Hannu Lintu Conducts Lieberson

LIEBERSON: The Six Realms. Songs of Love and Sorrow* / Anssi Karttunen, cel; *Gerald Finley, bar; Finnish Radio Symphony Orch.; Hannu Lintu, cond / Ondine OCD 1356-2 (*live, Helsinki December 2019)

Peter Lieberson, the son of Columbia Records president Goddard Lieberson, studied composition with Charles Wuorinen and Milton Babbitt and Vajrayana Buddhism with Chögyam Trunpa, later moving to Boston where he became co-director of Shambhala Training, a meditation and cultural center, He died in 2011.

The Six Realms, which is a sort of cello concerto, opens with music written in the preferred academic style of the time (1990s), which is edgy and atonal but not serial music. The score is logical and coherent if not particularly audience-friendly. In the liner notes, Lieberson is quoted as saying that this piece was written by the request of Yo-Yo Ma, and is based on the six realms described in Tibetan Buddhism: the God realm, the jealous God realm, the human realm, the animal realm, the hungry ghost realm and the hell realm. The “animal realm” is the liveliest but also the edgiest and most violent, depicting the animal nature in music. Lieberson was obviously a master at decompartmentalizing the orchestra, breaking down the sections and reconstructing them in his own image. Our soloist here, cellist Anssi Karttunen, had a brief but powerful working relationship with Lieberson but did not get to play The Six Realms until after his death.

The Songs of Love and Sorrow were commissioned by conductor James Levine for Lieberson’s wife at the time, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, but before he could write then his wife died of breast cancer and a year later he, too, was diagnosed with cancer (lymphoma). He began by re-reading Pablo Neruda’s Love Sonnets and decided to write “a cycle of farewell songs as a memorial to Lorraine.” Interestingly, our singer on this recording, baritone Gerald Finley, worked with Lieberson during the premiere of these songs with the Boston Symphony in 2010. Finley says that “he wanted these Neruda songs to be as personal to me as they were for him.” The music, begin an accompaniment to a vocalist, is entirely different from The Six Realms. Here it is closer to the modern French school than to the German, very lyrical with sweeping melodic lines for the singer and equally lyrical lines for the cello obbligato. The tonality, though often shifting, is also much more tonal and thus more accessible to the average listener. My sole complaint is that Finley’s Spanish pronunciation is pretty poor, as if he learned each word by the see-say method without a language coach. I am far from being a linguist—I have a mental block for learning foreign languages—but I can pronounce the words better than this.

But oh, what singing! Despite being 59 years old at the time of performance, Finley retains the solid timbre and beautiful tone he has displayed in the world’s opera houses and concert stages for decades. He is also an expressive singer in his own subtle way; he knows how to interpret words and make them interesting to the listener. Nowhere is this more evident than in the third song, “Cantas y a sol a cielo con tu canto” or “You sing to the sky and the sun with your song, you thresh the day’s grain.” Overall, it is a slow song cycle, and one can tell that Lieberson’s love for his ex-wife was tinged with melancholy. One might almost describe it as a modern-day Kindertotenlieder (particularly evident, to me, in the last song).

All told, then, this is a splendid representation of Lieberson’s music, and throughout these pieces Lintu conducts with a real love and feeling for every phrase.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Fabrice Bollon’s Compositions

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awardBOLLON: Your Voice Out of the Lamb / Michala Petri, rec; Per Salo, kbds; Michaela Fukacová, cel; Odense Symphony Orch.; Christoph Poppen, cond / 4 Lessons of Darkness* / Johannes Moser, el-cel; Deutsches Radio Philharmonic Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern; Nicholas Milton, cond / Dogmatic Pleasures+ / Philharmonisches Orchester Freiburg; Jader Bignamini, cond / Naxos 8.574015 (live: *Saarbrücken, April 17, 2011; +Freiburg, February 26, 2019)

Fabrice Bollon, who until this moment I had never heard of, studied conducting with three of the best baton-wavers of the last century, Michael Gielen, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Georges Prêtre. He worked as musical assistant at the Salzburg Festival until 1998, was deputy musical director at Oper Chemnitz (2000–04), was chief conductor of the Flanders Symphony Orchestra (1996–2000) and since 2009 he has been general music director/chief conductor at Germany’s Theater Freiburg. In recent years he has also become a composer; these are some of his works.

Your Voice Out of the Lamb was commissioned by the outstanding recorder player Michala Petri. In the liner notes, Bollon explains that “I wanted to explore new possibilities using the recorder, employing the instrument as a crazy vocalist, and introducing different effects more usually used in pop music, such as delays, reverberation, loops and pitch-shift(s).” And does he ever! I would also add that he uses a solo bass, playing slowly, in almost a jazz manner, as a timekeeper that slightly drags the beat to produce a feeling of syncopation beneath it all. The opening is slow, moody and atmospheric with only a bit of Petri playing alto recorder, while the quick second movement opens with electric piano before introducing Petri playing rapid bitonal running eighth-note figures on the regular recorder. Again there is syncopation, although not so strongly jazz-biased except for that crazy running bass line. One also hears a xylophone here and there, and the keyboardist switches to celesta as the music suddenly pulls back in tempo and volume while soft, high winds play fluttering figures overhead. Petri now plays further running figures, but not quite so “crazy” as before, against the celesta and bass. And what fascinated me most about this piece was the way Bollon kept these disparate sections united, as if they were logical extensions of each other rather than isolated movements. The rapid pace and running recorder eighth-note figures then return, the keyboardist turn to a synthesizer while a solo flute duplicates the synth’s top line as the music almost sounds “techno.”

Petri then explores the music in almost tentative-sounding figures, played softly, as if she can’t quite figure her way out of this musical maze. Eventually she takes to playing repeated flutter tones on the pitch A, then moves down into her lower range to play similar echo effects on other notes while the orchestra is reduced to soft rumblings in the background. We then hear what sounds like a solo violin but is actually a solo cello playing very high up in its range. I also give a great deal of credit to conductor Christoph Poppen for holding all of this music together; it certainly couldn’t have been an easy task considering the eclectic nature of the score. About midway through the third movement (“Slow”), Petri is heard playing a jolly little tune that suddenly turns menacing as staccato trumpet figures and rumbling percussion create a stir behind her, but this too settles down to an uneasy passage in D minor in which one hears what sounds like a chorus in the background (probably a synthesizer or a tape loop) which keeps up the uneasy feeling. This is “ambient music” with a real difference! The way Bollon has scored this section, it almost sounds as if the music were “bottomless,” i.e., that the deepest instrument one hears still has “undertones” that run even deeper than the naked ear can hear.

Towards the end (at about 7:05) the music suddenly picks up in tempo and volume as Petri plays passages that seem to run counter to the rest of the orchestra—certainly, in a somewhat different tonality. She also seems to be playing along with the synth, which gives her playing a strange tonal quality. Loud trumpet fanfares emerge, alternating with an electric organ and the recorder and underscored by aggressive snare drums along with that crazy bass. This passage, though written out, could easily be mistaken as a piece for modern jazz orchestra, and of course it continues into the last movement, titled “Fast and Brilliant.” We end with trumpet section trills, a recorder “break,” and then a quick fanfare finale.

4 Lessons of Darkness, a Concerto for Electric Cello and Orchestra, is Bollon’s interpretation of the Four Temperaments, Earth, Fire, Water and Air. This is much more of an edgy atonal work, employing a number of different orchestral effects; the first movement, to my ears, sounded exactly like something that Ligeti would have written. (I am, of course, guessing since Bollon admits to no specific musical influences in the liner notes.) At midpoint, however, we veer away from Ligeti towards something more lyrical and tending towards tonality as the electric cello plays against a backdrop of sustained wind and string tones and what sounds like electronic percussion. As Bollon put it in the notes:

The references to jazz and pop in this work, and in my music more generally, should not be thought of as being ‘crossover’. Having conducted works by modern composers of all styles, I am very familiar with contemporary works, and this plays an important role in my musical language. But I refuse to think in terms of exclusivity. Boulez’s ‘Supermarket’ concept – you find everything in there, but nothing of quality – is, in my opinion, a very poor understanding of necessary eclecticism. An ‘ivory tower’ attitude, such as that of Mallarmé, would surely bring about the end of art, as prophesized in Hermann Hesse’s Das Glasperlenspiel. Making art more and more complex only perpetuates a cycle of art for ‘specialists’, which garners snobbery, and encourages charlatanism. It is not my purpose to make art more understandable, but it is my purpose to be understandable even in the parts that are very complex. The complexity is not the purpose of the art in itself, it is my choice to write in this way, if I decide to do so. The purpose of writing is to express, and make what is being expressed understandable and convincing.

