Fricsay Conducts 20th-Century Composers (& Rossini)

SWR19070CD - cover

ROSSINI: Il viaggio à Reims: Overture. STRAUSS: Burleske for Piano & Orchestra.* KODÁLY: Dances of Galánta. ZIMMERMANN: Alagoana: Caboclo, Brasilianisches Portrait. HONEGGER: Concertino for Piano & Orchestra.* RAVEL: Bolero / *Margit Weber, pno; Sinfonieorchester des Süddeutschen Rundfunks; Ferenc Fricsay, cond / SWR Classic 19070CD (live: Stuttgart, October 10, 1955)

The late Ferenc Fricsay, noted by critics and lay listeners alike for his invigorating performances of Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, was also a fan of modern music and he conducted as much of it as he could. His surviving recordings and live performances include music by Frank Martin (excerpts from La vin herbé) and Bartók.

In this program we get a very interesting mixture of composers, the common thread being that it is all “light” music by each of them. In the case of Rossini, this is a given; he rarely wrote anything that was deep; but in the case of Kodály, Honegger and especially Bernd Alois Zimmermann, a composer who would soon become an outcast in the classical world for his dense, thick textures and convoluted harmonies, these are relatively light works.

As a Hungarian, Fricsay’s conducting style was tight, straightforward and no-nonsense. He favored brisk tempi as a rule, and most of them were appropriate for the material he played. Years before Krips and Erich Kleiber recorded their “classic” Mozart opera sets, it was Fricsay who really set the pace for what was to become the historically-informed Mozart style of today. The downside was that Fricsay wasn’t a fan of subtle modifications to the musical line, as his predecessors Weingartner, Mitropoulos, Rodziński and Toscanini were. Thus, in a piece like the then-quite rare Il viaggio à Reims overture, we get a brisk, crisp reading without the subtle modifications that previous conductors put into Rossini, yet there are some really nice delicate moments where the South German Radio Orchestra plays extremely well for him. The difference between this performance and what we hear today, of course, is that he uses a full modern string section, and it is quite sumptuous, though he does bring out some wonderful detail in the rhythmic string figures at about the 5:35 mark, and he clearly understands the “Rossini crescendo.”

Yet Fricsay really comes into his own in the Strauss Burleske, a crisp, brilliant performance, played with a surprising amount of sparkle by the little-known pianist Margit Weber. The nice thing about this, as in the Rossini, is that Fricsay eliminates all traces of sentimentality from the music; everything is neat, driving and structurally integrated. There is no mawkish “Romanticism” in this late-Romantic work, and this is all to the better. His performance of Zoltan Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta has a similar profile to Toscanini’s, only with a richer string sound and not as much clarity of detail in the winds. All in all, however, it’s a great rendition.

It would be nice to say that Zimmermann’s Alagoana fits into this style of music, but although it is a “light” piece by his standards, it does not. The harmonic basis is too clashing and modernistic and, oddly enough, there seems to be a jazz swagger in the music that I’ve never heard from him before. What amazed me was how well Fricsay grasped this very forward-looking  music and took the whole score in stride. Of his contemporaries, Mitropoulos is the only one who comes to mind who could have pulled this off as well at that period of time.

Fricsay also has no problem with the somewhat more harmonically accessible but still rhythmically tricky Piano Concertino by Arthur Honegger, and once again Weber plays the piano part with great flair and style. The way Fricsay brings out the pizzicato bass line at 6:45 put me in mind of a jazz bassist.

The real disappointment here, as it usually is, is Ravel’s Bolero, taken (as usual) at too fast a tempo and with none of the swagger that Ravel himself wanted and put into his own recording with the Lamoreaux Orchestra. The only other performances I’ve heard of it which are played at the correct tempo and with the right swagger are those of Toscanini (believe it or not!) from 1939 and Simon Rattle’s recording with the City of Birmingham orchestra. But I think this would have been too much to ask of the literal-minded Fricsay.

Overall, then, a good album. By and large, SWR Classic has done a good job in cleaning up these old mono radio tapes, though the top range sounds just a bit too covered to my ears.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Mints & Kobrin Play Hindemith

QTZ2132 - cover

COMPLETE WORKS FOR VIOLIN & PIANO / HINDEMITH: Violin Sonatas, Op. 11 Nos. 1 & 2. Sonata for Violin d’Amore & Piano, “Kleine Sonate.” Violin Sonata in E (1935). Trauermusik. Meditation from the Ballet “Noblissima Visione.” Violin Sonata in C (1939) / Roman Mints, vln; Alexander Kobrin, pno / Quartz QTZ 2132

Hindemith’s music for violin and piano was intermittently written over a period of 21 years, and none but the first two sonatas were numbered works, yet the full oeuvre remains a vital and interesting body of work. Roman Mints, by his own admission “wasn’t really meant to become a violinist…None of my family played, except a self-taught great-uncle, who I never knew. When my mother’s friend, our neighbor, took her son to enroll in music school, my mother asked if she would take me along: maybe they’d let me join too,” yet he surely is a very fine player in the modern sense, i.e., a bright, strong tone and clean, no-nonsense phrasing. Pianist Alexander Kobrin is also a very good musician, sometimes compared to the late Van Cliburn, and together they give us strong performances—though, at times, leaning too much in the direction of “straight tone,” which occasionally drains the music of its expressive power in slow sections.

