Mustonen Plays Rautavaara & Martinů


RAUTAVAARA: Piano Concerto No. 3, “Gift of Dreams.” MARTINŮ: Piano Concerto No. 3 / Olli Mustonen, pno; Lahti Symphony Orch.; Dalia Stasevska, cond / Bis SACD-2532

Now, this is the kind of recording I absolutely salivate to hear: extraordinary modern concerti played by a master interpreter. Of course, it helps that in addition to being a performer, Olli Mustonen is himself a composer, so he clearly has sympathies with the plight of modern music-creators, but even so I’m sure he has to play his fair share of Rachmaninoff, Brahms, Chopin etc. in order to make a steady income.

Yet that doesn’t stop him from performing or recording works like these, and I give him a hearty hurrah for his courage in doing to. It’s also interesting to note that his accompanist, conductor Dalia Stasevska, studied conducting with Leif Segerstam, another creator-performer who often has to walk the tight rope (or, perhaps more accurately, minefield) of the Standard Classical Repertoire in order to make a living. After all, she was named Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 2019, and the Brits are always more into the old-timey stuff than the new.

From the very opening, Rautavaara’s “Gift of Dreams” concerto places one in a quasi-mystical mindspace. One could, if pushed, relate this to the “ambient” classical school so much in vogue nowadays, except that Rautavaara never wrote music purposely intended to relax or “zone out” his listeners. Even so, his use of exquisite low timbral blends, one might almost call them low-lying “mushroom clouds” of sound, in the opening section set the tone for what is to come, although after the pianist’s entrance we hear swirling figures played by the high strings and winds. At this point, too, one senses a set rhythm, albeit one that constantly seems to be shifting meter. This is Rautavaara at his considerable best, creating music that is both technically interesting and psychologically affecting.

Stasevska is exactly the right conductor for this music. Her experiences with Segerstam clearly give her a sympathetic view towards the proper style for this music; it cannot be conducted like Beethoven or Brahms, but rather like Debussy, Messiaen…or Segerstam. There are a few moments in the score, particularly in the second movement, where Rautavaara—conscious or unconsciously—mimics film music style, thus it takes dedicated musicians like Stasevska and Mustonen to make it transcend those allusions. The SACD sound is also perfect for this kind of work, capturing the full “spread” of the orchestra even when the scoring is at its densest. Except for the crushed orchestral chords here and there, the music is more tonal than usual for Rautavaara…at least, more tonal in the sense that Debussy was tonal (listen to the extraordinary Debussy-like orchestral passage beginning at 7:51 in the second movement), and some of the scoring even put me in mind of Steven Halpern’s sleep-inducing music, very apropos for a “symphony of dreams.”

Ah, but the third movement is either the wake-up moment or a nightmare, because here the music suddenly becomes faster, louder, more aggressive and also thornier in harmony. Rapid clarinet figures are heard over grumbling celli, and there are even more unusual timbral blends that Rautavaara pulled out of his hip pocket for this movement (including high winds played against a xylophone and bitonal brass chords). The piano part seems more like a commentary than a bold statement; it fills in notes and variants that would otherwise be played by the orchestra.

After such a piece, one might think that the Martinů concerto, though once considered pretty avant-garde, would sound like relatively normal classical music, but once again Stasevska’s extraordinary ability to get under the skin of the scores she leads make it sound anything but conventional. Her sharp rhythmic accents and ability to bring out the inner orchestral voices clearly (another trait she shares with Segerstam) give the music an edginess, even when, in the first movement, Martinů suddenly switches gears to give us very Czech-sounding music with a strong rhythm. The quirky harmonies—not quite edgy


Dalia Stasevska

or eerie, but clearly on the grotesque side—are brought out with delicious piquancy. This is music-making at the highest level. I would put Stasevska on the same plane as Theodore Kuchar and Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla among the most dynamic of living conductors, and that’s a short list, folks. (Yes, Segerstam is also extremely good, but sometimes a bit too slow or soft-grained for my taste.) Perhaps her Slavic ancestry is brought to bear on this music: she gives it the same kind of edgy propulsion one heard from such legendary conductors as Talich, Jilek, Svetlanov and Neumann which, sadly, is in short supply nowadays. She is some kind of talent, and whether it was Mustonen or Bis who contracted her for this recording, they chose extremely well.


Olli Mustonen

Mustonen is in perfect synch with Stasevska, not only in terms of phrasing and mood but also in the pinpoint-sharp rhythms she produces, particularly in the second movement, an “Andante” that moves like an “Allegro” in many passages. Martinů’s writing for the piano was more conventionally concerto-like than Rautavaara’s, yet he maintained an excellent balance between the solo and orchestral parts. There are moments when the piano seems to be supporting what the orchestra is playing rather than the other way round.

Perhaps it is the astounding sonics, but I also got the impression that Martinů wrote the orchestral score in a way that sometimes sounded like a conventional orchestra, with a 2D sound, and sometimes in a sort of “Cinemascope” manner, where the orchestral timbres seem to “fan out” across the soundstage. Yes, there were some moments similar to this in the Rautavaara concerto, but this is a different kind of wide-screen sound, if you know what I mean. This is more a case of listening to what the musicians on the right side are doing, then immediately to a rapid response from those on the left and vice-versa. A footnote: I also appreciated the bright sound of the Lahti orchestra’s horn section. They try to avoid the muddy sound quality of modern-day Conns, even if that’s what they’re playing, to produce a tighter focus in their timbre.

There’s just so much to say about this recording, particularly about the music (although neither concerto is exactly brand-new), that I just don’t have the time to bring out, but I urge you to get this disc. From start to finish, it is a mind-expanding and emotional experience you won’t soon forget. Thank you, Olli and Dalia!

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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Noah Preminger’s “The Dank”

The Dank front cover

PREMINGER-CASS: Phatty Deucerama. Spookytown Mexico. Grip It and Rip It. Chron dot com. Daddy Likey. CASS: Alc in the Sys. Pizza Time. Spank Banquet / Noah Preminger, t-sax/a-sax/cl/fl/synth; Kim Cass, gt/bs / Fry Bridge Records 010

I’ve been raving about the inventiveness of saxist Noah Preminger since 2918, when his CD with bassist Cass and trumpeter Jason Palmer, Genuinity, first came my way, thus I’m always open to hearing anything new he releases. On this CD, it’s pretty much just him and Cass, with the former also playing clarinet, flute and synthesizer and the latter doubling on guitar.

Although all of the “compositions” presented here have Cass as one of the composers and Preminger as co-composer on five of the eight, I wouldn’t put much stock in the titles or even the composer credits. These are clearly duo-improvisations in which both musicians just came up with a musical idea and went with it, and inventive it most certainly is. The very first track, Phatty Deucerama, is just Preminger on clarinet and Cass on bass, playing extremely fast sixteenth-note passages in a curcilar fashion, yet somehow making interesting music out of it. In the second track, Alc in the Sys, it sounds as if Preminger has double-tracked himself on both tenor sax and synthesizer. Again, fast passages are at the heart of the music, but here they are part of an overall pattern with Cass’ bass playing slow figures as a “ground” to them.

If my descriptions of the music seem sketchy to the reader, it’s because this music is for the most part played/written in what one might call a form of musical shorthand, but in Spookytown Mexico the duo suddenly slows things down, creating a web of sounds that evoke eeriness, with some fast playing at the end—this track is very short at only 1:28, but highly effective nonetheless—and in the ensuing piece, Pizza Time, Preminger again double-tracks himself , this time on alto and synthesizer, as he and Cass again create unusual yet tonal musical patterns that sound unrelated yet somehow make a complete musical statement. This is elusive music, to be sure; you really have to hear it to understand how and why I like it so much. It does not pander in the least to popular jazz tastes in any genre you can think of, not even, really, in the area of “free jazz,” yet there are obviously elements of free jazz at work here. The difference is that Preminger and Cass understand and work somewhat within the tonal system. Their music, though bizarre to average ears, has its own logic.

Spank Banquet, for instance, opens with an extended “free” bass solo, yet this solo has its own inner logic, and when Preminger enters on clarinet (actually clarinet and overdubbed flute, later sax), the music coalesces in form. Yet at no time in any of these pieces do the musicians stay with a regular metric pattern for very long; there is almost constant changing and shifting of the meter and even changes of stress beats within bars. In short, there is no much going on here that, as quiet and subtle as this music is, it will take you several listening to catch everything that is going on.

