It’s Music Time With Eddie Sauter!

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BASIE-GREEN: High Tide. SAUTER: Superman. Three on a Match. I. JONES: It Has to be You. RODGERS-HART: My Funny Valentine. HILDINGER: Was ist los in Baden-Oos. SOLAL: Dermière Minute* / Rolf Schneebiegl, tpt; Hans Koller, cl/t-sax; Rudi Flierl, bar-sax; Adam “Adi” Feuerstein, fl; Hans Hammerschmid, *Martial Solal,  pno; unknown bs; Sperie Karas, dm (live: Baden-Baden, December 8, 1957) / HILDINGER: Kopf hoch. BASIE: Easy Does It. LANE-HARBURG: Old Devil Moon.* SAUTER: Three on a Match / Schneebiegl, Kurt Sauter, tpt; Otto Bredl, tb; Koller, t-sax; Flierl, bar-sax; Hammerschmid, pno; unknown bs & dm; *Rita Reys, voc. (live: Freiburg, January 12, 1958) / HAMMERSCHMID: Street Market. Port au Prince. LOESSER: Suddenly It’s Spring. HILDINGER: Littler Girl in a Big City.* Reeperbahn.* Spook Walk. SAUTER: Hightor / Schneebiegl, tpt; Bredl, Albert Mangelsdorff, tb; Flierl, t-sax; Willie Sanner, bar-sax; Hammerschmid, pno; Attila Zoller, gt; unknown bs & dm; *Blanche Birdsong, voc (live: Kaiserslautern, January 23, 1958) / SWR Jazzhaus JAH-460

Sometimes I think that Eddie Sauter and his lifetime of work have not only been marginalized by today’s jazz world but completely forgotten. I say this based not just on the extraordinary number of jazz musicians who are constantly reviving jazz of the past but always skipping over Sauter, but also from the even higher number of jazz arrangers who show absolutely no imagination in their scores yet constantly get praised by critics as being “innovative.”

Yet Sauter, though not the first imaginative arranger in jazz—that honor goes to three men from the 1920s, Duke Ellington, Don Redman and Bill Challis—was clearly pushing the envelope even when he worked for the quiet Red Norvo orchestra of 1936-38 but then pulled out all the stops with Benny Goodman in 1939-44, Artie Shaw in 1945 and Ray McKinley in 1946-49. Although the scores he co-wrote with arranger Bill Finegan in the early to mid 1950s were colorful, it was of course their least jazzy work that hit the pop charts, and the collapse of that band sent Sauter to Germany, his ancestral home, where he led some excellent live sessions in the late 1950s. This CD, which came out in 2016 but has only now come to my attention, is one of them.

He is working here with what is essentially a septet in the first two sessions, a nonet (with vocalist added) in the third, yet he and his guest arrangers—Dave Hildinger on My Funny Valentine and Hans Koller on Easy Does It—treat these groups as if they were full orchestras, playing the instruments against one another as if in sections, and it’s utterly amazing the sounds he gets out of them. Count Basie’s High Tide, in fact, sounds so much like a Sauter-Finegan Orchestra piece that even I was utterly amazed, with Sauter pitting the high flute and clarinet against the heaviness of the baritone and tenor saxes as he had in the early-to-mid 1950s. The solos are neat and fit into the scheme of the arrangements; I was particularly impressed by the bass solo by an unknown player. In Superman,  trumpeter Rolf Schneebigl doesn’t quite have the looseness of swing that Cootie Williams imparted on the original record, but the band plays with a quicker tempo and tighter drive than on the famous Goodman recording, and the wonderful Hans Koller plays a superb tenor sax solo.

In addition to the highly imaginative scoring—so far above most of what I hear nowadays as “innovative” that it’s astounding—there is Sauter’s incredible sense of harmonic movement. The underlying harmonies are almost always shifting, using certain notes within each chord as a “pivot point” to change them to sometimes surprisingly remote keys. This eventually became a strong influence on the Stan Kenton and Woody Herman band arrangers, not to mention certain musicians who worked in the 1950s as well, but it is certain that no one ever did this as well as Eddie Sauter did. He was, quite simply, a genius.

And yes, one can tell the difference between Sauter and Hildinger in My Funny Valentine. It’s a good arrangement, to be sure, but not one in which the harmony shifts under the soloist’s feet like quicksand. Ironically, it was these astonishing harmonic shifts that Benny Goodman disliked the most in Sauter’s scores, which is why he recorded a great many of them but played only a few in his live performances and broadcasts of the time. You can immediately tell the difference between the Hildinger arrangement of Valentine and Sauter’s arrangement of Hildinger’s composition Was ist los in Baden-Oos; though he keeps the harmonic shifts to a minimum here, they are still present, and the instrumental voicing is pure Sauter, such as the flute-trumpet chorus around the 4:50 mark. We also get a nice chase chorus here between the tenor and baritone saxes that adds to the fun. On the last number in this set, the great Martial Solal sat in to play one of his own compositions, again arranged by Sauter. It sounds like a contrafact on Sweet Georgia Brown.

