Barone Plays Crumb

Crumb cover

CRUMB: Metamorphoses, Books I & II / Marcantonio Barone, pno / Bridge 9551

George Crumb is our modern-day Energizer Bunny of composers. At age 92—and how about this for coincidence, today is his 92nd birthday!—he just keeps writing his amazing celestial music, which he has been doing since the 1960s. From the era of Hippies to the era of Drippies, Crumb is a constant source of amazement and admiration, and this new release includes his most recent composition, Book II of his Metamorphoses, which he himself has likened to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Book I received an excellent performance from Margaret Leng Tan on Mode 303, but of course Book II wasn’t finished by that time. Here we have both books played by Marcantonio Barone, a pianist who Crumb admires very much and who recorded, several years ago, what I and other critics consider to be the very best performances of the Beethoven Violin Sonatas with Barbara Govatos (Bridge 9389A/D).

For those keeping score at home, here is the complete list of paintings musically portrayed by Crumb in both Books:

Klee Ancient Sound

Klee: Ancient Sound, Abstract on Black

Black Prince (Paul Klee, 1927)
Goldfish (Paul Klee, 1925)
Crows Over the Wheatfield (Vincent van Gogh, 1890)
The Fiddler (Marc Chagall, 1912/13)
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Nocturne: Blue and Gold (James McNeill Whistler, 1872)
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Perilous Night (Jasper Johns, 1990)
Clowns at Night (Marc Chagall, 1957)
*
Contes barbares (Paul Gaughin, 1902)
The Persistence of Memory (Salvador Dali, 1931)
*
The Blue Rider (Wassily Kandinsky, 1903)
*

Ancient Sound, Abstract on Black (Paul Klee, 1925)

Purple_Haze_grey

Dinnerstein: Purple Haze

Landscape with Yellow Birds (Paul Klee, 1923)
Christina’s World (Andrew Wyeth, 1948)
*
Purple Haze (Simon Dinnerstein, 1991)
Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (Gustav Klimt, 1907)
Spirit of the Dead Watcing (Paul Gaughin, 1892)
Guernica (Pablo Picasso, 1937)
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From the Faraway, Nearby (Georgia O’Keeffe, 1937)
*
Easter (Marc Chagall, 1968)
Starry Night (Vincent van Gogh, 1889)
*

As you can see, nearly all of the artists are very well-known names, Simon Dinnerstein being less known than the others, and there are at least  nine of these paintings are iconic (asterisks in the list above). Barone’s recording of Book I was in fact previously issued by Bridge in June of last year, an album filled out with the Ten Fantasy Pieces. At that time, I compared his performances to those of Margaret Leng Tan on Mode 303, commenting that not only were Barone’s performances faster than Tan’s, sometimes by just a few seconds but a full minute longer in The Persistence of Memory, but that his instrument is recorded in a much closer acoustic, which makes the music sound a bit edgier throughout. There are pluses and minuses to this, the biggest advantage being that Barone’s tauter phrasing and brisker tempi bring out the structure of the music better, the biggest disadvantage being that there is a loss of atmosphere in the recording, and atmosphere is often what Crumb is all about. Yet the composer himself supervised Barone’s recording session, thus I must assume that he got exactly what he wanted.

Gaughin Spirit of the Dead

Gaughin: Spirit of the Dead Watching

All things considered, however, Barone’s approach probably matches Crumb’s mental images of these paintings better, since so many of them have dark themes. By and large, these are not happy paintings, Chagall being the rare exception. In fact, Crumb considers Gaughin’s Spirit of the Dead Watching to be one the artist’s most disturbing images, and of course we know that Christina’s World, Guernica and even Starry Night are not the kind of images that advertisers would want to use to promote their products. Even so, there are many moments in his performances of Book II where Barone pulls back a little on his strong approach, which I feel gives a better balance, at least to my ears and in this context, than his playing in Book I.

Not that Crumb’s music is consistently celestial in feeling…not at all, and this may be due to the fact that the paintings Crumb portrays musically in Book II are even more images of pain, fear or death than in Book I. Yet perhaps ironically, the music is often quieter—at least as Barone played and recorded it—and certainly closer to minor modes or keys. In Christina’s World, for instance, Crumb has the performer play a series of ominous-sounding ostinato notes in the left hand while the right eerily plucks the inner strings of the piano, later reducing the volume even further, almost to a whisper, as the right hand plays s slow series of soft notes while still occasionally, but much more quietly, plucking the inner strings. Purple Haze opens very slowly, and much to my surprise, the music has an almost bluesy rhythmic feel to it, something you don’t normally expect from Crumb. There is also a reference here to Jimi Hendrix’ piece of the same title. Only in Guernica is the music loud, explosive and a bit terrifying, as you might expect; here, Crumb even uses an ostinato marching beat, something exceptionally rare for him, before the music slowly trails off in tempo and volume, suggesting a field of death in the wake of the battle.

