Annie Chen’s Secret Treetop

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SECRET TREETOP / CHEN: Ozlidem Seni. Majo Kiki in 12 Days. Secret Treetop.+ Orange Tears Lullaby. Mr. Wind-Up Bird, Strange Yearning. Leaving Sonnet.* FU: Ao Bao Xiang Hui. My Ocean is Blue in White. XIANG: Gan Lan Shu [Olive Tree] / Annie Chen Octet: Annie Chen, voc; Rafal Sarnecki, el-gtr; Tomoko Omura, el-vln; David Smith, tpt/*fl-hn; Alex LoRe, a-sax/+fl; Glenn Zaleski, pno; Matthew Muntz, bs; Jerad Lippi, dm / Shanghai Audio & Video (no number)

This album, scheduled for release November 2, is surely something different: Chinese-inspired jazz that at times sounds more Middle Eastern than Far Eastern. Annie Chen has more of a mezzo-soprano voice than a soprano one, rich and full, and sings out joyously, and her backup band plays in a quasi-bop style with a mixture of backbeats and shuffle rhythm. Her scatting, to my ears, shows the dual influence of Middle Eastern music and bebop, and her compositions are fascinating in their cross-cultural references.

The result is an album that swings in an unusual way. Alto saxist Alex LoRe has a light, airy sound, somewhat like that of Lee Konitz or Paul Desmond, but plays in a musical style closer related to Eastern modes. As a whole, the band has a feel not unlike that of Lebanese musician Rabih Abou-Khalil, except that it is more bop and far-Eastern in style and does not include ouds. Since Chen is a singer, it is also vocal-oriented, and I was fascinated by the frequent time and tempo shifts in her compositions, particularly in Majo Kiki in 12 Days where she modulates her voice with a crescendo here and there, almost like a classical vocalist. Her diction is as clear as a bell, too.

Moreover, all of the musicians in her octet are plugged into the same aesthetic and fully committed to her style. Ordinarily, I don’t much like electric violinists, but Tomoko Omura plays with such fresh ideas and a real jazz feel (as opposed to rock or R&B) that I found invigorating. Following his solo is a remarkable chorus in which pianist Zaleski plays staccato chords while Chen improvises a scat vocal above him. In the next chorus she sings lyrics, the rhythm changes beneath her, and yet everything flows so well that it sounds perfectly natural. In Tong Fu’s Ao Bao Xiang Hui, based on an Inner Mongolian folk song, the guitar plays almost like a Chinese erhu in the background while bop lines occur in the foreground, and Chen’s rich voice sounds more like Janis Siegel of Manhattan Transfer. Trumpeter David Smith embarks on a stupendous solo, sounding for all the world like the late Clifford Brown, while Chen interjects scat licks in the foreground, then the tempo doubles as Zaleski plays piano licks against the backbeats of Jerad Lippi’s drums. Smith and LoRe later come in behind him, playing slow unison figures, and later Chen re-enters to sing along with them. This is interesting stuff! Only in the title track does Chen resort to a bit of gimmickry in the opening chorus, double-tracking her voice with extra reverb, but once we reach the tune proper she sings out beautifully and the music becomes more complex and interesting. One of the things I liked about her scat solo in this one was the way she “bounces” the rhythm like Chu Berry.

Annie Chen at Blue Note Beijing

Chen at the Blue Note in Beijing

What holds one’s attention in this album is the incredible variety of musical styles as one moves from track to track, and even within tracks. I can’t think of a jazz vocalist who so controls his or her musical environment as well as Chen does; only the late Mark Murphy comes close, and Murphy vacillated too much towards contemporary pop styles at times for my taste. Chen’s music is clearly non-commercial. This is art, and art on a very high level. Orange Tears Lullaby is probably the closest to a conventional tune on this album, placing a lyrical and metrically regular melody above pizzicato playing by violin and guitar, later underscored by the trumpet and sax, and even in this track the musical taste she exhibits raises the song above the mundane (not to mention her absolutely amazing voice). The violin solo on this one is pitched in a lower key, sounding more like a viola, as the tempo (and meter) shift underneath. Mr. Wind-Up Bird, Strange Yerarning has its own irregular but happy-sounding pulse, with LoRe playing an outstanding alto solo. This one, too, is a quasi-straightforward piece, but unusual sounds (and rhythms) return on Leaving Sonnet. Chen can clearly operate in a standard jazz format, but she prefers to create her own musical world. In this one, the rhythm of the tune seems to follow the speech patterns of the lyrics as a regular beat is suspended throughout the first chorus.

It would take too much space in this review for me to detail all the little things that are going on in each track of this CD, but take my word for it, you will be delighted and inspired by this music. This isn’t your grandpa’s vocal jazz album!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Chris Pasin Practices “Ornettiquette”

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ORNETTIQUETTE / PASIN: OCDC. PTU. COLEMAN: Jayne. Tomorrow is the Question. Just For You. When Will the Blues Leave? Lonely Woman. AYLER: Ghosts / Chris Pasin, tpt; Adam Siegel, a-sax; Karl Berger, vib/pno; Michael Bisio, bs; Harvey Sorgen, dm; Ingrid Sertso, voc / Planet Arts 301820

Chris Pasin is a New York-based trumpeter who is so infatuated by the late Ornette Coleman and his long-time musical partner, trumpeter Don Cherry, that he has named his band after him. This is his fourth album, but the first with his group Ornettiquette.

They do indeed play in a style very close to that of the original Coleman quartet (the one with Charlie Haden on bass and Ed Blackwell on drums, although Ornette quickly switched to another drummer). But to be honest, Pasin sounds more like Don Cherry than Adam Siegel sounds like Ornette. The latter is just too careful in his improvisations, lacking the adventure and enthusiasm of his model—an adventure and enthusiasm that Coleman retained into the mid-1990s when he made his “Sound Museum” CDs. Michael Bisio has some of Haden’s imagination but not his full tone or energy. The result is a group that does a fine job of paying tribute to the originals without quite catching up to them (Pasin excepted).

Of course, we’re talking about some of the most original and innovative musicians of their time. Now that Coleman is accepted as a jazz innovator and legend, we tend to forget how much he was reviled and hated by many famous jazz musicians when his quartet first hit the Five Spot in New York in the late 1950s. Roy Eldridge, Thelonious Monk and others called him a fraud and said he was “jiving” because of his refusal to improvise on the chord changes, but rather to play, as George Russell pointed out, in a linear fashion that explored harmony as a moving target rather than a baseline for improvisation. Coleman himself called it “harmolodics”; it wasn’t tonal or modal, but simply a way of playing lines in which the notes produced created their own harmony. I always wondered, when listening to his records, how on earth Charlie Haden kept up with them.

In Ghosts, a piece written by Albert Ayler, altoist Siegel goes off on a squawking, atonal rant, squealing his way through tortured lines. We also get a vibes solo by Karl Berger which just barely fits into the framework because he keeps trying to stay tonal while occasionally straying outside the “home key” bass notes being laid down by Bisio. Tomorrow is the Question features a pathetic, whispery vocal by something called Ingrid Sertso, but this is clearly one of the best tracks, musically speaking, on the album. The band plays joyously and sounds fully integrated. Just For You jumps nicely, with Pasin and Siegel playing the complex opening melody in unison, and here Siegel does a nice job of sounding like Coleman. Pasin, too, is especially excellent on this one.

When Will the Blues Leave? is one of Coleman’s best jump tunes, and Ornettiquette plays it extremely well. Whispery-girl returns to vocalize along with the band on the opening line, following which she sings a fairly predictable and equally whispery scat solo. I can’t tell you how much I just wanted her to shut the hell up; she literally ruins the track. Where do they find these people? In a police line-up? Unfortunately, she also returns on, and ruins, Lonely Woman, but happily they paid her and sent her on her merry way before wrapping things up with PTU.

A mixed bag, then. Ornettiquette is clearly a band devoted to its mission, Pasin is an absolutely terrific trumpeter, and his band mates play well if sometimes lacking oomph. Recommended for those who enjoy Coleman’s style of jazz, with the caveat about Sertso’s “singing.”

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Luzia von Wyl is “Throwing Coins”

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THROWING COINS / VON WYL: Chromatika. Q. Akumal. Solifati. Wasps. Antumbra. Chromatika II. Spark / Luzia von Wyl, pno; Vincent Millioud, vln; Jonas Iten, cello; Amin Mokdad, Andrea Loetscher, fl; Nicola Katz, cl; Lukas Roos, bs-cl; Maurus Conte, bsn; Raphael Christen, marimba; André Pousaz, bs; Lionel Friedli, dm / hatOLOGY 753

This was my first exposure to composer-pianist Luzia von Wyl, and I was appropriately impressed. Her music, though essentially classical-inspired jazz, almost defies classification. The music moves not only in odd meters, but also in odd harmonies, shifting not up or down but sideways, as did the unusual music of the late Herbie Nichols. But von Wyl’s music does not remind me so much of Nichols as it does of Charles Mingus, had Mingus written more jazz works for what is, on paper, an essentially classical band. Look at the lineup: not a single trumpet, trombone or saxophone in sight, though the bass clarinet has been a jazz instrument since the days of Eric Dolphy, and bassist André Pousaz plays in a jazz manner.

