More Alan Shulman

Stuyvesant String Quartet

The Stuyvesant String Quartet. L to R: Sylvan Shulman, Bernard Robbins, Alan Shulman, Ralph Hersh, 1947

Since, when I recently reviewed the new Bridge release of Alan Shulman’s film soundtrack music, I suggested that the represented “a gifted musician knocking off some film scores for money (and maybe also for fun), throwing in some excellent passages to offset the banal ones.” But of course this only referred to his film music, and the same can be said of the very gifted composer George Antheil’s soundtrack music.

To understand Shulman a little better, let us take a look at some of his other work and see how it fares, which I think is pretty well. We’ll also examine his work with his various string quartets.

Passepied labelIn 1935, Shulman was a founding member of the Kreiner String Quartet founded by violist Edward Kreiner, who introduced Henry Huss’ Sonata for Viola & Piano in 1920 with Benno Moisewitsch. As in most of his musical activities, Alan made sure that his violinist brother Sylvan was involved, and he was, as first violin. Forgotten today, the Kreiner Quartet only lasted three years, but they made some very interesting recordings including one of Charles Tomlinson Griffes’ First Indian Sketch, William Hain’s Lament, Beryl Rubinstein’s Passepied and Gian Francisco Malipiero’s Rispetti e Strambotti (String Quartet No. 1), which later became a featured piece of Shulman’s own Stuyvesant String Quartet. You can download and listen to the latter two pieces HERE in beautifully-restored 1937 copies from The Shellackophile.

As mentioned in my previous article, Alan and Sylvan both became members of the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1937 along with violist Kreiner. It was also in the NBC Symphony that Alan met the future members of his quartet, second violinists Josef Gingold, Harry Glickman and Bernard Robbins and violists Louis Kievman, Emmanuel Vardi and Ralph Hersh.

Hiigh Voltage label 1939The Shulman brothers had scarcely gotten settled in as charter members of the NBC Symphony under Toscanini before they formed their own Stuyvesant String Quartet. In its 14-year existence (1938-1954 minus the three war years), they made a number of outstanding and historically important recordings, of which we’ll get to in a moment, but their earliest exposure on records came as the result of an experiment that Shulman tried out just for fun: swinging performances of jazz-styled originals and pastiches, with the addition of guitarist Tony Colucci, bassist Harry Patent and harpist Laura Newell under the name of New Friends of Rhythm. They made their radio debut on an NBC Variety Show on June 4, 1939 playing Shulman’s original composition, High Voltage, and the piece generated so much enthusiasm that Victor signed them to a contract to make records in that vein, which they did for two years.

Only a few of the New Friends of Rhythm records, however, featured Shulman compositions, the only two that I know of being High Voltage and Mood in Question. Though hardly his best pieces, they’re very interesting as, aside from Red Norvo’s 1933  The Dance of the Octopus, they are the first Third Stream pieces ever written. Even more interestingly, on their recording session of May 24, 1940, the group included a guest musician, clarinetist Buster Bailey who at the time was a busy member of John Kirby’s jazz sextet. I’m pretty certain that these are the first recordings ever made in which an African-American jazz musician played with a string section, predating Dizzy Gillespie’s records with Johnny Richards’ studio orchestra by six years. More importantly, Bailey was playing here with a string group that swung and played interesting figures, not just a string section that played whole and half notes while the soloist improvised. You can listen to some of the New Friends’ recordings HERE. (One final note: Mood in Question was also recorded in 1949 by Artie Shaw with the New Music Quartet.) Most of them were rearrangements of well-known classical music like the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 as well as such pop-classical pieces as The Carnival of Venice and Hora Staccato. They were very well played and ingeniously arranged but, once again, really didn’t show that much of Shulman’s immense talent.

Col MM483 labelIn 1941, much to their surprise, the Stuyvesant Quartet was signed by Columbia to record two relatively new pieces by Dmitri Shostakovich: his Piano Quintet and his first String Quartet. Pianist Vivian Rifkin, who was later the first wife of famed African-American conductor Dean Dixon, played on the first, which was made on May 7 & 8, 1941. Their recording of the String Quartet was not the first, however; David Hall’s 1940 Record Book mentions a recording by the unknown York Quartet on the Royale label, but Royale had gone bankrupt by the time Shulman and his quartet made their version on July 20, 1942, shortly before Musicians’ Union president James C. Petrillo instituted the first of his career-killing recording bans.

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One might have thought that, with his NBC connections and the success of the New Friends of Rhythm records, the Stuyvesant Quartet would have been signed by RCA to make records, but for reasons known only to RCA and its president David Sarnoff, they had absolutely no interest in promoting string quartet records by then. In 1940, when the Budapest String Quartet’s Victor contract lapsed, the company made no effort to re-sign them and they ended up on Columbia, where they were best-sellers for the next quarter-century.

Also during this period, Shulman’s Theme and Variations for Viola and Orchestra was premiered by his friend Emanuel Vardi with the NBC Symphony Orchestra on one of their broadcasts. This was on February 2, 1942, a time when Toscanini was no longer music director of the orchestra. He had walked out over a dispute about the amount of time his musicians were contracted to rehearse with him and not have to play on other NBC radio shows; Leopold Stokowski eventually took over as music director, but since Toscanini hated Stokowski he slowly but surely inveigled his way back in, at least as principal guest conductor, until Stokie was gone. This piece, though only mildly modern in harmony, is very well written and is still performed today by violists. You can listen to it HERE or buy it as part of Bridge CD 9119.