Thus one will listen in vain throughout the first sonata for rich tone and expressive qualities of David Oistrakh, who played this sonata during his heyday. Why Mints found it necessary or even appropriate to use straight tone in 20th-century works is utterly beyond my understanding, but there it is: dry, lusterless, and lacking body in the slow movements, albeit brisk and energetic in the fast movements. And yet, in the liner notes, Mints says that the thing that caught him up with Hindemith was his “romanticism,” the “exaggerated emotions, the endless German directions like Schumann’s.” Go figure.

I liked all of the fast movements because both Mints and Kobrin give their all, but if you go back and listen to the historical 1920s recordings of Hindemith’s own Amar String Trio and Quartet playing his own works (as well as Beethoven), you will hear a very fast, light vibrato used on all sustained tones. This is what the composer wanted in his music, and this is what he (on viola) and his fellow-musicians delivered.

Occasionally Mints does play with a fast, light vibrato, however, as in the slow movement of the Op. 11 No. 2 sonata, and this enriches his sound a bit, so apparently it’s not a constant with him. He also brings his very energetic approach to bear on the later works as well as the early ones, and by the time of the 1922 Sonata for Violin d’Amore & Piano we begin to hear a very different Hindemith from those first two numbered sonatas—even, or perhaps especially, in the slow movements which have become more harmonically modern and rich in texture. I would even go so far as to say that the slow movement of this sonata is deeper music than the slow sections of the earlier works, and here again Mints seems to vacillate between straight tone and the kind of light vibrato that Hindemith preferred, which is all to the good. Yet he returns to straight tone in the beginning of the third movement of this sonata and the first movement of the Sonata in E, for what reason only Mints knows.

And yet there is that constant undercurrent of vitality and energy that drives these performances, and comparing Mints to a number of other modern violinists who have recorded these sonatas, among them Doris Wolff-Malm, Ulf Wallin, Eliot Lawson, Frank Peter Zimmermann and Ulf Hoelscher, everyone else sounds pale by comparison, mostly due to the lack of emotional involvement of their pianists but partly due to the violinists’ inability or unwillingness to play this music with strong emotion. Thus I found myself in a quandary, disliking portions of these performances but generally approving of their approach, and make no mistake, Kobrin’s playing is a major factor in this. Thank God you can’t play straight-tone piano!

Mints returns to playing with vibrato in the lovely Meditation with good results, and both he and Kobrin are absolutely explosive in the late (1939) C Major sonata that follows. It’s a somewhat strange set, then; primarily very good, but with several annoying straight-toned passages that just don’t seem to fit in.

I might hold off adding these sonatas to my collection until I find a better recording, but whose? None that I’ve heard are any good, and this one, at least, has plenty of energy.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Jean Guillou Plays his Own Music

Guillou

GUILLOU: Fantaisie Concertante.2 Toccata. Ballade. Hyperion ou la rethorique du feu. Peace.3 La chapelle des abimes. Aube.3 Symphonie Initiaque. Andromeda.9 Suite pour Rameau. Éloge. Säya ou l’Oiseau Bleu. Sinfonietta. Colloques Nos. 54 & 44,5. Fête.6 Fantaisie. Intermezzo.7 Scènes d’Enfants. Sagas Nos. 1-6. 18 Variations. Alice au pays de l’orgue.8 Jeux d’Orgue. Saga No. 7. Ballade No. 2, “Les chants de Selma.” MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition (arr. Guillou). RACHMANINOV: Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (arr. Guillou)1 / Jean Guillou, 1Hanka Yekimova, 7Livia Mazzanti, org; 2Alexander Kniazev, cel; 3Groupe Vocal de France; 4Philippe Gueit, pno; 5Daniel Ciampolini, Vincent Bauer, perc; 6Daniel Gilbert, cl; 7Andrea Montefoschi, fl; 8François Castang, narr; 9Kiyoko Okada, sop / Universal Music Classics 00028948037247 (available at GoBuz: https://www.qobuz.com/gb-en/interpreter/jean-guillou/download-streaming-albums)

Jean Victor Arthur Guillou, who died January 26, 2019 at the age of 88, was one of the greatest organists of all time, yet he came to recording rather late in life. Before then, however, he was practically a legend in France as organist, sometimes pianist, composer, pedagogue and organ builder. Among his many talents was the ability to improvise, which was and still is a lost art for the majority of classical organists (and pianists).