One can easily get lost in von Wyl’s music if one is not paying close attention, but that’s OK. She clearly knows what she is doing, and what she is doing is exceptional and brilliant. The compositions have an edge, yet that edge is slightly sanded down by the use of classical strings and winds. The Mingus recordings this most reminded me of were the ones he made for his own label, Debut Records, around 1954, the Mingus Dynasty album for Columbia, and a later Columbia album, Let My Children Hear Music. And yet there are elements in here of Stéphane Grappelli (the swinging violin solo in Q) as well as an ensemble blend that  leans in the direction of the kind of things Mitch Miller and especially Alec Wilder were doing in the late 1930s (even Mingus had his forebears, you know).

Despite the allusions I noted above, and others that cropped up in various pieces while listening, von Wyl’s aesthetic is very much her own. She may remind you of things done in the past, but in the end she sounds like no one else. I find her music far more complex than Carla Bley, for instance, but since it doesn’t swing as hard I doubt that von Wyl will overtake Bley in popularity. At times it is positively witty, as for instance the bass clarinet-marimba-piano passage in Akumal. By using all the instruments at her disposal in ever-shifting mixes and blends, von Wyl keeps the listener on the edge of his or her seat. Absolutely nothing she does is formulaic, yet it all makes sense and falls into its own patterns. Extended solos are rare, but there is an amazing bass clarinet solo in Akumal that fits the surrounding material very well.

Moreover, every piece has its own character and profile. Von Wyl avoids the trap of writing every piece in one style, or at best, two styles. Solifati, for instance, is tonal and playful for the most part, albeit with chromatic and whole-tone passages thrown in for fun. She also uses a variety of rhythms, which further entices listeners, keeping them on their toes. In the middle of this piece, all hell breaks loose, musically speaking, as if the band were falling apart—a bit of a Willem Breuker moment, you might say. A misguided critic for The Guardian completely misses the mark of what she has achieved here, calling her music “Zappa-esque” (Frank Zappa’s classical attempts were loud and noisy, based on the music of his idol, Edgard Varèse), “tricksy” and “episodic.” They are neither tricksy nor episodic. They are brilliant. Far too brilliant for the Guardian critic to even attempt to describe technically, I might add. Antumbra uses a slow Middle Eastern rhythm, much like some pieces by Duke Ellington or the John Kirby Sextet, but once again von Wyl shifts gears at one point to a more static but also more conventional rhythm for a few bars and, later, alternates fast and slow passages in a fascinating manner. The opening of Chromatika II uses weird, wailing figures played high up in the violin’s top range, leading into an amorphous chorus in which von Wyl plays piano chords before going into a slow-moving chorus with bowed bass drones and prominent drums. Oh, I guess this is some of what The Guardian thinks “tricksy” and “episodic.” But when a stodgy classical composer of the past suddenly stops an “Allegro” in the middle to slow things down and throw in superfluous folderol, that’s genius, right?

Yes, this CD is clearly a work of genius in my view. Whether or not it will sell to a jazz audience despite its not being hard-hitting is conjecture, but this is one I’ll be listening to several more times in the future. Highly recommended.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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The Music of Philipp Scharwenka

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SCHARWENKA: Piano Trios Opp. 100 & 112. Cello Sonata / Trio Parnassus / String Quartets Opp. 117 & 120. Piano Quintet / Mannheim String Quartet; Thomas Duis, pno / MDG Scene 603 2077-2

Philipp Scharwenka (1847-1917), now considered a fairly marginal composer of the late Romantic period, was once thought very highly of by his peers in the classical world. Critic Hugo Leichtentritt once wrote of him that he was “An absolute master of composition” who “bestowed a great number of works on the music world…Especially the chamber works of his last 20 years.” This 2-CD set presents some of them here.

If one hears strong echoes of Brahms, I suppose that is only to be expected, since Scharwenka grew up in that composer’s era and was undoubtedly under his spell, but like another Brahms admirer, Giuseppe Martucci, Scharwenka had his own style and his own way of approaching the same basic principles. One way in which he is more like Schubert than Brahms is his tunefulness, yet his music has more interesting harmonic changes than Schubert’s, though at times the la-de-da melodies can get on your nerves. The point is that he takes his tunes through more Staussian and even, to a point, Scriabin-like byways, which helps erase the bad taste of the pop-like melodies and draws the listener inward—except in the slow movements, which are bland Romantic pap.

