George Crumb’s “Black Angels”

LBM040_COVER

CRUMB: Black Angels. Makrokosmos III: Music for a Summer Evening / Quatuor Hanson: Anton Hanson, Jules Dussap, vln; Gabrielle Lafair, vla; Simon Dechambre, cel with Philippe Hattat, Théo Fouchenneret, pno; Emmanuel Jacquet, Rodolphe Théry, perc / B Records LBM040 (live: Deauville, France, July 7 & 10, 2021)

To put it succinctly, as it is in the promo sheet accompanying this album, “This is ritual music filled with angels and demons, mystical incantations, amazing percussion and supernatural harmonies.” These two performances come from the July-August 2021 music festival in Deauville, France, not to be confused with the rock concerts given at the Deauville Island Music Festival. The CD is scheduled for release on May 13.

Demons indeed, as Black Angels opens with the strings screaming fast, multi-tonal motifs in their upper register—a real waker-upper. Small wonder that this suite is subtitled “Thirteen Images From the Dark Land.” Much of the music is percussive in quality, with the performers striking their strings with their bows, making bizarre flittering sounds, and a hollow-sounding viola solo. This is one instance where modern-day string players’ proclivity for performing with straight tone makes a difference, since playing with straight tone sounds abrasive and unpleasant rather than full and rich. In the fifth piece, “Danse Macabre,” Crumb introduces some nifty syncopation as well. Boy, do these angels know how to party, or what??

The “Pavana Lachrymae,” by contrast, uses the opening theme from Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. (Oddly enough, Schubert was one of Crumb’s favorite composers.) There is more string buzzing, along with a few shouts, in the “Threnody” section. Let’s put it this way: although this is fascinating, creative music, it’s not something you want to play on a dark night when you’re having a bad acid trip. No, it is not. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon sounds like a Neil Sedaka song compared to this. There’s a quote from some mediaeval music in “Sarabands de la Muerte Oscura,” but even here Crumb makes it sound ominous and creepy. Even the “God-music” sounds a bit menacing, despite a rather innocuous theme.

Of course I hope that my readers will understand that some of my comments above are just a bit of humor (one might say, dark humor), but it’s the kind of reaction I have to a piece like this. Only Crumb knew how to push these kind of buttons in one while still writing music that was substantive and had structure. Many modern composers who follow in his footsteps get the creepiness right, but much of their music doesn’t go anywhere.

The Makrokosmos is more familiar territory, recorded by a number of artists including Marcantonio Barone on the Bridge label, in a series of sessions supervised by the composer himself. Thanks to the wonderful natural reverb in the concert hall, this performance has a wonderful ambience that contributes to the music’s strangeness, but although it is rather mysterious and a little creepy, it is nothing compared to Black Angels. Part of the percussion effects includes sounds that resemble glass breaking . This may just be the most intense performance I’ve yet heard of this work, and it certainly suits the mood…but whether or not I would find it appropriate, as Crumb subtitled it, as “Music for a Summer Evening” depends on whether or not that summer evening sounded like an alien invasion with the sounds of explosions in the background. Yet there are moments of repose, and in the “Wanderer-Fantasy,” it almost sounds like a kalimba playing.

Bottom line: chalk up another outstanding album of Crumb’s mind-blowing and mind-expanding music.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Can Çakmur Plays Music “Without Borders”

cover 2

BARTÓK: Piano Sonata. MITROPOULOS: Passacaglia, Intermezzo e Fuga. SAYGUN: Piano Sonata. ENESCU: Piano Sonata No. 3 / Can Çakmur, pno / Bis SACD-2630

Turkish pianist Can Çakmur (pronounced “Djahn Chakmur”) presents here four 20th-century piano works, the two very unfamiliar ones by Dmitri Mitropoulos and Ahmed Adnan Saygun being bookended by the more familiar pieces by Bartók and Enescu. The rather pretentious liner notes go into a nose-in-air discussion about how, in the late 19th century, “actual research into folk music came to replace the previous practice of making crude re-harmonisations of traditional tunes without any consideration of their sources and musical content,” that “using the essence of folk music as art supplied a very convincing solution to the dissolution of tonality.” Which is all well and good if you’re discussing Eastern European and Turkish folk music, which he is, but has little or nothing to do with Western European folk music which was resolutely tonal and, in many cases, baby-simple.

But beyond this, Çakmur is an interesting pianist who has his own “take” on how to play some of this music. His concept of Bartók’s sonata, for instance, bears little resemblance to the way Bartók played his own music (as captured in numerous recordings by the composer), but instead plays it in an angular, neoclassical style closer related to Stravinsky or even Antheil. (Listening to his performance, I kept thinking of the latter’s Ballet Mécanique.) The music can clearly be played this way if one chooses, but in this era of historically-informed performances, I find it ironic that modern musicians, by and large, have absolutely no respect for the way composers who recorded played or conducted their own music, while it’s perfectly OK to distort or even ruin music by composers long dead for whom they have no evidence of their performing style.

Yet I was mesmerized by Çakmur’s performance of the virtually unknown Mitropoulos piece, which opens with a soft, slow-moving passacaglia using bitonal but not forbidding harmonies. This Çakmur plays with great delicacy of phrasing, drawing out the “melos” of the music quite beautifully. This later builds to a crescendo of considerable intensity, followed by a decrescendo into quieter territory before the finish. This piece sounded, to my ears, very similar to some of Sorabji’s piano works. An interesting feature of this passacaglia is that, although the meter sounds “regular,” it is actually marked as 3/4 + 2/2 =  2/2 + 3/4. The “Intermezzo” section is a rapid, bouncy piece in bitonal harmony with irregular beats that keeps shifting within the basic 3/4 tempo (see score excerpt below). The fuga, in 2/4, again shifts rhythmic accents by using a mixed sequence of 16th, 32nd and 8th notes. This piece is a real “monster” to play, but Çakmur knocks it off as if playing it in his sleep. He is clearly quite the pianist.

Mitropoulos - Intermezzo

Intermezzo from the Mitropoulos piece

With Saygun’s sonata he is clearly on home ground, and ironically, he plays this piece with more continent legato phrasing than he did the Bartók (yet this is how Bartók played his own music). This sonata was his last work, written in 1991 and finished just days before his death. It is even more abstract than some of his earlier music, much of which has been brilliantly recorded by another Turkish pianist, Idíl Biret (who knew Saygun personally). Again, from the flowery liner notes, “This sonata seems to refer to folk music only on a theoretical level.” I would argue that it has no connection with Turkish folk music at all, but Çakmur has this “theme” to push, so by God he’s going to shove his theories into each work he performs even if they don’t fit. Despite its many abstract qualities, Saygun was such a good composer that he was incapable of writing a meandering or disconnected piece, thus he manages to tie all of the themes, semi-themes and motifs in it together into a cohesive whole. This was, to me, the major piece on this SACD. The second movement is almost minimalist, at least in its use of a sparse, delicate melodic line that meanders for a bit before coming together as a cohesive whole, later morphing into a series of rhythmic chords by the right hand in and around the slow melodic line. The third movement is almost playful in its asymmetric rhythmic layout and shifting moods.

Çakmur’s performance of the Enescu sonata is light and airy, moving along on smooth motor rhythms beneath a tonal but modal upper line and harmony. And again, in this sonata, Çakmur flashes some really smooth technique over some very difficult passages.

Overall, then, a very interesting CD. Even if you have other performances of the Bartók sonata, I think you’ll find Çakmur’s reading unique, and the Mitropoulos and Saygun pieces are really outstanding.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Bentzon’s Wind Quintets

cover

BENTZON: Variations for Wind Quintet, Op. 21. Bop Quintet, Op. 80. Wind Quintets Nos. 3 & 5 / The Carl Nielsen Quintet / Dacapo 8226127

This CD features the music of Niels Viggo Bentzon (1919-2000), who wrote “nearly 1,000 works in every known classical genre and style.” The Carl Nielsen Quintet, formed in 2006, is comprised of young musicians who also hold posts in Danish and Swedish orchestras.

Judging from the opening piece, a set of variations for winds, Bentzon’s harmonic language was modern but not abrasive. He was a whimsical outlier, sort of a Danish Poulenc or Ibert, if you will, and he evidently had a quiet sense of humor which shows itself in this work. He takes his theme through a number of interesting permutations, moving both the thematic material and the underlying harmonies around like a Tinkertoy set, always unexpectedly but always interestingly. In Variation III, for example, he uses some pregnant pauses in the musical progression to entice the listener, and in Variation IV a bouncy 6/8 rhythm with some whimsical inner metric movement within certain bars. It’s the kind of music that’s perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon when you want to hear something that is a little challenging but not abrasive. It’s one of those pieces that grows on you as you listen to it.

I’m not sure, however, why he named the next piece a “bop” quintet, as neither the rhythms nor the harmonies are reflective of American bop jazz, at least not until a little over halfway through the first movement where he introduces some syncopations, but this, too is a nice, whimsical piece with some interesting and irregular rhythms.

Being totally unfamiliar with these works, I couldn’t say whether or not the Carl Nielsen Quintet’s very “cool” approach is what Bentzon wanted or not, but to my ears it works. Quirky but charming, the music works on a subtle level that makes it intriguing. In the opening movement of the Wind Quintet No. 3, for instance, Bentzon introduced some “snaky” rhythms in a few bars, which pulled the music in an entirely different direction from the rest of it, and this seems pretty typical of his musical expression. The “Scherzino” in this quintet meanders along a chipper, bouncy, syncopated 4/4, and Bentzon clearly had his own way of moving the instruments around in different combinations and voicings within the quintet format.

Bottom line: for “light” classical music, this is one intriguing and pleasing disc. You really need to hear it!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Horn Players Declare: It’s About Time!

Layout 1

GILLINGHAM: Timepiece.* #+ ADLER: Cantilena for Solo Horn.# CIVIL: Suite for Two Horns.* # DIETZ: Caccia.* # BATZNER: Danger Tree for Horn and Mixed Media.* BISSILL: Time and Space*#+ / *Bruce Bonnell, #Andrew Pelletier, Fr-hn; +Peter Green, pno / Centaur CRC 3934

This unusual recital presents French horn players Bruce Bonnell and Andrew Pelletier, plus pianist Peter Green in two selections, covering a number of 20th and 21st-century works for those instruments. But modern does not always equate with atonal or abrasive, as is immediately apparent in David Gillingham’s Timepiece for two horns and piano. Divided into three movements, the music is modal but still tied to tonality; in fact, it closely resembles some of the pageantry-styled music that British composers were writing in the 1950s and ‘60s, yet it is a very interesting work with some really outstanding musical development. As advertised by the CD title, there is also a great deal of time-shifting in the meters chosen to perform it in, and I give great credit not only to our two hornists but also to pianist Green for being able to play this music as if it were in a normal meter, with no apparent effort in the constantly moving time. I must also give great credit to audio engineer Scott Topazi, who not only balanced these instruments beautifully in the microphone setup but also caught them in very forward sound without making any of them sound abrasive.

But of course, much of the sound of these horns is dependant on the performers themselves. Far too many modern-day horn players seem to revel in a large, warm, but very muddy sound, which I don’t particularly like or appreciate, but here both Bonnell and Pelletier play with a nice, bright “edge” to their sound when appropriate, only producing mellower tones in the soft passages. This I liked very much. The second movement of the Gillingham suite is largely given over to the pianist, with the horns interjecting a few dramatic figures here and there, but this, too works very well in giving the music some variety. As is often the case, there is some very dramatic, faster music in the middle of the movement. Towards the end, the horns almost sound as if a bit distant, and this, too is captured perfectly by the miking. The peppy third movement starts out in a jaunty 6/8, but of course it doesn’t stay there. Gillingham is an absolute wizard at changing meter in such a way that it’s almost, but not quite, perceptible to the average listener, yet so sophisticated that without seeing the score it’s difficult to say what some of the meters are. Some rising fanfares, combined with little, fast, four-note phrases, close out this piece.

Samuel Adler, a composer approaching his 100th birthday (he’s 96 this year), gives us the interesting Cantilena for Solo Horn in two short movements, “Slowly and very expressively” and “Fast and rhythmic.” I didn’t feel that Andrew Pelletier, who plays this piece alone, was terribly expressive (or very slow, for that matter) in the first movement, but he certainly gives his all in the second. Again, this music constantly shifts meters, particularly in the second half.

Alan Civil, who in the wake of Dennis Brain’s shocking early death was considered Great Britain’s finest orchestral horn player, wrote the whimsical Cantilena for Two Horns. The first movement moves its meters around little, fast serrated figures played by the horns in tandem; only occasionally in each of its four short movements do we hear just one horn at a time, and of course I can’t tell which performer is playing which solo. Played without piano accompaniment, the music has that whimsical “British” sort of sound which, I am told, matched Civil’s whimsical but subdued sense of humor, including some echo effects in the brief finale.

Christopher Dietz’ Caccia is an interesting piece in a more serious vein than many of those that preceded it. In the first movement, one horn plays a series of elongated quarter-note phrases while the second intersperses whole and half notes with faster counter-figures. The music is not so much atonal as merely “moving around” in tonality, including a few microtonal slides from the second horn. In the second movement, they play together more often yet still manage to find rhythmic counter-figures to play opposite each other. This was a REALLY tricky piece  to play from a rhythmic standpoint, as some of the faster figures could easily baffle less skilled hornists that these two. And it gets even more complex once they get into triple-tonguing, first near the end of the second movement and then in the third, where things become so complex that I was amazed that they didn’t get lost.

For me, personally, Jay C. Batzner’s Danger Tree for Horn and Mixed Media was a combination of interesting music with some pretty dumb electronic effects, starting with the sound of a scratchy old 78-rpm record and then moving into what sounded like a sci-fi movie’s space ship hum. I guess this is what Millennials think is cool-sounding, but to me it was just gimmicky, but as I say, the actual music played was pretty interesting, and eventually the pre-taped sounds became a bit more fitting (and interesting) as well, although Batzner’s later jaunt to what sounded like a shipyard didn’t thrill me much, either. (Apparently, he enjoys hearing French horns combined with the sounds of machinery and garbage. I don’t.)

But surprisingly, we end with a whimsical piece featuring a piano accompaniment that sounds like a music box, Richard Bissill’s Time and Space, and this was quite amusing, even a bit entertaining. A couple of minutes in is where Bissill suddenly gets cute with the tempo shifts, but this one is a little easier to follow than some of the others.

Except for the second half of Danger Tree, which gave me such a headache that I had to stop playing it, this is a really interesting album of music that is not just rarely, but never heard on other recordings (nor, I would think, in the concert hall), and thus highly recommended for both lovers of good contemporary music as well as those who just like the sound of French horns.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Appl Sings Wolf’s Orchestral Songs

5553802_cover.indd

WOLF: Orchesterlieder. Penthesilea / Benjamin Appl, bar; Jenaer Philharmonie; Simon Gaudenz, cond / CPO 555 380-2

This fascinating disc combines Wolf’s relatively well-known orchestral suite Penthesilea with the fairly obscure Orchesterlieder. Not that the songs themselves are rare—one will immediately recognize such old favorites as Schlafende Jesuskind, Anakreons Grab, Denk’es o Seele, Prometheus and Fuβreise—but the orchestral settings are indeed uncommon. Poring through the long-winded, overwritten liner notes (what is it with German liner-note writers? They think they’re producing doctoral theses when they churn out this stuff!), we finally learn, near the end, that three of the songs here were not orchestrated by Wolf himself. Sterb’ich, so hüllt in Blumen, from the second Italian Lieder Book, was orchestrated by Max Reger. “Despite many efforts to do so,” no one can yet identify who set Fuβreise’s orchestral score, but Epiphanias was orchestrated by German composer Carl Stueber (1893-1984).

Listening to Appl sing these songs, one is struck by his warm baritone voice and his sensitivity in interpretation, but to be honest, he is not any better than numerous other great baritones (or tenors, or sopranos) who have sung these songs in the past. The novelty is strictly in hearing them in their orchestral versions, and although some of these are quite interesting, many others just sounded like routine Romantic orchestrations to me. I also felt, in certain songs such as Epiphanias that conductor Gaudenz and the Jenaer Philharmonie were just coasting in their performances. A bit more “bite” in the winds and strings would have been welcome, not to mention more incisive rhythms. Gaudenz simply smoothes things out a bit too much.

Now, this doesn’t make this recording a bad one, just not a great one. Surely there are other conductors working in Germany and Austria, such as Constantin Trinks and Kevin John Edusei (and whatever happened to the rest of the latter’s Schubert symphony cycle??), who could have, and would have, made the performances sound less like background movie music and more like what we hear in Wolf’s piano accompaniments. A truly fine conductor would not forget what those sound like when approaching these scored renditions. Prometheus is one of the very few songs here in which the orchestra sounds awake, if still lacking bite. (There’s also a noticeable splice in this song where someone—either Appl or the orchestra—must have screwed up.) Long before this series of songs was over, I really felt sorry for Appl. With better accompaniment, this CD could really have been something special…but sadly, it’s just a good display for him with sad-sack accompaniments. It’s like hearing Fischer-Dieskau accompanied by John Barbirolli or Serge Baudo.

Ironically, Gaudenz and the orchestra play Penthesilea much better than I would have expected, if not as well as some other recordings, thus I have to believe that Gaudenz takes the view that song accompaniments should be drippy and lacking feeling.

Fans of Appl will clearly want this recording. Others can easily pass it by.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

More Music by Bacewicz

cover

BACEWICZ: Divertimento for String Orchestra. Sinfonietta for Strings. Symphony for String Orchestra. Concerto for String Orchestra / Amadeus Chamber Orch. of Polish Radio; Agnieszka Duczmal, cond / Dux 1828

The legend, and legacy, of Grazyna Bacewicz continues to grow. Like Mieczysław Weinberg, she was barely a blip on the musical radar screen in the 1990s, but now she is firmly established (as he is) as among the greatest of Polish-born composers. This CD, Vol. 3 in a series of which I never was able to obtain the first two volumes for review, covers almost the full range of her work as a composer. The Sinfonietta dates from 1935, the Symphony and Concerto from the 1940s, and the opening Divertimento from 1965 (she died, aged 60, in 1969).

By now my readers know how enthusiastic I am about all of her music as well as having a handle on her composition style. Bacewicz combined lyricism and energy, modern harmonies and traditional forms, in her own personal musical mélange. One recognizes elements of Stravinsky and Bartók without claiming direct references. She worked quickly, setting inspiration down on music paper within minutes of when an idea struck her; indeed, she often claimed to be running on “a fast clock,” able to do things in a few hours or days that took other composers weeks or months to do. She was the Energizer Bunny of composers.

Yet despite writing quite a bit of music, nothing she wrote sounds perfunctory or routine. She had a few different “voices” as a composer and worked within a combination of inspiration and reflective organization. As one can hear in the first movement of the Sinfonietta, she had a firm grasp of counterpoint gained from her personal experience playing the Bach Solo Sonatas and Partitas on her violin. On first listening to any of these works, it sounds as if she simply piled one audacious theme or motif on another, but in reflection one realizes how well-knit this music is. She liked jumping around in her themes, but always ended up making each movement of each work sound inevitable.

And yet, once she found her way, she rarely “advanced” her compositional style. Thus the 1935 Sinfonietta does not sound less “mature” than her 1965 Divertimento; there is a strong kinship between these two works despite their using different themes, key choices and rhythms. Another interesting aspect of her work is that her slow movements never sound functionally “pretty” or relaxed. Since her musical mind was always churning with ideas, even her slow music had a certain edge to it.

The Symphony is written in a slightly different style from the first two pieces, being a modified Neoclassic style. In this work Bacewicz blended her themes and variants together seamlessly; there is much less juxtaposition and jumping around as in the previous two works. And here, there really is a feeling of repose in the slow movement, which uses open chord positions to achieve its effects, similar to but a little different from the way Aaron Copland worked in the 1940s. It is also developed much longer than the other movements, and the third movement is an “Allegretto,” not quite a scherzo, before she moves on to the fourth and last movement, a “Theme with variations.” This begins at a moderately slow pace, gradually picking up in tempo as it goes along. The theme that Bacewicz used is a modal one, and thus a little difficult to grasp for the casual listener, but she makes much more out of it than one might be led to expect when it is first heard. Moreover, it goes on for a surprisingly long (for her) period of time, nearly eight minutes.

To my ears, the Concerto for String Orchestra also has a different form despite the by-now-expected “edgy” use of the string sections. This music manages to combine elements of Baroque composition with Neoclassicism in a seamless fusion. The first movement, after a rather furious workout, ends suddenly and abruptly, while the second, built around a simple nine-note theme based on modal harmonies, is played largely by soft, high violins which gradually increase in volume as the theme expands and changes. The bustling third movement is more of a fun piece, close to “normal” tonality and extremely rhythmic, yet there is a relaxed section about two-thirds of the way through it.

These performances by the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra are simply scintillating. While Deutsche Grammophon and the Brits hold up Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla as a paragon of female conductors, Agnieszka Duczmal has been thrilling Polish audiences for decades with her crisp, incisive readings of all the classic, old and modern. This is a wonderful recording all around!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Cowie’s Piano Preludes

cover

COWIE: Preludes for Piano: Water – Air – Earth – Fire / Philip Mead, pno /Métier MSV 28625

British composer Edward Cowie, whose recent work often involves imitations of bird calls, here temporarily leaves the aviary to present 24 piano preludes. These are, as you can see from the above header, divided into four sections subheaded “Water,” “Air,” “Earth” and “Fire,” and each prelude within each group has its own individual title. This, by the way. is not a new album but a reissue of a recording first released in 2008.

The first of these, “O Brook,” does indeed ripple like a country stream but is little more than a series of fast right-hand figures. I was much more intrigued by the second prelude, “Kiama Blowhole,” which may be related to a whale. And indeed, as the cycle continues, the music becomes ever denser in chord choices and structure, and thus more interesting for me. In the liner notes, Cowie make a bit of a connection between his own works and the cycle left us by Chopin, but don’t be fooled. This music is only Chopin-like in the series of keys he uses. Otherwise, it is pure Cowie, and extraordinary Cowie at that. As the composer himself admits, they are largely improvisatory in character, but I have to say that although pianist Philip Mead plays them extremely well, his tight, almost metronomic approach somewhat detracts from a feeling of improvisation. A bit more relaxation in his approach, some looseness of rhythm in the fast passages, would have been welcome. Mead achieves a feeling of spontaneity in the slower preludes, such as No. 5 (“Maxime Beach in D Major”), but the faster ones are rattled off with a bit of an impatient air.

Nonetheless, as I say, this is first-rate music for the most part, engaging the listener and always surprising him or her with the progression of his musical mind. Just listen, for instance, to the “Tennessee River” prelude (No. 6) for a good idea of what I mean in both respects. But as they say, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, and these preludes are so good that even having somewhat rushed performances of them is better than none at all.

And, as advertised, the preludes do relate musically to the themes stated in the score; the “Air” pieces being lighter and with more space between notes than those representing water. Cowie’s harmonic language is non-tonal but not completely atonal; it just sounds that way because he uses unusual chord positions, often with the root note missing, to achieve a tonally “unbalanced” sound without alienating the average listener…too much. He also writes the top line in such a way that it, too skirts the edges of atonality, dipping a toe in here and there in each bar, without immersing the music completely in it.

Without knowing the locales referenced by Cowie in these pieces—unlike him, I am not a world traveler and have never been able to afford traveling abroad in my entire life—one must use one’s imagination, but even without the specific references to place the music struck me as both serious and whimsical at the same time, and I liked that about it very much. The first of the “Earth” preludes, for instance, sounded very much like an “Air” one to me. But so what? The music was interesting, and that’s all that really matters.(And interestingly, the second “Earth” prelude, “Crackington Haven,” is one of the most completely tonal pieces in the entire series.) “Glencoe (Scotland),” one of the craggiest pieces in the series, must indeed refer to a pretty craggy piece of land in a relatively craggy country. Oddly, I heard a connection, harmonically, in the opening of “Shenandoah Valley” (one of the few places I have been to, since my family originally came from Pennsylvania and we visited there fairly often) with Debussy’s Claire de lune. By contrast, “Bush Fires in E-flat” moves like lightning, and here I felt that Mead’s approach worked particularly well.

I really enjoyed this album. The music is both complex and intimate, which sucks you in and forces you to pay attention to everything Cowie is doing.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Laura Newell Shines on CD Reissue

cover

CASELLA: Harp Sonata. RESPIGHI: Notturno (arr. Newell). Antiche Danze ed Arie (arr. Newell). DONIZETTI: Lucia di Lammermoor: Harp solo (arr. Albert Zabel). BAX: Harp Quintet.* IBERT: Trio for Violin, Cello & Harp.* MALIPIERO: Sonata à cinque* / Laura Newell, harpist; *with members of Stuyvesant String Quartet: Sylvan Shulman, Bernard Robbins, vln; Ralph Hersh, vla; Alan Shulman, cel / Artek AR-0067-2

This unusual but, in my view, valuable CD showcases the talents of one of the most extraordinary harpists who ever recorded, Laura Newell (1900-1981). A child protégé out of Denver, Colorado, she studied first with Kajetan Attl and then at the New England Conservatory of Music with Alfred Holý. In the male-dominated era of the 1930s and ‘40s, she became principal harpist with Artur Rodziński’s Cleveland Orchestra and also played with the National Symphony Orchestra. After moving to New York, she freelanced with the Bell Telephone Hour Orchestra, WOR’s Wallenstein Sinfonietta and the NBC Symphony Orchestra, which is where she met the extremely talented Shulman brothers, Alan (cello) and Sylvan (violin). Alan Shulman, who also had a keen interest in jazz, was so knocked out by Newell’s ability to play jazz harp that he organized a small band called The New Friends of Rhythm, partly to showcase her extraordinary talents. Thus Newell was, along with Casper Reardon and Adele Girard, one of the three greatest jazz harp players who ever lived. The recordings prove it. Not only could all three improvise, they could also swing, which, as Girard pointed out in later years, is nearly impossible to do on the harp because of all the pedaling involved which requires extraordinary coordination with one’s hands. In later years, Newell played the harp on not one but two recordings of Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols with the Robert Shaw Chorale. (She also recorded Debussy’s Sonata No. 2 for Flute, Viola & Harp with violist Milton Katims and flautist John Wummer for a Columbia LP in 1949.)

Unfortunately, since she lived until 1981, Newell seems to have given up performing sometime in the 1950s when she went into teaching, thus there are no recordings of her playing after about 1957. For this reason alone, this outstanding CD, produced by Jay Shulman, is a valuable testament to her extraordinary talents. According to the liner notes, “Her student and close friend, founding editor of the American Harp Journal Sam Milligan, said that she had ‘the cleanest technique I ever heard.’ She retired in the early 1970s [from teaching] and devoted her creative activity to painting watercolors, calligraphy and enamels.”

Newell & Shulman

Newell with Sylvan and Alan Shulman

These recordings were made for the Shulman brothers’ Philharmonia Records label, not to be confused (which it sometimes was) with the British Philharmonia Orchestra. Like so many independent classical labels of the early LP era, starting a record label was relatively easy; it was the production, marketing and promotion that were difficult, in this case particularly so since Philharmonia only released serious classical recordings. Perhaps this was one reason why Newell tossed in the rubbishy harp solo from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor onto her harp solo recital, trying to generate some sales to people who wouldn’t have known Alfredo Casella from Alfred Drake.

The Casella sonata, touted by Newell in the liner notes as “unquestionably a masterpiece of the genre,” I found to be a good piece if not on a par with the music that Alberto Ginastera later wrote for Nicanor Zabaleta. It occupies that strange no-man’s-land between Romantic and early Modern music, using a few unusual chord patterns (and chord positions) while maintaining a lyrical melodic line, but careful listening will show you that this is a very technically involved piece, and perhaps that was what Newell was referring to. Newell, again, suggests as much in her description of the piece as one “raising some unusual and subtle musical problems, [which] dictates a special kind of ‘technique within a technique.’ As an instance, the performer gains clarity by stopping the vibrations of the strings immediately after playing various chords and passages.” I did, however, particularly like the third movement with its jolly-but-slightly-satirical use of roulades and fanfares, as Newell put it, “contrapuntally developed with infinite variety up to the giocoso conclusion.”

Personally, I liked the Respighi Notturno which, in Newell’s own arrangement, is more interesting; the rhythmic and harmonic interplay of the “inner” portion of the score is so well executed that, at times, it sounds like two harpists playing rather than one. No wonder Sam Milligan was bowled over by the cleanliness of Newell’s technique. In this piece, too, she creates an ethereal, almost haunting mood. Of the same composer’s Ancient Airs and Dances, I felt, as with the Lucia solo, that it was included on the disc to help sell copies, although the “Siciliana” is technically very tricky. (The “Villanelle” was based on a lute song by John Dowland.)

Much to my surprise, Newell’s version of the Lucia harp solo is one of the highlights of the album; Albert Zabel’s “arrangement” makes it a far more interesting piece, with multiple examples of double-time and stop-time passages, technical marvels almost beyond description, all of which Newell knocks off as if playing it in her sleep. Donizetti never sounded this good, TRUST ME!!!!

Then we move on to the collaborations with the Stuyvesant Quartet, starting with Arnold Bax’s Harp Quintet, clearly one of the best chamber works he ever wrote. Imaginative, unpredictable and often daring, the music darts in and out of various medium- and fast-paced figures in the first movement, all of which the Stuyvesants play with breathtaking technical skill. But this surely was an album that would only have sold to hard-core classical lovers, and particularly lovers of at least moderately modern classical music of the time. The sound quality of the recording, however, doesn’t really seem to be up to 1951 standards; it’s a little “covered” in the upper range, which dampens the usually-glistening strings of the quartet. Even Newell’s harp doesn’t sound as clearly recorded here as on her 1953 solo album. And it’s not just the upper strings that suffer; in the slow central section (it’s a one-movement piece divided into fast-slow-fast portions), the viola and cello sound muddy. I’m pretty sure that I know what happened, however, because I encounter the same thing when I try to restore old recordings with too much surface noise, clicks, pops etc: when you clean up an old recording this much, you need to then brighten the sound by boosting the treble by a couple of decibels, and this Artek recordings did not do. If you buy this album as a download, however, I recommend doing it yourself. It will only take a few minutes, and in the long run you’ll be much happier with it.

Sure enough, the Ibert Trio sounds much crisper and clearer, which means that a better copy of it was used for transfer, and this, too is a fine piece, if in a lighter vein than the Bax, but the wonderfully crisp-yet-lightweight style of the musicians make the music bounce and sing. It’s really a shame that, except for Alan Shulman collectors, the Stuyvesant Quartet is virtually forgotten today. They not only played with an astounding command of technique, but also with élan in fast movements and wonderful sensitivity in slow ones. Newell is not really covered or marginalized by their presence, but since they were so good and got the lion’s share of the music, she only shines occasionally, yet enough to judge how good she was, particularly in the last movement of the Ibert.

The Malipiero Sonata à cinque is another piece caught between late Romanticism and early Modernism, but a taut, well-written piece for all that, and it receives a springy and spirited reading from these five musicians. Without having heard other recordings of this piece, I honestly can’t imagine it being performed any better than this, and here, too, the sound quality is relatively clear.

This is, on balance, an outstanding CD, and not just for harp fanciers. The level of musicianship is met by the generally high quality of the pieces performed, making this a must-hear for aficionados of these composers.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Matthew Shipp’s Splendid New CD

cover

SHIPP: Tangible. Sustained Construct. Spine. Jazz Posture. Beyond Understanding. Talk Power. Abandoned. A Mysterious State. Stop the World. Shy Glance. World Construct / Matthew Shipp, pno; Michael Bisio, bs; Newman Taylor Baker, dm / ESP-Disk 5059

This latest outing by pianist Matthew Shipp, scheduled for release on June 17, is an absolute joy, particularly in the opening track where bassist Michael Bisio introduces a nice, swinging 4 beat to which the trio sticks for the remainder of the track, but even in the second piece, Sustained Construct, one senses that this is a little different Shipp from the one we’ve been used to over the past several years. His playing here is not only more tonal, but more importantly, more structured. Although he was the one who generally led Perelman away from completely free-form blowing and into more musically structured terrain, these tracks are better yet because they are real compositions with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Even in Spine, in which the rhythm is much more complex (and not easy to follow), Shipp’s ability to coalesce the different elements of a piece towards musical coherence is in play. The approach here is more abstract than in the first two tracks but no less intriguing or fascinating. Bisio and drummer Baker play out-of-tempo figures around Shipp in this one, but somehow the pianist keeps his mind on the musical ball, thus pulling it all together.

On Jazz Posture, Bisio and Baker pull out all the stops, presenting some really heavy music in a beat so fractured that only a great musical mind could follow it—yet when Shipp enters, he is on his own beat and, somehow, makes it all fit together, playing figures that are surprisingly melodic in the midst of all this roiling from his rhythm. The trio takes a similar approach in Beyond Understanding, a ballad sort of piece but clearly not sentimental music. Shipp plays a series of soft chords that almost, but not quite, make up a theme statement, with Bisio occasionally playing bowed bass behind him.

The next few numbers are more amorphous compared to those that preceded them, but as is his wont, Shipp makes them sound attractive and musically sensible. Only in Abandoned does the trio go, temporarily, musically berserk, but that’s surely in keeping with the title. With A Mysterious State we’re back on track with steady-rhythm jazz, but not quite, since  what Shipp plays (in a very straight-laced 4) goes against the grain of his rhythm section, which keeps moving and shifting the beat around underneath him. Eventually, chaos sets in, but Shipp pulls back to playing staccato chords and we’re (kind of) back on track.

The trio continues in this vein for the remainder of the disc, contrasting very edgy pieces with more relaxed and translucent ones such as Stop the World, a real showcase for Bisio on bass, and the surprisingly funky Sly Glance. The bottom line is that Matthew Shipp is a master of both moods and musical forms; there’s really nothing he can’t do on the piano, and this is but one more piece of evidence to that statement.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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

Return to homepage OR

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

Standard

New Hans Winterberg CD

cover

WINTERBERG: Symphony No. 1, “Sinfonia drammatica.” Piano Concerto No. 1. Rhythmophonie / Jonathan Powell, pno; Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin; Johannes Kalitzke, cond / Capriccio C5476

Now that the ban has finally been lifted on performances and recordings of Winterberg’s music, we are finally getting to hear what a fine, diverse composer he was. His First Symphony had already been recorded by conductor Karl List with the Hamburg Philharmonic on the Pieran label, but these are the only recordings I know of the Piano Concerto No. 1 and the very curious Rhythmophonie of 1966-67.

One of the wonderful features of this recording is that the Piano Concerto is played by Jonathan Powell, one of the world’s greatest pianists although not one that is universally well known. I’ve already raved on this blog about his recording of Sorabji’s Sequentia Cyclica Super Dies Irae ex Missa Pro Defunctis (try saying that three times fast!), and that was no small achievement.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, much of Winterberg’s music is amorphous, something like a modern-sounding Mahler. His themes are less easy for the ear to grasp, due in part to the more modern harmonies and in part due to the strange patterns he invented, but like Mahler he constantly juxtaposes tempos and themes. You have to pay attention to him in order to get the most out of his music.

Yet interestingly, the piano concerto has a more defined underlying rhythm than the symphony despite a similar use of rootless chords and an amorphous melodic line. There is something much more cheery in this music; since it was written in 1948, whereas the symphony was written in 1936, it’s possible that Winterberg was celebrating the demise of the Third Reich and all of its evils. Also of interest is that the first movement, which is quite short (just a little over three minutes), ends suddenly and abruptly. In the second movement, Winterberg opens with a long solo for the piano, playing a sequence of ominous-sounding chords in the left hand; when the orchestra enters, the soloist turns to sprinkling little arpeggiated figures over the somber-sounding winds and lower strings. Eventually the pianist turns to running figures on the keyboard as the orchestra builds to, and recedes from, an equally ominous climax; the soloist’s music after this, however, is somewhat lyrical though tied to shifting modes. This movement is more than twice as long as the first. The third uses powerful motor rhythms within its minor-leaning harmony, with the piano playing more typical solo lines.

As it turns out, Rhythmophonie (written in 1966-67) very much lives up to its name. Here, Winterberg played around with rhythm in a manner similar to Stravinsky but with more harmonic movement to go along with it. Moreover, the rhythms (typical of this composer) continually shift and change, as does the tempo, eventually leaving the fast pace of the opening section for music at a slower pace in the first movement, here with different instruments in different rhythms overlaying one another. Halfway through, he has the violas play a rising scalar figure while the rest of the orchestra, including tympani, play contrasting rhythms (and little themes) around it before giving in to the orchestra’s whims.

The second movement, on the other hand, isn’t rhythmic in the least. On the contrary, it floats across the listener’s mind like a cloud, sometimes benevolent, sometimes threatening storms. The third and last movement returns to a more complex rhythmic interplay, but a bit slower and more subtle than in the first movement.

Except for the piano concerto, however, I was oddly unmoved by these performances, to which I place the blame on conductor Kalitzke. Although he gets all the notes and dynamics right, there’s just something cold and clinical about these performances that only Powell’s piano enlivens in the concerto. The rhythms are all there, but most of them have no “bite.” Good and interesting music, then, but except for the concerto, just an OK CD.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard