Ehnes Plays Beautiful Bach

Ehnes Bach

BACH: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, BWV 1001-1006 / James Ehnes, violinist / Analekta AN28772-3

Recently, I previewed a new recording of the Bach Violin Sonatas and Partitas by a different violinist on another label. The performances were heartfelt and interesting, but the violinist in question insisted on using the historically unproved “straight tone” that is the new religion of musical academia, and thus the performances didn’t move me. I told the person who offered me the recording that although I would give this recording a good review, I would constantly be comparing him unfavorably to Mark Kaplan in his magnificent recording last year on Bridge.

Listening to the opening “Adagio” of the first sonata on this recording, I almost had the same reaction. It wasn’t that Ehnes’ playing wasn’t good—it most certainly was—but it didn’t strike me as exceptional. But as soon as he started in on the succeeding “Fugue: Allegro,” the emotional impact of the performance picked up several notches and I was hooked. I just had to hear what he did with the rest of the series.

By and large, I would say that Ehnes’ performances here are just as intense as those of Kaplan and the great Amandine Beyer (on Zig Zag Territoires), the only straight-tone violinist whose work I put on the same high level. That is a considerable achievement in a field where even so fine a player as Rachel Barton Pine falls short of that exalted level. If I still prefer Kaplan and Beyer, it is because their work is simply more imaginative and their tempos more flexible and buoyant. Ehnes maintains a steady tempo throughout each movement of each sonata and partita, only showing the very slightest use of rubato here and there by placing a slight bit of stress and a slightly elongated note within his phrases, but this in itself places him above the straight-toned violinist I chose not to review. Like Kaplan and Beyer, Ehnes sounds as if every note of every phrase means something to him. He achieves a direct emotional connection with the music that is refreshing and valuable in a crowded field of recordings going all the way back to Nathan Milstein.

Listen, for instance, to the slightly more pronounced rubato in the final phrase of the first partita’s “Allemande.” It’s almost as if Ehnes can’t bear to let the music go; he wants so badly to let it linger in the mind as he closes the movement out. Little touches like this are common in his readings, and they are what separates him from the violinist whose work I passed for review.

It’s a matter, I would say, of sincerity over mere intention. Perhaps some of my readers are old enough to remember It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! and Linus’ deeply-held belief that only a pumpkin patch that is the most sincere will be graced by a visit from the Great Pumpkin. Sincerity is one of those intangibles in every performance, and it goes beyond mere energy and pep. It is the reason I love the playing of super-virtuosos György Cziffra and Sviatoslav Richter but dislike, for the most part, the playing of Vladimir Horowitz and Martha Argerich. Of course, millions of people can’t hear the difference, otherwise no one would buy Horowitz or Argerich recordings, and I can’t put it exactly into words for you. You just have to believe me when I say I hear the difference.

So does this Ehnes recording supplant the Kaplan or Beyer versions? Certainly not. They are unique in a different way. But it is equally interesting because he so obviously loves this music. Like most violinists who approach these monumental works, he has given them a great deal of thought, but unlike a great many of his peers he is able to deliver his own personal vision of that music.

Indeed, for those who may dislike the extra detail that Kaplan and Beyer put into their recordings, Ehnes represents a fine middle ground. He is the one you can turn to for a fine reading that is not too highly individual, just as one can turn to Zuill Bailey’s recording of the Bach Cello Suites if one is dissatisfied with Yehuda Hanani. I personally like the extra detailing of Kaplan and Beyer, but I could live with Ehnes if their recordings did not exist.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Lefkowitz-Brown Jumps in New Album

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ONWARD / LEFKOWITZ-BROWN: Onward. Franklin Street.* Deviation. Blues for Randy.* Impetuous. WONDER: Isn’t She Lovely? COLTRANE: Giant Steps. CARMICHAEL: The Nearness of You. PORTER: All of You / Chad Lefkowitz-Brown, t-sax; Steven Feifke, pn; Raviv Markovitz, bs; Jimmy MacBride, dm; *Randy Brecker, tpt / Scholz Productions (no number)

This is the second CD release by tenor saxist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown and his quartet, with two of the tracks featuring guest artist Randy Brecker on trumpet. Lefkowitz-Brown attended the Brubeck Institute where he was able to play regularly with the school’s namesake, the late Dave Brubeck. He has also played with Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, drummer Matt Wilson and David Sanchez.

The opening tune, Onward, comes at you like a jazz freight train. Lefkowitz-Brown is very obviously a fan of hard-bop tenor saxists; his tone is bright, lean and mean. His improvising style is also in a similar vein; there’s a bit of Harold Land, some Sonny Rollins and a touch of Coltrane in his playing. He enjoys running changes in a scalar fashion, occasionally tossing in some of Trane’s “sheets of sound” to break things up. Pianist Steven Feifke is also a strong player who attacks the keyboard aggressively yet with unbounded ecstasy. Bassist Markovitz is a steady force underpinning the goings-on, while drummer MacBride plays with the rhythm as the others keep to a steady forward beat.

The quartet also takes charge in their rendition of Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t she Lovely?, despite its overlaying of 3/4 in places. The simple tune is worked over in splendid fashion, here featuring Feifke in a more relaxed, almost pensive mood. When Lefkowitz-Brown returns, he ups the emotional level once again, but relaxes towards the end, allowing Feifke to play a repeated walking lick in the bass range of the piano which then leads to a final flourish from the saxist.

Lefkowitz-Brown’s original Franklin Street is a relaxed piece, one of two tracks featuring the great Randy Brecker on trumpet. And, wonder of wonders, Brecker is not just “tacked on” as a soloist but worked into the arrangement of the opening theme, playing in thirds with the saxist. Moreover, he is given the honor of being first up to solo, and his playing is as beautiful and well-organized as ever. An interesting moment occurs when Lefkowitz-Brown first enters: the bassist follows him underneath note for note and rhythm for rhythm. As expected, the saxist again ramps up the emotional feel of the piece, only to have it fall back to relaxation again when Feifke enters. Coltrane’s Giant Steps is almost a predictable success for Lefkowitz-Brown, but the surprise is that his version “jumps” more than the original. At one point, early on, Feifke cleverly plays walking single-note triplets to the saxist’s top line (a trick he repeats near the end). The pianist is unusually loose and febrile in his solo here, playing tight, well-ordered lines, and MacBride has a fine drum solo.

I’m always interested to hear modern jazz bands of any size approach old standards, just to see what they do with them. In the first instance here, Hoagy Carmichael’s lovely The Nearness of You, Lefkowitz-Brown completely respects both the melody and the mood, taking it at a romantic tempo very close to Glenn Miller’s famous recording of it. Here, too, his tenor takes on a bit more warmth, not quite on the same level as Hawk or Ben Webster but mellifluous and soft-grained nonetheless. The former mood resumes with Deviation, which sounds so much like a hard bop tune from the 1950s that I was a bit surprised to learn it was another original.

The other tune with Randy Brecker, appropriately titled Blues for Randy, is a funky-groove sort of piece, not too dissimilar to the kind of fusion the trumpeter played back in the 1970s with his late brother Michael. Both horn soloists seem to love this groove, jumping into it feet first and taking to it like ducks to water. Brecker, especially, almost sounds like a cooped-up boxer finally being allowed to spar in the ring, flying all over the place as he did 40 years ago. Bravo, Randy!

The final original piece here, Impetuous, is surprisingly relaxed and lyrical, almost in a bossa-nova beat and in fact feeling very much like one of the Jobim tunes that Stan Getz recorded in the early ‘60s. Lefkowitz-Brown, of course, has his own approach to this sort of piece and doesn’t even remotely try to resemble Getz. His playing is more angular in form and certainly more aggressive in tone. Feifke’s piano solo meanders a bit but pulls itself together in the second chorus for some outstanding improvisation. Lefkowitz-Brown tosses in a few tenor honks in the last chorus.

Unlike their treatment of The Nearness of You, the quartet takes on Cole Porter’s All of You in straightahead jazz style, full steam ahead, and makes the music really jump. The leader is especially good here, pushing and pulling back on the beat as he wends his way through the changes, and Feifke sounds very playful in his solo turn, eschewing complexity for relaxed, simple fun. It’s a good rideout to a generally splendid album.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Yoko Miwa Has Fun at the Piano

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PATHWAYS / JOHNSON: Log O’Rhythm. After You. MIWA: Lickety Split. The Goalkeeper. Lantern Light. Was it Something I Said? LENNON-McCARTHY: Dear Prudence* / Yoko Miwa, pno; Will Slater, *Brad Barrett, bs; Scott Goulding, dm / Ocean Blue Tear Music (no number available)

Priot to hearing this CD I was unaware of Yoko Miwa or her manner of playing, but I found it highly engaging and interesting. The album begins with a piece by Marc Johnson titled Log O’Rhythm, evidently a pun on algorithm, and this turned out to be the weakest composition on the disc. The obsessively repetitive opening lick simply went on too long, about two minutes in fact, although once the trio shed it things got interesting. Miwa seems to have been influenced in part at least by such players as Mulgrew Miller and Vince Guaraldi, having the Gospel-flavored licks of the former and the buoyant, happy sound of the latter. It’s the kind of playing that is immediately engaging, and once we get past the sheer joy of it all we realize that Miwa is a fine improviser who almost underplays her technique in the service of a cohesive structure.

This ability is evident in one of her own compositions, Lickety Split, the opening bars of which bear a strong resemblance to Sonny Rollins’ Pent-Up House. Here, in her first full chorus of improvisation, Miwa does indeed toss in a few sparkling piano arpeggios, but once again they are part and parcel of a longer evolving piece. Another great feature of her playing is her sheer energy; Miwa is no shrinking violet at the keyboard! She plays with tremendous energy, as did the late, legendary Dorothy Donegan, making no excuses for the fact that she loves creating music. This track also introduced me to her bassist, Will Slater, whose solo is sparse yet also well constructed. Drummer Goulding also has a solo on this track. Sadly, Joni Mitchell’s lame pop tune Court and Spark was a down moment in this otherwise splendid program, starting with a typically namby-pamby melody and going nowhere (mostly because there was nowhere to go with it). Miwa tried her best to make lemonade out of this lemon; her improvising skills were on fine display here; but you simply can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, and once she stopped improvising we were back where we started.

Happily, we get back on track with Miwa’s The Goalkeeper, an old-fashioned type of swinger in which the trio plays with outstanding precision, enhancing and emphasizing the rhythm in a most delightful manner. Miwa also sounds as happy as the music, rollicking throughout with jolly runs and triplets interspersed with her Miller-flavored moments of Gospel jazz. Slater also responds well with his own sparkling solo. Marc Johnson also wrote After You, built around a simple, repeated lick that Miwa and her skilled trio turn into excellent jazz, and Slater plays one of his finest solos on the album in this track. When Miwa returns, Goulding plays an interesting backbeat shuffle rhythm that evolves into a Latin beat, with Miwa leading the trio like a master race car driver, building up a good head of steam towards the finish.

Miwa’s original, Lantern Light, is a nice ballad with an attractive melody which she develops beautifully. Typically of her approach, the ballad feel does not stay low-key throughout, but morphs into some exciting and dynamic playing, here including more sparkling runs as part of the improvised section. When the tempo pulls back for Slater’s solo, it almost seems pre-ordained, as if both the bassist and the pianist-composer felt the need for just this sort of relaxation in the midst of the piece. Some interesting press rolls from Goulding introduce a rhythmic shift near the end as Miwa plays a repeated cycle of chords, before treating us to an free-tempoed improvised cadenza for the finale.

Was It Something I Said? is one of those tunes that are rarities nowadays, a mice medium “walking” tempo. Miwa sounds completely comfortable and at home in this, as if it were a kind of jazz she has been playing all her life. Interestingly, although she uses some chunky chord progressions in her solo, she does not fall back on formulaic patterns, but rather keeps the flow and structure of the music moving at all times. This is the kind of song that you wish would go on all day!

The album’s closer is highly unusual, the Beatles’ sparse tune Dear Prudence from the “double white album,” one of many songs by Paul McCartney on that collection that John Lennon detested (among the others he hated were Bungalow Bill, Rocky Raccoon, Birthday and Martha, My Dear). Interestingly, Miwa is able to make real music out of this trifle, cleverly using unusual beat shifts from the very beginning and deconstructing the sparse melodic line to turn it into a calypso number. On this track bassist Brad Barrett replaces Slater, and his slightly funkier sense of rhythm helps in the transformation. It makes a great closer, then, not because “it’s a Beatles song” but because of what she does with it. Words fail me in describing how creative and yet swinging this piece is. I maintain that, in a blindfold test, not even Paul McCartney would recognize his own song here, at least not until around 5:55 when Miwa finally alludes to the original tune for half a chorus!

Pathways will be available for sale on May 12 of this year. It’s a fun album!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Jason Rigby’s “One” a Wild Ride

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ONE / RIGBY: Dive Bar. Dorian Gray. Live By the Sword. Dewey. RODGERS-HART: You Are Too Beautiful. SCHULLER: Newtoon. HANCOCK: Speak Like a Child. G & I GERSHWIN: Embraceable You / Detroit–Cleveland Trio: Jason Rigby, t-sax/s-sax; Cameron Brown, bs; Gerald Cleaver, dm / Fresh Sound FSNT-505

According to the press release accompanying this album, saxist Jason Rigby worked with large groups for his first two albums, but here decided to reduce to a trio with bass and drums. Nonetheless, he has composed and arranged the music on this set in such a way that it “gives each player enough compositional material to grab on to, but not too much to stifle open-ended improvisation. Ultimately this recording is about freewheeling improvisation and the unique connection that we have formed over the past 6 years performing together as a trio.” In his favor is the fact that the three musicians here are long-time associates; bassist Cameron Brown has worked with Rigby in various bands since 2005 and drummer Gerald Cleaver first played with him in 2001. Listening to the recording without any preconceived ideas, however, the wildness of its free improvisation certainly outweighs any composed components of the music.

Indeed, my personal reaction to this album was that it reminded me very strongly of those wild, avant-garde ESP-Disks that came out with some regularity in New York during the 1960s…all those wacky, out-there albums by such musicians as Pharoah Sanders, Ornette Coleman (yes, Coleman recorded for ESP-Disk), Paul Bley, Sun Ra, etc. Interestingly, the ESP-Disk resemblance also extends to the album cover/sleeve, which uses a facsimile of an old Smith-Corona typewriter, complete with uneven type and broken or over-inked letters. Rigby’s tenor sax is all over the place on the opener, Dive Bar, which begins and continues with some of the most dynamic drumming I’ve ever heard this side of Elvin Jones. It’s a surging, powerful, hard-driving piece, taking one through a number of emotions as it wends its way along. So powerful is the playing of Rigby and Cleaver, in fact, that I didn’t even hear Brown on this track!

back coverAlthough Brown has almost no presence on the first track, his bass leads the trio into the second tune, Dorian Gray, a deceptively simple lick that acts as a ground bass for the whole piece. Here, Rigby acts as much as deconstructionist as a composer, taking the thematic material apart and reassembling it in various new guises. By and large, Rigby’s playing has more body to the tone than a lot of the old avant-gardists of the ‘60s, in fact an almost classic tenor sax sound in the tradition of Dexter Gordon or Wardell Gray, and when he does squeal on the instrument it is intermittent and does not greatly corrupt his fine tone quality.

I was interested to hear how Rigby would reinterpret the classic songs on this album, particularly Richard Rodgers’ Too Beautiful for Words and George Gershwin’s Embraceable You. The former is played with great reverence for the song’s structure; it is recognizable, and Rigby’s sound is deep, rich and full. Brown also falls back here to a walking bass behind the saxist, almost traditional in his approach. Only drummer Cleaver continues to play in a looser, more modern manner, which redistributes the beats somewhat, although he, too, falls more in line with the other two as the piece continues. Much to my surprise, Brown takes a solo of his own and keeps it rather minimal, weaving his way through the changes with unusual accidentals. Rigby’s sax coda almost sounded like something late-period Coleman Hawkins might have played.

Drummer George Schuller’s Newtoon is a somewhat relaxed, rambling piece, yet again in the ESP-Disk mold. Here it almost sounds as if all three musicians are going their own separate ways, complementing each other almost by accident. The melody seems comprised of serrated fragments with “running changes” on the sax, making it an ideal piece to improvise on if not one that sticks with the listener. I found it unusual that the next track, Herbie Hancock’s Speak Like a Child, comes across as much more conventional, almost like a jazz samba, yet the manner in which Rigby plays it makes it sound rather different from the original, particularly in the improvisational passages where, now on soprano sax, he flies around his instrument in descending chromatic circles of sound.

Another Rigby original, Live By the Sword, follows. This uses an almost Eastern-sounding melodic line in which Brown tends to follow Rigby both rhythmically and harmonically while Cleaver is out in his own little drum universe. I noticed throughout this album that Rigby has a proclivity for running changes in thirds, moving up and down the scale in this manner. Embraceable You, it turns out, is played entirely a cappella by the saxist, his performance having very little to do with the song’s original melody. It is, rather, a free-form fantasy on the Gershwin tune, only rarely—as at the 2:40 mark and a little later on—incorporating small portions of the original melody into his creation. This was, for me, the musical highlight of the album, a sparkling gem that deserves repeated listening. He ends it almost in the middle of nowhere.

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L to R: Gerald Cleveland, Cameron Brown, Jason Rigby

The album’s closer, Dewey, is dedicated to pianist Paul Bley and saxist Dewey Redman. The notes indicate that it is part of a suite Rigby wrote several years ago, and it is not only a powerful performance but also a fascinating creation, more unified in its various sections than some of the other pieces on this disc. It also returns us to the wild mood and temperament of the opening track, except that in this case I most definitely heard Brown’s bass throughout, playing continually busy eighth notes to bind the piece together. Eventually, however, Rigby just takes off on its changes and flies into the stratosphere, pulling his talented band along with him. Brown’s solo is also a gem, skittering around the strings of his bass and creating his own piece based on the original tune. This is followed by a remarkable Cleaver solo that leads us back into Rigby’s sax playing. It’s quite a ride!

One is scheduled for release on April 28, with a “release performance” at the Jazz Gallery in New York the following evening. If you are a fan of experimental or outside jazz, this is a disc for you!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Rawsthorne’s “Portrait” Reveals a Genial Creator

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RAWSTHORNE: A PORTRAIT / RAWSTHORNE: Clarinet Concerto / Linda Merrick, clarinetist; Manchester Sinfonia; Richard Howarth, conductor / Oboe Quartet No. 1 / Sylvia Harper, oboist; Jake Rea, violinist; David Aspin, violist; Joseph Spooner, cellist / Studies on a Theme by Bach for String Trio / Jake Rea, violinist; David Aspin, violist; Joseph Spooner, cellist / Brother James’ Air / Joseph Spooner, cellist; David Owen Norris, pianist / Cello Sonata in C / Joseph Spooner, cellist; David Owen Norris, pianist / A Most Eloquent Music / Laura Robinson, John Turner, recorders; Roger Child, lutenist / Oboe Concerto / Jill Crowther, oboist; English Northern Philharmonia; Alan Cuckston, conductor / Prima Facie PFCD053

Alan Rawsthorne (1905-1971) was one of those British composers contemporary with Benjamin Britten who fell through the cracks somewhat because he wasn’t Benjamin Britten. To a certain extent William Walton did the same, but unlike Rawsthorne, a gentle, quiet man best known outside England for his whimsical narration-with-orchestra Practical Cats, Walton greatly resented it. Michael Tippett was also largely ignored until Britten’s death, but happily lived much longer and was able to reap fame of his own.

Judging from the music on this CD, Rawsthorne was an interesting if not always individual composer. The first movement of the Clarinet Concerto, like William Schuman’s Violin Concerto, begins rather in the middle of nowhere, as if the piece were already underway. The difference was that Schuman’s piece was extraordinarily original and dynamic, whereas Rawsthorne’s follows normal lines of statement and development within the format of a modern work using extended harmony. Thus it is not without interest, and the movements are so brief (each one between 2:47 and 5:24) that he manages to make his statement and exit without overstaying his welcome, but it’s the kind of music I would best describe as whimsical rather than exciting. Rawsthorne’s writing for strings is particularly interesting for a British composer, using somewhat raw sonorities as Stravinsky did and not a more conventional sound à la Vaughan Williams or even Britten. Interestingly, this is most evident in the third movement (of four), marked “Aria – Adagio.” The effect is spoiled a bit, however, by the rather conventional ending of the fourth movement, but Rawsthorne recognized this and wrote a revised ending, also included on this disc as a 21-second snippet. They should have just ignored the original ending and kept the second.

The Oboe Quartet No. 1 is in the same basic vein but a much livelier piece. Interestingly, Rawsthorne wrote for the strings in the first movement as if they were discrete sections of a small orchestra, thus creating, so to speak, an oboe concerto in miniature, although in the second movement they interact more like a normal string trio. This is really fine music, a piece that deserves to be played and heard more often. In the third movement, Rawsthorne creates some interesting counterpoint between the four instruments at the outset, leading to a wonderful fugue. Almost predictably, the Studies on a Theme by Bach for String Trio is also a fugue, with interesting pizzicato from the viola in one spot and an interesting use of dynamics. Rawsthorne transformed Bach into modern music by the use of constant accidentals and continually unsettled harmony. In one of the studies he uses the cello as a sort of “walking” bass line against the two upper strings, a fascinating effect.

By contrast with all of this astringent harmony, the genial Brother James’ Air is a lovely, folk-song-like piece, just two minutes long, written for cello and piano. With the Cello Sonata in C, we enter a darker, more mysterious side of Rawsthorne’s musical personality. The opening is simple, almost minimalistic, with sparse single notes on the piano leading the cello through some dark music in B before suddenly upping the tempo and re-introducing dark, clustered harmony and a bit of musical angst. I would like to particularly praise cellist Joseph Spooner, who produces an extraordinarily rich, almost chocolate sound with his instrument, which suits this music beautifully, although pianist David Owen Norris is also outstanding. In the quiet second movement, Spooner lightens his tone to produce an exquisitely lovely, almost vocal sound in the upper register. In the last movement, the dark mood dispels to reveal a rather jolly piece that hovers around A and D.

A Most Eloquent Music is a short piece for two recorders and lute. The music is rather nice but one of the recorders is a twinge flat throughout. The Oboe Concerto, similar to the Clarinet Concerto, is a rather moody piece. In this work, Rawsthorne’s string writing resembles his work in Practical Cats. There are several good ideas here, well developed and interesting. Oddly, its three movements are longer than the Clarinet Concerto’s four, but the mood is similar, as is the manner in which Rawsthorne worked his material. I particularly liked the stutter-step effect of the strings in the second movement (“Allegretto con morbidezza”).

All in all, an interesting album, and a good introduction to this fine composer for those who don’t know his work.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Weinberg’s Piano Quintet & String Quartet No. 7 in New Recordings

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WEINBERG (WAJNBERG): String Quartet No. 7 in C. Piano Quintet in F minor / Silesian Quartet; Piotr Sałajczyk, pianist / Accord ACD239-2

Over the last decade, the music of Miecyszław Weinberg—pronounced, and sometimes spelled, as “VAIN-berg,” or in this case spelled “Wajnberg”—has emerged from nowhere to become established as some of the greatest of the 20th century. It’s not just that his harmonic language was very close to that of his friend, Dmitri Shostakovich, but rather that his way of expressing himself had so much individuality and personality in it. Weinberg’s music touches the heart and moves the emotions as much as it stimulates the mind.

That being said, a release like this strikes me as a bit odd, pairing but one of his 17 String Quartets with the little-recorded Piano Quintet (only six other versions available), although the sales sheet accompanying this release informs us that this is to be the first of a seven-disc series of Weinberg’s music played by this quartet.

The performances are certainly quite fine. Their version of the Quartet No. 7 is certainly on as high a level as that of the Quatuor Danel, in their complete set of the quartets on CPO. In the very opening of the performance, it almost sounded as if the Silesian Quartet were using straight tone, except that I know from past listening that the high, quiet opening of this piece is to be played so lightly that vibrato would be intrusive. As the performance continues, we come to realize that the Silesian players are indeed using a quick, light vibrato, which is fine. Generally speaking, as a group they have a lean sound profile, which aids the listener in hearing the different lines of the music clearly while still maintaining a good ensemble sound in those passages where it is called for, but by and large Weinberg carried on a conversation between his instruments.

When the series is completed, I assure the listener that Silesian’s traversal of the string quartets will rival and possibly even surpass that of Quatour Danel. Just listen to the emotional angst they are able to bring our of the third and last movement of this quartet; it is almost nerve-wracking in its intensity! I’m also very fond of the sound quality, which is crisp and clear, almost in-your-face. I’m so tired of hearing string quartets recorded with too much space or reverb around the instruments.

As for the Piano Quintet, although an early work by Weinberg (Op. 18), it is not lacking in feeling or communication, but it is more of a melancholy piece than a dramatic one. Weinberg cleverly uses the piano in the opening movement as a “commentator” on what the string quartet is playing, rather than a consistently active partner. I found this very interesting; there are long sections in which only the quartet plays, and brief solos for the pianist without the strings. In those few passages where they are all together, the piano part is completely different from what the strings are playing. Occasionally, you hear the piano left hand more strongly, as a sort of basso continuo. It’s absolutely fascinating!

The second movement is even more interesting. Here, Weinberg seems to use all of the instruments in discrete sections, all playing music somewhat different from everyone else’s. Occasionally, the strings come together, but seldom in a harmonious manner; generally, they are fighting one another over who-knows-what. Having never heard this piece before, I can’t really say whether or not the lightweight, almost dispassionate playing of pianist Piotr Sałajczyk is exactly what Weinberg wanted, but it seems to fit into the context of the piece. Once in a while Sałajczyk attacks the keys with a bit more force, but never with much emotion. He is the outside commentator on the strings’ dialogue and/or argument.

The third movement is even odder, a slithering sort of melody in buoyant eighth notes, and here the piano part sparkles and, at times, dominates the scene, but again often divorced from what the strings are playing. Eventually we reach a mad sort of waltz, like a drunken merry-go-round, with the string quartet pushing the piano around like a beach ball on the crest of breaking waves. What a bizarre piece! By contrast the fourth movement, though marked “Largo,” has absolutely no repose about it; rather, it begins loudly, in a stentorian, stomping mood, laying heavily into half notes and eventually becoming a funeral march in E-flat minor before clearing the strings away entirely and allowing the pianist to play a long, meditative solo. For several minutes, we almost forget that this is supposed to be a piano quintet, until such time as the pianist is asked to play repetitive chime chords in E-flat major and the cello comes in for an achingly sad yet beautiful solo melody. When the upper string return, it is to intensify the mood and double the tempo, finally creating typical Weinbergian angst. Almost aggressive pizzicatos emerge as the piano tosses in a few licks that sound almost random in their placement, yet which add to the ongoing sequence. The movement ends quietly, as if in sad desperation.

The fifth and final movement starts as angst-ridden argument, but quickly and unexpectedly evolves into an Irish Jig! I kid you not! Only a composer with the vivif imagination of a Weinberg could have thought of such a thing, let alone executed it with such aplomb. Then, just as suddenly, the music moves into an aggressive 3/4 with the strings playing repetitive notes with aggressive bowing and the piano weaving in and out of their way. It almost sounds like a march to hell…except that, suddenly and unexpectedly, the tempo comes way down, everything turns quiet, and it seems the piece will end that way, except that the repeated bowed chords return (not quite as loudly and aggressively) as the quintet rides off into the sunset.

Put simply, this is a terrific disc. The Quartet No. 7 is fine, but the Piano Quintet is a stunner. You need to hear this album, particularly if you (like me) don’t have the latter piece in your collection.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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NBC Symphony Myths Debunked

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Here are a couple of the worst ones.

No. 1: “The Acoustics Were Perfect”

From p. 97 of Donald Carl Meyer’s dissertation, The NBC Symphony Orchestra:

Engineers also have taken advantage of the daily rehearsals of the ninety-two-piece orchestra under Dr. Rodzinski to conduct an elaborate series of experiments in acoustics and microphone placement in the huge Studio 8-H at Radio City …In the course of these tests, N.B.C. marshaled critical musical experts to listen in on rehearsals over a loudspeaker system and “piped” the music into its laboratories where engineers under the supervision of O. B. Hanson made scientific tests of the absolute tone quality of the transmissions.

Studio 8-H, largest in the world, was carefully checked to detect any possible distortion of tone or loss of richness even when the music of the orchestra swelled to its greatest volume. Following these experiments, experts said they were satisfied that the studio was ideally designed for the performances of the new symphonic group.

Specially calibrated microphones, like those used in the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, have been installed to bring the symphony concerts to the radio audiences. These microphones receive sound from a heart-shaped area in front. All extraneous noises from rear and sides of the microphone are eliminated.[1]

Reality:

Studio 8-H had dry, boxy acoustics because prior to Toscanini’s arrival it had been a radio program studio, and the goal of most radio shows was to minimize sound reverberation in order to provide perfectly clear reception. In terms of a musical group, however, it tended to make the sound cramped and two-dimensional, as if all the instruments in the orchestra were linedupinarowjustlikethis. Ironically, this artificially dry and claustrophobic sound suited Toscanini to a T. The Italian conductor had suffered some hearing loss over the years, most notably when leading an Italian army band on the Western front during World War I, and although there were still some sounds he could hear more clearly than other people his ability to hear the upper range in instruments had become dulled. When listening to transcripts of his Studio 8-H broadcasts, he was very pleased whereas others were appalled because he could hear all the instruments just as clearly as he could on the podium.

As a result of this, NBC stopped trying to improve the studio for a few years, though it was “sweetened” a bit in 1941. But the dry, airless sound of Toscanini’s studio recordings and most of his broadcasts during those years are part of the reason so many modern listeners dislike him. The sound is not merely substandard for its time, it is wholly artificial. No orchestra in the world sounds, or sounded, like that. The cramping of sound made the strings, already rather bright due to the presence of so many first-chair players, sound brittle and even harsh at times, and the same thing applied to the winds and brass.

In addition to all this, the NBC Symphony had a quintessentially “American” sound. We are much more used to this sort of sound nowadays, particularly when our orchestras play in spacious concert halls where the natural reverb makes them more pleasant, but in the late 1930s people were used to the sweeter tones of most European musicians who dominated the Boston, New York and Philadelphia Orchestras. Even comparing the late-‘30s performances of the NBC Symphony to contemporary broadcasts and recordings of the Lucerne Festival and BBC Symphony Orchestras under Toscanini, playing the exact same repertoire, shows how different the basic sound of the orchestra was. Two very good comparisons are the 1938 performance of the Brahms Third Symphony and the Schubert Second to contemporaneous performances by NBC. Despite the maddening limitations of shortwave broadcast sound, where occasional stretches of the music are distorted by what sounds like a “washing”effect, the Lucerne strings (led by Toscanini’s close friend, Adolf Busch, as concertmaster) and winds not only sound sweeter but have greater sweep. Passages that sound a bit choppy when played by NBC sound wonderful and smooth when played by Lucerne. And then there are the BBC Symphony and NBC Syhmphony 1939 performances of the Beethoven Fifth. The former is one of the greatest recorded performances in Toscanini’s entire discography, while the latter’s rhythm is so metronomic and the sound quality so cramped that it sounds like a hack job.

The acoustics were undoubtedly the major factor in these differences. The Lucerne Festival performances were given in a fine concert hall with natural reverb while the BBC Symphony ones were given in Queen’s Hall, an acoustically perfect venue that was sadly destroyed by German bombs in World War II. In these settings, the wide dynamic range that Toscanini typically drew from an orchestra add greatly to our enjoyment. In Studio 8-H, these gradations of dynamics were severely circumscribed.

One can tell to a much greater extent how this impacted Toscanini’s performances in the overtures to Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer and Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. These are well enough known to most classical listeners to illustrate my point perfectly. The almost whispering quietude required after the opening bars in both overtures is not heard in the transcripts of Toscanini’s broadcasts of them; on the contrary, the sound is “flattened out” so that the soft passages are only a bit softer than the loud opening. Yet we know that Toscanini was almost fanatically obsessed with dynamics as well as orchestral balance, which are probably the reasons he never allowed either overture to be released commercially. If you take the time to edit these recordings using an audio editor, however, following the score and carefully grading the volume up and down as the music indicates, you will find that they are superb performances. Yet they don’t sound that way in their raw state.

After a while, NBC/RCA just seemed to give up on Toscanini’s broadcasts and assigned whatever engineer was available at the time, with the admonition, “Make sure he can hear all the instruments.” Yet as B.H. Haggin pointed out, one sngineer with the last name of Slick found a perfect place to hang the microphones, and pushed a few rows of seats back just enough, to allow for some air around the instruments. He even left a detailed notation of where this microphone placement was. But his fellow engineers, wanting to show how clever they were, ignored his instructions and just did things their way. Sometimes they came close to the sound that Slick achieved, but never quite as good; most of the time, the sound was considerably worse. And this trend continued throughout the NBC Symphony’s 17-year career. Even such a master of acoustic balancing like Leopold Stokowski, when conducting the NBC Symphony, could just barely modify their sound enough to sound a tiny bit less harsh.

This is why I have referred to Toscanini’s NBC years as “the mirror of Narcissus.” Like the mythical Greek figure, the Italian conductor wanted the sound of his orchestra to reflect his idea of musical sound and his alone. It is true that he appreciated it when engineers were able to give more resonance to the sound while still retaining that X-ray clarity, but for him the X-ray clarity always came first. One infamous exmaple of Toscanini tinkering with a recording after it was made was his 1941 recording of the final scene from Götterdämmerung with soprano Helen Traubel. Traubel’s singing was magnificent, as was the playing of the orchestra, but when listening to the playback in his home Toscanini complained that the solo trumpet wasn’t clear enough. Haggin, listening along with him, said he could hear the trumpet just fine, and to dub it over again might damage the beautiful sound of the original recording, but Toscanini would not be deterred. He insisted on having RCA let him re-dub the trumpet part, and in doing so it somehow created a low-level electronic hum in the bass range which sometimes distorted Traubel’s singing. When she finally heard it, the soprano was incensed at what Toscanini had done, but the conductor was happier. Now you could hear the trumpet more clearly! Traubel wouldn’t even speak to him for six years after that.

Another reason the orchestra sounded better at times is that, after the first few years, the personnel changed, and depending on who was in the string and wind sections, the orchestra could sound considerably different. But by and large, one has to work at restoring a more natural sound to Toscanini’s NBC Symphony recordings in order for modern listeners to appreciate what he accomplished. Happily, a great many of his recordings have been so enhanced, although in the early days—meaning the hi-fi era of the 1950s—RCA sometimes went overboard in brightening the sound and adding reverb. Sometimes it worked, but many times it didn’t. The same was true of the “electronically enhanced stereo” added to Toscanini recordings in the late 1960s. As time has gone on, however, remastering techniques have improved, so much so that nowadays a musically sensitive listener can “genetically modify” Toscanini recordings to his or her own preferences.

And so they should be.

Myth #2: “All the critics thought Toscanini the greatest conductor.”

This has been pushed primarily by Joseph Horowitz, but even in 1959 Robert Charles Marsh made clear that there were critics as far back as 1929-30, when Toscanini was still at the New York Philharmonic, who complained that all he cared about was “the perfection of the machine,” i.e., that he only cared about perfect execution and clarity. A lot of this, however, was the work of those who preferred Willem Mengelberg’s looser approach to music.

But in the late 1930s, the anti-Toscanini press became more vociferous, particularly from the music critics of the New York Herald-Tribune. Happily, Meyer explains this as well. on p. 102 of his dissertation, he asserts that:

The New York Herald-Tribune, which was generally considered a partisan of the Philharmonic—its music critics were the program annotators [bold print mine]—now consented to review one of the benefits, as if performing in Carnegie gave the orchestra legitimacy. Of course, just the day before the Herald-Tribune had run a feature article on the problems with the “cult” of conductors. The animosity between the two orchestras, though subtle, still lingered.

This explains a great deal, particularly the extraordinary animosity shown towards Toscanini by The Herald-Tribune’s most famous and distinguished music critic, composer Virgil Thomson. For many decades, it was thought that Thomson went after Toscanini because the conductor never performed any of his works, and that may be true, but now I’m starting to think that Toscanini never performed any of Thomson’s music because he went after him. Most people fail to recall, if they ever knew, that in addition to the “trifles” of Ferde Grofé and George Gershwin, Toscanini also performed the music of such noted American composers as Samuel Barber, George Templeton Strong, Charles Loeffler, Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Paul Creston, Charles Tomlinson Griffes and Morton Gould. Thomson’s essentially tonal style would certainly have appealed to him, but with the distinguished critic-composer bashing him weekly in the newspapers, why should he bother? (Even Haggin was puzzled by this, writing that in most things he wrote Thomson was an observant and accurate reporter on musical events, but when it came to Toscanini he brought out the bludgeon.)

And there was yet another critic, who chose to stay anonymous, who wrote for Time magazine. In the issue of December 11, 1939, there was a highly insulting article referring to the conductor’s audience as “Toscaninnies.” He insulted them for attending the concerts as if they were at church, taking cough drops to suppress their phlegm and holding programs printed on silk to avoid paper rustling during the concerts. (This part is true: NBC printed the programs on silk for this reason, later switching to cardboard.) They were cruelly mocked for “blindly” applauding anything and everything the Maestro did and of being part of a cult—undoubtedly the origin of the term, “The Toscanini Cult..” I’m pretty positive that this same critic, reviewing a 1945 concert in Time by Toscanini’s friend William Steinberg, said that he conducted much like his mentor, “loud and bombastic.”

As we can see, then, much of the Toscanini-bashing written during his active career was politically motivated. If we put two and two together, it’s quite possible that these critics were being urged, and perhaps even being paid, to do so by the ever-acrimonious Arthur Judson.

You have to take a lot of what you read about Toscanini, then, with a grain of salt, both the overhype and the bashing. Yes, much of the former came from the RCA publicity department, but we must recall that they gave the same treatment to conductors that Horowitz preferred such as Stokowski and Koussevitzky. Publicity was publicity, and exaggerated claims were made for every conductor that every record company was trying to promote.

AT_NBC

Before signing off, I just had to include this great letter. In the late 1930s a lot of “civic organizations” with high-minded cultural ideas in the U.S. were trying to book Arturo Toscanini to conduct in their towns and cities, but they somehow expected him to play for peanuts. I mean, after all, it was the DEPRESSION, you know, and we can’t all afford New York prices! But of course Toscanini wasn’t going to perform for nothing, or for union scale, so NBC had to try to negotiate a proper fee for him.

Eventually an NBC executive in charge of the orchestra, John Royal, wrote a mock letter to one such requester that he never actually sent, but it’s so funny I think you’ll get a laugh out of it:

Dear Sir:
We have your inquiry for ARTURO TOSCANINI, and shall be glad to book this artist with you at a fee of $1,000, which, you will agree, is entirely reasonable.
Out of this fee, however, we are obliged to pay the Federal Income Tax, Federal Surtax, New York Abnormal Tax, Excise Fees, Government Stamp Tax, Italian Emigration Visas, Military Taxes and AGMA license performance fees, making in all a total of $5,644.37, on which there will be due a Government Surtax of 42%, making the total $8,015.01. Adding this sum to Mr. Toscanini’s fee, we arrive at a grand total of $9,015.01, to which, since your engagement will take place in Cohoes, New York, we are obliged to add New York State Taxes of $2,933.67, bringing Mr. Toscanini’s fee to $11,948.68.
The artist’s fare to your city, or a point equivalent to Albany, New York, is included in the above quotation. If you wish Mr. Toscanini to bring his orchestra with him, please add $14,500 to the above figures, plus 22%, plus 9%, plus 38%, divide by 4, multiply by 14, deduct $2.80 for cash if paid within 10 days from receipt of bill-of-lading, and throw the whole thing into the Hudson River from a convenient point two and three-tenths miles above Troy, New York.
Please wire collect.

Sincerely yours,
John Royal (for the National Broadcasting Company)

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

[1] “Equipment Put To Many Tests,” New York Herald-Tribune, 14 November 1937, sec. 7, p. 12, col. 3. Rumor has it that Toscanini complained about the rumbling of the subway, more than eight floors below. NBC engineers solved the problem by giving the room independent structural integrity–Studio 8-H thus became the world’s first “floating” studio.

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