Keyna Wilkins’ Jazz Bach

Keyna.Wilkins.So.What.Bach.Cover

J.S. BACH-WILKINS: Little Prelude in D min. Little Prelude in F. Invention in A min. Prelude in G min. Partita in C min. Prelude in C / Keyna Wilkins, pianist / self-produced album, available on all streaming platforms

This CD came my way via a recommendation from a composer acquaintance of mine. Keyna Wilkins is an Australian-British jazz pianist who evidently also has classical training, for here she tackles jazz improvisations on six themes by J.S. Bach.

Bach has fascinated jazz musicians for decades, although only a handful attempted to “jazz up” Bach, in part due to the fear of backlash from the classical establishment. Guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinists Stéphane Grappelli and Eddie South recorded a jazz version of the first movement of Bach’s 2-Violin Concerto in 1937, but Fats Waller, who clearly knew his Bach (he played it on the organ when he was a teenager), only went as far as an original piece that sounded “kind of” Baroque which he titled Bach Up to Me. Benny Goodman recorded an Alec Templeton piece with some Bach allusions titled Bach Goes to Town, but only classically-trained bandleader Jan Savitt played a jazz version of the Little Fugue in D minor with his band, the Top Hatters. It wasn’t until the 1950s that we finally had Jacques Loussier, the great French pianist, performing full-blown and astonishingly complex jazz variants on full Bach pieces.

Keyna WilkinsWilkins takes a more abstract approach to Bach. The themes are present, but are simplified so that she can introduce stronger jazz rhythms than are normally heard in his music. Of the first three piece, for instance, only the Invention in A min. has more of Bach than Wilkins in it, although even here her approach is to accompany the theme in the right hand with non-Bach, original figures in the left. The only thing I didn’t care for was her tendency to simplify the music as she eventually abandoned the themes for improvisation. Perhaps she feels that this will connect more with audiences than retaining strong elements of Bach throughout the piece.

The outside jazz influence on these improvisations is that she uses the chord sequence from Miles Davis’ So What?, which is three perfect fourths followed by a major third, in each piece. This influence is most noticeable in the Partita in C min. This gives the music a modal jazz feel within the confines of Bach’s scores.

Yet Wilkins has a strong feeling for the structure in each piece/improvisation…it’s just not Bach’s structure. One thing I really liked about her playing was her strong keyboard attack. She’s clearly not afraid to play Bach in a “strong” style, despite the fact that her variations are somewhat simplified from the standpoint of technical virtuosity. One piece in which nearly all listeners can appreciate what she is doing is the C major Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier, one of the few Bach pieces that is universally known. By tying the music into the So What? chord sequence, Wilkins modifies Bach’s own harmonic sequence, and since the piece is so well known it is easy to follow her train of thought here and understand what she is doing.

In the end, I found myself liking this album because of the unique features mentioned above. It’s surely worth a listen!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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The “Scholars” Great, Hidden “Dido and Aeneas”

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PURCELL: Dido and Aeneas / Kym Amps, soprano (Dido); Anna Crookes, soprano (Belinda/2nd Witch); Ghislaine Morgan, soprano (2nd Woman/1st Witch); Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano (Sorceress); David van Asch, bass (Aeneas); Angus Davidson, countertenor (Spirit); Robin Doveton, tenor (First Sailor). The Scholars Baroque Ensemble: add David Gould, countertenor; Julian Podges, tenor; Colin Campbell, bass to chorus; Pauline Nobes, William Thorp, violinists; Trevor Jones, violist; Jan Spencer, bass violinist; William Carter, theorbo; Robin Jeffrey, guitarist; Terence Charlston, harpsichordist/organist; David van Asch, conductor / Naxos 8.553108

This is the brief but rather unhappy story of a great recording of a famous opera that has not only flown under the radar of most collectors, but is still largely unknown and under-appreciated. And the record label only has themselves to blame.

If you saw this album cover in a record store (the few that still exist) or online, would you buy it? Would you even pick it up and consider it? I sure wouldn’t. And the reason I wouldn’t is that there isn’t a single singer’s name on the cover. Not even one. And guess what? Even if you turned the album over to look at the back, you still wouldn’t know who the singers were, because they’re not listed at all.

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Add to that the fact that, if you bought the recording, opened the booklet and learned who the singers were, you’d only recognize one name: Sarah Connolly as the Sorceress. She went on to have a great career as one of Great Britain’s finest mezzo-sopranos, eventually expanding the size of her voice to encompass Wagnerian roles. The others, at least outside of England, aren’t well known at all.

So who were these folks? Here’s a brief rundown, based on what I was able to find on the internet:

Kym Amps

Kym Amps

Soprano Kym Amps won the Maggie Teyte Award and was first runner-up in the first Elly Ameling competition.

Anna Crookes is a pianist/soprano who attained an ARCM from the Royal Academy at age 17, had a dual career in both fields.

Anna Crookes

Anna Crookes

Ghislaine Morgan read music at Oxford where she gained degrees in piano and violin, then studied voice at the Royal College of Music. Sang with the Monteverdi Choir, The Sixteen and King’s Consort, now a respected singing teacher.

Countertenor Angus Davidson is one of the founding members (along with Kym Amps) of The Scholars Baroque Ensemble.

David van Asch, another founding member of The Scholars; began as a boy soprano in the King[s College Choir, later studied there as a bass-baritone. He was also the group’s conductor.

David van Asch

David van Asch

Which, of course, will tell you nothing if you don’t know any of these singers…yet they are all excellent and give a simply outstanding performance of this early opera.

As you can see from the header to this review, the instrumental forces are very small—even smaller than most HIP performances—yet somehow or other, they make it work and, to be honest, this is probably the number of instrumentalists who played in the first performance. Josias Priest’s School for Gentlewomen wasn’t exactly rolling in money.

I was especially impressed by Kym Amps, the soprano who sings Dido. She actually interprets her role better than the highly-touted Emma Kirkby, who is the soprano on two HIP recordings of this opera, and Anna Crookes, David van Asch and Connolly are all excellent in their respective parts.

Bottom line: if you enjoy Dido and Aeneas, you really need to get this recording regardless of what other performance you have in your collection. As far as larger forces and bigger voices go, I prefer the early Janet Baker recording with Raimund Herincx as Aeneas, conducted by Anthony Lewis. For an in-between version, although the sound is a bit rough, I recommend the 1951 live performance on Walhall with Kirsten Flagstad, Maggie Teyte and Thomas Hemsley, for the simple reason that Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who replaced Teyte on the commercial recording, had such terrible English diction that you can’t make out a single word she’s singing.

So there you have it. A great performance of Purcell’s opera, hidden in plain sight.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Grete Sultan, the Forgotten Pianist

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SCHOENBERG: Fünf Klavierstücke, Op. 23: I. Sehr langsam; II. Sehr rasch; III. Langsam; IV. Schwungvoll; V. Walzer. BEETHOVEN: Sechs Bagatellen, Op. 126 No. 4. COPLAND: Piano Sonata: I. Molto moderato; II. Vivace; III. Andante sostenuto. BEN WEBER: Episodes for Solo Piano: I, II, III. J.S. BACH: Goldberg Variations: Variatio 4. a 1 clav. WOLPE: Form for Piano. HOVHANESS: Yenovk, Partita for Piano: I. Fantasy; II. Gamelan; III. Canzona; IV. Pogh. CAGE: The Perilous Night, for Prepared Piano / Grete Sultan, pianist / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking links above

Ask anyone you know who loves classical music to name as many famous women pianists of the 20th century that they can. The list is long, but will surely include such artists as Marguerite Long, Wanda Landowska (if they remember that she also played piano in addition to harpsichord), Dame Myra Hess, Ania Dorfmann, Annie Fischer, Clara Haskil, Nadia Reisenberg, Martha Argerich, Yvonne Loriod, Alicia de Larrocha, Joanna MacGregor, Simone Dinnerstein and, if they heard her in person (her recordings are far less impressive), Anne-Marie McDermott. Some wiseacres may also toss in Nadia Boulanger, who did indeed play piano and recorded on that instrument but was, of course, not a professional pianist.

Yet I’ll bet you that almost none of them will mention the name of Grete Sultan unless they heard her or studied with her, even though she played professionally for nearly 70 years and lived to be 99. I just learned about her a week ago when my friend Carol Lian, who studied with her, sent me a private video interview with her chronicling her career.

It’s always startling, to me, to discover an artist who had quite an interesting and even illustrious career who somehow fell through the cracks, and Sultan clearly qualifies on both counts. In her early years she counted Henry Cowell and Bela Bartók as friends; from the late 1940s onward, she knew Stefan Wolpe and John Cage, who dedicated pieces to her, and even though I consider Cage to be a “joke” composer (watch some of the inter views with him; he’s constantly laughing at his own music and making offhand comments like, “You can see the Cheshire Cat grin on my face!”, yet thousands of people actually take him seriously).

Listening to her recordings that are uploaded on YouTube, one understands why Sultan is underrated. Like many Germans—and she was indeed German, albeit a German Jew—she was a literalist of the keynoard and not a subjective player. Not for her the soft-grained, Romantic expressions of Long, Hess or de Larrocha; she attacked the keyboard fearlessly but, more important for our appreciation of her, she was a musical literalist. She didn’t believe in overlaying the music she played with interpretive digressions, and this is exactly why the modern composers listed above liked her. This approach to the keyboard also made her performance of the Bach Goldberg Variations and Beethoven Diabelli Variations sound remarkably like those of Glenn Gould. Like Gould, she used little or no pedal and played in a crisp, no-nonsense style. She did inflect her playing with changes in dynamics, but like many Germans her sense of rhythm was very precise. To Sultan, a quarter note was a quarter and an eighth note an eighth, not a millisecond more or less when struck. This gives her playing, like that of the famous German harpsichordist Edith Picht-Axelfeld, a somewhat metronomic quality, yet it was exactly this sense of precision that led famed conductor Arturo Toscanini to invite her to play Beethoven with his La Scala Orchestra in the late 1920s.

If you scour the internet, you’ll find that German listeners love her playing but that American and especially British reviewers hated her. They thought her metronomic and uninteresting. Metronomic she clearly was, but uninteresting she was not. I freely admit that the second movement of the Copland Piano Sonata could be, and perhaps should be, played with a bit of American swagger to the rhythm (Copland, after all, had come to admire jazz by this time), but Sultan’s reading is perfectly valid as well as very exciting. Yes, there are a few moments in her performances when I felt that she could have relaxed the beat a little or played a bit more softly, but to judge from the album cover you see at the top of this review, a lot of her recordings were made late in her career and she may very well have played with more nuance when younger.

I, for one, feel that she brings out the musical structure of the Schoenberg pieces better than anyone else I’ve ever heard play them. I can’t comment on her performances of the Ben Weber, Hovhaness, Wolpe or Cage pieces because I hadn’t heard them before, but these composers clearly trusted her to play their music to their satisfaction. In any case, she is clearly an artist worth investigating. I would much rather listen to Sultan’s direct, powerful playing than the wispy, spineless stylings of de Larrocha any day of the week.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Mödl & Vinay’s Late “Tristan”

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WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde / Martha Mődl, soprano (Isolde); Ira Malaniuk, mezzo (Brangäne); Ramón Vinay, tenor (Tristan); Gustav Neidlinger, baritone (Kurwenal); Josef Greindl, bass (King Marke); Jos Borelli, tenor (Melot); Wim Koopman, tenor (Shepherd/Seaman); Gé Genemans, tenor (Steersman); Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam; Ferdinand Leitner, conductor / Opera Depot OD 10868-3 (live: The Hague, Amsterdam, June 15, 1959) available at https://operadepot.com/

For decades, the only recording I knew of Martha Mödl’s Isolde was the famous one from 1952, also with Vinay and Malaniuk but with Hans Hotter as King Marke and Karajan conducting. That is a famous performance that has been reissued several times, but even in its “improved” sound on Orfeo and Pristine Classical, the voices are off-mic and often recessed, thus reducing the impact of the singing.

This remarkable later performance, first released by Opera Depot in 2013, has none of those problems. In fact, although the sound is mono, it is of such a high quality that it could easily stand comparison with the very best stereo recordings of its day. Moreover, the orchestra plays better than the Bayreuth band of 1952, and to be honest, I think that Ferdinand Leitner gives just as exciting a performance as Karajan. Like the 1952 performance, it is somewhat cut, in fact even with a few more cuts than normal, but most of the music is here.

cover 2And what is here is simply astounding. Although Mödl’s voice is a bit rougher than in 1952, it is still a much steadier voice than one hears from many a modern soprano struggling to sing this role, and since Mödl considered herself an actress first and a singer second, she just rips through the music in a no-holds-barred fashion that is even more exhilarating than in 1952. From the very opening, her Isolde spits venom; it is clear without even knowing the plot that she absolutely detests Tristan and wishes she could kill him, thus once she drinks the love potion her transformation is all the more astounding. And, as in the 1952 performance, once they share the loving cup both she and Vinay sound like two animals in heat. Their love duet strikes sparks, something you rarely get from most Tristan performances.

In the last act, Vinay does a wonderful job portraying the wounded Tristan longing for his love-mate. When Isolde re-enters, her voice is guttural and dripping with lust—quite different from Juyeon Song’s equally startling (and just as effective) characterization of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Her final “Liebestod” is similarly full of passion.

Ira Malaniuk, returning as Brangäne, has also had a bit of vocal deterioration, in her case in the slight roughness of tone that did not afflict her in 1952, but she also acts out her part. The veteran bass Josef Greindl, familiar to most Tristan collectors from the 1952 studio recording with Kirsten Flagstad and Ludwig Suthaus as the lovers, sings Marke with his customary deep, dark tone and slight unsteadiness, which somehow or other never really deteriorated into a wobble. He is an improvement over Hans Hotter in 1952, who did wobble. A real surprise to me was Gustav Neidlinger, the go-to Alberich of his day, singing the more genial character of Kurwenal. His voice is in top condition, and he does manage to convey a sympathetic tone in this role.

The bottom line is that this is a Tristan for the ages, one that both stands comparison to the greatest available in terms of dramatic commitment and characterization while still being sung well enough to be appreciated in that sense as well. Since I already have five other Tristans in my collection, I am making room for it by ejecting the 1950 Knappertsbusch performance with Helena Braun and Gunther Treptow—an extremely well-sung performance, but not anywhere near as intense as this one.

And here is the best part: for the next three days, you can download it for FREE from Opera Depot’s website! (All you have to do is sign up for their email newsletter.) But even if you miss this limited time offer, their asking price of $11 is a bargain by any standard. You’ll not find a better $11 Tristan anywhere else in the world, I absolutely promise you that. Grab it now while you can!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Bicket’s Blissful “Rodelinda”

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HANDEL: Rodelinda / Lucy Crowe, soprano (Rodelinda); Iestyn Davies, countertenor (Bertarido); Joshua Ellicott, tenor (Grimoaldo); Brandon Cedel, bass (Garibaldo); Jess Dandy, contralto (Eduige); Tim Mead, countertenor (Unulfo); The English Concert; Harry Bicket, conductor / Linn CKD 658

Somehow, I missed this recording when it was released last year, so I’m reviewing it now. Rodelinda is my all-time favorite Handel opera; I even like it a little better than Giulio Cesare, which everyone else in the world prefers, although Cesare is his second-best opera. Of the one that came in between them, Tamerlano, I am much less enthusiastic. The music of Tamerlano, though well written, is merely flashy. There is no real drama in the fast arias or deep feeling in the slow ones. The music makes an impression while you are listening, but the next day you’ve already forgotten it.

Not so with Rodelinda. In this highly unique opera, Handel used a bare minimum of recitatives, which (especially in those years) was the standard way of advancing the plot of an opera, choosing instead to tell the story in a succession of arias and duets. Though the aria is a set-piece which, traditionally speaking, slows down the forward advancement of the story, Handel somehow managed to convey everything that was happening in terms of dramatic action through the arias themselves, and nearly every aria is a gem. Although two of Bertarido’s arias have been sung by numerous tenors, mezzos and countertenors down through the years (“Dove sei” and “Vivi, tiranno!”), it is the seldom-recognized “Chi di voi fu più in fedele” which is the crowning gem of this opera. Set in A minor, the orchestra suddenly moves into B-flat diminished in the orchestral introduction (top row, last bar on the right in the score excerpt below) with another abrupt key change on the second syllable of the word “ganno” (first bar on the left, third row), followed by a couple of other unusual dips into foreign harmonies as it progresses. In and of itself, this would mean very little, but Handel’s inspiration here redoubles the impact of the words. In my opinion, this is one of the greatest arias of his entire career as a composer.

Rodelinda - Chi di voi fu piu

Yet despite its superiority as one of Handel’s greatest works, Rodelinda has not fared well on records despite several complete recordings already being available. Joan Sutherland recorded it late in her career, when she was several years past her sell-by date; there is an abridged version on Dynamic with expressive but often squally singing from Sonia Ganassi, although tenor Paolo Fanale and countertenor Franco Fagioli are terrific; conductor Nicholas Kraemer made a sub-par recording on Virgin Classics; and the late, great Alan Curtis, whose Giulio Cesare recording is my benchmark performance, had a generally sub-par cast on his Deutsche Grammophon release. Thus, although there are two inferior singers in this cast, it is a case of the one-eyed man becoming king in the land of the blind.

Not that this recording is seriously flawed, but flawed it is. The second countertenor, Tim Mead (Unulfo), has one of those whiny, unattractive sort of voices that sounds like nails scraping on a blackboard, and tenor Joshua Ellicott just barely ekes by in the role of Grimoaldo…but except for Fanale on the Dynamic set, none of the tenors on the other recordings are much better. (Curtis Rayam, with Sutherland, has a firmer voice but an unattractive timbre.) I also wasn’t thrilled by bass Brandon Cedel (Garibaldo), whose voice has a loose vibrato that becomes wearisome, but except for his first-act aria he mostly sings in the recits with other singers, and at least he has a fine dramatic sense of the character which makes him interesting. Mead and Ellicott do not.

The other singers are splendid, and I was especially impressed by Jess Dandy, a name I’d not run across before. She possesses one of those true British contralto voices which have, for whatever reason, disappeared from sight in the past two or three decades, and if the voice has a bit more vibrato in it than the estimable Helen Watts it is at least an even vibrato and her depth of expression as Eduige is above reproach. Iestyn Davies has an attractive-sounding countertenor voice, surprisingly similar to that of Andreas Scholl, and sings Bertarido with great sympathy. Some reviewers have complained of his lack if involvement in “Vivi, tiranno,” but to be honest I found it quite good, just a little too slow by today’s standards (the great Russell Oberlin sang it slower still).

But pride of place clearly goes to Lucy Crowe in the title role. Leave it to the Brits, some of their reviewers have boldly claimed her to be the modern-day “successor” to the role’s initial impersonator, Italian soprano Francesca Cuzzoni, but how they can make such a claim without ever having heard Cuzzoni is a mystery to me. For those unfamiliar with her, Cuzzoni was considered to be the greatest singer of her day. Her voice was described as pure and liquid-sounding, free of the throat with absolutely no strain in any part of her range. Whether singing loudly or softly, the voice would float in the theater in an ethereal manner. She was also a master of singing with pathos or, as Charles Burney and Pier Francesco Tosi described it, with “pathetick accents,” but although she had a full command of her coloratura technique, including a superb, even trill, her voice was said to lack the excitement in fast passages that her rival, mezzo-soprano Faustina Bordoni, possessed. That description of Cuzzoni’s voice is also one I would make of Adelina Patti, who did record (albeit as an old woman in her 60s). As good as Crowe is, her voice is not as perfect as that of Patti’s and thus, I would assume, as perfect as Cuzzoni’s, but although I felt that Ganassi sang Rodelinda’s opening aria with more feeling than Crowe, she does generally give a very fine portrayal of the title character, and her voice is consistently firm and beautiful.

Bicket’s conducting is also responsive to mood and feeling although I felt that a few of the fast arias for the male characters were just a bit slow for my taste. But speed in the fast arias is not what Rodelinda is generally about anyway, and for the more important sections of the opera his pacing is well-nigh perfect. He also does not lack energy for the dramatic moments, and in fact his orchestra sounds wonderfully responsive to his every mood. And mood is clearly what this opera is about anyway.

The sound quality is also very good. I see where Bicket is going to release his recording of Tamerlano this year on the same label. I’ll certainly give it a listen just because I trust him, as I often trusted Alan Curtis, to do a first-class job in Handel operas, but as I indicated above I’m not generally an admirer of that opera.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Keilberth’s Surprisingly Great “Turandot”

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PUCCINI: Turandot / Georg Hann, bass (Timur); Trude Eipperle, soprano (Liù); Carl Hauβ, tenor (Calaf); Maria Cebotari, soprano (Turandot); Fritz Harlan, baritone (Ping); Werner Schupp, tenor (Pang); Robert Kiefer, tenor (Pong); Hubert Buchta, tenor (Emperor Altoum); Heinrich Hölzlin, baritone (Mandarin); Heinz Schlehbusch, tenor (Prince of Persia); Stuttgart Radio Chorus, Children’s Chorus; Stuttgart Radio Orchestra, “Reichssender”; Joseph Keilberth, conductor / PUCCINI: La Bohème (excerpts) / Cebotari, soprano (Mimi); Peter Anders, tenor (Rodolfo); Groβes Berliner Rundfunkorchester; Artur Rother, cond / Koch/Schwann 3-1645-2 (Turandot live, December 10, 1938) also available for free streaming on YouTube

Although I can’t claim to have heard every single recording or live performance of Turandot out there—I like it, but I don’t love it—I’ve certainly heard enough of them to know a good one when I hear one, and I’m here to tell you that this 1938 performance, recorded live in the Stuttgart radio studio in December 1938, may be the best version you’ll ever hear…despite the fact that it’s sung in German.

There are several factors that make it so great, but one that may prove a detriment to some: you only get about 6 ½ minutes of the final duet because a couple of acetates are missing. After the music that follows Liù’s death, which of course is all that Puccini actually wrote, there is a jump to the section of the duet that exists. Then, after a fade-out, you suddenly get the final minute of the performance with the chorus and orchestra.

Yet for those of you who, like me, really can’t stand Franco Alfano’s very weak final scene, this won’t be much of a detriment. You do get everything that Puccini wrote, and within those parameters, this may be the greatest performance of this opera ever recorded.

I’m sure that some readers are scratching their heads by now, trying to figure out how Maria Cebotari could possibly compete with the likes of Gina Cigna (who made the first studio recording of the opera in 1937), Lucille Udovich, Inge Borkh, Birgit Nilsson (who I actually saw and heard in person in this role), Eva Marton, Jane Eaglen, etc. etc. (and please, let us mercifully forget Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, OK?), particularly since she was noted as a Mimi in La Bohème (a role also represented on the CDs, but not on the YouTube video). The answer is that Cebotari had the unique ability to “open up” her voice when need be and sing such stentorian roles as this one as well as Salome on the stage. No, it wasn’t anywhere near Nilsson’s capabilities—no one ever was—but it’s at least as good as Marton and Eaglen, if not better. She had a large, bright voice with a real “cut” up top; she was often described as “sounding like a gypsy singer, but neatened up”; and even Beniamino Gigli, who begged her to sing in his film Solo Per Te because he wanted to do the Andrea Chenier duet with her, considered her the finest spinto soprano of her time—even better than Maria Caniglia, with whom he made several recordings. Cebotari could inhabit a role with the intensity and dramatic sensibilities of a Callas, and she does so here.

Moreover, because her voice sounds so bright and not really gigantic, she sounds more human and less like an air-raid siren, and as you listen to “In questa reggia” and the Riddle Scene, you will come to appreciate this quality more and more. It even shows in the six minutes or so of the final duet that survives. Cebotari inhabited the character of Turandot. Cigna, Udovich, Borkh and Nilsson merely gave you an overwhelming vocal experience, pulling out all the stops to stomp all over those exposed high notes. And yes, there is a difference.

Trude Eipperle

On top of this, every single singer in the supporting cast has a fine voice, and the other top three characters—Timur, Liù and Calaf—all sing well, musically and with excellent interpretation. Lyric soprano Trude Eipperle, who I’ve always rather liked, may in fact be the most touching Liù on records. I certainly found her to be deeply involved in the character, something you can’t say about most Liùs.

The biggest surprise to me was tenor Carl Hauss (Hauβ in German), who I had never run across before. Born in Strasbourg, the most German city in the most German region of France (Alsace-Lorraine), he was a soldier during World War I (the online bio doesn’t say for which side although he did make his stage debut in Trier, France in 1919), moved to

Carl Hauss

Karlsruhe, Germany where he sang from 1919 to 1921, followed by stints at Duisburg (1921-25), Nuremburg (1925-26) and finally Hannover, which he called home sweet home from 1926 until 1953. And yes, he made studio recordings (not many, but some), though for some reason he was left out of the Kutsch-Riemens Concise Biographical Dictionary of Singers (1969, though he may be in the later, expanded, two-volume version of the Dictionary). So he certainly had a long career, but in sticking almost entirely to German theaters and not one of the major ones like Berlin or Dresden, he became completely forgotten until this Turandot surfaced on CD in 1998. Hauss had a fairly large, bright and well-focused voice, sounding a bit like Helge Rosvaenge but without the Dane’s near-Heldentenor power or his range in singing both big and small tenor parts. But he is really a fine Calaf, more sympathetic than del Monack (with Borkh), Björling or Corelli (with Nilsson), Pavarotti (with Sutherland) or Domingo. It’s a likeable voice and he projects a likeable personality.

Keilberth in 1932

But when you really come down to it, what makes this performance so special is Keilberth’s conducting. Not a particularly interesting or sympathetic conductor of orchestral music, Keilberth really seemed to come to life when directing an opera, and although Turandot was clearly an outlier for him he took it under his wing and created magic with the score. It is paced slower than most, even a shade slower than Franco Ghione in the first studio recording, yet he achieves something with the music that no other conductor in my experience does. He makes it sound warm and rich, giving the music more gravitas and making the opera sound much less shallow than it normally does. Yes, it’s almost paced like a Wagner opera, but somehow it works. As you listen to the whole thing and move from scene to scene, you’ll find yourself much more engrossed in the music per se than you’ve ever been before. Instead of whizzing by at a brisk Italianate pace, it lingers just enough to make you listen to what the orchestra is saying before going on to the next scene, and this is something that no other conductor I’ve heard (at least not one with a cast this good) has ever accomplished.

In addition to all this, the sound quality is extraordinary; it sounds like a high fidelity recording from the early 1950s. One online reviewer complained that Hauss is over-miked in “Nessun dorma,” and this is true, but even the close miking can’t disguise the fact that he opens the aria softly and sings it with great tenderness and feeling. Thanks to both Eipperle’s interpretive skills and Keilberth’s pacing, Liù’s death scene is immensely touching.

I highly recommend this recording as an alternate to whatever Italian-language recording you have; and if you don’t own a recording of Turandot because you’ve never really liked the opera much before, I suggest that you listen to it at least once all the way through. You may become a convert, at least via this performance.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Ometto Plays Medtner’s “Forgotten Melodies”

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MEDTNER: Forgotten Melodies, Opp. 38-40 / Mattia Ometto, pno / Piano Classics PCL10223

Little by little, the legacy of Nikolai Medtner is being recorded in our modern era. This latest incarnation includes his three large collections which he titled Forgotten Melodies, even though the music contained herein was all written by Medtner and some of them are quite large in scope, such as the opening Sonata Reminiscenza,

So why Forgotten Melodies? This was because, as the liner notes explain, Medtner was in the habit of jotting down themes, motifs and ideas in his notebooks—but then letting them slip from his memory until months or years later, when he opened one of them and suddenly got an idea for a new piece based on one or two of them.

The music is typical Medtner: tonal, but with constantly moving harmonies, in fact sometimes jumping around quite quickly beneath the fingers; melodic, but not to the point where the melody lines became tunes that people could hum (as in the case of his friend Rachmaninov). And even more so than Rachmaninov, Medtner’s music is hard to play, at times coming close to the kind of pyrotechnics demanded by Alkan or Sorabji.

And to be honest, after a while you get used to Ometto’s approach and it seems right. In a way, his playing of Medtner reminded me of the late Ruth Laredo’s approach to Scriabin, and although we have since had Dmitri Alexeev’s superb Scriabin set to supersede Laredo, right now Ometto is, if not the only game in town, clearly the most interesting.

Again according to the liner notes:

The foremost example of this balancing act is Op.38, which originally had the subtitle “Nature”. The opus opens with the placid development of the famous Sonata Reminiscenza, provoking reflections on the unusual choice of entrusting reminiscence with the job of presenting the material that was to prevail throughout the work. There is a flowing quality to Sonata Reminiscenza, with movements similar to court dances that evolve amid hazy timbres and then suddenly launch into frantic outbursts before subsiding into the languor of seductive melodies. It goes without saying that the handling of polyphony is absolutely faultless. Next comes the Danza graziosa, which changes in character as it succumbs to the leggiéro passage that alternates with an engagingly worldly Allegretto section. Although the following Danza festiva reveals the influence of Rachmaninoff’s exuberant Étude-Tableaux Op.33 No.7, the dance form also bears witness to Medtner’s constant desire to develop and expand his chosen material. For the next piece, the Canzona fluviala, he adopts the same chords used for the opening of the Danza festiva, generating a sort of barcarola in which some of the Sonata Reminiscenza motifs return with greater clarity, appearing and disappearing like objects bobbing on a choppy sea. Despite the echoes of folk dances, especially the habanera, the Danza rustica is essentially polite and refined, creating a sense of contrast that makes it one of the most bizarre and fascinating pieces in the whole collection. The Canzona serenata begins with an almost literal citation of the opening section of the Sonata Reminiscenza, which is then developed in an intensely poignant melody. Very different in character is the following Danza silvestra, which seems to belong to the sphere inhabited by Debussy’s minstrels and Liszt’s gnomes. The most virtuosic piece in the collection, it embraces some of the main motifs of the Reminiscenza in the passionate outbursts that give form to the musical underworld portrayed.

A perfect example of the way Medtner approached harmony is the fifth piece, “Danza rustica,” where the chords used not only sound almost modal, like something written by Bartók, but move around so quickly, often using chromatics to further baffle the average listener, that one is left at the starting gate unless one pays constant attention to every note and phrase in this remarkable piece. Yet the Danza Silvestra is also rather strange, here not just in harmony but also in the rhythm, whish is constantly being changed around and fractured. This piece has a definite Alkan-like quality about it.

Medtner continues his musical excursions in the next two sets. In the second piece (Romanza) from Op. 39, for instance, he turns a waltz into a rushing piece in 4/4 in the blink of an eye, and in the following Primavera (Spring) he emulates, to my mind, the rushing of water over the verdant landscape. Despite the inner logic of his development sections, Medtner often seems to be melding different figures together to make each piece—and, of course, the constantly shifting meters, tempi and harmony present more of a challenge than an aid to the new listener. Despite his different approach to music, Medtner’s basic essence as a composer was actually much closer to Stravinsky than some listeners might have thought. Each piece has elements of both a tapestry and a mosaic. His underlying structure seems straightforward enough, and in the end it all makes sense, but like a mosaic he was constantly shining a musical light on different nooks and crannies of each score, illuminating different colors and shapes that were part of the overall picture but, for those brief moments, in the forefront.

His sense of programming was also quite interesting. In Op. 39, for instance, he follows the playful and sometimes fragmented Canzona Mattinata with the tightly-written and tensely dramatic Sonata Tragica, and in fact this sequencing continues throughout all three cycles.

I’ve located other recordings of the Op. 38 & 39 Forgotten Melodies, including one CD by Ekaterina Derzhavina on Phoenix Edition that includes both. and an album by Geoffrey Tozer on Chandos that includes the Op. 40 set as well, and these two pianists play with a much more continent legato than Ometto, whose playing seems to me a bit choppy in places, but in the end it is Ometto who seems to me to pierce the heart of this music better. I have nearly all of Medtner’s own recordings of his music, and although he, too played with more legato than Ometto, his approach was more dynamic than those of Derzhavina or Tozer, who after a while begin to put you to sleep. Until such time as Frank Huang may record these suites for Centaur, I would say that Ometto is the way to go. Russian pianists of his day, Medtner included, were famed for their emotional approach to the keyboard, even an axe-chopper like Vladimir Horowitz, thus if Ometto’s approach somewhat resembles the latter rather than the former it is still much closer to an authentic approach to this music than the other two.

Of course, part of the impression I got from this recording is due to the sound. Ometto’s piano, a bright instrument to begin with, is recorded very close to the microphone, which somewhat exaggerates its quality, but I also noticed that he used very little pedal in his playing (as did Mad Vlad Horowitz) which makes the music sound less “bound.” On the other hand, I felt that Ometto played many passages here with a more consistent sense of phrasing than Horowitz usually did (except in Scriabin, which he played superbly), thus there are some compensations.

Until something better comes along, this set is highly recommended.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Coppey’s Fiery Kodály

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KODÁLY: Solo Cello Sonata. Cello Sonata, Op. 4. Cello Sonatina. Duo for Violin & Cello* / Marc Coppey, cel; *Barnabás Kelemen, vln; Matan Porat, pno / Audite AUD97.794

This new release practically duplicates, work for work, the album released by cellist István Várdai on Brilliant Classics in 2017, a recording I reviewed in January 2018. Much to my surprise, considering the fact that Várdai is Hungarian and Coppey is French, the latter really “gets” this music in the same gutsy, energetic style.

And, to be honest, Coppey has the better tone: rich, deep and full, much like that of one of my idols, British cellist Colin Carr, whereas Várdai plays with a good but leaner sound. Of course, that in itself would not be a recommendation for this recording if Coppey lacked Várdai’s intensity, but he does not.

Moreover, Coppey’s richer tonal palette allows him to access a greater range of sounds and colors from his instrument. Another thing that works in his favor is the sound quality. Coppey’s recording has a light amount of room ambience around his instrument, which gives it great presence (why, oh why can’t Colin Carr be recorded this well??), whereas Várdai has somewhat more echo around his instrument. And yes, this affects the emotional impact of the music on the listener.

In the Cello Sonata, Coppey is joined by pianist Matan Porat, who plays with a bright, silvery tone rather than a rich, full one, but he equals Coppey in intensity and phrasing so his contribution matches the mood of the music.

The big difference between Várdai’s recital and Coppey’s is that the former gave you the Capriccio for solo cello and the Adagio for cello and piano whereas the latter gives you the Duo for Violin & Cello, one of Kodály’s major works for the instrument and not one frequently recorded. Barnabás Kelemen, a violinist I’ve heard before, also plays with a very bright tone, which is historically and ethnically correct—think of Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti as a good example—and he, too matches the cellist in playing with fire and intensity in every note. This is a fascinating work in which Kodály manages his themes with extraordinary skill, balancing and contrasting moods, tempi and dynamics to produce what almost sounds like a chamber music reduction of an orchestral score.

This now my go-to recording of these pieces. As good as Várdai was, Coppey outstrips him.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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One More from Steve Elcock

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ELCOCK: Incubus. Haven: Fantasia on a Theme by J.S. Bach.* Symphony No. 5 # / *Andrey Lopatin, vln; #Grigory Vever, cl & Evgeny Plaskin, Fr-hn; Siberian Symphony Orch.; Dmitry Vasiliev, cond / Toccata Classics TOCC 0445

We delve into the sound world of Steve Elcock one more time; this is Vol. 2 of his orchestral works. This program opens with Incubus, which Elcock adapted from the final section of his string quartet, Night After Night. I listened to a cross-section of Elcock’s chamber music on a separate Toccata Classics CD but did not care for it nearly as much as I do his orchestral works. His chamber music is not merely gentler in feeling, but also very “pastoral” in that British sort of way that Brits like but I do not, thus I declined to review that disc.

Although Incubus opens in a very slow tempo and the basic theme is rather amorphous, Elcock’s imaginative sense of orchestration imparts a feeling of mystery onto the proceedings. Somehow, I think, being able to use a much richer sound palette with an orchestra “opens up” Elcock’s imaginative powers, for as Incubus progresses the music has more bite and drive than any of his chamber works that I’ve heard. Indeed, the fast-running motor rhythms in the background as the tempo increases (and wanes again) keeps one listening to the music, both fascinated and curious as to where it is going next, which is one of the wonderful things about his music. Much of the development section consists of fast-running figures, played mostly by the woodwinds, but later on there is a sort of “grinding” theme played at half-tempo by the lower strings that dominates the soundscape for several bars; then the tympani comes banging in as the whole orchestra gets involved.

Haven is built around the “Sarabande” in J.S. Bach’s Violin Partita No. 1. Interestingly, here Elcock’s music is not merely tonal (probably to be expected since it is built around a Bach theme) but also surprisingly Romantic-sounding, with only sparing use of more advanced harmonies, but it is not an “easy listening” piece. On the contrary, it involves the listener without lulling him or her into overly Romantic “gooshiness”…but it is clearly an accessible piece, and the one orchestral work by him that will undoubtedly find its way onto standard concert programs. I did, however, feel that this haven lasted a bit too long—nearly a half-hour, in fact—and doesn’t say very much until the 10-minute mark, when the tempo increases, Bach’s theme is tossed to the side, and Elcock revels in his usual manic-bitonal style. But at the 17-minute mark, the soft Romantic theme and mood return, this time with some surprisingly Debussy-like harmonies tossed in…and occasional louder, more aggressive outbursts. A “haven,” indeed! Surprisingly, a solo violinist pops up at around the 19-minute mark to play the sarabande as a solo (but not, alas, very well). Elcock then adds a counter-melody played by winds and lower strings against the solo violinist, who scrapes away as if he absolutely hates this sarabande melody, until we as listeners begin to dislike it as well…but happily, by then the music stops.

With the Fifth Symphony we are clearly back in Elcock’s normal environment, explosive orchestral works, yet the opening of this symphony is actually more violent than the opening of any other of his orchestral works I’ve heard to date. It does, however, suddenly disappear to allow a solo cello to introduce a much more lyrical and tonal theme which goes on for a bit. This is then developed slowly over a protracted period of time, at least until the 14:20 mark when a fast, loud outburst occurs before receding in volume and tension yet again for the finale of the movement.

But the Fifth is a very big symphony for Elcock, lasting nearly 45 minutes. The second movement is in a medium-quick tempo (“Ostinato – Allegro”). with an arresting, catchy repeated figure played by the violas as the rest of the strings, and winds, play opposing, quick figures around it. The third movement, a “Canzonetta – Largo,” is again a very tonal piece which also sounds very pastoral in a British way (think of some of Vaughan Williams’ music), although there is a very interesting middle section with some more intriguing harmonies, briefly featuring a xylophone. With the gritty, muscular last movement, we are in familiar Elcock territory, and indeed this is one of the finest creations on this disc—well written, tightly argued, and brilliantly orchestrated.

As an overview, I would say that the music on this CD is fascinating in many places but, for me, not as consistently intriguing or as inventive as on the other two CDs in this series. Had I heard this disc first, I would have given it a nice review (which I did here), but would not have been enticed to explore Elcock much further. If, however, Toccata Classics had replaced Haven with his Concerto Grosso for strings, a very interesting work which is on the composer’s website, it would have been a stronger CD.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Transformations by The Clarinet Trio

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KUPKE-THIEKE-ULLMANN: Collective #13. FREUND: Cleopatra. A. MANGELSDORFF: Tension/Varié. Set ‘Em Up. Theme from Vietnam. J. KÜHN: Golem. THIEKE: Solo #1. SCHOOF: Virtue. BERGER: Get Up – From Now On. Tune In. ULLMANN: Solo #2. R. KÜHN: Don’t Run. PETROWSKY-LENZ-PFÜLLER: Der Blues ist der König. KUPKE: Solo #3 / Jürgen Kupke, cl; Michael Thieke, cl/a-cl; Gebhard Ullmann, bs-cl / Leo Records CD LR 921

Aside from the bass clarinet, which came to the fore in the 1960s due to the influence of Eric Dolphy, other instruments in this family of reeds pretty much disappeared from modern jazz after the 1960s, when Charles Mingus, Shorty Rogers, Duke Ellington and Tony Scott featured the instrument prominently. Perhaps this was a reaction to Benny Goodman, the “King of Swing” who continued to produce new recordings into the 1960s and ‘70s, or possibly to the fact that clarinets had come to represent not only swing music but also older forms of jazz, but whatever the case, once the clarinet disappeared it pretty much went for good except for the few times when alto saxist Art Pepper played it.

This unusual recording features a bass clarinet along with two regular clarinets and an alto clarinet as played by three enterprising Germans. Part of their goal in this recording was to revive some of the repertoire from the 1950s and ‘60s written by such well-known German jazz musicians of the time as Albert Mangelsdorff, Joki Freund, Karl Berger, Klaus Lenz and Rolf Kühn—pieces that are largely unknown to American jazz fans. But it doesn’t matter because these musicians turn the old pieces inside out and intersperse them with original works with a strange, ambient sound to them. They also put strange, ambient passages into the middle of the old tunes. Thus Joki Freund’s jolly-sounding Cleopatra contains a strange, ominous-sounding middle section while Mangelsdorff’s Tension contains some edgy modern harmonies that Mangelsdorff himself seldom played.

What I found most interesting about this entire set, however, was the fact that although the peppy jazz themes do indeed swing, and resemble jazz, much of the music here does not. It is more like a modern classical suite into which jazz themes come and go, the same way that many modern composers channel the older music of Bach, Beethoven and Debussy. Yet despite the somewhat dark quality of some of their harmonies, there’s a surprising cheerfulness about the entire venture. If nothing else, Kupke, Thieke and Ullmann sound as if they’re having a ball playing this music, and they want you to have a ball, too—thus the sudden introduction of a klezmer-like solo in the midst of Mangelsdorff’s Tension/Varié, among many other surprises on this remarkable disc.

Seriousness mixed with an element of fun? How can this be? Generally the two are, if not necessarily incompatible, certainly strange musical bedfellows. Yet I couldn’t escape this feeling in each and every track. The energy they bring to the faster pieces and passages on this disc is clearly ebullient as well as musically surprising and creative. Despite the vast differences in musical concept and style, I got the feeling that, somehow, this clarinet trio was channeling Jelly Roll Morton, whose 1926-27 recordings were clearly on the jazz cutting edge of their day. All three musicians are virtuosos, yet none of them ever seemed to be playing any passage for the sole purpose of showing off their technique. This is music with a shape and a direction, yet still abstract music. You might call it the musical equivalent of Paul Klee mixed with Salvador Dali. And there are occasional quotes here from other, even older jazz pieces, thrown in to tease the listener’s memory. “Oh, wait a minute…that lick comes from…oh damn, what’s the name of that piece??”

Moreover, if one simply puts the CD on and listens to the whole thing, you’ll get the impression not of a series of independent pieces but almost that of a continuous composition…or, at the very least, a suite. But third stream it most certainly is, and much livelier, less stuffy third stream than the stodgy compositions of Gunther Schuller…although I do think that the late Friedrich Gulda would “get it” if he heard this CD.

A good example of what I mean is their treatment of Karl Berger’s Get Up – From Now On, which has a sort of swaggering rhythm in it that resembles jazz because it swings but isn’t in a meter that one could tap their foot to. After the opening theme statement, the clarinets go somewhat berserk (a rare thing for them in this recital), playing fast, edgy passages using high, extended chord positions à la Dolphy. Then the rhythm becomes even more syncopated yet even less jazzy for a few bars before returning to the opening theme and rhythm, followed by a slower section played in canon by the three reeds. Then a dead stop. Fini!

Only in Mangelsdorff’s Set ‘Em Up do they seem to be playing an older piece in the style in which it was written—but just in the beginning. The trio uses pauses as a form of musical suspense, introduces interspersed passages in different tempi and moods, even a passage where they just blow air through their instruments. And all of it somehow coalesces.

If I haven’t given many descriptions of the music contained herein, rest assured that it isn’t because I didn’t care for it or didn’t understand it technically. It’s just that it doesn’t matter. The fun is in the listening, and to say anything technical about what they’re doing would be a spoiler. Rarely, however, have I heard a recent recording of either genre, classical or jazz, which I’ve not only enjoyed this much but was thoroughly engrossed in from start to finish. You can’t let your attention wander for a moment or you’ll miss something, and as I say, somehow or other it all comes together to produce a part written-part spontaneous modern composition that I defy even the cleverest and most cutting-edge classical composer to equal, let alone surpass.

Although I’ve heard and reviewed some very brilliant albums this year, I would place this near the very top of the list. Rest assured that I will be listening to this CD several more times before I pass on.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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