And the music becomes very dark and edgy indeed in the second part, “Fire.” The fast rhythms used here are neither jazz nor pop, but essentially fast classical rhythms, thus the orchestra and soloist are able to encompass them without difficulty. One thing I gave a lot of credit to Bollon for is his unique approach to orchestration. No longer is he thinking of the orchestra in the accepted, academic classical sense, but taking it apart and putting it back together again as he sees fit. This is even more advanced than the work of Ligeti or Segerstam. Most of the time, the listener does not hear or think of the orchestra in terms of its classical configuration, but as a series of sounds, often discrete, rubbing up against one another. Among his few predecessors in this respect are outliers like Harry Partch and Marius Constant. Incidentally, this recording comes from the world premiere performance of the work given on April 17, 2011.

By the time we reach “Air,” the music approaches something like a rock beat but does not stay there long. On the contrary, it slows down and becomes quite dark and edgy, with the soloist playing fast atonal figures as if trying to escape from the sudden menacing soundworld around him. What sounds like an electric bass plays quick, double-time figures in the background as the orchestral ambience becomes eerier. Could the “electric bass” I hear be the electric cello? Possibly, though without the score I won’t say for sure. We then return to the rock beat nonsense while the soloist plays a strange series of figures against the orchestra; then a sudden decelerando and we are almost into jazz territory. To quote the late Red Buttons, “Strange things are happening!

Dogmatic Pleasures “plays with these apparent paradoxes – dogma and pleasure, short and long – and thus supplies the cosmic components of these pieces.” Bollon describes the three portions of this work as “short, virtuosic orchestral pieces…intended to be fun,” and fun they are. The first consists of “Scales and Chords,” the second a “Marriage in Bb Major,” and the third “Waiting For My Plane.” But since this is Bollon writing the music and not John Williams, the “fun” contained herein is more complex and more subjective than one would imagine. Bollon has a restless musical mind, thus one is continually surprised by his shifts in mood and musical materials. Nothing is sacred, yet nothing is simple: that, I think, sums up Bollon’s aesthetic in a nutshell. Even in the lightest and “silliest” passages, such as the finale of “Scales and Chords” which almost sounds like a Looney Tunes cartoon gone crazy, there is still structure and direction. Nothing in his music rambles or is superfluous, not even the tonal monotony of “Marriage in Bb Major,” which stays in that one key from start to finish. Bollon maintains interest by means of increasing textural complexity, layering different elements as the music progresses, and towards the end he finally relents and introduces some alternate chords.

The third movement, “Waiting for My Plane,” opens with percussion and whistling sounds like a plane landing; when the orchestra enters, they are playing edgy bitonal figures, which drop out to allow the percussion section and trombones to have their say. Then glockenspiel, clarinets and flutes come in followed by edgy string figures that build in intensity. Maybe Bollon’s plane is coming from the Bizarro world! The French horns play rapid figures, then drop out as the brass, high winds and percussion re-take the field. Things continue to morph as the piece progresses. There’s even a section where, again, it sounds as if a jazz big band is breaking out.

This is surely one of the best recordings of the year as well as one of the most original!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Kirsten Ashley Wiest is Luminous!

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HOLMES: Fragments. ERBER: Phoenix. VAN ZANDT: Apples and Time Crack in October. LIGETI: Mysteries of the Macabre / Kirsten Ashley Wiest, sop; Siu Hei Lee, pno / Centaur CRC 3823

Kirsten Ashley Wiest, who holds a DMA in Contemporary Music Performance in Voice from UC San Diego and an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts, is here challenging the more world-famous sopranos Barbara Hannigan and Sarah Maria Sun in the kind of music that is their forte, the offbeat and technically difficult vocal music of modern composers. Indeed, her challenge to Hannigan is represented by her singing one of the Canadian soprano’s core pieces, György Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre, here presented in the piano-accompanied version.

The other works on here are by composers formerly unrepresented on CDs: Jeffrey Holmes, who writes what he calls “post-spectral, teleological music incorporating elements of mysticism and lyrical expression,” British-born James Erber, and Jack Van Zandt who writes what he describes as “sonic sculptures, soundscapes, new media works and ambient environments for public places.” So off we go to the Bizarro world!

Kirsten Ashley Wiest, photo from the artist’s website

Fragments, a work in four movements, consists of mostly microtonal vocalise against a non-microtonal piano backdrop. Wiest’s voice immediately strikes the ear as a light, pretty and high instrument. Like legendary soprano Emma Kirkby, it has an almost pre-pubescent sound, clear and virginal, and is tonally even in production from top to bottom. Despite its lightness, I can well imagine that her voice has excellent projection because the timbre is so tightly focused and bright. Her pitch is flawless and she can caress the line, when asked for, with a seamless legato. Indeed, there were moments in this music where I found it difficult to hear where she took a breath. She has a light but well-controlled flicker-vibrato of the type rarely heard nowadays, but which was once a feature of the very best singers of the past. In addition to Hannigan and Sun, I might also toss in the name of Tony Arnold as another competitor in the modern soprano repertoire, but Wiest’s voice has an even firmer control than Arnold’s. Think of her as being like Bethany Beardslee, but with a much prettier tone. Only in the mid-range, at times, did I feel that the voice had less than perfect breath support, which is extremely odd since this is the one place where most sopranos have their firmest tone.

Despite the division of this work into four parts, each with a different title, as a listener I felt as if it was a continuous piece of music. The tempi, general pitch placement, musical motifs being used and their treatment within each piece are similar to one another, making it sound like a continuous 13-minute work.

Erber’s Phoenix is similarly atonal but not microtonal; on the contrary, the vocal line consists of serrated figures that leap up and down in the singer’s range, having echoes of Schoenberg about them. Here, too, she sings lyrics taken from the poems of 16th-century philosopher Giordano Bruno, “Unico augel del sol” and “Ben ch’a tanti martir.” Both are concerned with love; in the first, the lover compares himself to the mythical Phoenix while in the latter Bruno speaks of the pangs of love which have caused him both unimaginable torments as well as transcendental vision. If anything, the second song is even more angular than the first; in both, Wiest manages their difficulties with apparent ease. She ends the second song with humming à la Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5.

Van Zandt’s Apples and Time Crack in October also uses lyrics set to poems by Jill Freeman, but alas Wiest’s diction was not clear enough for me to make out any of the words—her only defect as a singer. She has yet to learn, as the old teachers explained, how to “put the words on the lips and let the breath run them out.” Here we leave the realm of abstract, angular music for somewhat more lyrical but no less atonal lines for the soprano. I found it to be an exceptionally rich work, with a surprisingly Romantic-sounding piano accompaniment in the fourth song, “Helen’s Invocation,” where the vocal line rises to an exultant high note. These sample pages from the first song will give you an indication of van Zandt’s wonderfully complex writing style:

Apples p. 1

Apples p. 2

Apples p. 3

As for Wiest’s performance of Mysteries of the Macabre, it is superbly vocalized and rhythmically perfect but just misses the truly wacky twists that Hannigan brings to it. Yet she is clearly enjoying it, as is pianist (and occasional commentator) Siu Hei Lee, whose playing throughout this recital is simply superb. Unless you’ve heard the Hannigan version, however, I think you’ll have no problem enjoying this performance since it is quite lively and energetic.

No question about it: this is a terrific debut disc for Wiest, showing off her many outstanding qualities. Now if only she could work on her diction in the high range, she’s be perfect!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Stuart Skelton’s “Peter Grimes”

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BRITTEN: Peter Grimes / Stuart Skelton, ten (Peter Grimes); Erin Wall, sop (Ellen Orford); Roderick Williams, bar (Capt. Balstrode); Susan Bickley, mezzo (Auntie); Hanna Husáhr, sop (First Niece); Vibeke Kristensen, mezzo (2nd Niece); Robert Murray, ten (Bob Boles); Neal Davies, bs-bar (Swallow); Catherine Wyn-Rogers, mezzo (Mrs. Sedley); James Gilchrist, ten (Rev. Horace Adams); Marcus Farnsworth, bar (Ned Keene); Barnaby Rea, bs (Hobson); Bergen Philharmonic Choir; Edvard Grieg Kor; Royal Northern College of Music Chorus; Choir of Collegium Musicum; Bergen Philharmonic Orch.; Edward Gardner, cond / Chandos CHSA 5250(2)

This will not just be a review of this new recording, but an object lesson to readers on how classical music promotion has reached new lows  as well as amnesia about the past. I’m doing this not to denigrate this recording, which I happen to like, but to point out an issue that has been bothering me for some years now.

As part of their promotional material for this new release, Chandos is quoting a review by Richard Morrison in The Times (London) in praise of Stuart Skelton: “The burly Aussie tenor is now even more identified with this ill-fated protagonist than Peter Pears, the first Grimes. And everywhere Skelton has sung the part, whether at English National Opera, the Proms, the Edinburgh festival or now on this international tour of a concert staging mounted by the Bergen Philharmonic, the conductor has been Edward Gardner. Theirs is one of the great musical partnerships, and they continue to find compelling new depths in this tragic masterpiece.”

Indeed. But wait just a minute…wasn’t it just 20 years ago that critics were telling us that Anthony Dean Griffey was the greatest Grimes of our time? Why, yes, I believe it was. Here is what Classical Music.com, a subsidiary of BBC Music Magazine, said about Griffey’s recording:

Griffey GrimesAnthony Dean Griffey, though he occasionally has the visionary beauty of the late, great Anthony Rolfe Johnson, is very much his own man as Grimes: his torment breaks out in spine-chilling shouts and the mad scene subsides into haunted crooning which takes us to another place until the heightened dawn music allows the tears finally to flow.

And here’s what William Burnett, writing on the blog Opera Warhorses, said about Griffey’s Grimes at the Houston Grand Opera only 10 years ago:

A generation ago, Jon Vickers and Jess Thomas associated this role with the vocal heft of heldentenors, used to singing the big roles of Richard Wagner’s music dramas. Starring in the production was arguably the supreme Peter Grimes of our times, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, who carries on the tradition of these large-voiced tenors…Griffey has rarely performed in Houston. His voice resounded through Houston’s Alice and George Brown Theater, in a searing performance that portrays an unforgettable characterization of this doomed man.

So the verdict was not only in, it was echoed everywhere he performed the role. Griffey was THE Peter Grimes of the modern era. No one else need apply.

I have 2 ¼ recordings of Peter Grimes, the ¼ recording being the selected scenes recorded by the original cast for EMI in 1946: Peter Pears as Grimes, Joan Cross as Ellen and the Covent Garden Orchestra conducted by Reginald Goodall. I also own Griffey’s recording of the opera, and it’s an excellent one all round. My sole complaint is that, having been taped live at Glyndebourne, there’s a bit too much of that theater’s natural reverb around the orchestra and singers, but that is often the case with live performances. The only thing that struck me as somewhat uncharacteristic of a Grimes was that Griffey’s voice sounded very lyric, with no sound of the “commoner” in him, which Pears clearly brought to the role.

Vickers GrimesAnd then there was Jon Vickers. He began singing the role in the mid-1960s and quickly made it one of his signature roles, alongside of Otello and Siegmund in Die Walküre, but Benjamin Britten hated his interpretation. He thought Vickers’ Grimes too rough, too psychotic, and too loud for the part, in addition to the fact that he preferred using the earlier, corrupted edition of the score which Britten had since corrected. Yet although Britten disliked Vickers’ Grimes, Pears loved it and found it fascinating, in fact borrowing some of Vickers’ dramatic effects whenever he sang the role after seeing him. So there’s an artistic paradox for you.

Yet when Vickers’ recording came out on LP in the 1970s, everybody loved it except one or two British critics who felt they had to respect Britten’s opinion. But things just keep changing in the opera world. At the Mostly Opera website, one commentator summed up this trilogy of performers thus in a 2009 post:

I’ve only seen excerpts from the Pears film but I have listened to the Decca CD version of Grimes countless times. I saw Vickers sing the role at the ROH and I’ve seen recordings of that production subsequently. I would choose Pears of the two for conveying what, I think, is an intended ambiguity in the role that Vickers loses. That said, I’ll take Tony Dean Griffey as the best I have seen in this, one of my favourite, roles.

So now we’re back to Anthony Dean Griffey.

Yet one should also be a bit careful about our perception of the title role. While it is true that Britten, a closeted homosexual, saw in the character an analogy to gay men, George Crabbe’s poem (click HERE to read it) shows absolutely nothing that would support that interpretation. Vickers, who grew up in rural Canada and was very well familiar with the fishing community, understood when reading the poem that yes, Grimes was the quintessential outsider, but this had more to do with his lack of education and socialization skills than with his sexual orientation. For better or worse, Grimes was a brute; he frequently beat his apprentices, which he got from local “work houses,” and more than one died mysteriously when he was out at sea. Therefore Vickers’ interpretation of the title role was a valid one, whatever one thought of Pears’ interpretation, and Pears himself recognized this when he saw and approved of Vickers’ performance.

This, in microcosm, is the big problem with classical music marketing nowadays. It’s OK to compare the New Recording of fill-in-the-blank with an icon from the past, but for God’s sake ignore the others you praised to the skies in earlier times. Believe it or not, I recall a time when the Brits who dismissed Vickers in the role were saying that Robert Tear was the greatest modern Grimes; and then, of course, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson had his swings at the plate and received similar purple prose. Whatever is the flavor of the moment, by all means push it as hard as you can and ignore all those performers in between who you praised as “the best” before this current “best” came along.

One could apply such standards to the new recordings, constantly being cranked out, of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, or Mahler Symphonies. Let’s take the Beethoven, for example. It’s fair game to compare your new set favorably to, say, Friedrich Gulda or Wilhelm Kempff, perhaps even say that so-and-so gives the most original performances since Artur Schnabel (if anyone in your reading audience even knows who Schnabel was), but what about all the OTHER Beethoven Sonata recordings once hailed by all of you critics as fantastic? Shall I give you the laundry list? Claude Frank. Richard Goode. John O’Conor. Annie Fischer. Craig Sheppard. Michael Korstick. Stephen Kovacevich. I happen to own three Beethoven sonata cycles by Walter Gieseking, Korstick and Kovacevich. They’re more than enough for me. Yet I still have a few of the sonatas as played by Fischer and O’Conor, in addition to a few one-off recordings by Egon Petri and Van Cliburn. And yes, I was one of those critics who touted the O’Conor set when it came out because it conveyed to me a very different sound-world for Beethoven than I had been used to. It was, at least, unique, but over time I kept going back to Gieseking, Korstick and Kovacevich. But that’s my taste. You may still enjoy one of Gulda’s complete sets better—or the Frank, Goode, Fischer or Sheppard sets. It’s your taste; I just tell you what affects me the most and let the chips fall where they may.

This studio recording, made in October and November 2019, is  very well conducted by Edward Gardner and, being a studio job, is perfectly engineered and balanced. Skelton, whose voice can, and often does, sound tight and dry, is in superb voice here as he was in Simon Rattle’s Die Walküre recording, and he gives a very sensitive portrayal, somewhere between Pears and Vickers. Soprano Erin Wall, as Ellen, has a pretty voice but a heavy flutter-vibrato which at times got on my nerves. Both Susan Gorton (with Griffey) and Susan Bickley are excellent as Auntie. Tenor Robert Murray, as Bob Boles, is a great improvement over John Graham-Hall with Griffey. I was, however, less pleased with the uneven, wobbly voice of Neal Davies as Swallow; Stafford Dean, in the Griffey recording, had a much steadier voice and was just as interesting an interpreter. Gardner’s conducting is somewhat brisker than that of Mark Wigglesworth, though Wigglesworth is a superb conductor in his own right, but the better sonics on this recording bring out the full color of Britten’s score better. And I will go one step further: never before, not even on Britten’s own recording, have I ever heard such clear orchestral detailing as in this recording. At times, it almost sounds as if the orchestra were recorded in 3-D, and the tautness of Gardner’s conducting brings the structure of the opera together in a way I’ve never heard in my life. Just listen to the way he rips through Interlude II in Act I and tell me if you’ve ever heard its like. I never have.

Nor have I ever seen or heard a performance of this opera that used THREE choruses. What’s up with that?!? They certainly don’t sound like three choruses singing together, thus one must assume that they were decompartmentalized: perhaps the sopranos and mezzos from one chorus, the tenors from a second, and the basses from the third. Who knows? I sure don’t. But they clearly sing well.

Skelton’s interpretation is much closer to Vickers than to Pears. This is fine by me, but I’m sure it will upset those who view Grimes as a tortured soul who simply cannot find a way out of his dilemma without a bit of self-pity. He wants to become engaged to Ellen, but when she tries to get close to him, he pushes her away. He wants the people of the Borough to accept him, but he maintains his distance and acts as brutally and antisocially as he can. No matter how you slice it, the Peter Grimes of the opera is still the undereducated, poorly socialized brute of the Crabbe poem and always will be, no matter how sensitively Peter Pears tried to make him seem.

My verdict on this recording is that it is a quite good presentation of the opera, largely due to Gardner’s conducting and the outstanding sound quality, but somehow misses the mark. I can’t shake the feeling that Skelton doesn’t really “feel” the character despite singing it very well. As a Russian critic once said when comparing the stage presentations of Feodor Chaliapin to those of Mattia Battistini, the first seemed to be the character himself while the second was a passionate barrister pleading the protagonist’s case. Of course, your impression may be different, but if you really compare his performance to those of Pears, Vickers and Griffey, I think you’ll hear the difference. And I really couldn’t take Erin Wall’s squally singing, and that is non-negotiable with me. If you dislike the overall performance of Pears’ commercial recording of the opera (Claire Watson’s Ellen is no bargain, either), you might try to locate the excerpts he recorded with Joan Cross back in the ‘40s, but for me the Vickers and Griffey recordings are indispensable. This one, for all its good qualities, is not.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Eschenbach Conducts Hindemith, Vol. 2

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HINDEMITH: Kammermusik IV-VII / Stephen Waarts, vln; Timothy Ridout, Ziyu Shen, vla; Christian Schmitt, org; Kronberg Academy Soloists; Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orch.; Christoph Eschenbach, cond / Ondine ODE 1357-2

Following up on his release earlier this year of Vol. 1 of Paul Hindemith’s Kammermusik, conductor Christoph Eschenbach here presents Vol. 2. Here he is joined by a quartet of outstanding soloists, violinist Stephen Waarts, violists Timothy Ridout and Ziyu Shen, and virtuoso organist Christian Schmitt.

As in Vol. 1, Eschenbach presents a lively style that, although it does not smooth over the abrasive harmony that Hindemith put into his music here and there, certainly makes things lively. Violinist Waarts shines in Kammermusik IV, a piece that also features lively clarinets though it does tend to sound like a violin concerto. Not surprisingly, the brief notes I encountered online indicate that these are indeed concerti, No. IV for violin, No. V for viola, No. VI for viola d’amore (played by Ziyu Shen) and No. VII for organ. Towards the end of the second movement, “Sehr lebhaft,” Waarts plays a surprisingly lyrical and lovely solo, but, typically of Hindemith, the orchestra jumps right back in to its lively pace to close out the movement. The third movement, “Nachtstück,” also has its nice lyrical moments and again showcases the violinist in lyrical phrases whose mellifluous quality is mitigated to some extent by the shifting harmony. At 4:42, the solo violin is joined by a solo clarinetist playing a countermelody. The last movement, surprisingly enough, opens with a bold trumpet solo stating the terse theme, which is then thrown to the flutes and clarinets before the intrepid violin enters the picture and picks it up for development, in which he is joined by a lively timpanist.

The first movement of Kammermusik V is a moto perpetuo for the viola soloist against an orchestral backdrop of basses playing a continuo part and “punchy” interjections by the brass, winds and middle strings. The bitonal harmony never uses the root note of any chord, thus the harmony is kept up in the air. There is a tendency towards the key of Db minor in the second movement, however, and again Hindemith has created a lovely but bitonal arietta for the soloist, cushioned by rich basses and celli. The third movement is a quirky, tonally unsettled scherzo in 3/4 time, with low winds and strings galumphing along behind the solo viola while flutes and clarinets twitter up above. The last movement is a very whimsical “military march,” the kind of thing you might expect to hear when playing with toy soldiers, with lively wind trills and the viola playing mostly in chords against the bitonal background. Suddenly, at the end, the tempo slows down and the march poops out.

Oddly, considering the viola d’amore’s origins as a Baroque instrument, Kammermusik VI is the most modern piece so far, almost Stravinskian in its sparse, wind-oriented orchestration and stiffish rhythms. Here, the soloist plays edgy bowed figures much like Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat against the shifting backdrop of winds and brass. The first movement slows down and has a sudden decrescendo at the end, which leads into the moody, quirky slow movement, far less conventionally melodic than its two predecessors. The last movement is a set of variations which starts with the soloist playing alone until just before the one minute mark, when a clarinet enters, later followed by basses and high winds, but not much else. The strangely sparse orchestration continues for some time, with the other instruments playing counter-figures against the viola; at one point, the listener is fooled into thinking that a fugue is about to start, but it’s quickly abandoned and the background figures become sparser and stranger. Every so often, the celli try to liven things up and establish a set tempo, but it keeps falling back to the solo viola with those strange wind and low string figures playing around it. Suddenly, at 4:30, after a pause, a fairly lively 4/4 is set up by the bassoon and we go on our jolly way towards the finish. A very weird movement!

Kammermusik VII, the one for organ, picks up where No. VI left off, with a jaunty, whimsical bitonal tune, and when the organ enters it, too, is playing fairly lively figures—but this movement, too, ends quietly. The second movement begins with moody ruminations by the soloist, and again when other instruments enter the scoring is sparse and they play against one another with contrasting figures. Eventually a sort of slow canon is set up with the soloist still ruminating as they toodle their way along. The third-movement scherzo wakes the listener up with a trumpet fanfare at the outset, followed by jocular winds bounding around against each other before the soloist returns to have his say.

These are, again, wonderful pieces, superbly played by Eschenbach and company. Well worth checking out!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Investigating Hans Rott

cover C5408

ROTT: Hamlet Overture (reconstructed by J. Schmidt). Suites in Bb & E. Orchestral Prelude in E. Prelude to “Julius Caesar.” Pastoral Prelude in F / Gürzenich Orchester Köln; Christopher Ward, cond / Capriccio C5408

For decades, we’ve been told that Gustav Mahler adored the music of his ill-fated younger colleague, Hans Rott (1858-1884), and that his loss to music was inestimable, but the only piece that has become a (sort of) visitor in the concert halls is his Symphony in E, which received its premiere in 1989. Now, we have a chance to judge him by a little more: two Suites, three orchestral Preludes and his Hamlet Overture as reconstructed by Johannes Volker Schmidt. The latter is, of course, a world premiere recording.

But to be honest with you, I’ve never cared much for Rott’s Symphony. It doesn’t sound so much like Mahler as it does like Bruckner, and I absolutely abhor Bruckner’s music. It’s long-winded, pompous, and doesn’t go anywhere; as one acquaintence put it to me, his symphonies are just “a succession of endings.” Only two conductors, Furtwängler and Kempe, were ever able to make anything out of Bruckner for my taste, and even then it’s not music I’ll listen to with any frequency.

The Hamlet Overture opens in much the same Brucknerian vein as his symphony, but about 2:20 into the piece it becomes livelier and gains somewhat more interest. Not a great amount of interest, mind you, but more than the symphony. And conductor Christopher Ward is surely involved emotionally in this music; he conducts it with drive and fervor. For me, it’s not quite as interesting as the concert overtures of Tchaikovsky or the orchestral tone poems of Strauss, but at certain moments, such as 4:45 into the piece, Rott suddenly veers left and gives us a glimpse into why Mahler liked him so. And we must remember that none of Rott’s pieces were ever given in concert during his brief lifetime; they were only played at the conservatory where both he and Mahler were pupils. The present overture, in fact, only existed in orchestral score for 35 bars. The rest had to be reconstructed from sketches and fragments, but enough survived to put the piece together, and it is a very good one.

RottThe Suite in E dates from two years later than the overture, in 1878 when the composer was only 20 years old. Yet one must understand that Rott’s composing career came to an end in 1880 when, aboard a train, he pulled out a gun and threatened to kill one of the passengers, claiming that Johannes Brahms had filled the train with dynamite. He was committed to a mental hospital in 1881, where after a brief recovery he sank into depression. Suffering from “hallucinatory insanity” and “persecution mania,” he never recovered and died of tuberculosis in June 1884, two months short of his 26th birthday. It’s a strange suite, again quite Bruckner-like in form and content, with brooding passages in the celli that are used a counterpoint and unexpected tympani outbursts. There’s also a sudden transposition at about 4:14 into the second movement.

The Prelude to “Julius Caesar,” written in 1877, is very clearly influenced by Wagner. This, too, is a good piece, with interesting turns of phrase and mood, some quite sudden. We must certainly cut Rott some slack considering that these are the works of a very young man with only a few years’ training in composition. He was clearly reaching for something new and different but never quite arrived where I am sure he thought he would be going. At 5:55, after a slow-down to a dead stop, the music suddenly picks up in both tempo and drama as Rott comes up with several good musical ideas that drive the piece to its conclusion.

The second orchestral suite is a bit lighter in character than the first (it was written two years later); Rott’s key changes here, though made quickly, are more sophisticated and less abrupt—except, as at 1:54 into the piece, when Rott is trying to make a point. The second movement is, surprisingly enough, a scherzo and a good one at that.

The Pastorale Prelude in F, one of his last scores (1880), is the longest piece on this album. It’s also, according to the notes, a rare example of Rott coming up with musical ideas much earlier (1877) and developing the piece over time. The liner notes by Christian Heindl suggest that this piece in particular shows a more sophisticated composer who works his material in a better and more thoughtful manner than his earlier pieces. This is so to a point, but I missed the spontaneity of the Julius Caesar Overture or the second Suite. In this work, however, one can hear Rott’s influence on Mahler’s orchestration, and in the trumpet calls an allusion to the younger composer’s Third Symphony. At 9:13, however, atfer a loud orchestral chord, Rott suddenly gives us a fugue which he runs out to the end of the piece, changing keys abruptly around 10:25. The piece ends in a triumphant orchestral explosion—another unexpected touch.

The pieces on this album are interesting but by no means an indication of genius in full flower. Rott developed less fully than, say, Lili Boulanger, to name another outstanding composer who died young yet left us some truly inspired pieces, though one must remember that Boulanger did not suffer insanity and continued to compose almost until age 25 whereas Rott had to stop at age 22. Let us say that they show promise for one so young; he was clearly striking out on a new path, but hadn’t gotten very far before he had to stop. Yet the music is interesting for what it is, which are first-rate late-Romantic student scores. Rott was undoubtedly an early influence on Mahler, but it was Mahler who took his ideas and ran with them into musical realms hitherto unsuspected.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Bunny Berigan and his Orchestra

Berigan orchesttra

At first, I was thinking of making this article one of my “forgotten orchestras” series, but upon reflection that’s not quite true. Berigan himself is clearly not forgotten since he was one of the four greatest jazz trumpeters of the 1930s along with Louis Armstrong, Henry “Red” Allen and Roy Eldridge, and a select few of his band’s records—The Prisoner’s Song, Mahogany Hall Stomp, The Wearin’ of the Green and particularly his theme song, I Can’t Get Started—are well known and admired. But for the most part, his band was perceived in its day as simply a Benny Goodman clone without Goodman’s clarinet and, worse yet, except for I Can’t Get Started it generated no big-selling hit records.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of the Berigan band, we need to look into this. No hot jazz band of the swing era, not even Goodman’s, Basie’s or Duke Ellington’s, could survive in the marketplace without its quota of ballads and a search for “hit tunes.” Berigan certainly recorded his share of ballads, among them You Can’t Run Away From Love Tonight, The First Time I Saw You, The Image of You, Let’s Have Another Cigarette, Roses in December, Why Talk About Love?, I’d Love to Play a Love Scene, I Want a New Romance, A Strange Loneliness, The Piano Tuner Man, Outside of Paradise, Lovelight in the Starlight and An Old Straw Hat, all of them bombs, with a revolving door of singers of whom the best were Gail Reese and Kathleen Lane. He just didn’t have a feel for what would be a hit tune, as Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller did, and although his band’s arrangers were good they weren’t good enough to breathe life into these DOA musical corpses. Worse yet he, like Muggsy Spanier, had a proclivity towards older jazz tunes of the 1910s and ‘20s. The Prisoner’s Song is just one such. Run through a list of instrumentals recorded by Berigan for Victor and you’ll find a laundry list of old tunes: That’s A-Plenty, Frankie and Johnny, Jelly Roll Blues, Black Bottom, Runnin’ Wild, Walkin’ the Dog, Shanghai Shuffle, Dardanella, etc., some associated with his idols Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong. Yes, the Dorsey, Goodman and Glenn Miller bands played a few such tunes, too, but only a few. Berigan loved early jazz with its solid song construction and was wary of riff tunes, which he felt were dumb—but that was where the money was in the late ‘30s.

Yet it would be wrong to say that all of the Berigan band’s arrangements were so generic as to be indistinguishable from those of other bands. Aside from Larry Clinton, who wrote a few scores for Bunny in 1937 and Ray Conniff, who joined the band as trombonist and arranger in 1938, their principal arranger was pianist Joe Lippman, and Lippman has a pretty good ear. He never came up with a “styling trick” to make the band sound very different from anyone else’s, but he clearly know how to write for a jazz orchestra and turned out some marvelous scores. It’s just that, as I said, the jitterbugging public were tired of hearing older songs or, when newer, songs borrowed from other bands such as Clinton’s A Study in Brown (which he had written and arranged for Glen Gray), the Juan Tizol-Duke Ellington Caravan, or such fairly common standards as I Cried for You.

BeriganIt would also be wrong to say, as several have claimed, that Bunny started his own band solely to show himself off. Even a cursory listen to any Berigan band record other than I Can’t Get Started will show that he was extremely generous in allotting solo space to his favorite players, tenor saxist Georgie Auld and clarinetist Joe Dixon, and not hogging the spotlight for himself the way Goodman often did on his records. The sad truth is that the previous two bands he worked for, Goodman and Dorsey, became so jealous of his talents that within a very short time after he recorded what are now considered classic solos for them, they choked him off in future outings. With Goodman, he made his biggest impression on King Porter Stomp, Madhouse and Sometimes I’m Happy, but by the time Goodman recorded his classic swinger Bugle Call Rag, the trumpet solo spot was assigned to another. Dorsey gave him back-to-back blowing room on the two-sided hit record Marie and Song of India, but thereafter locked his prize horse in the stable. Berigan knew his worth and wanted more solo room, but no one was going to let him outshine the leader. It was time for him to move on.

The recordings I have uploaded at the Internet Archive as examples of the Berigan band at its best, and described below, are not all sterling arrangements, but the few that aren’t are certainly sterling showcases for him. Although it is certainly possible to transcribe Berigan solos, as the late Gunther Schuller did in his Swing Era book, I resisted the temptation because they don’t do his playing justice. Yes, it’s easy to transcribe the notes he played, but it’s difficult to indicate the way he could hold back very slightly on the beat or, at times, push the beat forward, and almost impossible to indicate the tone he played the notes with. Berigan could vary his sound from thin to rich, soft to loud, and add growls, rasps and “terminal vibrato,” i.e. suddenly producing a lip vibrato at the ends of phrases, and almost none of this comes across in written music.

  1. Mama, I Wanna Make Rhythm (9/1/1937). This is indeed a fairly generic chart, but it’s a good opening gambit for the band because of Bunny’s solo and, more interestingly, the only scat singing he ever did on record. He wasn’t quite Armstrong, but he was very interesting.
  2. the-lady-from-fifth-avenue-BunnyBerigan-spanishThe Lady From Fifth Avenue (6/18/1937). This wasn’t really a bad little tune, and the lyrics are somewhat humorous, but the vocal chorus goes on too long (often a complaint with Berigan records). Bunny plays the Latin-styled opening solo muted, then returns after the vocal to kick the doors in and drive it down to the finish line.
  3. Frankie and Johnny (6/25/1937). One of the Berigan band’s better hot arrangements of an old tune except for the somewhat corny intro. You will note a few things about the orchestra that are normally overlooked: 1) for a band that didn’t rehearse very much, their playing is actually more accurate than that of the Charlie Barnet orchestra; 2) although the sections are tight, they are not perfectly blended, but allow one to hear the trumpets, for instance, playing with the saxes; and 3) Berigan’s rhythm section, which at that time consisted of pianist Lippman, guitarist Tom Morgan, bassist Arnold Fishkin and drummer George Wettling, provided a very solid and highly swinging beat while playing as a unit—something the Goodman rhythm section didn’t always do.
  4. Caravan (6/25/1937). ThisCaravan is actually a very interesting and sensitive arrangement by Lippman of a song that had just recently become a hit played by a small unit from the Ellington orchestra. What I find interesting about this one is that Berigan never really improvises—he just plays the melody mostly straight—yet somehow manages to give the impression of improvising. It is a performance that coasts along on fluid drive.
  5. Mahogany Hall Stomp (6/25/1937). The third straight record made on the exact same day; this was clearly a good date on the calendar for Bunny. He manages to sound somewhat like Armstrong without copying anything that Louis actually played on his version. Armstrong really appreciated this and often said that Bunny was the best of those trumpeters who followed in his footsteps.
  6. Old Man Mose (exact date unknown). This is a broadcast of one of Armstrong’s own compositions in a blistering-hot arrangement by Lippman that unfortunately was never recorded commercially. As hot as the band was on Frankie and Johnny, they’re twice as hot here. This was a band that clearly loved to play in person.
  7. Turn On That Red Hot Heat (8/7/1937). I’m actually surprised that this song didn’t become a hit for Berigan; the arrangement is excellent as are the solos, especially his. But then you hear Gail Reese plod her way through the pedestrian lyrics and you realize that although the melody and arrangement were good, the words were awful. You almost feel sorry for her.
  8. A Study in Brown (8/18/1937). Larry Clinton’s early,. pre-Dipsy Doodle hit, and although I love the Glen Gray Casa Loma Band version, I can’t listen to this song very often without hearing Berigan’s solo in my mind’s ear.
  9. II Can't Get Started Can’t Get Started (8/7/1937). Berigan’s theme song and a classic performance. There’s nothing much to say about this track; it’s magical from start to finish.
  10. Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man (12/23/1937). A tune from Show Boat that was quit popular with swing bands of the late ‘30s, but it didn’t become a hit for Berigan any more than it did for Glenn Miller. Even so, I love this arrangement: it has a nice intro, bounces from the very start, and Bunny improvises on the theme right out of the gate. Sonny Lee gets a terrific trombone solo, and there’s NO vocal!!
  11. San Francisco (7/20/1936). This isn’t technically by the “real” Berigan big band, but by His Studio Orchestra, though Bunny liked the song and the arrangement so well that he played it in person and on the radio with his real band. The vocalist stinks, but who cares when Bunny takes us soaring across the Golden Gate Bridge like this?

In a Mist12 & 13. In a Mist & Candlelights (11/30/1038). These were part of a four-song suite dedicated to Bix Beiderbecke, the other two tunes being Flashes and Davenport Blues. Lippmann wrote the wonderfully sensitive arrangements and a young Buddy Rich is on drums.

  1. The Prisoner’s Song (8/7/1937). As noted earlier, a terrific arrangement of Vernon Dalhart’s “hillbilly” hit record of the 1920s. The whole band seems to get in on this; Bunny doesn’t hog the spotlight, but he’s just so good that you salivate over his solo.
  2. Jelly Roll BluesJelly Roll Blues (11/22/1938). A surprisingly sensitive and non-flashy arrangement of Jelly Roll Morton’s early hit tune. I don’t know if the composer heard this record, or if he did what he thought of it, but except for the more modern swing phrasing—listen to how those clarinets nudge the beat at the starts of phrases—it’s a very respectful reading. Lippman plays a four-bar into to Bunny’s solo, which I consider to be one of his very greatest. Go ahead, disagree with me.
  3. Walkin’ the Dog (live, 12/1/1938). An outstanding, loose-limbed performance by the band with Rich playing surprisingly temperate drums, including a Dixieland-styled break behind Bunny’s playing of the theme. Auld is still on tenor sax here, but Gus Bivona plays the very bluesy alto solo and young Ray Conniff the trombone chorus. There’s also a surprise ending where the band repeats the penultimate riff more softly.
  4. Back in Your Own Back Yard (live: 4/24/1938). This was an interim band in which Johnny Blowers played drums, replacing Wettling and Al George was first trombonist. A surprisingly relaxed-yet-swinging arrangement; listen to how Blowers drives Auld’s tenor sax into an R&B frenzy in the second chorus of his solo before leader comes in to restore a pure jazz feel to things. After a bluesy solo by George, Berigan returns with Blowers banging the snare behind him to ride things out.
  5. Shanghai Shuffle (same date). Surprisingly this tune, which was played in a frenzied tempo during the 1920s, is given a medium-fast swing treatment here, and boy, does the band sound relaxed. Maybe Bunny was onto something by not rehearsing them too much! The sax section ensemble is particularly well written, and pulled off perfectly. Berigan follows Auld by coming in with his low register for four bars before building his solo upward.
  6. Little Gates Special (live, April 1939). The announcer describes this as “an original manuscript by the maestro himself,” but it was written by Ray Conniff, one of his earliest and most driving scores, bearing a resemblance to Mary Lou Williams’ Roll ‘Em. Bob Jenney is the trombone soloist here, one of the most original Berigan ever had. Auld was gone by this time, fled to the Jan Savitt band, but Gus Bivona plays a nice alto solo and the leader is just loose and relaxed, having a good old time. By this time, too, Rich had fled to join Artie Shaw, so Eddie Jenkins is the drummer.
  7. Thesaurus labelI’ll Always Be in Love With You (June 27, 1938). A rare studio recording made not for commercial release on Victor, but for Thesaurus Transcriptions, a radio service company that was a division of RCA. A wonderfully relaxed performance and a near-perfect arrangement, with all concerned in great shape. A shame it never came out on 78.
  8. Devil’s Holiday (June 27, 1938). This 1933 tune was written and recorded by Benny Carter and his Harlem Club Orchestra that year, which the Berigan band revived. It has that slightly stiff-but-snappy kind of beat that one associates with early-‘30s hot jazz; Lippmann’s arrangement provides a good launching pad for the soloists, with some nice fluttering and swooning saxes behind Bunny’s solo, followed by a nicely intricate four-bar sax ensemble.
  9. Dardanella (June 27, 1938). Yet another Thesaurus Transcription disc, and a really lovely arrangement that features “falling” harmony for the saxes at the end of each opening phrase, plus a nice modulation upward by the trumpet section to set up Bunny’s solo, which I feel is another of his real gems. The ensemble writing following the trumpet solo is also superb.
  10. ‘Tain’t So, Honey, ‘Tain’t So (live: April 1939). A real scorcher of an arrangement and performance; the band muscles its way through this piece like a freight train, again with some nice harmonic touches at the ends of phrases. Bunny gets two solos, each fiery and driving, though he tends to rely on repeated notes in a rhythmic pattern here and there.
  11. I Cried for You (11/22/1938). I have no idea why this record didn’t become a hit; even though the song was written in 1923, it was being played in the late 1930s once again. The arrangement here uses the clarinets as a choir, emulating the then-contemporary Tommy Dorsey sound, Kathleen Lane sings her one chorus perfectly, and Bunny’s solo is yet another of his gems. Even Auld forsakes his usual pumping, R&B style to play a very sensitive chorus, then after a trumpet section break Lane returns to finish the song out. In 1942, the year Bunny died, it was a monster hit for Harry James, playing his sobbing trumpet against a backdrop of mushy strings.
  12. Panama (live: 1938). A very cute arrangement that begins in a Dixieland vein but slowly but surely moves towards swing, all of it played at a brisk uptempo. You can hear the crowd whooping and cheering in the background as the band gets hotter. Dixon really wails on his clarinet, and Bunny takes the tune places it had never gone before. Auld is fast and bluesy, and the trombone (possibly Conniff) is excellent. As a bonus, we hear the band’s closing theme as the record ends: another version of I Can’t Get Started, here played with different improvisations than on the commercial recording. A nice close to our survey of the Berigan big band.

The only thing I can figure out is that Berigan didn’t have a John Hammond to push him; if he had, I think his band would have become much more popular than it did. I certainly liked it!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Carol Stevens, the Forgotten Jazz Singer

That Satin Doll - Carol Stevens - Atlantic 1256

THAT SATIN DOLL / ELLINGTON: In a Mellotone.1 Satin Doll.2 MOORE: Saved it All For You.1,3 Mood for You. 2,3 Lurelei [F.H.C.].2,3 Tender as a Rose.2,3 HARRIS: Everywhere.2 BROONZY-GREEN: Romance in the Dark.2 ROBERTS-NOHAIN: Lying in the Hay.1 BERLIN: I’m Playing With Fire.2 KALMAR-RUBY: Keep On Doin’ What You’re Doin’.2 GORDON-WARREN: At Last 2 / Carol Stevens, voc; 1Nick Travis, tpt; 2Warren Covington, 1Eddie Bert, tb; 1Herbie Mann, a-fl; 1Sol Schlinger, bs-cl; 2Romeo Penque, ob/bsn/E-hn; 1Phil Bodner, cl/E-hn; 2Bernard Kaufman, bs-cl/fl; 2Bobby Rosengerger, vib; 2Don Elliott, mel; Frank Berry, 3Phil Moore, pno; Barry Galbraith, gtr; Milt Hinton, bs; Osie Johnson, dm; 1Phil Kraus, perc / Atlantic 8122-79667-6, also available for free streaming on Spotify or YouTube beginning HERE

This is the sad story of a great jazz singer whose career went nowhere, much to her chagrin and disappointment and a ton of hard work. Carol Stevens grew up as a jazz buff who memorized all the great jazz solos on all of the records she heard, particularly by the Ellington and Woody Herman bands, developed a rich-voiced scat singing style of her own, and then hit Philadelphia, only to discover that the quote for female jazz singers was all filled up.

Frustrated, she joined a society orchestra led by Herbie Collins in the Warwick Hotel, singing vanilla pop music. She hated it but made good money. She was tall, lean, and attractive-looking in a non-conventionally-pretty way. Tired of being hit on by Collins, she jumped to another society band led by violinist Bob Kay. She married Kay in 1950. He lived with his mother and the marriage was rocky. In 1955 she intended to file for divorce, but discovered that she was pregnant, so she stayed for a while longer. As she told Marc Myers of Jazz Wax in a rare late-in-life interview (from which I’ve gleaned most of the info above), “I looked sophisticated but I really wasn’t.”[1]

In 1956 she moved to New York, and things got better. She hung out at Jilly’s Saloon where she would sing occasionally; veteran jazz pianist and composer Phil Moore heard her and “flipped.” She met Moore for lunch and he offered her help, which she accepted. She worked with Bill Evans when he was still an unknown pianist with Don Elliott. Moore set up gigs for her, paid for dancing lessons, and set up this one-and-only recording session for Atlantic in 1957. It got great reviews, but still her career hit a wall. She was now competing with the best of the best female jazz singers: Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Anita O’Day, Julie London, Caterina Valente and a host of others. In 1959, guitarist Barry Galbraith and bassist Milt Hinton, both of whom had played in her album, took part in a TV show pilot called After Hours, hosted by Make-Believe Ballroom Time host William B. Williams, and they suggested that Carol come in near the end of the all-star set (which included trumpeter Roy Eldridge and tenor saxist Coleman Hawkins) to sing a couple of sings with them. It was a great idea; she did; but the pilot wasn’t picked up and thus never aired. Another piece of bad luck.

Stevens slowly faded from view despite singing at clubs in New York and New England where she performed with Jimmy Giuffre and others. According to Stevens in her interview with Myers, Nesuhi Ertegun wanted her to make other albums but Phil Moore, who was acting as her agent, turned it down, telling her to wait for “better deals from others” that never came. Carol did voice-overs for ads to make money: Score Hair Crème, Breck shampoo, Rheingold beer and Harvey’s Bristol Cream, some of them with the MJQ and Toots Thielemans.

The Atlantic album disappeared from the catalog, but after being reissued on a Japanese Atlantic CD, it suddenly caught people’s attention. And small wonder, because Stevens had a truly unique voice. She combined the warmth of Sarah Vaughan, the intimacy of Julie London and the scat-singing ability of Anita O’Day into her own unique style. For the most part, she avoids the lyrics of the songs, even famous ones like Satin Doll, to phrase and scat like a jazz horn. There’s not a bad track on the entire album, short though it is (barely over a half-hour); one interesting feature is that, with all the famous jazz names backing her on this disc, they only get spot solos and fills to play. This was clearly Carol Stevens’ showcase, but unfortunately there weren’t enough hip jazz musicians to make it a best-seller. The majority of “pop jazz” listeners wanted something more accessible, something closer to Sarah Vaughan’s Broken-Hearted Melody and less arty, and this Carol would not give them. She may have been alone, broke, and somewhat vulnerable, but she had her musical integrity and wasn’t going to give up doing what she did best.

During the taping of After Hours, Roy Eldridge told her that loved her voice and wanted to make some records with her. “Look what I did for Anita,” he said, but Stevens wasn’t comfortable with being a scat singer. She married Norman Mailer and moved to New England with him, which is where she sang most of her later gigs.

Her sultry contralto voice still grabs the discerning listener, but even better is the way she used her voice like a jazz horn. Her phrasing and sense of jazz “time” were superb, and in the After Hours pilot she fits in perfectly with the assembled jazz stars singing Taking a Chance on Love and Just You, Just Me (trading scat licks with Eldridge in the latter). Ironically, Stevens told Myers that she hated the latter performance, which was completely impromptu, encouraged by Eldridge. She didn’t think of herself as a scat singer.

There’s not much more to the Carol Stevens story than that. Her appearance on After Hours was her last shot at jazz stardom, and it came to nothing. A very sad story, really, and one that could be used as a yardstick to judge how much worse women in the arts were treated then than now. Had Carol Stevens slept her way to the top or had a superpowered agent, she would undoubtedly have gotten further, but unfortunately she had her integrity.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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[1] https://www.jazzwax.com/2014/01/interview-carol-stevens-part-1.html

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Sukyung Kim on Lilac Hill

Lilac Hill cover

LILAC HILL / KIM: Lilac Hill. Stargazers. Bluebird. Summer Days. California / Sukyung Kim, pno; Ethan Helm, a-sax; Paul JuBong Lee, gt; Luca Alemanno, bs; Jongkuk Kim, dm / self-produced CD, available at Amazon

Sukyung Kim is a Korean-born pianist who now lives and works in Brooklyn. She began her classical studies at age four, later moving to New York to major in Piano Performance at SUNY Binghamton. After learning an extensive classical repertoire, she wanted to learn more about jazz and composition, so she moved to New York City to be involved in the jazz scene. In 2017 she began a Master’s program in Jazz Performance at NYU, with Alan Broadbent, Drew Gress, Kevin Hays and Alex Sipiagin being among her mentors, This is her debut release.

The opening track, Lilac Hill, is not what you might think it would sound. It is a fairly upbeat number with an irregular meter, the melodic line (pleasant but not memorable) played by alto saxist Ethan Helm while Kim and bassist Luca Alemanno play rhythmic counterpoint. Kim is the first soloist up; she swings gently and has some very fine ideas, weaving the melody line into her improvisation before taking off in the second chorus, using short syncopated motifs to build her solo. I was very happy to hear that guitarist Paul JuBong Lee plays real jazz guitar and not rock guitar; as he solos, the rhythm section builds to a tremendous crescendo behind him, then Lee and Helm engage in a chase chorus before returning to the melody line for the rideout.

Stargazers is a ballad, played in a wistful fashion by the pianist with light bass and drum interjections; there’s a hint of Night and Day to the B theme as the tempo increases, the bass gently but firmly pushes the rhythm and Helm comes in with his solo. Indeed, I would say that it is specifically in her use of rhythm that Kim is most original; the bouncing bass and drum patterns that seem to go against the grain of the beat are what arrests one’s attention and holds it there. Kim’s solo on this track is good but not particularly exceptional; she sounds like any number of good pianists working nowadays, which is to her credit considering her classical background, but not really individual in style. Lee gets a solo of his own here as the rhythm suddenly straightens out behind him, projecting a straight 4 in the first chorus before returning to the irregular meter of the beginning, then back again to 4. This is a perfect example of what I mean about Kim’s compositions being more interesting for their rhythmic treatment than their treatment of theme. My impression of Helm, however, is that he is a skilled but not terribly interesting soloist. I’ve heard so many alto saxists like him in my time that, although I admire his professionalism, there’s not much to say about his improvisations.

In Bluebird, we start out with an almost samba-type beat, the opening melody played by Helm with the rhythm section. Kim’s little piano fills are tasteful and at times propulsive as she switches from single notes to chords, pushing the beat a bit, and her solo here is really excellent. She plays in single-note lines with a firm grasp of structure; she knows where she is going and how to get there, tossing in some sparkling keyboard runs towards the end. Helm also sounds a bit better than average here, showing off his affection for Paul Desmond by including some of the late altoist’s favorite licks and turnarounds in his solo. By and large, I found this track to be one of the most tightly structured compositions on the CD; it “plays” well from beginning to end.

Summer Days opens with a repeated series of Fs played by the guitar, leading one to think that they might be going into Night and Day. Instead, we get yet another Latin-tinged piece, in fact here sounding so much like the Latin jazz of the early 1960s that I was somewhat taken aback. Helm’s solo is better than good here’ it’s excellent, channeling a bit of Stan Getz as well as a little of John Handy. Kim is also quite good here, and drummer Jongkuk Kim finally gets the chance to play an excellent solo.

This relatively short set concludes with California, a jazz waltz on which Kim switches to electric piano, and as a surprise it is bassist Alemanno who carries the opening theme as Jongkuk plays soft brushes behind him. After another theme statement by Helm, Alemanno finally gets a solo to himself, and it is superb, finding interesting interstices in the tune’s structure and taking advantage of them in a well-conceived, surprising solo. Kim’s solo is good but rather laid-back in the first chorus; in the second, she gets more interesting and inventive, leading into Helm’s return on alto as the tempo suddenly seems to shift from a laid-back 3 to a 4 overlaid on 6/8. A nice touch! Alemanno then returns for another chorus as we return to 3/4, followed in turn by Lee who, alas, indulges in some rock-like playing.

Lilac Hill is by no means a tentative outing for Kim, despite its being her debut release, but I still sense room for her to grow. She already has a firm grasp of jazz structure and, more importantly, knows how to assign parts to her sidemen that enhance the whole, but I think she has even larger and more complex compositions in her. I hope she can bring them to fruition someday!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Leon Botstein is “Buried Alive”

cover BCD9540

BURIED ALIVE / HONEGGER: Rugby (Mouvement Symphonique). SCHOECK: Lebendig begraben, Song Cycle on Poems by Gottfried Keller.* MITROPOULOS: Concerto Grosso / *Michael Nagy, bar; *The Bard Festival Chorale; The Orchestra Now; Leon Botstein, cond / Bridge 9540

Leon Botstein, president of Bard College and longtime music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, presents here three offbeat works, one of them by a composer (Dmitri Mitropoulos) whose compositions are scarcely known at all.

The first piece is Rugby by Arthur Honegger, a composer remembered primarily for his opera-oratorio Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher and his popular tone poem Pacific 231. This piece is sort of in the vein of the latter, using bitonal harmonies and edgy rhythms, though it doesn’t “build up” the way Pacific 231 does. Interestingly, there is a somewhat lyrical middle section that sounds like a template for some of Aaron Copland’s early music. Since Copland studied in France in the 1920s, perhaps some of Honegger rubbed off on him at that time. Rugby is rhythmically strong and relatively fast-paced from first note to last, yet although it makes for interesting listening it is not a piece that leaves a lasting impact on the listener. Two minutes after you’ve finished listening to it, little stays in the mind but a few short motifs and that persistent rhythm, and this is not a knock on Botstein’s conducting. He really does a superb job here, making the most of a piece that is primarily a string of effects.

We then move on to Othmar Schoeck, a superb composer whose work is, if anything, much less well-known than Honegger’s. My favorite piece of his is the very dramatic opera Penthesilea, about an Amazonian warrior-princess who is fooled by a male warrior but exacts her revenge. If anything, Lebendig begraben is just as good; although vocalist Michael Nagy is listed as a baritone, much of the opening song pulls him very deep down into the bass range, which he projects superbly. His problem is that, when he moves up in his range and sings sustained notes, they have a bad wobble, but he is certainly an excellent interpreter and his dark timbre is perfectly suited to the music. Most of the vocal score is strophic rather than melodic, just as in the opera, and the orchestral accompaniment is edgy, often focusing on just the winds and brass (and occasionally, a solo piano or organ playing repeated rhythmic motifs behind the singer). Think of it as a hyper-extended version of a Schoenberg piece and you’ll have the right idea, though despite its atonality it is clearly not serial music. In addition, each succeeding song seems to be darker than the one before; from the perspective of mood, this is a song cycle that sinks into despair and then digs a bit deeper in that vein, at least until the 10th song where things lighten up considerably. But this is a work in which the orchestral accompaniment, though certainly important in setting and sustaining the mood of the music, is much less front and center than the vocal line. This, too, was a trait I noticed in Penthesilea.

Mitropoulos’ Concerto Grosso is one of those pieces that can offend a listener of conventional classical music from the very outset, where it begins with an extended crushed chord of no discernible tonality, yet the music of the first movement moves along legato lines and, except for the tonality, is relatively easy to follow. It is reminiscent, to me, of Artur Schnabel’s First Symphony, which was performed by Mitropoulos himself with the Minnesota Symphony in 1946. Interestingly, there is even within the slow first movement more musical changes and development than in the Schoeck piece, which as I mentioned stays in one specific mood for a long time. The second movement opens with an “Allegro” section, mostly a perpetuum mobile of rapid brass figures (which sound to me as if they are played by muted trumpets) and strings, to which the basses add a counter-line. There is a passage in which the trumpets play double time before resuming their previous pace. Then, after an atonal upward orchestral smear at about 3:00, the music downshifts to a very edgy “Largo.”

The third movement, strangely, begins with a nice little melodic line which is quickly undercut by the dolorous harmony, yet the little melody persists on and off as the movement progresses. As a stand-alone movement, I can see this becoming a somewhat regular concert piece, but the whole Concerto Grosso is clearly too edgy for the majority of audiences.

An interesting album, then, albeit one that may not stay with you when it is over.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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