The Legacy of Lorenzo Molajoli

Lorenzo Molajoli

During the period 1927-1932, both Italian HMV (La Voce di Padrone) and Italian Columbia were extremely active in recording complete operas, mostly Italian, for their respective labels. HMV/VDP used their contracted “house” conductor, Carlo Sabajno, who had been an employee of the Gramophone Company since 1904, while Columbia contracted a virtually unknown but obviously distinguished maestro with the odd name of “Cav. Lorenzo Molajoli.” Record buyers knew who Sabajno was, of course, even though he had next to no hands-on opera conducting experience in theaters, but Molajoli was a complete enigma. Yet, in retrospect, it was the unknown conductor who produced, by far, the more distinguished and, to my mind, overall the more impressive series of recordings.

The great irony of this ongoing series is that both companies used the orchestra and chorus of Teatro alla Scala, Milan, which of course was Arturo Toscanini’s domain from 1919 to 1929, when he moved out of Mussolini’s Italy to devote himself full-time to the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra and occasional opera performances and orchestral concerts at Bayreuth, Salzburg, Vienna and, in two memorable concerts, Jerusalem. This meant that both the chorus and orchestra exhibited the outstanding, high-level training that Toscanini imposed on them, so of course what they produced on the records reflected that aspect of his music-making.

But insofar as the casting of both companies went, they used some singers who were Toscanini regulars and a great many who weren’t. In the case of the former, you had tenors Alessandro Granda, Enzo de Muro Lomanto and Aureliano Pertile, sopranos Rosetta Pampanini, Inez Alfani Tellini and Mercedes Capsir, and the versatile basso Salvatore Baccaloni, one of Toscanini’s real protégés. Yet the recordings were also loaded with a great number of singers who simply had good reputations in Italy at the time, whether or not they sang at La Scala, such as Dusolina Giannini, Giannina Arangi-Lombardi, Margaret Sheridan, Gabriela Besanzoni, Lina Pagliughi, Irene Minghini-Cattaneo, Aurora Buades, Dino Borgioli, Lionello Cecil, Francesco Merli, Riccardo Stracciari, Gino Vanelli, Luigi Piazza, etc. etc. etc. Conspicuous by her absence is star soubrette Toti dal Monte, Toscanini’s favorite Gilda, Lucia and Rosina of the 1920s, even though her husband, de Muro Lomanto, recorded for Columbia. Eventually dal Monte made only one complete opera recording, in the surprising role of Madama Butterfly with tenor Beniamino Gigli, in 1939. Perhaps it was for this reason that the “Maestro” himself refused to participate in either project, although it may simply have been that HMV/VDP simply couldn’t afford his fee to make a complete opera recording, whereas Sabajno worked much more cheaply.

There are several interesting things about these two series of recordings. First is that, despite the fact that neither conductor spent time at La Scala, both picked up stylistic traits reminiscent of either Toscanini or his trusted assistant conductor at the time, Ettore Panizza, in that they often conducted in a tight, linear style, generally playing close attention to the note values and the score instructions for tempo. Sabajno was actually better at this than his counterpart on Columbia, who sometimes introduced some strange moments of rallentando and rubato in phrases that didn’t call for them while still conducting other sections of the operas at a white heat. Another odd thing is that Sabajno had absolutely no feeling for comic operas, which is obvious in his 1932 recording of Don Pasquale with the star tenor Tito Schipa. The performance has some energy, to be sure, but this was one performance in which Sabajno introduced too many slow tempi and there is little sparkle in the recording. On the other hand, Molajoli was a master of comic opera, as is clearly shown in his still-classic accounts of Il barbiere di Siviglia and Verdi’s Falstaff.

Another oddity is that HMV/VDP, which had more resources (and more money) than their rival, made far fewer complete recordings: only 12 complete operas plus the Verdi Requiem under Sabajno’s baton, whereas Columbia issued 22 complete operas conducted by Molajoli plus an album of highlights from L’Elisir d’Amore, plus a 1929 recording of a complete zarzuela, Emilio Arrieta y Corena’s Marina featuring Capsir, the fabulous Spanish tenor Hipolito Lazaro, legendary bass José Mardones and the excellent baritone Marcos Redondo, conducted by Daniel Montorio. Of the 13 Sabajno complete recordings, only two are, in my estimation, consistently brilliant from start to finish, the 1928 Aida with Giannini, Minghini-Cattaneo, Pertile and baritone Giovanni Inghilleri and the 1931-32 Otello with the vastly underrated Nicola Fusati in the title role (the great voice teacher and music critic Hermann Klein, who had heard Francesco Tamagno sing this role in his prime, stated that Fusati’s voice came much closer to that of Tamagno in his good days than Tamagno himself on his 1905 recordings) and the first-rate singing of Maria Carbone as Desdemona and Apollo Granforte as Iago. Honorable mention goes to the 1927 Rigoletto simply because then-20-year-old Lina Pagliughi actually sounds like a 15-year-old girl, as she is supposed to, and because tenor Tino Folgar, barely known internationally at the time but sometimes referred to as the Spanish Tito Schipa, sings the Duke of Mantua exactly as written including no high B at the end of “La donna è mobile,” and the 1928 La Bohème because of the excellent singing of soprano Rosina Torri as Mimi and the veteran baritone Ernesto Badini as Marcello (Badini also provides the only really good performance, besides Schipa’s, in Sabajno’s Don Pasquale.) Molajoli even made a recording, which I’ve never heard, of Adriano Lualdi’s 1930 operatic sensation, Le Furie di Arlecchino which except for one excerpt issued on a Symposium CD has sunk without a trace. But hey, at least he was open to recording what was then a contemporary opera.

Yet if you take the time to listen to the bulk of Molajoli’s recordings, you’ll discover that no less than six of the completes are masterful performances that still stand the test of time, plus his one album of highlights from L’Elisir, in addition to two other recordings getting honorable mention, his Rigoletto because of the fascinating performance by baritone Riccardo Stracciari in the title role and his Bohème due to the presence of Pampanini, Toscanini’s preferred Mimi (and Butterfly) of the 1920s. These seven first-rate recordings are a legacy matched by no other Italian conductor of my acquaintance on record, not even by Tullio Serafin whose conducting style slowed down considerably after 1953, or by such notables as Claudio Abbado, Riccardo Muti (although, between studio recordings and live performances, Muti wins out by one) or Riccardo Chailly, excellent though they are. And it is these seven performances I will discuss in this retrospective.

But first, Molajoli’s background. All that has been found out about him over the many decades since his death are that he was born in 1868 (but no one knows exactly when), which made him a year younger than Toscanini, and studied at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia. He began his career, according to Wikipedia, in 1891, spending most of his years prior to World War I conducting in North and South America, South Africa, and various provincial Italian theaters. How and why he was given the title of Cavalier, which is what the “Cav.” before his name on his records stands for, is not known. Nor is it clear how this next-to-nobody came to the attention of Italian Columbia’s management, but so he did and the association proved fortuitous for both. Incidentally, after the merger of HMV and Columbia in the fall of 1932 to form EMI, Sabajno, like Piero Coppola and Albert Coates, were summarily dropped from the label’s roster. None of them save Coppola, who somehow sneaked back in during the late 1930s for one session, recorded major works for EMI again, whereas Molajoli continued to conduct on solo aria recordings, most notably the famous series by soprano Claudia Muzio in 1934-35. And by that time, Italian HMV had begun a second series of complete opera recordings, only this time centered around one tenor, Beniamino Gigli, rather than one conductor.

Butterfly label1929: Madama Butterfly (Puccini) – Rosetta Pampanini, Alessandro Granda, Gino Vanelli.