In the second session, Sauter had two trumpets, the other being his son Kurt, and once again his use of the baritone sax to anchor the sound—something he borrowed from Sy Oliver—denotes one of his signature sounds. And there is something else that needs to be pointed out. Unlike so many jazz recordings I review nowadays, even the very good ones, Sauter’s bands here sound as if they’re having a ball playing this music. The joie-de-vivre is infectious. Koller’s arrangement of Basie’s Easy Does It is very good in its own way, using the short riff that makes up the melody in overlapping canon form, and includes very fine solos by Hammerschmid on piano and our two trumpeters. One Rita Reys, who sings the vocal on Old Devil Moon, isn’t great but isn’t bad, either. In this set, I was particularly impressed by Sauter’s Three on a Match: the voicing is imaginative but uncomplicated, and it almost sounds like Jimmy Giuffre’s Four Brothers, except with more interjections from the trumpets.

The more you hear the various tracks on this set, the more you notice. Both Sauter as an arranger and the band in general has a lot of fun playing Hans Hammerschmid’s Street Market,  but as soon as you hit Sauter’s arrangement of Suddenly It’s Spring you might as well be in a different world, sound-wise. On Little Girl in a Big City and Reeperbahn, Sauter uses vocalist Blanche Birdsong as a wordless instrumental soloist, as he did with other female singers in the Sauter-Finegan band. This may strike some listeners as the most dated aspect of these performers, but I don’t mind it so much.

There’s no getting around it. After spending nearly 75 minutes in Eddie Sauter’s sound world, you gain a lot of respect for his musical ingenuity. Once in a while you get the feeling that some things are done for effect only, as the xylophone doubling the horns in Hightor, but these slight indiscretions do not erase the memory of some of the most colorful and imaginative jazz arrangements you’ll ever have the delight of hearing.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Scott Lee Through the Mangrove Tunnels

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LEE: Thorough the Mangrove Tunnels. The Man in the Water. Naravez Dance Club. Flying Fish. Plaything of Desire. Engine Trouble. The Ballad of Willie Cole. Floating Away / JACK Quartet; Steven Beck, pno; Russell Lacy, dm / Panoramic Recordings PAN20

Scott Lee is a composer who grew up “wandering the swamps and bayous of Florida,” thus he wrote this suite based on “my memories as well as the colorful history Weedon Island, a nature preserve in St. Petersburg that I spent my childhood exploring. The island’s many legends include ceremonial gatherings of Native Americans, landings by Spanish conquistadors, burned-down speakeasies, shootouts, bootlegging, a failed movie studio, plane crashes, and an axe-murder.” So we can surely expect a jolly time as we listen to this music!

Through the Mangrove Tunnels opens with somber, slow bass notes played on the piano, behind which one eventually hears the string quartet making some bizarre sounds, to which the drums are added. Ambient music, perhaps, but ambient music with an edge, and it is developed in an interesting manner. My sole complaint was the bias of the drummer towards a rock beat. This I could have lived without.

But the music is no stranger than Weedon Island itself. Judging from the photo in the booklet, it doesn’t even look like an island, but rather like a series of huge mossy growths sticking up out of the water like fungus. I can well imagine the impression this made on a young boy, especially when combined with tales of criminal activity and violence. The second piece on this CD, “The Man in the Water,” sounds like a riot of psychopaths against sanity—not too far removed from latter-day rioters on both sides of the political spectrum.

Weedon Island

The music written for the piano, though edgy, is relatively conventional, but the music written for the string quartet is anything but. The JACK Quartet puts itself through some remarkable musical contortions in each of these pieces, seldom playing as one would expect a string quartet to play; it must have taken them hours and hours to master this music. “Naravez Dance Club” has a rhythm simulating American Indian music but combined with a bit of an R&B swagger before moving, once again, into a rock beat. (Note to modern classical composers: Please can the rock beat. It doesn’t fit in with your music. Thank you.) Finally, in “Flying Fish,” the viola gets something to play that almost sounds like conventional music, albeit atonal music, with the other three instruments occasionally joining in for some swirling figures.

Yet without a score, technical description of each of these pieces is a bit difficult, as one often gets lost in counting beats, as in the opening of “Playthings of Desire” until it settles down into a strangely Chopin-like melody before deconstructing itself over amorphous rhythms and modal harmonies. When the quartet enters, we suddenly return to echt-Romantic melodies, almost slurpy and soothing. As if to offset this, however, “Engine Trouble” is comprised of chaotic, bouncing rhythmic figures played solely by the quartet.

“The Ballad of Willie Cole” is also fast and edgy, starting out with the quartet until the piano and drums enter behind them. The quality of this music is primarily in the modern “shock” style of today, yet with interesting modifications, and in this piece the music suddenly veers towards the soft rock genre. Please, Scott, stop the rock nonsense. Later in the same piece, after a pause, Lee involves the piano quintet in a sort of minimalist fantasy, with the cello playing stretched-out musical lines across the ostinato rhythm…until the rock beat returns and the tempo increases.

