Jan Radzynski’s Cello Music

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RADZYNSKI: Prayer and Dance. Concert Duos: I. Polonaise; II. Melody; III. Andalusia; IV. Valse; V. Victory March.+ Improvisation for Cello Solo. 5 Duets for 2 Cellos.* Cello Sonata / Zvi Plesser, *Hillel Zori, cel; +Chen Halevi, cl; Matan Porat, pno / Centaur CRC 3480

Israeli cellist Zvi Plesser plays here a program of music for his instrument by Polish-born composer Jan Radynski, who migrated to Israel at age 19. Radynski studied composition with Leon Schidlowsky in Israel and with Krzysztof Penderecki and Jacob Druckman at Yale University, later teaching at Yale before joining the faculty at Ohio State University in 1994, where he still teaches.

Radzynski’s music is much more lyrical than Penderecki’s, thank goodness, yet it has extremely undercurrents in the piano harmony that mark it as modern. In the opening “Prayer,” too, there’s a very interesting passage in which the piano follows the cello closely, an octave higher, in single-note lines, whereas the “Dance” is almost like something that Szymanowski would have written.

Zvi Plesser

Zvi Plesser

The Concert Duos feature clarinetist Chen Halevi, who often plays in his instrument’s lower register to create a nice balance with the cello. This music, too, has a modern feel in both the top line and the harmony created without sacrificing lyricism. The rhythm in the first piece certainly has a polonaise feel to it, but only at certain moments; otherwise, it moves along at a nice clip without emphasizing the beat. In “Melody,” the two instruments play tonally in close harmony for a long stretch of time. The “Valse” is a very strange piece in close harmony, some of it bitonal. Radzynski also continues this little bitonality game into the last piece, “Victory March,” adding some sliding portamento near the very end.

The Improvisation for Cello Solo gives the player a chance to show off several technical tricks, including fast tremolos with the bow while he continues to pluck bass notes in the lower strings, microtonal slides, and other devices, yet still retains a good sense of musical form. This is the first piece on this CD that is truly modern in every sense of the word, lacking a recognizable melodic form in the old completely tonal system.

Radzynski employs a sort of in-between system of writing for the 5 Duets for 2 Cellos. Each cello plays a line that, by itself, sounds perfectly fine to those with a tonal bias, but put together they create friction in intervals that are, so to speak, “too close for comfort” except in the fourth piece, “Remembering Sephared,” which is pretty much in B minor.

With the Cello Sonata, we return to Radzynski’s style of writing essentially lyrical, melodic lines for the cello while shifting chords and chord positions in the piano part, with excellent results. At times, this sonata put me in mind of (good) Shostakovich, while in other places the music was edgier than even he would have written. Radzynski increases the tension in the first movement by having the solo cello play lines that gradually rise, either by whole or half-steps, until it breaks out with a double-time passage that releases the tension temporarily. The second movement opens with a lyrical yet passionate theme statement by the cello before the piano enters, an ostinato march rhythm is introduced on the piano, and off we go to no one knows where. Eventually we hear both instruments, each in his favorite key, trying to make their music mesh but only rarely having success at it. In the third movement, both instruments start out in a querulous mood, testing the waters, before the cello suddenly tries to make a break for it via rising serrated figures, but the piano says, “Oh no, you don’t!” and chases after him. Eventually the cello slows down, as if he wants to be caught, but as soon as the piano sounds close enough he is again off to the races. It’s a very whimsical piece, full of humor and, again, well written.

This is a really interesting CD of well-written and interesting music. You can be sure I’ll be keeping my eye out for more of Radzynski’s music in the future.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Sampson Explores English Poetry in Song

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WALTON: A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table. 3 Façade Settings. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Orpheus With his Lute. The Sky Above the Roof. Silent Noon. BRIDGE: Go Not, Happy Day. When Most I Wink. Adoration. Come to Me in My Dreams. When You Are Old. Mantle of Blue. Love Went A-Riding. WATKINS: Who Called Love Conquering. Wants. Love Songs in Age. Money. Dawn. QUILTER: Dream Valley, Fair House of Joy. By a Fountainside. Arab Love Song. Autumn Evening. My Life’s Delight / Carolyn Sampson, sop; Joseph Middleton, pno / Bis SACD-2413

Carolyn Sampson, the British soprano with the crystalline voice, here gives a recital focusing as much on the poetry of English writers as on the music presented. Poets Thomas Jordan, William Wordsworth, William Blake, Charles Morris, William Shakespeare, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, John Keats, Matthew Arnold, W.B. Yeats, Padraic Colum, Mary Coleridge, Philip Larkin, Ben Jonson, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Arthur Maquarie, Thomas Campion and Edith Sitwell—the great, the near-great, and a few not well known outside England—are all represented here along with a few poems by that most prolific of writers, Anonymous. She is joined in this endeavor by Joseph Middleton, an excellent pianist who is able to match the singer’s (and the poem’s) every mood.

To my ears, Sampson’s vibrato has gotten a bit looser than in earlier years, but it is still a lovely and attractive voice with moderately good diction and plenty of “character.” The opening song in Walton’s cycle A Song for the Lord Mayor, “The Lord Mayor’s Table,” also shows that Sampson has retained her easy facility in fioratura, being able to negotiate the trickiest passages (as also in “The Contrast”) easily, while the second, “Glide Gently,” shows off her smooth legato despite the now more pronounced vibrato in her voice. I have only one complaint, and that is of the sonics. The album sounds as if it had been recorded in an empty railway station at 3 in the morning with the microphone set four feet over the head of both soprano and pianist. Alas, this disc is not alone in this defect; both Naxos and Bis seem morbidly fascinated with too much reverb in their classical recordings, on which I have commented several times in this blog. Rather less echo next time around, please!

