The Dark Music of Langgaard

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LANGGAARD: Septet.1,2 Augustinusiana.3 I Blomstringstiden.3,4 Scherzo after “Ach, du lieber Augustin.” Lenaustemningen.3,4 Humoreske.1 Afgrundsmusik (Music of the Abyss) (arr. A.G. Madsen for chamber ens.)1,3 / Esbjerg Ensemble; 1Pina Mohs, ob; 2Bue Skov Thomasson, cl & Renske Wijma, Fr-hn; 3Amane Horie, vln; 4Signe Asmussen, sop; 5Eva Vrtacnik, E-hn / Dacapo 8226152

Here is yet another composer whose music has been lost to history for more than a century. From the publicity blurb for this CD:

Rued Langgaard’s (1893-1952) inner division can be experienced at its extreme in the chamber music written between 1913 and 1924, in which the secure world of his youth is undercut by a dark musical undercurrent. This is most apparent in the work for piano, Music of the Abyss, which is presented here in a transcription for chamber ensemble by Allan Gravgaard Madsen (born 1984) of which this is the first recording. This meeting between Langgaard and Gravgaard brings to a climax the work’s view of modern man’s destructive strength in a crazy ride towards the abyss.

And why has he been forgotten? To quote Wikipedia:

His then-unconventional music was at odds with that of his Danish contemporaries but was recognized 16 years after his death…[he] composed in a late Romantic style, emphatically dramatic and endowed with colossal mood swings. Unquestionably, he was influenced by Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss.

Even from the opening of the Septet, you can tell that Langgaard was kind of quirky, not by any means a centrist composer. The music takes unusual paths both during the theme statement and the development, thought in this particular case the music is chipper and not really dark in mood. You begin to notice the juxtaposition of unrelated moods and phrases in the second piece, Augustinusiana; this is clearly out-of-center music, even more schizophrenic in mood than some of Mahler’s works. Yet the two songs that make up I Blomstringstiden are in a more conventional Romantic vein, though the second is a bit more interesting in its shifting moods. Our soprano, Signe Asmussen, just gets by. Her voice is somewhat nasal and acidic with a wobble, but she has a basically nice tone beneath the defects and her diction is good.

There are more odd mood swings in the Scherzo after “Ach, du liebe Augustin” in which the little German song, which most people know very well, is thoroughly disguised. Our sad-sack soprano returns for Lenaustemningen, which is somewhat more interesting and original than Blomstringstiden. Things pick up again with the quirky Humoreske, clearly one of the most interesting pieces on this disc, but it is his Music of the Abyss—of which this is the first commercial recording—that really grabs you. This is music so strange, particularly for its period of time (1921-24), that you might be forgiven for thinking that it was written in the late 1940s or early ‘50s. The eerie, fragmented thematic material is broken up, interspersed with both silence and lyrical moments, and always fascinating.

A mixed review, then. Some of these pieces are clearly more conventional than others, and I could have lived without Madame Squally (our erstwhile soprano), but by and large this is a good introduction to a composer who definitely had his quirky moments. I fully intend to investigate his 16 symphonies, and will get back to you on them in due time.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The Feininger Trio Plays Brahms & Zemlinsky

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BRAHMS: Piano Trio Mo. 3 in C min. ZEMLINSKY: Piano Trio in D min. / Feininger Trio: Christoph Streuli, vln; David Riniker, cel; Adrian Oetiker, pno / Avi 8553489

This is a first of three planned recordings by the Feininger Trio in which they will contrast one of Brahms’ three piano trios with a trio written by another composer. Obviously, this one contrasts Brahms with Alexander von Zemlinsky, who as a young man in the 1890s knew Brahms and won the older composer’s approval of his own music. The two yet to come will juxtapose a Brahms trio with one by Ernst Krenek (good composer) and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose music was so sappily Romantic that even his own father detested it.

This particular Zemlinsky piece was, in its original form, the one that Brahms admired and recommended to his own publisher, Simrock—a clarinet trio. But Simrock strongly advised that the trio be rescored for the more common violin-cello-piano combination, so that is what Zemlinsky did, not merely scoring the clarinet part for violin but writing an entirely new top line. Yet, as violinist Christoph Streuli notes, there are still some clarinet-like traits in the new violin part, particularly what he calls “flower garland parts” that sound as if they were written for a wind instrument. But the mere fact that Brahms admired Zemlinsky (and other Jewish musicians) tells you that he would not have been a fan of the Nazi regime, which is a nice thing to know.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The Brahms Trio is a late work and one of his very finest, tightly written and absorbing the “hummable” melodic line into its ingeniously dense structure. The Feininger Trio plays with a brisk, exciting style, much in the same vein as Sequenza, who also recorded this work with the great Colin Carr on cello.

This Zemlinsky trio is indeed Brahms-like…so much so that, if you weren’t paying attention to the change of tracks on the CD, you might easily confuse it for a piece by Brahms except for the odd, melancholy secondary theme in the first movement, which is slightly different from the way Brahms wrote. Here, I felt that the Feininger Trio played it in a style that was a bit too mushy and Romantic than the music demanded in order to make it work best. I prefer the performance by Trio Voce on Con Brio 21344, but of course this is a thoroughly professional if somewhat too relaxed reading of the score.

A good CD, then, if not overall a gripping one.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Kyle Horch & Pianists Play “Fairy Tales”

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TCHEREPNIN: Sonatine Supportive.1 PROKOFIEV: Cinq melodies (arr. Horch).1 TUBIN: Sonate für Alt-Saxophon und Klavier.1 MARKOVICH: Complainte et Danse.1 KŌRVITS: Wings.1 BALSYS: Eglé, Queen of the Serpents: 3 fragments (arr. Mikiška).2 HERDZIN: Fairytale Stories 2 / Kyle Horch, a-sax/s-sax; 1Yshani Perinpanayagam, 2Anta Fadina, pno / Norwood Recordings NR202101

Here is definitely something new under the sun: American classical saxist Kyle Horch playing a program of music by Eastern Europeans, some from the “polyglot Paris period” of the late 1910s through the 1920s. The only really well-known name here is Serge Prokofiev, with Alexander Tcherepnin and Eduardas Balsys also having a certain vogue nowadays. The other composers include names completely new to me: Eduard Tubin, Ivan Markovich, Tōnu Kōvits and Krzysztof Herdzin (who?).

And not surprisingly, some of these works definitely have a jazz influence—at least, the European concept of 1920s jazz, which was still close to ragtime. This is immediately evident in Tcherepnin’s Sonatine Supportive, with its first movement sporting syncopated (and sometimes bluesy) figures over an ostinato rhythm played by the pianist. The slow second movement is definitely more classical in feel—apparently, Tcherepnin either never had the blues or never heard them—while the third movement features opposing rhythms played by the two musicians that conflict with each other but are not jazzy at all.

Originally written as “Songs Without Words” for soprano in the manner of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, Prokofiev’s Cinq melodies are generally performed in the composer’s instrumental arrangement for violin and piano, but they also work very well on the alto saxophone. My only complaint about Horch’s playing is that he seldom uses graded dynamics, and his tone is uniformly the same from note to note, phrase to phrase and piece to piece, a sort of cold, impersonal way of playing the saxophone to be sure. He could have at least taken a few tips from the late Lee Konitz on how to play with a pure, vibratoless tone but also with more expression, although he does a credible job on the third of these pieces.

Eduard Tubin’s music comes from a slightly later period, the 1930s, after he had studied with Zoltan Kodály, and his Saxophone Sonata clearly shows the older composer’s influence. It’s a very interesting piece in which both the saxophone and piano parts sound very normal and tonal, but since both are in slightly different keys they produce a bitonal effect when put together. And oddly enough, the latter part of the first movement includes some syncopations similar to a Charleston beat. The third movement, an “Allegro vivace,” is played in a fairly straight classical 4/4 with the piano part being comprised largely of ostinato chords.

Ivan Markovich also comes from a later period, having been born in 1929 and not coming into his own until the early 1960s. This is very “cool” music, slightly modern in harmony but not any more so than the works of Prokofiev or Tubin. This sonata, in fact, was written in 1964 and dedicated to French saxophonist Jean-Marie Londeix. The music has something of the flavor of Eastern European folk music, but with some very definite classical flourishes added to the ends of phrases and sections. By contrast, Kōrvits’ Wings is a slow, lyrical, atmospheric work, somewhat akin to Szymanowski’s Masques.

The excerpts from Eduardo Balsys’ ballet Égle are light, charming music, played here on the soprano saxophone. We end with the Fairytale Stories of modern Polish composer Krzysztof Herdzin; though also a jazz pianist, the first two pieces have no jazz feel to them, although the final “Con bravura” does in the past passages, but are still very interesting, atmospheric works.

A very fine recital overall with some real high points among the various pieces presented.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Gerry Gibbs Plays Some of Dad’s Songs

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T. GIBBS: Kick Those Feet.1,6 Smoke ‘Em Up.3,5 Bopstacle Course.2,7 Nutty Notes.4,8 Take it From Me.1,6 Sweet Young Song of Love.2,7 The Fat Man.4,8 Lonely Days.3,8 Hey Chick.1-9 Townhouse 3.3,5 Four A.M.4,8 Waltz for My Children.2,7 Hippie Twist.3,5 Lonely Dreams.1,6 For Keeps.4.8 Gibberish. RANDAZZO-WEINSTEIN: Pretty Blue Eyes.3,5 COREA: Tango for Terry.2,7 T. GIBBS-S. ROGERS: T and S1,6 / Gerry Gibbs, dm/perc; 1Kenny Barron, 2Chick Corea, 3Patrice Rushen, 4Geoffrey Keezer, pno; 5Larry Goldings, Hammond B3 org; 6Buster Williams, 7Ron Carter, 8Christian McBride, bs; 9Terry Gibbs, vib / Whaling City Sound WCS-131

Without a back cover image or booklet (which, alas, were not provided to me for this download), I wasn’t sure at first what the genesis of this album was or the year these tracks were recorded, but I found this online:

Gibbs remarks “What I wanted to do seemed almost impossible with COVID, fear, traveling, safety precautions as well as logistics. How do you coordinate four trios when a disease was spreading all over America?” In the throes of a global pandemic, Gibbs found himself on a several-month nationwide journey to capture recordings of himself alongside a long list of his friends and collaborators – the finest improvisers of our time.

So these are recordings from 2020, which would make some of them among the last recordings that Chick Corea left us. That in itself is noteworthy, but more so is that Gerry’s 96-year-old father, master vibes player Terry Gibbs, actually makes an appearance on one track. God love him! Between him and 95-year-old (this year) Leontyne Price, ain’t no stinkin’ Covid getting to them!

As you can see from the header above, Gerry (who will be 57 this year) amassed almost a who’s who of living jazz greats for this album. In addition to Chick, the pianists include other favorites of mine, primarily the great Kenny Barron, the woefully underrated Patrice Rushen and Geoffrey Keezer, bassists Ron Carter, Christian McBride and Buster Williams, and Larry Golding on his Hammond B3 organ. There’s nothing particularly fancy about most of this music despite the fact that most of these tunes are composed to some degree—all by Terry Gibbs except for two, Pretty Blue Eyes and Chick Corea’s Tango for Terry, plus one collaboration (T and S) between Gibbs Sr. and Shorty Rogers. It’s pretty much straightahead jazz-blue funk music, set in regular tonal keys and without much in the way of thematic variance, but with these lineups, who cares? Listen particularly to Patrice Rushen cook on Smoke ‘Em Up (her solo followed by a pretty good one, but not quite in the same league, by Golding) for an example of what I mean.

But of course, “nothing fancy” doesn’t mean the kind of soporific, brain-dead, drippy music that all too often passes for “jazz” nowadays. Terry Gibbs was a product of the Swing Era—in fact, he was the guy who replaced Red Norvo (who had replaced Lionel Hampton) in the Benny Goodman Sextet—and he only went on to bigger and better things over the following decades. Just as swing was happy, life-affirming music during the Great Depression and a World War, so too can it lift one’s spirits in the midst of a stupid little virus that only hits about 3% of the population and kills less than 2% of those. So put this record on, crank up the volume and enjoy.

Perhaps the most difficult and complex piece on the album is Nutty Notes, a moto perpetuo taken at an absolutely manic pace, played to perfection by Geoffrey Keezer. Holy crap, what a tour-de-force! I was actually a little surprised that bassist McBride could keep up with him at this tempo. Art Tatum, move over! We’ve finally found someone who has caught up to you! By contrast to Nutty Notes, Take it From Me is played at what used to be called a “walking tempo,” medium fast and relaxed, by Barron and Williams. In fact, when listening to the whole album, it struck me that Gerry Gibbs very generously allowed his star soloists to take center stage on each track, always with good results. As a drummer, he plays in a light, airy style, breaking up the beat even as he propels his pianists and bassists, sort of a cross between Dave Tough and Joe Morello. And leave it to Chick Corea to infuse a little touch of Latin music to his performance of Sweet Young Song of Love, which also has a rhythmically complex middle section (and, later on, a tertiary theme in an even slower tempo during which Ron Carter plays a nice, note-bending bass solo).

Not to be outdone by Corea, Keezer also throws some Latin rhythm into the opening strain of The Fat Man, switching to a straight 4 for the middle section—and, surprise of surprises, featuring a bowed bass solo by McBride! I haven’t heard a bowed bass solo in eons, it seems. Lonely Days is a soft ballad, but provides a nice contrast to all the uptempo numbers which precede and follow it. I particularly liked Hey Chick, in which Barron plays an absolutely mind-boggling passage in which his two hands flow across the keyboard, crossing and uncrossing each other at double tempo. Wowza! Nonagenarian Terry Gibbs, and all the gang, play on this track.

CD 2 opens with the fast-and-funky Townhouse 3, which has Rushen showing off her bop chops, followed by a quasi-comical solo by Golding playing squeaked little notes in the organ’s high range before embarking on a more conventional (but excellent) solo. T and S is an uptempo romp by Barron and Williams. Yet so much of this album kicks butt that it’s hard to keep singling out individual tracks for praise; although it’s shorter, being only 2 CDs, this set is as much a mood-lifter as the multi-disc set of Lionel Hampton’s small band recordings made for Victor in 1937-41.

What a great shot in the arm (pun intended) this is in our Covid-weary times. Well worth having, and playing often!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The Bartholdy Quintet Plays Mendelssohn

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MENDELSSOHN: String Quintets Nos. 1 & 2. Original 3rd mvmt of No. 1. Alternate 4th mvmt of No. 2 (arr. Julius Rietz) / Bartholdy Quintet: Ulf Schneider, Anke Dill, vln; Volker Jacobsen, Barbara Westpahl, vla; Gustav Rivinius, cel / Avi 8553030

This CD is somewhat indicative of the complaints I made in my previous post, The Sad State of Classical Music Today: a modern-day chamber ensemble who not only devotes most or all of their time to old, dead composers, but in fact is actually named after the old dead composer they are playing here. Not that I have any objection to Mendelssohn’s music; on the contrary, I admire him tremendously; but he and other composers of his era are only a part of my musical feasts, not the main course.

Yet I was interested to hear these performances because, although I have all of Mendelssohn’s String Quartets in my collection, I did not have the String Quintets. In the liner notes, violist Volker Jacobsen states:

Oftentimes Mendelssohn made extensive changes between the completion of a composition and the first printing (sometimes a period of several years), including cuts. Viewed from the outside, it is not always clear why. It is also questionable whether it really was Mendelssohn himself who initiated and authorized these changes. This therefore poses the question: which version should be given priority, the autograph or the first print?

Recently, the Henle Publishing Company brought out a new edition, strictly based on Mendelssohn’s original manuscript. Only proven interventions by the composer for printing are clarified. Much of this is at first surprising and unfamiliar. Just like our listeners, who have probably heard these works often and taken them to their hearts, we as interpreters are also subject to our personal listening habits, which are not always easy to question.

In addition, we have recorded the Minuetto, originally intended as the Intermezzo in the A-Major Quintet (Mendelssohn was yet undecided if it should be second or third in the sequence of movements.) This movement later had to yield to the emotionally dense Intermezzo he wrote under the impression of the passing of Eduard Rietz, the father of the above-mentioned Julius.

So there you have it, and this is why they included the above-mentioned movement as well as am alternate last movement of Quintet No. 2 arranged by Julius Rietz.

Unlike many of today’s string groups, the Bartholdy Quintet plays in the kind of style collectors of old LPs will recognize (note, for instance, the downward portamento near the beginning of the first quintet’s second movement). Their phrasing is more rounded than sharply accented and their tones warm and rich, yet the fast passages do not lack for rhythmic acuity. In a way, they reminded me of the excellent Alexander String Quartet which plays in a similar fashion. One difference is the sound quality of the CD, which although giving some space around the instruments is not as reverberant as the Alexander Quartet’s recordings.

Naturally, the earlier quintet is sweeter and more charming than the second, but in both one hears the underlying flaw of older music: too much time is wasted on the presentation of Tunes before one gets to the development, and even there Mendelssohn carefully avoids edgy dissonances in the manner of Beethoven (though there are a few in the first movement around the 6:30 mark for about a minute or so). Most of it (listen to the second movement in particular) is sweetness and light, and the Bartholdy Quintet plays it in a jolly, affectionate style. Nonetheless, I did like the moto perpetuo third movement with its continuously moving parts within the ensemble. The last movement, though jolly to hear, is pretty formulaic and concludes with a “ta-da!” ending.

If the Bartholdy Quintet isn’t sure why Mendelssohn changed his mind on the third movement, I can tell them. Although an interesting piece in the minor, with some quite good development, it didn’t have the fascination or pizzazz of the original third movement, BUT I personally would include it in all future performances as the fourth movement because it is in the minor, which provides better contrast, and is not nearly as jolly. I really liked this piece, however; it is creative and interesting. Perhaps they may wish to play it between the final third and fourth movements, making a five-movement quintet out of it.

As I expected, the second quintet, written much later (Op. 87), is in Mendelssohn’s mature style and is a far more dramatic and interesting piece. Here he does indeed remind one of Beethoven, from his middle period at least, with figures and harmonies that shift and change at a moment’s notice. This is the Mendelssohn I really admire, and they play the piece with great commitment. In contrast to the first quintet, there is scarcely a wasted note or gesture in the first movement, which moves like greased lightning and doesn’t try to seduce us with pretty melodies. At a little after the five-minute mark, Mendelssohn uses fast, surprising crescendi in short phrases that literally pounce on the listener. This is truly great music, regardless of era.

The second movement, an “Allegretto scherzando,” is somewhat more melodic but again written in a much more terse, condensed style. Even the string of trills that he throws in are not merely decorative, but have an essentially rhythmic function. Later on, he incorporates a very clever string of falling chromatics. There’s something about this movement that reminds me more of Dvořák than of Mendelssohn—and yes, that’s a compliment to Mendelssohn.

The third movement is moody and restless, written in the minor and not at all exploiting the beauty of sound that five strings can make but, rather, using a restless melodic line. A bit later, he has the cello play the classical equivalent of a “walking” bass, which later still plays its own edgy rhythms beneath the four upper strings. Again, this is quite an achievement. At one point, the strings play shuddering tremolos. It’s almost like a funeral dirge interrupted by bouts of hysteria and weeping. By contrast, the fourth and last movement releases all of these tensions in a jolly finale, as if to say, “Yes, what preceded this was dramatic, but I was only acting!” Whether or not you consider this an effective finish to such an inherently dramatic piece, however, is up to you. I didn’t really think it fit, any more than I think the last movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony really fits either. There are, however, a few surprising shifts of key later on in this piece.

The alternate final movement starts out in similarly jolly fashion, but to my ears isn’t scored quite as richly as the final version. Some passages here are moved around and a few altered, but to be honest it’s not significantly different from the final version.

Nonetheless, this CD is definitely worth getting if you’re a Mendelssohn fan and don’t already own these quintets. Excellent performances and, in the second quintet, excellent music.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The Sad State of Classical Music Today

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You might chalk this article up to the fact that it’s a hot, sweltering day here in Cincinnati, but I’ve actually had these complaints for some time, occasionally throwing one or two out in the course of a review, for a few years now. It’s about the bad, and sad, state of classical music as we begin the third decade of the 21st century.

Even as far back as the 1940s and ‘50s, critics were starting to complain about those classical performers who didn’t play, sing or conduct much modern music. It reached a chorus of carping during the 1960s and ‘70s, but for the most part has died down over the past 40 years…probably because no one in the classical field is listening, least of all “average listeners” who probably make up more than half of those who listen to the music.

But now it’s gotten to the point where there is even more great modern music being written and recorded than ever before, and by “modern” I sometimes mean composers whose work goes back to the 1940s. Look at the average symphony concert program, song or solo instrument recital or the repertoire of your favorite opera house (and oh boy, does opera have problems beyond repertoire!); you’re unlikely to find much if anything programmed that was written much later than the early 1930s, and even then the bias is towards the same old same old: tonal music by the Great Masters. If there is a resurgence of anything in the classical world it’s usually the promotion of some composer who wrote pretty tonal music from the mid-18th century to the 1930s. The discovery of Florence B. Price was a godsend to classical musicians and particularly to classical radio stations; she wrote well-crafted but impersonal music that is pretty and attractive but says absolutely nothing, and the kicker here is that since she was African-American they can feel good about themselves by promoting her.

Yet the music of other great African-American composers whose music was far more personal and much more interesting, such as William Grant Still, Ulysses Kay, George Walker and Adolphus Hailstork, is pretty much invisible even today, and when Still’s music is performed it’s usually in a bleached, white-bread version that completely eliminates the funkier, more “black” aspects of his music. I wrote a long profile on Still and his music a few years ago, and what I said then still holds today. Hailstork, who is still with us (he recently turned 80), has a few CDs of his music available on the Naxos label but not nearly enough to give the listener an idea of the full scope of his output, and in the concert hall he is another non-entity. You could also add to this list the brilliant black British composer Errollyn Wallen. She’ll be 63 years old this year, but how many of you have even heard her music? And how many of you have even heard of Nancy van de Vate, now 90 years old, who has been writing great music for decades? She doesn’t even appear on Naxos. As far as the record companies are concerned, she’s a non-entity, which is why she had to start her own label, Vienna Modern Masters…which gets no distribution except via her own website.

But it isn’t just black and women composers who suffer the “modern music blackout.” There are so many others that I can scarcely list them all here, but I’ll give you one example among many. Kalevi Aho (b. 1949) is a Finnish composer who many musicians and critics, myself included, consider to be one of the very greatest alive today, but if it wasn’t for a string of recordings of his output issued by Bis Records I doubt that anyone would have heard of him—just as few people outside Scandinavia have ever heard his music in the concert hall. I only use Aho’s name because he is, for me, a sort of archetype, the modern composer who exists in a sort of bubble. But don’t they all? One of the most widely-recognized modern composers to have had his name resuscitated after his death, the brilliant and highly individual Polish-Soviet composer Miecyzław Weinberg, was ignored by most festival halls in the centennial year of his birth, 2019, except for a number of concerts paid for and promoted by violinist Gidon Kremer who adores him. I’ll bet that anyone out there who has not heard of Weinberg certainly didn’t hear much about those Kremer-sponsored concerts unless you lived in one of the countries (not the U.S.) where they took place. But by golly, EVERYONE celebrated the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020, didn’t they?

The standard complaint is that bitonal and atonal music isn’t “natural” to humans to listen to, therefore it’s an esoteric thing. Music critic Henry Pleasants even wrote an entire book slamming anything modern, The Agony of Modern Music, to protest it. But for crying out loud, that was 65 years ago! Even some of the rock music—and certainly a great deal of jazz—written since then has included bitonal and atonal moments. We’re living in a different age now. Our ears have certainly adjusted by now to sounds outside the norm.

Yet if you tune into any American classical radio station, you’d think that all musical innovation ended in 1924 with George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which is played at least three times a week (no, I’m not exaggerating). The rare moments in which you’ll hear something by Schoenberg are usually one of his earlier works or one of his transcriptions of older music, and always with a verbal apology before the record is played to convince the listener to stick around because this isn’t one of his more acerbic pieces.

I can’t speak for European opera houses because I don’t follow their repertoire that closely, but at the Metropolitan only a handful of operas presented there on an occasional (not regular) basis were written after Strauss’ Arabella in 1933: Berg’s completed Lulu, a few Britten operas (mostly Peter Grimes) and Stravinsky’s neo-classic The Rake’s Progress. But as I’ve pointed out numerous times on this blog, New York is not, and never really has been, a hotbed of musical innovation, despite the fact that several excellent composers and jazz musicians claimed New York as their base of operations. Even as far back as the early 20th century, most of the new operas they’ve premiered at that house have been tonal garbage unworthy of perpetuation. Nowadays we’re familiar with the few that they insist on reviving every so often because someone on the board likes them, e.g. John Adams’ Nixon in China and John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, but consider this list of turkeys that were once considered hot tickets at the Met:

Giacomo Puccini: La fanciulla del West (1910)
Victor Herbert: Natoma (1911)
Deems Taylor: The King’s Henchman (1927)
Ottorino Respighi: La campana sommersa (1928)
Deems Taylor: Peter Ibbetson (1931)
Louis Gruenberg: The Emperor Jones (1933)
Howard Hanson: Merry Mount (1933)
Gian-Carlo Menotti: Amelia Goes to the Ball (1938)
Gian-Carlo Menotti: The Island God (1942)
Samuel Barber: Vanessa (1958)
Gian-Carlo Menotti: The Last Savage (1963)
Samuel Barber: Anthony and Cleopatra (1966)

Of course, I’m not saying that each of the composers whose works were premiered at the Met were bad ones, but the few good ones were skilled at other kinds of music: Victor Herbert in operetta, Respighi and Hanson in instrumental music, and Barber in songs and short orchestral works. Operas just weren’t their forte and they showed by fading away.

And this during a fertile period for opera which included such masterpieces as Berg’s Wozzeck (1925), Schoeck’s Penthesilea (1927), Zemlinsky’s Der Kreidekreis (1933), Britten’s Peter Grimes (1945), Orff’s Antigonae (1949) and Pizzetti’s Ifigenia (1950) and Clitennestra (1965). Wozzeck did come to the Met in 1959 at the insistence of Rudolf Bing. Peter Grimes finally came to the Met in 1967, and then only due to the insistence of tenor Jon Vickers. The others have still never been performed there, and it is also noteworthy that Strauss’ 1909 Elektra, now considered his masterpiece, did not get its Met premiere until December of 1932, and of the six performances it received that season. the other five were prefaced by Rossini’s Il Siignor Bruschino!! (Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov has also been an on-and-off visitor, with productions anywhere from six to ten years apart; its last Met performance was given on March 17, 2011, a bizarre situation in which Rene Pape sang Boris through most of the opera but Evgeny Nikitin replaced him in the last scene.) None of the other operas mentioned above have ever been performed at the Met.

Yet the problem of premiering new operas at the Met has been, for the most part, always based on how close to tonality the score would be, not whether it was a great opera or not. They kind of lucked out on both counts with John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby, which is an interesting opera with some pretty good music, but like so many modern operas it “plays” better in a small house than in a barn like the Metropolitan, thus it ended up being one of their failures. In recent years they’ve tried to be edgy and innovative by giving house premieres of Thomas Adès’ The Tempest and Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin, but as I pointed out in my review of the latter (in December 2016), the music wasn’t really very good even by modern music standards. In both cases the composers were chosen due to the weight of their publicists, not due to any inherent greatness of the scores, of which there was none. But this, as you can see from the list of turkeys above, has always been their problem. Whoever picks the “new” operas for the Met, then or now, has poor musical taste, thus they die on the vine.

Over the past 30+ years, the world’s premiere opera houses have tried to compensate for the paucity of interest in endless revivals of the old stuff by screwing up the productions with inappropriate, stylistically inaccurate and borderline insane stage productions. I addressed this in my article Regietheater: The Ruination of Opera, and was appalled to receive a large number of comments from people who actually like these productions because they “make you think” about the operas. I admitted in the article that a small handful of modern stage productions have actually been good and interesting, and named a couple of them; but when you look at the cover of a DVD release of a well-known opera and cannot tell what that opera is if you hide the name, then most of the time you’re heading in the direction of insanity, not enlightenment. If any of my readers have wondered why I don’t review too many opera DVDs, there’s your answer.

And if you think that instrumental concertgoers are hard to sell on anything but tonal music, you haven’t met opera nuts. These people live in a bubble where, to them, d’Albert’s 1903 opera Tiefland is still a radical modern work that’s under-appreciated. As one of them wrote to me, they listen to a lot of modern opera on recordings but they don’t like it or don’t get it. To them, “the music never gets going,” and they apply this complaint as much to Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, which most of them would wish to just disappear and never return, as to the operas I mentioned four paragraphs earlier. For them, opera is all about Beautiful Music and High Notes. If you try telling them that this is NOT what opera is all about, they stare at you as if you have three heads. Well, of course it is! No, you say, opera is sung drama. The music needs to reflect the meaning of the words, not some easy-to-assimilate tune that everyone can hum. But, they’ll tell you, high Cs ARE dramatic! That’s what “opera as drama” is all about!

Now, obviously I listen to a lot of older operas, but I do try to zero in on the best and most dramatic works of every era, and most of the time these do not include the tune fests with high notes that these people live on. I’m very fond of Monteverdi’s Il ritorno di Ulisse in Patria and L’Incoronazione di Poppea, Rameau’s Le temple de la Gloire and Les Boréades, Gluck’s Armide, Salieri’s Les Danaïdes and Les Horaces, Spontini’s La Vestale, Fernand Cortez and Olimpie, Méhul’s Stratonice and Uthal, Pacini’s Saffo, Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète, Saint-Saëns’ Le Timbre d’Argent and Samson et Dalila and Massenet’s Le Cid. Indeed, one could build an entire Met season around just these operas, but they dare not because except for Le Prophète and Samson et Dalila,  they don’t all have Tunes that people can hum and won’t hold a modern audience who still thinks that Bellini’s Norma is superior to La Vestale because it contains “Casta diva” and “Mira, o Norma.” As for Rossini, I do like his Big Three comedies (Barbiere, Cenerantola and L’Italiana in Algeri). Mosé and Guillaume Tell, but little else. Back in 1800, Gaspare Spontini wrote a comic farce which had a good run at the time, La Fuga in Maschera. It resembled a Rossini opera in every way except the use of the “Rossini crescendo.” One might say, Aha, you see, even Spontini had to imitate Rossini!, but there’s one problem with this. At the time it premiered, Rossini was only eight years old and hadn’t written anything yet.

This is the continuing problem with most “modern” operas regardless of era. You have to try to at least sound like a continuously popular operatic style in order to grab the attention of the average operagoer, but unfortunately composers, as a rule, have moved so far beyond the Puccini-Strauss model that they’re not interested in revisiting it. Menotti made a huge mistake by trying to be the modern-day Puccini; his operas in this style were puerile and inferior to his model, yet the existence of his Violin Concerto proves that Menotti did indeed know how to write music, just as Donizetti’s string quartets and his Requiem Mass for Bellini prove that he, too had talent that you would never suspect from his ghastly “Queen trilogy” or even the popular but clearly uneven Lucia di Lammermoor. Composers of the 19th century clearly just wanted to make money and be popular, and this they achieved, but in their wake they left a broad swath of musical garbage not worthy of reviving. Ned Rorem hit the nail on the head when he said that there was nothing the “bel canto” composers did that Baroque composers did not do better, and that bel canto opera was “the pap of the past as popular music is the pap of the present.”

Every month, when I pore through the Naxos New Release Catalog, I see pages and pages full of old music, most of which I’ve heard before and some of which I own in recordings that will never be surpassed by most of these modern performers. Sometimes they try to gussy up the old repertoire by “reimagining” it, either transcribing it for instruments the original composers never intended (I half-expect to see, one month, a Bach Art of Fugue played on the bagpipes) or by interspersing the old stuff with something modern. All this does for me is to show how much more concise and inventive the modern pieces usually are, and how wasteful the older composers were with Tunes and thus stretching out the form of the piece to please a popular audience.

In the 1920s, after he escaped from the Soviet Union, Nikolai Medtner turned to his friend Rachmaninov to help set him up on the concert circuit playing piano recitals. Rachmaninov did so, but Medtner bombed because he mostly played his own compositions, which were much more technically detailed and lacked the tunefulness of his older colleague. Yet because of this tunefulness, it is Rachmaninov who is held up as a great composer and adored by millions and Medtner whose music still struggles for recognition. When I told this story to a friend of mine, adding that Medtner died a pauper, he said it served him right for not writing pieces that people liked—as if that was the first duty of any composer. No wonder that Kaikhosru Sorabji shut himself up in his home and refused to allow anyone to perform his music between the 1930s and the 1970s. Why bother if the performance might be bad or the audience not even care to hear it? Nowadays Sorabji is still not a household name, but he’s much better known to pianists and a certain segment of the classical audience who have tastes that run beyond Chopin and Rachmaninov, and this is entirely due to those pioneering pianists of the 1970s and ‘80s who fought to perform and record Sorabji’s scores. Thank goodness the composer lived long enough to see his work vindicated, at least a little.

The living artists who either play modern music at least half the time or specialize in it exclusively are mostly those who struggle for audiences and recordings—soprano Barbara Hannigan and violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja are two exceptions—and this should not be the case. Edgard Varèse one stated, “The modern-day composer refuses to die!,” but a couple of years after he said that he was indeed dead. Varèse’s music was strange and often unlikable, but his principles still resonate today.

It’s time for adult classical listeners to put their big boy or big girl clothes on, go to concerts and support artists who take risks…as Charles Ives once said, “Take your dissonances like a man!” If we don’t, classical music is going to continue to stagnate, with the best modern composers playing to audiences of perhaps a hundred people at best instead of a few thousand, and by the next century people will still be listening to Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven etc. and nothing new. At the very least, even if the classical audience breaks up into sects as it has in the jazz world, where some listen only to pre-1942 jazz, some only to bop, cool and progressive of the late ‘40s through the late ‘60s, and others to more avant-garde sounds, it would be healthier for the art form than this continued shoving of the Baroque-Classical-Romantic axis down everyone’s throats.

I leave you with this quote from the great Nadia Boulanger:

Pianists who cannot play contemporary music are not complete musicians.

Although Boulanger was only addressing pianists here, I could easily substitute the words violinists, cellists, horn players, oboists, conductors and especially singers and the sentiment would be the same.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Segerstam’s 1980 Verdi “Requiem”

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VERDI: Messa da Requiem / Júlia Várady, sop; Alexandrina Milcheva, mezzo; Alberto Cupido, ten; Nicola Ghiuselev, bass; ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orch. & Chorus; Leif Segerstam, cond / Orfeo C210232 (live: October 3, 1980, Herzogenburg, Austria)

This, it seems, is the first commercial release of a performance of the Verdi Requiem previously only available on a non-commercial LP pressing issued by the ORF Vienna Orchestra itself.

I recently got into an argument with s friend of mine that I personally didn’t think was something to argue about, that although no one buys an opera, vocal mass or oratorio recording on the basis of the conductor alone, the conductor is the most important person, musically, in such performances. He (or she) sets not only the tempo but the phrasing and articulation of a performance. A good conductor can enhance or ruin a performance by the choices he makes. The singers can ruin it only if they’re bad in one way or another, either vocally or stylistically.

In this performance there was only one singer I’d never heard before, mezzo Alexandrina Milcheva, and she turned out to be quite good. I knew tenor Alberto Cupido as the singer on Magda Olivero’s last, abridged recording of Adriana Lecouvreur, and of course Várady and Ghiuselev were world-famous singers.

As has always been his wont in Italian music (and some German music as well), Segerstam takes generally slower tempi than many of his contemporaries, but he never lets the music drag. Thus the opening “Kyrie” for chorus runs close to six minutes before we get to the soloists, but he always nudges the beat forward. It is lyrical but not drippy, and that is very important in a work like this. Recorded near the dawn of the digital age, the sonics are excellent as are the chorus and orchestra although, as a live performance recorded in a monastery, there’s a lot of natural ambience around the performers. This dulls somewhat the impact of the “Dies irae,” where neither the trumpets nor the bass drum are in good focus, despite his taking a good tempo for this section.

Segerstam accents the music in an interesting way at times, such as in the middle of the “Liber scriptus.” Although Cupido had a good voice, neither he nor Ghiuselev sing with much nuance, which shows in such places as the end of the “Quid sum miser,” the beginning of the “Hostias,” and in much of the “Ingemisco,” though he does sing the latter very well and with feeling. Várady, however, is really superb here, the voice bright and biting and soft and sensuous in turn. Her “Libera me” is simply stupendous.

But with the mushy sound sabotaging the work at every turn, there’s little else to recommend it. For fans of the singers only.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Dupree Plays (and Conducts) Kapustin

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KAPUSTIN: Piano Concerto No. 4. Concerto for Violin, Piano & Strings* / Frank Dupree, pno; Meinhard Jenne, perc; *Roseanne Philippens, vln; Württemberg Chamber Orch. of Heilbronn; Case Scaglione, cond / Chamber Symphony, Op. 57 / Jenne, perc; Württemberg Chamber Orch.; Dupree, cond / Capriccio C5437

Pianist Frank Dupree, whose name looks American, is actually a German pianist who was initially trained as a jazz percussionist. That is more important than you might realize because this CD features the music of Nikolai Kapustin, the late Russian composer whose compositions are fully saturated with jazz feeling and swing. Interestingly, Dupree has also made a recording of music by avant-garde composer Peter Eötvös for the Genuin label, so his interest in modern classical music seems to be fairly wide.

The Fourth Concerto, as it turns out, is the only one by Kapustin I didn’t have in my collection, so I was very interested to hear it. I was a little shocked to hear a sort of fusion beat in the first movement; I didn’t know that Kapustin had written anything leaning towards fusion; but there is good fusion (Don Ellis Orchestra, Blood Sweat & Tears) and bad fusion (Miles Davis and everything influenced by that style), and this isn’t nearly as bad. After the explosive opening, however, the music relaxes into a sort of relaxed-funky groove until the 2:42 mark, when it suddenly ramps up again. Dupree has a phenomenal technique, to be sure, but I would caution him against over-flash. A little more clean articulation of the notes would have been welcome, though I admit that the man can certain swing.

Although this concerto is a one-movement work, it shifts into the slow section at about 4:45, and this Dupree played very well, which was important because much of the first section is piano alone, the strings not coming in until almost a minute later. A bit further on, there’s a nice passage in which the piano swings against the flutes and later the cellos and basses. Around 9:25 we swing into the third movement, a fast 4 played against a medium 4 for the orchestra. Then, at around 13:25, we shift into overdrive, the rock-jazz beat returning to drive the music forward. After a brief but pregnant pause around 14:20, the piano plays what amounts to a solo cadenza in a slower tempo to start with, becoming very fast in the middle section (and again, Dupree tends to lack a bit of clear articulation here) before moving into the equally fast last section. At least the way it’s played here by the Württemberg Chamber Orchestra, a little stiff rhythmically but with great virtuosity, it’s a breathless piece.

The concerto for violin and piano is a slightly different animal. Kapustin wrote so little for any other instrument than the piano that I was very curious to hear how he treated the violin. I’d say that he was probably a fan of either Stéphane Grappelli or Svend Asmussen, because the violin part swings, too, as does the orchestra; and here, at a slightly more relaxed pace than in the piano concerto, the Württemberg string section swings surprisingly well. And so does violinist Roseanne Philippens! Give this lady a pat on the back for rising to the occasion and doing an excellent job in music that is far removed from the Vivaldi and Mozart she normally plays. Listening to her interaction with Dupree, I was somewhat reminded of the “hot sonatas” recorded in the mid-1970s by Joe Venuti and Earl Hines except, of course, Kapustin has written everything out ahead of time. What sounds like improvisation in his music really isn’t, and this is what separates him from Friedrich Gulda and Daniel Schnyder, who allow some freedom in their compositions. I particularly liked the second movement despite the almost-pop-music-like intro by the string section; here, I would say, it is the violin even more so than the piano that stars, with the keyboard playing accompaniment to her solo excursions. Dupree is excellent in this piece, pacing his piano playing perfectly without rushing things and really swinging. the whole movement has that lazy-summer-afternoon-jazz-concert kind of feel about it.

The third movement has a driving rhythm that, though allowing some room to swing, is actually closer to a classical ostinato beat, but Dupree and especially Philippens do a splendid job, particularly in the section where they are accompanied by a solo bassist and occasional violin interjections. There’s also a solo passage for the pianist to play in a fast sort of stride piano style, to which the violin adds its own commentary. Really fun music!

Yet it’s the Chamber Symphony that is really unusual because, although there is a prominent part for percussion, it’s not a concerto at all and features no piano. Here Kapustin relied a little more on his classical models, albeit with just enough of a jazz beat to remind you who the composer is. there’s also a lot of interesting changes of meter and rhythmic interaction between the low instruments and the high ones, playing these against one another the way he might have done between the bass and treble ends of a piano.

To a certain extent, however, I found this work somewhat more episodic than normal for Kapustin and therefore a little less effective than the preceding pieces. I think he was just a little too clever for his own good here; by continually fiddling around with tempo and meter, he wrote a piece in which the different sections sound juxtaposed and not continuous or logical. But sometimes even a partial failure by a good composer is more worthy of hearing than a good work by a generally bad composer. Happily, the second movement is less jumbled in style and works very well.

Despite my reservations about the Chamber Symphony, this is surely a valuable and interesting recording of under-recorded works by one of the finest composers of the past half-century.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Sowerby’s Jazz-Tinged Compositions

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THE PAUL WHITEMAN COMMISSIONS & OTHER EARLY WORKS / SOWERBY: Synconata, H. 176a (1924). Serenade for String Quartet (1917).* String Quartet in d min., H. 172 (1923).* Tramping Tune for Piano & Strings, H. 122 (1917).*+ Symphony for Jazz Orchestra, “Monotony,” H. 178 (1925) / Andy Baker Orchestra; *Avalon String Quartet, +add Winston Choi, pno & Alexander Hanna, bs / Çedille CDR 205

Paul Whiteman (1890-1967) occupies a compromised place in jazz history. The son of an outstanding concert bandleader and musical pedagogue, Wilberforce Whiteman, who also taught music to Jimmie Lunceford, Paul was a violist in the Denver Symphony Orchestra in his younger days and clearly knew good music from bad, both in the classical and jazz fields. His problem, when he formed his own popular orchestra at the age of 29 (1919), was that he had a burning desire to “make a lady out of jazz.” Although he clearly loved the free spirit of improvising musicians, he stocked his band with formally-trained musicians who could play rings around most of their rivals but couldn’t swing if you put a keg of dynamite under their butts. The first bona-fide jazz musician he had in his group was New Orleans clarinetist Gus Mueller, who can be heard on his early hit recording of Wang Wang Blues, but Mueller got tired of the “symphonic jazz” angle and left. This was followed by several years in which only a few of his musicians really understood the jazz beat, though they tried their best, before he lucked out by hiring star cornetist Red Nichols and some of his famous Five Pennies, namely clarinetist Jimmy Dorsey, guitarist Eddie Lang and virtuoso jazz drummer Vic Berton, in early 1927.

But Red, Eddie and Vic also got tired of the bucketful of pseudo-jazz dished out by Whiteman and left after a couple of months (Jimmy Dorsey stayed through 1928, briefly bringing his brother Tommy into the band). Then, at the end of 1927, Whiteman lucked out again. Detroit-based bandleader Jean Goldkette was forced to cut his highly gifted but also highly paid jazz stars loose in order to meet payroll at his Graystone Ballroom, which put such stars as cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, C-melody saxist Frank Trumbauer, trombonist Bill Rank, arranger Bill Challis and the swingingest white bass player of his time, Steve Brown, at liberty. They first joined a band led by fellow-jazzman Adrian Rollini, but when the venue they were playing in caught fire and burned down, they all signed on with Whiteman. Brown, whose swinging bass propelled some of the best jazz records that Whiteman made with Bix et. al. (particularly Lonely Melody and the February 1928 take of From Monday On, an arrangement by Tom Satterfield that even impressed Louis Armstrong), had enough by the end of February and walked out, but the rest stayed. Some of their records thereafter were kind of hot, but many still weren’t. The quota of pretentious over-arranged drivel began to overwhelm the little bit of jazz content; Beiderbecke drank himself into a stupor due to the job stress, was sent home to recover, came back for a short while in 1929 but was never quite the same. Only Trumbauer stuck it out into the mid-1930s.

We all know about Whiteman’s commissions for George Gershwin, the 1924 Rhapsody in Blue and the 1925 Piano Concerto, both of which were recorded (Bix Beiderbecke, of all people, played the solo cornet part at the beginning and end of the second movement in the latter), as well as his later commissions for staff arranger Ferde Grofé, Metropolis (1928), a pretentious “tone poem for orchestra” now virtually forgotten, and the Grand Canyon Suite (1932), but this album brings forth two works that Whiteman never recorded but did commission, Leo Sowerby’s Synconata and his Symphony for Jazz Orchestra, subtitled “Monotony.”

In the long view of history, Sowerby (1895-1968) would seem the least likely composer to have his music commissioned by a “jazz” orchestra because he is much better known for his religious music. He began composing at age 10, turned to the organ at age 15 and had his Violin Concerto premiered at the age of 18 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; he had moved to the Windy City to study composition with Arthur Olaf Andersen at the American Conservatory of Music in that city. Indeed, by 1924 Sowerby was himself on the faculty at that institution, and in 1927 became organist-choirmaster at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Chicago. He later won the 1946 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his 1944 cantata, The Canticle of the Sun. Yet this is the very same Leo Sowerby who wrote the pieces you hear on this album, all of which are premiere recordings.

Synconata opens up with a bang but quickly moves into the sort of pseudo-classical melody line that Whiteman thought would make jazz a lady. Yet for the most part, this is interesting music; like so many “jazz” compositions of that period, it leans more towards ragtime than real jazz, but the structure of the piece goes far beyond the ragtime composers. There’s a nice melody played by a solo trumpet, accompanied for a time only by the piano, which is then picked up by a solo violin and moved around the orchestra during its development. I would characterize it as more of a classical work with syncopation written with popular band orchestration than a jazz work with classical structure. There are some interesting moments of “sliding trombone” and the like to give it a 1920s “flapper feel,” but it’s clearly well written if stylistically dated. Gershwin could have taken some lessons from Sowerby. If a modern-day band were to replace the banjo part with guitar and swing it a little, I think it would work even better.

The 1917 Serenade for string quartet may be claimed by some to be in the same vein, but I heard it as leaning more towards the “American Indian” style that became popular with MacDowell and stayed so through the late 1910s. Here, Sowerby is even a bit more adventurous harmonically than in Synconata, possibly because he was comfortable writing for a string quartet by this time.

The full-length String Quartet, which dates from 1923 (one year before he wrote Synconata), is a very serious classical work using some harmony which was experimental for those days  (some of it modal) without going too far in the direction of Bartók or, heaven help us, Schoenberg. There are syncopations galore in the latter part of the first movement, but they’re classical syncopations, not really jazz-inflected (though you could make an argument for their being ragtime-inflected). I found the second (slow) movement to be pleasant but much less interesting save the faster middle section.  The third movement is built around a repeated rhythmic cell that dominates the first couple of minutes until the tempo suddenly relaxes into a more Romantic theme. Again, however, the problem is that Sowerby beats this rhythmic motif to death. Both the second and third movements are far too long for their good; some judicious editing would actually strengthen the structure and make them more interesting. The 1917 Tramping Tune adds a piano and double bass to the string quartet, and is a very interesting and concise little piece with some chromatic and whole-tome harmony thrown in for fun.

Then we get to the “main event,” so to speak, Sowerby’s jazz symphony Monotony. This is an utterly fascinating piece, more classical than jazz despite its use of muted trumpets, banjo and the like, at least in structure. Sowerby builds the first movement around a little sliding chromatic figure played by the trombones in their low range, which is then transformed a bit and moved up to the saxophones as the music develops. Suddenly, a bright little clarinet tune pops up (probably played by Ross Gorman, Whiteman’s virtuoso clarinetist at the time who created the upward opening glissando in Rhapsody in Blue), before the strings and brass get in on the fun. Once again, the syncopations are much closer to ragtime than to real jazz of the era (for examples of this, listen to contemporary recordings by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band and The Wolverines with Beiderbecke on cornet), but Sowerby’s composition skills kept him and the piece going.

Yet you can clearly hear why Whiteman never recorded this with his band. The music isn’t nearly as direct and easy to digest as the Gershwin pieces; there are a lot of little nooks and crannies in it that don’t fit into the scheme of Whiteman’s concept. The contrasting rhythms in the second movement alone would be enough to confuse listeners more attuned to dancin’ their pants off to Charleston or Black Bottom, particularly in the second movement, titled “Fridays at Five.” The next movement, “Sermons,” harks back to Sowerby’s church-music roots but turns them a bit on their ear; using a sort of broken waltz rhythm, the music limps along a slightly bitonal harmonic base that slyly slips up and down chromatically. This clever harmonic “slippage” continues on and off throughout the movement as the theme develops (yet another reason for the casual listener to lose track of the music). Interestingly, too, this movement really has zero jazz or ragtime content but for the slightly syncopated beat and one passage where he uses “laughing” clarinets.

I’m not sure exactly who “Critics” was aimed at, the audience or music reviewers, but here Sowerby turns a bit sour, using a repeated motif in D minor with strongly syncopated figures. Again, the music is developed along formal lines, once again leaving the average flapper or flapperette scratching their heads wondering what this music is really all about.

My friend for the last 20 years of his life, Ralph Berton, was someone who lived through this era (he befriended Bix Beiderbecke when he was still with the Wolverines in 1924) and knew good music from bad, once told me that the best jazz-classical hybrid of that time was John Alden Carpenter’s Skyscrapers. It took me several years to actually hear a performance of it, but he was right. On the other hand, I don’t think he bothered to go to Whiteman’s concert to hear the Monotony symphony, because to my mind it’s clearly in the running. This is an interesting piece no matter how you approach it, even with the waltz melody in the last movement, obviously thrown in to please the public.

A very interesting album, then. Kudos all around, to the performers for doing such a good job on the music as well as to Çedille Records for recording and releasing it. This is a valuable missing piece in the early discourse between jazz and classical music.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The Music of Eliodoro Sollima

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SOLLIMA: Cello Sonata. Studi for Violin & Clarinet. Tre movimenti for Piano, Violin & Cello. Evoluziona No. 5. Quartetto No. 3 la leggenda di San Damiano. Aria for Piano, Violin, Viola & 2 Cellos* / Ensemble Kinari: Azusa Onishi, vln; Gianluca Pirisi, cel; Mizuho Ueyama, vla; Flavia Salemmi, pno. *Giovanni Solima, cel / Brilliant Classics 96287

From the publicity blurb for this CD:

Eliodoro Sollima (1926-2000) was a Sicilian musician raised in the town of Marsala, where the concert hall is dedicated to his memory. From 1954 to 1991 he taught composition at the conservatoire in Palermo, where he was also the institution’s director for 16 years. This is the only album dedicated to his music: new recordings made by a young contemporary music ensemble, who are joined by the composer’s son, Giovanni Sollima, a cellist and composer in his own right who has made several previous albums for Brilliant Classics.

What struck me from the very opening of the Cello Sonata was a composer who walked a bit of a tightrope between more tonal, melodic music and more modern harmonies. He clearly knew the basic principles of composition; his music has focus and direction, and makes logical sense. Despite the occasional modern harmonies, the cello line has sweep and a definable melodic structure. It’s the piano that takes things in a different direction, eventually pulling the cello along with it.

Yet the music holds your interest because of Sollima’s excellent grasp of structure as well his willingness to take some risks. The third and last movement of this Cello Sonata contains some extremely difficult, virtuoso passages for both instruments, which Gianluca Pirisi and Flavia Salemmi handle extremely well.

Interestingly, in the Tre movimenti Sollima abandoned his tonal bias to produce a mostly atonal work. Yet even here his gift for a melodic line comes through, and if anything it is an even more imaginative piece than the Cello Sonata. From phrase to phrase one never quite knows what to expect; it’s music that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Evoluziona No. 5 is cut from the same cloth, driving, intense and highly imaginative music that holds your interest. By Quartetto No. 3 we’re back to Sollima’s more Romantic side, but once again we note that there are some passages in which the underlying harmony slips around chromatically here and there.

Ironically, the Aria for Piano, Violin, Viola & 2 Cellos, on which the composer’s son also plays, is the most Romantic and least interesting piece on the CD, but all in all this is an excellent cross-section of Sollima’s works worthy of hearing and respect. He was clearly a fine composer, and several of these works deserve wider exposure.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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