Nordic Voices Sing…Weird Stuff!

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EVERYTHING IS GONNA BE ALRIGHT / HAAS: Hertevig-Studien. THORESEN: Land of Your Love. RATKJE: A Dismantled Ode to the Moral Value of Art / Nordic Voices / Aurora ACD5106

Sometimes…you open the score, and you realize that this time you are dealing with a composer that has a vision of sound that you have no clue of how you are going to find. It is one small step for a composer, one giant leap for a performer.

So says the promo sheet accompanying this CD, scheduled for release in November, but Nordic Voices has faced such challenges often in the course of their 22 years of existence.

The group describes Georg Friedrich Haas’ Hertevig-Studien as a tour-de-force, “challenging the outer limits of what our voices are capable of producing.” It is a pre-study for Haas’ 2008 opera Melancholia. The text uses the titles of paintings by Lars Hertevig (1830-1902) which are sung. spoken and whispered in Norwegian. These titles are arranged one after another as isolated speech events; the string of words has no specific meaning.

It’s easy to understand why this work is so hard: it is microtonal music with only occasional “rest stops” in tonal chords sung by the chorus, music strongly related to the music of Julián Carrillo and some pieces by Harry Partch. Very strange things are going on here, mostly starting at a low point and gradually rising upward in pitch but always on a portamento curve. Without any sort of guidepost, tonal or atonal, for the listener to hang on to, it is simply a listening experience; yet Haas is a composer who has a clear grasp of basic musical principles, thus the music does have some direction even if it sounds as if it does not. At the midway point, the music rises to an extremely loud high D sung in unison by the sopranos; then a pause, and suddenly a few moments of soft tonal chords before the microtonalism creeps in yet again.

Lasse Thoresen’s Land of Your Love, in three parts (“The Impatient Bride,” “Riddle of the Twin Revelation” and “Stenen i Stefanens Pande”), examines women’s lack of freedom, expression and religion, specifically in Iran, though of course it could encompass almost the entire Muslim Middle East. The music throughout sounds very raw in its monadic plainchant, possibly simulating the Call to Prayer in the Muslim world. The music also includes some very strange vocal effects, as if the singers were aiming their voices into a cup mute or something similar that covers and distorts their sound. The last section is performed for the first three and a half minutes by a single female voice, which gives the music a forlorn quality. This is exaggerated by a long section in which she seems to be simply breathing into the microphone, following which the rest of the chorus enters. Some of the female singers also return to whispering around the 6:30 mark. Then the full chorus returns in a louder, more celebratory section.

The last piece on this album is the relatively short (12-minute) A Dismantled Ode to the Moral Value of Art by Maja S.K. Ratkje. This work, described as “a firework of sounds,” was developed by the composer in conjunction with Nordic Voices, which has sung it “in almost all the different corners of the world.” It opens with some very strange sounds indeed, soft and guttural, sung in no specific pitch although the hooting tenor voice reiterates the note A. It almost sounds as if the chorus was snoring! As the music progresses, we move from snoring to a sort of buzzing and growling from the lips, again tending towards the note A. Then, suddenly, we hear a bass drone in D which only stays a while before the female singers go all blooey singing high, almost Chinese music-like figures, answered by the baritones in a figure of their own. A few isolated melodic fragments come and go, but don’t stay long. Essentially, the music primarily consists of effects, including bird song imitations. In the last section, a single singer cites Neil Young’s words “Everything is gonna be alright” from his song Angry Young World.

An album this strange may not be to everyone’s taste, but I found it fascinating despite the fact that some of the pieces went on longer than I wished they would.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Schlick’s Telemann Cantatas Reissued

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TELEMANN: Cantatas: No. 8, “Hemmet den Eifer”; No. 23, “Jauchzt, ihr Christen”; No. 51, “Umschlinget uns, ihr saften Friedensbande”; No. 62, “Die Kinder des Höchsten”; No. 68, “Lauter Wonne, lauter Freude” / Barbara Schlick, sop; Manfred Harras, rec; Ernst-Martin Eras, ob; Richard Gwilt, vln; Brian Franklin, viol; Sally Fortino, hpd / Cantate C 58003

What do record companies do when they’re not making new CDs due to the Coronavirus? Why, recycle old ones, of course. As in the case of Archipel recycling Fritz Wunderlich’s 1957 performance of Beethoven’s Christus am Ölberge, Cantate has chosen to reissue this 1989 album of five cantatas by Telemann for soprano and assorted instruments.

For me, the problem with most of Telemann’s music is not that it isn’t well written, it’s that it sounds written to formula. There is little or nothing in his music that indicates to me that he had feelings or a soul when he wrote his music. It is unfailingly tonal, even moreso than that of J.S. Bach or Handel, and never goes more than skin deep. It’s very pretty music, to be sure, but as the saying goes, prettiness is as prettiness does.

German soprano Barbara Schlick, who studied with Henriette Klink-Schneider, was a specialist in Baroque music and Telemann was certainly in her fach. I own her excellent recording of the slightly more interesting Ino cantata with conductor Reinhard Goebel, thus I was interested in hearing how she handled these lesser works.

But perhaps I’m being a little hard on Telemann. After all, he wrote these works “for domestic use on Sundays and religious holidays throughout the year, comprising a singing voice accompanied either by a violin, an oboe, a traverse flute or recorder in addition to a basso continuo.” By “domestic use,” I would interpret that to mean that they were performed in the home rather than in church. I remember, as a college student attending my first live string quartet performance, wondering aloud if people were actually expected to play these pieces “back in the day” themselves or to hire professional musicians to do so, and being told that yes, there was a time when the majority of middle class (and higher) households actually owned a group of string instruments—not Strads or Guarnieris, but decent quality (probably bought from the Sears catalog)—and were competent enough to handle the less virtuosic pieces themselves. Listening to these cantate, I still feel that some of the music, particularly the vocal part, may have strained the limits of the household’s amateur soprano, but the accompaniments are for the most part fairly easy to play, so maybe Telemann was right to expect them to be performed at the home.

