A New Recording of C.P.E. Bach’s Oratorio

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C.P.E. BACH: Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu / Lore Binon, sop; Kieran Carrel, ten; Andreas Wolf, bar; Vlaams Radiokoor; Il Gardellino Baroque Orch.; Bart Van Reyn, cond / Passacaille PAS1115

Well, speak of the devil. Having recently written an article about C.P.E. Bach’s excellent religious oratorio The Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, I am presented here with a brand spanking-new recording of the same work under the direction of Bart Van Reyn.

The tempi are excellent, the orchestra and chorus give a lively performance, and the trio of soloists is superb. Yet it just misses greatness on a few counts, and I’m convinced that the engineering is to blame for most of the problems, not the performers.

One reason I say this is that the sound quality is rather cold and clinical, and I don’t think this is the fault of the performers. Another reason: in the tenor recitative “Die frommen Töchter Zions,” the track begins very softly—too softly, in fact—but then, a few notes into the tenor’s singing, the volume suddenly jumps up about 6 db, which causes a jarring sound difference, and from this point on the track is too loud.

The other problems I had were the orchestral introductions, played mostly by the lower strings, to each of the two sections of the work, which had such a thin, pallid sound that they made little impression, and in the baritone aria in Part II, “Willkommen, Heiland!,” the singer’s voice is badly over-recorded and the jolly bassoon obbligato which I mentioned in my previous review is almost inaudible. In fact, it’s so badly recorded that it doesn’t even sound like a bassoon; it honestly sounds like someone humming softly in the background, and this completely spoils the effect.

Thus this review is going to be a short one. Had Van Reyn had better sound engineers on this project to bring out the richness of the lower strings and correctly balance both the singers and the bassoon soloist, we’d have a real winner here, but as it is it’s a near-success but not close enough for me to recommend it. A rare example of the engineers letting the performers down.

But I did get a laugh out of the cover art, with the feet of Jesus suspended in the air as if he were Captain Kirk being beamed up by Scotty to the U.S.S. Enterprise.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Trio Gaspard Celebrates Russian Roots

cover Katharina Konradi Trio Gaspard - Russian Roots

BEETHOVEN: 4 Russian Folk Songs in Arrangement. STRAVINSKY: Pastorale. WEINBERG: Jewish Songs. SHOSTAKOVICH: Trio No. 1. 7 Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok. GUBAIDULINA: Letter to the Poetess Rimma Dalos. RACHMANINOV: Vocalise. AUERBACH: Postscriptum in G# min. / Katharina Konradi, sop; Trio Gaspard: Jonian Ilias Kadesha, vln; Vashti Mimosa Hunter, cel; Nicholas Rimmer, cel / Chandos CHAN 20245

What an irony: the music of “Mother Russia,” released at a time when Russia’s reputation is down the toilet thanks to their invasion of the Ukraine. But of course we can’t blame these composers, none of whom except Gubaidulina and Auerbach are still alive today, and I doubt that either one of them supported Russia’s actions.

When I chose this album for review, I didn’t notice that a singer was involved and so didn’t check her out ahead of time. Sometimes, that ends up being a big mistake for me, as so many of today’s singers (not all, but too many for comfort) have defective voices, but Russian soprano Katharina Konradi (pictured on the left in the group photo on the album cover), though possessing a very brilliant tone typical of Slavic sopranos, has a firm tonal center and an attractive timbre allied to superb diction and interpretive skills. I’d go so far as to say that this may be the first time these Beethoven Russian songs have been recorded by a Russian soprano, and I’ll go even further and say that Konradi gives them a reading that would have even made Beethoven smile…it’s that good. For once, I’d say that the awards she has received are all well deserved, and it’s a shame that a singer with these kinds of interpretive skills is being booked to sing such a small role as the shepherd in Tannhäuser and such rubbishy roles as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier and Zdenka in Arabella, but that’s life in the big time.

As for the music, nearly all of it—even the Beethoven and Stravinsky—sounds Russian to the core with the possible exception of Weinberg’s Jewish Songs. Despite the fact that he ended up spending most of his life in the Soviet Union, Weinberg was technically Polish, and his music was stylistically unique, reflecting all of the modernistic changes of his time (the 1930s and ‘40s) without really sounding like anyone else, either Russian or Polish. If anything, Weinberg synthesized Jewish folk music through the lens of Bartók and modern Germans like Hindemith and Ullmann, so you’d have to call his a hybrid style.

Trio Gaspard, a relatively young group, plays with both sensitivity and a finely-honed Slavic edge that sets them apart from many of their competitors. As usual, the publicity blurb describes them as “one of the most sought-after piano trios of its generation,” words that mean relatively little. I would rather describe them as one of the most intense trios I’ve ever heard; their only slight weakness is cellist Vashti Mimosa Hunter’s less than fulsome and slightly harsh tone, although in the context of the repertoire heard on this disc she’s certainly good enough. I have no idea how they would sound playing more central repertoire, nor do I much care. There are dozens of piano trios to play the old-timey stuff. We really do need groups like this to push the envelope and give 110% in everything they do as well as to program and perform more modern works. If this CD is representative of their work as a whole, I’ll certainly look forward to any of their releases in the future (not to mention any new releases by Konradi).

Gubaidulina’s Letter to the Poetess Rimma Dalos is a very strange piece for voice and cello. Written in 1985, it uses both conventional melodic lines for the singer and edgy microtonal music for the cellist, who near the end is required to both hold long, bending notes in the upper register while playing pizzicato simultaneously in the lower. The only really familiar piece on this disc is Rachmaninov’s famous Vocalise, normally sung with a full orchestra but here performed with piano trio, and Konradi does a very nice job with it (including the trills).

The Shostakovich pieces go well enough, the 7 Romances being surprisingly conservative for this composer as late as 1967, but they were written for Galina Vishnevskaya who detested  music that was too modern. (She was always harping on Rostropovich for playing so many modern cello concertos, telling him he was wasting his time and should be playing Romantic concerti more often.) Nonetheless, the composer sneaked in a few somewhat modern chord changes in behind the conventionally tonal vocal line here and there, as is the second song.

We end with Lera Auerbach’s Postscriptum, a tonal piece with Romantic leanings that is nonetheless hypnotic and interesting—a sort of modern-day version of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise. Written for mezzo-soprano, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that Konradi has a solid enough low range to encompass the music.

I should mention that the programming of this recorded concert is nearly perfect, with the music of different eras and composers complementing each other as it progresses. This is a pleasantly surprising album that grabs your attention from the outset and holds it until the final note. Kudos all around!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Altstaedt Plays Salonen & Ravel

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SALONEN: Cello Concerto.* RAVEL: Sonata for Violin & Cello # / Nicolas Altstaedt, cel; *Rotterdam Philharmonic Orch., cond. Dima Slobodeniouk; #Pekka Kuusisto, vln / Alpha 627 (Cello Concerto live: Rotterdam, December 2018)

This interesting CD couples a very modern work, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Cello Concerto which was written for Yo-Yo Ma and premiered by him in 2017, with the not-really-familiar violin and cello sonata of Ravel. Nicolas Altstaedt writes in the notes:

A CD is a chapter in one’s life.

It starts with an idea, a friendship, an inspiration. Sometimes it takes years to begin the work that will bring it to what you hope will be a more or less definite version of what you imagined. Once you are there, self-doubt starts to kick in. Am I ready for it? Will I play as truthfully as I can during the next three hours of my life? Should that be it or shall I try for another take? A last one..? Recordings have taken me until four o’clock in the morning. It’s one of the situations that never makes me tired, as the inspiration of music seems to give you an endless capacity to grow — and to grant the people around me endless patience to put up with me.

Thus this is an artist who takes his art and his commitment to it very seriously indeed. As for the Salonen concerto, so far as I can tell this is its first recording on CD. The version by Ma and Salonen with the Los Angeles Philharmonic was only released on LP, and no classical music lover I know collects or plays LPs nowadays, so as far as I’m concerned it might as well have been recorded on wax cylinders.

The music is typical of Salonen: harmonically ambiguous, melodically dark and eerie, and bristling with unusual and/or complex passages. Salonen indicates in his portion of the liner notes that he was not going to be tied into writing a conventional cello concerto, no matter how popular such works are, but that he realized that “virtuosity” also means the ability to express lyricism as well as technical fireworks. Thus, when the cello enters, it is playing a surprisingly tonal and melodic line in the midst of Salonen’s web of complex orchestral textures, and it stays in this mode for some time.

I can’t predict with any certainty whether or not a work like this will establish itself as a repertoire piece. I personally think it should; the music is emotionally moving as well as technically brilliant. I detect a great deal of “soul” in this music. Salonen clearly did not just write melodic lines for the sake of pleasing his star soloist but to express a more tender and less harsh side of his own nature, but I can just hear the average concertgoer complaining bitterly about its lack of “melodies” in the conventional sense, and the orchestra’s constant return to cooler, icier textures once the cellist takes a break is sure to rile them.

The big question, of course, is Does it work? And the big answer is, Yes, it does…but I still don’t hear, in my mind, cellists like Steven Isserlis playing it and finding as “deep meaning” in it as he does in the Dvořák Cello Concerto. The warm cello lines eventually give way, towards the end of the first movement, to rapid bowed passages that are as edgy as the orchestral accompaniment, and at this point the music clearly becomes fully integrated. As a composer, Salonen is not really an abstract artist; I’m not even sure that purely abstract music really appeals to him all that much; but he is very much an impressionist. To make a comparison, Salonen’s music is more closely related to Art Deco and Stravinsky than to the Bauhaus School and Webern. In the slow second movement, he eschews the usual sweeping lines and “lovely melodies” of Romantic cello concerti to produce music that is reminiscent of cold Nordic nights with the Aurora Borealis, but although the music is cool and a bit eerie it is not icy. Here the music leans towards abstraction without really reaching it; the notes emerge, from both soloist and individual players in the orchestra, in slow, small doses with space between them.  At the seven-minute mark, the cello soloist suddenly begins playing eerie, fast downward portamento passages, starting very high up in its range, almost the aural equivalent of falling stars. After while, the orchestra comes in with surprisingly lush, rich textures, providing just a touch of Romanticism to this otherwise non-Romantic musical environment. This movement, to my ears, is one of Salonen’s finest achievements as a composer.

It’s also helpful that, throughout the performance, Altstaedt plays with a rich, warm, Yo-Yo Ma-like tone, although in the strange opening a cappella section of the third movement he projects a more objective, almost clinical tone quality, which he carries into the rapid bowed figures that follow. Salonen accompanies much of this with what sounds like bongo drums, or some percussion quite similar to them, before low, rapid figures played by the brass and lower strings enter the picture to propel the music forward. This final movement, like the second, is incredibly diverse as well as complex; one never quite knows where the music is going, yet when you arrive at the next point in the journey it somehow seems right and logical. Some of the rhythms played by the solo cello are quite syncopated, in fact almost sounding jazz-tinged, and Altstaedt incorporates these tricky passages with ease and fluidity. In fact, this movement really heats up, musically and emotionally, in a way that one hears every once in a while (but not with regularity) in Salonen’s music, although the concerto ends with more of those rapid, downward portamenti played by the soloist.

As for the Violin-Cello Sonata, this is a strange work for Ravel in several respects. Written in 1920-22, it was dedicated to Claude Debussy, yet the music is clearly modeled on Debussy’s later, more modern and less “lovely” music. The two instruments play tonally ambiguous and somewhat cool, abstract figures against one another in the first movement, often in counterpoint. The second movement, much of it played pizzicato, was described by the composer as “clowning around” while in the fourth and last movement Ravel claimed he wanted a sound “like a mechanical rabbit.” Altstaedt relates that, in rehearsal for the initial premiere of this work, violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange (I wonder if she was a descendant of Alkan, whose real last name was Morhange?) was frustrated by Ravel’s “endless demands of going over things again and again in rehearsals,” so apparently he wanted some of these strange effects brought out.

This strange (for Ravel) emphasis on abstraction and mechanical sounds leads to what was, at least for me, a strange listening experience. Only in the slow third movement does the music somewhat resemble typical Ravel, and then not really, as the musical style of the performance moves away from the warmth one normally associates with this composer and towards a much more objective aesthetic. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t entirely convinced by violinist Kuusisto’s insistence on playing with consistent straight tone, but the light, airy style of the French violin school (which I described in some detail in my review of Pierre Rode’s music) leaned towards this sound anyway, so I guess it is stylistically appropriate.

This program, then, is not only stimulating but musically complementary. The Salonen Concerto, in its own strange way, sheds light on the Ravel Duo and vice-versa. Indeed, I found it interesting that, in a way, Altstaedt pulls back a bit on his luscious tone and commanding style in the Ravel piece in order to complement Kuusisto’s bright and tightly focused timbre. I think the cellist can indeed be quite proud of his disc; it represents his performance abilities remarkably well in works that are still considered cutting-edge.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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C.P.E. Bach’s “Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu”

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C.P.E. BACH: Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu / Tehila Nini Goldstein, sop; Christoph Strehl, ten; Johannes Weisser, bar; Solisti e Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzeria; I Barocchisti; Diego Fasolis, cond / available for free streaming on YouTube

Even though I have become very familiar with a great deal of C.P.E. Bach’s work, both from Berlin where he wrote good but fairly conventional music for Frederick the Great and from Hamburg, where he explored a much more radical style (particularly in his symphonies and concerti), I hadn’t run across this particular work before. This is partly due to the fact that there have only been three commercial recordings of it, and somehow I missed hearing each of them.

Yet this live performance, uploaded on YouTube, played by the Swiss historical orchestra I Barocchisti under Diego Fasolis and featuring soloists and a chorus of Swiss Radio and TV, is absolutely wonderful in every respect. I compared it to other live performances available on YouTube and the commercial recording made by Philippe Herreweghe, and I can attest that, on balance, it is the best of the lot.

For one thing, Fasolis, like Sigiswald Kuijken in a live performance uploaded on YouTube (not his commercial recording for Hyperion, which I haven’t heard), has the advantage of first-rate vocal soloists. Only soprano Tehila Nini Goldstein has a bit of a flutter in her voice, which although it does not spread I found a bit disconcerting. Tenor Christoph Strehl and baritone Johannes Weisser are far better in both vocal and interpretive quality to the other singers I listened to.

As for the work itself, Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu (The Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus) is considered a landmark of late 18th-century religious oratorios. Premiered in 1774 at a private performance directed by the composer, it was revised four years later and given a public performance at the Auf dem Kamp concert hall in Hamburg. After more revisions it was published by Breitkopf and Hartel, whereupon it received several performances in Vienna in 1788 sponsored by Baron von Swieten and conducted by Mozart. As with his concert performances of Handel’s Messiah, Mozart tinkered with the orchestration to suit his own lights, but these never were put in the score. Thus all modern performances and recordings use the composer’s original orchestration.

I found the music to be sort of a cross between Bach’s own modernistic style and that of his father, as in the case of his Magnificat in D. Apparently, C.P.E. held back a bit on innovation of form when writing religious works, but as in the case of the Magnificat there is a great deal to admire. One thing is the unusual introductions to both halves of the oratorio, played only by the strings and the lower strings at that. Another is the highly dramatic recitatives, several of which are composed almost like mini-arias and a couple of which are quite extended in length. Of course, Carl Bach could write music like this in his sleep, having learned the basics from his father, yet there are so many interesting little touches in the full score that it captivates your attention from first note to last.

For instance, after the soft opening chorus, Bach uses rolling kettledrums to underscore the first bass recitative, followed in turn by the aria and then a chorus that repeats itself twice in the second section of the oratorio (“Triumph! Triumph!”). The soprano aria begins slowly, but then has a fast section with some coloratura runs in it (but no trills). The tenor aria “Ich folge dir” is extremely difficult to sing, jumping from the mid-range to the upper notes over the break in the voice at breakneck speed, but Christoph Strehl manages it very well. The ensuing chorus, “Tod! wo ist dein Strachel” is also quite tricky, with a great deal of counterpoint for the different sections to negotiate. In Part 2, the bass aria “Wilkommen, Heiland!” contains one of the jolliest bassoon accompaniments I’ve ever heard in my life; the soloist sounds as if he’s having a ball playing it, too. The final chorus, which goes through some amazing changes, ends with a jolly little fugue in 6/8.

If you enjoy the religious angle of the music, you’ll thoroughly enjoy this piece, but even if you don’t, the music itself is interesting and uplifting. Check it out!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Billy Lester Plays From Scratch

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PORTER: You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To. STRACHEY-MARVELL: These Foolish Things (2 tks). PARKER: Scrapple From the Apple. HEUSEN-DeLANGE: Darn That Dream. BERLIN: How Deep is the Ocean? HANLEY-MacDONALD: (Back Home Again in) Indiana. GREEN-HEYMAN-SOUR: Body and Soul. Out of Nowhere. KERN-HARBACH: Yesterdays. BARRIS-CLIFFORD: I Surrender, Dear. DePAUL-JOHNSTON-RAYE: I’ll Remember April. KLENNER-LEWIS: Just Friends. GORDON-WARREN: There Will Never Be Another You / Billy Lester, pno; Rufus Reid, bs; Matt Wilson, dm / digital release only, available on all major streaming services: YouTube, Spotify, GoBuz

This is an album that was originally issued only as an LP back in 2019 that is now being made available in digital format. I know that, for whatever reason (and it has never been satisfactorily explained to me by anyone), vinyl jazz LPs are the “in” thing and have been for several years now. Two years ago, I was bitterly disappointed when one of Chet Baker’s last albums came out, only as a vinyl LP. Sorry, but I got rid of my turntable 20 years ago. Absolutely no advantage to vinyl LPs and, in fact, several disadvantages that make them much less satisfactory than CDs.

But to get to the artist and his music. In an article on NPR’s website , Billy Lester is described as an elusive enigma. Now in his 70s, Lester spent decades on the outskirts of New York City, playing for his own enjoyment and that of friends and relatives. “I just figured I’d go to my grave without any kind of recognition,” he said in the NPR article, “and I was at the point in my life where I totally accepted that.” All of that changed when this recording was made, the result of a chance encounter that led to the recording session. As a result of this album, Lester and his trio then played to a full house at a New York club called the Jazz Standard.

Although this may have been the album that made his name, if you check Spotify and especially YouTube, you’ll find Billy Lester all over the place on albums made over the past 20 years, and even two from as far back as 1995. They are:

Meeting for Two with Italian vibes player Sergio Armaroli. recorded in 2019.

To Play Standard(s) Amnesia with Armarolli and his quartet (Claudio Guida, alto sax; Marcelo Testa, bass; Nicola Stranieri, drums) recorded 2017.

Storytime, a solo piano album from 2011.

Four Into Four by the Billy Lester Quartet w/Simon Wettenhall, trumpet; Sean Smith, bass; Russ Meissner, drumsfrom 2002.

At Liberty with Sean Smith, bass & Skip Scott, drums, recorded 1995, and

Captivatin’ Rhythm, just piano & drums, also recorded in 1995.

Lester’s style borrows some stylistic ideas from a number of well-known bop and modern pianists, including Monk (the quirky note spacing), Tristano (the continually moving single-note lines), Al Haig and McCoy Tyner without really sounding like any of them when you add it all up. Despite the fact that this program consists almost exclusively of old pop music standards from the 1930s and ‘40s, the one outlier being Charlie Parker’s Scrapple From the Apple, one could never say that he plays in a really old-fashioned style. Conservative compared to more adventurous keyboard players, yes, but his quirky use of neighboring notes from other keys in the midst of his solos constantly keeps the listener on his or her toes. At times Lester plays two-handed single-note solos in opposing rhythms, sometimes filling spaces in between the beats with his left hand while the right marches merrily along. There’s really no one like him, and that in itself makes this album an interesting and unique listening experience.

Lester tosses a few chords into his ultra-slow rendition of These Foolish Things, a performance that doesn’t even touch the melody at all in the first chorus. Unless you know in advance that this is what he’s playing, you’d not be able to guess it. Lester is fortunate to have a bassist like Rufus Reid, who has always had “big ears,” to follow him wherever he goes yet not get in his way, and drummer Matt Wilson, thank God, is not one of those percussionists who insist on making their presence felt by dropping “bombs” or otherwise disrupting the rhythm that Lester has firmly in hand(s).

The trio: Matt Wilson, Lester and the great Rufus Reid

By and large, Lester restricts his improvisations to the middle of the keyboard. No arpeggios or dazzling runs to add flash to his substance. Every bar is meaningful because every bar is filled with something different from the ones preceding and the ones following. Reid takes an excellent solo of his own on Scrapple From the Apple, creative yet understated, which contributes to the music’s development.

Lester is particularly interesting in Darn That Dream, a pop hit for Benny Goodman (and singer Mildred Bailey) in 1939 that has always fascinated jazz musicians because of its rising chromatic harmonies. This is played a cappella by Lester; he doesn’t need any help exploring this one, and again he conspicuously avoids the melody until the two-minute mark when it suddenly makes a guest appearance for a few bars, then embellished with a moving bass line in double time.

By taking his time in his improvisations, Lester not only makes it easier for the listener to follow his musical train of thought but also, somehow, enriches the music as a result. Not being in any particular hurry to get through a piece helps him open up the music like petals on a flower. Several times during the course of this set, I almost got the impression that Lester was essentially playing for himself, with Reid and Wilson simply along for the ride because they enjoyed what he was doing.

This approach leads him to find something new even in as old a tune as Indiana, a piece done to death by trad jazz musicians from the time of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band to the present. There’s nothing Dixielandish in his interpretation, however, but more Tristano and Monk touches that completely change the impact on the listener. Reid sticks to accompanying here, but Wilson takes a simple yet very tasteful drum solo. Whereas These Foolish Things was taken much slower than normal, his version of Body and Soul (again ignoring the melody) is taken at a nice medium tempo, similar to Coleman Hawkins’ famed version, while Yesterdays becomes a medium-uptempo romp, again focusing on the underlying harmonic structure and not the theme.

The digital release is better than the LP in that it includes no less than five previously unreleased tracks, the alternate take of These Foolish Things and the last four songs (Just Friends through There Will Never Be Another You). I’ll Remember April is a piano solo with no bass or drums accompaniment, and to my amazement Lester is even freer and more inventive here with no safety net to help him out, but Just Friends is also somewhat out-there, yet it wasn’t included on the original LP release. A wonderful album which you can now stream FOR FREE and enjoy!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Ivo Perelman’s (D)IVO

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IMPROVISATIONS: Parts One through Seven / Ivo Perelman, t-sax; Tony Malaby, s-sax; Tim Berne, a-sax; James Carter, bar-sax / Mahakala Music MAHA-028

This latest outing from avant-garde tenor saxist Ivo Perelman finds him in the company of three compatriots, all of whom have had extensive experience playing free jazz. Baritone saxist James Carter, in fact, was a member of the World Saxophone Quartet.

As usual, the music is challenging, and considering Carter’s background I was not surprised to hear him “clucking” behind Perelman’s opening statement and into the piece. This was a device used by the WSQ to provide a rhythmic base for their music, a substitute for the usual bass and/or drums. Tony Malaby, normally a tenor saxist, is heard here on soprano, which he plays in a surprisingly robust manner, making it sound more like a saxophone than like a cousin to the clarinet.

Each musician’s separate “line” is relatively clear in construction despite the occasional cacophony, and what surprised me most was the way they all dovetailed their sounds one into the other as the first piece went on. This led to some moments of harmonic resolution, unusual in a group of this sort, though of course the primary feeling is one of extreme musical atonalism.

At any given point in this music, there always seems to be one saxophonist (they take turns) playing what one would call rhythmic counterpoint and one other playing counter-figures to the lead voice. In a sense, this is like listening to a “chase” chorus where everyone is “chasing” at roughly the same time. It is analogous to some modern classical music in this respect, although no listener, hearing four saxophones playing mad figures in and around one another, would ever confuse this for classical music.

Most interesting of all, it is Perelman’s tenor that most often grounds the quartet in a more tonal and structured line. Perelman’s playing has, slowly but surely, moved towards linear structure over the years, a fact he attributes to his long association with pianist Matthew Shipp. Even in the most complicated and free-wheeling passages with Shipp, the pianist always seems to be gently but surely leading Perelman towards some sort of tonal center. Here, he doesn’t have Shipp’s actual presence, but he clearly has him in his mind, thus it is he who, at times, is able to coax the other three towards coherent musical structure.

Perelman’s playing has also slowly become more and more rhythmic in the “normal” sense of the term, another facet which is attributable to Shipp’s influence. All of this is for the better; one can re-listen to each track on this album and find things in his playing, and the playing of the others, that feed into a somewhat structured framework. Much of Part Two is more lyrical than Part One, including many sustained notes for all four saxists, and this is attributable in large part to Ivo’s influence. With that being said, about 2:35 into Part Two it sounds like a short in the electrical system as all hands take a leap off the musical cliff together. After several minutes, however, the quartet gravitates towards one another rather than trying to fly without a parachute.

Things relax again at the start of Part Three, and some of the figures they play are surprisingly lyrical. Although there is some upper extension playing, particularly by Malaby, this is a fairly lyrical piece throughout its duration. Part Four opens with Malaby playing some snaky sounds, around which Perelman wends his way, beginning lyrically but eventually giving in to the mood while Berne and Carter are in there pitching. There’s a very interesting passage in which all four saxists are playing high-range notes in or around the same pitch, but separated from each other by a hair’s-breadth of rhythm. At around the 8:12 mark, if you listen carefully, you can hear the alto sax playing something very much like the opening rhythmic motif of the William Tell Overture, but this is another piece that deconstructs in fast-moving, high-lying partials of sound frequency—although Carter plays an actual melodic line near the end, to which Perelman contributes his own counter-figure.

Part Five seemed to be the most rhythmically complex of the series, with fractured rhythms flaying around the quartet as each musician threw in his own “take” on it, but at the same time it was the most musically disconnected because nothing in the music went anywhere except for a few short figures played by Perelman. Yet if this was the most rhythmically complex, Part Six was the most tonally complex, as all four players became engaged in microtonal lines and interweaving them with each other’s. This one I found endlessly fascinating.

The last improvisation opens with some collective reed-clucking; much of this sounded chaotic to me; it struck me as a musical form of pointillism, just throwing notes up against the wall to see what might stick, although after a while the four saxes did coalesce into some semblance of a pattern. Towards the end, however, things loosened up quite a bit and the quartet became more involved in creating real music.

An interesting excursion, then, clearly for lovers of avant-garde jazz only, but well worth investigating.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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The Borodin Quartet’s Latest Shostakovich Set

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SHOSTAKOVICH: String Quartets Nos. 1-15. Unfinished Quartet Movement. 2 Pieces for String Quartet. Piano Quintet.* Music from the film, “Podrugi” + / Borodin String Quartet; *Alexei Volodin, pno; +Alexei Lubomov, pno & Sergei Nakariakov, tpt / Decca 2894341672 or available for free streaming on YouTube beginning HERE

Although this set, which interested me greatly, was released in 2018, I had no access to reviewing it until now because, as usual, Decca doesn’t like to share music download links (let alone hard copies) for any reviewers who don’t write for the Big Five (Gramophone, BBC Music, MusicWeb International, Fanfare and American Record Guide), thus I had to wait until the whole thing became available for free streaming online. But I’m happy that I persisted, because this is clearly the best set of these works yet recorded.

I say that despite the fact that various configurations of the Borodin Quartet, long considered the authority in these works, have recorded them three times, although the first set from the 1960s only included nine quartets because the last six hadn’t been written yet. I’ve lived with their second set from the early 1980s for some time now, and was satisfied by it, but this one really is better, not only in terms of sonics (the 1980s set, made in the earlier years of the digital age, were somewhat constricted in sound quality) but also in terms of overall playing. As for interpretive detail and phrasing, they follow in the footsteps of their predecessors; after all, each of these four musicians were recruited into the quartet as replacements for players who could pass along the tradition of playing Shostakovich the way Shostakovich preferred it performed.

All three sets were rather close-miked, which is often my preference for chamber music recordings. I don’t like to hear string quartets or any other chamber ensemble swimming in too much echo or reverb. The sound here has just enough natural room acoustic around the instruments to make them sound not only natural but as if they were playing in the room next to you, and that in itself would make this a recommended set even if the playing was not quite as superb as it actually is.

It’s interesting to hear Shostakovich’s evolution as a quartet writer. In the first couple of quartets, he preferred to write for the group in the standard manner, as four musicians playing together part of the time, in pairs part of the time, and playing individually against one another in polyphonic passages, but as time went on he gravitated towards using the quartet as a miniature orchestra. By that I mean that he often used the cello as a “ground bass” or to play long, droning notes while the two violins and viola played against each other like sections in an orchestra. I think this probably had to do with the fact that he had written his first symphony fairly early in life and, by the time he reached the fourth or fifth quartet, was already thinking in terms of orchestral sound even within a chamber group.  The other thing that strikes you is that, although his music for string quartet was not as hysterical or ranting as several of the symphonies, he did push the envelope in terms of wringing unusual voicings and expressions out of them. By the time he wrote the last six, he was on very friendly terms with Mieczysław Weinberg, and that composer’s highly original and idiosyncratic style rubbed off a little on him, too. Thus we can hear the complete series as a sort of musical autobiography of how his mind worked at various stages of his career.

According to those who knew him, Shostakovich always was a nervous man, tense and edgy even when things were going well, which of course was not all the time. By the late 1930s, in fact, he had taken to sleeping in the hallway outside his apartment so that, if the KGB came to arrest him in the middle of the night, he wouldn’t disturb his wife and infant son. This nervousness also led him to prefer fast tempi in performances of his works. Several of the movements on this set are somewhat slower in time than the ones made in the 1980s, but if you just listen to these recordings you won’t feel that they are slower. I was able to make A-B comparisons of several such movements, and as a listener I felt no sense of dragging in the least.

The secret of this is that the Borodin Quartet plays with the utmost instrumental and musical precision. When you make a concerted effort to play a quarter note exactly as a quarter and an eighth note exactly as an eighth, the music has a tendency to “spring” ahead on its own.

The much clearer sonics also let you hear and appreciate how Shostakovich moved the inner voices around in these works. As I said, the second quartet is written much like the first in terms of how he handles the instruments, but in terms of harmony and even dissonance, we’re in a different world from the first. The latter-day Borodin Quartet projects the nervous tension of this music superbly and, as I say, the more modern sound lets you hear every single bit of it. The engineer on this set, Maria Soboleva, should be very proud of herself for capturing every little nuance at exactly the right volume level and balance. She had as much to do with the artistic success of these performances as the musicians themselves.

Despite the far more aggressive harmonies, the structure of the second quartet is not substantially different from the first; it’s the themes themselves and the way he developed them that changed. Still, one can already hear in the second movement, marked “Recitative and Romance: Adagio,” how Shostakovich was already starting to use the cello as a ground bass/drone instrument. This was the first major shift in his treatment of the four voices of the quartet. His peasant sense of humor, which led many critics to misunderstand the “crudities” in his music as natural expressions of who he was and not as “crassness,” comes through in the third-movement “Valse,” which sounds like the lumbering dance of two elephants and not graceful swans (or swains). The second quartet is also the first to end with an “Adagio,” which Shostakovich did frequently in later years, but as a “Theme and Variations” it includes some very fast music indeed.

In the first movement of the third quartet, Shostakovich uses rhythms and harmonies that sound in places remarkably like his older colleague Prokofiev, which I found quite interesting. From the standpoint of form, however, it is somewhat like Mozart; one might think of this as his “classical quartet,” though it was written after World War II. The fourth quartet, rather conservative for Shostakovich, was written in response to the attacks of “formalism” on his work by the powers-that-be, but despite this the music is deeply felt with a sad, doleful character, though the “Allegretto” movement is one of his typically wry, humorous pieces.

Interestingly the fifth quartet premiered before the fourth. Here Shostakovich is more imaginative, using small musical cells which are bound together to form a continuous narrative. The liner notes indicate that it was inspired in part by his current muse, the great Russian composer Galina Ustolvskaya, though their styles were radically different in approach. The second movement, surprisingly relaxed and resolutely tonal, vacillates between Andante and Andantino, back and forth throughout its nine-minute length. By contrast, the fast middle section of the last movement practically explodes with emotion à la Ulstolvskaya before suddenly and surprisingly moving into gentle, whimsical music. Written after Stalin’s death and his second marriage, Shostakovich was in a very happy frame of mind when he wrote his sixth quartet, and it shows.

According to the liner notes, it was when Shostakovich wrote his seventh quartet that he possibly got the idea to write 24 of them, each in a different key—going down a third for each successive quartet. This worked for the first sic, but then he started a new tonal cycle, but as we know he only made it to No. 15. The seventh quartet is also rather positive and lighthearted for him; even the slightly edgy last movement is emotionally strong but not negative-feeling. The first movement of the eighth, in C minor, is moody but, again, not terribly angst-ridden, but in the second movement “Allegro molto” he explodes with pent-up anger, reflecting on his being forced to join the hated Communist Party.

The 10th Quartet, written c. 1965, is one of his strangest and most enigmatic, using edgy figures played by the strings to create an eerie effect in the first movement, and a particularly vehement second movement which the Borodin Quartet really digs into.

I could make similar comments about all of the quartets in this series, but since they are familiar to so many of my readers I’ll stop here. Suffice it to say that this set is both an artistic and a technological marvel that no other quartet playing these works could possibly better. I was not impressed by the music from the film “Podrugi,” but I did like the early two movements for string quartet, written around 1931, and of course the Piano Quintet is a gem. Alexei Volodin is a powerful and emotionally charged partner for the Borodin Quartet, which makes for a gripping performance. Unlike the last quartet, which is dark from start to finish, indicating, according to the notes, “the theme of death,” the first movement is more energetic and resolute rather than dour. In the second movement, however, Shostakovich takes a darker turn, although the “Scherzo” is a fairly lively if flat-footed romp.

A tremendous set by any standard, this is now the preferred collection of these works.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Discovering Pierre Rode…Sort Of

570034bk Hasse

RODE: 24 Caprices for Solo Violin / Axel Strauss, vln / Naxos 8.570958

RODE: Violin Concertos Nos. 1, 5 & 91 / Naxos 8. 572755 / Violin Concertos Nos. 2 & 8.1 Variations on Paisiello’s “Nel cor più non mi sento.” Introduction & Variations on a Tyrolean Air / Naxos 8.573054 / Violin Concertos Nos. 3, 4 & 61 / Naxos 8.570767 / Violin Concertos Nos. 7, 10 & 132 / Naxos 8.570469 / Violin Concertos Nos. 11 & 12.1 Air varié in E. Air varié in D / Naxos 8.573474 / Friedemann Eichhorn, vln; 1Jena Philharmonic Orch., 2SW German Radio Orch. Kaiserlautern; Nicolás Pasquet, cond

RODE: 12 Études. 6 Duos* / Nicolas Koeckert *& Rudolf Koeckert, vln / Naxos 8.572604

This is the strange and somewhat contradictory story of a once-famous violinist and composer of works for the violin who fell out of favor long before his death, yet premiered Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 10 and left behind some of the most interesting violin concerti of the Romantic era I’ve ever heard. And the only reason I found out about it was because violinist Friedemann Eichhorn put up a Facebook post promoting the set a few days ago.

To add to the contradictions in this story is the fact that, according to his violin teacher, the reviews of critics and the first-hand account of Ludwig Spohr, Rode’s own playing sounded nothing like what we hear on these recordings…yet what we hear is probably ten times better than the way Rode actually played. This, in turn, gives lie—and a pretty big lie—to the entire “historically-informed performance” crowd, who I’ve been telling my readers for years are full of it because they know NOTHING about how violinists of the 18th and 19th centuries actually played. As the old vaudeville comedian Jack Pearl, who played “Baron Munchhausen” on the radio for years, used to say when someone questioned him about some fantastic yarn he had just told, “Vas you dere, Sharlie?”

Here are the actual facts about Rode’s playing style as reported on Wikipedia…some taken from other first-hand reports by one Pierre-Jean Garat and at least one from a monograph by Bruce R. Schueneman (who also wrote the liner notes for the concerto CDs), The Search for a Minor Composer (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Rode). Capitalizations and bold print were added by me to emphasize salient points:

Rode…soon became a favourite pupil of the great Giovanni Battista Viotti, who found the boy so talented that he charged him no fee for the lessons. Rode inherited his teacher’s style, to which he added more mildness and a more refined tone. It is also recorded that he made extensive use of PORTAMENTO.

Now, how long have I been ranting, apparently spitting into the wind, about how 18th and 19th century string players used a TON of portamento, but that the HIP folks, choosing what they want and don’t want to use, have chucked it out because it doesn’t fit their narrative? And how long have I been ranting that they did NOT use constant straight tone, but only in fast passages? It seems like forever. But wait…there’s more!

Rode served as violin soloist to Napoleon and toured extensively in the Netherlands, Germany, England and Spain, staying with François-Adrien Boieldieu in Saint Petersburg from 1804 until 1809, and later spending much time in Moscow.

When he returned to Paris, he found that the public no longer responded with much enthusiasm to his playing. Spohr, who heard him both before and after his Russian sojourn, wrote that Rode’s playing had become “COLD AND FULL OF MANNERISMS.”

Yet if you put on any CD in this series, not just the five made by the mind-boggling German violinist Friedrich Eichhorn but the other two recordings made by Axel Strauss and Nicolas Koeckert, you’ll hear playing that sounds much closer to what we think of Paganini, particularly the Eichhorn performances which sound like Heifetz on steroids (to the conducting of Nicolás Pasquet which is equally fiery). Moreover, the music is endlessly fascinating, not only full of brio and color but also some interesting harmonic shifts and Beethoven-like juxtaposition of themes. So will the real Pierre Rode place stand up?!?

If you doubt what I’ve just said above about violin style in general, please take into consideration the actual recorded evidence of French or Belgian violin playing during the 20th century. Think of Eugène Ysaÿe (his actual playing on records, not his solo violin sonatas), Jacques Thibaud, Henry Merckel, Daniel Guilet etc…the only really fiery French violinist of the 20th century was Ginette Neveu. Everyone else played with a lean tone, refined phrasing and, in the cases of the earlier Ysaÿe and Thibaud, with a fair amount of portamento. The French violin school, it seems, has always been on the “refined” side. Without Pablo Casals’ cello and Alfred Cortot’s miraculously rich, colorful piano, those old trio recordings with Thibaud would clearly not have sounded as good as they did. (I might also add a non-soloist who most people have never heard of, Lucien Capet, the founding member and leader of the once-renowned Capet String Quartet. He was an anomaly in his time for playing more frequently with straight tone than his contemporaries, and like Neveu he played with a fair amount of energy, but it was still a lean tone and not given to sounding like Jascha Heifetz.)

But to return to an actual review of the music herein and its impact via the specific interpreters used for the recordings, the cumulative effect is almost overwhelming. According to that same Wikipedia article on Rode, his 24 Caprices are his only compositions which are standard fare for middle-to-advanced violin students. I found them just a shade less interesting than Paganini’s but still quite interesting overall, with No. 13 being clearly the most Romantic-sounding of all and the one that you can really imagine being played in a mild, refined style—and, yes, with portamento—although Alex Strauss merely plays it with a lovely legato, no portamento, and muscling up the fast middle section. And oh, yes, he uses vibrato on sustained notes…and it sounds really good! Like Eichhorn, who we shall get to in a minute, Strauss makes these Caprices sound colorful and dramatic, which clearly places them on a par with the more famous Paganini works. Caprice No. 20 is really a strange piece, changing both key and tempo several times. I can’t even imagine this one being played in the “mild, more refined” style, with excess portamento, that Rode apparently used so frequently. Thus we clearly have a dichotomy between what is in the printed score and what was reported—frequently, and by several auditors—about Rode’s own playing style. Interestingly, although Eichhorn is not the violinist on this CD, it is his edition of the Caprices that was recently published by G. Henle Vertag, edited for the fingering by Norbert Gertsh.

Before getting into the Concerti, I listened to the Variations and “Airs” played by Eichhorn. The variations on an aria by Paisiello was, for me, completely uninteresting music, tuneful and drippy with little or no real invention or individuality other than a few of Rode’s variants, which here were nothing to write home about. The Variations on a Tyrolean Air starts out rather drippy, and there are some sweetsy-cutesy moments in it, but several of Rode’s variants have a bit more backbone, particularly the way Eichhorn plays them, and one or two are highly virtuosic. The Air varié in E is rather conventional in structure although the solo violin writing is virtuosic, much like Wieniawski’s bullshit compositions, but the one in D major is rather more dramatic and interesting.

I then decided to listen to all of the concerti in numerical order which, as you can see from the header to this review, is not the way they were issued on CD. Boris Schwarz makes a big fuss over the first, claiming it is more original and startling than the other 12. It is clearly a fine work, like many of the later concerti bold and dramatic with unusual twists in the themes and his use of both harmony and rhythm. Thank God that neither Eichhorn nor the Jena Philharmonic dilute its punch by playing it with that anemic-sounding straight tone; it would have robbed the music of much of its impact. With that being said, I honestly didn’t think that the violin line in the first movement was all that varied or interesting compared to some of the later concerti, virtuosic though it is. (I’m talking now about musical interest, not mere flash.) The slow movement is quite lovely without being treacly; it almost sounds like something Beethoven might have written circa 1804 except for the fact that it was written in 1794, when Beethoven’s music was still under the spell of Haydn and Mozart. The last movement, set in the minor, has an unusual rhythmic feel that resembles Russian music…except that this was written about a decade before Rode went to Russia.

The second concerto, in E major, may indeed sound like a bit of a let-down after the powerful Russian-sounding finale of the first, but once the first movement gets rolling it has its own energy and Rode’s use of harmony is clearly in advance of the Mozartian model, with its sudden juxtaposition of powerful chords alternating between major and minor in the style of Mendelssohn—who wasn’t even born yet. Interestingly, it was dedicated to Rudolph Kreutzer, the guy who never actually played the Beethoven sonata named after him. Yes, there’s a bit more flash and somewhat less substance in the violin part of the first movement than in the Concerto No. 1, but this is still far in advance of anything else being written for the violin in 1798.

And that brings us to another thing. We all know what Beethoven sounded like in the late 1780s through about 1797, a cross between Haydn and Mozart with a little sprinkling of C.P.E. Bach on top for flavoring. Rode’s music really didn’t sound like anyone else’s of his time. Oh, you can say that this phrase or that one puts you in mind of someone else, but it’s generally a later composer, not a contemporary. I only wish that Beethoven’s one and only violin concerto was half as original and inventive as most of Rode’s. The third concerto, in G minor, is so good that you would (again) think that perhaps Mendelssohn had written it, at least the way it’s conducted and played here, with tons of energy and brio. The rhythmic pulse in the first movement is so strong, in fact, that it practically leaps out at you and pins you to the wall, and here the writing for the violin soloist is not merely flashy but dramatically impressive. In the last movement, it is both, with some mind-boggling double-time figures which Eichhorn knocks off as if he played them in his sleep.

The fourth concerto opens in a more relaxed, pastoral vein—Rode’s “Beethoven Sixth Symphony” following the sturm und drang of the Fifth—but it is no less creative in its own way, and still more exciting than the Beethoven violin concerto. The last movement in particular is a little gem all by itself, telling its own story in its own way, incorporating virtuosic flash and wrapping it in substance. The fifth opens, deceptively, with a nice pastoral theme, but within a few bars it’s off and running even before the solo violin enters—and again, with sudden, unexpected dips into the minor, creating its own drama.

If the Sixth Concerto doesn’t sound like Beethoven to you, nothing will. The orchestra jumps out with tremendous verve, the harmonies constantly leaning in and out of neighboring keys; the breathless string tremolos and excitable trumpets drive the catchy yet somewhat elusive theme almost like the first movement of the “Eroica” symphony—until the violinist’s entrance, virtuosic yet substantive as usual for Rode—except that it was written in 1799-1800, three to four years before the “Eroica.” Methinks that Herr Beethoven picked up a few ideas from Rode’s violin concerti. In a way, I understand why Rode’s concerti aren’t played in public; only the best of the best violinists have this kind of technique and, more importantly, the kind of fire and drive that Eichhorn possesses. If a British violinist, in particular, were the attempt this music, it surely would not sound like this unless the orchestra was conducted by someone like Robin Ticciati. The Brits do love their goopy, la-de-da Romanticisms. And, with the possible exception of James Ehnes, where is the British violinist who can or, more to the point, would play with this kind of fire? Eichhorn wrote all the cadenzas to all of the first movements in these concerti; they are good and apt cadenzas, but the irony is that at the time these works were written, not to mention a century before and nearly a century after, ALL soloists in concerti were expected to play their own cadenzas. Yet another art of the virtuoso soloist that has atrophied in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Perhaps the one feature I find most interesting about these various concerti is that all of the final movements are wonderfully lively, yet each one of them is in a different rhythm. The one for the sixth concerto is an energetic 4/4 that sounds a little like a folk song of indeterminate nationality; it’s not quite Italian, yet if I had to choose I’d probably say Italian because it doesn’t sound German, French, Russian or British. Maybe a bit Alpine or Tyrolean, but that’s about it. And once again, Rode moves occasionally from the major to the minor and back again. The seventh concerto, in A minor, again indulges in a bit of sturm und drang in both its initial theme and the orchestration. Yet once the solo violin enters, we switch to the major and stay there for quite a bit of time until the orchestra returns, now vacillating between major and minor. The second movement, primarily in the major, suddenly and unexpectedly moves to the minor in a later passage, and here the violin unexpectedly dips into its lower register rather than the usual high-flying writing that Rode did for his instrument most of the time. The final “Rondo” is yet another jaunty tune, this time with the feeling of a syncopated jig.

Concerto No. 8 is also in the minor (E minor), but here the music sounds, again, more like Mendelssohn, who still hadn’t been born. The violin part in the first movement, though clearly virtuosic in character, isn’t quite as busy as some of the other concerti, which would probably help it gain some popularity among those listeners with “slow ears.” The third movement is played without a real break, something different for Rode, and goes back to the minor with some interesting fast scale passages for the orchestra amidst the virtuosic fiddling. A sudden orchestral “gust” at the 3:25 mark almost sounds like a winter wind blowing in across the concerto.

The ninth concerto is in C major, and the opening orchestral passage sounds a bit like very advanced Mozart.  Despite the consistency of his virtuosic solo passages, Rode obviously had more than one “voice” as a composer. The last movement is particularly light and airy, with a bit more “space” in the violin part than usual for Rode.

I think that one of the things that most impressed me about Rode, considering the time in which he wrote these concerti, was his grasp of orchestration. Yes, some of it is more ornate than Beethoven, such as the string figures in the first movement of the Concerto No. 10, and that kind of harks back to an earlier style, but his orchestral writing is surprisingly rich and quite exceptional for someone who was primarily focused on his own instrument. The Chopin Piano Concerti have, in my opinion, absolutely terrible orchestral scores, bare and functional but not much else, and the scores that Liszt wrote for his concerti are only a little better, but Rode’s scores could almost stand on their own as symphonic works, and that’s extremely unusual. Although once his own very ornate solo work comes in the orchestra recedes to being a backdrop, they continue to develop their own themes when they return, thus making each concerto a little gem. In this concerto, too, the third movement is somewhat linked to the end of the second, as in Beethoven’s and Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerti which, again, were written at a future date.

The 11th Concerto opens with an entirely different feel from the others, almost Italianate, and within a few bars switches from D major to D minor, then (typically of Rode) keeps switching back and forth between the major and minor, sometimes so quickly and in such remote keys in the blink of an eye that the ear almost can’t catch them quickly enough. But as usual, the solo violin part is virtuosic and flashy but still meaty. Yes, there are several times when I wish that Rode had cut back a little on the fireworks in order to make the violin part as serious as the orchestral setting, but he seemed to be (at least, at that time) someone who loved to operate at double tempo. Eichhorn’s first movement cadenza for this concerto is particularly dazzling but also musically interesting. The Rondo finale is set to a bouncy rhythm in 4 which seems to vacillate between an Italian and a Russian feeling. Except for the “Rondo mèle d’airs russe” that wraps up the 12th concerto, it is less interesting than many of its predecessors.

The Concerto No. 13 also sounds rather conventional, but these last two were written later in life for Rode when his own playing had become milder and “full of mannerisms.” I think he just ran out of inspiration. By now, the mercurial key changes sounded more pre-planned and les spontaneous, and his themes, though still dipping in and out of the major and minor, were less interesting. But the solo part in the first movement of this last concerto holds back a bit on the flash, not entirely but enough to be noticeable, and even the solo writing is less interesting. What was once a “gusher” of innovative and interesting musical ideas is now a “pumper”; he was forcing the issue, trying to recapture the thrills of his earlier works and, in my view, not really succeeding. But I can tell you which concerti will be played on your local classical FM station…the last two. And listeners won’t have the faintest idea of how great his music was earlier on.

We have no real idea when Rode wrote the 12 Études. His widow showed them to some violinist and music editor named Launer after his death, and they were published along with the 13th Concerto and three sets of variations. I found most of them flashy but somewhat lacking in substance, though they are clearly excellent exercises for violin students, thus they filled the bill in that respect as Czerny did for pianists. Still, they’re somewhat uneven in terms of musical substance although Nicholas Koeckert plays them with as much virtuosity and fire as Strauss played the Caprices and Eichhorn the concerti. Among the better ones are Étude No. 4, which is very interesting, again, for his penchant of moving around the tonality; No. 5 has some very interesting rhythmic twists in it; No. 9 is quite playful., and No. 11 has some dramatic pauses in it that catch the listener’s attention. The Duos are also playful and entertaining, but not even as substantive as the Études.

But make no mistake: in terms of Rode’s musical conceptions in the Caprices and especially in the first 11 concerti, musical history needs to be rewritten. He had great musical imagination and used it well, despite the fact that the flashy solo parts of his first movements tend to run together in one’s mind.

I should point out that listening to all these concerti, one after another, can create a sort of musical whiplash in the listener, so unrelentingly virtuosic is the violin line, but of course Rode never expected anyone, himself included, would be foolhardy enough to listen to them all in order..but thus is the life of the music critic. Granted, a couple of these concerti sound not necessarily just like others in the series but clearly close enough that they may indeed be expendable, but listening to just one or two at a time is wonderfully exhilarating—and your attention never flags because Rode always seems to come up with something interesting to capture your attention. My personal feeling is that about half the concerti are fascinating and indispensable works that point forward to musical works and trends to come, the flashy solo parts aside, and the Caprices and Etudes are also very fine works, but like me, you might want to hear the whole shebang and decide for yourself.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Brodie West’s Meadow of Dreams

09 - AE003 Front Cover

WEST: Entrainment. Fortress. Inhabit I. Grotto. Inhabit II. Inhabit III. Haunt. Meadow of Dreams / Brodie West, a-sax; Tania Gill, pno; Josh Cole, bs; Evan Cartwright, vib/gtr/dm; Nick Fraser, dm / Ansible Editions AE003

A relatively new group on a new label: the Brodie West Quintet recording for Ansible Editions. West, like his cohorts, is a Canadian jazz musician, but he might as well be living in Sweden, Iceland or Mars for all the American jazz press cares. No matter how good you are, if you’re a furriner, you ain’t really a jazz musician according to Jazz Times, Down Beat or All About Jazz.

Their music is highly unusual in that, for the most part, it has a steady rhythm, yet there’s nothing steady, regular or expected about the form of these pieces or the highly iconoclastic solos. West is obviously a musician who admires the older avant-garde of the 1960s while trying to forge his own path as a soloist, and he is more than ably aided here by the outstanding Tania Gill, who I just recently discovered and who is one of the most creative pianists playing today. There’s even a touch of Lennie Tristano’s music in both parts of these compositions (listen to the latter part of Entrainment) and her own playing, which is all to the good.

Each piece, and each performance, somehow combines harmonic edginess with a calm, placid mood. Occasionally one feels that this “meadow of dreams” has a few nightmarish elements in it, but that’s how dreams are. They’re not all ice cream cones and happy times. Yet in a piece like Fortress, where motifs are repeated without becoming minimalism, the music keeps you in one spot while subtle shifts are going on just under the surface. On Inhabit I, we seem to leave the world of dreams for a spell to inhabit the world of Middle Eastern belly dance music, with West playing his alto sax in such a manner than it almost sounds like a shawm. This track is dominated by West and his two drummers, Cartwright and Fraser, happily banging away in the background.

On Grotto, by contrast, West plays so softly that his tone at times resembles some of the classic alto sax players of the past, though the music itself is a thoroughly modern ballad with slow, subtle but noticeable harmonic shifts in lieu of a real harmonic structure. Gill fills in subtly and tastefully on piano, never intruding on West’s mood yet making her presence felt with some intriguing figures as the piece develops. The piece ends in the middle of a phrase.

Inhabit II is entirely different in both mood and structure from Inhabit I; this is an amorphous modern jazz piece that starts with bassist Josh Cole playing some strange distorted figures around Gills’ ruminating piano. On Inhabit III, things become even quieter and more minimal, with soft guitar and bass playing repeated Cs in unison behind Gill’s piano. At the 1:40 mark West finally enters, playing his alto almost like a very soft car horn, two repeated notes that resemble soft horn beeps. Inhabit III is intriguingly developed into a complex series of rhythmic cells that link together, played by West, Gill and Fraser, with Cole eventually joining in. This was one section, however, that annoyed me because it was too repetitive and didn’t go anywhere, whereas the opening of Haunt, with its quirky atonal bass playing, blooms into an equally quirky piece played by West in his upper range, the notes doubled by Gill on piano. Cole plays an extremely strange, distorted solo while Fraser drops in some asymmetric accents on snare and tomtom. What a peppy little piece!

The final, title track is another ballad-like piece without actually becoming a ballad, here again focusing on C major and, for the most part, sticking to it as Gill ruminates, Cole plays nice walking bass, and West plays in and around the cracks in the music.

All in all, an intriguing album. Not everything in it works perfectly, and at one or two points I felt the effects were a bit overdone, but for the most part this will keep you engaged because most of it is just so creative.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Kristiansen & Fonnesbæk Have “The Touch”

1014347 - The Touch - Front

GOODMAN-ROYAL: Soft Winds. PETERSON: Nigerian Marketplace. Love Ballade. Night Child. Wheatland. Hymn to Freedom. GROFÉ: On the Trail. ØRSTED-PEDERSEN: On Danish Shore. JONES-SYMES: There Is No Greater Love / Søren Kristiansen, pno; Thomas Fonnesbæk, bs / Storyville 1014347

The premise of this album is to give “jazzical” performances of the music of Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson and Danish bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted-Pedersen. Danish music critic Søren Schauser has predicted that “in a couple of years we will see pieces by an Ellington or a Peterson in regular concert programs in entirely classical contexts.”

As much as I would want this to be true—and anyone who has red by online book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond knows that it has been my lifelong dream to have entire repertoires of jazz-classical hybrids—I fear that this is wishful thinking except, perhaps, in a country like Denmark (or Sweden, or Switzerland) where jazz is considered to be an art form on the level of classical music. Elsewhere in the world, there is still an incredible amount of condescension in the classical world towards jazz as a “simpler,” “less structured” form of music, even though such past geniuses as Ellington, Eddie Sauter, George Russell, Charles Mingus and even Ornette Coleman have already proven them wrong.

I enjoy the playing of both Peterson and Ørsted-Pedersen but, to be honest, I don’t know enough about either of their repertoires to say which pieces on this CD belong to whom except for the tunes written by Peterson. I would assume that Benny Goodman’s Soft Winds, Ferde Grofé’s On the Trail and Isham Jones’ There Is No Greater Love were Peterson specialties, but perhaps they were Ørsted-Pedersen’s.

I’ve been a huge admirer of Thomas Fonnesbæk’s playing since I reviewed his 2017 release, Synethesia, on my blog (an album which, curiously, also included Peterson’s Nigerian Marketplace). In that review, I noted that “bassist Thomas Fonnesbæk plays like no one else. He’s lyrical, inventive, and percussive all at the same time. He can act as a ground bass, lead voice, or alternative soloist at any given moment—sometimes, perhaps performing two of those roles simultaneously. He tends to stay a lot in the upper range of his instrument, which generally makes it sound more like a cello than a bass, and he has absolutely no fear. He’ll go anywhere and do whatever is necessary to perform what he wants to say.”

Yet most of the American jazz press still hasn’t caught up to Fonnesbæk—or, if they have, they surely don’t appreciate him as much as I do. And that brings us to another barrier in today’s jazz world: for most of the American jazz critics, European artists scarcely exist. I’ve already mentioned, in my articles on the great German saxist-composer-bandleader Silke Eberhard, that this is a far cry from the 1950s and ‘60s when German, Swedish, Danish, Franch and German jazz artists were given as much attention and praise as their American counterparts, but somewhere along the way American critics decided that only American artists were worth recommending.

To listen to this album in a blindfold test, however, I seriously doubt that any American jazz critic would be able to say that Søren Kristiansen “sounds” like a European jazz pianist; he swings with a ferocity that I’ve not heard since the glory days Horace Silver, Erroll Garner or Peterson himself although, as in Nigerian Marketplace, he relaxes the beat and restricts himself to simple chording in order to allow Fonnesbæk to shine, as he did on Synethesia. In terms of rhythm, Fonnesbæk is a bit more classical and less purely jazz; he plays a relatively strict 4 most of the time. The swing in this piece only becomes evident once Kristiansen returns to solo himself. But that’s fine because what Fonnesbæk does with his instrument simply cannot be done by 80% of American bassists. He has his own unique style and knows what his musical place and goals are.  His second solo, in which the notes just stream from his instrument from top to bottom and fill the harmonic spaces in is typical of what he brings to the table. His playing sounds like a combination of Eddie Gomez and Oscar Pettiford, two of my favorite bassists. He possesses a unique ability to play truly lyrical solos that have structure and form in addition to his percussive and counter-melodic abilities.

The duo so completely rewrite Grofé’s On the Trail that I wouldn’t have recognized it without the title being known. One might more appropriately refer to it as “jazz variations on On the Trail.” It is, in fact, so completely rewritten that it sounds like a contrafact, no less complex than the ones that Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker created in the 1940s and ‘50s, and on this track Fonnesbæk really does swing, and swing mightily. Once again, he knows his place and his function within each piece. At the 4:45 mark, the duo suddenly doubles the tempo and rides Grofé’s Grand Canyon burro into the sunset like a hot rod Ford.

Peterson’s Love Ballade has a certain Chopinesque quality about it, but not the usual overly-soft feeling you get from most Chopin pieces. The structure is not quite as complex, either, but that’s what the improvisations are for, an expansion of the basic material into something more complex and interesting. Night Child also starts out very much in a ballad style, but once Kristiansen starts improvising, the heat level increases exponentially.

Ørsted-Pedersen’s On Danish Shore is a fast but fairly simple tune in the minor, with a few quick switches in and out of the major here and there. This, too, is a particular showcase for Fonnesbæk, but Kristiansen makes sure that his presence is felt as well. This time, rather than doubling the tempo, they halve it and swing all the harder in the second half of the piece. Fonnesbæk puts his swing shoes on once again for There Is No Greater Love, one of Isham Jones’ less-well-known songs, and Kristiansen matches him in both swing and musical invention, including some double-time passages in the midst of his solo. The program ends with Oscar Peterson’s Hymn to Freedom, played in an appropriately relaxed yet swinging style by Kristiansen alone.

Kristiansen and Fonnesbæk are clearly a superb jazz duo, and this CD needs to be heard. It is simply marvelous.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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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

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