Preminger has some fun with Chron dot com, breaking up the already fragmented melodic line into little bits of music but then reassembling these bits into a line that somehow makes sense. In parts of it, it almost sounds as if he is playing Morse code on his tenor sax; a few distorted notes emerge, then a double-tracked trui with himself also playing clarinet and alto as the music becomes ever busier and more bizarre. The finale, Daddy Likey, harks back to Spookytown Mexico in concept and feeling.

My sole complaint about this album is that it was too short. I absolutely love music this interesting and creative, and wish it had at least three more tracks on it. Yet even as it stands, The Dank is a mini-masterpiece. On the other hand, if this release is the distillation of Preminger and Cass’ musical brainstorming session, they chose the released takes wisely. They said what they had to say and then stopped. And all of it is fascinating.

What’s really sad is that, because this is an indie release by a musician who’s not part of the Big Name Mainstream, this album will probably not be reviewed by any of the major outlets (Jazziz, All About Jazz, Jazz Times, Down Beat, etc.), and this in itself is criminal.

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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Discovering Louise Farrenc


FARRENC: Symphonies Nos. 1-3. Overtures in E min. & Eb / Insula Orch.; Laurence Equilbey, cond / Erato 5054197522130

FARRENC: Grandes variations sur un theme du Comte Gallenberg, Op. 25 (version for piano & orch.) / Jean Muller, pno; Soloistes Européens, Luxembourg; Christoph König, cond / available for free streaming on YouTube

FARRENC: Piano Quintets: No. 1 in A min., Op. 30; No. 2 in E, Op. 31 / Linos Ensemble: Winfried Rademacher, vln; Barbara Westphal, vla; Maria Blaumer, cel; Jörg Linowitzki, bs; Konstanze Eickhorst, pno / CPO 999194-2, also available for free streaming on YouTube in individual movements

FARRENC: Piano Trios: in Eb, Op. 33; in D min., Op. 34 / Nancy Oliveros, vln; Laura Sewell, cel; Mary Ellen Haupert, pno / Centaur CRC 3435

FARRENC: Sextet in C min. for Winds & Piano / Sonarsix: Martha Chan, fl; Eder Rivera, oboe; Victor Diaz Guerra, cl; Christopher Chung, bsn; Elizabeth Linares, Fr-hn; Bogang Hwang, pno / available for free streaming on YouTube

FARRENC: Nonet in Eb, Op. 38 / Minerva Chamber Players; Kevin Geraldi, cond / part of Centaur CRC 3092

FARRENC: Air Russe varié. Valse Brillante. Nocturne in Eb, Op. 49. Variations brillantes dur la cavatina d’Anna Bolena de Donizetti / Konstanze Eickhorst, pno / part of CPO 999 879-2, but also available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking titles above

FARRENC:  30 Études in All the Major and Minor Keys, Op. 26. 12 Brilliant Études, Op. 41. 20 Medium-Difficulty Études, Op. 42. 25 Easy Études, Op. 50 / Maria Stratigou, pno / Grand Piano GP 912-13

FARRENC: Variations Concertantes sur une Mélodie Suisse, Op. 20. Violin Sonata No. 1: I. Largo – Allegro; II. Poco adagio; III. Finale: Allegro vivace. Violin Sonata No. 2: I. Allegro grazioso; II. Scherzo: Allegro; III. Adagio; IV. Finale: Allegro / Gaëtane Prouvost, vln; Laurent Cabasso, pno / Integral Classic INT22116, also available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking movement titles above

FARRENC: Trio for Clarinet, Cello & Piano, Op. 44: I. Adagio – Allegro moderato; II. Adagio; III. Minuetto: Allegro; IV. Finale: Allegro / Daniel Ottensamer, cl; Stephan Koncz, cel; Christoph Traxler, pno / part of Decca 4857375, a 7-CD set; also available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking individual movement titles above

FARRENC: Trio for Flute, Cello & Piano in E min., Op. 45 / Emily Benyon, fl; Daniel Esser, cel; Sepp Grotenhuis, pno / available for free streaming on YouTube

FARRENC: Cello Sonata, Op. 46:  I. Allegro moderato; II. Andante sostenuto; III. Finale: Allegro / Susan Lamb Cook, cel; Karen Rosenak, pno / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking individual movement titles above

I freely admit that I am often behind the curve (but not always) in discovering great musical talent from the past for the simple reason that my “bullshit radar” immediately goes up when some CD company starts touting so-and-so as a “forgotten genius” who turns out to be a mediocrity they happen to be pushing that month. As a result, I missed out on the Louise Farrenc revival, which seems to have started in 2015 with the release of these outstanding performances of her Piano Trios on Centaur, followed up by the recordings of her complete symphonies (three of them) and overtures (two) on Naxos, conducted by Christoph König.

But there was just something about this new release of her symphonies conducted by one Laurence Equilbey on Erato that piqued my curiosity, so I gave them a listen, and WOW am I glad I did!

Farrenc had an interesting and unusual background. An almost exact contemporary of Hector Berlioz, who admired her (he was born one year earlier than Farrenc and died six years before her), Jeanne-Louise Dumont came from a bohemian family in Paris (her father was a well-known sculptor). She grew up surrounded by artists of all types—sculptors and painters of both sexes in addition to musicians—and began piano lessons at a young age. When she was only 15, she was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire where her composition teacher was the well-known (and extremely good) Anton Reicha, but these were private lessons because women were forbidden to enroll in composition classes at that time! While at the conservatory, she began giving duo-recitals with a prize flute pupil, Aristide Farrenc, and married him when she was only 17 despite the fact that he was ten years older. After the marriage, Louise interrupted her education in order to perform with her new husband throughout France, but he soon tired of concert life and gave it up to start a music publishing company in Paris with Louise as his business partner…another “first” for her. Editions Farrenc became a leading classical music publisher for the next 40 years.

In addition to helping her husband with the publishing business, Louise returned to her studies with Reicha, after which she embarked on a solo concert career until 1826 when she gave birth to her daughter, Victorine. Victorine also became a concert pianist but, shockingly, died (of an undisclosed cause) at age 33, thus predeceasing her parents by 16 years. Yet Louise’s high reputation as a concert pianist led to her being given the position of Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatory—the ONLY woman named to such a position in the entire 19th century although, as one might suspect, she was paid less than her male colleagues for a decade. Only after the triumphant premiere of her Nonet, in which the famous violinist Joseph Joachim took part, did she demand, and receive, equal pay.

Thus even before we get to the extremely high quality of her music, we can admire Farrenc for a number of reasons. Oh, yes, one other thing: she was such an excellent piano teacher that her pupils almost consistently won top prized in competitions throughout Europe.

As for the music, it is astonishing, particularly the Symphonies and the Piano Trios, because they sound so much like Beethoven that it’s almost scary—but Beethoven with a French accent, and Farrenc was inventive enough to not borrow (or even slightly alter) any themes by the great man. Throughout these major works one constantly hears the way she balanced French lyricism—and a distinctly French feeling for rhythm—with the sturm und drang of Beethoven. Like his music, hers shifts harmony around in an audacious manner and uses strong rhythms to propel her themes and variations. In short, her music has the style of Beethoven but completely different content and her own very personal way with musical construction  and—dare I say it?—a more colorful sense of orchestration. Like Beethoven, there is always something going on in the inner voices of her symphonies, but unlike him, the distribution of the wind and brass parts are consistently more complex and complete. The finale of the first symphony reminded me, believe it or not, of the way Gluck handled the winds in his best opera scores.

One might say that since Reicha was her teacher, and Reicha had been a longtime friend of Beethoven’s, that this was inevitable, but please remember that Reicha taught numerous composition pupils in Paris and almost none of them picked up as much from Beethoven as Farrenc did. I’m also sure that she, like Berlioz, got to hear the groundbreaking performances of Beethoven’s complete symphonies by the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra in the 1830s, but with her educational connection to Reicha she was already ahead of the curve.

In addition, one must remember that Parisian musical life during Farrenc’s lifetime centered almost completely around operas. “Pure” instrumental music of the sort she composed was simply not popular, which is probably one reason why she was either taken for granted or, worse yet, sloughed off. Farrenc longed to write an opera, the same way Berlioz did, but she was never offered a plot strong enough for her to consider, and she was not about to waste her talents cranking out Auber and Hérold-like frou-frou music just to please the masses, thus she never wrote one. Fortunately, her studies with Reicha and her obvious love of Beethoven led her to write symphonies.

