then it’s off to the races. In this first drum piece, the accompanying percussion plays in a relatively conventional jazz style, with a few moments in which the tom-tom and bass drum is used in a counterpoint effect to what Osland is playing. The top line is relatively simple in construction, not using much in the way of harmony, but its continuation through various variations and the propulsive rhythm give it the feel of a perpetual motion piece. Drummer Paul Deatherage also gets a nice solo of his own in it, consisting mostly of paradiddles but also altering the meter within the beat, and when Osland returns we are in double tempo. It ends on a high note (literally and figuratively).

Mintzer’s 3 Pieces are short, swinging, and very intense; you’re going to need “fast ears” to catch everything that’s going on here. Essentially, Mintzer has the drums support the alto sax but also play in between the beats in simple yet rhythmically complex figures. The same composer’s Duo is in a medium tempo, but in some ways a more complex piece because of the extended bar lengths, asymmetric rhythm and tricky development section, which sounds fairly “regular” but is not. This is particularly true of the drum solo which, whether written out or improvised, is quite rhythmically complex. I hope he won’t take this the wrong way, but my impression of Deatherage is that he is an exceptionally well-trained drummer with a good technique who tends to avoid using flash, but somewhat more flash is exactly what would have made these pieces more interesting. Hopefully he’ll listen to some more of Chick Webb, Gene Krupa and Elvin Jones for an idea of what I mean.

This is particularly apropos when you get to Elvin, the Dave Liebman piece dedicated to him. Loosely based on Jones’ piece Three Card Molly, it is very much a showcase for the percussionist despite the interesting top line played by Osland on soprano. Deatherage has the right idea of Jones’ very complex style (he was one of the four greatest and most dramatic drummers I ever heard in person, the other three being Gene Krupa, Joe Morello and Buddy Rich) but just not quite his looseness of beat. It’s kind of like listening to Red Nichols after you’ve heard Bix Beiderbecke: both were interesting improvisers who used the harmony to create entirely new structures, but Bix had the ability to suspend notes in the air just a fraction behind the beat while Red played exactly on the beat. Although Liebman has stated that the drum performance could “be suggestive of Elvin’s style or something completely different,” I feel that by locking himself into a strict time frame Deatherage has defused some of the work’s excitement.

Meanwhile, however, Osland is stretching out the fairly simple but chromatic tune, not often straying too far from the original figure but occasionally (especially later in the piece) playing what sounds like an improvisation to me. Thanks to Osland’s increasingly dramatic approach, the piece becomes more and more intense towards the finish. Deatherage does play a nice solo cadenza, you might say, towards the end, starting on the snare but then moving to the bass drum, which propels Osland towards the finish line.

Dailey’s monk by twelve, oddly enough, has the drummer played in a nice, loose style, in fact sounding quite a bit like Morello. Indeed, though the piece uses some Monk-like figures, it sounds in places like the kind of music played by Morello and Paul Desmond when they were with the Dave Brubeck Quartet. A couple of minutes into it, however, Osland plays an extraordinary “outside” cadenza. Concerning the piece’s structure, Dailey notes that Thelonious wrote a dozen 12-bar blues in his life, all in the key of B-flat. Dailey then arranged the piece “in 12 sections (all 12 bars in length except for the middle two [6 and 7] which are open for improvisation, and final extended section uses 12 different textures between the two instruments.” Happily, you don’t necessarily need to know all this when listening to the music, although the rhythm played by both musicians here have more of a standard swing about them and a little less of Monk’s strangely stiff, Igor Stravinsky-like sense of rhythm.

Pickett’s Borneo Horns opens very dramatically, with rim shots and other sharp percussive attacks by Deatherage. This is a much more R&B-oriented piece, reflecting Pickett’s experience with both the Saturday Night Live band and the 1970s band Tower of Power. It’s probably the simplest piece on the entire album both rhythmically and structurally, but the counterfigures played by the tenor and baritone saxes (here played by Larry Nelson and Lisa Osland) are fun to hear.

By and large, then, a very interesting album with some marvelous music in a variety of styles. I can’t wait to hear Miles’ sequel albums!

—© 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

Runge Debuts Kapustin’s First Cello Concerto

C5362 cover

KAPUSTIN: Cello Concerto No. 1. SCHNITTKE: Cello Concerto No. 1 / Eckart Runge, cel; Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester, Berlin; Frank Strobel, cond / Capriccio C5362

German cellist Eckart Runge here plays the first cello concerti of the late Nikolai Kapustin, whose music I love, and Alfred Schnittke, whose music I generally dislike, but since they are paired on the same CD I am reviewing them both.

Unlike Kapustin’s second Cello Concerto, which has been performed and recorded, this is the very first recording of the first. In 2009 Runge visited the composer and was entrusted with the score of this work. Runge gave its world premiere with Frank Strobel conducting this same orchestra in 2018, and here it is, recorded in March of that year. The Schnittke concerto was recorded in October 2019.

Although marked “Allegro,” the first movement starts off very quiet and subdued, with soft drum beats introducing the orchestra, and after a string and brass fanfare the cello enters out of tempo, ruminating around as if it were improvising its own part—but of course, nothing in Kapustin’s music was improvised, but carefully thought out ahead of time. Eventually the soloist plays a few jazz-like licks before resorting to pizzicato figures, which introduce low strings and brass, the former playing a repeated motif and the latter playing a counter-figure. It’s possible that the unusual gentleness of this music, combined with the requirement of the soloist and orchestra to swing in order to make it work, are what put off several previous attempts to get it performed. As Kapustin’s works go, it is a surprisingly relaxed and genial work, and Lord knows that it’s hard enough to find classical musicians who can swing without asking them to do so through a half-hour concerto.

I also found much of the writing here, for both soloist and orchestra, to be subtle as well. Kapustin does not call on his forces to explode with joy or rage or anything else, but rather to just create a swinging ambience in which the music can unfold in an unhurried fashion. There is, however, even within this relaxed atmosphere, several exciting moments, such as the one around the six-minute mark, before falling back to relaxed swinging. I give a lot of points to Runge for assimilating Kapustin’s aesthetic so well; certainly, it couldn’t have been that easy for him, and yet he and pianist Jacques Ammon have recorded some of Kapustin’s other works for the instrument such as the Cello Sonata No. 2, Nearly Waltz, Burlesque and Elegy. The second movement opens, surprisingly enough, as a gentle waltz before switching over to a slow 4. Once again, the music is subtle and insinuating, with the soloist slithering around in front of the sparse but effective orchestration. The music moves back to 3 for the “cool” orchestral interlude, in which certain figures are played against the beat rather than with it. At the very end, the music swings without a pause into the quirky final movement, and it is here that I fully understood why this concerto was not previously performed. Kapustin indulges in some very irregular metric patterns that the majority of classical orchestras simply cannot play, but Frank Strobel puts the RSB through their paces with just the right feeling (except, sad to say, the percussionist, who tries to cope with the swing of the beat but comes up sounding a bit stiff). Unfortunately—andf this is now getting to be a pattern with Naxos—the uploaded music file which I had to use to review this set was incomplete, giving me only two minutes out of 7:25.

As for the Schnittke Concerto, it’s a fairly drippy affair as so much of his music was. The first movement relies on sound effects, close chords played in a low range by the brass before the cello begins playing a tune that sounds plagiarized from some older Romantic composer. (Schnittke was great at stealing styles from older composers; it was kind of a trademark for him.) Then, suddenly, the orchestra explodes as if someone had tossed a hand grenade onto the stage, for no apparent reason, then quiets down again. The music basically consists of drippy cello figures set against contrasting drippy and explosive orchestral effects, and it makes little sense.

A split review, then. The Kapustin concerto, barring the glitch in downloading the last movement, is terrific, but the Schnittke concerto is absolute rubbish.

—© 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

Art Blakey: Just Coolin’

Blakey CD

JUST COOLIN’ / MOBLEY: Hipsippy Blues. PETKERE: Close Your Eyes. UNKNOWN: Jimerick. TIMMONS: Quick Trick. MOBLEY: M & M. Just Coolin’ / Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers: Lee Morgan, tpt; Hank Mobley, t-sax; Bobby Timmons, pno; Jymie Merritt, bs; Art Blakey, dm / Blue Note B003164102

I don’t think that any jazz fan needs to be reminded that Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers were the epicenter of Blue Note’s catalog from the late 1950s into the early ‘60s. Label owner and producer Alfred Lion was absolutely crazy about the band, and made many classic albums with them.