By the time we reach Vaughan Williams’ “Orpheus With His Lute,” Sampson’s voice is under much better control, the vibrato now generally more even. Either she warmed up or it was recorded on a different day. I’ve always been a little disappointed that many of Frank Bridge’s songs come from his earlier, less interesting late-Romantic period, but Sampson does a fine job on them as well.

For me, personally, the most interesting music on this disc was that by Welsh composer Huw Watkins (b. 1976) which, though still lyrical and essentially tonal, has some very interesting harmony in the piano part, often moving chromatically up or down behind the singer. “Money” was particularly interesting in its use of both harmony and rhythm.

Quilter’s songs, also late Romantic, are nonetheless sometimes interesting in their construction. I particularly liked “Fair House of Joy” and “Autumn Evening” almost sounds like a modern-day madrigal. We end with Walton’s “sung” settings of three of the Façade poems, the music quite different from the ones in which the vocalist just recites the poems to rhythm.

All in all, a nice recital of some older British music set to some interesting poetry, very nicely sung and played.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The SOOON Trio Debuts on Disc

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YOUCHZ NOW / SOOON: Der Mongolische Reiter. Dunloe Gap. Klezma. Al Záhara. Nornu Jovnna. Iberimbao. Jodel Breton. Pythagoras’ Science Frictions in Siracuse. Voix-là: Durabai. Gula Gula. Bellow Dance. Kabak. Zaman. Sunneufgang Juuchz / Sonja Morgenegg, voc/yodel/overtone voc/gtr/monochord; John Wolf Brennan, pno/Sordino pno/Arcopno/ Harppno/Oudpno/Melodica/acc/Fender Rhodes pno/voc/tubes; Tony Majdalani, perc/cajòn/udo/Berimbao/frame dm/handpan/bs-dm/gong/voc/etc. / Narrenschiff NAR 2019137

This is the debut CD of the SOOON Trio, a group that combines elements of Swiss yodeling, shamanic chants, Arabic music, Celtic music and jazz. Their members are Swiss yodeler-singer Sonja Morgenegg, Irish-Swiss pianist John Wolf Brennan and Haifa-born percussionist/vocalist Tony Majdalani. The liner notes explain that the group spells Soon with three Os to symbolize the Os in eastern Switzerland (Ost), Overtone and the O in Yodel, also “as in BerimbaO, in PianO, in vOcal and as in TOny, SOnja and JOhn.” As for the album title, Youchz or juuchz is the Eastern Swiss expression for yodeling.

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L to R: Brennan, Morgenegg, Majdalani

Just from the above description, you can deduce that SOOON is far from a conventional-sounding musical group, but you really can’t grasp how different until you’ve heard them. One recalls such past phenoms as the Celtic revival album Secret Garden, Rabih Abou-Khalil, Gilles Apap and the Transylvanian Mountain Boys, or Sheila Chandra as comparisons, yet even they sounded somewhat more conventional than SOOON. The best description I can conjure up, though it sounds derogatory (but isn’t), is post-modern splintered folk music. Yodeler-singer-guitarist Morgenegg is clearly the dominant performer on each track. As a genre, “Youchz” seems to fit in the pop-jazz-folk-world music category, in the integrated, hyphenated sense of that term.

The opening number sounds like Swiss yodeling blended with a light rock beat and a Middle Eastern sound while the second, Dunloe Gap, seems to be mixing Eastern European, Celtic and pop styles in a strange brew. Technical descriptions of this music are not impossible—each piece seems to be built from the top down, which is to say from Morgenegg’s voice (and/or guitar) on down through the piano to the percussion rather than from the bottom up, as was the case with Abou-Khalil’s music, and in almost every piece a connection to the pop world is evident even though none of these songs are EVER going to be played on I-Heart-Radio’s pop music app (or, if you’re lucky, any still-surviving radio stations that play pop). As pointed out in the notes, Morgenegg combines the vocal traditions of Muotathaler Juuz and other Swiss natural yodels with singing practices from the Georgian Yodel Krimantchuli, Hawaiian Yodeling, the Nordic Yoik, and the shamanic singing and overtone practices of Central Asia. But her singing and this music is not tied to any one tradition; their practice and their style breaks down the boundaries between these very different traditions to create a sort of super-conglomerate all its own. Again, according to the notes:

…the mixture of different tonalities contributes to the color. Arabic scales with their characteristic microtonal structure blend in with the “equally tempered mode,” which has shaped Western music for the past 150 years. Although the semitones are all equal, they are slightly impure. In combination with natural tone scales and mathematically pure moods, a variety of microtonal layers are created…[which break up] the major and minor patterns.

All of which is true, yet the ear tends to filter out the “microtonal layers” and hear the music as essentially tonal or at least modal in a recognizable sense. At least, I didn’t hear anything here as bizarre as the microtonal experiments of Julián Carrillo or Harry Partch. Iberimbao and Pythagoras’ Science Frictions in Siracusa, the latter of which also features Majdalani as principal vocalist, are the most Middle Eastern-sounding tracks on the album, while Voix-là: Durabai sounds the closest to African music, albeit with some wild Swiss yodeling. To my ears, Gula Gula mixes some elements of American Indian and Middle Eastern music.

For pianist Brennan, SOOON is just another step in his musical journey through various styles of jazz and world music. His past associations include playing in a rock band as a teenager, founding the jazz fusion group Freemprovisations in 1977, and stints with the Mohrenkopf Afro-jazz band, the SinFONietta ensemble, Chicago bass clarinetist Gene Coleman, and the SONIC ROOTS and Pago Libre ensembles (I reviewed Pago Libre’s Out on a Limb CD in September 2018). Jodel Breton most clearly shows up his piano skills, although he also contributes an interesting percussive solo on Pythagoras’ Science Frictions.

I should point out that Morgenegg’s voice, though very slightly nasal, has an extremely attractive timbre that one immediately likes, as was the case in the past with Sheila Chandra and, earlier, Klezmer specialist Judy Bressler. Only in Kabak does she go to extremes, purposely “pushing” her natural sound out of its natural tonal center to create an almost masculine sound (albeit in her high soprano range) as well as making the voice, in one passage, even more nasal as a means of propelling some strange “bubbling” sounds.

If you’re open to new musical experiences and enjoy hearing “something completely different,” as John Cleese of Monty Python used to say, this is surely it. You may never hear music in a normal manner ever again after your exposure to SOOON!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Cotik’s Passionate Bach

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AwardBACH: Complete Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin / Tomás Cotik, vln / Centaur CRC 3755/56

Normally, I stay away from reviewing 95% of new recordings of old music for two specific reasons. Firstly, it is my experience that the very greatest performances of this repertoire has already been recorded, and for performer X to assume that his or her take on a particular work is going to outshine everyone from the past is more that a bit of hubris. But secondly, and particularly in the case of 18th and 19th-century music, so much of it has been ruined by the use of constant straight tone that it just makes me sick to listen to them.

But Argentinean violinist Tomás Cotik, who has actually made the violin sonatas of Mozart sound interesting (an almost superhuman feat, in my view) and breathed new life into the rather pedestrian music of Piazzola, is not just another violinist. He is a passionate musician who always seems to get under the skin of the music he performs, thus I was curious to hear his take on these sonatas and partitas.

My favorite recording of these works to date is the one by Mark Kaplan on Bridge. Kaplan unashamedly plays a modern violin and bow and uses a light, fast vibrato in sustained notes, which is right and proper. String players of the 18th and 19th centuries DID NOT use constant straight tone when they played. They used vibrato for sustained notes and straight tone for the faster passages because it was easier to negotiate them without vibrato. Listen to the recordings of such 19th-century violinists as Joachim and Sarasate if you don’t believe me. They also used a fairly broad portamento, something that modern musicians scorn like the plague, but if you’re going to be historically accurate, that’s how you should play. The one 20th-century violinist who came closest to earlier string players was Bronislaw Huberman, and it is exactly his use of portamento that modern string players find so offensive, but that’s the real deal, folks. If you’re going to throw out the baby, you may as well throw out the bath water.

Cotik plays here with a modern violin but a Baroque bow, which he finds gives him better control and flexibility in this music, but he does overdo the straight tone a bit more than I like. Thus, insofar as the sheer sound of the instrument goes, I prefer Kaplan to Cotik. One thing I noticed was that, either due to the bow, his use of straight tone, or both, Cotik’s playing has a bit more of a “rough-and-ready” sound to it than Kaplan.

But then there is the underlying shape and form of each piece in these six works and the motor rhythms of the fast pieces, and here Cotik scores over Kaplan. Every movement of each sonata and partita is played faster by Cotik. Of course, speed in and of itself means nothing, but despite my wishing that he would have used a bit more vibrato in his slow movements, I did not feel that Cotik ignored the feeling in those slow movements, and the faster movements are simply terrific. Just listen, for instance, to the fourth-movement “Presto” of the first sonata for an example of what I mean. Kaplan plays it with good energy and a lot of feeling, but in Cotik’s skilled hands the notes simply jump off the bow. Moreover, in those in-between movements like the “Allamanda” in the first partita, Cotik’s rhythmic feeling—though quite clearly influenced by 20th-century music such as jazz (though he is decidedly not a jazz violinist)—makes for a big difference in the shaping and “bounce” in every phrase. To my ears, it is entirely unique in the presentation of this music, which is (a few popular movements aside) not everyone’s favorite Bach. Cotik even adds a slight hesitation in the spaces between notes here and there, as if to point up the slightly offbeat swagger of the music at this point.

Moreover, he makes a completely different distinction between the rhythms in each of the quick movements, giving each one a specific character. The result, if I may be so bold to say so, is the give these Bach pieces a little bit of a Paganini-like feel to them. For some listeners, this may seem like a bit of showing-off, but for me there is no question but that this is the most exciting rendition of these works I’ve ever heard. Indeed, as the performance continued—about the time I reached the “Tempo de Borea” of the first partita—I had to stop playing the critic and simply marvel at this man’s energy and commitment to the music. His passion is infectious.

By playing this music with such rhythmic acuity and emotional directness, Cotik has also managed to make us hear the connections between each movement, which in turn pulls the movements together to form a cohesive musical whole. It’s like listening to Felix Weingartner conduct the Brahms symphonies, some movements of which always sound sprawling and a bit stodgy in the hands of others, suddenly have their structure jump out at you as you say to yourself, “Oh, so that’s what Brahms was doing!” He plays like a gypsy fiddler with a classical technique, and this is part of what makes these performances so exciting. Hear, for instance, how he phrases the lines and bounces the rhythms in the “Fuga” of the second sonata for an example of what I mean.

In a sense, however, his strong rhythms and gypsy-like attacks almost make the slow preludes sound superfluous. It’s not that he plays them without feeling—on the contrary, he gives them just the right feel—but more that you feel a tad impatient, waiting for them to be over so he can thrill you with the faster movements. Is this a bad thing? You decide. I found myself mesmerized by what he has to offer in this music. In the “Andante” of the second sonata, for instance, you become hypnotized by the way he accentuates the lower-register accompaniment to his own playing, making it sound less like a series of droning sounds than like the “push” of a bowed jazz bassist, rhythmically speaking. To reiterate, it’s the way a gypsy violinist, not a classical purist, would play them. Mind you, I still wish he had used some vibrato in those slow movements, which is not only historically but musically correct, but what the heck.

For the curious, the first violinist to record these pieces using a Baroque bow was Sigiswald Kuijken, way back in the 1980s. His was, for me, the touchstone set of these works for many years despite his use of straight tone. Then along came Kaplan to completely change my viewpoint. Although I still prefer Kaplan’s less scrappy tone in the slow preludes, this is now my benchmark performance of these works. You’ve simply got to get them!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Hawkins’ Music for Clarinet

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SIMPLICIUS / HAWKINS: Simplicius Simplicissimus.1 The Dong With a Luminous Nose.2 In Touch.3,4 Clarinet Sonata.4 Clarinet Concerto1 / Steve Dummer, cl; 2Aidan Smith, bs-bar; 3Ivana Peranic, cel; 4Yoko Ono, pno; 1Stane Street Sinfonietta; Holly Mathieson, cond / Claudio Contemporary CC6045-2

John Hawkins (b. 1949), a friend of composer Barry Mills whose music I liked, sent me this CD for potential review. The very opening of Simplicius Simplicissimus sounded like ambient classical to me, but in short order the harmonies became more modern and interesting and, before long, the tempo increased and things got very intriguing indeed. Like his friend Mills, Hawkins has a fine sense of construction; unlike Mills, some of his music moves at very fast tempi indeed. He certainly learned his composition lessons well from Elisabeth Luytens and Malcolm Williamson. The piece continues to develop using those two basic building blocks, the slow opening and the faster, edgier orchestral playing—and at 6:34, it surely does not overstay its welcome.

Edward Lear, mostly known for his nonsense lyrics, contributed the words to The Dong With a Luminous Nose, in which he playfully conceals some real feelings about love, loneliness and loss. Bass-baritone Aidan Smith has a fine tone and exceptionally clear diction despite an infirm unsteadiness of sustained tones. And yet once again, I found myself fascinated by Hawkins’ writing—so clearly laid out, and so well suited rhythmically to the meter of the poem. He has the clarinet play soft low notes, low trills and occasional upward glissandi to indicate the length of the Dong’s “plaintive pipe.”

The trio In Touch has a nice, ruminative feel to the music, the first movement of which always seems to be exploring and never quite coming to a conclusion. The second movement is very slow-moving, and here Hawkins does indeed resolve his harmony though the piano part uses unusual chord positions to keep things in flux at times. The third movement seems to combine elements of the first two: there is restlessness, yet also moments in which the music feels settled only to start probing once more. All of the performers here are excellent. In the Clarinet Sonata, Hawkins sets up uneasy rhythmic figures in the piano part over which the clarinet plays lyrically; occasionally the piano joins him in this lyricism, yet always seems to play chords that have no tonic. Again, a bit of resolution comes in the slow movement, following which the third movement moves along at a quick but interrupted pace, with unusual piano arpeggios behind the clarinet.

In the final work, the clarinet concerto, we hear yet another plaintive melody starts the proceedings, after which the string orchestra enters playing a surprisingly tonal melodic line. This, however, again moves into more unsettled harmonic territory, although again Hawkins’ excellent feeling for structure keeps everything in perfect balance. Suddenly, the music becomes louder and rather faster for a while, then settles back into a slow, ruminative cadenza for the soloist. Hawkins varies the meter in the second movement, keeping the listener attentive for all the little subtleties he puts into the music. The third movement is the most interesting, using low plucked bass notes to both set the mood and propel the music from below as the upper strings and clarinet take turns adding their own ideas to the score. The violas play gently rocking figures beneath the soloist, then later both clarinet and orchestra take opposing rhythms to keep them separate for a few bars rather than merging, which they do in the end.

This is a very interesting CD, well worth hearing.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Vol. 2 of Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts”

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YOUNG PEOPLE’S CONCERTS, Vol. 2 / 1. What is Sonata Form? excerpts by MOZART, LENNON/McCARTNEY, BIZET, PROKOFIEV w/Veronica Tyler, sop. 2. A Tribute to Sibelius. excerpts by SIBELIUS w/Sergiu Luca, vln. 3. Musical Atoms: A Study of Intervals. excerpts by WAGNER, J. STRAUSS, LENNON/McCARTNEY, BRAHMS, VAUGHAN WILLIAMS. 4. The Sound of an Orchestra. excerpts by HAYDN, BEETHOVEN, BRAHMS, DEBUSSY, STRAVINSKY, GERSHWIN, COPLAND, BACH. 5. A Birthday Tribute to Shostakovich. excerpts by SHOSTAKOVICH, BEETHOVEN. 6. What is a Mode? excerpts by DEBUSSY, ALMER, SIBELIUS, BARRI/SLOAN, LISZT, RIMSKY-KORSAKOV, BRAHMS, PROKOFIEV, SIBELIUS, CHOPIN, MUSSORGSKY, BERRY/GREENWICH, DAVIES, LENNON/McCARTNEY, BERNSTEIN, BEETHOVEN. 7. A Toast to Vienna in 3/4 Time. excerpts by J. STRAUSS, MOZART, BEETHOVEN, MAHLER, R. STRAUSS W/Christa Ludwig, mezzo; Water Berry, bs-bar. 8. Quiz-Concert: How Musical Are You? excerpts by RIMSKY-KORSAKOV. 9. Berlioz Takes a Trip. excerpts by BERLIOZ. 10. Two Ballet Birds. excerpts by TCHAIKOVSKY, STRAVINSKY. 11. “Fidelio”: A Celebration of Life. excerpts from BEETHOVEN: Fidelio w/Anita Darian, sop; Forest Warren, ten; Howard Ross, bass; David Cumberland, bs-bar. 12. Unusual Instruments of the Present, Past & Future. excerpts by VILLA-LOBOS, DE LA TORRE, GABRIELI, BACH, LUENING/ USSACHEVSKY, BUCCI W/Vladimir Ussachevsky, tape recorder; Anita Darian, kazoo. 13. Overtures & Preludes. excerpts by ROSSINI, BEETHOVEN, DEBUSSY. 14. Aaron Copland Birthday Party. music by COPLAND w/William Warfield, bar; Aaron Copland, cond. 15. Young Performers No. 4. excerpts by MOZART, LISZT w/Joan Weiner, Claudia Hoca, Pamela Paul, André Watts, pno; Yuri Krasnopolsky, Serge Fournier, cond. 16. Young Performers No. 5. excerpts by HANDEL, RAVEL, RAN, BARTÓK, ROSSINI w/Heidi Lehwalder, harp; Weldon Berry, cl; Amos Eisenberg, fl; Shulamit Ran, pno; Steohen Kates, cel; Claudio Abbado, Pedro Calderóm, Zdenêk Kobler, cond. 17. Young Performers No. 6. excerpts by MOZART, MENDELSSOHN, RAVEL W/Patricia Micheaelian, pno; James Buswell, vln / New York Philharmonic Orch.; Leonard Bernstein, cond/narr / Unitel Edition 800408

