Vaughan Williams’ Folk Song Arrangements

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VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Folk Songs from the Eastern Countries. 12 Traditional Country Dances (piano solo). The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. The Motherland Song Book, Vol. III / Mary Bevan, sop; Nicky Spence, ten; Roderick Williams, bar; *Chorus: Helen Ashby, Kate Ashby, sop; Cara Curran, alto; Benedict Hyams, ten; James Arthur, Nicholas Ashby, bs; William Vann, pno / Albion Records ALBCD044

This is the third volume in Albion’s series of Vaughan Williams’ complete folk song arrangements, but the first that intrigued me since it contains his early set of Folk Songs from Eastern Countries (1908) as well as the late (1959) Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. I’ve learned over the years that Vaughan Williams’ music was at its most interesting early (up through the mid-1920s) and late (post-World War II), but rather conventional and mundane in the years between.

Roderick Williams was one of my favorite of current British baritones, and he still has a lovely tone and excellent diction and interpretation, but his vibrato has become looser over the past few years. Nonetheless, his other skills are on display here, and his is clearly a level of artistry that demands one’s attention and respect. I’m not sure if Vaughan Williams considered Ireland to be an “Eastern Country,” but by golly, “Tarry Trousers” is an Irish song. Unlike Williams, soprano Mary Bevan’s voice remains firm as well as lovely, but to be honest neither her diction nor her interpretive skill are on the same level with him (I could understand about half the words she sang). Tenor Nicky Spence, on the other hand, does not have a really attractive tone, but his vibrato is not as loose as Williams’ and his diction is fairly excellent in its own right. So those are our singers.

As for the pianist, William Vann, he’s OK. Just OK. Not really bad, mind you, but to my ears not really fully engaged with the music. A well-programmed MIDI could have played as well. But what really “makes” this album is the simple fact that both Williams and Spence sing these like FOLK SONGS. They don’t give you that over-the-top operatic treatment that so often ruined the way classical singers approached these songs in the old days (one happy exception being the way baritone Leonard Warren sang those sea shanties).

Because of his just-OK approach to playing, the piano solo incorporating 12 country dances is also just OK (but at least not really bad, thank goodness). But since this is essentially a folk song collection it’s the way the words are sung and interpreted that matter the most, and on those two counts this is a really first-rate recording. In the last songs we even get a nice, lively chorus of six well-chosen voices who are just as enthusiastic as Roderick Williams, and that’s a real compliment. Highly recommended for those who enjoy this kind of music.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Pasqualotto Plays Bartók

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BARTÓK: Out of Doors. 4 Dirges. Suite, Op. 14. 10 Easy Pieces. 14 Bagatelles / Francesco Pasqualotto, pno / Urania LDV14074

This release pleases me on several different levels. First, it really does warm my heart to see yet another Italian musician who is not afraid to tackle 20th and 21st-century repertoire; there are many of them nowadays, and quite a few are finding their way in to records of late. Secondly, I was very happy that Pasqualotto chose to present each of these suites complete and not just fragmented. And thirdly, I was elated to discover that he knows how to play this music in a style similar to that of the composer himself playing two of the Easy Pieces, three of the Bagatelles and the complete Op. 14 Suite.

And yes, fidelity to the composer’s own touch and style is important if one is to accurately approximate how these works should sound, yet there are very few recordings of Bartók’s music by pianists who have clearly studied his own piano style. Peter Donohoe’s recordings of the Piano Concerti is one such, and this disc is another.

Far too many pianists, including Hungarian ones, attack Bartók’s music as if it were Stravinsky or George Antheil, with a staccato, pounding keyboard attack, but by and large this was not the way Bartók played the piano. He had a primarily soft touch, not unlike that of Alfred Cortot, used a fine legato along with a rounded, pearly sound. Now granted, the very first piece in Out of Doors, “With Drums and Pipes,” is a strongly percussive piece, but most of the others are not, and Pasqualotto approximates the composer’s fine legato and rich keyboard sound very well indeed.

PasqualottoThis makes a difference because it illustrates that Bartók wanted his music to be played like any other, not like some heavy metal assault on the keyboard. At the same time, Bartók also played with great feeling and Pasqualotto does, too. It’s a kind of delicate balancing act that one must perform, allowing the music to sing while still imbuing it with feeling, and this is what we get, for the most part, in this recital.

And this approach pays great dividends when playing such a piece as “The Night’s Music” from Out of Doors, with its mysterious rolling chromatic figures with clashing harmonies, or the fourth of Bartók’s Dirges. But it also tells in the Suite with its rollicking Hungarian rhythms, and Pasqualotto handles all of this music, and the rest of it, exceedingly well.

This is an album that should not only be appreciated by Bartók aficionados but also studied by fellow-pianists if they want an idea of how the composer wanted his music played.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Arcangelo Plays Buxtehude

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BUXTEHUDE: Trio Sonatas, Op. 2: in Bb, BuxWV 259; in D, BuxWV 260; in G min., BuxWV 261; in C min., BuxWV 262; in A, BuxWV 263; in E, BuxWV 264; in F, BuxWV 265 / Arcangelo: Sophie Gent, vln; Thomas Dunford, lute; Jonathan Manson, vla da gamba; Jonathan Cohen, hpd/dir / Alpha Classics 738

Among Baroque composers, Dietrich Buxtehude remains one of my favorites, in part because his music is emotionally affecting, unpredictable in its development and generally exciting. One critic, writing for either High Fidelity or Stereo Review back in the 1960s (I forget which), referred to him as “Bach in the raw,” and it is worth remembering that the young J.S. admired Buxtehude so much—particularly for his organ works—that he traveled 100 miles or so (on foot!) to go hear and meet him and talk shop.

These Trio Sonatas are lesser-heard Buxtehude, most of his more familiar works written for solo keyboard instruments (organ and harpsichord), and cantatas for voices and accompaniment. Despite their being ostensibly early music—the complete Trio Sonatas, 14 in all, are grouped into two sets of seven each and numbered Opp. 1 & 2, and they were written not in the 18th century but in the late 17th, when Bach was around 10 years old!—many of his familiar devices are already in place, among them his clever use of “falling chromatics” and sometimes ascending chromatics, a trick that Bach himself rarely used, and with that his “leaning” harmonies that almost but not quite distort the chord progression. He was also a master of the “quick change” in the midst of a theme statement or development, frequently and insolently shifting from major to minor and back again with the blink of an eye, and doing so at the most unexpected moments. Add to this the rhythmically irregular movement of the viola da gamba underneath, and you have a formula for music that still fascinates even as so many other Baroque composers of his time and later do not. Generally speaking, many of these Trio Sonatas are free-form fantasias written in a style that was called, in his day, “stylus fantasticus.” (As a personal sidelight, I really do wonder how much this music influenced C.P.E. Bach, whose symphonies and concerti written during his Berlin years exhibit many traits that are more in common with Buxtehude than with that of his father or his godfather Telemann.)

Arcangelo, a UK-based group that has a bit larger repertoire than most early-music groups—they perform music at least up through Beethoven—has two things going for them, a wonderful feel for the legato line of the music and an exceptionally warm sound. The former is especially important in the performance of Baroque music; during the early years of the historically-informed movement, Gustav Leonhardt had it but Nikolaus Harnoncourt didn’t, at least not at first. (Later, when Harnoncourt finally discovered the wonders of legato, he overdid it, often slowing down the music so much that it sometimes lost its excitement.) Christopher Hogwood had a so-so legato feel to his performances, but it wasn’t until John Eliot Gardiner came along in the 1980s that we had an early-music performer who, like Karl Richter among the early pioneers, knew how to balance a fine legato with crisp playing and good rhythmic movement.

Challenge CC72254In comparing Arcangelo to other groups who have recorded these works, they score for excitement over the London Baroque on Bis and considerably in terms of phrasing over the stodgy and unattractive readings by the Boston Museum Trio (Harmonia Mundi and Centaur), but I couldn’t escape the feeling that something was missing. I couldn’t put my finger on it until I started listening to the superb performances recorded a decade ago by Ton Koopman for the Challenge Classics label. Suddenly, I heard EVERYTHING: good legato, forward momentum, rhythmic lift and drive, and quicker tempi than any of the above. Thus I recommend that you seek those recordings out (they’re currently available on a 3-CD set with other sonatas by Buxtehude filling out the first disc). Koopman, by the way, is also the President of the Dietrich Buxtehude Society, so he obviously has a passion for this music and it shows in his performances. (Normally I don’t put much stock in Grammys or Grand Prix du Disques and the like, but I think Gramophone was entirely right to give this set an “Editor’s Choice” award when they first reviewed it.)