BCD9137 coverAfter the war, Shulman entered a very active period during which he rejoined the NBC Symphony, re-formed the Stuyvesant Quartet and wrote film scores for M-G-M and Pathé-RKO, mostly for shorts but eventually culminating in RKO’s 1950 film noir feature film, The Tattooed Stranger. This is the music which I covered in my previous Shulman article. His music for Freedom From Famine is excellent, as is about 14 minutes’ worth of the Tattooed Stranger score. In 1946 he wrote Rendezvous for Clarinet & String Quartet for Benny Goodman, which the famed clarinetist played on the radio but never recorded (Artie Shaw recorded it in 1949 along with Shulman’s Mood in Question). But the Goodman performance was recorded, and has been issued on Bridge 9137 along with some stunning performances of standard string quartet fare by the group.

Parnassus CD coverThis was also a busy time for the Stuyvesant Quartet. Now consisting of fellow NBC Symphony colleagues Bernard Robbins on second violin and Ralph Hersh on viola, they had some of their performances recorded live at the Majestic Theater in New York in surprisingly high-fidelity sound in 1947, among them excellent performances of the Villa-Lobos String Quartet No. 6 and the Brahms Clarinet Quintet with fellow NBC musician Alfred Gallodoro. The Villa-Lobos may be heard HERE or purchased from Parnassus Records on a CD that also includes Paul Hindemith’s String Quartet in F minor and the intriguing Quincy Porter String Quartet No. 7 while the Brahms Quintet can be found on Bridge 9397, a CD that also includes two studio recordings of Mozart quartets (Nos. 20 & 21) originally made for the Concert Hall Society label.

In 1948, by which time Shulman had rejoined the NBC Symphony, he wrote his one and only Cello Concerto. This really was a superb piece, composed for his good friend Leonard Rose, who gave the premiere with Dmitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic on April 13, 1950. There is a superb recording of it by American cellist Wesley Baldwin with the Hot Springs Music Festival Symphony Orchestra on Albany (Troy 1187) along with his Cello Suite.

Debussy and Ravel Qrts - PH-104By this time we’ve reached the early 1950s and, although Shulman lived until June 2002, this was really the last of his really productive years. From this period come further recordings by the Stuyvesant Quartet, the Ravel String Quartet, Debussy’s String Quartet No. 1 and their own version of the Malipiero Rispetto e Strambotti. The Ravel and Debussy quartets were originally recorded by Shulman’s own label, Philharmonia Records, and then reissued in 1964—alas, in electronically created “stereo”—by Vanguard, but at least it revived the name of the quartet, which disbanded in 1954. All three of these performances are also available on Bridge 9137.

BCD9119 coverIn 1952 Toscanini’s protégé, Guido Cantelli, conducted a performance of Shulman’s A Laurentian Overture on the orchestra’s NBC broadcast. This is a very peppy piece in Shulman’s best third stream style, incorporating jazz rhythms into the score (which Cantelli handled very well, by the way) as well as some complex rhythm and harmony. It is also available on Bridge 9119 in addition to being available for free streaming HERE.  Then in 1954, Schulman’s friend (and another NBC colleague) Don Gillis, who had written the humorous Symphony No. 5 ½, led performances of two more light-hearted pieces in the New Friends of Rhythm vein, Minuet for Moderns and The Bop Gavotte…but with the NBC Concert Orchestra, not the full symphony. The latter is particularly well written, though the reference to bop was strictly a mnemonic device; there are no bop rhythms in the piece and no extended chords up to a 9th or an 11th to mark it as bop-related. These pieces, too, are on Bridge 9119.

Shulman occasionally wrote music thereafter, most notably a Kol Nidre for cello and piano in 1970, but after so many years of working so hard he took it pretty easy thereafter, which in a way made him a forgotten man in the classical world. Fortunately, Columbia Records reissued his quartet’s Shostakovich recordings on its Odyssey label in the early 1970s, thus bringing attention to one of the greatest string quartets that ever existed. All of these are worth hearing and investigating as the life’s work of a fascinating and diverse musician.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Alan Shulman’s Movie Soundtracks

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SHULMAN: The Tattooed Stranger. Tennessee Valley Authority. Freedom and Famine. Port of New York. Behind Your Radial Dial / Pathé Orchestra, RKO Radio Pictures Orchestra; unidentified conductors / Bridge 9560

This is an album of film music, specifically original RKO-Pathé film soundtracks recorded between 1946 and 1950. My readers know that I generally detest film music, but there are exceptions, among them Benjamin Britten, Aaron Copland, George Antheil and several of those hip, jazz-influenced soundtracks of the period 1953-1961.

Alan Shulman is one such. Born in Baltimore on June 4, 1915 of Jewish-Russian émigrés. A child prodigy, he formed a trio with his brother Sylvan on violin and his sister Violet on piano when he was only eight years old. He and his family moved to New York when he was 15 and he never desired to live anywhere else. In 1931 he joined Local 802 in New York, entered Juilliard in 1932 (where he studied for five years) and in 1933 became part of a string quartet that played popular music on NBC (and was the group’s arranger). In 1935 he joined the Kriener String Quartet, a group headed by violinist Edward Kriener, and in 1937 was chosen as one of the cellists in the newly-formed NBC Symphony Orchestra, simultaneously working as a regular staff musician for both NBC’s Red and Blue networks. In 1938 he formed his own Stuyvesant String Quartet with brother Sylvan on first violin, Zelly Smirnoff on second violin and Louis Kievman on viola, although those two inner voices changed over the years. The following year, the quartet, amplified by harpist Laura Newell, guitarist Tony Colucci and bassist Harry Patent, started broadcasting and recording Shulman’s own arrangements of light classical pieces in a jazz style under the name “New Friends of Rhythm.” Jazz trumpeter Eddie Bailey was quoted as saying that “Alan had the greatest ear of any musician I ever came across. He had better than perfect pitch. I’ve simply never met anyone like him.” In 1942 he decided to help his country in World War II, and so joined the Maritime Service as a Merchant Marine; after his basic training, he spent the war years at Sheepshead Bay, arranging for and performing in the Maritime Service Orchestra—essentially a much lower-profile version of the job that Glenn Miller was doing with the Army Air Force Band in England.

