Music Set to Dumas’ Poetry

Alexandre Dumas

ALEXANDRE DUMAS ET LA MUSIQUE / MASSENET: Élégie.1,4 Soleil couchant.3 BERLIOZ: La Belle Isabeau.2 La Captive.3,4 LISZT: Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher.3 DUPARC: La Fuite.1,3 GODARD: Jocelyn: Berceuse.2,4 Te souviens-tu.1 DOCHE: L’Ange.2 DUPREZ: Nita la gonsolière.1 H. MOMPOU: Piquillo: Ah! pour cotre assistance seigneur.1-3 VARNEY: Le Chevalier de Maison-Rouge: Chœur des Girondins.1-3 MESSAGER: Le Chevalier d’Harmental: Ah! Ah! L’Abbé, je l’ai mis en déroute!1 GUION: Amour, printemps – Printemps amour!2 FRANCK: Le Sylphe.3,4 REBER: Le Jardin.3 THOMÉ: Le Jardin 1 / 1Kaëlig Boché, ten; 2Karine Deshayes, mezzo; 3Marie-Laure Garnier, sop; 4Raphael Jouan, cello; Alphonse Cemin, pno / Alpha Classics 657

The concept of this album is an interesting one, songs and arias set mostlly to texts by Alexandre Dumas père, author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, who wrote a lot of poetry and, on commission, texts to certain operas, not Dumas fils who wrote La Dame aux Camelias on which La Traviata was based. Only a very few well-known pieces are included here, such as Massenet’s Élégie and Godard’s once-wildly-popular “Berceuse” from Jocelyn. Most of the songs and arias are fairly obscure, and some of them are superb.

The problem is that two of the three singers aren’t particularly good. Tenor Kaëlig Boché has an infirm, fluttery voice, and soprano Marie-Laure Garnier has both a flutter and a tight, nasal top range. Only mezzo-soprano Karine Deshayes is truly superb in every way. How much you want to bet that either Boché or Garnier helped pay for this recording to be made?

Happily, pianist Cemin and cellist Jouan, who plays on four of the tracks, are excellent, and they help hold the musical performances together. And I really was surprised and delighted by many songs that were new to me, particularly Liszt’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher and Duparc’s La Fuille Fuite. I also have to admit that this is the first time I’ve ever heard a mezzo sing the famous Jocelyn berceuse, and although Deshayes is a superb singer, I didn’t much care for it—particularly with a cello playing the accompaniment instead of a violin.

I was also surprised to hear a song written by none other than (Louis)-Gilbert Duprez, the famous tenor who took over Les Huguenots when the creator of Raoul, Adolphe Nourrit, committed suicide due to depression over his encroaching liver disease. And it’s not a bad song at all, really, cheerful and well constructed. I also got a kick out of the trio from Mompou’s opera Piquillo, a lively, well-written piece in which all three singers are in there pitching.

In fact, it might be my imagination, but I would swear that Boché actually gets better and better as the recital moves on. Not only is he good in the Duprez and Mompou pieces, but he sings the tar out of yet another operatic ensemble, the trio from Alphonse Varney’s Le Chevalier de Maison-Rouge as well as the aria from André Messager’s Le Chevalier d’Harmental.

But whether their voices are good or somewhat poor, all three singers really give this recital zest with their continually lively interpretations, for which I credit pianist Cemin. It’s just so much fun to listen to that I, at least, was able to overlook the occasional glitches in voice production, and that’s not common for me.

When all is said and done, then, this is clearly an interesting and entertaining CD.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The Symphonies of Matthew Taylor

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TAYLOR: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5. Romanza for Strings* / BBC National Orchestra of Wales; *English Symphony Orch.; Kenneth Woods, cond / Nimbus Alliance NI6406

British composer Matthew Taylor, born in 1964, studied composition (as did my friend Peter Seabourne) with Robin Holloway in Queen’s College, Cambridge. He has been Artistic Director of the Malvern Festival, Composer in Residence at the Blackheath Halls, Associate Composer of ensemble Sound Collective, Artistic Director of the Royal Tunbridge Wells International Music Festival andArtistic Director of the St Petersburg British Music Festival.

His music is colorful and extroverted, with just enough modern harmonies to interest the listener without overwhelming the music. The opening of the Fourth Symphony is a bit splashy, taken at a fast clip and well developed from a theme that is really no more than a short motive played by the strings. I noted that Taylor uses very colorful orchestration and strong rhythms to make his mark, including some pretty energetic tympani. Indeed, the variety of orchestral color is a constant in this first movement, which eventually moves into short chromatic slides by the lower strings and a passage in which the oboe plays against what sounds to me like a xylophone. The development section features quirky but attractive wind and string passages. By and large, the music is more entertaining than deep or profound.

The slow movement, built on the same opening motif as the first but slower, is more of a “mod” piece played by the violas and lower violins. In the middle of the movement, things become more excitable and those ol’ tympani make a return visit. Taylor also employ some interesting soft, timbral effects towards the end via the celesta and soft clarinet playing. The third and last movement combines some of the excitement of the first movement with the mystery and elegance of the second.

The somewhat brief (seven-minute) Romanza is placed on this disc between the two symphonies. It is a typically modern-British sort of piece, somewhat in the vein of early Britten, pleasant but not particularly memorable despite some nice development of the principal theme.

The Fifth Symphony is entirely different from the Fourth: edgier in the accepted modern style, less “cute” in its themes and handling of them, and although it is still colorful in orchestration the scoring is geared more towards a dramatic profile. I liked this symphony very much; it appealed to me from the opening statement and kept holding my attention throughout. Occasionally, Taylor uses similar scoring and also gives solos to the various wind instruments, particularly the flute and clarinet, but the entire endeavor seemed to me more compact in construction and geared more towards drama than pure entertainment. Even the quieter passages here have a greater sense of drama and tension, even when quiet, than in the Fourth Symphony.

The second movement eases up on the tension and is considerably more playful in tone, yet somehow also more serious than the Fourth Symphony. It is comprised almost entirely of soft wind passages interspersed with soft strings, and even with its somewhat whimsical framework there remains a strange undercurrent of menace lurking just around the corner, as if someone were walking along a lonely road at night, whistling in the dark. Moreover, this uneasy feeling continues through the remaining two movements although, in the middle of the last movement, Taylor again approaches the stronger rhythms and faster tempi of the first movement to end on a more dramatic note.

All in all, then, a pretty good recording, with the Fifth Symphony being my favorite work on the disc.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The Multiquarium Big Band Remembers Jaco

Remembering Jaco

REMEMBERING JACO / ERSKINE-GUILLAUME-SOURINE-LEGRÈNE-CHARLIER: Introduction, Interludes 1 & 2. Conclusion.* PASTORIUS: Used to Be a Cha Cha. Barbary Coast. Medley: PASTORIUS: Liberty City/KAPER: Invitation. PASTORIUS: Continuum. Medley: PASTORIUS: Kuru/HANCOCK: Speak Like a Child. PASTORIUS: Teen Town. Three Views of a Secret. SHORTER: Palladium. WAYMAN-LEWIS-MORRIS: Fanny Mae / Multiquarium Big Band: Claude Egéa, Pierre Drevet, Yves Le Carboulec, tpt/fl-hn; Denis Leloup, Damien Verberve, Philippe Georges, tb; Didier Havet, bs-tb; Stéphane Chausse, a-sax/cl/bs-cl; Lucas Saint-Cricq, a-sax/s-sax; Stéphane Guillaume, s-sax/t-sax/fl; Frédéric Borey, t-sax; Frédéric Couderc, bar-sax; Pierre Perchaud, gt; Benoit Sourisse, pno/el-org/Fender Rhodes; Bireli Legrène, bs-gt; André Charlier, dm; Nicolas Charlier, perc; *Peter Erskine, narr; Yannick Boudruche, voc / Naïve Jazz NJ 7195

Jaco Pastorius (1951-1987) was a meteor in the jazz world, an electric bass guitarist whose accompaniments and solos were so startling and original that they sometimes overshadowed the leaders of the bands he played in (such as Weather Report). On this album, percussionists André and Nicolas Charlier, in conjunction with keyboard player Benoir Sourisse, decided to form a big band to pay tribute to Pastorius by playing several of his own compositions. As an additional inspiration, they selected Peter Erskine, who had been Weather Report’s drummer during the Pastorius era, as narrator and Bireli Legrène, the virtuoso Gypsy jazz guitarist, to assume Pastorius’ role on electric bass guitar.