This, the first complete electrical Butterfly, is still considered a classic, mostly for the fascinating, multi-hued interpretation of the title role by Pampanini. She was, in some ways, a typical Italian lyric soprano of the era, with a very bright voice and a fast, prominent vibrato, but she was one of those rare sopranos (for that time) who displayed a complete involvement with the character she was portraying. Although tenor Alessandro Granda (1898-1962) was not even as good as Francesco Merli, let alone de Muro Lomanto (who would have been perfect for Pinkerton), he was not a bad tenor at all. Like Luigi Alva after him, he was an Italian born in Lima, Peru (what were the Granda and Alva families doing in Peru to begin with??), and like Giacinto Prandelli after World War II, Toscanini took a liking to him and molded him into a very fine artist. (In later years, he was one of the backup singers for Peruvian vocal sensation Yma Sumac.) Baritone Gino Vanelli would have been a star in any other era, but unfortunately in 1929 they still had Titta Ruffo, Giuseppe de Luca, Stracciari, Granforte, Benvenuto Franci, Carlo Galeffi and other big names singing, so he couldn’t break through to stardom (he was clearly a more interesting baritone than Luigi Piazza).

This recording is typical of Molajoli’s somewhat schizophrenic conducting style. In Butterfly’s entrance music, he is as taut and exciting as Toscanini—you’d almost swear it was Toscanini conducting—but in other places he relaxes the tempo a bit much. And both Sabajno and Molajoli let the La Scala string section indulge in portamento effects, which were taboo with Toscanini. Still, this recording, like most of those Molajoli made, has the feel of a live performance, which is something he never lost. There’s also the bonus of hearing Baccaloni as the Bonze, which he sings superbly.

Il Barbiere label1929: Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Rossini) – Riccardo Stracciari, Mercedes Capsir, Dino Borgioli, Salvatore Baccaloni

This was Molajoli’s first comic opera recording, and it has remained a perennial classic to this day despite the boxy sound, a few cuts in the score, and the substitution of two non-Rossini arias—Dr. Bartolo’s “Manca un foglio” and Rosina’s lesson scene—for those that the composer actually wrote. The reason is that everyone involved sounds as if they’re having a ball and the infection is contagious. A particularly interesting feature of this recording is the way the soloists rattle off the secco recitatives at 90 miles an hour…something that clearly could not be done in a stage performance, where the audience wouldn’t catch half of the words, but could be done in the recording studio (probably to save some disc time). Mercedes Capsir was a Spanish coloratura soprano who had a small repertoire of eleven roles roles (one of them being Rosalina in Giordano’s Il Re, one of the operas she sang under Toscanini), but Rosina, Gilda, Violetta, Lucia and the title role in Marina were five of them, so by golly she recorded them all for Columbia. Unfortunately, she also had a voice like a steam kettle at full blast, so be warned, the voice can grate on your ears.

Pagliacci cover1930: Pagliacci (Leoncavallo) – Francesco Merli, Rosetta Pampanini, Carlo Galeffi

If this recording was in decent high-fidelity sound instead of cramped, dry 1930 sonics, it would probably be everyone’s preferred version of this opera. A superb cast with everyone is at their best, and Molajoli conducts it, yes, like Toscanini might have. Sorry for the pithy review, but it’s hard to improve on perfection.

1930-31: L’Elisir d’Amore (Donizetti) – Highlights w/Inez Alfani Tellini, Cristy Solari, Lorenzo Conati, Eduardo Faticanti

L'Elisir coverSometime in the crossover period between 1930 and 1931, Molajoli recorded an album of highlights from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and this album of a greatly abridged L’Elisir d’Amore. Ironically, the greatest virtue of the L’Elisir was also the biggest downfall of the Pasquale, and that was Cristy Solari. A Greek tenor born in Smyrna but, like Armenian tenor Armand Tokatyan, trained in Italy, he apparently had a surprisingly long career singing standard bel canto tenor roles such as Arturo in I Puritani and Edgardo in Lucia. I say “surprising” because, once you hear him, you’ll be scratching your head wondering how anyone could take him seriously in these operas. His voice was very well trained—he could sing coloratura runs and execute perfect diminuendos and crescendos with ease—but the voice sounded high and fluty, like a chipmunk’s. It almost sounded as if the record was playing at too fast a speed. Yet what worked as an impediment in his serious roles (including Ernesto in Don Pasquale, who after all is supposed to be an attractive young lover and not a farcical caricature) worked perfectly in his favor in L’Elisir. Here, at last, is a Nemorino who sounds like the town boob he is. The voice itself is funny, and because of this it’s easy to understand how Sgt. Belcore could con him into joining the army for 20 crowns or how he was too stupid to realize that Dr. Dulcamara’s elixir made him drunk. It also doesn’t hurt that Molajoli recruited two wonderful, experienced comic baritones in the Ernesto Badini tradition, Lorenzo Conati as Belcore and Eduardo Faticanti as Dulcamara. Add Molajoli’s sparkling, witty conducting, and you have a classic. I don’t know how long it may stay up, but for the time being you can access the recording for free by clicking HERE.

Manon Lescaut cover1931: Manon Lescaut (Puccini) – Maria Zamboni, Francesco Merli, Lorenzo Conati, Enrico Molinari

Columbia missed out on what could have been a truly stupendous recording of this opera by not hiring Aureliano Pertile, who Puccini himself said was the greatest Des Grieux he had ever heard in this work, but Francesco Merli, who a friend of mine refers to as “the captain of the B team” among the great Italian tenors of his time, does a very credible job here and Molajoli’s conducting in this work is indeed surprisingly Toscanini-like, though not quite as good in Act III as Toscanini’s own 1946 performance given at the reopening of La Scala. Maria Zamboni, though a bit fruity of vibrato, absolutely nails the character of the flighty Manon and Conati is an excellent Lescaut. This was another instant classic when it was first released, and has remained so (at least for diehard collectors) every since.

Carmen cover1932: Carmen (Bizet) – Aurora Buades, Aureliano Pertile, Ines Alfani Tellini, Benvenuto Franci

Latter-day critics rave about Pertile’s Aida and Trovatore recordings under Sabajno but for some reason dismiss this Carmen, probably because it’s sung in Italian rather than French and uses the Giraud sung recitatives instead of the spoken ones. This is a grave mistake. As I mentioned earlier, the Pertile Trovatore is pretty much a mess between his opening scene and his last one, but here he creates a believable character who already sounds a bit impatient and restless in his early scene with Micaëla, fanatical and fixated in his scene in the mountains with Carmen, and a cracked sociopath in the final scene. In addition, we get here the Carmen of Spanish contralto Aurora Buades, who sounds the most like a gypsy singer than any other performer of this role I’ve ever heard. Add Tellini’s gorgeously-sung Micaëla, Franci’s blustery Escamillo and Molajoli’s surprisingly good conducting (only a few odd slow-downs in the first scene of the opera), and you have another classic. You simply can’t afford to miss this one.

Falstaff cover1932: Falstaff (Verdi) – Giacomo Rimini, Pia Tassinari, Ines Alfani Tellini, Aurora Buades, Roberto d’Alessio, Salvatore Baccaloni

We end with yet another classic comic opera recording by Molajoli. In this case, happily, posterity seems to agree with me, because aside from Toscanini’s 1937 live performance and the 1980 one conducted by Herbert von Karajan, you won’t find a better Falstaff anywhere. I stayed away from this one for a long time because I never much liked Giacomo Rimini’s voice on other records, but he’s a surprisingly excellent Falstaff. Tellini returns in one of her signature roles, Nannetta, the young Pia Tassinari (1932 was the year of her La Scala debut) sings Alice Ford, the redoubtable Buades returns as Mrs. Quickly, her husband Roberto d’Alessio is an ardent-sounding Fenton, veteran character tenor Giuseppe Nessi sings Bardolph and Salvatore Baccaloni sings Pistol in this vivacious performance. What’s not to like, other than the restricted sound?

Thus the enigmatic, semi-invisible (there are only two photos of him in existence) Lorenzo Molajoli had an impact on the operatic history of his time beyond his wildest dreams.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

The Art Music Lounge: A Different Music Blog

organ-tissue

Yes, I’m an organ and tissue donor.

The title of this article may seem, to some readers, self-serving, but honestly, I’m a pretty modest woman at heart. I’ve loved music all my life, have listened (as my articles and reviews will show) to an extremely wide range of it since I was a child, and still have far-ranging tastes from klezmer, country blues, early jazz and old classical music going back to the Middle Ages up through the most advanced free jazz and modern classical pieces. And my interests have never stopped at just the music. When I’ve really liked a certain composer or performer, I try to find out as much as I can about them, their backgrounds, how they arrived at the music they created or played, and what made them tick as people as well as artists.

And in my musical journeys, I learned one important fact early on, that no two people hear music or musicians exactly the same way. The number of artists and composers one can agree on can probably be counted on the fingers of both hands, which really isn’t much when you consider the length and breadth of the musical spectrum, and the same goes for interpretive styles. For instance, for reasons I will soon explain, I can’t stomach soft, mushy performances of any music, yet I know there are thousands, perhaps millions, of listeners out there who prefer this manner of playing. The same goes for the composers and styles of music. There are only so many soft, relaxed pieces of music that I consider to be interesting, let alone great. But perhaps you might understand me and my musical biases better if I explain myself.

If you know my blog and have read the bulk of my profiles of certain artists, interviews, book and CD reviews, you’ll also know that my tastes, in addition to varying widely, cannot be bought. Many have tried to buy me as a music reviewer over the past 47 years, including impresarios and at least three major magazines I’ve written for. None have succeeded, and that’s why I eventually went freelance. It wasn’t just that I resented them trying to buy favorable reviews from me, it’s that I resented the fact that all of them DO—and not just those three. Over the years I’ve discovered that ALL classical and jazz review publications try the same thing with their reviewers…which means that much of what you read as a positive excerpt from a review on artists’ websites is nothing more than paid advertising, and this practice went back to the time when I was a young woman just getting into jazz and classical music and was myself swayed by the purple prose that appeared for certain recordings and artists in High Fidelity and Stereo Review (and yes, even Gramophone).

I grew up in a working class household that abhorred any music that was considered “arty.” My father particularly loved such “vanilla” bands as those of Sammy Kaye, Blue Barron and Mantovani, and pop singers like Andy Russell, Perry Como and the more mellow offerings of Sinatra. My mother, who had actually studied briefly to become a soprano, had surprisingly vanilla tastes in classical music as well: Chopin, Mozart, Puccini and Donizetti were her favorites. When I started getting into the music of Berlioz and Beethoven around age 11, they practically freaked out. But when you’re still a child you do tend to be led by your parents’ tastes, and I freely admit that my father and I had a couple of favorite artists in common, Nat “King” Cole and Glenn Miller. I still love both, for different reasons.

I saw my first opera at age 16: Carmen in a Met student performance with mezzo Nedda Casei in the title role. That same year I went to Carnegie Hall (a daytime concert…my parents would never have let me take the bus to New York City alone at night) to see Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall. But in a way my musical growth was stunted by my parents’ refusal to let me study a legitimate instrument. Because my father was Polish, I was forced to learn and play the accordion, and that mostly for the entertainment of the rest of the family when we came together to play polkas. It was my kid sister who was bought a piano and given piano lessons, which I envied. Yet I was yelled at and chased away from the keyboard every time I sat down to play “her” instrument. I bought the Schirmer scores of the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas at a fire sale of a sheet music store when I was in high school and studied them. I even tried to play some of them myself, and got further than I thought I might for someone with no formal piano training, but I was also forced to work after school (in addition to doing homework), not to mention keep up my accordion skills, thus I really had no time to become proficient at the instrument. But I just kept on plugging away at both classical and jazz, buying recordings of famous artists and learning as much as I could—in jazz, from all the way back to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band up to Dave Brubeck and Ramsey Lewis, who were popular in my day.

By the time I graduated college, where I was finally lucky enough to study music and learn how compositions were constructed (one of our exercises was to take a book of Bach Chorales and study both the top line and the accompaniment, then invert them), I also studied piano—but again, I had no real time to become proficient at it. In addition to my classes, I also had to work two jobs to help pay for my tuition because my parents, who could easily have afforded to pay for my education, absolutely refused to do so after I graduated high school. (To be fair, they also screwed my brother and sister this way.) But if nothing else, I was stubborn and I wanted to keep learning as much as I could. It was during this time that I also started getting into contemporary classical music of that time, the works of Ginastera, Britten and, of course, Stravinsky, who was then still alive and still writing music. This helped open my ears to a whole world of music beyond the old masters.

After graduation, when I started writing reviews—beginning with opera performances at the Metropolitan—I had a pretty good grounding in music theory and had listened to a great many of the finest singers past and present so I knew what I was talking about. But of course my musical education was still somewhat incomplete, and I knew it, so I just stuck to what I knew (quite a lot by that time, but by no means as wide a range of music as I know now) and wrote in an authoritative manner. This was enough to get me noticed and my reputation grew; but as anyone who has written reviews professionally will tell you, it is a cheap-ass business. They nickel and dime you to death because they figure that your free tickets to the concerts or opera houses are part of your pay. But I still took anything I could get because it was all a learning experience. Believe it or not, I was one of the few music critics to give a very positive review of Britten’s Death in Venice when it came to the Metropolitan. I was lucky enough to give a copy of the review to the work’s star, tenor Peter Pears, who in turn showed it to composer Benjamin Britten, who found it “informative and lively.” I still have Pears’ original letter to me preserved in plastic wrap.

In the late 1970s, by which time I had moved from New Jersey to Ohio, I decided to write a book about the various methods of singing technique taught by the great masters from the 18th century to the present, guided in part by the writings of Canadian baritone and author John Stratton. I spent roughly four years researching that era and discovered a lot of information about the REAL performance practices of that time, which were often at odds with the CREATED performance practices now followed like a religion by most historically-informed musicians and singers. What I learned was that the opera and concert singers of that time did NOT uniformly use “straight tone” when they sang; on the contrary, MOST of them had vibrato in their voices, and sometimes very rapid and noticeable vibrato at that. And I also learned that string and wind players (read: violinists, violists, cellists, flautists, clarinetists and oboists) emulated the timbre, tone and expression of their favorite singers. Yes, some of them rested their violins against their shoulders instead of under their chins, but not all. Yes, some string players used straight tone when they played fast passages because vibrato got in the way, but again, not all. Some string players used a continuous light, fast vibrato whereas the majority of them used straight tone for fast passages and, yes indeedy, VIBRATO for sustained notes. And they prided themselves on having a beautiful legato—again, emulating the singers—and playing with subtle shifts in dynamics to give their performances color. So do me a favor, all of you straight-tone HIP hypocrites, and stop lecturing me on what performance practice was really like in those days.

Between 1988 and 1991 I published my own little homemade music magazine. I never had more than 40 or 50 subscribers; this was well before real desktop publishing or the Internet was available, and I struggled on next to no money. And it was during this time that I learned, the hard way, that the Grammys were as crooked and corrupted as those record reviews I once trusted. Money, not merit, was and still is behind 99.5% of all Grammy winners in all fields. So if you’re a promoter or a record company, please do not try to impress me by saying that your latest record won a Grammy or is performed by Grammy-winning artists. You can’t bullshit me. Been there, done that.

My having to work for a living, often at a succession of menial and/or soul-deadening jobs, impeded much but not all of my musical growth over the decades, and the 1990s in particular kept me from keeping up with the latest new young artists and composers too much, but I kept on plugging away and eventually caught up by, I would say, 2008. Yet it was my becoming permanently crippled at age 60 that was both a curse and a boon. Unable to get to work, I had to resign my job and live off what was left of my 401K for a year and a half until I was eligible for Social Security. This decimated what little savings I had to pay my mortgage, utilities, food and clothing bills. But the upside is that I now had the Internet to research things, a lot of great music was suddenly available for free, and I sopped it all up like a sponge.

So here I am at age 70, still writing my blog. I’ve become more and more irritated with and bored by artists who refuse to play 20th and 21st century music, and in fact with earlier music in general. My CD collection spans four six-foot bookshelves, but remember that this includes jazz (which fills up most of the last bookshelf) along with classical music from all eras…and yes, some older music in alternative and multiple recordings. Frankly, there’s nothing that 95% of modern-day artists can say about the music of the past that hasn’t already been said by others before them, so why should I go out of my way to hear your version of a piece I have one to three outstanding recordings of? Put on your big girl skirts and big boy pants and start playing contemporary music.

My comments regarding the Grammys were also the reason I eventually decided to designate certain recordings with my own “What a Performance!” award. It’s not a gold statuette handed out by the paid shills of the recording industry; it’s just a blue ribbon on your review on my website; but it’s an honest award. It has no strings attached to it. It comes from the heart and the head. No one can buy my approval. And no one ever will.

I turn down far more CDs and DVDs—especially the latter—offered to me for review than I write about, and it’s not just for my prejudice towards music I haven’t heard vs. the stuff I’ve heard a hundred times. There are certain trends in both classical and jazz nowadays that I simply don’t respond to. Here is a list:

  • Edgy-atonal-shock style music. This goes for both classical and jazz. For whatever reason, and in the classical field I kind of blame Thomas Àdes, a very talented man who inadvertently started this style and became famous for it back in the 1990s. In jazz, I guess it’s just a trend, but neither one appeals much to me any more. I was suckered in at the beginning, but have learned that this is just a gimmick that too many artists are latching on to. So there’s No. 1.
  • On the opposite side of the scale, there’s also the soft, slow, mushy style of music. This seems to be the hot thing with Millennials nowadays, probably because they’re all sitting at home crying because they can’t go out and socialize and hug their friends.
  • Allied to the above are the apparently dozens of soft, whispery “jazz” singer out there who are giving you their music “from the heart.” The women in particular all pose for their album covers with come-hither looks on their faces, usually in soft pastel dresses that look as if they’d fall to the floor in an instant if you responded to their music from the heart.
  • Music that uses too much electronics, and again this applies to both jazz and classical. Electronics do not appeal to me as a rule. On the contrary, when I hear them, they upset my nervous system and either give me a headache or make me angry. A subset of this is the use of overblown rock guitars, particularly in jazz. Sorry, folks, but I didn’t much like Miles Davis’ Bitches’ Brew when it came out, nor did I like its successors in the jazz world thereafter. In fact, the only rock guitarists I’ve ever really admired were George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Alvin Lee. (Jimi Hendrix had an amazing technique, but nothing he played ever made sense or appealed to me.) I can take electric guitars played in a jazz style, but as soon as I hear what I call “that Fillmore East sound” the record goes off.
  • The kind of classical music that I define as “schlumph,” a term borrowed from the late Anna Russell. This is modern classical of the sort that doesn’t really go anywhere, it just progresses from one schlumphy moment to another ad infinitum.
  • Guitar players of either genre who play too softly all the time. Sorry, but I was weaned on Julian Bream (classical) and Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt (jazz), and your wimpy guitar playing doesn’t impress me.
  • Anything written by Astor Piazzola. For whatever reason, he’s one of the hottest composers in classical music, and I don’t get it. His classical tangos just aren’t all that well written. Neither, for that matter, is most minimalist music (sorry, Philip Glass).
  • The music of Bruckner. As an acquaintance of mine put it, all he wrote was “a succession of endings,” and his symphonies are, to me, interminable and boring. And it doesn’t matter if Jesus K. God is conducting them. I’m just not interested.

Other than that, I’m actually pretty open-minded and have discovered some really amazing classical composers I hadn’t know about previously as well as quite a bit of modern jazz that’s highly creative.

So there you have it, me and my musical background and tastes in a nutshell. Or maybe two nutshells. Who’s counting?

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music OR

From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

Standard

The Symphonies of Ķeniņš

ĶENIŅŠ: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 6. Canzona Sonata* / *Santa Vižine, vla; Latvian National Symphony Orch.; Guntis Kuzma, cond / Ondine ODE 1354-2

Following on the heels of its release of Tālivaldis Ķeniņš’ Fifth Symphony, Concerto di Camera and Concerto for Piano, Strings & Percussion, Ondine now presents his Fourth and Sixth Symphonies along with his Canzone Sonata for viola and orchestra. As I mentioned in my review of that record in September of last year, Ķeniņš led a hard life during World War II when the Soviets invaded Latvia and he was not reunited with his mother as planned but rather conscripted into the Russian Army (he served his time as an organist). Later, having survived the war, he studied music seriously in Paris before going to live in Canada.

Ķeniņš always claimed to take a “rational view” towards composition, and a bias towards tonality, he clearly used sliding chromatics and other unusual harmonic effects which gave his music a bitonal, harmonically unsettled perspective. Rhythmically and structurally Ķeniņš remained a Latvian at heart. The Fourth Symphony, split into two long movements (12 minutes and 10 minutes respectively), spends most of the first delving into dark recesses of the mind. It is not quite nihilistic but rather edgy and unsettled music; you’re not quite sure where it’s going,  but the journey is obviously a hard and strenuous one. The continuous bitonality and use of harsh wind and brass chords never quite breaks through into outright despair, but neither does it sound as if the journey is going to end happily.

The second movement opens with a strange trumpet solo, also bitonal, which leads into more energetic but equally unsettled emotional terrain. At about the 7:30 mark, however, the music suddenly becomes more animated and, though still bitonal, seems to have a quirky jollity about it. This journey may not end with everyone getting cake and ice cream, but it’s certainly not going to be bleak or nihilistic. Racing chromatic figures played by the brass and winds intertwine. eventually the timpani enters to punctuate things, and we get a crushed chord that goes through a long diminuendo before an unexpectedly quiet ending.

The Sixth Symphony is a single movement lasting 18 minutes, and this one starts in a very somber mood with low clarinet and soft, low trumpet figures. Eventually the music becomes louder, faster and more menacing, with low wind and trombone figures played against sustained edgy wind chords. Considering this music’s harmonic language and (again) sparse, wind-oriented orchestration, it’s amazing how much color and variety of mood Ķeniņš could wring out of his forces.

Despite the interesting musical progression, which goes through several tempi and some unusual changes in orchestration (including the use of cup mutes in the trumpets and some sliding, microtonal figures), Ķeniņš’ music seems to me much more connected with mood than with structure, which somewhat goes against the composer’s stated preference for “rational” composition. Or, at least, that’s the way these performances strike me.

At the 14:04 mark we move from the slow section of the symphony to the faster final section, and here Ķeniņš creates a two-voiced fugue which eventually morphs into a series of counter-figures playing against one another. He later told his biographer, flautist Edgars Kariks, that he thought the sixth was his best symphony. “Quoting Bach has been fruitful – symbolizing the spirit of music itself, as I see it,” he said.

The Canzone Sonata, commissioned by the committee of Australian-Latvian Culture Days (try figuring that one out!) in 1986, is a strongly lyrical work in which the solo viola sounds much like a cello, particularly in the opening section of the work. It is also quite varied in tempo and mood, in fact shifting more quickly here than in his symphonies. Perhaps because the top line was written for a string instrument, which relies on sustained tones, Ķeniņš kept both the melody line and the harmony a bit simpler than usual, but still edgy enough to satisfy those who prefer modern to romantic music. His penchant for sparse orchestral textures continues here as well, and there seems to be a more recognizable sense of structure in this music.

Overall, then, this is a splendid album and one quite valuable to the collector. Ķeniņš is scarcely a familiar or even a well known composer in most parts of the world, but his music tells us that he should be much better known by contemporary audiences.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Maacha Deubner Has “Insomnia”

21741-Booklet.indd

GUBAIDULINA: Brief an die Dichterin Rimma Dalos. FIRSOVA: Sorrows. Starry Flute. Towards the Starlight. For Slava. DENISOV: At the Turning Point. SILVESTROV: Bessonnitsa, Homer. FIRSOVA: On the Path to Winter. From the Voronezh Notebooks / Maacha Deubner, sop; Katia Tchemberdji, pno; Ehrengard von Gemmingen, cel; Bettina Lange, fl; Mata Dagan, Suyeon Kang, Christiane Plath, vln; KAPmodern-Ensemble / Genuin GEN 21741

Even after scanning the liner notes, I still can’t figure out why soprano Maacha Deubner, the driving force behind this disc, decided to title it Insomnia. Certainly, her choice of composers is an odd one. The disc is dedicated to Elena Firsova, of whose work I knew nothing prior to hearing this release, and of the other composers chosen the only one whose named I knew was Sofia Gubaidulina—90 years old this year and thumbing her nose at Covid-19.

And it is Gubaidulina’s Brief an die Dichterin Riimma Dalos that opens the program…written for soprano and cello, although for the first of its two sections solo cello is all you hear, playing strange, edgy figures. Deubner appears in the second half, singing a cappella, a strange Eastern European melody with no fixed tonal center (which does not meant it is altogether atonal, just not tonally settled). It is very much in line with her other compositions. Cello and soprano meet in Elena Firsova’s Sorrows, and I must be honest with you, at first I thought it was a continuation of the Gubaidulina piece. This doesn’t make it bad, but it does make it, for my ears, so heavily influenced by the older composer that it doesn’t seem to be by a different composer at all.

Happily, Deubner is a superb singer. Her voice is fresh, clear and attractive without even a hint of unsteadiness about it, and wonder of wonders, her diction is as clear as a bell. (Has it struck you, as it has struck me, that some of the greatest sopranos in the world today, among them Anu Komsi, Tony Arnold, Sarah Maria Sun and Barbara Hannigan, are all specialists in 20th and 21st century music and not the archaic twitter-bird stuff?) And although I felt that Firsova’s music was derived from Gubaidulina, it is clearly an interesting, well-written piece that holds your attention, not one of these edgy-screamy pieces that just splatter notes all over the page hoping that they coalesce into actual music.

Starry Flute features Bettina Lange, also playing a cappella. This piece is in a similar style but uses more staccato phrases than the pieces for cello which preceded it. By contrast, Towards the Starlight is a fast, edgy, atonal piece for soprano and string quartet, one of the most original and fascinating pieces on the album. Aside from the lyric line for the singer, the music almost defies description, pushing the strings through their entire range and producing unusual effects. The quartet almost plays like a small string orchestra, so much so that I could easily imagine an arrangement of this piece for such a combination. This is also a three-piece suite, of which the second is the most lyrical and most conventionally scored.

When we reach Edison Denisov’s At the Turning Point, we hear music that is similar in style to that of Gubaidulina but not identical in style, and for that I was grateful. Yet there is no question that all of the music on this CD is of a sad, melancholy nature. There is no joy in Mudville. Somebody has struck out and these composers are at the ready to convey their anguish and despair. Just two cheery pieces sprinkled in to provide some contrast would have been welcome.

So the decision is yours. If you’re in a good mood and want a CD to bring you down, by golly, this is it. If you’re already feeling somewhat despondent, I highly recommend that you not play this recording unless you want someone to call 911 because you slashed your wrists. Deubner has an excellent voice, all of the musicians are excellent, but there’s only so much misery I can take in a program that runs 83 minutes.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Fredrik Malmberg’s Excellent “L’Orfeo”

MONTEVERDI: L’Orfeo / Johan Linderoth, ten (Orfeo); Kristina Hellgren, sop (La Musica/Prosperina/Choir); Christine Nonbo Andersen, sop (Ninfa 1/Euridice/Choir); Maria Forsström, mezzo (Messenger/Choir); Anna Zander, mezzo (Pastore 1/Speaker/Choir); Adam Riis, ten (Pastore 2/Apollo/Echo/Choir); Daniel Åberg, bar (Pastore 3/Infernal Spirit 2/Choir); Steffen Bruun, bass (Caronte); Karl Peter Eriksson, bar (Pastore 4/Pluto/Choir); Ann-Margret Nyberg, sop (Ninfa 2/Choir); Rasmus Gravers Nielsen, ten (Infernal Spirit 1/Choir); Staffan Alveteg, bs (Infernal Spirit 3/Choir); Hedvig von Schantz, sop (Choir); Staffan Solén, ten (Choir); Petter Östberg, ten (Choir); Höör Barock; Ensemble Altapunta; Fredrik Malmberg, dir/org / Bis SACD-2519

Monteverdi;s L’Orfeo is sometimes referred to as the first opera, but it’s just not so. The first opera, which predated L’Orfeo by a few years, was Jacopo Peri’s Dafne, whether you care for it or not; but Dafne is today considered pretty much a museum piece while L’Orfeo continues to be performed and recorded by many, particularly since the early 1980s.

This particular performance is the sort of thing that would have been considered extremely difficult to mount back in the early-to-mid 1980s, when John Eliot Gardiner made his first recording of the opera using “name” singers, albeit ones suited to Handel and Mozart, in the solo roles: an ensemble of 15 singers who can, and do, sing the solo roles demanded in this opera while still being able to fall back and become the chorus. They call themselves Ensemble Lundabarock, and although I did not refer to them as such in the above header they are indeed comprised of all the singers named.

Famed Italian Monteverdi expert Gabriel Gorrido, whose recordings of this composer’s works made between 1996 and 2000 are similar to these, were widely and unanimously hailed upon their release for this very thing. I have his set of recordings—all but the L’Incoronazione di Poppea, for which I prefer Claudio Cavina’s recording on the Glossa label (the singers are better)—and until now I preferred Gorrido’s L’Orfeo above all others because of its wonderful ensemble casting. But, I must admit, I like Malmberg’s conducting almost as much as Gorrido’s and some of his singers more. Gorrido had some steady but tonally unremarkable singers in several roles such as the Shepherd and the Nymphs, not to mention Orfeo and Euridice, but when listening to this new recording I didn’t hear a single soloist whose voice was the slightest bit unpleasant. Malmberg has done himself proud in his selection of singers, and although few of them have that certain “Italian exuberance” that I like to hear in a performance of this opera, the principal leads do, giving a reading that is both musically satisfying and interpretively interesting.

In a “chamber opera” like this, sonics generally don’t matter as much as you might think, but here, too Bis’ super audio CD sound adds an extra dimension to the performance, particularly in those moments when the little orchestra is playing along with the chorus. And the musicians certainly play with enthusiasm; at times they reminded me of the old New York Pro Musica of sainted memory, still the most enjoyable early music band that ever existed.

Of course, I have no way of knowing if these ensembles represent a new standard in historically informed performance practice; I certainly have never traveled outside of the U.S. and have to rely on whatever broadcasts, recordings and videotaped performances I can access, but if it is a new standard it is clearly moving in the right direction. None of the orchestral musicians play with a wan, sickly timbre; on the contrary, each instrument sounds alive and natural to my ears, and they have an excellent grasp of both legato phrasing and subtle changes in dynamics and rhythmic accents which enliven their playing. If I have any caveat at all about this performance, it is that it sounds to me, at times, a little over-rehearsed, as of Malmberg was so concerned about getting exactly the right effects that he sacrificed some spontaneity, particularly in the singing. The orchestra, as I noted, sounds consistently enthusiastic, and that helps to propel the music with exactly the right feeling of enthusiasm when they are playing.

Moreover, there are moments when the singers sound enthusiastic indeed, particularly Orfeo’s “Ecco pur ch’a voi ritorno” which Johan Linderoth sings with excellent interpretation as well as a beautiful tone. But of course I am nitpicking a bit here, considering how many recordings there are of this opera. Almost no performance of L’Orfeo I’ve heard has the raw energy of the one that Paul Hindemith, of all people, recorded way back in 1951 (with a very appropriately Italian-sounding lead tenor), but he, too had to suffer some defective voices in subsidiary but important roles which diminished his achievement somewhat. By and large, I’d say that it’s primarily the female singers who tend to perform a bit more cautiously than they needed to (although mezzo Maria Forsström is wonderful as the Messenger). A bit more oomph would have been appreciated, but none of them are so bland as to harm the performance.

Indeed, as the performance continued I became more and more wrapped up in it. It was just so wonderful to hear an ensemble cast as consistently good as this, backed by instrumentalists who don’t hold back emotionally. I think there is a tendency for modern-day audiences, critics, and especially musicologists to forget that this was an ITALIAN OPERA, and I seriously doubt that even Italian court singers of 1607 sang with reticent emotion. (Hell, they probably had audience members who said afterwards, “Hey, where was the high notes? I wanna hear a high C or two!”)

And when these 15 singers come together to sing as a chorus, well, they are almost beyond wonderful, producing such a rich sound that you’d swear this was a 30-piece choir. I’ll put it to you this way: this performance is so good that, were I still able to walk and get around, I’d actually pay to go hear it in person. I say “hear it” rather than “see it” because, for all its musical excellence, L’Orfeo was not yet what you’d call a visual treat. Monteverdi was to slowly but surely improve on this in his later operas the Return of Ulysses to his Homeland and the Coronation of Poppea, but they were in the future. L’Orfeo is a rather static work, no matter how many Regietheater morons try to ruin it (and by golly, they’ve sure tried, haven’t they?).

I did, however, discover one singer with a defective voice, and that was bass Steffen Bruun as Caronte. He has a fine tone and the appropriate low range, but also a wobble in the voice. Fortunately, he doesn’t sing all that much and, when he enters the second time, his voice sounds firmer.

All in all, however, I think that this recording of L’Orfeo goes straight to the top of the list of preferred versions of this opera. Both Monteverdi and his followers were to develop the concept of a sung line into something more melodic and less like secco recitative as the decades went on, but there is still a great deal to admire in this score and Malmberg and his forces bring that out with an excellent style and great spirit.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Gluzman Plays Beethoven & Schnittke

BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto. SCHNITTKE: Violin Concerto No. 3 / Vadim Gluzman, vln; Lucerne Symphony Orch.; James Gaffigan, cond / Bis SACD-2392

This unusual pairing of the well-known and widely-loved Beethoven Violin Concerto with a much less well-known violin concerto by Alfred Schnittke has produced results that one might find surprising.

Certainly, there were surprising to me as someone who has generally disliked most of Schnittke’s music, and that is that this particular piece is not only fascinating but very original (most of Schnittke’s music stole snippets and whole themes from older composers). The succession of trills played to bitonal harmonies, a cappella, that open the concerto is certainly one such feature, but in addition to this the music’s development and structure continue to hold one’s attention. Indeed, when the orchestra enters it seems to be playing “organ chords,” and stays in this vein for quite some time. The ebb and flow of the music is really quite extraordinary; after the opening flurry of trills, the solo violinist moves into a serrated melodic line that spurs the organ chords of the orchestra to move around like chess pieces on a board. Schnittke even uses some microtonal passages in the solo line, which adds further interest.

There is scarcely a moment in this entire concerto that does not interest the listener. For whatever reason, Schnittke’s inspiration was working in high gear when he wrote this piece, and it shows. Though divided into three movements, they are connected and thus almost sound like a continuous, inspired musical flow. In the second movement (“Agitato”), the orchestra finally moves away from its organ chords to produce some edgy, brass-and-reed-oriented chords that move fairly quickly up and down, in and out of various tonalities. It’s almost like being in a musical “fun house” where the walls and floor move and you’re not sure where to stand to avoid sliding down a stairway that suddenly turns into a smooth ramp under your feet. The final “Andante” calms things down a bit, giving us (at last) some tonal music to hang on to, but the mood is melancholy, not triumphant, with the violin playing its sad song against more edgy wind chords.

The reader will have noticed, however, that I skipped over Gluzman’s performance of the Beethoven concerto. That is because it is shockingly mundane in every respect. He plays it nicely but without much interest; it sounds like a good, professional read-through but not like a performance in which he cared much about the material. In addition, there is something strange about the orchestral accompaniment. It sounds thin and wan, with even the tympani strokes in the opening section coming across like finger taps on a snare drum. So between the poor-sounding orchestra and Gluzman’s lack of involvement in the solo part, it’s just “there.” It’s not particularly good.

A split review, then, but that’s the way it is. If you don’t have this Schnittke concerto (I didn’t), you need to get at least this portion of the CD and hear it. It’s fabulous. As for the Beethoven, I’ll take Christian Tetzlaff with the Deutsches Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Robin Ticciati any day of the week.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Mikkola Plays Hundsnes

HUNDSNES: Piano Sonata No. 2. Vinterdanser. Nuances de Lumière / Laura Mikkola, pno / Grand Piano GP843

Svein Hundsnes (b. 1951) is a Norwegian composer who, he admits, normally starts out “from a tiny core motif; a small musical cell, and then make it form the basis of a broadly laid out movement.” This, then, makes his music driven by rhythm and not necessarily by melodic lines or harmony, though as the music progresses it does not lack either. Hundsnes also likes to “layer” chords in his music, which gives it a tonal bias but makes it sound a bit odd to the untrained ear.

Nonetheless, I found his music fascinating, at least as played by Mikkola, an attractive young woman with a big smile and a dynamic keyboard style. She does not gloss over the soft, mysterious passages, but she also does not shy away from vigorous attacks when the music calls for it. At certain times his music sounds as if it were built on minimalism, but it isn’t; it always moves forward eventually, sooner rather than later. At other times, such as in the third movement of the piano sonata, it sounds somewhat fractured, as if Hundsnes were breaking up his now-developed structure into little bits of glass that shatter on the ground. It’s an unusual method of composition, to be sure; sometimes easy to follow and sometimes not.

The Vinterdanser (Winter Dances), by their very nature, are somewhat more fractured and less structured pieces, more like little vignettes made up of bits of musical cells. There almost seems to be an improvisatory feel to this music, as if the pianist were making it up as she went along, but of course it is all through-composed. The fourth of these “dances,” simply titled “Con moto,” has a boogie-woogie feel to it whereas the fifth, “Moderato con anima,” has such fractured meter than one can scarcely figure out where one is in about half of the piece.

To be honest, however, I didn’t care much for Nuances de Lumière. To me, this was just drippy music that went in one ear and out the other.

Overall, then, a somewhat uneven program with several interesting moments, but worth investigating for the Piano Sonata and some of the Vinterdanser.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Klezmer Pioneers 1905-1956

KLEZMER PIONEERS 1905-1956 / Dem Rubens Tanz (The Rabbi’s Dance). Zapfenstreich (Reverie Dream) – A Jewish Fantasy. Mit Der Kalle Tanzen (Dancing With The Bride) / Art Shryer’s Modern Jewish Orch. / Fon Der Choope (From the Wedding) / Abe Elenkrig’s Orchestra / A Heimisher Bulgar (A Homey Bulgar). Der Fetter Max’s Bulgar (Uncle Max’s Bulgar) / Sam Musiker & his Orch. / Ma Yofus (How Beautiful). Bessarabian Hora / Belf’s Rumanian Orch. / Grichisher Tantz (Greek Dance). Odessa – Bulgar / Mishka Tsiganoff / Ai Raci Ku Ne Draci (Liebes Tanz) / Orchestra Romaneasca / A Dreidele Far Alle-Freilachs (A Dance For Everyone). Tantz-A-Freilachs (Dance A Freilachs) / Abe Schwartz’s Orchestra / Kalle Bezetzns Un A Freilachs (The Bridal Serenade And Congratulations) / Joseph Cherniavsky’s Yiddish-American Jazz Band / Die Chasidim Forren Tsum Rebbin (The Chasidim Visit The Rabbi). A Laibediga Honga (A Lively Honga) / Harry Kandel’s Famous Inlet Orch. / Doina Un Sirba / Mihal Viteazul / Ein Kik Af Dir (Once Glance At You) / Alexander Olshanetsky & his Orch. / Tantz-A-Freilachs (Dance A Freilachs) / Abe Schwartz’s Orch. / Orientalishe Motive II / Josef Solinski / Der Heisser (The Hot One) – Tartar Dance / Naftule Brandwein’s Orch. / Bessarabier Chosid’l (The Hassid From Bessarabia) / Israel J. Hochman’s Jewish Orch. / Doina / Joseph Moskowitz / Dem Trisker Rebbin’s Chosid (The Disciple Of The Rabbi From Trisk) / Dave Tarras / Erinerung Fun Kishnev (Memories Of Kishnev) / Abe Katzman’s Bessarabian Orch. / Rounder Records 1089, available for free streaming on YouTube

I chose to review this rather strange recording for two reasons: 1) Fremeaux & Associes, the French label, is releasing a similar CD next month but I know from experience that you rarely get copies or even downloads of their albums for review, and 2) I’ve long been fascinated by klezmer music, which lies somewhere in that strange alleyway of music between ethnic pop and art. As we all know by now thanks to such latter-day revivalists as the Klezmer Conservatory Orchestra, the music itself is lively Jewish folk music from the ghettos of Eastern and Western Europe, it uses “kissing” trumpets and wailing clarinets in an almost orgiastic frenzy of odd rhythms, often in 6/8, and contains elements of both Eastern European and Mediterranean music. But much of it was improvised and some of it damn difficult to play (just ask clarinetist Don Byron, a charter member of the KCO), and it had a strong impact on the development of jazz. Indeed, I consider klezmer to be the “hidden influence” on the development of early jazz. They even had klezmer bands in New Orleans when “jazz was born,” and even such famous African-Americans musicians as Joe “King” Oliver, Larry Shields, and even Louis Armstrong borrowed some tricks from the klezmer players. On top of that, it was also the youthful music of such noted Jewish-American jazz musicians as Mannie Klein, Benny Goodman and Ziggy Elman, the latter of which brought klezmer directly into jazz with his Frahlich in Swing which he later renamed And the Angels Sing. And never forget the “ghetto swingers” in Nazi Germany, former klezmer musicians who began playing their own form of “Jewish jazz.”

The Jewish immigrants who flooded America (along with other ethnicities) between 1900 and 1925 reveled in klezmer, which they considered “their” music, along with the religious recordings of the great cantors like Josef Rosenblatt and Moishe Koussevitzky. It even influenced the music of Yiddish theater, whose denizens included the lively and popular chanteuse Molly Picon, but by the end of World War II most of them, and their offspring, had moved on. They were now reputable businessmen, accountants, store owners, lawyers, doctors etc., and they wanted to blend into society and be assimilated, not stick out like sore thumbs. For them, klezmer was an embarrassment, a reminder of a time when they were poor, grimy factory and textile industry workers, and so it faded from view (thus the few later recordings included in this set were really an anomaly). Those who hadn’t gravitated towards classical music were often serious jazz aficionados. When comedian-singer Mickey Katz formed his Yiddish-flavored Spike Jones-styled band, the Kosher Jammers, in 1947, he was shocked to discover that few radio stations would play his records—especially those owned and/or operated and manned by Jews. They didn’t find his klezmer spoofs funny, and were especially offended by the fact that he often sang in Yiddish, which they considered the language of the Jewish ghettos. Thus, ironically, Katz’ biggest audience consisted of the “goyim,” white Protestants and Catholics, who found his spoofs hysterical. If it hadn’t been for them, he’s probably have starved to death trying to sell his Yiddish-flavored schtick to an offended Jewish-American population.

The other side to Katz’ success was the assumption by those who did buy his records that klezmer WAS trashy, whiny, offensive music meant to be denigrated. Ironically such older jazz stars as Elman and Klein were members of the Kosher Jammers, and although their playing was always on the comic side it was also improvised and pretty interesting. Yet you can see how, by the time Hankus Netsky formed the KCO in the late 1970s, many people were startled to hear that the music was not only fun but quite complex. Somehow, the artistry required to be a great klezmer musician had been forgotten along with Mickey Katz’ schtick.

Since this Rounder CD was released in 1993 and is now long out of print, I was unable to find much information on the musicians and bands presented here or who the full personnel of such bands were, but as you can hear, very often the term “orchestra” was applied to one klezmer clarinetist or trumpeter playing with a three-man rhythm section; not all of the orchestras are really orchestras, though most are. These are the kinds of records that helped to inspire Netsky to

Belf’s Rumanian Orchestra

form the KCO in the first place, and most of them were long out of print and had never been reissued on LP or any other format before this CD came out. I did discover a few things, however, for instance that the Art Shryer recordings were part of Vocalion’s 13000 series in 1924, a special numbering sequence devoted to ethnic records. By 1928-29, Shryer was recording for Brunswick and Victor (also in their ethnic series). Josef Solinski was a famous klezmer clarinet virtuoso much admired by Goodman, and Abe Elenkrieg or Elenkrig (1878 – 1965) was a trumpeter, barber and bandleader. Joseph Cherniavsky’s Yiddish-American Jazz Band, though also featured in Victor’s ethnic series, created music that was very close to the Charleston-influenced stomp bands of the late 1920s. But many of the other names turned up nothing for me in a Google search except references to this album and similar recordings (though I did turn up a photo of the Belf band).

Some of these performances are, like the first track by Art Shryer, purely ensemble, with no solos to speak of. In these cases, one listens for the use of rhythm, which has its own sort of ersatz-belly-dance feel to it. This, in its own way, is a more commercialized version of klezmer, but in Shryer’s second recording there is an excellent clarinet solo that commands attention—along with a plunger-muted trumpet solo that reflects the influence on such black jazz musicians as King Oliver and Bubber Miley. By contrast, Abe Elenkrig’s Orchestra really whoops it up, klezmer style, in From the Wedding, a record that sounds for all the world like the Klezmer Conservatory Orchestra in more primitive sound. Sam Musiker’s Orchestra really hams up A Homey Bulgar, complete with mechanical bird calls and a “laughing” vocal by the leader. This record was so popular that, believe it or not, it was reissued by RCA Victor on a 45 after World War II. By contrast, Mischa Tsiganoff’s Greek Dance is a really fascinating piece, starting off slow and then increasing speed like a czardas. This is, however, more through-composed than improvised; it sounds like something that classical violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja might play as an encore in a recital…except for the last section, when a muted trumpet suddenly increases the tempo for the coda.

The Liebes Tanz by Orchestra Romaneasca has a really primitive sound to it: this could easily be one of the 1905 recordings. It also has some interesting, pre-jazz-styled solos set to a slow, rocking beat. Update the sound by 80 years, and this, too could be a Klezmer Conservatory band performance. Abe Schwartz’ A Dance for Everyone also has somewhat primitive sound but is probably from the immediate post-World War I era. This is more of an ensemble piece, but peppy and in an authentic style that doesn’t compromise or simply copy American “jazz” bands of the time.

The lone recording by Joseph Cherniavsky’s Yiddish-American Jazz Band opens with a long, slow, soulful violin solo over a chord cushion played by the brass. Then the drums kick off a syncopated 6/8 beat, and the band goes to town—not sounding at all like a real jazz band but much more Jewish than that. And a lot of fun it is, too. I think even the musicians were enjoying themselves while making this record; it sounds it, anyway.

Mischa Tsiganoff

I could similarly describe every track in this interesting program, but rather than spoil the fun for you I’ll just let you discover the music for yourself. You’ll probably be easily able to tell the real klezmer from the Americanized product, particularly if you’re already a fan of Netsky’s many recordings with the KCO. Yes, there are a few duds in here, but they, too add to the narrative of how klezmer not only developed but attached itself to the exciting new American culture called jazz before again receding into its own little world before collapsing in the late 1940s-early ‘50s. It’s an interesting journey, and one worth taking to understand a musical culture that flourished for many years, adapted, fizzled out and then came roaring back at a time when it was least expected. This is extremely vital, earthy music, certainly not harmonically or structurally complex but rhythmically inventive and well worth hearing for its effects on both American and European culture.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

Standard

Gadjo Combo’s “Slavopop”

SLAVOPOP / JOUBERT: Anatole France. Charlie et Mila. Par faim de toi. Slavopop. Côme dit. Complètement ballade. REINHARDT: Swing 39. Swing 42. PLASSARD: Shufflematic. Memory Intro. Memory. SAMPSON-WEBB-GOODMAN: Stompin’ at the Savoy. MATER: Oui! Mai / Gadjo Combo: Marc Joubert, Jean-Charles Mater, gtr; Philippe Plassard, vln/gtr/el-gtr/bs; Serge Saussard, bs / Fremeaux et Associes LLL344, also available for free streaming on YouTube in individual numbers

Gadjo Combo is yet another small jazz group modeled after the Stéphane Grappelli-Django Reinhardt Hot Club Quintet of the 1930s, their music occasionally updated rhythmically to reflect some later pop music influences. They are excellent if not unique, largely due to the improvising abilities of lead guitarist and leader Marc Joubert and violinist Philippe Plassard, who also plays guitar and electric guitar at times. As usual, there are no drums in this band, again reflecting the aesthetic of the original Quintet.

Which is all well and good, but somehow Django Reinhardt’s utter brilliance and originality as an improviser and composer get lost in the shuffle. Although, due to popular demand, the Quintet re-formed after World War II for a brief spell, by 1947 Django had also switched to playing the electric guitar and his improvisations began more and more to reflect the influences of bop, particularly the style of Dizzy Gillespie who he genuinely admired. This gets forgotten, too; there are thousands, perhaps millions, of people out there who only associate Django with the acoustic guitar and his earlier style. They don’t even know that he played electric guitar and, eventually quite a bit of more modern jazz.

I’m also starting to wonder if this style of jazz is really, as reflected in this group’s name, a Gypsy style or a French style of jazz. After all, Grappelli was French, as was bassist Emile Vola, though Django hired his brother Joseph and his cousin Eugene Vèes to play rhythm guitars with the band. It’s an interesting question, and we shouldn’t forget that it is also, to a lesser extent, a British style of jazz, because although the Quintet never played in America they did play in London, which is where Grappelli got stranded when the war broke out and Reinhardt ran back to Paris. (Grappelli had been sick and in the hospital at the time, and Django, though he informed him of his plans, just left him there, figuring he’d be safe in the care of the British.) Django Reinhardt Societies broke out in Britain after the war and remained strong for decades, and even today one of the better Hot Club clone bands, Man Overboard, is British.

With all that being said, this is a fun disc to listen to, largely because of Joubert’s and Plassard’s solo abilities. Of course, Joubert isn’t nearly as good as the two best Django clones of the past 40 years, Frank Vignola and Biréli Lagrène, but he’s good enough to hold your attention. By contrast, I’d almost put Plassard on the same level as Grappelli; all he really lacks is that little bit of fire that sometimes got lit under Stéphane, pushing him to some of his wildest and most emotionally satisfying improvisations.

The first two tracks, Anatole France and Charlie et Mila, reflect some of the latter-day pop influences I alluded to earlier, and the title track is surely one of the catchiest things I’ve heard in years, a mixture of a Russian-sounding tune with Hot Club rhythmic energy. On this track, too, Joubert comes surprisingly close to capturing some of Reinhardt’s brilliance as an improviser as well as some of his rhythmic energy, and it is here, too, that Plassard sounds the most like his model.

But I think the thing that impressed me the most was how one doesn’t really miss that extra rhythm guitar that Django insisted on adding to the group. (His complaint to Stéphane was, “When you solo you have two guitars behind you, but when I solo I only have one!” “Well, then,” Grappelli replied, “why not add your brother Joseph then?”) Of course, modern miking has a lot to do with this, and I cannot deny that this album is superbly engineered, in fact better than Gadjo Combo’s earlier CD (which is also on YouTube). The little band sounds as if they are playing in your living room, spreading Gypsy joy to brighten up your day. And let’s face it, how many jazz combos nowadays can you honestly say lift your spirits and make you happy while still producing good solos?

Stompin’ at the Savoy—oddly enough, one jazz standard of the 1930s that the original Hot Club Quintet never played—is taken at Chick Webb’s faster tempo and not the slightly slower one that Benny Goodman made famous. Incidentally, the title refers to the jazz beat that was still popular at the time it was written (1934, without Benny Goodman who just added his name to the sheet music after his record came out), which was the stomp beat. This had a bit more of a 2/4 feel to it than the 4/4 swing beat that established itself a couple of years later. The band sounds incredibly happy on this one. Côme dit has a bit of a rock feel to it. I don’t think Django would have minded; it has the kind of changes he could go to town on, and he’s have torn it up in his own sweet way.

Although it is more of a swing number than a rock one, Django’s Swing 42 is where Plassard chooses to break out his electric guitar…which I wouldn’t have minded one bit if he had stuck to playing a jazz style and not a rock style. Bad idea, Philippe. I suggest that you dig up Django’s electric guitar recordings (which, incidentally, are all available in Fremeaux & Associes’ Complete Django Reinhardt series) for some ideas. The violinist’s original tune, Memory, is more of a medium-tempo pop number than a jazz one, but it gets by.

In toto, then, a very enjoyable album and a nice break from the angst-filled jazz of today.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

Standard

Pavol Breslik Sings Janáček

JANÁČEK: The Diary of One Who Disappeared.* 6 National Songs by Eva Gabel. Songs of Detva, Bandit Ballads / Pavol Breslik, ten; *Ester Pavlu, mezzo; *Dominika Hanko, Zuzana Marczelová, sop; *Mária Kovács, mezzo; Robert Pechanec, pno / Orfeo C989201

This CD, which came out last year, some how flew under Naxos of America’s radar (I never saw it in the catalog), so I thought I’d review it now. The Diary of One Who Disappeared, written in 1921, is one of Janáček’s finest yet strangest song cycles. It is not, as the title would suggest, about secret police or undercover spies, but about a young man who falls in love with a dark gypsy woman who lives in the woods, has an affair with her that produces a child, and eventually runs away from home to go and live with her. Because of this, it is not sung just the tenor but also by a mezzo or contralto who does the part of the gypsy woman Zelka. Moreover, there is also a small chorus of three female voices who also sing in two of the songs.

This, I think, must be the only reason why it is seldom performed, because the music is simply wonderful. Although containing some modern harmonies, it is not ugly and off-putting like all of his operas but melodic like his instrumental works. It was a favorite piece of tenor Jon Vickers in his later years, though no recording of a performance by him has surfaced.

Young tenor Pavol Breslik has a very fine voice marred only by a prominent vibrato, albeit a steady and well-controlled one. He sings with energy and tosses out a few excellent high notes near the end of the cycle. Mezzo-soprano Ester Pavlu is also an excellent singer; she, too has a vibrato, but a more regular and contained one, and her vocal timbre puts you in mind of a gypsy singer. The three ladies who perform in the chorus all have pure, lovely voices, and pianist Robert Pechanec is also very fine.

But since this song cycle was new to me, I investigated other recordings. There’s a very good one in German rather than in Czech by the late Ernst Häfliger, one of my favorite tenors of the 1950s and early ‘60s, and a very poor one by the reedy, squally tenor Ian Bostridge. but the one that caught my eye was a recording I didn’t even know existed, sung in Czech by none other than Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda. This was recorded in 1984 but apparently not issued on CD until 1995 because the label, Supraphon, couldn’t find other material to add to it. They eventually did something I think is rather dumb, which was to include a complete second performance of the cycle by tenor Benu Blachut mezzo Štipánka Štépánova. Why they didn’t just ask Gedda to record some of Janáček’s folk song arrangements, as Breslik does on this later CD, is beyond me.

The Gedda performance surprised me for two reasons. First was that Gedda was in superb voice for 1984. He began having a vocal crisis in 1973, around the time he recorded Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, and his singing deteriorated even further through the 1970s and into the very early ‘80s, but here he almost sounds like Gedda in his prime. Second was that, for a work that I’m pretty sure he had never sung before, his interpretation is much more detailed and dramatic than Breslik’s. The drawback was that he was stuck with an old and infirm-sounding contralto, Véra Soukupová, who had once been good but sounded like a train wreck by 1984.

Thus if I had to choose one commercial CD of this cycle, it would have to be this one, although in this day and age it’s not that difficult to simply cut and paste Pavlu’s much better voice into the Gedda performance. This isn’t as difficult as it sounds since the tenor and alto never sing together but rather alternate passages. And this is what I recommend.

As for the folk song settings, they are also wonderful, and here Breslik really shines, evidently enjoying himself. I couldn’t locate any other recordings of these specific songs on CD although the inlay for the record doesn’t claim them as first recordings.

This, then, is an excellent representation of this wonderful music, and if you don’t have the patience to cross-pollinate Pavlu and Gedda, is obviously the first choice.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard