The Alchemy Sound Project Has “Afrika Love”

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AREND: The Fountain. TONOOKA: Dark Blue Residue. WASHINGTON: Afrika Love. BOSHNACK: The Cadillac of Mountains. LINDSAY: Kesii / Samantha Boshnack, tpt; Michael Ventoso, tb; Erica Lindsay, t-sax/cl/a-fl; Salim Washington, t-sax/fl/bs-cl/ob; Sumi Tonooka, pno; David Arend, bs; Chad Taylor, dm / Artists Recording Collective, no number

I’ve given rave reviews to each of the last two CDs by Alchemy Sound Project, thus I expected no less than excellence when sampling this album. I was not disappointed.

There are some jazz septets that play as a small group, with the individual players interacting with one another as in the old polyphonic New Orleans groups, and some jazz septets that play more or less as a small orchestra. Alchemy Sound Project is one of the latter, but what makes them unique is that they go out of their way to avoid cliché voicing and arranging. The sometimes combine a saxophone with a trumpet or an oboe or clarinet with a trombone, or just mix the voicing up as they see fit from moment to moment. In this respect they remind me of two of the most gifted and original arrangers of the 1960s, Charles Mingus and Rod Levitt, as well as of yet another creative arranger from the 1980s, David Murray, whose work I consider to be extremely underrated. And like Mingus and Murray, they use very fluid forms and irregular meters with impunity, creating a swirling sound that encompasses the listener and pushes the music forward without respect to a basic pulse.

Within this setup, then, it amazes me that when two soloists play at the same time, as for instance the saxophone duo in the opening track, that they are able to follow what each other is doing while the rhythm section is doing its own thing, and there often at odds with one another. I can’t recall hearing more than a few bars, during the theme statement that comes and goes, where the bass and drums play the same rhythm. They are constantly breaking it up and moving it around. Of course, this pulls the music far away from any semblance of a swing or bop beat, but their goal is the creation of art music, not entertainment, and in this they succeed very well.

One hears high reed combinations in the ensemble chords behind the soloists in Dark Blue Residue, and here the soloist have changed, from piano and saxophones to trombone and then piano. Sumi Tonooka plays in a single-note style, primarily with the right hand alone, in a manner similar to McCoy Tyner which isn’t bad at all. And lo and behold, the group suddenly throws in a few bars of swing beat around the two-minute mark just to prove they can do it!

Not all the solos are on an equally wild plane, but the whole purpose of this wonderful band is to allow each soloist to say his or her thing and get out without worrying about whether or not the next soloist up will top him or her. It’s a completely unselfish and egalitarian approach to playing jazz. Mingus had it in his bands, and so did Levitt and Murray. As good as the leaders were on their instruments, no one in those groups were really top dog. All contributors tried to operate at their best, but no one was trying to outshine anyone else.

 As a result, written descriptions of what is going on in this music are difficult to conjure up. The music is so complex that it would take two or three listening to catch everything that is going on, the soloists—though different in style—all feed into one another, and in the end just sitting back and absorbing it all is the best approach. The title tune, for instance, opens with an a cappella solo played by what sounds like a derby-muted trombone, followed by trumpet and reed mixtures on bitonal chords, with an oboe solo that eventually opens up as the rest of the band coalesces into luscious and indescribable chords behind it and the drums play cymbal washes around it. But that only tells you what is happening technically. You really need to listen to this music, and listen carefully, to catch all of its complexities and subtleties. The piece keeps morphing and shifting, trumpeter Boshnack comes in for a sparse but interesting solo, then after a brief ensemble lick (which turns into a new theme) we hear the alto sax coming in and out around it. But the music evolves yet again, the theme develops, and life, along with the music, goes on. How do you put all this into words? And what can these words convey of the emotional and cerebral impact of this music? As Duke Ellington was wont to say, it is “beyond category.”

Some of the sections of these performances actually sound like free jazz or something very close to it. Other sections do swing (Afrika Love does so around the 6:50 mark) only to fall back again into some amorphous meter, perhaps to return to swinging if and when they feel like it. Truly collaborative ensemble jazz like this is exceedingly difficult to pull off well, but this septet somehow has it all worked out. How much is really written out and how much improvised, besides the solos? It’s difficult to tell. My guess is that they had certain ensemble passages written out that they could play, switch around, repeat or mix together as the mood moved them, but without seeing the scores this is just a guess on my part.

Paradoxically, the one thing that is consistent on this set is the wild variety of instrumental voicings, which is kind of like saying that a mix-it-yourself salad tastes the best even if it includes veggie combinations that could never exist naturally in one country at any one time. “Alchemy” is surely the perfect name for this group, for they are musical alchemists. There is variety galore in their music, yet absolutely nothing they play sounds “wrong” even when it is wholly unconventional.

I could go on giving moment-by-moment descriptions of these pieces but, as I say, the joy you will derive from just listening and discovering this music moment by moment surpasses any attempt I could make at telling you what you’ll hear. I was completely enraptured in the music from start to finish, and to be honest, I seldom have my attention so riveted in a recorded moment to moment, jazz or classical, as much as I was held attentive by this CD. In an era when so many jazz groups, regardless of genre, tend to pigeonhole themselves, Alchemy Sound Project simply cannot be pinned down—and that is their glory.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Sochacka Plays Bacewicz

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BACEWICZ: Piano Sonata (1930). Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. 2 Études. Concert Étude / Joanna Sochacka, pno / Dux 1689

Joanna Sochacka, who does a good job of hiding her birth date online, appears to be a Polish pianist in her 30s. On this disc she plays the fascinating music of Grazyna Bacewick, one of many women composers who deserves to be better known…certainly better known than the now-ubiquitous Florence B. Price, whose music was nicely constructed but utterly conventional and unoriginal.

Sochacka opens up her recital with the somewhat better known of Bacewicz’ numbered piano sonatas, the second, in an amazingly powerful and hypnotic performance. I have a recording of this work on Piano Classics by Morta Grigaliunaite, and it’s a fine one, but Sochacka’s playing is even stronger and the phrasing tighter. For me, this is one of the truly great 20th century piano sonatas, and why it is not played even more often than it is baffles me. But then again, Bacewicz’ spiky harmonies and bitonality clearly won’t sell to the millions of people who listen to classical radio stations hoping to chill out with Chopin or relax with Rachmaninov. Hearing the sonata again is almost like hearing it for the first time; it is so fascinating and so full of interesting musical ideas that one almost gets lost in its complexity.

Interestingly, Sochacka caresses the equally bitonal “Largo” as if it were a lullaby to her child—except, of course, for the louder, spikier music in the middle of the movement, which she deftly weaves into the legato flow of the music. She is clearly a pianist who knows what she is about, and I’m exceedingly grateful to her that she has chosen to play good contemporary music and not the same-old-same-old that every other pianist plays.

The first of Bacewicz’ two Études from 1952 is a gentle piece with an attractive if elusive theme, and again Sochacka plays it well. The second is brisk and playful, a welcome relief from the composer’s usually complex and harmonically thorny style.

The first numbered piano sonata, dating from 1949, is already is Bacewicz’ mature style although less shockingly dramatic than the second. Here, Sochacka creates a nice musical flow that does not ignore the inherent drama in certain passages. I would say that the first sonata is more lyrical than the second, but within that lyricism Bacewicz created some mysterious passages that lead the listener into her musical labyrinth.