The cantata No. 51, “Umschlinget uns, ihr saften Friedensbande” is indeed more sober music than some of the other pieces, with a fairly interesting oboe accompaniment and bears a strong resemblance to some of the sacred cantata arias written by Bach. This, at least, is an interesting piece, and there a certain bit of Vivaldi-styled cheeriness about the opening violin solo in cantata No. 62, “Die Kinder des Höchsten.” Schlick also sings some really nice slow rhythmic figures in the closing movement of this cantata.

So there you go. If you’re a Telemann fan, you’re certain to enjoy this album. If you’re not, just go elsewhere.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The Music of Theodorakis & Christou

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THEODORAKIS: Erofili: Passacaglias for 2 Pianos.* Les Éluard. CHRISTOU: 6 T.S. Eliot Songs. Prelude & Fugue in d min. for 2 Pianos* / Angelica Cathariou, mez; Nikolaos Samaltanos, *Christophe Sirodeau, pno / Melism MLSCD026

From the booklet:

This album puts in perspective works by two of the most important Greek composers working in the second half of the 20th century. Jani Christou was born in Heliopolis, near Cairo, on January 9th, 1926 and Mikis Theodorakis was born on the island of Chios on July 29th, 1925. Though their respective evolutions would eventually lead them to very different places, in the 1950s they were both young modern composers starting to release important works. For Christou, this was Phoenix Music, the First Symphony and the Latin Liturgy. For Theodorakis, it was the publication of his very First symphony, followed by a further six, as well as an important collection of chamber music works, such as the 1st String Quartet, the First Sonatina for Violin and Piano, and his First Piano Concerto which won the gold medal in the Moscow Festival of 1957.

The very opening of Theodorakis’ Erofili is not particularly promising, consisting of a simple motif played in a tonal style, but it then morphs into an exotic-sounding piece using Middle Eastern modes in the harmony. Eventually, the music casts a hypnotic spell on the listener, vacillating between these two sound worlds. In the second section, titled “Erotic Dance,” the music tends to stay within the realm of bitonalism as Theodorakis moves his musical materials around to create a somewhat rhythmically jumbled “dance.” But it is in the third section, titled “Celebration,” where his music explodes into loud, fast-paced themes and motifs, several of which have a distinctly dance-like rhythm. We’re clearly not in Kansas any more! Basically, this piece is a suite inspired by George Chortazis’ tragedy, Herophile, and like all the music on this set except for Christou’s T.S. Eliot Songs it is a world premiere recording.

Les Éluard actually consists of two song collections in French on the poetry of Paul Éluard. Our mezzo, Angelica Cathariou, has a rich, fascinating voice but covered consonants, which unfortunately muddies her diction. As in the case of much modern vocal music, the top line given to the singer is gracious and tonal while the piano accompaniment is angular and bitonal; this puts much of the onus for interpretation on the accompanist. In the first song, “Je le t’ai dit pour les nuages,” in fact, the vocal line is relatively monotonous, focusing on a string of repeated Bs; and, interestingly, the second song, “Ta chevelure d’oranges,” though containing a bit more variety, also begins on the same note. I found these songs to be relatively monotonous; perhaps that was the composer’s intent. They sound a bit like Debussy in a boring mood.

Next we move to Jani Christou’s T.S. Eliot Songs, and these are much more varied in approach and resolution. The piano part consists primarily, in the first song, of upward-running 16th-note figures while the singer is involved in a fairly interesting melodic line. All but the third song are sung in English, but you’d never know it; Cathariou’s diction is so poor that it sounds like muddled French. (I think I could make out the word “handsome” in the second song, but that was about it.)

The Prelude & Fugue for 2 Pianos is a lively piece, played very well by our two intrepid keyboard artists. This is primarily tonal and, particularly in the prelude, sounds like peppy dance music.

A somewhat interesting album, then, which could have been more interesting still had they selected a mezzo with good diction.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Wunderlich in Beethoven’s “Christus am Ölberge”

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BEETHOVEN: Christus am Ölberge. Fidelio: O welche lust* / Erna Spoorenberg, sop (Seraph); Fritz Wunderlich, ten (Jesus); Hermann Schey, bs-bar (Peter/*1st prisoner); *Hans Günter Nöcker,  bs-bar (2nd prisoner); Groot Omroepchor; Radio Filharmonisch Orkest, Henk Spruit, cond; *Herrenchor des Süddeutschen Rundfunks Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart, Alfons Rischner, cond / Archipel ARPCD 0609 (Christus am Ölberge live: Hilversum, March 8, 1957)

Sometimes the machinations of record companies confuses the heck out of me. This recording was presented in the Naxos New Music Catalog as a brand-new issue for August 24 of this year, but by checking on Amazon I learned that it had already been released eight years ago; and, moreover, there was apparently a previous issue on another small label called Bella Voce which contained different filler material. The Bella Voce CD included excerpts from Johannes Rosenmüller’s Lamentationes Jeremiah Prophetae performed by Wunderlich with cellist Fred Buck from March 24, 1957 and four Beethoven songs—Adelaide, Resignation, Maigesang and Der Kuss—with pianist Hubert Giesen from March 24, 1966 (the cover of this release is reproduced here). So this isn’t really a “new” Wunderlich release.

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The biggest drawback in this performance is the recorded sound. Being a mono radio broadcast from the 1950s, there was apparently a great deal of surface noise in the original tape that had to be minimized. In doing so, the engineers managed to keep the voices clear but the soft lower string and brass playing in the orchestra comes across rather muddy. I know this problem well, having processed a great many older recordings with the same problem myself, and frankly not much else can be done about it. You either accept the surface noise, which I don’t, or you get some muddy lower string sound. The trick is to brighten up the lower passages that come out muddy by boosting treble to compensate for the noise reduction, and this Archipel did not do.

