Lindberg Conducts Pettersson

Pettersson

PETTERSSON: Symphony No. 12, “The Dead in the Square” / Swedish Radio Choir; Eric Ericson Chamber Choir; Norrköping Symphony Orch.; Christian Lindberg, cond / Bis SACD-2450

Shortly after I moved from New Jersey to Ohio in the fall of 1977, I met a professor of music from the University of Cincinnati who visited me. He was very hep on the symphonies of Allan Pettersson and played one for me. I found the music rather dense and not a little morose in character, and so put Pettersson aside in my mind.

Now, revisiting this composer some 42 years later via this symphony, I realize that at least insofar as this work (which I hadn’t heard before) is concerned that I hadn’t been fair to him—or, at least, that either this work or this performance has more of interest to me than his other music did then. Pettersson clearly wrote in a bitonal style which was then considered quite avant-garde but today would be considered a bit tame.

This, his only symphony using singers, was considered controversial in Sweden at the time because it is based on the poetry of Pablo Neruda, an unabashed Communist and staunch supporter of Salvador Allende. Pettersson was careful, however, to write a preface to this symphony, something quite unusual for him, explaining his attraction to the situations described in the poems while distancing himself from Neruda’s politics. He said, in part, that

My commitment in this work is not political, [but that] All of human history consists of man’s cruelty to man…And when the large popular collectives developed, this basic motif already existed and it was furthered by certain politicians into a persistent, appalling theme—that of gratuitous cruelty. But the basic theme existed and exists forever!

One, then, may consider this symphony an anti-“Ode to Joy.” It is more like an ode to suffering and the struggle of the lower classes to achieve some form of parity with the upper. Pettersson continued that although he could “hardly identify myself with the worker who was shot to death,” his “heart was, and is, with the poor of Chile, so like the worker in the third world in which I grew up.”

As stated in the liner notes, the choir sings almost continuously throughout the work’s nearly 56-minute length, “often very forcefully and in difficult registers, which makes the choral parts very demanding,” and that “Pettersson frequently lets the music go against the rhythm of the text.” Although the rhythms used in the choral part aren’t specifically those of Chilean or other Hispanic music, they have a certain liveliness that brings them in line with such music. Listening to it, I wondered if this work is really a symphony or more of a secular cantata. It is not so far removed in form (though it is in style) from Bohuslav Martinů’s The Epic of Gilgamesh.

One thing that this work has in common with the symphony I heard so many years ago (it might have been his Seventh; I really don’t recall at this point) is the use of dark orchestral textures. Moreover, Pettersson uses the orchestra here mostly in its lower range, even the violins and winds, to create a sort of edgy accompaniment to the chorus. The contrasting rhythms used in the orchestra come primarily from the basses, tubas and percussion.

Bis’ famed SACD sound really comes into play in this work, giving a spaciousness to the whole enterprise that I must say was sadly lacking in the recording I heard so many years ago, and for once I was fortunate enough to get the physical disc to review rather than downloaded music files, which also makes a great difference. You simply cannot include the full range of SACD coding into downloads, and having the proper “space” around the two choirs plus the orchestra gives one an entirely different perspective.

And of course, a great deal of the success of this performance belongs to conductor Christian Lindberg, who pulls out all the stops emotionally while retaining a tight control over the pacing and shaping of the score. There’s a certain something in how he produces the music on this disc that put me in mind of some of Artur Rodziński’s better recordings, particularly those he made in stereo from 1955 to 1958. The one thing I would have appreciated, however, was a bit of reprieve from the unrelenting drive and force of the music. Once Pettersson puts his foot on the accelerator, he scarcely lets up. But let’s be honest, Pettersson wasn’t a very happy man, and he translated his own angst and suffering into his music.

There are some wordless falling chromatics in the choral writing during the fourth part of this symphony which deals with death, and towards the end of this section we hear one of the very few quiet moments in the symphony, which he continues into the fifth part. This is the briefest part of the symphony (1:22) titled “How the Flags were Born,” and part six, “I Call on Them” also begins somewhat quietly but soon increases in volume, tempo and tension.

This is clearly a complex work with dark overtones; I don’t recommend listening to it when you are in a sad or depressed frame of mind, yet it will reward your attention with some extraordinary moments. And strangely enough, despite its sad, dramatic profile, the music goes by quickly, probably because there is so much going on, as for instance in that sixth track where Pettersson increases both volume and tension, adding some rare upper-range trumpet passages and quickening the rhythm within the orchestral part.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Opera Lafayette’s Production of “Leonore”

Leonore

BEETHOVEN: Leonore / Nathalie Paulin, sop (Leonore/Fidelio); Pascale Beaudin, sop (Marzelline); Jean-Michel Richer, ten (Florestan); Keven Geddes, ten (Jacquino); Stephen Hegedus, bs (Rocco); Matthew Scollin, bar (Don Pizarro); Alexandre Sylvestre, bar (Don Fernando); Opera Lafayette Chorus & Orch.; Ryan Brown, cond; Oriol Thomas, dir / Naxos DVD 2.110674 (live: New York, March 2-4, 2020)

Despite its French-sounding name, Opera Lafayette is a Washington, D.C.-based company founded and directed by Ryan Brown in 1995 that specializes in forgotten operas, primarily French ones of the 17th and 18th century. This production of the 1805 version of Beethoven’s Leonore was given just before the Coronavirus pandemic hit America like a tsunami.

I wanted to see this production simply to see how well (or not well) this early version of Fidelio worked on the stage. Since the costumes looked sort of like modified Hollywood versions of 19th-century garb, I thought I’d take a chance not knowing what the actual production would look like. As it turned out, the sets were neither good nor bad, just kind of minimalist-junky looking, as if they were knocked together in a couple of hours by a few bored carpenters. In the opening scene, for instance, there are a couple of large wooden frame things on the stage. Marzelline sings in front of them while Jacquino, making his entrance, keeps stepping over this one piece of wood instead of, more sensibly, walking around it.

