Re-Evaluating Lotte Lehmann


CD 1: STRAUSS: Der Rosenkavalier: O, sei er gut, Quinquin…Die zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding. Ariadne auf Naxos: Sie lebt hier ganz allein…Sie atmet leicht…Es gibt ein reich / Orch. conducted by Manfred Gurlitt / BEETHOVEN: Egmont: Die Trommel gerühret! Freudvoll und leidvoll / Unidentified orch. & cond. / GOUNOD: Vierge d’Athènes. RUBINSTEIN:  / Ernö Balogh, pianist / WAGNER: Lohenrgin: Du Ärmste kannst wohl nie ermessen / NBC Symphony Orch., cond. Frank Black / WOLF: Kennst du das Land. Frühling übers jahr. Und willst du deinen Liebsten. Wenn du, mein Liebster, steigst zum Himmel auf. In der Frühe. Auch kleine Dinge. Der Knabe und das Immlein. Er ist’s. Storchenbotschaft. An eine Aolsharfe. In dem Schatten meiner Locken. Gebet. Nun lass uns Frieden schliessen. Der Gartner. Du denkst mit einem Fadchen mich zu fangen. Heimweh. Schweig einmal still. Ich hab in Penna einen Liebsten. Anakreons Grab. Verborgenheit / Paul Ulanowsky, pianist

CD 2: STRAUSS: Ständchen. BRHAMS: Therese. Vergebliches Ständchen. BLECH: Heimkehr vom Feste. STRAUSS: Zueignung. PUCCINI: Tosca: Vissi d’arte.1 STRAUSS: Zuiegnung (2nd vers).1 Traum durch die Dämmerung.1 Ständchen (2nd vers).1 BRAHMS: Das Mädchen spricht. PFITZNER: Gretel. TCHAIKOVSKY: None But the Lonely Heart.2 JAMES ROGERS: The Star.2 SCHUBERT: Die junge Nonne. Der Doppelgänger. Liebesbotschaft. SCHUMANN: Aufträge. MENDELSSOHN: Morgengruβ. Venetianisches Gondollied. Neue Liebe. SCHUMANN: Der Nussbaum. BEETHOVEN: Wonne her Wehmut. Andenken. BRAHMS: Wiegenlied. Ständchen. MENDELSSOHN: Auf Flugeln des Gesänges. MOZART: Sehnsucht nach dem Frühling, K. 596. Warnung, K. 433 / Paul Ulanowsky, pianist except orchestral songs by NBC Symphony Orch., cond. by 1Frank Black & 2Nathaniel Shilkret.

CD 3: WAGNER: Wesendonck Lieder: Der Engel. Im Treibhaus. Schmerzen. Träume. SCHUMANN: Dichterliebe: Wenn ich in deine Augen seh; Und wussten s die Blumen; Das ist ein floten und geigen; Die alten bosen Lieder. SCHUBERT: An eine Quelle. Der Tod und das Mädchen. Der Jungling und das Tod. Auflösung. Die Forelle. Dass sie hier gewesen! Der Wanderer an der Mond. Im Frühling. Schwangesang. BRAHMS: Der Kranz. Es träumte mir. Frühlingslied. Wills du, dass ich geh? BACH-GOUNOD: Ave Maria.* BEETHOVEN: Neue Liebe, Neues Leben. MENDELSSOHN: Schilftlied. Frage. Der Mond. Lieblingslätzchen. Gruβ. Pagenlied. Die Liebende schreibt / Paul Ulanowsky, pianist except *RCA Victor Chamber Orch., cond. Richard Lert.

CD 4: BEETHOVEN: An die ferne Geliebte. MOZART: Als Luise die Briefe. Abendempfindung. Dans un bois solitaire. Die Verschweigung. BRAHMS: Dein blaues Auge halt. Komm bald. Bitteres zu sagen denkst du. Schon war, das ich dir weihte. Am Sonntag Morgen zierlich angetan. Der Gang zum Liebchen. Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht. Liebestreu. Frühlingstrost. Der Kuss. O wusst ich doch den Weg zuruck. Die schöne Magelone: Wie froh und Frisch. Bruno Walter speaks about Lotte Lehmann. BEETHOVEN: Egmont: Freudvoll und leidvoll. MOZART: Das Veilchen. SCHUBERT: An die Musik. WOLF: Anakreons Grab. BRAHMS: Botschaft. KARL GROOS: Freiheit, die ich meine / Bruno Walter, pianist / Lehmann reads her poem, “In alten Partituren. Lehmann speaks about her singing. WOLF: Gesang Weylas / Paul Ulanowsky, pianist / Lotte Lehmann, soprano / all of the above on Music & Arts CD-1279

Before I begin this review, some explanation is in order. Very early on in my discovery of older singers, I ran across Lotte Lehmann as Eva in excerpts from Die Meistersinger, and I liked them very much. I also came across her highlights from Der Rosenkavalier, an opera I generally dislike except for maybe 20 minutes’ worth of music, and I liked them, too. I also very much enjoyed her 1927 or ’28 recording of the Act II finale from Die Fledermaus with tenor Richard Tauber. But everything else I heard after that I found to be sung with a dull, unattractive voice despite her interesting interpretations.

Recently, however, I ran across a new transfer (on YouTube) of her recording of Die Walküre Act I with Lauritz Melchior and Bruno Walter, and I was taken aback. Why? Because in this transfer, her voice sounded as bright as on those other recordings mentioned above whereas every previous issue I’ve heard of this recording sounded dull and gray. Which led me to wonder, Was I misjudging her based on defective transfers of her records?

It turned out that I was.

bk2nute0Now, mind you, she did have several technical flaws. She went flat at times—both on studio recordings and live performances—and even as far back as the acoustic era she took too many breaths in the middle of phrases. This led me to believe that she never had a very well grounded vocal technique, which may account in part for her losing her notes above a B-flat by 1935. And even with the brighter sound, the voice was not a particularly beautiful one. In fact, I’d say it was no better in tonal quality than that of Vera Schwarz, a soprano largely forgotten today, or of mezzo-soprano Elena Gerhardt, one of the most celebrated lieder singers of the 1920s and ‘30s. Another Lotte who was her near-contemporary, Lotte Schöne, had a far prettier voice. But Lehmann had one thing going for her that is not apparent when you just listen to her recordings, and that was an exceptional stage acting ability. If you watch her speak one of the Marschallin’s monologues (as an old lady) on YouTube, you’ll see what I mean. You can’t take your eyes off her; her facial expressions and body language rival that of Feodor Chaliapin, and like Chaliapin she always claimed that, to her, the meaning of the words were more important than strict musical accuracy, but also like Chaliapin (who she sang with at least once, in a performance of Gounod’s Faust), the lessons she taught other singers took decades for the influence to show.

Thus one can consider her analogous to Maria Callas, another outstanding stage interpreter whose voice left much to be desired in timbre and, sometimes, vocal control, the difference being that we have several film clips of Callas to show us what all the fuss was about. We don’t with Lehmann. All we have are the records, and that is an incomplete picture of the total package.