Chagall Easter

Chagall: Easter

Chagall’s Easter is in a rare quick tempo and louder volume, but since this painting isn’t really that much cheerier than most of the others, the music also has its dark side—in fact, more overtly menacing than Christine’s World or Purple Haze. At one point in this piece, Crumb sets of soft, slow trilling figures in the right hand against almost violently-attacked bass notes in the left. By contrast, Van Gogh’s Starry Night is soft and abstract, vintage Crumb, suggesting the off-and-on twinkling of stars. Crumb has described it as “slowly pulsating; desireless, with infinite calm.” It’s a perfect, quintessentially Crumb-like ending to his musical art gallery, and Barone plays it with a perfect lightness of touch.

I think that these performances of the Book II pieces, in particular, are going to be very hard for other pianists to equal, let alone surpass. There’s just something about the way Barone plays them that stays with you long after the record is finished. If you admire Crumb’s music as much as I do, this is a must-have recording.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Leonard Warren’s Greatest “Macbeth”

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VERDI: Macbeth / Leonard Warren, baritone (Macbeth); Leonie Rysanek, soprano (Lady Macbeth); Jerome Hines, bass (Banquo); Daniele Barioni, tenor (Macduff); William Olvis, tenor (Malcolm); Carlotta Odassy, mezzo-soprano (Lady-in-Waiting); Gerhard Pechner, bass (Physician); Carlo Tomanelli, bass (Servant); Osie Hawkins, bass (Assassin); Louis Sgarro, bass (Warrior); Teresa Stratas, soprano (Bloody Child); Metropolitan Opera Chorus & Orch.; Erich Leinsdorf, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube (live: January 2, 1960)

Leonard Warren’s Macbeth was his crowning achievement as an artist, a role into which he poured his 20 years’ worth of vocal acting experience to create an unforgettable character, just as his great predecessor, Lawrence Tibbett, had done in 1939 with Simon Boccanegra. Warren had also sung Boccanegra, in the early 1950s, but although he was very good in it he didn’t penetrate the character as well as Tibbett had or as well as he later did with Macbeth.

For 60 years, however, the recording that has represented this achievement has been the RCA Victor studio recording from 1959, and although the cast as a whole is very good on it, Erich Leinsdorf’s conducting lacked tension and drama. His tempos and pacing of the music were fine, but far too often in crucial moments—even at the very beginning of the opera—the orchestra sounded as if it were just going through the paces…you might say a good rehearsal but not a real performance.

As a counterpart to the studio recording, Sony Classical also issued a broadcast performance of the opera with the same principals (Warren, Rysanek, Hines and Carlo Bergonzi) from 1959. This performance is better than the studio recording in many respects, but overall it’s still not as good as this broadcast from January 1960—as it turned out, Warren’s last broadcast performance. Here, his Macbeth takes on the dimensions of a great tragic figure; everything that sounded OK on the studio recording and rather better in the 1959 broadcast sounds natural, unforced, and amplified in this stunning performance. Only Ludovic Tézier, in the new French-language recording on Dynamic, surpasses Warren’s achievement in this role.

As for Rysanek, she is thrilling and dramatic if not, to my ears, really the conniving, frightening harridan that Shakespeare and Verdi envisioned. For that, you need to turn to Fiorenza Cossotto on the later RCA recording with Sherrill Milnes as an excellent (but not transcendent) Macbeth, or going back further, Maria Callas in her 1952 prime. Nonetheless, Rysanek’s “La luce langue” will pin you to the wall, and she does a very fine job in the famed “Sleepwalking scene” despite not being as scary as Callas, Cossotto, or Silvia Dalla Benetta in the new Dynamic recording. By way of compensation, however, we have here Jerome Hines, one of the greatest and most underrated singing actors of his time, as Banquo.

When this performance was first broadcast, music critic Robert Sabin had the following to say in Musical America:

Absolutely transcendent were Leonie Rysanek, as Lady Macbeth, and Leonard Warren, in the title role. With sensitive collaboration from Erich Leinsdorf and the orchestra, they not only sang their solo arias magnificently but made such duets as the “Fatal mia donna!” of Act I, Scene 2, incredibly gripping.

I do not think I have ever heard a more consummate control of dynamics and of dramatic emphasis conveyed through intricate vocal figures than in this duet. What good fortune that this was broadcast, so that millions throughout the land could know what great singing is being heard at the Metropolitan today…

Mr. Leinsdorf obtained equally admirable results from the stage and the pit. He has made some changes (mostly to the good) in this season’s production. Acts I and II remain the same. But in Act III, he omits the scene between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, in which she confronts him on the heath after his second encounter with the witches. This is replaced by the slow section of the ballet music, accompanying the appearance of Hecate, which is played as a prelude to Act IV, and eliminates the third intermission.