When I reviewed his boxed set of Bach’s organ works several years ago for a major music magazine, I raved about his performances, noting not only the incredible energy he displayed even as an old man but also his phrasing, ability to color phrases, and yes, occasionally improvise even within a piece by Bach. I was ripped to shreds by my “fellow critics” and readers of the magazine. How DARE I praise an organist who 1) was not playing Bach on an “authentic” organ from the 18th century, and 2) had the audacity to occasionally improvise? But, as usual, they were wrong in their thinking. J.S. Bach himself was a noted improviser on the organ, particularly in his own works. As for the wheezy little instrument he had to play on in Leipzig, he hated it. Bach delighted in making “organ tours” of other churches and cathedrals, and was especially happy when he ran across organs that were not only larger but more modern and had more colors and stops. (One of his favorites was the bell or carillon stop in one organ he played. He couldn’t get enough of it.)

This 7-CD set of Guillou playing a large number of his own works dates from 2015, but seems to be a curious release. No one online has reviewed it, and I’ve only found one outlet that is actually selling it, but am here to tell you that this music is absolutely fabulous: imaginative and inventive, using modern harmonies and the full range of color available to him on his own organ built to his specifications. In the first piece, Fantaisie Concertante, he is joined by Russian cellist Alexander Kniazev, and in some others by the Groupe Vocal de France directed by John Poole. Other instrumentalists also make their appearance in this set, such as pianist Philippe Gueit in Colloque No. 5, Gueit and two percussionists in Colloque No. 6, clarinetist Daniel Gilbert in Fête and both flautist Andrea Montefoschi and second organist Livia Mazzanti in Intermezzo.

Trying to describe Guillou’s compositions from a technical standpoint is a bit tricky and difficult. Although he uses a strict musical form, his melodic lines are slithery, often predicated by the constantly shifting harmony underneath. This harmonic movement is both horizontal and vertical; those readers who have a grasp of George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization will know exactly what I mean. As Nadia Boulanger once said, she heard “all of music” in her head, and to an extent that was how Guillou’s mind worked. In fact, considering the brilliant—and I do mean brilliant—lines and structures of his compositions (had he written for a full orchestra he could not have done better or been more complex), it’s almost a wonder that he could focus in on the structures of Bach.

Yet, and this is the peculiar part of it, there is a connection between the two. The only big difference is that Bach wrote mostly within conventional harmony, the “well-tempered” system of the claviers and organs of his day, whereas Guillou has taken than form and blown it wide open. Ah, but you should also recall that Bach’s second-oldest son, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, did the same thing, Trained by his father to hear “everything” within music, C.P.E. Bach blew the harmonic system of his time open to remarkable harmonic structures that his father dared not experiment in if he wanted to keep his job as the Thomaskantor of Leipzig—yet he did indeed indulge in some strange harmonies in his Art of Fugue. Also please remember, strange as it may sound, that Arnold Schoenberg also came out of Bach. The differences lie in these different composers’ temperaments. C.P.E. Bach, once he left Berlin for Hamburg, turned his musical imagination loose on a large and sometimes bewildering array of keyboard solos, symphonies and concerti, influencing both Beethoven and Gluck with his highly imaginative use of harmony and unusual orchestral timbres. Guillou, being a Frenchman of the 20th century, was absolutely prodigious in his assimilation of music of all streams, particularly, it seems to me, modern French music with and without the influence of Stravinsky.

Without a booklet, I don’t know when each of these works was written, but they sound so much all of a piece stylistically that it almost doesn’t matter. Although he occasionally uses the pedals, his music is generally not bass-heavy, and often he juxtaposed themes as well as timbral colors the way a master orchestrator would. There is only a slight resemblance in his music to that of another famous organist-composer of his time, Olivier Messiaen, and this is to the good. Whereas Messiaen’s often thick bitonal and atonal chords, overlaid on one another, created a sinister feeling (I’d almost call it a creepy feeling) in his organ works, Guillou’s aesthetic is tied more to the work of such predecessors as Louis Vierne and Charles-Marie Widor. The Widor influence is especially notable in a work such as the Ballade No. 1, where Guillou opens all the stops to create an almost surround-sound musical world, and he was indeed fortunate to have lived at the time of digital recording. Poor Widor only made six sides in 1932; at least they were electrical, but clearly not even close to the high-fidelity era.

