Margaret Marshall’s “Songbird Programme”

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PURCELL: The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation / Bayerische Rundfunk Orch.; Moshe Atzmon, cond (live: September 19, 1974) / J.S. BACH: Non sa che sia dolore, BWV 209 / Saarlaendische Rundfunk Orch.; Roswitha Staege, fl; Hans Zender, cond (live: December 12, 1976) / VIVALDI: Introduzione al Dixit, RV 636. Dixit Dominus, RV 574: 7. De torrente / English Chamber Orch., Vittorio Negri, cond (recorded 1976 for TCM) / HANDEL: The Triumph of Time and Truth: Guardian angels / Orchester der Nord Deutsche Rundfunk (NDR); Günter Weissenborn, cond (live: June 23, 1976, Goettingen) / MOZART: Ah’ lo Previdi – ah t’invola agl’occhi miei, K. 272 / Saarlaendische Rundfunk Orch.; Hanns-Martin Schneidt, cond (live: April 29, 1976) / STRAUSS: Du meines Herzens Kronelein. Ich wollt ein Strausslein binden. Schlagende Herzen / John Fraser, pno / (live: Wigmore Hall, London, 1976) / FINZI: Dies Natalis / Mainzer Kammerorchester; Günter Kehr, cond (live: 1979) / Margaret Marshall, sop / available for free streaming at the artist’s website, also on Spotify

I’ve experienced another “Carole Bogard” moment in my life.

About 20 years ago, when I was a member of an online opera message site, I expressed my admiration for soprano Carole Bogard, whose exquisite performances of Monteverdi, Handel and Bach from the 1960s and ‘70s so deeply impressed me as a teenager. Her combination of a gorgeous voice, superb phrasing and emotional projection were, I said, something I missed in so many modern-day recordings of this repertoire. One of the list members gave me her address and suggested that I write to her expressing my admiration (these were the days when not everyone had an email account!). I did, and was surprised to receive from her, as a gift, some recordings I did not have in my collection: French songs, American songs, and a Handel opera.

Today I went into my Facebook account and, to my surprise, I saw a friend request from the great Scottish soprano of the 1970s and ‘80s, Margaret Marshall. Of course I accepted it. Then I logged into my Twitter account and, lo and behold, there was a message from her daughter telling me that she was very pleased by my strong recommendation of her recording of Bach’s Mass in B Minor with Baker, Tear, Ramey and Neville Marriner, and inviting me to hear a new virtual album which she had uploaded to her website (and would soon be making available on Spotify).

The album I listened to is the one noted in the above header. As you can see, it is biased towards Baroque music and Mozart with a few Strauss songs and Gerald Finzi’s Dies Natalis added. Most of the performances are live recordings never before released, for which Ms. Marshall has obtained the rights to post online, plus a couple of tracks (the Vivaldi) recorded commercially for TCM back in the day. As she herself has noted, “It features performances from between 1974 and 1979, the period which when I look back I feel my voice was at its brightest and freshest.”

Indeed it was; her voice has a sparkle and sheen here that reminded me of Christiane Oelze, the woman with the crystal voice. It strikes the ear as almost a sound from another world, not really the product of a human throat. It is, quite simply, exquisite.

And for all of you HIP adherents who will undoubtedly cringe to hear string sections playing with vibrato in Purcell, Bach, Vivaldi and Handel, please note that there is nothing wrong with this. Eighteenth-century musicians did use vibrato when playing sustained notes  because they wanted to emulate the sound of singing voices, and believe it or not, not all 18th-century sopranos actually sounded like Emma Kirkby. She was a phenomenon, a soprano with a pure, almost boy-soprano-like timbre with the lung power and expression of a seasoned adult. Many a soprano has tried to sound like Kirkby but failed. Perhaps some should try sounding like Marshall.

I will leave it to you to discover the delights in this extended recital, but for me the highlights were Bach’s Non sa che sia dolore, a late-period secular cantata from 1747; the superb extended concert aria of Mozart, Ah’ lo Previdi – ah t’invola agl’occhi miei, written in the minor and sung with great expression in this performance; and Gerald Finzi’s not-so-often-heard Dies Natalis. These performances captured, to my ears, the artistry of Marshall at his absolute peak, and I hope you will agree.

Stream it while you can, and treasure it!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Dave Lambert: A Life in Jazz

Dave Lambert 1947

Dave Lambert in New York, 1947

Although many of the most important jazz innovations were created by black musicians, there were some that came from white singers and players. David Aiden Lambert, born in Boston on June 19, 1917, was clearly one of these. At a time (pre-1947) when even those black singers who scatted with modern bands were following in the footsteps of Louis Armstrong, Lambert took it one step further. He scatted in bebop rhythm, not swing rhythm, and he improvised up and down the range of his voice like a jazz horn.

Ironically, very little is available about Lambert on the Internet. I could learn nothing of his early influences (although I’m sure that Armstrong was among them), whether or not he played an instrument, if he was married or had children. You’d never know any of this from the Net. The only clue comes from a YouTube comment by his daughter, Dee Lambert, in regards to the 1946 record Gussie G. Dee states that “Dave Lambert wrote this scat tune for his mother-in-law Augusta whom we all affectionately called ‘Gussie’ – her last name started with a G.”  In short, his personal life is pretty much a black hole, but we can trace his professional life pretty easily.

Buddy Stewart

Buddy Stewart

He apparently began his career around 1942 with the big band of Johnny Long, a southpaw violinist whose biggest hit record was It’s Only a Shanty in Old Shantytown, a somewhat cornier version of Tommy Dorsey’s Marie. Meanwhile, his alter ego and amanuensis of the period, Buddy Stewart, five years his junior, started his singing career with Claude Thornhill’s orchestra as part of his vocal group, The Snowflakes. Born in September 1922, Stewart’s parents had show business in their blood; both had been dancers; he first performed in vaudeville at age eight. After serving in the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1944, he joined the Gene Krupa band as part of his vocal group, the G-Noters, and this is where he first met up with Lambert.

Krupa What's ThisIndeed, we start our listening journey of Dave Lambert with Krupa’s January 22, 1945 recording of What’s This?, a Lambert tune like so many others that were to follow over the next three years: a fairly conventional harmonic base over which Lambert, frequently with Stewart, would scat in unison, frequently moving a bit outside the tonality while retaining a general trace of the basic chords. In this way, Lambert was able to maintain his creativity while not going so far out as to lose all those jazz listeners who were used to swing scat.

Gussie GThe next session to hear is that of November 23, 1946 for Keynote Records with Red Rodney’s Be-Boppers, an excellent group that included pianist Al Haig, bassist Curley Russell and drummer Stan Levey. The arrangements of the four tunes recorded that day—A Cent and a Half, Gussie G., Charge Account (a contrefact of All the Things You Are) and Juan Tizol’s Perdido—were written by Neal Hefti, at that time trumpeter-arranger for Woody Herman’s First Herd.

On Deedle, another Lambert original which he sings with a quartet headed by tenor saxist Allen Eager (Haig is back on piano), features Lambert with a trio: himself, Stewart, and Blossom Dearie. It was the first time I could track down in which he recorded with a female singer, but for the most part they sing in unison and not in harmony.

The next session was clearly one of his finest of the ‘40s though a real outlier, one selection on which he, Stewart and Dearie are joined by star vocalist Jo Stafford and accompanied by her husband Paul Weston’s Orchestra. Three things stand out on this record: first, the surprisingly good bop phrasing of Stafford, a superb singer but not one known for an interest in modern jazz; second, the use of the Dave Lambert “Vocal Choir” singing in harmony rather than in unison. It was the first of many experiments to come in which Lambert would push the limits of what a group of singers could do in jazz. The third thing is the extremely bizarre title of the song—an algebraic equation in which Lambert incorporated a reference to Stafford as “Jolly Jo.” The title is, if you can believe it, M + H + R + 3ee – oo over 4/4 ee3 X 32= Bop over (Jolly Jo). If you don’t believe me, here’s the record label to prove it:

M+H+R+3ee - oo over 4-4 aa3 4-1-1949

The very next day, April 2, 1949, Lambert and Stewart sat in with Charlie Barnet’s band. Barnet wasn’t as much into bop as were the bands of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, but he took a flyer on Bebop Spoken Here which was written by the strange duo of Matty Malneck, a 1920s jazz violinist who one would think was an anti-bopper, and later television show bandleader Milton DeLugg. This arrangement was turned in by Stan Kenton arranger Pete Rugolo.

