Rosbaud (& Scherchen) Conduct Mahler


MAHLER: Symphonies Nos. 1, 4*-7 & 9. Das Lied von der Erde +/ *Eva-Maria Rogner, sop; +Ernst Häfliger, ten; Grace Hoffmann, mezzo; Südwestfunk-Orchester Baden-Baden & Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester; Hans Rosbaud, cond / SWR Music SWR19099CD

MAHLER: Symphony No. 2/ Mimi Coertse, sop; Lucretia West, alto; Wiener Akademie Kammerchor; Wiener Staatsopernorchester / Symphony No. 3/ Soňa Červená, mezzo; German Radio Symphony Orch. & Chorus (Live: October 1960) / Symphony No. 8/ Elsa Maria Matheis, Daniza Ilitsch, sop; Rosette Anday, Georgine Milinkovič, alto; Erich Majkut, ten; Georg Oeggl, bs-bar; Otto Wiener, bass; Wiener Kammerchor, Singakademie & Sängerknaben; Wiener Symphoniker (live: June 13, 1951) / Hermann Scherchen, cond / available for free streaming by clicking on symphony titles above

When I first saw this album listed in the Naxos New Release catalog, I thought about reviewing it but then passed it by. I liked Hans Rosbaud’s conducting and I knew he was particularly noted in his time as a champion of modern, avant-garde music, but thought that his style might be a bit too dry for Mahler, the most passionate late Romantic composer of all time (even beating out Scriabin).

But I was wrong. Rosbaud conducts these works with a surprising amount of drama, and makes them even more fascinating by bringing out the inner structure of the orchestration in an almost 3D manner. It’s kind of like looking at a photo of Mahler through a super MRI; you can still see the flesh, but also the bones and veins and ligaments and joints.  And it’s utterly fascinating. I should mention that these performances were previously released by the Memories-Reverence label (MR2509/12, Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4-6 and MR2513/15, Symphonies 7 & 9 plus Das Lied von der Erde).

I was disappointed, however, to discover that Rosbaud did not record the Second, Third or Eighth Symphonies, and for a while I was puzzled as to why. Then it dawned on me: they all require a chorus and, in the case of the Eighth, a massive one at that (in addition to a massive orchestra and seven vocal soloists).

But then I suddenly remembered to check Hermann Scherchen.

Scherchen was almost Rosbaud’s exact contemporary, born five years earlier and died four years later than Rosbaud, and their professional tastes, styles and experiences were almost identical. Scherchen made his conducting debut in a performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, and from that point became a champion of late Strauss, Webern, Berg and Varèse. In his later years he also promoted the music of such younger composers as Xenakis, Nono and Schidlowsky. Like Rosbaud, he also conducted conventional scores, particularly those of Beethoven, producing the first complete version of that composer’s incidental music to Egmont along with vocalist and a recording of the Beethoven Third Symphony at the score tempi (which are terrifyingly fast).

Compare this experience to Rosbaud, who though Austrian rather than German walked a similar path. His first experience as a conductor came in Mainz as music director of the city’s New School of Music in 1921. He particularly championed Schoenberg and Bartók until the Nazis came to power. He was demoted to smaller and smaller positions until after the War when he was cleared and took a post conducting at Strasbourg. He has been hailed by critics as an untiring champion of modern music, with his only like-minded colleagues being Bernstein and, you guessed it, Scherchen. He is particularly noted for having given the first (posthumous) performance of Schoenberg’s opera Moses und Aron and in fact having his performance issued commercially on LP in 1957.

Thus the resemblances between the two conductors (they were also such good-looking studs!) are far more striking than any differences, which were mainly in phrasing. Scherchen conducted with a traditional legato feel whereas Rosbaud, like Rodziński and Toscanini, had a more “vertical” style, lining up the orchestral sound so as to elicit perfect clarity. In their choice of tempi, however, they were striking similar, thus I have no qualms about combining these two very fine conductors’ Mahler recordings to complete the set of the nine symphonies. (For the record, Scherchen performed more than just these three Mahler symphonies. He also left us recordings of Nos. 1, 5-7 and 9, which makes all of them except the popular Fourth, although his idiosyncratic performance of the Fifth, where he made two large cuts in the Scherzo, is the worst of the lot.)

In listening to this set, whether as a reviewer or simply as a lay listener, one must realize that Mahler performances and recordings prior to the big “Mahler Revival” of the 1960s, spearheaded by Jascha Horenstein in England and Leonard Bernstein in America, were sporadic at best, even from his supposed acolytes Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer. Oskar Fried, forgotten today, made the first recording of a complete Mahler symphony in 1924—and it was the difficult, massive Second, not the First or Fourth. The first electrical recording of a Mahler symphony was the Fourth, by Japanese conductor Hidemaro Kanoye in 1930; the next one was another of the Second Symphony by, of all people, Eugene Ormandy with the Minneapolis Symphony in 1935 (a typically Hungarian approach, taut and ignoring most of Mahler’s instructions, but very exciting). Bruno Walter gave us a few performances and recordings of Mahler Symphonies, but only the First, Second, Fourth and Ninth, the latter a one-off performance with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1938 (he performed and recorded Das Lied von der Erde much more frequently). Prior to the 1960s, Klemperer only gave us one recording, of the Second Symphony in the 1950s. Polish conductor Paul Kletzki, once greatly admired but now also virtually forgotten, made two recordings of the First Symphony in the 1950s. The first American performance of the Eighth Symphony, a very famous one, was given by Leopold Stokowski with the New York Philharmonic in 1950 (with excellent vocal soloists). Until Bernstein and Horenstein really opened the doors in the very late 1950s (the latter with a superb performance of the extremely difficult Third Symphony), that was about it. And in the 1960s, in addition to a remake of the Second Symphony, Klemperer only deigned to give us the Fourth (along with Das Lied). Apparently, the “Mahler acolytes” didn’t much care for the composer’s other symphonies.

But not Rosbaud or Scherchen. They dug into Mahler and just kept on plugging away.

The first symphony, by Rosbaud, lived up to my expectations. The orchestral transparency is so clear that it sounds as if one is listening with X-ray ears. Phrasing and tempi are a little quirky, but if you look at the score, it supports these choices. Mahler was extremely detailed when it came to phrasing, throwing in constant instructions such as “Clar. without regard to Tempo I,” “sung very softly,” “in the far distance” and “soft and expressive”—all of the preceding, by the way, just on page 2 of his score—but set no metronome markings. The second movement may indeed seem a bit slow to some modern listeners, but Mahler’s instructions were “move quickly, but not too much.” Rosbaud, whose musical knowledge was vast and deep (one of his hobbies was also reading literature, new and old, in the original languages), took all this into account in his presentation of this work. It may indeed sound just a shade quirky, but as I’ve said many, many times, Mahler is the one composer whose music can withstand a great deal of elasticity because that was the musical tradition he grew up in. The one thing you cannot conduct Mahler with is emotional distance or objectivity, and thankfully, this is something that Rosbaud does not do. His performance has the pulse of life about it.

Among the many little things you hear clearly here than you’ve probably never heard before, not even in modern digital recordings, are the buzz of the low winds at the very end of the slow Trio section of the second movement. It’s a small detail, certainly, but it’s in the score and now you can hear it. This is very much a performance that, as Toscanini would have said, “is like reading the score.” Rosbaud also emphasizes the solo cello at the beginning of the third movement in such a way that it sounds a bit sour—not really out of tune, just a tad strange. But Mahler’s instructions are for the cello to play this opening solo with the damper on the strings, and one player’s amount of damper can often vary from one musician to another. The point is that it sounds Mahlerian, and in Mahler’s world that’s all that matters. (I once saw a few pages of Mahler’s own score of this symphony from the New York Philharmonic’s library, and he wrote even MORE detailed instructions in the margins in red pencil!) The last movement practically explodes, as it should, but again with this incredibly clear orchestral detailing. Part of this is helped by the fact that his orchestra(s) were still using single-F French horns, which virtually disappeared from orchestras, particularly in Wagner and Mahler performances, by the late 1960s.

We then move to Scherchen’s performance of the Second Symphony, a stereo studio recording from 1958. The soloists are not well known—American contralto Lucretia West and South African soprano Mimi Coertse—but they sing well and that’s all that matters. Like Rosbaud’s first, Scherchen’s Second sounds a bit measured in places (his performance is 14 minutes longer than Walter’s 1948 broadcast) but, again, follows Mahler’s detailed but quirky instructions exactly. And remember, this from a conductor who took Beethoven at or very near his metronome markings most of the time so, again, he was following the composer’s detailed instructions in the score on a phrase-by-phrase basis. Yet like the Rosbaud first, there is incredible orchestral detailing, and it sounds like Mahler. The first movement sets the tone: very slowly at first, but picking up speed as we move into the second section. Interestingly, when the Second Symphony is played this way, it sounds much closer to the First in style than it usually does. Interestingly, this performance is very similar in phrasing and tempo to Klaus Tennstedt’s 1986 live performance with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the difference being that Tennstedt somehow imparted more energy and a bit more cohesion to Mahler’s maddeningly fluctuating tempo instructions.

We now hear what makes the Rosbaud-Scherchen conception of Mahler very different from those that followed: less consistent tempi, but tempi that coincided with Mahler’s often strange and extreme shifts in tempo and phrasing. One big difference, however, between these two conductors and Bernstein is that the latter often over-italicized details in the score which added extra hysteria to music that was plenty hysterical enough the way it was.

The Third Symphony, though a little slow, is not as extreme in tempo as the performance of the Second though, again, he’s following Mahler’s sometimes contradictory instructions. I especially liked the fact that the posthorn in the third movement was really at a distance from the rest of the orchestra; it gave the music an eerie effect while simply playing what the composer wished. All in all, this is one of the greatest performances of the Third I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard a ton of them. The fourth and fifth movements are sung by Czech mezzo-soprano Soňa Červená, a name new to me, who had an absolutely gorgeous, bright voice with crystal-clear diction.

The bottom line is that, if you want to hear Mahler played in a more modern style there are plenty of other recordings you can listen to that fill the bill, but if you want to hear Mahler played as closely as possible to the way Mahler himself conceived it, these are the recordings to acquire, quirky though they may sound to modern ears. All of you historically-informed folks out there should at least investigate the Rosbaud set and the additional Scherchen performances for an idea of how the composer himself worked. Small wonder that Toscanini, who heard Mahler conduct in person, called him “a crazy man.” His style made little sense to those who want their music to be linear in relatively strict time. Mahler was a universe unto himself, and these recordings bear that out better than any others I’ve heard.

We return to Rosbaud for the Fourth Symphony, an excellent performance with, again, 3D orchestral detailing, just slightly missing the feeling in the reference recording by James Levine with the Chicago Symphony. Our soprano soloist, the little-known Eva-Maria Rogner, had a high, sweet voice that was just perfect for the music in the last movement. In the Fifth Symphony, Rosbaud avoids the usual trap of having the opening trumpet figure sound sloppy by merely following Mahler’s tempo directions more clearly. (The problem is that, at the fast tempo that many conductors take it, the trumpeter often slops over the triple-tonguing, causing a mess rather than the crisp sound that Mahler wanted.) But I felt that he could have made that first movement a bit more “tragic”; he really doesn’t get into it until about the five-minute mark, when the music becomes louder, faster and more agitated. The second movement, on the other hand, is angst-filled from the very first bar and never really lets up. The remainder of the symphony is also well executed.

Rosbaud’s Sixth just misses the oppressive and almost manic feeling of Bernard Haitink’s earlier recording for Philips or Bernstein’s later one for DGG, the latter of which is my favorite, but again it is the transparency of sound and the generally accurate interpretation of the score that I appreciate. I was, however, a bit perturbed by the fact that SWR Music put the last movement on a separate CD. Why? The complete performance runs only 81:18, which would clearly have fit onto one disc.

The Seventh Symphony is similarly quite good although, except for the extraordinary clarity, I also hold a fondness for the moody performance that Rafael Kubelik gave with the New York Philharmonic many years ago. Still, it is better than Simon Rattle’s oft-overrated recording, a good reading but scarcely a stellar one. This one, in its own way, is stellar. Rosbaud builds logically, while still following most of Mahler’s instructions, from climax to climax, and always manages to bind his phrases and project a long view of the symphony’s architecture.

The Scherchen Eighth Symphony only existed online as a muddy, distorted transfer. I was able to brighten the sound and overcome much (but not all) of the distortion, which I’ve uploaded for your benefit. This is one of those Scherchen performances that could be mistaken for Rosbaud: super-clear textures and good tempi throughout. I only recognized three of the singers’ names—second soprano Daniza Ilitch and the two mezzos, Anday and Milinkovič—but except for the overly-bright voice of Ilitsch and the tight-sounding voice of tenor Erich Majkut, all sing well. I was especially surprised by Elsa Maria Matheis, a high, bright-voiced soprano for whom this appears to be her only recording, and Georg Oeggl, an Austrian bass-baritone who apparently died relatively young (in 1954, aged only 54). Another surprising feature of this recording, once you clear up the sound, is that it appears to have been recorded using an early, experimental form of stereo: there is some separation of orchestral sections between the two channels that is clearly audible through headphones. Like Rosbaud, Scherchen binds the whole symphony together structurally; this performance has more continuity to it than any other recording I’ve ever heard, and that includes two by Haitink and one each by Stokowski, Solti, Bernstein, Kubelik, Tennstedt and Thierry Fischer.

Though none of these performances (other than the Scherchen Third) ranks at the very top in terms of interpretation, this is an excellent “historic” (non-stereo) set of the Symphonies, adding to it Scherchen’s Third and Eighth.

The performance of the Ninth Symphony was the only instance where I felt that Rosbaud’s resolutely anti-Romantic approach did a disservice to the music. The first movement in particular, which cries out for, if nothing else, a sensuous legato regardless of the tempo (and Rosbaud takes it on the fast side, which I generally like), sounds impatient and edgy. If this fits into your concept of the Ninth you’ll probably like it more than I did,  but for me this performance sounded like Rosbaud were just bulldozing his way through the symphony. One must remember that this symphony was actually written after Das Lied von der Erde, which was his farewell to earth (he already knew, at that point, that he was mortally ill and would soon die), so the Ninth, which starts out, by the way, with an inversion of the last phrases of Das Lied, was his recognition that he was living on borrowed time. To conduct the symphony this objectively negates the feeling that Mahler put into it, but it is a structurally interesting performance and Rosbaud’s usual textural clarity is evident and, when he reaches the dramatic portions of the symphony, he is not lacking. The “Rondo-Burleske” is particularly good, with a really frantic finale, and the final “Adagio” does have a good legato feel to it with excellent feeling in the closing pages, but overall I didn’t think it as impressive as the other performances.

By contrast, Rosbaud’s conducting of Das Lied is very good, but oddly enough he conducts the tenor arias too slowly in places, which makes the music sag a  bit. Tenor Ernst Häfliger is in fine voice, as he usually was, but the generally dependable mezzo Grace Hoffmann was having a bad day. Her voice flutters unsteadily throughout the performance, sounds more nasal and covered than usual, and has pitch problems, all of which particularly affects the long finale, “Der Abschied,” and. This performances comes from a live broadcast of April 18, 1955.

Overall, then, a good set of the symphonies, mostly in mono. One thing I disagreed with in the liner notes was that, in praising Rosbaud, they had to take a potshot at Karl Böhm, claiming that he had an “ignorant routine glorification.” OK, so Böhm didn’t do nearly as much modern music as either Rosbaud or Scherchen. So what? His recording of Berg’s Wozzeck remains the standard by which all others are judged, and had he had access to the completed third act of Lulu his recording of that opera would likewise be judged a great success. So far as I know he recorded none of the Mahler Symphonies, but his recordings of Kindertotenlieder and the Rückert-Lieder were likewise very good. You don’t need to praise Rosbaud by bashing Böhm over the head. A great many German and Austrian conductors, including but not limited to Furtwängler (why don’t you call his popularity “ignorant routine glorification”?), Rothner, Krauss, Knappertsbusch and both Erich and Carlos Kleiber detested Mahler’s symphonies and never conducted them. Also, it’s not Böhm’s fault that he constantly accepted opportunities to conduct in America and England whereas Rosbaud didn’t except on rare occasions.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Ildikó Szabó Explores Her Heritage

cover HCD32813

HERITAGE / LIGETI: Solo Cello Sonata. EÖTVÖS: Two Poems to Polly. KURTÁG: Faith. János Pilinszky: Gérard de Nerval. Shadows. Hommage à John Cage. The Hilary Jig. C. SZABÓ: Suite for Solo Cello with Cowbells. KODÁLY: Solo Cello Sonata / Ilkidó Szabó, cello / Hungaroton HCD32813

Hungarian cellist Ildikó Szabó, former protégé of János Starker (with whom she studied every summer) and second prize winner at the Pablo Casals International Cello Competition, presents here an album of music by her favorite native composers. According to the notes, “Her close collaboration with Péter Eötvös and György Kurtág resulted in bringing together this album.” Two of the pieces presented here, Kurtág’s The Hilary Jig and Csaba Szabó’s Suite for Solo Cello with Cowbells, are first recordings.

Ildikó says in the liner notes that Starker told her “we play concerts for the audience, and we make the recordings for ourselves.” She wasn’t quite sure what to make of that when she first heard it, but later realized that “In the studio we have the chance to set down experiences and ideas that have been maturing for many years, an interpretation we consider to be ideal.” Her personal relationships with both Eötvös and Kurtág helped inspire the idea for this album.

