Nick Grinder Pays Tribute to Bird Sanctuaries

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FARALLON / GRINDER: New and Happy. Potential. 5 Steps. Inaction. Belly Up. Deciduous. Farallon. Staged. MONK: Reflections / Nick Grinder, tb; Ethan Helm, a-sax; Juanma Trujillo, gtr; Walter Stinson, bs; Matt Honor, dm / Outside In Music 2141845X

This album, scheduled for release on February 22, is trombonist Nick Fallon’s second. It is also his tribute to the Farallon Islands, which are sanctuaries to sea birds and mammals 30 miles offshore of California where no humans other than marine biologists may go.

From the very opening of New and Happy, we seem plunged into the world of contrapuntal cool jazz from the late 1950s. Echoes of Jimmy Knepper, Tony Scott and their colleagues abound in the catchy rhythm and lightweight playing of guitar, bass and drums, and Grinder himself plays with a mellow, burry tone, superb lip and slide control and excellent musical construction in his solos. Ethan Helm is no slouch on alto sax, either; both play busy but cogent solo spots that make the music sparkle. Drummer Matt Honor is the type of percussionist you seldom hear nowadays, terse and tasteful in his own solo with deft stick work.

Potential is an ultra-slow piece that, in the beginning, almost sounds classical in design, with Grinder and Helm playing off one another a cappella. Even when the drums and guitar enter, they play minimal figures behind the horns. Yet it is a fascinating piece that finally assumes a regular pulse at about 2:23. The music almost “falls together” as a piece in a way that I found fascinating, and oddly enough it is Helm who dominates the proceedings, although Walter Stinson also takes a sparse bass solo as well (with Helm playing soft whole notes in the background). Grinder returns to play simple figures in tandem with Helm towards the end.

We return to ‘50s-style classic cool with 5 Steps. Here, the simple-sounding but slyly complex melody leads into a fine Grinder solo while Helm and guitarist Juanma Trujillo play buzzing figures behind him. Trujillo’s distorted guitar takes a slow, surreal solo in the middle. Inaction opens with a solo, cup-muted trombone solo, then moves into a slow, stately theme and later a surprisingly funky solo by the leader. Alas, Trujillo plays flat in his solo and has little or no originality in his improvisation.

Belly Up has a quirky rhythm played at a medium tempo, and an equally unusual melodic line. Grinder’s solo is outstanding, following both the odd rhythm and underlying harmonies to create an entirely new structure. After the guitar solo, trombone and alto play in unison, probably a written passage that also develops the theme. In Deciduous, we return to a ‘50s progressive jazz structure, lightly swinging yet with displaced beats that keeps the listener a bit disoriented. Helm’s alto solo is again outstanding, and here the rhythm section fractures the beat so much that it almost sounds like free jazz of the early 1960s. Once again, however, we have to put up with Trujillo’s distorted, out-of-tune guitar playing. Trujillo’s pitch is also a bit suspect, though not as flat, in the long, uninteresting opening solo of the title tune, which is at long last saved by a fine bass solo and the leader’s muted trombone.

Staged is a medium-tempo piece with a nice, quasi-Latin beat to it. Grinder has the mute back in his horn, playing the very nice opening melody which contains some interesting chord changes before moving into his solo, which gains in volume and intensity as it progresses. There’s also a nifty drum solo in this one. We close with one of Thelonious Monk’s rare ballads, Reflections, played beautifully by Grinder on open horn with the rhythm section behaving itself behind him. Trujillo plays a pretty decent solo on this one.

Overall, then, a very fine album with a few bad patches from our intrepid guitarist. But for that, this would be a five-star review.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Urszula Kryger Presents Women’s Songs

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WOMEN OF MUSIC SONGS / I. WIENIAWSKI [POLDOWSKI]: L’heure exquise. Berceuse d’armorique. Cynthère. C. SCHUMANN: Warum willst du and’re fragen. Der Wanderer. Die gute Nacht, die ich dir sage. Er ist gekommen in Sturm und Regen. Mein Stern. CHAMINADE: Mignonne. Amoroso. Sur la plage. L’été. L’absente. BACKER-GRØNDAHL: Den vildene Fugl. Forsilde. Barnesang. Skyggekys / Urszula Kryger, mez; Agata Górska-Kołodziejska, pno / Dux 1524

This is the kind of album I often dread, a collection of songs by women composers mostly of the Romantic period, but since I knew the work of two of the composers herein I took a chance on it.

