The Pointer Sisters: Lost in a Dream

Pointer Sisters

I was deeply saddened in June to learn of the death of Bonnie Pointer, member of one of my youthful idols, The Pointer Sisters. I admit that I wasn’t very happy when they went into only performing soul music, from about the fall of 1976 onward, but from 1973 to 1976 I couldn’t get enough of them. Every time they were on television, I made it my business to be sitting in front of a set, my eyes and ears glued to the screen.

Those early Pointer Sisters performances and recordings were from the time when there were four of them: Bonnie, Anita, June and Ruth. And as much as I loved the other three, I always felt it was sister Ruth who was the glue that held the other three’s voices together. Ruth had a deep, dark contralto that almost sounded like a foghorn, but she was hip and she could scat as well as the other three.

Those were the days, when the Pointers came on TV dressed in thrift store hand-me-downs from the 1930s and ‘40s, wearing junk jewelry and high chunky heeled shoes and looking like a million dollars—and sounding just as good. They could, and did, sing anything and everything in those days: a few soul numbers but so much more. Broadway show tunes like Steam Heat, older jazz pieces like That’s A-Plenty and Save the Bones for Henry Jones and a medley of Duke Ellington songs, then scat on bop numbers like Little Pony, Salt Peanuts and Cloudburst, then turn around and sing an old torch song like Black Coffee and even a C&W tune that they wrote themselves called Fairytale. And everything they did was superb.

Back in the 1990s, when I was a guest on Oscar Treadwell’s jazz radio show, I brought two albums that I just wanted to play at least one track each from: the John Kirby Sextet and the Pointer Sisters, who by that time had become completely identified with soul music. I played Salt Peanuts and Treadwell’s eyes just lit up…he, who had been around as a jazz disc jockey in New York DURING the late swing and early bebop era, was absolutely thrilled by them, but some music critic from the Cincinnati Enquirer began laying into them, complaining that their voices never really blended properly. I couldn’t believe that this insignificant insect was trashing my idols, particularly after a jazz icon like Oscar had given them his seal of approval. So their blend wasn’t “perfect.” So what? They could still blend, and in a song like Salt Peanuts where the goal was to just sing the theme and then scat like crazy, who cared? Years later, I felt vindicated when I discovered an old TV clip from around 1974 on which Patty Andrews of the Andrews Sisters told host George Burns that there was a singing group around that was better than she and her sisters. The Pointers came out, and Patty joined them in a short version of the Andrews’ first big hit, Bei Mir Bist du Schoen. They sounded terrific together…and in listening to it, I realized what the Pointers had that the Andrews didn’t, and that was a black sense of rhythm. When they sang the word “mir,” they slurred the note upwards, giving it a soul feeling, and it sounded terrific.

But what happened to the Pointer Sisters was typical of the show business mentality of that time. Despite the fact that they had proven that they could succeed in being eclectic in their material, they were eventually forced to conform. They were a black group, so ergo they had to just sing black pop music.

Anita, with Bonnie sitting next to her and occasionally chiming in, talked about their background and early years in a 2015 interview now available on YouTube:[1]

Anita: “I remember singing…God, I must have been five years old, we were little soldiers at the church…Daddy and sister, we all had piano lessons, but I really hated it so I didn’t really learn it, I wish to God I had. But when I was in Arkansas, and Bonnie was a majorette…”

Bonnie: “I was? No wonder I blocked that out!”

Anita: “…and I was a saxophone player, and I really couldn’t play the saxophone that well, I mean I could get the songs out but I wasn’t really reading the music, just memorize the fingerings of the songs…and so I would in the parades and everything. Oh, it was so much fun! Bein’ in the band was just so much fun, we’d go to football games, be on the bus, and we’d have a party on the bus on the way to the games…

Bonnie: “I was on the bus, too?”

Anita: “Yeah…But I knew we had to do something different, different unique. Our first record, they wanted us to be like the female Jackson Five, and it was during the time when the Jackson Five were really, really hot in the early ‘70s, and The Honeycombs—that was already the female version of it. We loved them both, but WE DIDN’T WANT TO BE AN IMITATION OF THEM! You know? And we knew that we had to do something unique and different for us, and luckily we had a manager and producer, David Rubinson, who was so wonderful, omigod he really was. He saw, he had insight, he could see that they were trying to put us in this little box and keep us there, and he said, “NO! You guys are different, you have different gifts, you have so many ideas for music,” I mean, from Henry Jones to Bet You’ve Got a Chick on the Side? You know, and our albums were so eclectic, they would, they didn’t relate to anybody…But really, we did not want to be pigeonholed and do ONE kind of music, so we had jazz, we had country, got a Grammy for our country music, got the Billie Holiday Jazz Award for our jazz music. I mean, we did a LOT of great things that, you know, we should have been able to do but…they’re afraid to let people stretch out, they want to go with what sells, the only thing that’s been proven to have sold, that’s the only way the industry will go. They won’t take chances! And it’s a shame!” (Bold print mine, obviously.)

Bonnie: “No…they’re takin’ a lot more now, but they…you know, when we were comin’ up…”

Anita: “Yeah, they wouldn’t take any chances…they’re kinda forced to do it now because these young kids are starting their own labels, they’re promoting and distributing their own records, you know? We didn’t have that back then, you know? It was a whole different industry, and I’m so glad for these kids now that they’re so smart and so brilliant.”

If you’d like to explore the Pointer Sisters when they were “really” the Pointer Sisters, here are a few links:

Yes We Can Can

Cloudburst

Jada

Steam Heat

Salt Peanuts

Grinning in Your Face

Shaky Flat Blues

That’s A-Plenty

Little Pony

Fairytale

Black Coffee

There’s Love in Them There Hills

Duke Ellington Medley

Save the Bones for Henry Jones

Enjoy!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZXeNv_HVfxU

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Brandon George’s Solo CD

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J.S. BACH: Partita in A min. for Solo Flute, BWV 1013. BOULEZ: Sonatine.* AHO: Solo iii. PROKOFIEV: Sonata for Flute & Piano+ / Brandon Patrick George, fl; *Steven Beck, +Jacob Greenberg, pno / Profil/Hänssler PH18039

Brandon Patrick George, flautist of the chamber group Imani Winds, has also performed as a soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Pittsburgh Symphony, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and others. So far as I can tell, this is his solo recording debut.

Probably due in part to his association with the Imani Winds, which plays a lot of contemporary music, George has included two very modern works on this CD, one by Pierre Boulez and the other by Kalevi Aho, but starts out with J.S. Bach’s Partita for solo flute. He has a wonderful tone but, at least in this piece, he took too many breaths for my taste. Artistic choice, or just a bad day? Hard to tell, but either way it mars an otherwise fine performance. He’s a bit better in the “Courante,” but still, a few breaths too many.

Yet George is absolutely superb in Boulez’ strange and demanding flute Sonatine, producing buzz effects on his instrument as the pianist accompanies him with 12-tone tickling. It almost comes as a shock to the system after the Bach piece, but I enjoy juxtapositions like this. What I particularly liked about this performance was the complete emotional commitment that George brought to the music.

Kalevi Aho’s Solo iii is a strange little piece for solo flute, using falling chromatics and microtonal slurs. It also sticks pretty much to the middle and lower range of the instrument, which produces the most haunting sound. It is in two parts, marked quarter note=66 and “Presto,” the latter being a series of rapid eighth-note motifs linked together which continually rise in pitch as the piece develops.

It’s almost hard to believe that, at one time, the Prokofiev Flute Sonata was considered “modern” music; its gentle harmonic left turns sound positively old-fashioned after Boulez and Aho; but George plays it with a good style and rhythmic swagger.

On balance, a good solo outing for this very gifted performer, showing his versatility in several different styles. I just wish he had re-recorded the Bach Partita with better breath control.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Lundquist’s Fifth & Eighth Symphonies

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LUNDQUIST: Symphonies No. 8, “Kroumata”* & 5, “Die Wienerische” + / *Malmö Symphony Orch.; Kroumata Percussion Ens.; B. Tommy Andersson, cond; +Helsingborg Symphony Orch.; Torbjöorn Iwan Lundquist, cond / Sterling Modern CDM 3007-2 (live: +November 18, 1980 & *April 18, 2002)

Having reviewed and been impressed by Lundquist’s Second and Ninth Symphonies back in February of this year (it almost seems like an entirely different year at this point!), I of course wanted to review this new disc containing his Fifth and Eighth.

As I noted in my previous review, Lundqvist’s music is stark and edgy; one can hear in it the germination of today’s “modern-edgy” composition style that is so much in vogue; but his personal means of expression also includes a logical musical progression, which a great deal of modern music does not have. The Eighth Symphony grew out of a percussion piece, Sisa, which he had written in 1976 fir six musicians of the Stockholm Percussion Ensemble, which later changed their name to Kroumata. Lundquist wanted to write a symphony that included them, which he began in 1989 and completed in 1992, yet he stressed that this was a true symphony and not a percussion concerto. “Of course the percussionists play solo,” he wrote, “but so do the orchestral musicians to a large extent, strings as well as woodwind and brass.” What I found interesting about it was the way in which Lundquist used syncopation in this piece, and not just for the percussion players. There is a great deal of syncopation in the orchestral writing as well, in fact moreso for the string and brass sections.

Although in one continuous movement, there are three different sections, the ferocious opening softening into an “Andante” around the 11-minute mark, yet even here Lundquist used sharply biting trumpets before introducing a surprisingly lovely cello solo. The percussionists recede from the sound barrier as well, playing celesta and vibes as one also hears viola, viola, flute and clarinet solos. What’s interesting about this section is the arc of the music, the way in which Lundquist shapes these short phrases and merges them one into the other, to create a coherent whole. At about the 21-minute mark, an undercurrent of tension enters the picture; there is a break for a xylophone solo; then a terraced orchestral chord signifying that something different is coming—but it doesn’t appear just yet. Suddenly, at 21:32, the tempo jumps to a faster pace and we return to syncopation but in a slightly different form as Lundquist builds a quirky melody out of the mass of sound—and yet the symphony then reverts to slow, moody music and ends softly. A very interesting piece!

The Fifth Symphony, given here in a performance conducted by the composer himself, is an anomaly among the composer’s works; it was described when it premiered by one critic as a “Symphonic Interlude” because of its relatively lyrical profile and its lack of dependence on Lundquist’s principal theme, man’s relationship to nature. This symphony was also written for a smaller orchestra than usual for the composer, with just double woodwinds, two each of trumpets and trombones, percussion and strings. It was dedicated to the Halmstad Chamber Orchestra, which premiered it in February 1980; this performance comes from November of that year. Lundquist called it “Die Wienerische,” not referring so much to the city of Vienna as to the Viennese symphonic style of Haydn and Mozart, yet if one listens closely one can hear a 3/4 beat in the first movement. In addition, the music has a grace and charm that is quite different for the composer, yet it never wallows in schmaltz or unnecessarily “lovely” tunes as its models did.

The second movement, which opens with soft, grumbling bassoons, is clearly different from anything that Haydn or Mozart ever wrote; the melodic line is not exactly atonal, but certainly ambivalent regarding the home key, using higher chord positions without the root note. Then suddenly, at about 4:29, the tempo jumps up from “Poco lento” to “Allegro,” so quickly that the ear almost misses it; menacing brass and uneasy, tremulous strings come into the picture, underscored by tympani.

This fifth symphony is clearly more of a cerebral exercise and less of an inspired composition, yet it is satisfying just the same. And thankfully, we had digital sound in 1980 so the sonics are first-rate for a performance that is now 40 years old.

Another very fine disc in the Lundquist series. Go for it!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Levental Sings Medtner

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awardMEDTNER: 3 Romances, Op. 3. 2 Poems, Op. 13. 8 Poems, Op. 24. 7 Poems, Op. 28. 7 Poems after Pushkin, Op, 29 / Ekaterina Levental, mezzo; Frank Peters, pno / Brilliant Classics 96056

Nikolai Medtner and his wonderful music were largely marginalized during his long and often painful life (1880-1951) except for a small coterie of admirers, among whom was Sergei Rachmaninov. The son of a wealthy family, he received a good education and was trained to be a highly moral person. Like Rachmaninov, he wrote largely neo-Romantic music, but his compositions were both more complex and less melodically appealing than those of his older colleague. After fleeing Soviet Russia, Rachmaninov, already established in the West as a major pianist and composer, set Medtner up on a concert tour, but his younger colleague never grasped the fact that a piano recital was supposed to be eclectic in the number of composers presented. Medtner, proud of his music, filled his programs with his own pieces, which were not only unknown to audiences but baffled them. He eventually ended up in England, where a small group of admirers, some of them wealthy, set up a Society to help him maintain his now-meager existence. They also raised enough funds to pay for EMI to record him in his piano concerti, small pieces, and some of his songs, which Medtner was very grateful for. Yet he still died destitute, and it took more than a quarter-century for the musical world to recognize what it had lost.

LeventalFollowing in the footsteps of those British patrons, Uzbekistan mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Levental (who also plays the harp) and Dutch pianist Frank Peters have set up a Medtner Project in order to finance recordings of the composer’s complete songs, of which this is Vol. 1. She has a very expressive and firm voice, but also some over-brilliance in her top range: not a major impediment to enjoyment, but one the listener must keep in mind when approaching these recordings. By way of compensation, Levental’s soft high notes are truly exquisite, and she can do things with the voice that most modern singers cannot, such as to drain the voice of vibrato for expressive effect. All things considered, she is a virtuoso vocalist of the old school, and such artists are extremely rare nowadays.

We start with the three “romances” of his Op. 3, and these songs are heavily indebted ti Tchaikovsky—but even here, when he was only 23 years old, Medtner shows some original touches in his use of harmony. In addition, his melodic lines are continuously-developing structures; they seldom repeat phrases, and these melodies are not “memorable” in the way that Rachmaninov’s were.

Medtner

Nikolai Medtner

By the time of his Op. 13 songs, Medtner was already stretching the limits of virtuosity in his piano accompaniments—yet another reason why his music was seldom programmed. One must not only be a super-virtuoso to play some of this music but also a pianist attuned to being an accompanist, which requires a somewhat different skill set. Indeed, from this point on the richness of the piano parts become a full partner of the vocal line; Medtner is now writing these songs on two distinctly different but complementary levels. One could easily take the piano parts of many of these songs (particularly track 5, “Epitaph”) and play them without the vocal line. This is one reason among many why Rachmaninov admired Medtner so much; his music was similar to his but on a different plane. Just not a plane that would appeal to the casual listener. We are very lucky to have a pianist like Peters, who fully understands this dichotomy, as the accompanist on this album.

And thankfully, Brilliant Classics has included English translations of each and every song in the booklet of this CD, which helps our understanding of what Levental is doing. Many of these songs are based on the words of Russian poets, among them Bely, Tyutchev, Fet (one of his favorites) and Bryusov. Most of them deal with love, the pain of love, love unrequited, reflecting in old age on past loves. Very, very Russian, but still interesting. “Night Piece,” one of the Op. 29 Poems after Pushkin, is almost modern-sounding in its harmony without ever really leaving the realm of tonality, and “I am dumbstruck,” one of the 8 Poems of his Op. 24, is one of the most complex, running the emotional gamut and presented in music of a quite dramatic bent. The words are:

I am dumbstruck when around me
Forests rumble, thunder rolls
And in a flash of lightning I look up
As the ocean waves shudder
And crash upon the cliffs
Your silvery robe.

In the liner notes, Levental puts it quite bluntly: “His music is very demanding of performers. He knew the potential of his chosen instruments and was able to fully realize his musical ideas without compromise. He does not spare his performers and challenges them to stretch and expand their expressive and technical boundaries.” But she also adds that “Medtner…saw himself as a medium, as an intermediary of the eternal truth waiting to be discovered, as a composer who did not invent or conceive anything himself. He strongly believed in the autonomy of music as a channel to tell this truth.” This is similar to the philosophy of the great jazz pianist Bill Evans, who told people that he drew his ideas from “the universal overmind.” Like Medtner, Evans believed that musical invention was not something that people created, but which was merely waiting to be discovered.

And that is what makes his music—all of it, not just the songs—so appealing to the intelligent and sensitive listener. There is nothing trivial about it. His goal was never to entertain his listeners. He was a very serious and, according to the few who knew him, an almost humorless person. Of course, this is nothing new to those who know and understand the “Russian soul.” A great many artists from Chaliapin onward took their art very seriously, no matter how high or low-born they were. Medtner was merely someone operating on a higher plane than some of his colleagues. It’s a shame that no Soviet-era singers or pianists performed his music (even when some of his songs were recorded in the late 1940s, it was a German soprano—Elisabeth Schwarzkopf—who performed them with him), but as a “defector” (he left the Soviet Union in 1921) he was persona non grata. Many Soviet pianists weren’t allowed to play Rachmaninov, either, for the same reason, but the latter “took off” in the West whereas poor Medtner didn’t.

Yes, several of these songs sound alike in tempo and mood, but never in musical invention. And one must remember that not even Medtner expected anyone to listen to a thorough and chronological 72-minute program of his songs in one sitting. If you feel that you need a break when listening to this CD, by all means take it. The music demands so much of your attention that it can be a bit overwhelming, but the bottom line is that the experience is worth it. Medtner’s music was just that good.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Herbert Blomstedt’s Brahms

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BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1.* Tragic Overture / Gewandhausorchester; Herbert Blomstedt, cond / Pentatone Classics PTC 5186850 (live: Leipzig, *September & October 2019)

I chose to review this release not just because I like the Brahms First but because I’ve always liked Herbert Blomstedt…and, in part, to get the horrible recording by Philippe Jordan out of my mind.

Blomstedt, like so many conductors of the past, has gotten slower in his musical approach as he has gotten older. No longer is he the firebrand of his early Schubert Symphony cycle with the Staatskapelle Dresden is my favorite set (except, of course, for No. 7, which he has never recorded or for No. 8, which he recorded incomplete). But since I had never listened to his Brahms previously, perhaps he, like so many Germans, tend to take the ultra-Romantic view of this composer: even Carlos Kleiber, normally a very zippy conductor, tended to play Brahms a bit on the slow side. But this performance does not lack drama when it is called for, except in the very opening of the symphony, and it is a beautifully-conceived and –phrased performance. In fact, in many respects it reminds me of the old recording that Guido Cantelli made with the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1952, the first recording of this work that I ever bought (and quite pricey it was, too…$50 on the original HMV LP, and this was back in the early 1970s when a dollar was worth more than it is now). Indeed, the loving way that Blomstedt caresses the line in the second movement is quite unique in my experience.

As the symphony goes on, however, Blomstedt departs greatly from the kind of phrasing that Cantelli gave to the symphony. He indulges in a great many slowed-down passages which seem to be taken that way out of caprice and not out of musicality. It’s not as bad as the Jordan performance, but it’s very strange—even stranger than the way Hans Knappertsbusch, a conductor noted for his slowness of tempo, conducted Brahms.

And unfortunately, Blomstedt makes similar poor tempo choices in the Tragic Overture, so softening its musical message that it comes across more like the Comfort Overture with a Little Bit of Tragedy for Color.

Pentatone Classics has made it clear that this is the first installment of what is to be a complete Brahms Symphony cycle. While I don’t feel that it will provide much competition to the complete sets of Weingartner, Toscanini (with the Philharmonia except for No. 2) and Michael Gielen, it may well indeed satisfy those who like their Brahms very Romantic. If that is your taste, this recording is well recommended.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Nielsen’s Violin Music Recorded Complete

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NIELSEN: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. Prelude, Theme & Variations, Op. 48. Preludio e Presto. Violin Sonata in G, CNW 62. Romances in D & G. Polka in A. Grüss / Hasse Borup, vln; Andrew Staupe, pno / Naxos 8.573870

I am a huge Carl Nielsen admirer and in fact have the Violin Sonata No. 1 in A on another CD, but had not heard these other pieces before. Hasse Borup appears to be a Danish-American violinist who studied at Oberlin and the University of Maryland who is now a professor of violin and head of string studies at the University of Utah School of Music.

Undoubtedly the most interesting aspect of this CD is the inclusion of early, formerly unrecorded works, the fragment of Grüss or Greeting from 1890, the Romance in G from 1888, and a Polka in A from as far back as 1873 when the composer was only 18 years old. My impression of Borup from the Sonata No. 1 is of a very fine musician and interpreter who doesn’t have the most pleasant tone. Indeed, the acidic quality of his violin playing reminds me a bit of Josef Szigeti, but since I can take Szigeti I can certainly take Borup although I prefer the playing of Johannes Søe Hansen on a Membran CD in this work. Just don’t come complaining to me about Bronislaw Huberman’s tone after hearing Borup. Andrew Staupe is a superb pianist who really digs into this music and presents it in its best light.

Oddly enough, Borup’s tone sounds considerably better in the previously unrecorded pieces, particularly in the Romance in G where he is quite acceptable indeed. This is a very fine piece, one that clearly belongs in the Nielsen canon. The a cappella polka is a cute piece which can always be played as an encore, Grüss is a more lyrical piece which sounds as if it is based somewhat on Danish folk music.

So there you have it. Nielsen aficionados will probably want this album for the unrecorded works, but as for the others there are several good alternative performances out there.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Aho’s “Seidi” & Fifth Symphony

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AHO: Seidi, Concerto for Percussion & Orchestra.* Symphony No. 5 / *Colin Currie, perc; Lahti Symphony Orch.; Dima Slobodeniouk, cond / Bis SACD-2336

Bis’ Kalevi Aho series continues with this new release, and I for one feel it is just as important as their old Leif Segerstam series of releases which began c. 1974 and their more recent series, yet to be completed, of Kaikhosru Sorabji’s Transcendental Etudes. Aho is clearly a major composer who, unlike Segerstam and Sorabji, is pretty much ignored by other labels.

I have extolled and described Aho’s music in detail so much in previous reviews that, in a sense, it would be excessive if I continued in this vein in the course of this review. His imaginative use of not only thematic materials but the mere creation of those themes and motifs, his unusual and colorful orchestration, and his equally creative sense of rhythm permeate Seidi, perhaps moreso because it is a percussion concerto. As a rule, I shy away from pieces for percussion simply because, except for members of the xylophone family, percussion normally cannot create or even play melodic lines, and this is true in this case as well. One of the very few percussionists I know of who actually did create melodic lines was the legendary jazz drummer Vic Berton, who played tuned tympani in a virtuosic fashion on a fairly large number of records made in the 1920s and ‘30s. Several others tried to emulate him but all failed for one simple reason: when you try to play melodic lines on the tymps, you will gradually lose pitch. It’s the nature of the beast. Berton corrected this problem as he was playing by attending but one tympani at a time while tuning the other—often behind his back! (There was once a film clip from the late 1920s of him playing with a band called Walter Roseler and his Capitoleans, but alas my VHS tape of this died and it has, to my knowledge, not been resuscitated on DVD.)

What surprised me about Seidi was Aho’s creation of fairly melodic lines in the second section of the work, during which percussionist Colin Currie does indeed turn to the xylophone at this point. There is a great deal of non-jazz-like syncopation on his part that I think a jazz-trained percussionist could have played with more of a “swing”: the potential is clearly there. By the third section of the concerto (bars 235-351), Aho creates swirling string and wind figures to work around the percussionist, who by this point has switched to some mallet instrument that produces a sort of “cupped” sound (if I read the liner notes correctly, this may be the membranophones). The orchestra’s percussion section also gets into the act, playing against edgy brass and string figures before the volume recedes and we hear Currie playing vibes. In Section 5 (bars 454-558) the music takes an odd turn towards Middle Eastern modes. A solo saxophone also meanders in and out of the orchestral texture, emerging at the oddest times. The music eventually fades away gradually with the solo percussionist and some soft, edgy string tremolos.

Aho’s Fifth Symphony, one of his earlier works (it was written in 1975-76), is described by the composer as “a vision of the incoherence of our existence. There is really nothing in the world or in our lives that is entirely complete and clear-cut – joy may be mingled with sorrow, grief with comicality, love with anger. People’s mutual interests often collide; communication problems and a lack of understanding arise. The relationships between nations are full of contradictions; different social ideologies or religions fight each other, often resulting in wars.” Thus, in the opening, we hear a clarinet playing a sort of comic-goofy serrated up-and-down figure while the rest of the orchestra expresses barely contained anger and aggression. There is no escaping the feeling that this work is related to the very militaristic-sounding Shostakovich Fifth Symphony. I wonder if he had it at least in the back of his mind when he wrote this piece. At the beginning of the second section, the horns play the famous funeral march used by Chopin while the rest of the orchestra is trying to cheer them up with syncopated rhythms and somewhat jolly figures. But then the full orchestra gets into the funeral march while the entire clarinet section screams its jolly little motif at them. A very strange work!

In the end, however, I felt that this symphony, unlike his others I’ve heard, was just a bit “gimmicky” despite Aho’s strong sense of construction and his vision of the complete line of the score that commands our attention. A split review, then; I liked Seidi very much but the Fifth Symphony quite a bit less.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Saint-Saëns’ Undiscovered Opera

Le Timbre d'argent

awardSAINT-SAËNS: Le Timbre d’argent / Hélène Guilmette, sop (Hélène); Jodie Devos, sop (Rosa); Edgardas Montvidas, ten (Conrad); Yu Shao, ten (Bénédict); Tassis Christoyannis, bar (Spiridion); Jean-Yves Ravoux, ten (Patrick); Matthieu Chapuis, ten (Frantz); accentus; Les Siècles; François-Xavier Roth, cond / Bru Zane BZ1041

Poor Saint-Saëns! Here he was at age 28, already a dazzling organ and piano virtuoso whose works for those two instruments were selling like hotcakes among musicians, when he decided that he wanted to write an opera—which he had of course never done before—and a comic opera at that. He chose a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré which had already been turned down by three composers, Xavier Boisselot, Henri Litolff and Charles Gounod, wrote the opera quite speedily (it only took him two months), and started shopping it around.

Timbre d'argentTo no avail. Impresario Leon Carvalho took two YEARS before he even deigned to hear the score. When he did he declared himself “quite entranced,” but, as Saint-Saëns later recalled, he insisted on turning the stage production into a traveling circus complete with freaks, wild animals, and a huge aquarium where the soprano would have to dive to retrieve the bell. The composer fought all of this. Eventually it was produced, but in a truncated form, and only given 18 performances before it disappeared…for a very long time. The composer finally got a real stage production of the whole thing—greatly revised—in 1904-05 in Germany. It then showed up in February 1907 at Monte Carlo for three measly performances, only to see it disappear again. The last performance during the composer’s lifetime was given in Brussels in March 1914. It was a success. And then, Archduke Ferdinand was shot and the world plunged into a long, bloody and pointless war for four years, during which time Le Timbre d’argent pretty much disappeared.

The plot revolves around a poor painter living in a garret on Christmas Eve, complaining of his poverty—shades of La Bohème!—despite the support of his friend Bénédict, his doctor Spiridion and his sweetheart Hélène. Fascinated by a dancer who he painted as the enchantress Circe, Conrad accuses Spiridion of bringing him bad luck and then faints. In his dream, he sees his Circe dancing and meets Spiridion, who brings him a silver bell. Every time he rings it, he will gain riches, but a loved one will die. When Conrad wakes up he rings the bell; a shower of gold promptly appears, but Hélène’s father collapses and dies.

In Act II, another dancer, Fiammetta, receives gifts from Conrad and Spiiridion, the latter now a marquis. They each promise her a palace and challenge each other at the gambling table. Conrad loses and is furious, but plunders the feast rather than ring the silver bell. By Act III, Hélène and her sister Rosa are living in a cottage that Conrad bought for them. Rosa is getting ready for her marriage to Bénédict; Conrad has buried the bell in the garden, but Spiridion and Fiammetta tempt him to use itm inviting him to the wedding to dance. Conrad digs up the bell, rings it, and Bénédict falls dead.

In the last act, we learn that Conrad has thrown the bell into a lake but is drawn to the lake by sirens. Spiridion conjures up a ballet in which Circe gives a dazzling performance. Conrad invokes Hélène as Bénédict’s ghost hands him the bell, but this time Conrad finds the strength to shatter and destroy it. Then, in his studio, he really does wake up from his dream, proposes marriage to Hélène and accepts his modest and laborious destiny.

Listening to the music of this opera is a fascinating experience. The only way you can tell that it was written by Saint-Saëns is that the quality of the musical invention is several miles above Auber, Boieldieu and Adam, clever composers though they were, and even better than Gounod, good as he was. Most of the score sounds wholly original, owing nothing to any other composer while still being appropriately cheerful for a comic opera (albeit a comic opera with a dark twist) except for two moments. The very opening of the overture sounds remarkably like the opening of Berlioz’ Les Troyens, and at two points in track 3 of the first CD one hears the use of violas playing strophic chords, much like those that Meyerbeer used to introduce Marcel in Les Huguenots. Otherwise, none of it sounds like anyone else, yet it doesn’t really sound like any other music by Saint-Saëns. It is cheerful and upbeat for the most part, as remote from Samson et Dalila as you can possibly imagine, but like that later opera the scenes are continuous; it is composed almost like a comic symphony as much as like a comic opera. Since there is no spoken dialogue, everything is sung, with arias and duets being folded into the continuous musical development (such as the Hélène-Rosa duet in Act I). The orchestration is also very light and transparent, another difference from Samson. The only later music by Saint-Saëns to which it can be compared are the Danse Macabre and a couple of the more lighthearted pieces in Carnival of the Animals.

But this is exactly why, I believe, the opera bombed when it was first produced. Despite the charming quality of the music, which is inescapable, audiences wanted the music to stop dead while so-and-so sang an aria or a couple of singers sang a duet. They also didn’t like the subtlety of the music any more than they responded to the subtlety of Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini when it was first given. Yet, ironically, Le Timbre a’argent shares with Benvenuto Cellini a youthful energy that neither composer was able to recapture in later works. I can just hear one of my close online opera-loving friends bitch and complain about Bénédict’s superb first-act aria, “Si je le suis.” Yes, it has a melody, but not an easily memorable one; yes, it has two high notes, but not explosive ones held for roughly 10 seconds. The conventional opera-lover would pan this as too cerebral, but I absolutely love it. This is how a light French opera should be written.

I wonder if Wagner’s music had any influence on Saint-Saëns in the creation of this score. Even though Die Meistersinger, his only comedy, wasn’t written until 1868, four years after Le Timbre d’argent, he was clearly the only composer who wrote continuous operatic acts that never stopped once the musical flow commenced. Living in France, Saint-Saëns had to be familiar with his Tannhäuser and possibly even Lohengrin by 1864, as Berlioz was.

Despite the Hoffmanesque twist of the magic bell that gives money but kills loved ones, there isn’t very much “dark” music in this score. One of the few such moments occurs near the end of Act I, in Spiridion’s music when he gives Conrad the bell and he rings it for the first time—but then the chorus comes in with louder, faster music to close out the act. There is, however, quite a bit of slower, more reflective music in Act II, particularly in the long Conrad-Bénédict duet—which includes an extended violin solo which leads directly, without a break, into Hélène’s long aria, “Le Bonheur est chose légère,” which is a very tricky aria to sing (it doesn’t sound hard, but has some very odd passages in it, and a trill that comes out of nowhere, that are not terribly easy to negotiate).

Yet the subtlety and continuity of the music are exactly what mitigate against it as a crowd-pleaser for most opera audiences. Without any breaks for applause, even after Spiridion’s marvelously bouncy comic aria near the end of Act II (the one piece in the opera that sounds the most like Offenbach), the average knucklehead operagoer would either not know where to applaud or, worse yet, applaud over the music, only to be “shushed” by the conductor or one of the singers so that they can hear what comes next. Knucklehead audiences don’t like being shown up as knuckleheads. But the music does indeed go on. The Act II finale reprises the Les Troyens-like music of the opening of the overture but then goes on in an entirely different manner; it is a rousing five-minute piece that, again, would be a definite crowd-pleaser, and at least this time they can applaud their heads off when it’s finished, but only there at the ends of acts. Part of Act II, particularly the music surrounding and following Conrad’s aria “Quel trouble s’empare,” sounds a lot like Les Contes d’Hoffmann, but since that opera was written much later the influence would be the other way around.

As for the cast, it is uniformly excellent, my only (small) complaint being that the voices of Conrad (Edgardas Montvidas) and Bénédict (Yu Shao) sound eerily alike. Though her role is not large, soprano Hélène Guilmette sings just as well here as she did as Princess Laoula in the DVD of Chabrier’s L’Étoile opposite Stéphanie d’Oustrac’s Lazuli, and the other soprano, Jodie Devos, has an equally lovely voice but a somewhat darker tone. Yet, as is often the case (sorry to my opera-loving friends who thinks that the singers are the most important part of an opera performance), it is François-Xavier Roth’s impeccable and, at times, magical-sounding conducting that really makes this performance work. Everything in the score falls into place under his skilled hands, yet not a single detail is left to chance. The music blooms, recedes, and then blooms again like a garden going through a fast-paced sequence of flowers opening in the morning and closing at night. Saint-Saëns was right. This IS a great little opera. There are so many subtleties and musical delights in this score that even the attentive ear may have trouble catching them all in the first listening, yet even a casual listener will find it charming. In Act II, Saint-Saëns got around the stupid convention of putting a ballet into an opera by working it into the plot of the model playing Circe actually dancing—and here, too, the end of the ballet music is not a crashing chord but blended into the succeeding scene via a wonderful two-bar transition. If only Massenet had paid attention to this score, he might not have written so much boring, bombastic music in Manon, Thaïs and Hérodiade.

This is a terrific surprise and an opera well worth investigating.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Vladigerov’s Piano Concerti

cover C8060

VLADIGEROV: Piano Concerti Nos. 1,1 2,2 33, 4,3 5.4 Five Silhouettes for Piano2 / 1Teodor Moussev, 2Krassimir Gatev, 3Ivan Drenikov, 4Pancho Vladigerov, pno; Bulgarian Radio Symphony Orch.; Alexander Vladigerov, cond / Capriccio C8060

Nowhere in the booklet for this release does it say that these are the world premiere recordings of Bulgarian composer Pancho Vladigerov’s piano concerti, but neither Arkivmusic nor the Naxos Music Library has any listings for recordings of any of the five. The composer himself plays the Concerto No. 5 in this collection, and his son, Alexander, conducts all of the performances given here. That fifth concerto was recorded in mono in 1964 whereas all of the other recordings here are stereo, made between 1972-78.

Vladigerov himself is almost a curio, someone known for perhaps three orchestral works based on Bulgarian themes while his many other works are never performed or recorded. As I mentioned when reviewing his Violin Sonata No. 1 in a superb performance by Irina Borissova, he was clearly influenced by Brahms and, in these particular concerti, by Rachmaninov, yet managed to maintain his own identity just as Schumann and Brahms were influenced by Beethoven but held their own. Like Rachmaninov, Vladigerov wrote flashy, virtuosic piano passages for his concerti, but his sense of classical structure was stronger and he gave us less “bullshitty tunes” than Rachmaninov did. At just before the six-minute mark in the first movement of the first concerto, for instance, he suddenly moves away from the home key of a minor and gives us Scriabin-like extended chords, temporarily throwing a monkey wrench into his glorious Romantic palette. As someone who leans much more towards contemporary music than towards Romantic knock-offs, I will not say that this is a masterpiece that needs to be heard in the concert halls today, but I will say that I’d much rather hear this than the Rachmaninov Second or either of Chopin’s piano concerti. It is much more interestingly developed and, considering the time in which it was written—1918, when the composer was only 19 years old—it’s clearly a fine youthful work. There is more harmonic strangeness around the 11-minute mark, this time from the orchestra, in the first movement as well, as if Vladigerov was suddenly channeling the Poem of Ecstasy.

The artistic leap from this first concerto to the third, written in 1937 when Vladigerov was 38, is simply astonishing. Although still tonally based, this is music that leans more heavily on Bulgarian folk music and, to some extent, its harmonies. The piano writing is still flashy but the orchestral scoring far more interesting. There was some real growth here, possibly not even known to most Western conductors at the time. The themes, sometimes connected and at other times juxtaposed, are more varied and colorful. This is music that is at least within hailing distance of George Enescu. The second movement of this concerto opens with a brief but telling cello solo, then moves over to a cappella piano before the orchestra comes in behind the soloist. My biggest complaint of this concerto is that the third movement goes on far too long and repeats material too much.

Interestingly the second concerto, written seven years earlier, starts out sounding even more modern though it soon settles into a quasi-Romantic vein, but the influence of Scriabin here is very strong. There are quite a few diminished and extended chords here in addition to unusual rising and falling chromatic passages. Again, however, Vladigerov tended to overwrite his music, and this is, as I said, his one failing as a composer. If not for that, I would proclaim him the Bulgarian counterpart to Nikolai Medtner, whose concerti are almost as long but not nearly as garrulous.

Interest picks up in the Concerto No. 4, which dates from 1953, largely due to the almost constant use of close harmonies. Otherwise, he and his piano parts are still more than a trifle bombastic. I shall draw the curtain on this concerto and move on to the next, and last one, written in 1963 when the composer was 64 years old. The meaningless fills haven’t stopped, but by this time Vladigerov seems to have known how to manage his materials with less superfluous material.

As a filler on this set, we get his 5 Silhouettes for Piano. Being briefer pieces helps a lot; this is some of the best music on the entire album, played extremely well by Krassimir Gatev.

So there you have it. Vladigerov could have been a great composer had he learned the value of musical economy. As they stand, these concerti could make great torture instruments if the police catch a criminal who refuses to confess. Just play these five concerti in succession and he or she will sing like a bird.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Geoffrey Allen’s Woodwind Music

cover MSV28607

ALLEN: Sonata for Bassoon & Piano. Outback Sketches.* Pastorale. Sonatina for Bassoon & Piano. Fantasy Trio for Flute, Clarinet & Piano*+ / Katherine Walpole, bsn; *Allan Meyer, cl; +Michael Waye, fl; David Wickham, pno / Métier MSV 28607

British composer Geoffrey Allen was born in 1927 and, as of this writing, is still going strong, living and working in Australia—a great big “up yours” to the Coronavirus!

Like so many modern composers, Allen’s music is bitonal leaning towards atonality, with sharply angular lines that clash between the soloist and accompanist, but as the first movement of the bassoon sonata shows, his music is also surprisingly lively and, oddly enough, has some jollity to it. Perhaps because of this, both performers here, Katherine Walpole and David Wickham, seem to be having a ball playing it, particularly the first movement. In short, although Allen’s compositional methods are not original, his style certainly is.

Yet oddly, his Outback Sketches for clarinet & piano is in an entirely different style, being tonal and lyrical although with some odd twists in the harmony here and there. This music’s title clearly gives it an Australian reference, but the music is so purely British that a Union Jack may as well pop up while the performers are playing it. Yet suddenly, at about the 2:10 mark in the first movement, Allen suddenly pulls the harmony away from the tonal center, not necessarily towards atonality but certainly towards remote keys, and from this point on in the first piece the listener is kept guessing as to where Allen will go next. Yet with the second and third movements, we’re back to placid, pastoral-sounding Brit music. Go figure.

The Pastorale for bassoon and piano lies somewhere between these two styles, so apparently Allen has a bit of a musical split personality…or perhaps he moved from a more bitonal, angular style (the bassoon sonata was written in 1964) to a more tonal, lyrical one (the Pastorale was written in 1998). Yet with the bassoon Sonatina (also 1998), Allen returns to his more bitonal style, albeit here combined with greater lyricism and less angularity.

The Fantasy Trio also combines lyricism with bitonality and is, in a way, the kin of York Bowen’s work of the same title. I found this to be, from a compositional standpoint, one of the most interesting works on the CD, as it creates an excellent mood without pandering too much to the “lovely classical music” lovers. Indeed, in this work it seemed to me that Allen had found the perfect “sweet spot” between mood and method; there’s a certain French sensibility about this piece that I liked very much. The two wind soloists, flute and clarinet, interact almost continuously and do so in very interesting ways, weaving their different lines around each other like vines on a trellis. Sometimes the clarinet reacts to what the flute is playing, sometimes vice versa, with the piano part almost ruminating as it subtly “grounds” the music. The piece thus creates a wonderful mood and ambience while still holding the listener’s attention every step of the way.

In the lively second movement, Allen again manages to write very jolly music within a bitonal framework, albeit not as angular as in the bassoon sonata. Both of our soloists, flautist Michael Waye and clarinetist Allan Meyer, really understand the nature of this score, and in this second movement pianist David Wickham has quite a bit more to do, his part here being more functional and less purely decorative. The third movement begins in a very tonal atmosphere and, like some of the previous works, is very lyrical and tonal. The fourth movement is both lyrical and a little bitonal, but panders more to those who like to hear Tunes in their music.

An odd collection, then, with some very good pieces, some weak ones, and a couple in the middle.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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