Hawaiian War ChantBut just before these recordings were made, Stewart embarked on one of his most ambitious projects of the ‘40s, a Latin-bop arrangement of the old swing tune Hawaiian War Chant which had been a hit for Tommy Dorsey and was more recently lampooned by Spike Jones. Here, Lambert and Stewart appear to be working with not one but two female singers (not sure who the second one is), and for the first time he scores the voices like sections in a big band…the females singing trumpet parts and the males singing sax parts. Apparently, Capitol Records didn’t think this one would sell at all because they only released it in SWEDEN!

In February 1950, Buddy Stewart was killed in a car accident while traveling to New Mexico to see his wife and child. To assist Stewart’s widow, a benefit concert was performed at Birdland in New York. Believe it or not, according to Wikipedia the performers included Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Ventura, Stan Getz, Tony Scott, Al Cohn, Lester Young, Lennie Tristano, Harry Belafonte, J. J. Johnson, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Dizzy Gillespie. A pretty fair band if I do say so myself.

Although Stewart’s death was a severe shock to Lambert, he rallied himself and kept on going. One of his more interesting experiments was a jazzy arrangement of the Bob Merrill pop tune My Truly, Truly Fair, which was a hit for Columbia Records’ pop star of the time Guy Mitchell. Lambert uses a waltz-tempo intro before swinging into the 4/4 tune, and although the first chorus isn’t particularly innovative, it does swing and the harmonies that Lambert uses are quite interesting. Plus, the backup band is pretty good, too: tenor saxist Georgie Auld, young trombonist Frank Rosolino, Harvey Leonard on piano, Curley Russell on bass and Tiny Kahn on drums.

In the Still of the NightOne of the more celebrated of Lambert’s early recordings is the vocal arrangement he did for Charlie Parker on Old Folks, but personally, I can’t stomach the song. It’s not just corny but flat-out stupid, almost is if Parker were improvising to Three Little Fishies or The Old Gray Mare She Ain’t What She Used to Be. But the flip side of that record, which for some reason gets little attention, is a superb arrangement of Cole Porter’s In the Still of the Night. Gil Evans wrote the band arrangement and, for the first time, Lambert used Scottish-born soprano Annie Ross within his Dave Lambert Singers. It’s really a great record, even if here, as in Truly Fair, the singers seem to be “keeping it minimal” in terms of harmony.

Well, at this point it seems only fair that we at last jump to Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Dave formed this trio as part of a multi-track experiment he had in mind for ABC-Paramount records, the only label that would take him up on it: to use a vocal trio as if it were a full jazz orchestra, only adding a real rhythm section to the mix. The resulting album was titled Sing a Song of Basie since all of the tunes selected had been Count Basie instrumentals, and except for the pianist (Nat Pierce) he used Basie’s then-current rhythm section of Freddie Green, guitar, Eddie Jones on bass and the solidly swinging Sonny Payne on drums. As you can see from the image below, the original LP cover did not list the group as Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, but as “Dave Lambert and his Singers, Jon Hendricks and his lyrics featuring: Annie Ross and the Basie Rhythm Section.” ABC-Paramount only switched it to “Lambert, Hendricks & Ross” after they began hitting it big:

Sing a Song of Basie

Ah, but rather than present one of the famous tracks from the album, we need to listen to one of the three non-Basie songs recorded at that session that were not originally on LP or even on the Impulse! CD reissue: Jon Hendricks’ tune Standin’ on the Corner (Whistlin’ at the Pretty Girls) (click HERE and slide cursor to 36:47) and a song they never rerecorded but should have, Jimmy Giuffre’s Four Brothers…nearly a quarter-century before Manhattan Transfer had a surprise hit with their version of it (same link, slide cursor to 30:55). Perhaps one reason it wasn’t released for so long was that Lambert made a mistake by pitching it too low for effectiveness; neither he nor Hendricks really sound very comfortable in their lower registers. Why he didn’t simply pitch it up at least a whole tone, I have no idea. Otherwise, it works splendidly. (Note: The third unissued track from this session was an early version of their later hit, Cloudburst, but this version is a bit too slow and thus less effective.)

I don’t know if this story is true or not, but supposedly there was another female singer in the group, Georgia Brown, but she stopped coming to rehearsals and wouldn’t return Lambert’s phone messages so she was dropped. A few years later, Lambert purportedly ran into her one day and asked her why. She said that Annie had told her that Dave didn’t want her in the group, that she wasn’t good enough, and so she shouldn’t bother showing up. Lambert, furious, went to Ross’ dressing room while she was putting on her makeup and asked her if this was true. “Yeah,” said Annie without stopping to put on her lipstick. “I wanted to be the only girl.”

We now jump ahead three years to LH&R’s prime, when they were the toast of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, having already recorded two of their three famous Columbia LPs. These two tracks are from a performance they gave for Playboy magazine on February 13, 1960. The first is an absolutely enthralling performance of Every Day I Have the Blues in which they are joined by Big Joe Williams; his interaction with the group and Annie Ross’ clever trick of hitting that one high note in the last chorus over and over as if she were a parrot or a robot is just too funny. The second is their version of Horace Silver’s Doodlin’, a song recorded commercially by Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan but not by LH&R. The reason becomes apparent in the last chorus, where they drop the “F” bomb (an R-rated jazz tune!). Well, after all, this was for the Playboy crowd.

From about the same time (maybe a year earlier) is a live performance with the Basie band of Avenue C, one of the tracks they recorded on Sing a Song of Basie but NOT on the follow-up album, Sing Along With Basie, which featured the Count himself along with his full orchestra. This scintillating performance has it all over the LP recording, with a great drum break by Sonny Payne near the end.

Sing and Swing AlongBefore we get to the last two LH&R performances, I recommend that you listen to the one and only solo LP that Lambert ever recorded. Made for United Artists in 1960, it was titled Sing / Swing Along with Dave Lambert, the apparent goal being for amateur Jon Hendricks’ and Annie Ross’ to join in and create their own singing group. Somehow I doubt that UA recouped the losses from this one, even though Lambert is in excellent voice, as you will hear, and gets to scat up a storm. Part of the problem is that they used a generic jazz piano trio to accompany him and never bothered to identify them on either the front or back of the album! But as I say, the singing is terrific and you can access the entire album HERE. My favorite tracks are All Alone, The Best Thing for You and Lover, Come Back to Me.

Now we move ahead to 1961. First, there is an excellent performance of Miles Davis’ Four by LH&R and after it, an absolutely mind-boggling version of Sonny Rollins’ Airegin. LH&R had recorded both songs on their one Pacific Jazz LP in 1959, just before Columbia signed them, but this one is a real sizzler, with Hendricks and Lambert singing multiple scat choruses, then trading licks for another chorus.

In the spring of 1962 Ross, feeling poorly, left the group and went back to England where she stayed for a few years. Her initial replacement was Canadian jazz singer Anne Marie Moss, but although she was good she just didn’t fit into their style. Fortunately, Lambert was able to procure the services of Yolande Bavan (1942 – ), a Sri Lankan-born singer and actress who had sung with Graeme Bell’s Dixieland orchestra. Bavan could not only match Ross’ brilliant high range, she also knew several of the group’s repertoire pieces and fit in quickly and easily. By September 1962 they were clicking so well as a unit that the new group landed an RCA Victor contract to make three albums, the first of which, recorded over three days that month, was Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan recorded live at the Village Gate, but for me their greatest album was their second, At Newport ’63, recorded on June 5 with Clark Terry on trumpet and the legendary Coleman Hawkins on tenor sax. You can access the entire album starting HERE, but I particularly recommend Watermelon Man, Deedle-Lee Deedle-Lum and especially Yeh-Yeh!, a rock-inspired piece to which Hendricks added lyrics. This is the recording that inspired British pop star Georgie Fame to record his own version of the song the following year.

LH&B lpIronically, by the time Fame’s cover version of Yeh-Yeh! was released, Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan were no more. For reasons that have not been disclosed, Bavan left the group in early 1964 and, not wanting to search for another replacement, Lambert did the same. But he wasn’t done. By the spring of that year, he was back at the RCA studios to audition yet another version of the Dave Lambert Singers which included Leslie Dorsey, Sarah Boatner, Mary Vonnie and David Lucas. Interestingly, Boatner was just a high school senior with no professional experience, but when she heard that Lambert was auditioning singers for a new group her classmates strongly urged her to go because she was famous for singing several of Annie Ross’ numbers to her friends.