The silly basket shields and posies in the battle scene, Act IV, Scene 4, have been happily eliminated. The curtain closes while the orchestra plays the battle music. The combat between Macbeth and Macduff is omitted, and Macbeth dies alone on stage. Then the final choral passage with Macduff and Malcolm leads to the end.

Thus you have an idea of the cuts and changes to the score, which actually strengthens it both musically and dramatically—yet another reason to prefer this performance over the studio recording and the previous (1959) broadcast. And the frisson of it being a live performance worked wonders on the orchestra and chorus. Everything that strikes the ear as stiff or wrong in the studio recording comes to vivid life in this broadcast which, interestingly, also includes some of Milton Cross’ original announcements.

Apparently this performance was only issued once, on Bensar Records (whoever they may have been), but is now out of print. Happily, some generous soul has shared their copy of it on YouTube. I have no idea how long it will be available there. My recommendation is to grab it while you can. This really is a Macbeth to treasure, the last great broadcast of the greatest dramatic baritone voice America has ever produced.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The Music of Steven Gerber

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GERBER: Sinfonietta No. 1 (Piano Quintet, arr. Hagen).1 String Sinfonia No. 1 (String Quartet No. 4, arr. Williams).2 2 Lyric Pieces for Violin & Strings.*2 String Sinfonia No. 2 (String Quartet No. 6, arr. Williams).2 Sinfonietta No. 2 (String Quartet No. 5, arr. Williams)1 / *Emily Davis, vln; 1English Symphony Orch.; 2English String Orch.; Kenneth Woods, cond / Nimbus Alliance NI6423

This CD presents the music of Steven R. Gerber (1948-2015), a composer who wrote in a style that straddled the divide between traditional and modern classical music. Judging from the opening selection on this CD, his modus operandi was to present a few kind-of-edgy chords at the outset, then quickly revert to jolly tunes in a mostly tonal style with occasional bitonal bites added here and there for seasoning. He clearly knew how to compose—none of his pieces are poorly written or without interest—but his desire to please the masses more than his own muse led to what I feel is a compromised situation.

Of course, it’s hard to judge how these works sounded in their original configuration since none of them except the 2 Lyric Pieces for Violin & Strings were actually written for a string orchestra. The others are all orchestral adaptations of Piano Quintets or String Quartets by another hand, and to be honest, when listening to the Sinfonietta No. 1 I didn’t hear a string quartet in any of the movements and had a difficult time imagining this music played by such a quartet at any given point, since so much of it sounds like what I would call “jolly British festival music.” Take, for instance, the third-movement “Presto” with its swirling, moto perpetuo figures, which sound so right played by an orchestra but, in my mind’s ear, just wouldn’t sound proper if played by a piano quintet. It’s just too lightweight and a bit trivial, although hugely entertaining. The only real gravitas in this piece comes in the slow fourth movement, and this is indeed an excellent piece of music that I could imagine being played by a piano quintet. The rapid fifth movement also sounds somewhat piano quintettish.

The String Sinfonia No. 1, which is actually his String Quartet No. 4, follows an opposite pattern, opening in a tonal style but constantly dipping into close chords and a bit of bitonality. Some of the slower middle section of the first movement bears some resemblance to early Benjamin Britten, while the second is somewhat near what Robert Simpson wrote, if not quite as complex or interesting.

There’s a certain amount of gravitas in his Lyric Pieces for violin and string orchestra that appealed to me because, for once, Gerber seemed to be able to settle on a consistent style throughout the entire piece despite being mostly tonal and rhythmically conventional. I think this is where his heart really was, but I could be wrong. If so, then he most certainly liked writing a Good Tune That the People Could Hum on their way out of the auditorium, and that’s not my idea of great music.

My overall impression of Gerber, judging by these specific pieces, is that he was a good, solid composer of music that straddled the divide between art and entertainment, but that he never seemed to decide which side of the fence he wanted to come down on once and for all. It’s a nice CD, and by no means without interest, but for me the music just doesn’t stick.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Masternak Plays “Parallels”

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MOZART: Violin Sonata in G, K. 301/293a. RAVEL: Posthumous Violin Sonata. ELSNER: Violin Sonata in F. SZYMANOWSKI: Dance from “Harnasie” for violin & Piano. TANSMAN: 5 Pieces for Violin & Piano or Small Orchestra / Oriana Masternak, vln; Justyna Danczowska, pno / Dux 1711

Polish violinist Oriana Masternak, in addition to being a solo player, is also a founding member of the Messages Quartet, which specializes in Polish music, as well as the member of a jury in international competitions. On this CD she includes the music of two of her countrymen, Karol Szymanowski and Alexandre Tansman, along with the old-timers Mozart, Elsner and Ravel.

One thing you have to say for her is that she is a pretty peppy player. After a really lovely legato opening, she attacks the Mozart sonata with gusto, and her pianist, Justyna Damczowska, is just as lively as she is. I was very impressed by the posthumous Ravel Violin Sonata, particularly when I learned that it was actually an early work from 1897, when he was only 22 years old. Masternak plays it with both conviction and the right style, bringing out its impressionistic qualities beautifully. The only real weakness with the piece is that Ravel repeats his themes too often, a flaw he would correct within the following decade.

The violin sonata by the little-known Jozef Elsner, written in 1805, is a good, solid piece but not a particularly adventurous one, though it does reflect a few ideas borrowed from Beethoven. Truthfully, I don’t know why Masternak wasted her time learning and recording this piece. It’s pretty much a big nothing.

Which, if course, makes the contrast between this piece and the Szymanowski “Dance from Harnasie” all the more striking. This is superb music, lying somewhere between Ravel and Stravinsky as Szymanowski so often does, and she plays it superbly…although the slow tempo of the first half doesn’t lead you to expect the almost violent rhythm of the dance when it appears.

I was especially delighted to hear the 5 Pieces for Violin & Piano by Tansman, particularly since the first of these is written in a sort of manic ragtime rhythm with asymmetric beats. The second piece, though mostly quite slow, suddenly perks up near the end and resembles the sound of a music box, while the third is a terrifying “perpetual motion” piece with some really tricky passages for the violinist. Yet it is the fifth piece, titled “Basso ostinato,” where Tansman really pulls out all the stops, creating a driving piece in straight, fast fours that hurtles both musicians to their conclusion.

Except for the Elsner piece, which is a waste of space on this CD (thought it will undoubtedly get air play on a lot of classical FM stations), this is an excellent and interesting recital, played with both style and energy. Brava, Oriana!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Mátyás Seiber’s Orchestral Music

HC21043.Booklet.Seiber.qxp_PH?????_Booklet_Gamben/Handel

SEIBER: Sinfonietta for String Orchestra (arr. Doráti). Besardo-Suite No. 2. Fantasia Concertante for Violin & String Orchestra. Violin Sonata. Concert Piece for Violin & Piano / Nina Karmon, vln; Oliver Triendl, pno; Württembergisches Kammerorchester Heilbronn; Levente Török, cond / Hänssler Classic CD HC 21043

Mátyás Seiber (1905-1960), once a name to be reckoned with in the music world, fell into obscurity less than a decade after his tragic death in an auto accident in September 1960. Though Hungarian by birth, he moved to Great Britain at the age of 33 (1935) and spent the rest of his life there.

Technically speaking, three of these works were not written by Seiber for orchestra: the Violin Sonata, Concert Piece for Violin & Piano, and the Sinfonietta, which is an arrangement by his friend Antal Doráti of his String Quartet No. 1. Nonetheless, without prior knowledge of the quartet, the Sinfonietta is a very effective piece. Written in 1923 when the composer was only 18 years old, it shows incredible maturity as well as a good concept of composition; he was evidently a very quick study, clearly under the spell of his teacher, Zoltan Kodály. What impressed me most about this piece was the way Seiber achieved a cohesive musical “flow”; his ideas were good to begin with, but they come across even better because he knew how to “connect the dots” with his phrases. I’ve heard far less imaginative works written by much more mature composers, then and now. The third-movement “Scherzo” uses a bitonal theme which Seiber relaxes in tempo towards the middle, only to gradually return to the almost manic pace of the opening.

The Besardo-Suite No. 2 was written nearly 20 years layer (1942), after Seibere had moved to England, and is based on the music of a 16th-17th century Burgindian composer, Jean-Baptiste Bésard. To my ears, this is an even more successful updating of old music than Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. You can tell that it’s music from the Middle Ages, yet Seiber holds your interest by means of his lively rhythms and ingenious orchestration.

With the Fantasia Concertante from 1944 is a thorny 12-tone work although the 12-tone system is not applied strictly. It was received with a sneer by the British critics when it premiered, yet it is, like Berg’s Violin Concerto, a very moving and highly original work with quite a few lyrical passages for the soloist. The liner notes also indicate that some passages in it resemble the work of the then-unknown György Ligeti, and that is true as well. From a performance standpoint, I must commend our soloist here, Nina Karmon, for giving an absolutely transcendent reading of this difficult score.