The Cello Sonata, played by two of Trio Parnassus’ members, has less Romantic tunes although the main themes are resolutely tonal, yet in many ways the music is even more interesting and less pop-oriented. The problem in the performance, however, is that although moth cellist and pianist are fine ensemble players, they lack the individuality needed to put the music over successfully. In other words, it sounds like a crisp, taut run-through without a smidgen of emotion or personality. Sadly, this is a common problem with many modern chamber groups nowadays. Rather than blending distinct personalities into a cohesive ensemble (past examples include the Capet and Busch Quartets, the Thibaut-Casals-Cortot and Heifetz-Feuermann-Rubenstein trios, and I Musici), too many modern chamber ensembles reach for “musical” but bland interpretations. Oh, what I would not give to hear Trio Solisti tackle these Scharwenka trios!

The string quartet is played cleanly but dully by the Mannheim String Quartet, but again shows Scharwenka’s interesting musical mind. The first movement of the first quartet features some nice fugal work, but in all of the lyrical passages the Mannheim group is as dull as dishwater. Surprisingly, however, they dig into the Piano Quintet with alacrity, largely due to the powerful emotional presence of pianist Thomas Duis, who wakes them out of their complacent doldrums. The music is also quite good, with large, sweeping themes, boldly stated and interestingly developed.

Bottom line, these are interesting works played in a mostly streamlined style that does not do the music any favors. Recommended for the music, however, as these appear to be the only recordings of this music.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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A Cornucopia of Cherkassky

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PIANO MASTERPIECES / LISZT: Hungarian Fantasia for Piano & Orchestra.1 Fantasy: Réminiscences de “Don Juan” of Mozart. Paraphrase, Vales de l’Opera “Faust” of Gounod. Piano Concerto No. 1 in Eb.2 Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13. Liebestraum No. 3. Grand Galop Chromatique. POULENC: Trois Pièces: Toccata. SAINT-SAËNS: The Swan. CHASINS: 3 Chinese Pieces. LIADOV: A Musical Snuffbox. TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concerti Nos. 13 & 2.4 CHOPIN: Polonaise in f# min. Ballade in f min. Scherzo in E. Nocturne in F, Op. 55/1. Andante Spianato & Grand Polonaise Brillante. Waltz No. 14 in e min. (2 vers.). MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition. PROKOFIEV: Piano Concerto No. 2 in g min.5 SHOSTAKOVICH: Concerto No. 1 for Piano, Trumpet & String Orch.5 BARBER: Excursions. BERG: Piano Sonata. STRAVINSKY: 3 Movements from “Petrouchka.” Circus Polka. GRIEG: Piano Concerto.6 SCHUMANN: Piano Concerto.6 Fantasia in C. Piano Sonata No. 1. BRAHMS: Variations on a Theme by Paganini. MENDELSSOHN: Capriccio in e min.: Scherzo, Presto. Rondo Capriccioso in E. Hunting Song in A. Scherzo in e min. Prelude in e min.  MOZART: Piano Sonata in C, K. 330. CHERKASSKY: Prélude Pathetique. RAMEAU: Tambourin (arr. Godowsky). BEETHOVEN: Eccosaise in Eb. RACHMANINOV: Cello Sonata in g min. / Shura Cherkassky, pno; Berlin Philharmonic Orch., cond. by 1Herbert von Karajan, 3Leopold Ludwig, 4Richard Krauss; Philharmonia Orch., cond. by 2Anatole Fistoulari, 5Herbert Menges; London Philharmonic Orch., cond. by 6Sir Adrian Boult / Profil (Hanssler Classic) PH18037

Shura Cherkassky was one of the greatest yet phlegmatic of Russian pianists, due not to a lack of technique but because he was a creature of whim. When the spirit moved him, he was brilliant and fascinating; when it did not, he was either musically wayward or, worse yet, detached. (I wrote an appreciation of Cherkassky early on in this blog in which I put some personal reminiscences of seeing him in person.) This massive set of recordings spans the years 1923-1963, from the time he was still a wunderkind working and studying in America with Josef Hofmann, through the long period of the 1930s and ‘40s when he was virtually ignored and under-recorded, to the 1950s and early ‘60s when Europe, and specifically England, suddenly rediscovered him. Yet for whatever reason, his career went into limbo yet again until he was rediscovered by both Americans and Brits in the late 1970s/early ‘80s, from which point his career took off again until his death in 1995.

The rather presumptuous title of this set is Piano Masterpieces, but I take issue with that. More than half of Franz Liszt’s compositional output is, in my view, absolute rubbish, and his bombastic operatic fantasies are high on my crapola list. Also far less than masterpiece status are Poulenc’s slight Toccata, Saint-Saëns’ The Swan, Liadov’s A Musical Snuffbox and Stravinsky’s Circus Polka, a piece he wrote for quick cash to celebrate some elephant named Jumbo that he later wished he had destroyed. But what the heck, we get a pretty fair range of material here.

Cherkassky preludeI began my listening with CD 10 because these are his earliest recordings. The booklet info mistakenly lists the first track as “Hunting Song IN A MAJOR/Jagerlied” by Felix Mendelssohn, but it’s actually an early recording of the Chopin Waltz No. 14 in e minor. Apparently, the editors at Profil not only couldn’t tell Mendelssohn from Chopin, or a hunting song from a waltz, but couldn’t tell A major from e minor. It’s a surprisingly blistering performance, much more outré than his later Chopin performances, although he does drag out the middle theme in typical Cherkassky fashion. The remake isn’t nearly as exaggerated in this middle. These early records, oddly, were not issued on Victor’s Red Seal label but on their blue label, which like the purple label was reserved for “celebrity” pop stars like Harry Lauder, Eddie Cantor and Fanny Brice, as well as what they considered secondary classical stars such as soprano Lucy Isabelle Marsh, tenor Paul Althouse and Victor Herbert’s Orchestra. Why Cherkassky, a Russian émigré, was put on blue label (which sold for the same price as their black label records, 75¢ for a 10-incher and $1.00 for a 12-incher) and not Red Seal (which sold for 25¢ more, even higher if the record was by Caruso and higher yet when it was an ensemble piece by famous singers) remains a mystery. Twelve-year-old Yehudi Menuhin was immediately put on Red Seal for his first recordings. I guess they thought that playing the piano this well at 11 to 13 years old (the booklet gives his birth year as 1909, but it was really 1911; they got the old Russian calendar confused with the Western one) wasn’t as big a deal as playing the violin at 12. His playing here has much more “oomph” than one hears in his later performances, but he was very young and apparently full of beans. The piano tone captured on these discs is surprisingly full and rich for acoustic records, but Cherkassky’s tone was always one of his glories. A rarity in this series is the only composition I’ve ever seen ascribed to Cherkassky, his Prelude Pathétique. It’s a fairly nice piece, very Chopin-esque, which you’d expect from a teenager clearly under the Polish composer’s spell. There were two recordings of this, one from 1923 (see label pictured here) and the other from 1928. It is the latter we hear in this collection. One of the highlights of this early series is his amazingly felicitous performance of Rameau’s Tambourin from 1925, again with surprising touches of rubato. The only one of his 1923 recordings presented here is that of Beethoven’s Eccosaise in Eb.

Marcel HubertFollowing the Eccosaise, we jump ahead to what may be his only chamber music recording, Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata with Marcel Hubert from 1934-35. It clearly shows why he wasn’t a great chamber musician; he seldom matches Hubert’s phrasing, but goes his own merry way while Hubert plays in a different style. But then, the French and Russian schools of performance, particularly in those years where they actually were different, were somewhat at odds with one another. The former was chaste, controlled and contained in tone and expression while the latter was smoldering and passionate, and this was as true for string players as it was for keyboardists. Only Alfred Cortot broke the barrier somewhat by playing with musical accuracy and emotional expression. Cherkassky’s solo outburst in the middle of the first movement is a perfect indication of the direction in which he was headed. Taken as a whole, however, it’s a particularly interesting interpretation of this echt-Romantic work, less sentimental than normal. For a Frenchman of that period, Hubert used a bit more vibrato, albeit a fast, lean one, than some of his peers. Surprisingly, Cherkassky seems to be on the same page as Hubert in the last two movements.

Going now to CD 1, we hear a load of Liszt, and pretty junky Liszt at that: the Hungarian Fantasia (with Karajan conducting), then two of his pathetic operatic paraphrases, one of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (“La ci darem la mano”) and the other of the Kermesse scene waltz from Gounod’s Faust. Cherkassky has a ball running through this florid but musically vapid folderol, but for me the music is in one ear and out the other. Of the three pieces on CD 1, the Fantasia is a little better than the other two, particularly in the orchestral writing which reminded me of some of Liszt’s tone poems for orchestra which I do like (Les Préludes, Orpheus and Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe), but as soon as the piano enters we’re in a sea of empty, flashy phrases that say nothing. Karajan’s muscular, no-nonsense conducting helps add backbone to the Fantasia, making it sound a bit better than it really is. In all three pieces, Cherkassky romps like a kid in a sandbox, finding his happy space, and in the operatic paraphrases his rich tone is captured to perfection.

The second CD is also Liszt, but somewhat better music: the first piano concerto, in a surprisingly bracing performance with the Philharmonia Orchestra led by Anatole Fistoulari, not quite as exciting as György Cziffra’s recording but interesting for the little touches and the splendid legato that Cherkassky brought to it, plus the Grand Galop Chromatique (another Cziffra specialty), Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 and the ubiquitous Liebestraum, which is actually a good piece that has suffered badly from over-exposure, although I didn’t like Cherkassky’s overly-Romantic  reading of the latter. Much too goopy for my taste, as is his reading of Saint-Saëns’ The Swan. On the other hand, his delicate touch and Romantic sensibilities worked well in Abram Chasins’ 3 Chinese Pieces, and he is light-footed and charming in Liadov’s slight Musical Snuffbox.

