The Pangaea Players Present 3 Perspectives

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ROREM: Trio. LOCKLAIR: Reynolda Reflections. HIGDON: American Canvas / Pangaea Chamber Players: Virginia Broffitt Kunzer, fl; Meredich Blecha-Wells, cel; Jeffrey Brown, pno / Navona NV6279

This is another of those albums which, like Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, aspires to reflect the visual world of art in music. One would be prudent to point out that, for better or worse, Mussorgsky himself did not succeed in this: the line drawings and paintings of Viktor Hartmann on which his piano suite is based are but nice little sketches compared to the vast cathedral of sound created by Mussorgsky, and I have yet to hear a piece of music that truly reflects a picture, but by golly they just keep on trying!

Fortunately, the music itself is good, and since I already knew the work of two of the three composers (Ned Rorem and Jennifer Higdon), I took the plunge on reviewing it.

The album cover shows reduced images of three paintings that the Pangaea Players were particularly fond of by Hallie Sands, Olivia Floyd and Taylor Morriss. Ned Rorem, reclusive old curmudgeon that he is, provided no program notes for his Trio, the movements of which bear the usual tempo directions, but Dan Locklair’s essay on his website reveals his inspirations as being Worthington Whittredge’s 18664 painting The Old Hunting Grounds, Thomas Hart Benton’s 1927 painting Bootleggers, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Pool in the Woods, Charles Sheeler’s 1952 Conversation Piece and Elliott Daingerfield’s 1912 The Spirit of the Storm. Jennifer Higdon based her music on Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock and Andrew Wyeth.

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Though noted mostly for his songs, Rorem has composed several instrumental works, and this one is as excellent as many of his previous pieces. It opens with the piano playing a bitonal chord while the cello joins it in its low register, with the flute playing a sort of fantasia above them. Then, at the 2:10 mark, the trio suddenly erupts in a somewhat menacing minor-key melee of sound. But the second movement, believe it or not, is even edgier than the first, a spooky “Largo” in which the flute and cello slither through their lines like ominous, monstrous worms looking to devour someone. The last two movements, though a bit less eerie, are also very creative.

Benton Bootleggers

Thomas Hart Benton, “Bootleggers”

Dan Locklair was a composer new to me, and I was pleasantly surprised by his very creative and individual style: tonal but not sweetsy or cloying, with real themes developed in an interesting manner. In a way, he harks back to certain American composers of the mid-20th century, before they all discovered serial and electronic music (or, worse yet, minimalism). Moreover, there is real variety in his writing as he moves from piece to piece; “Grounded in Machines,” which is based on the Benton painting mentioned above, has a touch of George Antheil in it along with a bit of Jazz Age rhythm, while “Arias to a Flower” contain glissando effects that almost make it sound as if Kunzer was playing a Chinese flute. “Songs to the Wind,” the last piece in this cycle, is in an entirely different style from the others, with the piano playing a series of upward—rising arpeggios while the flute in its mid-range and cello near the upper range play a strong melodic line, the harmony of which is then expanded in the piano solo. This is, quite simply, excellent music, well crafted and superbly played. I was very impressed. Incidentally, the title of his suite is a tribute to the Reynolda House Museum of Modern Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Jennifer Higdon’s American Canvas is in her usual pleasant, lyrical style, just modern enough in harmony to be interesting. “Georgia O’Keeffe” is very florid music, with the flute swirling around in the upper register while the cello plays a rapid countermelody below. In the second half of this piece, the tempo becomes much more relaxed, almost pastoral. “Pollock,” on the other hand, is almost minimalist in the beginning with a strong motor rhythm before Higdon expands the music and takes it further.

But “Wyeth” was, to me, the most surprising and original piece of the three, based on a stiffish, ostinato rhythm around which all three instruments engage, each in his or her own particular musical space and rhythm. At times, in fact, the rhythmic byplay becomes extremely complex. This is clearly something new for Higdon, and I was utterly fascinated by it.

No question about it, this is a surprisingly creative and interesting CD that I consider essential for fans of Rorem and/or Higdon (and, of course, for those of you who also know Locklair’s work.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Judith Farmer Loves Her Bassoon

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FASCH: Sonata in C.1 WOLFGANG: Duo for Flute & Bassoon No. 1.2 BOUTRY: Interférences. POULENC: Sonata for Clarinet & Bassoon / Judith Farmer, bsn; 1Patricia Mabee, hpsd; 1Andrew Shulman, cel; 2Susan Greenberg, fl; 3Vicki Ray, pno; 4Wenzel Fuchs, cl / VSIP Records 001

It’s not often that you run across female bassoon players, and rarer still that you find a female bassoonist who is absolutely thrilled with her instrument. Judith Farmer, the wife of jazz-classical hybrid composer Gernot Wolfgang, however, appears (from the photo on this album cover) to be both. She not only plays the bassoon, she can’t wait to have you hear her!