The Violin Sonata of 1960 and the Concert Piece of 1954 are also 12-tone works; one would never suspect that the composer of this kind of music would also be capable of collaborating with jazz saxist and bandleader Johnny Dankworth on the classical-jazz hybrid Improvisation for Jazz Band and Symphony Orchestra, also from 1960, but he was. Seiber simply had “big ears” and a need to push the envelope no matter what he wrote. When he visited his native Hungary for the last time, just before the 1956 revolution, the by-then-rising star Ligeti was very much taken with the Concert Piece and wrote a letter to Seiber expressing his admiration. I can hear why Ligeti would have been impressed; the music is very abstract, almost pointillistic, like an aural representation of a Jackson Pollack painting.

This is quite an excellent CD, presenting a wider range of music by this excellent but often-neglected composer that clearly deserves to be heard and studied.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The Peter Warlock Songbook

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WARLOCK: The Everlasting Voices. Take, o Take These Lips Away (2 settings). Heraclitus. The Water Lily. Lullaby. The Bayley Herith the Bell Away. My Little Sweet Darling. Dedication. The Cloths of Heaven. The Singer. A Sad Song. Sleep. Autumn Twilight. Rest, Sweet Nymphs. Spring. To the Memory of a Great Singer. Consider. I Held Love’s Head. Pretty Ring Time. Robin Goodfellow. Ha’nacker Mill. The Night. The Lover’s Maze. Cradle Song. The Contented Lover. And Wilt Thou Leave Me Thus? Youth / Luci Briginshaw, sop; Eleanor Meynell, pno / Convivium Records CVID62

Peter Warlock, whose real name was Philip Heseltine, was a strange bird who wrote fairly modern music as well as a lot of modern-day versions of old English lute songs, and it is the latter which are featured in this new release.

Warlock’s muse was intermittent and, at age 36, left him completely. He spent his last days transcribing the music of British composer Cipriani Potter for the British Museum. Eight days before Christmas 1930, he locked all the doors and windows of his flat (apartment) and opened up the coal vents; the ensuing gas overcame him and he died, either accidentally or a suicide.

In a way, I think Warlock had some influence on Benjamin Britten, who also wrote modern harmonizations for old English songs, both lute songs and folk tunes. Like Britten, Warlock moved his harmony sideways rather than in a linear fashion, which straddled the divide between modern and traditional music, which didn’t please either camp very much although several recordings were made both before and after his death of some of the most popular of them.

This collection, however, focuses on some of his lesser known songs that are rarely performed or recorded. Soprano Luci Briginshaw has an absolutely lovely voice with good diction, an excellent legato and nice shading of dynamics, but she does lack a bit in interpretive qualities, singing every song in this collection in virtually the same way. Pianist Eleanor Meynell plays very nicely, but to my ears tends to underplay the unusual harmonies and doesn’t have much forward momentum.

Of the songs included here, I particularly liked his second version of Take, o Take Those Lips Away, Dedication and Consider. Because of the way she’s recorded (a bit distantly from the mic), some of Briginshaw’s words are not crystal clear, and of course the American listener has to make adjustments for the veddy British version of it, but for the most part she’s fine.

A nice little album, then, particularly for Warlock fanciers.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Piano Music of Gurdjieff/De Hartmann

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GURDJIEFF-DE HARTMANN: Asian Songs & Rhythms, Series I-III. Music of the Sayyids & the Dervishes, Series I-III. Hymns, Prayers & Rituals, Series I-III. Hymns from a Great Temple. Fragments from the Struggle of the Magicians. Tibetan Dance. Tibetan Movement. Trinity. Tibetan Melody. The Essential Prayer. Return from a Journey. The Initiation of the Priestess. The Bokharian Dervish, Hadji-Asvath-Troov / Jeroen van Veen, Daff by Van Veen, pno / Brilliant Classics 94795

The close personal and artistic relationship between Georges Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann lasted several years, only ending when the former had a serious car accident and began curtailing his musical activities and moving him more towards writing about tales and legends. Their partnership dissolved permanently in 1929 when de Hartmann left Gurdjieff in 1929, at which point the latter stopped composing permanently. Instead, he spent hours improvising on his “lap harmonium,” Prior to all this, however, Gurdjieff collected and memorized an enormous amount of Middle Eastern folk music, believing, according to the notes, that “the music of different cultures both preserved and revealed essential characteristics of those cultures and conveyed deeper meaning rooted in their traditions.” One can approach these pieces, then, as being parallel to the Magyar folk music that Bartók and Kodály collected in the early 20th century and used as a basis for their own music, except that for the most part Gurdjieff and de Hartmann tried to keep the tunes intact as they stood and didn’t try to develop them in a standard Western classical manner.