And these symphonies are truly superb! I’m not just talking about their almost raw emotional power, but also about the extreme facility of her musical mind, the way she could create and develop themes and make them interesting…her superb use of dynamics, her occasional retreat from a “wall of sound” to an almost chamber-music-like treatment of the wind section (listen to the slow movement of the First Symphony, for instance), and always, always that keen dramatic sense of pacing and shaping the music. In fact, I would say that Farrenc’s First Symphony stands with those of Brahms and Mahler as one of the greatest “first symphonies” in music history—and that’s saying something.

Interestingly, however, all three of Farrenc’s symphonies are in a similar style although the themes are quite different. But look at the opus numbers: 32, 35 and 36, so they were written within a relatively brief span of time. Between concertizing, raising her daughter, teaching at the conservatory and helping her husband with their music publishing business, it’s a wonder that she had any time for composing at all. Happily, unlike poor Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, she was actively encouraged to compose, not discouraged from doing so.

The first movement of the second symphony contains some quirky rhythmic figures that could only have been written by a French composer (you’ll know what I mean as soon as you hear them). One also notes that, even more cleverly than Beethoven, she found a way to “hook” her themes and variants together in a continuous musical evolution rather that repeating and recapitulating the main melody. Of course, we must remember that she was “standing on Beethoven’s shoulders”—he was the originator of this style, she an extremely gifted acolyte–but it’s a shame that she didn’t evolve her symphonic gifts even further. She might have written a “Beethoven Ninth” type of piece that went beyond what he had accomplished. Small wonder Berlioz admired her. I wonder what Brahms or Wagner thought…but then again, Brahms was a misogynist who put down ALL women composers, even when at first he admired their music without knowing their gender, as in the case of Ethel Smyth. And like Smyth, Farrenc was no shrinking violet of a composer. Her music was power wrapped in a velvet glove.

Surprisingly, the Third Symphony starts not with a bang but soft, lyrical figures in G minor starting with a flute duet and branching out to other winds before the tempo and volume increase and the orchestra comes roaring into full focus. This is the one Farrenc symphony that, although based on Beethoven’s principles, sounds the most French and the least like him. Even in the first movement here, Farrenc includes some swirling figures that are not merely decorative but functional in a dramatic way, and in the second movement she created great tension by means of just one loud, dramatic passage, later using a brief two-part canon for the violas. The third movement is a roiling Scherzo in the minor with a decided undercurrent of menace about it. The last movement opens with a few jagged, edgy gestures played by the cellos before the other strings, and winds, move in for the kill. The variations she wrote around the 2:20 mark are simply phenomenal. She was moving even further away from copying Beethoven’s style and more towards finding her very own, which is one reason I said that had she continued she might have produced a masterpiece on the level of Beethoven’s Ninth. But just look at what a full plate she had at the time: wife, mother, part-time music publisher, full-time piano pedagogue. And Mahler whined about having to conduct for a living while trying to write his symphonies!

Moving on to the two concert overtures, we hear a sharp departure from the style and working methods of Beethoven, whose overtures from his mature period are almost like fantasias for orchestra with slow introductions, multiple themes which interact with one another, and an almost theatrical layout that puts a stronger emphasis on drama—at times almost gut-wrenching drama—than structure. Farrenc apparently thought differently of the overture. Her pieces with this title use minor keys, either as the basis for the work or as alternate harmonies, but they are in a generally steady rhythm from start to finish and, to my mind, modeled much more on the overtures of French operas (Berlioz’ operas excepted) of her time. This makes them, to my ears, less effective as musical drama—even Mozart’s Don Giovanni overture has more drama in it than these—and puts them in the category of high-level musical entertainment. They’re clearly well-constructed, but to my mind just miss the kind of tension and drama that she poured into her symphonies. If you wished to, you could talk over them and not miss too much, but since they are almost consistently loud from start to finish you probably wouldn’t be heard too well unless you turned the volume down.

After hearing Equilbey’s performance of these first two symphonies, I became curious and went to hear Christoph König’s recordings on Naxos. They weren’t the same and thus made much less of an impact. It wasn’t so much tempo—although Equilbey plays the first and last movements of each symphony faster than König, he often plays the interior movements a bit slower—so much as it was a greater emotional involvement as well as his way of always “nudging” the music forward even in slow passages, a technique that reminded me of such legendary conductors as Munch (oh, how he would have loved these symphonies had he known about them!), Kertesz, etc. In König’s hands, these are nice-sounding symphonies, but in Equilbey’s hands they are great ones.

The one thing I didn’t “get” about this album is the cover art. Although the drawing there is somewhat modeled after the portrait of Farrenc (see right)—the shape of the face and the nose are right—the eyes are larger, the mouth os smaller and more bowed, and this woman has a hair style and one of those stylized “sailor” outfits redolent of the Roaring ‘20s. What’s up with that?

Grandes variationsTurning to her only other orchestral work, the Grandes variations sur un theme du Comte Gallenberg, we hear an even more different Farrenc, a composer of music in the typical French galant style of her time. Personally, I feel that this work was a sop to those critics who thought her symphonies too brash and, dare we say it, masculine for their tastes. Yes, the music is nicely written, but here Farrenc shies away from the audacious harmonic changes that permeated the symphonies. This almost sounds like 90% of Franz Liszt’s similar pieces for piano and orchestra, but I do recommend listening to it as something different in contrast to the strong temperament of the symphonies and overtures. From a compositional standpoint, it is put together “by the rules” and lacks both imagination and personality.

Next up we hear the Piano Quintets, written just before the symphonies, and they inhabit the same sound world. Either of these could have been converted into symphonic form without too much change, except, of course, for the richly detailed piano writing which I for one would not want to excise from these scores. Judging from these pieces and all her other piano writing, which call for not only virtuosity but extreme finger strength, she must have been quite a formidable performer—one might say the Teresa Carreño or Idil Biret of her day, a real lioness at the keyboard. No wonder she was able to make a good living for a time as a concert soloist, despite the Parisians’ laissez-faire attitude towards instrumental music. Here we also hear very elegant, singing lines for the violin, viola and cello, using the double bass to anchor the sound with its rich, deep tone, which she uses in a surprisingly muscular way. As in the symphonies and, as we shall hear, in virtually everything she wrote, Farrenc continually surprises the listener with those bold, powerful passages and her frequent-yet-subtle key changes. She was clearly a master of mood, contrast and drama in music, which makes it a double shame that she was never able to compose an opera.

Piano Quintets CPO 999194-2My readers should understand that I’ve vetted a number of performances of every piece I write about here and thus take it for granted that the Linos Ensemble’s performances are the most emotionally strong and least “wussy” available. Shockingly, this recording was made 30 years ago, in 1993, long before anyone else seems to have noticed that Farrenc existed, but alas, their recording was issued on the CPO label, and CPO does absolutely no promotion for their recordings, no matter how outstanding they are. They just issue them, throw them out for sale with zero promotion, and hope for the best. Small wonder that we are only now appreciating how wonderful these works, and these specific performances, are. Thank goodness they’re still in print. My sole complaint is the sound quality, a bit over-reverberant for my taste. I like chamber music to be recorded with a crisp, forward sound so you can hear the instruments as if they’re playing in your living room, not in an empty locker room at a football stadium.

I also wonder if the strength and power of Farrenc’s music wasn’t somewhat off-putting to the French, who generally like their music light and airy rather than emotionally impactful. There is no getting around the fact that her music packs a wallop that is as far from Fauré, Chausson and Franck as one could possibly imagine. Remember, it took Saint-Saëns several years to establish himself in France for similar reasons. Farrenc’s Beethoven-ish Scherzos are perfect examples of what I mean; and poor Berlioz, writing not only emotionally strong music but in an idiosyncratic style that skirted conventional construction, had an even harder time finding acceptance. (Maybe he should have sat down with Louise and Aristide and had them publish his scores the way he wanted them…they might have been open to the proposition.) The opening of the second Piano Quintet sounds so much like Beethoven or late Schubert that it will startle you, but as usual Louise takes it different places, softening the contours for a while before again lowering the boom with an emotional charge forward.  

Layout 1The Piano Trios are also in the emotionally turbulent and highly dramatic style of the symphonies, and these two works are overflowing with brilliant ideas, invention and drama. The opening of the Eb major trio immediately sounds like Beethoven, but once again with a French accent. Ludwig would surely not have been ashamed to have had his name on this work although, as with her Overtures, she captured his élan and drama without capturing his profundity. But no matter; I’ll take Farrenc’s energy and drive any day of the week. Like Beethoven, too, she weaves in and out of neighboring harmonies with impunity; even by the three-minute mark of the first movement, we go through so many key changes that it almost makes one dizzy, and there are more yet to come.