Like many active musicians, however, she apparently started to record this album at one point (specifically, in this case, October 2001), put it aside, but then “life happened” and it was several years before she got back to it. So enthusiastic she may be, but able to focus on tasks may just be a wee bit of a problem for her. Procrastination, thy name is Judith Farmer!

We begin in old-timey land with the Baroque sonata in C by Johann Friedrich Fasch (1688-1758), a name I’ve never encountered before. The first movement, in particular, is slow and rather lugubrious, but the second is an “Allegro” and so less so. Farmer plays with an excellent tone although, like all bassoonists I’ve heard, with very little dynamics contrasts. (I’d have to assume that changing volume on a bassoon is extremely difficult.) The harpsichord and cello continuo are just sort of there, the latter playing with historically incorrect straight tone.

Things pick up considerably with Wolfgang’s Duo for Flute & Bassoon, a lively piece in bitonal harmony with a jazzy rhythm and his typically humorous, slightly quirky construction and development. Here, Wolfgang uses pauses as a sort of tongue-in-cheek device to capture one’s attention and hold it throughout the piece. Flautist Susan Greenberg is a lively player who also captures the mood well, although I have to admit that it is Farmer who understands the jazz-influenced syncopations a bit better.

Next up is Interférences by Roger Boutry, a composer I’d not heard of previously. This work, which according to the notes he considered his most inspired for bassoon, is a lively modern work, again using bitonality and also strong syncopations which Farmer and her pianist, Vicki Ray, play with gusto and élan. This is a wonderful piece, both original and unpredictable. Though a continuous piece, it has three sections (the usual fast-slow-fast), the last being particularly tricky in its complex cross-rhythms.

We end our journey with the Sonata for Clarinet & Bassoon by Poulenc, a wonderful piece also recorded by Calogero Palmero and Andrea Zucco on the Brilliant Classics set of that composer’s complete chamber works. Once again Farmer has a lively partner to play with, in this case Wenzel Fuchs, and the two of them romp through the music with energy and humor.

In all, then, a very fine outing for Farmer and a treat for all bassoon-fanciers.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Benoît Delbecq’s Weird Piano Improvisations

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THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT / DELBECQ: The Loop of Chicago. Dripping Stones. Family Trees. Chemin Sur le Crest. Au Fil de la Parole. Anamorphoses. Havn en Havre. Pair et Impair. Broken World / Benoît Delbecq, pno/perc / Pyroclastic Records PR 13

Normally, I don’t care much for slow, moody kind of jazz, but the fascinating, fragmented and harmonically adventurous creations of French pianist Benoît Delbecq are clearly something different.

These are not so much improvisations as they are abstract, bitonal ruminations at the keyboard. It’s difficult to describe what Delbecq does because it’s not even so much his note-choices as simply the strange but creative flow of ideas that mark his pieces as different from the norm.

The best way I can describe him is that he is like Bill Evans on acid. He plays with a light touch, closely recorded, and just plays whatever pops into his mind. Some of it is linear and played in a stream of single notes; some of it is chorded and played as a series of abstract shapes. Yet there is an underlying beat about it that tells you it is jazz and not modern classical music, and he accompanies himself with a separately recorded percussion track that generally focuses on bass drum-like sounds. The promo sheet accompanying this release tells us that the music is “inspired by movement-centric perspectives.” I know these are English words, and I know what each of them mean, but the combination completely baffles me. If anyone out there can explain what “movement-centric perspectives” are, I’d appreciate your letting me know. (The best I can think of is that he sees movement so he puts it in perspective, but even that isn’t logical.)

Basically speaking, this is an album best listened to at a quiet time, possibly after nightfall, when you have nothing else to do but can spend the time to just sit and absorb what Delbecq does here. Of the first three tracks it is the third, Family Trees, that has the most regular pulse and thus is perhaps the easiest for a first-time listener to grasp. Yet even here, the sheer abstraction of his music moves one out of their comfort zone and into a musical style that is elusive and difficult to define. Single notes with a lot of space between them, followed by rapid, double-time keyboard runs, are just some of the things you will discover here.