Lambert & Co 1964

Lambert & Co., 1964. L to R: Leslie Dorsey, Sarah Boatner, Lambert, Mary Vonnie, David Lucas

Famed filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker made a 14-minute film of the audition, which you can view HERE, but although the film is interesting and the last on-camera glimpse we get of Dave Lambert, none of the songs in it are presented complete. For that we had to wait until 2016 when the long-lost tapes of the audition finally showed up. Of the five songs recorded that day, I think the most interesting were Comfy Cozy, Individualist Waltz and Think of Me, all of which you can hear by clicking the links. These are entirely different from the solo-oriented styles of LH&R and LH&B, an ensemble concept with no solos. The songs are melodically rather conventional but with some interesting twists of harmony and particularly wry lyrics, but RCA wasn’t interested and so Dave Lambert faded from the scene.

In the early morning of October 3, 1966, Lambert was driving along the Connecticut Turnpike when he spotted a disabled car and stopped to help, but the other car was not fully off the road, its lights were turned off, and it apparently had no flares. Lambert was struck and killed by a tractor trailer whose driver didn’t see him. Thus ended the life of one of the most likeable and talented men in jazz at the age of 49.

Yet how much he accomplished in a mere 20 years in the business! And what a legacy he left us. His like will not be seen again.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Dan Bonsanti’s “Cartoon Bebop”

Cartoon Bebop

CARTOON BEBOP / BONSANTI: Cartoon Bebop. A Day Tripper’s Blues Buffet. MOREIRA: Misturada. S. CLARKE: Dayride. LEONARD-MARTIN: I’m All smiles. COREA: Cot a Match? Duende. HANCOCK: Driftin’ R. MILLER: Wood Dance. BRICUSSE: When I Look in Your Eyes. SHORTER: Infant Eyes / The 14 Jazz Orchestra: Brett Murphy, Jason Carder, Cisco Dimas, tpt; Dana Teboe, Major Bailey, tb; Ed Maina, a-sax/a-fl/pic; Ed Calle, t-sax/s-sax/fl/cl; Neal Bonsanti, ob/E-hn/cl/fl; Tom Timko, t-sax/fl; Peter Brewer, bar-sax/bs-cl/fl; Mike Levine, pno/kbds; Kemuel Roig, kbd; Lindsey Blair, gtr/el-gtr; Randy Bernsen, el-gtr; Mark Egan, Tim Smith, Nick Orta, el-bs; Jamie Ousley, Matt Bonelli, bs; Peter Erskine, Lee Levin, Mike Harvey, Jack Ciano, dm; Richard Bravo, conga; Dan Bonsanti, arr/cond / Dabon Music, no number

When you see a list of 24 musicians playing in a band called “The 14,” you know something’s up. And so it is. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, The 14’s director, Dan Bonsanti, was forced to make this recording via some real social distancing: having each musician record his part in their homes, then somehow mixing the whole thing together to make a coherent product. Bonsanti admits that this had its challenges: “I’ve always preferred selecting familiar, versatile players, whose musical skills and concepts were as like-minded as possible,” he writes, but “One of the biggest challenges was finding compatible players with home studios.”Since several of the regular band members didn’t have recording facilities, he had to search for replacements. And obviously, not all of these musicians play on all tracks. One of the drummers, Jack Ciano, for instance, only plays on I’m All Smiles while Peter Erskine plays on tracks 1, 7, 9 &10 and Lee Levin plays on tracks 2, 3, 5 & 11. Conga player Richard Bravo only shows up on Misturaba and bassist Nick Orta only plays on Got a Match?

But what impresses the listener is not the crazy-quilt of revolving players but how unified the band sounds despite the hardships of recording remotely one part at a time. Indeed, my only complaint of this CD is that the electric bassists are too loud, often as loud as the entire brass or reed sections. This was Bonsanti’s only error in mixing what was obviously a labor of love. Among the various replacement musicians he used here are Wisconsin-based trumpeter Brett Murphy and Arizona-dwelling Jason Carder, trombonist Dana Teboe from Maine and, of course, top L.A.-based drummer Peter Erskine who has graced many a jazz album. Other musicians heard here recorded their parts in Tennessee, New Jersey, and of course from various locales around Florida which is the home base of The 14 Jazz Orchestra when they are able to gather in person.

As for the selections performed here, Bonsanti says that he “spent countless hours listening to music across a wide spectrum of styles to choose the music for this project…I listened to each song on this album by different artists at least 100 times before I flet it had enough color, passion, and energy to engage the listener, while providing the setting for our soloists and rhythm section players to showcase their talents.”

The album’s title is based on the first piece in this set, in which Bonsanti was inspired by hearing a TV commercial featuring his childhood favorite cartoon characters, Rocky and Bullwinkle. He hints at the show’s theme song by using piccolo and tuba while adding motifs from Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. My readers know that I’ve oft complained about the lack of imagination that I hear in many modern-day jazz combos and especially orchestras; it’s as if these people, who consider themselves “innovative,” have never even heard of, let alone heard, such past masters of jazz orchestration as Don Redman, Eddie Sauter, Shorty Rogers, George Russell, Johnny Richards, Clare Fisher, Rod Levitt or David Murray. But as I say, Bonsanti has a terrific ear for color and balance; he likes to keep his big bands “light,” playing with the streamlined sound of, say, an octet at most, and his soloists on this CD—both the regulars and the stand-ins—are nothing short of terrific.

In short, what Bonsanti has done here is just a shade short of miraculous, and his instincts were right. The pieces chosen for this CD have great variety and are interesting in and of themselves. I was particularly impressed by the way drummer Lee Levin, working remotely, was able to conjure up a Latin-sounding rhythm that actually runs counter to the basic beat of the piece in Airto Moreira’s Misturada; even with a crackling trumpet solo by Cisca Dumas, it is the ensemble and the complex drumming that highlight this track. But make no mistake, each and every solo on this album is a gem; seldom in my long years of reviewing jazz orchestra recordings, first on LP and then on CD, have I heard such a brilliant succession of soloists. You almost have to go back in time to the legendary Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band of the 1970s to find a comparable succession of talent, and believe me, for me that’s saying a lot because I absolutely worshipped the Akiyoshi-Tabackin band. (I got to see and hear Toshiko and Lew in person only once, at the 1979 Aspen Music Festival, playing with and leading a band of student jazz musicians, but I’ll never forget it. I was too much in awe of them to go up and ask for their autographs afterwards. To me, they were gods of jazz.)

For an example of how well everything fits together on this album, check out Stanley Clarke’s Dayride. Just listen to the complex yet colorful chart that Bonsanti has created and the way each solo fits into place (though, as usual, I must issue a complaint against the flabby, whining electric guitar solo…interesting musically but with that obnoxious rock sound intruding on the proceedings). Bonsanti’s fine ear for both orchestration and the right soloists pays off here as it does in track after track; the ensemble portions of these pieces fit with the soloists, and the soloists fit with the overall conception. Because of this, each and every track is (mostly) satisfying in its own way.

Moreover, Bonsanti doesn’t have just one orchestral “sound.” Because he has an ear for color, he elicits some ear-ravishing textures out of his forces that are not sentimental or treacly. An excellent example is the jazz waltz I’m All Smiles with its flute section (and, if you look at the header to this review, God knows he had enough flute players to stock the New York Philharmonic on this session) which is interwoven nicely into the soft brass textures. This man knows what he’s doing with an orchestra, and the results are continually interesting.

I know that Bonsanti won’t know what on earth I’m talking about, but this whole endeavor put me in mind of the far-ahead-of-their-time charts that pioneer jazz arranger Bill Challis wrote for the Jean Goldkette band back when they had Bix Beiderbecke on cornet and Steve Brown on bass: arrangements in which every single component, from introduction to coda, had a form and purpose and yet still provided a real jazz kick with surprises in each chorus. If you (or Bonsanti) want to know what I’m talking about, click HERE and listen to what Challis created way back in 1926-27, particularly Riverboat Shuffle, Singin’ the Blues, I’ve Found a New Baby, Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down and My Pretty Girl. Different era, different style, but identical concept.  

