Bernius Conducts Cherubini’s “Messe Solennelle”

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CHERUBINI: Messe Solennelle in D / Ruth Ziesak, Iris-Anna Deckert, sop; Christa Mayer, alto; Christoph Genz, Robert Buckland, ten; Thomas E. Bauer, bass; Kammerchor Stuttgart; Klassische Philharmonie Stuttgart; Frieder Bernius, cond / Carus 83.512 (live: Schleswig-Holstein, July 21, 2001)

Luigi Cherubini wrote two sacred works that have retained some popularity down through the centuries, his Requiem and this Messe Solennelle which is actually his Mass No. 2. But whereas the Requiem has had seven recordings, by Matthias Grünert, Giulini, Bernius, Martin Pearlman, Muti, Toscanini and Diego Fasolis, of which the Toscanini is my personal favorite, the Messe has (to my knowledge) only been recorded five times, by Newell Jenkins, Hans Zöbeley, Muti, Helmuth Rilling and this new one by Bernius.

Now, I haven’t heard every other recording of the Requiem, and it’s quite possible that it is the best of the modern recordings (Arkivmusic gives only his recording its recommendation), but in the cause of fairness in reviewing I did sample all of the other recordings of the Messe and this one is clearly the best—and I say that in full view of the fact that Bernius’ orchestra plays with consistent straight tone, which I don’t really care for a lot.

The reason? The musical style.

When Toscanini’s recording of the Cherubini Requiem appeared in 1950, many music critics lambasted it for not sounding “pious” or “religious” enough, but nowadays the only complaint one has is that he strengthened the music by including a few bits from Cherubini’s Symphony. Otherwise, sonics aside, it stands up very well.

But these other recordings of the Messe, even the one by Rilling who really should know better, all sound too legato in their phrasing and most of the orchestras just sound too plush and mushy. The result is not just that the music lacks excitement, it also lacks the kind of musical “pointing” that the score calls for. And because the orchestral and choral textures are so much thicker and the style more legato, those other conductors completely miss not only the pointing of rhythm but also the finely attuned dynamics changes that Cherubini called for. He was a composer influenced at least partially by Gluck, and we all know how dull Gluck’s operas sound when they’re conducted with too much of a late-19th-century sensibility.

And not only does Berlius’ musical approach help the orchestra and soloists—all of whom, miraculously, have good voices—but it also helps greatly to clarify the choral textures, bringing out the counterpoint in a much cleaner style and helping us hear the way Cherubini played the different sections of the chorus against each other. As a side bonus, Bernius’ conducting also brings out the falling chromatics in the score with more telling effect.

Like many Masses written in the early 19th century, including Beethoven’s, the composers were not always really pious or devoted to Christianity. This was the Age of Enlightenment, when many around the world were realizing that the truly universal God was the God of creation and not some guy in the sky surrounded by angels and complicated myths set down in holy books to be read and believed without question. Thus this work is more of a dramatic musical creation than an act of piety. In fact, as you listen to this piece in this performance, you will realize sooner or later that it sounds pretty chipper for a mass, and not really solemn at all. As Wolfgang Hochstein puts it in the liner notes:

After a seemingly familiar beginning, melodic progressions and harmonic developments are led into new directions by means of unexpected twists, which for this very reason seem particularly imaginative and witty. In addition to familiar successions of sequences and cadences, dominant chords with a lowered fifth in the bass, diminished seventh chords, false cadences and sophisticated modulations are characteristic of the composer’s harmonic repertoire. No less important is the chromaticism, and subtle instrumentation lends many sections an exquisite sonority.

And Bernius brings all this out with his exceptionally clear, almost 3D conducting style without forcing the issue or making it sound as if he were exaggerating anything. Listening to the Muti or Rilling recordings is almost a chore; listening to this Bernius recording is a delight from start to finish. In addition, another startling fact about this performance is that it is the first issue of a live performance from 19 years ago. In a brief liner note, Bernius tells us how proud he was of this achievement and how much he wanted it to finally be issued. He also mentions that the total forces used in this performance was 80 musicians and singers. Somehow or other, he makes them sound like many more than that.

The only thing I felt lacking in this recording was bass response. The rather small chamber orchestra is clear in all of its sections, but the straight-tone basses inevitably lack richness of sound. Other than that, I was really delighted by this performance

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Cooke’s Music for Oboe

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COOKE: Sonata for Oboe & Piano. Sonata for Oboe & Cembalo (or Piano). Intermezzo. Quartet for Oboe & String Trio. Sonata for 2 Pianos* / The Pleyel Ensemble: Melinda Maxwell, ob; Harvey Davies *& Helen Davies, pno; Sarah Ewins, vln; Susie Mészáros, vla; Heather Bills, cello / MPR 108

My regular readers know how fond I am of the fascinating music of Arnold Cooke. I reviewed no less than three CDs of his music in one month, September of last year, and raved about all of them.

This most recent entry presents his complete music for oboe in addition to his Sonata for 2 Pianos, written between 1937 (the 2-piano sonata) and 1987 (the Intermezzo). As in the case of his other music, it shows an excellent sense of construction along with a fertile imagination. One listens to Cooke’s music as much for the sheer pleasure it affords as much as for the way he handled his musical materials, and that makes it quite different from many modern composers for whom effect is the sole reason for their music. Cooke kept one eye on structure and the other on an imaginative use of musical materials.

There are so many little things one notices in these works that it is difficult to write of them all in a review. Not least among them is the way he balances the rhythm and harmony so that they follow one another in lockstep rather than trying to “impress” the listener by making them independent and discrete features of his scores. For me, personally, however, I’m not really partial to the sound of a solo oboe though Melinda Maxwell plays the instrument very well indeed. One of the problems I have with the instrument is its astringent tone, interesting in an orchestra but not so pleasant over long stretches of solo exposure. Another is that it doesn’t seem to have much to say in terms of dynamics contrasts. One can play it loudly or a little softly, but not much else. Nonetheless, the first two sonatas were composed for two of the finest English oboists of their day, Léon Goossens and Evelyn Rothwell, the latter of whom was Mrs. John Barbirolli. But bless Cooke’s heart, he tried to write interesting pieces for them and he succeeded.