One reason why this program works is that mezzo-soprano Urszula Kryger has an absolutely ear-ravishing voice of the sort you almost never hear nowadays: pretty without being cloying, steady tonal emission, crystal-clear diction and an interesting style that makes several of these songs sound like better music than they are. In addition, pianist Agata Górska-Kołodziejska plays with a crisp touch and an excellent sense of line.

The first composer up to bat in this lineup is Irène Wieniawski (1879-1952), no relation to the famous Polish violinist-composer, who used the pen name Poldowski. Although she one of the two composers here who worked into the 20th century, her songs are typical of the “Belle Epoque” period that produced Reynaldo Hahn and others. They are, however, exquisitely crafted, and Kryger sings them superbly.

I have commented previously that, for the most part, Clara Schumann was not nearly as good and certainly not as original a composer as her famous husband, but in these brief songs I think we get the very best of what she had to offer. Her aesthetic was more Schubertian than anything else; if anything, she used less interesting harmonies than Schubert, but her melodic gifts are on full display here. Being a fine pianist herself, the piano accompaniments were surprisingly tame compared to those of Schubert, and in the end I think it is this that makes a few of the songs (i.e., Die gute Nacht) somewhat disappointing, but in Er ist gekommen both her keyboard prowess and her gift for melody come through much more strongly.

Urzula Kryger

Urszula Kryger

Cecile Chaminade, the other composer on this disc who lived into the 20th century, had more of a pre-Debussy French style, similar to the work of Chausson or Fauré, yet even in Mignonne one hears better construction and a more interesting (if not significantly advanced) use of harmony in the accompaniment. As an overall song, integrating both an interesting melodic line with interesting harmonic movement, I particularly liked Sur la plage, but was stunned by the liveliness of L’Été, which calls for surprisingly virtuosic singing of the roulade and trill type one rarely if ever hears in her music. Kryger dispatches these technical difficulties with fluent ease.

The most obscure composer presented here, however, is undoubtedly Agathe Backer-Grøndahl (1847-1907), one of the most famous women pianists of the 19th century. Interestingly, I thought her songs more imaginatively constructed than those of Clara Schumann, using falling chromatic changes and projecting, to my ears, a deeper mood, almost Russian feeling (particularly in Forsilde). In Skyggekys, a slow, smoldering song, she begins having the singer almost whisper the lyrics, and the melodic construction is initially broken, with separated, somber chords played by the pianist. She is clearly the “find” of this recital.

Well worth hearing for Kryger’s mesmerizing and outstanding singing and what she can do with this material.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Braunfels’ Fantastical Apparitions

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BRAUNFELS: Fantastical Apparitions on a Theme of Hector Berlioz, Op. 25. Sinfonia Brevis, Op. 69 / Deutsche Staatsphiharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz; Gregor Bühl, cond / Capriccio C5354

In my earlier reviews of Walter Braunfels’ music (Works for Piano & Orchestra), I noted that, although his music is not nearly as weird as the lurid album cover suggests, he “was clearly a solid composer who used classical form in a sort of Straussian aesthetic with a little Scriabin thrown in for flavor.” In this CD, however, the opening work is based on Mephistopheles’ “Une puce gentile” from La damnation de Faust, and is very colorful indeed. This is its first full recording.

It also helps that Gregor Bühl is a very energetic conductor who clearly likes this music and gives it all he has. Leaning on Berlioz, Braunfels managed to create a piece nearly as colorful as his model if not quite as spiky in its orchestration as his model. There are some very explosive moments, though, particularly in the “third Apparition,” yet unlike Berlioz, Braunfels immediately follows this with a slow, ultra-Romantic section that sounds like MGM movie music of the 1940s. Braunfels wrote this piece in 1914-17, when the mere idea of lushly-scored movie music was about 20 years in the future, but the comparison still stands. The ensuing variation is also slow, goopy, and unimaginatively tonal.

This was Braunfels’ weakness: a prediliction for the obvious in music, sometimes even moreso than his model, Strauss. If you like this sort of music, knock yourself out, but in a set of variations based on Berlioz I really expected something more original and imaginative. Braunfels redeems himself somewhat in the ensuing variations beginning with the seventh, but by then my attention had strayed and I was angry at him for descending to Romantic mush. Hearing those two variations, I could understand why this is the piece’s first complete recording. You’d have to threaten my life to make me conduct those two pieces—and the 12th “Apparition” isn’t much of a prize, either.