The second Piano Trio, although ostensibly in D minor, spends a lot of its time in the major. At the 2:40 mark in the first movement, Farrenc indulges in some fancy instrumental interweaving of three disparate lines of music played simultaneously. Her musical imagination never flags, but stays up there throughout. I can’t say that none of Farrenc’s musical works are without flaw—for one thing, not all of them have been recorded, and for another, there are a few moments here and there when you feel she could have been a bit more creative—but when listening to any of her major works, you keep getting the feeling that the musical progression was inevitable, even though its twists and turns often take you by surprise…clearly the mark of a great composer. The second movement alone takes you through no less that five different variations, and in the last movement the piano slows down the tempo and breaks away from the violin and cello to play a sort of slow (but brief) fantasia, followed by another solo passage at the initial tempo, before the two strings return to weave their own variants around it.

Farrenc’s Sextet for piano and winds is one of the most mature works to be recorded, listed as her Op. 40, but beware the many pale, lackluster performances on YouTube. The only one worth hearing is the blistering rendition by a relatively young left-coast chamber group called Sonarsix, and I don’t think it’s from a commercial recording. But holy crap can they play! They perform it so brilliantly, in fact, that they make it sound like a worthy rival to the Beethoven Septet…and it is, simply bursting with ideas. The big difference is that, because Farrenc was a virtuoso pianist and piano instructor, the keyboard part is not only highly virtuosic but dominates the balance. Yet it’s not quite a piano concerto in reduction—most of the time the piano is simply providing dazzling keyboard runs and arpeggios in support of the winds—although the tension she created between the wind instruments and the piano holds your interest and is clearly crucial to the success of this piece. Farrenc lays off the piano in the opening bars of the second movement and, when it does enter, it plays entirely solo until the oboe and clarinet enter to weave their own lines around it. Once again, we get the distinct impression of her being a sort of Beethoven with a French accent; no German or Austrian would have written a second movement quite like this, full of Gallic elegance, but the ghost of Ludwig was undoubtedly smiling down on Farrenc when she penned this wonderful piece. The third movement, like so many of her movements in other works, somehow combines Gallic and Teutonic musical sensibilities in the same piece. I have no idea if Farrenc wrote music in spurts when inspired or worked long, hard hours on it as Beethoven did, but the seamless flow of musical ideas and her brilliance in knitting them together was simply awe-inspiring. I have no hesitancy in saying that with the exceptions of those three great geniuses, Berlioz, Alkan and Saint-Saëns, she was the best French composer of the 19th century. Sorry, but to my ears even César Franck and Jules Massenet pale by comparison.

There are several recordings of Farrenc’s famous Nonet, but most of them are exceptionally bland and lackluster. The one performance that grabs your attention is the superb, lively reading by the Minerva Chamber Players on a Centaur disc, paired with Brahms’ Op. 11 Serenade. The music here is somewhat less dynamic and more lyrical and expansive than the Symphonies or Piano Trios, which is probably the exact reason it appealed to so many listeners and earned her a raise at the Conservatoire, but for God’s sake, the other chamber groups need to lived up their approach! Played by the Minerva group, one immediately hears the relationship to her other chamber works although, to be honest, neither the themes nor the development are quite as strong as in the afore-mentioned works. Nonetheless, the Minerva group brings out many of the piece’s salient qualities and does so with great élan, particularly in the surprisingly inventive Scherzo, written in the minor (with a contrasting theme in the major) which sounds most like the Farrenc of the other pieces (in the last movement, she mirrors the more conventional style of the first). Well worth seeking out. By the way, this is the oldest recording surveyed here, having been made in 2009, and may well be the one that sparked the entire Farrenc revival.

In some ways, the music in the Nonet is more conventional and less startling than some of her other chamber works, yet this was the piece that attracted the most attention and the highest compliment from critics, which tells you that she figured out how to please them. There are still several harmonic shifts in this work but they’re just not as abrupt as in the symphonies and piano trios.

Piano worksAs for Farrenc’s works for solo piano, all that have surfaced so far are short works, no sonatas, although some may be out there waiting to be recorded. Konstanze Eichhorst, the excellent but little-known pianist of the Linos Ensemble, has recorded a few short pieces by Farrenc: the Valse Brillante, one of her Nocturnes, a fascination “operatic paraphrase” of themes from Donizetti’s Anna Bolena which is written in a much better and terser style than Ferenc Liszt’s rambling, bombastic opera paraphrases, as well as her Air Russes varié which was praised by none other than Robert Schumann in an 1836 edition of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (“So sure in outline, so logical in development…that one must fall under their [the variations’] charm”), but so far the most extensive album is this 2-CD set of her Études played by Greek-born pianist Maria Stratigou. Considering the fact that these works, like most of her music, was published by the family company, I found it amazing that there were several mistakes and discrepancies between the manuscript and the published scores as described by Stratigou in the liner notes:

Despite the successful completion of the recordings by the end of the second year, after comparing all the available editions (both historical and modern) with each other as well as with the existing manuscript scores, my research findings demonstrated a significant number of discrepancies and errors in all available sources. As a pianist and researcher my job was to make my performance decisions through a detailed analysis of the scores, and choose what I thought would be the most accurate representation of the pieces. Studying the performance guidance which Farrenc provided as written text in two works that she edited (Le Trésor des pianistes and Bernard Viguerie’s piano method) and the performance practices in the 19th century, I later re-recorded many of the Études.

coverThose expecting to hear études as melodically inviting as Chopin’s will be somewhat disappointed, but Farrenc does include tunes—indeed, the second of the 30 études in all the major and minor keys has a very attractive melody woven into the middle of it, and the third is a bouncy little tune that, again, sounds thoroughly Gallic while again showing echoes of Beethoven—her focus was on strengthening the hands in complex passages, not pleasing concert audiences. They thus strike a nice balance between Czerny and Chopin without overdoing the melodic content. (I generally feel that composers who spend a great deal of time concocting melodies in classical music are not very creative. Anyone can come up with catchy tunes—even I’ve done it—and wasting time writing catchy tunes takes away from the more serious content of the music at hand.) The fifth étude in this series is a perfect example of what I mean: a fast, bouncing piece in rapid 6/8 tempo with an overlay of a bouncy tune in E minor and, more interestingly, a slower, more melodic passage reminiscent of Liszt! With such a nice compromise between sheer finger exercises and attractive themes, several of the Farrenc études would make wonderful concert pieces, particularly as encores.

I will not waste the reader’s time trying to describe all 87 of these pieces, but taken as a whole they are as fascinating as most of her other work. In the first series, No. 9 in A major sounds the most Chopin-esque to me, but Farrenc avoids his saccharine style by suddenly upping the tempo, volume and intensity of the music in the middle. No. 10 in F# minor also has a bit of Chopin in it, although the continually arpeggiated bass line reminds one more of the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria—and there are a number of her rapid key changes in the middle of it. Étude No. 12 in this set contains a fugue that would not have embarrassed J.S. Bach, and No. 13 is built around a canon in C# minor, set to a “Sicilienne” rhythm (a somewhat slow, jaunty 6/8). The almost mind-bogglingly fast No. 14 in B major will have many pianists running for cover. It might also be mentioned at this point that despite its being in C# minor, most of No. 13 sounds in the major while No. 14, in the major, makes visits to the minor. Her restless musical mind never seemed to run out of ideas on how to add interest to her works. No. 18 contains a tune that sounds for all the world like a slightly more complex version of Three Blind Mice.

As Stratigou points out, Farrenc oddly began her series with the most difficult and complex pieces, then going on to exercises for intermediate pupils before ending up with the simplest of all for beginners, but the second set—Douze Études Brillantes—is still very much in virtuoso territory, and in this set Farrenc made somewhat less concessions towards melodic lines. Yes, they’re there, but often fragmented, emphasizing the technical aspects of fingering. (Small wonder that her piano pupils consistently won the highest awards at competitions…if they played anything like this, they probably swamped the others.) This second set of études also has less relaxation in the music: they’re almost consistently brisk pieces geared towards virtuosity and not much more than that.

Interestingly, the intermediary études are for the most part more melodic than the preceding set, but also much shorter; only about 10 of them run more than a minute, and then not very much beyond, but the melodies are back—just much tighter written than in the first set of 30. A good example is No. 3 in C, in which a sweet little tune is set to what one might call a “walking” bass line, all played in single notes. Many of the faster ones are also very playful in a typical French style, albeit much more complex in structure and thus more fascinating to listen to. One might characterize this style as a cross between Liszt and Auber. No. 10 in G minor sounds awfully complex tome for a medium-grade étude, but I haven’t been able to play the piano for the past 23 years, so I’m not really in a position to verify this. The easy études are shorter yet and much more playful, which was bound to keep up a young student’s interest.

cover 2Onward we go to the pieces for violin and piano! Last up on the superb disc by Gaëtane Prouvost and Laurent Cabasso is an early (Op. 20) set of variations, on a Swiss song. These are well-crafted but only occasionally remarkable; this set was obviously not written from her heart but from her sense of propriety, presenting a genteel piece of salon music designed to please the few wealthy snobs who deigned to attend soirees at the homes of famous artists like Pauline Viardot-Garcia. Hey. Beethoven wrote a lot of crap just for the money, too, you know! Sometimes you’ve got to take the “just OK” with the great. It’s very pretty but much more in the style of “musical wallpaper” for a Sunday brunch than the sonatas. Indeed, the slow opening of the first sonata contains some of the deepest and most profound music Farrenc ever wrote, and as usual, it moves into an Allegro section that sounds entirely logical, as if this is where she intended to go from the very first note. This sonata can almost stand comparison with Beethoven’s “Kreutzer,” and that’s no exaggeration.

The second sonata begins with a beautiful theme reminiscent of Beethoven at his most melodic: think of his “Spring” Sonata. Here, the jump to the faster sections is subtler and not as strong of a contrast, but the music is still very well crafted, just not quite as intense as the first sonata. This work is laid out in four movements rather than the usual three, as in the case of the first, and the second movement is a scherzo similar to those Farrenc wrote for her symphonies and the larger chamber ensembles. This is where some of her most interesting musical ideas surface, at times contrasting long-held notes by the violinist over the excited frills of the piano part.

Clarinet Anthology coverThe Clarinet Trio is available in two good recordings. The one by the three German musicians which I recommend, however, only came out in a 7-CD set in which Farrenc was finally featured alongside composers of her rank—Beethoven, Brahms, Kahn, Rihm, Zemlinsky, Cerha, Faure, d’Indy and Ries—but the performance of the Farrenc trio is available for free streaming on YouTube. If you wish to get a hard copy to play, however, I can also recommend the one on CPO by the Linos Ensemble, which is a bit slower and just misses the frisson of the Decca recording but is still an excellent performance.

The opening is another of Farrenc’s Andantes, quite lovely but not too much, and by a little over a minute in she has already jumped into the Allegro moderato section. Ottensamer, Koncz and Traxler play this in a fairly straightforward style while the Linos Ensemble introduces some rubato effects, but happily not too many to spoil the musical progression. The slow second movement is quite lovely (not necessarily a compliment!) and begins with a cello solo before the clarinet enters. The third-movement Scherzo is quite lively, and here Farrenc came up with some wonderful variations: an improvement over the first two movements. The Finale is even more interesting, not only lively but with some subtle harmonic shifts, clearly the best movement in this trio. In both its themes and the overall treatment of the instruments, this much closer to Mozart than to Beethoven—perhaps intentionally so.

But if the clarinet trio is just pretty good, the flute trio is absolutely fantastic. Perhaps she had her husband in mind when she wrote it, but the music is not only highly virtuosic but also dynamic and highly original. Interestingly, the opening motif played by the piano after the strong chord which begins it sounds remarkably like the lead-in music to Gounod’s Funeral March for a Marionette, but the music it goes into is far from being as lightweight. The piano part, in particular, is as driving as anything Beethoven ever wrote in his chamber works, and the flute part calls for a player of high expression, demanding a player closer to the level of a James Galway or Tara Helen O’Connor. Farrenc uses a sequence of falling chromatic chords in several passages in addition to her usual key shifts, and it’s fascinating to hear how deftly she intertwines the flute and cello. If there was a version of this with orchestral accompaniment, it could easily pass for a Triple Concerto.

The second movement is lovely but not very deep. This was, perhaps, the only aspect of her music that did not always resembleBeethoven: her slow movements are always impressive without being sentimental, but never deeply profound as his were…but that’s one reason why Beethoven was unique. On the other hand, the Scherzo is not only lively but hard-driving and full of rhythmic and harmonic surprises. including a sudden shift into a warm E major for the slower middle section, where the music opens up like petals on a flower. The last movement has an undercurrent of drama about it despite its quite fast tempo, again with short visits to major keys along the way.

And if you think this flute trio as it stands is powerful, you should hear it in the transcription she made of it for one “Messr. Louis Dorus” as a violin trio (possibly because he wanted one and she didn’t feel like writing one from scratch, this one being so good). The best recording I’ve heard of that incarnation is the one by Thomas Albertus Imberger (violin); David Geringer (cello) and Barbara Moser (piano) on Gramola 99225.

The Cello Sonata, chronologically the last piece I could find by Farrenc (Op. 46), is also lighter of weight than Beethoven’s five cello sonatas, but compared to anyone else’s from the 19th century it’s a gem, very much along the same lines as the Flute/Violin Trio. Once again, one marvels at Farrenc’s ability to seamlessly join what sound like very different and contrasting themes and not only make it work but make it fascinating.

None of the commercial recordings of this piece that I’ve heard did anything for me, but this faculty member performance by two little-known but excellent performers on the campus of the University of California, Davis’ music department’s recital hall is quite impressive.

After her daughter Victorine’s death in 1859 Louise Farrenc, then a quite mature 55, stopped composing despite the fact that she and Aristide lived for another 16  years. I can well understand why; besides, she left us a rich legacy of music to enjoy and appreciate. I can’t recall where I read it, but some snarky “music critic,” wishing to demean woman composers in general, once posited the question, “Where are the great symphonies, concertos and operas by woman composers?” Apparently he never heard of Farrenc, not to mention Emilie Luise Mayer, who wrote superb symphonies (and Mayer also wrote concerti, which Farrenc apparently did not), or those women composers from Ethel Smyth to Nancy Van de Vate who also wrote operas. The real question was, why should a good woman composer of earlier times BOTHER writing music in larger forms if their chances of being performed were slim or none? In her lifetime, Farrenc only heard one of her three symphonies performed—the Third—and of course she had to pay for all of it out of her own pocket: renting the hall, contracting the musicians and conductor, paying for the advertising and publicity, etc. And no one wanted to perform it afterwards, so why bother writing a fourth symphony?  Nonetheless, the richness and high quality of the works surveyed here say it all: Louise Farrenc was a great composer, period. No bending over backwards to make excuses for the quality of her music. I encourage you to explore her as I did; I think you’ll find the experience highly rewarding.

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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Koukl & Rossetti Play Rieti

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RIETI: Suite Champêtre.* 3 Vaudeville Marches.* Second Avenue Waltzes.* Gossip.* Valse Fugitive.* 12 Preludes. 6 Short Pieces. 5 Pieces for Young Pianists / Giorgio Koukl *&Virginia Rossetti, pno / Grand Piano GP921

Czech-born pianist Giorgio Koukl makes a specialty of music written in the nascent modern styles of the 1920s and ‘30s. To this end, he now approaches the piano music of Vittorio Rieti.

Although Rieti is firmly established as one of the better Italian modernists of his time—even Arturo Toscanini conducted his music with the NBC Orchestra (the Fourth Symphony)—he is not often thought of in the same lofty realm as some of the others, such as Alfredo Casella or Luigi Nono. The music on this CD gives some explanation of this. Although Rieti used modern harmonies that were “in the air” at the time, his music is more lyrical and more easily digestible by average listeners.

In his piano works, this tendency extended to the length and seriousness of his pieces. Koukl has assured me via email that there are no full-length works such as piano sonatas or concerti by Rieti; all of his piano music consists of short pieces written in a whimsical style. The joy of listening to them, however, is in his wry and sometimes dry sense of humor. Nearly all of these works have interesting wrinkles in them to attract the ear. I would say that, as a whole, this music is the Italian equivalent of Francis Poulenc, a composer who surely fits into Koukl’s range of interest except for the fact that Poulenc’s music is extremely well known while the works he champions normally aren’t.

The opening “Bouree” from the Suite Champêtre is typical of the lot: here taking an older form of “classical dance music” and twisting it around, very much like Prokofiev’s First Symphony (another work that greatly appealed to Toscanini). Since I am not familiar with any of these pieces, and don’t know how the performances were miked, I can’t tell you whether or not Koukl is emerging from the left speaker and Virginia Rossetti, his 2-piano partner on most of this album, from the right or vice-versa, but the booklet does tell us that Rossetti is playing second piano in this suite as well as on Gossip and Valse Fugitive but first piano on the Second Avenue Waltzes. In this same suite, I particularly liked the “Gigue,” in which Rieti has both pianists playing descending chromatic figures in 6/8 time against one another which, when they do finally resolve harmonically, keep shifting around as if walking on quicksand.

Of course, music of such a light nature isn’t really designed to be heard all together in a full program as it is on this CD. These are works which, taken two or three at a time, would make great program fillers (possibly even program openers) for pianists or, perhaps, delightful encore pieces. And as I say, they are pieces that need your attention when listening to catch all the subtle humor. Indeed, much of this musical humor is even more subtle than the examples I noted above, such as in the Second Avenue Waltzes, and to be honest I’m not sure that most modern-day classical listeners have the ears to catch all of them. Many of Rieti’s little musical jokes fly by so quickly that you need to pay close attention from start to finish of each piece.

Taken on its own merits, however, this program has much to offer, particularly for those listeners who find the majority of “modern music” too abrasive and off-putting. Just remember before playing it that this is music of much subtle humor and not background music for a Sunday brunch.

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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Bacewicz’ Piano Concerti

BACEWICZ: Overture. Piano Concerto. Concerto for 2 Pianos & Orchestra. Music for Strings, Trumpets & Percussion / Peter Jablonski, pno 1; Elisabeth Brauβ, pno 2; unidentified tpt & perc soloists; Finnish Radio Symphony Orch.; Nicholas Collon, cond / Ondine ODE 1427-2

Earlier this year, I made the claim that Karol Szymanowski, not Frydryk Chopin, was Poland’s greatest composer, a statement I still stand by, but Graźyna Bacewicz was their second-greatest composer, and it is extremely gratifying for me to see so many new releases of her music emerge in the past several years. But recordings are not concerts, and I still don’t see her music being programmed with any regularity by the major British, American, German or French orchestras. In addition, it is starting to reach the point where many of the works being recorded are actually re-recordings. I already have the Overture and the Piano Concerto in my collection, but am more than happy to now have the two-piano concerto as well as the Music for Strings, Trumpets & Percussion. But just look at the album cover and booklet. Because the trumpeters and percussionist are members of the Finnish Radio Symphony, they’re not identified anywhere. This is wholly unfair to them. In the old days, even when soloists in concertos were members of the resident orchestra, whether American, British or German, they were named somewhere in the liner notes, even if only in small print.

Bacewicz’ music was not as innovative for its time as was Szymanowski’s. She clearly based her aesthetics on Bartók and Stravinsky, both of whom were pretty familiar to concertgoers by the mid-1940s, although when she started composing their music was still somewhat startling to listeners weaned on Mozart and Schubert. In today’s musical world, then, a piece like the Overture, written in 1943, would even be considered somewhat “retro,” but point is not what harmonic language Bacewicz used but rather how extraordinarily skillful she was in the way she wrote. The themes, though not memorably melodic, are good ones, short and to the point, and Bacewicz developed and interwove them with such skill that they present a unified and logical musical statement that spans its entire five-and-a-half minute length. Every moment in this work, something interesting is happening; there are no lulls, no gaps, no superfluous passages or uninteresting moments, and the same is true of the piano concerto from 1949 although some of the themes here are indeed catchier than in the overture. I think the best word I can use to characterize these works is “breathless.” Even in those moments when Bacewicz pulled back on the volume and tempo, there is always that fine musical “line” running through the music. Our piano soloist, Peter Jablonski, is a lyrical player, thus his style is more ideally suited to those relaxed moments in the concerto. In the faster, louder passages, I found his playing to be a shade on the “mincing” side, as if he was trying to sound a bit bold and daring but didn’t quite get there. Personally, I prefer the playing of Julia Kocluban on the Dux recording of this work although Nicholas Collon is a fine, spirited conductor who leads the work in an exciting fashion.

The second movement of this concerto, although clearly an Andante, has a certain underlying feeling of restlessness about it; I won’t quite call it menace, but it is not relaxed, comfortable listening except when Jablonski plays the solo part. The fast third movement is an odd combination of jollity and unease, which Collon brings out perfectly.

Even I was stunned by the power and drama of the two-piano concerto, one of Bacewicz’ late works from 1966. Here, she seemed to be trying to combine her earlier Bartók-Stravinsky style with more daring harmonic concepts; rootless chords, shifting chromatics, even slight touches of microtonalism here and there all combine to produce a powerful musical statement into which the two soloists, often playing choppy, broken figures, are trying to fit into. I was delighted to hear that the second pianist in this performance, Elisabeth Brauβ, played with a bolder attack and more excitement than Jablonski, thus pushing the other pianist in their duo passages. But they almost had to do so anyway, as this is not a concerto in which the soloists can safely sit back, graze a a little grass, and feel mellow. They either fir into the powerful, whirling web of sound that Bacewicz has set up or turn over their piano benches to someone else.

With that being said, the second movement of this concerto is surprisingly lyrical and even lovely, a moment of rare relaxation in the midst of Bacewicz’ musical storm. Yes, there are some moments in which she introduces a feeling of unease, and the first real entrance of the soloists comes on a sequence of crashing chords and an ominous feeling, but the music keeps tending towards lyricism and relaxation. It’s an odd combination and very typical of Bacewicz, which is why I love her music so much. The last movement, quixotically fragmented in both themes and rhythm, is a bit of a mind game with the listener, a rarity for Bacewicz, but it works in context. Mysteriously, the concerto ends very quietly, in the middle of a phrase.

Music for Strings, Trumpets & Percussion, written in 1959, is already an advance on her 1940s style, in fact closer in sound and feeling to the 2-piano concerto than to the solo concerto. True, it is not entirely a concerto: the percussion, in particular, is wedded to the strings; but then again, this is not entirely a string orchestra, either, since she uses a trumpet section and not just a solo trumpeter playing brass fanfares in the first movement. (The score indicates divided trumpets.) “Percussion” here also includes vibes, glockenspiel and other such instruments, not just the drums. At the 3:50 mark Bacewicz plays around with syncopation in such a way that the music almost seems to be running backwards. At 4:50 we finally hear just the one trumpet, and it is integrated into the fabric of the strings, not really a soloist in the strict sense of the word. In fact, if anything there is much more of a real solo for cello at the start of the second movement, which continues for more than a minute before being joined by the violas—and then continues a cappella after they drop out. (And the cellist isn’t identified, either.) Bacewicz also plays a bit with microtonalism here, particularly during a short period in which the massed violins are playing together.

The third movement relies quite a bit on the combination of tympani and xylophone and the main percussion instruments. It has a strong rhythm, but it sounds asymmetric though it is not; in fact, this is the only movement of the three that stays in one meter (2/4) almost from start to finish…there’s just one brief meter change on p. 103 of the score where she shift to 3/4 time for just one bar. It is the other two movements that continually shift around between 4/4. 2/4 and 3/4, sometimes within just a bar or two à la Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps. This just goes to show what a masterful composer Bacewicz was, that she could play with rhythm to such a highly sophisticated degree and yet not get “caught out” by the listener until she sticks to a STEADY rhythm!

This performance of the work by Collon and the Finnish Radio Orchestra is highly virtuosic, a real tour-de-force, and does the music full justice as he does throughout this very interesting CD. Recommended to all Bacewicz fans!

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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Discovering Discovering Melcher Melchers

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MELCHERS: La Kermesse, Symphonic Poem. Élégie. Symphony in D min. / Gävle Symphony Orch.; Jaime Martin, cond / Ondine ODE1418-2

I had a little fun with the title of this review not because I am trying to make fun of Melcher Melchers as a composer but simply because I think it idiotic when parents give their kids a first name that is the same as their last name. Melcher Melchers is, in a way, the Swedish equivalent of Robert Roberts or Richard Richards, equally dumb names.

Melchers was the son of a working class family—his father was a shopkeeper by trade—and his name wasn’t even Melchers! His father’s name was John Svensson! And nowhere in the booklet does it tell you why he renamed himself Melchers, but the Swedish Composers’ website tells us that his first name was Henri, Melcher being his middle name. Nowhere online could I find any clue as to why his last name was Melchers.

He was so musically gifted that he became a student at the Stockholm Conservatory at age 14, studying both violin and viola, and graduated as a music teacher at age 21. Two years later he decided to go to Paris to expand his skills and loved the city so much that he moved there permanently. He became deeply interested in art and met Picasso, Modigliani and Matisse, who drew a sketch of him, and socialized with well-known authors like Apollinaire. Yet music remained his main interest, and he also socialized with d’Indy, Chausson and Franck. He was one of the few foreign students to be allowed to study at the Conservatoire National de Musique, His principal teacher was Georges Caussade (mistakenly given in the booklet as George Casedesus), but he later formed a close friendship with Germaine Tailleferre. She introduced him to the other composers of Les Six as well as that lovable maverick, Erik Satie. In her memoirs, Tailleferre wrote of Melchers and how he helped to arrange concerts for their music. He became one of the founders of the Association de Lyre et Palette in 1916, was named its music director, and began scheduling weekly concerts to present both older and newer music, but never used his position to promote his own works.

The liner notes further tell us that although Melchers was a musical conservative, preferring the older forms of composition. he had no objection to modern works if they seemed musically sound to him. But several of his music students found him too old-fashioned and thus switched to studying with the more progressive Hilding Rosenberg. By and large, Melchers kept a low profile as a composer, which is probably one reason why most people have never heard of him. Melchers moved back to Sweden in the mid-1920s and thus was spared the horrors of a Nazi-occupied France during World War II. He died in 1961.

Although his music was resolutely tonal and based on established composition forms, it was not boring. His tone poem La Keermesse is brimming with energy and strong themes which sound as if they were based on Swedish folk music. The music is also very well developed, but not in a stiff, academic manner; on the contrary, the variants flow into one another easily and naturally. Judging from this, it’s not difficult to hear why he responded well to the music of Tailleferre, Milhaud, Poulenc, Auric and Honegger, all of whom respected earlier forms of composition despite their modern tendencies. At around the seven-minute mark, Melchers indulges in a great deal of chromatic movement in this piece, playing with it and extended this feeling over roughly two minutes before suddenly cutting it off and injecting a slower, more tonal theme. This is really good music, and it’s a shame that Melchers has taken so long to be rediscovered. Even his British contemporary York Bowen’s music has been revived for about the past decade and a half.

Melchers’ Élégie was written in 1920 to commemorate the recent death of his mother. It is, of course, a slow, rather sad piece, but it is not uninteresting; on the contrary, it bears a certain kinship with the slow symphonic movements of Sibelius, rising to a powerful climax a little past its mid-point. Yet it is his one and only Symphony that is clearly the standout work on this CD: set in three movements, it is a fascinating musical journey incorporating features found in each of the previous two works. There is an almost feverish energy in its first movement, and even the introduction of a rather superfluous “pretty” theme in its middle does not deter Melchers for long. The problem is that it is a bit too episodic; this first movement tries to say too much and is not entirely successful, running on a bit long.

The second movement opens with a soft, mysterious theme played very high up by the violins with occasional interjection from the winds—but again, it becomes a bit too episodic. Judging from this piece and only this piece, Melchers didn’t seem to be able to think his musical ideas through clearly; he just wrote down what came into his mind and tried to splice them together. Although the rapid third movement is better-written (it’s set in a sort of 6/8 time although with changes of meter throughout), it somehow seems a bit flippant compared to the previous two movements. Still, conductor Jaime Martin’s performance is peppy and tries its best to make a nice musical soufflé out of these broken eggs.

Also available on YouTube is a performance of Melchers’ 1923 Piano Concerto by pianist Jacob Moscovicz and conductor Stig Westerberg from 1988 and this, too, is a fascinating piece. Melchers was evidently a decent composer who had his strengths and weaknesses; the music is clearly worth hearing at least once.

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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Ivo Perelman’s “Prophecy”


PERELMAN-ORTIZ-ST. LOUIS: Prophecy One. Prophecy Two / Ivo Perelman, t-sax; Lester St. Louis, cello; Arúan Ortiz, pno / Mahakala Music MAHA-064

Avant-garde saxist Ivo Perelman, who seems to turn out at least two CDs every month, may have seemed to some to have reached his limits as a creative musician, but he keeps on changing and rotating his accompanying musicians. This month he has two more CDs out, and this one is clearly a winner.

Having listened to and reviewed Perelman albums—19 of them, including several multi-disc sets, starting with an album he did with the Sirius Quartet way back in 2016 (the first year of this blog)—I think I have a pretty good handle on his working methods. Although he does not play in any set rhythms, not even such fractured meters as 13/16, he is clearly a rhythmic player, in fact often more of a rhythmic player than a melodic one. His goal is to cover as much of the tonal spectrum as he can in the course of each individual track, and he generally has two methods and registers of playing: a warm, rich lower range, in which he is often surprisingly lyrical and can even tend towards tonality, and his hard, screeching higher register, in which he enjoys blasting out 9ths, 11ths and 13ths. Many of his followers and several critics absolutely love this second part of his range, but I often find it annoying and superfluous for the simple reason that he’s not really communicating anything up there, he’s just showing you that he understands the overtone series and can squeal it out at will. When he has a great musical partner who can lead him into more thoughtful improvisations, following both melody and chord changes set by another, he reins in his tendency to screech and produces some of the most extraordinary free jazz I’ve ever heard.

Pianist Matthew Shipp, his longest-termed musical partner, is clearly the best in bringing this more evolved and developed style of playing out of Perelman, thus the recordings he has made with Shipp are among the greatest treasures of my record collection. But occasionally he finds others who cam “tame the tiger,” so to speak,” and in this new album, his second with master pianist Arúan Ortiz and his first with jazz cellist Lester St. Louis, he has musical partners who coax him into playing some of his very finest and most interesting solos.

On this CD, Perelman is joined by the brilliant young pianist Arúan Ortiz—this is his second recording with him—and jazz cellist Lester St. Louis, a name new to me. I know that Ortiz’ jazz is grounded in classical principles, and since he is a cellist I would assume that St. Louis is as well, thus they set up a fascinating and complex web of sound into which Perelman fits his own improvisations, and here he is mostly brilliant. Even when he injects his high-register squeals, as around the 3:40 mark in the first track, the notes make sense in relation to what is being played around him; in fact, I even detected some elements of humor in his playing here, which is rare for him. The surrounding music is not something that can be described easily in words—it’s mostly what I would call atonal musings, generally at a fast tempo—but the three musicians are clearly listening to one another and thus produce spontaneous structures, not just notes splattered up against the wall. Ortiz, in fact, creates a real mood in his piano part, and Perelman is for the most part sensitive to this. St. Louis sometimes plays melodic lines, at other times uses the cello like a jazz bass, but he too has a keen ear for structure. He also plays with a great deal of color, somehow able to change the sound of his instrument from the standard cello sound to something resembling an electronic instrument.

Considering that this was a first take, it’s amazing how well this music turned out. I wonder if any of the musicians, or perhaps all of them, didn’t have at least some idea of what they were going to play beforehand. It’s one thing not to rehearse, and quite another to at least have a mental image of what one is going to play. Around the 11-minute mark things get rather busy, and again Perelman plays some of those overblown high notes, but again, it fits into the context of what his musical partners are doing, and at around 12:30 St. Louis really swings on the cello and Perelman is feeling it. You rarely, if ever, get such a great feeling of collective synergy like this on these free jazz recordings. Somehow, everything fits into place and the ensuing musical structure is quite fascinating. Only around 14:20 and 16:20 did I get the feeling that Perelman was just showing off up high without contributing much. For the most part, he enhances rather than intrudes on the ongoing musical progression.

As in the case of Perelman’s previous release, Molten Gold, the playing of the other musicians really help make the music great. Their contributions are not only creative but unpredictable, which helps the listener absorb what Perelman is doing, often excellent and responsive to the surrounding material. Thus I would rate this one of his more interesting albums as well as one of Ortiz’ best.

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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Summer’s “Sea Change” Quartets

5 - Summer String Quartets

SUMMER: Sea Change #1, “I to the world am like a drop of water.” Sea Change #2, “unpath’d waters, undream’d shores” / Ulysses Qrt / Albany TROY1933

Many composers, old and new, tend to specialize in one form of music or another. I’m now so used to Joseph Summer the composer of vocal-piano and vocal-orchestral music, including his superb opera Hamlet, that it took me a bit by surprise to receive this CD of string quartets by him, only because the string quartet is a medium of intimate, non-verbal communication between four players, and I wouldn’t have thought him interested in this format.

