Unraveling the Mystery of Tempo King

Tempo King

Take a trip with me now to the early years of the Swing Era, 1936-37, to discover a performer so obscure that, to this day, no one knows his real name: Tempo King.

All that we know about Tempo is that he was born in 1915, worked up an act in Florida with the assistance of a pianist who could play a pretty convincing Fats Waller imitation, then came north to New York in the spring of 1936 where he, the pianist, and a pick-up band played during intermissions at a couple of the jazz clubs on 52nd Street. We may never know who his musicians were in-person, because when RCA Victor contracted him to make records for their inexpensive Bluebird label in August of that year, his recording group consisted of pianist Queenie Ada Rubin (so named because, since he was “Tempo King,” she was his “Queen”), three front-line players from the Hickory House—Joe Marsala on clarinet, his brother Marty on trumpet, and the’r highly skilled bassist, Mort Stuhlmaker—and two first-class “ringers” from the world of Chicago Jazz, guitarist Eddie Condon and drummer Stan King, and these were clearly not the kind of musicians who would be working intermissions. They were the front-liners who were taking those 15-minute intermissions.

Bojangles of HarlemConsidering Ada Rubin’s stride piano skills, which were first-rate even though she couldn’t equal Waller’s deft right-handed runs, it wasn’t surprising that Tempo and his band did a flat-out imitation of Fats’ “Rhythm” group. What was surprising was that it was RCA that signed them, making them lower-priced rivals to Waller’s own records on their full-priced black label discs. Tempo King and his little band sold moderately well for Bluebird, but only had three hit records. Their version of the popular Organ Grinder Swing came in at #12, behind the versions of the song by Jimmie Lunceford (#2) and Benny Goodman. A bit later on, Tempo had his biggest hit, I’ll Sing You a Thousand Love Songs, which charted at #2; then, later still in 1937, To Mary With Love came in at #12. But that was it. After making a few more sides for Bluebird in early January of 1937, they were cut loose, but Vocalion picked up their contract, where they continued to make recordings through the rest of that year. Then, they disappeared as if they had fallen through a black hole.

The story was that Tempo King, who was said to be African-American, was suffering from an undisclosed intestinal illness which eventually took his life on June 25, 1939 when he was only 24 years old. But a photograph has suddenly surfaced online in the last couple of years, and although he appears to have been mixed race, he clearly wasn’t black. He looks Latino, which if you think about it makes sense. Even in the years before World War I, several Cubans migrated to Florida to find better opportunities to succeed, thus Tempo King’s parents may have been among them.

Of course, none of this would be of the least interest to most jazz historians except for one thing: his records are absolutely terrific. An imitator he was, but an imitator with an interesting vocal style who was able to engender a wonderful esprit de corps from his little band. Seldom has either Joe or Marty Marsala sounded as relaxed and inventive as they do on these records, and track after track brings a smile to your face just because they were so good.

I’m sure that Fats Waller wasn’t really thrilled that his own label hired a knock-off to imitate him for their lower-priced records, and I’m willing to bet that he had something to do with their getting the boot before even a full half-year was out. There are some folks posting messages online who firmly believe that Waller himself was the pianist on these records, moonlighting under a pseudonym, but as I mentioned above, Ada Rubin didn’t quite have Waller’s dexterity or his musical imagination, particularly his ability to play right-handed runs with a facility similar to that of Art Tatum. You can do A-B comparisons between them and decide for yourself.

But even if Tempo King died young, one wonders how a marketable talent like Rubin would also disappear into the ether. After thinking it over for a couple of years, I’ve decided that there are only two plausible answers. The first is that Rubin also died young, either by illness or—and there is always this chance—that she was killed, either in an accident or by Tempo King before his own death. The other is that Ada Rubin was an alias.

So who could she have been?

I think I have the answer. Not proven, but plausible.

In 1932, while hired by WLW radio in Cincinnati to play piano and organ on their popular “Moon River” radio program, Waller heard and met an incredible 17-year-old African-American woman from Zanesville, Ohio named Una Mae Carlisle, and the thing that caught his ear was that she could play like him. Either then or later, Waller had an affair with Carlisle, but she proved to be independent and tough-minded, and kept reminding him that he promised to promote her career.

What better way for Waller to promote Una Mae than by having her do an outright imitation of him on recordings, for his own label no less…albeit under an assumed name?

Carlisle

Una Mae Carisle

I’ve listened to several recordings of Carlisle playing stride piano, and there is a strong resemblance between her playing on those tracks and the playing of “Ada Rubin.” So that’s my guess, that Queenie Ada Rubin was actually Una Mae Carlisle. And here’s the best part of my theory: you can’t prove that I’m wrong!

As it turned out, Waller gave Una Mae her really big break by recording a duet version of I Can’t Give You Anything But Love with her on November 3, 1939. The irony of this is that, by this time, Waller himself had stopped charting a string of hits, so he himself had been demoted to the 35¢ Bluebird label, where he stayed until the fall of 1942. The furor Waller created by his cameo appearance in the film Stormy Weather led to a 12” full-priced release of his performances from that film by RCA, but his success was short-lived since he died in the fall of 1943 while returning to the East Coast by train.

But to return to the Tempo King records, most of them are excellent period jazz in addition to being lively, effervescent performances, so much so that they apparently sold in good quantities despite his having only a few hits. Indeed, the only known CD release of Tempo King recordings was made in the early 1990s by British trad-jazz-bandleader Chris Barber on his own CBC label. This CD was later reissued with the same tracks in the same order by another small CD company. Yet Tempo King Bluebird 78s seem to be constantly turning up, and most of these copies are fairly worn, indicating that they have been played quite a bit. The Vocalions also turn up occasionally, but not as frequently as the Bluebird recordings. Many of these have been posted online for free listening, on YouTube, the Library of Congress website and its affiliate, the Discography of American Historical Recordings (DAHR), the Classic Jazz Online site and even on the Internet Archive. And they get a lot of hits.

Marsala

Joe (clarinet) and Marty (trumpet Marsala at the Hickory House c. 1937. Eddie Condon is the guitarist whose face is hidden by Joe’s right elbow.

Tempo King did not have a great vocal tone or range, but true to his name his sense of jazz rhythm was excellent and he could scat convincingly—sort of a poor man’s Bon Bon (for those of you who remember Bon Bon, real name George Tunnell, who sang with Jan Savitt’s band in the late 1930s). Joe Marsala’s playing was based on the late 1920s Chicago style, fused with elements of swing, and although he was not on the genius level of Goodman, Shaw or Edmond Hall, he was an excellent improviser. Marty, who seldom recorded without his brother, was a good, crackling trumpet player who fed off the musical ideas of others, in this care not only Joe but also “Ada Rubin.” With a rhythm section of Stuhlmaker, a fine bassist who played in the 52nd Street clubs, along with Condon and King who did not but were excellent ringers, this band really swings. Thus nearly all of the Tempo King records are satisfying in much the same way that Waller’s were.

The One RoseOne thing that kind of surprised me considering Tempo King’s attempts to imitate Waller is that he mostly didn’t record the same songs that Fats did. Another thing I found very interesting is that, after he moved from Bluebird to Vocalion, Tempo King didn’t do the overt Waller imitation on those records. You would think that Vocalion would have been even more eager to have a performer on their label vie with Waller for sales and attention, yet a lot of the Waller-like asides, such as calling his band members by name as well as “little rascal” and “yes, yes, yes!” disappeared.  He also seems to have toured more extensively, as some of the Vocalion matrix numbers begin with LA, meaning that they were made in Los Angeles.

So here is a list of the Tempo King recordings I liked the most, a good-sized selection of them which can be listened to online by clicking on each title. Enjoy!

Aug. 1936: Marty Marsala, tp; Joe Marsala, cl; Queenie Ada Rubin, p; Eddie Condon, gt; Mort Stuhlmaker, bs; Stan King, dm; Tempo King, voc.

Oct. 1936: George Yorke, bs repl. Stuhlmaker.

Jan. 1937: Ray Biondi, gt repl. Condon.

No exact personnel data available for post-January 1937 Vocalion recordings.

  1. A High Hat, A Piccolo and a Cane (Fain-Brown-Akst) 9-11-1936
  2. I Was Saying to the Moon (Burke-Johnson) 10-15-1936
  3. That’s the Way It Goes (Muldowney-Pollock) 12-3-1937
  4. I Would Do Anything for You (Hopkins-Hill-Williams) 8-21-1936
  5. That’s What You Mean to Me (Carmichael-Evans-Livingston) 9-11-1936
  6. Bojangles of Harlem (Kern-Fields) 8-21-1936
  7. Floating on a Bubble (Cliff Friend-Irene Franklin) 1-14-1937
  8. Alligator Crawl (Waller-Razaf-Davis) 7-28-1937
  9. I’ll Sing You a Thousand Love Songs (Dubin-Warren) 8-21-1936
  10. Organ Grinder’s Swing (Hudson-Parish)
  11. Slumming on Park Avenue (Irving Berlin) 12-10-1936
  12. Moonlight on the Prairie, Mary (Conrad-Meskill) 1-14-1937
  13. I Want Ya to Sing (Leveen-Sinning) 12-3-1937
  14. One Hour for Lunch (Pease-Cavanaugh-Simons) 10-15-1936
  15. William Tell (Chu Berry-Andy Razaf) 8-21-1936
  16. Pennies From Heaven (Burke-Johnston) 12-10-1936
  17. Papa Tree Top Tall (Carmichael-Adams) 8-21-1936
  18. Sweet Adeline (Harry Armstrong) 11-21-1936
  19. You’ve Got Something There (Whiting-Mercer) 10-15-1936
  20. Swingin’ the Jinx Away (Cole Porter) 10-15-1936
  21. Gee, But You’re Swell (Charles Tobias-Abel Baer) 1-14-1937
  22. Hey! Hey! Your Cares Away (Cogan-Riley-Johnson) 11-17-1936
  23. You Turned the Tables on Me (Alter-Mitchell) 11-17-1936
  24. Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now (Waller-Razaf)
  25. He Ain’t Got Rhythm (Irving Berlin) 12-10-1936
  26. Alabama Barbecue (Benny Davis) 11-17-1936
  27. 25. Through the Courtesy of Love (Scholl-Jerome) 10-15-1936
  28. Someone to Care for Me (Kahn-Kasper-Jurmann) 12-10-1936
  29. The One Rose (That’s Left in My Heart) (Del Lyon-McIntyre) 12-3-1937

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Pago Libre’s First CD Reissued

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EXTEMPORA / PATUMI: Attacca. BRENNAN: West 9th Street. One for Bob. Intermezzo. Warsaw for Saw/Eleven-One. Fille Rouge. Cascades. PaniConversations Nos. 1 & 2. LINDVALL: The Story of the Noble Knight. The True Story of the Noble Knight. Milesamkeit. GOODMAN: March of the Little People.* PAGO LIBRE: Big Mama Takes a Shower + / Pago Libre: Lars Lindvall, tpt/fl-hn/prepared tpt/perc/whistle; Steve Goodman, vln/singing saw/*voice/+bass/whistle; John Wolf Brennan, pno/prepared pno/pocket synth/ +vln/xymb; Daniele Patumi, bs/*bodhrán; plus #Gabriele Hasler, voc / Leo Records LR 930

This is a real rarity for Leo Records, the intrepid avant-garde jazz label from England: a reissue of an album originally put out by a different label. In this case, it is Pago Libre’s very first CD from 32 years ago (1990), originally released on an Italian label called Splasc(h) Records (CDsII 314-2, see cover and label art below). Perhaps the most interesting thing about this recording is that the only surviving member of the group today is pianist-composer John Wolf Brennan, yet the original musicians’ names contributed to the group name—PAtumi, GOodman, LIndvall, BREnnan—and this has been retained to today despite an entirely different lineup aside from Brennan.

Pago Libre coverPago Libre CD label

From the very first notes of Attacca, however, we hear strong similarities between the “ancient” and modern versions of the group, starting with the edgy string tremolos that open the piece, followed by lyrical trumpet lines that, for better or worse, have no effect on the onslaught of sound. But it only lasts 1:25 before we jump into the surprisingly lyrical and swinging, albeit bitonal, Brennan piece West 9th Street. If there is ant noticeable difference between Pago Libre then and now, it is that Splasc(h) recorded them with much more reverb around the instruments whereas Leo’s recordings have a more focused acoustic.

And the band is certainly having fun on West 9th Street, mixing American and French swing styles with outré harmonies to produce a fascinating hybrid. Although this piece is over eight minutes long, we don’t get the first extended solo until nearly halfway into it, and that is by Brennan on piano, followed by Goodman (not to be confused with the more famous and, in his own way, equally talented American folk singer of the same name) on violin. But this is indicative of this early version of Pago Libre: they seem to have been much more of an ensemble than a collection of soloists, by which I mean that what the group played was often more interesting than what the soloists could do by themselves. As someone who was initiated into jazz via big band recordings as a child, I surely appreciate this style of jazz much more than the freewheeling solo-oriented style, because to my ears it has more form. Even Brennan’s less dense but more extended solo near the end of the piece feeds into the ensemble.

Lars Lindvall’s little fairy tales The Story of the Noble Knight and the True Story of the Noble Knight are certainly strange, the first a short narration with musical “sound effects” in the background, the second a musical composition with no narration at all. This one evolves into an extended duet between bassist Patumi and pianist Brennan, followed by a lyrical violin solo. Brennan increases both the tempo and tension with gradually faster piano chords, with the trumpet and other instruments eventually falling in.

Indeed, one of the noticeable features of Pago Libre’s first album is that several of the pieces swing, and swing was something that had already disappeared from most modern jazz by 1990. I was, then, quite delighted with the overall impact of the music. There’s even a nice walking bass in One for Bob behind Lindvall’s trumpet solo.

But not everything on this disc works. I found Brennan’s long, convoluted Intermezzo to be a jumbled hodgepodge of ideas that never really coalesce, nice though some of them are (including a nice solo on the bodhrán [frame drum] by Patumi). Cascades also rambles a bit too much, going nowhere in its second half. Sometimes, experimental music, even when primarily tonal as it is here, runs the risk of trying to do too much and not quite achieving its goals. Yet there are clearly some unique moments here, particularly Warsaw for Saw/Eleven-One which is one of those rare impressionistic pieces that holds together, goes somewhere, and is not mawkish, drippy music, which you hear far too often nowadays. Yes, it does ramble a bit in the musical saw solo, but even here it is the overall impression and mood of the music that stays with you. March of the Little People is truly bizarre, a comical piece with an unintelligible, high-pitched vocal about something while the group thumps away in the background. In his own Fille Rouge, Brennan switches to prepared piano to create an almost Harry Partch-like piece..and yet, Patumi’s bass still swings in a funky way.

This CD gives a very good sound picture of where Pago Libre was in 1990 and shows the basis for their later developments. Some pieces, as I said, don’t develop well, but most are swinging, innovative and fascinating. In toto, a really interesting album of diverse pieces in different styles.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Poulenc’s Orchestral Music

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POULENC: Sinfonietta. 2 Movements from “Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel.” L’Eventail de Jeanne: Pastourelle. Les Animales modèles / BBC Concert Orch.; Bramwell Tovey, cond / Chandos CHSA 5260

What a wonderful surprise this CD is! A truly unusual collection of orchestral works by Francis Poulenc, surely one of those rarest of composers who was both musically interesting and, for lay audiences, entertaining at the same time. And, much to my delight and surprise, I had none of them in my collection, so this one is definitely a keeper for me.

We start off with the four-movement Sinfonietta from 1947-48, a piece commissioned by Edward Lockspeiser for the BBC Third Programme which was started in September 1946. First performed as a broadcast conducted by Roger Desdormière (along with Chabrier’s Fête polonaise and Stravinsky’s Firebird and Bizet’s Jeux d’enfants), it didn’t become an instant classic but is certainly meaty enough for an “entertaining” piece to be one. Poulenc used some of the material from an unfinished string quartet, yet worked it over again and again to the point where it was nearly a full year late, for which he asked forgiveness in a typically droll note to the BBC. I am delighted to report that conductor Bramwell Tovey, of whom I had never heard of before, has the full measure of this music, conducting it with an appropriately bright sonority and crisp orchestral attacks. Sometimes Chandos’ proclivity towards too much reverb in their recordings offsets this sort of thing, but here all the instruments are crystal-clear and the texture that Tovey achieves is spot on. (I was very dismayed to read in the booklet that Tovey died in July of this year, thus this is probably his last recording, made in March.) Only the second-movement “Andante” is not very much, going in one ear and out the other.

The two movements from the 1921 ballet Les Mariès de la Tour Eiffel (The Brides of the Eiffel Tower) comes from a rare collaboration by five of the composers of Les Six. (The one holdout was Louis Durey, who was ill at the time.) Poulenc’s initial reaction to the entire ballet save George Auric’s overture was that it was “all shit,” but since he revised these two movements in 1957 he apparently thought them worth salvaging. the music is bustling and energetic; clearly not among his finest orchestral music, but again, very well-written yet entertaining in that way peculiar to him. There are some comical trombone smears in both pieces, which have a sort of carnival atmosphere to them. Considering that this was light music for a very lightweight project, I don’t altogether agree with his assessment of them.

The Fan of Jeanne was another collaborative ballet, written for the director of a children’s ballet school, but this time included such “heavy hitters” as Ferroud (highly regarded, he tragically died young), Ibert, Roussel, Delannoy, and even Ravel. Here the music is again light, since it was written for children, but again superbly crafted with some very interesting harmonics and orchestral textures. The first piece has an almost Russian feel to it.

Les Animaux modèles or Model Animals was entirely his own work, a fantasy ballet based on the fables of La Fontaine. It almost beggars belief that Poulenc wrote this ebullient, charming music during the darkest days of World War II, in fact completing it in 1940, the year the Nazis invaded France. (You see, Gen-Y & Z? When you’re facing adversity, don’t wallow in slow, maudlin, drippy music that “expresses your feelings,” but CHEER THE HELL UP! Remember, swing music picked up young people’s spirits during the worst Depression in American history. They wanted an outlet for fun and to be hopeful, not a corner to go cry in.) If anything, this score is even more colorful and more interesting than the Sinfonietta. Poulenc was clearly at the top of his game when he wrote this.

Well, what can I add to this? This is clearly not deadly serious music, but like so much of Poulenc, its very lightness comes as a balm to the ears. The performances are terrific, the sound is terrific, so I say, go for it!!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Van Zweden Conducts Mahler & Shostakovich

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MAHLER: Symphony No. 10: Adagio (orch. Mahler) & Purgatorio (orch. Cornelis Dopper). SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 10 / Hong Kong Philharmonic Orch.; Jaap van Zweden, cond / Naxos 8.574372

This is one of those recordings which are excellent in performance quality if a bit questionable in its historic value, particularly this first recording of the “Purgatorio” movement of Mahler’s 10th Symphony as realized by Cornelis Dopper.

Amazingly, the liner notes to this release do not specify the score differences between the Dopper orchestration of this movement and the one later made by Deryck Cooke. Even more surprisingly, there is no detailed description of why only these two movements were performed by conductor Willem Mengelberg with his Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam.

So for the benefit of my readers, here is (pretty much) the whole story in a nutshell.

The main reason why there was no completed Mahler Tenth before 1965 is entirely due to the machinations of the “Malevolent Muse,” a.k.a. “Queen Bitch,” Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel. Following the composer’s death in 1911, she had the score of the 10th framed in glass and placed on her mantelpiece, almost like a religious icon, for musicians to view but not touch or be allowed to read through. Then, in 1923, she relented to a point, sending a copy to Mengelberg along with a note that these two parts of the symphony were “absolutely performable.” A few months later, in 1924, Ernst Krenek was allowed to make a fair copy of these two movements as well. Krenek may have made a copy of the second movement, but realized that it was much patchier and would require some work to complete it properly. Krenek then showed these movements to two conductors who were being considered for a first performance (other than Mengelberg), Franz Schalk and Alexander Zemlinsky, both of whom made unauthorized changes to the score. (Are you following this? If so, I’m glad…at this point, I’m a bit baffled myself.) According to Wikipedia—and this is really interesting—what Alma sent Mengelberg is said to have been not the original score but Schalk’s “unauthorized” version, which Mengelberg then handed over to Cornelis Dopper to tidy up for performance. So that is what we get here.

But of course, the bottom line is, how good are the performances? Of the Mahler 10th, quite good. Van Zweden is a very serious and conscientious conductor who does his homework and tries to understand the proper style of everything he performs. He is not, however, a conductor who plays around with tempi, which is something Mahler himself often did with his own symphonies, thus this reading of the “Adagio,” while quite heartfelt, is a more straightforward reading, much like Eugene Ormandy’s first recording of the original Cooke edition of the complete symphony in 1966. Like Ormandy, van Zweden does understand the Mahlerian tendency towards using portamento, a feature of classical music performance which has now gone the way of the dinosaur. And WOW is this Hong Kong Orchestra fantastic! (In case you’ve not noticed, some of the greatest orchestras in the world are now Asian ones, from Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea and even China. They can outplay the modern Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics both in terms of technique and feeling for the music.)

As for the “Purgatorio,” I think I hear a few little differences between this and the Cooke versions, but to be honest, when I listen to this symphony I’m basically listening for Mahler’s musical conception. This orchestration sounds good to me; it’s effective in conveying the strangeness of the music, and van Zweden does a good job with it. Thus I can’t really tell you that this is a necessary recording to have unless you’re a musicologist and want to examine the Dopper version in comparison to all the others that have emerged since Cooke I.

Van Zweden’s performance of the Shostakovich 10th is also quite good, and interestingly enough, he infuses some Mahlerian feeling in terms of legato and darkness of feeling in the lower strings into his performance, but I’ve yet to hear a Shostakovich 10th as powerful and deeply felt as the little-known recording by Václav Smetáček with the Prague Symphony Orchestra, a recording so good that it literally wipes out everyone else’s version. If you can’t find the Smetáček, however, van Zweden will surely do. I find that he has more drive in it than the famous Herbert von Karajan recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, in part because of Karajan’s overriding focus on creating a “cathedral of sound” with his orchestra whereas Shostakovich preferred leaner, more “Russian” textures, which Van Zweden tires to provide. (Note, in particular, the very fine woodwind blends near the middle of the first movement…the instruments have more “bite” to them than in the Karajan recording.) The second movement is particularly excellent, almost as great in intensity as the Smetáček recording. And again, listen to this orchestra. I tell you, they’re near the top in the entire world.

So that’s my take on this recording. A very good performance of the two Mahler movements and a near-great reading of the Shostakovich.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Minnaar Plays Shostakovich

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SHOSTAKOVICH: 24 Preludes and Fugues / Hannes Minnaar, pianist / Challenge Classics CC72907

Here is yet another fascinating release, Dmitri Shostakovich’s woefully underplayed (and under-recorded) Preludes and Fugues. While everyone and their uncle is re-recording the Bach series, the still-young (aged 38) Dutch pianist Hannes Minnaar bravely tackles this challenging set of pieces.

My gold standard in this music is the 2015 set by American pianist Craig Sheppard, who also recorded an interesting (if very idiosyncratic) set of the Beethoven Sonatas as well as some extremely interesting Bach. As Bryce Morrison wrote in the Gramophone about Sheppard’s set:

Here, clearly at the zenith of his career, he achieves a brilliantly inclusive poise and brio that go to the very heart of Shostakovich. 

So how does Minnaar compare to Sheppard? In the first two selections, interestingly if not, to my ears, as dynamically. Whereas Sheppard takes the first fugue at a brisk tempo, emphasizing the counterpoint, Minnaar takes it softly and slowly, bringing it more in line with the opening Prelude. Yet as the series continues, Minnaar does indeed play some of the music crisply and with considerable energy; it’s only the first fugue that I found somewhat disappointing. Sheppard has a leaner piano tone than Minnaar, which is closer to the Russian style, but not by much. Indeed, as the series progressed, I found myself liking Minnaar’s approach quite a bit. Both Sheppard and Minnaar capture the sad, wistful quality of many of the Preludes, which is the right way to play them. The fourth fugue, in E minor, is also played slowly and wistfully. This is, of course, his prerogative to play then this way if he so chooses, and since I couldn’t find a score online to check against, I don’t know for certain that this is what Shostakovich wrote. It certainly sets a different mood when he does so, that’s for certain.

Let me put it this way: if I were listening to these performances in person, and not have the chance to compare them to Sheppard’s, I would certainly have liked them in their own way. My ultimate preference for Sheppard’s recording is based primarily on his more dynamic readings of several of the fugues, which I think are closer to score. Taken on its own merits, this is a very fine set of these works and certainly worth your investigating it. Minnaar creates a real mood with these pieces that is not mawkish or soporific; his concept draws the listener into each piece, his playing of the counterpoint is clear and precise, and nothing he does sounds artificial or foreign to the music, personal though it may be. In toto, then, a very interesting if very individual reading worth checking out.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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The Berlin Phil Plays Langgaard

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LANGGAARD: Symphony No. 1, “Cliffside Pastorals,” BVN 32 / Berlin Philharmonic Orch.; Sakari Oramo, cond / Dacapo 6.220644 (live: Berlin, June 16-18, 2022)

I have to admit being a little baffled by this release. The liner notes state that

In 1923, Langgaard donated the original manuscript to German music research as a sacrificial gift. It was stored in Berlin at the Staatliche Institut für Musikforschung, the State Institute for Music Research. At the end of the Second World War, the manuscript was stolen by Soviet troops and taken to Moscow, but Langgaard’s symphony seems to have been magnetically drawn to Berlin, and in 1959 the score was returned to the city; by then, the capital of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

Here Cliffside Pastorals lay amongst uncatalogued sheet music until it was performed in 2004. Only in the summer of 2022 could the symphony be heard for the first time since its first performance in Berlin, played by the Berliner Philharmoniker, the first orchestra that understood what a masterpiece the teenage Langgaard had created.

The reason I’m baffled is because, in 1992—30 years ago—this symphony was recorded by Ilya Stupel and the Arthur Rubinstein Philharmonic Orchestra for Danacord. In fact, it was the first installment in Stupel’s recording of Langgaard’s complete 15 symphonies, all of which were also issued. Nowhere in the liner notes is there any description of differences between the score that Stupel recorded, which I have to assume came from the same source unless specified, or if there are any differences between the recording he made and this one. It is, of course, possible that Stupel only recorded it and did not perform it live, whereas Oramo has done both. It is a fact, however, that this symphony was premiered by the earlier incarnation of the Berlin Philharmonic in April 1913—not by its music director, Artur Nikisch,  but by another legendary conductor who made very few recordings, Max Fiedler.

By comparison with Langgaard’s later symphonies, “Cliffside Pastorals” (aka “Rock Pastorals”), written when he was only 16-18 years old, is a relatively conservative, late-Romantic work on a par with some of Mahler’s early works. It describes a mountain climbing that ends at the summit. The movements are titled: I. Surf and Glimpses of Sun, II. Mountain Flowers, III. Voices from Days of the Past (later titled Legend), IV. Mountain Ascent and V. Courage. For Langgaard, who was deeply religious but felt that organized religions had failed mankind, there is much in the symphony that is religiously symbolic. He believed that he was living in the age of the Apocalypse, and that he was the prophet who went first and showed the way to having a personal connection with God through nature. Both the mountains and the ocean are depicted as obstacles to the soul’s fulfillment that had to be overcome, thus the ascent to the peak is an act of spiritual achievement.

Like early Mahler, Langgaard combined expansive and ever-developing melodic lines with harmonies that flitted in and out of darkness and light. The difference, at least in this very early work, was that some of the melodic lines that Langgaard used were more conventional. such as the pretty waltz in the first movement. Perhaps this was meant to leaven the score a bit, providing some cheerfulness to music that keeps going into dark places, but it shows a difference in both approach and style between Mahler and Langgaard. By 1908, Mahler’s symphonies were known in Denmark (and everywhere else), if not always in live performance at least in sheet music form, thus it’s quite probably that the teenaged Langgaard had knowledge of his predecessor, yet it is to his credit that he did not imitate Mahler outright despite using nature themes for this symphony.

Except for the last two movements, Oramo’s performance is somewhat slower than Stupel’s, but he does not let the music drag. On the contrary, this performance has as much excitement as the Stupel recording, and the warmer sound of the Berlin Philharmonic, combined with astonishing, almost “Cinemascope” sound, spreads out the orchestral sound so that one notices both a richer tone quality and more inner detail. Where Oramo differs from Stupel in the first movement, for instance, is not in the opening theme statement, but in the later parts of the movement. The waltz theme, for instance, is played considerably slower, which gives it more of a legato feel and thus more of a Romantic profile. This may not be to everyone’s tastes, but based on the one Max Fiedler recording I own, the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 with pianist Alfred Hoehn, this is in keeping with the way he conducted. My sole caveat is that, when Oramo returns to more excitable music, there is a sort of “jump” in tempo; it’s not as smoothly blended into the end of the waltz as Stupel did it. Several of the other slower passages are played in a similar fashion, which gives the music more of a “push-pull” feeling to it, but without being able to see the score (it’s available online HERE. but in so tiny a form that you can’t really read it), I don’t know if this is an artistic choice that Langgaard left open. There are definitely some tempo changes in the first movement, such as on p. 48, but impossible to see clearly (it’s either quarter note = 54 or 94). Remember, however, that both Brahms and Mahler enjoyed occasional ritards and rallentandos in their music which are not always performed (and some not actually notated), thus I’m willing to give Oramo the benefit of the doubt.

Where the Berlin Philharmonic clearly scores points over the Arthur Rubinstein Philharmonic is in its sumptuous string sound and the warmth and richness of the French horns. This sound profile also brings Langgaard’s music more in line with Mahler’s, even though the Berlin forces were never much of a Mahler orchestra (Furtwängler hated Mahler’s symphonies and never performed them while Karajan only conducted the 5th, 6th and 9th).

The slow second movement also has Mahlerian dimensions, borrows some superficial ideas from Mahler, but is, again, very original music. It is also, however, heavily redolent of Brahms, but in a good way…again, it’s not a carbon copy. It is in the third movement, however, that Langgaard sounds most like himself; its dark, mysterious harmonies and orchestral voicings owe only a little to Brahms or Mahler, rising to an almost shattering climax a little over the halfway mark. In the fourth movement, one hears a device that became a Langgaard trademark, the sudden jump from one theme and mood into another, nearly unrelated one without notice or preparation. This was one of the features of his music that put people off during his lifetime. The last movement, at least in this performance, follows the fourth without a pause. Langgaard has reached his summit, but not to music of victory in a major key; rather, the music is dark, powerful, even a bit menacing, suggesting a “dark night of the soul” where the listener must sort things out his or her own way and choose their paths wisely. There is a sudden stop, after which one heard, again in a minor key, stark orchestral chords and French horn interjections. The strings rise, gradually, ever higher in pitch and louder in intensity until they are almost screaming over the horns, followed by bold figures played by the trombones and basses with rolling tympani in the background. This is Langgaard’s Apocalypse, come to fruition through music, and it is up to you which path you wish to take.

Despite a few derivative moments, this is a tremendous accomplishment for a 16-18-year-old composer. Along with the first symphonies of Mozart, Brahms and Mahler, it is one of the very few great first symphonies in history, and it’s about time that people sat up and took notice of it. As I said earlier, the performance is in some respects different from the Stupel but equally valid, and in the last movement particularly Oramo drives the Berlin orchestra with the manic intensity of a Carlos Kleiber or a Toscanini, which is all to the music’s good. Truly, a remarkable performance and recording; sound engineer Preben Iwan is to be congratulated on a phenomenal job recording and mixing this performance for release.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Perelman’s Massive Sax Summit

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WAP 2022REED RAPTURE IN BROOKLYN / 103 Improvised pieces: 14 with Joe Lovano, C-sax/s-sax; 11 with Dave Liebman, s-sax; 5 with Tim Berne, a-sax; 10 with David Murray, bs-cl; 8 with Lotte Anker, s-sax/a-sax; 12 with Ken Vandermark, cl; 3 with Roscoe Mitchell, bs-sax; 6 with Colin Stetson, contrabs-sax/tubax; 7 with Jon Irabagon, slide s-sax/sopranino sx; 11 with Vinny Golia, soprillo/cl/basset hn/a-cl; 7 with Joe McPhee, t-sax; 9 with James Carter, bar-sax / Ivo Perelman, t-sax on all tracks / Mahakala Music MAHA-043

This massive set, encompassing 12 CDs in which Perelman plays with a different saxophonist on each, is clearly more of a mountain than a molehill, even for many lovers of free jazz. As my readers know, I admire Perelman’s adventurousness but, as someone weaned on music that has structure, no matter how far-out harmonically, I tend to gravitate to those recordings of his in which I can detect at leas some semblance of a musical statement rather than just squealing out high notes. I absolutely LOVED his “Fruition” album with Matthew Shipp, his most common musical partner and one who most often steers him into improvisations with some structure.

One of the reasons I chose to review this set was that it included five sax players whose work I am familiar with and admire: Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman, David Murray (former member of the World Saxophone Quartet), Roscoe Mitchell (former member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which I actually got to see perform live once…at the Chicago Art Museum, no less) and Tim Berne. I was not previously familiar with any of the others’ work, although I had heard of Lotte Anker and Jon Irabagon.

In a set of this size, it would be too much to give, as I usually like to do, a detailed description of each track since there are 103 of them. Thus I decided to give an overview of each session, pointing out specific tracks or moments in each that I particularly liked or didn’t.

As Ivo wrote me via email, “There is extremely wide ethnic diversity, with some of the musicians having a heritage from various countries: Sicily. Denmark. The Philippines. Africa. Eastern Europe. Brazil. Holland.” This is nice but, in the end, music is music, and although some of these artists may indeed use inflections, rhythms or harmonies based on the music of their native countries, it’s the results that count.

In addition, Dave Liebman contributed the following in the liner notes:

Life is full of choices from when to cross a street or start eating a meal, etc. When it comes to jazz improvisation the element of choice is quite present and has a big effect on the success of the final product. (Note this present discussion concerns jazz improvisation primarily, although the subject of artistic choice has a lot of tentacles to all the arts.)

 What you hear on this recording is from what I know an absolutely unique project. Saxophonist Ivo Perelman has coupled himself with twelve specialists playing sixteen woodwinds, all involved with making choices completely free of any rules, or chords or pulse…all improvised!!  

And all playing with Ivo.

 A musician is completely exposed in the duo scenario. Each of the five elements of music are called on the carpet…harmony, melody, rhythm, texture and form. With the music completely subjected to these elements the duo “single line” artist must tow the line even for examples of harmony with only two lines interacting. The horn players Ivo chose have mastered ways of playing two or even three pitches simultaneously on their horns, so in theory the possible sounds being addressed by two musicians constitutes quite a varied list.

That pretty much sums up what you need to know going into this set.

Lovano is the first saxist up. He appears to be the one playing in the left channel; that sounds to me like Ivo in the right. Despite his free jazz leanings, Lovano has always struck me as a very lyrical player: he even released an album paying tribute to the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, which I really liked. Since Perelman himself generally plays very high up in the tenor range, I couldn’t quite decide if Lovano was playing tenor or alto on these tracks. He plays both in addition to flute, but it sounded to me as if he was on tenor here (I may be wrong). Even though it is Perelman who is heard first, it seemed to me that he allowed Lovano to lead the way, which was all to the good; his penchant for lyricism pays great dividends here as he generally gravitated towards his instrument’s midrange, only occasionally flying up into the stratosphere, and interestingly enough, sometimes Perelman stayed in the middle when Lovano went up and vice-versa. It was also interesting to hear Lovano and Perelman trade ideas. Towards the end of the first track (numbered as take 13), he slows down the tempo and Perelman follows. Interestingly, the very next track (take 8) is generally slow and lyrical. Lovano engages in some microtonal playing, which Perelman does not imitate, but Lovano does draw out Perelman’s lyrical side, which I happen to like quite a bit. (He really should do this more often; he is very expressive in a slow tempo.) In general, this is an extremely enjoyable set, containing several moments of great beauty, even in the very sharp-tempoed, almost pointillistic take 7. On take 4, there is even more microtonal playing than on the other tracks, and here, too, Perelman very graciously allows Lovano to take the lead—again with excellent results. On take 5, Lovano appears to be playing in the right channel rather than the left, and also appears to be playing alto clarinet.

Dave Liebman plays soprano sax on his set, but in such a mellow way that it sounds like an alto—or, at least, like Paul Desmond on alto. (A friend of mine, the late jazz clarinetist Frank Powers, upon hearing Desmond for the first time and not knowing that he was playing alto, assumed that he was playing the clarinet with a really hard reed.) Again, despite some busy moments of outside playing, the principal focus here is on a more lyrical style and often medium to slow tempi—and again, the results are very interesting. A general trend I can say about this album in general is that in each session, both saxists are really listening to one another, and always with excellent results. Perelman even uses some flutter-tonguing in take 5, which is quite unusual for him. A bit later in this same track, he actually plays a repeated rhythmic figure, acting as a walking bass for Liebman. In take 10, they exchange some “flying” figures before again settling down to lyrical statements. These aren’t so much like chase choruses as they are like each saxist feeling out the best way to accompany what the other is doing. At one point in this track, you even hear, very briefly, the opening notes of the “I Love Lucy” theme! Interestingly, take 4 almost has a swing beat, something I never thought I’d hear Perelman play. And he does it very well. Indeed, this entire set is marked by tremendous diversity in Perelman’s approach to accompanying his saxophone partner, and all of it is both fascinating and very diverse musically. Near the end of take 4a, Liebman gradually slows down the tempo and Perelman is right there with him, never missing a step. Even in the abstract pointillism of take 9, they are two minds operating as one.

The set with Tim Berne on alto sax is much more outré than the first two. The music, though somewhat lyrical in shape, uses many more microtones and thus freakier harmonic clashes, but even here there is a musical line running through each piece. And each improvisation is considerably longer than the ones that preceded them, running 12 minutes or longer, which means that there are only five tracks on the entire CD…and for once, they are presented in chronological order. This is a real “Beam me up, Scotty!” sort of album—yet there are, even here, some surprisingly lovely moments when both musicians pull back from the edge and create almost incredible two-part inventions that would have been the envy of a composer like Handel. (Not necessarily Bach, had Bach been more into mean-tone temperament.) Yet the music keeps veering off into microtones and buzzes on the reeds, particularly from Berne. Because of the greater length of these pieces, the musical structure sometimes breaks down into these freaky passages, but both musicians are so good that they always seem to be able to pick up again where they left off after the outside playing is done. Some of their playing, as in take 2, almost sounds like old cartoon music on acid, if you know what I mean. (This merry-go-round really broke down!) And yet, they still manage to find their way out of the musical labyrinths they create. The bottom line is that they trust each other implicitly and thus are willing to follow one another down their respective rabbit-holes—and back out again. The only performance I didn’t like was take 4, which isn’t much more than just holding long, squealing high notes for as long as their breath holds out, followed by disconnected, serrated figures, again primarily in the upper range.

The David Murray set is, if anything, even more abstract than the one with Berne. The famed tenor saxist of the World Saxophone Quartet plays bass clarinet here, and mostly in sharp angles and tongued notes. Both he and Perelman are all over the harmonic map in the opening take 2; it’s the aural equivalent of some of Picasso’s most far-out cubist paintings of the 1930s and ‘40s. What amazed me, however, is that Perelman is the one who pulls the music together as best he can to provide form while his musical partner is the “wild man” of this session. It’s almost as if Prelman is saying to Murray, musically of course, “Now, now, let’s not lose our heads here!” In the second track, which is actually take 1, both musicians play more slowly and a bit more lyrically; in this instance, the roles seem reversed. It is Perelman who is creating the melodic line while Murray fills in behind him, in this case with long-held low notes. One could argue that Murray’s role here is as a sort of basso continuo, but what actually happens is that each of these two musicians create their own lines that complement and contrast with each other…think of the Irving Berlin song from Call Me Madam, “I Wonder Why,” for a much simpler example of what I mean. But eventually this take, too, picks up in tempo and becomes a display of pointillistic figures played by both. This sort of contrast between abstract, atonal figures and surprising lyricism continues throughout the set. The best way I can describe this set is that it is played by two master free jazz improvisers who have matured to the point where they have nothing to “prove,” they just lean back and make real music. Even the most outré moments, as in take 4, eventually assume a structure of their own (there are a few moments on this track where Murray, playing in the bass clarinet’s altissimo register, almost sounds like a trumpet), and in take 5, Perelman plays surprisingly bluesy figures, introducing some rough, guttural notes reminiscent of King Curtis or Sam “The Man” Taylor.

Next up is Lotte Anker, playing both alto and soprano sax. If you thought some of the other sets were a bit weird, this one is even weirder, with Anker playing almost continual microtones, but once again it is Perelman who “grounds” the set in musical structures. His early studies in classical music clearly give him ideas in how to do this, and I was thrilled to hear how well he was able to incorporate Anker’s excursions into the overall fabric of the music.  In the second track, which is take 5, both musicians go out on a limb, but here Anker follows, to some extent, Perelman’s lead. In the third track, take 4, they indulge in some of the wildest and least structured music in this entire set; here, Perelman let himself be wrapped up in Anker’s angular atonality, I think, just a bit too much, although both tend to calm down and get into some really nice playing in the last two minutes. Track 4 (take 1) is also rather wild but has much more structure; in fact, this is one of the most complex musical structures on the entire album. It almost sounds as if there are four saxophonists creating complex cross-lines at such an incredible speed that they create almost a four-part atonal canon. But I would pose this question to my readers (and also, perhaps, to Ivo Perelman): is free improvisation of this sort, which includes absolutely no jazz rhythms or the usual signposts of jazz, to be considered jazz improvisation? Free improvisation, in and of itself, is not necessarily jazz. For me, at least, there must be at least the feeling of a jazz beat, as one heard in the Lovano, Liebman and Murray sets. Sometimes, European jazz musicians forsake a real jazz feeling for the intellectual exercises of creating complex structures spontaneously, but not all spontaneous music falls into the “jazz” category. This is not to belittle what Anker does here, with Perelman often following her lead, but this set is, to my ears, more of an experiment in fast playing in extended chords and atonal figures. Once in a while, Perelman will throw in a lick that is jazzy (as, for instance, very briefly in the middle of take 6), but this is a fleeting moment.

The CD with clarinetist Ken Vandermark picks up where the Anker set leaves off, at least in the first track. In the second, both musicians pull back from angular, cubist figures and again give us a more lyrical piece. This set also has the most “missing” takes; the highest number here is track 3, which is take 16, yet there are only 12 tracks in this set. Vandermark’s clarinet often sounds like a soprano sax or even a sopranino, as in take 16. The two musicians alternate angular, abstract structures with lyrical pieces, which adds variety to the program. In the faster, more complex pieces, however, Vandermark sounded much less coherent than Anker, as if he were just splattering notes up against the wall to see what would stick. There are some jazz fans who consider this sort of playing a form of genius. I am not one of them. There are just too many moments here in which Vandermark sounds like mice scurrying inside the walls of one’s house, thus I consider this the weakest album in the set.

It’s been a long time since I’ve heard Roscoe Mitchell play, and in this set he’s on baritone sax. As someone who was used to playing, sometimes, hour-long pieces with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the entire set here consists of only three very long pieces. The first, which clocks in at 13:16, sounds very much like an AEC performance: a few minimal notes played at the outset, to get things started, eventually expanding and building on them as the piece develops. Typical of an AEC piece, it also has a lot of “space” in the music, some of which is filled in by Perelman and some of which isn’t. Nonetheless, Mitchell’s playing is just enough to inspire Perelman without losing track of the long line of the music. Perelman is the lyrical player here, Mitchell more percussive in style, but they mix well and it works. Mitchell also gets a very good, full tone on the baritone, adding luster to his playing. At the 12:05 mark, the two saxists set up some nifty counterpoint. Much the same goes on in take 3 except that Perelman plays more “outside” on this one, and it’s a rather short piece at 8:03, but they make up for this on take 2, which lasts a whopping 39:40. This is the most abstract of the three, too: Mitchell offers Perelman just a few isolated, spaced-out notes on the baritone; Ivo responds with similarly terse but not as minimal responses. This, I think, was a particular challenge for Perelman—not that he isn’t a resourceful saxist, but that minimalism isn’t ordinarily his thing—but for the most part he responds very well, managing to fill in the spaces while still maintaining a musical “line.” I give him great credit for this; even moreso than his hectic, note-filled solos of the past, it really shows the depth of his musical knowledge and experience. It’s not so much a case of making a mountain out of a molehill as it is creating whole cloth out of a few musical threads. Once or twice he seems to be feeling his way along, not exactly unsure of himself but not decisive, but for the most part what he creates is a brilliant but skeletal structure. At around 18:15, Mitchell sets up a drone on a single low note (I didn’t have my pitch pipe out, but it sounded like a low E-flat) which he holds via circular breathing for nearly a half-minute before again starting to change the pitch. At the 31:30 mark, they become very abstract indeed.

Things get back on track in the strange but interesting set with Colin Stetson on contrabass sax and tubax. Unlike Mitchell, who in his set on bass sax created rhythmic lines, Stetson creates snaky figures, sometimes rather atonal and some using the sort of circular figures that John Coltrane cribbed from Nicholas Slonimsky’s book of etudes. Realizing that Stetson is feeding him a moving bass line, Perelman creates fascinating figures on the tenor that run somewhat counter to Stetson’s and sometimes complement him in opposing, running lines of his own, but again we hear, for the most part, interesting structures. Even in the second track (take 5), where Stetson, playing  very high in the tubax range, creates sustained buzzing notes, Perelman counters with some excellent, lyrical lines that try to gravitate towards tonality. Here it sounds more as if Perelman is letting Stetson operate on his own while he plays his own thing. There are some high, squealed notes here, which is Perelman’s trademark sound, but they are exceptions in a well-structured response to Stetson’s didgeridoo-like drones in the right channel. Near the midpoint of this rather long track (10:31), Stetson calms down, blowing soft, sustained notes in the low range of the contrabass sax while Perelman ruminates in his mid-to-low range, creating a quite lovely effect before both of them begin wailing in their high ranges (Stetson sounds as if he’s playing both instruments at once!), sounding like two angry elephants challenging each other. It gets rather freaky from this point on, mostly on Stetson’s side although Perelman also takes up the challenge and begins squealing overblown notes on the tenor. Yet even this music calms down in the middle and contains some fascinating improvised figures by both musicians. As the set continued, however, I wondered if Stetson could really do anything on his instruments except sound like an angry elephant.

Jon Irabgon plays a slide soprano sax (that’s a new one to me!) and sopranino sax on his set. The first track (take 6) is essentially a lot of noise from Irabagon with noble attempts by Perelman to give some form to the music. In fact, at one point when Irabagon stops screeching random notes, Perelman becomes quite lyrical, and Irabagon suddenly does, too, although in a way he satirizes what Perelman is doing by slurping around with portamento, making it sound like two drunks playing saxophones. Eventually, Irabagon returns to squealing on the sopranino sax but not quite as random and scattered as before, while Perelman keeps his cool. Fortunately, most of the remaining music in this set, though atonal, is not as shapeless as much of the first track, but in nearly every performance one notes that the two saxists are playing on complementary but quite different levels, and by and large I prefer Perelman’s playing except in track 3 (take 9) where he seems to give in to Irabagon’s excruciating musical distortions, thus I had ambivalent feelings towards this set leaning more towards negative than positive.(Sorry, but I do not consider spits and cackles, particularly when they don’t even sound like actual pitches, to be music.)

Although Vinny Golia also plays some unusual instruments—the soprillo (one of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s axes), basset horn and alto clarinet, in addition to a standard clarinet—his music concepts are much closer to Perelman’s new aesthetics than the incoherent rantings of Irabagon and Vandermark. Yes, there is atonality as well as moments of microtonality, but Golia is clearly a musician well grounded in the basics of what makes music music and not just noise, and both he and Perelman create some fascinating figures, often opposing and contrasting rather than in the same vein but always interesting and producing intricate but interesting shapes. In the third track, for instance (take 8), both musicians also indulge in the sort of “drunken” microtonal sounds that Perelman and Irabagon played in the previous set, but here the two musicians listen more attentively to one another (rather than it being a one-way street with Perelman listening to Irabagon but not vice-versa), thus the results, though clearly rather weird, make sense and have a definite musical shape. Indeed, track 4 (take 5) is a study in low-register playing, mostly for Perelman but also at times for Golia. On take 6, Golia indulges in some circular figures, but they’re not the restricting chromatic circular figures of Slonimsky/Coltrane. These seem to be played on the alto clarinet, and much to my surprise, Perelman actually tries to emulate Golia’s timbre on the tenor with very interesting results. On track 6 (take 3) they exchange soft, descending figures, almost like the rustle of falling leaves, and here the music actually comes very close tonality. Track 7 (take 4) begins rather wildly, but within a few bars both musicians rein the music in and develop it in an interesting fashion. This is a very satisfying album, even in those few tracks where both musicians go a bit berserk, such as the last track, titled “mouthpiece,” where they got the wacky idea to set this to surface crackle in the background like an old phonograph record.

On the album with Joe McPhee, we finally get two tenor saxists and, for once, Perelman bats leadoff in the first track (take 8). He plays some really nice figures, a little reminiscent of the “Pink Panther” theme, and McPhee picks up on his vibe very well. The two saxists complement each other, with McPhee picking up the “Pink Panther”-like theme while Perelman plays some outside improvisations, but they both understand musical structure, thus the results are very satisfying. With that being said, take 3 is rather strange, with both men blowing air through their mouthpieces and Perelman singing along with his own playing—yet somehow, it all fits despite some sections in this piece that are rather freaky. Eventually, they get into exchanges of fast figures, then the music again calms down as Perelman plays some excellent improvised phrases and McPhee again picks up on his vibe. On track 4/take 4, they start out mellow, pick up the tempo, and then indulge in some atonal and overblown figures; a bit outré but not unclear or difficult to fathom despite both men singing some of those high notes. Track 6 (take 1) is the most abstract, but still musically interesting. For the most part, this is a mellow set, harking back to the music on the first two CDs. I really loved this one.

James Carter on baritone sax is the last one up, and this is the only set besides the Tim Berne one in which all of the takes are presented in chronological order. I was a little ambivalent on this one; some of the music is formless, some of it isn’t, and as I’ve said, abstract forms that don’t resemble anything like musical shapes just don’t interest me much. It just sounded to me that every time they finally hit on a musical shape, they lost interest in it (most of the time Carter, but not always) and decided to just scream out overblown notes. Yet they kept returning to music with some form. By and large, I preferred Perelman’s playing on this set to Carter’s, but Carter, too, responded with some elegant figures when he followed Perelman’s lead. Let’s just say that it has its moments, and those moments are fine ones, but by and large they seemed to be tearing things apart rather than trying to put them together. But, as I say, there are some very fine moments here, particularly when Perelman strikes out on his own, as in take 2, and lets Carter do whatever he wishes. Happily, this CD improves as the set continues; by track five I really started to like it. So let’s give it a 50-50 rating; it’s at least half excellent.

*                      *                      *                      *                      *                      *

Here, then, are my overall impressions of this set. First and foremost, there is Ivo Perelman, who has reached a point in his career where he is now clearly one of the finest, if not the finest, avant-garde tenor saxist of his day. No longer having anything to prove and having honed his musical approach to a peak of near-perfection, largely through his long association with pianist Matthew Shipp, he is now not only a master of the high, fast, overblown phrases but also a master of musical form. The majority of what he plays on this entire set is either on a par with his last album with Shipp, Fruition, or, in my personal opinion, even better. Put simply, he is a master at the height of his powers.

Most of these duets show this mastery at its highest level. Even some of those in the sets I didn’t like, which were the Vandermark, Irabagon and first half  Carter albums, Perelman has moments of truly transcendent brilliance. And, in a project of this magnitude, two and a half out of 12 misfires isn’t a bad ratio.

But strictly from a marketing standpoint, I wonder at Mahakala Music’s decision to offer this set as an inseparable entity. True, Perelman’s most devoted fans will undoubtedly want it all, but what of the others? Of course, I don’t know if they will allow listeners to purchase individual albums from the set as downloads; I hope they do. I also don’t know if the anti-CD disease is now affecting jazz the way it’s infecting classical music. Naxos of America, the world’s largest distributer of classical albums, recently announced that physical CDs will no longer be available, even to most reviewers. Of course, tied into this is the idiotic “vinyl” craze, and this seems to be worse in the jazz world than the classical. There is absolutely no advantage to having music on a plastic LP rather than a plastic CD except that when you play the LP you hear the “warmth” of the vinyl swoosh in the background, which gives you the illusion of a warmer recording, and LPs pick up crackle, pops and hisses that CDs do not.

Even so, nine ½ out of 12 CDs of excellent music is a phenomenal ratio in the world of free jazz, thus on balance I recommend this set highly, though I caution listeners to not play these discs three or four per day as I had to do when reviewing them. In addition to creating a sensory overload, the music contained herein really does require all of your attention and patience in order to fully appreciate what is going on. This is most emphatically NOT background jazz listening. With those caveats, the majority of this set is very enthusiastically recommended.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Lucy Isabelle Marsh, the American Soprano

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STERN: Printemps (rec. 2-23-1911). DELL’ACQUA: Chanson Provençale (rec. 11-7-1912). DE FONTENAILLES: Obstination (rec. 7-24-1912). PERGOLESI: La serva padrona: Stizzoso, mio stizzoso (rec. 3-10-1915). HANDEL: Theodora: Angels ever bright and fair (rec. 11-18-1924). BIZET: Carmen: Parle-noi de ma mere (w/John McCormack, tenor; rec. 5-1-1913). ROSSINI: Stabat Mater: Inflammatus ad accensus )rec. 3-27-1911). GRIEG: Peer Gynt: Solvejg’s song (rec. 6-7-1927); Solvejg’s Cradle Song (same). STEVENSON-SHAKESPEARE: Tell Me, Where is Fancy Bred? (w/Reinald Werrenrath, baritone; rec. 5-10-1915). DELIBES: Les filles de Cadiz (rec. 11-14-1911). CESTI: Intorno all’idol mio (rec. 3-10-1915). ARDITI: Parla (rec. 6-3-1910). ALABIEV: The Nightingale (rec. 2-5-1918). VERDI: Aida: Ritorna vincitor! (rec. 5-18-1920); O patri mia (rec. 11-19-1920); Fuggiam gli ardori (w/Paul Althouse, tenorl rec. 6-30-1915); O terra addio (w/John McCormack, tenor; rec. 4-9-1914). FLOTOW: Martha: Spinning wheel quartet (w/Harry MacDonough, tenor; Marguerite Dunlap, contralto; Reinald Werrenrath, baritone; rec. 7-13-1911). HANDEL: Messiah: Come unto him (rec. 6-8-1927); I know that my Redeemder liveth (rec. 1-27-1926). HERBERT: Naughty Marietta: Italian Street Song (rec. 10-31-1927) / Lucy Isabelle Marsh, soprano; available for free streaming on the Internet Archive.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the opportunities open for American-born classical singers who did not have European training and experience were slim and none. We may find this hard to believe nowadays, when the American singer is often considered the world standard—the best-trained, best-prepared, and most attentive to musical detail—but it was so. The few Americans who broke into the big time before Rosa Ponselle, among them Lillian Nordica, Emma Eames, Suzanne Adams and Geraldine Farrar, all had to pay their dues overseas. Fail to go through the European opera system and your chances were next to nothing.

Marsh 2Lucy Marsh, who also used her full name Lucy Isabelle Marsh, was one of those. She had half the requirements necessary to success, which was European training. Born to a good middle-class family on April 10, 1878, she studied in Paris with Baldelli and Antonio Trabadello, the latter of whom also taught Mary Garden, Geraldine Farrar and Grace Moore, but then she returned to New York to finish her studies with John Walter Hall.

Being somewhat homely in appearance and having a tendency towards shyness, Marsh was not particularly well positioned to make a career for herself, but somehow or other she came to the attention of the Metropolitan Opera because she was briefly a “Pupil of the Metropolitan Opera School.” As such, she was given the role of one of the Flower Maidens in the then-scandalous production of Parsifal between November 1904 and February 1905, the first production of that opera given outside Bayreuth. Cosima Wagner was so incensed that both conductor Alfred Hertz and baritone Anton van Rooy, who had performed at Bayreuth, became personas non grata. During that same period, Marsh also appeared as part of a chorus made up of Opera School pupils behind some of the company’s major artists in a gala performance of Die Fledermaus in February 1905. From that point on, however, Marsh’s career went nowhere. She was singing concerts and in churches when Columbia Records hired her to make three records in 1908, two duets and one solo. Her solo record, The Glow-Worm, happened to be a big song hit that year, and Marsh’s version of it came in as the #5 best-selling record of the year—right behind the Victor Concert Orchestra’s recording of the same song. But Columbia apparently thought little of her and did not pursue further records.

Naughty MariettaIn 1909 she signed with Columbia’s rival and the biggest record company in America, Victor, as a contract singer. What this meant was that she, along with several others who had good voices but no real careers (sopranos Olive Kline and Elsie Baker, contralto Marguerite Dunlap, tenors Lewis James and Charles Harrison, baritone Reinald Werrenrath and bass Wilfred Glenn) became part of the “Victor Opera Company” and “Victor Light Opera Company” which made dozens of records of highlights from operas and operettas, as well as the “Trinity Choir” (bolstered with extra singers from local churches) named after the church in Camden, New Jersey that Victor purchased as a recording venue. Ironically, although Marsh, Kline, Harrison, Werrenrath and Glenn were eventually recognized as good solo artists and made their own solo discs for Victor under their own names, the bulk of their output was made anonymously with the Victor opera/Light Opera groups. The Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Records, a project of researchers based in the University of California, Santa Barbara, has now published the information contained in the session ledgers of Victor through 1940, supplemented by other sources. They have learned that more that 25% of the Marsh matrices made between 1909 and 1922 were “Gems From (fill in the opera or operetta name)” with the Victor Opera or Light Opera companies. Another 38% were as a member of the Trinity Choir or Lyric Quartet, performing religious numbers and standards, also unattributed to her. In addition, Marsh made solo recordings (for what reason I don’t know or understand) under the pseudonym of “Anna Howard.” Nor was this activity limited to the early part of her career with the company, before she became known and admired as a solo artist. I’ve located a 1925 electrical recording of “Gems from ‘No, No, Nannette” (in which an unbilled Marsh sings “I Want to Be Happy” and a young Richard Crooks was the tenor) and, at her last Victor recording session in 1932, she made records under both her own name and that of Anna Howard!

InflammatusOne has to wonder at the corporate thinking in this, particularly since Marsh’s solo recordings, both acoustic and electrical, were always among the label’s most popular and best-selling discs. In fact, Marsh’s rendition of classical songs like “Parla” and :es filles de Cadiz,” not to mention such demanding arias as “Ritorna vincitor” and “Inflammatus,” usually outsold those by their more prestigious Red Seal artists. Cost was probably a deciding factor in this, since Marsh’s records, appearing on the black, purple and blue labels, sold at a rate of 75¢ for a 10-inch disc and $1.25 for a 12-incher, whereas Red Seal discs normally sold for $1.25 (10-inch) ro $1.75 (12-inch), often much higher than that if the singer was famous and prestigious. Farrar’s 12” solo recordings usually sold for $3.00, and the duet “O quant’ occhi fisi” from iMadama Butterfly with Caruso sold for a whopping $4.00.  Marsh made it to Red Seal a couple of times, as did her Victor Light Opera Company colleague Werrenrath, singing alongside star tenor John McCormack, and on those occasions her discs, too, sold for $1.50 or higher. Add to that the fact that all Red Seal discs through 1922 only had a recording on one side. and you can wee that her competition’s records were actually more than twice, and sometimes four times, more expensive.

But there was more to it than that. Marsh’s recordings were, simply, played much more often by their owners. You can still find copies od old Victor records by Farrar, Tetrazzini, Johanna Gadski and Amelita Galli-Curci that are in amazingly good condition. It’s very rare to find them with worn or gray grooves, whereas it’s very difficult to find most of Marsh’s better solo discs in anything but a worn condition. This indicates to me that their owners not only enjoyed her records more, but possibly, in the case of budding young sopranos, played them over and over to emulate how she produced her vocal sounds on certain notes or sang her trills and roulades. That’s quite a compliment for an artist who was considered a “throwaway,” even by her own label, during her lifetime.

StizzosoThe plain fact was that Lucy Marsh had an extraordinarily beautiful voice, in my estimation even lovelier than those of Sembrich, Farrar or Emmy Destinn, to name but three of Victor’s major Red Seal sopranos. It wasn’t a very large voice, probably about the same size as Roberta Peters, but superbly produced from top to bottom. She had an extraordinarily fine legato, finely graded dynamics, and a superb technique that allowed her to sing roulades and trills with the best of them. Moreover, her first-rate musicianship and excellent sight-reading abilities allowed her to cover an extraordinary amount of musical ground. Who else, in the years before and after World War I, for instance, was recording the music of Pergolesi, Antonio Cesti and John Stevenson? No one I can think of. Marsh had a surprise success in March 1909 with the lyric but difficult aria “Angels ever bright and fair” from Handel’s Theodora, but Victor still had about a hundred Light Opera Selections and Trinity Choir records for her to make. Her remake of that same aria in 1924 is rightly considered a classic.

Just about the only detriment in Marsh’s singing, which isn’t surprising considering her lack of stage experience, was her non-dramatic involvement. She did a surprisingly good job on her brief series of Aida recordings, particularly in the duAida Fuggiamet “Fuggiam gli ardori” with Metropolitan Opera tenor Paul Althouse, but by and large her recordings are musical and follow the score fairly exactly (exceptions are her somewhat quirky phrasing in “Chanson Provençale: and “Parla”) without giving the listener any sense of a character behind the notes.

Nonetheless, a good cross-section of her recordings, as presented in the group in the header to this article, give one an impressive assessment of her talents. What surprises the modern listener, aside from the simply ear-ravishing quality of the voice itself, is her remarkable consistency as well as her ability to sing music from different eras with a fairly good approximation of the Thodoracorrect style. We no longer accept downward portamenti in Handel, but other than that there is nothing to criticize in her recordings of two arias from Messiah, her performance of the Theodora aria, and her work in Scarlatti, Pergolesi and Cesti still hold up today. True, one misses the sparkle one expects to hear in the aria from La Serva Padrona, but by and large this is the way the aria is sung nowadays. One can do an A-B comparison between Marsh’s singing of “O patria mia” and that of virtually any other soprano of her era, ranging from Gadski to Rethberg, and find Marsh competitive with all of them. In addition, her singing of the “Inflammatus” from Rossini’s Stabat Mater and the soprano line in the “Spinning wheel quartet” from Flotow’s Martha are as good or better than any other soprano of her time, including Frances Aldo on the famous Caruso recording of the latter. In 1957 Aida Favia-Artsay, a perceptive critic of classical singing, gave this assessment:

Marsh 1After a few turns of a Marsh disc, it becomes apparent that…she could have had a brilliant operatic career. As far as the voice goes, hers had all the requisites, and as for its production – a little more work in the chest register would have brought it up to par, Otherwise, she was musical, intelligent, resourceful, and obviously had a solid knowledge of the vocal technicalities.

Favia-Artsay’s evaluation of several of her records provides detail for this lodgment. A few selected quotations follow:

The Nightingale (Alabiev): Exquisite timbre, individual voice – of virginal purity, round and equal, Precise chromatic scale, also the trill. Judicious phrasing and breath attribution.

Spring’s Awakening (Sanderson): Flowing, smooth coloratura. Phrasing fine.

O for the wings of a dove (Mendelssohn): Sings with subtle feeling. Not showy, but very artistic. Really an amazingly polished singer. Can hold her own with someof our best tecording artists, and even top a few in some cases.

Italian Street Song (Herbert): Indeed, a brilliant piece of vocalization.

Carmen duetBeing one of Victor’s “stable singers” seemed to suit Marsh, however. In 1910, she married Walter Colwell Gordon, a medical doctor, and moved to Providence, Rhode Island. She had two sons, Calvin and Walter; Calvin also became a doctor, and Walter was a sales manager for several national companies. Marsh had four grandchildren and died on January 20, 1956, three months before her 78th birthday.

One of the most incredible things about this wonderful singer is that no one apparently bothered to interview her at any point in her life or career. She just made records, went home, and faded into the wallpaper, occasionally singing a concert. Dr. Louis Leslie, who co-founded and later inherited the Gregg Shorthand System from its founder when Gregg died in the late 1940s, once told me that he heard her sing—the “Star-Spangled Banner” at Yankee games. She just never seemed to want more out of her voice than what she was offered to sing, but her legacy on recordings is not insignificant.

Lucy Marsh may not have joined the ranks of the immortals of her time; there are still collectors and voice aficionados who prefer her rivals in the repertoire she sang, but I’m not one of them. I still find her voice exceptionally beautiful and her recordings very satisfying.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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WHY Do You Keep Performing Old-Timey Classical?

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I know, I’ve already blown up at least once over this, but apparently classical performers and record labels just don’t get the message. They keep on recording and issuing new versions of music that has already been recorded dozens if not hundreds of times, and a great many of those older recordings are not just classic but definitive performances that will never be equaled, let alone surpassed.

And, really, I want to know: WHY??

The obvious answer, which is still not a good one, is that most classical audiences like the old stuff because they don’t like or understand modern music. But for crying out loud, this is 2022!! We’re no longer in the 1950s, reading Henry Pleasants and other reactionary critics complaining about the “agony” of modern music and how no one likes it.

I grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s. Of course I listened to a lot of old standards; that’s what sold even then; but I also kept my ears open. I didn’t automatically reject new music just because it went out on a limb that I hadn’t traveled before. I absorbed the music of Schoenberg and Stravinsky through Robert Craft’s recordings. I listened to Britten’s Peter Grimes and War Requiem, and liked them. I bought a copy of Alberto Ginastera’s Bomarzo when it came out, and went to hear his harp concerto in concert. I discovered Berg’s Wozzeck, music by Bartók and Martinů, anything and everything I could get to hear. Even Mahler was new to me, once upon a time. And I liked much of what I heard.

In college, I was given J.S. Bach Chorales to take apart and study to learn how composing worked, at least on a basic level. I discovered a lot of lieder and chamber music during this period. But I continued to keep my ears open, and learned to instantly analyze what a composer was doing within the confines of new music. In the early 1970s, I found the music of George Crumb and Peter Maxwell Davies very strange, but I listened to it over again until I “got” it. Nowadays, it doesn’t sound all that strange to me.

More importantly, as time went on, I found myself gravitating towards new music more frequently than the old, for the simple reason that most modern-day performers had little or nothing to add in their performances to the classic recordings of the past—which now stretches back to the 1990s. Most modern classical performers play this music in a brisk, energetic manner. They don’t miss a note. But what they have in technique they sorely lack in imagination.

It’s gotten to the point now where individual soloists and chamber groups are so desperate to sell CDs and get airplay that they’ve taken to “reimagining” the older classics. But their performances are still, for the most part, either glib or simply not better than the great artists of the past. I’m sure it must gall them that, even on classical FM radio, they still play a lot of older recordings from the 1950s through the ‘80s and not their “brilliant” new readings.

And it’s always going to be that way, because we now have at least a century’s worth of fabulous performances to draw on, and this covers EVERY corner of the standard repertoire: opera, solo instrumental music, chamber music, orchestral music.

When I read reviews of these new recordings, I find that many critics agree with me. They often give tepid reviews to these tepid recordings, although a handful think somehow that these modern recreations are the cat’s pajamas. They’re not. Yes, once in a while you run across a performer who really does have something new to say about the “standard repertoire,” but not many. Three of those whose recordings I always listen to because they have real imagination are cellist Zuill Bailey, pianist Michael Korstick and violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, and even they don’t always supersede the older recordings. But mostly, I’m really only open to reviewing recordings of music not as frequently recorded. And that doesn’t mean the 18th-century crap. Aside from the fact that most of the forgotten composers of that era are forgotten for a reason, most modern-day performers completely ruin the listening experience for me with their anemic-sounding orchestras and their whiny continual straight tone, which I’ve said time and time again is not historically correct.

I will occasionally audition recordings of older music buy performers I don’t know, but not often…perhaps one in 40 recordings. I’m just tired of being disappointed and disillusioned, and as I said earlier, most of you folks are not interpretive geniuses; you’re just well-trained machines who rattle off the notes.

Nadia Boulanger said, way back in the 1950s, that any classical musician who does not play the music of his or her time is not a complete artist. Do you hear that? Do you understand that? Well, you probably do, but you still won’t change or expand your repertoire, and that’s sad.

So for all you classical CD merchants who keep sending me “news” about new releases of old music, be forewarned. I will ignore most of it.

Both I and my readers deserve more insightful music and performances than what you are offering.

Oh yeah, one final thing. What is it with these cello and guitar recordings?!? Does anyone besides you and your friends like them?

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Two Short Martinů Operas Issued

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MARTINŮ: Larmes de couteau (Tears of the Knife) / Elena Tsallagova, sop (Eleonore); Maria Riccarda Wesseling, alto (The Mother); Adam Palka, bar (Satan) / Comedy on the Bridge / Esther Dierkes, sop (Josephine); Stine Marie Fischer, alto (Eva); Björn Bürger, bar (Johnny); Andrew Bogard, bs (The Brewer); Michael Smallwood, ten (Schoolmaster); Staatsorchester Stuttgart; Cornelius Meister, cond / Capriccio C5477

It always puzzles me that when a CD company issues recordings of rare operas that they do not make the librettos available to reviewers. Yes, I can glean something of what is going on from the terse, three-sentence synopsis of Tears of the Knife that I’ve found online, but since this recording’s back cover announces that the booklet contains articles about the opera as well as complete libretti and translations, wouldn’t it be thoughtful if the record company could provide these to critics? I mean, what’s the big deal? You’ve stopped sending out physical copies to anyone, including your big-deal critics at Le Gramophone, but I’ll bet you that THEY can get the booklet/libretto if they want. No such luck for me.

The libretto by Martinů is based on a play by the Dadaist poet Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes. and describes the inexplicable love of Eleonora for a hanged man who is quite evidently dead. Her mother, however, keeps trying to get her interested in a neighbor whose name just happens to be Satan, who courts Eleonora incessantly but to no avail. Eventually she commits suicide so that she can be united with her love, but he turns out to not be who she thought he was. The music is scored for a small, bright-sounding chamber orchestra, obviously modeled after the modern French composers of that time (1928) as well as Stravinsky’s neo-classic period. Many of the characters’ lines are spoken rather than sung; the opening scene features, I think (remember, I don’t have a libretto to refer to), the Mother and Eleonore conversing while an accordion plays in the background. In the second scene, Martinů uses a bright semi-parlando style which is sort of a cross between Poulenc and Stravinsky. The generally light nature of the music clearly indicates that the opera is meant to be taken as a black comedy and not as anything serious. The Mother’s first “aria” sounds a great deal like Kurt Weill, with that cabaret-music sound that he so loved. In the Eleonore-Satan-Mother trio, Martinů fragments both the vocal lines and the rhythms rather subtly, providing a sound that lies somewhere between the ragtime-influenced jazz of that time and Le sacre du Printemps.

This is only the second recording of this odd little opera, the first made in 1999 by Supraphon with Hana Jonášková as Eleonore, Lenka Šmídová as the Mother and Roman Janál as Satan, conducted by Jiří Bêlohlávek. That one was sung in a Czech translation from the original French libretto; this new performance is sung in French. Since the French language has less syllables per word than Czech, the music moves quicker and a bit lighter. Both sopranos have bright voices, but Jonášková sounds more like a good comprimario while Tsallagova, our singer here, has a richer voice. On the other hand, Šmídová had a firm voice while Wesseling has a loose flutter bordering on wobble although her interpretation is first-rate. Both baritones have firm voices, but I prefer Palka’s richer, more powerful voice in this new recording. On balance, I prefer this new recording despite Wesseling’s fluttery timbre.

In the end, however, I honestly don’t feel that Tears of the Knife is a work worth keeping. The music is just too slight; even the cabaret-like numbers don’t stay with the listener. Everything just flits by one’s ear, leaving an impression of levity but nit cohering in any way. This is now my second listening to it, and although I find it somewhat charming in its quirkiness, it’s just not a piece that really goes anywhere or holds together.

Comedy on the Bridge is a one-act comedy written in 1935. Here is the plot synopsis from Wikipedia:

The setting is on a bridge over a river, during the first half of the 19th century. The river separates two opposing armies during an unspecified conflict. Josephine Popelka has earlier been to the battlefield and buried her brother. On her return, the enemy sentry lets her pass, but holds her papers from his commanding officer. Without the proper papers, the sentry on her own side denies her request to pass, and Josephine must remain on the bridge.

At the same time, Bedron, the village brewer, is allowed on to the bridge from his own side, but is prevented from crossing over at the other side. With Josephine and Bedron detained on the bridge, Bedron casually makes a pass at Josephine. Josephine’s fiancé Johnny then appears, and accuses her of being unfaithful. Eva, Bedron’s wife, in turn arrives and she joins the argument.

The schoolmaster then joins the scene, trying to solve a riddle that he heard from Colonel Ladinsky, an officer on his own side: ‘a deer is in a field, surrounded by a wall too high and steep to jump or climb. How does the deer escape?’ The riddle parallels the characters’ situation. Then, offstage, battle sounds are heard. The two couples settle their differences peaceably. Then they hear news of battlefield victory on their side. Colonel Ladinsky appears and tells Josephine her brother is alive; it turns out that she buried another deceased soldier. The colonel also reveals the answer to the riddle: the deer does not escape. Everyone laughs and celebrates the victory.

Wow, that’s some really funny answer to the riddle…not! Being a comic opera, the music is predictably lightweight; in the brief instrumental prelude, Martinů has some fun having a trumpet play an out-of-tune bugle call, followed by some quasi-music-box piano. The problem I had was more with the performance than with the music itself. Neither conductor Meister nor the Stuttgart orchestra have a single iota of humor in them.

The performance is in English—you can tell this from the spoken words, which are all clearly intelligible—but, as usual, the female singers’ diction ranges from somewhat garbled to unintelligible. Only the male singers are consistently clear. In addition, soprano Esther Dierkes has an uneven flutter in the voice (read: wobble) which also impairs her singing. To their credit, however, the speakers really get into their roles and do their best to inject humor into the proceedings. Indeed, the general liveliness of the speakers and many of the singers actually make the performance rather enjoyable, though this is clearly Martinů in a sort of pop-music mood. It’s a whimsical, entertaining work, and as it continues to move along, you find yourself more wrapped up in its low-key but genial humor. The only problem I had was that all of the singers, performing in English, adopt rather upper-crust British accents. In the case of one or two characters, this is funny, but overall I felt that it sounded a bit too much as if they were trying to make the accents part of the humor, and that just sounded a bit too “precious.”

But the CD is worth getting for this opera, because it is a jolly piece which could be performed in an even funnier manner than it is here.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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