Taken a few pieces at a time, the music isn’t bad to listen to, but prolonged exposure to the whole six CDs can bore the more imaginative listener. Despite the intriguing Eastern harmonies, the music is repetitive and tiresome. This is not van Veen’s fault; he is a splendid pianist who plays the slow pieces with great atmosphere and the quicker ones with a lively rhythm; he does his best to engage your interest, and there are certainly some very cute and interesting pieces in this collection, but the lack of any development and the unvarying rhythm of each piece eventually take their toll on the listener. If there is such a thing as high quality background music, this is it. I would also recommend this music in the main as an aid to meditation so long as you realize that every so often there are upbeat numbers in the set and this may spoil your getting deeper into yourself (CD 2 has the most uptempo music).

Of course, the real value of this set is to give a pianist, professional or amateur, who may wish to play some of these pieces the chance to hear them performed. There are other recordings out there of some of this repertoire, but having it all in one place is clearly helpful. A second pianist, Daff by Van Veen, plays with Jeroen on nine numbers if Series II of the Asian Songs and Rhythms, five pieces in Music of the Sayyids and Dervishes First Series, and a few other pieces thereafter.

Brilliant Classics was smart to offer this set at a discount price; depending on where you look online, you can buy it for anywhere between $18 and $24, which is certainly reasonable for a reference set of this nature.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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A Stunning French “Macbeth”

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VERDI: Macbeth (1865 French version) / Ludovic Tezier, bar (Macbeth); Silvia Dalla Benetta, sop (Lady Macbeth); Riccardo Zanellato, bs (Banquo); Giorgio Berrugi, ten (Macduff); David Astorga, ten (Malcolm); Francesco Leone, bs (Doctor); Natalia Gavrilan, mezzo (Countess); Jacobo Ochoa, bs (Assassin/Servant/1st Ghost); Pietro Bolognini, ctr-ten (2nd Ghost); Pilar Mezzardi Corona, mezzo (3rd Ghost); Teatro Regio di Parma Chorus; Arturo Toscanini Philharmonic Orch.; Roberto Abbado, cond / Dynamic CDS7915.02

Verdi’s Macbeth is rightly considered to be a flawed masterpiece. Roughly half of the opera is excellent, particularly the scenes with Macbeth and/or Lady Macbeth, but the scenes with the witches are pretty bad music and there are a few too many stop-and-sing-an-aria moments. Nonetheless, when the composer was asked to write a French version of his opera for Paris in 1865, he took the opportunity to revamp much of the score, which is why the good scenes are so good: they’re more mature Verdi. There are two recordings of the original 1847 version of the opera, but for the most part the later Italian performances, and most recordings of the work, are based on the 1865 revisions.

With all that being said, this is the first recording of the French version—in French. Of course, whether it’s sung in French, Italian, or Bulgarian, the bottom line is that you MUST have a baritone, soprano, bass and tenor who can present real characters and not just sing the notes, and in that respect I’m happy to say that all four singers here come through in that respect. From a purely vocal standpoint, however, soprano Silvia Dalla Benetta has some flutter in her voice and tenor Giorgio Berrugi just barely gets through his music with his strained instrument, but in Macbeth, as really in all of Verdi’s works, the focus and direction given to the music by the conductor is just as important, and Roberto Abbado delivers with a taut, urgent reading that encapsulates the essence of Shakespeare’s drama as well as Verdi’s music.

For those readers who don’t understand the difference between good, enthusiastic singing and real drama, however, a bit of background and explanation are in order. I’ve heard quite a few live and studio recordings of this opera, going back as far as the early 1950s and a German-language performance with Josef Metternich as Macbeth, and in my view only a handful of singers really “get” the music. The best Macbeths I’ve heard are Leonard Warren (even better on the January 1960 live performance than on the 1959 studio recording), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (one of his finest operatic interpretations on record), Sherrill Milnes and the baritone here, Ludovic Tezier. These four give you a nuanced and truly dramatic performance from “inside” the character and do so with excellent voices. Other baritones who have recorded the role sing it with energy, but energy alone is not an interpretation. As for Lady Macbeth, the best I’ve heard are Maria Callas, Elena Suliotis, Fiorenza Cossotto (far and away the most surprising interpreter of this role, and in my view the very best) and the soprano here, with honorable mention going to Leonie Rysanek in the 1960 live performance with Warren.

One of the interesting things about this French version of the opera is that, even more so than Don Carlo, Verdi managed to get the French translation to match the Italian rhythms of his music. Reading the liner notes, this did not come easily; on the contrary, he was afraid that he would miss the deadline for the initial Paris performance because the first libretto didn’t satisfy him. Fortunately, the opera director gave him a little more time, Verdi took a really deep breath, and managed to finish the revision on time. One of the things, other than the Act III ballet music, that did not survive the cut when he transferred this new music over to Italian was Macbeth’s final aria, which here has a chorus included. In the Italian version, it doesn’t.

Perhaps not surprisingly, however, the Paris performances of Macbeth were a bomb. The French audiences, used to sprightly tunes and lots of high notes and trills, didn’t know what to make of the opera and didn’t return to see additional performances. This wasn’t the case, however, with Verdi’s other French operas, Jerusalem (a revision of I Lombardi) and Les Vêpres siciliennes, which were hits because they had a lot more tunes that the people could hum on their way out of the theater. But part of it was that many of the French were getting heavy into Shakespeare at the time, and they realized that Verdi had truncated and rearranged the play to suit his music. Had Verdi opened up some of the cuts in the drama, both they and we would undoubtedly think more of this opera than we do.

Abbado’s conducting has bite and drive; in fact, and I mean no disrespect, his conducting sounds more dramatically “alive” than many of his father’s opera recordings, all of which were well and musically shaped but somehow always seemed to miss the essential underlying drama of the music. The opera moves at an almost relentless pace, not overly fast but with an urgency in every note and phrase that keeps the drama in the forefront no matter how rat-a-tat those Italian rhythms are, and for this he must be commended.

Indeed, Abbado, like Riccardo Muti in the Milnes-Cossotto recording, pulls the various threads of the score together to present a unified whole, which makes every second of this recording work, even when a singer (like our Macduff) is sub-par. One good example among many of what I mean is the march, which almost sounds like Italian party music, that suddenly emerges in the scene with Lady Macbeth (CD 1, track 8). There’s not much you can do with it other than just to endure it, but Abbado manages to make it sound like a lighthearted interlude that momentarily defuses the tense drama between Lady Macbeth’s lines just before it and Macbeth’s lines immediately following it. (Muti did the same, by the way.)

For those listeners who can never get enough of a great baritone singing at or near full voice, Tezier’s performance is bound to disappoint. He is a real artist who colors and shapes his phrases like a great lieder singer. Yes, he does sing “out” when the music calls for it, but this is a real 3D interpretation of Macbeth. Were he just a speaking actor and not a singer, you could place his performance on the level of the greatest actors of the past 40 years such as Klaus Kinski or George C. Scott. It’s even more nuanced and more dramatic than Warren’s or Milnes’ Macbeth, and that’s going some.

Indeed, one of the most interesting things about this recording is that it feels like a live performance, and you get so caught up in the dramatic projection of the libretto that you scarcely notice that it’s in French and not Italian. Would that we had a French-language recording of Don Carlo this good…but we don’t.

After the witches’ scene at the opening of Act III, we get the mandatory ballet that the French public liked so much. Although I like ballet very much, I’ve always felt that a ballet fits into an opera about as well as a baseball game. Verdi, indifferent to all such ballet music with the sole exception of the Triumphal Scene in Aïda, wrote a piece of junk, as I expected he would have, though it’s lively enough to appeal to the masses.

Dalla Benetta’s voice sounds thinner in the “sleepwalking scene” than elsewhere, which isn’t too good, but her dramatic expression is spot on. Actually, the addition of the chorus to the end of Macbeth’s last-act aria adds something in terms of musical completion if not necessarily being a real dramatic coup.

Even admitting the vocal flaws of Dalla Benetta and Berrugi, this is a performance in which every single cast member pours their whole heart into the music, with the result that the end product is simply electrifying. Really, you have to hear it to believe it. It almost comes across as a dramatic cantata based on the Macbeth story, and if you approach it with that angle in mind you’ll find it rather satisfying as a dramatic conception if not really ideal. If nothing else, a baritone who can give the likes of Milnes, Fischer-Dieskau and Warren a run for the money in this role needs to be heard.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Gordon Grdina’s Solo Guitar Recital

Cover_square_Grdina_PENDULUM

GRDINA: Koen Dori. Contra. The Chase. Benbow Blues. Wayward. Pendulum. Always Been the Song II / Gordon Grdina, gtr/oud / Attaboygirl Records 001

This is guitarist Gordon Grdina’s first solo album but not his first as a leader. In January of 2020 (does everyone remember January 2020? When things were still, like, normal?) he released an album by his Nomad Trio which I reviewed on this blog. I found some of the music exhilarating, some just OK, but I could tell that he was a serious artist.

In addition to being Grdina’s first solo album, it is also the first release on his new label, Attaboygirl Records, which he founded with photographer/visual artist Genevieve Monro. Also scheduled for release will be his first album with an entirely new group, Square Peg.

Grdina’s playing as well as his compositions straddle the divide between classical and jazz and do so in a very personal and interesting way. This music almost sounds as if he were making it up on the spot, and perhaps he was, yet it has direction and some structure in it that holds the listener’s attention. He develops his themes in all sort of directions, both linear and vertically, sometimes exploring the notes within a strange chord before moving on. This, of course, is a standard practice of jazz musicians but not classical ones, most of whom couldn’t improvise on anything unless the improvisation were written out for them, and the few times they do improvise the results sound very “safe” and linear.

