Natalia Trull Digs Into Prokofiev!

Prokofiev sonatas front

PROKOFIEV: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-9 / Natalia Trull, pianist / Sorel Classics SC CD 007/8/9

Here’s a rare case of a relatively unknown pianist, coming out of nowhere with a recorded set of major piano sonatas made two decades ago, who astonishingly pushes all contemporary competitors into the dust. If you Google Natalia Trull’s name, you’re going to be disappointed. There’s a pitifully small bio, mostly out of date, on Music Fest Perugia:

Nataliya Trull began studying the piano in St. Petersburg. She later moved to Moscow where she graduated from the Moscow Conservatory. Among her teachers were professors Y. Zak, M. Voskresensky and T. Kravchenko.

Her performance career was launched when she won first prize at the Belgrade International Piano Competition in 1983. However, the biggest success came in 1986 she won the silver medal at the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition. The public was swept off its feet by her interpretation of composers such as Schubert and Stravinsky. Her “Petroushka” suite left an everlasting impression on the public and critics alike. In 1993, Nataliya Trull was awarded the Grand Prix at the Piano Masters Competition in Monte-Carlo (where only winners of international competitions are accepted as participants).

Nataliya Trull’s complete control and fantastic virtuosity place her in a class of her own, and she is in great demand as a performer all over the world. Among the distinguished orchestras with whom she has performed are the London Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Japan Philharmonic Orchestra, Orchestre de Monte-Carlo, Tonhalle Symphony Orchestra and all of the major Russian Symphony Orchestras. Natalia Trull has also played with such conductors as Raphael Frubeck de Burgos, Raymond Leppard, Jean-Bernard Pommier, Eri Klas, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Vassily Sinaisky, Yuri Temirkanov and many others.

And then there’s this on a website called

Where is Natalia Trull?

Does she still play? Her Prokofiev 3 was stunning.

Posted by Lukasz Yoder, Been pianist in the making for the past 12 years:

My mother is a good friend of hers. Mrs. Trull presently teaches in the Moscow Conservatory of Music, and many of her students have won top prizes (relatively) recently. I recall my mother and her listening on Youtube to one of her students play on the final round of the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition—apparently her student was unaware he had made it to the final round from the semi finals until 24 hours before the competition—he practiced twelve hours non-stop! Unfortunately he did not get anything, but still, quite an accomplishment.

To summarize, she may be taking a break from concertizing, but she is definitely still active as a teacher/lecturer. I also hope she will play more concerts soon—but age takes a toll on everyone.

And that’s it. She came, she won competitions, she gave concerts, she went into teaching. And now, out of nowhere, we suddenly get her 1997 recordings of the Prokofiev sonatas.

In December of last year, I reviewed the second CD of a planned three by Russian pianist Ilya Yakushev on Nimbus Alliance of Prokofiev Sonatas Nos. 1, 2 and 9, and called the performances “stunning.” They were indeed. Yakushev played them with tremendous cohesion and “binding” of phrases, and he had a nice headlong momentum that compared favorably to the legendary 1956 recordings of sonatas 6, 7 and 9 by Sviatoslav Richter, though Richter was much more fiery in certain passages.

Upon first approaching the Trull set, I immediately noted that her movement timings were slower than Yakushev and slower yet than Richter. Normally, this does not bode well. It usually means slack performances that don’t penetrate the angst of the music or produce great dynamism. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Although I did note that Trull relaxed the tempo a shade more than Yakushev in slow passages, taken on their own these performances don’t sound slower than his, although both Trull and Yakushev sound much slower than Richter,. who bulldozes through them at an astonishing pace.

Wondering about this, I pulled up the score of the Sonata No. 7 to check for myself. Surprisingly, Prokofiev wrote no metronome markings, though the movements have unusual titles: “Allegro inquieto,” “Andante calorioso” and “Precipitato.” Here, see for yourself:

Prokofiev 7th 1

But please note that, although there are no tempo markings, there are numerous dynamics markings, including the opening bar played mp, changing to p in bar five, not opening up into a mf until bar 8, and not really roaring until the poco a poco crescendo beginning in bar 12. Richter doesn’t start mp but, rather, in mf, and his passing attempts at a true piano are mere lip service. Trull gives you all of these, and more; and she does this in page after page of sonata after sonata. After comparing Trull to Yakushev in Sonatas 1, 2 and 9, then comparing Yakushov to Richter in No. 9, and further comparing Trull to Richter in Sonata No. 7, I became more and more convinced that it was Natalia Trull who most closely penetrates the heart of this music. When needed, she has the fire and bold attack of Richter, and she makes more of the dynamics contrasts than both he and Yakushev in movement after movement.

This is, quite simply, an astonishing achievement. I can’t even think of another pianist who has played these sonatas better, and that includes Richter, whose performances I now view as a one-off, not necessarily what the composer called for (but still valid in its own way). Another good example of how fantastic she is is the final “Vivace” of the Second Sonata. Yakushev plays it with wonderful clarity of line, as does Trull, but Trull sounds as if she is setting the keyboard on fire and then eating it. She has a way of “dashing” certain passages off as if they were splashes in a pond, yet still articulating cleanly and clearly. And this woman only won the SILVER medal at the 1986 Tchaikovsky Competition? Who won the gold, God? (It puts me in mind of the 1935 Wieniawski Violin Competition, where the splendid Henri Temianka came in third. You scratch your head and wonder why until you find out that David Oistrakh came in second and Ginette Neveu came in first.)

In addition to all the musical excellences of her playing, Trull fully captures the dynamism and sense of surprise in every sonata. Absolutely nothing sounds static with her; this music is completely alive under her fingers. If I didn’t know better, I’d almost think these were live performances and not studio recordings, so vivid and vital are they.

Overall, the best word I could find to describe her performances was smoldering. The fire is always lit, even in soft passages. There is no “coasting,” no riding on the laurels of her superlative technique, as Martha Argerich has done for 40 years. Argerich is a paper tigress. Trull could eat her alive for breakfast and still have room for a dozen of these efficient machines who win competitions nowadays. That being said, even Trull could not make the Fifth Sonata, which I consider the weakest of the nine, sound interesting to me, although she did her best in the last movement to wake the music up. I was also struck, for the first time, by how much the second movement of the Sixth Sonata sounds like some of the music in his ballet Romeo and Juliet. In the third movement Trull pulls much more out of the music, expression-wise, than Richter did, but here Richter didn’t fully seem to understand what “Lentissimo” meant. Trull’s performance is a minute and a half longer than his, and gains in expression from this.

Natalia-TrullIn certain passages, such as the opening of the Eighth Sonata, Trull creates real magic in the way she phrases and articulates the music. In the second movement of this work, she caresses the line and makes it sing in a way I’ve never quite heard before, almost making it sound like a tune from a Viennese operetta. In the second movement of the Ninth Sonata, she finds much more in the shifting rhythms of the middle section than others. Watching her old performances on YouTube, I noticed a difference in posture between her playing and that of a real idol of mine, Annie Fischer. Petite as she was, Fischer sat bolt upright at the keyboard; all of her power was generated by her muscular arms and shoulders. Trull, who appears to be a small-boned woman, hunches over the keyboard so that you rarely see her face. She attacks here instrument as if she has been sent by a wrecking crew to demolish the keyboard. There may be some shoulder motion here, but a close-up photo reveals that she had small, sloping shoulders. I think all her power is generated by her forearms and full-body energy. It’s quite astonishing to watch!

Needless to say, this recording is a must if you like Prokofiev and particularly the sonatas. No one else even comes close. You could listen to this set of records every day for the next five years and never tire of them, that’s how good they are.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Bill Cunliffe’s “BACHanalia” a Fun Ride


J.S. BACH: Sleepers Wake.* Goldberg Contraption (arr. Cunliffe). CUNLIFFE: Afluencia. PROKOFIEV: Piano Concerto No. 3: I (arr. Cunliffe). C.P.E. BACH: Solfeggietto (arr. Cunliffe).* LEVANT-HEYMAN: Blame it On My Youth. DE FALLA: The Three-Cornered Hat (arr. Cunliffe).* PORTER: I’ve Got You Under My Skin* / Bill Cunliffe Big Band: Wayne Bergeron, John Daversa, Dan Fornero, Jamie Hovorka, Kyle Martines, Kye Palmer, Jon Papenbrook, Terell Stafford, Bob Summers, tpt; Ryan Dragon, Erik Hughes, Alex Iles, Andy Martin, Bob McChesney, Ido Meshulam, Ira Nepus, Francisco Torres, tbn; Ben Devitt, Cody Kleinhans, Bill Reichenbach, bs-tbn; Jeff Driskill, Nathan King, Brian Scanlon, Bob Sheppard, a-sax; Jeff Ellwood, Bob Lockhart, t-sax; Tom Peterson, Adam Schroeder, bar-sax/bs-cl; Bill Cunliffe, pn; John Chiodini, Larry Koonse, gtr; Alex Frank, Jonathan Richards, bs; Joe LaBarbera, dm; *Denise Donatelli, voc / Metre Records M1009

Here’s a fun CD, due out June 2, in which pianist-bandleader Bill Cunliffe mixes some classical themes of two Bachs—J.S. and his son C.P.E.—Prokofiev and Manuel de Falla with jazz. To alternate, he throws in an original tune, a rare Oscar Levant song and a timeless standard by Cole Porter.

I describe the album as a “fun” disc because although the arrangements are clever and swinging, they’re not as sophisticated as those done in the past by Gil Evans, Willem Breuker or Jack Walrath of classical pieces. (Check out Walrath’s great album The Serpent’s Kiss for an example of what I mean.) They are, rather, light and airy, with a lot of space in the big band arrangements, which emphasize a mellow rather than a bright timbral blend. So much is evident from the opening track, a takeoff on J.S. Bach’s Wachet auf, featuring the wordless vocal of Denise Donatelli who appears on four tracks. Cunliffe’s piano solos remind me a bit of Vince Guaraldi and a bit of Gordon Goodwin (whose work I think is vastly underrated by jazz critics). In the band arrangement, Cunliffe plays some nifty tricks with rhythm and key transitions.

This is followed by his own original, Afluencia, which ironically starts off with a dense atonal chord more startling than anything he did to Bach. Following this, however, we are in an irregular Latin-style rhythm (it sounds like 7/4 to me). I should point out that not all of the huge list of names in the header above play on every track, as the album was recorded over a three-year period in different venues with different personnel. On Afluencia and the Prokofiev Piano Concerto, for instance, the only trumpets are Bergeron, Palmer, Stafford and Summers, the only trombones Iles, Martin and McChesney, with Reichenbach on bass trombone, Sheppard and Scanlon on alto saxes and clarinets, etc. It’s too complicated for me to reproduce here, but the info is all in the CD liner notes. Sheppard’s soprano sax dominates Afluencia.

The principal theme of Prokofiev’s concerto is taken way down at a ballad tempo to start with, but quickly morphs into yet another uptempo Latin-styled piece, with Rob Lockhart’s tenor sax pushing the beat with an edgy solo, but this extra-long track (17 minutes), which slowly continues to build in tempo and excitement, is largely a showcase for the ensemble with spot solos. The Latin beat shifts from samba to cha-cha for Cunliffe’s own solo, then relaxes into a swinging 4 for some band ensemble with spot drum breaks. All in all, I felt this was one of the real highlights of the album, a fascinating joy ride on the back of a very serious composer. The multiple tempo changes put me in mind of some of the Boswell Sisters’ great tracks of the 1930s.


Denise Donatelli

Despite my being a huge fan of C.P.E. Bach, I admit not being able to positively identify the Solfeggietto used here, but then again, the man wrote even more music than his father, which is saying something. This puts us back in a definite and very uptempo swinging 4/4, again focusing on Donatelli’s vocals and Cunliffe’s piano. I was rather amazed to learn that Donatelli was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, not too far from my own birthplace of Shamokin, and that she was originally a classical pianist for 15 years, winning first place in the National Federation of Music Clubs competitions three years consecutively! No wonder she has such great pitch and style.

Levant’s Blame it On My Youth is by far one of the most advanced and sophisticated charts on the set, the tempo taken way down and substitute chording provided to make the piece sound almost contemporary. This is a vehicle for some lovely floated brass-reed combinations and an even lovelier trumpet solo by Terell Stafford which dominates the tune. Following this, Cunliffe creates some fascinating interwoven lines which then fall away into quietude for Larry Koonse’s guitar solo.

J.S. Bach’s principal theme from the Goldberg Variations becomes the impetus for Cunliffe’s arrangement, which he calls Goldberg Contraption. By and large, however, this is a more genial and less complex arrangement than the Prokofiev concerto, despite some nice spot solos and occasional ensemble licks. Much tighter, and more impressive, is his wonderful conception of the theme from de Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat ballet. Here Cunliffe pulls out all the stops insofar as rhythmic subtlety and timbral blends are concerned, with a centerpiece of the arrangement being a sudden tempo and theme shift to a fast-moving flamenco-styled passage and back again. Donatelli again appears in spot vocal passages. The tempo is suddenly suspended for a brief trombone appearance by Ido Meshulam, then again for Jon Papenbrook’s trumpet. This is a terrific rewriting of this piece.

The closer is Cole Porter’s I’ve Got You Under My Skin, once again in an asymmetric tempo (basically in 3, but with added beats), and once again with Donatelli on vocals, this time singing the words. It’s a warm, relaxed ride-out to this basically fun album.

Recommended for the Prokofiev and de Falla arrangements, Cunliffe’s Afluencia, and some of the very fine solos.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Monk’s “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” Released at Last


MONK: Rhythm-a-Ning (2 tks); Crepuscle With Nellie (2 tks); Six in One; Well, You Needn’t. Pannonica (2 tks). Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are. Light Blue. TINDLEY: By and By / Thelonious Monk Quintet: Charlie Rouse, Barney Wilen, t-sax; Thelonious Monk, pn; Sam Jones, bs; Art Taylor, dm / Sam Records/Saga SRS-1-CD

A few years ago, when I was reviewing for a music magazine, I had the pleasure of writing about the jazz-influenced American and European film scores of the 1950s and early ‘60s being released in outstanding boxed sets by Jason Lee Lazell of Moochin’ About records. The only score he missed, I mentioned to him, was Monk’s for Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Lazell told me that the only way you could get the music was from a print of the actual film, which had only been issued on VHS back in the 1980s, was out of print, and very expensive (it was selling, at the time for roughly $200 on eBay). He said that there appeared to be no stand-alone recording of the actual music.

Well, here it is—a whopping 58 years after it was recorded, due for release on June 16. The good news is that Thelonious Monk is still considered a major figure in jazz history, so there are definitely aficionados who will buy it. The sad thing is that, to most younger jazz listeners, Thelonious isn’t even a blip on their musical radar. Tupac Shakur and Louis Armstrong are in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Who’s Thelonious Monk?

For those who don’t know, he was one of the greatest yet fussiest geniuses in jazz. He was notorious for flipping members of his working groups between gigs and even in the middle of a recording contract. Orrin Keepnews recalled a time when he was supervising a Monk album; the leader showed up one week after the first session with three new musicians in tow. He was that fussy. But he was also as hard on himself, and could be very difficult to get to approve takes because he didn’t like his solos. As a composer, he was wholly unique, not fitting into either the swing or bop schools, although his own model as a pianist had been Duke Ellington. He wrote jagged, angular melodies, often with irascible countermelodies pushing hard against them. The late jazz critic Ralph Berton once aptly described him as “the Stravinsky of jazz.” Polyphony was his thing: just listen to Rhythm-a-Ning, Little Rootie Tootie or especially Four in One.

Yet it was as a pianist that Monk drew the most fire from critics. He attacked the keys in a flat-fingered, splayed-hands style that looked for all the world like a rank amateur who never took a lesson in his life, but he knew exactly what he was doing. Behind his back, some musicians referred to him as “Melodious Thunk,” but tt was part of his musical conception. In order to produce music that was rhythmically angular, he had to play the piano in a similar manner. Monk attacked the keyboard the way he did in order to dislocate stress beats and place them in wholly unexpected places: sometimes on 2 and 4, other times on 1 and 3 ½ , elsewhere in the middle of a measure where it made musical sense only to Monk. And it isn’t true that no other jazz pianists admired him. Count Basie adored him; witness that TV jazz special from 1957 where an obviously happy Basie is sitting on the opposite side of the piano, grinning from ear to ear as Monk plays. On the ride home in the cab, Monk turned to his wife Nellie and exploded. “Did you see that m*-f* staring at me?” Nellie replied, “He likes your playing, Thelonious! Be happy!”

Monk was also very self-critical of his own compositions, which is why he wrote so few of them. Considering the length of his career—ranging from his early days at Minton’s Playhouse in 1941 until his last tour with Dizzy Gillespie and the Stars of Jazz in 1971-72 (a tour on which he rarely said a word, even to Dizzy who was one of his closest friends)—Monk’s output is incredibly small, only about three dozen pieces, of which nearly a third are jazz classics (none more so than ‘Round Midnight). Thus this surprisingly wonderful, relaxed session, in which we have complete performances of one new composition (Six in One) and a complete studio performance of Light Blue, is particularly welcome to those of us who still love and honor this quirky but gentle giant of jazz.

It was altogether typical of Monk that even after he agreed to create music for a film, he didn’t bother to look at a script or care where the music fit in. He did sit through a private screening of it in New York a few days before the recording session, but when the time came he and his band just played whatever he wanted which the director then had to cut-and-paste to fit in into the finished product. The session was made, filed away after being snipped up for the film, and then promptly forgotten. Sad to say, this is typically French. Back in 1919, the legendary soprano Emma Calvé made about a dozen records for the French Pathé company, all of which were issued. Evelen years later, they were out of print, so an enterprising classical record collector visited their offices in Paris and asked if they could reissue them. “Calvé?” asked the Pathé executive. “Oh, no, she never recorded for us…she only recorded for La Voix son Maître (His Master’s Voice).” They didn’t even bother to check their own files to see if they had issued those records 11years ago.

Thus producer Zev Feldman, visiting Paris in December 2014, was told that François Le Xuan of Saga Jazz had discovered master tapes of a preciously unissued studio session by Monk made by French producer Marcel Romano. The tape box simply said “Thelonious Monk.” Feldman was duly impressed and thus spent the next two years working with the Thelonious Monk estate to gather in the photos and produce this release. And here it is.


Art Taylor during a break. Man, that’s one relaxed session!

The sound is warm and clear. For whatever lucky reason, the tapes were taken very good care of and did not deteriorate as so many reel-to-reels have over the years. (Even some of the RCA Victor “Living Stereo” tapes oxidized over time, and they had pretty good care.) Of course, I haven’t a clue where this music fit into the film, having never seen it, but it is certainly one of the most relaxed, laid-back Monk sessions I’ve ever heard. Thelonious was obviously in a carefree mood that day. Now, in his case laid-back does not equate to smooth jazz, but by and large this is as close as you’re ever going to get to a late-at-night, deep in the blues Monk album. the playing is so transcendent that it zones you out. You get into the Now listening to these tracks, and the sound quality is so magnificent that it almost sounds as if the band is right in the room with you. I can almost pretend that I’m up at Baroness Nica’s New York apartment around one in the morning, sipping a cocktail and digging this set. Had the band played ‘Round Midnight on this set, that would have made a perfect title for the album. It’s got that kind of vibe about it. Even Well, You Needn’t, normally a very uptempo piece for Monk, is played at a nice medium tempo of the sort that has since disappeared from jazz. Charlie Rouse still has that bluesy edge to his solos that were his trademark, but the rest of the band just floats. Like, way out, man!

And if you want proof of what I stated earlier in this review about Monk’s piano playing, listen carefully to Six in One. This is what I meant about his ability to subtly add or shift the stress beats within a bar to suit his mood. (One other thing: if Monk’s pianism was as bad as they said, why did he almost never slip up or hit a klunker? He always played exactly the “right” notes than he wanted to play.) The two brief takes of Pannonica almost sound shy in comparison to some of his other performances/recordings of this well-known piece. Yes, indeed, Monk was in a relaxed mood for this session.

The recording session sheet reveals other tunes played and recorded that day which, for one reason or another, didn’t make it to CD. Among them is a minute and a half rehearsal of Off Minor, three stabs at Epistrophy (only one of the takes longer than 49 seconds), and two off-the-cuff improvisations. All were false starts or breakdowns. This was a typical Monk recording session: what came out well came out, the rest was to be scrapped. Interestingly, I found his playing in the quartet version of Pannonica even better and tighter than his playing in the two solo takes. Oddly, Barney Wilen misses a note or two here and there, as in the theme statement of Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are, but then again, he wasn’t a regular band member.


Baroness Nica von Konigswarter, left, and Monk during a session break.

Seventeen pages of photos from the session, eight of them in a sort of faded color (they almost look like tinted B&W pics), shows how relaxed the session really was. There are two glimpses of Nica, both times sitting in a corner watching and listening, and two of Nellie, one a close-up and the other a shot of her back as she stood off to the side.

As the set goes on, there are some wonderful surprises, particularly this unusual reading of Light Blue. Art Taylor sets up a backbeat tom-tom rhythm, which gives the piece a wacky sort of feel as if the rest of the band was trying to wrest the tune away from the drum kit…and it ends in the middle of nowhere. Another is the alternate take of Rhythm-a-Ning that starts CD 2, as tight and exciting a performance as you’re likely to hear, considerably different from the tone of the rest of the music. Wilen is terrific on this one while the leader just plays a repeated two-note lick for his first chorus before opening up in the second.

The second CD ends with a 14 minute, 13 second outtake of the making of Light Blue. A lot of time is spent on Taylor playing his weird drum lick. At one point Monk says, “Just keep doin’ it, I’ll come in!” But it’s obvious that neither the drummer nor the rest of the band could figure out what the heck was in Thelonious’ mind. “Just keep counting to yourself!” he shouts at one point, when one of the tenor saxists plays the melody but then drops out. “The…the bass has got to play on the upbeat,” Monk explains to Taylor at one point. “You know when you’re coming in on the downbeat, you’re wrong!” Only Monk could keep this kind of rhythmic oddity clear in his mind. I recalled the old story about Monk rowing a boat in the pond at Central Park one afternoon. The ducks on the pond were quacking in one rhythm, he was rowing in another, and the New York traffic was honking and squealing in their own. “Man, that’s polyphony!” he suddenly exclaimed.

All in all, then, a good set with at least three outstanding performances. Would we think as highly of it had it been originally released in 1960 or ’61? Hard to tell. Sometimes just having a rare set by a jazz legend (witness Bill Evans’ Black Forest set) is enough to spark waves of adulation and awards. But for me, personally, it’s always great to hear Monk play, particularly during this period of time when he was still in his prime.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Fascinating Songs by a Singing Legend



VIARDOT: Mein Fluss. Der Gärtner. Er ist’s. Nixe Binsefuß. In der Frühe. Das Verlassene Mägdlein. Die Soldatenbraut. Agnes. Morgenlied. Im April. Zwei Rosen. Der Gefangene. Auf die Rose. Die Meise. Auf Grusiens Hügeln. O Sing, du Schöne, Sing mir Nicht. Märchen. Verlangen. Des Nachts. Die Kapelle. Die Klagende. Rätsel. Das Blümlein. Das Vöglein. Allein. Die Sterne. Die Beschwörung / Miriam Alexandra, soprano; Eric Schneider, pianist / Oehms Classics OC 1878

Pauline Viardot-Garcia (1821-1910), the kid sister of opera legend Maria Malibran, grew up to become as accomplished an artist—possibly even more so—than her sibling. By age six she was fluent in Spanish, English, French and Italian, and in later life added German and learned Russian so perfectly that when she sang Russian songs she was mistaken for a native. Originally an accomplished pianist, she took lessons with Franz Liszt and counterpoint-harmony classes with Anton Reicha, but her mother moved her in the direction of singing once her father, Manuel Sr., died in 1832. By the 1850s she was considered the most musically superb and dramatically interesting mezzo-soprano in all of Europe. She created Fidès in Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète. She sang the mezzo part in the performance of Mozart’s Requiem at Chopin’s funeral in 1849. Hector Berlioz wrote his arrangement of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurudice specifically for her, which she performed with him in 1858, and he had her in mind as Dido in his opera Les Troyens, which she strongly encouraged him to compose. Unfortunately, by the time Troyens was to be performed at the Paris Opéra in 1863, Viardot’s voice was in serious decline despite her relatively young age (she was only 41 years old), thus he assigned the role to another singer. But losing her voice didn’t stop her from teaching singing, just as it didn’t stop her older brother Manuel Garcia Jr., who had been a baritone, when he lost his voice before the age of 36. She taught a great many famous singers and pedagogues and died, full of honors, in 1910.

This superb collection of her own songs is a revelation. There’s not a single dull, uninteresting, or poorly-written piece on this album. If you were to hear this disc in a blindfold test, you would swear that these were songs by Schubert or perhaps even Schumann. That’s how good they are. The lively rhythms, lyrical melodies, interesting chord changes and ways of capturing the mood of each song bespeaks a master composer. So why haven’t we heard more of her work?

Beats me. There are collections of her music by Ina Kancheva (Toccata Classics), Isabel Bayrakdarian (Analekta), Julia Sukmanova (Fontenay Classics), Marina Comparato (Brilliant Classics) and Gyorgyi Dombradi (Ars Musici), and only the latter has a voice so fluttery as to detract from the quality of the music. In all of these, one is consistently impressed by the force of this woman’s writing, particularly in the piano parts which are generally even more brilliant and difficult than those in Schubert’s songs. In addition, violinist Ulf Schneider has recording her Violin Sonatine and 6 Moreceaux for violin on Ars Musici.

One of the most impressive songs on this album is Die Gefangene with its loping, “walking” tempo and feel, which in the second chorus morphs as the piano suddenly begins playing little fluttery 16ths on the second beat of each bar (the song is in 3/4) to break up the tempo a little. This is also a rare minor-key song for her, being in E minor.

As to the performances, pianist Eric Schneider is superb, able to make even the most difficult passages sound easy, and soprano Miriam Alexandra has a pure, clear soubrette voice. She only gives a generalized feeling of each piece, however; not for her the probing, brooding interpretations of Kancheva on Toccata Classics. This is a small drawback but a drawback nonetheless. Considering what an emotional, full-blooded woman and singer Pauline was, I would have liked rather more feeling in these performances, but it’s nice to have them sung by a soprano who at least has a fine voice and crystal-clear diction. Her only real drawback is the lack of a good, rich low range, which is a bit ironic considering that Viardot was a full-blooded mezzo-soprano. Other than that, these performances are clearly good enough to give one a good impression of these songs, each of which is a little gem.

In this particular song group, none of them really touch upon darker moods, but I’ve listened to one or two of Viardot’s Russian songs and those are much moodier. She was just a fine composer, plain and simple, and someone out there should be programming an entire evening of her songs…perhaps interspersed with some piano and violin pieces!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Rathaus’ Unusual Violin Sonatas Recorded


RATHAUS: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. Suite for Violin & Piano / Karolina Piatkowska-Nowicka, violinist; Bogumiła Weretka-Bajdor, pianist / Dux 1347

How many classical listeners have ever heard, or heard of, Karol Rathaus? Well, OK, the name doesn’t really suggest a fun experience. You almost expect the kind of well-written but turgid music that Max Reger churned out by the double handful. But, as it turns out, Rathaus wrote music that was both angular and modern on the one hand and rhythmically buoyant on the other. A strange combination, to say the least.

One of Franz Schreker’s favorite pupils at the Academy of Performing Arts and Music in Vienna, Rathaus followed him to the Berlin Music Academy. Upon graduation, Rathaus accepted a position as a teacher of composition and music theory at the Berlin University of the Arts, where he stayed until Hitler and the Nazis assumed power (pace Wikipedia).

Rathaus’ music combines superb form with deep feeling. It’s difficult to listen to these pieces without being emotionally drawn in; in this respect he was different from the equally brilliant Erwin Schulhoff, whose music is brilliant and fascinating but works strictly on a surface level. Of course, the emotional impact of any music is as much dependent on the performer as the composer, and in this case Rathaus is fortunate yo have two such passionate champions as violinist Piatkowska-Nowicka, whose lean, brilliant timbre explores these scores with great intensity, and pianist Weretka-Bajdor, who plays with a wonderful feeling for line and mood. Because of these scores’ angular construction the music is difficult to describe in words, but one thing I particularly liked about them was the fact that the musical construction is clear and easy to follow even when the melodic line and harmonies are not. This helps considerably in making a connection with any listener who is not immediately negative towards them due to their style.

Indeed, as these works progress, the depth and profundity of Rathaus’ music grabs you more and more. It’s so rare to find works of this quality in such great performances nowadays that I almost lost track of my “critical faculties” and just listened for the sheer enjoyment of it. To me, that’s the mark of a truly great recording. You don’t even feel the need to analyze because every note and phrase has a meaning and a message. One detail I particularly loved, though, was the way the third movement of the second Violin Sonata followed so quickly on the heels of the mysterious, brooding final note of the second movement. That was sheer genius on Rathaus’ part.

The Suite for Violin & Piano takes a deliberately less serious tone than the sonatas. Rathaus’ musical syntax is pretty much the same, but here he penetrates less emotionally, preferring to ride the surface of the music. Ironically, this would be a powerful violin sonata for almost any modern composer I can think of, because despite the less penetrating insight the music is extremely well written and fascinating. The last movement is a virtual moto perperual of modern harmonies in a bouncing rhythm—at least until the final E major chord on the piano, outside the home key, which suddenly ends the piece in the middle of nowhere!

Despite the brevity of this review, I cannot praise this album highly enough. You need to hear these performances of this music.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Getting to the Heart of Paganini

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PAGANINI: 24 Caprices for Solo Violin / Edson Scheid, violinist / Naxos 9.70264

PAGANINI: Violin Concertos Nos. 1-6 / Alexandre Dubach, violinist; Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo; Michel Sasson, Lawrence Foster, conductors / Brilliant Classics BC99582

In my review of Paganini’s Caprices as played by Rachel Barton Pine, I made it clear (or hope I did!) that her performances were an interesting excursion, a different “take” on the music using vocal bel canto techniques and applying them to the violin. But if you’re looking for Paganini’s music as he himself probably played it, you need to look elsewhere.

Why? Because Paganini was not only the most astonishing violin virtuoso of his time, he was also an exciting and dynamic player. He attacked the strings of his instrument as if he were trying to break them. As Peter Gutmann put it on his music blog,[1]

Paganini’s violin skill was sensational, perhaps the greatest ever. True, he “cheated” just a bit by flattening his bridge (to facilitate bowing from one string to another), used thin strings (to add brilliance and boost harmonics) and tuned unconventionally (to smooth the fingering of intricate passages). He owed his renown not only to raw talent, but to grueling work spurred by his parents – an overbearing father who starved him into practicing full-time, and an approving mother who viewed this cruelty as fulfilling a dream in which an angel had promised that her son would become the world’s greatest violinist.

To stretch himself, Paganini often wrote pieces even he couldn’t play and then spent months mastering them. Even for today’s luminaries, their challenges are formidable. Among their terrors are widely spaced notes (gliding between the outside strings without sounding the inner ones), a “skipping bow” (divided into up to l8 distinct notes without changing direction), sustaining a lush melody on one string while playing trills or rapid harmony on another, bowing to imitate the sound of flutes and horns, wildly chromatic runs, trilled octaves and arpeggiated guitar-like chords, all to be played with the seemingly impossible combination of furious speed and consummate grace.

Unfortunately, what Paganini accomplished requires extraordinarily hard work from even the most accomplished of violinists, even today; and because today’s violinists are trained to be cautious in performance, most of them somehow miss the sheer excitement of his music. For many years, for instance, I loved Yehudi Menuhin’s recordings of the first two Paganini Violin Concertos because of their charm and grace. Yet although Menuhin dutifully reproduced what was on the printed page, and gave the music some impetus, he lacked the sheer ferocity of the original’s own playing. Most violinists do.

That is why, as an alternate to the Pine recording of the Caprices, I am now recommending the superb 2016 recording by Edson Scheid. But don’t watch Scheid play any of the caprices on YouTube, even though the videos are there, because you’ll be disappointed. He’s as motionless as a statue when he plays, which is nothing like the pacing, tiger-like Paganini. But at least he sounds exciting, which is the whole point of a recording.

As for the concertos, they were given their finest readings ever in the 1990s by Swiss violinist Aklexandre Dubach. Dubach must have spent years mastering this music, because the way he tosses off the most difficult passages is simply astonishing. Moreover, he plays with more élan and somewhat more drive than Menuhin did. He manages to make those crazy passages of rapid, successive pizzicato notes sound as weird and savage as I believe Paganini himself did.

That being said, I didn’t much care for the music of the third and sixth concertos. All three of the discs in the Brilliant Classics set were originally issued singly on Claves, and those releases are still available. I recommend getting Vols. 1 and 2, which includes Concertos 1, 2, 4 and 5. That’s really all you need.

One thing I found interesting was the corollary between Paganini’s violin concertos and the music of Chopin. The Polish pianist-composer wrote his own piano concertos in a similar vein: tuneful but open melodies which allows for the soloist to stretch out and dominate the proceedings. In addition, there’s a tune in the first movement of the first Paganini Concerto that closely resembles the main theme from Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu, later adapted for the pop song I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.

The performances on these discs are superb, and both are highly recommended.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley



Roberta Peters’ Forgotten Recital

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ROBERTA PETERS IN RECITAL / J.S. BACH: St. Matthew Passion: I follow with gladness. Ich hatte viel Bekümmerus Seufzer, BWV 21. HANDEL: L’Allegro ed il Penseroso: Sweet bird that shuns’t the noise of folly. A. SCARLATTI: Io vi miro ancor vestitle, H. 664. SCHUMANN: Liederkreis: Mondnacht. Röseliein, Röselein. Frühlingsnacht. STRAUSS: Morgen. Amor. DEBUSSY: Apparition. Fleur des blés. RAVEL: L’Enfant et les Sortilges: Arrière! le réchauffe les bons / Roberta Peters, soprano; George Trovillo, pianist; unidentified flautist / originally issued as RCA Victor LSC-2379, available for free streaming at Internet Archive

The late soprano Roberta Peters burst onto the American musical scene in the early 1950s, already a finished artist at a very young age. She was as much admired for her sober, conscientous acting style and her impeccable musicianship as she was for the brilliance and accuracy of her voice and her attractive, petite presence. Naturally, New York being New York, there was no thought of putting her in contemporary works in which her voice and presence might have actually “sold” a reactionary audience on more modern music. Oh, no, we can’t upset the people who like Tunes and Arias. And so Peters sang the standard “coloratura soprano” fare: Rosina, Lucia, Gilda, Norina etc. with an occasional Euridice in Gluck’s opera thrown in for interest. And of course she sang the Queen of the Night. Don’t they all?

But Peters in recital eschewed this stunt music in favor of real, meaty works, pieces she had come to love during her years of intense study under William Pierce Herman, a strange, eccentric vocal coach who taught his pupils to produce their voices via intercostal breathing rather than diaphragmmatic pressure. Herman ruined most of the voices he worked on, but somehow or other Peters blossomed under him. Perhaps her very small physiognomy had something to do with it, but although she had to give up the notes above high D-flat once she gave birth to her twins, she maintained her voice for nearly 40 years, quite unusual for a soubrette. I heard her twice in person during the latter part of her career: once as Zerlina in Don Giovanni opposite Sherrill Milnes (Edda Moser was the Donna Anna), and once in recital, in Cincinnati, during the mid-1980s. I was astonished at how well she had kept her voice.

This album, recorded in 1960, gives us the best of both worlds: Peters’ earlier, fresher voice and her already well-developed sense of artistry. Her performance of the well-known Handel showpiece Sweet bird that shuns’t the noise of folly is one of the crown jewels of this set with its perfectly-articulated runs and trills (although not as rapidly tossed off as Nellie Melba had done in the early years of the 20th century). But so too is her performance of I follow with gladness from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, her splendid lieder performances, and the French material by Debussy and Ravel. What a pity that the Met never saw fit to stage Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges with Peters in the cast; she’d have been outstanding in it.

In the softer lied, particularly Schumann’s Mondnacht and Strauss’ Morgen, Peters faces the same challenge that Elisabeth Schumann had. Their voices were penny-bright, which made it hard for them to float tones in songs that required a more opaque sound. Both sopranos compensated by lightening their breath pressure somewhat. If the effect here is not quite as magical as when these songs were sung by soft-grained male singers, such as Leo Slezak or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, they are effective performances nonetheless. Peters is predictably good in Schumann’s Röselein, Röselein and Debussy’s Apparition. Pianist George Trovillo accompanies her sensitively, and the sadly anonymous flautist is also very good.

So what happened to this recital? It went out of print, as all such albums did in those days, although perhaps quicker than the Red Seal recitals by Cesare Valletti or the highly popular Mario Lanza. By the late 1960s it was forgotten, although it did turn up livingstereobanner2now and then in New York’s used LP stores for a pretty penny. Then, in 2005, it was issued on CD for the first and only time as part of Sony Classical’s 60-CD set, The Living Stereo Collection, a hodgepodge including both vocal and instrumental discs made between 1957 and 1964, the peak years of this technology. (Ironically, this reissue omitted the 1957 Monteux-conducted Orfeo ed Eurudice featuring Risë Stevens and Peters.) And then, just like that, the album disappeared again. Forever.

And so, in the spirit of providing my readers with great art that does not deserve to be lost, I’ve posted a liink to the sound files of this superb album. And where did I get them? Why, from Sony’s “Freegal” system of (and I quote) “free and legal downloads,” provided to me by my local library. All I needed to acquire them was my library card number and a passcode. If I can get them for free, so can anyone else with a library card. So here it is, complete and intact, for your enjoyment.

You’re welcome.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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