I have two excellent recordings of Ligeti’s Solo Cello Sonata, by Elena Gaponenko and Rohan de Saram. Both are rich, fruity performances played with plenty of passion. Szabó, however, plays them in a style that I recognize as being like Starker: direct, clean, and somewhat dry in tone. I liked some of Starker’s recordings, but he was never a big favorite of mine, and his rather dry sound was the principal reason. Now, this is not to criticize Szabó’s technique or style; in these, she is perfect; but to make a modern cello playing modern music sound like a straight-tone instrument doing Bach is simply not to my taste.

In every other respect, however, she is excellent. She definitely knows this music inside and out, and she does try to project the proper feeling. Since Ligeti was himself a Hungarian, this may even be the way he preferred to hear this work. But I’ll let you be the judge. You may feel entirely different from me.

When I got to Eötvös’ Two Poems for Polly, however, I was hooked. Szabó plays and speaks these pieces with a wonderful style, both in her speaking and her cello playing. It’s a shame, however, that the texts of these two poems aren’t included in the booklet…although, at one point, Szabó appears to be speaking in English, so perhaps I just need to try to decipher the words through her heavy accent. That, however, is the only blemish in an otherwise superb performance, and here Szabó also varies her cello tone, occasionally producing a very bright sound.

The other pieces by Eötvös, all rather short, are played equally well. My favorite was Shadows; my least favorite was Hommage à John Cage, one of the biggest frauds ever perpetrated on the classical music community. The previously unrecorded Hilary Jig is an interesting piece, but not nearly as fascinating as Csaba Szabó’s bizarre suite for solo cello and cowbells. This is almost microtonal music, the cellist slithering up and down the strings, with some pauses and even dead stops written into the score. The Finale is particularly spellbinding, with virtuoso swoops upward and a technique of plucking a string and making that sound move upward in a portamento as well. This is a stunning work and a stunning performance.

Interestingly, Szabó plays the Kodály sonata with a richer tone and more attractive vibrato. I would rate her performance as being nearly as good as than og Gaponenko, who also recorded this work.

Overall, then, a very interesting album and a fine personal statement by a very talented and obviously sincere artist.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Huebner Plays Ligeti

cover FCR269

LIGETI: Études pour piano, Books I & II. Trio for Violin, Horn & Piano* / Eric Huebner, pno; *Yuki Numata Resnick, vln; Adam Unsworth, Fr-hn / New Focus Recordings FCR269

Here is a new recording of György Ligeti’s complete piano Études as well as a performance of his Horn Trio by American pianist Eric Huebner. Since I already have these works in my collection played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard on Sony Classical, I of course made a comparison between the two.

Both performances do justice to the music, but the two pianists’ approaches are slightly different. Aimard imparts a bit more legato to his recordings whereas Huebner plays in a crisp, staccato style with no legato at all and, in fact, with no attempt to sustain any tones.

As a modern composer, Ligeti can of course withstand this sort of approach. He was a Hungarian, after all, and the Hungarian style of classical performance tends towards the objective rather than the subjective, but in a piece such as the fifth Étude, titled “Arc-en-ciel,” I felt that a little pedal wouldn’t have done any harm. It’s true that here, as in other such pieces, Huebner does play a bit more delicately than elsewhere, but the unrelentingly bright, crisp sound of his instrument provided only a little by way of contrast, although Huebner does indeed observe all of Ligeti’s dynamics markings which are extremely important to this music.

The Horn Trio is played well, particularly by violinist Resnick and Huebner. Our French horn player, Adam Unsworth, has a muffled tone, not as clear as that of the great Marie-Luise Neunecker on the Sony recording, but otherwise he handles his assignment well. I always got a laugh out of the fact that Ligeti subtitled this “Hommage à Brahms” since, aside from the specific combination of instruments, there is little correlation to the Brahms Horn Trio. Everything about this piece is entirely different, not least the eerie harmonies. The second movement is particularly sprightly in its weird atonal way.

A good recording, then. If you don’t already have these works in your collection, it’s a good place to start, but I would also recommend that you explore the Sony Classical Ligeti: Masterpieces set.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Chuck Bergeron Has Cheap Thrills!


CHEAP THRILLS / MARGITZA: Cheap Thrills. The Place to Be. Widow’s Walk. Brace Yourself. 45 Pound Hound. Premonition. Walls. Sometimes I Have Rhythm. G. & I. GERSHWIN: Embraceable You / South Florida Jazz Orchestra; Rick Margitza, t-sax; Chuck Bergeron, bs/dir / Summit DCD 757

This CD celebrates the 15th anniversary of bassist-leader Chuck Bergeron and his South Florida Jazz Orchestra. In doing so, he presents here eight originals and one arrangement of a standard by saxophonist Rick Margitza. Margitza is described in the press release as a “saxophone great,” but in 47 years of writing reviews and 55 years of listening to jazz I hadn’t heard of him before. In addition to playing solos, he and John Fedchock are co-producers of the album.

At the very beginning of the opener, Cheap Thrills, the rhythm section sets up a beat that immediately reminded me of Vince Guaraldi’s music, but it quickly changed course once the orchestra comes in. Although there is no imagination in the scoring, the South Florida band is a tight group and the charts are cleverly written. Guitarist John Hart, the first soloist up, thankfully plays in a jazz and not in a rock or funk style but his improvisation left me cold. Far better is Margitza, who plays a terrific tenor sax solo that extends over several choruses.

The Place to Be is a cute chart, taken at a nice walking tempo and sounding something like the old tune Back in Your Own Back Yard. The melodic line sort of stutters along, with spaces between the notes, before Margitza again takes over. Here, there are some nice scoring touches in the use of clarinet and flute in the upper range. There’s also a nice, slightly quirky piano solo by Martin Bejerano, and an interesting instrumental passage in which various instruments play a canon against each other.


Rick Margitza

Widow’s Walk opens with some nice piano flourishes which somehow turns into the opening motif played by the orchestra, but it’s left to Margitza to play the actual theme. This one has a sort of Latin-styled beat to it, graceful and flowing, with very interesting and attractive chord changes. Brace Yourself is a fast-paced, quirky tune, again with a sort of Latin beat but with a melodic line that is anything but…something like a cross between samba and Shorty Rogers. Hart plays another innocuous guitar solo before making room for Margitza to return, and return he does with brilliant playing. Drummer John Yarling also gets a nice solo on this one.