His explanation of the quartets in the booklet is pretty interesting:

The Sea Change Quartets are inspired by my sundry undersea sojourns, both adventures and misadventures. They are not meant to sound like the sea, but rather to evoke the feeling of the alien world that thrives near out own terrestrial residence.

Though each movement is descriptive—in part—of a specific littoral site, and even specific creatures, I don’t think those details are remotely necessary to experience the music. The music should—if I’ve done my job—evoke imagery personal to the individual. When I describe a wrasse, if you hear the smell of coffee, then I’ve succeeded in eliciting a connection between you and my musical offering.

Despite the different format, I heard much the same musical language that informs Summer’s vocal-orchestral works, the use of tonal melody within a web of bitonal and occasionally atonal harmonies. Whereas some composers like to use the string quartet as a small orchestra, playing together as a unit much of the time, Summer prefers an almost continual dialogue (or, sometimes, trialogue), having the individual strings play against one another. Much of the time, the viola and cello set up a secondary theme which contrasts with what the violins are playing, although most of the time they act as a cushion for the violins’ discourse. This almost gives one the impression of a two-violin concerto in reduction.

Perhaps because the Ulysses Quartet prefers a lean, bright sound rather than a burnished tone and perfect blending, their style matches Summer’s musical conception excellently. Much of this music is pitched high up in the instruments’ ranges anyway (except for the cello, which stays mostly low to the ground).

I must not be very sensitive to imagery in music, because I didn’t “see” any terrestrial images while listening to this restless, often edgy music although I did feel that, in a way, it was generally descriptive of the “busy-ness” of undersea life (my own experiences only being gleaned through watching Jacques Cousteau on television). I did feel that, occasionally, Summer dallied a bit longer than he should have at certain moments, such as at the 8:50 mark in the first movement of Quartet No. 1, which put the music somewhat off track in terms of its otherwise tight construction. But that was just my impression; you may disagree.

I particularly liked the swaggering rhythms in the midst of the first quartet’s second movement, which is subtitled “I can call spirits from the vasty deep” (wow, you can get your cell phone to work underwater? – just kidding!) as well as the surprisingly jazzy swagger near the end of the third movement. I wondered, however, about the music’s almost continual lack of harmonic resolution. The altered harmonies keep moving and shifting, which certainly suggests the undercurrent of deep sea life, but from a purely musical view I’d have liked both a few more moments of calm and some sort of resolution, either tonal or atonal, at the ends of movements, rather than just ending them almost in the midst of a phrase. At least, that was my impression.

I found the first movement of the second quartet, with its gentle rocking motion, to be a quite welcome break from the almost perpetual motion of the first quartet. Indeed, I really liked this second quartet very much. It seemed to me to have more direction and was more “all of a piece” than the first, which tended, in my view, to “scattergun” notes all over. The ends of the movements also have better resolution, and here Summer wrote a particularly good, and very intriguing, second movement in a contrasting tempo which uses a stop-start motion in the underlying rhythm which adds interest. This is all very good music; it “tells a story” rather than just try to convey images, yet there are images here as well, particularly in the pizzicato third movement.

These are interesting works that approach the concept of the string quartet in a contemporary yet appealing manner. Well worth checking out.

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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Exploring the Music of Takemitsu


TAKEMITSU: Spectral Canticle.1,2 To the Edge of Dream.1 Vers, l’arc-en-ciel, Palma.2,3 Twill By Twilight / 1Jacob Kellerman, gtr; 2Viviane Hagner, vln; 3Juliana Koch, oboe; BBC Philharmonic Orch.; Christian Karlsen, cond / Bis SACD-2655

Toru Takemitsu was one of  Japan’s most celebrated composers, yet his music is seldom performed in live concert because it just doesn’t “sell” to the generally conservative audiences who attend classical music events. Takemitsu combined subtlety and quietude of feeling, lyrical melodic lines with modern, ambiguous harmony, and a sense of “flow” that moved the music across bar lines without any set rhythm. None of this appeals to the average listener but, as they say in the business, average is dumb.

This is music that requires careful listening despite its outwardly calm demeanor. Takemitsu became very skilled at combining Asian musical ethics with exotic harmonies which he fused from both Eastern and Western culture, the latter specifically from the French school. You can think of him as a skewed Debussy or as a Japanese Messiaen; either description works. In Spectral Canticles, which is actually a double concerto for guitar and violin, he avoids the trap of making the music either too simple or too complex, yet he holds your attention from start to finish because the music develops. It doesn’t just sit there and “mull around” aimlessly. There’s real development going on despite its relatively slow pace. In a way, it just misses being sensual in the Western sense of the word, but it is very much a musical meditation. By keeping you focused on its slow, subtle yet ever-changing environment, it becomes the musical equivalent of a Zen koan. (Now all you readers who don’t know what a Zen koan is, go look it up on Google.)

The performers on this recording are all highly skilled professionals, but happily they go further than that. They understand what Takemitsu was aiming at and so are able to get deep into the flow and feeling of each piece. They are aided by the superb microphone set-up as well as by the excellent ambience provided, giving each performance both a natural and nicely ambient sound quality that enhances one’s listening, just as Bis’s excellent sound of the 1970s often enhanced the music of Leif Segerstam.

The problem with listening to a full program of such pieces is that they tend to run together in the listener’s ear The guitar concerto To the Edge of Dream has a few more loud outbursts from the orchestra than in Spectral Canticles, as well as a few more passages played in a fast tempo, but once again flow is more important than rhythm, and the overall mood is the same. Of course, Takemitsu never intended these pieces to be programmed back-to-back-to-back like this and thus listened to sequentially, but that is the danger of a disc like this. You get what the record company gives you, in the order in which they present it. My recommendation is that you listen to one piece at a time; take a half-hour or so break between them before you move on to the next.

This is great music to meditate to or “zone out” with despite its development and subtle diversity of sound, but this is not to demean the music. It’s just meditative in a modern way that we Western listeners have to get used to in order to appreciate it fully. Let me put it to you this way: it’s going into my collection. Enough said.

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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The “Shadow Music” of Tropos

Shadow Music Digital Album Cover

GOLUB-FABRIZIO: Nightlight Shadow. GOLUB: Hurl. The Garden. Hitchcock’s Staircase. FABRIZIO-SMITH: Dark Bulb / Tropos: Phillip Golub, pno; Mario Layne Fabrizio, perc; Laila Smith, voc / Endectomorph Music EMM-014

This strange but fascinating CD captures the sound of an entirely unique trio, Tropos, whose aesthetic is based as much on sound texture as such as it is on musical structure. From a sheerly analytical viewpoint, there’s not much going on in this music—a few isolated notes from piano and/or percussion here and there, occasionally with the voice of Laila Smith tossed in for color, yet they manage to hold your attention because it is a sequence of sounds that fills space without always dominating.

Our intrepid trio: Golub, Smith & Fabrizio

On the contrary, so much of it is quiet and ambient that when pianist Golub finally explodes, for instance around the 4:35 mark in the opening track, it seems more like a release of energy than it does an imposition of loudness. It’s almost as if the paved road on your street was somehow boiling just under the asphalt, then suddenly the asphalt cracks and out comes d dark spirit—which, after spending its energy, dissipates and disappears into the ether. There’s really no other way to describe this music, and to be honest I think you’d have to consider it closer to modern classical music than jazz. Even though much of it is improvised. there are few if any signposts that identify it as jazz in any recognizable sense. Yet it is intellectually engrossing as well as emotionally moving.

Pianist Phillip Golub describes the music best:

Shadow Music chronicles an adventure at night in many ways. We were quite literally recording into the night, but we were also thinking very much about the resonance of that–processing, dreaming, being visited by nightmares, tossing and turning. It’s hard to explain how focused we were recording this music.

If you fight the blanket of music that Tropos presents, or insist on trying to pigeonhole it, you’ll surely be disappointed. Just let it wash over you, and you’ll get it. Some of Leila Smith’s vocal interjections reminded me of Meredith Monk, if Monk were on acid. On The Garden, she sounds more like an alto flute. Again, it’s hard to describe. Yet it works.

I recommend listening to this disc at night, with the lights down low or off. You’ll be seduced into Tropos’ sound world, and it will somehow make sense to you. Recommended.

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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