For me, one of the most fascinating tracks was the way Bonsanti completely transformed Herbie Hancock’s Driftin’ into a sort of late-1950s jazzy-funk-“walking” sort of piece…shades of the old Blue Note style, and every bit as good as the best tracks Blue Note ever issued. Alto saxist Ed Maina plays his tail off in this one, as well he should; the arrangement absolutely cries out for such involvement. I especially loved the little turnaround he wrote at the 4:07 mark—a small piece of the puzzle but important to the overall concept of the music. Just brilliant.

I must also laud Bonsanti for his excellent programming of tunes. Too often in modern jazz albums, I find, there are two ballads played back to back or, worst of all, a ballad to end a record. There are no such errors in judgment here. You can listen to the entire album in sequence without feeling the need to skip a track because it’s dull. Nothing on this album is dull, and even when the solo you’re currently listening to isn’t one of the most scintillating on the album, it fits into the musical concept which, in my opinion, is more important.

And I’m happy to report that this CD will be released on my birthday, January 15! Yes, by all means, get this one. It’ll excite your ears and put a smile on your face.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Another From Ivo Perelman

cover

GARDEN OF JEWELS / PERELMAN-SHIPP: Garden of Jewels. Tourmaline. Amethyst. Onyx. Turquoise. Emerald. Sapphire. Diamond / Ivo Perelman, t-sax; Matthew Shipp, pno; Whit Dickey, dm / Tap Forms TAO 04CD

Once again we dip into the free jazz minds of tenor saxist Ivo Perelman and pianist Matthew Shipp, here playing with a drummer for a change. The music is clearly in a mold similar to Perelman and Shipp’s previous encounters, although the opening selection is slower, more lyrical and moodier than their usual high-energy dialogues.

In previous reviews of this duo, I’ve commented on the beneficial effect that each has on the other. By playing more chords and at least leaning in the direction of form, Shipp leads Perelman into some of his most lyrical and coherent improvisations most of the time, while the saxist pushes the pianist more to the outside. This does not mean that Perelman is in any way hampered by this; he still loves to play high, overblown notes at the top of extended chords, but more often than not he creates interesting shapes and sometimes creates whole choruses in which the patterns of notes he chooses make a melodic or thematic pattern that fits in better than he might otherwise be inclined to do on his own.

Despite the use of drummer Whit Dickey, these are still essentially two-way conversations between saxist and pianist. Dickey only comes in when he feels like it, and his main contribution appears to be the addition of off-beats, playing against rather than with the pianist’s rhythm. Yet, interestingly, he seems to be more on Perelman’s wavelength, an ally of the saxist against the more formal contributions of the pianist. At times, however, Dickey is quite busy, and these moments add another level to the ongoing musical conversation.

Another interesting thing in this particular album is that Shipp appears to be playing his own thing regardless of what Perelman and/or Dickey are into. Occasionally he will interact with outside chords, and in Tourmaline he and Perelman lock into a repeated rhythmic pattern at one point, but for the most part it is as though each were playing their own thing on opposite sides of the room but eavesdropping on each other and trying to complement or contradict what the other is playing.

This creates an interesting tension that is at the heart of this disc. Sometimes, with Perelman’s CDs, I wonder about the fanciful titles given to each of the pieces. I’ve come to the conclusion that the titles are an afterthought, given just before the album goes into production, and not working titles that the musicians are conscious of at the time of creation. I say this because, although the names of the pieces are given as you see them in the header to this review, the actual sound clips I downloaded simply bear numbers: “Seven,” “Four,” “Eight,” “Two,” “Three,” “One,” “Nine,” “Ten,” indicating to me that these were how the takes were numbered while the session was being recorded.

In Onyx (a.k.a. Two), for instance, one hears something interesting, the members of the trio feeling one another out, giving each other some space while claiming space of their own. Or, perhaps I should say, Shipp and Dickey giving each other some space while Perelman just goes along his own path. Either way you hear it, it’s fascinating.

This is yet another chapter in the ongoing saga of the Perelman-Shipp duo, highly recommended for their many fans as well as those who would like to check out creative free jazz.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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Record Awards of 2020

what a performanceMuch to my surprise and delight, my “What a Performance!” awards of 2019 were a hit with both artists and record companies. As I wrote when I created the list, I think these are better than Grammys because they are not driven by politics, money or insider influence, but come from the heart as the recordings that just created a “Wow!” feeling in me when I heard them.

So here are the winners of 2020:

The Chamber Music of Juha Leinonen

Trojahn’s Great Second String Quartet

New Armenian Chamber Music

Cotik’s Passionate Bach

Sorabji’s Massive “Sequentia Cyclica” Recorded

The SOOON Trio Debuts on Disc

Jason Palmer’s Concert Album

Jon Schapiro Celebrates Kind of Blue at 60

The Return of Meredith Monk

Exploring the Music of Andrzej Karałow

Samaltanos Plays Skalkottas

Bridge Issues New England Trios

Spontini’s “Fernand Cortez” Recorded Complete

Almeida Prado’s Piano Concerti Recorded

Perelman & Shipp—Again!

Álvarez “Reframes” Hölderlin

Michael Thomas’ Event Horizon

Daniel Hersog’s Night Devoid of Stars

Exploring the Music of Rudolf Escher

Fred Randolph Does a Mood Walk

Frieder Berlius’ Great Mendelssohn CD

Potsa Lotsa Plays Silk Songs for Space Dogs

The Music of Dawson and Kay

The “Hero Trio” Debuts on Disc

The Music of Rob Keeley

Emilie Mayer’s Stunning Symphonies

Gritskova Sings Prokofiev

Duo Maiss-You Plays 20th-Century Europeans

Quinsin Nachoff goes “Jazzical”

Benzecry’s Song Cycle & Concerti

New CD by the Paquin-Saiz Vega Duo

Fabrice Bollon’s Compositions

Ivo Perelman With Strings…Again

Saint-Saëns’ Undiscovered Opera

Levental Sings Medtner

Sylvie Courvoisier’s Free Hoops

Rich Halley Inspects The Shape of Things

Dausgaard’s Fantastic Strauss & Scriabin

Czech Musicians Play String Sextets

Tommasini’s Thomson Recordings Reissued

Jackie Yoo Plays Etudes

Noah Preminger’s “Contemptment”

Grażinyté-Tyla’s Stunning Britten Requiem

Hirota Believes That Small is Beautiful

Bill Evans Live at Ronnie Scott’s

Sorabji’s Transcendental Studies Completed

Kinga Augustyn is Turning in Time

Congratulations to all the winners! See you again with awards this time next year!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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Even More Sorabji!

Sorabji Symphony cover

SORABJI: Symphony No. 2, “Jâmî” for large orchestra, wordless chorus and baritone solo (1942-1951): 1st mvt; 2nd mvt; 3rd mvt / incomplete performance using Sibelius Software, available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking movement links above.

SORABJI: Organ Symphony No. 2: 3rd mvt excerpts; Fuga Triplex excerpts / virtual performance created with the Vienna Konzerthaus Organ, available for free streaming by clicking movement titles above

After discovering the Sorabji piano sonatas I wrote about in my previous article, I ran across these two gems, both created by an anonymous YouTube uploader who uses the pseudonym “davetubaking” but identifies himself onscreen in the third movement as David Carter. I must thank him personally for spending so many hours transcribing Sorabji’s note-filled, extraordinarily long scores and feeding them into a computer. The performance of the Symphony No. 2 is played by members of the Vienna Symphony orchestra and chorus on Sibelius Software, whereas the Organ Symphony No. 2 excerpts were programmed to play on the Vienna Konzerthaus organ. Although Mr. Carter has written to me that these are not synthesized performances, but actually played by live musicians [see his comment below], the sound quality does not indicate this, which is why at first I called them “synthesized performances.” Only in the third movement of the Symphony No. 2 do some passages sound as if they are produced by humans. But I do not blame Mr. Carter or the musicians for this; feeding the “live” data into the Sibelius Software apparently caused much of the sound profile heard in these performances. From this I deduce that Carter may indeed be living in Austria.