Having already been issued previously on VHS tapes and later, by C Major, on DVDs, Unitel resumes its re-reissue of the Leonard Bernstein Young People’s Concerts. AS in the case with Vol. 1, one can go in and select “Subtitles Off” before clicking on any of the programs on each DVD prior to playing it, but the DVD automatically selects English subtitles anyway, which means that after each show starts you have to go BACK into “Titles Menu” and click “Subtitles Off” a second time.

Perhaps because he felt that many of the same young people were coming to most of the concerts, plus the fact that they had gotten a bit older since he started in 1958, by 1964-66 Bernstein’s lecture-demonstrations began to delve into more technical lessons on sonata form, a study of intervals and modes. Sonata form is actually a pretty basic topic, and to a certain point so too are intervals, but the subject of modes has always seemed, even to me, a bit knotty. Yes, yes, I know that the three basic Greek modes used in Western classical music are the Dorian, the Phrygian, the Lydian and the Mixolydian, but to be honest the only one I have firmly in my own mind is the latter, a scale that starts on a G and only uses the white keys, which means that the 7th note of the scale is an F natural and not an F#. My ears can always tell when a mode is being used because there is bound to be an interval or two that doesn’t fit into the well-tempered scale, but by and large I really don’t care which it is. As the old swing-era song went, “’Tain’t whatcha do, it’s the way how’cha do it, that’s what gets results.” As long as the composer knows what he or she is doing and it works, I wouldn’t care if the scale or mode was a Mixodorian.

And, in his lecture on sonata form, Bernstein admits that you can’t hear sonata form “all at once” because music unravels in time and you can’t tell where a piece of music is going until it gets there. To be honest, I don’t know if modern-day pop music lovers could tell basic sonata form because it’s not used in most of their music nowadays. Bernstein uses the much more basic A-B-A form of pop music, which is just about all we get nowadays if we’re lucky, but of course real sonata form also uses a trio theme which follows the A-B-A sections. He then jumps from the Beatles’ And I Love Her to soprano Veronica Tyler (overripe vibrato and all) singing Micaela’s aria from Carmen, which uses A-B-A-C, and in a much more complex way than most pop songs. Fortunately, he explains it when she’s finished. Then he explains how all of this is expanded exponentially in a sonata and/or symphony. The problem is that he then jumps into music that breaks the very rules he has just taught and expects his young audience to pick that up as well. I’m sure some did (maybe one out of twenty) but many did not. As a young person myself (I was 13 years old when this program first aired), I found it fascinating but listened more intently to the music than to the technical explanation, and there I, and most listeners, have been ever since. I now know all the “rules” but realize that it’s the way the finished product moves and impacts one’s mind and emotions that really matters the most.

The programs devoted to a single composer, Sibelius and Shostakovich, are rather less technical, focusing on emotional or political messages in their music. Surprisingly, Bernstein gives a rather stirring and taut performance of the former’s Finlandia that I liked very much. Sergiu Luca played a very good performance of that composer’s Violin Concerto in the same concert. Ironically, Luca is best remembered today as an early-music pioneer, one of the proponents of the phony “straight toned” violin school. This program is truly more of a concert and less of a music lesson. For me, as a 14-year-old, the Violin Concerto was a bit too subtle for me to grasp—I had just recently been exposed to the Beethoven Violin Concerto, and preferred that piece in both form and melodic content—but at least we just got the music here without too much technical explanation. Although, as I say, a good performance, it does not hold a candle to the recordings by Guila Bustabo or Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.

Musical Atoms: The Study of Intervals may have been one of his most influential lectures, since intervals are something that every music lover can hear and their spacing is even more important to the progress and impact of a piece than sonata form per se. It is by properly hearing intervals and following how a composer uses them that most impacts your emotional and intellectual appreciation of a piece, particularly since it can be applied to music of all schools and eras. Even Bernstein says it: “If you understand that one point, there’s nothing in music you can’t understand.” He then patiently explains how “inverting” an interval doesn’t mean playing it backwards, but spacing it out either up or down an octave to create an entirely different feeling—and of course the first movement of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony is the perfect example of this. Yet although Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony makes an excellent example of the use of minor seconds, I felt that its growing complexity was beyond the grasp of many of the young listeners, so once again Bernstein took a good lesson plan and complicated it.

I had to laugh when, after playing part of Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 in a “bombastic” arrangement at the beginning of the next show (The Sound of an Orchestra), Bernstein told his audience that it was “the sound of an orchestra showing off.” Yeah, that’s the New York Phil for you: always showing off. I mean, just listen to the introduction of each show: “From Lincoln Center, home of the WORLD’S GREATEST MUSICAL EVENTS…” Says who? The script writer at CBS? “The award-winning show…” Yeah, ‘cause you gave yourselves those awards. The World hasn’t given you any awards or deemed your performances The World’s Greatest. But seriously, I did appreciate his explaining that Beethoven’s music called for a certain “roughness of sound: that was not appropriate for Brahms—a lesson that Toscanini and a few others understood but most German conductors (excepting Scherchen and Gielen) did not. He then makes an obvious but important difference between the dry-but-opaque sound of Debussy’s music and the dry-but-clear sound of Stravinsky. This was another of his more successful programs, showing how an orchestra can sound very different depending on the composer, era and style being presented.