By and large, the quiet, slow nature of the music doesn’t change much from track to track. On one hand, then, you might feel that the album is monotonous, but on the other you might feel that it creates a hypnotic spell on you. On Au Fil de la Parole, Delbecq seems to be playing a piano with heavily dampened strings, which gives it the effect of a kalimba. On this, as on a couple of other tracks, the background percussion is omitted.

You will certainly find your own favorite tracks among the nine on this CD. One of mine was Pair et Impair, in which Delbecq picks his way—almost gingerly—through a cross rhythmic pattern set up by the percussion with isolated, stabbed single notes, again using a damper on the piano. It’s just so weird that, after a while, I just had to laugh.

Certainly an interesting listen. I guarantee you that no other pianist in the world sounds like Benoît Delbecq!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Cluytens’ Strange Milan “Parsifal”

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WAGNER: Parsifal / Boris Christoff, bs (Gurnemanz); Gustav Neidlinger, bar (Amfortas); Rita Gorr, mezzo (Kundry); Sándor Kónya, ten (Parsifal); Silvio Maionica, bs (Titurel); Georg Stern, bar (Klingsor); Montserrat Caballé, Susanna Leib, Hilde Koch, Maria Graf (Flower Maidens); Teatro alla Scala, Milan Orch. & Chorus; André Cluytens, cond / Andromeda 9114 (live: Milan, May 2, 1960)

I just ran across this odd performance a few days ago while poking around the Naxos B2B website. A Parsifal from La Scala in 1960? With Boris Christoff, Silvio Maionica and Montserrat Caballé? WTF?? My first thought was that it was performed in Italian—these were still the days when opera was performed in the vernacular of each country, particularly in Italy, Germany and England—particularly since I could not recall ever having heard Christoff sing in German, but lo and behold, it is in German, every word of it. Then I remembered that this was still within that period of 1950-1962 when Italian opera houses were performing a LOT of interesting, non-standard repertoire both old and new, including operas by Spontini, Cherubini (and not just Medea), Gluck, Boito, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Montemezzi, Pizzetti and, yes, even Wagner.

The international cast (only Neidlinger and Stern are Germans) is certainly a strong one, particularly in the case of the Parsifal and Kundry. Neither Kónya nor Gorr sang these roles very often, but here they are and they are absolutely phenomenal. More on that later. As for Christoff, everyone knows that he had a magnificent voice but was no much of a vocal actor; his strengths came from his ability to act on the stage. In every single role he ever sang, whether Slavic, Italian or German, he had but one mode of expression and that was to snarl with the voice. It was magnificent snarling, to be sure, but really and truly, snarling was all he had to offer. Every phrase he ever sang, no matter what the words meant, always sounded to me like Get away from me, give me space, and get offa my blue suede shoes. Luckily for him, Gurnemanz, like Ramfis in Aïda, is a role in which snarling is OK…not ideal, but somewhat acceptable. Interestingly, however, there are three small cuts in his long narratives, two in Act I and one in Act III. They’re not all that damaging, but we’re so used to not having any cuts in Wagner nowadays that we forget there was a time when it was indeed acceptable.

I’ve read some customer reviews online that claim that Cluytens—who also didn’t conduct Wagner often just as Christoff seldom sang it—had a “shaky” grasp of the music. I disagree. His pacing and tempi sound just right. While it is true that there are a few flubs in the orchestra, this was probably due more to the fact that the musicians were probably totally unfamiliar with this music than that Cluytens didn’t know the score. I won’t go so far as to say that he rivals the best conductors of this opera, who in my view are Hans Knappertsbusch, Eugen Jochum and Daniel Barenboim, but he doesn’t embarrass himself either.

Although this is taken from a radio broadcast and not from an audience-recorded tape, the sound is a bit dicey. In addition to tape hiss, the volume fluctuates a bit, there are drop-outs here and there, and at the loudest moments there is blasting, the majority of the performance is quite listenable.

The highly dramatic, outward-oriented singing of the four main principals may not be to everyone’s taste, but for me it is enthralling. I am certainly not the kind of person who gets into the Cult of Voices (yes, I want attractive-sounding, solid voices that can also interpret the characters), but it’s wonderful to hear a complete Parsifal in which everyone has a clear, bright tone and a personal, recognizable timbre in addition to being wrapped up in the characters and the drama. Of course, since I’m 70 years old I have very good memories of hearing and enjoying Christoff, Gorr, Neidlinger and Kónya (at least on records…I never saw any of them in person), it’s like an oldster from my youth telling me how much he or she enjoyed those old Caruso, Farrar and Chaliapin records.

