Carlo Grante’s Brahms Set

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BRAHMS: 25 Variations & Fugue on a Theme of Handel. Theme & Variations in D min. 11 Variations on an Original Theme. 13 Variations on a Hungarian Song. Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Books I & II. Variations on a Theme of Schumann. Piano Sonatas, Opp. 1, 2 & 5 / Carlo Grante, pno / Music & Arts Programs MA-1303

Carlo Grante is one of those pianists who has made a ton of recordings but who, for one reason or another, I hadn’t heard much of until now. This set covers the complete Brahms sonatas and variations for solo piano.

One thing I immediately liked about Grante’s playing was that he makes a differentiation in approach to Brahms’ original works and the variations he wrote based on the music of Handel, Paganini, Schumann and a Hungarian song, all of which require an entirely different approach to the rhythm. I would also add that they require a different approach to musical style and, much of the time, keyboard attack, since Brahms was, after all, inspired by the work of these earlier composers who wrote in a manner entirely different from his. Thus, in Grante’s skilled hands, the Handel and Paganini variations are light, brisk and airy without ignoring occasional moments of rubato to give his playing some interest, while Brahms’ original music is played with a richer tone, deep-in-the-keys touch and more Legato phrasing.

In addition to being appropriate for these various pieces, this diversity of approach also makes the listening experience more interesting. I also discovered certain moments in these scores that somehow escaped me in the past, i.e. some really nice moments of falling chromatics at one point in the Handel variations. In the music based on the Italian composer Paganini and the Italian music-influenced Handel, Grante plays like an Italian pianist, whereas in the other works he sounds much more like a German. Interestingly, the only surviving sound clip we have of Brahms himself playing the piano—crudely recorded on an amateur cylinder—shows him playing with a crisper touch and more direct phrasing than most of the German pianists of his time and a little later who did record his music, so my assumption is that Grante is on the right track.

Yet despite Grante’s excellent playing, I found the Variations in D minor, a somewhat early work (1860) based on his String Sextet No. 1, very dull music. This piece went nowhere, stayed nowhere, and almost made me feel embarrassed for Brahms having written it. The Variations on an Original Theme also wasn’t terribly interesting, but was surely an improvement. Grante played the famous Paganini variations a bit slower than I was used to, but not so much so that they dragged, and he took advantage of this slower tempo to make some interesting points in accent and phrasing.

Before going on with my review of Grante’s playing, a word from the peanut gallery (me) regarding a lot of this older music. Yes, it’s expertly crafted; yes, it’s tuneful and melodic; but it always seems to me that modern-day performers, who have a veritable mountain of more interesting and more complex modern works to choose from, always seem to go overboard in praising this stuff. British cellist Steven Isserlis, for example, thinks the Dvořák Cello Concerto is some kind of spiritual experience but won’t touch the superior cello concerti of Carrillo, Groslot, Hindemith, Lutosławski, Martin, Ranjbaran, Rautavaara, Augusta Read Thomas, Weinberg or Zimmermann. It is not. It is just a nice Romantic cello concerto that’s not too uninteresting in structure. And here, in Grante’s liner notes, we read all sorts of high-flown praise for this music that, although containing a germ of truth, is hyperbole, and not just about Brahms. Here are a couple of examples:

The composers of the Second Viennese School by no means abandoned structural solidity or inner coherence; their works were also conceived as organisms built on definite and recurring “cells,” musical units (pitch series, motives, rhythms, etc.) used throughout. In this respect, Mozart’s example was a difficult model to emulate, as he had achieved a balance between structural precision and linear, melodic inventiveness. He continually varied melodic elements, allowing his music to articulate itself freely but coherently, with the utmost logic, in a way that perhaps only Chopin was able to do with his personal, Romantic compositional language.

But of course, the difference is that Mozart and Chopin took forever and a day in their music to display this balance whereas Schoenberg, Berg and Webern cut to the chase and eliminated all of the pretty melodies and other goopy folderol that overflows Mozart’s and especially Chopin’s music.

The thematic development of the main theme of the first movement of Brahms’ [first] sonata (a compositional technique described by Walter Frisch in his seminal book Brahms and the Principle of Developing Variation) occurs as early as the transition section that joins the principal and subordinate thematic groups. This is a clear indicator of the thematische Arbeit practice, which favours motivic continuity to allow a sense of Fortspinnung (spinning forth) to permeate the movement. Siegfried Kross explains how themes in Brahms’ music draw from the idea of fortspinnung, in spite of the term’s more common associations with Baroque music.

Musically unsophisticated readers, not knowing much about the real nuts and bolts of composition, may well be impressed by this sort of double-talk, but the reality is that inverting musical lines, playing themes backwards (retrograde) and using “pivot points” within the chords of the harmony to shift tonality and thus add sudden surprising moments are things that have been done in music since at least the time Carlo Gesualdo wrote his madrigals in the 16th century. What many of the “Romantic” era composers really did was to elongate the time period between such moments, add pretty tunes to sugar-coat it, and pass these devices off as original. This is exactly the kind of writing about music that acamademics (yes, I purposely misspelled that) think is so cool because it gives them snob appeal and makes them sound like geniuses to the uninitiated.

Now, mind you, I’ve eventually come to like and admire Brahms as a composer, but it took me decades to do so because the few sophisticated touches in it are buried under a mountain of carefully-planned “filler” material. And that’s a fact, Jack. (By the way, Schumann was a different animal. His music, or at least 90% of it, is filled with such audacious and surprising leaps into strange territory that it grabs the listener and makes him or her forget that it was indeed through-composed and not improvised into being.)

I did, however, really like Brahms’ Second Sonata, a work with several more surprises in it and a less predictable route than the first. There seemed to me more real interest and innovation in the first two minutes of the first movement of this sonata than in the entire first movement of No. 1, and Grante brings all of this out in a way that he draws your attention to these surprising moments without over-exaggerating the music. Interestingly, the opening of the third movement almost sounds like something that Alkan would have written…and yes, that’s a compliment. (I’ve been an admirer of Alkan’s music long before I came to appreciate Brahms.) The Op. 5 sonata which closes this program is somewhat more ingenious than the Op. 1 but not as interesting as the Op. 2.

So there you have it. Clearly a worthwhile set, particularly for those of you who, like me, have some of these pieces in my collection but not all of them. Even ignoring the couple of weak works here, it’s definitely worth pursuing due to Grante’s exceptional pianism.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Rediscovering Jimmie Noone

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JIMMIE NOONE: THE APEX OF JAZZ CLARINET / YOUMANS-CAESAR: I Know That You Know (2 tks).4 POWERS: Play That Thing.1 ROSE-HARRISON: Here Comes the Hot Tamale Man.2 GRAY-HELLMAN: Four or Five Times. McHUGH-FIELDS: Every Evening I Miss You. NOONE: Apex Blues (2 tks, the second as Bump It).4 HINES: A Monday Date. SWANSTROM-McCARRON-MORGAN: Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gave to Me. DONALDSON: Oh, Sister, Ain’t That Hot? BURWELL-PARISH: Sweet Lorraine. SCOTT: King Joe. DORSEY-WHITTAKER: It’s Tight Like That. KANTNER: Chicago Rhythm. YOELL-SCHARLIN-JACOB: I Got a Misery. BARBOUR: My Daddy Rocks Me With One Steady Roll. McPHAIL-MICHAELS: San. HILL: Delta Bound. CREAMER-LAYTON: Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.3 NOONE: The Blues Jumped a Rabbit.3 BERNIE-CASEY-PINKARD: Sweet Georgia Brown.3 KLENNER-BRYAN: Japansy.4 THOMAS: New Orleans Hop Scop Blues.4 SULLIVAN: Clambake in B Flat.5 STEELE: High Society6 / Jimmie Noone, cl w/Apex Club Orchestra; 1Ollie Powers & his Harmony Gingersnaps; 2Freddie Keppars & Cookie’s Gingersnaps; 3Noone’s New Orleans Band; 4Jimmie Noone & his Orchestra; 5Capitol Jazzmen; 6Kid Ory & his All-Star New Orleans Band / Retrospective Records RTR4379

Like most early New Orleans musicians whose names are not Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet or Louis Armstrong, clarinetist Jimmie Noone (1895-1944) is largely forgotten except by hardcore New Orleans trad jazz aficionados. Yet in his heyday, the early 1920s through about 1930, both he and Johnny Dodds were considered to be the best jazz clarinetists in America. (Bechet was, of course, also highly regarded, but a) he played the soprano saxophone as much if not more than the clarinet, and b) he spent the years 1925-1930 in France and so was out of the American scene during that period.) Whereas Dodds was highly prized for his strong, acerbic tone and his brilliant high range, Noone went the other way. He could play in the upper range, too, but his glory was his warm, rich sound, especially in the lower or chalumeau register of his instrument (the notes from the lowest E to the Bb above the open G). His tone in this range was the envy of all other clarinetists, even young Benny Goodman who tried hard to incorporate some of Noone’s lower-range sound into his playing. During the Swing Era, the only clarinetists who were noted for being able to play down there like Noone were Chicago-born Joe Marsala and New Orleans-born Irving Prestopnick, who went by the professional name of Fazola, and both acknowledged the older man’s debt.

As an improviser, Noone was typical of New Orleans musicians of his era. He improvised more on the melody and the rhythm than on the harmony. This was a style borrowed from classical music, particularly French classical music which is what informed most early New Orleans jazz along with the blues. Bechet and Louis Armstrong could turn this style into an art form, and they did, but Noone was a more laid-back personality than they were and so he was happy to play with his little band at the Apex Club in Chicago where, for roughly a year, his pianist was none other than the brilliant Earl Hines. It was while Hines was with the Apex Band that they were heard by French composer Maurice Ravel on his excursion to Chicago in 1928, and he was so impressed by him that he offered to write a piano concerto for Hines, which the pianist declined because he couldn’t read music. The liner notes also informed me of two things I did not know. First, that after his early lessons from Lorenzo Tio Sr., the New Orleans clarinet pedagogue, Noone also studied with Franz Schoepp, the generous classical clarinetist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra who also taught Benny Goodman and Buster Bailey, and second, that Ravel claimed to have based his famous Bolero on one of Noone’s improvisations. So whether he is remembered or not, a little bit of his legacy lives on every time the Bolero is played.

I already owned all of the Apex Club recordings included here on other releases, so of course they were not a surprise to me. As you can see, because Noone had a rich, gentle clarinet sound, he chose not to compete with a trumpet in his own band. Instead, he used alto saxist Joe Poston, whose name is otherwise very obscure in jazz history, as the second lead voice in his band. The two of them worked out some really nice choruses in two-part harmony, out of which one or the other (or both) would break free for an improvised solo. The Apex Club recordings are a lot of fun to listen to, and they have a distinct sound quite different from that of any other early jazz band because of the instrumentation.

What interested me were the early and late recordings included here, most of which (to my knowledge) have not been available outside of the Chronological Classics series of CDs devoted to Noone. These present the clarinetist in earlier and later settings, some with famous trumpeters such as Freddie Keppard and Charlie Shavers. To me, Keppard has always been an enigma. He was supposedly the greatest trumpet star in New Orleans after Buddy Bolden went insane in 1907, yet his playing on his surviving records is stiff and corny, with no swing and uninteresting variants. In my view, he wasn’t even half as good as were King Oliver, king of the cup mute, Nick LaRocca of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Tommy Ladnier, or even George Mitchell, who played on several of Jelly Roll Morton’s early Red Hot Peppers recordings. Even Johnny Dunn, whose name is more obscure than Mitchell’s, played hotter trumpet than Keppard. But it’s interesting to hear Noone in earlier, different surroundings.  and his playing on these two pre-Apex Club tracks is excellent. Ladnier’s bluesy solo on Play That Thing is superb, which forces Noone to bring his “A” game to the table. Keppard’s corny, ragtime cornet on Here Comes the Hot Tamale Man is easily surpassed by Noone’s lovely, flowing style.

Needless to say, all of the Apex Club Band sides are classics, even My Daddy Rocks Me which features the rather acidic voice of vocalist May Alix (who all but ruined Louis Armstrong’s classic recording og Big Butter and Egg Man). You’ll also notice that by late 1928, Earl Hines was gone from the band; this was because he had saved up his pennies in order to start his own big band, an excellent one, that played at Chicago’s Grand Terrace ballroom. He was replaced by one Zinky Cohn, who basically just keeps time on the keyboard.

Although Noone’s 1936 recordings feature a true swing rhythm section and the excellent but little-known trumpeter Guy Kelly (as well as another but obscure musician, pianist Gideon Honore), he doesn’t sound bad at all when it’s his turn for a solo. Playing with the more modern Charlie Shavers in 1937, however, gave him a handful to deal with. At age 18, Shavers had already been playing in a band with the equally young Dizzy Gillespie, and the two of them were trading ideas and moving the role of the trumpet beyond what Roy Eldridge was doing. But on this session, Noone had New Orleans “homeboy” in Wellman Braud on bass, and on the remake of Apex Blues (here, for some strange reason, titled Bump It), Noone is laid back and relaxed, but he definitely sounds stiffer and less swinging on I Know That You Know except for the last chorus where he really cuts loose. Even so, Noone definitely sounds more relaxed overall in the lone 1940 track by “Jimmie Noone & his Orchestra,” a band full of New Orleans homeboys: trumpeter Natty Dominique, trombonist Preston Jackson, pianist Richard M. Jones, guitarist Lonnie Johnson and bassist Jon Lindsay.

Then we jump ahead three years to 1943 and an “all star” jam band in which Noone is partnered by Jack Teagarden, tenor saxist Dave Matthews, swing trumpeter extraordinaire Billy May and bassist Art Shapiro. He acquits himself well, but certainly sounds more comfortable playing in trombonist Kid Ory’s retro New Orleans band the following year. He had found a late-career home at last, was hugely enjoying playing with Ory and this band, but unfortunately died in April 1944, aged only 48. According to his son, he didn’t drink or smoke but “ate himself to death,” a plight that also befell one of his most celebrated successors, Irving Fazola, who died in 1949 at an even younger age, 36.

Ironically, the deaths of Noone and Fazola put an end to this style of rich, deep clarinet playing, but it had run its course anyway. The cool school clarinetists of the late 1940s and early ‘50s certainly owed something to them, but by 1958 the clarinet was being dropped by nearly all modern jazz groups. Still, it’s great fun to listen to a master like Noone and recognize the music’s past.

As in the case of other Retrospective jazz releases I’ve heard, the recordings are very cleanly remastered. They are not one of these labels who believe in including all of the original surface noise of the original 78s on their CDs, and I applaud them for that. But they do tend to roll back the treble end of their records a bit more than I like or consider necessary. Except for Play That Thing and High Society, which sounds perfect to my ears, I would recommend boosting the treble on most of the other tracks by 1.5 db, which produces a more realistic sound. (You can judge this by how well you can hear the snare drum and cymbals in the drum kit.)

Even so, this is a great introduction to Noone for the uninitiated.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Anita Cerquetti: The Legend Continues

Cerquetti

Italy in the 1950s and very early 1960s was a testing-ground for the kind of operatic programming that neither they nor any other country has done before or since, a mixture of standard repertoire works with great older operas that had not been staged for decades as well as some modern operas that were worthy of staging as well. This meant that, in addition to all the Rossini-Bellini-Donizetti-Verdi-Giordano-Puccini stuff that had become regular operatic fare in Italy by then, audiences could also hear, and see on stage, great operas by Gluck, Salieri, Cherubini, Spontini, Weber, Mussorgsky and Wagner that had not been performed there (La Scala gave its first-ever complete “Ring” cycle in 1950, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler) as well as 20th-century works by Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Orff, Pizzetti and others that, sadly, would not be repeated in later seasons. And it wasn’t just at La Scala, and not just to satisfy the desires of soprano Maria Callas. These operas were also performed in Naples, Venice, Florence. Spoleto and other operatic cities within Italy.

And when the management couldn’t get such star names as Callas or Tebaldi to perform these works, one of the young sopranos they could always rely on was a heavy-set young woman named Anita Cerquetti. A native of Montecosaro, she actually trained to be a violinist—eight years, in fact, with Luigi Mori—only to discover at age 19 that she had a fine singing voice. After only one year of voice lessons, she made her debut at age 20 in Spoleto as Aida. Nowadays she’d probably be forced to get her Master’s degree, which would take her to age 24, then go through six or eight years’ worth of vocal competitions before they’d even let her on stage, but this was a different time when your ability to actually sing well took precedence over your formal education and competition credentials.

Word spread slowly within Italy about Cerquetti’s abilities, but with each new triumph the whispers became louder and the news traveled faster. By the time she sang the Italian version of Cherubini’s Les Abencérages (Gli Abencerrogi) under Carlo Maria Giulini, whose reputation as a conductor was also growing, in 1956, the secret was out. Cerquetti, despite her hefty size and not-so-lovely face, could inhabit an operatic role dramatically with the intensity of Callas but with a far better voice.

Interestingly, Cerquetti did sing in America—at the Chicago Lyric Opera for three years, from 1955 to 1957, singing both Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera and Elisabetta in Don Carlo with tenor Jussi Björling, at that time a refugee from the Metropolitan Opera where general director Rudolf Bing had gotten tired of his cancellations. Though none of them were recorded, those performances became the stuff of legend.

Her success in the Cherubini opera led to three even bigger ones in 1957, a Forza del Destino with Pier Miranda-Ferraro, Aldo Protti, Giulietta Simionato and Boris Christoff (conducted by Nino Sanzogno), Un Ballo in Maschera with Ettore Bastianini and Gianno Poggi, and an even more celebrated Ernani with Mario del Monaco, Bastianini and conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos. Suddenly, Cerquetti was a name to be reckoned with, at least within Italy, but she didn’t hit the international scene until January 1958. That was when Maria Callas made her infamous “Rome walkout,” refusing to sing a performance of Norma despite the presence of the Italian president and royalty because she didn’t feel up to it. Cerquetti was her understudy; she stepped into the breach, sang everyone else (including tenor Franco Corelli) off the stage, and suddenly became a cause célèbre. Almost immediately, the Decca-London label signed her up and recorded an operatic aria recital as well as a complete La Gioconda in which she was partnered, again, by del Monaco and Bastianini. Suddenly, Anita Cerquetti was the hottest new property in the opera world.

But in 1961, after a so-so performance of Verdi’s Nabucco, she dropped out of sight and was never seen or heard on an operatic stage thereafter. For decades, the rumors spread that she had lost her voice due to inadequate training and over-exposure, singing roles too heavy for her too soon and too often. Cerquetti herself stayed silent most of the time, but occasionally issued public statements that this wasn’t altogether true, that she was under heavy emotional stress at the time because her father was dying (which was true) and that she chose not to return to the stage because she didn’t like many of the newer “conceptual” productions which she found distasteful. But of course, this didn’t satisfy the legions of Cerquetti fans who just wanted her to sing again, period, regardless of the cost to her.

Eventually, decades later, she revealed the whole story. Around the time her father died, she had married and had a daughter. By the time her daughter was four years old, her voice had returned to its former glory. But because she had been so young and perhaps because so much was expected of her due of the extraordinary quality of her voice,  she was very self-critical. “After a performance,” she said, “I would go back to my hotel room and relive the whole day over again. Did I warm up properly, or enough? What did I do right in the performance? What did I do wrong, and why did it go wrong? How could I prevent that from going wrong in the next performance? It was all very stressful. After 1965, I was offered many chances to return. A few times, I almost gave in. But then I thought to myself, To return under the gun? Enough! (Basta!)”

On Facebook, Italian composer-conductor Angelo Inglese posted this fascinating reminiscence of the great soprano:

“I had the great honor of knowing her and dating her for years. A special friendship, of those that enrich you, transform and ennoble you; of those that bring you closer to an otherwise inaccessible world: a world of legend… I witnessed and accompanied some of her lessons with young singers – it was awesome to see how much she lived every single word of the roles she played. The emotions she conveyed were fluttering, ardent and passionate, because in every sentence, every single sound, there was a storm of feelings linked to memories, and the impressions lived on stage around the world. She transmitted to share and donate, with extreme generosity, everything she possessed in her deepest intimate [feelings]. It was burning and slid with impetus. I still see before my eyes her elevated hands, her tight fist and her index finger strained upwards, how to engrave, shape and chisel – just like a sculptor or a skilled oraph – the music in marbles, stones or precious metals.

“With me she opened up, hatching her world, exposing all her deepest emotions. I will never forget how many tears she shed as we listened to her historic recordings of Ernani, Norma, Aida, Agnes of Hohenstaufen, Oberon. We were there, listening to ‘Here’s the horrid field′ of a masked dance; she stared into my eyes, to look into my soul, and as soon as she sensed my vibration, a whisper of mine, – her ‘Forward’ was something superhuman… or, maybe, extremely human – she used to hold my arm, as if she said: ‘You know!’ At her house I met the Livornese baritone Edo Ferretti, her husband. With Edo was born, from the first meeting, a blunt friendship, a deep affinity, an incredible understanding between a Tuscan and an Apulian… Poor Edo, a few months after I met him, had a brain ischemia, which led to his death. That was the period when, every single day, I would collect Mrs. Anita from her house om Via Mantegna to take her to the Sant’ Eugenio hospital in Rome, and visit her husband. Every day for almost 3 months, I witnessed the inevitable deterioration of his condition. Every visit, Edo held my hands tightly to thank me for the affection I had towards his beloved wife. In the last days Edo’s conditions were compromised, and I saw Anita wrapped in melodramatic despair; I drove her home and she abandoned herself in her memories, seeking consolation in her music.”

This, then, was Anita Cerquetti, an almost perfect singer with only one deficiency, the lack of a trill; but when you listen to her sing, somehow the omission of this decoration in “Ernani, involami” or “Ozean, zu ungeheuer” from Oberon (another unusual opera which she performed on stage) doesn’t seem to matter. As one commentator on Amazon put it, as soon as Cerquetti started singing you felt immediately drawn into her world of emotions; she lived and breathed the character she was portraying, every bit as much as Callas. And this is why the legend continues, despite the sometimes uneven casting in her live performances. Rarely did she have a tenor who respected the written notes and the lyric line as well as Björling did with her in Chicago; most of the time she got stuck with Gianni Poggi, a tenor with a coarse-sounding voice and a bull-in-a-china-shop musical style. Occasionally she sang with Mario del Monaco, who had a better voice but was even a coarser interpreter. In Mexico City she actually had Carlo Bergonzi with her in Il Trovatore, but the incomplete recording of that performance has wholly inadequate sound. Thus I can only really recommend three and a half opera recordings to display how great she really was:

CherubiniCHERUBINI: Gli Abencerragi / Louis Roney, tenor (Almansor); Alvino Misciano, baritone (Gonzalvo); Mario Petri, bass (Alemar); Augusto Frati, baritone (Octair); Paolo Washington, bass (Alamir); Anita Cerquetti, soprano (Noraima); Lidia Toncelli, mezzo (Egilona); Lorenzo Tesi, bass (Araldo); Carlo Maria Giulini, conductor; Teatro Comunale, Florence Orch. & Chorus / Gala 100.577

One of Cherubini’s late operas (1813), Les Abencérages with its large choruses and grand spectacle is considered an important influence on French Grand Opéra. The plot revolves around the feud between the families of the Abencerrages and the Zegris. In spite of this conflict, Almanzor, a young Abencerrage warrior, and the Zegri princess Noraïme have fallen in love and are due to be married (can anyone say Aida?). Almanzor has also made friends with the Spanish noble, Gonzalve of Cordoba, and forged a peace treaty between the Muslims and the Christians. But Almanzor’s popularity has made him enemies among many of the Zegris and they plotted against him. On the day of the wedding, a revolt breaks out among a subject tribe and Almanzor is forced to leave to quell it. He takes with him the standard of Granada, which is so sacred that its loss would mean exile.

In this performance Cerquetti is partnered with three excellent singers, the well-known bass Mario Petri, the lesser-known bass Paolo Washington, and the virtually unknown American tenor Louis Roney, who had a beautiful voice and a fine sense of drama. Young Giulini conducts with wonderful feeling and little of the draggy tempi that marred many of his later live performances and recordings. And oh, yes, Cerquetti will rivet you to the wall.

Forza coverVERDI: La Forza del Destino / Antonio Massaria, bass (Marchese); Anita Cerquetti, soprano (Leonora); Aldo Protti, baritone (Don Carlo); Pier Miranda-Ferraro, tenor (Don Alvaro); Giulietta Simionato, mezzo (Preziosilla); Boris Christoff, bass (Padre Guardiano); Renato Capecchi, baritone (Fra Melitone); Vera Presti, soprano (Curra); Adelio Zagonara, tenor (Trabucco); Renzo Gonzales, baritone (Surgeon); Eraldo Costa, baritone (Alcaide); Nino Sanzogno, conductor; RAI Rome Chorus & Orchestra / Myto MCD00124

This is the 1957 performance referred to in my above article. If it had been performed complete, it would be my preferred Forza of choice, but in keeping with performance practice of the time it omits the third-act final duet, “Sleale! Il segreto.” Every singer in this remarkable performances sounds locked into his or her character, even the usually-snarly Boris Christoff as Padre Guardiano. Pier Miranda-Ferraro, a much-maligned tenor because he was in very poor voice for his one and only commercial recording, the stereo La Gioconda with Callas, was actually one of Italy’s most interesting tenors. He had a fine if not conventionally beautiful voice and could sing both exceptional lyric lines and interpret his character superbly. Many years after this performance, in 1974, I saw him perform Otello at the Newark Opera opposite soprano Mary Costa and baritone Giuseppe Taddei; it was one of the most overwhelming experiences of my entire operagoing life. But no one believes me because of that dreaded Gioconda. Listen to this Forza, and you’ll be a believer in his excellence as a singing actor.

And Cerquetti…oh my God, how can I describe Cerquetti in this performance? Characterful? Mesmerizing? Somehow these words pale in comparison to the extraordinary range of color and feeling she brings to the role. Just one example of how good she was: after she finishes singing “Madre, pietosa vergine,” the Roman audience does not explode in applause as they would have done with Tebaldi or Callas. They just sit there silently, waiting for the performance to continue. They were too moved, too much in shock from what they had just heard and didn’t want to break the spell. At the end of the act, after she sings “La vergine degl’angeli,” they do applaud…after a few seconds. Reluctantly. Again, they were too moved to want to break the spell. That’s how much Cerquetti’s singing moved them.

And one final note. Giulietta Simionato, who was utterly boring in all of her studio recordings but not in live performance, sings the greatest Preziosilla you’ll ever hear. The voice is towering, she pours everything she has into it, and makes Preziosilla sound like Carmen. You’ll never want to hear anyone else sing this role after hearing her. I promise.

NormaBELLINI: Norma (excerpts) / Anita Cerquetti, soprano (Norma); Giulio Neri, bass (Oroveso); Franco Corelli, tenor (Pollione); Miriam Pirazzini, mezzo-soprano (Adalgisa); Giannella Borelli, soprano (Clotilde); Piero de Palma, tenor (Flavio); Rome Opera Chorus & Orchestra; Gabriele Santini, conductor / Myto MCD00142

This is the famous Rome Norma that made Cerquetti an international sensation. Yes, it exists complete, and here it is, but after hearing it you’ll probably do what I did, which is to cut out as much of Franco Corelli’s disgracefully distorted singing as possible. And it’s really noticeable. Every time you hear Cerquetti, Neri and/or Pirazzini singing, you have a riveting performance that is both musically correct and dramatically exciting, but every time Corelli opens his mouth it’s as if you’ve switched stations on the radio and are listening to an entirely different, and badly-sung, performance. Of course, your tolerance for Corelli may be higher than mine, which only extends to two live performances, the 1954 La Vestale with Callas and the 1959 Adriana Lecouvreur with Olivero.

GiocondaPONCHIELLI: La Gioconda / Anita Cerquetti, soprano (Gioconda); Giulietta Simionato, mezzo (Laura); Mario del Monaco, tenor (Enzo); Ettore Bastianini, baritone (Barnaba); Cesare Siepi, bass (Alvise); Franca Schachi, contralto (La Cieca); Giorgio Giorgetti, bass (Zuàne); Athos Cesarini, tenor (Isèpo); Gianandrea Gavazzeni, conductor; Florence May Festival Orchestra & Chorus / Urania WS 121.201

This, Cerquetti’s only complete studio opera recording, is still a gem 63 years after it was recorded. Yes, del Monaco sings too loudly at times, but Enzo Grimaldo is a role you can do that in, and everyone else is splendid—even Simionato who, singing here with Cerquetti, had her fire to draw on. Decca-London was also smart to engage Gianandrea Gavazzeni, himself a composer and one of the most musical of Italian conductors of that era, to lead this performance, because he actually imposes structure on this often-rambling score and makes musical sense out of it. If you like Callas as Gioconda, you’ll love Cerquetti…she’s everything Callas was, but with a much better voice.

And of course, there are many operatic excerpts you should hear by Cerquetti from complete opera performances that otherwise had weak cast members as well as her aria LP which includes her phenomenal performance of the aria from Spontini’s opera Agnese di Hohenstaufen. Virtually anything that Cerquetti herself left us on record is valuable, and I think that, once you hear a good amount of her singing, you’ll be saying to yourself, “Maria who?

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Stern Conducts One-Movement Symphonies

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BARBER: First Symphony. SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 7. SCRIABIN: Symphony No. 4, “Poem of Ecstasy” / Kansas City Symphony Orch.; Michael Stern, cond / Reference Recordings RR-149

This is exactly the kind of imaginative programming that I long to see on most symphonic CD releases but seldom do. Of the three works presented here, the Scriabin is undoubtedly the most famous although the Sibelius is also programmed once in a while. But the Samuel Barber Symphony of 1936? I’d never even heard it before, and although I’m sure there are other recordings out there I’ve never run across it previously.

And who exactly are Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony? It turns out that the latter was founded in 1982, so it is kind of a Johnny-come-lately among American orchestras. As for Stern, he has been the orchestra’s music director since 1995, and is also artistic director of the Germantown, Tennessee IRIS Orchestra, known for its innovative programming and commissioning of new works. So it makes sense that on this disc, Stern and “his” orchestra present a varied and interesting program, not some cookie-cutter 19th-century schlock thrown together to anesthetize his audience with familiar sounds.

Although I’ve never much liked Barber’s larger works—I always felt that he worked best in short forms, i.e. the Adagio, Essays for Orchestra and his songs—this particular symphony does have its moments. It exhibits his lyricism, which is obvious from the pieces I cited above, and he ties this in well with the more dramatic moments of the work. Here his youthful imagination (he was only 26 when he wrote it) created an interesting tapestry of sound. It’s not really a first-class symphony, but it is an interesting one and uses more modern harmonies in places than one is used to from his later operas. It’s only when you reach the second, slow section of the symphony that the music becomes uninteresting, overly lyrical and a bit drippy without saying very much, that your attention wanders.

In the Sibelius Symphony, which I know fairly well, I could judge Stern’s conducting style a bit better. He reminds me of James Conlon: superb control of orchestral balance and textures, good phrasing, but like Conlon he is somewhat reticent in his emotional projection of the music. Compared with the average modern conductor his performance of this symphony is quite acceptable, but when pitted against such past conductors of this symphony as Sir Thomas Beecham and Charles Munch, it is rather lacking in orchestral color and emotion. Sadly, the greatest Sibelius conductor of all time, the composer’s great friend Robert Kajanus, died after recording his first five symphonies and thus never made his own recording of this piece. Stern give you a good, solid, professional performance but doesn’t quite go as deep as one would like.

Stern’s Poem of Ecstasy is likewise beautifully phrased and articulated, but in his hands the ecstasy is somewhat on the cool side. Nonetheless, I heard many interesting details in the music that escape many a recording by more famous conductors, and his pacing of the symphony is excellent.

In brief, then, an interesting album, particularly valuable if you’d like to have the Barber Symphony, but there are just too many competitors in the Sibelius and Scriabin for this to be a first choice.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Andre Ferreri’s Hot New Album

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NUMERO UNO / FERRERI: Mighty Fine.+ Seasons.* Uptown Swing.* Numero Uno.* Avia Pervia.# We Were All Children.* Good Bones. On the Move.+ Making Major Changes.+ Making Minor Changes. Love Letter to Mary / Andre Ferreri, gtr; Ziad Rabie, t-sax; Anna Stadlman, bs; Kobie Watkins, dm; Philip Howe, +Sean Higgins, *Marc Stallinger, pno/org; #Brad Wilcox, tpt / Laser Records 3730

My regular readers know that I am generally allergic to most jazz and classical guitarists, not because they don’t have technique or sometimes good ideas but because far too many of them play in a soft, wimpy style that I personally detest.

Happily, Andre Ferreri isn’t one of them.

Yet, initially, I was apprehensive about this CD when I read that Ferreri had played with “an array of pop, soul and jazz legends,” particularly where pop and soul are concerned. I was also a bit fearful when I read that Ferrari started out playing rock music before discovering jazz. But, as it turns out, I shouldn’t have worried. The music on this CD, and particularly Ferreri’s solos, are jazz pieces and jazz solos, not someone trying to sound like Eric Clapton in Cream. But I will say that I think Ferreri’s experience in rock music, and perhaps also in soul music, probably informs his approach ot the guitar, which is joyful, exuberant and exciting as well as full of wonderful musical ideas.

And what a band he has! This is no “lounge jazz guitar quartet.” These musicians really play their hearts out, and all of them are good. Ferreri’s own improvisations focus on rhythmic variation as much as they do on thematic, but he manages to hold your interest due to his variety of approach in the way he attacks the strings of his guitar. Moreover, he and his bandmates really listen to one another and give everything they’ve got.

Perhaps because of his background in rock and soul music, most of the pieces on this album tend towards the old funky jazz style of the late 1950s-early ‘60s, what I and many others define as the “Blue Note style.” This gives the album a bit of a retro feel, but when the playing is this good, who cares? Just listen, for instance, to Ferreri’s blues-drenched entrance on Uptown Swing. It’s perfect..continues the mood of the Hammond B3 organ preceding it, and announces his arrival with a dramatic little flourish that sets the tone for the increasingly complex solo that follows. In fact, this entire performance put me in mind of the superb but often-overlooked G.E. Smith and the Saturday Night Live band of the 1970s and ‘80s. And holy crap, can Marc Stallinger play that Hammond B3 organ!!! Shades of Jimmy Smith or Barbara Dennerlein!

As for Ferreri’s original tunes, they’re functional without being really impressive. Nothing in the theme statements or construction really sticks in your mind, but it’s really the entire group as a unit, how they cohere in ensembles and how good they are in their solos, that overcomes any shortcomings in composition. The tunes are good enough for what the band is playing, and with everyone operating at peak efficiency it’s hard to quibble with the results.

Moreover, I even enjoyed Ferreri’s playing in the slow introduction to Numero Uno. He just has a really nice way of enlivening every phrase he plays, and his superb grasp of rhythm serves him well regardless of tempo or musical context. He’s just a really good guitarist.

Case in point is the wonderful four-way chase chorus between Ferreri, pianist Philip Howe, tenor saxist Ziad Rabie and guest trumpeter Brad Wilcox (this is the only track he plays on) in the middle of Avia Pervia. This has to be not only the highlight of this CD but one of the finest pieces of ensemble improvisation I’ve ever heard in my life. And they almost make it sound easy.

I also give Ferreri points for the variety in tempo and feel in the way he programs this CD. Only one piece, We Were All Children,  is a ballad, it’s placed smack in the middle of the disc, and it’s not offensively sappy. Immediately following it, in fact, is the oddly-metered Good Bones (it sounds like it’s in 12/8 to me, although with a bridge in straight four) which is provides wonderful contrast.

Of course, none of the jazz presented here is modern. When your models are retro musicians and styles, no matter how good, the result is going to be somewhat retro as well, although Making Major Changes is a harmonically interesting piece, but if that doesn’t upset your sensibilities too much, you’ll find that Numero Uno is an excellent album with nary a bad track on it. And that’s something you can’t say for most modern jazz CDs nowadays.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Martial Solal’s Last Concert

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what a performanceCOMING YESTERDAY / DUKE-GERSHWIN: I Can’t Get Started. SOLAL: Coming Yesterday. ELLINGTON-TIZOL-STRAYHORN: Medley: SOLAL: Sir Jack. YOUMANS-CAESAR: Tea for Two. TRADITIONAL: Happy Birthday. RAMIREZ-SHERMAN-DAVIS: Lover Man. RAYE-DePAUL-JOHNSTON: I’ll Remember April. RODGERS-HART: My Funny Valentine. Have You Met Miss Jones? / Martial Solal, pno; / Challenge CR 73516 (live: Paris, January 23, 2019)

“When I walked onto the stage on January 23, 2019,” Martial Solal wrote, “I did not yet know that I would decide not to play piano anymore after this concert, more than seventy years after my debut. To maintain a certain level, this instrument requires your daily attention; it requires delicacy, brutality, and especially energy. I have lived with these demands all my life, with the joy of seeing the progress, the technical and musical advances, the rhythmic and harmonic enrichments that we acquire over time. Of course, everything goes very fast at first. As long as you are gifted, if you spend a little time on it, if you listen to what was done before you, if you choose a path, everything may seem easy. Progress is rapid, illusions are immense, and then walls arise, walls that you want to reach and overcome. Seventy years to achieve this is a minimum… When energy is no longer available, it is better to stop.”

Thus ended the career of the then-91-year-old pianist who had been France’s first real jazz keyboard superstar, a man who came up during the bebop era, jammed with both Django Reinhardt and Sidney Bechet, made a tremendous impact at his American debut during the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival, then continued a brilliant career year after year until this concert.

Ironically for a man who came up playing the most modern jazz, Solal never moved beyond the bop/progressive swing orbit, which is reflected in his choice of tunes in this last album. He didn’t much care for free jazz, fusion or the other avant-garde styles that emerged from the mid-1960s onward, yet his playing, described by French critic Jean-Pierre Thiollet as “brilliant, unique and intellectual,” never failed to generate enthusiasm.

And he is superb on this CD as well. You’d never guess that this was the work of a 91-year-old man; it has the same freshness and sparkle as his earlier recordings, and that in itself is a testament to his greatness. The only other pianist I can think of who comes close to him for both longevity and brilliance is Dick Hyman. Hyman spent much of his career emulating the styles of earlier great pianists such as Jelly Roll Morton, Arthur Schutt, Fats Waller, Art Tatum and Bud Powell, though he does indeed have his own way of playing when he has a mind to.

The intro to I Can’t Get Started is typical of his style: bitonal, rhythmically asymmetric, and until he plays a few notes of the melody almost a minute in, you haven’t a clue what song he’s playing. Solal always marched to the beat of a different drummer, which in a way is an ironic statement because through much of his career he played entirely solo, without drums (or bass). I liken his style to a more modern, abstract version of Earl Hines, and although one can nitpick on a few moments here and there where his technique doesn’t sound quite as smooth as it did in decades past, it is still good enough to allow him to play whatever comes into his head.

Indeed, Solal’s abstract approach to both tune construction and improvisation continues throughout this recital, showing him to have still been operating at a very high level despite his years. I can’t think of too many contemporaries of his, save perhaps McCoy Tyner and one or two others, who could produce what Solal did on the piano.

In fact, his penchant for cerebral deconstruction of the music he plays continues throughout the set, and it is this that continually grabs one’s attention. The lack of a fully fluent technique does not interfere with what he is doing because what he is doing goes beyond technique. And occasionally he makes you laugh, as when he suddenly ends Tea for Two with the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. He can even take as simple a tune as Happy Birthday to You and turn it upside-down and inside-out, throwing in a bit of blues and boogie along the way. And there were a couple of moments in his treatment of Lover Man that reminded me of Dave Brubeck.

What a wonderful gift this is from the old man of French jazz, an icon for more than 60 years. This is a CD to treasure.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Italian Musicians Play Hindemith

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HINDEMITH: Flute Sonata. Oboe Sonata. Bassoon Sonata. Clarinet Sonata. French Horn Sonata. Trumpet Sonata. English Horn Sonata. Trombone Sonata. Alto Saxophone Sonata. Tuba Sonata. Echo for Flute & Piano / Claudia Giottoli, fl; Simone Frondini, ob; Luca Franceschelli, bsn; Simone Simonelli, cl; Maria Chiara Braccalenti, E-hn; Gabriele Falcioni, Fr-hn; Vincenzo Pierotti, tpt; Gabriele Marchetti, tb; David Brutti, a-sax; Gianluca Grosso, tuba; Jana Theresa Hildebrandt, spkr; Filippo Farinelli, pno / Brilliant Classics 95755

A sign of the times: a half-century ago, you’d almost never catch Italian chamber musicians playing Paul Hindemith, but here are almost a dozen of them (plus a German speaker who participates in the alto saxophone sonata) and they do a wonderful job. For once, Hindemith’s music sounds rhythmically livelier than usual, with what you might call an Italian accent in the rhythm, and the wind and brass soloists all sound lively and involved in the music.

I already owned the brass instrument sonatas, plus the sonata for four horns and piano not included here, on a Summit recording that is also quite fine, but these performances are their equal. As for the wind instrument sonatas, I admit that this is my first hearing of them but if the high quality of the brass sonatas is any indication they’re probably competitive with the best recordings out there.

There are some listeners out there, including some quite experienced ones, who have little patience for Hindemith’s music. They find his tonal clashes abrasive and many of his melody lines ugly. But of course, some of them have their own agendas to pursue, and I freely admit that Hindemith is not for everyone. Nonetheless, what often sounded abrasive and uncomfortable 30 or 40 years ago can now sound positively lyrical next to some of the abrasive bullshit music being written, performed and recorded today. Kaja Saariaho is just one name I can pull up off the top of my head whose music says nothing to me and in addition sounds consistently ugly .

But as I said above, the liveliness of these musicians’ performances sometimes give the music an extra rhythmic kick that Germans often lack. The third-movement “Marsch” in the Flute Sonata is but one example; here, Claudia Giottoli plays it with sparkle and élan, and on top of that her accompanist, Filippo Farinelli, gives it a jauntiness that you seldom hear from German pianists.

And it isn’t just Giottoli who plays this way; even Simone Frondini sounds alive and engaged in the oboe sonata, and it’s been my experience that oboists have a hard time sounding lively on their instrument. But to be honest, I didn’t find this particular sonata all that interesting musically; to me, it sounded pretty formulaic, as if Hindemith had written it on autopilot. The bassoon sonata, alas, has very little zip to it, but the bassoon is an even more lugubrious instrument than the oboe so I feel sorry for Hindemith for having tackled such a difficult project. Certainly, the second movement of this piece is among Hindemith’s most lyrical creations. And wait until you hear the wonderful life and energy in their performance of perhaps the best-known piece on this CD, the horn sonata.

The sonatas for trumpet, trombone and more unusual instrument such as the tuba, English horn and alto saxophone (I wonder what prompted that one?) are equally well played although, as I say, Hindemith’s approach to writing each of these was quite similar. Taken one at a time, they are delightful and fascinating, but absorbing them one after another can produce a feeling of déjà vu in the listener. Nonetheless, I found the trombone sonata different from most of its predecessors, particularly the first movement written at a very fast tempo and including some tricky syncopations for the piano accompanist. There’s a spoken introduction to the last movement of the alto sax sonata, untranslated in the booklet, that I haven’t a clue what it means.

The tuba sonata is also quite different, but then again, this was the last of these pieces that he wrote (1955), and by that time Hindemith’s style had become a bit more abstract and less linear. I’m sure that some listeners will find this the least palatable of these sonatas, but I found it quite interesting because it was so different, and yet valid. Even in his least accessible works, Hindemith always maintained a strong sense of structure in his writing, and this in itself holds one’s interest along with the strange interaction between the tuba, which in the first movement plays some extremely odd and difficult figures, and the piano which almost acts more as a commentator than an accompanist.

I really enjoyed this CD, even in its strangest moments. All of the musicians involved play with such energy that you never get bored.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Jaime Aragall’s Forgotten “Marina”

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ARRIETA: Marina / Victoria Canalé, sop (Marina); Jaime Aragall, ten (Jorge); Antonio Blancas, bar (Roque); Victor de Narké, bs (Pasquale); Coro de Camera del Orfeon Donostiarra; Philharmonic Orch. of Spain; Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, cond / available at House of Opera as CD or available for free streaming on YouTube

Pascual Juan Emilio Arrieta Corera, now often known simply as Emilio Arrieta y Corena, was born Navarre in 1823, but somehow he acquired Italian musical training. Queen Isabel II took a shine to him and allowed him to concentrate on writing operas, hoping that one of them might click as big as Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia or Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore and make both Arrieta and Spain famous.

After only three operas, however, none of which became popular, Arrieta was sidetracked into writing zarzuelas but was never really fond of them or committed to the form, since the majority of them were very simple structures, almost high-grade pop tunes strung together and interrupted by spoken dialogue à la the French opéra-comique style. Marina, in fact, was one of three such works he penned in 1855, and although it became the most popular of the three it only had a local following within Spain.

That is, until the great Italian tenor Enrico Tamberlick discovered it. He was immediately attracted to its catchy tunes and saw possibilities in it for him to shine, but in order to bring it to Italy it had to be a fully-flashed-out opera complete with sung recitatives. Tamberlick contacted Arrieta and asked him if he would be amenable to doing this; the composer eagerly agreed and, in addition to writing sung recits, he expanded the work from two acts to three. Few of the tenor’s high notes are written in the score for the character of Jorge, but of course this was the era of “tack ‘em on if you’ve got ‘em,” and since Tamberlick was famous for his high Bs and Cs he did so.

The premiere of the operatic version of Marina took place in 1871 and, if possible, it was even more successful than the premiere of the zarzuela version. Tamberlick rode Marina to glory, making Arrieta’s name famous throughout Italy, but sad to say there was no sequel. Marina remained his one bit “hit” outside of Spain.

But one opera as popular as this one was enough for him. He was happy, Tamberlick was happy, and audiences left the theater humming and whistling the tunes from Marina. No matter that the music was entertaining and not much more than that; no matter, too, that Marina’s last aria was obviously cribbed from the mad scene  of Lucia di Lammermoor. In its own way, in its own time, Marina was as popular as Flotow’s Martha and Adam’s Le Postillon de Longjumeau.

But strictly entertaining and dramatically shallow works like Marina were never meant to stay popular forever, thus by the early 20th century Italy was through with it. Interestingly, however, the operatic version traveled back to Spain and became quite popular in that country again—now in its operatic garb, but still sometimes, and erroneously, referred to as a zarzuela. It became a vehicle for the great Spanish baritone Emilio Sagi-Barba and the tenor Miguel Fleta, who created the role of Calaf in the world premiere of Puccini’s Turandot. On February 17-18, 1928, Spanish HMV gathered these two singers and soprano Matilde Revenga in the studio to record an album of highlights from the opera, which began selling very well.

And there the matter may have ended but for the fiery, almost obsessive rivalry between Fleta and another Spanish tenor, Hipolito Lazaro. Lazaro envied Fleta for having created the role of Calaf because his voice was only half the size of Lazaro’s, and seeing this album on the market selling fairly well in Spain almost drove him crazy. “I can sing better than that old uncle!” was Lazaro’s cry. (Apparently, in Spanish culture of the time, to sing like or be an “old uncle” was the ultimate insult to a man’s virility.) So the next year, 1929, either Lazaro or someone at the offices of Spanish Columbia decided to record not just highlights but three-quarters of the complete opera with what was then an all-star cast: Lazaro, soprano Mercedes Capsir, baritone Marcos Redondo and the fabulous basso José Mardones. From the time that the Lazaro Marina came out, the album has been considered a collector’s item. It has been in and out of print on LP and CD for generations and is still considered to be the gold standard for that work.

Interestingly, stage performances of Marina had rather dwindled, even in Spain, by the time these recordings came out. In the 1950s, two recordings were made in mono, one of highlights on the Montilla label with soprano Maria Caballer, tenor Fernando Baño Ferrando and baritone Luis Sagi Vela, and a complete performance on the Carillon label with soprano Pilarín Álvarez, a young Alfredo Kraus and baritone Francisco Kraus, the tenor’s older brother. Both had modest sales, mostly within Spain, and sunk without a trace. In 1962 Catalan tenor Bernabe Marti, who married soprano Montserrat Caballé two years later, recorded his own version of the opera, but he had such an ugly voice that the album had only modest sales. In 1987, then aged 60 and a world-famous tenor, Alfredo Kraus reprised the role of Jorge in live performances and made a new recording in digital stereo with soprano Maria Bayo and baritone Juan Pons. That version sold fairly well due to Kraus’ high reputation as an artistic tenor.

But…

Maria Bayo had a fluttery wobble in her voice and Juan Pons had a somewhat strained-sounding baritone, on top of which, for all his fine artistry, Alfredo Kraus was really too old by that point to sing the difficult music of the dashing young sailor who wins Marina’s heart. So I just kept on looking for another recording, and then came across this one on YouTube.

It’s superb.

At first I thought it was recorded in the 1980s because all of the copyright dates I kept finding for it were dated 1987 (including on the House of Opera website), but eventually I discovered that it came out 20 years earlier, in 1967. In fact, the label of the original Spanish Columbia LP clearly dates it as 1967.

LP labelThe star of this show is Jaime (Giacomo) Aragall (b. 1939), the gifted Spanish tenor who fought debilitating performances nerves for 15 years and, as a result, had a tendency to sing flat at times, yet many people forgave him because he had such a beautiful and superbly-placed voice. I first heard him around 1969 on the old Lorin Maazel recording of La Traviata, a performance ruined for me by the fluttery singing of soprano Pilar Lorengar…yet I never forgot the impression that Aragall’s voice made on me. He’s in top form here, tossing out his high notes with impunity, including high Cs which, of course, is one note that his more famous rival Placido Domingo never had.

But who are the other singers? They were something of a mystery to me, thus I relied on my old friend Joe Pearce, president of the Vocal Record Collectors’ Society, for information. Soprano Victoria Canalé is the biggest mystery singer. All that Pearce and I could find on her was that she performed Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in Chile in 1962, conducted by Georg Jochum, the younger brother of Eugen Jochum, and that she performed in a 1976 concert with the New York Philharmonic under then-music director Pierre Boulez. There were other singers on the program with her, and the repertoire included de Falla’s El Amor Brujo (normally sung by a mezzo or contralto) plus songs of Leonard Bernstein. Otherwise, she has no internet presence.

Baritone Antonio Blancas was born the same year as Aragall (1939) but for some reason grew up in Montevideo, Uruguay, where he made his debut in 1961 (again, the same year as Aragall’s debut). He then went to Europe a few years later but, oddly, sang mostly in German opera houses and occasionally at the Paris Opera. He made a few zarzuela recordings and also married soprano Angeles Gullin; both of them appeared in the opera written for Placido Domingo, “El Poeta.” To the best of my knowledge, he is still with us.

The bass, Victor de Narké, was the oldest singer in this performance, having been born in 1930. He studied voice with Robert Kinsky and Editha Fleischer, the latter being, according to my late friend Dr. Louis Leslie, one of the finest sopranos at the Metropolitan Opera in the early 1930s but one who never made any recordings. After making his debut at the Teatro Colon in Argentina in the mid-1950s, he stayed there until his death, singing a large number of leading roles including both Verdi and Wagner. This surprised me because his voice really doesn’t sound all that imposing or great on this recording, but the interesting thing is that he died in 1986, the year before this Marina was supposedly recorded.

I won’t pretend that de Narké is in the same league with Mardones, but he gets by in what is, after all, pretty much a character part (he’s Marina’s unwanted suitor, a rough pipe fitter who keeps bringing her flowers and candy). Blancas, however, is nearly as good as Marcos Redondo, and soprano Canalé had a beautiful voice, pure and full. Plus, she had a pretty good trill, which is something that Capsir never possessed, and shows it off to good advantage in her music.

And here are two interesting facts regarding performance practice that I found worth noting. First, probably less consequential but still odd, is that all recordings of Marina use the full operatic version yet list it on the album covers as a “zarzuela”—which, in this version, it clearly is not. Secondly, and this will undoubtedly interest and rile up the historically-informed-performance crowd, in all recordings of the opera up through 1962 the chorus sounds like a group of drunken amateurs. This, I was told, is and has been Spanish performance practice since Arrieta was writing his zarzuelas in the 1840s and ‘50s, but on both the present recording and Alfredo Kraus’ 1987 remake, the chorus sounds lush, full and thoroughly professional. So, just like the use of heavy portamento in string playing, this is yet another aspect of real historic practice that has been rejected in our present day because it simply doesn’t fit our expectations.

Now, of course, all you can really get out of Marina is some top-notch entertainment wrapped in a well-written score with plenty of tunes that people can hum. Had it been a comedy with some interesting plot twists like Martha or L’Elisir d’Amore, it would probably be much more popular, but it’s hard to get excited over an opera whose plot simply revolves for 110 minutes around a young woman who wants to marry the handsome, hunky sailor Jorge, who raised her when she was orphaned, instead of her dumpy ship’s fitter boyfriend Pasqual. There’s very little dramatic conflict in the libretto other than a letter written by Marina, the intent of which is misconstrued by Jorge. It’s just a matter of Jorge not knowing for some time that Marina has the hots for him, and once he finds out of course he’s her man. The End. But as Ayn Rand once pointed out, no matter how intellectual your pursuits are, even in music, everyone loves what she referred to as “tiddlywink music,” and Marina certainly fills the bill. Arrieta was a good enough composer that what he wrote is by no means uninteresting although it is pretty much formula Italian opera music with one or two authentic Spanish tunes thrown in for color. By and large, you’ll enjoy Marina if your sights aren’t set too high, the same way you can occasionally enjoy Donizetti’s Fille du Regiment for the same reason. It’s a pick-me-up for tired business people or, in this day and age, Covid-19-weary travelers.

Thus I recommend it for what it is and make no pretensions that it’s better than that. And this is clearly a first-class performance of it.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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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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what a performanceBACEWICZ: 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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