Tchaikovsky 1stThe third disc presents his performances of the first two Tchaikovsky Piano Concerti, both famous Deutsche Grammaphon studio recordings that created a stir when originally issued. The second concerto, in particular, was one of his pet pieces, one he continued to push for in concert performances throughout his career. He was one of the very few pianists who could actually get something out of it, and although he left us several versions I personally prefer the one he did with Hungarian conductor Ferenc Fricsay a bit earlier than this one. The orchestral opening of the first concerto drags a bit too much, as do later passages when the orchestra comes in, but as soon as Cherkassky enters he picks up the pace and gives one of his finest performances, more detailed and interesting than the highly overrated Martha Argerich. Unfortunately, Ludwig keeps reverting to ridiculous decelerandi in many of the orchestral passages, which ruins the overall effect, damaging the work’s structure and giving the music a ridiculous push-pull effect. Thank God we’ve gotten away from this kind of Tchaikovsky style nowadays! Richard Kraus, son of the famous German tenor Ernst Kraus, was a far greater conductor. This performance of the second concerto is almost on a par with the Fricsay reading, but not quite. Critics and audiences detest this concerto, considering it inferior Tchaikovsky, but Cherkassky told me that he felt it superior to the first because it was “better written and less sentimental.” He was right—yet he is still one of the very few pianists to get the real meat out of it. It’s also one of the few concerti he liked to play mostly straightforward, though his little rubato touches gave the music life.

CD 4 is all Chopin, one of his favorite composers and one that he generally (but not always) played with great engagement. The Op. 44 Polonaise is not one of the composer’s most popular, but Cherkassky plays the hell out of it. The other pieces are all quite popular works, and he does a generally fine job on them. CD 5 starts off with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a 1961 live performance from Salzburg, which starts out with the zippiest version of the opening “Promenade” I’ve ever heard in my life. (Perhaps Shura was a guy who went through art galleries on roller skates!) He likewise rips through “Gnomus” at the beginning, but slows down for the secondary theme, a touch I didn’t much care for. I did, however, like his rubato touches in “The Old Castle” quite a bit, and “The Oxcart at Bydlo” stomps through town at yet another rapid clip. “The Market Place at Limoges” is absolutely perfect, however, and he builds up quite a head of steam through “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” to “The Great Gate at Kiev.” All in all, a somewhat eccentric performance, alternating some really interesting details with quirky ones—typical Shura Cherkassky. This is followed by the Prokofiev second piano concerto, played at a slower pace with more rhapsodic phrasing than you’re likely to hear it today, yet his interpretation works very well, projecting an atmosphere of mystery appropriate to the music. The little-known Herbert Menges is the conductor on this one. The loping rhythm that Cherkassky plays in the third movement put me in mind of slightly sinister gnomes walking crookedly down a street, while the way he plays the finale sounds something like off-kilter ragtime. Cool stuff!

Prokofiev CherkasskyThe Prokofiev Concerto was originally issued by HMV in their “dull and boring cover” series, paired with the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 1, or more correctly, the Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra that opens CD 6 (though on the LP, the composer’s name was optimistically spelled “Chostakovitch” (these were the years when Feodor Chaliapin also, somehow, became “Schaljapin”). The Shostakovich concerto is also conducted and played a bit low-key, but in this case I’m not sure that it works as well as the Prokofiev. Yes, it’s interesting in its own way, but the phrasing is too “rounded” for this music, if you know what I mean, and also, to be honest, a bit drippy, making it sound like an old-time rendition of something by Tchaikovsky (or, as EMI would probably have spelled it back then, “Chaikovski”).

After the Shostakovich concerto we get some of the most interesting music on the set: Samuel Barber’s jazz-influenced Excursions (Cherkassky was fascinated by jazz-tinged classical pieces; Morton Gould’s Boogie Woogie Etude was a favorite encore), Alban Berg’s early piano sonata and the Stravinsky Three Movements from Petrouchka. He plays them all very well, albeit introducing a few rubato touches of his own in the second of the Barber pieces (since it’s a slow blues, that’s OK) and the first movement of the Stravinsky (where it does not fit at all). His performance of the last-named is utterly riveting, however, not least for his unbelievable clarity and articulation at fast speeds that almost makes it sound as if he is playing a gamelan. All of these are live performances. Cherkassky’s flawless technique was the result of almost nonstop practicing when he was not performing. He was married for a few years in the 1940s, but his wife simply couldn’t take his obsessive practicing and finally left him. “I’m kind of hard to live with,” he once stated ruefully, “so I’m better off alone.” The Circus Polka is junk, but somewhat interesting for its harmonic twists.

