Villa-Lobos’ Complete Symphonies

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VILLA-LOBOS: Symphonies 1-4, 6-12. Uirapuru. Mandu-Çarará / São Paolo Symphony Orch., Choir & Children’s Choir; Isaac Karabtchevsky / Naxos 8.506039

Heitor Villa-Lobos wrote 12 symphonies between 1916 and 1957, of which the fifth is lost. Unlike his series of Bachianas Brasilieros or his pieces titled Coros, they have never been terribly popular, mostly because they do not for the most part echo indigenous Brazilian music.

Yet they are very effective pieces nonetheless. Here they are played by a Brazilian orchestra and, although conductor Isaac Karabtchevsky has a Russian name, he was born and raised in that country as well. Before getting into a description of the works themselves, I should point out that Karabtchevsky conducts some of this music in a very legato style which somewhat dulls the impact of the most dramatic passages (think of Barbirolli as an example) but otherwise does a very fine job with them.

Since I already reviewed Symphonies 1 & 2 here on this blog, I will not be covering those. So we start with the interesting duo of Symphonies No. 3, “War,” and 4, “Victory.” These were commissioned as a pair by the Brazilian government shortly after the end of World War I to honor the lives of those who died in battle. Surprisingly, the Third Symphony is not as violent as one might expect, surely not as much as “Mars” from Gustav Holst’s The Planets or, perhaps more appropriately, Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. In fact, there are numerous cheery passages in this symphony that are interrupted by trumpet fanfares and occasionally (but not often) a rhythm that simulates the tramping of boots. As mentioned above, Karabtchevsky softens the impact of these passages by insisting on a legato style throughout, but for the most part the performance is good although Carl St. Clair has recorded a much finer one with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra on CPO.

Oddly enough, the “Victory” Symphony opens with even more martial-type music than “War,” and here Karabtchevsky’s conducting is just fine, biting and dramatic. But by and large, Villa-Lobos’ first four symphonies have weaknesses in structure and conventional tonal harmony that I find uninviting.

I was much more excited by the Sixth Symphony. Subtitled “On the Outline of the Mountains of Brazil,” this is much more in the composer’s later, more complex and interesting style, with a few spiky harmonies here and there and the cross-rhythms for which Villa-Lobos became internationally famous. And the seventh symphony, which has no subtitle, is the most interesting so far in the series. Written in 1945, a year after the sixth, it was composed for  competition sponsored by the Detroit Symphony, and although the composer considered it one of his finest works (and it is) it was not awarded any prize. Although it is not formally subtitled, the program notes written for the premiere described it as “Odyssey of Peace,” its four movements subtitled “Prologue,” “Contrasts,” “Tragedy” and “Epilogue,” yet these titles do not seem appropriately descriptive of the music and they do not appear in either the manuscript or the finished score. This is also the first, and probably only, symphony to include a part for the Novachord, an electronic piano manufactured by the Hammond company between 1939 and 1942 which has since sunk without a trace. (British jazz pianist Arthur Young played one in the nonet known as “Hatchett’s Swingtette” with Stéphane Grappelli on jazz violin during the period 1939-1942.) The world’s first electronic synthesizer, the Novachord used a process known as “subtractive synthesis” to produce its tones, in which partials of an audio signal (often one rich in harmonics) are attenuated by a filter to alter the timbre of the sound. It almost sounds like an electronic harmonium, and if you listen carefully you can hear its sound sneaking through the huge massed orchestra.

The high level of creativity continues in the Eighth Symphony, written in 1950. Here, Villa-Lobos plays brilliant with contrasting and cross-rhythms in a manner most inspired, and Karabtchevsky’s performance is a fine one.

The Tenth Symphony, subtitled “Amerindia,” is a huge, sprawling work lasting 73 minutes which includes a chorus and vocal soloists. It’s a bit pretentious metaphysically, and in style a bit of a throwback to his more Romantic symphonies of the late 1910s, but it certainly has its moments. The Eleventh, by contrast, is a taut, more modern-sounding work, one of the composer’s finest. Commissioned to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Villa-Lobos dedicated it to Serge Koussevitzky and his wife Natalie. Charles Munch conducted the premiere, and it was such a modern, daring work that it met with mixed reviews. Frankly, the critics were entirely unprepared for such a daring work, using several Stravinsky-like elements, preferring (as the Brazilians did) his more folk-influenced scores. His last symphony, the Twelfth, dates from 1957 when he was 70 years old. This time, the critics seemed more prepared for what they heard, and the work was praised by critics for both the Washington Post and New York Times. The filler works are interesting but somewhat slight.

This, then, is a good set of Villa-Lobos’ symphonies. If you don’t already have Carl St. Clair’s set with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony on CPO, you might want to investigate acquiring it. If your preference in performing style, even for the late symphonies, is for a more legato approach, then Karabtchevsky is your man.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Walter Klien’s Great Schubert Sonatas

CDX-5173 cover Vol 1

SCHUBERT: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-7, 9, 12-21 / Walter Klien, pno / Vox Box CDX-5173, 5174 & 5175

Franz Schubert’s “piano sonatas” are among the strangest ever written, and for that reason have never really been popular. Unlike Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann or Brahms, he chose to ignore the strict “sonata form” in which each movement uses one or two themes and develops them, sometimes with an introduction in a different tempo. Rather, his sonatas are open, free fantasias for piano which ramble quite a bit, and the later ones are extraordinarily long. For these reasons, I didn’t like them much the first two times I listened to them, close to 50 years ago, even though the recordings I heard by Artur Schnabel and Sviatoslav Richter were considered to be the best. But time and experience have given me a different perspective on them.

I downloaded and tried to review a brand-spanking-new set of the Schubert sonatas by a pianist who shall remain nameless. His playing was clean and crisp, but not very accurate when it came to Schubert’s dynamics markings. In the Sonata D. 575, for instance, the very first bar demands a sudden drop in volume from f to p, and he simple did not do it. Nor did several other pianists whose recordings I sampled…until I hit upon Wilhelm Kempff. But in other respects, i.e. phrasing and continuity, even Kempff was not as good as modest little Walter Klien.