With that being said, I enjoyed the Oboe Quartet better than the sonatas for the simple reason that you have three other instruments in the mix that can play varied dynamics and thus give some feeling to the music.

What I found interesting about the two-piano sonata, written when Cooke was only 31 years old, is already in his mature style that we recognize from the later works. Yet in a sense this piece has a more vibrant feeling for rhythm than one senses in the later pieces, and is quite upbeat despite the continuous use of bitonality. I really liked it, both as a composition and also the performance.

The reader will correctly assume that although I admired the oboe works I wasn’t all that enthused by them, but if your tolerance for oboe playing is higher than mine you will surely enjoy this disc.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The Music of Nicola LeFanu

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LeFANU: The Hidden Landscape / BBC Symphony Orch.; Norman del Mar, cond / Columbia Falls / RTÉ National Symphony Orch.; Colman Pearce, cond / Threnody / RTÉ National Symphony Orch.; Gavin Maloney, cond / The Crimson Bird / Rachel Nicholls, sop; BBC Symphony Orch.; Ilan Volkov, cond / NMC D255 (live: London, August 7, 1973 (1st work) & February 17, 2017 (4th work); Dublin, September 19, 1997 (2nd work) & January 13, 2015 (3rd work)

Nicola LeFanu (b. 1947), the daughter of Irish composer Elizabeth Maconchy and William LeFanu, studied at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford before going on to Harvard where she won a Harkness Fellowship. She later became Director of Music at St. Paul’s Girls’ School (why name a girls’ school after a male saint?), then taught and lectured on music at King’s College, London and the University of York. Although this is not the first release of her works on CD—there are several out there on which her music is included—it is the first time for these specific pieces and, from what I could glean online, only the second CD devoted entirely to her music (the other being Catena for 11 Solo Strings Etc. on Naxos).

LeFanu’s mode of musical expression is highly unusual, combining as it does amorphous, often broken melodic lines and atonal harmony with slow-moving figures. This gives one the impression of “mood” pieces that express discomfort and unease rather than calm, peaceful figures. Nor is her music consistently calm: six minutes into The Hidden Landscape and we hear an orchestral explosion, including tympani, which is truly terrifying. In the liner notes, LeFanu admits that “the atmosphere becomes increasingly oppressive,” so clearly this is not an idyllic spot within the hidden landscape! LeFanu admits that she is an “outdoors” person who does not like urban living but, like Mahler, she sees nature for what it is—alternately peaceful and scary beyond belief.

LeFanu, then, is not a composer who will appeal to the masses. Her music is not melodic, tonal, nor comforting…but it is highly creative and, for those who are not prejudiced against modern sounds, it holds the listener’s attention. Even when things get extremely quiet, i.e. around the 14-minute mark of this work, there is something going on, a feeling of something not quite wholesome lurking around the next corner, that keeps you listening to hear what comes next. At 19:12, there is a complete dead stop; one thinks the piece is over; but surprisingly, very quiet wind and string figures enter to pick up the thread of the music and continue it to the end. This, by the way, is the actual world premiere performance.

Columbia Falls was commissioned for the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1975. LeFanu describes it as “rather like looking at a broad landscape. You are aware both of the overall contour and of the balance of forces that shape it; you sense distant horizons whilst taking in a profusion of details. This is a metaphor; but for a composer, discovering a new work has all the wonder of literal exploration.” The music follows a similar profile to the preceding work, which is not terribly surprising considering that they were written only two years apart, yet even so the content is very different. There is more rhythmic movement in Columbia Falls, and here LeFanu assigns each “orchestral ‘family’” its own music and sonic landscape. As the composer puts it, the listener “can move between foreground and background, taking bearings from the juxtaposition of contrasting ideas, ideas that are recurring, meeting, parting, changing. The perspective is always shifting, the music always growing about you.” As a listener, however, I found myself less involved in the music from that perspective than I was simply immersed in the peculiar ebb-and-flow of the piece. In general, Columbia Falls is louder than The Hidden Landscape and has more going on, though it’s true that one can focus on the foreground in one listening and the background in another. Another feature that both works have in common is their ability to make time “stand still” for the listener. Each note and phrase is an event in the here-and-now in addition to contributing to the larger progression of the music. It’s kind of a Zen thing. Yet I couldn’t escape the feeling that this piece went on about eight minutes too long.

Threnody is a brief orchestral piece (6:46 long) based on Brendan Kennelly’s The Trojan Women. LeFanu claims that her lament is for the young boy Astynax, who was murdered so that he might not grow up to be as brave as his father, Hector. Being more tightly written, I felt that this piece made a very good impression.

The final work, The Crimson Bird, includes a vocalist. This, too, was inspired by The Trojan Women, in this case using an original modern text by poet John Fuller. The summary of the text is given thus in the booklet:

1: A young mother at dawn. Nursing her baby, she gazes at the surrounding landscape. She rejoices in its fertility, but she also fears dispossession. The orchestration is light, the soprano part lyrical.

2: Her son has grown up and left home; his mother fears for him. Conflict comes to her country. Her city is besieged and bombarded; she is inside. The music is fast and assertive, for the soprano with the full orchestra.

3: Conflict and siege: the mother is outside the city. What part is her son playing? A ‘hero’ or a ‘murderer’? A dramatic soprano part, over the full orchestra.

4: Pietà: her son is dead. She can only pray for an end to the continuing conflict:
There is no end to a siege when both sides are besieged
There is no end to the suffering of each

A passacaglia for the full orchestra, with the soprano etching a lyrical line.

The music is, again, atmospheric, but here has a discernibly lyrical top line for the singer. Our soprano, Rachel Nicholls, has an absolutely dreadful voice, not only unsteady in pitch with a slow beat that screams “wobble” at the listener, but also with a particularly edgy, ugly timbre. But wouldn’t you know it, she is one of the composer’s favorite singers.