Happily, the Sinfonia Brevis from 1948 is a much more advanced and interesting work. The title is a bit of a misnomer—at 31 minutes long, this Sinfonia isn’t brief at all—but the music does have a more interesting structure and good development. Indeed, I really liked this piece; it sounds like Strauss if Strauss had developed his harmonic language beyond Elektra, which he never really did (on the contrary, beginning with Der Rosenkavalier he regressed). Moreover, there seemed to me more of a menacing feel to this music, particularly in the first movement, than in the variations on Berlioz’ tune. The second movement here is as good an indication as any as to Braunfels’ growth as a composer: although his themes are broad and somewhat melodic, he completely avoids the sappy style he wrote in 1914-17, much to his credit, although it goes on too long and wears out its welcome by the five-minute mark. The third-movement scherzo, however, returns us to original and imaginative music (though the slow middle section becomes tiresome), while the last movement

In toto, this is not as consistently interesting a disc of Braunfels’ music as the first one I reviewed, but it has several very fine moments mixed in with some banal and tiresome ones.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Exploring Grace Williams’ Amazing Music

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WILLIAMS: Violin Sonata / Madeleine Mitchell, vln; Konstantin Lapshin, pno / Sextet for Oboe, Trumpet, Violin, Viola, Cello & Piano / John Anderson, ob; Bruce Nockles, tpt; Gordon Mackay, vln; Roger Chase, vla; Joseph Spooner, cel; David Owen Norris, pno / Suite for Nine Instruments / London Chamber Ens / Romanza for Oboe & Bass Clarinet / Anderson, ob; Andrew Sparling, bs-cl / Sarabande for Piano Left Hand / Norris, pno / Rondo for Dancing for 2 Violins & Optional Cello / Mitchell, Mackay, vln; Spooner, cel / Naxos 8.571380

Grace Williams (1906-1977) was a Welsh woman composer who, unfortunately, was not well known outside her native country, but judging from this CD her music was exceptionally interesting. Madeleine Mitchell, who directs the London Chamber Ensemble whose members are heard in various combinations on this disc and plays the Violin Sonata herself, also knew little or nothing about Williams until she discovered the sonata and performed it at the Welsh Music Information Centre in Cardiff in 2017, the 40th anniversary of the composer’s death. This, in turn, led to her discovery of the other works heard here—all unpublished—through the National Library of Wales. This disc, produced through the generosity of the British Music Society Charitable Trust, is the result, all of them world premiere recordings.

One of Williams’ greatest assets was the ability to write terse yet well-developed music. The entire Violin Sonata, for instance, runs only 18 minutes long though it is in three movements, and even the longest work on this CD—the Sextet, which runs 31:17—does not tire the listener or overstay its welcome. Unlike many composers of her time, Williams did not really follow any of the most common trends in modern classical music of her time. Although even the Violin Sonata, which is the earliest work presented here (written in 1930), uses decidedly modern harmonic changes, it is largely tonal or modal and does not follow the styles of Stravinsky, Bartók, Honegger, Hindemith, Schoenberg or Shostakovich. She was her own person and wrote in a style that can only be termed personal.

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Grace Williams in the 1940s (photographer unknown)

And she was highly self-critical. Even after revising the Violin Sonata in 1938, she wrote on the manuscript in later years, “2nd mvmt worth performing. 1st & 3rd not good enough.” But I disagree, and apparently Mitchell does, too. Indeed, if anything the second movement, though very well written, is the most accessible of them, pursuing a very tonal but haunting melodic line throughout. Mitchell hears echoes of Bartók and Shostakovich in this sonata, but I would argue that they are echoes only. In the third movement, Williams creates themes that sound, oddly, a bit like both Middle Eastern and American Indian music, but ultimately come out as wholly original. Williams definitely had her own “voice,” and this is what makes her music, to my ears, much more interesting than such highly-touted women composers as Amy Beach, Carrie Jacobs Bond, Germaine Tailleferre or Florence Mills, whose music was solidly written but more derivative of then-current trends. Grace Williams was more on a par with Lili Boulanger. Both were mavericks even within the musical avant-garde of their respective times. I think it was this core strength to her music which, like American composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, went against the grain of what was traditionally considered “women’s music,” that put both Boulanger and Williams behind the eight ball, so to speak, when it came to gaining widespread recognition.

In the Sextet, written one year after the Violin Sonata, Williams included her favorite instrument—the trumpet. This, too, has a style somewhat related to Shostakovich but also oddly similar to some of Benjamin Britten’s early works, which were written several years later. The slow introduction to the first movement is written in alternating 3/4 and 4/4, which also returns at the end. In the “Allegro con brio” middle section, the music is scored less as a block of instruments than like a sinfonia concertante, with each instrument having its solo spots and using only a few of the six at a time. Once again, despite the surprising length of the first movement (10:18), Williams is compact in her statements and development, and here too there are faint echoes of American Indian themes, which gives the music a peculiarly “American” sound, much like the 1940s work of Aaron Copland. She also conjured up an unusual rhythmic pattern of her own for the lively second-movement “Allegro scherzando,” which includes an unusually slow middle section, and the opening of the “Andante; Tranquillo e semplice,” with its use of a muted trumpet and unusual melodic structure, is unique to say the least. In the “Allegro molto,” Williams uses a tarantella rhythm greatly modified with strong overtones of an Irish jig and using strange modal harmonies and pentatonic scalar movement in its themes.

But if you think this was pretty advanced for its time, wait until you hear the 1934 Suite for Nine Instruments. Here, Williams is clearly under the influence of Stravinsky, but in influence only. Her sense of lyricism even within a largely neo-classic style and spikier harmonies was, again, highly personal and quite different. If anything, the second movement (“Andantino”) is even stranger, sounding almost like something written in the 21st century, as does the succeeding “Allegro con brio.” The closest I can come to describing this is the late Françaix wind quintet, but even that doesn’t really define how original this music sounds.

Williams again shows her stylistic diversity in the little (2:14) but perfectly-written Romanza for oboe and clarinet from the 1940s, and in the 1958 Sarabande for Piano Left Hand (1958) we hear an entirely different composer, more brooding and sparse in her musical meanderings. Gone in these two works are the echoes of Americana and also any allusions to Shostakovich or pre-echoes of Britten. Yet one more surprise is in store: the 1970 Rondo for Dancing for 2 Violins & Optional Cello sounds for all the world like 18th-century music—sort of like Stravinsky’s Pulcinella except that, in this case, the theme is wholly original.

What an interesting composer, and what splendid and spirited performances these are! This disc will surely intrigue and impress you.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Susanna’s Secret Returns!

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WOLF-FERRARI: Il Segreto di Susanna. Serenade for Strings in Eb / Judith Howarth, sop (Susanna); Àngel Òdena, bar (Gil); Oviedo Filarmonía; Friedrich Haider, cond / Naxos 8.660385

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari is one of the more neglected composers of the “Verismo” era although, as his excellent violin concerto proved, he was a more accomplished composer than his more two-dimensional colleagues Leoncavallo, Mascagni and even Puccini. Although he wrote several operas, the only one that really caught on was this one, which premiered (oddly enough) in German(!) at the Munich Hoftheater in 1909.

This is not its only recording, nor even its only digital recording. Wikipedia lists six other releases, including one with Renata Scotto and Renato Bruson from 1980 and the most recent, with Dora Rodrigues, Marc Canturri and conductor Vasily Petrenko with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, on Avie Records in 2010. This one was actually released a dozen years ago, on the Philartis label in 2006, but was hard to find.

The plot is simple and comically ironic. Count Gil has discovered his wife Susanna walking alone in the street, something he forbade her to do since their wedding. (Apparently, Susanna was a streetwalker from way back.) Smelling tobacco in his living room, Gil suspects her of cheating on him with a smoker, a suspicion he thinks confirmed when he smells tobacco smoke on her clothes. She admits to him that she has a secret but won’t tell him what it is. He turns their home upside-down looking for signs of cheating, but finds nothing. After he leaves the house, the secret is revealed: Susanna is now a smoker, but only behind his back, along with their servant Sante. Gil returns, smells the smoke and again searches the house for her lover in pretext of looking for his umbrella. Eventually she admits her secret to him.

There’s a double irony in this denouement. Back in 1909, it was taboo for women to smoke. Nowadays, 110 years later, it’s pretty much taboo for ANYONE to smoke. Those who do are considered idiots, poorly educated dolts or bad people who have no respect for their health—this despite the fact that, then as now, it is only a small percentage of smokers who develop and die of lung cancer. But we live in a Nanny State World, and pot smoking is considered cool, hip and safe (though modern marijuana is anything BUT safe—check it out of you don’t believe me).

The question is, however, how good is this opera, really? Apparently it was not just the subject matter but the music that attracted audiences and help this slight, 44-minute work hold the boards for more than a decade in opera houses around the world (it was last heard at the Metropolitan Opera in April 1922, with Lucrezia Bori as Susanna and Antonio Scotti as Count Gil). And make no mistake, the music is very good. Wolf-Ferrari wisely chose to make this a comic opera rather than a serious one, and from the superbly-crafted overture (even played and recorded by no less than Toscanini) onward, one realizes that Wolf-Ferrari was a very accomplished composer. The music is witty but never banal; indeed, it is almost on a par with such first-rate Italian composers as Martucci and late Verdi, which is saying something. In the early going, especially, it is the orchestra (as in Falstaff) that carries the thread of the music, imparting an ironic wittiness to everything that is sung, mostly in a semi-parlando style with occasional short ariosos by Count Gil and his wife (Sante is a mime role, like the butler in Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona). I was delighted to hear that baritone Àngel Òdena has a fine, dark voice if also a slightly uneven vibrato, and characterizes well. Soprano Howarth has an absolutely gorgeous voice and, as the performances progresses, reveals herself as a fine vocal actress.

As in the case of many such comic operas, La Serva Padrona and Falstaff included, Il Segreto di Susanna lacks something when only heard and not seen, but if the listener pays close attention to the orchestra he or she will not be disappointed. It also didn’t hurt that Friedrich Haider was wonderfully tuned into this music or that his orchestra played it with great affection. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the music elevates this somewhat threadbare plot and makes it palatable, although here the vocal acting also keeps one attentive and interested. In a way, it’s like a comic orchestral tone poem (say, Till Eulenspiegel) with voices. And the musical invention never stops or becomes predictable; Wolf-Ferrari knew how to write a continuous score à la Wagner or Debussy, without pauses or full stops to insert arias as Puccini, Mascagni et al did. The only moments one could call arias for Susanna are the scenas “Così non mi lasciate” and “Oh gioia la nube leggiera,” and these, too, are woven into the fabric of the score. Compare them to even the arias in Puccini’s Il Trittico, where he stops the ongoing musical flow and completely changes pace, emphasizing pretty melodies and high notes over an integral piece that makes sense in context.

All in all, then, this is a splendid representation of a somewhat one-off but still brilliant work that could easily be staged in a tongue-in-cheek manner today. As a filler on this disc, we now get the same composer’s early Serenade for Strings in Eb. Although this music is clearly not developed or worked out in as complex a manner as the opera, you can still tell it’s the work of a good composer. Its lightweight nature conceals the art than went into it; its carefree, lyrical melodies strike the ear gratefully but sometimes obscure the wonderfully delicate and clever scoring, seldom using the full body of strings to make its point. It’s not deep music but it’s certainly not bad or banal. If you have a proclivity to enjoy Italian music of the late Romantic period that is not cheap or tawdry, then, this CD will delight and surprise you.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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William Harvey Plays Schnabel & Schubert

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SCHNABEL: Violin Sonata. SCHUBERT: Fantasy in C, D. 934 / William Harvey, vln; Frederic Chiu, pno / Centaur CRC 3678

At this point in time, it’s no longer surprising that pianist Artur Schnabel was also a composer whose works were unabashedly modern, not at all in the mold of Beethoven, Schubert or Mozart, the composers he was most closely associated with as a performer. I’ve found his chamber works to be mostly fascinating, even brilliant music, but his large-scale orchestral works arid and unappealing.

Fortunately, violinist William Harvey presents here his massive, half-hour-long sonata for solo violin, and except for some technical feats it is a work that owes little to the solo sonatas and partitas of J.S. Bach. It is, rather, more of a ruminating work with dramatic moments. Its language is modal with moments of atonality, not nearly as harmonically grating as his orchestral music, and perhaps because it was written for the violin it has wonderful moments with really expansive melodic lines, all of which Harvey plays exceptionally well. Harvey, who has played as a soloist at Carnegie Hall as well as with orchestras in the Philippines, Mexico and the U.S.A., was recently named the concertmaster of the Mexican Orquestra Sinfónica National. According to the Schnabel Music Foundation website, Harvey took great interest in Schnabel the composer. In 2002, long before this sonata was published commercially, he contacted Schnabel’s heirs and received permission to study and perform it. This recording is the result of that endeavor, and a major work it is.

I was particularly surprised by the lyrical effusion of the relatively brief (2:57) second movement, which sounds like a cross between modern violin music and something that Fritz Kreisler might have written. This is also, considering Schnabel’s penchant for tightly-constructed music with little in the way of flash, a surprisingly virtuosic piece. The slow third movement, utilizing a great many chorded passages and portamento slides, is also reminiscent of Kreisler’s style but again more modern in its harmonic progression, although at about the 4:30 mark the tempo increases and things get rather thorny. Later on in the same movement, Schnabel almost becomes minimalistic in his use of sparse notes with a great deal of space between them.

The fourth movement, marked “Prestissimo,” is a real tour-de-force, once again surprising for a work by Schnabel, and Harvey plays it with impeccable technique and a beautiful tone. In the fifth and last movement, “Sehr langsame Halbe, mit feierlichstem Ausdrück,” Schnabel returns to his more typical modern style, creating complex lines with bitonal and atonal harmonies that move and morph underneath the top line. By the midway point, virtuosic passages again dominate the piece, suddenly making a left turn in a surprising key change just before the 14-minute mark, then ends in a slow tempo with more Kreisler-like touches. It’s an utterly riveting work and one that, heard more frequently in concert, would undoubtedly make many new friends for Schnabel the composer since it is more accessible than many of his works.

As a filler on this disc, Harvey has chosen Schubert’s little-heard Fantasy for violin and piano. Little-heard it may be, but the slow opening section bears a strong resemblance to the composer’s Gross ist Jehova mixed in with a little of the String Quintet in C. Once again, Harvey plays with a beautiful tone and outstanding feeling, but Frederic Chiu appears to be playing one of those early pianos that sounds more like a toy instrument than the real thing, thus robbing the music of richness and color. A shame that, once again, the pursuit of historically-informed nonsense interferes with real, meaningful feeling in performance. In the fast section, Harvey plays with wonderful inflections without overdoing them, thus enlivening the music while Chiu rattles his little toy keyboard in the background. (Sorry, I don’t find it “charming,” I find it annoying. Just because Schubert had to suffer with an instrument like this doesn’t mean that we have to.) I was particularly impressed with the development section, where Schubert moves the little toy piano down into its lower range to, at long last, produce a few really dramatic moments as the violin plays passionately above it. Later on, however, it degenerates into typical Romantic-era effluvium with meaningless violin runs underscored by equally meaningless piano chords before returning to a recap of the introduction and ending on a strong note. An odd piece, then, with very good moments and very weak ones.

All in all, however, this CD is well worth obtaining for the Schnabel sonata. This is a major work and, in my view, a major performance as well.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Kremer Plays Weinberg’s Preludes

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WEINBERG: 24 Preludes for Solo Cello (arr. Kremer for violin) / Gidon Kremer, vln / Accentus ACC 30476

In this, Mieczysław Weinberg’s centenary year, neither his home country of Poland nor his adopted country of Russia is planning any celebratory concerts, but Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer, who adores this composer, is doing everything he can to promote his music, including several concerts in England. I’m not entirely sure why he chose to record a violin transcription of Weinberg’s solo cello preludes rather than the sonatas for solo violin, but since I didn’t have these works in their original configuration I was happy to hear them.

Although I admire Kremer’s energy and musicianship, I’ve never been a big fan of his edgy, occasionally wiry tone, and that is in evidence here, but I’ll take what I can get. His edginess is immediately evident in the first prelude, which makes some dramatic leaps upward into the stratosphere, but the music itself is fascinating as usual for Weinberg. Indeed, as one goes through the preludes, one notes that the composer was in one of his more neo-classical moods (he had several different styles depending on the work in question), producing music that is essentially tonal (or at least modal) yet which constantly shifts its tonal center from phrase to phrase. It’s one of the many reasons why I admire him; he was always unpredictable but also always interesting and original in his thinking.

Being written for a solo string instrument, these works are generally more lyric than usual, occasionally with broad themes making their appearance only to be morphed and developed in arresting ways. Indeed, the juxtaposition of themes which continues throughout the cycle—some of the pieces being roughly one minute long—makes for some very intense and involved listening, and Weinberg was clever enough to vary his style even within this series, i.e. the eighth prelude which is highly rhythmic with good forward movement, avoiding any dramatic leaps which make their reappearance in the ninth.

This musical balancing act continues throughout the cycle, and although I know it was originally written for the cello I had a hard time imagining it played on that instrument (mostly due to the extraordinary high leaps into the stratosphere throughout) after hearing Kremer’s performance on the violin. Perhaps this is also a credit to his incredible musicianship which, as I say, I’ve always admired even when the tone is edgy. And of course I applaud him for the hard work he is doing, some at his own expense, to promote and celebrate this great composer in his centenary year.

Splendid pieces, brilliantly performed. If you are a Weinberg aficionado, this is a must.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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