So, to recap, the recording under review here is good but not in the same universe as Koopman’s. I hate to be negative since Arcangelo obviously put a lot of work into these performances, but that’s the way the Buxtehude ball bounces.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Nevermind Plays C.P.E. Bach

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C.P.E. BACH: Sonata in A, Wq. 48/6, “Prussian”: Adagio. Quartets: in A min., Wq. 93; in D min., Wq. 94; in G, Wq. 95. Sonata in A, Wq. 65/32: Andante con tenerezza / Nevermind: Anna Besson, fl; Louis Creac’h, vln; Robin Pharo, vla da gamba; Jean Rondeau, hpd / Alpha Classics 759

Nevermind is a reactionary group of young French musicians who only play music of the 17th and 18th centuries, primarily French but also a few Germans and Italians. I’ve stated before that such players are essentially incomplete artists, but to their credit they do play well and since I had never heard C.P.E. Bach’s quartets before I thought I’d give them a try.

Since there appear to be only three quartets by C.P.E. Bach, the group opens and closes this disc with individual slow movements from two sonatas. Of course the violinist uses straight tone, which robs the music of its richness in these slow movements, but the warm acoustic in which they were recorded helps to ameliorate some of the damage this causes. At least they understand the concept of legato, which not all HIP groups do, and this serves them well in these pieces. And they are livelier than the performance by David Ross, Jessica Troy, Ezra Seltzer and Jeffrey Grossman which is available on YouTube, in part because the latter group uses a viola and a cello instead of violin and viola da gamba, but also in part because this latter group is just plain stodgy. In addition, Nevermind has a good grasp of rubato, which adds interest to these works.

With that being said, all of this music seems to stem from the period when he was churning out flute scores by the double handful for the very reactionary flute-playing Freddie the Great of Prussia, years which the composer later looked back on as one of his most frustrating. It is very nice music and, of course, well crafted (all of the Bach boys knew how to write music to order), but scarcely on the level of his output during his Hamburg years. C.P.E. aficionados will know exactly what I mean.

The result, then, is a really lovely album of formulaic music written to order for a king who didn’t like anything modern or challenging. By the way, when C.P.E.’s father, the esteemed J.S., visited him in Berlin he quickly picked up the lay of the land. As a bit of revenge on the way his son was treated (Freddie generally preferred the stodgier scores of Stamitz), J.S. wrote A Musical Offering for him—not a modern work, to be sure, but just a shade beyond Freddie’s abilities as a flute player.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Lena Bloch’s “Rose of Lifta”

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BLOCH: Promise of Return. Mad Mirror. Climbing Rose of Lifta. Mahmoud Darwish. LOSSING: New Home. Old Home. Wintry Mix / Lena Bloch and Feathery: Bloch, t-sax; Russ Lossing, pno; Cameron Brown, bs; Billy Mintz, bs / Fresh Sound New Talent FSNT-621

Saxophonist Lena Bloch has made one album previously with her group, Feathery, in 2017. This one, scheduled for release on October 8, explores themes of exile, loss and home, inspired by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. But with so many so-called “jazz” recordings exploring similar themes due to the Covid-19 scamdemic, I was initially a bit wary about it until I started listening.

Where Bloch differs from so many similar projects in the past two years is that her music is interesting and has substance to it. Promise of Return opens with a typically Middle Eastern beat, and just grows from there as the quartet falls in one instrument at a time. One of the more interesting aspects of the performance is that, although this quartet is very much together musically, they play more like four separate individuals rather than as a synchro-mesh unit. You have to hear it to understand what I mean. Pianist Russ Lossing, who contributed three original pieces of his own to this set, plays a most interesting solo in which he combines the Eastern harmonies with some real Western jazz energy; Bloch’s tenor sax, ethereal yet earthy, makes its own statements through little fills and the way she leads the quartet in the middle section, which is a very interesting development of the initial theme. Her later solo is full of fascinating ruminations on this theme, first explored softly but eventually gaining in volume and power as she wends her way along. Bassist Cameron Brown then contributes a solo of his own, subtle and somewhat interesting if not quite on the same level as Lossing’s and Bloch’s.