Considering my positive response to some of this music, however, I didn’t feel in the end that most of it would not “stick” with the listener in any way. It is music that entices and interests the listener while it is going on, but not music that “stays” with you. Nonetheless, I recommend this CD as a interesting if transitory listening experience.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Liss Conducts Andriessen & Berlioz

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ANDRIESSEN: Miroir de peine.* BERLIOZ: Symphonie Fantastique / *Christiane Stotijn, mezzo; Philharmonie Zuidnederland; Dmitri Liss, cond / Fuga Libera FUG764 (live: October 27-28, 2017 & April 5-6, 2019)

Russian conductor Dmitri Liss, director of the Ural Philharmonic Orchestra, here pairs an unusual work—Miroir de peine (Mirror of Pain) by Dutch composer Hendrik Andriessen—with an established classic, Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. We all know the program behind the Symphonie; of Andriessen’s piece, not a single word is said about it in the CD booklet…nor is there a printed text or translation though it is sung! I had to go online to discover that it was written in 1923, set to a text by Henri Ghéon. Then I had to go to the LiederNet Archive to learn what the texts of the five songs are. You can discover and translate them from the original French HERE. To be honest with you, I’m not much encouraged by the fact that the titles of three of the songs are “Agony in the Garden,” “Flagellation” and “Crucifixion.” I’m not into sick religious legends myself.

The music is typical late-Romantic French style, in the same vein as Cesar Franck but without Franck’s brilliance. Our mezzo, Christiane Stotijn, has a terrible wobble and a timbre of no great distinction. Most of the interest in this piece comes from Liss’ sensitive handling of the orchestra. If he had a better singer, it might have come off better, but as it is it sounds pretty miserable to me. If you really want this piece, I advise that you get the recording by mezzo Cora Burggraaf with the Netherlands Youth String Orchestra conducted by Bas Wiegers on Challenge Classics.

But then we get the Symphonie Fantastique, and we might as well be in an entirely different world. This is an exceptional performance, brisk and taut with just the right Berliozian feel to it. Liss gets it right from start to finish; this is clearly one of the best recordings of this oft-performed masterwork I have heard. But is it better than the classic 1962 recording by Charles Munch or the more recent version by Gianandrea Noseda? No, although it comes close. One reason why it does not match Noseda’s recording is that the orchestral sound isn’t quite as clear in texture; that one has an almost 3D effect which I really enjoyed; but if you happen to pick this one up, you will not be disappointed. It’s better than most of the others, and believe me, I’ve heard a ton of Symphonie Fantastiques.

So there you have it. A very good but not super-great rendition of the Berlioz, and a sad-sounding rendition of Andriessen’s sad little orchestral song cycle.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The Return of Fapy Lafertin

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ATLANTICO / SÁNDOR: Torontoi Emlek. BROUSELLE-DISTEL: La Belle Vie. RODGERS-HART: My Romance. BANDOLIM: Vibracoes. C. RAYMOND: The Baltic. LAFERTIN: Turn. Cinzano. Platcherida. Carnation. TRIPODI-RAYMOND: Fantasie En Sol. PORTER: It’s Alright With Me. DARDENNE: Pixinguinha Em Lisboa. WHITING: Japanese Sandman / Fapy Lafertin & his New Quartet: Steve Elsworth, vln; Lafertin, Dave Kelbie, Pete Finch, gtr; Tony Bevir, bs / Frémeaux & Associés FA 8521

Fapy Lafertin (b. 1950) is the leading exponent of the Belgian-Dutch style of gypsy jazz guitar. Like his model (and every other European who follows him) Django Reinhardt, Lafertin is a member of the Manouche “tribe” of gypsies. Among the many musicians he has played with over the decades was a brief stint with Reinhardt’s former musical partner, violinist Stéphane Grappelli. In addition to the traditional six-string guitar, Lafertin has also played a 12-string instrument.

It’s easy for any guitarist with an excellent technique who can bend notes a little to proclaim themselves another Django, but in my experience very few actually play like Django (Frank Vignola being the best) for the simple reason that Django was actually always a composer at heart who used jazz as an expression of his astonishing abilities, not a jazz performer who dabbled in composition. And there is a significant difference between the two. Grappelli, whose personality was the exact opposite of Reinhardt’s, could have told you as much. It was this utter fascination with the complexity of Reinhardt’s musical mind that kept Grappelli returning to play with him, despite their temperamental opposition.

My judgment of Lafertin is that he is an excellent guitarist and a pretty good jazz musician. For the most part, he wisely sticks here to simple, elegant performances of simple tunes. In several surface ways, Lafertin apes his model faithfully; he has memorized many of the great gypsy guitarist’s licks and turnarounds, and he is a good enough musician that he knows how to put them together with some ideas of his own to produce a recognizably Django-like chorus. The second song on this collection, which will be immediately familiar to listeners by its English title, The Good Life, is an excellent example of this.

Violinist Steve Elsworth does a pretty good job of sounding like Grappelli in his elegance of phrasing and command of his instrument, but only occasionally like him in terms of musical invention. My Romance is a happy example of both Lafertin sounding like Django and Elsworth sounding like Stéphane, and I was delighted to hear that bassist Tony Bevir is a real swinger who easily surpasses the abilities of Django’s original bassist, Louis Vola. Thus here we almost experience a feeling of déjà vu, as if hearing the original Quintet of the Hot Club of France in digital stereo. Alas, when Lafertin tries to emulate Reinhardt’s impromptu improvised pieces in Vibracoes, we suddenly realize the gulf that separates the brilliant composer (Django) and the modern-day wannabe (Fapy).

Mind you, this doesn’t mean that Lafertin is at all bad; in fact, at times he is actually quite brilliant; but brilliance is not exactly the same as greatness. Reinhardt touched greatness fairly often in his live and recorded performances; Lafertin and Elsworth only do so occasionally.

Regarding the four original pieces on this CD written by Lafertin, they again point up the difference between a songwriter and a composer. Such Reinhardt pieces as Appel Direct, Mystery Pacific and Bolero show a real composer’s mind at work. The closest Lafertin comes on this disc is in the introduction to Cecil Raymond’s The Baltic. Lafertin’s Cinzano is a peppy tune in 12/8 but not really a great composition.

I hope that the reader does not think I am trying to be hard on Lafertin, but whether he likes it or not, he sets himself up for such comparisons by emulating the string quintet format and musical style of Reinhardt; and when you set yourself up for comparisons, you really ought not to complain when you are thus compared. My assessment, then, is that he is a fine guitarist with a few moments of brilliance (his arrangement of Dick Whiting’s old 1920 tune Japanese Sandman is actually quite imaginative and beautifully done) but more pleasant than inspiring to listen to.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Sibelius’ “Kullervo”: A Tale of Two Finns

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SIBELIUS: Kullervo. Finlandia. / KORTEKANGAS: Migrations / Lilli Paasikivi, mezzo; Tommi Hakala, bar; YL Male Voice Choir; Minnesota Orch.; Osmo Vänskä, cond / Bis SACD-9048

ODE1122-5 coverSIBELIUS: Kullervo / Soile Isokoski, sop; Tommi Hakala, bar; YL Male Voice Choir; Helsinki Philharmonic Orch.; Leif Segerstam, cond / Ondine SACD ODE-1122-5

Here are two digital, SACD recordings of Sibelius’ early masterpiece Kullervo. The first is a relatively new recording (2019) conducted by Osmo Vänskä while the second is a 2008 recording by Leif Segerstam. Both are Finnish conductors, thus both should be expected to understand the work and its deeper meaning better than a non-Finn, as for instance the Estonian conductor Paavo Järvi, whose recording on Virgin Classics is often highly praised.

Yet there are considerable differences between these two interpretations, both of which, ironically, use the same baritone and chorus. The pivotal movement is the third, in which the title figure, a sort of Finnish Oedipus, attempts to seduce a beautiful woman who he does not realize is his sister. She rebuffs him the first two times but gives in the third, and when she and Kullervo learn, too late, that she is his long-lost sister, she jumps in a lake and drowns herself. Kullervo attempts to atone for his crime by dying on the battlefield. Unsuccessful at this, he returns to the site of the rape, “marked by dead grass and bare earth where nature refuses to renew itself,” and falls on his sword.

Thus this is not just a dramatic work to be interpreted with energy and excitement, though much of the music is indeed exciting; rather, it is a tragic tale to be interpreted along the lines of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, and the allusion to Stravinsky is quite apt. Here, in 1892, Sibelius was already using an advanced harmonic language that drew criticism in its day for being too dissonant, yet which sounds eerily like Stravinsky’s music from his neo-classic period.

I should point out that this release is Vänskä’s second recording of this work for Bis, the first having been made in September 2000 and issued on Bis CD-1215. In that recording, Paaskivi is also the mezzo soloist but the baritone was Raimo Laukka. The difference between the two performances is minimal, the first being a mere one minute and five seconds longer than the second. In terms of expression, however, the new recording is a distinct improvement over the first. Even in the opening movement, Vänskä sounds much more engaged and energetic, digging into the music with much more drama than in his first reading. Listening to these two performances, even from the outset, I would say that it’s time for Bis to “retire” Vänskä’s older recording permanently. I honestly don’t see the point in keeping it around now.

Yet as much as I liked this new Vänskä version, I felt as if I were in another world when I switched over to Leif Segerstam’s performance on Ondine. Just as the second Vänskä version was a distinct improvement on the first, from the very first notes of the Segerstam performance we are almost listening to different music. There is a tragic note here from the opening; not a single phrase or gesture is taken for granted. Segerstam gets so deeply under the skin of the music that it almost raises goosebumps in the listener. And ditto the pivotal third movement. Despite taking it at a much faster clip—it runs 24:38 to Vänskä’s 25:55—there is not only more drama in Segerstam’s performance but also greater tension. You can just feel that something portentous is about to happen, and moreover, that it’s not going to end well. Moreover, Ondine’s sound is clearer and more forward than Bis’s. You can almost feel the “grit” in the brass here, and this, too, adds to the tragic feeling of the piece.

To be fair, baritone Tommi Hakala doesn’t sing any better on either recording. He has a pleasant baritone voice but a somewhat fluttery one, but since both conductors chose him for this important role I suppose he must have something “Finnish” about him that they like for this work. Both Soile Isokoski (Segerstam) and Lilli Paasikivi (Vänskä) sing well. But Segerstam sounds like Rodsiński, Fricsay or Toscanini compared to Vänskä, and in this work—and, I would say, in all of Sibelius’ works—this makes a crucial difference.

As for the additional pieces on the Vänskä CD, Migrations by one Olli Kortekangas (b. 1955) was commissioned by Vänskä for the Minnesota Orchestra and premiered by them in 2014. The music, though modern, is more bitonal in places than a resolutely atonal work. Vänskä wanted a piece that could be paired in performance with Kullervo, and to this extent he succeeded. The text it is based on was written by poet Sheila Packs, who writes, “Migration has long been a metaphor for me as a poet. All of my grandparents are from the western side of Finland.” This is said of a country that is 210,306 square miles, not even as large as the state of Texas. Some migration. It sounds more like “up the road a piece.” Although it is sung in English, our mezzo soloist has poor diction and cannot be understood. Yet despite all this, the music is pretty good—not great or earth-shaking, but fairly well written although many phrases were predictable to me. Vänskä closes out the program with a rare choral version of Finlandia. Again, this is a fairly good performance but lacks bite. Listen to Segerstam’s version, which also uses the male chorus.

Bottom line: the new Vänskä recording is a great improvement over the first, but it’s just not in the same class as Segerstam. This is a performance for the ages.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Andreas Haefliger Plays “Modern” Concerti

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AMMANN: The Piano Concerto (Grand Toccata). RAVEL: Concerto for the Left Hand. BARTÓK: Piano Concerto No. 3 / Andreas Haefliger, pno; Helsinki Philharmonic Orch.; Susanna Mälkki, cond / Bis SACD-2310

I was curious to review this recording not merely because the music looked interesting, but also because Andreas Haefliger is the son of one of my all-time favorite tenors, Ernst Häfliger, a superb musician who could sing anything from Mozart to Stravinsky and make it sound good. Just as a small sample size of Häfliger’s extraordinary talent, I have recordings by him of Beethoven’s Fidelio (Fricsay), Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (Karajan), Frank Martin’s In Terra Pax (Ansermet) and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (Walter), and all are among my top-tier performances of these works. Andreas was born in 1962, when his father was 43 years old, sort of a change-of-life baby.

Dieter Ammann’s concerto is the most recent work on this disc, having been written in 2016-19. The opening is sparse, with the piano playing repeated single-note A’s, which eventually move into chords and then into a sort of minimalist repetition of that note in different rhythms with other notes around it before branching out into a sort of cadenza that expands exponentially. The orchestral accompaniment is sparse and geared mostly towards the higher, brighter instruments. Thus we have moved in the space of a few minutes from minimalism to very complex writing within a relatively narrow range of notes and harmony. This work, of which this is the premiere recording, was written for Haefliger. In the liner notes, Ammann admits that when Haefliger approached him to write it he was somewhat reluctant, not only because he is a slow, meticulous composer but because he waits for inspiration and that is something that cannot be forced along a timeline. One of the things I personally liked about this first movement is that, among other things, the music incorporates a bit of jazz rhythms (note, for instance, the passage around the 6:28 mark), yet there were also some moments where I felt that perhaps Ammann had to stop and re-start in writing the piece, which caused a bit of disjunction. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating piece and, overall, I liked it very much. It’s actually a sort of “web of sound” in which the pianist is caught up, with the orchestra being an active rather than a passive partner.

In the second movement, which follows the first without a break, Ammann indulges in some “ambient” writing for orchestra, but since he maintains an edgy rhythmic pattern and now engages in some edgy harmonies as well it is far from sounding soft or relaxing. This movement is particularly active for the orchestra, which flits through some extraordinarily difficult passages, and I would be remiss if I did not extend my praise to Susanna Mälkki, who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite modern conductors (I have her recording of Bartók’s The Wooden Prince and his Miraculous Mandarin Suite, which are stupendous performances). To put it generally, Ammann’s concerto sounds like a music box which its owner has dropped down the stairs, making it go awry in all manner of strange yet fascinating ways. With its emphasis on rhythm as the basis of the score, it almost sounds as if shards of brightly-colored glass are flying in all different directions at once. Thus it is not going to please the listener who wants a Piano Concerto to have “tunes” they can hum on the way out, but will certainly appeal to more adventurous listeners and musicians.

The last movement also opens with a sustained atonal orchestral chord, with the pianist nudging things along with rhythmic gestures, until a series of repeated wind chords get the orchestra moving as well. These chords, however, eventually “fall” through the harmonic spectrum chromatically, leading to a real explosion of trumpets playing rapid eighth-note figures while the horns and trombones play around it. The music then “crashes” to a halt, after which soft, edgy chords are heard, accompanied by chimes from the percussionist, before the pianist returns to play some gingerbread around the edges. I particularly applaud Ammann for coming up with his own, very personal concept of orchestral “sound.” After a dead stop, the pianist suddenly, surprisingly, plays a somewhat lyrical, Romantic-sounding melody for a while, to which the orchestra responds in kind, before the winds help to pull the music apart as the tempo again increases, then recedes again. The concerto ends quietly, suddenly stopping on a piano chord.

Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand was, of course, written on a commission from pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in World War I. The irony of this was that, even as just a left-handed pianist, Wittgenstein was a terrible artist who missed notes and didn’t play the music at all to Ravel’s satisfaction (there’s a performance of it by him on YouTube if you don’t believe me). I have two good performances of this piece in my collection, one by Andrei Gavrilov with Simon Rattle conducting and the other by Florian Uhlig with Pablo Gonzalez on the podium. This one is clearly competitive, with both Haefliger and Mälkki presenting an exciting and highly musical reading of the score. Although written in Ravel’s late style, after he discovered American jazz, there aren’t any jazz references in this score as there are in his Piano concerto in G.

Andreas HaefligerI’m very fussy about performances of any of Bartók’s piano music since I have a fairly good-sized collection of the composer playing his own works. He played them with much more of a legato feeling, less angular than most modern pianists. Haefliger takes a halfway view towards the music here, phrasing the slower or more melodic passages elegantly while playing the more angular music with a more staccato touch. Yet it’s still a valid interpretation of the music, and I liked it. The second movement, in particular, is exquisitely played.

My general impression of Haefliger’s playing is that it is very dynamic and colorful. Like his father, he understands the importance of rhythm, even in slow passages, and knows how to maximize what the composer has written.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Historically-Informed Brahms Lieder?

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BRAHMS: Heimkehr, Op. 7.1 Liebestreu, Op. 3/1.1 4 Lieder, Op. 43: Nos. 1 & 2.1 Lieder und Gesänge, Opp. 57-59: Excerpts.1 8 Lieder & Gesänge, Op. 59/5.2 3 Duette, Op. 20.1,2 4 Duette, Op. 61: 1, 3 & 4.1,2 Lieder und Gesänge, Op. 32.3 5 Duette, Op. 66.1,2 4 Balladen und Romanzen, Op. 75: Nos. 2 & 4.1,2  6 Lieder, Op. 86: Nos. 1-3.2 5 Lieder, Op. 94: Nos. 4 & 5.2 8 Zigeunerlieder, Op. 103.2 5 Lieder, Op. 105: Nos. 1-4.2 4 Lieder, Op. 96: Nos. 1-2.1 5 Lieder, Op. 106: Nos. 1 & 3.1 5 Lieder, Op. 104: Nos. 2 & 5 1 / 1Rachel Harnisch, sop; 2Marina Viotti, mezzo; 3Yannick Debus, bar; Jan Schultsz, pno / Panclassics PC 10419

The premise of this album is explained in the liner notes written by pianist Jan Schultsz:

For decades, when we picture Brahms we think of this one image – a serious old man with a big beard. And this is exactly how we have got to know his music: not too cheerful, a little melancholic, let’s say, rather grey. But if we imagine that Brahms did not actually wear a beard at all until he was 45 years old, we can also ask ourselves, was Brahms really the man we always thought he was, and is his music really the way we have always heard it? Especially the young Brahms and the music of his early years? To this day there are no historically informed recordings of Brahms’ Lieder which take research and new insights into account, yet if one adheres to his original articulation and phrasing, an especially charming interpretation of the music can be found, revealing many new aspects of his compositions. Our attempt at emphasizing the lightness and transparency of the works has shown us Brahms as a composer who insists on text-expression, and this has given us a picture of the composer as we may not yet know him.

A personal note: Anyone who doesn’t know that the young Brahms not only had a sense of humor, or that he kept his sense of humor into middle age, are obviously ill-informed about him. If you read any biography of Brahms, you’ll know that he made most of his money as a young man playing piano in the whorehouses at the Leipzig docks and that he was an avid fan of gypsy music. What do you think his “Hungarian Dances” are? Certainly not the folk dances of the native people who lived in the country, but rather of the gypsies that passed through. Moreover, his light touch is also evident in the Liebeslieder Waltzes, which come from later in his career. (Music critic Eduard Hanslick absolutely detested them; he thought they were “beneath” Brahms’ “lofty” goals.) And let us not forget the gypsy tune and rhythms that he used in the last movement of his Piano Quartet No. 1, a piece that was later orchestrated by Arnold Schoenberg (and which, for a while, was referred to as “Brahms’ Fifth Symphony”). Brahms always had a dual nature, deadly seriousness and playfulness, but rarely did he put both into the same piece of music.

This album is essentially split between soprano Rachel Harnisch and mezzo-soprano Marina Viotti. Baritone Yannick Debus gets but one group of songs, the nine Lieder und Gesänge, Op. 32, but he is excellent as well. To be perfectly honest, the opening song, Heimkehr, isn’t exactly the lightest or most cheerful Brahms on this set, and Harnisch’s voice isn’t really warmed up on it: she sounds almost uncontrollably fluttery, although with a lovely tone and relatively good interpretive qualities. Schultsz plays an 1871 Streicher model piano from 1871, to which I say, big whoop-de-doo. A piano is a piano. We don’t really need to hear a piano from the composer’s own era in order to appreciate his or her music, but he is an excellent player and accompanist despite having a smaller sound palette to work with.

The lighter Brahms really emerges in the three Op. 20 duets, although it is mostly Schultsz who provides that lightness. Although I like Harnisch’s voice quite a bit, it is a “creamy” soprano and not a bright, tightly focused one. Had they been able to find a modern equivalent to Elisabeth Schumann’s voice, Panclassics would have been able to project the lightness of the music just a bit better.

Debus has a flicker-vibrato in his voice, but it is even and controlled and, like the two women, he has excellent diction. His timbre is really nice, with a touch of Hermann Prey in it. These, too, are not really “jolly” Brahms songs, being mostly in minor keys.

Bottom line: it’s a very nice album but not a keeper. Although each singer tries his or her best to interpret these songs, none of them really gets more than surface-deep as a rule. But it is a pleasant album to listen to!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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A New Recording of Rameau’s “Les Boréades”

Les Boreades cover

RAMEAU: Les Boréades / Deborah Cachet, sop (Alphise); Caroline Weynants, sop (Sémire); Mathias Vidal, tenor (Abaris); Benedikt Kristjánsson, tenor (Calisis); Benoit Arnould, bar (Adamas); Tomáš Šelc, bass (Borilée); Nicolas Brooymans, bass (Borée); Lukáš Zeman, bar (Apollon); Helena Hozová, sop (L’Amour); Pavla Radostová, alto (Polymnie); Anna Zawisza, sop (1st Nymph); Teresa Maličkayová, mezzo (2nd Nymph); Collegium 1704; Václav Luks, cond / Château de Versailles CV5026 (live: Versailles, January 22 & 25, 2020)

Born two years before J.S. Bach, Jean-Philippe Rameau led a rather different musical life though he did compose a great many pieces for harpsichord. Then, at the age of 50, he wrote the opera Hippolyte et Aricie, which became a hit, and later wrote Les Indes Galantes and Castor et Pollux, which became even bigger hits. This opera, written when he was 80(!), was scheduled to be produced, but was replaced by Jean-Benjamin de Laborde’s Ismène et Ismènias.

The problem was that Rameau’s previous opera, the “comédie-ballet” Les Paladins, had been a dismal failure when it premiered three years earlier. My guess is that the theater chose not to take a chance on such a long opera, running two and a half hours and covering five acts, fearing another failure and this time an expensive one. In addition, the sort of complex music that Rameau wrote had lost popularity in favor of the simpler Italian opera style.

At first I thought that this was a world premiere recording, but then I tripped across the cover of a 1990 release of this work, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, on Erato. This was the world premiere recording of this opera. The singers were sopranos Jennifer Smith and Anne-Marie Rodde, tenors Philip Langridge and John Aler, and basses Stephen Varcoe and Gilles Cachemille. The recording garnered five stars from Amazon buyers. Obviously, I’ve not heard it.

The plot is your typical ancient gods mythology stuff with a willful Queen tossed in who chooses to defy them. According to Wikipedia:

Alphise, Queen of Bactria, is in love with Abaris, whose origins are unknown. According to the traditions of her country, Alphise must marry a Boread, one of the descendants of Boreas, the god of the North Wind. Determined to marry Abaris, Alphise abdicates, angering Boreas who storms into the wedding and abducts Alphise to his kingdom. With the help of Apollo and the muse Polyhymnia, Abaris sets off to rescue her. He challenges Boreas and his sons with a magic golden arrow. Apollo descends as a deux ex machina and reveals that Abaris is really his son by a Boread nymph. Therefore, there is no longer any obstacle to Abaris and Alphise’s marriage.

Well, one thing I can say about this performance is that it is very powerfully conducted. Václav Luks, founder and director of the orchestra Collegium 1704, is also a harpsichordist, French horn player and musicologist. I had to wait to hear how he treated the strings because the overture, which is a bit simplistic and not really Rameau at his best, is full of trumpets, horns and drums. When I did hear strings they were of the lower variety, celli and basses, although later on the violins did show up, but they, too, played with so much energy that the matter of straight tone seemed moot.

The opera proper opens with sung recitatives that are surprisingly melodic, accompanied by harpsichord, basso continuo, and, believe it or not, French horns. This is a duet between Alphise and Sémire in which the latter learns the Queen’s dilemma. The two sopranos are not only excellent, but have contrasting timbres which makes it easier to distinguish between them. The second scene is a short orchestrally-accompanied recitative by Borilée, followed in turn by a duo between Calisis (Benedikt Kristjánsson) and Alphisa, followed by an aria for the former. Kristjánsson has a marvelous high, light tenor voice, very French-sounding in style and timbre despite his being from Iceland. And this, in turn, is followed by a short ballet sequence, then by an aria for Sémire which does not range too far upwards but contains plenty of grace notes. Then we resume the ballet. Remember, folks, in France sticking ballets into operas was a convention that lasted 200 years.

The point I am making is that, typical of Rameau, he wrote continuous music that morphed and developed without allowing singers to “stop” their arias and duets and wait for applause, and in fact it is this continuous musical development that makes Les Boréades so fascinating.

But I noticed that, in track 13, Calisis’ short aria was supposed to be followed by a scene in which Sémire sings with the chorus. This was omitted from this recording for reasons that are not explained, but then, lo and behold, this solo with chorus suddenly pops up between the “Rondeau vif” and “Gavotte vive” of the ballet. Yet since there is no description of the edition used or why pieces were moved around a bit, I have no idea why this is. Moreover, Luks seems to be rearranging the opera throughout the performance, so you really can’t go by the track listing to know what is played or sung next. This is the one detriment of this album. Whoever was in charge of naming the individual bands should have actually listened to the recording and listed what was being played or sung at that moment instead of what their score or libretto told them.

Alphise’s heartthrob, Alphise, doesn’t show up until the beginning of Act II. He is sung by Mathias Vidal, whose tenor voice has a bit of a flicker-vibrato but a very even and controlled one, as well as a richer and somewhat more powerful upper range than Kristjánsson. Our Borilée, Tomáš Šelc, has a rich bass voice.

I suppose the main way to approach this opera is not in the sense of sung drama, as was the case of Hippolyte et Aricie, Castor et Pollux or Les Indes Galantes, but as a sort of musical fantasia based on the situations of the plot and the moment-to-moment emotions of the protagonists. In other words, it is a musical “interpretation” of the drama and not always a specific projection of the emotions of the principals; and yet, in a piece like Alphise’s aria “Un horizon serein,” Rameau seems to be suddenly dipping into operatic convention. And always, always, his orchestra remains powerful and expressive, foreshadowing Gluck and, in turn, Méhul, Spontini and Berlioz.

But then again, let’s be honest: this plot is dragged out to epic proportions without being rich enough to bear the length. Of course, Rameau had the option of simply omitting much of the text and writing a shorter opera, but I think he saw it as a challenge to his powers of invention to “push the envelope,” to use a modern term. He obviously felt inspired to write all of this music and to make it as inventive and colorful as he could. Considering where music was at in 1763, he did an excellent job. Rameau at age 80 couldn’t be expected to write the sort of exciting, dissonant music that opens Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, for instance, but what he accomplished within a strictly tonal framework is excellent. He does use “leaning” notes that tend outside of the basic tonality here and there, and honestly, that was about as much as you could expect of the old man. It may be much ado about nothing, but at least he had fun and used his imagination to fill out that nothing.

For a live performance, this recording is exceptionally well balanced and recorded, with the voices always forward and close to the microphones while the orchestra (probably miked separately) also clear and crisp (and the chorus, when it is heard, likewise). If anything, this recording has an almost 3D sound about it; I can imagine that it would sound terrific for those of you who own surround-sound systems. And I’m happy to report that each and every singer has a very good voice, an interesting voice, that most of them at least try to interpret the silly lyrics dramatically. They also have crystal-clear diction and do not wobble; and, thank God, there are NO COUNTERTENORS!!!!!!!!!! (Historical footnote: the French never cared for the castrati; that was an Italian-British thing to them; and therefore, their composers did not write roles for castrati, thus French opera of the period has no place for countertenors. Can I hear an “Amen”?!?)

In addition to constantly shifting the tempi and occasionally the harmony and meter, Rameau wrote here an exceptionally colorful score. Indeed, the orchestral sound here is just as fresh and interesting as it was in Les Indes Galantes, which is saying quite a bit. Nonetheless, Les Boréades is a bit of an acquired taste. If you like Rameau you’ll respond positively to it; if you’re used to the good ol’ aria-duet-ensemble form of 19th century opera, you probably won’t. As for me, I loved it!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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An Interview With Matthew Shipp

Shipp

Having reviewed several recordings featuring pianist Matthew Shipp (b. 1960), including his most recent trio recording, I took the opportunity to do an interview with this fascinating musician. Shipp, whose mother was a friend of the late Clifford Brown, was born in Delaware, where he began playing piano at age six. Although he later moved into jazz, he also played in rock bands and attended the University of Delaware for one year. Then he moved on to the New England Conservatory where he studied with avant-garde saxist Joe Maneri, a friend of the late jazz pianist Jack Reilly. After moving to New York in 1984, he became assistant manager in a bookstore from which he was eventually fired. In time he became active in jazz groups during the early 1990s, becoming closely associated with saxophonist David Ware’s quartet, which featured avant-garde bassist William Parker. In recent years he has played in a variety of settings, being especially noted for his many recordings with tenor saxist Ivo Perelman (of which I’ve reviewed a few).

Art Music Lounge: Thank you so much for granting me this interview! I’ve admired your playing so very much over the last few years, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to interview you. To begin with, I guess, I’m interested to know at what point in your career you moved into free jazz, or is that what you’ve been playing from the beginning?

Matthew Shipp: As far as the genre that people think of as free jazz –I did not start playing in that way till my early 20s though I had known that was the direction I had wanted to go for years. As a teen I played in a style that was somewhere between  Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner. That is how I played  before my own style fell together, which happened when I was 22.

AML: Were you trained in classical music first and then moved on to jazz, or were you always a jazz player?

MS: I  started in classical music . The first music I was interested in was church music –[my parents were Episcopalian] so it was Protestant hymns –and the church organist was my first piano teacher .. Started when I was 5 –got very, very serious around 10 . Started becoming interested in jazz at around 12 . As a kid I had an intense love of Beethoven  and Chopin . Well, the Jackson 5 also.

AML: Who were some of the pianists who influenced you most?

MS: The first jazz piano album I really paid attention to was a solo album by Phineas Newborn Jr. McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Bud Powell, and Monk were my major go-to people. I was always interested in the drama Ellington created at the piano. Cecil Taylor, Paul Bley, and Andrew Hill opened my mind to the possibilities. Also at one point I was mesmerized by the world of Lennie Tristano, with his student Sal Mosca becoming one of my favorite pianists.

AML: How did you first hear Ivo Perelman, and what was it about him that drew you to play and record with him so frequently?

MS: In the 90s I saw Ivo’s name around a bunch, and ended up at a concert of his one night at the Knitting Factory –which I liked but never thought about playing with him . He ended up a while later in a conversation with my wife at the place where she was working and when he mentioned he was a jazz musician she mentioned she was my wife, and he said I have always meant to play with him—she put us in touch—we went in the studio and felt a connection from the first note.

AML: When you begin playing a free-form duet, how do you approach it? What I mean is, you really can’t improvise on, say, just a few random notes that come from a horn, so what is it you think of when a piece begins that way? Are you “hearing” a harmony that could fit those few notes, or what?

MS: From the first note there are decisions to be made –both in terms of tonal areas or implied tonal areas what the harmonic implications are –and in terms of direction and how the landscape will unfold. It is really hard to explain in words how the unfolding of this goes or what the thought process is.  Let’s say you know what the possibilities are-you are hyperactive to every aspect of it: the note—the attack—what the attack implies as far as the direction of the improvisation goes –what your partners vocabulary is etc etc etc . In a duo like this, there are 2 wills to meld in one and there is a desire to sculpt an experience that is satisfying both as far as musical logic goes and emotion goes . But it is really hard to talk about this process. There are also certain praxis’s that exist in free jazz since it is a few generations old now and if you play this music you are aware of those praxis which can also be looked at as playing attitudes . Of course you are always trying to explode those or let’s say expand them.

AML: I’ve also recently reviewed your album with Rich Halley, The Shape of Things. How is it that you came to play with Halley?

MS: Rich is the curator of a jazz festival that happens in California . He invited my trio to play the festival. I heard Rich play with his trio when I was there and was blown away by him . We kept in touch and he asked my trio to be a rhythm section on some recording projects with him.

AML: Now let’s talk about your new trio album. The thing that struck me when I first started listening to it was that the first number on it, “Blue Transport System,” sounded much closer to standard piano trio music, as did a couple of other pieces on that CD. Is this something you enjoy doing once in a while?

MS: At the end of the day I am a jazz pianist . I love the jazz tradition –it is my DNA. As far out as some think I am in my brain, there is no breakage between this aspect of my playing and the usual perception of me.

AML: When you compose, or improvise, do you think of the music in terms of from the top (melody line) down or from the bottom (bass and/or harmony) up? I’ve known musicians who have done it both ways.

MS: Both ways –I would say what gives me many faces is that I try to find many, many ways to think through these things. I want to have as many looks as possible within my vocabulary. So at different times I approach things in different ways .

AML: This is kind of an off-topic question, but I’m curious. I read once that you had worked in a bookstore but found it oppressive and left the job. Normally, one would think that working in a bookstore would be a good position to have for an artist because it’s not usually that stressful. Can you share with us what happened to make you leave?

MS: I worked at bookstores for years. There was a switch of store managers in this situation –the old manager had been a friend and I had a lot of freedom –whereas the new manager had a very controlling aspect and a corporate style –this did not work out .

AML: Were there other non-music jobs that you worked at during your early years?

MS: Messenger –Art school model.

AML: I’m also curious as to how the job market is (I’m talking about normally, not now during the Coronavirus crisis) for a free jazz pianist. I know there are special festivals devoted to this kind of music, but are there normally enough jobs for you to make a comfortable living?

MS: Well, I have been lucky—when I played in the David S Ware quartet, we toured the whole world and I was able to parley that into gigs for my trio and solo gigs. I also worked with Roscoe Mitchell those years. I have recorded a lot –and with some of my labels I have had a relationship that is more like patronage than a commercial relationship. I have also put myself out there in a ton of other situations . So I hustle and have been able to make a living at this .

AML: Since there are no longer any jazz radio stations where I live, I was curious as to whether or not free jazz gets much airplay nowadays. What has your experience been like?

MS: College radio has been the key –they usually have at least 1 jazz show and tend to play this side of the music. Also sometimes if they don’t have a jazz show some free jazz might get airplay in an alternative music format .

AML: Can you tell my readers of any future projects you have in mind?

MS: My next project is to get out of bed in the morning and to fight the good fight for another day. I am taking everything 1 day at a time now. I am turning 60 so in some ways I am set in my ways and my major projects are solo piano, my trio, and duos with Ivo .

AML: Thank you for your time!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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