Rameau’s Great “Les Indes Galantes” Reissued

Indes Galantes cover

RAMEAU: Les Indes Galantes / Anne-Marie Rodde, soprano (Hébé/Fatima/Italian song); Sonia Nigoghossian, soprano (Phani/Zaïre); Rachel Yakar, soprano (Émilie); Jeanine Micheau, soprano (Zima); Bruce Brewer, countertenor (Valère/Carlos/Tacmas/Damon); Christian Tréguier, baritone (Bellone/Osman/Don Alvar); Pierre-Yves Le Magiat, bass (Huascar); Jean-Christophe Benoît, bass (Ali); Jean-Marie Gouélou, tenor (Adario); Ensemble Vocal Raphaël Passaquet; La Grande Ècurie et la Chambre du Roy; Jean-Claude Malgoire, conductor / Sony Classical 88985338292

“The Amorous Indies,” an “opera-ballet” by Rameau, only had its prologue and first two acts performed at its premiere in 1735. Not surprisingly, it had a lukewarm reception and at its third performance, a new introduction was performed which didn’t improve the audience’s mood. The theater, however, put on another 25 performances, with the box office receipts growing smaller and smaller with each one.

The opera finally took off at its revival the following year, when more of it was performed and Rameau inserted the crowd-pleasing “Air de sauvages” that he had written in 1725 on the occasion of the visit by American Indian chiefs to France. In addition to the successful 1736 staging, it was mounted again in 1743-1744, 1751 and 1761 for a combined total of 185 performances. Indeed, the opera became so popular that Rameau recycled music from it for four keyboard suites!

The plot, typically convoluted in those days, covers four different scenarios in its four acts. In the prologue Hébé, the goddess of youth, rouses her followers to join her in a festival. The ballet is interrupted by trumpets and drums as Bellona, the goddess of war (a drag role for a baritone), arrives with her warriors bearing flags and calling on youths to join the military for glory. Hébé prays to Cupid (L’Amour) to use his powers to hold them back, but when Cupid arrives he decides to leave Europe for the Indies where love is more welcome.

The four acts that follow thus present love in the “Indies,” whether Middle Eastern or in the Americas. Act I is titled “The Generous Turk,” Act II “The Incas of Peru,” Act III “The Flowers” (set in Persia) and Act IV “The Savages,” set in America where an American Indian (Adario) falls in love with Zima, daughter of a native chief, who is also loved by the Spaniard Don Alvar and the Frenchman Damon.

This recording, clearly marked on the back cover as having been made in 1974, is maddeningly credited to 1973 on Wikipedia and in several review available online. Not that there’s a big difference, but there still is one. By 1974 the “historically informed performance” movement was much further underway, and Jean-Claude Malgoire was one of the first French conductors to follow many of the principles laid down by the great pioneer Nikolaus Harnoncourt. This meant the use of straight tone in the violins, but as you will hear on this recording, in those days the straight tone they employed produced a fuller tone and less of that whiny, computer-like sound so much in vogue nowadays. (Listen, for example, to the first track on CD 2, “Vous devez bannir de votre âme,” where the violins and cellos play with sumptuous beauty.) In addition, the chorus still sounded like people singing and not like a MIDI, and the solo artists sang out with full voices, not pulling back to produce some kind of half-assed wimpy sound. Just compare this recording to the one that William Christie made in 2003 and the difference is obvious: in addition to the softer profile, Christie’s orchestra moves forward clumsily, with very little feeling for legato. His chorus is more reticent and his singers less enjoyable to hear, and the whole opera-ballet is performed a half-tone lower, at their ridiculous “Baroque pitch” of A=432, a pitch that did not exist in France in those days! (Check it out.)

As a result, this performance has a kick and a drive to it that will simply astonish you. It’s much closer in feel to a New York Pro Musica performance than anything you’re likely to hear today, and this is not insignificant because Rameau’s music (and his orchestration) are geared towards color and excitement. He uses so many unusual orchestral devices for his time (think of him as a Baroque Berlioz) that the ear can scarcely catch them all: numerous string tremolos, shakes in the wind instruments, piercing brass and even (in the prologue) bagpipes as a call to war. Moreover, his vocal line, though elegant, is considerably more varied than that of Handel, full of serrated figures, shakes and trills, and none of them sound superfluous, added just for effect. Rameau also used orchestrally-accompanied recitatives, and these, too, are considerably more melodic, dramatic and varied than the secco Italian style used by Handel, Haydn, Mozart, and the “bel canto boys” (Rossini-Bellini-Mayr) in their operas. The music stabs and jabs at the ear; it is alternately sensuous as only the French could be and exciting in a way that no Italian could have conceived.

Malgoire and his singers are in overdrive from the first note of the overture, and do not let up throughout the opera. Without looking at the libretto or the track listing, you could scarcely tell when the Prologue ends and the first act begins; the energy is that infectious, and carries over that well. Those who have read my article on The HIP Movement in Classical Music may be surprised to see one of the singers here, Bruce Brewer, listed as a countertenor when I said that no countertenors were used in Baroque opera. But listen carefully: Brewer is NOT a FALSETTO countertenor like Alfred Deller, David Daniels, Philippe Jaroussky, Andreas Scholl etc. etc., but an exceptionally high tenor whose voice is placed near the mezzo-soprano range, like that of the late Russell Oberlin, though Brewer’s voice lacks Oberlin’s sensuous beauty of tone (it’s much more cutting and brilliant). This is what the French called a haute-tenor in those days. And listen to track 21 on the first CD: he even has a trill. Wonder of wonders! Indeed, Valere’s aria “Hatez-vous de vous embarquer” is one of the most difficult such pieces I’ve ever heard, but also one of the most original in construction as well as exciting. Rameau really liked making his tenors and countertenors jump through hoops.

It’s also a treat to hear the wonderful soprano Rachel Yakar near the beginning of her brief but glorious career (she stopped performing during the 1980s, in part due to the change of taste for sopranos who could actually sing out with a full tone), and nearly all the other singers are on her high level of artistry. It’s really astonishing, in part because most of these singers are not that well known in America, and except for Micheau and baritone Jean-Christophe Benoît did not make all that many records. The only other names in this cast I knew besides Yakar’s was soprano Jeanine Micheau, who sang Micaëla in the Callas Carmen and American tenor Brewer who had a pretty nice career over in Europe. (Harnoncourt’s pet singers, of which Yakar became one, showed up on nearly all of his recordings of Baroque operas and cantatas.) As much as I loved Emma Kirkby, not every straight-toned soprano had a voice as exquisite or as expressive as hers, and to crowd out the Rachel Yakars of the world was a grave injustice. French basso Pierre-Yves Le Magiat, of whom I had never even heard of before, had a superb light bass voice, pure in tone as well as flexible and emotionally expressive.

Rameau’s music also has quite a bit of stylistic variety. The first act uses what Western Europe perceived as a “Turkish” style, meaning rhythmically vibrant, energetic music, while Act II, set in Peru, uses a more legato style with less exotic rhythms and orchestration. Being an opera-ballet, there is dance music in the Prologue and every act thereafter, and it may have been this focus on the dance that led Rameau to produce such a lively score even when the singers were performing. Unlike the Italian style, Rameau often used different rhythms in the orchestral accompaniment to what the singers were performing, sometimes introducing stabbing string figures behind them for greater dramatic emphasis. In this way he continued to keep his listeners engaged and a bit off-balance. I’ve come to believe that Rameau, in his own modest way, was one of the forefathers of the “sturm und drang” orchestral style later used and perfected in Mannheim. What puzzles me is how 18th-century audiences, who loved to applaud over scenery as well as any musical tidbits they liked, were able to absorb all of this when the recorded performance presented here clearly indicates a musical progression that is connected and does not have “pauses for applause” after the arias or duets, in fact not even after the dance pieces.