As for the actual performance, however, it is excellent. The little-known conductor Henk Spruit, who was also an organist, was evidently a live wire and a man who knew his business. There is tensile strength and that undercurrent of energy that all good Beethoven performances need to possess, and for that alone I liked it in spite of the sound problems. (In the orchestral introduction, there’s also a moment where a bit of crossed-wire interference from another radio station creeps in, but only for two or three seconds.) Aside from boosting the treble in the soft lower orchestral passages, I would also have added a judicious amount of echo or reverb to the sound to compensate for its boxiness. But that’s just me talking. You may prefer the extreme dryness of the sound to having some reverb.

The tenor’s big recitative and aria follows immediately after the prelude. I have often said that no one has ever sung this music as well as John McCormack did on his unissued 1930 recording with Nathaniel Shilkret conducting the “Victor Orchestra,” but here young Wunderlich, still in his prime and possessing superb breath control which he later lost after 1962, is the next best thing. He shapes each phrase and word perfectly, giving dramatic emphasis to the text as required. This is surely the finest German-language version of the aria I’ve heard (McCormack sang it in English).

Erna Spoorenberg (1925-2004) was a famous high soubrette Dutch soprano famous for singing Pamina, Mélisande, Gilda and Norina, though for some bizarre reason she was once cast as Elektra. Like her compatriots Gré Brouwenstijn and Cristina Deutekom, she had a strong flicker-vibrato, in fact a bit more noticeable than those of Brouwenstijn and Deutekom because they had much bigger and heavier voices. For this reason, I wasn’t very much attracted to her during her singing career, but listening in retrospect to this performance she was quite fine. The comparison to Deutekom is particularly apt because the latter also left us a performance of this work, a commercial recording from the mid-1970s with Nicolai Gedda as Jesus (unfortunately, Gedda was in terrible voice for that recording). Since Deutekom had a much larger voice with a spinto soprano thrust, she obviously sang it more strongly than Spoorenberg, but Spoorenberg’s lighter timbre is actually better suited to the music, and in this specific performance her command of the upper range—which is where the Seraph either lives or perishes—is better than I’ve ever heard it on commercial recordings, and the Dutch chorus is superb. Perhaps the fact that she was only 32 years old at the time had much to do with this: high soubrette voices have a much shorter shelf life than lyric, spinto or dramatic sopranos. But there’s no arguing the point that Spoorenberg is the best Seraph on records just as Wunderlich is the best Jesus in a complete recording.

A side note on the piece itself. It has always struck me as odd that Beethoven, who was a Deist (meaning that he believed in the God of nature and not in the Biblical myths) and not a Christian wrote so much “religious” music, and very good religious music at that. Perhaps it was because he saw in this particular story the struggle of all mankind to come to terms with the sufferings of life, and simply transferred Jesus’ story to that of mankind. Certainly, he made it clear that his Missa Solemnis was not a Christian “mass” in the strict sense but, rather, his all-encompassing love for mankind brought to fruition in musical terms. (Beethoven was a bit odd in this respect; except for his nephew Karl, who he loved very much, and a few close friends, he had no feeling for mankind individually, but had deep feeling for the well-being of people of all races and nationalities to get along in love and harmony. You might call him an early Globalist.)

Hermann Schey

Hermann Schey

Spruit holds things together very well despite taking somewhat slower tempi than I prefer. As for Schey, he was a Jewish-German bass-baritone born in 1895. From 1922 onwards he worked primarily in Berlin as an oratorio and concert singer, noted as much for his Mahler as for his Bach, and gave the first performances of several lieder by Othmar Schöck. In 1930, he also sang the bass part in the first performance of Pfitzner’s cantata Das dunkle Reich. He emigrated to Holland in 1934, becoming a Dutch citizen, in order to escape Nazi persecution. Judging from this performance, he had a big, bright, biting voice albeit, at age 62, with some unsteadiness, yet one greatly admires his commanding presence and interpretation. Few, if any, of the singers I’ve heard in other recordings make as strong an impression in this brief and rather ungrateful music. The final portion of the work is just terrific: Spruit really knows how to “build” the music, and does so perfectly.

On this CD, the filler is the scene of the prisoners from the Act I finale of Fidelio, another 1957 performance in which Wunderlich sang the first prisoner. It ends in the middle of nowhere since its only reason for existence is to allow you to hear Fritzie sing a small role that he never performed later.

Well worth getting for the oratorio, however. A splendid performance all round despite the sound problems.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Hvoslef’s Piano Concerto & Other Works

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HVOSLEF: Piano Concerto.1 Ein Traumspiel.2 Barabbas, Opera Without Singers.3 / 1Leif Ove Andsnes, pno; Bergen Philharmonic Orch.; 1Edward Gardner, 2Eivind Gullberg Jensen, 3Juanjo Mena, cond / Simax PSC 1375 (live: 2April 14-15, 2011; 3March 21-22, 2013, Bergen)

Having reviewed a goodly amount of Ketil Hvoslef’s chamber music, I was happy to have a chance to review some of his orchestral compositions. As you can see above, the Piano Concerto is performed by two well-known artists, pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and British conductor Edward Gardner. The other two works are led by lesser-known conductors.

The music is much like Hovslef’s other scores: dramatic, a bit eccentric and full of surprises, yet well developed and fascinating. The principal difference is that, having a full symphony orchestra to work with, the dramatic moments have a much greater impact. The concerto opens with a crashing chord which leads into edgy but sparsely-orchestrated motifs; the piano enters very high up in its range before coming down to the middle of the keyboard to continue. Hvoslef notes in the booklet that his concerto actually features two pianos, the soloist in the foreground and a second piano, placed further back, which plays “echoes” of the first piano’s music. In this work, however, I found that Hvoslef scatters his thematic material and does not construct the work in a linear fashion, and this may throw some listeners off. As the music progresses, there are also several episodes of metallic-sounding percussion as well as passages of swirling high winds to complement the whirlwind of music going on in the foreground. Towards the end of the first movement is a passage that sounds as if it had been lifted from George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique.

