Soustrot’s Saint-Saëns Symphonies Reissued

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SAINT-SAËNS: Symphony in A. Symphonies Nos. 1-3. Phaéton. Le Rouet d’Omphale. Symphony in F, “Urbs Roma.” Le Jeunesse d’Hercule. Danse Macabre / Malmö Symphony Orch.; Marc Soustrot, cond / Naxos 8.503301

This 3-CD set, scheduled for release on June 11, is a reissue of Marc Soustrot’s three single Naxos CDs of the complete Saint-Saëns symphonies plus orchestral tone poems. The principal feature in its favor is the “Urbs Roma” Symphony, which was the one that finally won the composer the Grand Prix de Rome.

As in the case of Hector Berlioz’ prize-winning work, not to mention several other composers, Saint-Saëns had to curb his creativity in order to please the judges. The Grand Prix de Rome had nothing to do with originality—in fact, that was frowned upon—so much as it was obeying the rules of composition imposed on all of its applicants. The result, as you can imagine, was a string of prize-winning composers whose careers went nowhere because they had nothing original to say, but since winning it brought a free trip to Italy along with a healthy stipend, it was sought after by great composers who simply had to swallow their pride (and inspiration) and write according to formula.

Considering all this, it’s surprising that there are some very good moments in the “Urbs Roma” Symphony despite of its prescribed limits, particularly the lively second movement, and conductor Marc Soustrot does his level best to enliven the proceedings throughout. Even so, here, as in the numbered symphonies as well as the early, unnumbered Symphony in A, his approach tends to vacillate between good, bracing moments in which there is good forward momentum and well-bound phrasing and moments when he lets the music meander a bit. It put me in mind of Toscanini’s complaint about his good friend Bruno Walter: “When he comes to something beautiful, he melts!”

But of course, French music can bear a bit of this sort of thing. As I mentioned in my review of Jean-Jacques Kantorow’s new recording of the Symphony in A along with numbered symphonies 1 & 2, his approach was rather the opposite, continually bracing even when, in a few spots, one longed for a bit of rubato to ease the continuous tension.

And really, considering the fact that most modern listeners prefer a more relaxed approach in French music, Soustrot’s approach will clearly appeal to many listeners. As I say, they’re basically good performances with a few moments of too much relaxation, but a few moments aren’t as bad as completely bland phrasing. I also noted that I gave him a very positive review for his recording of the same composer’s Piano Concerti Nos. 4 & 5 with Romain Descharmes at the keyboard, but in that case some of the excitement was generated by the pianist as well as by the conductor. Soustrot clearly has the measure of the music, and one cannot complain in this instance of too-reverberant sonics. The sound is forward and clear, which also helps one follow the thread of the music in each and every work.

The famous third symphony is also given a fine performance although, ironically enough, the solo organist is not identified either here or on the back cover of the original single CD release. His performances of the tone poems are equally good, particularly Le Rouet d’Omphale and Phaéton. He might have produced a little more “bite” in the orchestra for Danse Macabre, but it’s a rousing version which will not disappoint you. I also preferred his performance of the numbered Symphony No. 1’s last movement to that of Kantorow, as he allows the music some breathing room.

All in all, this is a real bargain. The whole thing is selling for $18.50 at Presto Classical, which is a really good deal. I recommend it, at least until such time as Kantorow shows us what he can do in the Symphony No. 3 and “Urbs Roma.”

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Zemlinsky’s “Der König Kandaules” Reissued

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ZEMLINSKY: Der König Kandaules / James O’Neal, ten (King Candaule); Nina Warren, sop (Nyssia, his wife); Monte Pederson, bar (Gyges, a Fisherman); Klaus Häger, bar (Phedros); Peter Galliard, bs (Syphax); Marius Kwecień, bar (Nicomedes); Kurt Gysen, bs (Pharnaces); Simon Yang, bs (Philebos); Ferdinand Seiler, ten (Sebas); Guido Jentjens, bs (Archelaos); Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg; Gerd Albrecht, cond / Capriccio C5443 (live: October 18 & 25, 1996, Hamburg)

As an adjunct to their six-CD set celebrating the 150th anniversary of Zemlinsky’s birth, Capriccio has also reissued this recording, one of only two issued commercially so far (the other being a 2004 performance led by Kent Nagano) of this unusual opera. The short score was completed in 1936 but the orchestration was still unfinished when Zemlinsky, being Jewish, was forced to flee Austria for America in 1938. Once settled in New York he approached his old friend and conducting pupil Artur Bodanzky about a possible production at the Metropolitan Opera, but Bodanzky was forced to turn it down because there was a nude scene in the second act that would make it unstageable at the Met. Zemlinsky then abandoned it, beginning work on a new opera titled Circe, but only the first act was completed at the time of his death in 1942. Thus the opera had to wait until October 6, 1996 to be performed at the Hamburg Opera, with the orchestral score finished and tidied up by musicologist Anthony Beaumont.

This recording was taken from two later performances in the same original production with the world premiere cast. The plot, which I found on Wikipedia along with the above information, is as follows:

Act 1

During the preparations for a feast, the Lydian king Kandaules announces that he wants to show his wife Nyssia unveiled to his favorites for the first time. When a magic ring (that makes whoever wears it invisible) is found in the belly of a fish, the king summons the fisherman Gyges. At first, the fisherman is indifferent, but when it is revealed that his wife Trydo has been unfaithful to him, he kills her in front of all the guests. Kandaules is fascinated and invites Gyges to his castle.

Act 2

Kandaules wants to share his immense wealth, including his beautiful wife, with all his friends. He convinces Gyges to use the magic ring in order to behold the naked Nyssia. Events turn against the king, when the invisible Gyges spends the night with Nyssia, who mistakes the fisherman for Kandaules.

Act 3

Gyges reveals his true identity to Nyssia and expects to be executed. Nyssia however feels humiliated and betrayed by her husband, and orders Gyges to kill the king. She then crowns Gyges the new king of Lydia.

So it’s kind of a debased plot involving somewhat debased characters, with or without the nude scene in Act 2…kind of like Salome in reverse. But at least King Pervert gets it in the end, so there’s poetic justice in that. The orchestral prelude includes a spoken text which I have no idea about since I didn’t get a booklet with my download. The music is set firmly in Zemlinsky’s late style, which means a sort of combination of Stravinsky-like rhythms and modern harmonies that incorporate open fourths and fifths and seem to move and shift like the wind. Even if there hadn’t been a nude scene in Act 2, this opera simply wouldn’t have been liked or accepted at the Met, which was and remains one of the most reactionary opera houses in the entire world. Of course, I should talk: my hometown Cincinnati Opera company refused to renew artistic director Nicholas Muni’s contract because he staged two very edgy one-act operas, Peter Bengtson’s The Maids with Viktor Ullmann’s The Emperor of Atlantis, but you kind of expect that here. Most people think of New York City as a hotbed of edgy innovation, but it just ain’t so.

Despite the edgy orchestral score, the vocal line is pretty lyrical and grateful for the singers. No one is trying to cope with extraordinary octave leaps or Aribert Reimann-styled screaming lines, but as in the case of much modern opera there are no arias. James O’Neal, the tenor who sings the leading role, has a pretty good voice, but the baritones are even better, with dark, rich timbres firmly controlled. (In 1996, most opera houses were still hiring singers who didn’t have strains, flutters, or wobbles in their voices. How things have changed.) The one defective voice in the cast is, ironically, the only female singer, soprano Nina Warren. She has a slow vibrato that got on my nerves a bit and always seems just a shade under pitch in her high notes, but beggars can’t be choosers. This is just about the only recording of this work commonly available.

But as I say, the music itself is fascinating. It keeps shifting and changing to match the dramatic mood of each scene, and ends up sounding like a more modernistic version of a Strauss opera. Even so, I found myself disliking the music more than I liked it. Possibly because the story is an ugly one, the music is more often ugly as well in the same way that all of Janáček’s operas have ugly music, even his comedy The Cunning Little Vixen. And in my view, life is too short to put up with primarily ugly music even if the dramatic situation calls for it. Also, to be honest, the music goes on too long and, since it doesn’t vary much in tempo or tone, it just wears you down.

So chalk this one up as a failure for Zemlinsky. Hey, not everything a great composer writes is great!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Wilson Conducts Dutilleux

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DUTILLEUX: Le Loup (The Wolf), Ballet in One Act & Three Tableaux. Sonatine for Flute (orch. Hesketh). Oboe Sonata (orch. Hesketh). Sarabande et Cortège for Bassoon (orch. Hesketh) / Adam Walker, fl; Juliana Koch, ob; Jonathan Davies, bsn; Sinfonia of London; John Wilson, cond / Chandos CHSA 5263

Henri Dutilleux, championed by the late Charles Munch, has since become a sort-of standard repertoire composer. This CD presents his rarely-heard ballet music for The Wolf along with fairly new orchestrations of three other pieces; these are their first recordings.

The ballet was commissioned by then-28-year-old Roland Petit for his ballet company, which he founded in 1944 with Boris Kochno, a former assistant to Sergei Diaghelev. Apparently, the composer couldn’t stick to the timescale of three months. Dutilleux first turned down his offer, then accepted and began bringing him new pages of the score every day. Petit had to accept what he was given, and thus choreographed Le Loup in bits and pieces. The plot concerns a Germanic sort of legend depicting the love of a young girl for a wolf. Leave it to the Europeans to come up with something that leaned towards bestiality.