Sorabji took 10 years to write his second symphony, beginning in 1942 and finally completing it in 1951. The soft, mysterious opening is typical Sorabji, beginning in a tonal space but quickly moving to bitonality, with falling chromatic passages within, as the rest of the “orchestra” and chorus enter. With no offense intended towards the man who spent so many hours creating this—the first movement alone runs 94 minutes!—it’s kind of a shame that the synthesized orchestra sounds like a synthesizer and not like a real orchestra, although oddly enough the synthesized chorus sounds eerily lifelike. But it’s symptomatic of the Sorabji Problem. Since not enough listeners have sought out or adjusted to his music, live performances of any of his long works are at a premium, and since his symphonies require large massed groups of instruments and not just a solo performer as in the case of his piano or organ works, no impresario in his right mind is going to finance a live performance of these works.

But at least we get to hear the notes used in this symphony even if we have to imagine what the real orchestral textures sound like, and in the land of the blind the one-eyed man (or in this case, virtual performance) is better than nothing. One thing that struck me as the first movement proceeded on its merry way was that we can’t really tell if the inner voices were meant to be somewhat blurred, as they are here due to the synthesizer sound, or meant to be more clearly heard. Since Sorabji based a great deal of his later style on the music of Szymanowski, who came out of the French impressionist style, and Szymanowski used blurred or clouded textures in his symphonies, I would lean towards the former conclusion…but I can’t say for sure.

What I do think, however, is that the wordless chorus was meant to be blended into the orchestral texture, as it is here, and not stand out. For those whose musical experience does not extend to Szymanowski, let alone Sorabji, think of the last movement of Holst’s The Planets where the wordless choir is just another musical thread in the overall orchestration. Of course, in this case the chorus sings so often (though not continuously) that I think this might be another problem to mitigate against a live performance. I’m not sure that a human chorus could keep up throughout an entire four-and-a-quarter-hour symphony in live performance. I would think that such a thing would have to be broken up over two days in order to allow the singers some rest of their vocal cords.

Sorabji’s musical development in this first movement almost makes the rhythm, such as it is, sound amorphous. Like Szymanowski, he also focuses much of his attention on the middle and lower ranges of the orchestral instruments, thus creating even more of a “mood” effect with sound here than he does in his long piano works. Occasionally, as at about the 14:10 mark, he will suddenly bring the rhythm into focus, use a long crescendo to increase the volume at the same time, and suddenly move into upper registers of the orchestra to create huge climaxes. And here, as in all of his music, one hears what I refer to as a “liquid flow” of music, a technique that came to Sorabji from Wagner as filtered through the French school. Very little if any of his music comes close to the sharp-edged rhythms of Bartók or Stravinsky, and this is undoubtedly another reason why his music is not so well appreciated. Listeners like rhythm. They like Beethoven, and Brahms, Stravinsky, Bartók, Strauss and Orff. Although Szymanowski and his spiritual descendant, Weinberg, are more on the ascendant now than they were during their lifetimes, their music, too, is often relegated to the outer periphery of the classical sphere. Not only in 2020, but beginning in 2019, record companies, classical music magazines and performers have been harping on the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, whereas the Weinberg centenary of 2019 consisted mainly of a few dozen concerts, most of them organized by violinist Gidon Kremer who is a huge fan of the composer, with a few sprinkled releases of his music on CD. The Weinberg “celebration” was sort of like a trickling faucet, whereas the Beethoven celebration was Niagara Falls.

With the sound quality of the Second Symphony being biased so much in the direction of a synthesizer, the listening experience places this “performance” in the category of an Organ Symphony, though it is not one. One interesting analogy that came to mind was of Scriabin’s Mysterium: Prelude to the Final Mystery as completed by Alexander Nemtin in 1970s and recorded in the late 1990s. Both the amorphous tempi and orchestral textures are surprisingly similar, yet I doubt that Nemtin knew anything of Sorabji’s symphonies (just as Sorabji probably had no knowledge of Nemtin’s recreation, since it wasn’t performed until after his death).

Without a score, the music is difficult to describe except in terms of the textures, tempi and rhythm (such as it is) that one hears from moment to moment. Yet I’ve always felt that, to a certain extent, Sorabji either didn’t think in terms of logical construction—much of his development, when not based on a toccata, fugue or chaconne, is more ruminating than logical—or didn’t want his listeners to get too hung up on following the structure lest they become burned out. My feeling is that he really did want his music to be as much of a felt experience as a musically structured one. He had a decided preference for the long form because he wanted to create a hypnotic environment for the listener…one with peaks and valleys, but still, a felt rather than an analyzed experience. He certainly achieves this in the first movement of this symphony.

Even the written descriptions that Carter provides as textual context for this performance onscreen tend towards generalities and not specifics of the musical structure, i.e.:

Crescendo from chorus leads to a notable passage with strident crochet chords from the chorus and the orchestra playing out a 3:4 cross-rhythm with repeated semiquavers in upper winds, violins, cellos & basses and repeated triplets in lower winds, horns & violas. Gongs enter as the brass close the passage with heavy straight duplet quavers.

Of course, his references to these cross-rhythms, repeated semiquavers and duplet quavers were evident to him because it was he who had the score and fed the data into the Sibelius Software for performance. Without this description in front of you, however, you’d be able to hear some of the rhythmic motion mentioned as well as the semiquavers and quavers, but it is still the massed sound as a block that washes over you and not the details. Yet I’m glad he mentioned the orchestration because the naked ear simply cannot hear this virtual performance as it would a real orchestra. At another point, he mentions that the “Strings divide into 20 parts,” but the ear cannot really hear all 20 parts, thus you simply have to take his word for it.

And hypnotic this movement really is, so much so that if one gives oneself over to the music without trying to analyze it one falls into the swirling, shifting web of sound—perhaps not gladly, since this music has more of an undercurrent of unease than peacefulness—and thus becomes “Sorabji-ized.” After an hour and a half plus a few seconds, you are on a different plane. The aptly-described “riot of mob activity” at the 48-mminute mark in the first movement is precisely that, and this is how it strikes the listener. At around the 50-minute mark we return to the hushed opening of the symphony, if anyone has a long enough attention span to recognize it as such.

The “short” second movement (only 21:20 long) is a sort of grotesque burleske in the manner of Mahler, though of course the underlying harmonies are more fluid, built around shifting pivot-points within the chords. This movement goes beyond the feeling of unease created in the first into full-fledged blackness and occasionally terror; there is nothing comforting in its spiky harmonies and jabbing, short melodic motifs, although at the four-minute mark it moves into sort of a spiky parody of belly-dancing music. At around 17:52, a strange syncopated rhythm suddenly appears, around which the orchestra rallies. FYI, the chorus doesn’t sing in this movement, or at least it wasn’t included in the realization.

As if to make up for the “brief” second movement, the third runs over two hours. This, too, is a fast movement but clearly more upbeat in terms of harmony and, to my ears, much denser in its melodic construction and tighter in harmonic movement than the first. An online message from Mr. Carter in this movement tells us that Sorabji described this symphony as his “most extended essay in that continuous, self-cohesive texture relying on its own inner consistency without relation to thematic or other matter (bold print mine) adumbrated in earlier, much shorter works.” So my instinct was correct; we are not intended to follow the development in the conventional sense, but let it all wash over us. Probably because this was conceived and written as the longest movement, there is much more going on technically here; even if you are just in passive listening mode, you cannot escape the very complex brass-and-wind passages (with chorus) that begin around the 36-minute mark and continue for a spell. Having led you to expect a sort of ambient music, Sorabji has suddenly turned up the complexity and made something quite elaborate of the music at this point.

heckelphone player

Heckelphone player

At about the 42-minute mark we hear even more complexity, now involving the percussion as the strings and winds practically tie themselves up in knots. According to Carter’s notes, he even uses something called a heckelphone, a double-reed instrument resembling the baritone oboe. By the 44 ½-minute mark the music becomes even more congested, with the strings divided into 18 parts which overlap one another (even the naked ear can pick up several of these without seeing the score) while a new melodic line arises. By 46:30 not only the polyphonic complexity but also the minor-leaning but clearly atonal harmonies become more complex as well. If I had to make a guess, I’d say this third movement was written considerably later than the first two, simply because it gets away from ambient listening and engages the hearer’s mind in an ever-increasing complexity of overlapping rhythms, voices and myriad inner details of the orchestration. I can also envision that this is where the rubber will meet the road for the unprepared conductor who decides to perform this work without extremely careful reading and interpreting of the score as well as rigorous preparation of the orchestra and chorus…yet another reason why it is probably not performed in live concerts.