The second movement is neither lovely nor relaxing, but more of the same only at a somewhat slower tempo. The pianos’ contribution here is sparse, which makes the echo effect of the second piano more audible, and seems to be merely commenting on the ominous mood of the piece. At the 6:40 mark, the piano continues its sparse note-making while the lower and middle strings play continuous tremolos that gradually built up in volume to a tremendous climax. This slow, mysterious mood continues into the third movement, though there are signs of more animated music at about 1:50 before it bursts out at the 2:20 mark—but it doesn’t entirely burst out, as it keeps receding into a quieter space with the principal piano playing a series of repeated notes, then moving into a series of minor-key chords which rise and fall. By and large, I liked the music without feeling it was really a piano concerto. A very eccentric work, to say the least.

Ein Traumspiel, or A Dream Play, wa commissioned by conductor Eivind Gullberg Jensen when he was appointed conductorin-chief of the Norddeutscher Rundfunk Symphony in 2009. The work is based on August Strindberg’s poetic drama of the same title from 1902. Strindberg’s worldview acquired magical overtones in the misfortunes of life he saw, “signs from the powers.,” that wanted to chastise and punish him. In Stindberg’ drama, the daughter of the god Indra descends to earth. Like the Buddha in India, she understands that human life consists of suffering, and that is their pity. It was a perfect inspiration for the already fatefully-driven Hvoslef, and he creates a typically odd work with an atypically haunting minor-key melody in the middle, though most of it inhabits a nightmare world in which no solace or resolution may be found.

Barabbas, loosely based on the Biblical thief whose life was spared by the rabid crowd when asked to choose the name of one prisoner to be released from the punishment of crucifixion, is described as an “opera without words”—yet considering how little is known of Barabbas from the Bible, the “plot” of this opera comes from Michel de Ghelderode’s surrealist 1928 play of the same title. When Ghelderode’s play was finally staged in Oslo in 1981, Hvoslef composed the music to accompany the drama. This “opera,” though containing entirely different music, grew out of that experience. It’s an interesting piece but, to my ears, surprisingly episodic for Hvoslef. It doesn’t really coalesce the way his other music does, and without a real synopsis (a couple of sketchy sentences in the booklet simply suggest a few things), it’s hard to imagine what is really going on from moment to moment. All the booklet tells us is that “Barabbas manages to approach a kind of insight into his role in the story; how he gained his freedom at the cost of another who could have achieved great things if he had lived.” Perhaps the fragmented nature of this entirely hypothetical “story” inhibited Hvoslef from writing music that had form and substance, but as I say, I found it too episodic and therefore uninteresting.

All of the music, however, is well played and well conducted. An interesting if uneven disc.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Florent Schmitt’s “Mélodies”

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SCHMITT: Chansons à quatre voix.1-4,6 Quatre Lieds, Op. 45.3,5 Kérob-Shal.1,6 Trois Mélodies, Op. 4.4,6 Deux Chansons, Op. 18.2 Quatre poèmes de Ronsard.3,6 Trois Chants1,5 / 1Sybille Diethelm, sop; 2Annina Haug, mez; 3Nino Aurelio Gmünder, ten; 4René Perler, bs-bar; 5Fabienne Romer, 6Edward Rushton, pno / Resonus Classics RES10265

This is one of those CDs that I absolutely wanted to hear and possibly review, but although it was being distributed by Naxos it was not available for download on the reviewers’ website nor available for streaming on the Naxos Music Library (it still isn’t). Fortunately, I just discovered yesterday that it is available for free streaming on YouTube, and on Resonus’ website they very generously allow anyone to download the cover and booklet, so here we are.

Schmitt’s orchestral works are now fairly common on CDS, but not the songs. Except for the Trois Chants, Quatre poems de Ronsard and the second song in the group of Trois Mélodies, none of this material has even been recorded before. In making this CD, Resonus contracted the services of three very fine singers—Sybille Diethelm, Annina Haug and Nino Aurelio Gmünder—and two fine pianists, Fabienne Romer and Edward Rushton. As for “bass-baritone” René Perler, he supposedly studied voice with no less than five people as is credited as being a professional singer who has performed with Andrew Parrott, Martin Haselböck and Michel Corboz, but I don’t believe a word of it. He sounds like some guy they picked up off the street and paid $100 to learn these songs and muddle his way through them. He is, in fact, neither baritone nor bass, having a constricted high range and no low range. His voice is thin and pallid and he sings flat much of the time. Thank God he doesn’t have too much to sing on this disc, though he does muddle his way through the Trois Mélodies.

Fortunately, Resonus has included the lyrics for all the songs in the booklet in both the original French and in English. Hallelujah! We open with the exuberant, extroverted “”Vehémente” from the Chansons à quatre voix (1905), about a group of fellows who apparently want to go hunting. But all six songs are charming “waltz-vignettes,” and although Perler is involved in the proceedings, most of the time he doesn’t get too many solo lines. Pianist Edward Rushton, who also wrote the liner notes, says that this song collection is accompanied by piano four hands, yet in the album credits Fabienne Romer is not listed as a pianist on these tracks. Go figure. The music sounds like a French cousin of Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes.

Yet Schmitt’s songs of the 1910s and ‘20s are, as Rushton puts it, “suffused with darker, expressionistic sounds which underscore the cryptic and fathomless poetry” of Jean Richepin, Cautelle Blée, Maurice Maeterlinck, René Kerdyk, G. Jean Aubrey, René Chalupt, Camille Mauclair, Paul Verlaine, Maurice Ganlivet, Paul Arosa and others. This is truly extraordinary music of a sort that no one writes any more because most modern composers are into shocking their listeners with grating, bitonal or atonal sounds, trying to prove they’re more clever than the composer(s) you’ve just listened to. Although they bear some resemblance to the songs of Ravel and Debussy, they have a profile all their own. Schmitt uses much more pentatonic movement which he mixes in with chromatic movement. Like so many French composers of his time, he is also loath to resolve his chords, sometimes even at the ends of songs.