The music, however, is interesting and, in fact, more tonal and accessible than Dutilleux’s symphonies, though it still has some edgy harmonies here and there as well as some very tricky rhythms that I’m sure Petit was not crazy about choreographing…yet somehow Petit managed to pull it together.

A great deal of the music’s effectiveness, particularly for those who, like myself, had not heard it before, comes from John Wilson’s extraordinarily lively conducting. Wilson really gets into the music, caressing the lyrical passages and conducting the fast ones with energy and a good sense of rhythm. Needless to say, the section of the music depicting the bridal chamber is wild and rambunctious; this was no gentle wolf; but the “Dance of Love” is lyrical and charming in its own way.

The remainder of the album consists of sonatas and sonatines in which Kenneth Hesketh was called upon to create orchestral scores. I’m not sure why Hesketh or Wilson felt that orchestrating this music was necessary, but the flute Sonatine is a fine work, opening with a long lyrical passage before moving into faster music in a major key around the 5:37 mark. Flautist Adam Walker is simply terrific, playing this music with astonishing energy and liveliness as well as a lovely tone in the lyric sections.

The oboe sonata is a much more involved piece in three movements, and here Dutilleux creates some vivid sound imagery with a mysterious-sounding accompaniment. This is quite effective in the orchestration, particularly in the second-movement “Scherzo” which stes up an ostinato rhythm similar to something Stravinsky might have written, though I still think it wasn’t necessary. I didn’t like the final third movement, however; it seemed to me light fluff music that didn’t fit in with the rest of the sonata.

The bassoon Sarabande et Cortège sounds the most “French” of all the works on this CD and is light and airy from the start. I found it technically interesting but not particularly meaty.

So the bottom line is that Le Loup and the first two orchestrated sonatas are quite fine, and well performed. Admirers of the composer will surely want this disc.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Chelsea Guo Plays and Sings Chopin

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CHOPIN: Preludes, Op. 28. Fantasie in F min. Barcarolle. Moja pieszczotka.* CHOPIN-MARISCHKA: In mir klingt ein Lied (Étude, Op. 10 No. 3).* ROSSINI: La Gazza Ladra: Di piacer mi balza il cor* / Chelsea Guo, pno/*voc / Orchid Classics ORC100167

Chopin is far from being one of my favorite composers. Although I own a fair amount of his music on CD, I rarely listen to it unless I’m in a melancholy mood because that is what he captured in his music, and the performances I enjoy most are those with some backbone to them (e.g., Lipatti and Reisenberg). But I was interested in reviewing this disc in part to hear how young Chelsea Guo played one of my favorite Chopin works, the Barcarolle, and also because she sings on the three last tracks.

We’ll get to the singing in a moment, but first a review of her pianism. Guo has a firm grasp of the Romantic rubato style, which she applies liberally to the Op. 28 Preludes. This gives her playing just the right melancholy touch that millions of Chopin-lovers admire, thus this disc will surely satisfy them. Of course, there are dozens of similar performances of these preludes out there on the market played in a similar fashion, but if you want up-to-the-moment digital sonics, hers will satisfy you. I also liked the fact that in those preludes that required a bit more backbone, such as No. 8 in F# minor, Guo applies only a minimal rubato and plays with a fair amount of fire. Thus she is clearly a fine pianist.

And yes, her performance of the Barcarolle met my expectations. This is as fine a version as those of Walter Gieseking and Shura Cherkassky, my gold standard in this work. Guo captures exactly the right tempo, modifies it subtly throughout, and presents us with a really fine version (although not quite as light and airy in the opening section as the old Gieseking 78).

BUT…!

The real surprise on this CD is Guo’s singing. She has an absolutely lovely light lyric soprano voice, well supported on the breath, with well-placed high notes and an fine sense of style. Moreover, it is both a distinctive timbre as well as an expressive voice. She actually interprets the lyrics she sings, and really sings from the heart.

Now, Chelsea, let this old lady with a half-century’s worth of experience listening to and even judging classical singers in competitions. As fine a pianist as you are, there are hundreds out there just as good as you are. As a lyric soprano—if you stay within your fach and be careful not to oversing or push the voice too hard—you are unique. There is no one out there who sounds like you, and really only about a dozen well-known sopranos who can equal what you do. I don’t know how old you are or what your future plans are, but unless you’re married to the idea of being a concert pianist, drop the piano, really train that voice to do your bidding, and become a singer full time. The only slight flaw I hear in your voice is a somewhat nasal quality in the mid-range, and that can be worked out by a really fine voice teacher. (Talk to Barbara Hannigan or Karina Gauvin for some idea of where to turn…their voices are rock-solid from top to bottom.)