I think that Kónya is least suited to his role than the other three. Every phrase he sings sounds very theatrical. Particularly in the first act, I didn’t think he sounded much like his character but more like an over-eager Walther. But what the heck, since this is a “singer’s holiday” Parsifal I accept it on his own terms even if he doesn’t get as much into the character as Ramón Vinay, Jon Vickers or Jean Cox did. He’s certainly much better than Jess Thomas, who unfortunately was the Parsifal on Knappertsbusch’s famous stereo commercial recording of the opera. (Why Kna’s 1964 Parsifal with Barbro Ericson and Vickers isn’t in stereo still baffles me.)

In addition to the occasional blasting sound, another problem with this recording is the pitch wavering, which affects the orchestra even more than the voices in Act I. A good sound engineer with top-notch equipment could fix this, but I don’t have a $15,000 sound editor and thus can’t do much with it.

Ironically, Act II is the most free of both blasting and distortion, and here we can revel in the sheer glory of Gorr’s and Kónya’s voices, which ring out with thrilling intensity (not to mention laser-like focus). As far as sheer thrills go, this is the best version of this duet I’ve heard since the 1940 Flagstad-Melchior recording. The whole act will have you on the edge of your seat.

The blasting sound in the orchestra only afflicts the Prelude to Act III; otherwise, all is as clear as a bell. Christoff is still snarlin’ away (magnificently, but still snarling), Konya sounds terrific, and Gorr adds one more of her very theatrical-sounding “a-a-a-a-a-h-h-!” s near the beginning.

Were a first-class engineer like Andrew Rose or Seth Winner to work his magic on the first act (and possibly on the rest of the performance to remove some of the grit and blasting), this would be an interesting alternative to your favorite Knappertsbusch performance or the Barenboim digital stereo recording, but as it is I can only recommend it as a second or third choice performance.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Michael Brown Plays Ravel & Medtner

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RAVEL: Miroirs. MEDTNER: Second Improvisation (in variations form) / Michael Brown, pno / First Hand Records FHR78

Michael Brown, the intrepid American pianist-composer, presents here two extended works by two master composers of the first third of the 20th century, Maurice Ravel and Nikolai Medtner. Although their compositional styles were completely different, each one was a highly creative artist within his specific field. Miroirs, of course, is a famous piece which has been recorded many times over the decades, but the Second Improvisation of Medtner is still a relative scarcity (I could only locate previous recordings by Poom Prommachart, Hamish Milne, Geoffrey Tozer and the late, great Earl Wild).

The acoustic of this recording has a lot of reverb in it, which I normally don’t care for, but in the case of Miroirs it actually helps to give the music a shimmering sound, despite the fact that at times the reverb almost sounds like feedback. Engineer Monte Nichols should have been a bit more careful in not overdoing it too much. Yet the performance itself is a fine one, played with surprising strength and drive which is not always the case in Ravel performances.

By contrast with the objective-impressionist style of Ravel we hear the subjective-late Romantic style of Medtner. It is typical of this composer that the theme upon which he bases his series of variations is tune he calls “The Song of the Water Nymph,” but also typical of him that his harmonies are much more chromatic and interesting than those of his older colleague and friend Rachmaninov. In my review of Stephanie Trick’s recording of music by James P. Johnson, I referred to his style as the “graduate course” of American stride piano; the same can be said of Medtner, he was the “graduate course” of late Russian romanticism. Already in Variation 2, marked “Capriccioso,” one can hear how Medtner absorbed some of Scriabin’s harmonies but refashioned them in his own personal manner.

In this recording, Brown includes two recently-discovered variations. Brown places the first of these fifth, between the numbered fourth and fifth variations; the second is played between variations 11 & 12. They clearly fit into the scheme of things. As Brown relates in the liner notes, the National Library of Canada was holding 89 pages of sketches and drafts of this work in Medtner’s own hand. He was struck by several details:

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Score excerpt in Medtner’s own hand

Firstly, Medtner wrote out several different order possibilities to the variations. Further into the sketches, Medtner writes the whole work out. To my delight, there are two complete variations included here that were not included in the published edition, and a fragment of another he called Waltz. The first complete untitled variation has a tempo indication which reads ‘Pesante.’ The second he calls La Cadenza. Sincere, languorous, and sublimely gorgeous are just a few words that came to mind upon reading through them. I was in love with them and determined to see how I could thoughtfully integrate them into the work. Through months of trial and error, I have come up with the order on this recording – which is based on Medtner’s various order possibilities in the sketches, combined with my own aesthetic sense.  