The Birthday Tribute to Shostakovich opens with an excerpt from the slow movement from one of his masterpieces, the Seventh Symphony, but spends most of the show on his complete Ninth Symphony, one of his ugliest works. Yes, it was meant as a bit of an ironic joke because it was his Ninth Symphony and yet was rather short and ostensibly witty, but Shostakovich’s sense of humor was much more gauche than that of Prokofiev. I skipped most of this show because of my antipathy towards this symphony. The next program, beginning DVD 3, is the one on modes, which was the first program of the series broadcast in color. I voiced my concerns regarding this topic (for young people who are not necessarily music students) earlier, and although Bernstein starts off with a real masterpiece of modal music, Debussy’s Fêtes from the 3 Nocturnes, and a very fine performance of it to boot, I think it really left most of his audience more puzzled when it was finished than clued-in. He does, however, firmly impress the Dorian mode on them by illustrating that it simply uses all the white keys in an octave if you start at the piano on a D. He then ends the program with a repeat performance of Fêtes, this one even faster than the first—far faster than Toscanini ever performed it and, worse yet, very sloppy in note values. Just sayin’.

A Toast to Vienna in ¾ Time is pretty much just a concert showing different forms of triple meter, the highlight of which is a sequence of three songs from Mahler’s Das Knaben Wunderhorn sung by Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry, both overdoing their motions and facial expressions for the benefit of the young people in the audience. I was curious to see the Quiz-Concert if for no other reason than to hear what music Bernstein expected his young audience to know. I once owned a 1943 book of musical quizzes issued by RCA Victor which I failed miserably because many of the questions revolved around musical ephemera that most people today don’t even know, such as the song/aria “Brown October Ale” from Reginald de Koven’s Robin Hood. But Bernstein’s quiz revolved around what he called “musical sensitivity,” how one reacted to music. He jumps in with the finale of the Brahms First Symphony, but then wants his audience to guess the composer’s name, nationality, dates, style and form of the next piece, which turns out to be Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro overture. Many of the kids got those answers right, but a lot failed on the next set of questions because they were trick questions. But Bernstein kept everything light and good-natured, and in the next section he conducted the wrong meter, dynamics, etc. and asked the audience to tell him what was wrong. But even the “hard” part of the quiz was pretty easy for anyone who had come to most of these concerts and/or was taking lessons on an instrument: major or minor scales, crescendo, diminuendo, chords, arpeggios, octaves etc. So this was a musical quiz that wasn’t too challenging.

Well, of course one of my favorite programs was Berlioz Takes a Trip, describing the Symphonie Fantastique as “the first psychedelic symphony.” Of course, Berlioz was on opium and not acid when he conceived this symphony, but the analogy was a pretty good one (and besides, as much drugs as Lenny took, he could probably have made a scientific comparison between cocaine, LSD and opium). But he did do an excellent job of analyzing and explaining the symphony despite the fact that, compared to the Beatles or Vanilla Fudge, much of his audience probably found Berlioz’ “mad” themes quite normal and sedate. My favorite line came from his introduction to the last movement: “There’s a man who told it like it is. You take a trip, you end up screaming at your own funeral.” In Two Ballet Birds, Bernstein compares and contrasts Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake with Stravinsky’s Firebird, or at least the suite from the latter. In a way this program, like so many others in this series, is a trip back to the days when music was meant to sound expressive and not like some soulless electronic instrument via “straight tone,” and although some of the music presented here certainly could use a more condensed orchestral texture—and surely less of Bernstein’s overwrought emotional interpretation—much of it is quite enjoyable. One interesting aspect of these lecture-concerts, for those readers who aren’t very familiar with Bernstein’s style or many of his recordings, is that the time constraints led him to give generally tauter, leaner, more structured performances than usual. Sometimes, as in the case of Debussy’s Fêtes, they are rushed a bit too much, but for the most part they are far superior to the general style he normally presented.

Bernstein’s presentation of Beethoven’s Fidelio presents four singers of whom I knew nothing: soprano Anita Darian, tenor Forest Warren, bass Howard Ross and bass-baritone David Cumberland. Darian was a singer and actress who spent most of her career at the New York City Opera, the “junior varsity” cousin of the Metropolitan. Two interesting footnotes to her career is that she sang wordless vocals with the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra as well as the wordless high vocals on The Tokens’ hit recording of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Tenor Forest Warren just doesn’t exist online; when you Google his name, you pull up Leonard Warren, tenor Michael Forest and tenor saxist Warne Marsh. Howard Ross’ name pulls up a Social Justice Warrior who goes around the country telling people that they are showing “unconscious bias” even when they aren’t, just because he says so. Cumberland also sang at City Center Opera, where in one performance of Weber’s Der Freischütz he was knocked by the New York Times for his ineffectiveness. In this performance, Warren reveals a steady voice that is a bit tight and dry, with good phrasing and musicianship. But, boys and girls, what do all of these singers have in common? I’ll tell you. Not one of them wriggles around on the stage, waves their hands or arms in the air when they sing, and yet they actually interpret the text. Amazing! Yet of course it’s LENNY who does all the wiggling, jumping around and face-making. Not so amazing, just gauche. Both Darian and Ross sing well in the “dungeon scene” duet, with Darian acting quite well with her facial expressions as well. She’s much better than Inge Nielsen, the Leonore on the Naxos recording of Fidelio, but Ross is just OK—not bad but not great. Eventually we hear our Don Pizarro, Cumberland. He has the requisite black-sounding timbre for the role, and he acts very well with the text, but his voice lacked just that extra bit of power and emotional depth to make Pizarro truly scary. But the scene is saved by Darian, who was really excellent in this role, and at least the others give 100%. All in all, much more satisfying than I expected.

We’re back to black-and-white (and Carnegie Hall) for the next DVD, which features telecasts from 1960-61. The first of these, Unusual Instruments, ostensibly features Noah Greenberg, founder and director of the New York Pro Musica (according to the booklet), but he’s nowhere in sight, and the musicians who do play aren’t identified by name. The credits at the end of the show simply list them as “Musicians of the New York Pro Musica, Noah Greenberg, director,” from which Unitel extrapolated the idea that Noah himself was one of the performers. As for the Concerto for Tape Recorder & Orchestra by the duo of Leuning and Ussachevsky, it has form and shape but is essentially ugly, pointless music. Another example of a novel idea run into the ground, but nowadays—if the composers were British—they’d receive awards and be hailed as great geniuses. But this is nothing compared to the “remarkable” (so says Bernstein) Concerto for Kazoo and Orchestra by one Mark Bucci. And where is this masterpiece today? Why are no orchestra societies screaming for its revival? Well, largely because, kazoo or no kazoo, it’s essentially milquetoast lyrical music (GUCK music) that goes in one ear and out the other.

In Overtures and Preludes (1961), Bernstein hits the nail on the head when he says that such pieces are perfect for young people because they’re relatively short, rhythmic and tuneful. We do get Rossini’s Semiramide (an absolutely rousing performance) and Beethoven’s Leonore No. 3 overtures, but I felt that Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was a bit too soft-grained and harmonically dense for his audience (I remember being terribly bored by Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel when in my sophomore year of high school), in addition to which Bernstein conducts it very slowly and full of goopy string portamento. One of the kids started clapping about 3/4 of the way through it, thinking it was over. Happily, he ends with his own Candide overture, which hits just the right tone. Aaron Copland’s Birthday Party, also from 1961, is a tribute to Lenny’s old buddy who, it seemed to me, was just a bit overhyped for his accomplishments in rewriting American folk music, though I did like some of his pieces—and here Bernstein does give us some unusual Copland, namely the earlier, more harmonically interesting excerpt from Statements and his jazz-influenced “Dance” from Music for the Theatre, though he then goes straight into the rewrites of folk music, ending with Copland himself conducting El Salón Mexico. The problem I have with Copland is not that he wasn’t a good composer, but once he latched onto recycling American folk and fiddle tunes and writing this wide-interval “Americana” stuff, he gave up on being a really great composer except for his opera The Tender Land. But he figured out which side of his bread was buttered, and who wouldn’t go for financial security and widespread popularity over being just another outstanding composer who can’t click with a large segment of the public? At least Bernstein gave his young audience some of the “thorny” Copland as well as the Americana stuff. Baritone William Warfield sang the folk songs with his powerful but uneven voice.

program for 1-15-1963

Program of the January 15, 1963 concert

The last DVD features Young Performers Nos. 4-6, dating from January and December 1963 and January 28, 1965. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 is divided between three of the pianists—Joan Weiner, Claudia Hoca and Pamela Paul—while three different conductors lead the New York Philharmonic behind them (Yuri Krasnapolsky, Zoltán Rozsnyai and Serge Fournier). I found one Joan Weiner who is a clinical psychiatrist and another who is a stand-up comic, but alas, this Joan Weiner seems to have vanished. Claudia Hoca, who went on to become a noted pianist with the Buffalo Philharmonic, had her career ended by a serious auto accident in 2013. Pamela Mia Paul seems to have had the best career, winning the Naumburg International Piano Competition, performed both classic repertoire and modern music (hooray!) with major orchestras throughout America and Europe, and currently holds a professorship at the University of North Texas College of Music. As for the conductors, Krasnopolsky went on to a solid career, currently leading the Des Moines Symphony Orchestra; Rozsnyai, who was no spring chicken at the time (he was a week shy of his 37th birthday), had studied with Bartók, Kodáky and Dohnányi and conducting with Janos Ferencsik, worked with second-tier American orchestras in the 1960s before building the Knoxville Symphony into a first-class orchestra in the 1980s; while Serge Fournier, who struck me as clearly the most assured and exciting of the three, was taken under Charles Munch’s wing at Boston when he was not yet thirty yet he, too, ended up as music director of such second-tier orchestras as the Toledo and Oak Ridge Symphonies. To my ears, Paul was clearly the best of the three pianists, sounding less mechanical than Weiner and fierier than both Weiner and Hoca. She also leaned over the piano keys when playing, with a fierce look of concentration on her face, which is how I played the piano (of course, not with her facility) when I was still physically able. The Liszt Concerto No. 1 is conducted by Bernstein and played by then-16-year-old André Watts, who I always liked to a point but normally found better in flashy pieces than music requiring more depth of feeling. He did, however, play with a much better legato and sense of musical structure than Lorin Hollander or, most of the time, Horowitz. His performance, outstanding for a teenager, is as mature as the best performances and recordings I heard of him later in life. Watching him play here (I never saw him in person), I was struck by his broad, powerful shoulders from which he generated so much of his keyboard energy, much like Arthur Rubinstein, who I did see in person.

Young Performers No. 5 features harpist Heidi Lehwalder (the last pupil of legendary harp teacher Carlos Salzedo, now an internationally recognized star) playing a movement from a Handel concerto. Lehwalder is then joined by clarinetist Weldon Berry (who seems to have disappeared) and flautist Amos Eisenberg (who played with the Israel Chamber Orchestra and taught Gyorgy Sándor Farkas) to play Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro conducted by the then-30-year-old Claudio Abbado. His performance here is typical of his work throughout his career: clean, unfussy, yet lacking character or real feeling. It’s an excellent “shell” of a performance without heart or soul. Young Lehwalder, at age 14, clearly had technique up the wazoo but was not yet the great interpreter she later became. The others play well but not exceptionally.

Shulamit Ran

Shulamit Ran in December 1963

Our next performer is composer-pianist Shulamit Ran, who indeed went on to an outstanding career, in her own Capriccio for Piano & Orchestra conducted by Pedro Calderón. It’s a wonderful work, atmospheric yet well-structured, typical of her output over the decades. Cellist Stephen Kates, who plays a transcribed version of Bartók’s violin Rhapsody No. 1, Part 2 under conductor Zdenêk Košler, had a great pedigree—he studied with Gregor Piatagorsky, Leonard Rose and Laszlo Varga—and later placed third in the 1966 Tchaikovsky Competition and had a good solo career before dying of lymphoma at age 59. Kates also plays the solo cello part in the William Tell Overture, conducted by Bernstein, which closes the program.