You have the goods; so much is evident in the way you sing the aria from Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra. All you need, as I say, is a little refining, learning how to project the high range without placing it too much in the nasal cavities. It can be done. The old-school singers used to place their high notes aperto ma coperto, in “the dome of the head,” a spot above the sinus cavities. And once they learned how to do that, their voices went on practically forever. (Nellie Melba, Frieda Hempel and Selma Kurz were still singing into their 60s.) Go for it. What have you got to lose? If it doesn’t work out, then yes, you always have your piano playing to fall back on.

But why play the accompanist when you can be the accompanied?

And that’s my opinion out of the clear blue sky.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Blumina Plays Frid

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FRID: 6 Pieces for Piano 4 Hands: Allegretto.* Children’s Pieces for Piano, Opp. 41, 25, 39. Inventions, Op. 46: Selections / Elisaveta Blumina, *Emanuel Sint, pno / Grand Piano GP870

The indomitable pianist Elisaveta Blumina returns to play this program of piano music by Grogori Frid. Though primarily known for his opera The Diary of Anne Frank and such  orchestral works as his symphonies and his Double Concerto for Viola, Piano & Strings, Frid apparently wrote a good deal of music for children between 1952 and 1960, and this is what dominates this CD.

As it turns out, it’s not just the children’s pieces here that are rather simple and artless; so too is the opening Allegretto for piano four hands, which channels not his usual musical style but the kind of French boulevardier style of Claude Bolling. And throughout this CD, this is the side of Frid we are exposed to, his charming, witty, less “studied” style; yet again and again in these children’s pieces we encounter music that is simply fun to play and fun to listen to. These are absolutely perfect pieces for young piano students to work through; they’re not too technically challenging but at the same time they encourage the pupil because they’re just fun to listen to.

And Blumina, who has an enormous technique (I’ve written several reviews of her work on this blog), just lets her hair down and has fun with them. Her joy in playing them is obvious and infectious.

The secret of Frid’s appeal to children is, of course, rhythm. This music fairly bounces out of one’s speakers; one of them, The Merry Fiddler, bears a certain resemblance to Alan Toussaint’s hit tune of the early 1960s, Java. In the first series, only Byliny Tune seemed to me a bit too slow and uninteresting for a young pianist to really get into. Perhaps this is one reason why she allowed her son, Emanuel Sint, to play first piano on the four-hands Allegretto with her.

Thus, in a way, this isn’t the kind of album that requires an in-depth review. It’s mostly charming music, light and airy, charmingly played by Blumina. Yes, there are occasional sophisticated touches, such as the sudden and surprising harmonic shifts in Autumn Tale, and the Toccata definitely requires an advanced technique with its continually rapid runs, but for the most part this is light listening.

As it happens, I am reviewing this disc on a day when Global Warming has taken a hike. It is barely 58 degrees where I am, damp and cold, even though we are only two days away from June. I am bundled up in thermal underwear, a knit dress, sweater, and two bathrobes, one nylon and the other flannel on top of it in order to stay warm. (We shut off the heat a week ago because it was getting hot and humid.) And this record is the perfect tonic for such a rotten day. It makes you smile, which is more than can be said for a lot of other new classical CDs.

So there you go. Enjoy it for what it is, and you’ll hear some occasional moments that remind you how good a composer Frid was without hitting you over the head with his brilliance.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Fagerlund’s “Water Atlas”

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FAGERLUND: Nomade for Cello & Orchestra. Water Atlas / Nicolas Alstaedt, cel; Finnish Radio Symphony Orch.; Hannu Lintu, cond / Bis SACD-2455

Sebastian Fagerlund is a Finnish composer born in 1972 who focused primarily on orchestral works prior to 2010. Nomade (2018), commissioned by the Hamburg NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, is apparently typical of his work: highly dramatic but essentially tonal, emphasizing mood as much if not more than structure. I found it interesting, particularly in his use of microtones in places for the solo cellist, which gives the music a sort of peculiar Middle Eastern slant.

To a certain extent, Fagerlund’s music is also typical of the modern “shock” style of writing in which loud bitonal outbursts help move the music along, but he clearly has his own individual style and tries to be original. The six movements of Nomade are connected, with two “Interludes” coming between the second and third and fourth and fifth. Despite its edgy moments, the music is for the most part engaging and interesting. My sole caveat is that some of it (particularly the Interludes, but also the “Lento contemplativo” in the fourth movement) seems to gravitate towards the kind of “ambient music” so much in vogue nowadays.

Water Atlas (2017-18) is very much in the shock style of writing, opening with ominous tympani rolls against agitated string, wind and brass figures. Following this opening, we get the expected soft-mysterious music with suspended string chords and occasional interjections by the harp, piano and brass instruments. This, as I’ve mentioned in previous reviews of other composers, is a style of writing made popular by Thomas Adès back in the 1990s that has proven to be highly influential. In this work, too, there seems to be a certain relationship to minimalism, as the music stays in one chord for an extremely long period while the surrounding material slowly builds up to a ferocious climax. By the 9:30 mark, however, Fagerlund has built up to a frenzied passage that includes swooping trombones, only to fall back once again to mysterious music, here again using microtones in the string section. By and large, however, I didn’t feel that Water Atlas developed nearly as well as Nomade; much of it tends to stay in the same general mood, only with alternating sections with different volume levels, without as much in the way of development rather than just powerful orchestral effects.

An interesting disc, then, but somewhat uneven in musical quality. The performances by Hannu Lintu and the Finnish Radio Symphony, however, are exemplary, as is the crystal-clear SACD sound.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Miles Osland’s “Collaborations,” Vol. 2

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ÅSTRAND: Nine Steps. Ten Steps. Seven Steps. Meditation Moment. August. Pitter Patter. Ice Sculpture. Anne / Miles Osland, s-sax/a-sax/pic/C-fl/a-fl/bs-fl; Anders Åstrand, vib/marimba / Mark Masters 55969-MCD

Miles Osland is a saxophone virtuoso and head of the jazz program at the University of Kentucky. I’ve praised several of his band’s “Stinkin’” albums over the years, but here he is playing solo with Swedish mallet virtuoso Anders Åstrand, who heads up the Orford Summer Music Academy in Quebec.

The program consists of eight originals by Åstrand in which he combines through-composed music with improvisation. In sampling the album, I wasn’t sure how much of the music is written out and how much is improvised, so I sent a quick email to Miles asking him. Here is his reply:

Great question!  I’m glad you inquired.  The answer to your question is that it pretty much depends on which track you’re listening to and what section.  For instance, track 1 (Nine Steps) is all composed except for the slower section which is all improvised over a progression.  But in contrast, Pitter Patter (track 6) and Ice Sculptures (track 7) are both fully improvised with no chords in mind…

So the answer is, part of it but not all of it. Since I didn’t want this review to be dependent on a back-and-forth exchange with Osland, I thought it was best to just review what I heard and let the reader decide when they hear the CD. After all, I doubt that if you heard this program played in person that either Osland or Åstrand would continually explain each piece in detail before it was played.

Being primarily a jazz-based album, rhythm is the underlying impetus for most of the material presented here. Nine Steps opens with Åstrand playing a quasi-Latin beat on the marimba, into which Osland enters playing a pleasant, somewhat repetitive melodic line. Even without a rhythm section, the music swings, largely because both musicians are serious jazz freaks, thus it’s in their blood. The music is also tonal and, since it depends on these short rhythmic musical cells, not terribly complex harmonically; but then there is that slower middle section in which both musicians improvise, and this is where the jazz fan smiles, leans back and enjoys what is going on. There’s definitely a little Eric Dolphy in Osland’s solo, but not too much; he doesn’t indulge in those wide-ranging intervallic leaps for which Dolphy was famous, and he swings more. This whole section, in fact, harks back to the cool jazz of the 1950s (I half-expected to hear Ken Nordine come in speaking his “word jazz”), and is wonderful to hear.

Ten Steps opens with double-time figures (not sure if they’re written or improvised) over slow suspended chords. I found it fascinating to hear how Åstrand was able to divide his hands up in playing these two opposing rhythms simultaneously. After a pause, he plays a repeated rhythmic figure in triplets that nonetheless changes harmony, over which Osland plays alto saxophone. Ah, but wait! Suddenly there are two alto saxes, meaning that Osland is double-tracking himself…which leads me to believe that Åstrand was doing the same. Osland’s solo here includes some gritty high notes in a very bluesy manner, after which we hear not just two altos but also his soprano saxophone adding high-range figures in double time over the melodic line, so suddenly our duo has become a quintet (two Åstrands and three Oslands).

Seven Steps, which opens with some weird reverberant figures (possibly electronically-created) tells us that Åstrand is not averse to using some studio wizardry to create an ambience. Osland, too, seems to be playing his flute out in the ether somewhere before the microphone brings him into closer focus. I may be wrong, but most of this solo sounded improvised to me, resembling the way Lew Tabackin played jazz flute, before we move into what is probably a written-out section. But as I say, it doesn’t really matter a lot how much of the music is written and how much improvised, because it’s a treat to listen to it all. The music just sucks you in and you let it wash over you.

In the somewhat sketchy liner notes, Åstrand explains that these first three pieces “form a suite of a kind,” all of them inspired by his trip to the Amalfi Coast of Italy in early 2019. Meditation Moment, true to its title, just sort of floats out there in the ether without a specific or regular pulse, with Osland not entering until around the 3:30 mark. Lots of improvisation going on in August, mostly on soprano sax…I don’t know if Åstrand is improvising, too, but probably not. The next section really swings, though it sounds written-out to me. There’s more studio trickery on Pitter Patter which, once again, sounds like something from a Nordine “word jazz” album.

Ice Sculpture is purely ambient music, using electronic reverb to the max and eschewing tempo or rhythm. The album closes out with Anne, which also starts out as a low out-of-tempo piece before slowly coalescing into a nice, medium-tempo piece in which Osland plays flutes as well as saxes.

One of the interesting things I felt about this album is that, for all Osland’s virtuosity and flexibility as a soloist, it was largely a showcase for Åstrand’s talents as a jazz composer-mallet player. This doesn’t mean that Osland’s contributions are negligible—far from it—so much as it seemed to me that his role was to expand on what Åstrand had written, not to dominate. And yet when the two play together, the vibist is clearly listening to what the saxist/flautist is playing and reacting to it. Let’s just say that the album lives up to its title. It is a true collaboration.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The c/o Chamber Orchestra Likes Divertissements!

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IBERT, BERNARD, BARTÓK, IPPOLITO: Divertissements / c/o Chamber Orch. / BIS SACD-2499

Here is a jolly but modern-slanted collection of divertimenti, all but one (the Bernard) by 20th-century composers. Although I generally praise Bis’ SACD sound quality, on this particular release, as in their ongoing series of C.P.E. Bach’s keyboard sonatas by Miklós Spányi, there’s a bit too much reverb which blurs what should be crisp attacks by the instruments. This is especially evident in the opening piece by Jacques Ibert. French composers like Ibert and especially Poulenc were famous for their dry wit, but in order to obtain that dry wit you need a bit drier sound in order for those fast staccato chords to be “sounded” properly. The c/o Chamber Orchestra fulfills their part of the bargain, but time and again their intentions are somewhat obscured by the almost deafening reverb.

Nonetheless, if one can get past this, the performances are very enjoyable. In the second piece of the Ibert, titled “Cortège,” the composer slyly quotes a bit of the Mendelssohn wedding march to good effect, and here as elsewhere the c/o orchestra has great fun with it. In “Valse,” he paraphrases On the Beautiful Blue Danube. All in all, then, it’s a wonderful performance, but I prefer the one by Yan-Pascal Tortelier on Chandos because the sound is crisper and far less resonant.

The divertissement of composer Émile Bernard is the anomaly here since the composer lived from 1848 to 1902, and thus can scarcely be called a modernist, but the music is lively and entertaining in its very French way and, oddly enough, the sound quality here is much tighter and less boomy, which allows you to hear the different instrumental voices much more clearly. And the music isn’t bad at all; on the contrary, it’s light and airy, sounding eerily akin to the scherzo in Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream incidental music. And the horn player (Carla Gedicke) is simply terrific.

The well-known Bartók divertimento is up next, and here again the boomy, over-resonant sound quality intrudes on some splendid music-making, although I did feel that the tempo in this was a shade slower than I usually like. Don’t these engineers know when to leave well enough alone? I guess not. Its only real plus is that it makes the chamber orchestra sound a little bigger than it really is, but the minuses are far too many, not least of which is that by dulling both the crispness of attack and the lively rhythm they make their performances sound a bit clumsy, even stodgy.

And then, lo and behold, we return to clean, crisp sound for the divertimento by Michael Ippolito (b. 1985). So I checked the recording dates and locations in the booklet. Believe it or not, the over-reverberant Ibert piece was recorded in the same location as the crystal-clear Bernard and Ippolito works (Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin) while only the Bartók was made at a different venue, and the engineer on both sessions was the same, Christian Feldgen. So I can’t figure it out myself. Incidentally, the Ippolito divertimento is nicely written with some witty, heavily-plucked basses in the slow second movement (“Aria burleske”) but not a very memorable work.

So there you have it. The sprightly playing of the c/o orchestra is sometimes buried under too much reverb, though the performances themselves are very good ones.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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De Saram Plays Prokofiev

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PROKOFIEV: Cello Concerto.* Ballade for Cello & Piano. Cello Sonata / Rohan de Saram, cel; *Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orch.; *Anatole Fistoulari, cond; Druvi de Saram, pno / First Hand Records FHR118 (live: *Vereniging, April 26, 1972; Hilversum, April 14, 1971 & April 27, 1972)

Rohan de Saram, now 82 years old, is still very active on the music scene but like so many other musicians has been holed up due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Not to worry, however; he apparently has a stockpile of live recordings to draw on in emergencies such as this, so here we have his 1971-72 performances of works by Prokofiev.

Perhaps it’s my imagination, but the sound quality of the Cello Concerto is so good that you’d think it was recorded yesterday. It was also wonderful to hear again the vibrant conducting of the late Anatole Fistoulari, born in the Ukraine but later a British citizen. Between the two of them, they create magic with this not-so-well-worn piece. De Saram brings out all of the warmth that is in the score while Fistoulari keeps things moving on the podium.

The Ballade and Cello Sonata are played with Druvi de Saram, Rohan’s brother. The former, despite a few odd harmonic twists, is in a surprisingly Romantic vein for this composer, including portamento slides for the cellist. The opening is not so difficult to play technically as it is expressively, and once again de Saram is locked into the music’s mood. At about the two-minute mark the tempo increases, the cello plays odd pizzicato figures, and suddenly we’re in Prokofiev’s mature style.

The Cello Sonata, which I’d never heard previously, is an amusing and quirky work, almost like a Russian version of Poulenc. Here Prokofiev let his imagination run wild, with lively but fragmented bits of themes juxtaposed against one another as the whole sonata jobs merrily along, and the de Saram brothers do it up pink.

This is a simply wonderful CD, well worth acquiring.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Capriccio’s Box o’ Zemlinsky

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ZEMLINSKY: Lyrische Symphonie / Christine Schäfer, sop; Matthias Goerne, bar; Orchestre de Paris; Christoph Eschenbach, cond / Symphony in D min. / North German Radio Symphony Orch.; Antony Beaumont, cond / Sinfonietta. 6 Songs / Petra Lang, sop; Vienna Radio Symphony Orch.; Susanna Malkki, cond / 3 Ballet Pieces from “Triumph der Zeit.” Symphonische Gesänge / Franz Grundheber, bar; Hamburg State Philharmonic Orch.; Gerd Albrecht, cond / Frühlingsbegräbnis.* Waldgesprach.+ Maiblumen blühten überall+ / *Roland Hermannn, bar; +Edith Mathis, sop; North German Radio Chorus & Symphony Orch.; Antony Beaumont, cond / Walzer-Gesange nach toskanischen Volksliedern / Thomas Michael Allen, ten; Charles Spencer, pno / Irmelin Rose und andere Gesäng. Noch spür ich ihren Atem auf den Wangen. Harmonie des Abends / Ruth Ziesak, sop; Gerold Huber, pno / Es war ein alter König. Waldgespräch / Kay Stiefermann, bar; Alexander Schmalcz, pno / 2 Brettl-Lieder / Thomas Ebenstein, ten; Charles Spencer, pno / 6 Gesänge, Op. 13 (arr. E. Stein & A. Tarkmann for chamber ens) / Zoryana Kushpler, mezzo; Linos Ensemble / Piano Trio in D min. / Pacific Trio / String Quartet No. 2 / Artis Quartet / Es mar einmal (Once Upon a Time) – exc. / Eva Johansson, sop; Kurt Westi, ten; Per-Arne Wahlgren, bar; Danish Nat’l Radio Choir & Symphony Orch.; Hans Graf, cond / Der Traumgörge – exc. / Pamela Coburn, Maria Gabriel Ronge, Birgit Calm, sop; Josef Protschka, Peter Haage, Heinz Kruse, ten; Hartmut Welker, bar; Hessen Radio Youth Choir & Figural Choir; Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orch.; Gerd Albrecht, cond / Der Kreidekreis – exc. / Renate Behle, sop; Peter Matić, ten; Hans Helm, bar; Gidon Saks, bs-bar; Rundfunk-Sinfonie Orchester, Berlin; Stefan Soltesz, cond / Eine florentinische Tragödie, Op. 16 (exc) / Heidi Brunner, sop; Charles Reid, ten; Wolfgang Koch, bar; Vienna Radio Symphony Orch.; Bertrand de Billy, cond / Der König Kandaules, Op. 26 (reconstructed and completed by A. Beaumont) (exc) / Nina Warren, sop; James O’Neal, ten; Monte Pederson, bar; Hamburg State Philharmonic; Gerd Albrecht, cond / Capriccio C7360

Once a major composer lauded by Gustav Mahler (and sexually pursued by his nymphomaniac wife, Alma), Alexander von Zemlinsky has fallen through the cracks of the standard repertoire, but everything I’ve heard by him to date has been highly impressive and most of the music on this set is no exception.

Unfortunately, my download of this album did not come with a booklet so I can’t tell you the range of recording dates involved or what all of the pieces are about, but my hunch is that they were made over a period of years and so were assembled here as an anniversary tribute to the composer (the 150th anniversary of his birth in 1871). I heartily applaud Capriccio for making this move; we get so many Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin etc. tributes that it’s about time that someone not in the standard rep gets noticed for a change.

The Lyric Symphony, which takes up the entire first disc, is a splendid piece, one of the few Zemlonsky works that has received multiple recordings. Written in 1922-23, it comes from his fully mature period, built around sung texts from Rabindranath Tagore’s book of poems, The Gardener. Alban Berg liked this music so much that he quoted the third movement in his own Lyric Suite for string quartet. The performance given here is a gold-plated one, not only conducted by Christoph Eschenbach, but the singers are none other than soprano Christine Schäfer and baritone Matthias Goerne, and they are in superb voice—not to mention excellent interpreters who also have crisp, clear diction. And yes, the music sounds very Mahlerian in places (and certainly in scope) without actually aping the older composer too closely. (There are also some overtones of Korngold, but without the heavy amount of treacle that the younger composer poured into his scores by the bucketful.)

The Symphony in D minor, on the other hand, is a very early work, written in 1892-93 when he was only 21-22 years old. Obviously, it is more in the late Romantic vein and less adventurous than the Lyric Symphony, but for the work of a very young man it’s not bad—although, to be honest, it doesn’t show much originality. I’d say that this is one piece that’s for Zemlinsky completists only. Next up are the Sinfonietta and three pieces from the ballet Triumph der Zeit, both mature works (composed in 1934 and 1902 respectively. The first is, of course, a fully mature work, premiered in Prague in 1935, while the latter comes from 1902. Though in a more Romantic vein, the ballet pieces aren’t too bad.

CD 3 consists of vocal works with orchestra, all featuring first-class singers and excellent conducting.  Several of these sound like a cross between Brahms and early Mahler although, tobe honest, the group titled Frühlingsbegräbnis sounded pompous and overblown, not to my taste at all. Waldgesprach and Maiblumen blühten überall were considerably better but, unfortunately, Edith Mathis was past her sell-by date when she recorded them. I recommend the performance of the former by Sandrine Piau and the latter by Gabriella Sborgi with Alessandro Maria Carnelli and the Sextet of the Orchestra da Camera di Mantovani instead. Happily, the superb Symphonische Gesänge (1929) are sung by the excellent baritone Franz Grundheber, with highly atmospheric conducting by Gerd Albrecht. Petra Lang, despite having a somewhat acidic timbre, does a fine job on the 6 Gesange with Susanna Malkki conducting.

More songs fill CD 4, these with piano accompaniment. The Walzer-Gesange remind one of Schubert or Brahms and are sung with a lovely, caressing tone by tenor Thomas Michael Allen. Soprano Ruth Ziesak does an equally fine job on Irmelin Rose und andere Gesäng and Noch spür ich ihren Atem auf den Wangen. Baritone Kay Stiefermann, who sings both Es war ein alter König and Waldgespräch, doesn’t have much of a voice but what he has is pleasant, he’s a fine interpreter, and again, his diction is crystal-clear.

The fifth CD presents Zemlinsky’s chamber works, the early Piano Trio which is one of his most popular works and the somewhat early Strung Quartet No. 2 (1913-15). Both are in his Romantic style but are interesting, well-crafted works, the former somewhat resembling the music of Dvořák and the latter including some of the more modern harmonies that would dominate his later music. The first is performed excellently by the Pacific Trio, nearly as good as the recording by Trio Voce on the Con Brio label, while the quartet is played with incredible intensity by the Artis Quartet. This is truly one of Zemlinsky’s masterpieces. Interestingly, at the three-minute mark in the first movement I heard a brief quote from Strauss’ Don Quixote.

The final CD contains excerpts from four of Zemlinsky’s operas: Es mar einmal (Once Upon a Time), Der Traumgörge, Der Kreidekreis, Eine florentinische Tragödie and his last, ill-fated opera, Der König Kandaules. I am pretty much against excerpting operas, particularly integrated works like these that do not lend themselves well to such a treatment; it’s like presenting excerpts of Strauss’ Elektra and Berg’s Wozzeck without you knowing the operas complete or how the music fits into the whole. Besides which, neither Elektra nor Wozzeck lend themselves well to excerpting in the first place, and neither do these operas. I will be reviewing the reissues of the complete Eine florentinische Tragödie and Der König Kandaules in a future review, but to summarize what is heard here the singing is mostly superb, including such well-known artists as Eva Johansson, Pamela Coburn, Josef Protschka, Renate Behle and Hans Helm. I think the reason Capriccio chose to include excerpts from those first two operas listed is that the music is tuneful and cheery, sometimes using Viennese waltz rhythm and therefore appealing to the average low-information classical listener. The music is, for the most part, a grade or two above Korngold or Lehár, but it’s still very much in the same vein. The last two operas have darker, meatier music which will appeal to the discerning listener but not to those who start humming along with the tunes from Der Traumgörge.

To sum this set up, it’s an excellent introduction to Zemlinsky’s musical world despite the weakness of the Symphony in D minor and the two defective singers mentioned above in the songs. For the surprisingly reasonable price of $32.75 (at Presto Classical) or $28.99 (at FYE, even lower at $23.75 at HB Direct), it’s well worth your investment. I would, however, also recommend that you acquire the two complete operas that Capriccio has reissued as well as the composer’s String Quartets Nos. 3 & 4 and the very fine orchestral tone poem Die Seejungfrau (The Young Mermaid) for a bit more perspective on this fascinating and too-often-neglected composer.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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