The Music of Thierry Eschaich

 

 

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ESCHAICH: La Piste des Chants / Orchestre et Chœur Philharmonique de Radio France / Visions Nocturnes / unidentified mezzo; Jessica Bessac, cl; Sanja Bizjak, pno; Quatuor Ellipse / Cris / Laurent Gaudé, narr; Chœur de Radio France; Trio KDM; Ensemble Nomos / Radio France FRF055

Thierry Eschaich (b. 1965) is a French organist and composer who has, according to Wikipedia, “written more than a hundred works, awarded with the Prix des Lycéens (2002), the Grand Prix de la Musique symphonique from the SACEM in 2004, and on three occasions, in 2003, 2006 and 2011, the French Victoires de la Musique Composer of the Year award.” This was my first exposure to his work.

Judging from the opening work, La Piste des Chants which is based on a Navajo ritual, he writes in an essentially lyric style but with a shifting and often atonal harmonic base. This particular piece also uses percussion in interesting ways, partly to propel the music but here, too, things are constantly shifting. Just when you think you have the meter worked out, it changes on you and you get a bit disoriented. Sharp interjections of brass and winds cross the aural landscape like fighter jets descending during a war; the choral lines are the most lyrical in the sense of having a legato line but of course are also harmonically complex, as are the lines for the strings. There are moments in this work reminiscent of Holst’s Neptune the Mystic from The Planets.

Much of this music is quite original and at times (as around the 8:28 mark) quite complex, but stylistically it fits neatly into the “edgy-shocking” style that is all the rage nowadays among younger composers. After a while, I felt that La Piste des Chants really didn’t go anywhere though the journey was somewhat interesting. The music is clever but only clever.

By contrast, Visions Nocturnes is a quiet chamber work for clarinet, piano and string quartet that also includes someone chanting a few words. (Since I had to procure these sound clips from YouTube, I was not provided a booklet and so have no idea what the words are about. The speaker (a woman) later breaks into song, in French. I was completely lost although I did discover, online, that the text is “based on poetic texts inspired by the night of Good Friday and the Descent from the Cross by Rubens – the spiritual meaning of the painting, but also its colour variations.” OK, so it’s religious nonsense. The music becomes edgy-shocking as it goes along. A mezzo-soprano is noted as being part of this track on the CD inlay, but there is no name. She is not identified, and clairvoyance is just not one of my job skills.

Cris, another edgy work, features a narration by French playwright Laurent Gaudé. The orchestration consists of an accordion, eight cellos, two percussionists and chorus. I’m sure that I would be able to understand what is going on better if there was only a booklet or some liner notes online that I could read or download, but this is the state of many classical CDs nowadays. The producers really don’t give a crap who listens to or understands this music; it’s just thrown out into the ether with only minimal explanation and you have to fend for yourself.

I did, however, learn that Cris is a play by Gaude. I used Google Translate to decipher what it was about: “From the depths of the Verdun trenches rise the voices of Marius, Jules, Rénier, Ripoll, M. Bossolo, brothers in arms throwing their lives into the ebb and flow of assaults, haunted by the cries of the pigman , this soldier gone mad, lost between the two front lines.” Whoop de doo. And the clown is crying, and no one knows why.

If you speak French you will surely get more out of this disc than I did, but since I don’t I was lost much of the time. It might be nice if they identified the mezzo, however.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The Piano Music of de Hartmann

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2021 winnerDE HARTMANN: 3 Morceau, Op. 4: Nos. 2 & 3. 3 Preludes, Op. 11. 12 Russian Fairy Tales. Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. 2 Nocturnes. 6 Pieces, Op. 7: Nos. 1, 5, 6. Forces of Love and Sorcery: Divertissement. Humoresque Viennoise. Lumière Noire. Musique pour la fête de la patronne. / Elan Sicroff, pno / Nimbus Alliance NI6409

de Hartmann & Kandinsky 1911

De Hartmann, far right, and Kandinsky, sitting on the bucket in front. The others are identified in the lower left-hand corner.

Thomas de Hartmann (1885-1956) is one of those shadowy figures in classical music. His name is bandied about because of his relationship with Vassily Kandinsky, the famed synesthesia painter, and his mid-1910s publication The Blue Rider in which he encouraged famous composers to contribute works, but his music is often unheard and unknown. Pianist Elan Sicroff was lucky enough to have met and worked with de Hartmann’s widow in the 1970s and gave concerts of his music in the early 1980s. These recordings, made in 2016, have been licensed by Nimbus from the “Wyastone estate,” but there is no indication whether or not these are all first recordings.

A friend of the Theosophist mystic George Gurdjieff, de Hartmann  began as a Romantic (he studied composition with Anton Arensky). I’ve heard that his orchestral music (he wrote four symphonies) is more modern, but trying to find recordings of them—even live recordings, one-time performances—is difficult. He apparently went from “hero to zero” even during his lifetime; by the time he died, his music was marginalized by the classical establishment.

Elan Sicroff

Elan Sicroff

Yet although de Hartmann himself was not a synethesiac, his music appealed greatly to Kandinsky, who heard a great many colors in it. Many of the pieces on this 2-CD set are actually quite good, i.e. the “Impromptu” of the 3 Morceau and “Verlioka the Monster” in the 12 Russian Fairy Tales—in fact, many of the Fairy Tales are indeed imaginative and interesting (I especially liked “Baba Yaga the Witch Goes Galloping Through the Forest”)—and Sicroff is a fine pianist who brings out the best in each work on this set.

Indeed, I found that de Hartmann’s music falls into two categories: the early pieces from 1899 to about 1910, which are ultra-Romantic, and the works written from 1937 onward, which are nearly as creative and original as those of his contemporary Nikolai Medtner (but less technically difficult to play). The 1915 Divertissements lay somewhere in between these two worlds. The Piano Sonata No. 1 from 1942 even seemed, in addition to pentatonic scales, to contain some neo-Classical devices borrowed from Stravinsky, and by the time you reach the 2 Nocturnes of 1953, de Hartmann is really on a strange space trip. In the second of these, subtitled “The banality of life that cannot be conquered by man,” he even indulges in some “backwards” rhythms that seem to syncopate against one another. Beam me up, Scotty!

The Humoresque from 1931, subtitled Hommage à Johann Strauss, picks apart, transposes and reorganizes elements of that composer’s Blue Danube Waltz, shifting it to a 4/4 ragtime-jazz rhythm. Again, something weird, but not as bizarre as his Lumière noire from 1945, which is already an advance on the 1942 Piano Sonata No. 1 and a step towards the “spacey” music of his later years. There are also some jazz syncopations in the third piece of the Lumière noire, titled “Allegro giocoso e molto ritmico.” Also quirky, and interesting, are the “dance” pieces in his 1947 Musique pour la fête de la patronne (after Dégas), little atonal gems.

We end this particular excursion into de Hartmann’s music with his second Piano Sonata of 1951, another piece using pentatonic scales but this time shifting them harmonically both upwards and downwards. I really wonder if de Hartmann was thinking in terms of a sonata when he wrote these pieces, as their form is more that of a free fantasia, with themes that are juxtaposed rather than developed.

Nonetheless. this is a fine introduction to de Hartmann’s music and a valuable contribution to the history of 20th-century music.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Catriona Morison’s First Lieder Recital

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GRIEG: 6 Lieder, Op. 48. BRAHMS: Dein blaues Auge. Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer. Mädchenlied. Sapphische Ode. Alte Liebe. Junge Lieder I: Meine Liebe ist grün. J. LANG: Scheideblick. Ob ich manchmal dein gedenke. Die Schwalben. Gestern und Heute. Mignons Klage. Abschied. SCHUMANN: Sechs Gedichte von N. Lenau und Requiem, Op. 90 / Catriona Morison, mezzo-sop; Malcolm Martineau, pno / Linn CKD637

The photo on the cover of this album shows a very serious young woman staring at you with eyes that can burn into your soul. Young Scottish mezzo-soprano Catriona Morison is evidently a very serious artist, and as a woman I applaud her for NOT succumbing to the “sex symbol cheesecake” photo shoots that too often show up on CD covers, often (in my view) demeaning and debasing the serious artist whose work is being presented.

This album is being marketed as her “debut recording,” but she has already made a record: Ethel Smyth’s Mass in D, the excellent new Chandos version conducted by Sakari Oramo. It is, however, her first solo disc and her first lieder recital.

Morison has a clear, bright voice with laser-like focus. It is not a plummy mezzo at all though she clearly has a mezzo range (listen to the beginning of the second song); the timbre is attractive with just a touch of the “bitter orange” quality so often ascribed to Pauline Viardot-Garcia. In short, it is a very interesting instrument, intelligently handled and using quite a bit of nuance when the music calls for it.

And she obviously enjoys singing. You can hear it all through this recital, but particularly in the nice but somewhat lightweight Grieg songs. Her natural enthusiasm makes much more of them than most singers manage to do. Her diction is clear and understandable at all times (hallelujah!) and she has a fine technique: note the clean turns in the fourth Grieg song, “Die verschweigene Nachtigall.” Here, she shows that she can also float tones when needed.

Morison also does a fine job on the Brahms songs, bringing a certain intimacy to them that is not always done nowadays. Of course, she is ably aided throughout this recital by Malcolm Martineau, one of the finest accompanists of our day, and that helps a lot as well.

Following the Brahms songs are six by the little-known Josephine Lang (1815-1880) and, although her composing style was not highly original it was by no means negligible. In fact, if you weren’t paying attention to the track listing while the CD was playing, you’d think these were early Brahms songs, although Mignons Klage has an interesting construction. Yet a lot of the impression these songs make come from Morison’s excellent programming, putting them between Brahms and Schumann, and some of it comes from her complete absorption of the music and lyrics. She is the kind of singer who can make a strong impression even when she is singing subtly; that’s how good an artist she is.

Morison ends her recital with Schumann’s 6 Poems of Nicholas Lenau & Requiem, starting with a nice version of the “Lied eines Schmedes: and going on from there. Though these songs are generally sung by a baritone, she does an excellent job of them.

There seems to me no question that we have a new lieder star on the horizon. Catriona Morison can sing, she can interpret, and her voice is unique and distinctive. Add it all up, and you have a real winner in this disc.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Trio Casals Plays Modern Works

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HETZ: Sarajevo Cellist. SCHROEDER: Glimmer. PATERNITI: Notturno / Ovidiu Marinescu, cel; Anna Kislitsyna, pno / KRAMER: Vanishing Perspectives / Marinescu, cel / BRIDGES: 3 Caprices / Alexandr Kislitsyn, vln; Marinescu, cel / HAWKES: Bright Hair, Falling. BILOTTA: Beauty From Forgetfulness. D. JONES: Crooked Lake. K. PRICE: Heliotrope. M. COHEN: Monday Morning / Trio Casals (unless otherwise noted) / Navona NV6341

Here the Trio Casals (and their component members) play the music of 10 little-known modern composers. It opens in somewhat dramatic fashion with Matthew Hetz’ Sarajevo Cellist, a neat little bitonal piece about eight minutes long. Hetz uses a running, single-note line in the piano to start with as the cellist alternates between lyrical melodic lines and a few edgy passages. Later on, the piano plays downward cascades of notes in the right hand as the cellist moves into his lower register. This is, however, only the first movement of the piece; the remainder is not yet recorded.

Pierre Schroeder’s Glimmer is a piece in the same vein but a slightly different style, based on an original poem by the composer. I found this piece to be a bit rambling, however, not as well structured as the first.

Timothy Kramer describes his piece Vanishing Perspectives for amplified cello as being “commissioned by cellist Craig Hultgren in 2003 and premiered in 2005. After considering many of the new innovations and new works written for solo cello, I realized that I wanted to write a piece that would readdress the cello’s more traditional role as a robust and singing baritone instrument. I thought that perspective was vanishing in much of the new music I was seeing, especially for an instrument that is tuned in fifths, often plays bass lines, and has such a strong tradition of playing tonal music.” It’s a very interesting piece, however, simply one that uses the cello more as a percussive than a lyrical instrument. (I can just hear my cat Cleo, who hates modern music, complaining, “Pablo Casals would never have played this crazy stuff!”)

By contrast, John Hawkes’ Bright Hair, Falling is a rather lyrical piano trio with incidental edgy moments. Despite its title, the composer’s notes indicate that much of the music refers to water cascading, and you can hear this clearly in the way he writes the piece. It often resembles splashing water in its musical references.

David T. Bridges’ 3 Caprices are just that, short little works titled “Playful,” “Fickle” and “Jazzy,” using the violin and cello in intriguing ways while John B. Bilotta’s Beauty From Forgetfulness is a deceptive piece, sounding simple but actually qute complex with some tricky little passages in it. This is followed by Christian Paterniti’s lovely Notturno, which contains some interesting and dramatic twists and turns.

Diane Jones’ Crooked Lake is one of the quirkiest yet most original pieces on this set, opening with cello portamenti which sometimes go out of tonality. Light violin pizzicato is added before then using silence and space between notes to make its effect. A lovely piece that doesn’t sound sappy or cloying. Katherine Price’s Heliotrope is built around a 6/8 rhythm played by the piano while the two strings play more sustained, lyrical figures above it.

We end our excursion with Michael Cohen’s Monday Morning, a piece that I found surprisingly cheerful to describe one of the most awful days of the work week. The composer states that he wanted to capture the “excitement and almost frantic quality of the new week and the commuter off to work.” Personally, I can’t recall a single job I ever had in my life where I really enjoyed going off to work except one, and that was, alas, a part-time job that didn’t start on a Monday.

I was really surprised (and delighted) by the quality of nearly all of the music on this set, the high level of playing and the trio’s excellent sense of programming. Seldom, in recent years, have I heard a CD of new music as consistently interesting, and not insulting to my intelligence, as this one.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Daniel Behle Sings “Un-erhört” Strauss

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STRAUSS: Winterweihe. Winterliebe. Waldseligkeit. Traum durch die dämmerung. Der Schmetterling. Morgenrot. Gesänge des Orients. Krämerspiegel / Daniel Behle, ten; Oliver Schnyder, pno / Prospero Classics PROSP011

Just to let you in a little bit into the life of an independent music reviewer like me: it took me forever to find the tracks from this album to review it. To begin with, though it was listed in the Naxos New Release guide for March 19/26, nothing—not even the cover—was available for download on their website for reviewers. Then, when I requested a hard copy of the CD to review, I was told that Prospero Classics does not provide reviewer copies. So I was up the proverbial feces creek without a paddle.

The good news is that I finally found the tracks from this album on YouTube for free streaming. The bad news is that, according to what I’ve seen online, Prospero Classics is famous for their lavish CD booklets and packaging, but I got none of that. Just the audio tracks and an image of the cover.

Happily, tenor Daniel Behle is one of the most interesting and versatile artists around, a man with a really lovely voice, excellent diction and expression, and an appetite for music ranging from the Classical era to the Neo-Classic (Stravinsky), so virtually everything he records is high on my wish list to review.

Without the booklet, I’m a little bit puzzled as to what is “Un-erhört” or “Unheard” about these Strauss songs. All have been recorded before, and in fact Behle had already recorded the first four tracks on this new disc elsewhere with the same pianist.

Oddly, I had never heard any of Behle’s lieder recordings prior to this release. From an interpretive standpoint, he is quit good, almost but not quite as excellent as the late Peter Schreier, but insofar as tenors went, Schreier was the gold standard for decades despite his somewhat “sandpapery” timbre. Behle has, as we all know, a lovely voice although I heard a bit of unsteadiness in his lower range; everything from the middle on up was solid. If I had to compare him to a past German tenor vocally, it would probably be Peter Anders, who unfortunately is not as well known as many others because he died in an accident in the early 1950s, but except for his marvelous Winterreise Anders was no match for Behle as a lied interpreter. He treats us to some exquisite head voice in Waldseligkeit the likes of which I’ve not heard in many years, and in Morgenrot one hears, (as in other songs as well) how perfectly he blends his head register into the voice—no breaks, everything seamless.

Although none of this music is “unheard,,” the two cycles Gesäng des Orients and Krämerspiegel are not very common. I have both in the marvelous set of Strauss’ complete works for voice and piano put together by Brigitte Fassbarnder for the Two Pianist label, and in both Behle is head and shoulders above tenors Jeongkon Choi in the former and Brenden Gunnell in the latter. They sound like promising up-and-coming artists, but Behle is the master class teacher. Just listen to the last song in this cycle, “Huldigung,” and marvel at Behle’s vocal control. I admit that I haven’t heard every modern-day tenor, but I seriously doubt that he has any serious competition as both a vocalist AND an interpreter.

The latter cycle is probably Strauss’ most fanciful and least often performed, the lyrics having to do with the adventures and antics of a goat and a hare, although in the seventh song the poet, Alfred Kerr, warns us that “Our enemy is, please God, both the Briton and the Scot. He has stretched some innocents on the rack.” (This would never fly in today’s PC world.) The former cycle has more conventional lyrics about one’s beloved, and the melodic-harmonic construction of these songs is some of Strauss’ finest, recalling the exquisite subtleties of his late opera, Daphne (in my view, the only really inspired music he wrote after parts of Der Rosenkavalier). The music in Krämerspiegel ranges from artistic (the very complex and modern-sounding “Drei Masken sah ich am Himmel stehe” and “Es war mal eine Wanze”) to popular tunes (especially the gay waltz song “Einst kamm der Bock als Bote”) and is a lot of fun. In some of the songs, particularly “Unser Fein dist grosser Gott,” Behle himself has fun, doing a bit of scenery-chewing while singing the lyrics.

No two ways about it, you have to chalk this CD up as another triumph for Behle. If you like Strauss songs, you really should get this CD, and if you’re an aspiring young tenor you should get it as a sort of portable master class in how to manage the tenor voice.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Maskuniitty’s Excellent Horn Adventure

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SCHUMANN: Konzertstuck for 4 Horns & Orchestra.* Adagio & Allegro (orch. Ansermet). SAINT-SAËNS: Morceau de concert. GLIÈRE; Horn Concerto / Markus Maskuniitty, Fr-hn; *add Martin Schöpfer, Kristofer Öberg, Monica Berenguer, Fr-hn; Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orch.; Sakari Oramo, cond / Ondine ODE 1339-2

I would be remiss if I didn’t give big thank-you to David Hurwitz, executive editor of Classics Today, for alerting me to this CD via a YouTube video. (Hurwitz also hipped me to the excellent Charles Munch box set issued by Decca, which includes a ton of his early recordings with the Paris Conservatoire, Concertgebouw and London Philharmonic Orchestras as well as his greatest recording of the Berlioz Requiem, a stupendously-recorded Deutsche Grammophon production from 1967.) I was stunned to learn that this CD came out in 2019, because I would swear that it wasn’t in the Naxos New Release guides for that year. I would surely have reviewed a new CD of the Schumann Konzertstuck had I noticed it.

Maskuniitty is a Finnish horn player and, in my view, the finest new hornist to come along since Marie Luise Neunecker when she went from orchestra player to soloist around the late 1980s-early ‘90s. Folks, this guy has IT, and that IT is a bright, open tone along with a real “kick” to his playing. I get so sick and tired of listening to modern day horn players with their hands stuck so far into the bell that their tone is constantly muffled. Maskuniitty, thankfully, will have none of that and I am all the more grateful to him because of it.

Of course, the Konzertstuck depends on four good horn players, not just one, and somehow Maskuniity and his conductor, Sakari Oramo, have come up with three more on the same level as Maskuniitty. Where have they been hiding?? Come on, guys, barge your way into some other recording sessions and let’s hear you, all of you!

