Melzer & Stark Perform Kurtág’s “Kafka Fragments”

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KURTÁG: Kafka Fragments / Caroline Melzer, soprano; Nurit Stark, violinist / Bis SACD-2175

Here is another recording by Nurit Stark that I missed when it came out in 2015. Until a few years ago, I had never heard of, let alone heard, György Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments, but this is now the second recording of them I’ve heard (the first being by Anu Komsi). Written between 1985 and 1987, it is based on Franz Kafka’s diaries as well as posthumously published letters and stories. Although there are 40 songs in the cycle, the 20th is the longest in the entire cycle, but by “long” we’re only talking about seven minutes and 22 seconds.

I’m not sure, however, if the photo of the horse’s head on the cover of this disc is particularly apropos or helpful to one’s understanding of the music although the text of No. 31 is, “Amazed, we saw the great horse. It broke through the ceiling of our room, the cloudy sky scudded weakly along its mighty silhouette as its mane streamed in the wind.” Maybe that’s why ol’ Dobbin is on the cover.

Since this is a Nurit Stark recording, of course the music had to be edgy and rather sad in character. She is not a violinist to play the Paganini Caprice No. 20 or Dinicu’s Hora Staccato for folks. But of course I’m just being a little tongue-in-cheek about this; as I said in my previous reviews, we clearly need an artist of her integrity and resoluteness in sticking primarily to modern repertoire.

Happily, Caroline Melzer is a pretty good soprano. She has a very pretty timbre and absolutely superb diction (one of my bugaboos in reviewing modern singers), her only flaw being some unsteadiness in sustained tones. Although she has sung such conventional operatic roles as the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro, Giulietta in Les contes d’Hoffmann and Lisa in Pique Dame, she has also sung in operas by Aribert Reimann and given numerous lieder recitals. She thus makes an excellent partner for Stark and a fine exponent of these modern songs, giving great attention and meaning to the words being sung. But these are not so much poetic texts as simply good old Kafka’s depressed psyche expressing itself in brief statements, i.e.:

Someone tugged at my clothes, but I shrugged him off.

Slept, woke, slept, woke…miserable life.

Once I broke my leg: it was the most wonderful experience of my life.

I tell you, this guy was undoubtedly a big hit at parties. One of the edgiest, least lyrical vocal lines is written for No. 19:

Nothing of the kind, nothing of the kind.

The longest song is set to the text of “The true path goes by way of a rope that is suspended not high up, but neither just above the ground,” and is dedicated as an homage to Pierre Boulez. Despite some microtonal slides for the violinist, this one is surprisingly rather tonal and even a bit lyrical in style, not as edgy as most of the others. Indeed, the variety of styles that Kurtág used in these songs-with-violin is not only surprising but welcome, and should serve as a lesson to many modern composers who all write in the same edgy-abrasive style, as if that were the only way to write new music. A few of them sound like some of the atonal music of the 1960s, such as No. 26 (The Closed Circle) while others lie in a space halfway between lyricism and edginess. Judging solely by this cycle, I think Kurtág is not nearly as resistant to lyricism as his older colleague, György Ligeti, was, and that’s a good thing because it shows that he has more range.

I found myself mesmerized while listening to this disc, and that surprised even me. I can’t claim to have heard many other complete recordings of this cycle, but I honestly can’t imagine them being sung or played, as a complete series, better than this.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Discovering Albert Moeschinger

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MOESCHINGER: String Quartets Nos. 3 & 5. Trauermusik für Hanny Bürgi / Rasumovsky Quartet / Musiques Suisses NXMS 7006-1

In a world where classical CD companies churn out endless rehashings of the standard repertoire, over and over and over and over again, it’s nice to get a CD like this, featuring the music of a composer somewhat known in his native country but generally unknown internationally.