45 Pound Hound opens with a drum solo, then moves into Margitza playing the theme with staccato interjections from clarinet and muted trumpet before the bass trombones introduce the rest of the orchestra. This piece is very imaginatively scored, at least at the beginning. Guest trumpeter Brian Lynch plays a very fine solo, followed in turn by Margitza playing very cute variations with a syncopated kick. The scored passage which follows almost sounds like a variant on Margitza’s solo…very clever…before a return to the quirky orchestra. This is clearly one of the most interesting pieces on the CD.

Interestingly, Premonition almost seems to pick up where 45 Pound Hound left off: not that the tune itself is the same, but the lighter, more transparent scoring, emphasizing the high winds and low reeds, is in the same vein. I did feel, however, that the ensemble went on for a bit too long in this one before the solos appeared. Walls opens in ballad tempo with Margitza playing solo before the band, again focused on light wind scoring, backs him up. When we reach the theme proper, however, the tempo picks up and both soloist and band are backed by a heavy bass line played by the baritone sax. This one really swings when it finally gets going, with zippy little trumpet and sax figures that come in and out. Berjerano also plays quite well here. but again it is a showcase for Margitza.

Sometimes I Have Rhythm is an uptempo tune with more of a bass line than a melodic line—the latter is really just a series of stepwise scalar figures, against which Margitza has scored the orchestra to run counter, playing downward scales. After the solos there are some very cleverly arranged ensemble passages played by the band.

We end our excursion with Margitza’s arrangement of the Gershwin brothers’ classic tune, Embraceable You. Here Margitza indulges in some very interesting substitute chords as well as re-accenting and sometimes redistributing the rhythm. It’s a nice finish to an overall nice album. Great summertime jazz!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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New Recording of the Weinberg Sixth

cover KL1532

WEINBERG; Symphony No. 6 / Konzertchor Rutheneum; Philharmonisches Orchester Altenberg Gera; Laurent Wagner, cond / 21 Easy Pieces / Elisaveta Blumina, pno / Klanglogo KL1532-1

The Klanglogo label, a year late, is getting in on the Weinberg centennial with this new recording of the composer’s Sixth Symphony and 21 Easy Pieces. Although these works have been recorded before, it’s always good to have alternate versions available, and it’s also nice to see a German orchestra and conductor get in on the act.

The principal competition for this version of the symphony is Vladimir Lande’s recording on Naxos, a very fine performance. This one has its own appeal, however, particularly in the very spacious sound and the brightness of both the boys’ choir and the orchestra. By and large, Laurent Wagner takes a somewhat more spacious reading than Lande, but both are effective. The almost 3D sound here gives the performance an unusual quality, almost as if the performing forces were “bottomless.” Part of this is due to the composer’s emphasis on very high winds and strings, but part of it is also due to the way the recording was engineered. For those unfamiliar with Weinberg’s music (although I would think, at this point, that most classical listeners are unless they spend their time listening to classical radio stations, which generally avoid him), his symphonic music is by no means conventional. It alternates sad, almost painful writing with upbeat, almost manic passages, as in the “Allegretto” of this symphony, although even this is interrupted at the midway point by a mocking clarinet. Weinberg laid bare the world of his interior feelings, which were so imbued with the pain, suffering and loss that came from the second World War that these feelings became his music. Indeed, if anything, I found Wagner’s performance of this symphony even more emotionally powerful than Lande’s, and that’s saying quite a lot.

In the 21 Easy Pieces we hear the great pianist Elisaveta Blumina. Her chief competitor here is Allison Brewster Franzetti on the Grand Piano label, who is also a fine pianist. Were these deeper music, I would say that Blumina scores over Franzetti due to her more emotional approach although these pieces are only “easy” technically, not in terms of emotional content. It is certainly a fine performance of the entire series. No. 3, “The Skipping Rope,” sounds oddly like a bit of music from a silent film accompaniment. One of the more affecting pieces is No. 5, which is ironically entitled “Playmates” as there is nothing really playful about it.

Overall, then, a very fine album for Weinberg aficionados.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Modern Spanish Music by Camerata Gala

cover IBS-112020ALDERETE: Ballanda con Arcos. JORDÁN: Alzheimer.* GARCÍA AGUILERA: Abisal. R. RODRÍGUEZ: Espiral. CÁRDENAS: Influence. DELGADO: No Questions / *Auxi Belmonte, sop; Camerata Gala; Alejandro Muñoz, cond / IBS Classical 112020

Over time, certain CD labels have become favorites of mine because they issue fascinating recordings of modern music to offset the standard repertoire out there. Brilliant Classics, which balances the two, is one, but Piano Classics and IBS Classical are high on my radar because they generally specialize in offbeat repertoire.

Here is an album of such music played by the now 14-year-old orchestra Camerata Gala (originally known as Camerata Capricho Español) under its youthful music director Alejandro Muñoz. The music is really up-to-the-minute, with the opener, Ballanda con Arcos or Dancing with Bows by Igmar Alderete having been finished just last year. It’s an excellent opener: mostly tonal although using open harmonies and rhythmic despite the use of irregular metric divisions of the bars, drawing from both Spanish and Cuban folk music, with a slow middle section featuring short solos. The music becomes more complex and bitonal in the second half. This isn’t a very “deep” piece, but it’s accessible and attractive, the kind of work that would make a perfect concert opener.

Next up is one of the strangest pieces on the album, Rubén Jordán’s Alzheimer. Any piece of music connected to a widespread ailment that afflicts close to half of the elderly population, and does not spare such mentally active people as Maureen Forrester, Jon Vickers or Ronald Reagan, is bound to be somewhat strange by nature. This one is based on a poem of the same title by Manuel García. This, too, has a tonal and even a somewhat Romantic feel about it, combining somewhat the elements of film music and minimalism, but again open harmonies are used to create a feeling of edginess. Part of the poem is as follows:

Round the dark corners of the mind,
down the lightless pit of memory,
through the empty streets of History,
there walks a man.

He knows not what time is,
neither can he tell.

He knows not about the serin outside,
nor about the gleaming poppies
in the green, nor about
the orange-scented air
of a rainy spring.

The soprano soloist, Auxi Belmonte, has a solid but very bright voice, the extreme upper register tending towards an over-bright sound without becoming too shrill. The music at this point vacillates between the major and minor, often switching keys at a moment’s notice. One thing I liked about this score was its construction: Jordán manages to pull his themes and variants together without resorting to too much minimalist repetition, and even when parts of the music are repeated the harmony changes; these sections almost appear as interludes between more creative and interesting music. There are even some virtuosic passages for the soprano in which she sings fast staccato in her upper range. Surprisingly, it ends on an unresolved chord.

Abisal by Hisae YanaseAbisal, or Deep Sea, was written by Juan de Dios García Aguilera as a tribute to the late Japanese artist Hisae Yanase Sudo who explored the links between East and West.  This is very atmospheric and almost elusive music which, as the liner notes explain, “unfolds through a sequence of musical atmospheres that suggest not only luminous but also unique gestures, harmonies, textures, and shades of timbre. On the whole, Abisal emphasizes light as opposed to darkness, as well as it stresses the primacy of the whole over the part.” It is a truly extraordinary piece, scored for only 15 strings.

Next up is the title track, Espiral by Raquel Rodriguez. We are back here to tonality and a touch of minimalism, imbued with very Romantic melodic lines which she describes as “a window to the sounds and images of the Universe.” The interest in the music lies not so much in the top line as in the somewhat surging rhythm of the lower strings, constantly nudging the music forward and shifting tonality as the long violin section lines continue going on. At 2:38 we switch from long lines to swirling figures as the violas and cellos dance around beneath them. Then the music slows down, the swirling stops, and we hear very tonal passages in a slow 3 with the rhythm divided asymmetrically; then soft violin tremolos. Indeed, this constant shifting and morphing of the music is what gives it interest, but for me the music went on too long and said much less than I expected. Mónica Cardéna’s Influence refers to the influence of Spanish, Cuban and African music in South American folk rhythms, but to my ears the piece was not particularly interesting or well written except for the rhythmic bass-cello duet in the middle.

We end our concert with José Javier Delgado, a piece built, as the liner notes describe, “upon hardness and alternation,” exploring “communicative possibilities as well as emptiness and the gap between electronic screens and the world.” This, too, is a primarily tonal piece, and in fact sounds more like movie music than classical music. (No, I am not one of those reviewers who likes film music most of the time.)

In tot, then, a mixed bag. I really enjoyed Ballanda con Arcos, Alzheimer and Abisal and kind-of liked Espiral, but the last two pieces held little interest or appeal for me.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Roger Reynolds’ String Quartets

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REYNOLDS: FLIGHT. not forgotten / JACK Quartet / Mode MOD-CD-326-1

American composer, who turned 85 this past July 18, is not a household name. One listen to his music will tell you why. Reynolds does not write music that is the least bit easy to assimilate. He gives very little to the listener in the way of guideposts to hang onto. His music challenges you at every turn; strange, suspended openings, atonal swoops and dives by the strings, and other strange sounds. In terms of his atonalism he is in step with a great many composers of his generation, yet at least in these two works presented here—both written in the 21st century—there seems very little that relates to any other composer though he borrows a few ideas from several.

This doesn’t mean that Reynolds is eclectic in the sense that he sounds like others, because he clearly doesn’t. All it means is that he learned certain techniques from others that serve him well. The music is extremely difficult to describe, as was the music of Harry Partch, because it doesn’t really fit into a describable pattern. In the first movement of FLIGHT, for instance, he builds a slow-moving but intricate web of sliding chromatics around simple, one- or two-note sustained figures at a time. By the seven-minute mark, the music suddenly quadruples in tempo and becomes more agitated, yet once again it’s difficult to put his music into words.

Indeed, due to what I would describe as the “fluctuating” quality of Reynolds’ music, even when it is fast and somewhat furious, as in the second movement, it is still somewhat elusive to the lazy listener. It’s not so much that the music is too complex to grasp, or too fast-moving, but so different n the way it moves and its progression that it takes all your powers of concentration to follow the bouncing ball, so to speak. There’s something about this piece that, rather than describing conventional flight—a bird, a glider, an airplane—seems to be descriptive of a UFO hovering overhead and occasionally swooping down to frighten or annoy the population.

If anything, it is the chromatic upward swirls of not forgotten that sounds more like flight. Here, in fact, Reynolds plays into the idea of flight much more with this upward and downward motion, using microtonal music in a manner similar to that of Júlian Carillo. At 1:23 into the second movement, Reynolds finally presents us with at least a short motif, played by the viola, to hang on to, but then just as quickly pulls the rug out from under us.

As this second quartet went on, however, I began to realize that all of this music fell into the same pattern, and although each individual movement by itself was good, the cumulative effect was déjà vu. It’s more than just Reynolds’ signature style, it’s a bit of a rut. Without at least some variety in the writing, all you produce are isolated pieces that really can’t be programmed together because of their similarity. In the last movement of this second quartet, Reynolds adds some banging and scraping sounds for variety but the overall pattern is about the same.

Yet the CD is interesting to hear at least once, and the performances by the JACK Quartet are excellent.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The UM Symphony Plays Modern Music

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KAIROS / KUSTER: Rain On It. RUSH: Interior Castle (of St. Theresa). CHAMBERS: Kairos. BOLCOM: Lyric Concerto* / *Amy Porter, fl; University of Michigan Symphony Orch.; Kenneth Kiesler, cond / Centaur CRC 3793

This unusual disc features first recordings (although the Bolcom was previously released) of four works by modern American composers, of whom only William Bolcom is well known. Kristen Kuster (b. 1973) was born in North Carolina but grew up in Colorado. She was a pupil of Bolcom’s as well as of Evan Chambers and Michael Daugherty at the University of Michigan. Chambers (b. 1963), a Louisiana native, is also a Irish fiddler, He too studied at UM, with William Albright, Leslie Bassett and Nicholas Thorne. Stephen Rush (b.1958) is a Professor at UM who studied with Gunther Schuller, David Liptak and Samuel Adler, He has recently authored a book on the “harmolodics” method of jazz musician and composer Ornette Coleman.

Kuster’s Rain is a fast, edgy piece using rapid eighth-note figures interspersed with percussion to create a somewhat atmospheric piece. My complaint, at least at the outset, was that it tended to stay on one chord for too long a time, not presenting any modulation until about 1:20. It’s a nice, solid piece showing Kuster’s knowledge of how to put music together, and entertaining for the most part, but to my ears it didn’t say anything much, being more of an “atmosphere” sort of piece. It goes on too long and says very little.

Rush describes Interior Castle as his third symphony, based on the “eightfold path” of St. Theresa of Avila. Only a little over 18 minutes long, it is divided into seven movements, each with a title: “”Moats with Lizards,” “Rats and Lizards” (I detect an attraction to lizards?), “Humility,” “Bhakti Joy,” Caterpillar…to…Butterfly,” “…that still small voice…” and “Celestial Marriage.” This is far more substantial music, opening with a fast introduction but quickly settling down to slower, more atmospheric themes, well constructed and, interestingly, including some jazz-styled syncopations (played well by the orchestra but lacking a true jazz feel). There are, in the first movement, also brief spot solos for different instruments including the cello, flute and piano. In the second movement, the rats and lizards skip merrily along to peppy, uptempo music with the rhythm accentuated in the background by woodblocks. Here, Rush makes the most of short motifs, often scored with open harmony in the manner of Aaron Copland. This moves with only the shortest of breaks into “Humility,” a slow movement well constructed on broad string themes. Once again, Rush leans on the “Americana” sound in his music but, to his credit, does not ape Copland. What he writes is wholly original. The music comes to a loud climax at around the 2:08 mark with high strings, brass and percussion, before falling away to a more atmospheric, softer section featuring the high winds and celesta.

“Bhakti Joy” is a peppy little piece in asymmetric rhythm featuring clarinets and brass which also includes a slow interlude with soft string tremolos. Here the rhythm, despite its odd meter, has a certain connection to American folk music but with a twist. It’s a fascinating piece with other slow interludes, one featuring the brass section and another featuring the basses and celli which leads directly into the next section, “Caterpillar…to…Butterfly.” Although I liked this music very much, I am loath to call it a symphony as it is not really constructed along symphonic lines, not even those symphonies in one movement with several distinct sections, yet it is clearly more complex than a suite. I’d describe it more as a symphonic fantasia. “…that still small voice…” is, appropriately enough, a relatively quiet movement with a surprising swell of volume featuring the trombone section before leading into the full orchestra, followed by a jaunty ragtime-type theme that slightly resembles They Called the Wind Maria in a minor key. One thing you have to say for Rush is that is music is surprising and eclectic! The ragtime theme slows down near the end of the movement, followed by “Celestial Marriage,” a surprisingly explosive movement albeit not very fast, featuring the brass section, then the winds. Kielser’s performance is excellent.

Chambers’ Kairos is a very dramatic piece, opening with loud brass, string and percussion figures. The composer describes the composition thus:

This piece is about time, from a presentation in the first movement of a nightmare vision of time out of synch (which is our post-modern condition), to the evocation of seasonal time embodied in a dark spring evening which follows, and time as marked by the free and energized physical energy of youth in the last movement.

Kairos is an ancient Greek word for time; there is a god of the same name in Greek mythology. In contrast to Chronos (the more commonly used quantitative word for measured ordinary time), Kairos refers to a qualitative sense of ripeness, a liminal period of opportunity during which transformation is possible. In Christian practice the word Kairos is associated both with eternity and with social justice movements; the Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich uses the term to refer to points of existential crisis that demand the choice of a new way.

I begin to think that one of our primary contemporary ailments is that we are all time-sick, trapped bouncing without resolution between the colliding temporal dimensions imposed on us by our media, our technologies, our society, our conscious selves, and our environments. The title of first movement comes from one of my favorite diary entries of Franz Kafka in which he presents this kind of unreconcilable temporal dislocation in terms of an inner-outer duality: “The clocks are not in unison; the inner one runs crazily on at a devilish or demoniac or in any case inhuman pace, the outer one limps along at its usual speed. What else can happen but that the two worlds split apart, and they do split apart, or at least clash in a fearful manner.”

Written in three movements of which the first two are linked, the second “offers a refuge from clashing timescapes, and is envisioned as a brief nocturne. The title The Queen of Spring references both a more animistic ritual relationship between self and season as well as an anecdote that was related to me about the work’s dedicatee: she once winkingly introduced herself to a group as ‘The Queen’ (Elizabeth) ‘of Spring’ (Green).” This is tremendously interesting music which has an excellent flow (something that Interior Castle, for all its wonderful things, did not) that sweeps the listener along. I could not find any indication that Chambers considers this piece a symphony, yet it is built much more along symphonic lines. The third movement, “Being-Time,” is almost in a different style and sounds quite jolly compared to the first two, with a strong rhythmic base and the occasional use of open fifths in its harmony. Once again, the U Mich Orchestra plays with exceptional commitment and fervor.

Bolcom’s Lyric Concerto for flute and orchestra is typical of the composer, written in an appealing style albeit here with considerable chromatic movement in the harmony. The flute part in the first movement, however, is only partly lyrical; in places, the flautist buzzes on her instrument and plays a series of fast-paced serrated figures that seemingly expand without always finding resolution. Yet Bolcom finds a way to develop these odd little figures in an interesting and engaging manner. In the second movement, “Waltz Song,” Bolcom creates a sort of oom-pah feel to his waltz that makes it almost sound like a German Schuhplattler. Here, the flute soloist sounds much more whimsical as the orchestra waltzes rather slowly and stompily beneath it, occasionally taking matters into her own hands with fast, flighty figures in 4/4, though the flute later gives in and joins in the oom-pah waltz.