During the war, Shulman also collaborated with Nathaniel Shilkret scoring a documentary film, Private Smith of the U.S.A. for MGM in Hollywood. When he came out of the service in 1945, he also met with Herman Fuchs, then the music editor for Pathé News Service, where he was hired to write a score for a documentary short, Tennessee Valley Authority, and this is where we finally reach the music on this CD. Eventually both Fuchs and Shulman moved from Pathé to RKO Radio Pictures, where they continued their collaboration until 1950. The Tattooed Stranger, a B-picture film noir, turned out to be Shulman’s last film scoring assignment. Conductor Felix Slatkin tried to convince Shulman to move to Los Angeles, where he would get many more film score assignments, but Shulman had a bad experience during his MGM period (which lasted until 1946) that he had no taste to leave the East Coast ever again.

This CD opens with his last score, The Tattooed Stranger, rather than one of the earlier assignments. Without being able to see the film, I have no clue what was supposed to be going on, but the 24 minutes worth of music here is mostly fast and busy-sounding. Although clearly music written to support film scenes, it is unusually complex, including, according to the booklet, “an eerie sextuplet figure that also appears in his 1950 Threnody for string quartet.” The problem with the Tattooed Stranger soundtrack is that he constantly alternates some really excellent music (some of which sounds like Shostakovich) with music that is only theatrically effective, which is not the same thing.

Shulman was a good composer but not always a great one. He knew how to set a mood and he also understood the fundamentals of composition well enough to write some fine pieces, such as the Theme & Variations for Viola and Orchestra, premiered by his friend Emmanuel Vardi with the NBC Symphony in January 1942 and the Laurentian Overture conducted by Guido Cantelli with the NBC Symphony in 1952. His lifelong fascination with jazz also led to some interesting hybrids, such as The Bop Gavotte and Minuet for Moderns, conducted by his friend Don Gillis with the NBC Concert Orchestra, but I think, all in all, Shulman’s pieces retain their fascination mostly because they were different from everyone else’s. There’s a certain restlessness in both his extended compositions and this film music that sometimes works well and sometimes doesn’t. As I say, this is film music and without the visuals I can’t say how effective it is in setting and sustaining the proper moods, so of course one can’t judge this on the same level as his serious works. Personally, I felt that Tennessee Valley Authority worked better and was more cohesive than The Tattooed Stranger, but then you also have to consider that the former is an integral score meant to be played as is from start to finish while the music for The Tattooed Stranger, though recorded all at once, was broken up and inserted into film sequences separated from each other and not meant to be heard sequentially. At least half of The Tattooed Stranger score is excellent and interesting.

Shulman’s TVA score, though similar to Virgil Thomson’s The Plow That Broke the Plains, contains more moments of tuneful, Romantic-style music, which (without seeing the film) one has a hard time reconciling with the TVA.

Much more cohesive as a piece is his 10-minute score for Freedom From Famine, also from 1946. Here, the slow music is more atmospheric and less “pretty.” This is a very fine piece of music. At around 1:57, he cleverly quotes a snippet of the Star-Spangled Banner, played very slowly by an oboe. In Port of New York, we’re back to busy, chipper-sounding music. We end with a very brief (1:21) snippet from Behind Your Radial Dial which cleverly combines jazz-like figures with a bit of NBC’s “chimes” signature.

My overall impression is of a gifted musician knocking off some film scores for money (and maybe also for fun), throwing in some excellent passages to offset the banal ones. Considering the period and the tastes of the American public, he did an excellent job, but in the harsh, cold light of posterity, these scores are somewhat better than average but no more than that. There’s just a bit too much bombast—martial rhythms and trumpet fanfares—for my taste, but as I said, all of Freedom From Famine and roughly half of The Tattooed Stranger are very good.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Chisson & Atschba Present “20th Century Feminine”

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L. BOULANGER: Nocturne. D’un matin de printemps. BACEWICZ: Violin Sonata No. 4. USTVOLSKAYA: Violin Sonata. HIGDON: String Poetic / Louise Chisson, vln; Tamara Atschba, pno / Hänssler Classic CD HC20044

French violinist Louise Chisson and Russian pianist Tamara Atschba appear to be two very earnest young women who care enough about music to present such an unusual program as this, works by four well known but still not often played female composers of the 20th century. They have been performing as a duo since 2008 and, in addition to such standard fare as Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Poulenc and Debussy, they like to include music by Lutosławski, Szymanowski and Shostakovich as well.

The sad thing about the two Lili Boulanger pieces presented here is that, although they are well-crafted as usual, they give only a hint of the even greater music she wrote for orchestra and/or chorus, which remain undervalued and seldom performed. Nonetheless, it’s always nice to hear good versions of her music, and Chisson clearly loves this music, digging into it with great feeling.

The emotional commitment of the two performers boded well for the remainder of the program, particularly the music of Bacewicz and Ustvolskaya which demand all-out performances. The former’s Violin Sonata No. 4 is perhaps more often played and recorded than the other four sonatas, and their performance of it here is really splendid, as good as that of Magdalena Ziarkowska-Kolacka on Divine Art.

I was particularly interested to hear how they would play Ustvolskaya’s Violin Sonata, since I was only used to the performance by Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Markus Hinterhauser. Although Chisson is a violinist who uses a light vibrato in sustained notes, whereas Kopatchinskaja uses straight tone almost all the time, the former played the music with very good feeling, though the duo’s performance is a bit swifter in tempo and just a bit less bleak than that of Kopatchinskaja-Hinterhauser. This brings the music more in line with the other pieces on this CD although I still think that Kopatchinskaja gets a bit deeper under the skin of this strange, bleak piece. Perhaps it’s the difference between French sensibility and that of a Russian. On the positive side, however, Chisson and Atschba bring out the structure in the music somewhat more clearly. Kopatchinskaja-Hinterhauser play it more subjectively, Chisson-Atschba more objectively. (Ironically, for an album that focuses on women composers per se, Ustvolskaya was dead set against being separated from other composers by reason of gender.)

Jennifer Higdon’s music is primarily noted for being lyrical yet modern, but in the opening movement of String Poetic the music is atonal and edgy, opening with the pianist thumping on her instrument, followed by strange upward phrases played by the violinist. This is clearly one of her most interesting and edgy pieces, despite the temporary lull into the second-movement “Nocturne” which is still much sadder than most of her music. Besides, Higdon returns to her uncharacteristically edgy mood in the third piece, “Blue Hills of Mist,” where the pianist plays soft, low notes and chords with one hand while plucking some of the inside strings of her instrument with the other, which creates a very strange effect even though the violinist plays a slow, arching bitonal melody above it. Late in the movement, it is the violinist who plucks some strange notes on her instrument.

The fourth movement, “Maze Mechanical,” is a moto perpetuo for the two instruments using bitonal and modal harmony that never quite resolves itself. “Climb Jagged,” the last movement, also begins with thumps from inside the piano, this time in the contrabass range, but the music becomes quite swift as the two protagonists constantly challenge one another.

Thus what began with music of the early 20th century French school ends with one of the most stunning and original pieces that Higdon has ever written. A remarkable journey, with excellent playing from both musicians and first-class sound.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Juan Calderon’s Guitar Music

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CALDERON: 6 Songs for Soprano & Guitar on poetry by Octavio Gamboa.* 5 Guitar Pieces I & II. Improvisation V / Juan Calderon, gtr; *Stephanie Lamprea, sop / Centaur CRC 3872

From the blurb for this CD:

New York city composer and guitarist Juan Calderon is a native of Ecuador raised in Colombia. He immigrated to Miami at age 20 to escape the political climate of the late 90’s and resides in Manhattan since 2008. Juan’s music blends elements from his experience as a recording and touring rock guitarist in Colombia and Miami, and extensive studies on East Asian music inspired by interaction with musicians and artists in China, Japan, and Indonesia.

As a guitarist, Calderon employs a somewhat soft attack but his music blends South American Latino melodies with interesting harmonic forms. In the 6 Songs on poetry by Octavio Gamboa he is joined by Stephanie Lamprea, a pure-voiced soprano with both an excellent technique and crystal-clear diction. The music is more of a general projection of mood through melody and harmony than a really word-specific setting of the poetry.

Calderon’s music takes a more interesting turn in the first of his guitar pieces, titled “Study for Atonal Chord Progressions.” Nonetheless, the dominant feel of his music is melodic and tonal: even in this piece, he consistently resolves the dissonances as he goes along, and for me this spoils whatever effect he had intended.

What makes this recording interesting is the superb manner in which his guitar is recorded, very up-close so that you can hear his fingers sliding over the strings as he plays. This gives the listener an immediacy that is not always present in classical guitar recordings.

Even so, it’s hard to get really excited over the music Calderon presents here. It’s very nice, and I particularly liked a few of the songs, but that’s about it. Worth hearing for Lamprea’s superb singing, however.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The Symphonies of Maliszeweski

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MALISZEWSKI: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Joyful Overture. Scherzo & Overture Honoring Schubert. Bajka (Fairy Tale). Legend / Jósef Elsner Opole Philharmonic Orch.; Przemysław Neumann, cond / Dux 1716-18

I seriously doubt that many readers of this blog have ever heard of composer Witold Maliszewski (1873-1939); I certainly hadn’t. Well, it turns out he was Jósef and Leonia Maliszewski’s kid, originally studied piano with his mom, and at the age of 16 enrolled in a music school that was a branch of the Russian Music Society. There, he studied composition with the well-known Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, who later became director of the Moscow Conservatory, and later still continued his education at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, so he was well-grounded in the Russian musical style.

Thus we know going into this album that Maliszewski wrote in a Romantic style, and moreover one influenced by Russians more than Poles, but upon hearing his music one notes that it is by no means cookie-cutter music. Maliszewski clearly developed his own musical style, and if only a little of it was based on real Polish music it had what I hear as authentic Polish rhythms. It was also interesting music; it did not get bogged down in treacly tunes and beat them to death, but rather alternated lush Romantic melodies with arresting rhythmic passages. He also had a keen ear for harmony and knew how to quickly shift gears here and there based on pivot-points in the underlying chords. Thus even from the time of his first symphony (1902), one hears not an insipid Russian music clone, like Anton Rubinstein, but a mature composer who knew what he was about and tried to write music that was original and striking without employing modern techniques from the French and German composers of his day.

As a matter of fact, at about the five-minute mark in the first movement of his first symphony, I heard motifs reminiscent of Hector Berlioz, surely a little-played and little-admired composer at that time…but there it is. If anything, Maliszewski’s method of writing orchestral music seemed to me to have more in common with not only Berlioz but also with Dvořák, and that’s not a bad thing. Even the “Andante” of the first symphony has a good forward movement and moments of double-Time passages that are quite exciting. In the Scherzo, as the melody line runs upwards, the harmony moves downwards chromatically. The Joyful Overture, from the same year, is likewise filled with themes that sound Slavic, partly Russian, partly Czech or Hungarian.

Maliszewski’s cheerful but interesting style is also heard in the second symphony, from 1905.  Of course, when heard sequentially like this, one notes the similarity of themes and the way he handles them; he was no Brahms or even a Dvořák; but within his own style he was interesting to hear and consistent in his working methods. Yet this symphony did not strike me as being as eclectic and original as the first.

Although again being in four movements, the third symphony (1907) has a much more pronounced Russian-style theme in the first movement, moody and restless, in which he again plays with the harmony (particularly around the 10:40 mark). Here, Maliszewski returns to the more eclectic style of his First Symphony, but adds some new wrinkles like the third movement, an extended theme-and-variations which runs over 15 minutes, and several of these variations are indeed ingenious. (It seems to me that only the First and Third Symphony have been previously recorded.) The finale is as brilliant and exciting as that of the Tchaikovsky Fourth.

Maliszewski’s own Fourth Symphony, dating from 1923, was dedicated to his “Newborn and Recovered Homeland,” Poland, which had finally become independent and named Ignacy Jan Paderewski its Prime Minister in 1919. This is the only one of his symphonies to use Polish-based themes, for obvious reasons, and here, too one senses even further growth as a composer. There is a wonderful counter-melody in the first movement played by the basses against the high winds and strings at one point, and he also alludes to the first movement of the Dvořák “New World” Symphony without quoting it exactly. In the second-movement “Allegro scherzando,” Maliszewski again plays with rhythm, bouncing between a straight four, 6/8 time, and an irregular meter somewhere in between, at one point even overlaying one meter on top of another! He also has some fun with the rhythm in the last movement, which at times seems to run backwards.

Following the last symphony are three late orchestral pieces dating from 1928-30. All of them have fairly high levels of creativity, showing that even as he approached age 60 Maliszewski still had the spirit and imagination of a younger man. The problem was, of course, that by the 1920s strictly tonal, Romantic music like this was considered to be yesterday’s news; most of the younger musicians were into Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bartók, Antheil, Milhaud, Honegger, Schulhoff, and others of that time. Thus it was probably good for him that Maliszewski now built his career in his native Poland, where he co-founded the Frydryk Chopin Institute and later headed the Department of Science and the Arts, where his retro-styled music still found a receptive audience. (One will note that, even at that time, the Polish government was mucking things up, as they are today, by combining Church and State: the Department of Science and Arts grew out of a nefarious organization called the Polish Ministry for Religious Denominations and Public Enlightenment. Poland just has a really hard time keeping Roman Catholicism out of their government functions.)

The Schubert tribute is particularly ingenious, opening with a paraphrase from the Eighth Symphony but eventually becoming a set of variations on the principal theme of the last movement of the Ninth Symphony—before returning again to the Eighth. By contrast, Fairy Tale (Bajka) is one of his lightest and happiest works, very close in spirit to the tone poems of Smetana and Dvořák, despite an ominous passage featuring downward portamenti on the trombones and some menacing tympani.

Interestingly, modern composer Witold Lutosławski was one of Maliszewski’s pupils, and despite their obvious differences in aesthetic views the younger composer had high words of praise for the older:

Witold Maliszewski instilled in the student a rigorous attitude towards one’s mate­rials and a sense of responsibility for every note one wrote. He was merciless in ferreting out the haphazard and illogical. […] Faithful to his aesthetic as an artist and to his ethical values as a man, he could serve as a role model for generations of young artists at the threshold of their careers.

Of course, some or even much of the excitement in these performances may be due to the wonderful conducting of Przemysław Neumann, a name completely unknown to me. He certainly gets the Jósef Elsner Opole Philharmonic to play with energy and passion, which clearly helps in our appreciation of the music. Even so, my verdict is that Witold Maliszewski is a very unjustly forgotten composer. Of all the works on this set, only the Second Symphony is rather conventional; otherwise, his musical imagination was extremely fertile and bore some surprising fruit. Highly recommended!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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More Donatoni: The Piano Music

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DONATONI: Leoncavallo. Cloches II.* “…la Renzo de Marcella.” A Françoise. Rima. Estratto. Black and White No. 2.* Tre Improvvisazioni. Compozitione in Quattro movimenti / Maria Isabella di Carli *& Mariarosa Bodini, pno / Stradivarius STR33627

Here is yet another album, this one dating from January 2002, of Franco Donatoni’s bizarre music, these pieces being written for piano(s). You’d have a tough time guessing that the first piece on this disc, which lasts all of 35 seconds, is his tribute to Ruggiero Leoncavallo, since it sounds nothing like his music.

If you think Donatoni’s music sounded fragmentary and quirky in his chamber works, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. These pieces are as strange as you could possibly imagine: not even motifs are present, only little grunting notes, often separated by a half-second of silence, played in succession in such a way that the music almost stumbles along. Interestingly, the almost minimal biographical information on Wikipedia gives no indication as to his composing style; I don’t think even they could figure it out. Donatoni gave you the barest possible musical gestures and let you put them together in your head, and they’re far more complex than a jigsaw puzzle. Yet at the same time, there’s something curiously attractive about this music, in part because it’s so whimsical that it somehow makes you smile. It’s just…nutty.

Yet one never gets the impression that Donatoni was someone who just threw notes against the wall to see what would stick. There was a definite method to his musical madness; it’s just not always apparent to the untrained ear. The closest I can come to characterizing his compositional style in just one word would be to call it “pointillistic.” His music is the aural equivalent of a Paul Klee pr D.U.R.A. painting. Occasionally, as in the first section of Rima,  one hears rhythms that sound somewhat regular, but these too are uncommon occurrences.

One thing I found interesting is that Donatoni stayed primarily in the high upper end of the piano; there are extremely few bass notes played in these pieces (Black and White No. 2, for two pianos, is a rare exception). This, too give the music a whimsical sound and keeps the listener on his or her toes. Somewhere along the line, it suddenly struck me that this music sounds like a musically trained piano tuner who decided to have some fun while tuning up the old 88s.

I’m not sure that pianist Maria Isabella di Carli has ever made another commercial recording besides this one, yet oddly enough there’s a live performance of the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 available on the Guild label, a performance conducted by Leopold Stokowski at the 1969 International Youth Festival. Personally, I’m glad that she ditched Mozart for Donatoni, but apparently she paid the price for her daring move.

The question, however, is whether or not this is music that will “stay” with you. My own personal opinion is that it is not as varied and therefore not as interesting as his chamber works. Even so, playing a few of these pieces in a recital would probably make more of an impression that hearing them all at once on this disc. Good performances, then, even if the music tends towards sameness.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The City of Tomorrow Plays Modern Works

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DONATONI: Blow. LASH: Leander and Hero. SALONEN: Memoria / The City of Tomorrow: Elise Blatchford, fl/pic; Stuart Breczinski, ob/E-hn; Rane Moore, cl/Eb-cl; Nanci Belmont, bsn/contrabsn; Leander Star, Fr-hn / New Focus Recordings FCR294

It’s rather sad that the name of this modern-music chamber ensemble is The City of Tomorrow, because it is already 2021 and playing modern classical music on a regular basis is still not the wave of the present. I fear, in fact, that it shall forever be “tomorrow,” a tomorrow that never comes…sort of like the White Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass. “It’s always jam yesterday and jam tomorrow,” she said, “but never jam today.” The classical establishment here in the 21st century is still running on a 75-yeear-model in which “modern” works means Debussy, Ravel, Koechlin, Nielsen, Prokofiev, Bartók, Enescu and their contemporaries but only a very little Stravinsky and even less Schoenberg. Getting up to speed with a composer as strange as Franco Donatoni, who died 21 years ago at the age of 73, is still an uphill battle.

And yes, Donatoni’s Blow is just as strange as his other music: fragmented into little bits and shards of music, edgy but also with a sense of humor which most modern music does not have. The liner notes indicate that “the horn seems to be the arbiter of disputes between various solo instruments versus the rest of the group.” The music moves quickly, with stiff rhythms played in an asymmetrical meter; tonality is out of the question except, strangely enough, for a few brief moments when the ensemble is playing as a unit. Although Donatoni doesn’t really develop the music conventionally (he seldom did), things tend to become a bit more cohesive as the piece goes on…until the 9:45 mark, where the entire chamber group seems to be having a free-for-all knockdown, drag-out fight to the finish. And nobody wins.

Hannah Lash (b. 1981) wrote Leander and Hero on a commission from The City of Tomorrow. You can ignore the fact that the group asked her to write something apocalyptic based on Climate Change; the piece is actually based on the Greek myth in which the besotted Leander swims across the Hellespont every night to be with his sweetie Hero, only to be drowned by Poseidon in a vicious storm. (You see? They even had Climate Change back in the pre-Industrial Age!) Lash’s music uses some techniques that are similar to Donatoni but her music is generally more lyrical and somewhat more rooted in tonality, or at least bitonality rather than atonality. Personally, I don’t hear much relationship between the music and the story; there are, however, a lot of little fluttering wind passages which may possibly represent Leander swimming his little heart out.

Rather than being presented in one continuous movement, Leander and Hero is divided into nine sections, the first and last being titled “The Cliffs.” The others are titled “Courting Dance: Slow and Ancient,” which struck me as boring and of very little interest; “Flocking,” “First Storm,” “Hero and Leander,” “Interlude: away from the rocks,” “The Storm; Leander does not return to the nest,” and “Hero Finds Leander’s Body and Will Not Leave His Side.” By and large, it’s a nice piece. pleasant to listen to while it’s being played but nothing much to write home about. Even in “Flocking,” Lash’s music overstays its welcome, repeating identical or similar figures over and over and over again. In “Hero Finds Leander’s Body,” Lash beats her sad little musical lick to death; the effect is neither sad nor touching, merely annoying.