Act I scene

Act I scene with Rocco, Marzelline & Jacquino

The 1804 production of Leonore opens with dialogue that leads into the familiar opening duet between Marzelline and Jacquino. In this 1805 revision, however, we hear an opening monologue from the soprano who then launches into Marzelline’s familiar aria, only with a few altered notes, then Jacquino enters, speaks a few lines, and goes into the duet with Marzelline. Actually, I thought this worked better from a dramatic standpoint as it establishes Marzelline and her deep love for Fidelio before Jacquino tries unsuccessfully to woo her back. Since there are moments even during his monologue where someone knocks at the door and he has to go answer it, they make some fun out of the “knocking” motif in the orchestra during the duet which keeps interrupting Jacquino’s professions of love and proposal of marriage. This, too, made more sense to me. Several of the other anomalies between Leonore and Fidelio I described in my review of the Herbert Blomstedt recording of the opera as included in Naxos’ “Beethoven Complete Edition.”

The singers are a bit of a mixed bag, as I expected. Our Marzelline, Pascale Beaudin, has a bright but somewhat edgy soprano voice with a prominent French vibrato. Keven Geddes, our Jacquino, is a hefty young lad with an attractive timbre but an uneven flutter in the mid-range. Stephen Hegedus as Rocco has a rich-sounding basso cantata voice but also an incipient wobble (though he improves greatly by the time of the Don Pizarro-Rocco duet); he also looks like Marzelline’s brother rather than her father. (As long as they spent so little on the sets, you’d think the makeup person could have artificially aged him a couple of extra decades.) He’s also not much of an actor, looking bored throughout.

As for the conducting, I was not impressed by the stiffly-phrased and emotionally underpowered rendition of the Leonore Overture No. 2, but in all fairness Brown doesn’t conduct it any worse than John Eliot Gardiner on his recording of the opera. The best performances I’ve heard of this overture are the old recordings by Wilhelm Furtwängler, Arturo Toscanini and Otto Klemperer, and of those only the Klemperer is in stereo. Happily, Brown’s conducting perks up considerably once the opera proper begins.

As in the Blomstedt recording, this version includes the Rocco-Marzelline-Jacquino trio that was later deleted. It’s nice music but kind of holds up the action. The whiny straight-tone strings rob “Mir ist so wunderbar” of its beauty and dignity, but the singing is pretty good. Conductor Brown makes a mistake by slightly increasing the tempo when Rocco enters; I don’t want to hear this quartet as a race to the finish. From a technical standpoint, the visual quality of this DVD is a bit dark and the audio quality somewhat too bright up top, but it gets by.

Nathalie Paulin as Leonore

Paulin as Leonore

Our Fidelio/Leonore, Nathalie Paulin, has a good voice with a quick but even vibrato, she sings with great feeling and is a fine actress, but it’s not the kind of cannon-sized voice that most older opera listeners might expect. Of course, one must realize that no such soprano voices existed in Beethoven’s time; a good-sized lyric soprano with some “bite” in the tone was pretty much the best he could have hoped for. (I seriously doubt that modern audiences would be greatly impressed by Wilhelmina Schröder-Devrient, the most famous Leonore of her day.) She is also a highly expressive singer, on a par with Karita Mattila.

Matthew Scollin, as Don Pizarro, looks a little like young John Cleese but is an excellent villain with a scowl on his face and a dark, menacing (but also somewhat infirm) baritone voice. Pizarro is the one stereotypical figure in the opera; it would have been nice had Beethoven written his music a bit subtler, but he’s a real over-the-top villain with a capital V and that’s how you’re supposed to play him. Let’s put it this way: this is not a guy you feel that you’d like to hang out with over a few beers.

Following the Pizarro-Rocco duet comes one of Beethoven’s biggest blunders, a duet in waltz time between the two sopranos (Marzelline and Leonore). To be fair, Paulin and Beaudin make more of it than in the Blomstedt recording, and it’s taken at a somewhat zippier tempo, but it’s still a mood-killer, not to mention superfluous dramatically. How much more effective for the end of the Rocco-Pizarro duet to go straight into the opening of the “Abscheulischer”…but then, that opening music of Leonore’s aria didn’t exist in 1806 either. What we get instead is a slower, softer opening section that lacks tension, though again Paulin sings it with great feeling. When we reach the “Komm, Hoffnung” section we are on more familiar ground, but even here the music changes in a different direction that is musically interesting but a bit too florid, again robbing the moment of drama (no fault of Paulin’s).

I also felt that Brown rushed through the orchestral introduction to “Gott! Welch dunkel hier” too much, even faster than Toscanini who was too fast as well. Our Florestan, Michel Richer, is simply awful, with a loose, uneven vibrato you could drive a truck through. Tell me, honestly: where do they find these singers? And don’t tell me there aren’t better ones around, because there are. I’ve heard them. So what exactly recommended this Richer guy to Opera Lafayette? He works cheaply? His mom donated seed money to the company? What? After the first two minutes, I just skipped the rest of his aria. It’s that awful. Well, at least he sounds like someone who’s being starved to death and, for whatever reason, his voice finally clicks into focus for the final scene, too late for comfort.

One unintentionally funny moment: when Leonore reaches in her pocket to pull out her pistol, it gets stuck in her pocket. Poor Paulin! The Leonore-Florestan duet in this version is much longer than in the revised version, which just jumps into “O namenlöse freude,” and the slow introductory section, though to my mind a little too long, should have been retained in the finished version of the opera. Our Don Fernando also begins singing with a wobble, but miraculously his voice clicks into focus by the final scene.

My final verdict is that this early version of Fidelio has a few good moments that should have been incorporated into the final version, but by and large Beethoven improved it considerably. It’s interesting to see, unevenly sung and mostly conducted well except for those two annoying accelerations in the quartet and the intro to Florestan’s aria. Worth seeing and hearing for Paulin’s interpretation of the title character, however.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Robinett’s Jazz Standards, Vol. 2

Robinett cover

JAZZ STANDARDS, Vol. 2: THEN AGAIN / LEHAR-HERZER: Yours is My Heart Alone. VAN HEUSEN-BURKE: Like Someone in Love. It Could Happen to You. VAN HEUSEN-MERCER: I Thought About You. LERNER-LOWE: On the Street Where You Live. DAVIS: Milestones. GREEN-HEYMAN-SOUR: Body and Soul. KING-PARKER: How Am I to Know? DeLANGE-VAN HEUSEN: Darn That Dream. PORTER: I Love You. MONK: Monk’s Mood. San Francisco Holiday [Worry Later] / Henry Robinett, gtr; Joe Gilman, pno; Chris Symer, bs; Michael Stephans, dm / Nefertiti Records, no number

It was in April of this year that I first heard Henry Robinett play, on Vol. 1 of this series. Like this album, the tapes had been laying around for 20 years. Robinett always intended to release them, but things got busy, he forgot, and then he recently rediscovered the original tapes and said to himself, “HECK yeah!”

As I said in that original review, Robinett is not only a fluent guitarist, he is inventive and swinging and, thank goodness, he has some “bite” in his playing. All is not soft lounge-styled guitar here. There’s a bit of Oscar Moore, Charlie Byrd an Barney Kessel in him, and he isn’t shy about bringing that out.

What embarrasses me is that, until I reviewed his CD in April, I had never heard of Robinett. You’d think that a jazz guitarist this good would have a national profile, similar to that enjoyed by Joshua Breakstone years ago, but sadly that’s not true. Robinett has no Wikipedia biography online, only his own website where he tells you that he loves writing for his Henry Robinett Group (HRG) as well as teaching guitar. Well, he certainly has a lot to impart to young guitarists nationwide, and I for one can’t think of a better teacher to go to, except that the number of would-be guitarists who are into jazz are a pretty small percentage.

Listening to this CD is practically an extended guitar lesson in itself. Robinett covers nearly the full range of his instrument in almost every solo, and although he is not an outside player (in the avant-garde sense of the word) he clearly takes risks, sometimes going against the chords laid down by pianist Joe Gilman. Gilman himself normally plays his solos in a nice single-note style that mimics Robinett’s style but is only occasionally as adventurous as the guitarist, for instance on Like Someone in Love where he extends himself. But unlike Robinett, who somehow always comes out the other end of his solos with a clear, well-thought-out finish. Gilman just stops playing while he has tied himself up in a knot. I think the difference is simply that Robinett is a master composer as well as a master improviser, thus he is able to formulate in his mind where he is going and how to “round off” his choruses. On Milestones and Body and Soul, Gilman stays more within himself and thus plays very credible choruses. Chris Symer also plays a pretty good bass solo on Milestones.

Nor does Robinett always rely on speed; listen to I Thought About You where he improvises almost in slow motion for much of the first chorus, yet the lines he creates are both highly inventive and crystal clear. Perhaps I am stretching here, but after having immersed myself a few months back in the recorded output of trumpeter Bunny Berigan, I hear many similarities between them, most notably their willingness to take chances without losing track of where they are and of swinging hard at all times regardless of tempo. The big difference, of course, is that as a trumpeter Berigan was able to infuse his playing with greater emotion because he could pour so much air into his horn that he created a huge, emotion-laden sound like his idol Louis Armstrong. As an electric guitarist, Robinett is more limited to what his instrument and his amplifier can do, yet you can tell that he plays with a lot of feeling; and he also shares with Berigan the willingness to cover the full range of his instrument when improvising. Just listen, for instance, to the places he takes the well-worn Body and Soul. If you were to transcribe this solo and give it to a trumpet play with a huge, emotional tone, the first improvised chorus would sound a lot like Berigan.

Darn That Dream was the only hit record that jazz singer Mildred Bailey had during her short tenure with the Benny Goodman orchestra in 1939. The lyrics are dumb and inconsequential, but musicians have long been attracted to it because of its “climbing” chromatic melody line, and here Robinett creates an entirely new piece out of the same chords that, if he were to transcribe it, would make a terrific jazz composition in itself. Gilman’s solo is also a very fine one, but it sounds more like an improvisation and not like a new piece based on the same chords.

The bottom line is that Robinett is an exceptional jazz guitarist, one of the very few around today who I will go out of my way to listen to. Highly recommended!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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An Interview With Juyeon Song

Song

Juyeon Song as Abigaille in “Nabucco”

Soprano Juyeon Song’s complete Tristan und Isolde and opera recital of scenes by Wagner and Strauss came as a complete revelation to me, since I had never heard of her previously. Checking on YouTube, I found two other performances, both of them “live,” that also show the power of her voice: “Ebben, lontano” from Catalani’s La Wally and the final scene from Madama Butterfly. In both of these, one can witness as well as hear the immense power of her voice as well as the consummate artistry that lies behind it.

Since I am sure that most of my readers know little or nothing of her prior to these recordings, I asked her to do an email interview with me and she generously agreed.

Art Music Lounge: Let’s start at the beginning. What drew you to operatic singing in the first place?

Juyeon Song: Both my parents liked opera. My mom ran a private music school, and I sang since I was six years old.

AML: I recall you mentioning to me that, when in college, you sang the Queen of the Night’s arias, as 99% of young coloraturas do. But what I was wondering was, were you drawn to the drama behind the arias even then, or were you more concerned with just getting the notes out properly?

JS: We studied Mozart and his operas. The drama behind it was also important to learn.

AML: How did you establish yourself in the early part of your career? Did you sing in Korea?

JS: I sang in concert but not in a full production.

AML: So when did you move into singing heavier lyric roles?

JS: When I was working with Madama Butterfly with Claude, he thought I could develop to be a dramatic soprano. Butterfly is a dramatic lyric role, in my opinion.

AML: I read online that you were the long-time partner of former Heldentenor Claude Heater, and you shared with me that it was he who expanded your voice to its present size. I’m curious as to what kind of exercises he gave you in order to accomplish this amazing feat?

JS: His primary technique was “Open Throat with Proper Breathing, use a relaxed larynx all the time.” Your voice has to be fresh always, and by opening your throat consistently plus with diaphragmmatic breathing, your vocal chords are not strained. Also, he emphasized working out regularly to increase your stamina. Each vocalization with different intervals had to be practiced with the exact size, interval while you are also open your throat.

AML: I’m also wondering if it was Mr. Heater who instilled the dramatic aspect of Wagner in you, or if this was just something that came from inside of you? Clearly, this is unusual…most Wagnerian sopranos are just concerned with getting through the music and don’t even bother with interpretation.

JS: Yes, he was the first person who introduced me to Wagner. I never dreamed of singing his operas before in my life. Claude trained me, and other students, intensively every day when we worked with him. We had to study the roles very well, so we become the character. Every day I sang my Wagner roles. He taught us that if you cannot get through the entire opera, don’t bother studying the arias from the opera. I sang an entire opera everyday, then took a 1-2 days break. The more and more I sang, my voice stayed opened, and I had more energy.

AML: When and where did you sing your first Wagner role onstage?

JS: It was in Germany in a concert version. I sang the entire first act of Tanhhäuser as Venus, then the second act of Tristan und Isolde.

AML: A friend of mine who bought your opera recital disc told me that he was very impressed but “couldn’t quite believe” that all this voice was coming from the person pictured on the album cover. You told me that you’ve had problems convincing opera managers and bookers that you can handle Wagner for the same reason. But I’m sure that audiences who have seen you in person can attest to your voice’s carrying power?

JS: Yes, audiences were very surprised in live performances to hear how my voice carries through in spite of my body size. At first, most people didn’t think my voice could handle singing Wagnerian roles, but then their mind was changed after hearing me.

What Claude taught us was that our voice has to carry through the heavy orchestra with the right amount of overtones. Especially in Wagner’s music, the orchestra is not an accompaniment of the voice. Orchestra and voice are one instrument.

AML: There were several interpretive details in your performance of Isolde that really struck me, particularly in the last act. When you come ashore and see the dying Tristan, you almost sounded like a woman who was about to lose her mind. I found that to be very powerful and, in fact, unique among Isolde’s I have heard. How did you get the idea to try that? 

JS: By studying the role, I became Isolde. I believe in deep true love, like the way Tristan and Isolde shared themselves. They both completed each other and became one soul. Knowing that I naturally felt deeply what Isolde must have felt, I could believe that she could die with a broken heart after getting to Tristan, who just passed away after longing and yearning so much for her. Can you imagine losing part of you, your soulmate and love of your life, after that many days of separation, then finally get to him and he is gone? She saw his soul leave his body in her dream state (another reality) when she sang the Liebestod. She wanted to be united with him in heaven, finally with no restrictions. but as free as she could be.

AML: On your recital disc, you sang the music of all three Brünnhildes. Do you have all three of those roles in your repertoire?

JS: Yes, I studied all three Brünnhildes from the Ring Cycle.

AML: I was also impressed by your final scene from Salome. That’s the most dramatically sung performance I’ve heard since Teresa Stratas’ video recording from the 1970s, but of course Stratas had a modest-sized voice and could not perform the role onstage. Is Salome one of your repertoire roles, and have you ever sung it onstage?

JS: No, I haven’t, but I hope some day I will.

AML: I’m just wondering what other, non-Wagner roles you have in your repertoire. Perhaps Elektra? Or Turandot?

JS: I do sing Turandot along with Madama Butterfly, Abigaille, Aida, Salome, Norma (working on that now).  I used to sing Zelina, Liù, Mimi, Queen of the Night and Pamina.

AML: Just as a personal note, I would love to hear you sing Gluck’s Alceste or Leonore in Fidelio. Do you sing those roles as well?

JS: I studied Fidelio but not Alceste. I will look into it. Thanks for suggesting it!

AML: I’m so sorry that the Coronavirus has curtailed your singing activities, but some pretty good vaccines are on the way and we may be reopening things on a limited basis by May of next year. Have you been able to give any vocal recitals in the meantime, and if not, do you think you can do so next spring if things go well?

JS: In the later part of 2021, I am planning to make more recordings with a German orchestra under Maestro Robert Reimer’s direction, and also we will make recordings with piano. I’m planning on a piano recital during which I will play part of a Tristan und Isolde film in which Claude played Tristan. We plan to have a well-known German actor narrate the story of Tristan und Isolde in the program to help audiences to understand the opera better. We’re also planning on multiple big projects in 2022. The Isolde Project will go on.

AML: Well, you certainly have me as a supporter, and I’m someone who heard Birgit Nilsson in person. I can’t think of a single really good Brünnhilde since Jeannine Altmeyer sang those roles in the late 1970s-early ‘80s, and I wish you luck!

JS: She is one of my favorites. I am very much inspired by her singing. Thank you so much for your interest and support!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The Angeles Quartet’s Haydn

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HAYDN: Complete String Quartets / The Angeles String Quartet / Decca 001677202 or available for free streaming on YouTube by entering “Haydn Complete Quartets Angeles String Quartet” in the search bar and hitting “Enter”

I’ve written a few articles on this blog stating why music lovers should hate record companies, particularly the big labels, but this one really takes the cake.

Here’s the background. In 1988, violinists Kathleen Lenski and Sara Perkins, violist Brian Demboe and cellist Stephen Erody, all highly skilled West Coast musicians, formed the Angeles String Quartet. For years they were hailed by critics who heard them as one of the best, if not the best, American String Quartet, but nary a recording contract did they get. Then, in 1994, the Joseph Haydn Society, having heard tapes of their performances of that composer’s string quartets, agreed to subsidize their recording a complete set of them. (To the best of my knowledge, this was only the second time they did this; the first was in the 1930s, when they engaged the Pro Arte Quartet to record the series for EMI, but both the Depression and the onset of World War II put a stop to the series before they were a quarter of the way through them.) Philips, one of the three Polygram classical labels, took the bait. Over a period of five years, from 1995 to 1999, the Angeles musicians dove into Haydn with both love and zeal.

original Philips cover

The original Philips cover

Then the complete set—21 CDs, which made it pretty pricey—was released in 2000 in a cheap box with no promotional support at all, and the set was quickly deleted. But the few lucky critics who got to hear it raved over it as they have few other classical box sets of this magnitude. Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times wrote that “There has never before been a completely satisfying set of the complete Haydn string quartets. Now there is.” Peter Bates of ClassicalNet wrote, “nothing prepared me for the utter consistency of this set. The players not only demonstrate a thorough knowledge of these pieces – not difficult like Bartók’s but not facile either – they also respect the eras in which they were forged. No attempt is made to create nascent scherzos out of the minuets in the later works (although there is sly humor in Op. 76, #2, “Quinten”).” David Hurwitz of Classics Today was perhaps the most effusive, raving about the set thus:

One of the biggest challenges in playing Haydn involves timing, particularly of pauses. Haydn was a master of dramatic silence, and he used it in a number of ways, ranging from the disturbing to the comic. An example of the first quality occurs in the first movement development of the G minor Quartet Op. 20 No. 3, where a tiny little melodic “turn” upsets the course of the development section. The famous finale of the “Joke” Quartet (Op. 33 No. 2) shows Haydn using silence to hilarious effect. In both cases, the Angeles Quartet perfectly times the passage in question so as to maximize its emotional impact. The group responds equally well to such a diverse range of moods as the almost painful emotional outburst in the trio of Op. 54 No. 2’s Menuetto, the ethereal magic of the “Horseman”” Quartet’s slow movement, and the grim austerity of the final fugue of Op. 50 No. 4 (the remarkable quartet in F-sharp minor). In those neglected early quartets, beginning with the ten history-making five-movement “quartet-divertimentos”, the Angeles Quartet plays with an engaging and unflagging sense of freshness and vitality.

Only some British reviewers, carrying a torch for the old Amadeus Quartet (which did not make a complete set and did not observe most repeats), nitpicked on it, but only a little. Witness Misha Donat on Classical Music who said that some of the endings seemed “too final,” with slight ritards, rather than just stopping in tempo, but by and large lauded the Angeles Quartet for having made “by and large an impressively successful project. Its only direct rival is the 22-disc Decca set by the Aeolian Quartet, but those rather laborious performances, poorly recorded into the bargain, are no match for the poise and elegance of the American players.”

The earlier complete set on Naxos by the Kodály Quartet, which started with real energy but somehow over the years become a bit stodgy as they approached the finish line, was quickly forgotten. So too were many other earlier sets, complete or incomplete. The Angeles String Quartet’s versions of this massive oeuvre—the set only omits the disputed Op. 3 Quartets, now considered to have been written by Roman Hoffstetter (though there is still some debate on that), and the quartet version of The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross—was now the clear choice. And to everyone’s surprise, probably and especially that of Philips, the set won a Grammy for Best Chamber Music Performance at its January 2001 ceremonies.

Angeles String Quartet

The Angeles Quartet: Erody, Lenski, Perkins and Demboe

But bad luck dogged the Angeles Quartet. By getting little or no promotional “bounce” from the release of the set, their engagement calendar was simply not enough to keep them going. On November 8, 2001, they announced that they were disbanding. Each of the four members went into teaching at different music colleges and conservatories, where they remain. Except now they are touted on those institutions’ websites for having been part of the greatest set of the Haydn quartets in recording history.

And get this, folks: even after the Grammy win, Polygram still did not “get it.” Yes, they reissued the set on Philips’ sister label Decca with the cover shown at the top of this review, but again with little or no promotion. Worse yet, for no apparent reason whatsoever, Decca decided to record a COMPETING set of the complete Haydn quartets by the Aeolian String Quartet, a group that has a strident, whining first violinist who goes off-key frequently and has a brittle, annoying tone. And THIS is the set of the Haydn Quartets they pushed to the max with a heavy promotional campaign.

I’ve had a lot of readers of this blog ask me to review new recordings of older classical music that has been recorded frequently, and in some cases I’ve done so only to complain that the recording(s) were superfluous because there are so many superior, older versions out there. But I still utterly fail to understand why record companies continue to record the Same Old Stuff (you see, I used a polite word there!) when there is so much music written from 1970 on that hasn’t been recorded, or only recorded once, not to mention a few outstanding past composers whose work gets short shrift.

The set of Haydn quartets is a perfect example of perfection achieved but, due to marketing, marginalized both in the beginning and now after the fact. It’s not the first time, nor will it be the last, and I’ve been reading some horror stories on the Slipped Disc website of how laissez-faire the recording industry has become. Although classical music lovers are still, by and large, the biggest market for physical CDs—only about 40% of classical lovers have abandoned CDs altogether, compared to nearly 70% of jazz fans and an even larger percentage of rock and pop listeners—the attitude of the industry has become far less amenable to classical performers unless they have a VERY high-profile name. The rest of those artists, particularly those who have not established themselves as “one of the greatest fill-in-the-blank of his/her generation,” are treated like chattel.

Consider, for instance, the situation of the German coloratura soprano Simone Kernes, who has now left all record labels and taken to selling her recordings for download on Bandcamp. In an interview with the Munich Abendzeitung, she complained (according to Slipped Disc) that “I had an exclusive contract for ten years. The record company pays for the recording and you get a small fee. You have to recoup the album costs through sales, only then do you earn a small share. So if an album doesn’t sell extremely well, you see: Nothing! With the record company I did everything myself: ideas, song, selection, cover. I also wrote the booklet. I was exhausted, it was never paid for. For the last CD, Inferno Paradiso, I also did the advertising myself, I got a promotion agency that was paid every month. I considered doing Eternity again through the record company, but the offer was too bad. I wouldn’t even have gotten my money back. So I said: I’ll try it myself. And that’s how you keep the rights to the recordings.”

Also witness what the cast and conductor of Navona Records’ excellent new Tristan und Isolde had to go through, exhausting work for which they were not paid. Their main hope is to get some kind of career “bounce” out of the publicity for and sales of the recording, but in the Age of Covid, where on earth are they going to stage another Tristan? They can’t even do it in Poland, where the 2019 recording and performances took place.

But to return to this set of the Haydn Quartets, it really is superb—but I suggest taking it one disc at a time. Haydn didn’t write all of these quartets in a few days, thus you should space out the experience. As one critic has said, Haydn doesn’t converse with angels like Mozart or storm the heavens like Beethoven; rather, he invites you in for a large glass of wine and an evening schmoozing around the fire. His music has elegance, but also drama, sparkle and plenty of wit—so many of those little pauses that have to be times just right for them to make their point, which the Angeles Quartet does to perfection. No wonder the Joseph Haydn Society was so impressed. You will be, too.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Josefa Schmidt’s Dream Images

Dream Images

DREAM IMAGES / DEBUSSY: Images Oubliées. CRUMB: Makrokosmos I: Dream Images. RAVEL: Miroirs. SCRIABIN: Préludes, Op. 16. V. SCHMIDT: Cave Obscure / Josefa Schmidt, pno / TYXart TXA 19128

This is one of those CDs where I was predisposed to like the artist even before I listened to her. Although she is a young woman, born in 1998, Josefa Schmidt does not appear on the front cover, back cover or inside photo as anything but a serious musician. Her hair is not coiffed by a master stylist and covered with hair spray. She is not wearing a ton of makeup, but only a little light lipstick. She has her glasses on. In short, she is not trying to present herself as eye candy, and in this day and age this is exceedingly rare.

The only thing I was concerned about was the theme of the album. I’m not a fan of soft, dreamy music as a rule, and yes, several of the pieces here fit that bill, but at least they were written by famous impressionist composers of the early 20th century for the most part. Debussy’s Images Oubliées, Ravel’s Miroirs and Scriabin’s Op. 16 Préludes are all given complete on this disc, but the selections are broken up and presented out of order, which doesn’t concern me.

Schmidt was wise to open the program with the third and most energetic piece in the Debussy set, “Quelques aspects de Nous,” which she plays with wonderful, sparkling energy. She has both clean articulation and a fine grasp of the music’s style. She also plays “deep in the keys,” which suits this music quite well. She then follows this with “Dream Images” from Crumb’s Makrokosmos I, a mood piece with a difference in that it is bitonal though it sets a distinctly otherworldly mood (and incorporates a bit of Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu). We then get the first piece, the “Nocturne,” from Ravel’s Miroirs. By this point, I had come to realize that Ms. Schmidt is a pianist who approaches all music, regardless of era or style, in the same way, with both enthusiasm and great insight into both the work’s mood and structure. She is an outstanding pianist.

Scriabin’s Chopin-influenced Préludes are played with a more wide-awake style and slightly drier tone than one is used to in this music, but this is a valid interpretation; after all, Scriabin morphed within a very few years into the pentatonic, extended chord composer we know from his symphonies and late sonatas.

And so the program continues, going from piece to piece, contrasting as much as possible faster, less amorphous pieces with softer pastels. It’s a good indication of Schmidt’s abilities as an artist. In Ravel’s “Une barque sur l’ocean,” the notes cascade out from the piano as if they were being poured out of the instrument in liquid form—extraordinary playing!

The one outlier in the program is the Cave Obscure by one Vera Schmidt, whose birth year is given as 1990. Nowhere in the booklet or online can one find a single word about this composer, who I suspect is Josefa’s older sister or a very young aunt. Eight years’ difference is too little for it to be her mother. It’s a fascinating piece, opening up with a soft, dissonant chord, followed by strange scalar passages that eventually coalesce into a whole-tone melody into which a few harmonic skewers are tossed in. At one point, Schmidt even knocks on the piano’s frame for a few beats. Then the tempo picks up and continues to accelerate before suddenly pulling up short; a few sprinkled notes in the right hand, and we return to the strange harmonies of the opening, now shifted around a bit. Later still, the tempo accelerates again as a crashing chord leads to a cascade of notes, then a dead stop at the end.

This is an outstanding recital, and I sincerely wish Ms. Schmidt a long and successful career. she has “it.”

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Javier Rameix’s “Impressôes”

cover IBS-142020

IMPRESSÔES / GINASTERA: Piano Sonata No. 1. Danzas argentinas No. 2. VILLA-LOBOS: Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4. Cicio brasileiro. MOLEIRO: Joropo. CASTELLANOS: Mañanita caraqueña. FERNÁNDEZ: El Diablo suelto / Javier Rameix, pno / IBS Classical 142020

Young (b. 1991) Venezuelan pianist Javier Rameix presents here a program of Latin music, mostly of the last century. He begins with Ginastera’s Piano Sonata No. 1, written in 1937 when the composer was only 21 years old. It reflects the aesthetics of his teacher, Aaron Copland, from a time when Copland was still writing interesting modern music and before he became the Folk music orchestrator” of the U.S.A. Despite Copland’s harmonic influence, it is full of Latin rhythms, which oddly enough were later subjugated in much of Ginastera’s music. Rameix really digs into it, playing it with tremendous energy and joie-de-vivre. It’s a good piece anyway, but he makes it sound like an exceptional one. The second movement, with its crazy-sounding fast chromatic passages, is particularly interesting.

We then proceed to Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4, which opens with a very Bach-like piece based on the older composer’s A Musical Offering. By the time he reaches the final “Danza,” however, he has clearly moved from Leipzig to Rio de Janeiro.

Following Villa-Lobos, we return to Ginastera for his Danzas argentinas. This is a mature work by the composer, and it shows: there is much greater subtlety in the writing as well as an even more daring use of chromatic and extended harmony—and yet, the third piece in this suite revisits the rumbling chromatics of the first piano sonata, adding some new twists to it. Then it’s back to Villa-Lobos for his Cicio brasileiro, a fine piece in a medium tempo in which the right hand plays a repeated lick while the left, in the bass range, transports us with an interesting melodic line interspersed with bass notes.

By the end of this suite, the join is really jumpin’ with Latin rhythms, thus me move right along to Moisés Moleiro’s peppy Jaropo, one of those happy little encore pieces that audiences just adore—and you’ll like it, too, with its moto perpetuo rhythm underneath very jolly Latin tunes on the top. After we get a little breather with the soft, elegant Mañanita caraqueña of Castellanos, we wrap things up with the one 19th-century composer on this disc, Heráclio Fernández, and his zippy little El Diablo suelto.

This is a fine recital balancing great art with entertainment, and Rameix handles both with charm and good taste. A really delightful recital!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Eaves Sings British Songs

cover CC9128

TAME CAT AND OTHER SONGS / HOLST: A Little Music. GOOSSENS: The Fan Song. BLISS: 2 Nursery Rhymes.* RUBBRA: In Dark Weather. DELIUS: Avant que tu ne t’en ailles. BRIDGE: Berceuse. COOKE: 3 Songs of Innocence.* HOLBROOKE: Tame Cat.* BRITTEN: Fish in the Unruffled Lakes. BUSH: Weaving Song. JACOB: 3 Songs.* MACONCHY: Take, O Take Those Lips Away. HOWELLS: Flood, McCABE: 3 Folk Songs* / Sylvia Eaves, sop; Courtney Kenny, pno; *Thea King, cl / Cameo Classics CC9128

This is one of those discs that is charming without trying or pretending to be deep. Nowhere online or in the booklet could I find a shred of information on soprano Sylvia Eaves, but she has a pretty little soubrette voice and terrible diction, the latter unfortunately par for the course among modern singers of any nationality. (At the start of the second song, the words are “A fan may talk,” but Eaves makes it sound like “A family dog.”) Since both the label and all the songs are British, I would assume that Eaves is British, too.

Several of the composers presented here are very fine ones, familiar to many, such as Holst, Bliss, Rubbra, Delius, Bridge, Cooke, Britten, Maconchy and McCabe. Eugene Goossens is a familiar name, but moreso as a conductor than as a composer. The others were new to me. All of the songs are perky and upbeat in tempo, and all three participants sing or play in an appropriately perky manner. I was especially charmed by the second of Arthur Bliss’ 2 Nursery Rhymes, “The Danedlion,” with its almost Renaissance melodic line and the perky, non-Renaissance lines played by clarinetist Thea King. But lady, if English is your first language, there’s really no excuse at all for such terrible diction. Even as far back as 1955 this was a complaint aired by Gwen Catley, one of the finest British coloratura sopranos of her time, who said that she couldn’t make out any of the words that singers sang, “neither the beginnings nor the ends of them.”

Fortunately, all of the song texts are printed in the booklet, which makes it possible to follow what Eaves is singing. This is a really lovely Sunday afternoon sort of recording, but it would surely be better if we could make out what she was singing. I was particularly delighted by the Delius song included here, with its Debussy-like harmonies.

But the real irony of this album is, despite being named Tame Cat and having a picture of a cat on the cover, the actual song of that title has nothing to do with cats. Here are the words:

It rests me to be among beautiful women
Why should one always lie about such matters?
I repeat:
It rests me to converse with beautiful women
Even though we talk nothing but nonsense,
The purring of the invisible antennae
Is both stimulating and delightful.

The End of Tame Cat.

I also liked the early Ben Britten song, Fish in the Unruffled Lakes, set to a poem by W.H. Auden.

Well, that’s about it. If you like a nice Sunday afternoon sort of disc, this one is good except for the singer’s garbled diction.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Kinga Augustyn is Turning in Time

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what a performanceCARTER: Four Lauds. BERIO: Sequenza VIII. PENDERECKI: Capriccio. BACEWICZ: Violin Sonata No. 2. YUN: Köngliches Thema. D. KAYE: Turning in Time / Kings Augustyn, vln / Centaur CRC 3836

Kinga Augustyn, a New York-based violinist who also gives lessons in addition to performing, presents here a program of some really serious modern music. This is clearly not a CD for Romantic music-loving wimps! The onesheet accompanying this CD has but one statement, that “Kinga Augustyn has a very strong presence in social media.”

As much as I enjoy modern music, however, I was a bit apprehensive when starting this CD because the first four tracks, taking up 15 minutes, are by Elliott Carter, who wrote some of the ugliest and most abrasive modern music of all time. Much to my surprise and delight, however, these pieces are more lyrical than usual for Carter (perhaps because they were written for the violin, an instrument with a more limited range than a piano and one given to lyricism) and Augustyn plays them with an absolutely gorgeous tone without sacrificing the occasional edginess in the music. Moreover, I found the pieces themselves to be more coherent than usual for Carter; they actually go somewhere and say something. Perhaps it also helped that the first two pieces were dedications to fellow composers who had passed away, Aaron Copland and Goffredo Petrassi, both of whom wrote in a more accessible style than Carter.

But make no mistake, Augustyn is a superb violinist, perhaps not as distinctive-sounding as Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg or Joshua Bell but clearly a major talent. She knows how to caress a phrase without making it sound too sugary, and she knows how to push the beat when called for without making it sound awkward or abrasive. To a certain extent, her playing reminded me of Josef Szigeti but with a more beautiful tone.

Indeed, the initial good impression she made at the very beginning of this program continued throughout the CD. I sat mesmerized by her playing; she is a wizard who casts a spell on her listeners, and if she can do this through the “cold” medium of a CD, just imagine how potent her playing is in live performance. In the last Carter piece, “Fantasy—Remembering Roger,” she makes her violin getup and dance, and baby, if you can make your violin dance to a tune by Elliott Carter, that’s saying something!

She continues this lyrical approach even in the very non-lyrical Sequenza III of Luciano Berio, beginning with a continuous series of close chords and drone effects that vary only slightly in pitch through the opening statement, with occasional fast passages thrown in for color, like a hoedown at a nervous breakdown. (Who says I can’t come up with colorful analogies?!?) I also found it interesting that in spite of the odd effects that Berio calls for in this piece, she managed to maintain her beauty of tone no matter what without softening the impact of the music. That’s some kind of bow control! Moreover, this control continues in the middle section, where she is called upon to alternate a sort of repeated moto perpetuo figure in 16ths while interjecting sharp, abrasive downbow chords without interrupting that flow of 16ths. You GO, girl!!!

Just as Augustyn plays Carter in a way that makes the music attractive without sacrificing vitality, so too does she play Penderecki, another composer I am usually less than fond of. In her hands, his Capriccio, here receiving its first-ever recording, is a fascinating piece of rapidly contrasting moods and figures, energetic and with a few strange, wild, upper-range fast figures to add interest. She is a wizard of her instrument.

The other Polish composer represented here is the great, and still underrated, Grażyna Bacewicz. Augustyn’s performance of the Solo Violin Sonata No. 2 is, I think, even a little better than the excellent recording by Annabelle Bertomé-Reynolds on Muso because Augustyn’s lyrical phrasing is just a bit more rhapsodic. Since Bacewicz was herself a violin virtuoso, I think she’d be as thrilled by this performance as I was.

Isang Yun’s Köngliches Thema, based on a melody from J.S. Bach’s A Musical Offering, is a fascinating piece that bridges the Baroque with the modern, something that I’m always a little surprised that more living composers do not attempt. Yun took the music places where Bach did not tread, but had he not been as hidebound to musical tradition as he was he might have attempted a few of these variants. The program ends with Debra Kaye’s Turning in Time, another first recording. Although a good piece, it is not quite as arresting or innovative as those which preceded it—the development section struck me as somewhat ordinary and predictable—but Augustyn holds your interest simply because she is such a master musician.

I don’t know whether or not this is Augustyn’s first CD, but it is clearly a firm musical statement by a musician who is not only committed to playing modern composers but also an absolutely first-rate technician. She goes straight to the top of my favorite living violinists, and you can be assured that I will be on the lookout for further releases by her. If this album had been released by EMI, I would nominate it for a Great Recordings of the Century designation.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The Arcadia Quartet Plays Weinberg

cover CHAN 20158

WEINBERG: String Quartets Nos. 2, 5 & 8 / Arcadia Quartet / Chandos 20158

Between 2006 and 2009, the French-based Quatuor Danel recorded all 17 of Mieczysław Weinberg’s quirky, often melancholy string quartets for CPO in sterling performances that won awards and were all highly praised by critics (including me). Now the Arcadia Quartet, formed in Romania but now headquartered in Great Britain, is embarking on a series of their own, of which this disc is Vol. 1.

Comparing the two groups in these same quartets shows some differences in both sound and interpretation. Quatuor Danel is typically French-sounding, with bright, pointed yet lean string sonorities. Their playing is crisp and forward-moving even in the slow movements without, I rush to add, sacrificing any emotional commitment to the music.

By contrast, the Arcadia Quartet has a decidedly warmer sound which is heightened by the equally warm acoustic of these recordings. They also milk the quartets more for emotion by using slightly slower tempi in every movement of each quartet, though not enough to dampen the work’s structure. Perhaps the best example of their differences comes in the slow first movement of Quartet No. 5. Quatuor Danel plays it at a slightly quicker tempo (5:55 compared to Arcadia’s 6:15) but does not gloss over the melancholy quality of the music—in fact, if anything, in this movement they seem to dig a little bit deeper than their Romanian-British counterparts—yet the Arcadia Quartet’s performance sounds like the same tempo because they use a bit more vibrato and thus are able to sustain the long notes with a more beautiful sound.

But then move ahead to the second-movement “Humoreska” and you’ll hear a big difference. The Arcadia Quartet plays it considerably slower than Danel (6:04 compared to 5:37), and at that tempo the humorous quality of this Humoresque dissolves into softer contours and less rhythmic accents. They sound as if they’re laboring slightly, making a lumpy, slow polka out of this quick, funny little movement.

I realize that this is simply one movement in three quartets, but it sums up my feeling about the whole set and, by inference, to any succeeding releases to come, not to mention the big question, “Why did Chandos bother?” The complete series of Weinberg quartets runs six CDs; Weinberg, even in England where Gidon Kremer did his best to generate interest in the composer during his centenary year (2019) and Mirga Gražinyté-Tyla has conducted and recorded Weinberg, simply does not sell to a mass market. His music is just too quirky, non-“tuneful” and often melancholy for the average listener to relate to (except for some of the pre-war works, like the first two quartets, and his comic opera Wir Gratulieren!). But I know the British. They just LOVE soft, warm, gooshy performances of classical music, thus I expect that both Gramophone and BBC Music will gush over these recordings. As for me, I’ll stick with Quatuor Danel, but at least now you know what these new recordings sound like. They’re certainly not bad by any means, but they miss much of Weinberg’s quirky, sometimes black humor.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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