In some ways, his piano accompaniments are even sparser and lonelier-sounding than those of Debussy, and they could never have a life outside of the song itself because they merely make comment on what is being sung; they do not really interact with the top line at all. Played by themselves, no one would have a clue what was really going on; they just sound like a vague series of random odd, soft chords that never really coalesce into any form, though there are occasional four-bar patterns strewn here and there. In the song “Octroi” from Kérob-Shal, the piano part almost sounds like soft noodling at first, though there are sudden loud scale outbursts that bear little resemblance to this. Indeed, there are several moments in these piano accompaniments that sound eerily close to Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Only “Fils de la vierge” from the Trois Mélodies really sounds much like Debussy, with allusions to that composer’s La cathedrale engloutie in the piano part.

Mezzo Haug, with Romer at the piano, does a superb job on the Deux Chansons. I found her to be the best singer of the four because she combined interesting interpretation of the words along with an excellent voice whereas Diethelm and Gmünder, though very fine singers, were more generic. To be honest, however, the texts of the Quatre poèmes de Ronsard are much less impressionistic than most of the preceding pieces.

With the exception of sad-sack Perler in his three solos, this is an excellent presentation of Schmitt’s songs, one that needs to be heard by anyone who admires this excellent composer.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Berkeley’s Complete Piano Pieces

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BERKELEY: March. For Vera. Mr. Pilkington’s Toye. 6 Preludes for Piano. Piano Sonata. Concert Study in Eb. 3 Pieces, Op. 2. Prelude and Capriccio. Toccata. Piano Pieces (1927). 5 Short Pieces, Op. 4. 4 Concert Studies, Op. 24/1. 4 Piano Studies, Op. 82. Paysage. 3 Mazurkas (Hommage à Chopin). Scherzo. Mazurka Op. 101/2. Improvisation on a Theme of Manuel de Falla. Polka / Douglas Stevens, pno / Hoxa HS1806-18

Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989) was a British composer who, even within his own country, worked largely in obscurity, overshadowed by a long list of English composers from Vaughan Williams to Tippett. The liner notes state that his most famous works within Great Britain were his 4 Poems of St. Teresa of Avila, the Missa Brevis, the Flute Sonatina and the 6 Preludes for Piano. Here in America, perhaps his most famous work was the marvelous Horn Trio that he wrote for, and was recorded by, Dennis Brain.

Pianist and organist Douglas Stevens earned his PhD at the University of Bristol focusing on the music of Berkeley, thus he is quite qualified to put this composer’s best foot forward. The liner notes, by Stevens himself, state that “Berkeley’s music displays a wide variety of influences, from eighteenth-century Classicism through to the Romanticism of Fauré and Chopin, contemporary French music of the early twentieth century and Britten,” but the story is a bit more complicated than that. According to Wikipedia, his early music was “broadly tonal, influenced by the Neoclassical music of Stravinsky,” with his French influences being partly encouraged by his studies with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. In 1948, Berkeley wrote that “I have never been able to derive much satisfaction from atonal music. The absence of key makes modulation an impossibility, and this, to my mind, causes monotony […] I am not, of course, in favour of rigidly adhering to the old key-system, but some sort of tonal centre seems to me a necessity.” But by the mid-1950s his opinion had changed. He later told Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer that “it’s natural for a composer to feel a need to enlarge his idiom.” He began including tone rows and serial techniques in his compositions around the time of his Concertino and his opera Ruth, later telling The Times that

I’m not opposed to serial music; I’ve benefited from studying it, and I have sometimes found myself writing serial themes – although I don’t elaborate on them according to strict serial principles, because I’m quite definitely a tonal composer. And there are some exceptions to the gospel of intellectualization – I enjoyed listening to the record of Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître very much, because there the timbres of the music were attractive in themselves.

Which of course is the mark of an explorative musical mind. Most good composers evolve their styles, particularly those of the 20th century who began, as Berkeley did, in the years when French Impressionism was about as far as most composers went unless they were Schoenberg or Webern. And Berkeley, like Stravinsky himself, realized that the use of serialism had to be modified with one’s own personal style because Schoenberg, Webern and Berg had run the “basic” style of serialism into an artistic dead end. Alas, this was a lesson that American composers of the 1940s and ‘50s, infatuated with serialism, didn’t learn until it was too late and most people came to reject New Vienna School knockoffs.

The very early March from 1924 is a good indication of where he was at age 21 and where he might be going. Although somewhat based on the music of mediaeval France, the use of the pentatonic scale derives more from the influence of Ravel. In For Vere, from 1927, Berkeley reveals his strong passion for bitonality, yet Mr. Pilkington’s Toye from the previous year sounds as resolutely tonal as anything written by John Ireland.

We then jump ahead to the 6 Preludes of 1945, one of his most popular works. Here he is, if anything, more consistently tonal than in those late-1920s experiments despite the use of occasional harmonic twists, not terribly dissimilar from the early music of Britten. The second, slow prelude tosses in a bit of harmonic legerdemain, but nothing further out than some of the harmonic audacity in Alkan’s music. But to his sorrow, this work became immensely popular and was the yardstick British audiences used to hit Berkeley over the head for his later, more atonal works.

Although it is fairly early in the review, I would like to say a few words about Stevens’ playing here. It is generally brisk, taut, and lacking in overt sentimentality, which I heartily approve of—and knowing the little I do about Berkeley, I think the composer would approve, too. Indeed, it was possibly to his detriment that Berkeley was not a sentimental British composer. Lord knows the Brits love their sentimental stuff to death, which is one reason why Frank Bridge had such a hard time making it in the era of Elgar and Ireland, and why a large portion of the British classical audience disliked the change in Vaughan Williams’ music in the late 1940s. If there is one consistent quality in Berkeley’s music that Stevens brings out, it is an optimistic cheerfulness. Despite his strong affinity for the French style early on, Berkeley was clearly not a fan of wispy, melancholy or opaque music.