My sole caveat about his playing, however, is that he often gets too wrapped up in just playing circular note patterns which really don’t go anywhere, as in Contra. This is the kind of track that he might better have left off the record, as it says nothing and really doesn’t go anywhere. It’s the kind of music you might hear at a frat party where there’s always some guy sitting in a corner, noodling on the guitar to himself, you pass, you listen for 30 seconds, and you say to yourself, That’s nice, and move on. Although The Chase opens in a very slow tempo—in fact, almost out of tempo—it was much more interesting because it developed. Here, too, Grdina bends pitches to the point where some passages sounded microtonal. Benbow Blues is also very interesting, using a series of scalar passages which Grdina ties together to create a unified whole.

On Wayward, Grdina switches from the guitar to the oud, which he also plays very well, ere creating interesting patterns that somehow coalesce into a cohesive whole. Here, too, he shows off his technique to full advantage, not only for his own gratification but to the service of the music.

Pendulum is another piece in which Grdina uses circular figures, but here the music is more structured and coherent. He ends this recital with the ballad-like Always Been the Song II, a nice piece that he develops in an interesting manner.

A very interesting album, then, with a couple of uninteresting moments mixed in with many extremely interesting ones.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Mingus & Amram Dig Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

AMRAM-HUGHES: Weary Blues. The Dream Keeper. Neighbor. Daybreak in Alabama. Sylvester’s Dying Bed. Border Line. Reverie on the Harlem River. In Time of Silver Rain. Bound No’th Blues. Democracy. Ma Lord. Railroad Avenue. Life is Fine / Eric Mingus, narr; David Amram, pno; Catherine Sikora, s-sax; Larry Simon, el-gtr; Dan Davis, a-sax/t-sax/contra-a-cl; Cynthia Chatis, Am Indian fl/fl; Scip Gallant, Hammond B3 org; Chris Stambaugh, bs; Mike Barron, dm; Shawn Russell, Frank Laurino, perc / Mode Records CD-A17

This CD was released in 2017, but unfortunately I had no knowledge of it. The concept is a good one going back to the 1950s, to recite poetry to jazz accompaniment. Way back when, David Amram was among the first to pursue this type of performance, but so was Eric Mingus’ father Charles, who accompanied Langston Hughes himself with his sextet in a series of poems (the flip side of the LP featured Hughes reading his poetry to a different jazz group featuring trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen).

This one features a tentet led by Amram on piano and featuring Eric Mingus as narrator and his wife, the outstanding alto and soprano saxist Catherine Sikora, along with guitarist Larry Simon, reedman Dan Davis, flautist Cynthia Chatis and a pretty hip rhythm section. Of course Mingus has a different voice and different style of delivery from Hughes, who read his poetry with a smile in his voice and a bit of “put-on” in his delivery, “Maybe I should just go and die!” he’d say in a cheerful tone of voice, implying of course the opposite.

Bf5quUjKMingus’ delivery is relaxed and laconic, which fits the poetry very well without sounding like Hughes. He also sings a few phrases in a nice, bluesy voice. Amram is an effective pianist whose playing has the right rhythmic feel without being flashy in any way. He is the only accompanist on Weary Blues, whereas Scip Gallant’s Hammond organ and soft drums are more dominant on The Dream Keeper. The tenor sax and flute also have extensive features on this one, bringing it more in line with the kind of records that Hughes himself made.

But this is an album that impresses more by mood than by analyzing the music; nearly each track has a relaxed, almost lazy progression, like heat drifting through the air on a hot summer day in the South. Each track has its own background music/sounds to match the mood, i.e. Daybreak in Alabama is only Sikora’s alto sax with drums, whereas Border Line features Larry Simon’s electric guitar in a nice, bluesy style. In Time of Silver Rain has no piano; the background music is guitar, Hammond organ and bongo drums. Like, go man, go! Just go!!

The way the album is laid out, it’s almost like a narrative of Hughes’ life as seen through his poetry; one might have called this album An Evening Exploring Langston Hughes. It’s not preachy or hysterical like so much of today’s rhetoric; it’s an album that relaxes you so that you can get the point of the poetry easily, as if absorbing its message by osmosis. And that is its strength as well as its charm. Life is Fine, for instance, is one of the poems that Hughes himself recorded for Verve in 1959-60. Mingus reads it as if everything in it was serious, and it works in its own way, whereas Hughes put tongue firmly in cheek and delivered the lines for their comic effect…it works either way.

A really excellent album that works on two different levels. Dig it, man!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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