In short, it’s an interesting album, full of novel ideas that are for the most part well crafted and extremely fascinating. If your tolerance for rock music is higher than mine, you’ll surely enjoy it.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Bill Evans Live at Ronnie Scott’s

Cover Bill Evans - Ronnie Scotts

what a performanceARLEN-CAPOTE: A Sleepin’ Bee. A. & D. PREVIN: You’re Gonna Hear From Me (2 vers.). KERN-HARBACH: Yesterdays. EVANS: Turn Out the Stars. Very Early. Waltz for Debby. G. & I. GERSHWIN-HAYWARD: My Man’s Gone Now. MANDEL-MERCER: Emily (2 vers.). RODGERS-HART: Spring is Here. G. & I. GERSHWIN: Embraceable You. BRELTON-EDWARDS-MEYER: For Heaven’s Sake. CHURCHILL-MORAY: Someday My Prince Will Come. ZEITLAN: Quiet Now. MONK-HANIGHAN-WILLIAMS: ‘Round Midnight. YOUNG-WASHINGTON: Stella By Starlight. BACHARACH-DAVID: Alfie. PREVERT-KOSMA-MERCER: Autumn Leaves. DAVIS: Nardis / Bill Evans, pno; Eddie Gomez, bs; Jack DeJohnette, dm / Resonance Records HCD-2046 (live: London, July 1968)

This first release of these July 1968 performances by the Bill Evans Trio marks the fifth collaboration between Resonance Records and the Bill Evans Estate. Two of the previous four releases also feature this particular trio. After releasing the “lost” studio session made in the Black Forest in Germany just prior to this engagement, producer Zev Feldman asked Jack DeJohnette if he had any recordings from this London engagement. DeJohnette told him that he did, but that the audio was quite poor.

Fortunately, this turned out to be only partially true. After first hearing the tapes, Feldman decided they were too sub-par to use; but as it turned out, according to the liner notes, “we discovered that what we’d been trying to listen to were actually multitrack tape recordings and the setup we’d been trying to listen to hadn’t allowed us to hear all the tracks. Once we got that sorted, it was amazing to hear the music come alive. These performances were inspired!”

Personally, I agree with the inspiration part of this session—in my view, it is even more exciting than the Black Forest recordings—but I can quite agree that the sound is much improved. No, it’s not as horrible as that once-lost session that Clifford Brown and Sonny Rollins played at the Bee Hive, or the live Five Spot recordings of the Thelonious Monk group with John Coltrane on tenor sax, but it’s scarcely state of the art. The sound is rather shrill, even a bit tinny; having once heard Eddie Gomez live in concert – the one member of this trio I did manage to hear “live” – I can assure you that his bass tone was much richer and fuller than this. I say that because pianos vary from place to place, and although Ronny Scott’s was (and I think still is) a very famous London jazz club, and Scott tried to keep his house instruments in top condition, I really don’t know what this particular keyboard really sounded like in the club, but Gomez brought his own bass.

I do, however, agree with Feldman regarding the high quality of these performances. As much as I admire Evans, I’m pretty judicious when it comes to which albums I keep, though I have several of them. In his early years, Evans was a very adventurous pianist who played in a number of very different and complex settings, including his recordings with George Russell and Charles Mingus, but one he became really famous due to his soft-grained playing at the Village Vanguard with the Scott LaFaro-Paul Motian trio, he pretty much became Mr. Soft Jazz, and although he was always head and shoulders above the rest of that breed, soft jazz is soft jazz and I’m not a huge fan of it. Evans’ Loose Blues album is my favorite of his studio recordings from the ‘60s. Interestingly, when Russell invited him back to play piano on his Living Time album of the early 1970s, with its very edgy, atonal qualities, Evans reveled in it, but when the album was released hundreds of his fans wrote to him and said that if he EVER made another recording like that they would abandon him. Personally, I really don’t care much for the music on that Living Time album, but I admired Evans for leaving his musical “comfort zone” and stretching out into something quite experimental.

On these performances, sound quality aside, Evans is far from the soft jazz pianist most of his fans have come to love and accept as “his” style. On the contrary, he is literally explosive on these performances, playing with a harder attack (as he had on Loose Blues and some of the earlier stuff), in places (i.e., Yesterdays) almost explosive in his approach.

Nor do I think this is just due to the harder, thinner sound quality of the piano as recorded here, because on some of the ballads, such as his own composition Turn Out the Stars, he clearly begins in a soft mode but, surprisingly, begins attacking the keyboard harder when he reaches the improvised section. And it isn’t just the harder attack that mark these performances as special; he literally creates entirely new compositions, with full 16-bar shapes, within these improvs. In short, Evans was on a real creative “high” during this engagement, locked into what he once described in an interview as “the universal overmind.” Was he possibly off narcotics during this engagement, or at least cutting back? We’ll never know what exactly inspired him so, but inspired he most certainly was here.

I may be prejudiced in this respect, but I think that DeJohnette was a more exciting and dynamic drummer than those he normally used in his trios, and this, too, may have acted as an inspiration. Interestingly, although Gomez is playing at his usual high level, Evans only gave him a few spot solos here and there in the first five numbers. Much of the time, you have to hear what he’s doing behind the pianist to appreciate how well he, too, played on this gig, but fortunately he is closely recorded which makes it easy to hear. One thing that makes me think I am right about this is that every time DeJohnette increases the volume and/or starts to kick into high gear, Evans responds with even more exciting playing.