The third movement, “Memory,” begins mysteriously with soft, high string tremolos, the solo flute playing a strong yet quirky melodic line above them. This, in turn, leads to the fourth movement, a happy little piece in F major titled “A Bespoke Rondo.” Once again, the movements don’t really seem to have much correlation to one another, but it is a very interesting and enjoyable piece.

Overall, I liked this CD very much. Only the Kuster piece sounded rather uninteresting to me.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Soddy Conducts Messiaen

MESSIAEN: Turangalîla Symphony / Tamara Stefanovich, pno; Thomas Bloch, ondes martenot; Nationaltheaterorchester Mannheim; Alexander Soddy, cond / Oehms Classics OC 472-1 (live: Mannheim, November 11-12, 2019)

Here a relatively familiar modern work, Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony of 1946-48, commissioned by, of all people, ,Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky, is led in this performance by a rather young and unknown conductor, British-born Alexander Soddy. Born in Oxford, Soddy was trained at both the Royal College of Music and Cambridge University, becoming répétiteur of the National Opera Studio in London in 2004. Having since won lotsa lotsa prizes (don’t they all win prizes nowadays?), he debuted as a conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, Vienna State Opera and English National Opera in the 2017-18 season

Although Soddy’s performance, overall, is a minute and a half shorter than the famed recording by Sylvain Cambreling, this is deceptive. Most of the movements are in fact conducted just a shade quicker than Cambreling, the exception being the massive sixth movement, “Jardin du sommeil d’amour.” Cambreling takes 13:50 to get through it while Soddy zips through it in just 11:12.

But there are more differences between the two performances than just that. In terms of technology, the sound on this new release is far sharper and clearer than on Cambreling’s 2008 recording for SWR Music/Hänssler Classic. In terms of musical style and performance, well, this one has some problems. Despite the generally slower tempi, everything sounds choppier and more episodic. Soddy also takes a very objective, wide-awake approach to the symphony whereas Cambreling revels in the odd Middle Eastern vibe that Messiaen brought to the score. Soddy’s reading is objectively sound and brings out the structure of the music, but this is one of those pieces in which structure isn’t everything. One might be tempted to say that Soddy approaches the work as, say, Rodziński, Toscanini or Munch might have done, but there is one factor that is missing, and that is the emotional energy that Rodziński, Toscanini and Munch brought to everything they conducted. Soddy not only lacks cohesion in phrasing, but also lacks any emotional connection to the music. This performance may as well have been conducted by a robot, or created on a MIDI that could perfectly simulate the sound of conventional instruments.

What surprised me the most was that this recording was taken from a pair of live performances given in November 2019. It surprised me because it doesn’t sound as if it were a performance in which the conductor was trying to connect with his audience; it’s just “there.” But since, as I said earlier, I had never heard of Soddy before, I don’t know if everything he conducts sounds like this. In all honesty, I think that many of these prize competitions he has won judged him on his knowledge of the score and his technical control of the orchestra—important factors in the makeup of any conductor, certainly, but by no means the whole story. Without the element of humanity in the performance, you might as well judge an actor by how perfectly they can move and deliver the lines, not by whether or not they inhabit the character they’re portraying.

I’m sure there will be some readers who disagree with me in my assessment, and that’s OK. I’ve constantly said that a music reviewer like myself only presents one view, which is mine. It is based on a lifetime’s experience in listening to music, but it’s just my view. You may prefer Soddy’s reading because it sounds mechanical and objective. I just happen not to.

Anyway, that’s my feeling about this recording. I’ll stick with Cambreling until another performance just as good or better comes along.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Schwabe & Weiss Play Kodály & Ligeti

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KODÁLY: Duo for Violin & Cello.* Solo Cello Sonata. LIGETI: Sonata for Solo Cello / Gabriel Schwabe, cel; *Hellen Weiss, vln / Naxos 8.574202

German cellist Gabriel Schwabe, accompanied by violinist Hellen Weiss (spelled Weiβ on the album), here play cello works by Zoltán Kodály and György Ligeti. I would have said “well known” works, but the Kodály Duo, dating from 1914, is not as well known as his solo cello sonata from the following year, and this was the one work I was not familiar with prior to hearing this release.

It has always rather surprised me that, although he is acknowledged as a great composer and played with some regularity, Kodály is somehow less celebrated than his good friend and fellow-composer Bela Bartók. I think that Bartók’s earlier demise has something to do with it, because really, both were outstanding composers in the new Hungarian style, using the Magyar folk tunes that both collected on cylinder recordings as the basis for their work. Another reason may be that Kodály’s later years were heavily involved in writing choral music which is something that Bartók seldom explored.

Another reason may be Kodály’s stronger connection to traditional construction of his works. For all their innovative harmony, he was at heart more of a classicist than Bartók, who broke the mold more frequently. This Duo, beautifully played by Schwabe and Weiβ, is a perfect example. Remove the harsh Hungarian folk music harmonies and it might have been a piece by Beethoven in terms of thematic use and development. This doesn’t make it derivative, but it does make it a little less radical than Bartók’s music, though the Bartók of the 1910s was not yet the Bartók of the mid-1920s through the 1940s. The one thing that surprised me was how this work concentrates on slow-moving figures: both the second and third movements are set in slow tempi, with the third and last finally moving towards an “Allegro” about three minutes in.

The early (1948-53) sonata for solo cello by Ligeti also has ties to the Bartók-Kodály school of composition, but with the strange microtonal portamenti one can already sense that he was starting to move in a different direction. Schwabe’s performance is a very good one though not quite as deeply felt as the one by cellist-pianist Elena Gaponenko.

Interestingly, except for the microtonal slides, Kodály’s solo cello sonata bears some resemblance in style, if not in form or structure, to the Ligeti work. Schwabe is also quite good in this piece as well, though again Gaponenko just edges him out.

A fine CD, then, and an excellent showcase for young Schwabe as well as a sample of Weiβ’s excellent playing.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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