This complexity never ceases from this point forward, but actually grows and expands as the movement moves towards its climax.

Considering all this, and even making allowances for the greater harmonic and rhythmic complexity of his music, it did not surprise me to learn that Sorabji was a huge fan of Mahler’s Symphonies and had been since his early adulthood, long before Mahler became even moderately well known. This Second Symphony is sort of a superannuated Mahler on acid and steroids, so to speak, particularly in this third movement.

Unfortunately, the fourth movement, which we are told runs about 47 minutes, has not yet been realized in sound, thus this performance is incomplete, but beggars shouldn’t be choosers. We must surely be grateful for what has been completed; it’s better than not hearing the music at all. But it is this fourth movement, entitled “Cantico,” that contains the baritone solo based on the eleventh section of one of Persian poet Mawlânâ Nûru’d-Dîn Abdu’r-Rahmân Jâmî’s works.

Sorabji’s The Judgment of Posterity: “In face of the unmistakable evidence that intelligence is everywhere declining, there is […] strong ground for questioning the arrogant pretensions of present-day criticism in reversing the judgments of earlier generations, and with the present progressive besotting and benumbing of such intelligence as still remains, […] there  is every reason to suppose that the next generation and the next after that will become progressively worse, and still less competent to pass judgment on our opinion and verdicts than even we ourselves of a hundred years ago.

“The things that will in all probability survive in the esteem of 2027 will not be the Mass of Life [Delius], the Reger 100th Psalm, the Sibelius later symphonies, but the Rhapsody in Blue, Valencia and such. As Mr. Aldous Huxley has pertinently remarked, ‘ours is a spiritual climate in which the immemorial decencies find it hard to flourish. Another generation or so should see them definitely dead. Is there a resurrection?’ Not, one is tempted to think, within the present cycle.” But Sorabji was not merely critical of Gershwin and Valencia. He also attacked Stravinsky and Hindemith, among others.

A bit condescending, yes. As his friend Erik Chisholm once said of his writings, “There are no half measures with this extraordinary man: his point of view is always that of an extremist. Things are either divine or satanic—and anyone who thinks differently is a fool, or a rogue, or both.” Yet Sorabji clearly had a point. Turn on your local classical FM station and you’re bound to hear Rhapsody in Blue at least three times a week, plus plenty of the most accessible Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms and Dvořák, but very little of Mahler except for one of his “prettier” Andantes or Adagios and certainly no Ligeti, Partch, late Stravinsky, Alkan, Bartók or Sorabji. But hey, here’s another recording of the Meistersinger Act I Prelude for you!

But the reference to Delius’ A Mass of Life is interesting in two respects. First, it seems to me to have been a model for Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, an upbeat, explosive but somewhat short first section followed by a slower, more legato second section, with much more chorus in the first part and much more extended singing by the soloists in the second. Secondly, the almost continuous choral writing in the upper register heard in the Delius piece is also a characteristic of this Sorabji symphony.

As for the Organ Symphony No. 2, this is, unfortunately, an even more fragmented virtual performance than the Symphony No. 2. Although the great British organist Kevin Bowyer has performed it a few times in live concerts, there is no full recording of the work. Carter explains his reduction of the score in these excerpts thus:

Part 1, This starts with the first 4 minutes of the Preludio fading out and back in at 4’04” into the last 02:30 of the Preludio which end at 06:30 when the Adagio starts. You get the first 3’16” of the Adagio which then it fades out and back in at 09:46 to a section in the middle of the Adagio which caught my eye. Much of the Adagio, it seems to me is something of a funeral march, there certainly seems to be a steady tramp through large sections of the Adagio this middle passage in particular. This section fades out at 13:41 and into the last part of the Adagio which ends at 16:15 when we go straight into the remarkable Toccata which in this performance opens quietly and has an almost eerie mysterious quality. There are so many notes that you only get (for the moment) the first three minutes when at 17:23 we fade out and back into the last three minutes which ends at 20’36”.

Part 2, A much extended performance of the fuga triplex from Sorabji’s Organ Symphony No 2. I’ve now done the opening section of each fugue until all voices have stated the theme and then jump to the whole of the stretto for each fugue and the whole of the coda stretto that concludes the work. About 50 minutes of music. A complete performance of the fugues last about 2 hours.

I’ve taken liberties with voice leading so that which ever theme in whichever voice is being stated is louder. In the coda stretto that concludes the work each of the three themes is stated in all six voices bottom upwards one after the other. Even cheating with dynamics that’s still quite hard to follow as there is hardly any respite from 6, 7 or 8 lines of polyphony. The ending of my performance is pretty awesome but it is a pale imitation of the ending as performed by Kevin Bowyer live. I have been present at two live performances and it is a shattering experience.

So there you have it…two more masterful compositions by Sorabji, the first nearly complete and the second a series of “highlights.” But both are worth exploring, and I can only hope that someday someone will have the intestinal fortitude to actually record them in full actual performances.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Sorabji’s Piano Sonatas

Sorabji CD covers

SORABJI: Piano Sonata No. 0 / Soheil Nasseri, pno / Centaur CRC2894, also available for free streaming on YouTube

SORABJI: In the Hothouse / Steven Max, pno / available for free streaming on YouTube

SORABJI: Piano Sonata No. 1 / Marc-André Hamelin, pno / Altarus AIR-CD9050, also available for free streaming on YouTube

SORABJI: Piano Sonata No. 2 / Tellef Johnson, pno / Altarus AIR-CD9049 (out of print)

SORABJI: Piano Sonata No. 5, “Opus Archimagicum”: Cadenza / Kyle Hannenberg, pno / available for free streaming on YouTube

Having gone through all the available commercial recordings of Sorabji’s massive-scaled piano music, I began searching online for a few outliers, and thought I would share my interesting experiences with you, my loyal readers.

The Sonata No. 0, written in 1917, was Sorabji’s first full-scale piano work. Although there are several indications of the composer he was yet to evolve into, such as the exhaustive theme development, the themes themselves are less innovative than we are now used to. He leans heavily on chromatics, borrowed from his favorite French composers of the time, and the pentatonic scale, borrowed from Scriabin who had just passed away two years earlier.

The other intriguing feature of this sonata is its eclectic form. Whereas in his later works Sorabji became a master at blending themes, variations and even very long fugues together, here he juxtaposes musical ideas much more often. For the most part this works, yet there are still some odd moments where the sudden jump from one mood and theme to an entirely different mood and/or theme seem to be spur of the moment decisions; and yet, as Marc-André Roberge points out in his masterly study of Sorabji and his work, Opus Sorabjianum (self-published, Québec, 2013/2020), “The work is unique in Sorabji’s production for its several crossed-out passages—in fact 42 out of 150 systems (or 48 bars out of 260) are entirely or partially cancelled, quite at random, it seems, since there is no meaningful link on either side of a cut that would make it logical for one bar to follow another. Sorabji must have simply considered his work too long and decided to cross out systems (p. 90).”

Whatever the reason, however, this makes the sonata sound much more episodic than usual for him. I have often complained that Ferruccio Busoni’s long piano works annoy me for the same reason: they seem to be, so to speak, all icing and no cake, and here Sorabji seems to be on the same track. Yet even at this early, imperfect stage of his career, the music still has several worthwhile things to hear, juxtaposed or not. He is already using some very rich and complex chord positions and leaning towards bitonality. Sorabji never became a full apostle of serial music though he greatly admired Schoenberg and Berg, just as he never entirely abandoned his love of exotic-sounding chords, some borrowed from Debussy and Ravel and some from the Middle Eastern music of his father’s cultural heritage. It is, I think, a bit too much to consider most of Sorabji’s output a fusion of Eastern and Western forms, but this sonata as well as his later Gulistan clearly have a foot in the strange (to our ears) musical systems of Eastern music.

The basic flaw of this oddly formed sonata, as I hear it, is that musical ideas that later would flow like a river, pure and unadulterated, from Sorabji’s mind and pen emerge here as oddly fitted pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. You can almost,  but not quite, hear what Sorabji probably had in mind at certain points because of your familiarity with his longer, more mature works, yet the abrupt and often ill-fitting joins in the music strike the ear as jarring. It’s like someone relating to you the story of their journey around the world, only to leave out certain flight connections and/or omitting a city or two from the landscape they explored. You can infer what happened in the missing sections, but the “jumping around” of the musical story is rather frustrating.

Sorabji was much more on track the following year when he wrote his six-minute nocturne, In the Hothouse. Here, nothing is missing or cut out, and although it is brief the musical ideas flow smoothly.

The “official” Piano Sonata No. 1, written in 1919 and published in 1921, is much different. Here, Sorabji allowed his imagination to take him wherever it would, and he did not hold back on the interesting byways and little back alleys that the thread of music traveled through. Opening up in the snappy time signature of 7/8, it moves to 4/4 after three bars, goes back to 7/8 two bars later, then shifts to 6/4 a bar after that. Other neat little time signatures come and go throughout the work, including 13/8, 5/4, 9/8, 10/8, 14/8 and 15/8. He even came up with his own musical symbol, the Roman numeral I over the Roman numeral VIII, to indicate that the notes on that stave should be played an octave higher than written. (Why he didn’t just use the standard 8va—— that everyone else did is beyond me.) Yet when played, somehow this crazy-quilt of time divisions makes musical sense, though Sorabji eventually throws in some double-time figures to interrupt the exotic flow of notes he has set up. You can access the score of this sonata by clicking Sorabji Piano Sonata 1.

Sonata No. 1, p. 11

Sonata No. 1, page 11

What I and many others find so strange about Sorabji’s music is that it was beyond his own abilities to play. A self-taught pianist, he was by his own admission no virtuoso, which is exactly what is needed to play his difficult works, yet he himself played his own Opus Clavicembalisticum in public once (Glasgow, December 1, 1930) and later made home recordings of his own music which are highly flawed. His own statement that getting the notes right wasn’t quite as important as getting the feeling right seems to be at odds with his damnably difficult scores. I mean, seriously, why write such technically demanding, convoluted bars of music if the feeling was more important than the notes? This is but one strange contradiction in Sorabji’s personality that, to my mind, has never been fully resolved.

Sonata 2 coverPianist Tellef Johnson, a name completely unknown to me, made a recording of Sorabji’s longer Second Piano Sonata in 1999 for Altarus but although I could not find it available either for purchase or streaming, I am told that it is still available. Published in 1923, this one contains no time signatures at all; it just goes flying along at a typically manic pace with typically difficult figures to play in each and every bar.

Sonata No. 2, p. 2

Piano Sonata No. 2, page 2

There is also a complete recording of Sorabji’s Piano Sonata No. 4 by Jonathan Powell, the same pianist who recorded the Sequentia Cyclica Super Dies Irae for Piano Classics, on the Altarus label. Though a bit pricey ($34.37 plus $10 shipping), it is a three-CD set which you can order HERE. Unfortunately there is no complete recording, either live or studio, of the complete Piano Sonata No. 5, subtitled “Opus Archimagicum,” but concert pianist Kyle Hannenberg, here sporting long, stringy hair, a white T-shirt and jeans, looking for all the world like just another Millennial, sat down at the piano and filmed himself playing the “Cadenza” from this sonata. It is a stunning performance, full of vigor and energy, and Hannenberg even manages to make the running bass line sound a little like jazz—surely an unusual feat for anything by Sorabji.

It’s a shame that Sorabji’s piano sonatas are not available on CDs in good, complete performances except for Nos. 0, 1 and 4, but that’s the price you pay for being an “outsider” as a composer. But hey, you wanna hear Rachmaninov Sonatas? Or Schubert or Brahms? Well, that’s different.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Camerata Bern Plays Modern Music

Plaisirs Illumines cover

VERESS: Musica Concertante per 12 Archi. KURTÁG: “Jelek Vi” from “Games, Signs & Messages.”1-3 GINASTERA: Concerto per Corde. BARTÓK: Pizzicato for 2 Violins.1,4 LIGETI: Baladâ şi Joc.1,4 COLL: Les Plaisirs Illuminés.1,3 Lalulalied.1,4,5 IMPROVISATION: Camerata’s Birds / 1Patricia Kopatchinskaja, 4Suyeon Kang, vln; 2Marko Milenkovic, vla; 3Thomas Kaufmann, cel; 5Kathi Steuri, bs; Camerata Bern; 6Francisco Soll, cond / Alpha Classics 580

Camerata Bern is a chamber orchestra that specializes in modern music, thus this CD is packed with such pieces, starting with Sándor Veress’ Musica Concertante and ending with a group improvisation.

I must say, however, that the Veress piece didn’t impress me much. Aside from its atonal orientation, it struck me as formulaic in the extreme. Had it been a tonal work, I could have predicted each and every variation and development in advance (except for the very opening of the third movement), but it is very well played. I did, however, like the very short (0:53) but intense Kurtág piece, and the Ginastera String Concerto is clearly one of his most interesting works, using microtones to create a sort of ambiguous atonality above the more resolute chords of the lower strings. Ginastera also as several surprises in store for the listener, such as the sudden introduction of fast, edgy passages played in unison by the string orchestra while violin and viola (and later, cello) take turns playing microtonal passages a cappella in between them. The slow movement is sparse and mysterious at the opening, explosive and intense later on.

And somehow, they make Bartók’s infrequently-heard Duo Pizzicato fit into the program as an aperitif to the Ginastera Concerto—followed by Ligeti’s Duo Balada şi Joc. Oddly, the Ligeti piece sounds more conventional than the Bartók!

Coll’s Les Plaisirs Illumines is just a tad gimmicky, but effective and well-written music just the same, and it, too plays with microtones within an atonal framework, with consistently rapid passages by both soloists and orchestra being juxtaposed and intertwined as it moves along. I also liked the way that Coll makes the bass line sound like a croaking frog by writing it in the lowest register. The second movement has a certain purity about it that harks back to Renaissance music while the third opens with screeching strings à la “Psycho” which somehow lead into atonal solo string figures and flutters while percussion suddenly makes its way into the orchestral texture. By contrast, Lalulalied sounds like bedlam, with a wacky wordless vocal by violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja. The CD ends with a rather formless but fun group improvisation as the orchestra’s strings imitate bird calls.

What a nice break from all the Mozart and Beethoven out there! Well done, Camerata Bern!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Revisiting Prokofiev’s “Fiery Angel”

Fiery Angel

PROKOFIEV: The Fiery Angel / Leigh Melrose, bar (Ruprecht); Ewa Vesin, sop (Renata); Anna Victorova, mezzo (Landlady); Mairam Sokolova, mezzo (Fortune Teller/Mother Superior); Sergey Radchenko, ten (Agrippa of Nettesheim); Andrii Ganchuk, bar (Johann Faust/Servant(; Maxim Paster (Mephistopheles); Goran Jurić, bs (Inquisitor); Domingo Pellicola, ten (Jacob Glock); Petr Sokolov, bar (Mathias Wiessman); Murat Can Güvem, ten (Doctor); Rome Opera Chorus & Orch.; Roberto Gabbiani, choral dir; Alejo Pérez, cond; Emma Dante, dir / Naxos DVD 2.110663 (live: Rome, May 23, 2019)

Leave it to a Russian to write an opera so weird that even other Russians didn’t want to hear it.

The Fiery Angel, completed in 1927, was Prokofiev’s follow-up to the surreal but very funny Love for Three Oranges, but no one wanted to produce it. As noted on Wikipedia, even before it was finished, “In 1926, Bruno Walter made Prokofiev an offer to have The Fiery Angel produced at a Berlin theater, which prompted Prokofiev to work on the orchestration. The orchestration was finished in 1927,” but the production never came about. In 1928, not wanting to give up on it, Prokofiev allowed conductor Serge Koussevitzky to give a concert version of the second act in 1928, after which he made revisions. Eventually, realizing that no one wanted to mount a production of it, he recycled parts of the opera in his Symphony No. 3 later that year.

And why all this flak? Partly due to the music, which is considered to be some of the most advanced that Prokofiev ever wrote, and partly due to the plot, which some considered to be profane and scandalous at best and heretical at worst.