Emily is the sort of performance that, had the microphone placement been a little less up-close, might indeed have sounded “soft,” and here, as in a few other numbers, I think the recorded sound is a bit misleading. Yet once again, listen to what happens when DeJohnette suddenly kicks his drums into gear: Evans increases the tempo, hits the keyboard harder than in the first chorus, and again takes off in new directions. And listen to how crisp and controlled his fast playing is! Then, suddenly, the pianist relaxes the tempo a little, pulls back on the volume and gives Gomez a full chorus—and does he respond! The entire performance of Embraceable You is given over the Gomez’ bass, and he responds with some of his most imaginative playing.

Of course, by this point in his career, Evans’ repertoire had also come to revolve around a set repertoire of pieces old and new that he was comfortable with and thus could play around with in live performances, and these sets are full of them. A Sleepin’ Bee, Yesterdays, Someday My Prince Will Come, My Man’s Gone Now, Spring is Here, Embraceable You and Autumn Leaves were all Evans staples in addition to his own compositions. Two numbers here of particular interest, however, are the then-popular song Alfie (a tune I always hated in the vocal version by Anthony Newley) and Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight, neither of which he played very often, and he does a great job on them here.

Perhaps one reason why these performances are so exciting is that Evans and his trio were playing in a well-known jazz club, not a cocktail lounge, and thus many of the audience were professional musicians. He could be himself with them and not worry about whether or not his “soft jazz” fans would complain that his playing was too edgy.

The album comes with a lavish 44-page booklet that includes, among other goodies, interviews with DeJohnette, Gomez and Chevy Chase, who is himself a jazz pianist and a huge Evans fan. One teaser from the booklet: I had absolutely no idea that future actress Blythe Danner had been a jazz singer who worked with Chase in live performances.

No two ways about it: this is the finest vintage jazz album of the year to date. If it doesn’t win a Grammy, someone in the Grammy nominating committee has tin ears. But I’m giving it one of my coveted “What a Performance” awards because it deserves it.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Walton’s Chamber Music in New Recording

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WALTON: Piano Quartet. Toccata for Violin & Piano. 2 Pieces for Violin & Piano. Violin Sonata / Matthew Jones, vln; Sarah-Jane Bradley, vla; Tim Lowe, cel; Annabel Thwaite, pno / Naxos 8.573892

William Walton, like Sir Arthur Sullivan, was never comfortable with the fact that his highly original and entertaining Façade  overshadowed his more serious works, but in many instances (the First Symphony being just one of them) his more serious scores tended towards bombast. Of his orchestral works, I very much like Balshazzar’s Feast, the Cello Concerto and the Viola Concerto but not much more than that.

On this new recording, however, we begin with a really fine work, the Piano Quartet. Perhaps it is so good because Walton continued to tinker with it over the decades after he originally wrote it in 1918-19, the final revised version as presented here being made in 1974-75. As the liner notes indicate, its gestation is also somewhat obscured by the fact that the original score was lost in the mail for more than a year, thus postponing its official premiere in 1924, five years after it was finished. Some revisions must have taken place in between. Walton always liked this piece, once stating facetiously that “it was written when I was a drooling baby, but it is a very attractive piece.” In actuality he was well past the “drooling baby” stage, but it was put together between the ages of 16 and 17. The music not only has wonderful originality and drive, but the second movement leans heavily on the pentatonic scale, something he clearly borrowed from the French-Russian school, and in the last movement he sets up a three-voice fugue between the three strings. Its energy is, ironically I suppose, not that far removed from Façade which was written the year this quartet premiered in Liverpool.

Of course, much of my impression about this work relies on the extraordinarily energetic playing of the four performers, none of whom I have previously heard of. Violinist Matthew Jones, a member of the Badke Quartet in 2007, gave a critically praised solo recital at Carnegie Hall in 2008 and has since become head of the chamber music department and professor of viola (his second instrument) at the Guildhall School of Music. Violist Sarah-Jane Bradley debuted at Wigmore Hall in 1997. As a champion of new works for her instrument, she has played and recorded modern viola concerti over the years. Cellist Tim Lowe recently debuted as a soloist at Wigmore Hall and has played many recitals throughout the UK and Europe. Pianist Annabel Thwaite, who appears to be the youngest member of this group, is well known as an accompanist, having won several awards in that capacity. So although they may not be all that well known “across the pond,” all are top talents in the UK.

The Toccata was written in 1922-23, thus finished the same year that Façade premiered, and it, too, has tremendous vitality as well as ingenuity in its writing. Both violin and piano play fast, driving figures, often supporting one another but sometimes running off in slightly different directions; the pianist is clearly a soloist in this work and not just a chord-playing accompanist. There are some interesting suspended harmonies using extended chords in the slow middle section, and there is a rhapsodic solo violin cadenza at about the 11-minute mark, followed by an impassioned piano solo . Another excellent piece.

By contrast, the 2 Pieces for Violin & Piano are slow mood music, reminiscent of Walton’s film music. My readers know that, with a very few outliers excepted, I consider film music, even when written by known composers, to be the thrown-away chewing gum on the bottom of the composer’s shoes, so I will pass on further comment.