Walter KlienKlien (1928-1991) was an Austrian pianist who studied with Josef Dichler and Arturo Benedetti Michaelangeli. As Wikipedia puts it, “He was much admired for his crystalline tone and projection of detail in his interpretations. His clarity of playing suited the music of Mozart and Schubert in particular.” I first ran across him as a college student in the late 1960s-early ‘70s when I saw and purchased his set of the Mozart Piano Sonatas on the Vox label. For years, he was my #1 model in the playing of these sonatas, later supplanted for me by the even better recordings of Friedrich Gulda.

But to be honest, in hearing these Schubert recordings I feel that he is unmatched in these pieces. He ignores nothing in the scores, which are riddled with rapid shifts in dynamics and tempo, yet is somehow able to pull the structure (such as it is) together a bit better than anyone else.

So why isn’t Klien better known? One online blogger gave a big clue when he recalled seeing him perform in person during the 1970s. Going up to congratulate him afterwards, he found Klien to be an exceptionally quiet, modest man who completely lacked the bravado of most famous pianists, Michelangeli included. When you’re a wallflower by nature, you’re not going to get very far in the classical world no matter how exceptional your talents are.

Despite my listing the sonatas numerically in order in the header, they were not issued in chronological order either on LP or here on CD. This is due to the fact that in order to do so and still fit the whole series onto six CDs, one would have to break up the sonatas, putting, say, the first and/or second movement at the end of one CD and the rest of the sonata at the start of the next. The actual order of this reissue is as follows:

Vol. 1: Sonatas 19, 18, 6, 16, 9 & 15
Vol. 2: Sonatas 20, 1, 14, 17, 13 & 2
Vol. 3: Sonatas 21, 5, 12, 7, 4 & 3

This makes for somewhat out-of-synch listening to say the least, but considering the strange form and shape of most of Schubert’s sonatas, I don’t find that a handicap. Like most pianists, Kempff included, Klien omits the incomplete sonatas except for No. 6.

One will note that several sonatas are missing, particularly Nos. 8, 10 and 11. This is because those sonatas are either lost or left incomplete, and yes, there are a few other half-torsos around as well, but as several pianists have pointed out, it’s really better in this case to leave well enough alone. It’s not like the Eighth Symphony, which Schubert was clearly planning to finish but didn’t before he died, or the elusive Seventh Symphony which exists in piano score but not in a full orchestration. Schubert may have kept those unfinished sonatas around with the idea of using some themes for future projects that never materialized, but considering how far back in time the incomplete works go, he quite obviously felt it was better to not complete them.

But the numbering system that Kempff and Klien used apparently does not apply to others. The late Paul Badura-Skoda’s set of the Schubert sonatas, all played on various period instruments (a fetish with which I do not agree), presents “only” 20 sonatas, but includes all of them. Sonatas Nos. 1-9 are numbered the same as with Kempff and Klien, but Badura-Skoda’s Sonata No. 8 is a combination of D. 571, 604, and 570, a hodgepodge sonata, his No. 10 combines D. 613 and 612, and No. 11 combines D. 625, 505 and 145 No. 1. But then he omits the finished Sonata No. 12, D. 625, which Kempff and Klien include, while somehow discovering two extra movements for the Sonata D. 840, “Reliquie.” The end result, with D. 625 omitted, is that Badura-Skoda ends up with 20 sonatas instead of 21, but they’re all “complete” according to his lights. Go figure.

Some listeners have complained that the sound of these recordings is too dry. I didn’t find them so; to my ears, they were somewhat close-miked but had a nice, natural ambience. In fact, I’d say that they sound warmer than Kempff’s recordings. As for accuracy of detail and interpretation, both Kempff and Klien are far better than Paul Badura-Skoda, whose set of these sonatas tends to be highly praised online. Badura-Skoda ignores many of Schubert’s markings and his playing often sounds prosaic, which doesn’t sit well by me.

I’m sure there are listeners who prefer Kempff’s discursive, almost improvisatory approach to these sonatas. I can’t say his approach isn’t valid since, after all, the Austrians in general have always enjoyed less rhythmically strict performances, and although I heartily disliked Kempff’s Beethoven for that reason, Schubert is an entirely different animal. Even so, Klien does no disservice to the slow movement in these sonatas, bringing out their quirky tenderness without resorting to pathos or bathos in his approach. Indeed, I found each and every sonata so satisfying that in the end I couldn’t really think of any particular movement or individual phrase that could have been done better. There’s a certain feeling of totality and perfection in each of these performances, and as a whole the series is so impressive that I don’t think you’d find the urge to explore others’ recordings either.

Comparing Klien to another great pianist who got his start in the U.S. on Vox, Alfred Brendel, one can say that Brendel paid more attention to smooth phrasing than Klien. In those early years, too, Brendel recorded some fine Schubert, such as the “Wanderer” Fantasy, to very good effect, but the crisper, less “Romantic” approach of Klien works wonders here. Without exaggerating anything, he still manages to hold you spellbound from start to finish in each and every sonata—and that’s something that not even Schnabel was able to accomplish in his few Schubert sonata recordings. Which only goes, once again, to illustrate how Beethoven and Schubert really demand a different approach. What’s sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander.

Perhaps the fact that Klien was a classicist at heart was what made his Schubert so good. The odd little hesitations and luftpausen in the music, all written in the scores, are played here but in a minimal sort of way. Thus Klien’s tempo modifications are for the most part subtle, which demands more concentration from the listener, whereas Kempff’s are broader and thus easier for the casual listener to grasp at first listening.