I reviewed the first two CDs of this set through headphones because the other resident of my home was sleeping and I didn’t want to disturb her, and I’m glad I did. As much as you will hear through a really good home audio system, you hear even more through the headphones. Both will make you feel as if you are present at a Guillou recital, but through headphones you almost seem to be sitting in the front row, hearing a master musician at work. In a multi-movement, multi-layered piece such as Hyperion, ou La rethorique du feu, Guillou envelops the listener in an extremely complex web of rapid figures played in contrasting rhythms and a method of bitonality that keeps you in flux from start to finish, yet you never lose track of what he is doing or where the music is going.  Indeed, his music is so brilliant as well as complex that it will take you a few listening to catch all of the things that are going on, except in the slowest movements where he relaxes his pace enough to focus on just three things at a time instead of five or six. I almost imagined that his musical mind must never have shut down, not even when he was asleep. Someone on this high of a genius level must have been hell to live with.

And yet, no matter how complex his music becomes, the amazing thing is that you can follow everything. This is partly due to the fact that his compositions keep everything clear whereas Messiaen often congested them with thick and undecipherable chords. That is the main reason why I prefer Messiaen’s piano and orchestral works; in those, even the densest music is made clear, in the case of the former due to the nature of the piano and in the case of the latter due to the timbral differences of orchestral sections. But it is also due to the fact that Guillou wanted all of his lines to stand out, thus he generally used very bright timbres had had an unusually crisp attack on the organ—not dissimilar from, believe it or not, the way Fats Waller played the pipe organ. The least bit of smearing or sluggishness in his fingering and some of the detail would have been lost, but Guillou had fingers of steel and extraordinary coordination of both hands.

Guiillou in action

Guillou in action

In the choral-organ works, he took a page from Lili Boulanger in his writing for chorus, sometimes using contrapuntal vocal effects to (again) keep the lines clear. He also used his organ as an accompanist to the vocal lines, simplifying his approach so as not to clutter it up too much. Andromeda is a perfect example of his modus operandi: after a very fast and busy opening section, he slows things down to allow the solo soprano to sing her strophic lines (mostly within a one-octave span, though later with extensive leaps upward and downward), saving his busiest and loudest passages for the interludes. The text is based on a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, another poem of whose was also used for Peace:

NOW Time’s Andromeda on this rock rude,

With not her either beauty’s equal or

Her injury’s, looks off by both horns of shore,

Her flower, her piece of being, doomed dragon’s food.

Time past she has been attempted and pursued                   

By many blows and banes; but now hears roar

A wilder beast from West than all were, more

Rife in her wrongs, more lawless, and more lewd.

 

Her Perseus linger and leave her to her extremes?—

Pillowy air he treads a time and hangs                                   

His thoughts on her, forsaken that she seems,

All while her patience, morselled into pangs,

Mounts; then to alight disarming, no one dreams,

With Gorgon’s gear and barebill, thongs and fangs.

Guillou’s Suite pour Rameau sounds nothing like Rameau at all except for one section, yet for the most part this music is somewhat subdued for him, not as wild or energetic as usual. The same can also be said of Éloge or Praise which is a really strange piece, more questioning without getting any answers, with a sudden swell of volume and increase of tempo at the four-minute mark, receding again about a half-minute later. Yet the music builds to a longer crescendo between the eight and nine-minute mark, after which the music becomes much more hectic, with Guillou scrambling to get all the notes in on his multiple keyboards (and pedals).

One of the more fascinating mind-games one can play with this set is to wonder, considering Guillou’s high reputation as an improviser, how much of this music is written and how much is “off the cuff.” I would think that all of the pieces including other instrumentalists or voices are fully composed, but in the solo works there may very well be passages—several of them, in fact—where Guillou was playing in an extemporé fashion. Since my access to this album did not include the booklet, I can’t say with certainty, but I’d be very surprised if all of it were written out in advance of performance.

The two pieces titled Colloque are piano-organ duets, with No. 4 also including a pair of percussionists. No. 5, which is performed first on the CD, almost sounds like minimalism in the beginning, though the music quickly begins to develop and one realizes that it’s just a very pointillistic piece. The tempo increases, first in the piano part and then in the organ, then falls back to the initial slow tempo. Part of the music sounds 12-tone but not serial, but it soon settles into Guillou’s more familiar bitonal sound world. Later on in the piece, things become faster and much more complex, yet once again Guillou’s crisp attack and phenomenal agility keeps the lines from becoming muddy or unclear even at blistering speeds. In Fête, Guillou decided to include a clarinet, certainly one of the least likely instruments to play with an organ. The music is more “serrated” than usual for him, emphasizing that instrument’s ability to play fast passages that jump around rather than following a linear melodic pattern. The organ plays a curiously syncopated passage around the 5:48 mark that has a certain resemblance to jazz, something quite unusual for Guillou, and this feeling continues into the ensuing organ-clarinet duet passage. And, as noted earlier, Intermezzo features both a flautist and a second organist.

young Guillou

Young Jean Guillou, c. 1962

Although Guillou definitely had certain patterns that were used in many of his pieces, he varied them enough rhythmically, harmonically and especially melodically to create the feeling of having a varied compositional style. This is not easy to do, particularly when you’re working in an atonal or bitonal idiom; it’s always easier to play “follow-the-leader” rather than create your own style. It is to Guillou’s great credit that despite the huge number of works presented here, he managed to keep his powers of invention up. It would have been so easy for a composer of his genius—and I most definitely consider him a genius—to just cookie-cutter his music the way Mozart and Donizetti did. Colloque No. 4, the one with piano and two percussionists, often has a feel similar to George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique, yet even here he pulls back from the moto perpetuo feeling to present some slow, moody passages in a stark contrast. And note that among the percussion instruments is a vibraphone, normally considered a jazz instrument, yet used here in a purely classical manner. Indeed, as the music evolves it becomes progressively quieter rather than louder, creating an otherworldly ambience that envelops the listener—at least up until about 13:12 into the piece, when a riot of timpani and snare drums reawakens the explosive energy of the opening passages.

Scenes d’enfants is a particularly wild ride on the organ, quickly assuming a rapid pace after the somewhat slow introduction. Guillou’s crisp attack is especially noticeable here as he scurries across his multiple keyboards, creating a virtual whirlwind of sound in the opening minutes. Yet, as the music develops, other themes and moods enter the picture, creating a soundscape of alternately lyrical and serrated themes, sometimes surging forward with the pedals and sometimes hanging back with bizarre floated chords. Saga No. 2 surges from the very start like an oncoming tornado or a runaway freight train, then eases up at 1:44 so that Guillou can ruminate on the organ using circular figures—yet another aspect of his various styles—before resuming freight train mode at about 2:40. The opening of Saga No. 3 sounds almost, but not quite, like Stravinsky’s Firebird.

Of his extended organ theater-piece-with-narration, Alice au pays de l’orgue, Guillou wrote:

“Ever since my earliest encounters with the organ, I have always considered the organ stops—that is, various different registers of the instrument—as resembling a collection of living beings, their character corresponding less with the form of the sound they produce. Certainly the very shape of some pipes is such that it can give rise to what is almost a psychoanalytical interpretation; thus the idea occurred to me quite naturally of bringing these different stops to life in a kind of musical story, with an accompanying narrative to introduce them and their individual sounds as sentient beings endowed with the power of movement. Lewis Carroll and his heroine Alice offered an ideal framework for a dramatization of my musical idea. Thus I imagined Alice retracing the steps which took her through the looking-glass and, this time, stepping into world quite different from that of the chessboard, a world with no Queen, no Tweedledee, no Humpty Dumpty, but with organ stops brought to life as animated flowers, with dancing Flutes, oboes, chattering Bourdons, pedantic Bombardes, biting Cromornes, rugged Clarinettes or harsh, snake-like Ranquettes. This entire universe sets itself in motion and gradually takes shape, suggesting snippets of dances or conversations in such a way that a sort of symphonic poem is built up, featuring contrasting or challenging sequences in which certain figures and themes recur with, after a strange moment of calm, ends in a wild outburst with all the stops combining in a feverish and dazzling frenzy. Alice in Organ Land may equally well be performed without the Narrator, by giving the audience the text to read, or, again, by playing just the two Waltzes together with Tarantella, or even the Tarantella alone. In this case, the pauses marked become simply a bar’s rest, without a longer pause.”

Whatever this guy was on, I want some, and I want it NOW!

Indeed, Guillou’s music is so dense and challenging that I strongly recommend that you not listen to more than two CDs complete and in order at a time. Like the music of J.S. Bach and Art Tatum, its complexity and density will overtax your mind if you indulge in too much at one sitting.

As for his organ transcription of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, I honestly didn’t like it. For whatever reason, Guillou chose lower ranges for several pieces, such as Gnomus, that didn’t work because the sound was too muddy. Since I really enjoyed his organ transcription of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, this was a major shock and disappointment for me. For even more of his genius, I recommend the fascinating album of his improvisations on Doian Sono Luminus DOR-90101 as a substitute for disc 7 of this set.

Despite the more conventional works by Mussorgsky and Rachmaninov, this is clearly not your father’s or your grandfather’s classical organ record set. Highly recommended.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Cannonball Adderley in Stuttgart, 1969

JAH-402_Booklet CD Adderley V2

ZAWINUL: Rumpelstiltskin. The Painted Desert. Walk Tall. N. ADDERLEY: Sweet Emma. Oh Babe.* Work Song. BERNSTEIN: Somewhere. STAPLES: Why Am I Treated so Bad? GILLESPIE: Blue ‘n’ Boogie / Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, a-sax; Nat Adderley, tpt/*voc; Joe Zawinul, pno/kbds; Victor Gaskin, bs; Roy McCurdy, dm / SWR Jazzhaus JAH-402 (live: Stuttgart, March 20, 1969)

Famed “soul” saxist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, who tragically died of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 46, was certainly one of jazz’s most vital, if not one of its most original, creators during the 1950s and ‘60s. This live set from Stuttgart in 1969 features his working band of the time which, in addition to his brother Nat on trumpet (who I always liked, by the way, at times even more than Cannonball) also included Austrian pianist-composer Joe Zawinul.

The band establishes a fine groove in the opener, Zawinul’s Rumpelstiltskin, and from the solos therein you can tell that everyone is in fine form, but particularly (as I noted above) Nat on trumpet. Nat Adderley’s style lay somewhere between Lee Morgan and Clifford Brown, being soulful but also imaginative and inventive, with well-formed yet surprising choruses. As for Zawinul, he swings but, as usual, plays somewhat predictable solos, which h breaks up with incoherent fly-all-over-the-keyboard interludes. The very solid rhythm section of bassist Victor Gaskin and drummer Roy McCurdy back them up beautifully without being ostentatious.

The second number up is Nat Adderley’s Sweet Emma, a quintessential soul-jazz number with almost a Gospel feel to its simple but catchy melody. Here, within the rhythm section, Zawinul’s playing is quite good, and Nat’s opening solo, simple yet effective, sets the tone for the entire performance. Given a relaxed tempo and able to use “space” in his solo, Zawinul also plays effectively.

Yet one of the most interesting and surprising performances here is the group’s ballad treatment of Leonard Bernstein’s Somewhere from West Side Story—not because it is a ballad performance, which was fairly rare for Cannonball as a rule, but because of how richly and fully he plays it. Indeed, his alto tone is so warm that he almost sounds like a tenor saxist (I thought immediately of Illinois Jacquet), and in the third chorus he begins a cappella, joined for several bars only by Gaskin’s bowed bass. This is almost a sui generis performance for him, one of those moments when you suddenly realize how great a command this man had of his instrument.

Why Am I Treated So Bad? was composed by Roebuck Staples, who formed the family-based Staples Singers. It’s another slow soul number, the opening theme played to perfection by Julian and Nat in thirds and in unison. Zawinul’s solo is minimal but effective. Zawinul’s The Painted Desert is another slow piece, but with more of a jazz kick to it and some excellent choruses, particularly by Cannonball with the composer playing some very interesting chords beneath him and developing the music in an interesting way. At around the two-minute mark Adderley suddenly doubles the tempo and plays a few wild figures, then relaxes it again and continues improvising on the original melody. Then it’s Nat’s turn, playing a fugitive, almost Miles Davis-like solo on trumpet, followed by Zawinul in his ruminative style.

We return to a soul groove with another Nat Adderley piece, Oh Babe, and of course in a piece like this Cannonball was in his element and brother Nat doing the great blues vocal, but for me Dizzy Gillespie’s Blues ‘n’ Boogie was a real surprise, Cannonball and the band playing a bop number and really tearing up the place, too. The chorus in which Julian and Nat play rapid figures together, with drummer McCurdy exploding in the breaks before embarking on a great extended solo, is a real gem.

The soul feel returns for the last two numbers, Zawinul’s Walk Tall and, of course, Nat Adderley’s classic Work Song, which was almost a theme song for Cannonball and his bands. The latter opens with an a cappella duet by Julian and Nat, and when the famous theme comes in it’s at a quicker tempo than the original record, with McCurdy really kicking things up on the drums. Cannonball’s solo is simply wonderful in its own way but, as was often the case, Nat’s solo says even more in a shorter span of time. Zawinul is OK, and the whole performance rides the band out on a bang.

Overall, then, a fine set by the Adderley brothers with a few really fine surprises!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Louis Karchin’s Dark Mountains/Distant Lights

655646189321_Frontcover_Digital

KARCHIN: Dreamscape.1,3 Rhapsody.1,2 Three Epigrams.2 Dark Mountains/Distant Lights.1 Lyrics II.2 Prayer.1 Reflection1,3 / 1Miranda Cuckson, vln; 2Steven Beck, pno; 3Jacqueline Leclair, ob / New Focus Recordings FCR225

American composer Louis Karchin has written more than 90 pieces, appeared as conductor with several ensembles, and co-founded new music groups including the Chamber Players of the League-ISCM, the Orchestra of the League of Composers, the Washington Square Ensemble, and the Harvard Group for New Music. This CD spotlights his chamber music, most of it featuring young violinist Miranda Cuckson and some of it pianist Steven Beck.

Dreamscape opens with the oboe playing long-held notes over violin tremolos, then slowly moves into faster, somewhat edgier themes with a bitonal base. The music shifts tempi and moods back and forth, weaving a strange tapestry through the mind. Upper harmonics are used as thematic and development material and the music jumps around skittishly with frequent long pauses, yet always with some definite form behind it.

The Rhapsody for violin and piano also contains a skittish restlessness behind it; in terms of mood, it is, to my ears, much more like an active night of bad fairies than a rhapsody in the strict sense of the term, with dark-sounding piano chords leading the edgy, nervous-sounding violin, but good music nonetheless. When the piano gets his own solo, some of the edginess is mellowed, leading to soft, spaced-out chords, which also temporarily tames the violin. Then the tempo increases again, the violin plays rapid, serrated figures, and the harmony finally comes together in a tonal manner, though no less edgy and unsettled in mood before returning to bitonality. This frenetic “rhapsody” thus moves towards its conclusion, finally resolving itself once again in Eb major.

The Three Epigrams for piano solo also skitter around, but the first, at least, does not stray too far from tonality. By this point it was obvious to me that Karchin’s style, though interesting, is based on the use of devices common to all of his music. This is not to say that he’s not an interesting composer, only that his basic material has a certain sameness—not an uncommon thing for many modern composers. The second Epigram followed the pattern of the slow piano music in the Rhapsody, for instance, albeit with some variations, while the third returns to his skittish, somewhat disconnected style of writing. In Karchin’s sound world, music is comprised of discrete rhythmic fragments that he makes coherent via a good sense of structure, but the pattern tends to repeat itself.

Indeed, Dark Mountains/Distant Lights sounds like a variant on Dreamscape, only here played by a solo violin without the oboe. Mind you, hearing one or two of these pieces in a concert would certainly be interesting and invigorating; the music is clearly well-thought-out and inventive in places; but repeated patterns are repeated patterns, no matter how ingeniously they are constructed. Nonetheless, Karchin’s craggy construction is indeed fascinating in these relatively small-scale works, where he is able to control their evolution and occasional juxtaposition of ideas.

In Lyrics II his method of writing slow, moody piano chords comes again to the fore, and once more one hears music that, isolated from the other pieces on this set, would clearly intrigue listeners in a modern music concert. The difference here is that, in the second piece, he has the pianist thump on his instrument.

Prayer for solo violin is more lyrical than usual for Karchin, using a broad, rather slow melodic line written in his usual bitonal fashion. Cuckson plays this with particularly good phrasing and feeling, and to a certain extent this work slightly breaks the mold of the others. So, too, does Reflection, with which this recital ends. This work is primarily tonal and, in places, quite lovely in the modern sense, meaning emotion without sentimentality. Yet Karchin again gives the violinist widely-spaced intervals to play, albeit in slower tempi, and the interplay of violin and oboe is quite interesting, sometimes giving the lyric line to the reed instrument while the violin flutters above.

An interesting album, then, with some very fine pieces in it.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Maria Lettberg Plays Levina

Levina

LEVINA: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. Poem.4 Violin Sonata No. 2.1 3 Klavierstücke. Phantasie nach baskirischen Themen (Fantasy on Bashkirian Themes).1 Kanzonetta.2 Hebrew Rhapsody3 / Maria Lettberg, pno; 1Yury Revich, vln; 2Ringela Riemke, cel; 3Katia Tchemberdj, pno; 4Gernot Adrion, vla / Capriccio C5356

Zara Levina (1906-1976) was a Soviet-era pianist-composer. She studied at the Odessa Conservatory, graduating in 1932, and admired a mixture of Russian composers, particularly Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Prokofiev, in addition to Beethoven and Schumann. Her music, then, is in the late Romantic vein with a few touches of Prokofiev thrown in for color.

I found her music to be a sort of second-tier Medtner, another late-Romantic Russian composer. It is solidly written, with strong emotional undercurrents running through it and a few touches of Prokofiev-like harmony for color. Like Medtner, she had a strong sense of construction, and despite the Romantic bias her music is not overly tuneful or sentimental like Rachmaninov. The more sentimental Poem for viola and piano has a darkish quality in the music that lifts it above the norm. As much as I liked the brief but compact and dramatic first Piano Sonata, however it was the Violin Sonata No. 2 that grabbed my attention, particularly her use of lyrical themes for the dominant instrument that avoided the pop-music-like sensibility that Joe Stalin liked in music. In both sonatas, one hears Levina reaching for a different means of expression. I think the fact that 27 years separate the two (the Piano Sonata is a very early work from 1925, when she was only 19 years old, whereas the Violin Sonata comes from 1952) shows how much more the mature Prokofiev came to influence her work—yet the slow middle movement still retains some traces of Rachmaninov in its melodic theme and minor-key piano underpinning. It could almost pass for one of Rachmaninov’s excellent songs. At the 1:38 mark in the second movement, there is a surprisingly strong solo piano passage that repeats itself in a slightly changed form several bars later. Violinist Yury Revich has exactly the right type of bright, Russian violin sound for this music. The third movement returns to a Prokofiev vein, a chirpy dance-like tune that both violinist and pianist revel in.

By contrast with the above, the 3 Klavierstücke are not much more than folderol, in one ear and out the other: mid-Sunday morning brunch music for the upper clahsses except for the last one, a Toccata. Yet the Fantasy on Bashkirian Themes is a fine piece, solidly written, almost in an Enescu vein. The Canzonetta, again, is just a pleasant salon piece without much meat on its sparse bones.

Zara Levina

Zara Levina

Throughout this recital, the playing of pianist Maria Lettberg is consistently excellent, not only technically (hell, they can all play zip-a-de-doo-dah nowadays) but, more importantly, in expression, capturing the feeling and essence of each piece. Not a bar goes by that one does not pay attention to what Lettberg is doing and admire her for her total commitment to these scores. As in the case of so many Soviet-era composers, Levina was obviously forced to occasionally abandon her high-minded principles and write sentimental slop for her King Commie leaders—the second Piano Sonata, far less interesting than the first, is a prime example—and this is a pity, but under the surface beat the heart of an artist, and thus some of this music is really very good.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Richard Rodney Bennett’s Orchestral Works

CHSA 5230 - cover

BENNETT: Symphony No. 1. A History of the Thé Dansant.* Reflections on a 16th-Century Tune. Zodiac, for Orchestra / *Dame Sarah Connolly, mezzo; BBC Scottish Symphony Orch.; John Wilson, cond / Chandos CHSA5230

This, Vol. 3 of Richard Rodney Bennett’s orchestral works, is the second I’ve heard, the other being Vol. 2 because it included the Concerto for Stan Getz. Although an often interesting composer, I found that earlier disc somewhat uneven, including the Serenade for Small Orchestra and Partita that I didn’t care for very much.

But this one opens with the first symphony from 1965, and although some of the music seems to be written for “effect” and some of the devices seem directly taken from Stravinsky, one can hear that the composer was working towards his own style. There are spiky, wide-ranging intervals in the opening theme, played by strings and punctuated by aggressive brass. The music quiets down, then picks up in volume again as Bennett develops his spiky theme. As Bennett himself said about the piece, he didn’t know initially that the commission for this work “was going to be a symphony,” but began “playing around with a large orchestra… I was, in a way, showing off with the 1st Symphony and somehow it really worked.” According to the notes, the second movement was dedicated to tenor Dan Klein, who Bennett has recently met and fallen in love with, though it does not include a tenor vocal. It is a very well-written and extremely passionate piece without being mawkish or sentimental. The third movement returns to the mood of the first, but with more lyrical interludes to add contrast. Although not a great work, it is clearly a good one.

A History of the Thé Dansant has both a strong connection to the jazz music that Bennett grew up with and loved and to his family through his sister Meg, who wrote the poetry. Although his parents were Bohemian and artsy, with strong connections to composers Roger Quilter and Eric Coates, they were snobbish cold fish who showed their children no love. Richard went through therapy in the 1980s to resolve these conflicts, and it was at about this time that he set these poems by Meg to music for mezzo-soprano and piano. This orchestral arrangement was scored by Bennett much later, in 2011. Sarah Connolly may indeed be a Dame of the British Empire but her vocal glories are clearly behind her. In this recording, her voice is astringent, sour-sounding and wiry. I couldn’t take listening to her despite the great interest of the music, much preferring the 2010 recording by Susan Bickley with pianist Iain Burnside on NMC 155. Moreover, Burnside on piano captures the jazz flavor of the rhythms far better than Wilson at the podium. Oddly, the words of the poems have little to do with love but, rather, capture the intellectual coolness of Bennett’s parents to a T.

Reflections on a 16th-Century Tune is a rather late work from 2000 based on Josquin des Prez’s 1536 song En l’ombre d’ung buissonet. It is in the composer’s more neo-Romantic style that I find somewhat stuffy and uninteresting, thus I will draw the curtain on it and discuss it no further except to say that I did like Variation 4, “Con brio e ritmico.” Since it was, however, dedicated to conductor John Wilson who performs it here, one can assume that this is an authentic reading.

 

By contrast, I really enjoyed Zodiac from 1975-76, written on a commission from the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. as part of America’s bicentennial celebrations. What a piece about the zodiac has to do with the American bicentennial is anybody’s guess, but the music is spiky, colorful, and more tightly-knit than the first symphony. The notes accurately describe most of it as “ricocheting fanfares and chiming percussion” though it also includes some legato passages for strings in “Cancer: Adagio” and is really a quite varied piece. Wilson conducts this extremely well.

A sort of mixed bag, then, although in this case it was only the third piece that I didn’t care for and only Sarah Connolly’s performance that turned me off. Otherwise, quite interesting music and good performances.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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