We close with the Violin Sonata of 1947-49, written for Yehudi Menuhin and Louis Kantner and dedicated to the performers’ wives, who were sisters. According to the notes, the use of commas in Walton’s score were misconstrued for decades to mean musical pauses, when in fact they were intended to indicate a clean bow attack. Truthfully, this is not terribly inspired music; Walton seems to be resting on his composer’s laurels. The piano part is wispy and wimpy and not terribly interesting, though it is academically fine in terms of its function. The violin line isn’t that interesting, either; much of the music goes in one ear and out the other. Nonetheless, it is still very well played by Jones and Thwaite.

Basically a fine album, then, that starts out with a bang but ends with not a whimper but a simper.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Hirota Believes That Small is Beautiful

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what a performanceSMALL IS BEAUTIFUL / SCHOENBERG: 6 Kleine Klavierstücke. KRENEK: 8 Piano Pieces. LIGETI: Invention. BERIO: Erdenklaver. Brin. Leaf. CARTER: 90+. Retrouvailles. BECKWITH: The Music Room. MATHER: Fantasy. CHERNEY: Elegy for a Misty Afternoon. WEINZWEIG: Canon Stride. CARASTATHIS: Traces. KULESHA: 2 Pieces for Piano. LEMAY: 6 Ushtebis. Tanze vor Angst…Hommage à Paul Klee / Yoko Hirota, pno / Navona NV6294

Yoko Hirota is a Japanese-born pianist who now works and teaches at Laurentian University in Greater Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. A champion of modern music, she was inspired in this direction by Canadian pianist and pedagogue Louis-Philippe Pelletier, and this penchant of hers manifests itself in this interesting recital of piano miniatures.

She begins her recital with the fascinating 6 Kleine Klavierstücke of Schoenberg, one of his earliest 12-tone suites, and immediately one is aware of a highly intelligent and committed artist. Not only is small “beautiful” to Hirota, it is also not to be undervalued. She gives each piece and each phrase within each piece her full attention, carefully crafting the music in her own manner. Not for her a completely abstract rendition of modern music; she realizes that these pieces were written by flesh-and-blood human beings who wanted their music to move people, not just stun them with their harmonic and structural daring. As a result, she really communicates when she plays. In this respect, she is a throwback to such pianists of the past as Cortot, Fischer, Cliburn and Lewenthal, even though those musicians played little or nothing beyond the era of Ravel and Debussy.

Following Schoenberg, Hirota digests the surprisingly modernistic 8 Pieces of Ernst Krenek in a similar fashion. Ditto Ligeti’s Invention, the three pieces by Berio and especially Elliott Carter’s music. Never a fan of his scores, I well believed the comment by one associate (who shall remain nameless) who said that “I don’t think even Elliott likes his own music,” but Hirota not only likes it, she almost makes you like it, too by infusing a sense of lyricism into his abstract excursions.

After having gone through five well-known composers, Hirota continues by playing the music of modern Canadians: John Beckwith, Bruce Mather, Brian Cherney, John Weinzweig, Aris Carasthasis, Gary Kulesha and Robert Lemay, the latter a fellow professor at Laurentian University. Most (but not all) of their music is very much in the serial style, sounding like their forebears in Europe and America without really having a strong individual personality though it is all interesting. I especially liked Mather’s Fantasy, which showed good imagination, and Cherney’s Elegy for a Misty Afternoon has a very interesting structure. Weinzweig’s Canon Stride is almost a third stream piece, using the basic principles of stride piano within the context of a 12-tone classical piece…shades of Erwin Schulhoff! And interestingly, Carasthasis’ Traces also contain some very clear jazz references. These two pieces, too, are atonal but not really serial.

This is clearly an excellent album, one of the best of the year.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Juyeon Song’s Stunning Opera Recital

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WAGNER: Die Walküre: Ho-yo-to-ho! Siegfried: Ewig war ich. Götterdämmerung: Starke scheite. Tristan und Isolde: Mild und leise. STRAUSS: Salome: Ah du wolltest mich nicht / Juyeon Song, sop; Janáček Philharmonic Ostrava; Niels Muus, cond / Affetto AF2005

This CD, released in July of this year, was NOT included in Naxos of America’s new releases list for that month, but lo and behold, I found it on the Naxos Music Library. Having been highly impressed by Song’s singing in the new Navona release of Tristan und Isolde, I decided to review it.

Like so many huge voices, Song’s sometimes gets a little out of kilter with a bit of an uneven flutter at the beginning of pieces. In the case of “Ho-yo-to-ho!” from Walküre, which is very short, she doesn’t really have time to warm up, although she does attempt the trill which so few Brünnhildes even bother to sing but which is written in the score. In the extended scenes from Götterdämmerung and Salome, however, the voice has time to warm up, thus about five minutes into these performances the voice is “locked in” and nicely focused.

The unusual qualities that I noticed in her Tristan performance—the ultra-bright quality of the voice with almost no low undertones (though she does have low notes, and uses them to good effect) and the piercing tone—work especially well in the Salome excerpt where she sounds youthful, a big plus in this role. But throughout the recital, one thing becomes quite clear, and that is that she is always a very expressive and highly dramatic interpreter. Not a word or phrase goes by that she has not worked on to project the text in a dramatic fashion, thus creating a real feeling of theatricality in everything she sings.

In addition to her exciting singing, one must also praise the little-known conductor Niels Muus. His grasp of these scores is nothing short of miraculous; like conductor Robert Reimer in the Tristan, he grabs your attention and holds it from start to finish in each and every selection.

It’s difficult, on a recording, to accurately judge the size and power of a voice. As I said in my Tristan review, I don’t think that Song’s voice is as voluminous as those of Flagstad, Nilsson or Lindholm, but due to the brightness of her timbre it is the kind of voice that can cut through an orchestra like a knife. No amount of massed strings, winds and/or brass can cover her voice. It has a laser-like focus, not always tonally “beautiful” but clearly impressive in everything she does.

As I said near the end of my Tristan article, if you can adjust your ears to her sound you will find it immeasurably thrilling. She sings from the heart as well as from the mind, and nowadays this sort of quality is exceedingly rare.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Christiane Karajeva’s Piano Recital

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BERG: Piano Sonata in b min.: I. Maβig bewegt. MEDTNER: Sonata Reminiscenza in a min.: Allegretto tranquillo. JANÁČEK: Sonata “I.X.1905 – From the Street.” SCHUBERT: Moments Musicaux, D. 780 / Christiane Karajeva, pno / Gramola 99227

This program is unusual not merely for the fact that three fairly modern 20th-century composers are then followed by the music of Franz Schubert, but also because only excerpts are played from the Berg and Medtner sonatas. Yet pianist Karajeva claims that this CD is the result of “about 55,000 hours in my life that I have spent at the instrument.” A friend of hers, listening to this CD, said to her, “This is you. It’s as if you were standing in front of me and telling me stories about your life.”

In addition to being a performer, Karajeva has also taught at the University of Vienna for the past 40 years, so she’s definitely been around a while. But that is neither here nor there; the important thing is how she plays, and she plays with tremendous physical power as well as a depth of feeling that is unusual, particularly in the very modern sonata movement of Alban Berg. Written in 1907-08 when he was still working his way through bitonality and had not yet discovered the 12-tone system, it is still thorny music not usually played with such unbridled passion, but that is exactly what Karajeva brings to the music here.

Indeed, her interpretation of the Medtner sonata movement makes me wish that she would record a complete set of his sonatas. Surely Medtner is in dire need of revival and re-appreciation, and I am convinced that Karajeva is exactly the right pianist to do this.

The Janáček Sonata is from his earlier period and not as harmonically modern as his works from the late 1910s through the late 1920s, yet again Karajeva plays it with great feeling. The same is true of the Schubert Impromptus, which she plays with phrasing and accents a little different from anyone else I’ve heard.

A very fine recital, then, well worth hearing.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Revisiting Sutermeister’s “Romeo und Julia”

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SUTERMEISTER: Romeo und Julia / Urzula Koszut, sop (Juliet); Adolf Dallapozza, ten (Romeo); Jörn W. Wilsing, bar (Escalus); Theodor Nicolai, speaker (Montague); Alexander Malta, bass (Capulet); Raimund Grumbach, bar (Balthasar); Hildegard Laurich, mezzo (Countess Capulet); Gudrun Wewezow, alto (Nurse); Ferry Gruber, ten (Servant); Nikolaus Hillebrand, bass (Pater Lorenzo); Gregor Lütje, boy sop (Shepherd/Boy’s Voice); Tölzer Boys’ Choir; Bavarian Radio Chorus; Munich Radio Orch.; Heinz Wallberg, cond / Musiques Suisses MGB CD 626, available for free streaming in small bits on YouTube

This now-old 1980 recording is the only sound document we have of Heinrich Sutermeister’s operatic masterpiece, written when he was only 30 years old and a smash hit across Europe throughout the 1940s. It is also available for streaming on Amazon, where you can also purchase the physical CD which comes with a full libretto (in German only).

I went out of my way to look this up after having been highly impressed by Karajan’s performance of the Sutermeier Missa da Requiem that I recently reviewed. Interestingly, the musical style here is quite different. The Requiem shows very strongly the influence of Stravinsky while Romeo und Julia sounds a great deal in places like Carl Orff. This makes sense when you learn that, as a 21-year-old, Sutermeister left his native Switzerland to study with Orff in Germany. But the music is not entirely Orff-influenced, as we shall discover.

The opera debuted in Dresden in 1940, conducted by Karl Böhm who raved about the young composer as a “genius.” It spread across Europe like wildfire throughout the ‘40s, but by the mid-‘50s Sutermeiester’s harmonic language was considered “dated.” I find this difficult to understand considering that Orff, one of his original mentors, was still writing and getting operas produced using essentially the same harmonic language he had introduced with Carmina Burana and Der Mond many years earlier. I think that, for whatever reason, music critics simply turned their back on Sutermeister. Neither this opera nor his superb Requiem have ever found a place in the standard repertoire, anywhere in the world.

The opening chorus is very much Orff-like in its use of a quick ostinato rhythm and a single chord underneath, with the top line shifting slightly in harmony as the rhythms change as well. It has a very strong Carmina Burana-like feel to it, including two speaking roles which interject a few works from time to time. But Sutermeister’s orchestration is far more colorful than Orff’s, sounding not unlike Stravinsky’s Petrouchka (a work that, I still feel, was incredibly innovative and unfairly overshadowed by Le sacre du Printemps, great as that ballet is). Moreover, Sutermeister wrote here in a more continuous manner than young Orff; each scene blends seamlessly and skillfully into the next, creating a musical and dramatic flow that Orff would not really achieve until the 1950s.

There are also actual arias—brief, but still arias—set to interesting yet essentially tonal musical lines, and this was something Orff was never able to really achieve. For all his brilliance, Orff’s solo spots for singers always consisted of strophic lines, often centered around two or three pitches, and nothing melodic in the true sense of the word. In addition to Orff and Stravinsky, I also hear some influence of Hindemith here, particularly in the latter’s opera Mathis der Maler. Sutermeister also wrote duets in this opera, something Orff almost never did.

By the time you reach track 3, however, the Stravinsky influence really does seem to overshadow that of Orff…but again, it’s not thievery. Sutermeister clearly had his own way of dealing with the Stravinskyisms in his score, blending and morphing them in ways that Igor never thought of. Still, it’s an interesting reference point.

As we get deeper into Act I and the interaction between the two young lovers, the vocal lines become even more lyrical, and there is a note of the tragedy to come in some of the music. Sutermeister laid out his dramatic and musical path in this work with unerring dramatic accuracy. There’s also a nice unaccompanied vocal madrigal between Juliet, Romeo and Friar Laurence in the midst of Act II, Scene 4. As one gets deeper into Act II, one notices that the music is almost symphonically developed, much like Berlioz’ Les Troyens or Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

Pride of place among the solo singers goes to Urszula Koszut, a soprano I’d never heard of, as Juliet. Her free, open tone, complete vocal control and youthful sound are completely appropriate to the role. Second in excellence is Nikolaus Hillebrand as Father Laurence; his dark, rich basso cantate voice is perfect. Adolf Dallapozza, a pretty well-known light tenor of the time, has a bit of vocal control problems but is completely wrapped up in his role. All of the other singers are also quite good; this was an era when, for the most part, record companies made sure that singers in their opera recordings, particularly in leading roles but also in subsidiary ones, did not have wobbles, poor breath support, unclear diction or other defects. Times have certainly changed.

In the end, however, I found it an interesting work but not a “keeper.” Worth hearing at least once, but as a musical representation of the Romeo and Juliet story I still prefer Berlioz’ “dramatic symphony” and Prokofiev’s ballet score.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The Nimmons Tribute, “To the Nth”

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THE NIMMONS TRIBUTE, Vol. 1 – TO THE Nth / P. NIMMONS: Nufsicisum. Night Crawler. Harbours (from The Atlantic Suite). Swing Softly. Holly. Sands of Time. Liëse. S. NIMMONS: Rista’s Vista / Kevin Turcotte, tpt/fl-hn; William Carn, tb; Tara Davidson, a-sax/s-sax/cl; Mike Murley, t-sax; Perry White, bar-sax/bs-cl; Sean Nimmons, pno/Fender Rhodes; Jon Maharaj, bs; Ethan Ardelli, dm / self-produced CD, no label or number

Jazz clarinetist, educator and composer Phil Nimmons, now 93 years old, is the Canadian equivalent of America’s Jamey Aebersold, a highly revered and near-legendary figure whose combined playing (with all of the Canadian jazz greats) and education skills have made him an icon. (I was lucky enough to see Aebersold play in person three times, and on the last occasion, shortly before I became crippled and could no longer attend jazz concerts, thanked him personally for his decades of service to jazz.) This loving tribute CD was organized by his grandson Sean, who is the pianist and arranger on this recording. All of the pieces played here are Phil’s except for Rista’s Vista, which was written by Sean.

The pieces herein have the sound of 1950s cool jazz—think of Shorty Rogers or even Henry Mancini in his jazz days as a point of reference—but they also possess a strong swing feeling, something that has literally disappeared from most modern jazz. (I know that sounds heretical, but it’s true; as Mike Zirpolo pointed out to me, most modern jazz musicians do NOT really swing; their rhythmic sense is built more around bop and post-bop forms of jazz, which have an altogether different rhythmic feel.) And the band is really, exceptionally good. Saxist Tara Davidson doesn’t let the fairly conventional tune structures keep her from playing outside once in a while, Kevin Turcotte is a Rogers-like trumpeter and flugelhornist, along with tenor saxist Mike Murley and a baritone saxist/bass clarinetist named, believe it or not, Perry White (“and don’t call me chief!”).

Another thing many of these compositions have that most modern jazz doesn’t is a strong lyrical feeling in the melodic lines. Turcotte, Davidson, Murley and White are the principal soloists, but grandson Sean Nimmons is a fine pianist who peeks in for a few bars once in a while. Jon Maharaj is a strong, swinging bassist who keeps things moving, and Ethan Ardelli is a vividly imaginative drummer. Swing Softly is one of those laid-back, relaxed medium tempo pieces that are quite rare in jazz nowadays.