The last show in this set, Young Performers No. 6, features pianist Patricia Michaelian, who has been a member of the piano faculty at the University of Washington since 1984 and has recorded Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No. 1 for Naxos, in the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20. Both she and Bernstein are simply terrific. Although I sometimes tore my hair out over Bernstein’s interpretations of Romantic repertoire, I always found his Bach, Haydn and Mozart to be first-rate (not so, always his Handel), and he gives the music an excitement and impetus it rarely receives today. The second soloist is violinist James Buswell, who has had a fine international career, made many albums, and was nominated for a Grammy for his recording of the Barber Violin Concerto, playing the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Bernstein wrapped up the program with an analysis and performance of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite.

So there you have it. On balance, a set worth getting for your classical-curious relative or friend of almost any age. Not every piece in every concert will grab everyone the same, but it sure beats sitting through a pedantic “music appreciation course” anywhere else in the universe!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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New Armenian Chamber Music

655646189451_Frontcover_Digital

AwardAVANESOV: Quasi Harena Maris. Selected Works from “Feux Follets” /Movses Pogossian, Ji Eun Hwang, vln; Morgan O’Shaughnessy, vla; Niall Ferguson, cel; Artur Avanesov, pno / ZOHRABYAN: Novelette / Varty Manouelian, vln; Scott St. John, vla; Antonio Lysy, cel; Avanesov, pno / PETROSSIAN: A Fiery Flame, a Flaming Fire / Manouelian, vln; Charles Tyler, cel; Avanesov, pno / ARTASHES KARTALYAN: Tekeyan Triptych / UCLA VEM Ensemble; Danielle Segen, mezzo / ASHOT KARTALYAN: Suite for Saxophone & Percussion / Katisse Buckingham, a-sax; Dustin Donohue, perc / New Focus Recordings FCR244

This CD of modern chamber works by Armenian composers gets off to a very strong start with Artur Avanesov’s Quasi Harena, a work that uses the strings in a microtonal fashion that reminded me strongly of the pioneering works of Julián Carrillo, even though there are moments when a tonal bias is present because the piano part is not modified towards microtonal playing. In addition, the melodic contours of this piece have a much stronger Eastern European sound than Carrillo’s scores. In addition, the music has even more development in it than Carrillo’s, and eventually moves from the quiet, atmospheric opening to some very powerful rhythmic playing at a louder volume that develops the theme brilliantly. The old adage says that you never get a chance to make a first impression, and this piece clearly impressed me very much.

Next up is Ashot Zohranyan’s Novelette, which reforms the timbres of a conventional piano quartet in sometimes new and interesting ways. The music is written in a slow tempo, as was Quasi Harena Maris, but moves in different ways and patterns, with the piano not being beard until the 3:30 mark when the music suddenly becomes much more atonal in character. Eventually, the piano part becomes busier and more prominent, acting as a foil to the soft, between-pitch whines of the strings. Any further description would spoil the surprises in store for you, so I will refrain from doing so.

Michel Petrossian’s A Fiery Flame, a Flaming Fire is a querulous work, whimsical in the way he moves his materials around. The composer’s liner notes mention some cockamamie scheme whereby, in his mind, “the question of identity…seems a crucial one in our globalized and interconnected world.” No, sorry, Michel, it’s not much of a problem or terribly crucial. I am an American. You are an Armenian. Iranians are Iranian. Germans are German. Just because we can speak to one another and share interests does not confuse or erase our national identities, and that’s a good thing. We are a crazy-quilt of different races and nationalities, not a multi-national crayon where we are all mushed together. But back to the music: its playfulness and imagination in the handling of musical material. I especially liked the way Petrossian kept moving the stress beats around within each bar, which throws off the listener’s attempts to follow a regular rhythmic pattern. Another very imaginative piece.

By contrast, Artashes Kartalyan’s Tekeyan Triptych is a lyrical piece, in a minor key but essentially tonal, in part because it features a singer, mezzo-soprano Danielle Segen, and in part because the texts by Armenian poet Vahan Tekeyan deal with love. But tonal does not always equate with banality, and in this work Kartalyan manages to introduce some very interesting harmonic touches without damaging the essentially tonal sound of the music. It’s extremely clever and thus touches both the mind and the heart. It also helps that Segen has an excellent voice with both a good, clear sound and pretty good diction. In a certain way, this little cycle bears a kinship with Canteloube’s famous Songs of the Auvergne.

Then we come, as John Cleese used to say, to “something completely different,” the Middle Eastern-sounding Suite for Saxophone and Percussion by Ashot Kartalyan, son of the previous composer. This is sheerly enjoyable music, one might almost say an island of cheerfulness and relative simplicity in an otherwise musically complex album. I enjoyed it tremendously. After the belly-dance first movement, the percussionist switches from drums to marimba to perform a fugue with the saxophone, yet the lightness of rhythm is still prevalent. In the third movement, just a hint of jazz rhythm permeates the combination of saxophone, marimba and occasional drums. The fourth is a much more lyrical piece while the fifth and last movement is an upbeat finale with another allusion to belly-dancing. A wonderfully entertaining (and well written) piece!

The album concludes with Avanesov’s piano excerpts from “Feux Follets,” played by the composer. This music is considerably different from Quasi Harena Maris, being lyrical and reflective, almost in the manner of “ambient classical” except with rather more meat on its bones. Some of the pieces, such as “Quand l’aubespine fleurit,” have rapid, double-time figures for the right hand with the feel of Eastern harmony about them.

Thus this disc turns out to be full of interesting music, well written and exceptionally well-executed by all concerned. Very highly recommended!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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