The last two works on this disc are recorded here for the first time. I really liked the 1949 Concert Étude, in which Bacewicz employs some fast, running  scales and arpeggios in the right hand, sometimes within the standard scale and sometimes pentatonic. The early piano sonata from 1930, written when the composer was 21, is an interesting piece although the composer didn’t much like it and so didn’t give it an opus number. I found it quite interesting, actually, certainly better than all the romantic sonatas we hear ad infinitum nowadays.

This is clearly an interesting disc as well as a valuable one for Bacewicz collectors. Brava, Joanna!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Kantorow Conducts Saint-Saëns

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SAINT-SAËNS: Symphony in A. Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2 / Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liege; Jean-Jacques Kantorow, cond / Bis SACD-2460

I’m not sure if this is Vol. 1 of a projected series of recordings of Saint-Saëns’ complete symphonies, similar to the one issued on Naxos by Marc Soustrot, or just a one-off, but I sincerely hope it is the former, because these performances have an energy to them that reminded me of Charles Munch, my favorite French conductor (although he was technically Alsatian, meaning he came from that area of France than was most strongly influenced by German musical culture as well).

This is particularly evident in the early (1850) unnumbered symphony in A major, written when the composer was only 15 years old and influenced by Mozart. Mozart may indeed have been his influence, but at least the way Kantorow conducts it, it sounds much different, even different from Mozart’s late period of the “Haffner,” “Prague” and “Jupiter” symphonies. Comparing him to Soustrot, one hears a clear difference in approach. Soustrot is generally more lyrical in his phrasing, Kantorow more dynamic in his. There’s an undercurrent of restlessness in each and every bar of this work that one can compare, for instance, to the way Toscanini conducted Schubert (and Mozart) compared to his more sedate contemporaries. If one thus projects this style into future Saint-Saëns works such as the famous “organ symphony” No. 3 or the opera Samson et Dalila, one can hear essentially the same composer in both.

But as I say, Kantorow’s musical approach reminds me of Munch first and foremost. There is lyricism when it is called for, as in the slow movement of this and the succeeding symphonies on this disc, but his tempi are consistently faster than those of Soustrot. This gives an almost constant forward pressure to the phrases and a more energetic feeling of rhythm in both the slow and fast sections of the music that holds one’s attention more forcefully than in the Soustrot recordings. And mind you, it’s not that Soustrot gives dull or featureless performances of the Saint-Saëns symphonies so much as Kantorow simply approaches them with a more dynamic and almost theatrical style. Moreover, the SACD sonics of this CD has an immeasurably greater realism and presence for the orchestra. One hears every detail of the orchestral texture in an almost 3-D manner, and sometimes these details, partially obscured by Naxos’ more ambient sonics, take you by surprise.

I would go even further and say that these performances almost sound more German than French, and that’s OK too because, in my view, Saint-Saëns was the most Germanic French composer of his time. Even as a young man, he was most enthusiastic about the most advanced German music of his day, including that of Schumann and Wagner. He used more complex structures borrowed from German music and developed his music along German lines; one can even hear this in such late works as The Carnival of the Animals, satirical though most of that orchestral suite is.

I must also congratulate Kantorow for rejecting the ahistorical use of whiny “straight tone” in the strings. By the mid-19th century, most orchestras were not using this style any more, and to impose a modern revisionist musical theory on music of the past is not only wrong but offensive to the ear. The numbered first symphony, though written only three years later, is clearly influenced by Schumann in both mood and structure. Perhaps Kantorow takes the opening “Adagio” section a trifle too fast, but I find this approach quite exciting and dynamic. Nonetheless, I can just hear many Francophiles shouting “C’est tout faux!” and preferring some slower, softer version of the symphony. The only really faulty performance, I thought, was the last movement of the Symphony No. 1, which Kantorow rushes so much that it sounds pompous and bombastic. Soustrot conducts it at a saner tempo—it is, after all, marked “Allegro maestoso”—which generates enough excitement without trying to make it explode.

Something else struck me while listening to these performances, and that is how Kantorow has brought Saint-Saëns’ musical style into line with that of Hector Berlioz. Born in 1835, Saint-Saëns was 34 years old when Berlioz died in 1869, and thus would clearly have known of his remarkable music if not the man himself. Although Berlioz’ musical style borrowed only a few features of German music, particularly from Beethoven, I consider it inconceivable that a genius like Saint-Saëns would not recognize the greatness in his quirky older contemporary, particularly in his operas, and British musicologist Alan Blyth agrees with me. (You can certainly hear traces of Berlioz in Saint-Saëns’ own favorite of his operas, the eccentric Le Timbre d’argent.)

An unusual feature of the Second Symphony is that the opening movement almost sounds like a sinfonia concert ante, with string and wind solos interspersed in the opening section, followed by a fugue for the entire string section. And there are delights galore in this symphony, particularly the eccentric “Scherzo” which sounded, to me, influenced to some extent by the Symphonie Fantastique. By contrast, the scurrying final movement sounds as if it were influenced by Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony. (Well, why not borrow from the best?)

A very fine album, then, save for the last movement of the first numbered symphony. I recommend it to all admirers of this splendid composer.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Groslot’s “Intimacy of Distance”

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GROSLOT: The Intimacy of Distance.* My Green Shade Forest. Trittico incantevole / *Charlotte Wajnberg, sop; Brussels Philharmonic Orch.; Robert Groslot, cond / 8.579100

Belgian composer Robert Groslot, whose earlier albums were on the TyxArt label, now seems to be a member in good standing of the Naxos roster. This is all for the better, as he is clearly one of the most original as well as one of the most musically interesting of modern composers. Now maybe someday they’ll recognize the fact that Nancy van de Vate exists.

The five-part orchestral song cycle that opens this album is a perfect example. Absolutely nothing you hear is predictable or formulaic; everything is fresh, bold, and exciting, particularly the orchestral writing which is one of Groslot’s specialties. Judging from the title, one might think that The Intimacy of Distance was written during the global “pandemic” which has everyone cowering in fear of the boogie-man virus, but in fact it was written the year before it hit, in 2019. Set to the symbolist poetry of Elisa Nathalie Heine, it stretches the limits of what the orchestra can do without involving the soprano soloist in its orgiastic atonal explosions. She sings graceful, lyrical lines above the fray. Charlotte Wajnberg, the soprano for whom the cycle was written, performs it here, and she has a lovely, crystal-clear voice but, alas, garbled and unintelligible diction (a common failing among modern singers; apparently, they don’t feel as if they have to enunciate clearly anymore). Thankfully, Naxos has provided the lyrics of all the songs in the booklet. Some are sung in German, but even in the songs sung in English you can’t make out a single word that Wajnberg is singing. Perhaps someday a soprano with a similar range but better diction such as Amu Komsi or Barbara Hannigan will tackle this music. I was particularly struck by the fast, almost violent nature of the third song, “Heimkehr,” where even the vocal line is somewhat skewed away from tonality—though it is still in the orchestra that Groslot provides his most unusual sounds. By contrast the fourth song, “Blood Moon Kulning,” opens with low-register clarinet flurries, and in this, a slower song, I could actually make out some (but not all) of the words that Wajnberg sang. And, even though it is the composer conducting, I must give kudos to the Brussels Philharmonic for their virtuosic and emotionally involved playing throughout this CD.

Interestingly, My Green Shade Forest, though obviously meant to evoke natural beauty, is just as abstract in its actual form as the song cycle, only more pastoral and with sparser orchestration—save for the unsettling fast section in the middle, but even this is not as densely scored. Here, Groslot pulls back a bit on the bitonal and atonal harmonies to create more sparkling sounds without giving in to the modern-day trend towards soft or “ambient” music.

The CD ends with Trittico incantevole, a piece commissioned by the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra to honor the painter Peter Paul Rubens. Rubens’ art vacillated between images of historic wars and battles and typical Catholic religious fantasies, but his almost 3-D style, so realistic and yet with a flow that almost made the characters “move” on his canvases, was what grabbed Groslot when he composed this work. My attention was diverted for a minute or so while listening to this CD, thus when Trittico began it almost sounded to me like an extension of Green Shade Forest, but about a minute in I realized that this was an entirely different piece; equally atmospheric but more subtly complex in its use of contrasting rhythms and moving inner voices. There is also more “space” in this piece as Groslot pauses here and there before moving on to the next section.

This is yet another excellent CD of music by Groslot, though to my mind pride of place goes to The Intimacy of Distance as the finest and most interesting work presented here.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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More Modern Music by Polish Performers!

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SCHNYDER: Alto Saxophone Sonata. MESSIAEN: Le merle noir for Flute & Piano. M. GÓRECKI: Clarinet Sonata / Szymon Zawodny, a-sax; Łukasz Długosz, fl; Andrzej Wojiechowski, cl; Izabela Paszkiewicz, pno / Dux 1728

It’s so seldom that I get two, let alone one, downloads of Dux albums for review that I thought I’d celebrate by reviewing these two back-to-back. This one is a bit unusual in that it features the relatively well-known Polish flautist Lukasz Dłgosz and, in the opening piece, the jazz-influenced music of Swiss composer Daniel Schnyder, whose work I covered in some depth in my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond (available on this website for free reading).

The Schnyder sonata is a very fine one, blending the jazz and classical elements seamlessly as he generally does. The trick in performing his music is to have a fine enough technique to be able to negotiate all of the tricky technical passages while still being able to project the proper jazz rhythm when called upon to do so. Listening carefully to this performance, I felt that alto saxist Szymon Zawodny did an excellent job on his end, but that pianist Izabela Paszkiewicz was just a shade too formal in her playing of the syncopated rhythms. This wasn’t enough to damage the performance entirely, though it did make, you might say, “the crooked straight and the rough places plain.” I was, however, very glad to have it since I didn’t have a recording of this piece in my collection. At a few places in the first movement, such as at the six-minute mark, it almost sounded as if the duo was playing a Latin rhythm, which may have been  Schnyder’s intention since the title of this movement is “Manhattan excavation sites.” This the duo did very well.

The second movement, “A travers les ondes élastiques de l’atmosphere” (“Through the elastic waves of the atmosphere”), more classical than jazz, is a strange, slightly eerie piece that exploits the lyrical side of the alto sax…one might say a “Johnny Hodges” kind of piece. Though tonal, the tonality wavers a bit, moving in and out of neighboring tones and half-tones. In the third movement, “A brasiliera,” Schnyder most decidedly sets up a Latin-type rhythm but with irregular divisions in the beats for the piano while the alto sax glides smoothly overhead except for some surprisingly gutsy playing at about the three-minute mark. A very nice piece.

Messiaen’s very brief Le merle noir (the blackbird) is typical of this composer’s bird music: indefinable crushed chords in the piano part while the solo flute explores its own bird-song in the upper range. It makes an effective contrast with the Schnyder piece.

The recital ends with an unusual chamber work by Mikołaj Górecki (b. 1971), son of the more famous composer Henryk Górecki. Mikołai evidently pursues a similarly Impressionist-influenced style to that of his father, mixing in a few mixed or crushed chords within its basically pentatonic structure and emphasizing ambience. The difference seems to be, at least in this piece, that the younger Górecki doesn’t mind tightening up the tempo and increasing volume to create some edgy passages within his essentially lyrical framework. This is especially evident in the fast, quirky, and slightly jazz-tinged second movement, titled “Molto energico.” One could almost imagine Benny Goodman playing this piece in concert. Despite the quick tempo, however, there’s a certain menacing overtone to this music, reminiscent of Jack Nicholson running down a haunted hallway in The Shining. We return to slow and mysterious music in the final “Lento,” in which Górecki explores extended chords around which a strange clarinet line coils like a snake.

This is another excellent album, highly recommended.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Karol Rathaus’ Piano Trios

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RATHAUS: Trio Serenade for Violin, Cello & Piano. Trio for Clarinet, Violin & Piano / Marcin Hałat, vln; Marcin Mączyński, cel; Piotr Lato, cl; Aleksandra Hałat, pno / Dux 1712

Karol Rathaus (1895-1954) is still a little-known composer nearly 70 years after his death. No one assembles Rathaus Festivals of his music, there have been no anniversary years of either his birth or death dates, and the recordings still tend to trickle out, I’d even say ooze out slowly, rather than coming in a steady stream, yet he was clearly one of the most interesting composers of his time.

Here, a talented ensemble of Polish musicians pay tribute to this unfairly ignored Austrian-Jewish composer with two of his larger chamber works and, interestingly, the first piece on this disc was one of his last, written in 1953 when he was living at Salisbury Cove, Maine. Despite the designation “Trio Serenade,” the music is in Rathaus’ bitonal, edgy style, combined with an unusual sense of lyricism and his usual tight, well organized structure. There are surprises a-plenty in this score; Rathaus was never a predictable composer, and happily this stayed with him until the end. Moreover, the three musicians involved in its performance attack the music with passion and energy galore, which helps considerably to hold one’s interest even in the softer, more lyrical moments.

The second movement is in a lively 6/8 rhythm, here played with an almost manic energy that gives the music a spiky, serrated sort of profile. The piano leads things off and then directs the strings through Ratnaus’ bitonal maze of unusual figures. The middle section is in a slow, mysterious 6/8, at times closer to a central tonality.

The Clarinet Trio, dating from 1944, opens much more lyrically and here, again, the bitonality is toned down somewhat in the first movement as all three instruments play quite lyrically for a spell. At about the 5:40 mark, the piano occasionally plays a bit more forcefully with low-range single bass notes, yet the feeling of calm is essentially maintained. The energetic second-movement “Allegro” surprisingly maintains its allusions to basic tonality despite its going ‘outside” along the edges, played at a quick clip in asymmetric meters, with the stress beats displaced almost from bar to bar (and sometimes from beat to beat). It ends abruptly with a sharp piano chord before moving into the surprisingly lyrical “Epilogue.” Rathaus wrote masterfully for the unusual combination of violin and clarinet, in a style completely different from but equally valid as Bartók’s in his Contrasts. In the Bartók work, both violin and clarinet are treated rhythmically, the former playing with a purposely rough tone in order to emulate Hungarian folk music, while Rathaus really pushes the limits of what a lyrical style can do while still being “modern” music. A fascinating piece.

This is surely one of those recordings that serious musicians will seek out and want to own. High praise goes not only to the musicians but also to the engineers, who recorded these trios with good, forward mike placement yet also with a nice natural reverb around the instruments. Very well done!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Mascarenhas & Gulda Play “Jazzical” Music

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GULDA: Concerto for Cello & Wind Orchestra.* KAPUSTIN: Nearly Waltz. Elegie. Burlesque / Oliver Mascarenhas, cel; Johannes Nies, pno; *Wind Ensemble of the NDR Radio Phil.; Gerd Müller-Lorenz, cond / GILLESPIE-PAPARELLI: A Night in Tunisia. Blues ‘n’ Boogie. LEWIS: Delaunay’s Dilemma. FOSTER: Doin’ the Thing / Friedrich Gulda, pno/recorder; Hans Last, bs; Karl Sanner, dm / Dreyer Gaido DGCD21126

This could have been a fun and wonderful CDs, with a German-Indian cellist—which in itself is odd—playing the jazz-influenced classical music of Friedrich Gulda and Nikolai Kapustin, followed in turn by Gulda himself playing four jazz pieces on both piano and recorder with bass and drums.

First is Gulda’s concerto for cello and wind band, and if the rhythm here sounds closer to rock or funk music than to jazz it’s probably because it came from the period in which that style was popular. Although I’m not crazy about this aspect of it, the actual music is interesting and creative, and about a minute and a quarter into the first movement Gulda suddenly switches from fusion to a Mozartian lyric theme, then it’s back to the jazz influence. No one could ever claim that Gulda was a boring or conventional composer!

I don’t know whether it’s due to the microphone placement or his own playing, but Mascarenhas’ tone sounds a bit smallish in this concerto. If he couldn’t project strongly, he should have insisted on closer microphone placement to make his contribution sound a bit stronger. Even in the context of a wind band, his sound is neither large nor brilliant, though his technique is certainly secure.

Oddly (and what about Friedrich Gulda wasn’t odd?), this concerto is in five movements instead of four, titled “Overture,” “Idylle,” “Cadenza,” “Menuet” and “Finale alla marcia,” and not too surprisingly it is the cadenza movement, which involves improvisation, that is the longest of the five at 10:42. In the “Idylle” Gulda suddenly turns romantic, giving us a sweet, simple little melody that could have easily become treacle but is handled in such a way that it avoids that tag. About three and a half minutes in, the tempo suddenly quadruples and the music becomes a bouncy little waltz before resuming its slower pace (with some really lovely scoring for the French horns). Another aspect of the recorded sound that I didn’t care for was its dry, clinical quality. Both cellist and orchestra sound as if they were recorded in a studio with blankets on the walls to absorb sound. Mascarenhas plays well from a technical standpoint but only exhibits the most rudimentary grasp of a jazz beat. At the 7:30 mark in “Cadenza,” Gulda suddenly quotes Jimi Hendrix’ Purple Haze. I cut this short, of course.

The next movement puts us back in the 18th century, and final “marcia” is nothing more or less than German polka music. Sorry, Friedrich, but this concerto is just too much of an unpalatable pastiche of opposing styles of music that just don’t go together.

Happily, the Kapustin works are all excellent little vignettes, typical of this wonderful composer’s style. Once again, Mascarenhas plays with a nice little tone and a decent if not entirely successful attempt to swing. Happily, pianist Johannes Nies has a bit better grasp of jazz style than Mascarenhas, thus in Elegy where the piano takes over for the entire middle section (with the cellist just tossing in a few pizzicato notes), you actually get some swing in the playing. The Burleske, with its irregular meter closer to rock than jazz style, Mascarenhas does a fairly good job keeping up with Nies.

The jazz quotient picks up considerably as soon as we hear Gulda, on piano, playing A Night in Tunisia with his trio of the time. He was still a bit rhythmically stiff in 1958, the time of these performances, yet he clearly knew what he was doing. Hans Last contributes some metronomically-bound bass playing.

Most people don’t know this, but Gillespie’s Blues ‘n’ Boogie was the theme song of the Billy Eckstine bop band, written while he was a member of its trumpet section. Gulda plays it considerably faster than the original tempo, and if the looseness of his swing doesn’t  quite recapture memories of Bud Powell it’s certainly good within its own limits. The set winds up with Frank Foster’s Doin’ the Thing, on which Gulda suddenly switches from the piano to the block flute (or recorder) for the opening chorus before moving back to the piano, then again to the recorder for a nice solo.

So the last seven tracks are fun to listen to, but I really couldn’t take that cello concerto. It’s just too much of a pastiche musically and, to my ears, doesn’t work.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The Legacy of Lorenzo Molajoli

Lorenzo Molajoli

During the period 1927-1932, both Italian HMV (La Voce di Padrone) and Italian Columbia were extremely active in recording complete operas, mostly Italian, for their respective labels. HMV/VDP used their contracted “house” conductor, Carlo Sabajno, who had been an employee of the Gramophone Company since 1904, while Columbia contracted a virtually unknown but obviously distinguished maestro with the odd name of “Cav. Lorenzo Molajoli.” Record buyers knew who Sabajno was, of course, even though he had next to no hands-on opera conducting experience in theaters, but Molajoli was a complete enigma. Yet, in retrospect, it was the unknown conductor who produced, by far, the more distinguished and, to my mind, overall the more impressive series of recordings.

The great irony of this ongoing series is that both companies used the orchestra and chorus of Teatro alla Scala, Milan, which of course was Arturo Toscanini’s domain from 1919 to 1929, when he moved out of Mussolini’s Italy to devote himself full-time to the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra and occasional opera performances and orchestral concerts at Bayreuth, Salzburg, Vienna and, in two memorable concerts, Jerusalem. This meant that both the chorus and orchestra exhibited the outstanding, high-level training that Toscanini imposed on them, so of course what they produced on the records reflected that aspect of his music-making.

But insofar as the casting of both companies went, they used some singers who were Toscanini regulars and a great many who weren’t. In the case of the former, you had tenors Alessandro Granda, Enzo de Muro Lomanto and Aureliano Pertile, sopranos Rosetta Pampanini, Inez Alfani Tellini and Mercedes Capsir, and the versatile basso Salvatore Baccaloni, one of Toscanini’s real protégés. Yet the recordings were also loaded with a great number of singers who simply had good reputations in Italy at the time, whether or not they sang at La Scala, such as Dusolina Giannini, Giannina Arangi-Lombardi, Margaret Sheridan, Gabriela Besanzoni, Lina Pagliughi, Irene Minghini-Cattaneo, Aurora Buades, Dino Borgioli, Lionello Cecil, Francesco Merli, Riccardo Stracciari, Gino Vanelli, Luigi Piazza, etc. etc. etc. Conspicuous by her absence is star soubrette Toti dal Monte, Toscanini’s favorite Gilda, Lucia and Rosina of the 1920s, even though her husband, de Muro Lomanto, recorded for Columbia. Eventually dal Monte made only one complete opera recording, in the surprising role of Madama Butterfly with tenor Beniamino Gigli, in 1939. Perhaps it was for this reason that the “Maestro” himself refused to participate in either project, although it may simply have been that HMV/VDP simply couldn’t afford his fee to make a complete opera recording, whereas Sabajno worked much more cheaply.