Although I am not and never have been a big fan of electrco-acoustic or roc-inspired jazz, I too was in awe of Pastorius’ talent. Fortunately, despite the rock-pop grooves, the Multiquarium Big Band sticks largely to a jazz orientation in orchestration and solos. And yes, Legrène does a fabulous job when you consider that Pastorius really was a once-in-a-lifetime sort of player, just as Bix Beiderbecke and Charlie Parker were. A lot of imitators have come close to all three, and to this list I would now add Legrène whose solos are not merely virtuosic but highly imaginative, though none of those three giants of jazz have ever been wholly and successfully imitated.

But what I liked most about this CD was that the band was so good from start to finish, as were all of the soloists. Not one of them “coasts” on this session; they’re pushing the limits of their talent in solo after solo, with the result that the music comes alive. I couldn’t help comparing, in my mind, the very well-intentioned but somehow staid tribute to Charlie Parker done by alto saxist Tineke Postma and the Eric Ineke JazzXpress: respectful, clean, very professional performances, yet inevitably lacking the underlying guts and spirit of the original. Even in those moments when Legrène is just playing steady accompaniment, as in Barbary Coast, he manages to keep the band jumping, as Jaco did…and again and again, each and every soloist is pushing himself to the limit.

Yet perhaps the real spark behind this band comes from the Charliers on percussion. They never stop kicking this band along, never let the musicians coast, and in the end do Pastorius proud by capturing his spirit as much as glimpses of what he was able to do with a bass guitar. Although this isn’t a “ghost band” in the strict sense of the word, since Weather Report was much smaller in size, it plays with a spirit that almost no ghost band has ever achieved (except, I think, for the few years the Glenn Miller orchestra was led by clarinetist Buddy de France, who pushed them in new directions). There are also moments, such as in the medley of Liberty and Invitation, where the basic beat is closer to a fast Latin feel, almost like some of Stan Kenton’s better recordings, and not so strongly tied to funk-fusion. Legrène playing on this track, particularly his consistent double-time runs underneath the ensemble and the brilliant trombone solo by Denis Leloup, is simply astounding, and his solo is close to Pastorius’ own style. Stéphane Guillaume is no slouch on the soprano sax, either.

Indeed, without slighting the astonishing abilities of these band musicians in the least, I’d say that Legrène was the single biggest surprise to me…not because I underestimated his abilities as a guitarist (I knew  he was excellent) but simply because transitioning to electric bass guitar is not always easy for someone who is used to playing solo acoustic six-string guitar. But bless his little Gypsy heart, he makes the transition as easily as if he’d been doing it all his life, and in fact I’ve just run across a YouTube video of him playing electric bass guitar from 2012. Following him from track to track, you just become more amazed at his talent. The man can flat-out play. Another stunning track for Legrène is Continuum, a slow piece which consists mostly of bass guitar solo, but to be honest he’s just brilliant throughout the entire set.

Whether or not your proclivity is towards fusion or not, if you’re a jazz lover you’ve got to hear this CD. To my mind, it just misses the high water mark of one of my “What a Performance” awards, which is saying a great deal. Every track and every solo is a gem.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Fonnesbæk & Kauflin Plays Jazz Standards

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STANDARDS / POWELL: Bouncing With Bud. STRAYHORN: Take the “A” Train. BERLIN: How Deep is the Ocean? ELLINGTON: In a Sentimental Mood. GOLSON: Whisper Not. TYNER: Inception. MONK: Round Midnight. PETERSON: Nigerian Marketplace. PORTER: It’s All Right With Me / Thomas Fonnesbæk, bs; Justin Kauflin, pno / Storyville SVL1018488

Thomas Fonnesbæk, the great, innovative jazz bassist whose music I have praised on this site since his 2017 album Synesthesia (Storyville SVL1014310), here follows that album up with a collection of jazz and pop standards recorded the same year.

As in that earlier release, Fonnesbæk proves himself to be a fearless bassist who takes his instrument wherever he wants at any given time, audaciously creating genuine lines and not just an “accompaniment” for his pianist partner, though in the second chorus of the opener, Bouncing With Bud, he does just that for a while. Kauflin is a good pianist who plays with imagination, but the discerning listener will realize here, as in his earlier album, that it is the bassist who is directing the musical traffic. Fonnesbæk inspires Kauflin but, to be honest, needs no one to inspire him.

When Fonnesbæk takes solos, he is prepped and ready. He makes Jimmy Blanton’s solos in the early-‘40s Ellington band sound simple, just as Blanton completely upset the bass-playing hierarchy of his day. Moreover, his is both a melodic and a rhythmic approach, the notes literally bouncing in the acoustic space of the recording studio.

But if you think Bouncing With Bud was good, wait ‘til you hear what he does in the opening of Billy Strayhorn’s Take the “A” Train. Here, Fonnesbæk sets up a blistering riff that he is able to transpose and repeat in other keys as the harmony moves around, thus generating a powerful double-time swing that will knock you out. His rhythm almost simulates the rumble of a subway train, and Kauflin is also very good here as well, playing alternately in single-note runs and a series of chords.

Indeed, what I enjoyed most about this CD as the music moved on from track to track was how innovative this duo is with the most “retro” pieces. Although taken as a slow clip, which makes the music swing with a bit more force, their approach to Irving Berlin’s How Deep is the Ocean? is built along the same lines, and in this case neither musician even touches the melody line until about 1:30 into the piece.  In an era when far too many jazz musicians slow down older songs to emphasize their “soulfulness” (whatever that’s supposed to mean), Fonnesbæk and Kauflin actually speed things up. I doubt that you’ve ever heard this song played at this tempo before, and it does wonders for it.

The duo does, however, respect the slow tempo that Duke Ellington set for his In a Sentimental Mood, with the bassist playing the opening melody while the pianist trims the gingerbread before moving into the improvisation section. And here, Fonnesbæk gives more ground to Kauflin to work with, and the pianist turns in one of his finest solos. The bassist also solos, and it’s an excellent one, but in this case equal to Kauflin.

And interestingly, they turn Benny Golson’s bop classic Whisper Not into a swing piece, relaxing the tempo somewhat and infusing it with a 1940s rhythm. Very nice! The pianist, appropriately enough, introduces McCoy Tyner’s Inception, with Fonnesbæk jumping in on the second chorus, but once the bass jumps in the piece really takes off. Some of the figures that Fonnesbæk plays during the breaks will absolutely blow your mind.

Monk’s ‘Round Midnight has just the right feel and mood to it, while Nigerian Marketplace is played as a fairly slow piece, with the bassist again getting to state the melody in the beginning. This is also once of those pieces in which the bass and piano get equal time and have complementary and interesting things to say, with Kauflin playing particularly funky piano.

We end with yet another imaginative arrangement, this time of Cole Porter’s It’s All Right With Me. Kauflin plays the melody in a wistful medium tempo while Fonnesbæk creates a whimsical counter-melody on bass. This duo-improvisation continues throughout the piece, with great effect.

This is a really splendid CD. Well worth checking out!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Zimmermann Plays Martinů & Bartók

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MARTINŮ: Violin Concertos Nos. 2 & 1. BARTÓK: Solo Violin Sonata / Frank Peter Zimmermann, vln; Bamberg Symphony Orch.; Jakub Hrůša, cond / Bis SACD-2457

German violinist plays here both of Martinů’s violin concerti along with Bartók’s solo violin sonata. The liner notes come up with the usual line that every single classical performer today uses, that he is one of the foremost violinists “of his generation,” which essentially means nothing. What other generation could he or would he be a member of? But he is a fine player who studied with three teachers I’ve never heard of, and has made numerous recordings over the years, none of which I’ve heard.

He has a bright tone, which is unusual for a German, and a lively, energetic manner of playing which suits the music. The Bamberg Symphony plays very well behind him, though I found the recording to be over-ambient which made then sound rather blowsy in loud passages. Their punchy rhythm, however, is quite enervating.

But you know, if Zimmermann is one of the foremost violinists of his generation, why doesn’t he record MUSIC of his generation? Why does he, like so many classical musicians, play music of the past by dead composers? We’re living in 2020; the last piece on this disc was written in 1944. Yes, I do like the music of Bartók and Martinů, but for crying out loud, modernize your repertoire! Honestly, it’s gotten to the point where I think I’m going to stop reviewing new recordings of older music unless they’re so exceptional that they completely supplant the dozens of recordings from the past that equal or surpass them in interpretation.

For examples apropos to this release, Zimmermann does not play the Martinů Concerto No. 2 any better than Julia Fischer did with David Zinman conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, nor does he play the Bartók Sonata for Solo Violin better than Barnabás Kelemen on Hungaroton or Tamsin Waley Cohen on Signum. So really, truly, what’s the big deal?

Interestingly, Martinů’s first violin concerto, written in 1932-33, sounds more modern than the second, which is probably why it’s not nearly as popular. But then again, classical audiences are retro-loving fools who refuse to grow up musically.

Nice record. Get it if you want it.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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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

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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

cover SVL1018410

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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