The 6 Preludes, though not at all “sentimental” music, are clearly melodic (hear, for instance, the sparkling theme of the fifth piece or the charming tune in the sixth) and thus quite accessible to the average concertgoer. This did not bode well for him when he shifted his style in the mid-1950s. Ironically, these preludes are immediately followed by his one and only Piano Sonata, written the same year (1945), and although the harmonic language is not yet atonal it is a far cry from the preludes. I completely agree with Stevens that this sonata shows that he was not just suited to writing works on a smaller scale. As indicated in the notes, the first movement “contains one of Berkeley’s experiments with monothematic sonata-form design, and the opening arpeggiated theme forms the basis of much of the material in the movement and in the rest of the sonata.” It is a gem of a piece, possibly the greatest “single piano sonata” since the one written by American composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes back in 1920. I was especially impressed by the fast, technically difficult second movement, not because it is difficult to play but because it is simply overbrimming with brilliant ideas, all of which are fused together superbly. Consisting mostly of fast semiquaver passagework, alternating between tonality, bitonality and the pentatonic scale, it creates a melodic line based on the first movement but shortening the major 6th interval to a minor 3rd. Once again, the slow third movement has a great deal of feeling in it but is not sentimental, including several bitonal passages and a surprisingly (for him) stark and desolate-sounding central section. At eight minutes long, it is one of Berkeley’s most sustained creations, and is all the more impressive when one considers the sparseness of the theme and its development within this framework.

Stevens may disagree with me, but I heard in the concluding “Allegro” movement a similarity to the last movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony: a rather slow, out-of-tempo opening section which then moves into a fast-paced series of variations. Yes, the thematic material is completely different, but it’s the layout that is similar—and this movement, like the last movement of the “Eroica” Symphony, bears little relationship to the preceding three movements.

This 1945 Sonata is followed by the Concert Study in Eb from a decade later. Though not quite atonal, Berkeley clearly bypassed the concept of a “home key” throughout this work, suspending the music above a constantly shifting sequence of unusual chords except for the surprisingly tonal, slower middle section, which is then thrown to the winds when he returns to the whirlwind pattern of the opening.

But the 3 Pieces of 1935 sound even spikier harmonically than the Concert Study, particularly the opening “Etude” which he wrote for famous British pianist Harriet Cohen. Cohen supposedly found the piece “charming,” but charm is much more evident in the second piece, the “Berceuse” written for Alan Searle, though this piece travels through several keys and is by no means an “easy listen.” The third, piece, a “Capriccio” dedicated to Vere Pilkington, is all over the map harmonically as its maniacal little melody plunges forward.

One could expound on these and further delights as one proceeds through this recital. Every piece brings its own surprises and its own rewards. And the amazing this is that Berkeley was not, like so many composers then and now, stuck in a stylistic rut. Despite the similarity in his approach to harmony, he was never a slave to fashion, not even his own fashion. Berkeley wrote what he wanted to write in the manner of the moment; I don’t think he ever really consciously thought about his previous music, though of course parts of it were probably still in his mind. In short, he was a composer guided by inspiration rather than by the mechanics of composition, though his basic training was very sound and kept him from rambling in his music. The bitonality, pentatonic scales and even atonality all seemed to come naturally to him; he never sounded as if he were forcing the issue or trying to be clever for the sake of cleverness, as so many modern composers seem to be.

Take, for instance, the 3 Impromptus (1935) that open the second CD, particularly the first of them which is a 6/8 piece combining the feel of Spanish music with modern French-school harmony. Who else would have, or could have, even thought of such a piece? But Berkeley did, to our delight. And this opening “Moderato” is followed by a very strange “Andantino” written in a moderate pace with choppy rhythm, with little luftpausen between each note, creating a bizarre little melody that has its own resolution but also seems to repeat one motif over and over as it wend its way along.

Still, felt that the quality of works dropped off a bit in CD 2. Neither the 4 Piano Studies of 1972, Paysage, nor the 3 Mazurkas (Hommage à Chopin) impressed me very much; I mean, they’re nice music, but nothing to write home about.

Taken as a whole, however, this is terrific set, one definitely worth checking out for Berkeley aficionados.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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More Chamber Music by Hvoslef

Hvoslef Chamber Works Vol 7

HVOSLEF: Trio for Sopano, Alto & Piano / Mari Galambos Grue, sop; Anne Daugstad, alto; Einar Røttingen, pno / String Quartet No. 3 / Ricardo Odriozola, Mara Haugen, vln; Ingrid Rugesæter, vla; Ranghild Sannes, cello / Sextet for Flute & Percussion / Eivind Sandrgind, fl; Craig Farr, Sigvald Fersum, Gard Garshol, Mathias Matland, Ola Berg Riser, perc; Ricardo Odriozola, cond / Lawo LWC 1200

It’s been nine months since I last had the chance to review a CD by Ketil Hvoslef, but this new Lawo release luckily came my way (it wasn’t available for online streaming or download, even for reviewers). so here we are with a new look at his chamber music output.

In the notes, Hvoslef says that the opening Trio “was commissioned by the Goethe Institute for two German ladies and the pianist Einar Steen Nøkleberg. It was written in 1974, and is my first attempt at writing instrumental vocal music”—i.e., wordless singing, in this case using nonsense syllables such as “ta,” “pa,” “do,” “ma,” etc. Hvoslef informs us that he has since developed, for this kind of writing, “whole meaningless words, formed in such a way that they clarify the MUSICAL meaning.” But this trio is a lot of fun to listen to, thanks primarily to the strong yet asymmetric rhythm that is set up and partially sustained by the pianist hitting the instrument with the palm of his left hand while the right plays. There’s also a strange, almost jazz-like interlude at 1:50 that adds to the bizarre quality of the piece. Our two singers happen to be students from the Grieg Academy; Hvoslef praises them for following the musical instructions of pianist Røttinger to arrive “at a singing style that is an indispensable prerequisite for this work.” Both singers have light, fresh voices, and they handle their assignment exceedingly well. A lot of fun to listen to!