Grieg and SchumannThe Grieg and Schumann concerti from 1962 are famous studio recordings. By this time, though Cherkassky was still signed to HMV, the company was issuing his recordings on their budget-priced “Music For Pleasure” series. Apparently, they hadn’t made that much off him as an alternative to Horowitz on their full-price label, so he was downgraded. What’s interesting about these performances is that he was working with Adrian Boult, a no-nonsense conductor who had little patience for wayward tempo fluctuations (as were, previously Fricsay and Krauss), so Cherkassky had to toe the line a bit. Boult was still giving strong, full-blooded performances in those days (he was a mere youngster of 73), thus the orchestral portions of these works have plenty of backbone, which helps pull the structure together, and since he, like his good friends Toscanini and Fritz Busch, favored brisk tempi, Cherkassky has only a few moments where he can pull his rubato shenanigans. When I was a young classical tyro, I very much liked another budget recording of this work by Kjell Baekkelund and the Oslo Philharmonic conducted by Odd Grüner-Hegge on RCA Victrola, but then I discovered the Dinu Lipatti recording with Alceo Galliera. Now, to be honest, I think this one is the best I’ve ever heard. No overdone lingering, good, strong playing by Cherkassky, and decent stereo sound (it comes from the same era as the Baekkelund recording).

The Schumann concerto is a nice performance if not on a par with the more famous versions by Dinu Lipatti (with Karajan) and Van Cliburn (with Fritz Reiner). Boult favors somewhat relaxed tempi here, which leads Cherkassky more into a ruminative mood much of the time, albeit with strong sections that ring out, but the performance lacks a certain continuity and does not point up Schumann’s innovative construction—particularly the first movement cadenza, which is played in a ruminative manner better suited for Rachmaninov. The second movement almost falls apart from this approach, although the good tempo opening the third movement salvages things a bit.

Predictably, Cherkassky is better in the Schumann Fantasia, where he can indulge in tempo shifts at will without damaging the music while pressing forward. To a certain degree, he modified this approach somewhat in his later years. The Schumann Piano Sonata No. 1 is a famous recording, formerly issued on a single CD by Ermitage, and is quite good in its ruminative way. His interpretation of the Brahms Paganini Variations is utterly fascinating, alternating between straightforward, aggressive phrases and warm, rubato ones—yet another example of his command of chiaroscuro—yet he never loses sight here of the music’s structure. When I saw him in recital, from a front-row seat, I noted that he was constantly working that sustain pedal, up and down, up and down, as if he were pumping on an organ. When I asked him about it afterwards, he said he wasn’t conscious of it, it was just instinctual, but it explains a lot of the magic he was able to create in otherwise plain, straightforward passages. He brings the same sensibilities to the Mendelssohn Cappricios, with equally fascinating results.

Cherkassky and Mozart might seem, at first thought, not to go together, yet his performance of the Sonata in C, K. 330, is light and quicksilver, with very few decelerandi or pauses. And yet, he gives the music more color and charm than most Mozart specialists I’ve heard, particularly the facile and vapid Alicia de Larrocha.

And there you have it: a pretty full view of Cherkassky in a somewhat wide range of repertoire, his good side and his quirky moods. This is who he was; I personally liked him when he was on his game, but being a man of whim, you didn’t always know what you were getting. Overall, recommended.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Julia Jones’ “3D Binaural” CD

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WAGNER: Tannhäuser: Overture & Venusberg Music (1874 version). BERLIOZ: Symphonie Fantastique / Sinfonieorchester Wuppertal; Julia Jones, cond / HD Klassik 801801 (live: Wuppertal, March 11-12, 2018)

One of the major reasons why modern-day fans of “vinyl” (the new buzzword for plain old LPs) feel so strongly that the sound thereon is superior to 24-bit CDs is that they feel the sound is warmer. For the most part, this is due to the actual sound of the vinyl itself coming through one’s speakers along with the music, but you can’t convince them otherwise.

This 3D Binaural CD should dispel them of that fiction. Designed for headphone listening, it has an almost Cinemascope effect when heard that way. The full orchestra is laid out in front of you with plenty of warmth as well as a spaciousness that resembles the old Quadraphonic LPs of the 1970s except with no pops, ticks or crackle to infringe on your listening experience. In that respect, the CD is truly amazing.

Julia Jones’ performances are also quite good, particularly in her exciting rendition of the Tannhäuser Overture and Venusberg Music and the last two movements of the Symphonie Fantastique. The one thing I missed, however, was the bite of the winds and the “sheen” on the violins, which are mitigated by the wide-screen engineering. It’s not quite as bad as many modern-day CDs where too much ambience or reverb is used—some things do come through quite clearly, like the cymbals in the Wagner—but I do miss that certain edge in the treble range that less ambient CDs provide.

A good example of what I mean is to compare Jones’ reading of the Berlioz symphony with the recent recording by Gianandrea Noseda on Helicon Classics, which I reviewed in August of this year. In terms of tempi, Jones is very close to Noseda, and she does maintain a good forward momentum in the performance, but too many times one listens in vain for the characteristic Berlioz sound of biting winds.

If the reader thinks I am damning Jones with faint praise, please understand that I really think that the engineering, in its effort to provide surround sound through conventional headphones, is the problem and not the conductor. These really are good performances that, were it not for some very strong competition elsewhere, would surely please even veteran classical listeners. It’s just that I feel that the sound was dulled somewhat by the engineering. Certain effects surely make their mark, such as the timpani “thunderclap” near the end of the third movement of the Berlioz symphony, that no other recording can duplicate. In the back of my mind, however, I feel badly that the Symphonie Fantastique was the work chosen for this CD and not the Berlioz Requiem. That might have been fantastic in this kind of surround sound.

As noted earlier, however, the last two movements of the Berlioz symphony, and particularly the “March to the Scaffold,” are just terrific. Never before has the feeling of fright been better captured by the microphones as it is here, excepting the bite of the winds and especially the trombones in the right channel during the trumpet section outburst. These are muddied by the microphone placement.

In short, this is a very good recording that just misses greatness, though not by much. Given a brighter sound profile, these performances could well be among the best ever recorded. Even as they are, as mentioned earlier, they are very good. Julia Jones is clearly a first-rate conductor and one whose name I will be looking out for in the future.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Jurowski Conducts Tchaikovsky Symphonies

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TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphonies Nos. 2* & 3+ / London Philharmonic Orch.; Vladimir Jurowski, cond / LPO 0109 (live: London, *December 7, 2016 & +March 5, 2016)

The early Tchaikovsky symphonies are, as one critic cleverly put it, “better than they sound,” but they need a conductor who can pull the structure together to make them work. Vladimir Jurowski, a conductor I’ve admired since I heard his recording of Holst’s The Planets several years ago, is one of these.

In one sense, his approach is similar to that of the late Igor Markevitch, whose set of the six numbered symphonies (originally issued on the Philips label, now on Newton Classics) was considered the benchmark for years. But of course, other conductors did just as good if not a little better job in the last three: Yevgeny Svetlanov in the Fourth, Dimitri Mitropoulos in the Fifth, and Toscanini in the Sixth (two versions, one with the Philadelphia Orchestra and one with the NBC Symphony). Yet Jurowski clearly puts his own stamp on these works. They are even a bit brisker and have more forward momentum than the Markevitch recordings, fine as they are, and the modern digital sound is simply sparkling. He brings out a ton of detail in these works that you may never have noticed before, and the continual feeling of excitement will have you on the edge of your seat.

One feature in which Jurowski reminded me of Toscanini was his putting the winds to the fore of the sound profile, and giving them a “bite” that you seldom hear in the performances of those who favor a lush string sound (too many, alas). The famed first-movement theme of the “Little Russian” theme almost sounds like the march of the Russian army as it went forth to crush the Nazis in World War II. Little Russians, indeed! Every spot solo is beautifully phrased and played, and in certain sections Jurowski pulls back slightly on the tempo to impart a feeling of warmth.

But make no mistake: these performances are not designed to lull you to sleep in a cocoon of warm, Romantic goopiness. The7 are fiery, slashing readings of these works, so similar to Svetlanov’s great recording of the Fourth that they could well have been made by him. Those listeners who like to bask in such things had best stay away from these performances. Your local classical radio station would never play these recordings unless the show host who chose them was wired on caffeine.

Needless to say, Jurowski takes an identical approach to the “Polish” Symphony with equally bracing results. The ethnologically-minded listener will surely concede, even if he or she thinks the “Little Russian” symphony too fast, that his approach is certainly appropriate in this case, since Polish musical culture has always been more Western in feel and scope than the Russian. Interestingly, Jurowski takes the second movement at a more leisurely pace than Markevitch did, but makes up for it by playing the “Andantino elegiaco” at a quicker tempo that doesn’t allow the music to drag.

But, to be honest, the third symphony isn’t as interesting as the second. Even in the Scherzo, the music is repetitive and not very creative, although Jurowski does the best he can with it. The lack of sentiment and maudlin, distended tempi drive the music home to the finish line with alacrity and fervor. These are, quite simply, tremendous performances and my new favorites for these two works.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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