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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DUNÉR: 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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Villa-Lobos’ Violin Sonatas

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VILLA-LOBOS: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-3 / Emmanuele Baldini, vln; Pablo Rossi, pno / Naxos 8.574310

Here are three early works by Villa-Lobos, dating from 1912, 1914 and 1920, which show the famed composer in a very different light from his later style. Although there are indeed some individual touches in this music, it more closely resembles the French Impressionist school mixed in with a bit of Brazilian flavoring.

Italian violinist Emmanuele Baldini plays them with a rapturous legato but occasionally edgy bowing, and pianist Pablo Rossi accompanies in an appropriate style. Were these unearthed sonatas by a little-known French composer from the early 20th century they would surely be acclaimed as superb pieces worthy of revival, but the thing I listen for is how Villa-Lobos developed from this point, and the style he was to present from the early 1930s on is light-years beyond what one hears on this disc.

Of course, the same is true of many of Scriabin’s piano piece and sonatas from his early years, which sound so much like Chopin that one would think they were rediscovered pieces from the Polish composer’s oeuvre. Particularly in the first sonata, subtitled “Désespérance” or despair, the music tends to ramble a bit much. Despite its brevity—one movement lasting 9:25—it tends to drag and wear out its welcome.

Yet surprisingly, the second sonata, from only two years later, shows a great improvement. Here, Villa-Lobos is more concise in his theme statements and the music is developed better. He’s still using modes and pentatonic scales associated with French composers, but his use of them is more assured and he manages to blend these foreign influences into his developing personal style. Even so, there is a surprisingly rambling piano solo in the midst of the first movement that just doesn’t fit, and the second movement rambles a bit too much, so he still had some improving to do.

The third sonata, written when he was 33 years old, finally gets everything right, though it is still beholden to Debussy in harmony and even in its basic structure. Here we can tell that everything is starting to coalesce; in a way, this is the only one of the three sonatas presented here worthy of perpetuation, early in his output though it may be. The second movement is particularly inventive and original, with some flashes of the Villa-Lobos to come, and the third includes some fascinating atonal excursions showing some of the influences of that time.

By and large, I’d characterize this CD as a curiosity rather than a necessary disc except perhaps for Villa-Lobos lovers who want to collect everything he ever wrote.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Backenroth Digs Parker’s Mood

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PARKER: Au Privave. Moose the Mooche. My Little Suede Shoes. Yardbird Suite. Parker’s Mood. Cheryl. Segment. STYNE: The Gypsy. RAMIREZ-DAVIS-SHERMAN: Lover Man. PORTER: What is This Thing Called Love? GERSHWIN: Embraceable You. HEFTI: Repetition . Hans Backenroth Q: Klas Lindquist, a-sax/cl; Erik Söderlind, gtr; Backenroth, bs; Karl-Hendrik Ousbäck, dm / Prophone PCD263

Hans Backenroth is a 56-year-old Swedish jazz bassist who has led quartets and quintets for years; since he vacillates between the two combinations, he apparently just refers to them as “Q.” On this CD, he is paying tribute to one of the greatest jazz musicians of the 20th century, Charles Christopher Parker.

Like most tributes to Parker, alto saxist Klaus Lindquist gets the rhythm and the feel of Parker’s style just right but lacks the grit in his tone that made Parker unique. In addition, the use of a guitarist who has great chops and good ideas but plays in a soft-grained style somewhat “de-balls” the kind of music Parker (a.k.a. Bird) played.

This doesn’t mean that the music is bad. On the contrary, Lindquist is full of ideas and, as I say, he has the rhythmic accents down pat, but it’s kind of like listening to most of the cornet and trumpet players who emulate Bix Beiderbecke. They have the ideas, they play with energy, but they lack the tone. And the tone that both Bix and Bird had was what made them unique.

Incidentally, I’ve noticed that very few jazz musicians try to play tributes to John Coltrane, and in part due to the same reason. Trane had a “flat” but immensely huge and powerful tenor sax tone that was unique and instantly recognizable, and people just can’t duplicate it.

But as the liner notes indicate, this is more a tribute to the kind of music that Bird played and the way it has permeated Swedish jazz over the decades, and from that perspective this tribute is a fine one.

Perhaps ironically, the most consistently inventive and interesting soloist in the quartet is Backenroth himself on bass. He provides the kind of imaginative and propulsive sound that Parker rarely had during his lifetime save for the few times he played with Charles Mingus. It is Backenroth who starts off Lover Man a cappella, then plays the first chorus (mostly improvised) with just guitar accompaniment. If you listen carefully and use your imagination, you can “hear” Parker in his playing. His solos have the same sort of offbeat energy and sense of surprise that Bird himself had. Backenroth’s improvised solo in the middle of this track is simply astonishing, one of the most creative and well-structured solos I’ve heard in my life. He can really play that thing.

On What is This Thing Called Love, Lindquist opens with a really nice solo, It has all the trappings of a real Bird solo except for that rhythmic edge and the grit in his tone. I suppose I shouldn’t nitpick so much, but if you’re going to record a tribute to one of the giants of jazz I really do hope you’d sound just a bit more like your model. (Backenroth is again brilliant here in his own solo.) On Repetition, which was originally a  big band chart by Neal Hefti over which Parker played, Lindquist switches from alto sax to clarinet for no discernible reason. He sounds a bit like Jimmy Giuffre when he played clarinet. It’s nice.

You know, as I was listening to this a thought crossed my mind. Considering that Bird kept tying in the last six years of his life to find a way to play in “layers,” which included experiments with large bands and even string sections, I keep waiting and hoping for some imaginative arranger to help him out—to provide creative, layered arrangements behind his solos. Mingus did something of the sort in a couple of his late compositions but never expanded it to an album’s length. Where is Charlie Parker’s Gil Evans, Rod Levitt, Clare Fischer or Quincy Jones? Someday I’d like to hear that.

In the meantime, what we have here is a really pleasant Sunday afternoon jazz album built around Parker’s tunes and other songs associated with him. The sound is nice and warm, the performances laid-back, the solos inventive, just good enough to make you feel good without thrilling you too much.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Szymon Laks’ Pieces for Voice & Piano

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LAKS: 5 Songs on Poems by Julian Tuwim (1938/1961). Dyzio marzyciel. O Grzesiu klamczuchu. Bezdomna (Homeless). Staruszkowie (Old People). Aniołowe lica (Angel Faces). Prośba o piosenkę. Polały się łzy me (My Tears Fell). Le Général. Ewangelia szczęśliwych (The Gospel of the Happy). Jezusek. O matusiu moja. C’est d’un’ maladie d’coeur. Jednego całowałam z miłości (I Kissed Once for Love). Ballada starofrancuska. Walczyk. 8 Popular Jewish Songs. Passacaille. Elegy for the Jewish Villages. Pogrzeb. Trois Poèmes Chantés. La Rue. Deszcz. Portrait of the Bird-That-Doesn’t-Exist. 4 Songs on Words by Tadeusz Śliwiak. Nie winię, Pozegnanie (Farewell). Gdybyś (If You  / Ania Vegry, sop; Dominique Horwitz, spkr; Katarzyna Wasiak, pno / Alkoholik / Mieczysław Fogg, Syrena-Records Orchestra, 1934 / EDA 45

Szymon (Simon) Laks was a Polish-Jewish composer whose work was encouraged by figures as musically diverse as Paderewski and Szymanowski. Laks pursued his career in Paris during the interwar years, but after France fell to the Nazis they caught up with him and sent him to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where, amazingly, he was put in charge of the camp orchestra at the latter and survived the war.

This complete collection of his songs, all first recordings, is based on poems by Jacques Audiberti, Claude Aveline, Stanisław Baliński, Wanda Maya Berezowska, Jules Laforgue and several others in addition to eight Jewish folk songs and Polish folk song arrangements. Probably because he was writing for the voice, Laks’ songs are not as edgy or harmonically complex as his chamber music; on the contrary, several of them, such as the first three Songs on Poems by Julian Tuwim, are quite melodious and in fact not very far from the popular cabaret music of the 1930s, but some of them, like the last two of these songs from 1961, are more advanced structurally and harmonically without sacrificing a lyric line for the singer.

We are indeed fortunate in this collection to have a soprano with a pretty good voice. Ania Vegry’s highest notes tend to sound a bit edgy, but for the most part her firm, bright voice is attractive and her diction is crystal-clear. Those songs that are not sung are narrated by Dominique Horwitz, and very characterfully, too.

If the music contained herein is less startling and innovative than his chamber music, it compensates with its lightness, charm and wit. The one problem I had in reviewing this set, however, was that the extra booklet with all of the song texts and translations was not provided to me, thus I had to gauge each song based on its general mood and title.

And of course, Laks himself never intended that all of these songs be heard one after the other in sequence as they are here, and that is the one problem with this 2-CD set. There is a certain sameness to the material, and after a while one zones out and the music fades a bit into the background despite the few interesting passages here and there. If, however, one chose to program a few of them in a vocal recital, they would surely be welcome visitors in the concert hall, for most are quite melodic and attractive.

Clearly, the strangest track on this CD is Alkoholik, taken from a 1934 78-rpm recording by one Mieczysław Fogg and the Syrena-Records Orchestra. This was clearly intended as a sort of pop-folk tune, and quite apropos to the Poles who surely do love to drink (mostly beer, but they don’t turn down the hard stuff much, either).

A good set, then, if not a necessary one. Laks fanciers will, of course, snap it up.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Rediscovering Milhaud’s Symphonies

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MILHAUD: Symphonies Nos. 1-12 / Radio-Sinfonieorchester Basel; Chor des Theaters Basel (in #3); Alun Francis, cond / CPO 999 656-2

In the classical world, everything old is new again—particularly if it predates 1910. Monteverdi, Purcell, Telemann, Buxtehude, the Bach Boys, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, Berlioz, Mahler…these are the wheels that the classical world runs on. But talk up a 20th century composer whose name was not Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev or Bartók, and you have problems. No one wants to hear them.

This was exactly the situation that drove Welsh conductor Alun Francis to convince CPO to let him start recording some of the prolific output of Darius Milhaud back in the 1990s. He completed his symphony project (at least the 12 numbered symphonies…a bit later, Milhaud wrote a 13th symphony but it was really a religious cantata) by the end of the decade, following this up with the piano concerti and other concerted pieces for piano and orchestra with Michael Korstick in the early 2000s. This boxed set was released in 2000, with no promotion and little acclaim from critics who, after all, are much more interested in Telemann, Buxtehude, the Bach Boys, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven etc. etc. etc.

But what a treasure trove this is! Milhaud started writing his symphonies in 1939, the year that World War II started in earnest but a year before the Nazis took over France, and ended in the early 1960s. It seems almost incredible that he was able to emotionally divorce himself from the awful events surrounding him at the time and turn out a first symphony that alternates between dreamy, pastoral themes and energetic, enthusiastic music while Shostakovich was already in “war mode” with his fifth symphony.

Milhaud’s harmonic language was edgy and remained so; he was as much influenced by Stravinsky (and possibly Bartók) as he was by Debussy and Ravel, if not more so, but then again, so was Arthur Honegger and his music is similarly ignored in the concert halls today.

Francis, who was born in 1943, began his conducting career quite modestly, spending a decade directing the Ulster Orchestra beginning in 1966. A dozen years later, he conducted the premiere of Donizetti’s trashy opera Gabriella di Vergy before moving on in 1979 to the Northwest Chamber Orchestra in Seattle, Washington. From 1987-1990 he led the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie, then his career picked up some steam, directing the Berlin Symphony and Milan Giuseppe Verdi Orchestra; beginning in 2003, he led the Thüringen Philharmonie Gotha for five years. Yet somehow, he slipped away from the Germans and, in 2010, accepted a position with the Orquesta Filharmonica de la UNAM in Mexico City.

So exactly how he ended up recording all of this Milhaud with a Swiss orchestra, I don’t really know, but here the set is and it’s a stunner. No matter how well you think you know Milhaud’s music, you really don’t know it until you’ve heard all of these symphonies, most of which have not been recorded since these versions and many of which have not been previously recorded in digital sound.

The first two symphonies, in fact, are more pastoral and quiet than normal for Milhaud, whose music generally bustled with excitement. To be honest, I didn’t much care for these. It is only with the Third Symphony of 1946, a “Te Deum” that includes a chorus, that we hear the “real” Milhaud style with its complex polyrhythms and almost consistently edgy harmonies. This is where, I believe, the Milhaud symphonies really begin. Interestingly, the soloists in the last movement, all of them excellent, are apparently members of the chorus since none of them are individually identified.

The fourth symphony, written to commemorate the French revolution of 1848, vacillates between militaristic music and bucolic pleasantries. This little internal battle between whimsical, elegant music and strong, powerful movements would then become a pattern for many of his symphonies going forward. Indeed, the fifth symphony opens with a fast, quirky bitonal theme that almost seems like material for a chamber symphony rather than for a full-orchestra version.

By this point I had come to realize why Milhaud’s symphonies are not often performed, and ironically it has nothing to do with the modern harmony. Rather, most of this music sounds small-scaled, as if these were chamber symphonies. So many of the movements are lightweight and airy, almost sounding as if they were tossed off without any real emotional or intellectual involvement by the composer. This is a far cry from the much more passionate symphonies of Mahler, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Robert Simpson or even Henri Dutilleux, to name a few of the more recognized 20th-century composers in this form. Does this make them poor or inferior music? Not at all, and even within several of these symphonies I really enjoyed certain movements, such as the lively finale of the Fifth in which Milhaud wittily supports a high flute melody with pounding tympani underneath. Yet by contrast with his piano concerti, which certainly do sound like conventional works on that scale, there’s just a bit more insouciance in the way Milhaud tosses off his themes and variations as if they were cotton candy being spun at a carnival.

Also, unlike the other composers named in the above paragraph, Milhaud’s symphonies sometimes sound odd when heard in sequence. The first, for instance, was written while he was in a state of depression and the second is essentially a “funeral symphony” to mark the passing of Madame Koussevitzky. When heard in sequence, they give the impression of sadness and drab feelings, certainly not the sort of thing one wishes to hear in a symphony. But perhaps because he was such an ingenious and facile composer, Milhaud was very much a creature of the moment. However he was feeling about the subject at hand at that moment, that’s the way the music came out.

As it turns out, the Sixth Symphony was also a commission from the Boston Symphony, this time when Charles Munch was its music director, to mark the 75th anniversary of the orchestra in 1955, and this time Milhaud wrote a harmonically strange but rhythmically festive work full of color and simply bursting with ideas. An aside: I find it just a bit ludicrous that Milhaud, along with many other 20th and 21st-century composers, sit around waiting for “commissions” in order to write symphonies. If Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz or Mahler did that, they’d have starved to death and not have produced the marvelous symphonies that they did. I believe in composers who write from an inner urge or need, not someone who cranks out product on “commission.” Just get over yourselves. You’re not all that special that someone has to cough up a wad of dough for you to write a symphony. Just do it.

But to return to the Sixth Symphony, it is clearly one of his finest, in fact the best of the entire series to this point. Even the slow second and third movements are wonderful; Milhaud came up with really lovely themes that were not mawkish or insipid, but rather something worthy of a Mahler, and his development of them as well as their imaginative (but typical) orchestration are really wondrous.

The Seventh Symphony, dating from 1955, also opens with a rather jolly, bucolic first movement, while the second is not only slow but rather gloomy, with the menacing undercurrent of tympani and occasional biting interjections from the trumpets. The third movement returns to jollity, however, and that is where it ends. The Eighth, from 1957, opens with one of his eeriest movements: the fast motor rhythms indicate something peppy and jolly, but the harsh chords and metallic-sounding orchestration indicate menace. At the 3:50 mark, one hears a grumbling sort of fast counter-melody played by the basses against high winds and strings. A very odd piece! Then, without pause, the slow second movement begins with a fairly serene solo violin, which then leads to a mixture of strings and high winds to continue the thematic development.

After this symphony, to be honest, I just stopped listening because I couldn’t take any more. Milhaud’s Piano Concerti are wonderful, but as a whole his symphonies are just too quirky, too cerebral and too lacking in humanity or real emotion to appeal to me. Your reaction may be entirely different, however, and if you like them, more power to you. If so, this is clearly the set to acquire. But as for me, I’ll be quite content if I never hear any of them again in my lifetime.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Korstick Plays Koechlin

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KOECHLIN: Au loin. Nouvelles Sonatines Nos. 1-4. Premiere Album de Lilian, Op. 135, Nos. 2, 3 & 5.  Seconde Album de Lilian, Op. 149, Nos. 2, 4 & 8. Paysages et marines, Op. 63 / Michael Korstick, pno / Hänssler Classic 93220-1

Here is let another wonderful album by Michael Korstick that was slipped out on me without my knowledge of it, a 2008 album of music by the superb but still little-known French composer Charles Koechlin. Yes, there is also a Vol. 2 and 3, but these contain music often recorded by others, such as his one famous work, The Persian Hours and the Exquisses. This CD is unusual in that it includes several smaller pieces which the composer put into collections with the titles you see above.

It would be easy, and partially accurate, to simply say that Koechlin’s music is in the tradition of Debussy and Ravel. He, too became fascinated and involved in the soft, opaque colors and fluid harmonies instigated by the first and picked up on by the latter. But Koechlin clearly had his own method of construction and development which owed nearly as much to the German school as the French. He also lived much longer than either of the other two; born in 1867, midway between Debussy (1862) and Ravel (1875), he lived to the ripe old age of 83, continuing to write pieces well into the 1940s after both of the other two were long gone. Yet somehow he remained something of an outsider in the concert world while Debussy and Ravel gained the inside track, in part because his music was more complex, less melodically appealing, and thus not the sort of thing that attendees could hum on their way out of the concert hall. He thus suffered a fate similar to that of Nikolai Medtner, except that Koechlin saved his money and didn’t die destitute as poor Medtner did.

Those who have heard Korstick’s superb series of Debussy recordings will understand what I mean when I say that he really has a wonderful affinity for this music. Ironically, few other German pianists other than Gieseking really played Debussy well, thus Korstick is in rarified company in that respect, and although there may be some other well-known German pianists who can interpret French music this well, I haven’t run across any.

His approach to Koechlin is, appropriately, the polar opposite of his Beethoven except that in the music of both composers he retains his clean articulation and pearl-like tone at the keyboard. Every so often, as in the last movement of the Nouvelle Sonatine No. 1, we hear a piece that is less opaque and more extroverted in character, and it is here that Korstick’s admirers will immediately recognize his style.

Except for the opening Au loin, which runs over seven minutes, most of these are short vignettes that run between 49 second and 2 ½ minutes long, the exception to this rule being the three pieces from the Seconde Album de Lilian, which run between 3:46 and 4:33, but into these small forms Koechlin poured some of his most interesting and subtle music. It isn’t music that impressed you with its strength or dazzles you with piano pyrotechnics; on the contrary, most of this music is soft and subtle, and some of these pieces are technically easy to perform (as are certain slow movements of Beethoven). This is a CD for quiet reflection or, at least for me, a CD to sit and absorb as slowly and quietly as the music itself.

One cannot say enough for how well Korstick immerses himself in Koechlin’s aesthetic; under his skilled fingers, the music almost sounds liquid rather that solid, a hard thing to describe in words but you’ll understand it when you hear it. Recommended for those who enjoy the subtlety of the French impressionist school.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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