There are several interesting things about these two series of recordings. First is that, despite the fact that neither conductor spent time at La Scala, both picked up stylistic traits reminiscent of either Toscanini or his trusted assistant conductor at the time, Ettore Panizza, in that they often conducted in a tight, linear style, generally playing close attention to the note values and the score instructions for tempo. Sabajno was actually better at this than his counterpart on Columbia, who sometimes introduced some strange moments of rallentando and rubato in phrases that didn’t call for them while still conducting other sections of the operas at a white heat. Another odd thing is that Sabajno had absolutely no feeling for comic operas, which is obvious in his 1932 recording of Don Pasquale with the star tenor Tito Schipa. The performance has some energy, to be sure, but this was one performance in which Sabajno introduced too many slow tempi and there is little sparkle in the recording. On the other hand, Molajoli was a master of comic opera, as is clearly shown in his still-classic accounts of Il barbiere di Siviglia and Verdi’s Falstaff.

Another oddity is that HMV/VDP, which had more resources (and more money) than their rival, made far fewer complete recordings: only 12 complete operas plus the Verdi Requiem under Sabajno’s baton, whereas Columbia issued 22 complete operas conducted by Molajoli plus an album of highlights from L’Elisir d’Amore, plus a 1929 recording of a complete zarzuela, Emilio Arrieta y Corena’s Marina featuring Capsir, the fabulous Spanish tenor Hipolito Lazaro, legendary bass José Mardones and the excellent baritone Marcos Redondo, conducted by Daniel Montorio. Of the 13 Sabajno complete recordings, only two are, in my estimation, consistently brilliant from start to finish, the 1928 Aida with Giannini, Minghini-Cattaneo, Pertile and baritone Giovanni Inghilleri and the 1931-32 Otello with the vastly underrated Nicola Fusati in the title role (the great voice teacher and music critic Hermann Klein, who had heard Francesco Tamagno sing this role in his prime, stated that Fusati’s voice came much closer to that of Tamagno in his good days than Tamagno himself on his 1905 recordings) and the first-rate singing of Maria Carbone as Desdemona and Apollo Granforte as Iago. Honorable mention goes to the 1927 Rigoletto simply because then-20-year-old Lina Pagliughi actually sounds like a 15-year-old girl, as she is supposed to, and because tenor Tino Folgar, barely known internationally at the time but sometimes referred to as the Spanish Tito Schipa, sings the Duke of Mantua exactly as written including no high B at the end of “La donna è mobile,” and the 1928 La Bohème because of the excellent singing of soprano Rosina Torri as Mimi and the veteran baritone Ernesto Badini as Marcello (Badini also provides the only really good performance, besides Schipa’s, in Sabajno’s Don Pasquale.) Molajoli even made a recording, which I’ve never heard, of Adriano Lualdi’s 1930 operatic sensation, Le Furie di Arlecchino which except for one excerpt issued on a Symposium CD has sunk without a trace. But hey, at least he was open to recording what was then a contemporary opera.

Yet if you take the time to listen to the bulk of Molajoli’s recordings, you’ll discover that no less than six of the completes are masterful performances that still stand the test of time, plus his one album of highlights from L’Elisir, in addition to two other recordings getting honorable mention, his Rigoletto because of the fascinating performance by baritone Riccardo Stracciari in the title role and his Bohème due to the presence of Pampanini, Toscanini’s preferred Mimi (and Butterfly) of the 1920s. These seven first-rate recordings are a legacy matched by no other Italian conductor of my acquaintance on record, not even by Tullio Serafin whose conducting style slowed down considerably after 1953, or by such notables as Claudio Abbado, Riccardo Muti (although, between studio recordings and live performances, Muti wins out by one) or Riccardo Chailly, excellent though they are. And it is these seven performances I will discuss in this retrospective.

But first, Molajoli’s background. All that has been found out about him over the many decades since his death are that he was born in 1868 (but no one knows exactly when), which made him a year younger than Toscanini, and studied at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia. He began his career, according to Wikipedia, in 1891, spending most of his years prior to World War I conducting in North and South America, South Africa, and various provincial Italian theaters. How and why he was given the title of Cavalier, which is what the “Cav.” before his name on his records stands for, is not known. Nor is it clear how this next-to-nobody came to the attention of Italian Columbia’s management, but so he did and the association proved fortuitous for both. Incidentally, after the merger of HMV and Columbia in the fall of 1932 to form EMI, Sabajno, like Piero Coppola and Albert Coates, were summarily dropped from the label’s roster. None of them save Coppola, who somehow sneaked back in during the late 1930s for one session, recorded major works for EMI again, whereas Molajoli continued to conduct on solo aria recordings, most notably the famous series by soprano Claudia Muzio in 1934-35. And by that time, Italian HMV had begun a second series of complete opera recordings, only this time centered around one tenor, Beniamino Gigli, rather than one conductor.

Butterfly label1929: Madama Butterfly (Puccini) – Rosetta Pampanini, Alessandro Granda, Gino Vanelli.

This, the first complete electrical Butterfly, is still considered a classic, mostly for the fascinating, multi-hued interpretation of the title role by Pampanini. She was, in some ways, a typical Italian lyric soprano of the era, with a very bright voice and a fast, prominent vibrato, but she was one of those rare sopranos (for that time) who displayed a complete involvement with the character she was portraying. Although tenor Alessandro Granda (1898-1962) was not even as good as Francesco Merli, let alone de Muro Lomanto (who would have been perfect for Pinkerton), he was not a bad tenor at all. Like Luigi Alva after him, he was an Italian born in Lima, Peru (what were the Granda and Alva families doing in Peru to begin with??), and like Giacinto Prandelli after World War II, Toscanini took a liking to him and molded him into a very fine artist. (In later years, he was one of the backup singers for Peruvian vocal sensation Yma Sumac.) Baritone Gino Vanelli would have been a star in any other era, but unfortunately in 1929 they still had Titta Ruffo, Giuseppe de Luca, Stracciari, Granforte, Benvenuto Franci, Carlo Galeffi and other big names singing, so he couldn’t break through to stardom (he was clearly a more interesting baritone than Luigi Piazza).

This recording is typical of Molajoli’s somewhat schizophrenic conducting style. In Butterfly’s entrance music, he is as taut and exciting as Toscanini—you’d almost swear it was Toscanini conducting—but in other places he relaxes the tempo a bit much. And both Sabajno and Molajoli let the La Scala string section indulge in portamento effects, which were taboo with Toscanini. Still, this recording, like most of those Molajoli made, has the feel of a live performance, which is something he never lost. There’s also the bonus of hearing Baccaloni as the Bonze, which he sings superbly.

Il Barbiere label1929: Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Rossini) – Riccardo Stracciari, Mercedes Capsir, Dino Borgioli, Salvatore Baccaloni

This was Molajoli’s first comic opera recording, and it has remained a perennial classic to this day despite the boxy sound, a few cuts in the score, and the substitution of two non-Rossini arias—Dr. Bartolo’s “Manca un foglio” and Rosina’s lesson scene—for those that the composer actually wrote. The reason is that everyone involved sounds as if they’re having a ball and the infection is contagious. A particularly interesting feature of this recording is the way the soloists rattle off the secco recitatives at 90 miles an hour…something that clearly could not be done in a stage performance, where the audience wouldn’t catch half of the words, but could be done in the recording studio (probably to save some disc time). Mercedes Capsir was a Spanish coloratura soprano who had a small repertoire of eleven roles roles (one of them being Rosalina in Giordano’s Il Re, one of the operas she sang under Toscanini), but Rosina, Gilda, Violetta, Lucia and the title role in Marina were five of them, so by golly she recorded them all for Columbia. Unfortunately, she also had a voice like a steam kettle at full blast, so be warned, the voice can grate on your ears.

Pagliacci cover1930: Pagliacci (Leoncavallo) – Francesco Merli, Rosetta Pampanini, Carlo Galeffi

If this recording was in decent high-fidelity sound instead of cramped, dry 1930 sonics, it would probably be everyone’s preferred version of this opera. A superb cast with everyone is at their best, and Molajoli conducts it, yes, like Toscanini might have. Sorry for the pithy review, but it’s hard to improve on perfection.

1930-31: L’Elisir d’Amore (Donizetti) – Highlights w/Inez Alfani Tellini, Cristy Solari, Lorenzo Conati, Eduardo Faticanti

L'Elisir coverSometime in the crossover period between 1930 and 1931, Molajoli recorded an album of highlights from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and this album of a greatly abridged L’Elisir d’Amore. Ironically, the greatest virtue of the L’Elisir was also the biggest downfall of the Pasquale, and that was Cristy Solari. A Greek tenor born in Smyrna but, like Armenian tenor Armand Tokatyan, trained in Italy, he apparently had a surprisingly long career singing standard bel canto tenor roles such as Arturo in I Puritani and Edgardo in Lucia. I say “surprising” because, once you hear him, you’ll be scratching your head wondering how anyone could take him seriously in these operas. His voice was very well trained—he could sing coloratura runs and execute perfect diminuendos and crescendos with ease—but the voice sounded high and fluty, like a chipmunk’s. It almost sounded as if the record was playing at too fast a speed. Yet what worked as an impediment in his serious roles (including Ernesto in Don Pasquale, who after all is supposed to be an attractive young lover and not a farcical caricature) worked perfectly in his favor in L’Elisir. Here, at last, is a Nemorino who sounds like the town boob he is. The voice itself is funny, and because of this it’s easy to understand how Sgt. Belcore could con him into joining the army for 20 crowns or how he was too stupid to realize that Dr. Dulcamara’s elixir made him drunk. It also doesn’t hurt that Molajoli recruited two wonderful, experienced comic baritones in the Ernesto Badini tradition, Lorenzo Conati as Belcore and Eduardo Faticanti as Dulcamara. Add Molajoli’s sparkling, witty conducting, and you have a classic. I don’t know how long it may stay up, but for the time being you can access the recording for free by clicking HERE.

Manon Lescaut cover1931: Manon Lescaut (Puccini) – Maria Zamboni, Francesco Merli, Lorenzo Conati, Enrico Molinari

Columbia missed out on what could have been a truly stupendous recording of this opera by not hiring Aureliano Pertile, who Puccini himself said was the greatest Des Grieux he had ever heard in this work, but Francesco Merli, who a friend of mine refers to as “the captain of the B team” among the great Italian tenors of his time, does a very credible job here and Molajoli’s conducting in this work is indeed surprisingly Toscanini-like, though not quite as good in Act III as Toscanini’s own 1946 performance given at the reopening of La Scala. Maria Zamboni, though a bit fruity of vibrato, absolutely nails the character of the flighty Manon and Conati is an excellent Lescaut. This was another instant classic when it was first released, and has remained so (at least for diehard collectors) every since.

Carmen cover1932: Carmen (Bizet) – Aurora Buades, Aureliano Pertile, Ines Alfani Tellini, Benvenuto Franci

Latter-day critics rave about Pertile’s Aida and Trovatore recordings under Sabajno but for some reason dismiss this Carmen, probably because it’s sung in Italian rather than French and uses the Giraud sung recitatives instead of the spoken ones. This is a grave mistake. As I mentioned earlier, the Pertile Trovatore is pretty much a mess between his opening scene and his last one, but here he creates a believable character who already sounds a bit impatient and restless in his early scene with Micaëla, fanatical and fixated in his scene in the mountains with Carmen, and a cracked sociopath in the final scene. In addition, we get here the Carmen of Spanish contralto Aurora Buades, who sounds the most like a gypsy singer than any other performer of this role I’ve ever heard. Add Tellini’s gorgeously-sung Micaëla, Franci’s blustery Escamillo and Molajoli’s surprisingly good conducting (only a few odd slow-downs in the first scene of the opera), and you have another classic. You simply can’t afford to miss this one.

Falstaff cover1932: Falstaff (Verdi) – Giacomo Rimini, Pia Tassinari, Ines Alfani Tellini, Aurora Buades, Roberto d’Alessio, Salvatore Baccaloni

We end with yet another classic comic opera recording by Molajoli. In this case, happily, posterity seems to agree with me, because aside from Toscanini’s 1937 live performance and the 1980 one conducted by Herbert von Karajan, you won’t find a better Falstaff anywhere. I stayed away from this one for a long time because I never much liked Giacomo Rimini’s voice on other records, but he’s a surprisingly excellent Falstaff. Tellini returns in one of her signature roles, Nannetta, the young Pia Tassinari (1932 was the year of her La Scala debut) sings Alice Ford, the redoubtable Buades returns as Mrs. Quickly, her husband Roberto d’Alessio is an ardent-sounding Fenton, veteran character tenor Giuseppe Nessi sings Bardolph and Salvatore Baccaloni sings Pistol in this vivacious performance. What’s not to like, other than the restricted sound?

Thus the enigmatic, semi-invisible (there are only two photos of him in existence) Lorenzo Molajoli had an impact on the operatic history of his time beyond his wildest dreams.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The Art Music Lounge: A Different Music Blog

organ-tissue

Yes, I’m an organ and tissue donor.

The title of this article may seem, to some readers, self-serving, but honestly, I’m a pretty modest woman at heart. I’ve loved music all my life, have listened (as my articles and reviews will show) to an extremely wide range of it since I was a child, and still have far-ranging tastes from klezmer, country blues, early jazz and old classical music going back to the Middle Ages up through the most advanced free jazz and modern classical pieces. And my interests have never stopped at just the music. When I’ve really liked a certain composer or performer, I try to find out as much as I can about them, their backgrounds, how they arrived at the music they created or played, and what made them tick as people as well as artists.

And in my musical journeys, I learned one important fact early on, that no two people hear music or musicians exactly the same way. The number of artists and composers one can agree on can probably be counted on the fingers of both hands, which really isn’t much when you consider the length and breadth of the musical spectrum, and the same goes for interpretive styles. For instance, for reasons I will soon explain, I can’t stomach soft, mushy performances of any music, yet I know there are thousands, perhaps millions, of listeners out there who prefer this manner of playing. The same goes for the composers and styles of music. There are only so many soft, relaxed pieces of music that I consider to be interesting, let alone great. But perhaps you might understand me and my musical biases better if I explain myself.

If you know my blog and have read the bulk of my profiles of certain artists, interviews, book and CD reviews, you’ll also know that my tastes, in addition to varying widely, cannot be bought. Many have tried to buy me as a music reviewer over the past 47 years, including impresarios and at least three major magazines I’ve written for. None have succeeded, and that’s why I eventually went freelance. It wasn’t just that I resented them trying to buy favorable reviews from me, it’s that I resented the fact that all of them DO—and not just those three. Over the years I’ve discovered that ALL classical and jazz review publications try the same thing with their reviewers…which means that much of what you read as a positive excerpt from a review on artists’ websites is nothing more than paid advertising, and this practice went back to the time when I was a young woman just getting into jazz and classical music and was myself swayed by the purple prose that appeared for certain recordings and artists in High Fidelity and Stereo Review (and yes, even Gramophone).

I grew up in a working class household that abhorred any music that was considered “arty.” My father particularly loved such “vanilla” bands as those of Sammy Kaye, Blue Barron and Mantovani, and pop singers like Andy Russell, Perry Como and the more mellow offerings of Sinatra. My mother, who had actually studied briefly to become a soprano, had surprisingly vanilla tastes in classical music as well: Chopin, Mozart, Puccini and Donizetti were her favorites. When I started getting into the music of Berlioz and Beethoven around age 11, they practically freaked out. But when you’re still a child you do tend to be led by your parents’ tastes, and I freely admit that my father and I had a couple of favorite artists in common, Nat “King” Cole and Glenn Miller. I still love both, for different reasons.

I saw my first opera at age 16: Carmen in a Met student performance with mezzo Nedda Casei in the title role. That same year I went to Carnegie Hall (a daytime concert…my parents would never have let me take the bus to New York City alone at night) to see Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall. But in a way my musical growth was stunted by my parents’ refusal to let me study a legitimate instrument. Because my father was Polish, I was forced to learn and play the accordion, and that mostly for the entertainment of the rest of the family when we came together to play polkas. It was my kid sister who was bought a piano and given piano lessons, which I envied. Yet I was yelled at and chased away from the keyboard every time I sat down to play “her” instrument. I bought the Schirmer scores of the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas at a fire sale of a sheet music store when I was in high school and studied them. I even tried to play some of them myself, and got further than I thought I might for someone with no formal piano training, but I was also forced to work after school (in addition to doing homework), not to mention keep up my accordion skills, thus I really had no time to become proficient at the instrument. But I just kept on plugging away at both classical and jazz, buying recordings of famous artists and learning as much as I could—in jazz, from all the way back to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band up to Dave Brubeck and Ramsey Lewis, who were popular in my day.

By the time I graduated college, where I was finally lucky enough to study music and learn how compositions were constructed (one of our exercises was to take a book of Bach Chorales and study both the top line and the accompaniment, then invert them), I also studied piano—but again, I had no real time to become proficient at it. In addition to my classes, I also had to work two jobs to help pay for my tuition because my parents, who could easily have afforded to pay for my education, absolutely refused to do so after I graduated high school. (To be fair, they also screwed my brother and sister this way.) But if nothing else, I was stubborn and I wanted to keep learning as much as I could. It was during this time that I also started getting into contemporary classical music of that time, the works of Ginastera, Britten and, of course, Stravinsky, who was then still alive and still writing music. This helped open my ears to a whole world of music beyond the old masters.

After graduation, when I started writing reviews—beginning with opera performances at the Metropolitan—I had a pretty good grounding in music theory and had listened to a great many of the finest singers past and present so I knew what I was talking about. But of course my musical education was still somewhat incomplete, and I knew it, so I just stuck to what I knew (quite a lot by that time, but by no means as wide a range of music as I know now) and wrote in an authoritative manner. This was enough to get me noticed and my reputation grew; but as anyone who has written reviews professionally will tell you, it is a cheap-ass business. They nickel and dime you to death because they figure that your free tickets to the concerts or opera houses are part of your pay. But I still took anything I could get because it was all a learning experience. Believe it or not, I was one of the few music critics to give a very positive review of Britten’s Death in Venice when it came to the Metropolitan. I was lucky enough to give a copy of the review to the work’s star, tenor Peter Pears, who in turn showed it to composer Benjamin Britten, who found it “informative and lively.” I still have Pears’ original letter to me preserved in plastic wrap.

In the late 1970s, by which time I had moved from New Jersey to Ohio, I decided to write a book about the various methods of singing technique taught by the great masters from the 18th century to the present, guided in part by the writings of Canadian baritone and author John Stratton. I spent roughly four years researching that era and discovered a lot of information about the REAL performance practices of that time, which were often at odds with the CREATED performance practices now followed like a religion by most historically-informed musicians and singers. What I learned was that the opera and concert singers of that time did NOT uniformly use “straight tone” when they sang; on the contrary, MOST of them had vibrato in their voices, and sometimes very rapid and noticeable vibrato at that. And I also learned that string and wind players (read: violinists, violists, cellists, flautists, clarinetists and oboists) emulated the timbre, tone and expression of their favorite singers. Yes, some of them rested their violins against their shoulders instead of under their chins, but not all. Yes, some string players used straight tone when they played fast passages because vibrato got in the way, but again, not all. Some string players used a continuous light, fast vibrato whereas the majority of them used straight tone for fast passages and, yes indeedy, VIBRATO for sustained notes. And they prided themselves on having a beautiful legato—again, emulating the singers—and playing with subtle shifts in dynamics to give their performances color. So do me a favor, all of you straight-tone HIP hypocrites, and stop lecturing me on what performance practice was really like in those days.

Between 1988 and 1991 I published my own little homemade music magazine. I never had more than 40 or 50 subscribers; this was well before real desktop publishing or the Internet was available, and I struggled on next to no money. And it was during this time that I learned, the hard way, that the Grammys were as crooked and corrupted as those record reviews I once trusted. Money, not merit, was and still is behind 99.5% of all Grammy winners in all fields. So if you’re a promoter or a record company, please do not try to impress me by saying that your latest record won a Grammy or is performed by Grammy-winning artists. You can’t bullshit me. Been there, done that.

My having to work for a living, often at a succession of menial and/or soul-deadening jobs, impeded much but not all of my musical growth over the decades, and the 1990s in particular kept me from keeping up with the latest new young artists and composers too much, but I kept on plugging away and eventually caught up by, I would say, 2008. Yet it was my becoming permanently crippled at age 60 that was both a curse and a boon. Unable to get to work, I had to resign my job and live off what was left of my 401K for a year and a half until I was eligible for Social Security. This decimated what little savings I had to pay my mortgage, utilities, food and clothing bills. But the upside is that I now had the Internet to research things, a lot of great music was suddenly available for free, and I sopped it all up like a sponge.

So here I am at age 70, still writing my blog. I’ve become more and more irritated with and bored by artists who refuse to play 20th and 21st century music, and in fact with earlier music in general. My CD collection spans four six-foot bookshelves, but remember that this includes jazz (which fills up most of the last bookshelf) along with classical music from all eras…and yes, some older music in alternative and multiple recordings. Frankly, there’s nothing that 95% of modern-day artists can say about the music of the past that hasn’t already been said by others before them, so why should I go out of my way to hear your version of a piece I have one to three outstanding recordings of? Put on your big girl skirts and big boy pants and start playing contemporary music.

My comments regarding the Grammys were also the reason I eventually decided to designate certain recordings with my own “What a Performance!” award. It’s not a gold statuette handed out by the paid shills of the recording industry; it’s just a blue ribbon on your review on my website; but it’s an honest award. It has no strings attached to it. It comes from the heart and the head. No one can buy my approval. And no one ever will.

I turn down far more CDs and DVDs—especially the latter—offered to me for review than I write about, and it’s not just for my prejudice towards music I haven’t heard vs. the stuff I’ve heard a hundred times. There are certain trends in both classical and jazz nowadays that I simply don’t respond to. Here is a list:

  • Edgy-atonal-shock style music. This goes for both classical and jazz. For whatever reason, and in the classical field I kind of blame Thomas Àdes, a very talented man who inadvertently started this style and became famous for it back in the 1990s. In jazz, I guess it’s just a trend, but neither one appeals much to me any more. I was suckered in at the beginning, but have learned that this is just a gimmick that too many artists are latching on to. So there’s No. 1.
  • On the opposite side of the scale, there’s also the soft, slow, mushy style of music. This seems to be the hot thing with Millennials nowadays, probably because they’re all sitting at home crying because they can’t go out and socialize and hug their friends.
  • Allied to the above are the apparently dozens of soft, whispery “jazz” singer out there who are giving you their music “from the heart.” The women in particular all pose for their album covers with come-hither looks on their faces, usually in soft pastel dresses that look as if they’d fall to the floor in an instant if you responded to their music from the heart.
  • Music that uses too much electronics, and again this applies to both jazz and classical. Electronics do not appeal to me as a rule. On the contrary, when I hear them, they upset my nervous system and either give me a headache or make me angry. A subset of this is the use of overblown rock guitars, particularly in jazz. Sorry, folks, but I didn’t much like Miles Davis’ Bitches’ Brew when it came out, nor did I like its successors in the jazz world thereafter. In fact, the only rock guitarists I’ve ever really admired were George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Alvin Lee. (Jimi Hendrix had an amazing technique, but nothing he played ever made sense or appealed to me.) I can take electric guitars played in a jazz style, but as soon as I hear what I call “that Fillmore East sound” the record goes off.
  • The kind of classical music that I define as “schlumph,” a term borrowed from the late Anna Russell. This is modern classical of the sort that doesn’t really go anywhere, it just progresses from one schlumphy moment to another ad infinitum.
  • Guitar players of either genre who play too softly all the time. Sorry, but I was weaned on Julian Bream (classical) and Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt (jazz), and your wimpy guitar playing doesn’t impress me.
  • Anything written by Astor Piazzola. For whatever reason, he’s one of the hottest composers in classical music, and I don’t get it. His classical tangos just aren’t all that well written. Neither, for that matter, is most minimalist music (sorry, Philip Glass).
  • The music of Bruckner. As an acquaintance of mine put it, all he wrote was “a succession of endings,” and his symphonies are, to me, interminable and boring. And it doesn’t matter if Jesus K. God is conducting them. I’m just not interested.

Other than that, I’m actually pretty open-minded and have discovered some really amazing classical composers I hadn’t know about previously as well as quite a bit of modern jazz that’s highly creative.

So there you have it, me and my musical background and tastes in a nutshell. Or maybe two nutshells. Who’s counting?

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

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The Symphonies of Ķeniņš

ĶENIŅŠ: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 6. Canzona Sonata* / *Santa Vižine, vla; Latvian National Symphony Orch.; Guntis Kuzma, cond / Ondine ODE 1354-2

Following on the heels of its release of Tālivaldis Ķeniņš’ Fifth Symphony, Concerto di Camera and Concerto for Piano, Strings & Percussion, Ondine now presents his Fourth and Sixth Symphonies along with his Canzone Sonata for viola and orchestra. As I mentioned in my review of that record in September of last year, Ķeniņš led a hard life during World War II when the Soviets invaded Latvia and he was not reunited with his mother as planned but rather conscripted into the Russian Army (he served his time as an organist). Later, having survived the war, he studied music seriously in Paris before going to live in Canada.

Ķeniņš always claimed to take a “rational view” towards composition, and a bias towards tonality, he clearly used sliding chromatics and other unusual harmonic effects which gave his music a bitonal, harmonically unsettled perspective. Rhythmically and structurally Ķeniņš remained a Latvian at heart. The Fourth Symphony, split into two long movements (12 minutes and 10 minutes respectively), spends most of the first delving into dark recesses of the mind. It is not quite nihilistic but rather edgy and unsettled music; you’re not quite sure where it’s going,  but the journey is obviously a hard and strenuous one. The continuous bitonality and use of harsh wind and brass chords never quite breaks through into outright despair, but neither does it sound as if the journey is going to end happily.

The second movement opens with a strange trumpet solo, also bitonal, which leads into more energetic but equally unsettled emotional terrain. At about the 7:30 mark, however, the music suddenly becomes more animated and, though still bitonal, seems to have a quirky jollity about it. This journey may not end with everyone getting cake and ice cream, but it’s certainly not going to be bleak or nihilistic. Racing chromatic figures played by the brass and winds intertwine. eventually the timpani enters to punctuate things, and we get a crushed chord that goes through a long diminuendo before an unexpectedly quiet ending.

The Sixth Symphony is a single movement lasting 18 minutes, and this one starts in a very somber mood with low clarinet and soft, low trumpet figures. Eventually the music becomes louder, faster and more menacing, with low wind and trombone figures played against sustained edgy wind chords. Considering this music’s harmonic language and (again) sparse, wind-oriented orchestration, it’s amazing how much color and variety of mood Ķeniņš could wring out of his forces.

Despite the interesting musical progression, which goes through several tempi and some unusual changes in orchestration (including the use of cup mutes in the trumpets and some sliding, microtonal figures), Ķeniņš’ music seems to me much more connected with mood than with structure, which somewhat goes against the composer’s stated preference for “rational” composition. Or, at least, that’s the way these performances strike me.

At the 14:04 mark we move from the slow section of the symphony to the faster final section, and here Ķeniņš creates a two-voiced fugue which eventually morphs into a series of counter-figures playing against one another. He later told his biographer, flautist Edgars Kariks, that he thought the sixth was his best symphony. “Quoting Bach has been fruitful – symbolizing the spirit of music itself, as I see it,” he said.

The Canzone Sonata, commissioned by the committee of Australian-Latvian Culture Days (try figuring that one out!) in 1986, is a strongly lyrical work in which the solo viola sounds much like a cello, particularly in the opening section of the work. It is also quite varied in tempo and mood, in fact shifting more quickly here than in his symphonies. Perhaps because the top line was written for a string instrument, which relies on sustained tones, Ķeniņš kept both the melody line and the harmony a bit simpler than usual, but still edgy enough to satisfy those who prefer modern to romantic music. His penchant for sparse orchestral textures continues here as well, and there seems to be a more recognizable sense of structure in this music.

Overall, then, this is a splendid album and one quite valuable to the collector. Ķeniņš is scarcely a familiar or even a well known composer in most parts of the world, but his music tells us that he should be much better known by contemporary audiences.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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