Bertrand Plays the Chromatic Harp

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RAVEL: Jeux d’eau (arr. Bertrand). FAURÉ: Une chatelaine en sa tour. HOFFMANN: Quintet for Harp & String Quartet.* GORDON: Jeux de Création. DEBUSSY: Danse sacrée et profane.* CAPLET: Divertissements. Conte Fantastique / Anne-Sophie Bertrand, hp; *L’Ensemble Ondine / Naxos 8.551444

On this new release, French-American harpist Anne-Sophie Bertrand plays a fairly diverse program of music for harp, going back as far as E.T.A. Hoffmann, the older colleague and promoter of Beethoven, and as far forward as American composer Geoffrey Gordon (b. 1968).

My initial impression of Bertrand is of a good harp player, average talent, nothing much to write home about. Nicanor Zabaleta she isn’t, but she’s clearly good enough to play these pieces. At least she injects some energy into her playing, which I appreciated very much. Her performance of the Hoffmann Harp Quintet is on a par with that of Maria Nordmann with violinist Jacques Chestern and the Trio à Cordes Françaix, which is to say pretty good, although if memory serves me correctly the strings on the Nordmann recording played with more energy (and certainly with a lot less echo in the recording).

Absolutely the most interesting piece on this entire album is Gordon’s Jeux de Création, music that is not just modern (though mostly in a pentatonic, French-styled sort of way) but very creative and highly atmospheric. This is clearly the one and only reason to justify this CD’s existence on our planet.

I only wish I could be more enthusiastic about this release; I certainly went to review it with not only an open mind but the exectation that I would hear something really great, but in the end I didn’t see much reason to make it except that Bertrand probably has an “angel” who likes her playing and paid for the sessions. It’s just an OK disc but for the Gordon piece. None of the other performances made me sit up and take notice. It just toodles along in its own harp-y kind of way; a perfect record to play on your local FM classical radio station to mollify the masses, except that you’ll never hear the Gordon piece on the air. Why Bertrand couldn’t have included at least two more pieces like it, I don’t know, but if she had it probably would have made the whole enterprise worthwhile.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Semenenko & Belogurov at the “Crossroads”

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PREVIN: Violin Sonata No. 2. SCHEMMER: Violin Sonata. GAY: Violin Sonata / Aleksey Semenenko, vln; Artem Belogurov, pno / Bis SACD-2545

This album presents violin sonatas by three American composers who normally don’t get much exposure on disc, of which the only one I’ve heard of (but haven’t heard any of his music before) is André Previn. Of Tony Schemmer and Paul Gay, I know nothing except for what the liner notes tell me, that the first is a New Yorker who loved musicals, operas and Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts and “pursued jazz and conducting at the New England Conservatory,” and that the second hails from New Brunswick, Maine, also studied at the New England Conservatory and later in London, played the trombone and pursued conducting.

To be honest, I never thought very much of Previn as either a jazz pianist or a conductor; to me, he was just OK, nothing really special, yet this Violin Sonata is a surprisingly creative piece, leaning a bit here and there towards modern harmonies but largely tonal. Yet the music is highly creative and unpredictable, and both Semenenko and Belogurov play the heck out of it. Semenenko has the kind of lean, bright, razor-sharp timbre that is very much in vogue nowadays; he plays with a very light, quick vibrato and has impeccable control of phrasing, technique and rhythm, all of which work splendidly in this piece. Belogurov isn’t quite as exciting a player, but he’s not bland, either, the result being a very satisfying performance. I can’t say how this compares to other recordings of this work since I’ve not heard any, but on its own merits I’d say it’s up there with any rival recording.

Even better is the violin sonata of Tony Schemmer, which is steeped in jazz devices and calls for the performers to swing. Belogurov does pretty well in this respect but Semenenko is even better, curving and shaping his lines with the insouciance of Stéphane Grappelli. A shame that the famed French violinist never played it—it’s clearly his cup of tea. Moreover, Schemmer keeps the listener on his or her toes by constantly shifting the meter and taking the music into very unexpected side roads as it develops; this is clearly a first-rate and very American piece. I especially liked the brief passage at 4:45 in the first movement where Schemmer has the violin and the piano running figures in opposite directions. The second movement has strong hints of the blues, reminding me of some of William Grant Still’s compositions, while the third is a real swinger in asymmetric rhythm, with both artists giving it their all. But there’s also a fourth movement, and here Schemmer writes in a surprisingly formal 4/4 for the piano introduction, only bringing in a bit of jazz swing once the violin arrives, playing simple figures until the piano starts to swing, leading both instruments into a nice little duet in 5/4 which later leads into a two-voiced fugue. A really fun and interesting piece!

Gay’s sonata opens with an echt-Romantic figure played by the solo violin; after the piano’s entrance, the music moves along with a nice melodic line that is not too surgary, and the music develops in an interesting manner. The tempo picks up around the three-minute mark as the movement fairly gallops along for a while before slowing back down for its conclusion. The second movement opens with violin pizzicato, the piano also playing clipped single notes for a while; this is a graceful but still interesting waltz. The waltz tempo continues into the third movement, titled “Idyll,” and here I was a bit bored since the music just ruminated and didn’t really go much of anywhere despite a switch to march time in the middle. Fortunately the last movement, titled “Games and Epilogue,” is more interesting and unexpected.

All in all, then, a surprisingly interesting collection of pieces, of which only the Gay sonata has any real structural weaknesses. I really liked this disc because at least these musicians took some risks for a change.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Strange Jazz from Montreal

Jazzlab Cover Art

LE PREZ: La Grande Sauve Majeur. Humor de la Seconda Noche. Pum la Suite. Bluesy del Lunedi. Criucm. Le Grain Blanc dans les Volles. Casse-Pattes/Casse-Gueule/Casse-Tête. Lunes & Marées. Compte-Rendu / Jazzlab Orchestra: Jacques Kuba Séguin, tpt; Thomas Morelli-Bernard, tb; Mario Allard, s-sax/a-sax/cl; Benjamin Deschamps, s-sax/t-sax/fl; Samuel Blais, s-sax/bs-cl; Félix Stüssi, pno; Alain Bédard, bs; Michel Lambert, dm / Effendi Records, no number

This is the eighth album made by the experimental Jazzlab Orchestra of Montreal but the first I’ve heard. The music presented here was all composed by bassist Auguste Le Prez, who does not play on the album, and although all of it has some sort of definite beat to it, none of it is conventional. On the contrary, the pieces use dark melodic lines and bitonal or atonal harmonies; it almost sound like bop on some heavy downers.

As you can see from the personnel listing above, the “orchestra” is really an octet with only one each trumpet and trombone but three reed players and the normal complement of three rhythm players. What catches your attention in this music and holds it is the absolute sincerity of the musicians involved and their high level of creativity and originality in their solos as well as in their arrangements. Indeed, I’ve not heard a “small band” of this high a quality since the old Rod Levitt Orchestra of the 1960s, which made one album for Riverside and three for RCA Victor before disappearing into the void. And the titles of these pieces are every bit as strange as the music within them, i.e., The Great Major Rescue, Humor of the Second Night, The White Grain in the Volles and Paw-Breaker/Mouth-Breaker/Head-Breaker.

As in the Levitt Orchestra, Jazzlab uses a clever variety of voicings to make their five-man lead players sound like eight or nine. I found it amusing that, in the promo sheet accompanying this release, they chose Humor de la Seconda Noche as one of three tracks recommended for air play. Are they kidding? With its asymmetric rhythm, combination of bitonal and Middle Eastern harmonies and elusive lead line, no one is going to hum this piece on their way out of the concert. This is a band that’s quite serious about its music; frivolity or lightness of approach is not what they’re about. For me, that’s all to the good, but…you know the average jazz fan. If the music is difficult to follow, they’ll simply tune out, and that’s a shame because they’ll be missing a lot.

Indeed, one of the fascinating things about Humor is that, until pianist Félix Stüssi plays a few bars at the 4:04 mark, there aren’t any real solos to speak of. This is largely collective improvisation, a very modern version of what the old New Orleans bands did more than 100 years ago, and in fact because of this approach it’s very hard for me to assess the band in terms of its solo strength. Not that the soloists aren’t good—they are—but they aren’t the raison d’être for this recording. Their goal is obviously the whole, the collective, and not “Hey, look at me, I’m soloing.” Even the soprano sax introduction to Pum la Suite doesn’t seem so much like a solo statement, even though it is, so much as a contribution to a whole that is radically different from the norm. One of the very few early jazz recordings I can think of to use as a parallel is the Frank Trumbauer-Bix Beiderbecke recording of Fud Livingston’s Humpty Dumpty, a piece built around the pentatonic scale, using modal harmonies borrowed from French classical music. The Jazzlab Orchestra is pretty much a modern-day descendant of that sort of experimentation.

If I had to single out any soloists for praise, however, they would be pianist Stussi and tenor saxist Benjamin Deschamps, not because the others are uninteresting but simply because those two push the envelope a bit further. I’d have to see the scores to determine just how much of this is written out and how much is improvised, however, because I’m pretty sure that there are several ensemble passages on this record that are not fully scored.

One way, I noticed, that the orchestra manages to create the illusion of more brass is by scoring the trumpet and trombone together, sometimes in thirds but sometimes even closer, in seconds in those passages were bitonality is dominant. There’s a really excellent solo by trumpeter Séguin in Bluesy del Luendi that goes a bit “outside,” but once again it’s tenor saxist Deschamps whose playing has the most structure. This is a rare piece for the orchestra, in fact, in that the focus for once is actually on the soloists and not the whole.

Criucm, another piece selected by the promo sheet (and an untranslatable title), is yet another Middle Eastern-sounding number. Personally, I’m not so certain that I’d have selected this piece and Humor as featured examples of the band simply because the Middle Eastern influence is not the primary focus of their compositions and arrangements, but yes, it’s a very interesting piece. Among others, we also hear a rare solo in this one by bassist Alain Bédard.

But wherever you sample this extraordinary band, you’ll find something interesting and original. They take nothing lightly or for granted; they are serious jazz artists trying in their own way to fuse improvisation with written charts that, although not entirely based on classical music, nonetheless have a strong internal structure, and every solo, every gesture in these superb performances add to that whole. Well worth checking out!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Mompou Songs by Alavedra

Alavedra

MOMPOU: Cinq Mélodies.* Combat del somni + / Montserrat Alavedra, sop; *Frederic Mompou, pno (live: January 19, 1977); +Miguel Zanetti, pno / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking links above

This was going to be a review of the new CD by Montserrat Alavedra and the composer at the piano, Mompou Live (Marchvivo MV 001), but since the label has seen fit to not provide downloads for reviewers and there is only one song available for streaming online, and you have to pay to hear it(!!), they can go shove it. Instead, I will review what I’ve found online which is a much shorter program but equally fascinating.

Montserrat Alavedra, who I had never heard of before, was a Catalanian soprano born in 1945 who specialized mostly in early music. This means that she was trained to sing with no interpretation of the texts, and she carried this into her performances of more modern music like that of Mompou, but since the composer was a reactionary who wrote in an earlier, tonal style and subscribed to the bizarre French “tradition” that gripped France between 1905 and 1955 (but not before or after) that singers were not to interpret the words they sang, she was one of his favorite singers of his songs. Alavedra made a decent amount of recordings, many of them of early music, before dying of cancer one day before her 46th birthday in 1991. She had a bright, clear voice with a flicker-vibrato typical of many Spanish sopranos, but also an exceptionally beautiful timbre.

With that being said, her voice is somewhat distorted on the highest notes in the live performance of the Cinq Mélodies, though not so much that you can’t appreciate her singing. (One thing you notice is that she had an exceptionally rich low range for a soprano.) Mompou’s music had some of the harmonic sense of Ravel, but that was about as far as he went, yet the settings of these poems by Paul Valéry are excellent (the complete texts, in English, are available under the video on YouYube). There is also some pitch distortion in the piano introduction to the last song, but fortunately it doesn’t last long.

The songs of Combat del somni appear to be from a commercial recording session in 1967; the songs are very much in the same vein as the previous cycle, but Alavedra’s voice is better recorded. In the last of these songs, Mompou uses some interesting descending chromatics in the harmony.

A very short recital, then (less than 30 minutes), but clearly worth hearing. These are excellent performances of songs not frequently recorded.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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DAVID AMRAM!!

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AMRAM: Violin Sonata / Elmira Darvarova, vln; Tomoko Kanamaru, pno / Theme and Variations on “Red River Valley” / Carol Wincenc, fl; Face the Music Ensemble / Giants of the Night, a Concerto for Flute & Orchestra: II. Andante / Wincenc, fl; Hsin-Chiao Liao, pno / Portraits / New York Piano Quartet / Blues & Variations for Monk / Howard Wall, Fr-hn / Five Readings from Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” for Speaker & Jazz Quartet / Ekayani Chamberlin, Adira Amram, Douglas Yeager, narr; The David Amram Qrt: Amram, pno; Rene Hart, bs; Kevin Twigg, dm; Adam Amram, congas / Urlicht AudioVisual UAV-5987 (live: New York, September 7, 2012)

This CD, a reissue of an album originally released in 2014, is one of the very few to contain the chamber music of a real individual who carved his own career out over more than a half-century. David Amram, French hornist, pianist and guitarist, who holds the world’s record for the most performances given of the Brahms Horn Trio (when he was in the Army during the 1950s), composer, arranger, conductor, and honorary member of the Beat Generation (he appeared in the film Pull My Daisy with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, for which he also wrote the score), is as of this writing still with us…he’ll be 91 years old on November 17 if the Dreaded Coronavirus doesn’t finish him off. I’ve loved and admired him for years because his music is always wholly original as well as delightful. Just think of him as Gunther Schuller’s non-evil twin. One of his most famous quotes is, “I can be high all the time on life…Anyone who expects me to be an introspective cosmic sourpuss to prove I’m a serious composer had better forget it!”

Surprisingly, for him, the Violin Sonata is a fairly thorny work harmonically, being largely bitonal, yet with a strong underlying syncopation to the rhythm which is typical of his music. The recorded sound is surprisingly dry and “tight” for a digital recording, but what the heck, I’m still happy to have it, and both Elmira Darvarova and Tomoko Kanamaru play the piece with energy and enthusiasm. There are a few allusion to jazz rhythm in the last movement, but for the most part this is a serious work.

Amram, still hip

By contrast, the variations on “Red River Valley” is lyrical and fully tonal, played with exceptional beauty of sound by flautist Carol Wincenc and a string ensemble called “Face the Music.” After the theme statement by the flute, the strings pick it up with some nice alternate harmony; then Wincenc returns to play the variants, some of which swing a little. A bit later on, the flute plays the melody straight while the strings play a variation underneath her; this section ends on an unresolved chord. Then the strings begin to swing, as does the flute—not as hard as a jazz musician would swing, but still better than most such groups.

The slow second movement from his Flute Concerto, here reduced to piano accompaniment, is also played very well by Wincenc. This has some blues inflections in the top line that are quite nice, and when we reach the variations they are quite jazz-like indeed. You also note one of Amram’s great gifts as a composer: no matter how involved the music becomes, it is always engaging one way or another. It’s difficult to say, however, whether or not the piano’s variations are meant to be jazzy because pianist Hsin-Chiao Liao doesn’t swing at all. From a compositional standpoint, Amram also takes great care to keep the individual “voices” clear and uncluttered. At the 13:47 mark, he introduces an entirely new, lyrical and very American-sounding theme for the flute.

Portraits is played by the New York Piano Quartet; the title doesn’t tell us who the portraits are of, however, and I didn’t get a booklet for download with the music. This, too, is a fairly serious piece and also with an “American” sound about it. In the variation section, Amram is both complex and accessible at the same time, combining two divergent themes in different keys with a pizzicato violin accompaniment in yet another key. As the tempo increases, the music stays bitonal but clears up a bit, and there are some passages that swing.

Next up are the Blues and Variations for (Thelonious) Monk, played on Amram’s old instrument, the French horn, although not by him. For much of the opening section there doesn’t seem to be much of Monk in the music; it’s fairly serious and somewhat complex music, but it doesn’t have Monk’s unusual rhythmic sense. Then, at the 1:43 mark, it slowly begins to change, including the hornist spitting through his instrument to create a rhythmic pattern and playing some passages slightly distorted by moving the player’s hand inside the bell. It’s a very ingenious piece although, to be honest, I’d have a hard time thinking this was a tribute to Monk had it not been for the title.

The program finishes with his Five Readings from “On the Road” from “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac. This is very much a jazz-drenched piece with Amram himself playing the piano and actress Adira Amram, an actress who appeared on The Sopranos, doing three of the readings. But all of them are hip and all of them swing. During “On the roof of America,” we hear a flute playing along with humming—possibly the same person, but since no flautist is mentioned I’m assuming it must be Wincenc (there is no other instrument accompanying her in this piece). Amram returns on piano for “On hearing Shearing,” but in order to appreciate this track you need to hear his bop recordings of the late 1940s (believe it or not, on both piano and accordion!) to understand how he impacted Kerouac. His later cool sound from his Lullaby of Birdland days was really a different Shearing. We end with the rather cynical voice of Douglas Yeager reciting “So in America,” a fairly dour piece reflecting Kerouac’s darker side.

This is quite an album. For Amram lovers, indispensable.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Szlezer Plays Szymanowski

cover DUX1680

SZYMANOWSKI: 20 Mazurkas, Op. 50. 4 Polish Dances. 2 Mazurkas, Op. 62. Polish Songs / Marek Szlezer, pno / Dux 1680

Polish pianist Marek Szlezer, who just turned 40 last month, presents us here with all 22 of Szymanowski’s Mazurkas in addition to some pieces I’d not heard before, the non-vocal Polish Songs. As I’ve said on several occasions, even though Szymanowski was heavily into the Impressionist school of music you have to play the mazurkas with some semblance of real mazurka rhythm, which most British and American pianists simply do not and will not do. Like it or not, the mazurka and the polonaise are authentic Polish folk dances going back centuries, just like the Hungarian czardas or the Russian hopak and kazatsky. Indeed, most of the time we don’t even hear Chopin’s mazurkas and polonaises played with the correct rhythm. And I know, because I’m part Polish and grew up with that music (along with polkas, oy vey!).

Ironically, my gold standard in this music, to this point, has been the outstanding recordings by Korean pianist Sinae Lee on Divine Art. For whatever reason, she “gets” the Polish rhythms absolutely correct in every single piece that calls for them, and in comparing her performances to Szlezer’s I still find her recordings completely valid. In fact, she actually uses less rubato and a less broad rubato than Szlezer does, and all of her mazurka performances are a few seconds shorter than his.

My general feeling—and I may be wrong about this—is that Szlezer tries to bring Szymanowski more in line with Chopin in terms of style, but although Chopin was indeed Polish you have to remember that he left Poland when he was still very young and spent most of his life in France, and the French tastes were quite different from the Poles. Nonetheless, Szymanowski was clearly updating the Chopin model in these works, and there is certainly room for variance in the method of playing them. When called upon to do so, Szlezer does not back away from inducing strong, powerful mazurka rhythms from the keyboard.

Marek Szlezer

In fact, one might argue that Szlezer’s performances are more interesting than Lee’s because of this, and looking at the scores there is certainly room for interpretation. The first mazurka, for instance, is marked “Molto rubato,” and in this one Lee uses almost as much as Szlezer; in the second, Szymanowski marked it “rubaznie,” the Polish word for rubato, and there are many other detailed instructions in the score, i.e. “poco rit.” on the eighth bar, “à tempo, poco più staccato senza ped.” (“in tempo, with a little staccato and pedal”) in the ninth, only reverting to “Tempo I” in bar 29. Later on in the same piece, he has eight bars marked “Poco meno, tranquillo” with pedal, a bit later “dolcissimo” with a “ritard” at the end of the phrase, reverting to Tempo I again after this passage is over. So as I say, both Lee and Szlezer make their own choices in these very detailed instructions, and both are valid because both play a correct mazurka rhythm even when things slow down a bit.

What I find curious and even fascinating about them are the unusual modal and even Middle Eastern harmonies he uses, such as in the 12th mazurka. Such deviation from even traditional Polish folk music mark these as “mazurkas with a difference”; at times, Szymanowski seems to be channeling Charles Koechlin’s The Persian Hours in his harmony. In mazurka No. 14, he complicates matters by having the left hand play an opposing rhythm against the right, which stays in strict mazurka time, and later there are passages he speeds up rather than slowing down. If you take the time to pay close attention to this music as you listen, you’ll find an extraordinarily wide range of styles, rhythms and modes, far more in fact than in the Chopin mazurkas. As for the two Op. 62 mazurkas, these are more diffuse works that almost seem to circumvent the mazurka rhythm (with Szymanowski almost constantly writing two different rhythms for each of the pianist’s hands), thus a more impressionistic interpretation is not only possible but undoubtedly necessary in order to maintain the structure of the music.

Perhaps, if Szlezer gets around to recording all of Szymanowski’s piano music as Lee did, his set may supplant hers as the version of choice, but right now I’m more than happy to have two different interpretations of the mazurkas to listen to since both have their own virtues. The same is true of the 4 Polish Dances, where both Lee and Szlezer accent the rhythms strongly but both do them a bit shorter or longer than the other. Again, with Szymanowski this is valid, just as it’s valid to interpret Mahler’s scores with a bit more or a bit less rubato and rallentando depending on how you feel about a certain phrase—as long as it works.

As for the Polish songs, I have to admit that, since I didn’t get a booklet with this download, I don’t know much about them since they don’t appear at all on Sinae Lee’s set of the composer’s complete piano music, but they are charming if somewhat simple by comparison with the other music on this set and I was glad to hear them.(Szlezer has informed me on Face book that ”

Concerning Szymanowski’s arrangements – they are original pieces written for piano, however because of the added text they were usually treated as a mere harmonization and therefore not treated as part of his ‘official’ piano output.” In these, Szlezer uses far less rubato, and when he does it is less broad than in the mazurkas.

An excellent album, then, which I highly recommend to all lovers of this composer’s music.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Dai Fujikura’s “Glorious Clouds”

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FUJIKURA: Glorious Clouds / Nagoya Philharmonic Orch.; Martyn Brabbins, cond / Sparking Orbit (New version) / Daniel Lippel, el-gtr; / Serene / Jeremias Schwarzer, rec / Uniuni / Nobuaki Fukakawa, Fr-hn / Yuri / Maya Kimoto, koto/voc / Shamisen Concerto. Gliding Wings / Ensemble Nomad; Norio Sato, cond / Shakuhachi Five / The Shakuhachi 5 / Motion Notions / Mari Kimura, vln/motion sensor / Love Excerpt / Tony Arnold, sop; Jacob Greenberg, pno / Repetition Recollection / Eriko Daimo, mar / Pre / Yoji Sato, bs / Star Compass / Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti, vla / Contour / Heather Roche, bs-cl / Ghost of Christmas / Chubu Philharmonic Orch.; Yuko Tanaka, cond / Minabel/New Focus Recordings MIN111

This CD came to me as a download in an email from the composer. In the liner notes, he explains that

One day I was reading an article in a magazine about microbiomes, and I became extremely interested in finding out more about them… Microorganisms live not only in the intestines but also on the skin. In fact, microorganisms live everywhere on the earth. Because of the amazing network of microorganisms that is everywhere, animals – including us humans – can survive.

I read that some insects can be made to commit suicide by microorganisms. If certain bacteria require water to breed, they will infect insects which cannot survive in water and force them to suddenly fall into the water. The insect then dies instantly, but the bacteria will start to breed happily in the water. It is true that we are all controlled by microorganisms.

Also, I read of the great benefits of microbes to animals. For example, microorganisms are essential for digestion and absorption in our body, and it seems that some of the vitamins that we cannot synthesize in the body may be produced by microorganisms.

When I read these articles, I thought “Ah!!! Various small microorganisms are making the whole world, that is just like an orchestra itself!” And I started composing.

So there you have it. When Glorious Clouds began I thought to myself, “This sounds like ambient music,” but it isn’t. The music morphs and changes, not only in structure but in timbre, moving in and out of soft, lush sounds and, somehow, metallically edgy sounds, all produced by the Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra (which I’ve never heard of before). There is actual composing going on here, but much of it is subtle. Some of it is menacing; these “glorious clouds” may have some evil elements in them. By the 4:42 mark we seem to be in a different world, or at least a higher plane, beyond the mesosphere to the ionosphere where the clouds thin out to almost invisible wisps.

Some of the edginess in the orchestral sound may indeed be off-putting for some listeners; I can’t say that it thrilled me; but it’s certainly different and, more to the point, it’s creative and interesting. Despite the fact that Glorious Clouds lasts nearly 18 minutes, one is never bored for a moment because things are constantly shifting and developing. This is truly “spacey” music of the highest order.

Sparking Orbit is a piece played by Dan Lippel, one of the owners of New Focus Recordings, on electric guitar. It’s edgy and abrasive, with the guitar constantly spitting out short, fragmented sounds that strike the listener as an electrical short, but there’s also some structure underneath that holds it together despite the fact that none of the sounds that Lippel plays actually sound like musical notes…until the 4:39 mark, when he suddenly plays a lovely if amorphous melody against a backdrop of soft electronic sounds. At the 7:31 mark, the guitar begins using distortion. Microorganisms or no microorganisms, I didn’t care much for this section. And of course, we eventually get full-out rock guitar, which is when I skipped ahead to the next section. (I wish people would outgrow the sound of a rock guitar; it’s childish and puerile, just like the glissando trombones and “wa wa” trumpets of an earlier era.)

Ironically, the first section of Serene, played on a recorder, is equally fast-paced and furious, not really “serene” at all, but it is interesting. Also interesting is the fact that the second movement is played on a higher recorder, probably a piccolo recorder, and although also fast-paced music it uses a lot more trills as part of the overall structure of the piece. In the third movement, Schwarzer plays an alto recorder, and the music at last reaches some calmness and serenity—until near the end, when he suddenly plays with distortion.

Indeed, if I had to use one word to characterize all of these instrumental pieces, that word would be “distortion,” and this is even true in Uniuni where the French horn player does indeed play with some “wa wa” effects as well as vocalizing through the horn while playing it. Having never heard any of Fujikura’s music before, I don’t know if this is his “sound” as a composer or if he only chose to do this in this particular suite of works. As I expected by this point, Maya Kimoto also plays her koto with distortion, creating a sound like an off-key banjo, but again the music is interesting. In this piece, Fujikura uses space in an interesting manner, enticing the listener to follow the musical dots even when there are long or short pauses. Towards the end, Kimoto sings, with a somewhat pure voice but atonally; I have no idea what the words are or what they mean.

With the Shamisen Concerto we’re back to slow, edgy orchestral music, at least until the 2:40 mark when very rapid music played on the shamisen, a traditional Japanese string instrument, appears. After a while the orchestra reappears, playing short bitonal chords and figures around it. In the middle, when things slow down, it almost sounds like a Japanese version of Dueling Banjos (even though only one soloist is playing), but later still the music becomes highly virtuosic, creating swirling atonal musical patterns, although the cadenza consists of slower music, again with several pauses in it.

shakuhachiThe eponymous piece Shakuhachi Five features an instrument that, if I read the notes correctly, forces you to shake your head as you play it, and “you must shake your head with the instrument for 3 years before beginning to be able to play it.” It’s a flute created in Edo Period Japan by Zen monks who called themselves komusō or ‘illusory nothing” monks (see picture). The sounds it produces are truly weird, like nothing you’ve ever heard in your life, and Fujikura’s music that they play simply accentuates its weirdness…but again, it is interesting if not inviting. (I got the impression of these five people shouting through these flutes for you to “get lost!”) This is immediately followed by Motion Notions, played by violinist Mari Kimura with a motion sensor, which gives one the impression of a whooshing violin hurtling through space. Indeed, “spaciness” is a key word to describe nearly all of this music. Beam me up, Scotty!

Gliding Wings features Ensemble Nomad and particularly its two clarinetists playing mostly as a tandem. Although this music is modern and mostly in a quick tempo, it is not as edgy as some of it and in fact often presents the clarinetists playing in their chalumeau register. In terms of both form and development, I really liked this piece very much.

Fujikura explains that Love Excerppt, though written for soprano Jane Manning who used a lot of unorthodox vocal techniques, is built around a simple melody to which the pianist does not so much play an accompaniment as “glittering jewels shimmering around” the soprano’s voice. Veteran modern-music soprano Tony Arnold handles her assignment beautifully; in some of her recordings over the past couple of years an uneven flutter has crept into the voice, but here, keeping the volume at a low level, her vocal control is very good if not flawless.

Repetition and Recollection are described by the composer as “the same movement, except in opposite directions.” It is played here by Eriko Daimo on the marimba, but the first section, to the naked ear, sounds very much like a glass harmonica. This is slow, almost sensual music with not a lot of motion or development, yet it is mesmerizing nonetheless. Eventually the music just slows down and stops, although the bass solo Pre follows hard on its heels. Here the instrument is played pizzicato at the outset, like a jazz bassist, but the music is clearly not jazz despite the use, later in the piece, of syncopation.

Star Compass is described as the cadenza for Fujikura’s viola concerto Wayfinder, and here we return to the edgier music that defined most of this odd suite so far. A little after the two-minute mark, however, the viola plays a lyrical, melodic passage that is quite affecting. And in fact this more lyrical quality continues into the contrabass clarinet solo Contour. Both in my listening to this album and in reading the composer’s notes, it seemed to me that the initial theme and impetus of this suite, microorganisms, actually stopped with Gliding Wings; every piece following really has no connection to either the preceding music or the stated theme of the suite, but are, rather, solo adaptations of earlier concerti written by Fujikura. This doesn’t make the music less interesting, at least not to me, but it doesn’t make for a strong suite because both the mood and the overall structure have changed drastically.

We end with Ghost of Christmas, here returning to a full orchestral work. Parts of it are lyrical and parts of it edgy, thus it fits into the suite where we left off after Gliding Wings. As a whole, then, Glorious Clouds is a fascinating if an uneven work in which not all the pieces fit musically or in mood, though most of them are quite interesting. The ironic thing is that, considering the almost bewildering array of forces used on the various tracks of this album, this suite only really exists as a recording; it would be virtually impossible to recreate it in a live concert setting unless the orchestral tracks were piped in over the auditorium’s speakers. A novel experiment, then, and one that works through most but not all of it to create a unified whole.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Netopil Conducts Late Martinů

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MARTINŮ: Overture. Les Fresques de Piero della Francesca. The Rock. The Parables. Estampes / Prague Radio Symphony Orch.; Tomáš Netopil, cond / Supraphon SU4295-2

This recording, issued early last month, was yet another CD I had to dig deep in order to find. Happily, all of the music files were uploaded on YouTube, so then all I had to locate was a copy of the cover art and some semblance of liner notes. What I found online was the following:

The pieces Bohuslav Martinů composed between 1953 to 1958, towards the end of his life when he returned to Europe – Les Fresques de Piero della Francesca, The Parables and Les Estampes – are profound, extraordinary, truly mature gems. Their brilliance, however, is yet to be fully appreciated. The director of the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, Jakub Čížek, said: “The recording of mature Bohuslav Martinů works we have made with Tomáš Netopil is another contribution of ours dedicated to mapping the music of Czech 20th-century giants. There is never enough we can do for these composers and their creation!”

Most surprising, to me, was the opening Overture, a neoclassic piece if there ever was one, so much in the style of 1920s Stravinsky that it took me by surprise. Yet Martinů retains his own identity in this music by writing an original theme rather than “borrowing” from earlier composers, and his style of development is more complex as well as more orchestrally colorful than ‘20s Stravinsky. I’m also happy to report that as a conductor, Netopil is lively and energetic; he doesn’t let the musical grass grow underneath his feet. I did, however, feel that the sound of the recording was a bit too reverberant for my taste, but that’s not as important as the impact of the music.

With Les Fresques de Piero della Francesca we enter an entirely different world, the piece opening with really strange bitonal figures using divided strings and what sounds like an organ for color. Although the music is meant to depict frescoes by Piero della Francesca, none of them are given names; the movements are more traditionally titled “Andante poco moderato,” “Adagio” and “Poco allegro,” yet these are clearly little tone poems (a more musically advanced version, you might say, of Respighi’s Pines of Rome) but not, in the traditional sense, Czech music, and this is one reason why his works were undervalued by his own country of birth for so long. Smetana and Dvořák were at least 80% Czech in their use of themes and rhythms, Janáček about 45% so, but Martinů followed his own muse. Sometimes his music had a strong Czech flavor, but most of the time he was more cosmopolitan in his tastes. (He even wrote a couple of pieces using jazz rhythms in the 1940s.) Towards the end of the “Adagio,” for instance, Martinů uses the kind of widely-spaced intervals in a tonal setting that one automatically identifies with Aaron Copland, and there’s a brief theme in the middle of the last movement that sounds strangely like Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. The Rock also uses more Copland-isms in the opening theme,. though the music develops in fast passages using a lot of string tremolo. I found this to be a fairly weak piece for him.

Things pick up, however, in the three-part Parables, where the composer reverts to his wonderful and original bitonal style. Interestingly, the movement subtitles have nothing to do with religion; the first is The Parable of a Sculpture, the second The Parable of a Garden and the third The Parable of a Labyrinth. Yet I noted a problem as the music progressed: it began to sound in places a bit too much like movie music, particularly in The Parable of a Garden but also in the latter part of The Parable of a Labyrinth.

In the Estampes we get more creative and original music, varied in themes, texture and meter. Yet in the second and third pieces we hear some rather conventional music, thus this is an uneven piece.

In some ways, then, this is a disappointing collection: some of the music is excellent, some good, and some rather routine and formulaic. All are played well, however, and they are certainly not conventional Martinů.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The Music of Elisabeth Lutyens

LUTYENS: 7 Preludes for Piano, Op. 126. The Great Seas, Op. 132. 5 Impromptus, Op. 116. Plenum I. La natura dell’Acqua, Op. 154 / Martin Jones, pno / Resonus Classics RES20191

Agnes Elisabeth Lutyens (1906-1983) was a British composer, known in her country as a staunch proponent of Schoenbergian serialism. She was also involved in the Theosophical Movement and an admirer of Krishnamurti, who actually lived in her house since the time she was five years old and was thus considered almost a member of the family. These two strains led her to produce music that was formidable in its harmonic dissonance but which tried to express the spiritual feelings she absorbed from her religious beliefs. In a way, she was like a female British counterpart to Olivier Messiaen.

LuytensPianist Martin Jones perfectly captures the dichotomy of Lutyens’ muse, the dreamy and sensual on the one hand and the spiky and combative on the other. Each of the seven Preludes have descriptive titles such as “Whose Name was Writ in Water,” “Night Winds,” “Starlight,” “Tenebrae” and “Strange Thunders from the Potency of Song.” Being largely influenced by the cosmos and weather phenomena, her music thus also bears a resemblance to Almeida Prado’s fascinating Cartas Celestas. Despite its almost continual dissonance, it is music that drifts in and out of your mind like darkening clouds or night mists.

A technical description of the music is clearly possible, particularly since much of it is slow-moving and has a lot of space between the notes—she used brief motifs and flourishes in the right hand, often played a cappella, while the left occasionally rumbled along with soft tremolos or single-note counter-themes that moved in an opposite direction from the right—but since her goal was to impart a feeling of the cosmos and not necessarily to make you sit up and analyze her style, a continuous succession of such analysis is besides the point. This is music that you, the listener, are encouraged to simply sit back and absorb as you would a summer breeze, the roll of waves on the shore, or a meteor streaking across the night sky. In short, it is very high grade ambient music.

The main thing I like about Lutyens’ music is that, for all its thorny dissonance, the music is not really pretentious. On the contrary, it sounds to me like inner musings of her spirit that she just felt she had to get out, as if sitting alone at the piano creating these sounds for herself. In this respect, the music is very intimate, so much so that you almost feel her vulnerability. Luytens opened herself up to her listeners in a way that was exceptionally intimate and personal.

Thus as the recital progresses, you feel less and less that you are listening to Martin Jones, or whoever else may have recorded these pieces, and more than you are listening to Elisabeth Lutyens. It’s a difficult thing to explain, but there it is. There’s really no other way to describe the sensations you feel. Her spirit was an open book.

This music, then, is clearly not for everyone, but if you sample this album online—all of the tracks are available on YouTube—you may become as hooked as I was and want this CD for yourself.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Gaia Sokoli Plays Fanny Mendelssohn

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F. MENDELSSOHN: Piano Sonata in G min. Ostersonate. Sonatensatz in E. Piano Sonata in C min. / Gaia Sokoli, pno / Piano Classics PCL10187

As the liner notes to this marvelous release indicate, “The figure of Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847) is still awaiting an adequate revaluation. Fanny and Felix studied composition with Karl Zelter, who gave them an excellent foundation in contrapuntal technique, and piano with Ludwig Berger, a pupil of Hummel. Fanny was also a piano virtuoso and often performed in Sunday domestic concerts in their Berlin home, also in duo with her brother Felix. Only in 1845 did Fanny decide to publish her first composition under her own name, since she had always been discouraged (not to say opposed) in her public activity as a composer, by her brother and the rest of her family. So her father wrote to her in a letter dated July 16, 1820: ‘Music will perhaps become his [Felix’s] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament’.”

And as we know, this attitude crushed her spirit. She married and had a son, Sebastian, after which she wrote to her brother and said that she felt the urge to return to composition. Felix wrote back that since she was now a wife and mother, domestic duties needed to take preference. But Fanny published a collection of her songs in 1847, and then later that year died of a stroke. Felix was so shaken by this that his own health declined drastically, and he, too was dead six months later, aged only 38.

Like her brother, Fanny’s music was essentially very lyrical and melodic; both siblings learned from Zelter and admired Mozart, but both expanded the Mozartian style, particularly in the use of harmony, and took it rather further.

These piano works are early pieces by Fanny, but they are interesting and well written nonetheless. One would be hard put, in a blindfold test, to say who the composer was, particularly since her brother only wrote one Piano Sonata rather late in his career (Op. 105) and although Fanny’s music often resembled his—her Easter Sonata was erroneously credited to Felix before 2010—she was by no means a less substantial shadow, as Clara Schumann was of  her husband, Robert. The opening Piano Sonata in G minor can very easily stand on its own merits without any need to compare her to Felix.

I should also point out that it helps a great deal that pianist Gaia Sokoli, who is Italian despite her Eastern European-appearing name, is an outstanding artist who plays these works with fervor and commitment. She has a clear vision of how this music is supposed to go, understands the style, and plays it with exactly the right combination of forward momentum and lyrical effusion. Like Felix in his early years, Fanny was prone to very fulsome development of her themes, thus there are moments when one may feel that she is gilding the lily a bit much, yet the music is interesting and never bores the listener. She may not have been all that forward-looking, but she was not a composer of dainty “feminine” music so beloved in salons then and later. This is solid music written by an outstanding musical mind and is not to be confused with the drivel written by Amy Beach or others of that ilk. In the second movement of the Ostersonate she creates a wonderful fugue that would have been the envy of any male composer of her time. This is followed by a “Scherzo” that is even better than the one her brother wrote for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and that, in turn, is followed by an “Allegro con strepito” last movement of utter brilliance and originality. No wonder Felix doted on her so much when writing his own music: he often sent her scores of his that were in progress to get her reaction, and always followed her feedback.

Even the brief Sonatensats (Sonata Movement) has something substantial to offer, with its triplet accompaniment and constantly shifting harmonies. But there is so much more to discover in this music that I won’t spoil the fun for you. Needless to say, this is a must-have CD for all of you Fanny Mendelssohn admirers out there…and even, I dare say, for admirers of her brother.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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