Albert Moeschinger (1897-1985) was forced by his father to study law, not music, thus he was only able to start taking lessons in classical music at age 20 even though it had been his interest when young. After studying piano in Bern and gaining a position as repetiteur at the Civic Theater in that city, he received a scholarship which allowed him to study in Leipzig starting in 1920, after World War I, where his composition teacher was Paul Graener (whose Die Flöte von Sansouci was a favorite concert piece of famous conductors in the 1930s), and later in Munich with Walter Courvoisier. Back in his native country, he made his living as a salon musician, all the while writing chamber and orchestral works. At age 40 he was finally recognized enough to be hired as a piano and theory teacher at the Bern Conservatory, but had to relinquish this post a few years later due to health problems. Yet despite these “health problems,” whatever they were, he was an avid mountaineer and live to the age of 88.

The three works on this disc, all premiere recordings, cover the period from 1923 (String Quartet No. 3) to the String Quartet No. 5, originally written in 1940 but extensively revised in 1954. The language of the third quartet is a cross between late romanticism and the then-current trend towards chromaticism and the occasional use of whole tone scales, yet one gets the impression that Moeschinger was so easily conversant with this style that he was able to create a unified piece that said something and had a recognizable structure. There are a number of passages in the first movement especially where the Rasumovsky Quartet employs a fairly broad rubato, and this, too, was still part of classical music at that time. Despite the difference in harmonic language, it has a certain affinity to Beethoven’s late quartets, particularly in the development section near the end of the first movement. The second-movement “Andante” is a charming but harmonically quirky little waltz tune with a few little, odd outbursts, yet this plays beautifully into the more agitated middle section of the movement which is thus tied in both theme and mood to these prior outbursts. In the final section, Moeschinger has some fun with a series of descending chromatic chords, though he ends (kind of) in tonality. The odd feeling of bitonality continues into the otherwise lilting third-movement “Menuetto,” Oddly, however, I found the last movement to be relatively uninteresting and formulaic, a bit of a let-down after all the creativity in the first three movements. It is merely “pretty” whereas the first three were really interesting, although the very last section has some nice things in it.

Personally, I don’t hear much growth in Moeschinger as a composer between 1923 and 1954, but the String Quartet No. 5 is also an interesting piece that uses stepwise chromatic movement in both its opening theme and development. It sure beats the umpteenth recording of Mozart, Schubert or Beethoven quartets. Surprisingly, the music suddenly becomes very creative at the very end of the first movement; the second is closely related in style to the slow movement of the Third Quartet, except that it’s in 4/4 instead of in 3. The third movement, a very nicely syncopated “Festoso,” is related to dance music and a great deal of fun to listen to, whereas the final movement is a real surprise, the most modern and interesting of the four with its initial driving rhythms and bitonal theme, although it does settle into tonality for the contrasting slower “B” theme. The very involved, rather slow development section in the middle is also interesting, using the cello rather than one of the violins to play the bracing, rhythmic figures that interrupt the softer, slower music of the upper strings—at least until the whole quartet comes together once again and starts interacting with sharply-etched figures that play in counterpoint against one another. This quartet has six movements, and although the fifth also begins slowly and includes a few microtonal slides, to my ears it sounds more like an appendage to the other movements rather than a culmination of the whole quartet. The fast-paced finale, on the other hand, is quite imaginative in both its thematic and rhythmic ideas, keeping the listener on his or her toes as it moves along.

The notes suggest that the undated funeral music for Johanna “Hanny” Bürgi, a wealthy art collector who supported Moeschinger both financially and with performance gigs in Bern, was probably written in 1938, the year of her death. It is quite good music, somewhat more conservative in harmony but still rather interesting, and uses a lot of counterpoint. It has been suggested that Bürgi herself commissioned this piece as funeral music. I was particularly impressed by the third movement, “Sehr lamgsam – Allegretto” which, although fairly short (only two minutes long), seemed to me the most modern piece in the suite with the tightest construction, saying a great deal in its brevity, but some of the other movements also have some very nice moments, although I felt that the peculiarly jaunty fifth section seemed a bit out of place for funeral music.

For his time, then, Moeschinger was an interesting but somewhat conservative composer…good, but just missing greatness. Still, it’s always nice to hear something new and different. Well worth investigating.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Ormandy’s 1935 Mahler Second Reissued!

Ormandy Mahler 2nd

MAHLER: Symphony No. 2 in C min., “Resurrection” / Connie Frank Bowen, soprano; Anne O’Malley Gallogly, mezzo; Twin City Symphony Chorus; Minneapolis Symphony Orch.; Eugene Ormandy, conductor / Sony Classical 886449976546 (live: Minneapolis, January 6, 1935 except for sides 1 & 16)

This now-legendary recording, originally issued in the depths of the Depression on 22 sides (11 records) in a massive 78-rpm album that weighed about five pounds, is now finally available on an easy-to-locate domestic CD taken from the original masters…and it has just been sneaked out, with no promotion, almost as if Sony was embarrassed to do so. It was previously issued by Brilliant Classics, a transfer apparently made from somewhat worn and defective copies, as well as by Biddulph from near-mint-condition 78s, but finding the Biddulph CD is difficult and owning it is even harder. I just saw a copy going by on Amazon for $57. This one is far less expensive than that. (It also apparently came out in a 10-CD set on the Documents label in 2007.) When the recordings were first released, the music was faded out at the end of each side and then faded in again at the beginning of the next one, a practice that Victor used briefly in 1935, but when the album was reissued with a different cover around 1940, they corrected this.

Mahler 2nd 78 labelThe symphony was recorded live at a concert in the Cyrus Northrup Auditorium in Minneapolis on January 6, 1935, with sides 1 and 16 being re-recorded the next day to replace significant errors in the original. One commentator on Amazon claims that this was done to take advantage of a union contract that allowed RCA to record a live concert at a much lower rate than a studio recording, which is probably true, but I doubt the following comment that “Ormandy noticed this clause and alerted RCA Victor to its possibilities” since the label did the same thing with Leopold Stokowski’s 1932 concert performance of Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder—in fact, they actually recorded two complete performances of the latter and then chose the best takes from each concert. Ormandy, who was scarcely known at the time, and the Minneapolis (now Minnesota) Orchestra, which was considered an also-ran, just had the one concert recorded.

1940 reissue cover

1940 reissue cover

Interestingly, despite Ormandy’s initial enthusiasm for the set, in later years he said that he was against live recordings because they don’t show an artist at his best. That’s true here for the orchestra, but not for the overall excitement of the performance. The Minneapolis Symphony of that time obvious flub a few notes, but the amazing thing is how much they get right, not wrong. This performance has an electricity about it that Ormandy could rekindle once in a while in his later years, but not that often, and although his later Philadelphia Orchestra recording of this symphony is very good, it doesn’t hold a candle to this one in terms of excitement. In fact, it is even more exciting than the original 1923 acoustic recording of the symphony by Oskar Fried.

Those familiar with Ormandy’s Mahler will of course realize that he preferred brisk tempi to slow ones. After all, he was a Hungarian, and Hungarians generally conduct music quickly. Yet he does not ignore some of the niceties of the score, such as the rubato effects in the first movement. It’s just not Bruno Walter’s or Leif Segerstam’s Mahler.

He was also very fortunate to find two local soloists who had excellent voices. I’ve heard many a “modern” recording of this symphony—and by modern I mean going back to the late 1970s—in which either the soprano or the contralto has an infirm or strained voice. Sadly, both Connie Frank Bowers and Anne O’Malley Gallogly have sunk into oblivion; except for links to this recording, they aren’t even a blip on the Internet.

One thing I particularly like about this recording is that it gives you the chance to hear Mahler played by single F and Bb horns, the kind of horns that the composer wrote for and whose sound he knew well. They have a timbre much closer to that of a hunting horn than today’s hybrid monsters with their massive but somewhat over-mellow sound, so in a way this is an historically-informed recording. Only the soft entrance of the chorus is not well recorded; for the first few notes, they sound slightly muffled, their sound unfortunately covered a bit by the original surface noise which, when stripped away as it is here, has a slight effect on the sound. But of course Sony Classical has much better, more expensive and more sensitive equipment to work with than I do, thus I’m more than happy to accept this momentary lapse in a recording that is otherwise crystal-clear and free of surface noise, clicks, pops and other artifacts of the shellac originals.

Naturally, the pre-high fidelity sound with its somewhat constricted dynamic range makes this a supplementary Mahler Second and not a first choice, but I don’t think you’ll find a more exciting version anywhere except, perhaps, for Klaus Tennstedt’s last performance with the London Philharmonic, which is taken at a much slower tempo. Yet I think it should be in the collection of every Mahler lover for its historic value as well as its emotional impact. Taken on its own merits, this is a wonderfully vibrant and exciting performance, one not to be dismissed lightly.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Rosbaud Conducts French Music

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DEBUSSY: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Nocturnes: Nuages & Fêtes. Marche éccosaise. Berceuse héroïque. Jeux. La Mer. RAVEL: Alborada del gracioso. Ma mere l’Oye: Cinq pieces entantines. ROUSSEL: Concert pour petite orchestre. Suite en Fa. Sinfonie Nr. 3. IBERT: Le Chevalier errant. MILHAUD: L’Homme et son dèsir. JARRE: Concertino pour percussion et cordes. MESSIAEN: Chronochromie. HONEGGER: Sinfonie No. 3. MIHALOVICI: Sinfonie Nr. 2. Toccata für Klavier und Orchester* / Südwestfunk-Orchester Baden-Baden; Hans Rosbaud, cond; *Monique Hass, pno / SWR Classic 19115CD

This unusual collection features famed conductor Hans Rosbaud (1895-1962) in repertoire that one would consider quite foreign for him, that of French composers, although all of the works included here were written at one point or another during the 29th century. We start out with the common—Debussy and Ravel, and none of the works really rarities—but soon move on to the uncommon in Roussel, Jarre and Mihalovici with unusual works by famed composers like Ibert and Honegger tossed in.

The odd thing about Rosbaud was that although he started conducting in 1921, and was appointed by the U.S. occupation forces as music director at Munich in 1945, no one really paid him any attention until he premiered Schoenberg’s opera Moses und Aron in 1954 on eight days’ notice. This was the performance that made his name, particularly when it was issued on LP in 1957. Rosbaud’s penchant for extreme clarity in his orchestral sound led a great many critics to compare Arturo Toscanini negatively to him simply because Toscanini’s repertoire was far more limited in terms of modern music, including only Ravel, Dukas, Atterberg, Copland, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Barber, Creston, Gershwin, Morton Gould and Roy Harris among respected modern composers, in some cases only one piece per composer. But since Toscanini was born in 1867 and Rosbaud in 1895, it is much fairer to compare him to Toscanini protégés such as Artur Rodziński, Charles Munch and Dmitri Mitropoulos who conducted far more modern works than he did with a similar transparency of sound. I feel that, since Rosbaud was only famous for the last seven years of his career, the conductor you should compare unfavorably to him is Karajan, not Toscanini, since these were the exact years in which Karajan tightened his grip on the classical world as “international music director.”

As with Toscanini, Rosbaud’s extreme clarity of sound may not always have been ideal for Debussy, who preferred his orchestral textures somewhat blurred, not crystal-clear. With that being said, Rosbaud’s performances of these Debussy works are quite good considering their time and place as well as the mono sound. The question is, however, not whether they are good or not but whether they are unique enough to add to one’s collection which probably has numerous versions of most of these pieces. That I cannot answer for you, but he does a pretty good job with them. There is some nice transparency, particularly of the strings and harp, in the Prélude and a nice floating feeling in the first Nocturne, “Nuages.” His performance of “Fêtes” sounds much like Toscanini’s performances of this piece, only a shade more relaxed. Personally, I prefer a more exciting reading of “Fêtes.” Rosbaud also brings out the syncopations in the “Marche ecossaise” better than Toscanini did. The Berceuse héroïque is very beautifully phrased, although at this slow tempo it sounds more berceuse-like and less héroöque.

Perhaps I should point out that the constant comparison that modern music lovers make between Rosbaud and Toscanini is not as fair as it would be if they compared him to three of his

Jeux is unusual, a late piece by Debussy not often programmed in concert because it is ballet music. Very few conductors, even today, play it as a concert piece. Rosbaud’s performance is excellent judged in both tempi and orchestral balance. Although I prefer Bernard Haitink’s recording of it, this is largely due to the superior sound; as a reading of the score, this one is hard to beat.

I own a fairly large number of La Mer performances: Piero Coppola, Haitink, Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht, two by Charles Munch and four by Toscanini (BBC Symphony 1935, New York Philharmonic 1936, Philadelphia Orchestra 1942 and NBC Symphony 1950), of which the Haitink, Inghelbrecht and Toscanini 1950 are my favorites. This one is very good, however; Rosbaud has a firm grasp on the work’s structure and, like Toscanini, brings out the inner voices, although he rushes the last section of the first movement too much (yes, even faster than Toscanini’s speediest performance).

Since Ravel calls for less of an opaque sound than Debussy, Rosbaud sounds particularly comfortable in his music, and the Alborada del gracioso is a wonderful achievement, in part due to the really superb sound quality. His trademark angular phrasing and rhythmic approach works especially well in this piece. The sound is also pretty good, though not quite as perfect, in his performances of five pieces from Mother Goose. These really capture the spirit of the music very well.

Although Roussel was six years older than Ravel, his music was more forward-looking, thus Rosbaud is very much at home in these works from 1926-1930, particularly in the Concert pour petite orchestre which he plays with special brilliance. The strings sound just a bit rough in his performance of Roussel’s Suite in F Major, but this might have been due to the way the recording was miked. Toscanini suffered a similar fate with many of his recordings. The Symphony No. 3, though ostensibly in G minor, is actually a bitonal work that is often underpinned by ambiguous harmony, and ni this piece Rosbaud is clearly in his element. He constantly enlivens the rhythms of these Roussel works in a way that even many modern conductors do not, and again his penchant for transparency of orchestral texture pays great dividends.

Ibert’s Le Chevalier errant is another infrequently-performed work. Written in 1835 for Ida Rubinstein, it’s based on Don Quixote (which, for some reason, was an exceptionally popular theme in the late 1920s and early ‘30s). Ibert originally wrote it as a batter with speaker, but later rearranged it as you hear it here, as a suite for large orchestra.  This performance also has excellent sound; although, again, we are not provided performance dates, it does resemble some early stereo recordings, with a mild but noticeable separation of channels. All of the elements of the score are handled superbly, and like the preceding two discs, Rosbaud seems to be giving this music more of a legato feel and forward momentum than he did in, say, Mozart.

Milhaud’s not-so-common L’Hommeet son désir is also a ballet, and a very early one for Milhaud (1917-18), written for Nijinsky and the Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo. If anything, this music is even more modern and forward-looking than the Ibert piece, almost completely atonal with an amorphous rhythm (how on earth did Nijinsky dance to it??), sort of a cross between Debussy (who was still alive at the time), Stravinsky and Schoenberg (it reminded me of Erwärtung, except without a singer). Not surprisingly, the work was not premiered until 1921; it was probably too difficult for the orchestra to play in 1918. About four minutes in, we finally get a steady rhythm but not a particularly danceable one (to my mind, anyway); in fact, there are two or three contrasting rhythms playing against one another. Listening to Rosbaud’s performance reminds me of Toscanini’s comment about Mitropoulos’ performance of Berg’s Wozzeck: How he got all that complex music into his head is beyond me. (Like Toscanini and Mitropoulos, Rosbaud conducted without a score in front of him most of the time.) Not a single section of this piece, which runs continuously for 19 minutes, is “comfortable” listening. This beats La Creation du Monde by a mile in terms of complexity.

Maurice Jarre’s three-minute Concertino for Percussion and Strings was a new work when Rosbaud performed it. All polyrhythms and contrary-motion themes and motifs, it’s challenging to listen to even today. Rosbaud does a splendid job of it. Messiaen’s Chronochromie was also new at the time having been written in 1959-60. If you are one of those who are always looking for the mysticism in Messiaen’s scores, this may not be the performance for you: it is brisk, texturally crystal-clear and rhythmically pert. But I liked it tremendously, in fact, even better than Sylvain Cambreling’s performance in his box set of Messiaen’s orchestral works (which is a sort of touchstone for me in his music). Using percussion a great deal, particularly xylophone and chimes, parts of it always sounded to me like a badly broken mechanical clock. I tell you, you can’t beat those old tunes from the doo-wop era!

Rosbaud’s performance of the Honegger Third Symphony is as intense as that of Charles Munch’s but without the “French” string sound that Munch preferred. Though born in Rumania, Marcel Mihailovici qualifies as a French composer because he was “discovered” at age 21 by George Enescu and encouraged to move to Paris, where he stayed, to study with Vincent d’Indy. His music, too, is resolutely bitonal, and again Rosbaud takes all of this in stride to produce a performance that balances his usual traits of lyricism with intensity and an almost 3-D orchestral texture.

The saddest thing about Rosbaud is that fame came late and he died at age 67, just about the time his career really started taking off. The same fate befell René Leibowitz, who died at age 59, whereas Pierre Boulez, another conductor committed to modern repertoire, made it to age 90 and Robert Craft lived to age 92. Being committed to modern music simply won’t make you a popular musician. (How many people know Herbert Kegel, another German conductor who specialized in modern music?) After conducting the Munich Philharmonic for three years (1945-48), Rosbaud’s contract was allowed to lapse because they wanted to move in a more conservative direction. That’s when he signed with the SWR Sinfonieorchester of Baden-Baden, where he stayed for the rest of his life.

Running through some of Rosbaud’s other recordings, I greatly admired his performances of Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, the Schumann Violin Concerto with Henryk Szeryng, Blacher’s Concertante Musik and Piano Concerto No. 2 with the composer’s wife, Getty Blacher-Herzog, Berg’s 3 Pieces for Orchestra, a fabulous performance of Bartók’s Sonata No. 2 for two pianos and percussion with Rosbaud himself on first piano (Maria Bergman plays the second), Schoenberg’s Orchestral Variations, Op. 31, and especially Webern’s 6 Pieces for Orchestra which he conducted with more detail and zip than Robert Craft. He was clearly a major talent, in the same vein as Mitropoulos, Leibowitz and Boulez, his only Achilles heels being Beethoven (which he conducted a bit too slowly and broadly) and 18th-century music, his complete recordings of Rameau’s Platée and Gluck’s Orfeo (the tenor version, with Leopold Simoneau and Suzanne Danco), in which he uses too rich an orchestral sound and didn’t understand the Classical style as well as Monteux or Toscanini did. But he was indeed as advertised, an outstanding conductor, particularly of music from the mid-19th century on into contemporary works of his time, and it’s nice to see him getting his due on recordings. This set is yet another feather in his cap, one that should be heard by all serious music lovers.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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More Music by Winterberg!

C5476 - 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 restrictions on performances and recordings of Hans Winterberg’s music has finally been lifted, we are finally able to judge this remarkable composer more fully. New CDs seem to be coming out almost quarterly, and each one sheds new light on his excellent style and remarkable output.

This one focuses on a fairly early work, the Sinfonia drammatica, written when he was only 35; the first Piano Concerto, written in 1948; and the curious Rhythmophonie from 1966-67. Each one is excellent in its own way.

After listening to so much modern music that often sounds not only very dark but also, in its own way, thematically and rhythmically diffuse to the point of not having much shape, it’s almost startling to hear Winterberg again. Even at the stage of his first symphony, he was clearly trying to create his own identity within the modern school of composition, but at this point there are as many indications of late Romanticism as there are of modernism. For a “dramatic symphony,” the themes used in the opening of this one-movement work seem curiously light-hearted but not frivolous despite outbursts of strings, brass and percussion here and there. The liner notes refer to the “militarism” of the first and third sections, but either these were not quite as militaristic as the Shostakovich Seventh or the conductor underplays them, because I only heard occasional moments that kind of referred to it. A great deal is made in the notes of the fact that Winterberg was Czech, but to be honest, I’ve always heard his music as more in the continuum of modern German composers like Hindemith except with a bit more levity or lyricism at times. His music does not strike me as being “Czech” in the tradition of Bohuslav Martinů. At least, that’s how I hear it and I’m sticking to that.

In the later fast section, the music struck me as strangely glib. But was this Winterberg’s intent or the interpretation of conductor Johannes Kalitzke? I think the latter. Karl List’s performance of this same symphony with the Munich Philharmonic on Pieran 0054/55 is much more intense than Kalitzke’s reading.

In the Piano Concerto we do not have the luxury of another recording to compare—at least, I could not find one on the Internet—but here, Kalitzke is aided by the remarkable pianist Jonathan Powell, who recorded Sorabji’s massive cycle Sequentia Cyclica Super Dies Irae for Piano Classics, and Powell is very much an intense performer. The fast first movement is surprisingly short, only about three minutes long, and is in fact titled “Vorspiel” or “Prelude.” The real meat is in the moody, restless second movement, which runs almost seven minutes, in which Winterberg takes a strange but relatively modest theme and develops it in remarkable ways. There are rising and falling chromatic chords in this, too, which add to the mood as they are written in the minor. A soft figure played by the strings hints at Middle Eastern exoticism. The third movement, marked “Epilogue,” is a fairly long and involved piece in a rapid tempo but minor keys, a mixture of strong energy with a touch of menace, though not as dark as the second movement. The cadenza is surprisingly long for such a relatively short movement, giving the pianist an opportunity to have his say in the midst of the orchestral passages.

Winterberg never heard his Rhythmophonie; the premiere performance was canceled due to its being “too difficult to rehearse.” (The same complaint put off the world premiere of Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles.) It is indeed a tricky piece, with frequent contrary motion of two opposing themes in different syncopations. The notes aptly describe it as “kaleidoscopic in its ceaseless meter and mood changes,” using “distorted folk melodies” in addition to his usual polyrhythms and polytonalities. When played well, as it pretty much is here, however, it makes a very effective and interesting piece. Near the end of the first movement, it gets very complex indeed.

Yet the slow second movement is anything but rhythmic; rather, it is slow, moody, almost funereal in its mein. The third movement opens in a surprisingly moderate tempo with woodblocks, followed by winds playing a repeated chord and then strings and higher winds (flutes, piccolos) playing strange, atonal rhythmic figures. Although nearly as complex as the first movement, it is gentler in character, almost playful despite the use of minor-key harmonies. Yet in this movement I felt, as in the Symphony, that despite its technical perfection the performance lacked a bit of zip and drive.

Overall, however, a good, valuable addition to the Winterberg catalog. If you enjoy his music as much as I do, you’ve got to get this one.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Stark Plays Suslin & Gubaidulina

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SUSLIN: Mobilis for Violin Solo. Sonata capricciosa for Viola & Harpsichord. Grenzübertritt for Viola, Cello & Bass. 1756 for Violin Solo. Capriccio über die Abreise for 2 Violins. GUBAIDULINA: So sei es for Violin, Bass, Piano & Percussion / Nurit Stark, vln 1/vla; Cédric Pascia, hpd/pno; Olga Dowbusch-Lubotsky. cello; Alexander Suslin, bs; Rebecca Beyer, vln 2; Taiko Saito, perc / Bis SACD-2146

Having reviewed Nurit Stark’s latest SACD of music by Bartók, Ligeti, Veress and Ëotvös, the artist directed me to two of her previous discs, of which this is one. I’ll say this for Stark: she is a very serious artist. She doesn’t mess around with lightweight tonal works by Mozart, Schubert or Brahms. She goes straight for the jugular vein in terms of depth of music and intensity of emotion.

Viktor Suslin (1942-2012) was a name entirely new to me, but he was clearly a serious artist as well. He was also apparently very close to annotator Tatjana Frumkis, as the notes tell us that he used to call her often for long conversations. The notes also give us his artistic credo:

Some musical elements (for example a fragment of melody, a rhythmic motif, a certain structure or even the construction of a large-scale work) can gradually develop into an idée fixe, from which one can free oneself by setting them down on paper… The constructive concept has nothing to do with specific compositional techniques… Music that does not possess a constructive concept cannot be saved by any sublime ideas, any expression. The depth of the trace that a work leaves behind depends on its perfection of construction, and nothing else.

What this doesn’t tell you is that Suslin’s music was primarily atonal although not aleatoric. He was also fond of using microtonal passages, particularly when writing for string instruments, which is evident in Mobilis. By and large, his music was typical of the modern Russian school which post-dated Shostakovich and his peers: moody, restless and very deep in expression. Listening to both Mobilis and the Sonata capricciosa, I immediately thought of Galina Ulstvolskaja, the strange, deeply moody composer whose works are so beloved by Patricia Kopatchinskaja. The major difference between Kopatchinskaja and Stark is that the former always has a light, thin sound based on straight tone whereas the latter plays with a rich, full sound, which I happen to prefer. But both are outstanding and deeply committed artists.

There is very little that is capricciosa in this sonata; it is deep, dark music with few if any moments of light to contrast with its shade. Frumkis’ notes tell us that Mobilis is based on the French overture tradition of the 18th century while the Sonata capricciosa also uses a Baroque model, but there are only a few passages in the latter that seemed to me to have any connection in rhythm, and none in harmony or general development, to Baroque music. This is music that Couperin or Rameau might have played were they having a nervous breakdown or horrendous indigestion in the middle of the night.

Grenzübertritt, the title of which translates to Crossing Beyond, is described as a “symbolic” work, its title referring to, as the composer put it, “a purely musical border – crossing from the well-tempered system to a diatonicism beyond that system.” It is also, in terms of mood, a very dangerous work bordering on inner violence. I wouldn’t want to be the one to tell Ms. Stark that she left the water running in the bathroom while she was playing this piece. Much of the music played by the three strings together is scored a half-tome or perhaps even a microtone apart, which creates some very edgy moments. At the halfway mark, the bass grumbles microtonally in its lowest depths while the cello and viola, also in a lower range, play mysterious figures above it. A bit later on we hear soft viola (and, I think, cello) tremolos over the bass. They are not “pretty” tremolos. They are sad and speak of a dark night of the soul.

Indeed, if one throws away an attempt to describe this music from a technical standpoint and gives in to pure emotion, this recital is, like the one I previously reviewed, start-to-finish intensity. The only piece I didn’t respond to positively was 1756  for Violin Solo. I didn’t find the music particularly interesting in construction or cohesive in a way that I could follow. But we all hear music differently, so your experience may be quite different from mine. The notes tell us it was inspired by Mozart. I dare you to find a single allusion to anything Mozart ever wrote in it.

The Capriccio über die Abreise is much more interesting and varied in sound. Scored for two violins, Suslin plays around with the concept of the two violins in an ever-changing rhythmic environment. This piece apparently had a personal meaning for the composer, written just a few days after his final decision to leave the then-Soviet Union for good.

Gubaidulina’s So sei es, dedicated to Suslin, was written especially for Stark and this recording, which is its first. The music is in the same vein, slow, dark and moody, but has a bit more underlying momentum about it. The percussion effects are mostly light, consisting of occasional gongs in the background at first, then light chimes and xylophone figures behind the piano solo. The notes refer to the violin and bass as “heroes” who develop “a dramatic dialogue,” but I personally heard it very differently, as a three-way conversation between the two strings and the piano in almost equal measure. The tempo increases slowly but surely in increments as the piece develops, the interaction between the three instruments becoming every tighter and more concise in statements. An almost ferocious rhythmic drive builds up and then falls away as the piano plays soft, high chords with occasional commentary by the bass and percussionist. There is a brief stab at tonality for a few bars as the harmony suddenly coalesces, but then begins to slip apart once again. This is an excellent piece, serious yet fascinating in its subtle interactions between instruments.

Quite a recital. You certainly won’t be hearing any of this music on your local classical FM station any time soon!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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