One excellent example comes early on in this set, the first movement, titled “Molto moderato e cantabile,” from the Sonata No. 18 in G. While never quite abandoning the “cantabile” instruction, Klien’s focus was on a light, dancing feeling, as if the music were a ballerina flitting about her apartment on pointe. I find that it suits the mood of the movement perfectly, yet because he was, after all, a classicist, Klien never let the music wallow in sentimental mush. It’s delicacy with a wide-awake vision of where he and the music are headed. And, for an example of what I meant early on when I said that Schubert’s sonatas are more like free fantasias, listen to the last movement of this sonata. Despite its quick tempo indication, “Allegretto,” the music tiptoes through your mind, stopping to admire a particularly lovely flower now and then rather than rushing headlong to its conclusion, as Beethoven or Brahms did.

As you go through the sonatas you’ll discover, as I did, numerous fascinating passages. In the hands of a lesser artist these contrasting themes, which sometimes don’t match the others in the movement in terms of mood (something like mismatched socks), would be a distraction, but Klien manages to gently nudge them together in order to make sense, the musical equivalent of “Can’t we all just get along?” And it works.

Naturally, the last few sonatas are the most powerful and, to my ears, original of the entire set, and although I enjoyed Craig Sheppard’s performances of these works on Roméo Records, Klien’s interpretations strike me as both more balanced and more exciting, precisely because he does not over-exaggerate or underplay any particular moment. Everything sounds all of a piece, and suddenly those odd moments and sharp corners in the music all fit together. Interestingly, Klien plays the first three sonatas with a Beethoven-like intensity, which makes sense; written in 1815-16, this was a period in which Schubert was very much under the spell of Beethoven, who was his (rather unfriendly) neighbor in Vienna, and whom he would see, across the room, when he visited the wine bar that Beethoven habituated. I also found it odd how very “Russian” the first movement of the Sonata No. 14 (D. 784) sounded—at least, until the second subject which suddenly and inexplicably switches over to the major.

In the end, I think that what separates Klien’s Schubert from everyone else’s is that the others all sound as if they are Giving a Performance. Klien sounds like he’s just playing for himself, and you happen to be privileged enough to be listening in.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Dexter Gordon Live at Montmartre

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GORDON: King Neptune. I Want More. Cheese Cake. BAREFIELD-KING: Big Fat Butterfly.* BONFÁ-MARIA: Manha de Carnival. STITT-RICHARDS: Loose Walk. GARNER: Misty / Dexter Gordon, t-sax/*voc; Tete Montoliu, pno; Niels-Henning Ørsted-Pedersen, bs; Alex Riel, dm / Storyville SVL1018410 (live: Copenhagen, 1964)

This album of performances, being released here for the first time, recaptures the spell of Dexter Gordon’s first arrival on the Danish jazz scene in 1964. As drummer Alex Riel recalls, the rapport between Gordon and his Danish audiences wasn’t something he had to work on; it was just “there” from the first time he started playing for them. ““It wasn’t a case of going to work,” he recalled, “even though we played every single night in June, July and August during the summer of 1964. Dexter and Tete were there solely for the music, and so were Niels-Henning and I. Dexter loved being in Montmartre. He often stayed and jammed with the night shift when it took over, playing on till early morning.”

The very first track, King Neptune, begins in mid-performance: evidently, the opening of this piece has been lost. A drum and piano break, evidently the end of a chorus, gets great applause before we move into a bass solo by the splendid Ørsted-Pedersen, the finest Danish jazz bassist of his day, with Riel providing tasteful support on the drums. Then it’s Dexter’s turn. Although I never felt that Gordon was quite as inventive a tenor saxist as his onetime friend and rival, Wardell Gray (listen to their joint 1950s recordings of The Chase and The Steeple Chase to hear what I mean), he was clearly a strong influence on both Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane with his flat, tubular sound. The performance ends immediately after, then moves into Manha de Carnival, which became a hit song under the title A Day in the Life of a Fool (recorded by Vic Damone, Jack Jones, Harry Belafonte and Frank Sinatra).

Gordon really shines on this performance of Sonny Stitt’s Loose Walk, showing off his fluent technique and, at this stage in his career, a bit more willingness to take chances in his solos. Yet to be honest, I found Tete Montoliu’s piano solo even more daring and original—this is clearly one of the highlights of the album—and Ørsted-Pedersen is similarly brilliant here. And throughout these performances, I was really surprised by the exceptional clarity of sound. They almost sound as if they were made yesterday, that’s how good they are.

Indeed, as this program continues one is as much if not more impressed by the pianist and bassist as by Gordon. Dexter just always seemed to me a player on the brink of being an artist without quite reaching the heights, and this program does not change my mind. Of course, this doesn’t mean that he was a poor jazz musician, only that he wasn’t quite in the top tier, but after decades of living in Denmark he returned to the U.S. where he made the film ‘Round Midnight and became a legend. Yet I very much enjoyed his vocal on Big Fat Butterfly, and his solo here is one of his very best, improvising as much on the melody as on the harmony with great facility.

Gordon is also very good in the set’s closer, his original tune Cheese Cake “the kind…you eat…” he tells the audience in his low-voiced drawl). Overall, then, a fine set by Long Tall Dexter with sterling support from his bandmates.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Gražinyté-Tyla’s Stunning Britten Requiem

Britten Requiem

what a performanceBRITTEN: Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20 / City of Birmingham Symphony Orch.; Mirga Gražinyté-Tyla, conductor / Deutsche Grammophon 4839072, available for streaming or download

Recorded on October 9, 2019, this strange, very brief recording is now issued by DGG only as a download/streaming album. This is clearly something new for the famed German label, but apparently the great conductor, currently hunkered down due to the Coronavirus and not currently performing, wanted to release it at this time.

This Requiem is unusual in that it is purely instrumental, in fact a 20-minute symphony in three movements. Written in 1940 by the pacifist composer, it was, ironically, commissioned by the Japanese government to mark the 260th anniversary of the founding of the Japanese empire. Ironically, Japan rejected it due to the Roman Catholic titles for the three movements and somber character, but it made a great impression in its premiere performance by the New York Philharmonic directed by John Barbirolli. And interestingly, its Boston performance under Serge Koussevitzky led to the commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation for Britten to write his opera Peter Grimes.

The music is superb, very much in Britten’s best pre-war style when he was still under the influence of Frank Bridge. There are somber but recognizably lyric melodic lines, skillfully crafted to create a work of dark beauty. As is her wont, Gražinyté-Tyla digs deep under the skin of the music, playing up each and every dramatic moment as if her life depended on it.

One thing I found interesting in this piece was the almost martial tone of the “Dies irae,” which also includes—oddly enough—an alto saxophone solo. I also liked the way he linked the three movements to make a continuous piece of it; and again, in the last section, “Requiem aeternam,” he pulls the rug out of your expectations by making it a placid, almost upbeat piece, as if eternal rest were a reward for the dead rather than something awful to be afraid of.

Short as it is, this is clearly one of the finest classical recordings of the year. I think what surprised me most was that this Requiem could easily have been tacked onto her DGG recording of Weinberg’s Symphony No. 21, “Kaddish,” which ran just a bit over one CD and was another dramatic work in a similar vein but otherwise, this is a gem.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Noah Preminger’s “Contemptment”

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what a performancePREMINGER: Late 90s. Hygge. Kamaguchi. Hamburg. Hey J. Contemptment. RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS: Porcelain. SHARROCK: Promises Kept / Noah Preminger, t-sax; Max Light, gtr; Kim Cass, bs; Dan Weiss, dm / SteepleChase SCCD 31906

The relatively young (32 years old) tenor saxist Noah Preminger has quickly made himself known as one of the most astonishing and creative jazz artists around today. I gave rave reviews to his earlier CDs, Genuinity and the Chopin Project, and now here is his latest offering. Regarding the title, Preminger himself explained to me, via an email, that it was an unfortunate typographical error: ” I wanted the record to be called Contentment, speaking to the idea that I am feeling more and more content with the path I’m on as a musician and as a person. There was a typo somewhere along the way and it ended up being printed with an M, rather than an N. Ha!!! Didn’t realize it until it got too far down in the process and then just went with it. Pretty ridiculous, but that’s the story.”

Yet his music remains as creative as ever, with Late 90s opening with a superb bass solo by Kim Crass, later joined by the drums before Preminger enters. One thing I really admire about him is his ability to create real melodic lines. Too many jazz “composers” nowadays just write what I perceive as a series of motifs which they string together and call a tune, but Preminger really puts thought into his compositions. And when he takes off on his solo, he’s primed and ready. Much of his playing uses alternate chords and chord positions; some of it stretches the limits to “outside” jazz; yet what sets Preminger apart from so many of his peers is his unrelenting originality and a rare ability to communicate. He is never just trying to dazzle the listener with his technique, though he has plenty of it to spare. He’s always trying to communicate with his listeners, and for me, at least, he succeeds. I would place him right up there along with Catherine Sikora as being my two favorite modern jazz saxists and, coincidentally, both have exceedingly warm tones that project their inner selves when they play.

I was also delighted to hear Max Light’s solo. Light is a jazz guitarist who isn’t trying to rival Eric Clapton for awesone-rad-rocker-of-the-week status. Like Preminger and Cass, he is a dedicated jazz musician and knows his stuff.

One could also say the same for drummer Dan Weiss, who opens Hygge with a very fine solo. Here, Preminger creates what I would call a classic bop line for his melody, played in synch with Light on guitar, though the bridge suddenly relaxes the tempo and uses a different melodic line, and after the initial statement is over the tempo relaxes further still as Preminger and his quartet fall into a relaxed medium-slow groove, which they hang onto and develop almost as a unit though the saxist is the primary soloist. And there is yet another reason why I admire Preminger: his bands are units, not just a presentation of “standard playing procedure” where the rhythm section simply supports the lead voice. Following Preminger’s solo, in fact, there’s an absolutely stunning one by Crass with Light filling in chords for a while before dropping out and leaving the show to Crass and Weiss. When Preminger returns, his solo is a further development on what has gone on previously. He is a musician who really pays attention to what the others are playing. The tempo picks up again near the end and the bop feel returns, and this time it’s Light’s turn to shine. What a wonderful track!

Kamaguchi opens with a slow, a cappella guitar solo before Preminger enters to play the stately melody line, which moves slowly but inevitably into the improve section. The beat becomes even more amorphous as we move into Light’s solo, using a bit of feedback but doing so in a jazz context. Hamburg, on the other hand, has a strange melody that alternates between a bit of lyricism and late bop, set over a continually shifting meter. The entire band handles this with aplomb, and when they finally get settled it is in the fast bop tempo. with good solos all round, especially Preminger who breaks up the rhythm in several unique and inventive ways.

Porcelain opens with Weiss playing soft brushes on his drums. The very slow melody, stated by the saxist, is more like a stately prayer than a ballad. Yet another example why I consider Preminger to be at or near the very top of his profession in terms of creativity. By contrast, Hey J is a bit of a jump tune with a few odd harmonies within the changes and, again, Preminger has created a catchy melody, although in this case it morphs a bit too much and is extended a bit too long to be easily memorable. All of the soloists, but particularly the leader, really stretch themselves out on this one, with the tempo increasing dramatically during Light’s turn at bat.

The title tune has a quixotic melodic line, relaxed and almost balladic, set over a somewhat churning double-time rhythmic base. Preminger’s solo is similarly quixotic, but we (again) suddenly burst out into an extroverted and happy-sounding tempo behind Light. When Preminger re-enters, it is in a similar tempo but much more excitable in tone.

The final track opens with Preminger alone, playing another dirge-like melody but enlivening it with double-time runs—not, again, to show off but to help develop the theme—before the rhythm section enters, converting it into a sort of 6/8 before moving almost imperceptibly into a straight 4, whereupon the quartet swings with occasional relaxations of tempo here and there in the middle section. Preminger dominates this piece with his marvelously inventive solos while the bass and drums roil behind him, rising to screaming climaxes here and there. Then, suddenly, the tempo relaxes considerably as Cass plays an excellent bass solo. The track, and the album, close out with some impassioned playing from the entire band.

This is clearly one of the best jazz albums of this or any other year. Bravos all around!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Pizzetti’s Great Greek Operas, III: Clitennestra

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“Il rimorso di Oreste” by Giordio di Chirico

PIZZETTI: Clitennestra / Clara Petrella, soprano (Clittenestra); Luisa Malagrida, soprano (Cassandra); Mario Petri, bass (Agamennone); Raffaele Arié, bass (Egisto); Floriana Cavalli, soprano (Elettra); Ruggero Bondino, tenor (Oreste); Rena Garazioti, soprano (Cilissa); Nicola Zaccaria, bass (Oreste’s assistant); Piero de Palma, tenor (A Herald); Virgilio Carbonari, baritone (Una scolta); Laura Londi, mezzo-soprano (Una corifea); Walter Gullino, tenor (Primo corifeo); Alfredo Giacomotti, bass-baritone (Secondo corifeo); Anna Novelli, soprano (1st Priestess of Artemis); Luciana Piccolo, mezzo-soprano (2nd Priestess of Artemis); Antonio Zerbini, bass (Un vecchio del coro); Teatro alla Scana, Milan Orch. & Chorus; Gianandrea Gavazzeni, conductor / available for free streaming on Internet Archive (live: March 1, 1965)

Pizzetti in 1964

We now move forward to the mid-1960s. Here, near the end of his long life, Pizzetti wrote what many consider his greatest masterpiece based on Greek legend, Clittenestra. It is sometimes referred to as “the Italian Elektra,” but there are considerable differences between the operas of Pizzetti and Strauss. For one thing, it is the queen who is the central character, not the daughter. For another, Pizzetti chose to end the opera by having Orestes go into exile after having murdered his mother to, as the composer put it, “look for himself through his own tormented life, a valid reason for redemption, considering a desperate and inexorable condemnation right.” Andrea Della Corte thought this ending to be the least convincing part of the opera, characterized by “declaimed recitative of the text and expressive harmonistic concomitance,” but personally it doesn’t bother me and, from a dramatic standpoint, it certainly makes sense.

But alas, like Ifegenia, it has eluded further performances after the composer’s death in 1968 and a modern stereo recording. Again, however, I must stress that it is extremely difficult to find modern singers who can both sing with excellent techniques and also declaim dramatically without harming their delicate vocal equipment.

Petrella as Clitennestra

Clara Petrella as Clitennestra

The cast here is virtually flawless. Clara Petrella, an exceptional Italian soprano whose acting skills were so great that she was called “the Duse of opera,” gives the performance of her life in the title role. Mario Petri, a fine singing actor if not quite on the level of Rossi-Lemeni, sings a convincing Agamemnon while the often-underrated bass Raffaele Arié sings Aegisthus. Both Luisa Malagrida and Floriana Cavalli are surprisingly excellent as the seer Cassandra and Elektra. In the case of Fedra, the conductor is again Gianandrea Gavazzeni, who pulls the work together in a taut, dramatic reading. Since the Prelude to the opera was not only in awful sound but badly truncated, missing about 3 ½ minutes’ worth of music, I inserted the recording of this piece—the only part of the opera to be recorded in stereo—by Myron Michailidis and the Thessaloniki State Symphony Orchestra.

Luisa Malagrida as Cassandra

Luisa Malagrida as Cassandra

Alas, without a synopsis or libretto, I can’t go into too much detail on what is being sung here, but anyone familiar with the story will undoubtedly be able to follow the plot. Sad to say, there is no bloodcurdling scream when Orestes kills Clytemnestra; you might imagine that he killed her in her sleep, while in bed with Aegisthus. To compensate, there’s a neat mother-daughter confrontation between Clytemnestra and Elektra that doesn’t appear in the Strauss opera. To compensate for the lack of a text, I am happy to present here the first page of the score which was available for free online.

Clitennestra_page_1

Clitennestra 3

A pleasant mother-daughter chat between Clitennestra (Petrella) and Elettra (Cavalli) in Act II

Like Elektra, Pizzetti’s music here is almost constantly on edge. The tension is palpable and he creates a fascinating web of sound in the orchestra to accompany the drama, thus the advances he made in Ifigenia are brought to fruition here. It’s almost incredible to think that during the period in which he wrote this opera he was between 82 and 84 years old. Sadly, he died just before the revival of the work in 1968 which, so far as I can tell, was the last time it was staged.

There are so many extraordinary passages in the score that it would take three long paragraphs to describe them all. Better you should just listen and hear for yourself. Although there are no arias in the strict sense of the word, there are several sung monologues, and in these Pizzetti, for once, used a more lyrical and less parlando style—including some climactic high notes. This heightens the excitement of the drama without really making the performers break character in order to soliloquize.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Pizzetti’s Great Greek Operas, II: Ifigenia

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PIZZETTI: Ifigenia / Rosanna Carteri, soprano (Ifigenia); Fiorenzo Cossotto, mezzo-soprano (Clitennestra); Ottorino Begali, tenor (Achille); Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, bass (Agamennone); Jolanda Michieli, mezzo-soprano (Una corifea); Guido Mazzini, baritone (Altro corifeo); Teatro la Fenice Chorus & Orch.; Nino Sanzogno, conductor / live: 1960; available for free streaming on YouTube

There was a considerable gap—35 years, to be exact—between Pizzetti’s Fedra and his Ifigenia, during which time he wrote six other operas and a ton of instrumental music.

Pizzetti c. 1947

Pizzetti c. 1947

Since the plot that he chose for this opera concerns just one incident, Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigénie to the gods in order to ensure smooth sailing for his fleet in the Trojan war, Pizzetti chose to keep it short, only 50 minutes. Moreover, he initially conceived it as a radio opera without staging, and it received its premiere in this format at the RAI auditorium on October 3, 1950. The cast included Rosanna Carteri as Ifigenia, Elena Nicolai as Clitennestra, Aldo Bertocci as Achille and Giacomo Vaghi as Agamennone with Fernando Previtali conducting. The opera was so well received, however, that a stage production was soon in the works. This premiere occurred at the Teatro Comunale in Florence on May 9, 1951; the only cast change was Antonio Annaloro as Achille. In this performance, the composer himself conducted.

There was another performance, this one recorded, given in 1956 with young Anna Moffo as Ifigenia, but Pizzetti, who also conducted this performance, was not as pleased by her interpretation. Thus, when this performance was given in Venice in 1960, Carteri was back as Ifigenia and Pizzetti’s new favorite basso, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, sang the crucial role of Agamennone.

Perhaps the most controversial cast change was that of the young mezzo-soprano Fiorenza Cossotto as Clitennestra. Although Cossotto had a much more beautiful voice than Nicolai, she was not nearly as well admired for her acting skills, but as in the case of the 1959 Fedra, conductor Gianandrea Gavazzeni worked with her to bring out her best. The sound quality of the surviving tape is quite excellent for its time, in fact the clearest of the three Greek operas.

One interesting twist to the original story added by Pizzetti comes at the end. In an epilogue, when the mist descends to hide the sacrificial act is thinned out, a mysterious voice rises to ask why the eternal perpetuation of war. But there is no answer, and the same voice, after the intervention of the choir, which symbolically multiplies the painful question in several languages “Pourquoi? Por qué? Warum? Why? Quare?”, and chanting the prayer in Latin “Si iniquitates observaveris, Domine, quis substinevit ?, irascaris, Domine. Dona nobis pacem” for all the victims and perpetrators of war.

Pizzetti, then, was clearly a pacifist, thus it must have angered and pained him when Mussolini, to whom he had sworn an oath in 1925, joined forced with Hitler and Hirohito to start World War II. Those who knew him said that the composer withdrew as much as possible from public life, though his new music was still performed, and in 1939 or 1940 Mussolini pressed him into writing a symphony honoring his new ally, Japan. But this was clearly not his own sentiment.

The writing in Ifigenia marks a considerable advance on Fedra; here, the musical lines are much more varied; indeed, the barked-out orders of Agamemnon dominate the early part of the opera, though they surprisingly shift towards a more lyrical, arioso style of writing. The somewhat edgy harmonies of the opera’s beginning shift, at the six-minute mark, to surprisingly jolly, tonal music, apparently celebrating the successful launch of the Greek fleet.

Carteri as Ifigenia

Carteri as Ifigenia

Carteri is simply magnificent as Ifigenia. She always did have a good-sized and attractive soprano voice, but here she also proves herself a fine vocal actress as well. Pizzetti’s continued variance of both the vocal line and, more importantly, the shifts in rhythm hold one’s attention from start to finish. It’s easy to hear why this short, compact opera made such a strong impression in the early 1950s.

Rossi-Lemeni as Agamennon

Rossi-Lemeni as Agamennon

Yet for all the excellences of Carteri’s and Cossotto’s singing, it is clearly Rossi-Lemeni who dominates with his dramatically powerful performance. He never really had a “classic” bass voice; it was always very pointed, with a narrow focus and a strong baritonal quality. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that tenor Jonas Kaufmann sounds more like a bass than Rossi-Lemeni did, but he could always descend to the standard bass range (but not any further) when needed. I saw him on stage as Boris Godunov in the mid-1980s and, though his voice had dried out a bit and was somewhat weaker, you didn’t notice so much because his stage presence and his acting, both physically and with the voice, were so potent that they completely riveted your attention.

Pizzetti’s orchestral score, aside from the frequent harmonic and tempo changes, is also more colorful than in Fedra, using the brass and winds in an ingenious manner to create color and atmosphere. Mind you, this is not to criticize Fedra, which for its time and place was a major breakthrough in Italian opera (I wonder what Boito, who was still alive at the time, thought of it), but simply to point out that in the intervening decades Pizzetti had grown as an artist. In certain respects, Fedra was a more subtle score, but Ifigenia is more gripping dramatically. It has even more verismo elements in it, but verismo transformed into something more truly dramatic and less cheaply melodramatic. Note, for instance, how at 23:30 Pizzetti uses the chorus to sing a coarse, jingoistic “war march” that is almost as brutally effective as the opening movement of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.

And, wonder of wonders, Ifigenia actually gets an aria near the end of the opera, just before the epilogue in which she says goodbye to life and love. Yes, it’s an aria that focuses more on the drama of the situation and not a “set-piece” where the soprano just stands there and warbles a pretty tune for three or four minutes, but an aria nonetheless…and Carteri sings it superbly.

This is quite an opera and quite a performance. Highly recommended.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Pizzetti’s Great Greek Operas, I: Fedra

Fedra OD 11119-2

PIZZETTI: Fedra / Régine Crespin, soprano (Fedra); Gastone Limarilli, tenor (Ippolito); Dino Dondi, baritone (Teseo); Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, bass (Eurito d’Ilasco); Marta Rose, mezzo (Etra); Edda Vincenza, soprano (Theban Slave); Anna Maria Canali, mezzo (Gorgo); Paolo Montarsolo, bass (Phoenician Pirate); La Scala Orchestra & Chorus; Gianandrea Gavazzeni, conductor / Opera Depot OD 11119-2 or available for free streaming on Internet Archive (live: Milan, December 28, 1959)

Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968), a man with a permanent scowl on his face and knitted brows (I bet he must have been a laugh riot at parties!), is primarily known as a composer of orchestral music and a famous Requiem, but during his ling life he wrote no less than 16 completed operas and three unfinished ones dating from 1897, when he was only 17 years old, to 1964 when he was 84. Unfortunately, none of them are in the standard repertoire and in fact only this one, Fedra, has been commercially recorded in digital stereo sound, but that lone recording is substandard in both conducting and singing.

So why are his operas, and particularly those based on Greek drama which I consider to be the cream of the crop, so overlooked? Partly, I think, because he has a much higher reputation in instrumental music, which is softer in contour, less spiky harmonically, less edgy and less dramatic, and partly because his greatest operas are dramatic and somewhat edgy. There is also the sneaking suspicion that he was too infatuated by Wagner for an Italian composer but, as we shall see, although he clearly adored the German master, particularly in his early years, he was by no means a slavish disciple.

I first ran across an extended excerpt from this opera and this very performance on an Opera Depot CD devoted to soprano Régine Crespin. I let the CD play without looking at what aria or excerpt was coming up next, and after an excerpt from Parsifal this excerpt (“Figlia, di Pasifàe, Fedra vertiginosa”) came up. I thought I was listening to an excerpt from Parsifal that I had never heard before, but as the music progressed I realized that it was clearly no Wagner at all. But who, and what, was it? I soon found out by investigating the opera online.

Pizzetti in 1915

Pizzetti, c. 1915

Fedra was based on a 1912 play of the same name by the infamous Italian poet-playwright Gabriele d’Annunzio, who later in life became an ardent Fascist. In his play, d’Annunzio apparently wanted to reap some of the success of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. On the Opera Lively website, a member using the name Schigolch put up a ton of interesting posts on this opera in April and May of 2013. As he put it, d’Annunzio “made Phaedra an insatiable, wild woman, bordering on madness,” but there is more. He made her

A primeval being, unrest(ing), deluding herself. To indulge her passions she will confront everyone, including the gods themselves. Still traumatized by her kidnapping and how Theseus forced her into being his wife, she is suffering from “mania insonne,” and is emotionally separated from her fellow human beings.

This mania insonne will be the main Leitmotif. Fedra’s loneliness. A loneliness that places her opposite to Theseus, to the gods. This is her “hybris” (Greek word for excess, fir misguided pride). She is not seducing Hippolytus out of love, or lust. She is searching revenge on Theseus, Aphrodite and Artemis.

She is also a nocturnal  creature. Sleepless. A true messenger of Thanatos and Hecate. All (of) the opera in enveloped by an atmosphere of violent death.

Thus one can hear in this opera, as later in Ifigenie, how Pizzetti developed his music from a soft, Wagner-like prelude into a tangle of Greek passion filtered through the lens of Italian music. For all the Wagnerian elements in Fedra, there are also elements of Boito and some of the better ideas from Italian verismo. Pizzetti remained an Italian at heart and never strayed so far towards the Wagner ideal that he forgot his own cultural identity. Fedra had its premiere on March 20, 1915 at La Scala with a cast that included the powerful Ukrainian soprano Salomea Kruscelniski, who was also Puccini’s first Butterfly, as Fedra, American tenor Edward Johnson (singing under the name Eduardo di Giovanni) as Ippolito (Hippolytus) and the now-forgotten baritone Edmondo Grandini as Teseo (Theseus). Gino Marunicci conducted the performance. In the performance under review, the role of Ippolito was sung by Gastone Limarilli, a protégé of Mario del Monaco’s who studied with del Monaco’s teacher. This performance was his La Scala debut.

Crespin as Iphigenia

Crespin as Iphigenia

Like the best verismo operas, Fedra inhabits a febrile musical environment though it never uses the aria-duet-ensemble format favored by Mascagni or Puccini. Perhaps one reason for this, which is not widely known, is that despite his early piano lessons from his father Pizzetti was first and foremost interested in becoming a playwright. In fact, he wrote several plays, two of which were actually produced, before he finally decided to become a musician at the age of 15. In his later years—also not widely known—he also became a music critic and in fact wrote several books on the music of Italy and Greece. A close friend and colleague of d’Annunzio, he shared his penchant for dark, neoclassic themes. Sadly, he also followed d’Annunzio’s footsteps as an ardent supporter of Fascism and Mussolini, signing the Manifesto of Fascist Intellectuals in 1925. This was a black mark on his character which he was somehow able to shake himself free of after World War II. Sadly, not all great artists are saints.

Gastone Limarilli

Gastone Limarilli

The music of Fedra remains basically tonal but, taking its cue from its complex, contradictory central character, it swirls in and out of dissonance, particularly in the orchestra. In this performance, one of only two that exist as broadcast transcriptions (the other is from 1954 with inferior sound and singers), conductor Gianandrea Gavazzeni, himself a composer, fully understands both the style of the music and psyche of the character, and he is aided by the resplendent soprano voice of Crespin who perhaps falls a bit short of projecting Fedra’s total madness but certainly manages to make her sound confused and vindictive. She is supported by two excellent singing actors, baritone Dino Dondi as Teseo (Theseus) and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, one of the most outstanding stage actors of his time (Pizzetti wrote his 1958 opera Assassasinio nella cattredale specifically for him), as Eurito (Eurytus). Gavazzeni had clearly rehearsed this cast down to the core of the characters’ conflicting motives and emotions, for he gets the best out of all of them, even the lovely-voiced but not always exciting mezzo Anna Maria Canali as Gorgo.

Dino Dondi as Teseo

Dino Dondi as Teseo

The only real drawback to Fedra is that the music is not quite as colorful and varied as in Pizzetti’s Greek operas which followed. The music is always interesting, but many of the vocal lines here tend to follow similar patterns. It’s the kind of score that works pretty well as an exclusively listening experience, but would clearly make a better impact if the opera were seen as well as heard. Luckily, as I mentioned in the above paragraph, the cast does a splendid job of inhabiting the characters as best they can and bringing them to life.

Fedra has apparently been one of the very few Pizzetti operas to be revived in the 21st century, but none of those performances seem to have been recorded and certainly not uploaded online for streaming. To be honest, however, I wonder if one could find a conductor and cast as committed to this searing musical drama as the one heard here. Nowadays it seems that we have opera singers who can act up a storm on the stage but not with their voices, and in fact most of them have such vocal defects—wobbles, poor voice placement, defective phrasing—that I’m afraid that they would get in the way of a great performance. Yes, there are some great singers out there, often not famous ones, toiling in the smaller operatic venues and just looking for a break, but sadly the ones with the high-powered agents either never had much of a voice or blew it out after five years or less of heavy singing.

Although I had a few caveats (noted above” regarding Fedra, it was a very innovative opera for its time and place, and I strongly urge you to listen to it. My upload on the Internet Archive is considerably better than the one on YouTube which was its source, since I deleted dozens of drop-outs in the sound and cleaned it up to some degree.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Prokofiev “By Arrangement”

TOCC0135

PROKOFIEV: Tales of an Old Grandmother: No. 2, Andantino (arr. Milstein). 5 Pieces from “Cinderella” (arr. Fikhtengolts). Visions Fugitives (arr. Derevianko). War and Peace: Waltz (arr. Reitikh-Zinger). Egyptian Nights Suite: No. 6, “The Fall of Cleopatra” (arr. Reitikh-Zinger). Tarantella (arr. Reitikh-Zinger). Boris Godunov: Amoroso (arr. Reitikh-Zinger). 4 Pieces for Piano: No. 2, Minuet (arr. Reitikh-Zinger) & No. 3, Gavotte (arr. Heifetz). Music for Children: Evening (arr. Reitikh-Zinger). Love for Three Oranges Suite: March (arr. Heifetz). The Tale of the Stone Flower: Diamond Waltz (arr. Reitikh-Zinger). 10 Pieces for Piano: No. 6, Legend; No. 3, Rigaudon (arr. Reitikh-Zinger) / Yuri Kalnits, vln; Yulia Chaplina, pno / Toccata Classics TOCC0135

Normally I dislike reviewing arrangements of classical music for instruments other than those for which the piece was composed, even if the composer himself made the arrangement, but Kalnits and Chaplina play these pieces with so much energy and affection that I couldn’t resist.

The music covers virtually the whole of Prokofiev’s creative life, from the very early Tarantella written when he was only 10 years old (1901) to the Diamond Waltz from The Tale of the Stone Flower written near the end of his life in 1953. Yes, of course Prokofiev’s late years were sad and dreary ones when he was often censored by the musical bureaucrats who Stalin put in place and thus was forced to write alternate, more “pleasing” and popular endings to works which he hated, but frankly, no one told him to go back to the Soviet Union when he was out, safe, and having a fine career in France. Did he really think he was going to be feted by the Soviets because he was coming home the conquering hero, having proven himself with a hit opera, symphonies and concerti which he had written while in Western Europe? If so, he was clearly deluding himself. He should have had a chat with Rachmaninov who, though he was homesick for the rest of his life, absolutely refused to go back to Mother Russia once he got the hell out—and who talked Nikolai Medtner into doing the same.

Eight of the pieces here get their first recordings: the 1901 Tarantella plus The Fall of Cleopatra, the Boris Godunov “Amoroso,” the “Minuet” from 4 Pieces, “Evening” from Music for Children, the Stone Flower “Diamond Waltz” and the “Legend” and “Rigaudon” from 10 Pieces for Piano. But as one can tell from the listing above, the focus here is on short works, the kind of pieces that violinists love to play as encores (note that Nathan Milstein and Jascha Heifetz are two of the arrangers on certain pieces) rather than meaty works.

This, then, is an album clearly built around playfulness and enjoyment. I was just a bit startled to hear Kalnits playing with a great deal of portamento, giving much of this music a schmaltzy sound akin to that of Fritz Kreisler, but why not when enjoyment is your primary purpose? This is the kind of album that’s perfect for raw fall days when the temperatures barely hit 62 and it’s been raining on and off all night and all day. Prokofiev has the advantage over Rachmaninov in that his music was rather more modern and a bit spikier in harmony, not so much as to alienate the average listener but also not as overtly Romantic as his older colleague. A perfect example is the “Passapied” from Cinderella, a piece that I’m sure got him in Dutch with the Soviet Politbureau.

As I say, a delightful disc to listen to.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Jackie Yoo Plays Etudes

cover GEN 20720

what a performanceLIGETI: Etudes for Piano, First Book. LUTOSŁAWSKI: 2 Etudes. LISZT: Grand Etudes of Paganini / Jackie Jaekyung Yoo, pno / Genuin 20720

Korean pianist Jackie Jaekyung Yoo has taken this recording opportunity to present etudes by Ligeti, Lutosławski and Liszt in reverse chronological order. Reading through the liner notes, her choice of these three composers seems to be that they all presented “breakthroughs” in the creation of piano etudes, but when you come down to it there really is no connection between their very different music except for the adoption of that form—that, plus the fact that all three composers’ names begin with an L.

But I must say, the way Yoo attacks the Ligeti Etudes is exciting and bracing. No shy wallflower she, but a bold, powerful pianist who plays her instrument like a man. I love it! These performances, in fact, are more exciting than those recorded by Pierre-Laurent Aimard for Sony Classical, a recording which has received praise from many quarters. Nor does Yoo ignore the tender moments in this series, such as the second etude. She is some incredible pianist. The extraordinarily complex cross-rhythms of the Etude No. 3 are child’s play for her.

Yes, the two Lutosławski Etudes do sound eerily like Ligeti’s, even though they were written 44 years earlier, in 1941…at least, the way Yoo plays them they sound alike in both form and character. These are clearly among the composer’s best pieces, full of energy, strong rhythms and imagination.

But it was in the Liszt Etudes, played in a crisp, strong, non-Romantic manner, that I was really sold on Yoo’s extraordinary talent as an interpreter. She clearly took an entirely new view towards these pieces, emphasizing their virtuosic quality over the warm, gooshy legato style in which his music is normally played. Some listeners may object to this, but since they are Etudes based on Paganini, who himself wrote powerful, virtuosic pieces for the violin that avoid Romantic sentimentality, I find her interpretations to be completely valid. Not since the late György Cziffra have I heard Liszt played in such a bracing manner. Just listen to the way she plays the famous “La Campanella” for an example.

Thus what could easily have been a disappointing finish to this album turned out to be, for me at least, an extraordinary listening experience. There are very few younger pianists on the scene today who I consider to be in that rare category of musical masters, but on the basis of this recording I would place Yoo in that category. I would crawl over broken glass to hear her play in person—that’s how good she is.

Quite simply, a fantastic CD.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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