Believe it or not, it is the opening of the String Quartet that cuts across your ears like a razor, with a strong unison Db played by the group before gentle but no less strange motifs and themes float in and out of our consciousness. Most of the ensuing section, however, is taken up with glissandi, which Hvoslef admits was one of his principal ideas in writing this quartet. “This is definitely urban music,” he writes. “We, as listeners, seem to be experiencing a large city on foot. What we witness is not always pleasant or comfortable, but it accrues a peculiar beauty by giving us the time to properly observe it.” Like so much of his music, it’s a strange piece and much more challenging to the listener; in addition to the glissandi, Hvoslef also has his strings play aggressive grinding sounds as well as edgy upward scale passages. Lost of road construction going on in this city, with string-powered jackhammers! And again, the syncopated rhythm he sets up around 14:30 sounds suspiciously like a jazz rhythm. Towards the end, at 19:10, we hear simulated police sirens.

But if you think that’s bizarre, when was the last time you heard a flute piece start out with a loud rim shot on the snare drum? Yet this is what we get in the Sextet, and although the flute is in there pitching, its role almost sounds subsidiary to the five percussion players. Yes, there are a few nice little phrases for the flute, but nothing that really coalesces into a theme per se. Trying to describe this piece is sort of like trying to catch sand that is running through your fingers; now you have it, now you don’t. Better to just listen and ride it out. One of the percussion instruments is a marimba, but you don’t hear it until about 6:40 into the piece, and even then it only plays a repeated rhythmic figure, not a real theme as such.

As in the case of the previous albums of Hvoslef’s chamber music, this one is a wild ride. Get the CD and fasten your seat belt!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Flamme Plays Buxtehude

Buxtehude cover

COMPLETE ORGAN WORKS Vol. 1 / BUXTEHUDE: Praeludia in C, g min., F, G, f min., d min., e min., E. Nun bitten wir den Heiligen Geist, BWV 208 & 209. Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren, Auf meinen lieben Gott. Ciaconna in e min. Jesus Christus, unser Heiland, der den Tod. Ich dank dir schon durch deinen Sohn. Magnificat primi toni. Magnificat nonin toni. Ach Gott und Herr. Ich dank dir, lieber Herre. Toccata in d min. Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin. Passacaglia in d min. Toccata in F. Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott. Canzonettas in a min. & C. Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. Fugas in C & G. O lux beata Trinitas. Mensch, willst du leben seligich / Friedhelm Flamme / CPO SACD 555 253-2

This is the first of a proposed series, which will undoubtedly run to three 2-CD sets, of the complete organ works of Dietrich (or Diderich in the original Dutch) Buxtehude. My readers know how fond I am of Buxtehude as a composer; one critic referred to him, once, as “Bach in the raw,” and that’s an apt statement. Buxtehude—who, incidentally, was highly admired by J.S. Bach—preceded old J.S. by several decades (he died in 1707), but made an indelible impression on the younger composer who once traveled a great many miles to go and visit him in person.

The principal competition for this set is the one on Dacapo by organist Bine Bryndorf, which is already completed and sells as a 6-CD boxed set on Amazon for only $31.46, but I listened to a couple of pieces from the Bryndorf set that are on this first volume by Flamme and there’s just no comparison in performance quality. Everything Bryndorf plays sounds mushy and indistinct, and it doesn’t help that Dacapo has recorded the set with too much space around the organ which further gives it an even mushier sound. Flamme’s performances are crisp and detailed, with bright sonorities and great clarity for the inner voices which, after all, are the heart of Buxtehude’s art. And he’s not playing a wheezy little organ, either, but the very impressive Christoph-Treutmann organ of the Klosterkirche of St. George, which has a wide variety of stops, all of them listed in the booklet, piece by piece, for the edification of other organists…most of us really don’t care as long as it sounds good.

organ

The biggest problem I have with the music, as in the case of the dozens of Bach chorales, is their religious connotation. Unlike some of the Masses. Passions, Magnificats, Requiems etc., which can have a generic connotation related to one’s personal relationship with the Deity that created the Universe, a great many of these pieces are tied to a specific form of religiosity, i.e., the Lutheran hymns that both Buxtehude and J.S. Bach bought into the concept of, and these often have plodding, heavy-handed melodic lines set to primarily minor keys which create an oppressive feeling in the listener. Perhaps they might strike you somewhat differently, but I know from talking to others that I am not alone in this feeling. Yes, Buxtehude’s treatment of these hymns is exceedingly clever and imaginative, but a hymn is a hymn is a hymn, and I’m just not into them.

Given the extraordinarily high quality of both these performances and the recorded sound, however, I can easily recommend this as the start of a preferred set of Buxtehude’s organ works for those who enjoy this sort of music better than I. As for me, I will stick to the two-CD set I have on the Apex label by the late, great French organist Marie-Claire Alain. That’s enough of Buxtehude’s organ music to last me a lifetime.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Weinberg’s Wir gratulieren!

cover OC 990

WEINBERG: Wir gratulieren! / Katia Guedes, sop (Madame); Anna Gütter, mez (Fradl); Olivia Saragossa, mez (Bejlja); Jeff Martin, ten (Reb Alter); Robert Elibay-Hartog, bar (Chaim); Kammerakademie Potsdam; Vladimir Stoupel, cond / Oehms Classics OC 990 (live: Konzerthaus Berlin, September 23, 2012)

I’ve always been a huge fan of Mieczysław Weinberg, but his opera about a newly-married woman aboard a ship who discloses that she was a prison guard at Auschwitz, The Passenger, has always struck me as way too dark, possibly because a childhood friend of mine was a prisoner in a concentration camp, but this one intrigued me because the plot is lighter. This recording, scheduled for release August 8, is the very first of this work.

Based on a story by famed Jewish writer Sholom Aleichem (1859-1916), whose story of Tevye the Dairyman became the basis of Fiddler on the Roof, Wir gartulieren (which translates into Contratulations in English or Mazel Tov in Yiddish) is a much lighter story. Written in 1975-82 and premiered in 1986, Weinberg had to include some extraneous praise of Communism against capitalism in his libretto, but otherwise it is based on Aleichem’s story. The plot is as follows:

In the rich home of a Jewish lady in Odessa at the turn of the last century, Bejlja the cook is busy preparing a festive dinner in the kitchen, because the engagement of the daughter of the house is imminent. The widowed cook complains of her laborious work and her lonely life without a husband. A book distributor appears with new books, and Bejlja gives him food and drink. She entrusts him with the latest gossip about her life. With every glass he empties, the bookseller becomes more talkative: first, he advertises his socialist books, shortly afterwards suggesting to Bejlja to found a community with him in view of her savings. Chaim, the neighbor’s servant, comes in and begins to blaspheme about this. Finally Fradl the maid, with a funny little song on the lips, appears in the kitchen. Chaim, who was initially hiding from her, comes out and starts flirting violently with the maid. An exuberant celebration and drink begins, and when the mood reaches its peak, Bejlja and the book distributor decide to quit their service and become engaged. In high spirits, the book distributor reads particularly beautiful passages from the books he brought with him. Inspired by the happiness of the newlyweds, Chaim suggests a wedding shower and then spontaneously turns to Fradl with a marriage proposal, which she finally accepts after initially resisting. Surprisingly, the lady of the house appears and stops the joyful singing and joking.

This performance, given in German rather than Russian, and the score has been reduced from a full ensemble to a chamber orchestra, but the flavor of the music is kept intact. Those readers familiar with Weinberg’s music will understand what I mean when I say that, despite its comic bent, the music is not entirely or consistently “comical” in the sense that Italian comic operas, or older German ones like The Merry Wives of Windsor or Martha, are. Weinberg was much more intent on writing continuous musical lines that change and morph to match the words; when the words are not particularly funny, neither is the music, but when they are his music is lively and energetic—but, again, not in a really conventional manner. His deep interest in and admiration for the music of Stravinsky, Bartók and Shostakovich led him to create music with vacillating minor and major keys and quite a few passages of bitonality. Let us say, then, that the opera is humorous in an amusing way but not something that will make you laugh out loud, and there are, of course, numerous touches taken from Jewish folk and even liturgical music throughout the score.

WirGratulieren_KonzerthausBerlinThis live performance was given at at the Konzerthaus Berlin on September 23 2012. (The photo from this production is reproduced here.) A German-only libretto is included in the booklet, which puts us English-speakers at a disadvantage; as a favor to my readers, I am including an English translation of the libretto HERE. Oehms Classics, in keeping with most record companies nowadays, also doesn’t seem to think that identifying the voice range of the singers on the back cover matters, so I had to spend 10 minutes searching the net to find out what range these singers’ voices were. (Note: The booklet, which came to me after I wrote most of the review, does identify the singers’ voice ranges–in the back). All the female singers have solid, bright voices, and tenor Jeff Martin has a compact, brilliant timbre that reminded me of Mark Panuccio. This is particularly good news since the bookseller gets the lion’s share of the singing in this relatively short work.

The chamber orchestra reduction doesn’t seem to harm the music at all, since Weinberg seldom used thick textures even in his symphonies. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of his orchestral writing is a use of the orchestra almost as if it were a large chamber group, with an emphasis on the brass and winds playing either singly or in small choirs that play off each other. Like Wagner, however, he found a way to write continuous music that, although it includes solo monologues that one can identify as ariettas such as the bookseller’s “Guten Tag, ich will nicht stör’n, meine liebe Bejlja!” or Fradl’s “Hab geweint drei Bäche Tränen” in Act I, does not really have full arias that set off the singer for two or three minutes at a time while nothing of import is going on behind him or her. I actually like this, but I know a few opera lovers who will complain that “the music never gets started” because unless one has a discernible pumping rhythm and set arias, music like this doesn’t really strike them as being “operatic.” There’s also a very nice quartet for the three female singers and the baritone at the end of Act I, but again, it’s short and doesn’t linger any longer than the lyrics and the dramatic situation call for. And the first act ends quietly, stopping on a dime. Surely this is not Good Opera!…except that it is, because that’s what the situation calls for.

Surprisingly, Act II opens with a very lively (for Weinberg) little dance in an odd meter played mostly by trumpets and winds, albeit with a violin cadenza that comes out of nowhere. It’s not overly jocular music, but if you’re a good musician you’ll have a chuckle at the way he handles it. Not too far into this act is a rather jocular but bitonal tenor-soprano duet (“Verlobung”) that eventually evolves into a real melody that conventional opera-lovers can enjoy (if they don’t mind the stiffish rhythms played by biting, Stravinskian winds behind the singers). Again, however, I can only go by the general plot description since I don’t have a libretto. The bookseller (Reb Alter) also has a fairly bouncy, Yiddish-sounding arietta, “Zu hause waren wir zehn,” which evolves into a trio with two of the ladies and then a quartet with the baritone. The music morphs and evolves, changing its melody and slowly increasing the tempo, eventually turning into a bitonal hora. What a wonderful piece! When “Madame” comes in to stop the revelry, she sounds like a screeching shrew—and I mean that literally, with high notes that will make the fillings in your teeth ache—but this may possibly be intentional. After all, she is a party pooper.

My sole complaint of this release is that Oehms Classics chose to stretch it over two CDs, which runs the price up, whereas at 80:23 it fits comfortably onto one CD. (Even I can burn CDs as long as 81:20 with Nero.) Still, this is clearly a must-have for Weinberg collectors and even a work to investigate for those who may not normally like his heavier, often sadder music. I would encourage other opera houses to perform it but, as a somewhat short opera and a comic one at that, I can’t think of too many other works one would pair with it save Ravel’s L’Entant et les Sotrileges.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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