But once past the Konzertstuck, this is Maskuniitty’s show, and a fine one it is. My sole caveat was that he (and Oramo) played the “Adagio” in the Schumann Adagio & Allegro a bit too slowly, but he more than made up for it with a real kick-ass “Allegro.”

Neither the Saint-Saëns Morceau de concert nor the Reinhold Glière Horn Concerto are exactly over-recorded, possibly because they’re not big fan favorites but also possibly because there aren’t many horn players out there who get as involved with the music as Maskuniitty does here. Omigod, just listen to the final “Allegro non troppo” in the Saint-Saëns! The way he rips through it put me in mind of Barry Tuckwell (who I got to hear in person once), except that Maskuniitty has a much more consistent tone. (In case you forgot or didn’t know, Tuckwell played a “Frankenhorn,” welding the bell of a Conn – to give him a bigger sound – onto the body of a Holton, which gave him better technical control.)

The Glière is typical of that composer, overly-Romantic and only minimally interesting as music, and is thus the least interesting piece on the CD. If Maskuniitty had some of Dennis Brain’s poetic phrasing to go along with his dazzling technique it might have come off a bit better, but bombastic Romantic crap is bombastic Romantic crap, thus this will surely be the piece I play least often on this CD, though I doubt that any latter-day horn player could do it any better than Maskuniitty does here. I mean, he even plays chords (the horn plays one note while the player hums another) in the first-movement cadenza.

But he’s clearly a virtuoso of his instrument and he plays with a bright tone and enthusiasm, so go for it. You won’t be disappointed.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Ensemble Next Parallel Goes Around the World

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KHACHATURIAN: Trio in G min. MILHAUD: Suite for Clarinet, Violin & Piano. SCHICKELE: Serenade for Three. HENRY: Trio No. 2 / Ensemble Next Parallel: Yevgeny Dorkshansky, cl; Enrique Reynosa, vln; Anna Nizhegorodtseva, pno / Heritage HTGD 170

According to the notes, the idea behind this CD was to “highlight the trajectory of the clarinet, violin and piano trio repertoire of the 20th century with a bridge into the future of the 21st century. This CD takes listeners around the world with the music of the composers from Armenia, France, America, and finally to the islands of Trinidad and Tobago.”

We start out with Aram Khachaturian’s trio in G minor, written when the composer was only 29 years old. It’s a piece typical of this composer, lyrical in a Slavic manner with strong rhythms, evident even in the slow movement that opens the piece. The Ensemble plays it with excellent energy, getting under the skin of the music and making more of it than it appears on paper. This music is harmonically subtler than many of Khachaturian’s orchestral works, slyly sliding into neighboring tonalities and back again. One thing I like about this trio is that they work to make their diverse instruments fit together in sound, something that not many groups with a violin and a clarinet bother to do. The second movement begins with a fast, steady rhythm but almost immediately eases up to allow the clarinet a melodic solo, around which the violin plays both pizzicato and bowed and the piano plays up in the treble register. The tempo picks up again at the 2:20 mark for the finish of the movement, following which is a slightly melancholy-sounding “Moderato” finale with very Eastern harmonies. at 4:35, the tempo picks up to a brisk “Allegro” as the trio rides it out.

Darius Milhaud’s Suite, written in 1936, begins in a surprisingly polite vein for a man who so often pushed the envelope in his compositions. The music is simple, melodic and attractive, albeit with some interesting harmonic touches that tell you it’s not really a late Romantic work. The second-movement “Animé” opens at a brisk 6/8 tempo but with some modifications here and there, including dips into a straight 4. The third movement, taken in 4, is short, brisk and lively, while the fourth begins with a slow introduction before moving into a cute, medium-fast little French jig.

Next up is a composer whose name everyone knows, Peter Schickele, who in his alter ego plays the Spike Jones of the classical world, P.D.Q. Bach. This, too, is one of his more playful and less serious works, a delightful trio that includes a few allusions to jazz rhythm, particularly in the first movement with its jaunty, serrated melodic lines. The second movement, slow and moody, opens with the piano playing single notes like spaced-out raindrops over which the violin and clarinet play a bittersweet melody. This movement ends quietly and plaintively, followed by the boisterous “Variations” in which Schickele pulls out all the stops. There’s even a passage for the violin that sounds like a hoedown, and one for the piano in boogie-woogie style.

We end our little excursion with the trio by Roger J. Henry, a composer from Trinidad and Tobago who wrote this work for this trio (this is its first recording), yet the first movement sounds, if anything, more Hebraic than Caribbean, with a slow, plaintive melody which leans towards the minor with a major-key bridge and a lively second section also in the minor, where the variations ensue…although, starting at the 3:40 mark, some of the rhythms become fairly complex. It’s in the second movement that one hears a real Caribbean beat, played to perfection by the trio. There’s even a touch of the cha-cha in this piece, as well as a surprising touch of Chopin at the 2:47 mark. The third movement is a bittersweet little waltz, while the fourth and last is a playful little rhumba.

All in all, then, not a deep album but a very entertaining one. All of the music is well written despite its light character, and Ensemble Next Parallel plays everything with sparkle.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The BPM Trio Steps Forth

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WARREN-DUBIN: Summer Night. MONK: Bright Mississippi. HARRIS: Just Open Your Heart. ROLLINS: Airegin. GARNER: Misty. BURNETT-NORTON: My Melancholy Baby. DWYER: Narcolypso / BPM Trio: Ben Dwyer, bs; Phil Dwyer, t-sax/pno; Mark Adam, dm / Chronograph Records CR090 (live: Moncton & Sackville, 2016)

This is the debut album of the BPM Trio, a Canadian group headed by Phil Dwyer on tenor sax and piano, his son Ben on bass and Mark Adam on drums. Phil Dwyer originally studied law, but somehow fit in concerts “here and there on Canada’s East Coast,” creating this trio. These recordings are drawn from concerts given in Moncton and Sackville, both in New Brunswick, which were hosted by Canadian jazz legend Roland Bourgeois.

Ordinarily I pass up albums that seem to me to be ordinary straightahead jazz, but the BPM Trio is really an interesting group. Phil Dwyer is a lyrical saxist with an appetite for a wide range of jazz styles from traditional to (somewhat) modern, and his son Ben is really an interesting bassist with big ears who can not only accompany his father but create his own lines, both underneath the sax and in his own solos. In addition, Adam is a creative drummer who breaks up the beat and accents perfectly without ever getting in the way of the others.

The album’s title, “Audi Alteram Partem,” comes from the legal principle whereby all sides be heard and accorded a fair right to reply. This is clearly the principle on which this trio is based, and I found it interesting to hear Dwyer play piano on Thelonious Monk’s Bright Mississippi in a style that seemed closer to Professor Longhair than to Monk yet still do justice to that jazz legend’s quirky way with rhythm. Trying to describe their playing in words is actually pretty difficult, not because I can’t follow what they’re doing but because they all do it their own way and yet manage to make everything synchro-mesh. All of their playing is uncluttered yet, when you put all three together, the finished product is akin to a very complex composition that simply includes improvisation as part of its structure.

Barry Harris’ Just Open Your Heart is the vehicle for more of Phil’s piano, this time in a slightly more conventional style but still interesting. His first improvised chorus is full of double-time figures yet comes back to the standard 4 feeling while son Ben plays fine walking bass behind him. In his solo, Ben D. channels Charles Mingus a bit, playing a lick from one of his tunes (my memory is playing me tricks today, but I think it’s from All the Things You Could Be if Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother). On Sonny Rollins’ Airegin Dwyer returns to the tenor sax, first playing somewhat minimal figures as the bass and drums play up a storm behind him, then getting into some more complex figures as he continues. Adam’s press rolls are particularly impressive on this track. At the very end they double the tempo for a dazzling coda.

Erroll Garner’s Misty is rearranged by Dwyer into a piece with broken rhythms despite its instantly recognizable melody. Parts of it seem to be in 10/4, other parts in even more fractured time. Just don’t break you leg tying to tap your toes to it. the drums fall away for Ben Dwyer’s excellent bass solo with dad playing soft piano fills. In Phil’s solo he tosses a lick in from the song next up on the program, My Melancholy Baby. Then when they get to Melancholy Baby, with Phil on tenor again, they play it straight for a while but then take that baby apart and toss out around to see what makes it tick. Adam gets some really great drum breaks on this one, and Phil later takes that baby outside and throws it up in the air to see where it lands.

The set wraps up with a Dwyer original Narcolypso, quite obviously based on Rollins’ St. Thomas. At around the 2:40 mark, however, Dwyer really starts pushing the envelope and playing some wild, outside jazz guaranteed to startle the average Caribbean islander out of his or her wits. Adam’s drums push the rhythm around like a bully in a jam session before Phil returns to ride the tune out in a more conventional manner.

This is a really fun album, well worth hearing.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Petri & Friends Play “Territorial Songs”

Final Sunleif Cover

2021 winnerRASMUSSEN: Flow.1 “I”.2 Sorrow and Joy Fantasy. Winter Echoes.3 Territorial Songs, Concerto for Recorder & String Orchestra 4 / Michala Petri, rec; 1Esbjerg String Trio; 2Danish National Vocal Ens.; 3Lapland Chamber Orch., cond. Clemens Schuldt; 4Aalborg Symphony Orch., cond. Henrik Vagn Christensen / OUR Recordings 6.220674

One of the things I love about famed recorder player Michala Petri is that she has devoted a large part of her career to playing contemporary music. Oh yes, of course she loves J.S. and C.P.E. Bach – who doesn’t? – but sticking to Baroque composers has never been her thing.

Here she presents five works by Faroese composer Sunleif Rasmussen (1961 – ) written specifically for her, and they are utterly fascinating as well as original in style. The very first piece, Flow for recorder and string trio, features dance-like rhythms around a harmonically moving (and fluid) line for the recorder, creating an integrated piece in which the strings act more as percussive accompaniment than the standard legato-flow style. This sets the piece up as a quirky rhythmic ride which slows down near the end of the first movement, leading to the “Tranquillo” section…again with the strings playing rhythmic figures, this time in a soft pizzicato. Maybe the fact that Rasmussen hails from the Faroe Islands, a strange little group that lies halfway between Norway and Iceland, yet is an autonomous territory of Denmark, has something to do with it (he is certainly the first major classical composer I’ve ever seen or heard of from that part of the world), but in any case this music is très strange. Rasmussen clearly has his own thing going on here; his style owes more to Nordic folk tunes and yodeling songs than to the Prescribed Edgy Modern Music Formula pushed by all the music conservatories today.

And Petri, on this album anyway, is clearly acting as his “vocalist,” singing these weird and well-developed songs with her rich, full recorder tone. Rasmussen is  very lucky in this respect; he couldn’t have found a better interpreter for his music.

The third-movement “Rondeau” departs significantly from the folk feeling of the previous two movements. Here, the string trio’s harmonies are edgier and the rhythms stronger and more driving; Petri continues to play a somewhat melodic but modern top line, but she, too plays here with louder volume and in a strong rhythmic manner. There’s an odd stop in the music just before the two-minute mark where the meter changes a bit, but the music here remains asymmetric in meter and clearly outside of normal tonality, though it “touches base” now and then.

Territorial Songs for recorder and chamber choir, based on a poem by Inger Christensen, opens with Petri playing in the recorder’s low register. When the chorus enters, they are singing a bitonal melody which, again, uses unusual rhythms and meter. The text of the poem published in the booklet runs as follows:

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.”
Feather-wrapped union
You and a blackbird’s wing
Singing eveningtree jewel
The man’s camouflage in the bird
The bird’s clear vision in him
Natural flight Consciousness
I
I am the one who is watching
Twilight of bliss
Man and blackbird defeated
The drive at rest in both
Drinking with one heart
Singing with one beak
Closeup of entrenchment
I
I am the one who is outside
Unreal pain
Blackbird’s play and your voice
Relationship’s echo and evening
Listening to the man’s song
Grasping the bird’s speech
Calling Am I a woman
I
I am the one who is open

Since he is writing here for voices, Rasmussen uses a more legato style but does not entirely abandon his penchant for strong rhythms, and he is clever enough to contrast the rhythms of the chorus with the rhythms played by the recorder soloist. There’s a touch of both Stravinsky and Harry Partch in this work…unintentional, perhaps, but present just the same. And because of his unusual writing style, the music completely avoids the cloying, goopy sort of choral writing that is accepted formula in the classical establishment.

The Sorrow and Joy Fantasy for recorder solo begins as a surprisingly simple but haunting melody in D minor that resembles both a folk tune and a movement in a Baroque sonata. Perhaps this was Rasmussen’s intention, but in any case as the music develops and becomes more complex it sounds more and more Baroque. Baroque but happy! By the seven-minute mark, the music is so complex that Petri sounds as if she was playing two recorders simultaneously, and the following chorus is a real tour-de-force using tricky chromatic passages. Petri clearly shows why she is the world’s leading virtuoso of the recorder.

We next hear Winter Echoes for recorder and 13 solo strings, opening in a very edgy fashion as the basses grumble loudly, the upper strings carp with their sharp attacks and the recorder sort of meanders through it all, again in the low register. This is yet again in a very different style from any of the preceding works, and for that I give Rasmussen a lot of credit. It’s not easy nowadays to establish yourself as a noted composer and NOT stick to one style of composition as a sort of trademark, but Rasmussen has done this. He refuses to be boxed into just one style of composition. As the piece continues, we move into the higher strings, the basses disappear, the music becomes more rhythmic (but very asymmetrical) and the recorder continues to interject its little circular motifs on the evolving web of sound. A little before the six-minute mark, we drop to the cellos as well as dropping in tempo from allegro to moderato. It is here that the recorder part becomes somewhat more complex, developing its theme in unusual ways while lugubrious basses and celli and pizzicato violas and violins accompany it.

The final piece on this disc, Territorial Songs, is described as a concerto for recorder and orchestra. It opens with the sound of bells before the orchestra suddenly explodes in a brief but spirited atonal outburst, followed by the solo recorder playing its own little thing. Here again, Rasmussen has found yet another style and “voice” in which to compose. The music develops in quite complex ways, particularly in the subdued but important orchestral background which morphs and shifts continuously behind the recorder, suddenly assuming center stage around the 2:20 mark and building in intensity with staccato trumpets and slurring trombones inside a complex web of strings and winds. We then move without pause into the second movement, “Misterioso,” which sounded to me more complex and frenetic than mysterious.

In the next movement, “Espressivo,” Rasmussen uses staccato trumpets in the manner of a big band arranger. The basses grumble menacingly while the middle strings and winds roil around behind the now-staccato interjections of the solo recorder. But it is the next movement, “Tranquillo,” which is the strangest piece yet on the album, a sort of fragmented rhythmic romp for the recorder, part of which sounds distorted as if she were playing it into an electronic device. This is followed by “Leggiero” which is anything but: a violent outburst by the strings in a ferocious-sounding rhythmic assault on one’s nervous system. (I wonder if they’re dropping some bad acid in the Faroe Islands, ha ha!)

All of the pieces on this CD are fascinating, well-written and highly original works covering a range of styles and moods. Both FLOW and the Sorrow and Joy Fantasy are world premiere recordings. This is one of those discs you’ll listen to over and over again.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Ruders’ Classical Accordion Music

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RUDERS: Sound and Simplicity.* Serenade on the Shores of the Cosmic Ocean: VII. Dream Catcher (arr. Mogensen) / Bjarke Mogensen, acc; *Odense Symphony Orch.; Sebastian Lang-Lessing, cond / Symphony No. 3, “Dream Catcher” / Odense Symphony Orch.; Scott Yoo, cond / Bridge 9553

Bridge continues its excellent Poul Ruders series with this new release—well, half-new, anyway. This performance of Ruders’ Third Symphony was previously released on Bridge 9382, but it fits in here because it follows Mogensen’s 4 ½-minute performance of Dream Catcher, which the symphony is based on.

I’ve had nothing but compliments for anything I’ve ever heard on CD by Ruders—his music is not only consistently excellent but varied in scope and style—and the opener, Sound and Simplicity, is no exception. But is it just my imagination that over the past two to three years there seems to be a flurry of modern classical works written for the accordion, once considered almost a “toy” instrument? Granted, it’s capable of a lot more than the harmonica or autoharp since it has two opposing keyboards, and here Mogensen, a real virtuoso of the instrument, is playing the original European version which has buttons on both sides of the bellows and not the piano keyboard developed by Pietro Deiro, Sr. in the early 20th century.

Sound and Simplicity, subtitled “Seven Pillars of Music for Accordion and Symphony Orchestra,” was written in 2018. As the composer puts it in the liner notes, “four out of the seven movements are very simple (as in the absence of any structural and metric complexity), yet somehow the music makes a strong emotional impact, as most of Ruders’ music does.  Plus there’s something in the way he uses the accordion, almost as a mini-orchestra within the orchestra (one might almost say like a Sinfonia concert ante) that surprises and delights the listener from start to finish. In fact much (but not all) of the writing for the accordion is not so much technically difficult as just odd in meter and atmospheric, but there’s something magical in the way Ruders sometimes combines the high register of the accordion with the high winds and strings of the orchestra to create a sort of combined sound. As in the case of most amorphic music, a technical description is difficult without a score to consult, but this is clearly an outstanding piece. The fourth section, titled “Smoke” finds the soloist playing some very atonal passages with a “smeared” sound (something the accordion does very well, since it is a “soft” instrument and not one with a percussive ring) and these, too, are eventually blended into the orchestral texture.

When I say that Mogensen is playing the European version of the accordion, one should bear in mind that this model is closer related to the bandonéon and concertina. This means that although the sound produced using buttons in the right hand sounds similar to the piano accordion invented by Deiro, it is not entirely identical. It has a more “European” sound, a trifle bit reedier and not quite as rich as the American (and nowadays, Polish) piano accordions which are far more common. It’s a subtle difference but one to keep in mind when listening to this recording. The piano keyboard allows the player to make a bit of a harder attack and, with space between the keys (if you look closely, you’ll notice that there are no real spaces between the buttons of Mogensen’s instrument), more air comes out of the bellows with each push as you play. I know that I’m probably talking gibberish to the average reader, but anyone who has played both kinds of accordions will know what I mean.

In my mind, Ruders not only understands the technical limitations of the accordion (coordinating the two hands, for instance, is much more difficult than on a piano because one must always manipulate the bellows) but also the timbral qualities of the instrument, which unfortunately are a bit strange and very un-classical in nature. This is what makes Sounds and Simplicity so effective.

In the solo version of Dream Catcher, Mogensen has made his own solo accordion arrangement of Part VII of Ruders’ Serenade on the Shores of the Cosmic Ocean. It’s an interesting piece which he plays well, but taken out of the context of the suite I don’t think it works well as a stand-alone piece.

The Dream Catcher symphony, however, is a powerful, monumental piece, one of Ruders’ finest, opening with a powerful motif played by trombones and violins over rumbling tympani. This then quiets down in volume but remains ominous-sounding as the strings play overlaid chords. The harmony then slowly pulls itself apart, becoming even more atonal as it does so. The basses grumble impatiently here and there as the violins creep ever upward. In general layout and form, the music is close to Sounds and Simplicity but, being an orchestrated symphony, more texturally complex; it’s also more ominous-sounding due to the edgy conflicting harmony.

In the linked second movement, a “Scherzo,” Ruders unleashes a torrent of frightening sounds, led by the horns and trombones against the strings. This scherzo makes Mahler’s most sinister sound cheerful. My sole complaint of this movement is that it went on too long (11 minutes) and tended to sound much the same as it progressed, although towards the end the storm subsides and we get calmer, less neurotic music, coming to a standstill at the end.

This is a very interesting CD and one that all Ruders fans should hear.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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