The funny thing is that famous musicians (including some very illustrious conductors) and music critics of her time) didn’t notice these flaws at all. Because she was both musical and dramatic in addition to her mesmerizing stage presence, they fell all over her. In fact, it’s been my experience that Lotte Lehmann admirers are often fanatics who will brook no criticism of her. As far as they’re concerned. she walked on water, and although I’ve come around to admiring what she had to offer I’m clearly not in that camp. Thus I would have to claim her as the greatest cult figure among classical sopranos. And now, to the recordings at hand.

Despite the presence of a few early electrical recordings (1927-32) on CD 1, the bulk of these come from the period 1936-1949, the latter made less than two years before her farewell concert and retirement at the age of 63. What I found interesting about the majority of the lieder recordings, which make up the bulk of this set, is that Lehmann almost never gave you a very subtle or “inner” interpretation of the lyrics; on the contrary, hers was a very excitable approach to German lied, quite the opposite of most of her peers. In An die Ferne Geliebte, for instance, she sounds almost continually excited and impulsive. By this time, too (1941), her vibrato had become a bit loose, not enough to be a constant annoyance, thank goodness, but not as tight or compact as it had been only five years previously. Yet her impulsive qualities certainly enlivens much of the songs she performs, particularly those of Mozart and Brahms. In repertoire like this, modern sopranos who sing lieder could learn something from her approach if not from her handling of the voice (there are far too many breaths taken in Abendempfindung) and, at 53, she already sounded like an old woman. She sings no higher than a G in Mozart’s Dans un bois solitaire, but that G sounds badly strained. I point these things out not to shame her but merely to indicate that she was working with a flawed instrument.

Another interesting point to consider is that her accompanists generally sound competent but emotionally neuter; they seem to want to leave all the expression to Lehmann rather than assert themselves in any meaningful way. I found this pretty interesting as well.

Lehmann’s impetuous delivery and quite fast tempi gives one cause to believe that music one might think was being rushed to fit the 78-rpm side, such as the two songs from Beethoven’s Egmont, were artistic choices she made and not the fault of the recording session director asking her to “pick it up a little.”

Once your ears become adjusted to her not-always-continuous phrasing and impetuous delivery, however, I think you’ll find her a very lively interpreter whose work carries much interest because of this phenomenon. Lehmann without her impetuosity would be as unthinkable as Caruso without his portamento scoops; it was her signature style of singing, and you either accepted it on those terms or rejected it entirely, There was no middle ground with her.

In her live 1938 recital of Wolf lieder, with the microphone somewhat backed off away from her, one gets a good idea of how the voice carried in a theater, and in 1938 her voice was still sufficiently bright in timbre (and secure up to a high Bb) that one realizes that, at something of a distance, you don’t notice the frequent breaths in the vocal line nearly as much as when the microphone was right in front of her. And much to my urprise, her performance here of Tosca’s “Vissi d’arte” is one of the finest I’ve ever heard.

Despite the flaws mentioned above, the compilers of this anthology have pretty much put Lehmann’s best foot forward for her, so to speak, revealing the solid musician and highly communicable artist who so engrossed two generations of listeners.

And now for the drawbacks of this set…thankfully, not many. The programming is for the most part very good, but I question the repetition of several songs just because they happened to have some rare radio transcription discs of her singing lieder with the NBC Symphony Orchestra directed by Frank Black. I don’t even like orchestral arrangements of lieder accompaniments to begin with, and Lehmann didn’t really interpret them any differently in these versions (in fact, since the orchestral versions are slower, I find them less interesting). I also questioned the inclusion of two such trashy pieces as the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria (who cares how she sang it? she didn’t have the kind of voice that one drinks in anyway) and Tchaikovsky’s None But the Lonely Heart. I would rather they had thrown those four tracks out, moved James Rogers’ The Star (a very cute song which she does well) from CD 2 to CD 3, and instead included two of her marvelous recordings of Eva’s music from Die Meistersinger instead. I also wish they had ended the set not with Wolf’s Gesang Weylas but with her outstanding recording of the “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde. Other than that, the selection of material and the programming are excellent.

Unfortunately, the sound engineer who processed the recordings did not do a consistent job in equalizing them to get the consistently bright sound of her voice. Some of the live songs are absolutely perfect, but several others are not, particularly not the NBC broadcast material which has a dull top end. This should have been corrected prior to release.

Be that as it may, this is, overall, an exceptionally fine introduction to Lehmann and her very personal artistry. If you’re already a fan you’ll probably want it for the many rarities here, and if you’re not, you just might change your mind when listening to it.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Satoko Fujii’s “Mosaic”


MOSAIC / FUJII: Habana’s Dream. Dieser Zug. Kumazemi. Sleepless Night. 76 RH / This is It!: Natsuki Tamura, tpt; Satoko Fujii, pno; Takashi Itani, dm/perc / Libra Records 203-068

Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii is one of those free jazz artists who fits into the category of “I don’t care how weird it sounds, I’m trying it.” As I’ve said in many reviews on this blog, you really can’t just splatter notes up against the wall to see what sticks; that’s not composition, either jazz or any other musical form; thus I’ve bypassed several of her CDs for review because the sounds on them (not necessarily music) make so sense to me. But when she is focused in her playing and has something more coherent to say, I’m all in because deep down she is a good musician.

In this new release, she has apparently retitled her working trio “This is It!”. According to the accompanying press release, this album is something of an act of defiance in the face of the pseudo-pandemic that has gripped the world and turned formerly free citizens into slaves of Big Pharma, banning people from concert halls and other venues unless they keep receiving non-vaccinating vaccines over and over again. The natural immunity of those who have had the virus and recovered is scoffed at, yet the “vaccines” that continue to make people very ill and put them in the hospital is preferential because it makes the pharmaceutical companies billions of dollars, and that’s what it’s all about. In exchange for one’s acquiescence to their demands, they receive their “Get Out of Jail Free” card saying they’ve been vaccinated. There is no difference between what the pharmaceutical companies are doing now and what was done in Nazi Germany in the 1930s with Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals wearing armbands to identify them as different from the “normal” populace. And that’s all I’m going to say about the “pandemic.”

Nonetheless, this album was put together with her drummer, Takashi Itani, being 400 miles away from Fujii and trumpeter Tamura, so it is a “virtual” performance. Even so, Fujii believes that it captures the excitement that they generate at live performances, and I would agree.

The music contained herein is free-form but still, there is a form. Fujii’s playing often uses decisive rhythms, albeit asymmetric ones, in her piano playing with Tamura and Itani adding their own contributions as things move along. Indeed, in the opening piece, Habana’s Dream, the pianist dominates and plays extremely interesting and well-developed figures, bitonal rather than atonal, that sound quite a bit like modern classical music. Interestingly, when Itani enters, he seems to be playing more in Mediterranean rhythms than African ones, but they fit what is going on. Only Tamura seems to be frantically trying to come up with musical ideas that fit the aural landscape, mostly repeating the same note over and over and over using triple-tonguing, though eventually he does come up with a few interesting figures. At about the 5:15 mark Itani embarks on a drum solo that leans more towards West African music but, again, fits the mood and character of the piece. When Tamura re-enters, he is all over the place, not even playing recognizable notes on his trumpet but sounding like a wounded elephant scattergunning sounds.

Dieser Zug opens with Itani playing a few sparse, isolated notes on the vibes, becoming somewhat more active as a scratching sound in the background (it sounds like a hamster eating quite noisily) comes and goes. Eventually sort of quirky rhythm establishes itself, and we note that Fujii is sort-of playing the inside of her piano. Tamura joins them playing soft, long-held notes above their quirky rhythmic interplay. Somehow, miraculously, it all comes together once Fujii begins playing a sequence of low notes on the keyboard, and after a pause she plays an a cappella solo that is actually quite lovely. This goes on for some time unaccompanied before Tamura joins her with a nice melodic figure. (One thing I noticed when listening to this recording is that Tamura possesses a rather thin trumpet tone. I would assume that he’s using a very shallow mouthpiece to give him better technical control over his fast passages, but this does sacrifice a full tone.) Tamura then takes a solo which he develops nicely, albeit sparsely. At one point he even plays “chords” on the trumpet by playing one note and humming another, as Fujii and Itani come in behind him with sparse, abstract figures. The three of them then build up to a fast-paced climax before relaxing just a bit for the coda.

Kumazemi opens with Fujii playing a repeated, sparse, rhythmic figure on piano with Tamura joining her as Itani adds occasional cymbal accents before the trumpeter embarks on another a cappella solo, again tossing in some hummed “chords “ here and there. Fujii and then Itani re-enter, eventually leading up to a percussion solo. (Some of the sounds Itani makes reminded me of mice in my walls during the wintertime!) I wasn’t too thrilled with the sound of Tamura essentially blowing low, soft “fart” noises on his horn, but thankfully Fujii’s incisive rhythmic figures on the piano regain your attention, and eventually she develops this into more intricate rhythms as Tamura drops out. Eventually Itani returns, quite busy on percussion, as does Tamura, now playing a series of rapid two-note figures before the trio coalesces into a quirky rhythmic ride-out.

Sleepless opens with Tamura again playing tight noises on his horn while Itani plays random percussion sounds. More mice-in-the-walls scratching from someone as Fujii softly enters playing sub-contra chords. After a bit of a percussion solo, more fart noises on trumpet. Later on, occasional trumpet screams on no discernible pitch. I didn’t care for this piece one little bit.

By contrast, 76 RH almost (but not quite) resumes a normal sort of rhythm, Tamura actually plays his trumpet, and Fujii embarks on a sort of minimal but interesting piano solo, mostly consisting of single notes with occasional chords tossed in for flavor. Eventually the tempo increases, Tamura plays some fast note buzzes, and Itani splashes some percussion sounds around in the background, all of which creates a whirling sort of sound, the aural equivalent of a whirlpool. When it slows down and relaxes, Tamura plays some interesting figures, again tossing in a few “chords,” in a somewhat coherent solo. At one point in the musical melee that ensues, you almost feel that the trio is going to come together for once, but it doesn’t really happen; Itani is off playing his own drum solo as the other two drop out.

Taken as a whole, Mosaic is an interesting experiment with but one real musical failure (Sleepless). By and large, however, it is an improvement over some of Fujii’s more recent aural experiments (not, in my view, music) that she has released on CD, and I recommend most of it.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Discovering Charpentier’s “Médée”


CHARPENTIER: Médée / Magdalena Kožená, soprano (Médée); Anders J. Dahlin, haute-contre (Jason); Luca Tittoto, bass (Créon); Meike Hartmann, soprano (Créuse, his daughter); Robin Adams, baritone (Oronte); Silke Gäng, soprano (Nérine); Yukie Sato, soprano (Italian Woman); Jenny Högström, soprano (First Ghost); Regina Dahlen, soprano (Second Ghost); Tiago Pinheiro de Olivieira, tenor (Corinthian I/La Jalousie); Daniel Issa, tenor (Corinthian II); Ismael Arróniz, bass (Un Argien/La Vengeance); Santiago Garzon, baritone (La Vengeance); La Cetra – Barockorchester Basel; Vokalensemble Basel; Andrea Marcon, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube (live: Basel, January 6, 2015)

Having recently discovered Nadia Boulanger’s album of highlights from this opera, I went online to try to find a good complete recording of the work, but was greatly disappointed in listening to both of conductor William Christie’s recordings. His conducting was weak and prissy, with none of the “bite” or rhythmic impetus of the Boulanger recording, and his singers all sounded as if they didn’t give a crap. Thus I despaired finding a serviceable version of this work until I came across this performance on YouTube.

The stage production, as is usual nowadays, is idiotic and at times perverted (of course Créon and his men are dressed like Nazi soldiers, and at one point when Médée is singing, a toy panda walks across the stage for no apparent reason, and at the 53-minute mark some bimbo cones out with a spotlight on her doing some kind of a sexy dance), and thus does not bear watching, but the musical aspects of the opera are very well handled indeed. Of the various principals, only bass Luca Tittoto as Créon is sub-par, having a somewhat rough and fluttery voice, though he characterizes well. All of the other principals are very fine indeed, particularly Anders J. Dahlin as Jason, who is far better than the singer on the Boulanger recording. That is because, in this version of the opera, Jason is sung not by a tenor but by a haut-contre, a very high and specialized French vocal range that lies between tenor and mezzo-soprano. Even nowadays we have very few excellent haut-contre singers who can perform such roles, but in 1953 when Boulanger made her recording, the only one around was Russell Oberlin, and he wasn’t part of her ensemble.

CharpentierAs for the music, it is fascinating and very well written. Charpentier did an excellent job of setting the text to music and making it work dramatically. The problem is that he and his librettist, Thomas Corneille, unfortunately chose to set almost the entire play to music rather than compressing it as Luigi Cherubini did a century later. This was a mistake on their part; even Monteverdi telescoped Orfeo ed Euridice for his early opera, as did Gluck a century and a half later. What takes about 75 minutes to perform as a spoken stage play takes, here, nearly two and a half hours to get through as a sung opera, and although, as I say, the music is generally excellent, it’s just a bit too much to make an effective opera.

Which doesn’t mean that it should be ignored or never performed, only that it may be wiser in the future to perform it in an abridged fashion. Even Leonard Bernstein, with the cooperation and agreement of soprano Maria Callas, abridged Cherubini’s Medea somewhat when they performed it in 1953, and in fact it is the Bernstein-Callas abridgement that most opera audiences are familiar with, not only through Callas’ own studio recording and live performances but also through the performances of the opera by Leyla Gencer, Magda Olivero, Eileen Farrell and other sopranos of the late 20th century.

But to return to what Charpentier actually wrote and why it is so good, it is because here, in 1693, he was already writing very dramatic strophic recitatives that had melodic lines and yet could be emphasized by the singers to express the passion of the words, and this feature is even in the very first scene of the opera. And when he chooses to write some really dramatic music, as for instance Médée’s solo at about the one-hour mark in this video, he grabs your attention because it is not a constant feature of the music. Interestingly, although there is not a single French singer in the cast—the one star name here, Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená, sings the title role, while the other singers are either Scandinavian, Italian, German, Spanish, German or Japanese (Yukie Sato as the Italian Woman), they all have that characteristic fast vibrato that was so typical of French singers from Charpentier’s era up through the late 20th century, and this, too, adds to the color of the singing.

In addition, having the whole opera to listen to and not just 37 minutes’ worth of highlights fills in the gaps that Boulanger unfortunately had to work around, thus one gets a much better idea of how Charpentier filled in each act. I’m also wondering (since I don’t actually know) whether or not this was the first opera to use a full chorus and not just a handful of singers posing as one.

More to the point, each singer in this cast, even the one or two sub-par ones, all act out the words, creating real characters onstage rather than just “nice voices singing the notes properly,” and this works wonders in a work as old as this one. Indeed, the longer I listened to this performance the more amazed I was that it was written so long ago; it almost sounds like a Rameau opera from about 1745 than something from a half-century earlier.

Of course, the conducting has a lot to do with the impact that the music creates. In addition to suffering through both of Christie’s wet noodle recordings, I also groaned when listening to another live performance on YouTube conducted by Hervé Niquet. His conducting is so wimpy that he makes Christie sound like Boulanger, and his singers are not only worse than in this Marcon performance but also worse than Christie’s (not only weak and ineffectual voices, but with wobbles and vocal strain), so before any of my readers start telling me that singers today are much better than in the past, let me disillusion you. By and large, they’re not, but in addition to Kožená, both Dahlin and Jason and German soprano Meike Hartmann as Créuse are first-rate.


Kožená as Medea

Putting Médée in the capable hands (and voice) of Kožená was one of the smartest moves the casting director made. Her performance is utterly spellbinding, bringing out all the various moods and shades of meaning in the dramatic situation without ever exaggerating the music, plus she has the required trills and shakes written into the role.

Thanks in part to Charpentier’s music and in part to Marcon’s conducting, once the music really gets rolling it moves along at a good clip, absorbing all the scenes and making both musical and dramatic sense of them.

I seriously recommend that you download this performance at your earliest convenience (before it disappears from YouTube forever) and burn it to CD. It is clearly a first-rate performance of some very first-rate music and, thanks to the superb performances of the three principals, it seldom gets bogged down so much that you can’t enjoy and appreciate its many fine points.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Quartararo Plays Dutilleux


DUTILLEUX: Trois Préludes. Au gré des ondes. Mini-prélude en éventail. Résonances. Petit air à dormir debout. Blackbird. Bergerie. Tous les chemins mènent…à Rome. Piano Sonata / Vittoria Quarteraro, pno / Piano Classics PCL10167

Pianist Vittoria Quarteraro, who received her training in both her native Italy and in Germany, where she now lives, presents here the complete piano music of one of the most respected French composers of the 20th century, Henri Dutilleux, with this recording of his complete piano music.

Despite his high reputation, Dutilleux’s output was relatively small, particularly considering the fact that he lived to age 97. His orchestral works were particularly championed by conductor Charles Munch, who became a personal friend. Wikipedia claims that his music was in the tradition of Ravel and Debussy, but also of Albert Roussel and Olivier Messiaen whose work was decidedly more complex in harmony than Ravel and Debussy, but that he had his own “idiosyncratic style.”

Quarteraro definitely plays his music as if it were part of the French impressionist school, using a lot of pedal and purposely blurring some of the fast runs to create a sort of ambient sound; but Dutilleux’s music was too complex both melodically and harmonically to fit into the “ambient classical” school that is all the rage today. It was, however, clearer and less congested than that of Messiaen, who was his slightly older (by eight years) contemporary. Both composers tended to write music that was much more abstract than their French predecessors, but whereas Messiaen worked in small cells of music, little outbursts that the listener had to thread together in his or her mind, Dutilleux wrote in a more linear fashion. Although his rhythms are irregular and sometimes asymmetric, they are present underneath the complex top lines and thus they give less musically sophisticated listeners something to follow as the music progresses. With that being said, Dutilleux’s music did not flow freely; he often used pauses, and his tempo sometimes shifted as quickly as the meter, which can disorient a casual listener.

In short, there’s a lot going on under the surface of his music, and even on the surface there’s a lot that meets the ear. He could flow along nicely, if in different meters and tempi, and then suddenly bring you up abruptly with fast little sixteenth-note flurries that seem dislocated from the rest of the piece (listen, for instance, to the third Prélude, “Le jeu des contraires,” for a good example of what I mean) yet actually work as an impetus to move things along briskly as he develops his themes quickly and expediently.

By way of compensation, however, Dutilleux could surprise you with what sounds like a fairly simple tune, merely set to unorthodox chord changes, as in the first movement of Au fré des ondes (or On the Waves), titled Prélude et berceuse. This does indeed resemble something that Debussy might have written in his late years, albeit with harmony that moves “sideways” as the quirky but attractive melody line moves along and morphs, and in the second piece, Il Claquettes, his rhythm is quite regular, propelling the music with a jaunty French feeling.

Dutilleux, then, was a composer with more than one style and more than one “voice,” and this is exactly what I mean when I castigate many modern composers for getting hung up on just one specific style of writing music. It lacks not only imagination but also real musical knowledge; all they know is their “Johnny-one-note” styles and thus cannot express anything human, thereby cutting them off from real communication with their listeners. Dutilleux’s Mini-prélude en éventail, for instance, seems to occupy a midway point between his more diffuse and his more rhythmic styles, while Résonances is far more abstract than either. Here, the music emerges in short, sharp, stabbing figures of notes that sound disjointed before moving into a strict rhythm, thereby combining two of his styles in one piece.

In all of this music, Quarteraro plays with not only an outstanding technique but also with a full understanding of what this music is about. She understands Dutilleux’s many moods, imbuing the music with seriousness, lightness or even a bit of humor that each piece calls for. This is not easy to do, particularly in music that will quite probably be unfamiliar to even many Dutilleux admirers although none of these are first recordings. In short, she presents here a unified view of the music, which helps the listener absorb what is being heard in a way that makes musical sense even when the flow is disrupted or it sounds abstract. She is particularly good in the Piano Sonata, another work in which Dutilleux combined different musical approaches while still retaining a proper “classical” sonata form.

This is an outstanding album, one which I highly recommend.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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My New Policy: Less, But Better, Reviews

When I began this blog in March 2016, one of my primary goals was just to write about the music and musicians I really loved and not have to review music and artists that didn’t interest me. Over the past five years, however, and especially in the last two years as my blog has gotten more attention and popularity than I ever envisioned, record labels and promoters have sent me a ton of classical and jazz recordings for consideration. I try to be fair and open-minded to everything I receive, but as time has gone on the quotient of recordings I really enjoy has slipped considerably while the number of recordings I’ve given so-so or somewhat negative reviews to haw increased exponentially, and that has become not only worrisome but a real hassle for me.

My readers know that I am actually very happy that the ironclad grip which the “Big Labels” of the past (RCA Victor, Columbia, Decca, EMI, Philips and Deutsche Grammophon) has not only loosened but become reduced to a half-hearted handshake with the classical music business. Add to that the collapse of major agencies like Columbia Artists’ Management Inc. (CAMI), and you can see that we now have an entirely different playing field. Here in the United States, the new “major labels,” so to speak, are Pentatone, Çedille, Bridge and Albany, which used to be considered “also-rans” in the business. In England they are Chandos and Hyperion, in Italy Dynamic, in Spain IBS Classical, in Sweden Bis and Alpha, in Poland Dux and in Germany and Austria CPO, Gramola and Hänssler Klassik. And of course, Naxos International has slowly but surely become a major player in the industry despite their track record of discovering major talents in the industry and then letting them go to one of the bigger labels once they become stars.

This diversity has opened the doors for many labels even smaller than these to make a major impact on the classical market, including the “boutique labels” Centaur and Parma/Navona, and some of their product is very good indeed. But—and this is where the problems emerge—with this explosion of issued recordings there are problems, and the No. 1 headache for me is their insistence on cluttering up the new release catalog with new versions of standard repertoire that’s already been recorded dozens of times previously and often in classic performances that the “new kids on the block” can’t even begin to compete with. Just in the past three months, I can’t even tell you how many new recording of tired old music I see in the Naxos New Release catalog, buckets of Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt, blah blah blah blah blah, and when a new performer of the old stuff does look interesting to me and I check them out, nine out of ten have nothing new to say about this music. Add to that the new operatic and lieder recordings featuring young singers, many of whom have serious vocal defects, all being pushed by their agents. I’ve reviewed some of these recordings just to have something to write about, even when I complain about the musical approach or the performance problems, but no more. My life now, at age 71, has become too short for me to waste my time writing about a recording that I’m going to end up panning in one way or another.

In addition to all this, there is now also a problem with a lot of “new music.” Much of it falls into one of three categories:

  • Slow, maudlin, “atmospheric” pieces that just plain depress me…though I know that, for reasons I can’t explain, this style is immensely popular with Millennials;
  • Fast, edgy music that sounds like an electrical short, broken glass, or somebody trying to file the metal bars protecting my windows so they can break into my house; or
  • Music that has pretensions of being new and different, but doesn’t actually go anywhere.

None of this music is going to be reviewed by me in the future. I haven’t done much of it, mind you, but even a little of it on my blog is too much for me.

And the sad thing is, I really do have to check every composer I don’t know out so that I can make an informed judgment on their music. If I don’t, I would have missed several interesting composers of the present or somewhat recent past (mid-to-late 20th century) who I now place very high on my list, and this takes time. (Oh, by the way, I’m also not interested in Politically Correct musical “heroes” whose music is written to formula and basically uninteresting, such as Astor Piazzola and Florence B. Price. Their music is well crafted but not individual or really interesting; they say absolutely nothing to me other than a pleasant time’s entertainment, and I have no desire to be “entertained” by classical music.)

Needless to say, the same thing goes for jazz. There seems to be an endless supply of wussy “jazz” singers who perform “from the heart” but don’t have a shred of jazz in them, and here, too, I often get overwhelmed with simpering, slow music that sounds like George Winston him?), edgy, electronic crap, often with a rock beat, or “avant-garde” music that is more noise than music, and of course the ubiquitous “traditional” jazz performers. Only a very few of them, like Stephanie Trick and her husband Paolo Alderighi, are innovative or interesting to an inquisitive mind. Most of the others may indeed make a good living from playing in cocktail lounges or restaurants (provided that they have their Covid-19 “vaccine”), but I don’t want to review them any more.

So this is my new policy: less but higher quality reviews. Which means that you probably won’t be coming here as often as you have been, but when you do make the trip it will be worth your while.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Smith’s Superb “Chicago Symphonies”

Cover_WLS_Great Lakes Quartet_The_Chicago_Symphonies

2021SMITH: Symphonies: No. 1, Gold; No. 2, Diamond; No. 3, Pearl / Wadada Leo Smith, tpt/fl-hn; Henry Threadgill, a-sax/fl/bs-fl; John Lindberg, bs; Jack De Johnette, dm / Symphony No. 4, Sapphire / Jonathon Haffner, a-sax/sop-sax repl. Threadgill / TUM Box 004

This 4-CD set, scheduled for release on November 21, contains jazz trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith’s “symphonies” for a jazz quartet. In the notes, he states that he picked up the idea from the late Don Cherry’s symphony for jazz sextet, but since even a sextet provides more texture than a quartet, I was somewhat skeptical as to how well he would succeed. These works are played by Smith’s Great Lakes Quartet, so named because they formed as a group in 2014 to record Smith’s musical tribute to the great lakes of America.

Smith clearly has some idea of classical form; the very opening of the first symphony tells you as much, as he uses his trumpet and Henry Threadgill’s alto sax to create a theme statement over Jack De Johnette’s drums, and when Threadgill picks up the theme and develops it, he does so in an accepted classical manner as Smith, now with a mute in his horn, plays counter-figures. All of this is well and good, but to be honest I’d like to hear this same music played with a richer texture—more brass and reeds and yes, even a handful of strings. When the music is this interesting and you call your work a symphony, you really do want to hear it expanded tonally. It’s not that what is presented here on the record is insufficient musically, because it isn’t, but it is insufficient in terms of texture. I would compare this to those reductions for piano quartet or small chamber group of established classical symphonies. I know that some people like them, but I don’t. I long to hear a richer, fuller sound such as that achieved by Ornette Coleman in his Skies of America symphony for orchestra and jazz combo.

Yet as I say, there is no mistaking the quality of this music. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this album may not sell as well to pure jazz fans as to those who really enjoy jazz-classical fusion pieces, what Charles Mingus called “jazzical moods.” And the comparison with Mingus is a very valid one, particularly if you’ve ever heard his Revelations, a single jazz symphony movement written for the Brandeis University “Third Stream” concert of 1957 organized by Gunther Schuller. I always wished that Mingus had completed this jazz symphony and not just left it at one movement, but he was a pragmatist. If he couldn’t get any more of it performed by the forces he wrote it for, why bother?

One reason why Smith’s music works so well, aside from his understanding of classical form, is that all four musicians involved in this project are virtuosi who can bring much more out of their instruments than the average jazz player. I’ve written a blog post honoring Henry Threadgill, who I consider to be a unique musical genius, and his participation in three of these four symphonies (I’m not sure why he couldn’t have done the fourth) is a primary reason as to why they work so well, but I was particularly pleased with the way Jack De Johnette played drums here (better than on Smith’s Billie Holiday tribute album) and especially the inventive, flexible and highly rhythmic playing of bassist John Lindberg, the only name in this quartet I was not previously familiar with. Indeed, once he gets rolling, I’d say that Lindberg is often the glue that holds the whole structure together, providing an interesting and continually morphing “ground bass” underneath all the complex lines and improvisation going on above him.

But of course we must also give praise to Smith, whose solo in the second movement of the first symphony is simply breathtaking, a nearly flawless combination of spontaneous improvisation built around the basic structure that he created. In each movement, too, Smith uses long pauses at those moments when he wishes to change the musical direction. These are effective but, again, I think they’d be even more effective if Smith scored them for roughly two dozen musicians, and I encourage him to at least think about it. Sadly, no one plays Skies of America any more now that Coleman is gone, but the more I listened to Smith’s music here the more convinced I was that these are not only musically interesting works but, in a way, more appealing to the average listener. They do not contain that continual, incessant atonal “grinding” sound that Coleman wrote for his strings; on the contrary, there are many passages in the first symphony that are quite tonal and even accessible without resorting to a cheap pandering of “lovely tunes that people can hum.” It is music that reaches out to an audience but does not condescend to popular tastes.

Moreover, as I continued listening, I detected themes and motifs that were carried over and changed through development and morphing to other movements, creating a unified piece that one could follow despite the differences. Smith’s verbal descriptions of each symphony in the liner notes are interesting, and show what was probably his state of mind when writing them, but the great thing is that the music can be appreciated and enjoyed without the verbal commentary, just as Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony and Mahler’s Sixth can be enjoyed without necessarily getting too deep into the political implications that inspired them. The fascinating, complex, yet (in its own way) majestic trumpet solo that opens the fourth movement of the first symphony is clearly great music, and any classical snob who refuses to admit that just because it’s played by a jazz musician is, in my view, wholly oblivious to what great music really is, and means. Later in the same movement, Threadgill and Lindberg indulge in a breathtaking and complex duo, and when Smith re-enters it is by playing majestic, long-held notes for a while before giving us some complex bop licks with a few buzzes and growls mixed in.

The second symphony opens with Threadgill on flute, playing with bass and drums. This music is in a more bitonal vein than the first, with far more complex rhythm. De Johnette is thus far busier here on drums, yet for the most part he follows the musical patterns laid down in the score. Smith’s solo turn is full of surprises, both rhythmic and harmonic, and Threadgill is also superb on alto. In form, I would say that this is closer to jazz than to classical, yet there still is form and substance, and this is even more evident in the slower second movement. Although Lindberg plays a less prominent role here, he does have an excellent bass solo later on in this movement after the pause. The third movement also starts slowly but picks up momentum in the middle when Smith doubles the tempo, then quadruples it in his own solo. In this work, it seemed to me that the music was more continuous in structure, with each movement growing out of the one previous. There’s also some nice interplay between the four musicians near the mid-point of this third movement, although I did think the extended drum solo. though a good one, didn’t really add much to the composition.

The fourth and last movement opens quixotically, with Smith playing what seem at first like random figures on the trumpet, but this eventually coalesces into a sort of thematic material, albeit somewhat more fragmented than in the previous movements.

The opening of the third symphony sounds for all the world like the old Ornette Coleman Quartet although this movement is dedicated to Anthony Braxton. There’s a lot going on here, and by the 2:15 mark, when de Johnette begins playing some fascinating figures on the bass drum, the music sounds for all the world like something more African than American. Whether consciously or not, Threadgill tosses in a brief quote from Limehouse Blues in his solo, but Smith seems to be soaring in a world entirely his own. Later on, there’s another extended drum solo, followed after a brief pause by Threadgill on alto flute playing against Lindberg’s bowed bass, with moments of a cappella flute mixed in. After a pause, the full quartet rides it out at a faster tempo. Fascinating music. and the second movement, slower and more structured, is equally outstanding. The third movement opens with solo bowed bass, with cymbals and sticks playing the rims of the drums coming in behind it for color. Later on, both trumpet and alto sax come in, individually and then together, while the bass and drums continue their dialogue. This portion of the symphony, however, is much more jazz and thus somewhat less structured, but the fourth movement returns to a tighter form. In the fourth movement, what may sound to the ear as simply good improvisation by the two rhythm instruments actually coalesces into a coherent musical statement, whereas in the fifth we return to Braxton-Coleman-style free jazz, or so it seems, as I’m sure that Smith had at least some of this written out beforehand.

As mentioned earlier, I don’t know why Threadgill was unavailable for the fourth symphony, dedicated to presidents and their vision for America, but Jonathon Haffner plays very well in his own right. The first movement opens with the drums playing an almost military-style beat; since this is dedicated to Abraham Lincoln, it may well represent the aftermath of the Civil War. Over the busy percussion, Smith and Haffner confine themselves to long-held note statements which fill out the first movement. In the second, the bass is as busy as the drums, yet when the trumpet and alto sax enter they are again playing long-held notes. Perhaps it’s just my impression, but the music in this piece, though very good jazz, doesn’t sound as strictly organized as in the first three works, though when Smith and Haffner return again they are playing a variation on their original theme. Haffner.s solo in the second movement shows a harder-edged sound and an adherence to a stricter rhythm  than Threadgill, whose mastery of fluid rhythms contributed so much to the first three symphonies.

The mood and emotion change to a slower pace and sparser, more terse statements in the third movement, although de Johnette’s drums play at double tempo from the outset. There’s a remarkable passage in this movement, around the 4:48 mark, where Smith holds one note and changes the color of the tone on it, not once but twice. In the fourth movement, the rhythm section plays what sounds like an extended meter, possibly 13/8 (something like that…there’s an extra beat to each continuous musical cell), but although the music is good, by this time it seems to be repeating things from the previous movements and seemed to me less inspired than merely crafted. It’s still nice to listen to, but somehow the creative edge seems missing to me. In short, the music is good but not quite great, although Smith and his quartet keep the flow going. Although Haffner contributes a superb solo in the fourth movement, I still think they missed not having Threadgill on this one.

Notwithstanding, the musical complexity and emotional power of most of this music is so overwhelming that I highly recommend that you do NOT play these discs in quick succession. Take some time after each symphony to allow what you’ve heard to sink in before moving on to the next one. I will even go out on a limb here and say that, in their own way, these pieces are the modern-day equivalent of what Maher did at the turn of the 20th century, both an advance on and a summation of the symphony form as it existed in his time, imbued with an emotional passion that almost bordered on frenzy. I can’t even describe to you the intense feelings I experienced when listening to this music; the closest I can come is to say that they were real feelings of ecstasy. I was transported to another level of existence just by hearing them.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Aho’s Double & Triple Concertos

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AHO: Double Concerto for cor anglais, harp & orchestra.* Triple Concerto for violin, cello, piano & chamber orchestra + / *Dimitri Mestdag, cor anglais; Anneleen Lenaerts, harp; +Storioni Trio; Antwerp Symphony Orch.; Olari Elts, cond / Bis SACD-2426

This, the latest release in Bis’ Kalevi Aho series, focuses on his unusual concerti for multiple instruments, the first being for English horn and harp and th second for the usual combo of violin-cello-piano.

But the unusual instrumentation of the first of these isn’t the only surprise. The first movement opens so quietly that at first I thought that the music wasn’t even playing; I had to turn up the volume to “blast-your-ears” level just to hear some music. This had to be the quietest opening to any piece I’ve heard except for Langgaard’s Music of the Spheres. Moreover, even when you can hear it, the music moves in slow waves of sound. The orchestra literally sounds like waves washing up on a shore, and the isolated notes played by the cor anglais almost sounded like a wounded sea gull or albatross. And even when things get moving—and that’s not very much—the strangeness of the music continues. As an experiment in instrumental timbre it is indeed interesting, but as a piece of music I found it surprisingly rambling for Aho, whose music generally has a clear direction even when it’s edgy and experimental.

Things finally pick up around the 7:35 mark, and here the music sounds more like the Aho I know: string but asymmetrical rhythms, unusual but moving harmonies, and quirky melodic lines which coalesce into a dark, almost ominous whole. There is much less of the harp than the English horn, and when the harp does play it is simply to add a fillip of color and occasionally rhythm via strummed chords. Some of it works and some of it doesn’t. It’s certainly not my favorite piece by Aho. Things pick up and become a bit more coherent in the second and third movements, but I just couldn’t escape the feeling that this concerto was more about effect than musical substance. Even the fourth-movement “Adagio,” in which the English horn plays dissonant chords on his instrument, did nothing for me. Well, not every piece written by a great composer is great. Just ask Beethoven about Wellington’s Victory.

Surprisingly, the triple concerto is exactly the opposite in style: a semi-tonal, even melodic work, and this too is not typical for Aho. In the liner notes, he explains that when his granddaughter Matilda was born he wrote a lullaby for her, and so this concerto is based on that lullaby which is based on the musical letters in Matilda’s name. (Stupid me! I didn’t even know that the letters M, T, I or L were in the musical scale!) This is the only Aho piece I’ve ever heard that could probably be played on classical radio stations, and probably will. It’s a nice piece, but for me only interesting in a few places, such as the second-movement “Presto” where he very cleverly weaves a complex polyphonic web of sound.

One reason I didn’t feel that it worked too well is that the piano trio seems to be used more for color than as concertante instruments. They play, and you can hear them, but their contributions are intermittent. They do not carry any particular musical line by themselves or attempt to weave it into the fabric of the orchestra; they are simply part of the orchestra. Again, clever but not really moving in any particular way despite the obvious energy of some of the score. Had I heard this piece without knowing the composer, I probably would never have guessed Aho.

As I say, there are interesting moments in both works, but the overall construction of each seems to me something of a patchwork quilt and doesn’t really gel overall. If you are an Aho completist, however, you may want this disc.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Madge Plays Bach’s “Art of Fugue”

Madge cover

J.S. BACH: The Art of Fugue / Geoffrey Douglas Madge, pno / Zefir ZEF9683, also available for free streaming on Spotify

Bach’s last piece has proved to be a knotty cerebral experiment since it was first published, an edition prepared by his two oldest sons Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. They printed this at their own expense because, since the work was unfinished at Johann Sebastian’s death in 1750, no publisher was interested in it. Much to the brothers’ surprise, it sold very badly. Two years after its publication, they had only sold about 50 or 60 copies. Needless to say, they lost a lot of money on it.

Yet part of the problem is now, and apparently always has been, what instrument or instruments one should play it on. Even though Bach only wrote the music in two saves, treble and bass, the music eventually becomes so complex that chamber groups have made arrangements of it as well as orchestras. I have three recordings in my collection, the first played by the duo Stephanie & Saar, one by the late, great organist Marie-Claire Alain with a chamber orchestra conducted by Stefan Mai, and one a score for full orchestra written and conducted by Charles Munch.

But the confusion goes even further, and that is in the matter of tempos. Since the music DOES become so complex, most performers are wont to play or conduct it at a fairly slow tempo, and part of this confusion stems from the way that Johann Sebastian and Carl Philipp Bach wrote the music out. Here, in this first page from the autograph score, you can see that the first fugue is written in cut time, which means 2/2 with a half note receiving one beat, BUT J.S. included FOUR half notes to the bar, or four beats:

Art of Fugue, autograph, p. 1

And now, here are the first two pages of the score in C.P.E.’s handwriting. Note that he has, quite sensibly in my opinion, relegated the music properly, with only TWO half notes per bar or two beats as indicated by the ¢:

Art of Fugue score 1 CPE

Art of Fugue score 2 CPE

To further complicate matters regarding this specific recording, Geoffrey Douglas Madge does not include any piece that is not marked as a fugue, meaning that he eliminates the Canons in the latter part, going straight from “Contrapunctus inversus XIII part 2” to the long but unfinished “Fuga à 3 soggetti.” Since I could not download or read the booklet for this set, but could only review the actual music via Spotify, I have no idea why he did this, but since I have the highest respect for him as a musician—he was, after all, only the second pianist to ever record Kaikhosru Sorabji’s massive Opus Clavicembalisticum back in the late 1980s—I will take his performance on its own merits.

Madge, like most performers of this music, takes moderate to slow tempi in each piece. The difference in his playing of them is that he uses a fully modern-sounding piano with a sensuous legato flow to the music and pedal, with has the effect of making the music sound more curved and arced rather than clipped and staccato. He also uses gradations of dynamics, something that is missing from the score but which, as a performing musician himself, J.S. Bach probably intended but didn’t notate. This is something that often eludes the musicologists who try to recreate “historical” performance practice; because most keyboards of Bach’s time had very little ability to produce gradations of volume, they assume that the composer did not hear this in his mind when writing the music down on paper. Not true; the composers intended that you, as a performing musician, would use your own taste and good judgment in inserting such things into their scores.

Interestingly, Madge plays the second Contrapunctus with a neat 6/8 swagger, almost giving the music the feeling of a tarantella. Considering how much Italian music Bach based his own scores on, this is also probably correct. But it isn’t just this one piece; as you go through the cycle, you’ll hear all sorts of rhythmic “lift” to the music that flies in the face of conventional thinking about Baroque music but is right and proper for MUSIC, period. I’ve always said that one of the reasons why more people tend not to appreciate Bach is because of the strict and often stiff tempi and phrasing used in the performance of his scores. If you play them simply as music and stop thinking about the historicity of it all, you’ll come to a greater understanding of what these composers were all about. (And that’s why I prefer Virgil Fox’s and early Marie-Claire Alain’s Bach recordings to any other organist, because they played them as music and not as some dull historic exercise.) Moreover, Madge also understands the difference in both rhythm and phrasing between the Italian style and the French; in the “Contrapunctus VI à 4 in stylo française,” he gives us a true French “galant” rhythm, distinguishable from the Italian in its more stylized accents, and he also “builds” the music to a nice climax.

Indeed, the great joy that one derives from this performance is exactly that, Madge’s ability to present the score as music and not as some dull, dry academic exercise. The same thing, of course, can (and should) be applied to all of his keyboard works as well as the Cello Suites, the Violin Sonatas & Partitas, and even the various cantatas and concerti. One thing that has always stuck in my mind was a comment that Wilhelm Furtwängler made that most musicologists have scoffed at but which made sense to me, that in addition to the mathematical precision of his music, J.S. Bach was the first Romantic composer. Of course, the implication in this statement is that his orchestral works should be played by large, heavy orchestras, which is not altogether correct, but consider the fact that when his son C.P.E. put on a performance of his father’s Mass in B Minor in the 1780s, he used a full orchestra and a chorus of nearly 100 voices. I’d say that his own son knew his intentions better than some dweeb of a modern conductor using that ridiculous one-voice-to-a-part in the vocal part of the score.

In the “Contrapunctus X à 4 alla decima,” Madge also uses some extremely subtle rubato effects, and he employs the same thing in his performance of the “Contrapunctus XI à 4,” all of which adds both suppleness and color to the music. By contrast, the “Contrapunctus XII à 4” opens in a sad, slow mood befitting its minor key, yet Madge ever-so-slightly increases the tempo for the crescendo passages, relaxing it again during the soft ones. In this manner, he makes the piece sound like music and not like a mere exercise. With “Contrapunctus XIII à 3,” we’re back to a nice Italian tarantella rhythm.

And that, boys and girls, is the reason I much prefer reviewing the work of a seasoned veteran whose playing I respect over that of the numerous young “phenoms” who win all their competitions but have no real understanding of music per se. This is the work of a master who fully understands what he is playing and why, a recording to be treasured and listened to several times in order to absorb the numerous subtleties he puts into the music.

By the way…since I had to review this album on Spotify, I was of course subjected to five “ad breaks.” These consisted of the following: “Life is so hard, you need to eat some Cheetos and relax;” “Make sure you get your Covid vaccine shot;” and “Go buy some state lottery scratch-off tickets today!” No wonder people are feeling suicidal in our society!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Wadada Leo Smith’s Love Sonnet for Lady Day


SMITH: Billie Holiday: A Love Sonnet. The A.D. Opera: A Long Vision with Imagination, Creativity and Fire, a dance opera (for Anthony Davis). IYER: Deep Time No. 1. DE JOHNETTE: Song for World Forgiveness. SMITH-DE JOHNETTE-IYER: Rocket / Wadada Leo Smith, tpt; Vijay Iyer, pno/celeste/org; Jack De Johnette, dm / TUM Records CD 060

This recording, made in 2016 but just now being released, is described by Smith in the booklet as a “dream project to work on with Jack and Vijay where the idea of composition and instrumentation would play a vital part in how the music sounded.” This makes a great deal of sense as one listens to the music herein. Although the first and third pieces in the album (both written by Smith) are dedicated to Billie Holiday, these are probably metaphorical tributes as there is nothing in the music that really relates to Holiday or any of the music she sang. (Billie stuck to the relatively simple pop songs of her day, Strange Fruit excepted; it was her deeply penetrating interpretation of lyrics that made her art special. She had a hard time singing anything that was musically outré; when Charles Mingus wrote Eclipse for her in the early 1950s, she was flattered but never performed it because she couldn’t hear the changes.)

Thus I take this recording to be more of a musical experiment in sound and texture, as Smith so clearly puts it, with perhaps a mental image of what Billie Holiday stood for in the background. The opening Love Sonnet consists mostly of long held notes played by Smith, with de Johnette being quite busy on the drums and Iyer’s piano fills being somewhere in between. It’s truly experimental music in the sense that some of it works and some of it doesn’t. The goal was to combine their sonorities with their contrasting views of rhythm and the use of space. As a result, it sounds much more like three excellent musicians playing their own thing than of a trio in the conventional sense of the word trying to fuse their ideas together.

As I pointed out in my review of the album that Iyer made with avant-garde tenor saxist Ivo Perelman, when your goal is to just spontaneously create music and just play whatever comes into your head without a sense of structure, what results isn’t always music that the mind can follow because there’s nothing for the mind to hold on to. Smith’s trumpet figures, taken by themselves, have a certain amount of structure to them, as do some of Iyer’s piano figures, but when put together and adding de Johnette’s drums, it’s really just sound and not music in the strict sense of the word.

Smith and Iyer seem to be more in accordance with one another on the latter’s piece Deep Time No. 1, but the continuous pre-recorded track of Iyer talking (it sounded like gibberish to me because it’s extremely difficult to make out words, but I’m told that it’s one of Malcolm X’s speeches, “By Any Means Necessary”) interferes more than it helps bind the music together. Once again, de Johnette just plays whatever he wants to, disregarding what Smith and Iyer are creating.

Oddly enough, things coalesce much better in Smith’s 18-minute “dance opera” for Anthony Davis, in part because de Johnette finally relaxes his uptempo playing to fit into the same groove that Smith and Iyer are in. True, he increases the tempo of his playing when the other two do as well, but this, too makes for a more homogenous improvisation than either of the two preceding pieces. Indeed, this piece is a gem of free improvisation; everything works well in it and makes some musical sense, held together by Iyer’s ingenious chord patterns. In the middle of the piece, Iyer switches to the celesta with excellent results as the tempo and phrasing both relax.

In the Song for World Forgiveness (not sure what they’re forgiving), we reach a sort of compromise between the (slightly) organized chaos of the first two tracks and the more structured improvisation in the third, Again, this works well largely due to Iyer’s contribution; by now he seems fully conversant with what Smith is doing (still playing mostly in long-held notes, but occasionally in bursts of short note flurries) and has figured out a way to support him harmonically; there are some nice changes that he plays that help quite a bit. De Johnette, on the other hand, seems to only occasionally be in the same groove, although when he does play opposing rhythms he seems more cognizant of what the other two are doing.

Interestingly, the last piece on the album, a three-way collaboration titled Rocket, fares the best of all. The trio opens with a sort of funky 4 with de Johnette playing backbeats, which he is very good at, with Iyer now switching to Hammond organ and Smith playing much more animated figures on trumpet. Even Smith’s occasionally pained cries on his instrument seem to fit into the ongoing progression of sound.

In whole, then, one hears this album as an experiment that often worked but occasionally didn’t, the first two tracks being the weakest of the five. Such is the case with much free jazz, and one has to take what one gets, but there is clearly enough here that works so that I recommend this CD to you.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz