Josef Schelb’s Chamber Music

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SCHELB: Piano Trio No. 2. Quartet for Violin, Horn, Cello & Piano. Piano Quintet / Daniel Gaede, Nina Karmon, vln; Hariolf Schlichtig, vla; Samuel Lutzker, cel; Oliver Triendl, pno; Radovan Vlatkovič, horn / Hänssler Classic CD H22015

Josef Schelb (1894-1977) is yet another obscure composer whose music is now being brought into the limelight. The son of a doctor, he was able to avoid much involvement in the Third Reich by living and studying in Switzerland. His music and pianism were strongly influenced by his teacher, Bernhard Stavenhagen (1862-1914), who had been a pupil of Liszt, but as time changed so too did his style. These three pieces all date from later in his career, the Piano Trio from 1954, the Quartet from 1962 and the Piano Quintet from 1970.

Although it changed, Schelb’s music never completely lost its tonal bias or its strong purely classical construction. Oddly, some of the modern harmonies used in the Piano Trio sound much more like modern French music than German or Hungarian. The notes, written by Schelb’s son Albert, makes reference to his incorporating bits of serial technique, but this music is clearly not 12-tone. Nonetheless, despite its tonal bias, the music is tonally unsettled since Schelb used what we now call “rootless” chords, and this keeps the listener engaged as the piece progresses. Schelb’s strong sense of logical construction is also present; despite moments of high energy, this is a piece that takes its time developing and does so in a linear fashion that is not too hard to follow or digest. It is, nonetheless, quite interesting, using highly varied rhythms as well as dynamics changes within the framework of each movement. There are also some surprisingly lyrical themes, such as the one played by the violin near the end of the first movement. The second movement is a quirky, almost humorous scherzo in 6/8 time in which Schelb uses the rhythm as a springboard for bouncy syncopations as the music is propelled along. Also, despite the tonal bias, his themes are just a bit hard to grasp, somewhat resembling early Shostakovich.

The third-movement “Adagio” opens with a cello theme which he develops slowly and quite interestingly, with the violin and viola playing their own counter-melodies above it while the piano explores single notes in a somewhat atonal fashion. In ways like this, Schelb was able to combine tonal and atonal elements in a way that was totally different from other composers. And once again, he uses a 6/8 rhythm for the faster episode in the midst of this movement. At the end, the music slows down and literally melts into nothingness before he embarks on the rapid concluding movement, “Animato mosso,” with its string tremolos played against an active piano theme and a slower-moving section in atonal chords. If one were to “straighten out” the harmony, however, one would find a tightly organized and quite interesting piece here which could easily sway an average audience into liking it. (Not that I don’t like it the way it is, just that I’m only too familiar with the wall that average listeners put up in their minds as soon as they hear harmonies they can’t absorb or follow easily.)

The unusual Quartet in which a French horn is added to the piano trio is clearly more advanced harmonically than the Trio; even from the outset, there is no attempt on Schelb’s part to mollify the average listener. This is music that lies in a strange valley between Hindemith and Berg, you might say, although Schelb clearly had a more purely “classical” style than even Hindemith. Here, Schelb constantly vacillates between moods as well as meters, yet does so in a way that somehow ties them all together into a coherent statement. Without knowing the scores, however, I wondered while listening if the energy I heard stemmed from the notes on the page or from the wonderful interpretation of the players on this recording; nonetheless, it is a consistently striking and interesting piece. Here, not even the top line of the music would please an average audience; there is no attempt to meet their expectations in this respect. Every single note in this piece seems the result of long thought and consideration; there is tremendous inner logic applied to what Schelb wrote, and thanks to the passionate performance style it communicates. Our horn player, Radovan Vlatkovič, has an excellent technique and a warm sound, but for me it’s a bit too “closed” a sound, lacking the bite I like to hear from a French horn, but this is consonant with the modern style of playing this instrument.

Oddly, in the third movement Schelb once again reverts to a somewhat lyrical, Romantic theme, albeit one in which every three notes you hear one placed in such a way that it is out of tonality. One thing I noted in this Quartet, however, was Schelb’s penchant for very quickly wrapping things up in each movement with a few brief notes used as a coda, without much preparation to the listener. This gave each movement the feeling having a sudden “ta-daaa!” moment at the end.

The 1970 Piano Quintet reverts, at least in the first movement, to the sort of more lyrical style one heard in the Trio; in fact, there is a secondary theme here, led by the violin, that is remarkably broad and almost tuneful in a conventional manner. The second movement, which alternates between an energetic theme with an ostinato rhythm and secondary themes in slow or medium tempi, also sounded to me like a cross between Schelb’s two different styles; it works, however, due solely to his strong underlying sense of construction. This movement also ends abruptly, but on a sudden chord and not a more conventional “ending” motif. The slow third movement is lyrical but always slightly edgy in harmony, never quite as comfortable as in the earlier piano trio. This movement ends mysteriously and suddenly, a distinct improvement on some of the movements in the earlier works.

The last movement is, again, typical of the way Schelb could combine “standard” classical form and rhythms with modern harmony and his odd, “fractured” themes, except that here, the theme seems to be a continually evolving piece not much given to juxtapositions of different motifs. It surprisingly slows down considerably towards the end, and this time Schelb constructed a properly formal and quite interesting finale.

This is an exceptionally interesting CD. The music presented here is wholly unique in style, often seamlessly combining features of older (late Romantic) and modern classical forms and harmonies, and all of the performers involved give everything they have to the venture. Go for it!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Van Raat Plays Tan Dun

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DUN: 8 Memories in Watercolor. C-A-G-E (In Memory of John Cage). Film Music Sonata. Traces. The Fire. Blue Orchid / Ralph van Raat, pno / Naxos 8.570621

Tan Dun (b. 1957) is considered to be one of the finest Chinese-born composers. Ralph Van Raat is a Dutch pianist with a decided taste for unusual classical music, having already recorded Koechlin’s The Persian Hours and Frederick Rzewski’s The People United Shall Never Be Defeated. Thus this CD is a perfect match of somewhat obscure music with a superb interpreter of unusual works.

Dun’s music, like that of many modern Chinese composers, leans towards the impressionistic, combining Eastern melodic contours and harmonies with Western harmony and classical form, but in van Raat’s capable hands it also has a backbone and surprisingly dramatic moments. Of course, since all of this music was entirely new to me, I don’t know if this is entirely Dun’s conception or Dun as interpreted by van Raat, but it clearly worked for me. I was mesmerized by the delicate passages, atmospheric but not ambient or mushy, and thrilled by the sparkling and dramatic moments in the music.

One thing I can say for certain is that Dun is, to my ears, an exceptionally meticulous composer. He knows exactly what he is doing in terms of both creating his unusual themes and developing them along lines that keep the listener engaged. His music is primarily tonal, or perhaps better described as modal, since Chinese music uses many more open fourths and fifths than ours does as well as staying within a fairly narrow range of notes, although there are several moments, as for instance near the end of his fifth Memory in Watercolor, “Red Wilderness,” or at  the beginning of No. 6, “Ancient Burial,” where he will suddenly throw in an extended chord that is entirely Western. Indeed, of all the modern Chinese composers I’ve heard, Dun comes the closest to providing a perfect fusion of Eastern and Western elements in a way that sounds natural and organic rather than forced or artificial. (My only prior experience with his music was his Seven Desires for Guitar, played by the superb Sharon Isbin on a Zoho Music CD.)

Van Raat clearly enjoys this music; in No. 7, “Floating Clouds,” he even plays it with a certain rhythmic swagger bordering on a jazz pulse. Whether Dun’s intention or van Raat’s interpretation of his intention, it clearly works, adding variety to the music. In the last piece of this suite, “Sunrain,” van Raat sets up a decidedly strong ostinato rhythm, driving home Dun’s open-fourths  theme with considerable energy. These were exactly the kind of features of his playing that made me a fan of his via the first recording I heard by him, the Rzewski CD.

Dun’s C-A-G-E is, of course, dedicated to the eccentric Zen clown of music. I call him that because he himself either implied or stated this outright many times during his later career; his music was never meant to be taken seriously, it was just a way of tweaking the classical establishment by pulling musical jokes on them. (I’ve seen several interviews with Cage in which he admitted that he was “grinning like a Cheshire cat” at seeing people take his work seriously.) C-A-G-E uses a prepared piano, playing of the inside strings in such a way that they produce microtonal slides and other such sound effects, but like Cage’s own pieces that’s all they are, sound effects. None of the music is really serious and thus nothing but a musical joke is conveyed. It is, however, a musical joke that goes on a bit too long, 13 minutes to be exact, music that says nothing and goes nowhere, although van Raat gives it everything he’s got.

Dun’s Film Music Sonata recycles pieces he has written for movies. The first movement, subtitled “The Mask,” sounds the most like conventional film music, tonal and melodic, although Dun does his best to make something interesting of it, but it is in the almost violent second movement, “After Tonight,” where he explodes with almost violent figures, only pulling back on both speed and volume about two-thirds of the way through the movement. But I must be honest: I heard this music as much more of a suite than a sonata. It’s very interesting music, but it lacks a sonata’s form and structure, even when compared to other sonatas by modern composers. In the third movement, for instance, titled “Sword Dance,” Dun creates an unusual metric pattern (4 quarter notes followed by 4 eights, then two more quarters) over which he places a highly unusual theme using extended chords as its basis. Much of the music in this movement is repeated without variation, creating an hypnotic spell on the listener, though Dun doesn’t stay in these passages for very long before moving the music on. Yet even here, it’s not developed in a sonata-like fashion despite again being very interesting, and the last movement, “Only For Love,” really doesn’t sound like it’s part of the preceding work at all, being a fairly simple and innocuous pop ballad. As I say, an odd piece which, for the most part, is exceedingly interesting…but not really a sonata.

The liner notes tell us that Traces was inspired by a field trip the composer took through the mountainous lands of Guangxi, where he heard the wind whistling in three alternating pitches—A, C and D—through a gap in the bus window. Out of such wholly circumstantial accidents music often arises, and to my ears this is one of Dun’s real masterpieces. The music is “spacey” almost to extremes, with sometimes very long silences between notes, and much of it is played piano to pianississimo. It also contains, to my ears, much more modern Western harmony than the 8 Memories in Watercolor or the two inner movements of the piano sonata. It is very much an impressionistic piece, despite the sudden outbursts of repeated single notes in the middle; it has form, but not as much as the 8 Memories. I take it to be a reflection on some of the ideas that this wind-whistling inspired in Dun during that bus ride through the mountains—an aural “snapshot,” if you will, more vivid than any picture could possibly be because the experience was purely aural and not visual. And although this piece goes on for some time, over eight minutes, the listener is never once bored because Dun constantly varies the duration of the pitches as well as the underlying rhythm.

The Fire was a piece that Dun wrote for van Raat two years ago. This, too, is an excellent work, and here, too, Dun’s music sounds far more Western than Eastern. Much of the thematic material consists of a string of single notes in the right hand, 12 to 16 notes in length, using a serrated but bitonal theme that only occasionally coalesces into tonality, particularly once Dun pulls back on the almost ferocious rhythm he has set up and allows the pianist a bit of breathing room. In his notes, van Raat emphasizes the virtuosic elements required for this piece, such as “avant-garde techniques such as clusters to be played by the fist or the arm.” Yet, at the halfway mark, Dun suddenly throws in one of his pop melodies from a film score, surely an unnecessary as well as a disruptive element in so modern and complex a piece, although to be fair he quickly surrounds it with more modern harmonies and tries to make this foreign element fit in. To my ears, however, this intrusion of a pop music melody degraded the quality of the piece for about a minute or so. (I’m sorry to be so negative, but I absolutely abhor most movie and Broadway show music and have absolutely no idea why so many classical listeners, performers, and composers think it worthy of their talents to even stoop so low as to write it. If I wanted to listen to the music from the film Love Story, which I wouldn’t unless you tied me down and stopped me from putting plugs in my ears, I would do so.) Fortunately, Dun recoups his earlier form and even writes a driving ostinato figure towards the end which eventually morphs into a half-tempo coda of considerable fire and fury.

We end with an anomaly, but also a fine composition. Blue Orchid, also composed in 2020, was written as a “variation on Beethoven’s Diabelli Varations” for Rudolf Buchbinder’s “Diabelli Project.” This is quite an abstract work, slow and spatial, and to be honest it takes all the imagination you can muster to even hear a trace of Beethoven in it. As van Raat puts it in the liner notes, “it provides us with a glimpse into the universe, into nature, and into time itself,” all of which I agree with…but if it is based on the Diabelli Variations, I think even Beethoven himself would be shocked.

In toto, however, this is an excellent and fascinating album with but a few moments where Dun lost my attention as a listener. Van Raat is clearly an interesting and communicative pianist who gives his all to every project he embraces, which helps immensely in putting these pieces over.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Nurit Stark Plays 20th Century Music

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BARTÓK: Solo Violin Sonata. LIGETI: Solo Viola Sonata. VERESS: Solo Violin Sonata. EÖTVÖS: Adventures of the Dominant Seventh Chord / Nurit Stark, vln/vla / Bis SACD-2416

Although this is not Nurit Stark’s debut album, it is clearly a coming-out party for this outstanding Israeli violinist-violist, for here she tackles no easy, standard-repertoire items but, rather, four powerful, difficult pieces by four Hungarian composers. The Ëotvös piece, the only one written in the 21st century, is also the lone “first recording” on this set.

Stark is well named. She has a very bright, astringent tone, as sharp as a tack and focused as a laser, which she applies to this music. This is surely appropriate when you consider what most Hungarian violinists sound like, including Bartók’s friend, Joseph Szigeti, or the modern-day Barnabás Kelemen, whose performance of this sonata I have on a Hungaraton disc. She is also an emotional performer who gives her all to this music. Although Bis’ SACD sonics don’t really make a big difference in a solo instrument recital such as this, I felt there was a bit too much reverb around her instrument which distracted me from appreciating some of her playing in fast passages.

The Ligeti sonata for viola is somewhat atypical for him since it pursues a lyrical line more often than edgy effects, but the kicker is that the viola plays pitches that are just slightly out of tonality. The first movement, in fact, is to be played entirely on the viola’s lowest string, the C string, which doesn’t exist on the violin, thus giving the music a darker sound, and the pitch bending makes it sound even stranger than that. Stark’s handling of the technically fiendish second movement, “Loop,” is simply astounding.

The Sandor Veress violin sonata was new to me, and I enjoyed it very much. The liner notes claim that Ligeti’s sonata is closer in form to Baroque style than Veress’, but I heard much more Baroque rhythm in the Veress piece, which also contained a lot of the same kind of self-accompanying techniques that Bach used. Only in the third movement did I feel that the music sounded more “Hungarian” than Baroque, with its odd modal harmonies and fast-paced figures that resembled Magyar folk music.

Ëotvös’ Adventures of the Dominant Seventh Chord was in fact dedicated to Nurit Stark, who gave the world premiere of the piece in 2019. The dominant seventh is introduced very slowly, one note at a time, at the beginning of the piece before moving into some truly wild figures. Although in this piece the dominant seventh is never resolved, Ëotvös does move, sideways, into tonal figures played quite slowly, The composer also uses some Eastern European dance forms; he says that the purpose of the piece is “to surprise the good old dominant seventh by making a big leap every time we leave the Western-European culture for the Eastern-European one.” Thus there is a certain amount of sly humor in the piece, something Ëotvös is known for, and this in itself makes this piece stand out from its very serious fellows. Stark also seems to be enjoying the underlying humor of the piece; her playing of it is full of life and evident affection.

Despite all of the interesting things in this program, however, I found it a hard slog to listen to simply because every movement of each piece was a supreme challenge to the ear and mind. Even the most finely attuned musical listener needs a little breather now and then, and this program gave the listener of this SACD absolutely no musical “breathing room.” It was intense, harmonically dense and rhythmically difficult music to listen to from start to finish, and even I, who like all these composers and listen to their music somewhat frequently, found it difficult to keep my concentration level up. I would recommend taking at least a 10-minute break between each sonata presented here in order to maintain your musical equilibrium. Otherwise, this is an excellent album all round.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Juan Saiz’ “Pindio II”

Juan Saiz

SAIZ: Index librorum prohibitorum. Dogma I. Aurora. El grito. Dogma II. Pindio. Prelude to Eber. Eber. Bellaskos. Lines / Juan Saiz, fl/t-sax; Marco Mezquida, pno; Manel Fortià, bs; Genis Bagès, dm / Leo Records CD LR 926

Juan Saiz is a Spanish saxophonist, flautist and composer who recorded his first CD six years ago under the name of his quartet, Pindio, thus here we get “Pindio II.”

Unlike much avant-garde jazz nowadays, Saiz uses a strong underlying beat in some of his pieces, but it’s an amorphous beat that doesn’t settle into a regular tempo. Harmonically, the opening track, Index librorum prohibitorum, is more modal than atonal, although Marco Mezquida’s piano solo is all over the map in a fast-paced atonal romp. Oddly enough, however, this music has its own underlying form, a strange sort of musical logic, about it. Even the slower-paced, more amorphic Dogma I, which features a great deal of odd percussion effects, “goes” somewhere rather than just floating about in space. These are compositions of great sophistication and considerable musical thought.

Aurora is a surprisingly lyrical, tonal piece for Saiz’ flute, opening gently with just a little light piano behind him, and even as they get further into the piece and the rhythm becomes more complex, the lyrical feeling is maintained. There’s also a hint of Middle Eastern harmony in this one. Although a ballad, it is not one of those simpering, wussy pieces so much in fashion nowadays, but rather a real composition with a theme statement and development. This is good quality music. El grito is another fast, hard-driving piece, but this time Saiz seems to stay with one chord through most of it, working out its unusual configuration through a tenor sax solo played with an edgy, distorted tone while the rhythm section roils behind him. Dogma II, though picking up where Dogma I  left off, is more abstract in form, less “finished” as a composition, whereas Pindio is a slow, bitonal flute meditation with gongs and cymbals going off in the background.

Thus we wend our way through the album, listening and absorbing all that Saiz has to offer, and it’s all interesting as well as moving. A little of it abstract but playful, some of it lyrical, some of it hard driving, but all of it interesting. Prelude to Eber is so abstract as to almost sound as if it comes from another album altogether, while Eber is a rhythmic but somewhat free-form romp in which the quartet sounds as if it’s having a whale of a good time. The only moment I didn’t care much for was the opening of Bellaskos, which was a drum solo that, frankly, didn’t go anywhere, but the rest of the track is a haunting piece which, once again, evokes Middle Eastern music.

Otherwise, Pindio II is a fascinating and rewarding listening experience—doors to the infinite in jazz being opened for you one by one.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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More of Holmboe’s String Quartets

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HOLMBOE: String Quartets Nos. 2 & 14. Quartetto Sereno (No. 21, ed. by Norgård) / Nightingale String Qrt / Dacapo 6.220717

Here, a year and a half after Vol. 1 came out, we have Vol. 2 of Vagn Holmboe’s string quartets. The quality of both the music and the performances are just as high as on the first release.

As I noted in my earlier review, Holmboe was unusual among modern composers in that he used recognizable rhythms in his music. He also wasn’t one much for dark or congested harmonies, although one clearly recognizes this music as a descendant of Bartók. Generally speaking, as in the first movement of the Quartet No. 2, Holmboe sets up lively rhythmic figures which he sometimes juxtaposes, then evolves his developments from those. Yet although his music is consistently rhythmic, it is not all at the same tempo; on the contrary, he apparently liked to use both contrasting tempi and contrasting basic tonality to make his effects. It is music that appeals, then, to both the average listener who gets nothing out of 12-tone string writing and the more sophisticated listener who follows the train of Holmboe’s thoughts.

As part of his harmonic arsenal, Holmboe used a lot of open fourths and fifths in his string writing. He also seemed to enjoy pitting the two violins, recorded in the left channel playing together, against more syncopated, solo-note figures by the viola and cello, recorded in the right channel. In the second movement of this quartet, the opposite is true; the viola and cello play chorded figures together on the right while the violins play faster, opposing figures on the left. This was yet another way in which Holmboe differentiated himself from other composers. About a minute and a half into this movement, the viola suddenly begins playing an intense, lyrically passionate theme, which eventually draws the other three instruments into its vortex for the end of the theme and then its development. But the thing I like most about Holmboe’s music is that it is concise and tightly written. There are no wasted notes or phrases; everything is classically balanced within the framework of each individual movement. The listener never feels that he has said too much or too little, but just enough, and that’s something that cannot be said for many modern composers.

The third and central movement is an almost crazy-sounding “Scherzo” in which Holmboe both pushed and fractured the rhythm in very strange ways that must be heard to be believed. Then, almost as if by way of repudiating everything that has come before, the fourth movement is a lovely, completely tonal “Adagio un poco” that could easily have come from an early 20th-century quartet, at one point even using fluttering violins over a richly conceived theme played by the solo cello. By way of announcing that he wasn’t through yet, however, Holmboe ended this quartet with a final “Allegro molto e leggiero” in which he often pitted two different keys against one another, although the general harmonic bias is indeed tonal.—and, of course, rhythmic figures and lots of them.

The 14th Quartet, written 26 years later, is a bit more atonal but not forbidding in sound. It opens with a passionate violin solo, playing a lyrical figure that eventually settles into tonality as the other three instruments come in underneath, playing other lyrical figures against one another rhythmically. These figures are then developed at some length. In the second movement, he reverts to his playful, fast rhythms; some of these themes, or perhaps better described as little musical gestures, always seem to me to have an underlying feeling of humor about them…not that Holmboe is putting the listener on, but just that he enjoys writing music that has a bit of jollity in it. The third movement is also a fast one (“Allegro agitato”) and, although it is less overtly humorous, it also seems to have a little twinkle in its eye, if you know what I mean, despite its leaning towards the minor and not the major. And, if anything, Holmboe’s writing became even tighter and more terse as time went on; although this quartet is in six movements instead of four, its playing time is actually four and a half minutes shorter than the Quartet No. 2! Aftr a four-minute slow movement, we get a brief (1:44) “Allegro” played pizzicato and subito throughout, followed by a more overt fast, final movement, this time much more serious than the other three in that vein.

Late in life, Holmboe wrote two quartets which he did not number, thus somewhat excluding them from the numbered series of 20. The Quartetto sereno was his last, left unfinished on his desk when he died; it was completed by his friend and pupil, Per Norgård, to whom he had dedicated his fourth quartet. Interestingly, Norgård and Holmboe had a parting of the ways in 1960 when the younger composer wanted to explore more modern and radical methods of composition which the older had no interest in, but it was an amicable parting; Holmboe made it clear that his door was always open if Norgård wanted to return to their earlier, shared style, thus the latter found it relatively east, as well as personally satisfying, to complete this quartet for his old master. Without knowing how much of this is Holmboe and how much is Norgård, my guess is that the fast-paced, rather more dissonant development section in the first movement is at least partially Norgård; it just sounds a bit too dissonant to be Holmboe; but of course, I’m just guessing. The liner notes suggest that the fast second movement is more Norgård, but also points out that the two composers, who had reconciled some years before Holmboe’s death, had long conversations together about this very quartet, so Norgård knew how Holmboe wanted to proceed.

As in the case of the first CD, this is not only a fascinating release but a valuable one. I sincerely hope that the Nightingale Quartet is able to complete the series!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Boito’s “Nerone” on DVD at Last

Nerone

BOITO: Nerone / Rafael Rojas, tenor (Nerone); Lucio Gallo, bass (Simon Mago); Brett Polegato, baritone (Fanuèl); Svetlana Aksenova, soprano (Asteria); Alessandra Volpe, mezzo-soprano (Asteria); Miklós Sebestyén, bass (Tigelino); Taylan Reinhard, tenor (Gobrias); Ilya Kutyukhin, baritone (Dositèo); Katrin Wundsam, contralto (Cerinto/Perside); Hyunduk Kim, tenor (1st Wanderer); Shira Patchornik, bass (A Voice); Prague Philharmonic Choir; Vienna Symphony Orch.; Dirk Kaftan, conductor; Olivier Tambosi, stage director / C Major 761208 (DVD) (live: Bregenz, July 20, 2021)

At La Scala in the 1920s, Arturo Toscanini premiered two operas by Italian composers that grabbed world headlines. The one everyone remembers, because it became a standard repertoire item fairly quickly, was Puccini’s Turandot. The one no one pays any attention to was the superior opera, Boito’s Nerone.

Boito had been working on this opera since 1862, but sporadically. Until the early 1900s, he wasn’t quite sure how he wanted to develop it or in what direction to take the music. Should it be in a semi-parlando style like the operas of Monteverdi, or more lyrical and tuneful like most of the Italian operas of the 19th century, including his own Mefistofele? Eventually, he opted for the former, yet in doing so he applied all his musical skill to creating orchestral and choral textures that were more modern, influenced in part by the then-recent creations of Debussy, Strauss and Zemlinsky.

But there’s no two ways about it; Nerone is an opera in which the listener must come halfway towards Boito and not expect Boito to constantly entertain him or her. This is a drama set to music, not a tune-fest with high notes to please the majority of operagoers.

The plot is not a continuous narrative, but rather a series of scenes during the period in which Nero was Emperor of Rome, showing the tensions that existed between the Imperial religion and the early Christians, who at that time (and, to a certain extent, still today) were part of a cult based on superstition and unbelievable tales. The opera ends with the Great Fire of Rome. In the opening scene, Simon Mago is making preparations for the funeral of Nero’s mother while the Emperor himself is in the throes of anxiety. Asteria, a Roman woman, is deeply moved by the Christian Rubria’s prayer for the soul of the deceased, but later rejects the Christian god in favor of the Emperor himself as her deity. Fanuèl, a Christian apostle, says goodbye to Rubria and leaves Rome; Simon interrupts Rubria as she is trying to confess a sin to Fanuèl while Nero is celebrated by the people.

In Act II, Simon tries to use Asteria, disguised as a Goddess in the Gnostic temple, to seduce Nero (we’re not told exactly why he wants to do this), but the plan fails and they are caught. Simon must prove that he can fly in the circus while Asteria is threatened with the snake pit. Act III is set in a Christian garden where Fanuèl recites the Sermon on the Mont. Asteria, now bleeding, warns Rubria and Fanuèl about Simon Mago. Rubria again tries to confess her sin to Fanuèl but is interrupted again by Simon, who arrests Fanuèl.

In the last act, Asteria sets fire to Rome to prevent the sexcution of Simon Mago and the Christians. Nero wants to have Rubria executed since, when she was disguised as a vestal virgin, she begged him to pardon the Christians. Simon is forced to jump from a tower. Rubria finally gets to confess her sin to Fanuèl in Asteria’s presence: she was both a vestal virgin and a Christian. Fanuèl blesses her and declares her his wife shortly before she dies.

Having heard Toscanini’s live 1948 La Scala performance of scenes from Nerone as well as the complete recordings conducted by Eve Queler and Gianandrea Gavazzeni (of which I prefer the latter), I asked to receive this DVD for review because 1) I wanted to actually see a production of it to see how it works on the stage, and 2) the cover of the DVD suggested, at least, somewhat Roman-era-looking costumes.

The state production isn’t really too bad, although there is a silent character wearing angel wings and pushing a handcart (he later turns out to be Gobrias) across the stage for no apparent reason, and even from the first scene everyone is covered in blood (why?). In the vast spaces of a theater, the offstage chorus, which sounds merely interesting on records, creates a weird effect in live performance. Boito’s music is clearly tonal, not even as far-out as Strauss’ Elektra, and at times has a forward propulsion due to his varying of rhythms; there are even some clearly melodic lines; but of arias and duets in the conventional sense, there are none. As I said, this is a musical drama, not musical entertainment.

While Nerone is singing his first monologue, a female character (Rubria) slowly crawls towards him, also soaked in blood and holding a mallet of some sort. This, too, is superfluous activity. At the end of his monologue, another female character with a veil covering her entire head and body enters; when the veil is removed, we see that she is Rubria, dressed like a Catholic nun and holding a washbasin which she offers to Nerone and the others to wash their hands. Well, now, that’s interesting, since there were no Catholic nuns in Nero’s time and Christian women did not wear a habit and wimple, but the stage director probably didn’t know that.

At the world premiere at La Scala in May 1924, no less than  six famed singers were part of the cast: Rosa Raisa as Asteria, Luisa Bertana as Rubria, Aureliano Pertile as Nerone, Carlo Galeffi as Fanuèl, Marcel Journet as Simon Mago and Ezio Pinza as Tigelino. Alas, several singers in this performance have flutters or wobbles, but in the case of tenor Rafael Rojas in the title role (who, by the way, died in January of this year, before the video was released) he really wasn’t bad, and his large, expressive voice made an excellent impression. Svetlana Aksenova, our Asteria, has both an unsteady voice and a very wiry, acidic one. The best voice clearly belonged to baritone Brett Polegaro as Fanuèl, who was superb in every way. (Incidentally, just as Rubria is dressed as a nun, Fanuèl is dressed like Jesus Christ in Act I, wearing a white robe and a crown of thorns.) But as I say, my main purpose in wanting this DVD was to see the opera performed, and in some cases the stage direction is quite good, particularly the moving pillars in the background. One of the most interesting things about both the libretto and the music is that you never can tell exactly which side Boito is on; he clearly isn’t a fan of the Emperor Nero, but at the same time he shows the early Christians to be not only fanatical but a bit hypocritical and occasionally vacillating in their beliefs.

With all that being said, however, I came to the conclusion that Nerone is an opera best heard and not watched. The music has its share of outbursts but is largely slow, moody and atmospheric; one could just as easily perform it as a concert piece  and get just as good if not better results. This was probably what was worrying Boito the most, how to get Nerone to “move” on the stage. Even when there is stage movement, it almost seems to be in slow motion. Yet, at the same time, I felt that Kaftan let the opera sag in places; his conducting occasionally picked things up, but for the most part seemed to me too slack. The most exciting scene in Act I was clearly the Simon-Fanuèl one, beginning with the former’s famous monologue (recorded by Journet) and going into a duet. This scene struck sparks. An interesting costume touch: when the chorus of women sing that “Apollo is returned, the heavens are lit up in every color,” they’re wearing dress fashions of 1924, including cloche hats and those big, goofy strings of imitation pearls. It’s amusing but rather anachronistic, and many of the female choristers were as hefty of size as I am (which isn’t svelte), thus some of them look like Ernestine Schumann-Heink in a flapper dress singing about Apollo.

Director Tambosi’s solution to creating some interest in staging Act II is to have Gobrias—and Simon Mago—dressed in the black outfit with black angel wings. Two mute figures, also in black angel wings, are playing pool. Yes, pool. On a pool table . With cue sticks. I kid you not. For whatever reason, Simon Mago, while still singing his lines, grabs a cue stick and joins the game. When Nerone re-enters, he is now in a 1920s woman’s dress with the big, goofy string of pearls—but not a cloche hat. (You really do need a psychiatrist to explain what these directors mean by this stuff.) This is one of the liveliest scenes, from a musical standpoint, but all the blood, angel wings, pool games and flapper dresses in the world can’t make Nerone something it isn’t, and that is a viable and interesting stage experience.

Overall, the most complete characterization in this performance was that of Rojas as Nerone. Despite a few vocal flaws here at the end of his career, he, at least, had a riveting stage presence and, in its own way, a riveting voice.

Nonetheless, I’m glad I decided to review this DVD, just to see if there how one could make Nerone work on the stage. You really can’t. The closest you can come to a stage production is to do what John Eliot Gardiner did with Monteverdi’s Ulisses, just have the singers come out to sing, interact and act as much as they can, and allow the music and words to carry the drama. As a dramatic musical piece, Nerone is clearly a work of genius, but as an opera in the conventional sense of the word, it simply doesn’t hold one’s interest.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Sergio Armaroli’s “Rib Music”

Armaroli

ARMAROLI: ElectroIntro. Rib Music. Lugano. Armaroli’s Hand. Day’s Word (Into the Night). Prometheus. This Meat of Music. I Dance. After Before Words. Chrysalis Corpse. Blues Negative. Buttonhole For Bullethead. In Response Though Not as This. Green in Blue(ette) / Sergio Armaroli, vib/prepared vib/gongs; Steve Day, narr / Leo Records CD LR 927

Sergio Armaroli is an Italian vibraphone player whose work in jazz spans both traditional and avant-garde forms; in this album, he collaborates with poet-speaker Steve Day on the title track, otherwise playing a series of complex originals. Although no percussionist is listed, there are clearly drum sounds on the opener, ElectroIntro, a fast-paced original with a meter so amorphous that even I couldn’t follow it on first listening…but it’s fascinating!

The first poem-with-music piece is the title track. British poet Steve Day recorded his narration of the poem in the UK, then sent it to Armaroli to add music to. It’s very much reminiscent of the poetry-with-jazz recordings made in the late 1950s, except, perhaps, that Day’s poem is more abstract than most; like Gertrude Stein, it’s more a collection of words that have a particularl rhythmic configuration without really meaning anything:

They had played each other’s ribs all night,
two bodies caught on rumba marimba.
Chromatic like the piano
keys pressed into service.
Strike with flicked fingers to find scale
A tiny tattoo of a kind of blue…

On this and other tracks including Day’s poetry, Armaroli plays what might be called creative counterpoint to the rhythm of his words. It’s kind of like a more abstract version of what the Chico Hamilton Quintet did behind Ken Nordine’s “word jazz” recordings. There’s definitely a bit of a Beat Era vibe going on here. On Lugano, for instance, Armaroli’s playing consists of a few constantly repeated licks, sometimes the same lick played in a slightly different rhythm, adding or subtracting a beat or half-beat as it goes along. On the purely instrumental tracks, such as Armaroli’s Hand, the vibist creates free-form musical shapes, and here his music is much more tonal in form though no less complex in rhythm.

Much of Armiroli’s music here is like this, both abstract yet with some sort of form, and although each is a separate composition, the whole runs together in the listener’s mind like a continuous piece with different sections. This is due primarily to the fact that both the keys chosen and the tempos are so similar from track to track. I do not wish to imply that it is repetitive—it clearly isn’t—but there is very little differentiation between the pieces, and perhaps this is its one drawback. A little more variety in tempo and tonality would have helped. We finally get a break in tempo and mood on the eighth track, I Dance; at least it’s something to vary the pace. On track 9, the instrumental After Before Words, Armaroli does vary the rhythm considerably, and the tempo is a bit faster, but the tonality is very close to the other pieces.

Nonetheless, the album holds your attention, particularly on the tracks including Day’s poetry. A great CD to listen to after you’ve been meditating or perhaps smoking a little weed.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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The Lost Art of Frances Cole

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SCARLATTI: Sonatas: in D, K. 29 (2 vers.); in A, K. 208; in d min., K. 32; in d min., K. 141; in G, K. 146. RAMEAU: Suite in a min., RCT 5: Gavotte avec 6 doubles. LIGETI: Continuum. BARTÓK: Romanian Folk Dances, Sz. 56. 3 Slavonic Dances from “For Children”: 3. Quasi adagio; 5. Play; 6. Study for the Left Hand (arr. Cole). J.S. BACH: Partita for Solo Violin in d min., BWV 1004: V. Chaconne (arr. for hpsd by Cole). English Suite No. 2 in a min., BWV 807. GOTTSCHALK: The Banjo. H. SWANSON: The Cuckoo / Frances Cole, hpsd / Parnassus PACD96080; all tracks except the Bach Partita also available for free streaming on YouTube

Unless you happened to live in the New York City-northern New Jersey area during the 1970s and early ‘80s, and were into going to chamber music concerts (not always the same thing), you’ve probably never even heard of Frances Cole. I did live in that area at that time, but although I occasionally listened to chamber music on recordings, my concert budget was very tight and so I had to content myself with going to performances of symphonic music and operas, which were higher on my priority list (although I was extremely lucky to have been able to hear the great flute players Paula Robison and Claude Monteux in person). Thus I knew nothing of this pioneering African-American woman who played the harpsichord in an almost daredevil fashion.

From what I’ve learned in the liner notes to this CD, Frances Elaine Cole was born in Cleveland in July 1937. She studied both piano and violin, getting degrees from Miami University in Ohio and Columbia University Teachers College in New York, in addition to tutelage under Irving Freundlich. Yet we haven’t a trace of her performances as either violinist or pianist, not even local reviews, to judge her by. In 1966 she became deeply interested in the harpsichord, taking lessons with a former pupil of Wanda Landowska, Denise Restout, debuting as a harpsichordist in 1971. Donal Henahan of the New York Times (a critic I couldn’t stomach, by the way, as his reviews were generally smug and smarmy) praised her for her versatility, playing “a difficult program with fluency, flair and imagination, never simply typing out the notes in the cold and brittle manner that deadens so many harpsichord recitals. She generally chose sane tempos, but avoided dullness.”

She was clearly on her way. In the cold, heavy snows of winter in January 1972, she and Paula Robison made the long, hard slog from New York City to Trenton, New Jersey to give a concert. The hall in which they played normally held about 150 people, but due to the inclement weather, only about 30 were present. An anonymous blogger on the Precision Blogging website, giving the year wrong as the late 1960s (before she actually debuted as a harpsichordist) and claiming her as a former violist, not a violinist, nonetheless caught the flavor of what happened at that concert:

The concert began with a short unaccompanied flute piece, Debussy’s Syrinx. Then the two played a gentle baroque flute sonata. Frances Cole closed out the first half with a set of Couperin pieces.

Now. the harpsichord is a quiet instrument, especially in comparison to the piano. The audience had adjusted – more than they knew – to the tinkling of the harpsichord before the Couperin began. This was music that built up to quite a climax, and Cole’s specially built harpsichord was capable of more power than most. Near the end she switched to quadruple and quintuple octave coupling and brought the piece to a thrilling conclusion. The audience, used to thinking of this instrument as a rather puny thing, were bathed in a torrent of sound. They applauded enthusiastically. Frances Cole took her bow and walked offstage.

But what was interesting was what happened the moment the performer was out of sight. The entire audience swarmed up onto the stage, surrounding the harpsichord, and examined it in amazement.

The liner notes for this CD do not explain this “specially built harpsichord” or say how it was  constructed. Was it electronically amplified, or just large-framed like Landowska’s grand piano-sized harpsichord of the post-World War II era? The recordings presented here suggest the former, but as album producer Leslie Gerber admits, all of these recordings, for better or worse, stem from live concerts recorded on cheap portable tape recorders, and these generally distort sound; in addition, they had to be electronically cleaned up, which again removes some overtones from the instrument. Many a music critic, including B.H. Haggin, lambasted Landowska for using such an instrument, claiming it unauthentic, but historic precedent existed. You can look it up. There were indeed 12-foot harpsichords with strong metal frames in Bach’s era; I have a Naxos recording played by Elizabeth Farr on just such an instrument; but don’t let facts get in the way of your historically-informed propaganda!

Colleague Kenneth Cooper, another fine harpsichordist, said of her, “I much admired her work and her ‘spitfire’ personality. She was a terrific gal and a superb player. Fran was a spicy, adventurous and unconventional lady, sharp- witted and very generous, much fun to be with.” Unfortunately, it all came to an end too soon. In January 1983, three months before her 46th birthday, Frances Cole died of an unidentified illness. Whether cancer, heart problems or sickle cell anemia is anyone’s guess, as no one has identified this illness.

Cole’s performances of Scarlatti, Rameau and J.S. Bach are clearly in the right tradition. Although she lacked that certain rhythmic lift and sparkle that Landowska brought to them (most harpsichordists do!), they are certainly lively enough. Of great interest is her performance of Ligeti’s Continuum, an excellent (and difficult) piece which she plays superbly. I wonder if Ligeti ever heard a tape of one of her performances of it; possibly not. This CD also includes her own transcriptions of not only the Bach Violin Partita “Chaconne,” but also of Bartók, Louis Moreau Gottschalk and Howard Swanson’s The Cuckoo, on which we can hear a snippet of her speaking voice.

Although her career as a harpsichordist was brief and sadly cut off in her prime, we must thank Leslie Gerber for continuing to seek out recordings of her playing until he had collected enough to make up a full CD and, more importantly, clean up these private tape recordings well enough to be appreciated by the average listener, most of whom don’t have much patience listening to hissy old tape recordings made in live concerts. Although clearly not state-of-the-art for the 1970s, they are certainly clean and clear enough to give one a very good impression of her gifts. I particularly liked the Bartók pieces, and in the Scarlatti Sonata K. 208 one can hear some ambience around her instrument. Here, it suggests more of a large-framed acoustic harpsichord than an electronically souped-up one.

Her second, longer performance of the Scarlatti K. 29 Sonata in D is much livelier and more imaginative than the first, with several interesting rubato touches; it’s also very playful, with little pauses to emphasize the shifts in mood. I felt that this, like the Ligeti and Bartók selections, was an excellent example of what she could do in concert. The performance of the Bach “Chaconne” clearly suggests the kind of carrying power her instrument had, and yes, it does resemble the sound that Landowska obtained from her grand-piano-sized harpsichord. More important than the sound, however, is her imaginative way with Bach, enlivening his music without distorting it in the least, including a well-judged crescendo about 3/4 of the way through it. Interestingly, her performance of the Bartók Slavonic Folk Tunes retains a piano-like sound despite being played on the harpsichord, and Gottschalk’s The Banjo has a real ragtime swagger. (This piece contains quotes from Camptown Races and Oh, Susannah—clearly not for the PC crowd!) I also liked her performance of the Bach English Suite No. 2 very much, lively and energetic, with excellent clarity in the different “voices.”

Cole’s only commercial recording was an album on which she accompanied baritone Gordon Myers in Songs of Early Americans as both harpsichordist and second violinist, but she played no solos and thus flew under the radar. Thus we must give Leslie Gerber a huge round of thanks for finally rescuing this excellent artist from oblivion. This may well be the most important historic recording of this year.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Gardiner’s Excellent “Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria”

Monteverdi

MONTEVERDI: Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria / Furio Zanasi, bass (Ulisse); Lucile Richardot, mezzo (Penelope); Krystian Adam, tenor (Telemaco); Hana Blažiková, soprano (Minerva/ Fortuna); Gianluca Buratto, bass (Tempo/Nettuno/Antinoo); Michał Czerniawski, countertenor (Pisandro); Gareth Treseder, tenor (Anfinomo); Zachary Wilder, tenor (Eurimaco); Anna Dennis, soprano (Melanto); John Taylor Ward, bass-baritone (Giove); Francesca Boncompagne, soprano (Juno); Robert Burt, tenor (Iro); Francisco Fernandez-Rueda, tenor (Eumete); Carlo Vistoli, countertenor (Human Frailty); Silvia Frigato, soprano (Amore); Francesca Bilotti, mezzo (Ericlea); Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists; John Eliot Gardiner, conductor / Opus Arte OA1348d (DVD) (live performance: no date, town, city, county, state, country or planet identified on box or in booklet. I even used my magnifying glass.)

This, the third installment in John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi opera trilogy, was the one I most wanted to hear, since none of the available CD or YouTube video performances seemed really good enough to me. I once owned a now-ancient production on DVD from back in the 1970s, with the great Janet Baker as Penelope, but except for her singing there wasn’t much to write home about. After characters made their entrance, they just stood there like statues and sang. When he finally appeared, Ulysses looked like the movie images of Moses, and the orchestra was so heavy that they sounded like 101 Strings.

The recording I have, simply by default, is the one conducted by Gabriel Garrido with Gloria Banditelli as Penelope, Maria Cristina Kiehr as Minerva and Fortuna, Guillemette Laurens as Melanto, Mario Cecchetti as Eurimaco and the same singer on this DVD, Furio Zanasi, as Ulisse. Some of the singers are really involved in their roles, but a lot aren’t.

In this performance, mezzo-soprano Lucile Richardot, a name new to me, is the Penelope, and she has all the drama of Baker with a more beautiful timbre (Dame Janet’s voice, like that of the legendary Pauline Viardot-Garcia, had what you would call a “bitter orange” sound), and John Eliot Gardiner’s English Baroque soloists, though having a somewhat more generic and less characterful sound than Garrido’s Ensemble Elyma, is recorded much better, thus able to project some exquisite dynamics shadings in their playing that Garrido could only hint at. The rest of the cast is, to my ears, vocally excellent (as were Garrido’s singers), but often more varied in their word-coloring and interpretation. Zanasi’s voice, though not as fresh as on the old Garrido recording, is still a firm and lovely one, and his interpretation of Ulisse has, if anything, grown in subtlety and stature. I do question, however, the voice-range designations of some of these singers; John Taylor Ward, our Giove (Jupiter), is supposedly a bass-baritone (I looked him up online), but to be honest he sounds more like a “baritenor,” one of those voices with a lyric baritone’s range but more of a tenor timbre. (His few attempts at bass low notes are, well, not all that great; he just croaks them out.) Musically and vocally, then, this is a crisp, dramatic and well-nuanced performance of the opera, overall the best I’ve heard. On those grounds alone, I highly recommend it.

The stage production was put together by Gardiner and Elsa Rooke. All the singers are in modern street clothes, there really aren’t any stage sets but rather a bit of furniture with a staircase in the middle, and both Gardiner (front and center) and the orchestra (seated on either side of him) are right up there on stage as the singing actors work around them. The results, if nothing much to write home about, are far superior to the usual over-the-top productions we get nowadays. With a real musician in charge who has respect for Monteverdi and apparently thinks about as much of Regietheater as I do, Gardiner has pared down the stage action to essentials, knowing full well that this is a very intimate work—even more intimate than L’Orfeo, and also much longer (three hours)—and thus not the sort of thing that will move an audience with brainless idiots, naked nuns or Nazis running around the stage. In short, it’s a very good production which puts Monteverdi’s music first, a bit of interaction between principals when needed and appropriate, and thus focuses on essentials. Another thing I liked was that nearly all the singers, even the falsetto “countertenors” (a voice type that, of course, didn’t exist in the 17th or 18th centuries), gave their all dramatically. This is of paramount importance in a static work like Ritorno d’Ulisse, which, if you had written it today, would clearly be called a chamber opera. It only plays well on an intimate scale so that the audience can pay their undivided attention to the drama, and that’s what we get here.

Since I don’t have a Dolby Surround Sound system to play my DVDs on (although I do have Klipsch IHX computer speakers, a really top-of-the-line brand for listening), I can’t say how it might sound on your high-end configuration, but what I heard was exceptionally fine, better and more realistic sound than any CD I’ve heard of this opera. All in all, then, I was actually quite happy that I chose to review this production. It’s simple, direct, well sung, acted and conducted, and for once Monteverdi and not some moronic stage director’s bad nightmare took precedence. Highly recommended.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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The Linos Ensemble Plays Brahms

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BRAHMS: Serenades Nos. 1 & 2 / Linos Ensemble/ Capriccio C5447

Believe it or not, there are recordings that even we professional critics absolutely enjoy, and this is clearly one of them. Although, as I’ve said many times, I normally don’t care for chamber music arrangements of orchestral works, even when, at times, the composer wrote or sanctioned them, these two serenades are different. The first was actually written by Brahms as a nonet for flute, 2 clarinets, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello and bass and premiered that way but, wracked by self-doubts because it was so long, almost of symphonic proportions, he eventually chose to publish it as an orchestral score. In writing the second, he immediately went for an orchestral approach of sorts—a full complement of violas, cellos and basses, but no violins, 2 clarinets and just one each of flute, bassoon and horn. The Linos Ensemble, wanting to bring the second serenade in line with the first, have chosen to use just one each of viola, cello and bass.

And the results are really, really beautiful. Although I have to admit that the Linos Ensemble could have added a bit more pep in their step in the first serenade, this original configuration has a wonderful charm all its own. You almost feel as Brahms did when writing the second serenade: “Don’t laugh! I felt downright blissful during this process. I have rarely written down notes with such gusto; the tones penetrated me gently, and I was happy through and through.”

As mentioned in the liner notes, the first movement of the Serenade No. 1 remind one of the first movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. The first recording I ever heard of this work was the one conducted by Gerard Schwarz on Nonesuch, the second Arturo Toscanini’s New York Philharmonic broadcast (a wonderful performance but a defective recording…the pitch keeps fluctuating because it was recorded on an off-center acetate disc), the third an excellent recording by Rafael Frübeck de Burgos, which is the one I have in my collection. Although I still like the full orchestral version, too, there’s a wonderful charm in this one that just makes you smile.

By contrast, I firmly believe that the Serenade No, 2 actually works better in the chamber music arrangement. Without the somewhat heavy-sounding, violin-less strings, the music sounds much less bogged down and moves more lightly.amd here I felt that the Linos Ensemble caught the almost elfin-like spirit of the music better than in the interior movements of the first. The sound quality of the recording is also very good, closely miked but not abrasive at all, giving both warmth and a bit of sparkle to the instruments.

Since these are well-known pieces, my usual descriptions of the music are unnecessary here. All I can say is, go and get this recording. It’ll make you smile the same way it did me.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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