Mad Mirror is a much slower piece, with Bloch opening it up a cappella with a bit of reverb on her horn, perhaps to express loneliness; it is surely a lonely-sounding theme. The music, again, really opens up through Lossing’s solo, which is full of asymmetric rhythms and subtle harmonic shifts set to a driving beat. But each track has its own surprises, as for instance on Lossing’s New Home, which is more of a traditional jazz ballad without any Middle Eastern allusions than its predecessors and successors. Although Bloch’s solo does contain a few references to Eastern music, it sounds, interestingly, more like Paul Desmond than any tenor saxist I could think of.

I’d be spoiling your sense of discovery, however, by describing each  track in such detail; suffice it to say that this is a CD full of wonders and fascinating music that has depth and soul without resorting to whining or breast-beating. I should also add that one of Bloch’s messages in this music is that the creative artist often needs loneliness and solitude in order to work; being constantly surrounded by friends and/or family can put a crimp on creativity. I know exactly where she’s coming from and, if you’re a creative artist in any sense, you know it, too. Let’s just say that this is a great program of music to be alone in your own mind with. Clearly one of the finest jazz CDs of the year to date.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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A Wonderful Tribute to Julian Bream

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DES PRES: Et in terra pax. HOLBOURNE: Pavane. BATCHELER: Alman. CUTTING: Walsingham Variations. DOWLAND: Fantasia. 3 Sacred Songs.1 3 Lute Solos. 4 Lachrimae Pavans.2 REUSNER: Suite in G min. DE VISÉE: Suite in D min. BRITTEN: Nocturnal, after Dowland’s “Come, Heavy Sleep.” TRAD., arr. NIN: Granadina.3 TRAD., arr. OBRADORS: Con amores la mi madre.3VILLA LOBOS: Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5: Aria.3 GRANADOS: El majo discreto.3 La maja dolorosa.3 El majo timido.3 El tra la la y el punteado.3 HAYDN: String Quartet Op. 2, No. 2, guitar version.4 RODRIGO: Concierto de Aranjuez.5 BERKELEY: Songs of the Half-Light, Op. 65.1 DODGSON: Partita No. 1 / Julian Bream, lute/gtr with 1Peter Pears, ten; 2Bream Consort of Viols; 3Carmen Prietto, sop; 4members of Carimelli Qrt; 5Scottish National Chamber Orch., cond. Sir Alexander Gibson / Doremi DHR-8151/52, mono (live, London, 1956-1965)

There are some albums I review that are an adventure, some that end up being a chore because the performer doesn’t deliver a good reading, and a few that are an unalloyed pleasure from start to finish. This set is one of the latter, because I’ve been a huge fan of Julian Bream ever since I first heard him in the late 1960s.

In my view, Bream was not only the greatest lutenist and one of the greatest guitarists of his time but the end of a tradition that is now lost and gone because he was self-taught and came to the music with an enthusiasm and a zest in his playing that most classical lute and guitar players of today completely lack. For just one example of what I mean, listen to his performance here of Rodrigo’s famous Concierto de Aranjuez, then tell me if you’ve ever heard it played with this much excitement.

The one fly in the ointment is the atrocious sound quality. While I certainly applaud Doremi’s ability to acquire these rare broadcasts and issue them here, I must castigate them for not caring one whit about the quality of the sound they present. Every track has a loud rumble, hum and heavy surface noise from the original tapes or acetates, and Doremi did about as much to correct this as the late Edward D. Smith did on his LP issues of rare old records and broadcasts of famous singers, which is absolutely nothing. I realize that not everyone can afford a restoration engineer of the high caliber of Holger Siedler, Ward Marston or Mark Obert-Thorn, but a little care and perhaps one hour’s work with even an inexpensive sound editor would have worked wonders. I used my little $50 GoldWave program to select the initial offending noise, reduce the volume by 14 db, then select it to a clipboard and use it to remove most of the noise. Then I used the Reduce Hum feature to eliminate the bad low-level hum on every recording. No,. the results aren’t perfect—you can still hear a very soft sort of grinding sound in the background—but the noise level has been reduced by at least 80%, which allows you to hear the delicate playing of Bream’s lute and guitar with much better clarity.

Although I didn’t mind the opening selection by Josquin des Pres too much, I felt that Doremi should have started the album with track 2 since a BBC announcer introduces “a lute recital by Julian Bream,” and that is a much better way to start the album. And the selections he chose were hardly cookie-cutter fare: music by such obscure early composers as Anthony Holbourne, Daniel Batcheler and Francis Cutting. Granted, these pieces don’t sound terribly different from the usual Dowland fare, but at least he provided something a bit out of the ordinary, and as usual his performances are several cuts above the average that you hear nowadays. Every note is crisp and clear, individually sounded as if it were a pearl on a string. In the three Dowland religious songs he acts as accompanist to the singer who admired and used him the most often, Peter Pears, and although I could live without the religiosity I admired his sensitive work with the tenor. It’s also interesting to hear Dowland’s Four Lachrimae Pavans, based on his famous song Flow, My Tears, with the “Bream Consort of Viols” (all unidentified on the album’s back cover) even though one of them is distinctly flat by about a quarter tone.

The suite by German composer Esaias Reusner (1636-1679) is also a rarity, and more interesting musically than some of his British contemporaries. In the Suite in D minor by Robert de Visée, particularly in the Prelude, Bream demonstrates how one can change the tone and color of certain notes by the way one plucks them—a lost art today. For Britten’s Nocturnal based on Dowland (but not too closely), Bream switches to the guitar, demonstrating just how great he was on that instrument as well.

The second CD begins with several Spanish songs sung by soprano Carmen Prietto. She was an American, born and raised in San Diego, whose mother was Mexican and whose father was Peruvian, and who had also been a singer (no voice range specified). She made her operatic debut as Gilda in 1947 with the Pacific Opera Company but, faced with such competition as Mattiwilda Dobbs and Roberta Peters, could not catch a break in this country, so she went to England where by 1955 she was making recordings of Latin folk songs in gussied-up arrangements. According to what I read online, she also performed Britten’s Les Illuminations that same year and appeared in a performance of Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 1954. She had a wonderfully bright voice that sounded authentically Latina, which was perfect for these Latin-based songs and arias (including the famous one from Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5). It’s a shame that no one ever invited her to record Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne; she might have given Netania Davrath a run for her money.

Also of interest is this version of the Haydn Quartet Op. 2/2 in which Bream plays one of the violin parts—and wonderfully so. This disc also features the world premiere performance of Lennox Berkeley’s Songs of the Half-Light with Peter Pears, an excellent suite performed superbly.

One of the biggest reasons why we don’t have lutenists and classical guitarists like Bream amy more is that the historically-informed historicals have ordained that one should never play these instrument with energy or feeling; in fact, this attitude eventually claimed Bream himself as a victim. His playing changed during the 1970s and ‘80s, and he began to sound generic and somewhat uninteresting like all his HIP contemporaries, which was a shame because with it we lost feeling in music. With all due respect to Doremi’s Vol. 1 in this series, it is this 2-CD set that gives one the broadest range of Bream’s abilities; along with his recording of Elizabethan lute songs with Peter Pears (one album each for Decca and RCA), it presents Bream in his best light as an artist. Worth getting, then, but caveat emptor regarding the sound quality!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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More Music of Papandopulo

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PAPANDOPULO: Concertino in modo antico. Fantasy. Lyrical Trio. Rapsodia Concertante. 3 Movements for Orlando / Amaury Coeytaux, Vanessa Szigeti, vln; Andrei Ioniţă, cel; Oliver Triendl, pno / CPO 555 106-2

It really does amaze me how many superb composers whose work I now review on a regular basis I had no idea even existed 15 years ago, the most notable being Mieczysław Weinberg and Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji but also such names as Erwin Schulhoff, Alexander Tansman, Hans Winterberg, Karol Rathaus, Nikolai Kapustin, Tibor Harsányi, Nikos Skalkottas, Thomas de Hartmann and our subject here, Boris Papandopulo.

Since I was not provided a booklet with this release I can’t tell you the genesis of these works or when they were written, but although they are among Papandopulo’s lighter works, not quite on the same exalted level as his Piccolo, Xylophone and Harpsichord Concerti, his Piano Concerto No. 3 or his 5 Orchestral Songs for Baritone, they still exhibit a high level of craftsmanship and merit your listening. In an earlier review, I described some of Papandopulo’s music as combining “elements of folk music—particularly its strong rhythms—with an almost Baroque style of continually fast, virtuosic passages with modern harmonies,” but in the Concertino it is only the third-movement “Tarantella” that fits that description perfectly; yet the two preceding movements have great charm and are not without some harmonic interest.

There is s bit more of this in the three-movement Fantasy, with the first movement showing hints of Russian influence in one of its themes. By the last movement, Papandopulo is using minor modes which gives the music a strongly Eastern flavor. The Lyrical Trio opens with a cello solo which eventually leads into a short fugue before the music develops differently. Yet interestingly, the second movement also opens with a fugue! This is some of the densest and most complex music on this CD, although the Rapsodia Concertante also opens with allusions to Middle Eastern modes and harmonies.

Our four musicians are all superb, not only with outstanding techniques but also with full emotional engagement in the music they play. I wonder, however, if violinist Vanessa Szigeti is any relation to the legendary violinist Joseph Szigeti; that’s not such a common Hungarian last name. Recommended to those who, like me, enjoy Papandopulo’s music.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Graham Dechter Kicks Butt on Guitar!

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DECHTER: Orange Coals. Reference. Corcao Brasiliero. Moonithology. Minor Influlence. Bent on Monk. Billy’s Dilemma. NEWLEY-BRICUSSE: Pure Imagination / Graham Dechter, gtr; Tamir Hendelman, pno; John Clayton, bs; Jeff Hamilton, dm / Capri Records 74158-2

This is guitarist Graham Dechter’s third CD and his first in nearly nine years. After listening to so many “jazz” guitarists who sound as if they’re afraid that playing with energy might break their delicate guitar strings, it’s a pleasure to hear someone who knows how to dig in on the instrument.

The publicity sheet accompanying this release states that the album title, Major Influence, is a reference to Dechter’s own personal musical influences. Among these are Herb Ellis, Wes Montgomery, Louis Cole and Genevieve Artadi of KNOWER. I was a little surprised that Charlie Byrd, Django and Oscar Moore weren’t on the list as well.

Graham DechterDechter can clearly play his instrument well, not only with drive and a great beat but with interesting ideas and just enough flash to dazzle the listener without overwhelming him or her with too much. Every track is a gem, and his accompanying musicians play in a tight, swinging style as if they were one person playing three instruments at once, although pianist Tamir Hendelman has some nice but brief solo spots here and there. Bassist John Clayton also gets a brief solo on Moonithology, and both Hendelman and Clayton play full choruses on Minor Influence.

Even on a ballad like Corcao Brasiliero (mislabel as Major Influence in the album booklet), Dichter knows how to keep one’s interest via his deft handling of his instrument, but each track has its own delights because Dichter is just so inventive and plays with so much enthusiasm.

This is clearly an album that jazz guitar aficionados will want to check out. Dechter can relaly play, and his backup musicians are a nice, tight group.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Paganini’s Guitar Quartets

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PAGANINI: Guitar Quartets Nos. 1, 2 & 9 / Paganini Ensemble Vienna / Dynamic DYN-CD57912

In addition to these quartets that Niccoló Paganini wrote for guitar, violin, viola and cello, there are also several pieces that he wrote for solo guitar. Viewers of the YouTube uploads of these pieces all speculate that Paganini himself played the guitar, perhaps even started on it before he switched to violin, but the true story of their origin is even stranger.

From Charles Baudelaire’s Les Paradis Artificiels (1860):

There was a Spaniard, a guitarist, who traveled for many years with Paganini. This was before the epoch of Paganini’s great rise to official glory.

The two of them led the vagabond life of bohemians, of wandering musicians, of people without ties to family or homeland. Together, guitar and violin, they gave concerts in every town and village through which they passed. And thus they wandered from country to country. This Spaniard’s talent was so vast that he, like Orpheus, could say, “I am the master of Nature.”

Everywhere he went, strumming his strings, making them sing harmoniously beneath his thumb, a crowd always followed, With such a secret, one never goes hungry. They followed him as Jesus Christ was followed. Who could refuse dinner and hospitality to this man, a genius, a sorcerer who had touched the depths of your soul with his most beautiful, most secret, most mysterious songs! This man, I am told, could easily obtain simultaneous sound from an instrument capable of yielding only a succession of notes. Paganini carried their money, and managed their budget, which ought not to surprise anybody.

This Spanish genius of the guitar was in fact Paganini’s inspiration for all of his pieces written for that instrument, and I would go even further than Baudelaire. I would suggest that this “Spaniard” was probably a Gypsy guitarist, for until the boring curmudgeon Andrés Segovia came along in the 1920s, all Spanish guitarists were influenced in one way or another by either Gypsy plays or flamenco guitarists.

Thus when you listen to Dynamic’s previous release of Paganini’s guitar quartets (all 15 of them) or the many Ghiribizzi that Paganini wrote for guitar, you should always have the sound image of a Gypsy or flamenco guitarist in your mind’s ear: the hard, banjo-like downward strokes, the use of terminal vibrato at the ends of long-held notes, in short the kind of playing you can hear on records made by the great Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt.

Alas, the Paganini Ensemble Vienna’s guitarist plays with a more reticent sound; in fact, at times he is just barely audible; but at least his technique is good enough to keep up with what Paganini wrote for him, and the lead violinist in this group has energy and chutzpah to spare.

But what of that earlier series on Dynamic of Paganini’s complete guitar quartets by the so-called Paganini Quartet? They are also pretty good performances, but not really as lively as this new release. What’s more, the guitarist on them sounds more as if he were playing a lute, which is altogether the wrong sound, and the lead violinist plays with too much vibrato—or perhaps I should say a wider and more noticeable vibrato. I once had an interesting exchange of emails with the late David Sarser, one of the prize violinists in Toscanini’s NBC Symphony, and asked him if Toscanini ever asked his string player to use straight tone. He said no, but Toscanini had a keen ear for string vibrato and insisted that all of the NBC string players have a consistently tight, fast vibrato, just enough to add some shimmer to the string sound without being too noticeable. Sarser was very proud of the fact that his vibrato was once measured on an oscilloscope and that it was absolutely, perfectly even to the point of perfection. This was the reason why, in the early years of the NBC Symphony, Toscanini could show off his violins by having 19 of them play in unison on Vieuxtemps’ Ballade and Polonaise or in Paganini’s Moto perpetuo. And a tight, fast vibrato, unlike straight tone, IS historically accurate in this music.

In the second movement of Quartet No. 2, Paganini hit upon a novel idea: give the cellist the lead line while the violin and viola play quick trilled passages above it, and it works. In the slow movement of Quartet No. 9, there are interesting moments where Paganini pivots the harmony from major to minor and back again. In the last movement, at long last, we hear the lead violin playing the kind of breakneck virtuosic music that Paganini was noted for.

Altogether, then, a good album, and I would hope that Dynamic will invite this particular quartet to re-record all of the Paganini guitar quartets.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Levi Dover’s Imaginary Structures

Levi Dover_Imaginary Structures_outline

DOVER: First Impression. In Hindsight. L’Appel du Vide. MK. Gallapagos. How the Light Gets In. The Fox and the Cat. Imaginary Structures / Levi Dover Sextet: Lex French, tpt; Erik Hove, a-sax; Olivier Salazar, vib; Andrew Boudreau, pno; Dover, bs; Kyle Hutchins, dm / Three Pines Records TPR-004

This CD, scheduled for release on October 8, is the debut album of Montreal-based bassist and jazz writer Levi Dover and his sextet. The publicity blurb for this recording states that they fuse jazz with 20th century classical and rock elements. The 20th century classical I embrace. The rock stuff, you can have.

The one thing that stands out from the opening number, First Impression, is that this is not really an “outside” jazz group, but a collective of modern but mainstream jazz musicians. Indeed, trumpeter Lex French put me in mind of Miles Davis, mixed with a little Gene Shaw. He’s a little busier than Miles was in the 1950s and ‘60s, but employs the same sort of soft approach while remaining interesting. Vibes player Olivier Salazar reminded me more of Bobby Hutcherson than of Terry Gibbs, and his style is both interesting and fits into Dover’s concepts.

Like so many modern jazz composers, Dover’s pieces are more or less outlines for what is to be improvised on, They are not melodically strong or memorable, but they are rhythmically and harmonically interesting without really swinging. In Hindsight is a good example; nothing much seems to be going on in terms of melody, but it’s the harmony and rhythm that inform the piece as a whole and the individual solos as they emerge and retreat. This might suggest to the reader that this is sort of “lounge jazz,” but despite its low-key (and low volume) approach, this is not so. The music has substance and direction; it’s just more subtle than overt. Alto saxist Eric Hove seems to be channeling Lee Konitz, and that works well in this setting.

With all that being said, I really did long to hear at least one line (composition) with a structure that I could hold on to…but then, look at the album’s title and you’ll get an idea of what Dover is striving for. It’s the illusion if structure that plays into one’s mind and perceptions, not the reality of structure.

An interesting album to be sure, as well as a different approach to modern jazz while still leaning a bit on the past.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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