This one, recorded March 8, 1959 at Rudy van Gelder’s Hackensack studio, features a short-lived Jazz Messengers lineup. Hank Mobley was with the Messengers for just one year; he replaced Benny Golson and was replaced in 1959 by Wayne Shorter, who stayed with the band until 1964 (Morgan stayed on trumpet through 1961).The reason this studio album was scrapped was that Lion decided to record the same band in a live Birdland performance five weeks later and issued that recording under the title Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers at the Jazz Corner of the World, a 2-LP set.

But a good band is a good band, and there was a looseness to the Messengers with Morgan and Mobley that was tightened up a bit when the personnel changed, thus despite the live set it’s good to have at least a few more tracks from this period. Although considered a progenitor of the hard bop style, I always felt that Morgan’s aesthetic actually grew out of R&B. He would surely have made a great acquisition for Ray Charles’ band had Charles been able to afford him. This is not a criticism; I liked Morgan’s playing very much. But even a cursory listen to these tracks will tell you that Morgan’s playing was sparser than that of most bop trumpeters and deeply imbued with the blues. Indeed, it just may be that Lion felt that this set was a bit too laid-back once he heard the tapes of the live performance. If so, he was wrong to shelve it. The whole recording has a certain vibe of its own.

Modern-day trumpeters really need to listen to Lee Morgan a bit more, in fact. He has many lessons to teach the young ‘uns, most importantly not to scatter notes like shooting a machine gun. Listen to any track on this album, even Close Your Eyes where Morgan is rather busy, and you’ll hear what I mean. He never tried to overwhelm you with bullshit. Every note had to fit into the phrase, and every phrase had to make sense. His counterpart here is pianist Timmons, who almost seems to be taking cues from the trumpeter. He doesn’t overplay his instrument, either, and the naïve listener may assume that these solos aren’t very meaty, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to create something new and interesting from the changes of each tune, i.e., to create new tunes, and this he did to perfection. He is perhaps busiest in the very uptempo Jimerick, a piece whose composer was apparently not jotted down anywhere (it might have been a head) but not over-busy, and the same may be said for Morgan. There are some definite similarities in his playing to that of Howard McGhee, another bop trumpeter who incorporated the blues into his playing; note how, for instance, Morgan bends a couple of notes at the very end of his solo as a lead-in to Timmons’ second appearance on this track. When Mobley enters, he, too, is inflecting his playing with the blues, but some of what he played here seems to me a little too flashy without considering the meat of it. It’s not a bad solo by any means, but he seems to want to impress you with his technique more than he needed to. Blakey also gets a solo on this one, and for the most part he, too, plays somewhat economically despite a bit of a show-off flourish at the end.

Timmons’ own Quick Trick is actually a medium-tempo piece, also with a strong blues feel. In his first solo, he pretty much sticks to playing the melody with some nice embellishments; the two horns then play interesting little figures of their own that fit into the piece as Timmons continues, now playing an improvisation. Morgan enters on a high note blast, but don’t take this as a sign of exhibitionism: after a few bars, he is back to his well-constructed self, even throwing in a few more high notes as he goes along just to prove that this was what he had in mind to begin with. Mobley, listening to Morgan, plays one of his finest solos on the album, but he’s also extremely good on his own composition, M & M, obviously a reference to Lee and himself. Morgan’s solo is also extremely good, if perhaps a little show-offy near the end; Timmons, though retaining his own approach, also tosses in a few fast, upward keyboard runs as a bit of flash. Then we get a nice three-way chase chorus between Mobley, Morgan and Blakey that really cooks before the ride-out.

Just Coolin’, the finale, is another nice medium-up piece. The theme isn’t a particularly strong one, consisting of a few licks strung together, but once past that the solos makeup for it. It’s almost difficult to say who’s better here. The main point is that, by this point in the session, everyone was locked in and in tune with one another to the point where everything flowed like a river—not smoothly but majestically, which is better. Even bassist Merritt finally gets a solo on this one. It’s not the most brilliant I’ve heard, but again, it fits in, as does Blakey’s drum solo.

This is a truly enjoyable album with strong solo work that bears repeated listening.

—© 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

Philippe Jordan Conducts Brahms

cover - WS021

BRAHMS: Symphonies Nos. 1-4 / Wiener Symphoniker; Philippe Jordan, cond / WPO WS021 (live: Vienna, September 25 [Symph. 1], 26 [Symph. 2], 28 [Symph. 3] & 29 [Symph. 4], 2019)

Philippe Jordan, whose set of the complete Beethoven symphonies with this same orchestra was the hot firecracker last year, here moves on to the symphonies of Brahms before leaving his post as director of the Wiener Symphoniker (heretofore referred to simply as WS).

I was curious to hear how Jordan would approach Brahms since he was the exact opposite sort of a composer from Beethoven. Whereas Beethoven often jotted down his music in the white heat of inspiration—though often revising certain passages later when he realized that they either weren’t very good or wouldn’t work—Brahms was the meticulous worker. Very little he wrote arose from inspiration; most of the time every note, every inflection, even the inner voicings and countermelodies, were the result of long hours of hard work, trying to find the exact notes and phrases he wanted to commit to paper. Yet although he was the tortoise to Beethoven’s hare, he ended up almost as revered as a composer, in part because his music was so perfectly written.

Consider the first symphony. Originally, what we hear as the opening section of the Piano Concerto No. 1 was intended to be the opening of his first symphony, though it began its life as a “Sonata for Two Pianos,” but he couldn’t think of how to develop it symphonically so he put it aside for use at another time and spent even more years gestating the first symphony. Yes, it’s a great work, one of the best first symphonies ever written; in its time, some music critics referred to it as “Beethoven’s Tenth,” but then another mental block set in. Twenty-two years later, in 1876, he revised this first symphony because he was unsatisfied with it, but then somehow managed to write his second symphony the following year (1877). In 22 years, Beethoven wrote symphonies Nos. 2-9, all five of his piano concerti, his Violin Concerto, most of his sonatas and string quartets, and a slew of miscellaneous pieces, so I think you get the drift. Five years then separated Brahms’ Third Symphony from the second, but miraculously he wrote the Fourth Symphony in 1884-5—only two years, a real “rush job” for him.

Because of this and the general Teutonic attitude towards Brahms that his music has serious intellectual depth as well as what they hear as a “spiritual” element, the general trend is to perform his symphonies a bit on the slow side. Jordan takes a sort of middle-of-the-road approach to the First, opening powerfully and not too slowly but adding several touches of rubato and, at times, a real decelerando to the music. It’s not as bad as some of the poorly-conceived interpretations of the past, such as those of Furtwängler or Celibidache (who took an agonizing 52:20 to tiptoe through this symphony), but it just lacks that extra spark to make it something out of the ordinary. You must understand, as a reviewer I have to hold performers’ feet to the fire if they’re going to record something that’s already been recorded 100 times. As I’ve said many times, I really do wish that conductors would just leave older repertoire the hell alone and start conducting a lot more contemporary music. We don’t live in the 1870s any more, not even in the early 1950s. All of the really great masterpieces of yore have been done to death and done again to death. Give it a rest and conduct music of your own time.

Steinbach

Fritz Steinbach

As a footnote to Brahms conducting style, I need to mention the name of the forgotten conductor Fritz Steinbach (1855-1916), Brahms’ favorite interpreter of his own music. Unlike such early maestri as Eduard Colonne or Artur Nikisch, Steinbach died without leaving us so much as a scrap of his conducting style on records, but he was heard and admired by Felix Weingartner, Arturo Toscanini and Leopold Stokowski, among others, and it is notable that these are three conductors whose Brahms is conducted so briskly that their performances of the four symphonies fit onto TWO compact discs (more on that later). Steinbach’s conducting pupils include Hans Knappertsbusch, who after the 1930s slowed down his conducting of everything to the point where you thought the musical line would simply sag and collapse, though it didn’t, but also such proponents of brisk conducting as Fritz Busch and Karl Elmendorff. The latter became a Wagner specialist, but Busch also performed and recorded Brahms (the Second and Fourth Symphonies), and his interpretations, too, are on the quick side.

Now, I did find some fine moments in Jordan’s First Symphony that I liked, particularly the ending portion of the fourth movement, but not many. Overall the phrasing is too relaxed and slack, and when he does speed things up those moments sound forced and artificial, and at times he just can’t resist throwing in a decelerando just because he felt like it. Next to Celibidache, this is the worst performance of the First I’ve heard in my life. Has Jordan learned nothing from his study of the score or by listening to the great Brahms interpreters of the past? Mind you, the WP plays very well for him, as they did on his Beethoven set, but musically this is a misfire. Just because Brahms stopped and started numerous times when composing the symphony doesn’t give you the right to do the same when conducting it. In short, Jordan shows here no grasp of musical structure.

The second symphony is also a bit on the slow side but not enough to annoy, at least at the outset. Jordan nudges the music of the first movement forward in a good sort of way, and although there are a few rubato moments they are not exaggerated—until 14:15 into the movement, at which time Jordan appears to be taking a nap on the podium and putting the WS on cruise control. From there on to the end of the movement, it’s a long, slow, hard slog through the music, and things don’t really get much better in the succeeding three movements.

Indeed, this pattern of pay well-then-engage-in-a-taffy pull seems to be a bad recurring pattern for Jordan in Brahms. The Third Symphony doesn’t have any shape at all to it, and nothing much in the way of life. Perhaps he was struggling with Covid-19 when he recorded this set. Thus what should have been a triumph for Jordan and the WS as a sequel to the hottest firecracker of 2019 turns out to be a real wet noodle.

As a final complaint, I wasn’t happy about WS putting these four symphonies on four separate CDs. The performances of the Third and Fourth, for all their quirkiness and sluggish passages, are clearly short enough to have been put on one CD instead of two.

The best stereo or digital recording of all four symphonies is the one by Michael Gielen issued by SWR Music. For historic recordings, there is also Toscanini (with the Philharmonia Orchestra) and Weingartner, though I actually prefer the latter to the former. The WS would have done better not to even issue this set.

—© 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

Rossini’s “Moïse” in a New Recording

cover 8660473-75

ROSSINI: Moïse / Alexey Burkus, bs (Moïse); Elisa Balbo, sop (Anaï); Randall Bills, ten (Aménophis); Luca Dall’Amico, bs (Pharaon); Patrick Kabongo, ten ( Éliézer); Silvia Dalla Benetta, sop (Sinaïde); Baurzhan Anderzhanov, bs ( Oziride/Voix mystérieuse); Albane Carrère, mez (Marie); Xiang Xu, ten (Ophide); Górecki Chamber Choir, Krakow; Virtuosi Brunensis; Fabrizio Maria Carminati, cond / Naxos 8.660473-75 (live: Bad Wildebad, Germany, July 19, 25 & 28, 2018)

Moïse, also known as Moïse et Pharaon, is the rather elaborate 1827 revision of the 1818 Mosé in Egitto, and is one of only two serious Rossini operas that I like, the other being the better-known Guillaume Tell. Although the “Prayer of the Israelites” has been a well-known concert staple for decades (Toscanini even conducted it at the reopening of La Scala in 1946), the full work is still not really well known; it has never been performed at the Metropolitan Opera but is periodically performed at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro.

The recording I currently own is the live 2003 Milan performance with soprano Barbara Frittoli, mezzo Sonia Ganassi (as Sinaïde), tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, baritone Erwin Schrott and bass Ildar Abdrazakov (Mr. Olga Borodina), sung in the original French (as this one is) and conducted by Riccardo Muti. The cast is almost consistently excellent, and though Frittoli does not have a very pleasant timbre, being somewhat wiry, she is a superb interpreter and an excellent musician. Thus I was curious to hear how this performance, also a live one with a Polish chorus, an Italian orchestra, and a cast which, like Muti’s, contains no native French singers, would compare to it.

As for the plot, it revolves around the love affair between the Israelite Anaï and Pharaoh’s son Aménophis. As in the Bible, Miriam is referred to as Marie but for no apparent reason, Aaron becomes Éliézer. God brings plagues upon Egypt in order to persuade them to release the Israelites—locusts and perpetual darkness—and eventually Moses parts the Red Sea and off they go to freedom.

In terms of drama, the first act is unquestionably the weakest. After the overture, we hear one of those cutely-bouncy Rossinian tunes played by the orchestra with chorus, followed by a fairly tedious series of orchestrally-accompanied secco recitatives, before we finally get into the music, which becomes progressively better and more interesting as the opera proceeds. Muti really lays into the bouncy opening melody, which doesn’t fit the character of the libretto one bit, but by the time one hears the “mysterious voice” of a bass asking Moses to come forward and accept the challenge of leading his people out of bondage, we are in a different world. The following a cappella ensemble for Moses, Anaï, Marie and Éliézer is one of Rossini’s greatest creations—but then he returns to his bouncy melodies for the very next scene. This is what I mean about the music being interesting but uneven.

One big difference here is that we get a historically-informed orchestra, and although they play with a good feeling for legato and phrasing they sound a tad undernourished compared to the La Scala Orchestra under Muti. Yet they play with something Muti did not impart to his orchestra, a French sort of elegance; this shows itself immediately in that opening orchestral passage mentioned above, where Carminati pulls back on punching out the rhythm so that it doesn’t sound that much like carnival music, and in fact when the chorus enters there is, to my ears, a greater sense of unity in the musical progression without sacrificing either its brisk tempo or its forward motion. In addition, the Górecki Chamber Choir of Krakow has an absolutely superb blend whereas the La Scala chorus was inflicted with a few unsteady sopranos that affected the vocal blend.

Russian basso Alexey Birkus, who sings the title role, has a voice not unlike that of Abdrazakov; perhaps a shade more vibrant, but not so much so that one shrinks back from an incipient wobble. Moreover, Carminati pulls back a bit on the orchestral chords accompanying the recitatives so that the musical progression sounds more even. Some may say that all this takes a certain vitality out of the music, but what I’m listening for is musical unity, not a series of “punchy” episodes spliced together.

Our Anaï, Italian soprano Elisa Balbo, has one of those even but noticeable vibratos that hark back to the old Italian school of singing which pretty much ended with the coming of Mirella Freni in the 1960s, but she is by no means bad—think of Antonietta Stella. By comparison with Ganassi, mezzo Silvia Dalla Benetta sounds rather underpowered as Sinaïde; she also lacks Ganassi’s rich tone and interpretive qualities. Our principal tenor, American Randall Bills, has a fine, bright, solid voice, but since he is right under the microphone I can tell that he doesn’t quite have the vocal size of Filianoti, and basso Baurzhan Anderzhanov as the mysterious voice, though firm of timbre, is no match for Maurizio Muraro on the Muti recording…but his part, though dramatically important, is quite brief. French pronunciation isn’t a strong suit in either performance; both casts sound as if they’re delivering their lines phonetically, and they probably were.

I think the biggest difference in the sound comes from microphone placement, which seems to be just a bit receded here compared to the La Scala performance. The Muti recording has warmth and amplitude; this one has a somewhat cooler soundscape. Yet in so many passages where the music tends towards the more typical Rossinian “whip-‘em-up” style, I appreciated the fact that Carminati de-emphasized the punchiness without sacrificing forward momentum. Let us say that the Muti performance, though excellent, represents a very Italianate view of the opera—and since Rossini was Italian, this is not altogether inappropriate—whereas Carminati presents the score in a more unified way.

In Act II, I began to lean back towards the Muti performance. The richer orchestral and choral sound did more for the music in this act than Carminati’s forces, and as I heard more and more of both Benetta and Bills as compared to Ganassi and Filianoti, the less I liked their leaner sound and slightly less emotionally involved approach (even in a “French” opera Rossini is more Italianate in approach). The Act II finale put me h in mind of the end of Act I of Guillaume Tell where Jemmy leads the Swiss to take up arms against the invaders, and although Benetta sang with some punch, particularly in the upper register, I felt that she wasn’t really inhabiting the role, and Bills is just a mite too underpowered here.

But then came Act III, and suddenly I preferred this new performance again. Bills sings some exquisite soft passages that Filianoti could not manage, and in general I found that Frittoli’s voice sounded older and rather more worn as the performance went on, whereas Balbo’s sounds continually young and fresh. Carminati certainly does not underplay Rossini’s music, and his players also sound fresh and in command (note, especially, the gorgeous French horn trills). There’s a “Rossini crescendo” in the finale of this act (“Votre ardeur, votre foi chancelle!”), and Carmimati builds it up for all it’s worth without sounding as if he’s trying to start the singers dancing a tarantella. (Well, what do I know? Maybe the Israelites all danced across the Red Sea. I wasn’t there.)

So there you are. Some scenes are, to me, more dramatically effective in the Muti performance, but the Muti is only available as a 2-DVD set and not on CDs. If you just want a really good sound-only performance of this very fine opera, this new recording will certainly please you, and in two-thirds of it I found the performance better than Muti’s. Recommended.

—© 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