These added variants, then, make this recording indispensable for Medtner fans as well as for fellow pianists who may wish to include them in future performances of this work. As I said earlier, excellent performances with just a bit too much reverb.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Koukl Plays Harsányi, Vol. 3

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HARSÁNYI: Piano Sonata. 4 Morceaux. Petite Suite Pour Enfants. Piano Suite. Parc d’Attractions Expo: Le tourbillion mécanique. 2 Burlesques. Noveletter. Rhapsodie. 3 Impromptus / Giorgio Koukl, pno / Grand Piano GP831

That intrepid Czech pianist Giorgio Koukl, who in my view is one of the five or six greatest living pianists today, has spent most of the latter years of his career playing neglected works by composers who worked in France during the 1920s and ‘30s. Tibor Harsányi has been his latest project, and with this Vol. 3 he digs into some of the composer’s meatiest works. It should be noted that everything on this CD except for the short piece from Parc d’Attractions Expo are first recordings.

The program opens with the 1926 piano sonata, clearly one of Harsányi’s meatiest works, and we are immediately plunged into his world of bitonal harmonies. As in much of his music, Harsányi’s top line—though quirkily constructed—is essentially tonal; it is the chord choices and chord positions that constantly move the harmonies around and cause the bitonal clashes. And yet—I hope that Mr. Koukl will forgive me for saying this—there is something lightweight about the work. This is by no means a condemnation of Harsányi’s fine grasp of structure and quite a bit of imagination, but it has the “feel” of a Sonatina, particularly (but not exclusively) in the third movement. Nonetheless, Koukl’s lively reading makes the most of it.

If anything, the 4 Morceaux of 1924 are even more harmonically complex—and, to my ears, more serious—music than the sonata. This is almost Szymanowski-like in its very complex harmonies which in fact drive the piece rhythmically as well from the left hand. Moreover, each of the four pieces have a different “feel” and character, and the music is more serious. These are clearly unjustly-forgotten gems. In the second piece, “Serenade,” Harsányi also uses the pentatonic scale.

The Petite Suite is also a bit lightweight, but with a title like that you expect it to be. When I say “a bit lightweight,” however, one must take into consideration Harsányi’s love of extended chords and pentatonic scales, which gives the music a feeling of consistent restlessness. I found myself mesmerized by the first movement (“Prelude”) with its constantly rising chromatic melody.

Perhaps it is because of the choice of selections on this CD or perhaps due to the way they are programmed, but although there are contrasts in tempo and mood I felt a sense of déjà vu as the music moved from track to track. This is clearly not the fault of Koukl, whose playing at every moment is fully engaged, but the fault of Harsányi. He apparently went through a period where nearly everything had the same kind of harmonic base and same general trajectory despite changing tempi. (Even most of the keys he wrote in are the same.) Or perhaps I’ve been spoiled by listening to so much Sorabji of late. The Farsi-British composer’s imagination was so much richer and far reaching that, by contrast, Harsányi sounds like a dessert rather than a main course.

Nonetheless, these are valuable recordings because they are first issues of most of this music and clearly some of it is quite extraordinary.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Haraldsdóttir’s “Bloodhoof”

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HARALDSDÓTTIR: Blóðhófnir / UMBRA: Lilja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir, voc; Alexandra Kjeld, bs/voc; Arngerður Maria Árnadóttir, celtic harp/harmon/voc; Guðbjörg Hlín Guðmundsdóttir, baroque vln/voc with Kristin þora Haraldsdóttir, baroque vla/voc; þórdis Gerður Jónsdóttir, baroque cel/voc; Guðni Franzon, cond / Innova INN052-1

And now for something completely different, as John Cleese used to say every week on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Kristín þora Haraldsdóttir, an Icelandic actress, violist and performance artist, has created here a sort of Meredith Monk-like piece for a small group of voices and instruments based on the poetry of Gerður Kristny. To quote the liner notes,

The poetic cycle is a reevaluation of an Old Norse mythic poem from the Edda, in which the giantess, Gerður Gymisdóttir, is abducted from her homeland Jötunheimar, or the Land of Giants, to be forced to marry the god Freyr in the Land of Gods. The original poem, Skírnismál, has, since Viking times, been commonly understood as a love story, framed around the journey of the servant, who rides his horse, Bloodhoof, to the Land of Giants to seize Gerður for Freyr, using threats of violence to her family, eternal pain, and finally rune magic to succeed in his mission and abduct her. This contemporary retelling is told by the giantess herself. This shift to first-person narrative redefines what has been traditionally perceived as a love story into one of abduction and violence. In Gerður Kristný’s own words, “Gerður Gymisdóttir’s story is a clear case of human trafficking”.

And so the music moves from a calm but strange opening to louder and more violent-sounding music as the abduction takes place. The musical blocks used are relatively simple and tonal, in fact normally spanning no more than five or six notes, but the extremely strange underlying instrumental sounds are a modern version of ancient instruments, which give the whole proceeding a bizarre sound. The piece is like Monk’s music in its frequent use of repeated rhythmic phrases, but quite unlike her work in that words are sung, not just vowel-oriented syllables.

Unfortunately, the accompanying booklet contains no texts or translations, but simply by imagining the story as it unfolds one can imagine the situations of each piece within the cycle. Thankfully, Haraldsdóttir and the other vocalists used here all have clear, unsullied voices and great diction, and they (but especially Haraldsdóttir herself) inflect their singing with great feeling, which makes the story a little easier to follow. Sometimes, as in the seventh track (“Niú nædtur”), the background tends towards a drone effect, but thankfully this is not a device that is overused.

Perhaps I’m letting my imagination run away with me, but I could see this piece being most effectively performed in a small, dark space with a few colored spotlights on the performers. In any event, it’s the kind of music that leans towards darkness anyway, if you know what I mean. Despite its being “modern music” (Haraldsdóttir is only 38 years old as of 2020), it has that “ancient” sort of sound that harks back to the early Middle Ages.

In any case, the music is extremely creative, albeit in a very feminine way. Speaking as a woman, I think that many male listeners would not respond as well to the music, and especially the plot twist, the way a woman does. You have to understand what it’s like to be a “second class citizen” in virtually every country in the world to understand the kind of feelings projected in this piece.

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Kristín þora Haraldsdóttir

Despite its essential simplicity, this music resonated very deeply to me. I felt every emotion, every change of feeling and every event large and small in Gymisdóttir’s saga as if I were watching it unfold in slow motion. How different is this from Isolde’s abduction by Tristan to wed King Marke? Not at all, but at least Isolde was able to escape that form of bondage by drinking the magic elixir and falling deeply in love with Tristan. Poor Gymisdóttir was simply forced into a relationship he didn’t choose, just like Elisabetta being forced by politics to marry King Philip II of Spain. Even to this day, in far too many cultures and particularly in many religions, women are still treated as objects, not as people with feelings and minds and a determination to be self-sufficient.

OK, enough on the personal issues. I think you can get some idea of what appealed to me just from my description of the music itself. Recommended to those with the wit to understand.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Friedrich Gulda’s Lost Symphony

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GULDA: Symphony in G / Radio-Orchester Stuttgart; Südfunk-Tanzorchester; Friedrich Gulda, cond / Entrée. Variations. Play Piano Play: No. 4. Prelude and Fugue. PAUER: Meditationen: No. 2, Étude / Friedrich Gulda, pno (live: Heidelberg, June 6, 1971) / SWR Music SWR19096CD

From the publicity blurb for this album:

Gulda’s “Symphony in G“, presented on this album, was discovered in the SWR archive in the course of research for the release of all the recordings the Austrian pianist made for the German Southwest Broadcasting Corporation (SWR). Until now nobody actually knew that this work existed for there are no indications of Gulda being commissioned or of a specific occasion for which he might have composed this symphony. Therefore, one listens here to the world première of a piece which – apart from being recorded in the studio on 20 November 1970 – has never been performed in public.

But since recording sessions cost money—particularly when using a full orchestra—who paid for this project since it was apparently never released and fell into a black hole? Probably Gulda himself.

This is clearly a third stream piece; one might say in the tradition of Gunther Schuller, except that it is far more exciting, jazzy and innovative than anything Schuller ever wrote. Schuller’s own third stream pieces tended to be over-classicized, very complex and not usually swinging. This symphony swings right out of the gate, with the two orchestras swinging like a super big band right away. After the dramatic introduction, things quiet down a bit but the music is no less swinging, albeit in a more subtle manner. This almost sounds like the kind of thing that Stan Kenton’s Neophonic Orchestra was doing in the 1960s except with a full string section (which Kenton had used earlier, but dropped by the mid-‘60s). In the first movement there is also a surprisingly lovely, almost French-sounding passage for winds and brass in 6/8 time which increases in volume, then recedes again. The rhythm section comes to the fore in the next section. For its time and place, it is an amazingly original and creative work, a far better synthesis of jazz and classical elements than even Rolf Liebermann’s Concerto for Jazz Band and Orchestra recorded back in the 1950s by the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony for RCA. There’s a nice cool jazz solo played on alto sax that channels Lee Konitz, except that the fast passages aren’t quite as fluid, followed by a fine baritone sax solo. Both are played with soft muted trumpets in the background. When the tenor sax enters, however, the bass suddenly becomes more prominent and there are interjections by a trumpet and a trombone behind it as the whole thing builds to a climax.

Despite all the busyness of this music, however, it is surprisingly well developed along traditional likes. Gulda always felt that jazz swing and improvisation were important but also stressed the “superiority” of Western classical form over the usual jazz compositions. Of course, there were Americans who had their own take on this synthesis of jazz and classical form, such as Eddie Sauter and Clare Fischer who had a solid classical background before going into jazz. Gulda, by contrast with the Americans, worked long and hard to hone his jazz chops to the point where they would be taken seriously by American jazz musicians, though I think it is fair to say that he never quite swung with the ease of such European jazz musicians as organist Barbara Dennerlein, with whom he played a few concerts.

The real surprise comes in the second (slow) movement, which sounds conventionally classical, pitting written oboe and French horn solos against a soft cushion of strings in a style that almost sounds Mozartean. This makes sense since Mozart was the classical composer closest to Gulda’s heart; but suddenly we hear a guitar solo against a rhythmic figure played by the strings, and we know we are not in Mozartean territory. Then comes a brief bass solo, following which we hear the saxes play a figure followed by a wah-wah trombone solo with rhythmic guitar figures and drums underneath. A bit of a rock beat comes in behind the plunger-muted trumpet solo, and the band plays hot, feverish figures behind it. Then back to the classical elegance of Mozart for the rest of the movement!

Curiously, the third and final movement also begins slowly, with a slow, moody Adagio for the strings, including a written cadenza for solo violin, but after a brief pause the big band comes crashing in, the tempo increases, and we’re off to the races. Most of this “Allegro assai” section is scored, not improvised, but it swings mightily. There are some dazzling fast figures played by the saxes as well as by the strings as the music hurtles towards its conclusion. There are, however, improvised electric guitar and drum solos along the way.

So why was it never performed? Perhaps, after hearing the tapes, Gulda was dissatisfied with it but didn’t feel it was worth revising because there were precious few big jazz bands and classical orchestras in Germany at the time capable of playing it well. But I’m very glad we have it now.

In the piano recital excerpts recorded live in June 1971, Gulda is at his swinging best, particularly in the opener, his own Entrée, an uptempo piece with a more relaxed bridge in the middle. This is followed by the Étude of Fritz Pauer, a friend of his who won a jazz prize in 1966 and with whom he worked from time to time. This Étude is a rapid moto perpetuo piece that eventually comes to resemble a boogie-woogie piece, with Gulda improvising above the constant G-flat vamp.

Following this are Gulda’s own Variations, lasting 11 ½ minutes and built around a nice little syncopated figure played in the left hand. By the 7:54 mark he gets very complex indeed, but has to forego playing with swing in order to manipulate those incredible double-time figures. After this, he plays the delightful little “Allegro ma non troppo” from this equally delightful suite, Play Piano Play, then closes out with his own Prelude and Fugue. Gulda’s performances of these pieces swing a lot more than that of those classical pianists who tend to record them.

This is a superb album, but notable particularly for the Symphony. This is a gem that needs to be played in orchestral concerts when they resume, but somehow I doubt it will ever be programmed. Half of classical musicians still look down their noses at jazz while most of the other half simply can’t play it.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Kitajenko’s Scriabin

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SCRIABIN: Symphony No. 2. Le Poème de L’Extase [Symphony No. 4]* (arr. Y. Ahronovitch) / Gürzenich-Orchester Köln; *WDR Rundfunkchor; Dmitri Kitajenko, cond / Oehms Classics OC 474

Dmitri Kitayenko, who celebrated his 80th birthday in August 2020, is one of those Russian/ former Soviet conductors who have always been liked and admired without reaching the top tier (Kondrashin, Svetlanov, Gergiev etc.). Here he gives us his takes on the music of Alexander Scriabin.

The Second Symphony is played well, starting out somewhat sedately but kicking into a higher gear around the 3:10 mark in the first movement. It’s a very elegant performance, and whether consciously or not, Kitayenko brings out several resemblances of this score to Tchaikovsky. This is especially true in the slow third movement, which Kitayenko drags out to an incredible 16 ½ minutes, and makes sound not even like Tchaikovsky but like that pompous windbag Bruckner.

Much more interesting is this performance of the Poème de l’Extase, which includes a chorus arranged by one Yuri Ahronovitch, a Soviet-born Israeli conductor who died in 2002. Without a booklet and therefore without liner notes, I cannot find online what reason or justification Ahronovitch had for adding a choral part to this symphony. From what I could hear, however, the chorus is used in the background for color and does not intrude on or interfere with the orchestral score (except for the tail end when they suddenly come forward), but this makes me wonder all the more why it was done. Perhaps to indicate that this symphony was the gateway to Prometheus, the Poem of Fire and the unfinished Prelude to the Final Mystery, the latter of which uses a very large and obvious chorus? It’s hard to say.

Once again, Kitajenko’s performance is good but not great. Here, then, we have yet another example of what I would categorize as a completely superfluous disc that didn’t need to be recorded or issued except for fans of the conductor. Both Stokowski’s (with the Houston Symphony, a really old Everest 35 mm stereo disc) and Muti’s (with the Philadelphia Orchestra) recordings are far superior to this. I supposed it would make for nice listening if you had nothing else to do with your time for a little over an hour, but it’s not a memorable or competitive recording.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Holloway’s & Seabourne’s “Moments of Vision”

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HOLLOWAY: Piano Trio. Moments of Vision.* SEABOURNE: Piano Trio / Avant Piano Trio; *Benjamin Harris, spkr; Peter Britton, perc / Sheva Contemporary SH 271

This CD, scheduled for release in February, combines music by Peter Seabourne with that of his teacher and mentor Robin Holloway.

The Holloway trio, in one continuous movement lasting 20 minutes, features rising and falling chromatic lines over a very strange piano accompaniment in which extended chords are used. Yet it is an attractive piece and very well written, with its quirky theme developed strongly yet unexpectedly. I was rather surprised to learn that this is a late work by Holloway, dating from nearly four years ago (2017), as it has much of the freshness of his earlier works. In the liner notes, the composer describes parts of as being “operatic scenes” in an instrumental manner, sort of an opera without words. I found it utterly fascinating from start to finish. At about the 12:35 mark, the cello plays a pizzicato theme that sounds a bit, in the beginning, like the Te Deum motif. A bit later on, the violin and cello play very high, almost ghostly-sounding figures.

Much to my surprise, the Seabourne piano trio is considerably edgier than that of his teacher, opening with almost fragmented shards of notes scattered about at a fast speed, including some string tremolos played by the violinist. It is a tremendously busy work that almost sounds as if it keeps trying to coalesce, only to be split apart again and again by the nervous, kinetic energy of those little shards of phrases. We then go down a darker hole via the piano’s thumping chords, accompanied eventually by the strings. There is a brief motif that sounds, momentarily, like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the rhythm of which (if not the theme itself) returns a bit later. It almost sounds like a piano trio that is mad at each other, each instrument trying to argue against the others. The same vibe continues into the second movement, titled “Shadowy, rapid,” while the slow third movement provides a temporary respite from all the infighting—but not from the underlying unease of feeling. They may be quarreling a bit less, but there are still some hard feelings between them. In the last movement there seems to be an attempt at reconciliation, but perhaps too late: now that the trio has decided to play together, their different figures clash and trip over one another.

Holloway’s Moments of Vision ends this program. It was written in 1984 for the Aldeburgh Festival during the last years of Peter Pears’ life, when he was no longer singing but would do narrations set to music. The words for this piece come from Virginia Woolf, Siegfried Sassoon, Walter Pater and Rainer Maria Rilke, though the title comes from Thomas Hardy. Despite the somewhat eerie quality of the opening piano figures, it is a less austere piece than the Seabourne trio. In fact, though a piano trio is indeed involved (along with a percussionist), it is almost program music, designed to accompany the words rather than to grab attention for itself.

And happily, narrator Benjamin Harris has a superb speaking voice and exceptionally fine diction, which helps the listener to follow the descriptive lines and imagine the pictures they conjure up. (It made sense to me when I learned, via the booklet, that Harris has studied music with Robin Holloway.) I fully understood what Holloway meant when he wrote that this piece is more of a “song cycle for speaker and four players,” who produce “songs without words” behind the narration. It is truly an exceptional piece, one of the most stunning I have heard from this talented composer. As usual, though, Woolf’s poetry is really over-the-top in terms of emotions heightened to the breaking point. I think Ritalin would have done her some good.

Throughout all these pieces, the Avant Piano Trio, which includes the superb Italian pianist Alessandro Viale whose work has graced several other Sheva CDs, play with great musicianship, involvement and understanding of what they are about. This is certainly one of the best discs to show off Holloway’s great ability at writing chamber music, which I personally consider his finest genre.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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