Fortunately, the CD ends with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Memoria, a piece written for the 20th anniversary of the Avanti Chamber Orchestra in 2003. This is a fine piece, well-structured and musically interesting, very bitonal throughout but not trying to be purposely abrasive. Yet the music is constantly in flux, both thematically and harmonically. There’s a wonderfully complex canon in the middle and, according to the notes, “Memoria ends in memory of Berio with a homophonic chorale featuring the darker grain of alto flute, English horn and contrabassoon.” An excellent piece.

So there you have it: two excellent pieces sandwiched around a very inferior one, but all are played superbly by the group and, after all, you never know what you’ll come up with when you commission new music. That’s the risk you take; fortunately, more than half the time you come up with gems.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Kalevi Aho’s Solo Pieces

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AHO: Solo IV for Cello / Samuli Peltonen, cel / Solo XII – In Memoriam EJR / Hiyoli Togawa, vla / Solo IX for Oboe / Piet van Bockstal, oboe / Solo XIV for Clarinet / Simon Reitmaier, cl / Solo V for Bassoon / Bram van Sambeek, bsn / Solo X for Horn / Marie-Luise Neunecker, Fr-hn / Solo III for Flute / Sharon Bezaly, fl / Bis SACD-2446

On this odd but wonderful SACD, composer Kalevi Aho, known primary for his fascinating orchestral works, presents seven pieces for individual soloists written between 1990 (Solo III) and 2019 (Solo XIV). I think what surprised me most of all was how lyrical most of these pieces are. No matter that, when writing for them in an orchestral setting, Aho really puts them through their paces in terms of range and rhythmic difficulty; here he seems to be focusing on the ability of most of these instruments to “sing” a lyric line, and although the music certainly shifts tonality here and there, he does not push them off the tonal cliff. This despite the fact that, for instance, there are some tricky slap-bass and high “whistle” effects in the cello solo and equally high whistling effects at the beginning of the viola solo…which, interestingly, is programmed immediately after the one for cello.

This piece for the viola, written 19 years after the one for cello, is indeed much more advanced in both harmony and structure than the cello piece, and becomes quite virtuosic in places, yet it still falls back several times into melodic patterns.

This spell is broken in the oboe solo, which opens with a string of upward glissandi that conclude on buzzed tones. This is more like the edgier Aho of his orchestral works. The buzzes become more frequent before Aho moves the oboist into a series of somewhat circular eighth-note phrases. But then, as in the pieces for strings, Aho moves the soloist into more lyrical territory…but he still obviously gets a kick out of making him buzz in the upper range.

The solo clarinet piece opens with glissandi and microtonal passages, then moves into some long-held notes before breaking out in little serrated atonal flurries. Although relatively quiet, this one is a real tour-de-force for the soloist, and Simon Reitmaier plays it brilliantly. At one point, the clarinetist plays “chords” consisting of hummed and blown notes, a very tricky effect for an instrument that can usually only play one note at a time.

Next up is the bassoon, and here again Aho pushes the envelope in terms of technique, starting in the instrument’s lowest register before moving up to odd little figures that sound somewhat disconnected at first. Later on, the performer plays blats on his instrument with little downward grace notes on them, along with more strange figures with very fluid harmony. It gets even harder later on with gritty overblown chords. This one is no walk in the park!

For the horn solo, we get the great German hornist Marie-Luise Neunecker with her wonderfully open, golden tone. This one lies halfway between lyrical and edgy, calling on the soloist to play wide intervallic leaps—always difficult to control on a horn—as well as fast, lipped staccato notes in rapid succession.

We end with the two-part flute solo piece, again played by a name I recognize, the great Sharon Bezaly. This one is microtonal in the extreme since the instrument lends itself to such music, yet still retains a certain amount of lyricism. Again, however, Aho exploits the full gamut of what the instrument can do, pushing boundaries which Bezaly, happily, is able to overcome. Around the 6:39 mark, and afterwards, Aho pushes her instrument into the high piccolo range, which she also handles brilliantly. In the second half of this piece, the only one to be divided into two different halves, Bezaly handles the rapid, breathy figures amazingly well.

This is yet another feather in the cap of Kalevi Aho as a composer as well as Bis Records for recording and promoting his music. He is surely the best modern Scandinavian composer since Leif Segerstam, and they are lucky to have him on their label.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Dunér & Pritsker’s “Eclectic Songs”

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what a performanceDUNÉR: Robot in Love. Sophisticated Love. Beating Pulse. Discharmed. PRITSKER-JOHNSON: Slippery Slope. PRITSKER: Funeral Blues. Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday. KOSTABI: Wake Up World / Sophie Dunér, voc; Gene Pritsker, gtr; unidentified perc / available as a download album for $4 HERE

This strange little album, only a half-hour in duration, was recorded in 2018 but only recently came to my attention. It features the world’s greatest female jazz singer, Sophie Dunér, and imaginative guitarist Gene Pritsker in a program of hyper-techno-jazz that you simply have to hear to believe.

As much as I’ve liked Dunér’s singing in the past, I always get a rush of adrenaline every time I hear her again. It’s not just that she swings—and she does—so much as that her voice has a stunning range of both her vocal registers and range of volume. She can drop down to a surprising chest register or fly up into her high range with impunity. On the second piece in this album, Slippery Slope, she double-tracks herself to provide a ground bass of harmony to her own top line, occasionally producing harmony at unexpected moments.

And, as it turns out, Pritsker is exactly the right guitarist for her. He plays really interesting chords and lines, matching her moods perfectly. In Sophisticated Love, the third track, he swings mightily as Dunér does the same. If any track from this album should get any air play, which somehow I doubt (even jazz radio tends to play it safe), this is the one that should be promoted. In addition to Dunér’s utterly stunning vocal, flying up into her top range with impunity, Pritsker plays one of the most exciting and imaginative guitar solos I’ve heard in many a year.

Surprisingly, both artists slip into ballad mode on Pritsker’s original Funeral Blues, but don’t think you’re going to be lulled to sleep. Sophie simply isn’t going to let that happen; her voice is just too explosive, even when alternating the loud moments with some surprising soft singing, for that to happen. Pritsker’s solo, low-key but imaginative and emotion-charged, is also a gem.

This interaction between singer and guitarist continues in Beating Pulse, which just may be the wildest track on the album. Both artists go all-out in emotion and imagination, and I’m still not sure which of them came out on top, although Pritsker only plays little fills on this one and not a full solo chorus. Dunér’s bitonal scatting in the out-chorus is thrilling. Wake Up World, written by pianist Mark Kostabi, is the closest thing to a through-composed song with a recognizable melody to match its lyrics. Dunér pulls back on her usual wild style here until the improvised scat chorus; then, it’s no holds barred. Pritsker also plays a nifty solo on this one.

In addition to the unidentified percussion, there’s also an unidentified bass clarinet and synthesizer on Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, which has a sort of Dirty Dozen Brass Band beat. The digital album wraps up with Dunér’s Discharmed, which has a sort of rolling march beat. Both singer and guitarist have a ball on this one, almost as if they were trying to outdo one another. Sophie does some atonal whistling at the end.

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If you’re into Dunér, Pritsker, or jazz of this genre in general, this is not an album to be missed. It’ll wake you up and put some pep in your step, that I guarantee!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Gardner Conducts Sibelius

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SIBELIUS: Luonnotar [Kalevala].* Tapiola. Pelléas et Mélisande Suite.* Rakastrava. Vårsång [Spring Song] . *Lise Davidsen, sop; Bergen Philharmonic Orch.; Edward Gardner, cond / Chandos CHSA 5217

In the wake of the deaths of such British conducting icons as Sir Colin Davis and Edward Downes, we now have Andrew Davis and Edward Gardner (along with one or two others) who are producing some really fine recordings. This one, Gardner’s latest, features only one really well-known work, that being the very familiar Tapiola. The others are all lesser known, particularly the Pelléas et Mélisande Suite. In two of these pieces we hear the hottest new property in the vocal world, Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen.

When reviewing Davidsen’s performance in the new Marek Janowski Fidelio, I praised her innate musicality and her wonderful sense of drama but had some reservations regarding the actual sound of the voice, which I found somewhat edgy. On this recording, which I’ve discovered was made two and a half years prior, it is only her extreme high notes that display the edginess I heard in her Leonore. This tells me that she is already experiencing a slight deterioration in her sound. Methinks the lady pushes her voice too hard, trying (but failing) to be Birgit Nilsson. She needs to back off from the screaming and sing a bit more, as she does splendidly in this recording.

In both Luonnotar, a really splendid piece (almost a mini-dramatic cantata for voice and orchestra) and Pelléas et Mélisande, Davidsen sings with a much rounder, warmer tone through most of her voice, and her dramatic sense is equally keen here as it was on the Fidelio,. As usual, Chandos uses a fair amount of reverb on this recording, but this actually helps Davidsen’s voice while still allowing the bright, sharp colors of the orchestra to come through. I can’t say, in all honesty, that Gardner’s performances here are quite as incendiary as those of the legendary Robert Kajanus, Sibelius’ close friend and favorite conductor, but alas Kajanus died before he had the chance to record all of Sibelius’ orchestral works, though he did leave us a splendid performance of Tapiola. This version, however, comes closer to Kajanus than anyone else I’ve ever heard, and that even includes Sir Thomas Beecham. It is surely a more authentic-sounding performance than Karajan’s, with its glossy string sound and gorgeous brass and winds that, while attractive to the ear, completely miss the point of the music.

Those familiar with the visionary, forward-looking settings of Maurice Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande by Claude Debussy (opera) and Arnold Schoenberg (orchestral tone poem) may find themselves puzzled, and perhaps even a bit disappointed, by Sibelius’ very Romantic-sounding 1905 setting for orchestra and soprano. Part of the reason is that he wrote it for Helsinki, a bit hurriedly since he was then in the midst of composing his Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 3. Despite the fact that the play was in French and both the composer and location of the debut Finnish, the text was translated into Swedish by the composer’s friend Bertel Gripenberg. I can’t honestly say that I find the music all that interesting or even very good, however; much of it sounds like the kind of pap they play on classical FM radio stations, even the song by the soprano. This makes the incidental music to Peer Gynt sound like Beethoven’s Egmont; it’s a bit of a wet blanket. The soprano’s song is not only simple but repetitive; she repeats the same melodic phrase over and over and over again until she simply stops. Honestly, I think Sibelius would have done better to have thrown this manuscript into the fireplace. It’s really MOR rubbish. Even Rakastava (The Lover), an early piece dating from 1893, has a bit more meat on its bones than the Pelléas music, and this isn’t really much of a prize, either. Vårsång, or Spring Song, doesn’t start out too promisingly but surprisingly opens up to become a quite powerful and emotional piece, but for me it was too little too late.

So what we have here is an album that starts out on the right foot, slips and falls on Pelléas, and then never quite finds its footing again. If, however, you enjoy Romantic drivel more than I do, you’ll probably love this album.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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