This is certainly a fine album although, since Nimmons père was a clarinetist, I wish they had included one on this tribute.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Karajan’s Oddest Recordings

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SUTERMEISTER: Missa da Requiem.* WALTON: Symphony No. 1. GHEDINI: Viola Concerto.+ HENZE: Antifone# / *Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, sop; Giorgio Tadeo, bs; RAI Rome Chorus; +Bruno Giuranna, vla; RAI Rome Symphony Orch.; #Berlin Philharmonic Orch.; Herbert von Karajan, cond / Urania WS 121.389 (live: December 5 & 22, 1953, #1963)

Italy in the 1950s and early ‘60s was a surprisingly innovative place to play and sing music. This was a decade in which opera houses not only revived highly unusual works from the past, such as Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride (with Callas), Spontini’s Fernando Cortez (with Tebaldi), Boito’s Nerone and Cherubini’s Gli Abencerrogi (with Cerquetti), but also saw productions of operas by Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Montemezzi that had not been performed in Italy before, or not in decades as well as new works by Pizzetti and others.

Into this environment stepped Herbert von Karajan, a German conductor steeped in tradition. Karajan seldom if ever performed 20th century music that was not tonal and thus acceptable to his broad audience; he was not musically adventurous by nature; yet here are four recordings of 20th century works, three of them quite edgy by his standards and, not too surprisingly, all but one performed with the RAI Rome Symphony. These are all mono radio broadcasts, yet the sound quality is for the most part acceptable. As one would expect, it is the lower strings, the basses and celli, that suffer the most from the sound compression.

The one name in this program foreign to me was that of Heinrich Sutermeister (1910-1995), whose Requiem is not quite atonal but uses a great deal of sliding microtonal passages for both chorus and orchestra. Karajan imparts to this music the same legato style with which he conducted Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Wagner, and while even members of the Wagner family complained about his “too lovely” interpretations of their forebear’s music, this performance contains quite a bit of power and drive when called for. It always surprises me how good the Italian choruses of the 1950s were, not only in comparison to those of earlier decades but especially in comparison to the Metropolitan Opera chorus of the same vintage, which was third-rate. This, by the way, is the same orchestra and chorus that Wilhelm Furtwängler used that year for his famous Ring cycle. This is the world premiere performance.

Sutermeister’s Dies Irae almost sounds like a combination of Verdi and Stravinsky: Verdi’s tempi and drive (also the sudden drop to a softer volume in the middle section) with Stravinskian harmonies. This, by the way, seems to be the only recording of this work currently available; there was a modern recording previously on Wergo, featuring soprano Luba Orgonasova and conducted by Heinz Rögner. Although the CD appears to be unavailable as of this writing, it is available on YouTube for free streaming. Rögner’s conducting is well paced but, compared to Karajan, lacks some punch. There’s a much rawer, earthier, more frightening aspect in this reading that I prefer despite the inferior sound, and Schwarzkopf in particular is excellent.

The sound quality suddenly improves to quite good in the Sanctus, at least in the opening, which again combines Verdian drive with Stravinskian melodic lines, harmonies and angular rhythm. Yet I don’t wish to imply that Sutermeister simply copied other composers, as Alfred Schnittke did; his music is quite original and, here and there, continued to use microtones, something that Stravinsky never really indulged in. It’s quite an interesting piece.

For programming purposes—these recordings are spread over two CDs—Henze’s Antifone is up next. This has far clearer and more transparent sound, and is clearly the most advanced composition style in this collection…the sort of thing that Karajan almost never programmed with his own orchestra. Once again, his penchant for lyricism infused the performance, but in this case I find it a benefit, since it slightly softens Henze’s abrasive harmonic clashes. This approach also gives more “flow” to the music, making it sound a bit less angular. I’ve never been a fan of Henze’s music (to me, it always sounds like effects without reason or cause), but this I can take, at least once in a blue moon, thanks to Karajan’s way with it. But I could just imagine Karajan’s usual audience—reactionary older people who love their Schubert and Brahms—attending this concert and having their blood pressures go through the roof.

William Walton’s first symphony, written in 1934-35 (its premiere was given without the last movement), is not as much of a stretch for Karajan as the other works, and he does such a fine job with it that I’m a bit surprised that he never performed it again. The Italian orchestra absorbs it with ease; compared to the Sutermeister Requiem, this was a piece of cake for them. Personally, I found the first movement bombastic and repetitive, the second movement fascinating, the third is wistful in a sort of British-pastoral manner, and the fourth is. to my ears, again bombastic. An excellent performance of an uneven work and, in this case, the sound quality is excellent.

Ghedini’s Musica da Concerto per Viola& Orchestra was written in 1953, the year of this performance. Since I don’t have liner notes for this CD, I don’t know if this was the world premiere or not, but it’s played with an unusually lovely, rhapsodic quality that suits the score. Typically of this composer, it uses modes from ancient music in a modern manner, and is lyrical despite its unusual harmonies. Ghedini effectively uses held notes by the bowed basses to underscore the solo viola line. The concerto is well developed, original, and interesting. We today clearly need to appreciate more of this fine composer’s music.

A mixed bag, then. I could have lived without the Henze or Walton pieces, but the other two are very interesting and shed new light on Karajan’s ability as a conductor. As for the sound, I know that Urania is highly respected for their restoration work, and have enjoyed many of their previous releases, but this one could have used a little brightening of the treble in many places. Once you remove the bulk of the surface noise, you sometimes need to boost treble to restore some of the missing frequencies up top.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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