Based on a novel of the same title by Russian symbolist writer Valery Bryusov, the story concerns a 16th-century knight named Ruprecht who, upon taking a small room at an inn, hears a woman weeping in the room adjacent to his and breaks down the door. He then sees a half-clad young woman named Renata who tells him a fantastic story. At age eight, she was visited by a fiery angel named Madiel who led her to magical faraway places and pleaded with her to lead an ascetic life destined for sainthood, but at age 16 she got the hots for Madiel and put the make on him. Disgusted, Madiel disappeared, but she then latched onto a guy named Heinrich who she believed to be the mortal incarnation of Madiel on earth. They had a torrid love affair for about a year until Heinrich suddenly got up, left, and disappeared, never to return. Renata too eventually left Heinrich’s castle, wandering aimlessly tormented at night by frightening visions until she met Ruprecht. The knight wants to make her his lover but she refuses, though she does let him take her with him. She studies books on magic, digs up a magician and alchemist named Agrippa, eventually sees Heinrich again who spurns her. She then asks Ruprecht to kill Heinrich for her, which he does, but Heinrich then appears in the form of Madiel the fiery angel. The rest of the story covers further adventures, including a meeting with Mephistopheles and Faust at an inn and her eventually entering a convent where the Mother Superior, alarmed by mysterious voices and alarming visions, eventually has her exorcised.

The production presented here is interesting, and contains some stunning visuals—particularly the mad-looking man in a woman’s tutu who dances a sort of crazy kazatsky as one of Renata’s “visions”—but also some unnecessary distractions, such as the insane inn guests who writhe in their beds and make insane faces while Ruprecht and Renata interact. Apparently, this is Emma Dante’s directing style, to cram the stage with mute bodies that look like stupid people twitching and rolling around, and hope they have some remote symbolism to connect them to the plot of whatever opera she is staging. This I could have lived without, and I particularly wish that the cameraman (or woman) would not have continually done close-ups of them when they were clearly meant to be backdrops to the action. Well, you know the drill: a modern opera production isn’t considered to be interesting unless you have continual distracting visuals going on to take attention away from what the actual plot is. (At the beginning of the fourth act, for absolutely no reason, Dante has two crippled men leaning on crutches carry on a ridiculous and pointless battle onstage before the music begins.)

Honestly, I was much more interested in trying to figure out what the point was of Bryusov’s symbolist story. The best I can make of it is that he felt, as many intelligent people today do, that organized religion is based on as much mythology and folk tales as the “pagan” religions they supposedly evolved from (which is absolutely factual, whether you’re a religious person or not), and thus that such visions are as much the product of hyperactive imaginations as those of magicians and necromancers. In this context, then, Ruprecht seems to represent an outsider looking in, trying to make sense of it all but having some trouble doing so, partly because he is not a believer and partly because he is trying to believe in order to seduce Renata, who he apparently fell in love with at first sight. For a woman who supposedly doesn’t want Ruprecht to love her, Renata exhibits some very strange behavior in this production, like leaping into his arms while continuing to tell her tale. On the other hand, dressed as she is like a scullery maid and wearing almost no makeup, she’s clearly not attractive enough to seduce any man.

By and large, however, this is a surprisingly good production with good costuming and excellent direction. Our Ruprecht, British baritone Leigh Melrose, has an appropriately dark voice with, alas, some slight infirmity in sustained tones, but he creates a vivid and believable character as the soldier/knight. Polish soprano Ewa Vesin as Renata is simply phenomenal, singing with a firm, dark tone, impeccable diction and musicianship, and first-rate interpretive skills. As long as she is on the stage, you cannot take your attention away from her, and this in itself is a major plus. There’s also a “dancing demon” or apparition, unidentified on the DVD box or booklet, who is a terrific male dancer, bouncing around like a kazatsky performer on acid. (In the third act, he is joined by another of the same as Ruprecht duels Heinrich.)

Vesin and Melrose

Vesin and Melrose in the first act

As the opera progressed, I was able to mentally shut out the annoying, writhing, silent extras on the stage (most of the time, anyway…when they crowd around the principals it’s hard to ignore them) and focus on the principal performers and the story, which helped. And I think my initial hunch was correct, that Bryusov purposely conflated religion with witchcraft and superstition as forms of mental and emotional aberrations in people. I just wish that Emma Dante wasn’t so confoundedly obsessed with filling the stage with superfluous humans who have no identities and in fact no connection whatever to the story of the opera she is staging. Fortunately, our two principals, who dominate the proceedings, were just so good both as singers and as actors that you just stay riveted to the screen despite the stupid and mostly superfluous distractions.  I particularly liked the little scene where Renata asks a mysterious visitor to “knock three times” if she will again see her beloved Heinrich…and of course he knocks three times, probably not even having heard what she said, but she believes that it is an omen. And of course she “sees” Heinrich, who embraces her, as well as her weird acrobatic little gnome in the tutu, while Ruprecht does not.

It also helps that most of the supporting cast also had excellent voices: Mairam Sokolova as the Fortune Teller (later as the Mother Superior of the convent), tenor Domingo Pellicola as Jacob Glock, and Sergey Radchenko as Agrippa of Nettesheim. The latter possesses an unusually dark, powerful Russian tenor voice of the sort you’d like to hear doing Hermann in Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame.

The Fiery Angel is clearly an interesting work, with largely bitonal and occasionally atonal passages woven deftly into the overall fabric of the score. Small wonder that little of this worked when Prokofiev rewrote parts of it for his third symphony—not to mention the fact that the music is theatrically developed, not symphonically, which makes a huge difference in its impact on the listener. More often than not, the vocal lines are written as other instrument in the orchestra insofar as their function as music is concerned, but of course they are NOT orchestral instruments but vivid stage characters who bring out emotions and attitudes that no instrument can really express. As an example of what I mean, try to imagine Berg’s Wozzeck as a purely instrumental piece. It would be interesting, certainly, but how could the instruments of the orchestra convey the human attitudes and accents of Wozzeck, Marie, Herr Hauptmann or the Drum Major? They couldn’t, and such was the case when Prokofiev converted parts of The Fiery Angel into his Third Symphony.

I would be remiss if I didn’t laud choral director Roberto Gabbiani and Spanish conductor Alejo Pérez for their superb direction of the Rome Opera forces. Both are quite evidently experienced as well as adept in modern music, and without their contributions this would clearly not have been a competitive version of the opera. Pérez is clearly a spiritual descendant of Rodziński and even of Toscanini; he brings out inner details without exaggerating them, keeps the music moving forward and infuses it all with an almost manic energy.

The Fiery Angel is clearly not an opera for everyone; its very modernistic, almost abrasive harmonic language will surely turn more traditional listeners off, as will its complete lack of arias in the conventional sense; but it is a superb musical and theatrical creation, and it makes you think (the extra bodies onstage aside). This performance is clearly first-rate in every respect, a strong competitor to the audio-only recordings conducted by Valery Gergiev (Decca) and Neeme Järvi (Deutsche Grammophon).

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Bacquier Sings Berthomieu

cover 111.101

BERTHOMIEU: Les Jardins de Paris.* 7 Poèmes de Charles Oulmont / Gabriel Bacquier, bar; Olivia Garnier, *Marc Berthomieu, pno; *Chamber group: Jean Leber, vln; Bruno Pasquier, vla; René Benedetti, cel; Roger Bourdin, Pierre-Yves Artaud, fl; Maurice Allard, bsn; Etienne Lorin, acc; Lily Laskine, Marielle Nordmann, harp / Maguelone 111.101

I tripped across this 1998 album while looking up recordings by the late, great baritone Gabriel Bacquier and was entranced. Although Marc Berthomieu (1906-1991) was considered a classical composer, he was only just one by virtue of being French.

BacquierNone of these songs would either win a composition prize today or, I think, be taken seriously by most modern composers. They are unabashedly tonal, sentimental, and resemble French popular tunes though they are not really so. Yet there is something so charming and artless about them, particularly the 24-song cycle Les Jardins de Paris in which the singer is accompanied by a 10-piece chamber group which includes two flutes and two harps, that you find yourself smiling as you listen to them.

Even though Maguelone is a French label dedicated to preserving the work of French composers, one notices that this particular album took some time to be produced. Les Jardins de Paris was recorded in 1979, yet it wasn’t released until 19 years later, after Berthomieu had died and Bacquier recorded the remaining seven songs with piano-only accompaniment.

An unusual disc, then, but for lovers of French song and/or Bacquier, certainly worth checking out.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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