One anomaly here is that, in the midst of the “Persian” act, Rameau inserted an “Italian aria” for the soprano. On the surface it could be confused for music by Antonio Scarlatti or Vivaldi—there’s even a passage where the voice echoes short phrases played by a solo violin—but the quirky tune construction, including several stops and tempo shifts, is pure Rameau. Interestingly, themes from this aria, which is set in 3/4 time, are then developed over the next three pieces, creating a musical link that makes it sound less like a sore thumb that sticks out.

The last act, set in “savage America,” is rather comical in that Rameau evidently had no clue what American Indian music sounded like, so he just wrote his usual peppy music and added more drums to it. He also gave the Indian tenor, Adario, lots of shakes and trills to sing (he sure was good at writing complex music for tenor). Adario’s French rival, Damon, is a deep bass who almost sounds like Charon, the boatman on the River Styx in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. Jeanine Micheau’s voice has clearly deteriorated somewhat since she sang Micaëla in the Callas Carmen a decade earlier: she struggles to stay on pitch, even in legato phrases, but although it is a problem it is not a fatal flaw.

Taken all together, Les Indes Galantes is surely one of Rameau’s finest musical achievements if not one of his greatest dramatically, and this recording will surely “sell” you on the opera.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Miguel Baselga’s Albéniz Adventure

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PIANO MUSIC Vol. 5 / ALBÉNIZ: Suite española No. 1, Op. 47. Piano Sonata No. 4 in A. Suite ancienne No. 2, Op. 64. Arbola Azplan (Zortzico). Pavana Capricho, Op. 12 / Miguel Baselga, pn / Bis CD-1443

PIANO MUSIC, Vol. 7 / ALBÉNIZ: Chant d’Espagne, Op. 232. 6 Mazurkas de Salon, Op. 66. Deseo, estudio de concierto. Op. 40. L’Automne Valse, Op. 170. Marcha militar. 3 Improvisations (reconstructed by Milton Laufer). Yvonne en Visite / Miguel Baselga, pn / Bis CD-1953

I was reviewing an entirely different release of Albéniz’ earlier piano music by a different pianist, but he was such a namby-pamby wuss at the keyboard—he sounded as if he was afraid to hit the keys too hard for fear he might break them—I went searching for an alternative version of some of the music he was playing. And, lo and behold. I ran across these alums by Miguel Baselga.

Now, I was much more impressed by Baselga’s playing than by the unfortunate Pajama Boy on the other CD, but since I already have an outstanding recording of all of the books of Ibéria played by the great Eduardo Fernández, I tried not to review any of the albums with that music on them. I did, however, want one more CD to sample, so I decided on Vol. 7 which contained a good amount of later music by Albéniz.

I will admit that the early Suite española is scarcely one of the composer’s great works, but in certain movements, i.e. “Under the Palm Tree” or “Aragon – Fantasia,” one can already hear how he was working towards a fusion of classical form with Spanish folk and pop music, and it is very well written. The fairly (but not too) early Piano Sonata No. 4, which is the piece that sent me away from Pajama Boy, is played here by Baselga with lift and drive. It’s really a sparkling piece when you don’t try to make it early Brahms. Every movement is a little gem, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Even better is the Suite ancienne, where Albéniz manages to infuse a Spanish sensibility into a Baroque framework. Yet from a compositional standpoint, I was even more impressed by the Arbola Azplan (Zortzico), an outstanding piece with the right-hand themes played against a contrapuntal left hand in a different rhythm. The Pavana Capricho takes the old classical idea of a “pavane,” which was a court dance, and gives it a Spanish spin. Written in E minor, it’s a sprightly melody consisting of lively eighth notes with mordents or turns on the third beat of every bar of the “A” theme. The “B” theme, in the major, dominates the second half.

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Albéniz at the keyboard, 1901

In Vol. 7, Baselga presents us with some pieces from Albéniz’ mature style, by which time he had produced most if not all of the various “books” of Ibéria. The Chant d’Espagnole, Op. 232 is a series of five songs with contrasting rhythms, tempos and moods. The music is much more sophisticated here, showing considerable growth since the days of his Suite española. Baselga plays this music with an eye to its structure and considerable charm, revealing its close relationship to parts of Ibéria. The fourth piece is particularly interesting and atmospheric.

I’m always curious to hear how different non-Polish composers approach mazurkas because, along with the polonaise, it is the national dance form of Poland (polkas come from Germany, even though Poles love them). Albéniz took a unique approach to them, starting out with a Polish-sounding theme but then morphing it into a Spanish tinge. Very original and creative! I can’t recall any other composer doing anything similar with this form. The fourth mazurka is possibly the most creative, as he actually manages to combine both a mazurka and a Spanish rhythm in the principal theme simultaneously. This is done via a subtle shifting of the rhythm, giving the music a Polish accent in the right hand but a Spanish feel in the left! (Incidentally, Albéniz’ mazurkas actually sound more Polish in their outer themes than those of Szymanowski, who was a Polish composer.) It really is a shame that he died at age 48 from Bright’s disease.

Deseo, estudio de concierto is a bird of a different feather. Powerful and tightly structured, it has a Spanish tinge to it but is much more classical in mein. The rather long L’autumne valse, on the other hand, I felt was too long and not varied enough in material to sustain interest. (I can only imagine how the Pajama Boy, in his own series of complete Albéniz, might have played it.) By contrast, the brief and spirited Marcha Militar is set at such a tempo and rhythm that it almost sounds like a polka. The 3 Improvisations, arranged by one Milton Laufer, are very Hispanic in sound and rhythm. The album wraps up with the two pieces of Yvonne en visite, the first being rather straightforward but the second broken up into several sections, each with its own tempo, rhythm and theme.

These are outstanding performances and, for the most part, music that illuminates the kind of work Albéniz did throughout his career.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Harley Plays Trump Card in New CD

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THE GREATEST INVENTION / CARD: The Greatest Invention. Precipice. Shadows of Shea Pines. Ben’s Sanctuary. Canoe Lake. April Song. Enclosure. Grave. A Distant Bell. Highlights. Postcard / Harley Card, el-gtr; David French, t-sax; Matt Newton, pn; Jon Maharaj, bs; Ethan Ardelli, dm / Independent DYM003

This is the third CD by Harley Card, a Toronto-based jazz guitarist and composer. Card apparently took a somewhat strange journey into jazz, starting out in punk rock bands while taking visual art in high school. He began as a drummer but switched to guitar at age 16, studying with the great Ottawa guitarist Dave Milliken. He then played as a freelance guitarist in Reggae bands before switching over full time to jazz. The title of this CD, The Greatest Invention, refers to the bicycle, which Card apparently feels is greater than the steam engine, cotton gin or internal combustion engine.

Listening to the music on this CD, I found it well constructed, with themes that are both solidly written and conducive to improvisation. Card has learned his lessons well; he can, at this point, produce a string of original pieces that fit the prescribed formula of much modern jazz: irregular meters, amorphous lead lines and a modal sense of harmony. He is also a very fine guitarist, not one of those “soft jazz” lounge lizards who have no spine in their playing. Undoubtedly, his experience as a punk rocker and Reggae musician have had a lot to do with this. In the opener, The Greatest Invention, there is an interesting variant on the theme at 3:55 that shows he knows where the music is going and how to get there.

The second number, Precipice, has more of a conventional 4/4 swing feel to it, a welcome contrast to the first number. Interestingly, Card’s own solo here is somewhat minimal, using sparse lines and an almost shy presence, as if he doesn’t want to assert himself too much on his own tune. By contrast, tenor saxist David French really shines here, playing a solo not too far removed from the kind of things that Zoot Sims played in the 1950s. Matt Newton is somewhat effervescent on piano, playing double-time splashes of notes in his solo.

I was quite impressed by his writing in Shadows of Shea Pines. Here, Card slows the tempo down, producing a slow-moving line in G-flat that cleverly leans towards other tonalities without ever arriving there. French’s equally wistful solo has a touch of Lester Young in it, and Jon Maharaj plays bowed bass behind him, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in unison. Then a sudden shift into a jazz waltz, with Newton leading the band into entirely different material. Suddenly, subtly, the jazz waltz becomes a standard 4 beat, leading back into French for a more swinging solo. I was quite impressed by the quintet’s ability to think and feel everything as a unit; none of the gear-shifting sounds forced or artificial, but totally organic. By 6:38 we’ve suddenly switched once again, now to a quasi-Latin beat, with Card playing a nice solo over the rhythm section. The tempo slows down once again for the finale.

Ben’s Sanctuary starts with isolated cymbal tings over very soft, high-on-the-fret playing by Card. Newton plays the gentle theme with sparse notes, followed by French and Card in unison. On the middle section French takes over, with Card playing brief counter-figures. This, too, is an interesting composition, again with subtly shifting rhythms and accents throughout. Another impressive quality of the band is that the various solos “fit” the surrounding material as if they, too, were written out. Were Card to use a bit more development, counter-lines and expanded harmony, these could easily be called jazz-classical fusion pieces. Even at 7:17, it’s almost over before you know it.

Canoe Lake opens with slow ostinato chords from the piano, over which the sax and guitar play occasional figures. This one starts out in 3, although with some of the beats within bars being redistributed in unusual patterns. The bass plays a softly plucked solo, adding some counter-figures to Newton’s ostinato. The bridge is played by French with Card behind him. The the tempo picks up some, the rhythm shifts to a sort of soft Reggae, and Card takes over on guitar. This is clearly one of his best solos on the album, interesting and structured at the same time.

April Song begins with percussion and plenty of it. Finally, after a minute, the piano leads into the sax and guitar playing the melody in unison. After the startling innovations of the previous three pieces, this one sounded good but somewhat ordinary. By contrast, Enclosure is one of the most rhythmically complex pieces on the record, its odd harmonic-melodic structure built around a repeated lick on the piano. Grace sounded to me like a soft jazz piece, with Card playing in a gentle manner. The slowly-moving melodic line is rather plain, if atmospheric. A Distant Bell is another slow ballad, albeit one played quite beautifully by Card and the band. An eventual shift to a Latin beat introduces an outstanding solo by French, almost in Stan Getz bossa nova style, followed by a relaxed, laid-back solo from the leader. Surprisingly, Maharaj switches here from acoustic to electric bass for his own solo.

Highlights is in an unusual meter which I couldn’t quite place, largely because of the constant beat-shifting within each bar. When French plays the melody, it sounds as if the meter is changing every few bars as well. Newton’s solo is both florid and a bit convoluted; when Card enters, the tempo switches to a more conventional 4, then back to the irregular meter for the ride-out. The finale, Postcard, is yet another slow, atmospheric piece, almost a bit too relaxed in the opening chorus by Card. The music progresses at such a relaxed pace that one must concentrate to hear the underlying structure of the tune, which is fairly interesting. Maharaj, back on acoustic bass, plays a nice plucked solo, followed later by a lightly-played solo from Card. It’s a nice, relaxed finish to the CD, though I would have preferred something a bit more uptempo.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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John Browning’s Superb Ravel Reissued

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RAVEL: Sonatine. La tombeau de Couperin (piano version). Gaspard de la Nuit / John Browning, pianist / Sony/RCA 886446381886

A few days ago I heard a pretty good performance of Gaspard de la Nuit on the radio, played by then-18-year-old pianist Conrad Tao. Looking it up online the next day, I found it to be pretty good but just missing something, so I went “Gaspard-shopping” on the Naxos Music Library. And lo and behold, I ran across this recording, which I hadn’t even known existed.

The performance was breathtaking.

It’s not just that Browning had the technique for the score, which in itself is important—Gaspard is probably Ravel’s most difficult piano piece and one of the hardest in the standard repertoire. It’s that he had the ability to play with nuance while blissfully running through those impossible two-handed passages that sound more like piano four hands. Other pianists I’ve heard simply do not present as much light and shade, color and drive as Browning did, and that even includes a contemporary recording on Columbia by Charles Rosen. Browning just had something special in his playing, and he carries the day in this unbelievably great performance.

What a strange vindication for a man who, when he studied at Juilliard, was constantly overshadowed by his fellow-pupil, a tall, lanky Texan named Van Cliburn. Cliburn, of course, went on to with first prize in the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in the late 1950s, thus making him a symbol of American excellence during the cold war. This helped to propel his career as a pianist well beyond the parameters of most Americans of his time. A big seller on RCA Victor, he was considered to be “up there” with their two international stars, Horowitz and Rubinstein.

So Browning made his living playing mostly the music of Bach, Scarlatti, Haydn and Mozart. He was a miniaturist to Cliburn’s grand epic playing. Then, in 1962, he gave the world premiere of Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto, which he later recorded with both George Szell and Leonard Slatkin (the latter won a Grammy). This led to his playing more of Barber’s piano works; other contemporary composers also came to him with their wares, but Browning found very few to his liking. Then he died unexpectedly of heart failure at age 69.

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The rather grim-looking Spanish RCA LP cover

Thus a recording of Ravel’s works was something of an anomaly for him. Judging from the cover and number sequence, this definitely came out during the Hippie era (1968), but honestly, I don’t even remember it. It probably didn’t sell well because 1) it was outside of his normal repertoire, 2) it wasn’t promoted heavily (he wasn’t Cliburn), and 3) there were many other Ravel “specialists” whose recordings sold better than his. All of which is a shame.

Browning is also superior to nearly every other pianist I’ve heard in the well-known Sonatine and the lesser-known piano version of Le tombeau de Couperin. Interestingly, his tempi are generally faster in these works than other pianists, which makes his attention to the most minute detail all the more impressive.

I simply cannot recommend this album highly enough. It shoots straight to the top of interpretations of these three works.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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TJP’s New “Peace and Love” Album

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PEACE AND LOVE / SIMON-GARFUNKEL: America. MEDLEY: ARGENT: Time of the Season/LENNON-McCARTNEY: Day Tripper. TRADITIONAL: Shenandoah. BROOKER-FISHER: Whiter Shade of Pale. SOUTH: Hush. HAYWARD: Tuesday Afternoon. DeSHANNON: Put a Little Love in Your Heart. STING: Message in a Bottle. MEDLEY: POWERS: Message in a Bottle/JOBIM: Waters of March. THIELE-WEISS: Wonderful World. WARD: America the Beautiful / TJP: Tony Miceli, vib; Paul Jost, voc/harmonica; Kevin MacConnell, bs; Doug Hirlinger, dm/electronics; Joel Frahm, t-sax/s-sax; Philadelphia Performing Arts Chorus / Miceli Music TJP-12345 (available at Amazon, iTunes, Spotify, Bandcamp)

Philadelphia-based TJP, formerly known as The Jost Project, has apparently made a specialty of playing jazz arrangements of rock tunes, and happily their versions really are jazz with little rock-beat reference in their playing.

And what a talented crew they are. In addition to leader-vibes player Tony Miceli, it was a pleasure for me to hear their bass player, Kevin MacConnell, whose playing is the best thing I’ve heard in a long time…shades of Mingus or Eddie Gomez. Playing here with guest saxist Joel Frahm, they transform these pieces in such a way that you become immediately wrapped up in their own personal feel for swing, driven by the backbeat 6/8 feel of drummer Doug Hirlinger.

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L to R: Paul Jost, Doug Hirlinger, Kevin MacConnell, Joel Frahm, Tony Miceli.

Paul Jost’s vocals, which dominate this set, are very jazzy in phrasing and rhythm despite his hoarse tone and occasional slurred diction (the latter, from what I can tell, by choice rather than accident). Despite this, there’s a surprisingly strong R&B accent to their performances rather than a rock one, which is why I enjoyed the album so much.

Miceli is clearly an outstanding vibes player, and if he doesn’t show off his chops the way Terry Gibbs did he is surely as fine an improviser. I was also quite impressed by Frahm’s sax playing, particularly on soprano where he cut loose with some wonderful long lines that had a great sense of construction (i.e., Hush). One of the most rock-oriented pieces on the album is Justin Hayward’s Tuesday Afternoon, but only in the opening chorus; after a drum break, we settle into a nice swinging groove which alternates with the former throughout the performance. Similarly, they transform the Youngbloods’ iconic peace-&-love anthem, Get Together, even including voices from the Philadelphia Performing Arts Chorus. Frahm, again on soprano, plays outstanding embellishments around the principal melody.

They also give an interesting twist to Ron Argent’s Time of the Season by incorporating the opening riff from the Beatles’ Day Tripper (and why, in an album of old Hippie songs, they didn’t include All You Need is Love baffles me), where the driving rhythm, Miceli’s vibes and Frahm on tenor. In the closing minute, they just move right into Day Tripper for the ride-out.

There are some interesting Bach references (“Sheep may safely graze”) in their arrangement of Whiter Shade of Pale, a song I only know by its title, having never heard it before this album. Miceli’s vibes, along with the rhythm section, completely transform Jackie DeShannon’s Put a Little Love in Your Heart into a nice, medium-tempo swinger, with Frahm playing some really nice Saturday-Night-Live-Band style tenor sax. This eventually morphs into the Louis Armstrong tune It’s a Wonderful World—a song, I rush to mention, that wasn’t a hit in America when it first came out, but only charted years after Armstrong’s death when it became the theme song of the movie Good Morning, Vietnam. Having never heard Sting’s Message in a Bottle before, I can’t say how much it’s been changed around by the band, but I’ll assume they improved it because it’s a pretty simple, repetitive lick, not even really a melody. Thank goodness that Frahm is back on soprano, where he sounds comfortable and creative, to liven up an otherwise nothing tune. Jost adds some nice scatting in the penultimate chorus.

I’ll give TJP great credit for ending their set with America the Beautiful, which I still think is the greatest song yet written by an American about America. They take it nice, slow and relaxed, with Jost’s vocal backed by just vibes and bass. A lovely close to the album.

A personal observation on the album’s concept: it’s nice but dated. When conceiving the CD, Miceli says, he “wondered where all the Hippies went. Was the ‘60s only about sex, drugs and rock and roll? Where did all these values about peace and love go?”

If he wouldn’t mind, I’d like to answer that from a personal standpoint. I grew up in the ‘60s but didn’t have the time or the luxury to be a Hippie, even though I was against the Vietnam War (who wasn’t, in those days?), marched in one or two protests, and wanted more peace in the world. I didn’t have that much time to smoke marijuana or get drunk or protest in the streets because I had to, like, work for a living. No one subsidized my highs or my tie-dyed jeans. I busted my rear end to get enough to live on because by the time I reached age 20, all this white privilege stuff ran out. And then the veil was torn from my eyes and I realized that all this peace-and-love stuff really was just bullshit designed to help guys have sex with us. That’s when I, and probably a few million other Hippie sympathizers, walked away from it all. We still had a strong desire for world peace in our hearts but worked it out on a more personal basis. And now we realize we’ve been completely screwed (in more ways than one) and lied to by the Democrats and the Republicans, so we’re trying, against the iron will of the Dems and the media, to take our country back. They’ve even created these “social tensions” you want to address out of thin air for no other reason than to divide and conquer our society. Since I sympathize with the working class, I don’t want “a little love” in my heart. I want a little more money in my bank account, money I desperately need to pay my mortgage and buy food, and that’s what I want for my working class friends, who I love and support with all my heart. The Peace & Love crowd needs to be constantly subsidized because most of them don’t work for a living. So, Tony, that’s where it went. Take it for what it’s worth.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Alberto Bologni Makes “Dedications” in New Pieces

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DEDICATIONS / SEABOURNE: Threads. FRIBBINS: Sonata. BRUNO: Preludio e Fuga. FAVALI: Astor and Me. REBORA: di – versi – in – versi. RIGACCI: Lucrezia. SENANES: Sinfonía for 4 Strong Strings / Alberto Bologni, vln / Sheva Contemporary SH-184

This strange yet wonderful disc, scheduled for release in February, introduces a new recorded work by the superb British composer Peter Seabourne as well as six other new pieces by lesser-known writers. Italian violinist Alberto Bologni, who studied at the Conservatorio Cherubini in Florence and subsequently earned an artist’s diploma at the Rotterdam Conservatoire, combines the styles of the Italian, German-Hungarian and Russian schools of violin playing, and of course the last-named is strongly influenced by the French.

Bologni shoots right out of the gate with the exciting and brilliant Threads, a five-movement composition that exploits the full range of the instrument. This was written for both Bologni and Litsa Tunnah, both of whom have played Seabourne’s works in the past. One of the most unusual pieces in this suite is the second, titled “Berceuse,” which alternates between very high, sustained “whistle tones” on the violin and pizzicato passages that somehow fit together and make sense. By contrast, the next piece, “Shimmering,” consists of fairly conventional arpeggios in eighths set in unconventional melodic patterns with shifting harmonies. The final two movements, particularly the concluding “Vivo,” are unexpected and imaginative, like so much of Seabourne’s music. Bologni’s tone, bright and brilliant, is coupled with an impulsive energy that infuses everything he plays. You can tell that he really likes this music!

Following this is the violin sonata of Peter Fribbins, composed for his wife Maria who is half Faroese. This explains the use of a folk song from the Faroe Islands, Sigmunds kvæði, in the first movement; it’s a strange tune, alternating between conventionally melodic and odd modal lines. The sonata was premiered last year (2016) by Bologni in a benefit concert for victims of the central Italian earthquake. The pizzicato second-movement “Scherzo,” ironically, reminded me of the Seabourne piece previously heard—not a criticism, because it’s interesting and well written, and I doubt that Fribbins had any idea what Seabourne was up to when he wrote it. The third-movement “Pavane” is wonderfully lyrical, using unusual chord positions to enhance rather than ruin its effectiveness, while the last movement is a brief, more modern-sounding “Toccata.”

Giuseppe Bruno’s Preludio e Fuga, like so many modern pieces that pay tribute to J.S. Bach, use the notes of his last name (the “h” being the German designation for B-flat) because, as Bruno puts it, “of the great expressive potential inherent in its lying within a minor third.” The “Fuga” was composed first, with the “Preludio” written second, which gave Bruno the opportunity to link certain motifs more easily. It’s a strange-sounding fugue, however, due to the unusual way in which the harmonies lie. An excellent piece.

This is followed by Astor and Me, an homage to Astor Piazzolla by Federico Favali. Like several modern composers who base their work on Piazzolla, Favali stretches the tango form to entirely new limits, using the older composer’s Inverno Porteño with entirely different rhythms and a redistribution of note-values so that at times it is unrecognizable. Once again, Bologni’s playing is beautifully controlled technically and imbued with emotional energy, making this piece sound even better by virtue of these attributes.

Possibly the most avant-garde piece on this disc, Carla Rebora’s three-movement di – versi – in – versi is described in the booklet as “part of a series of pieces born of research into the formal, aesthetic and evocative relationship between poetic genres and musical forms. In this piece, the focus is the stanza isolata, a form of poetry typical of the C14th dolce stil nuovo.” In less technical terms, the music is comprised of short fragments that almost sound isolated, except that Rebora finds ways to tie them togther. There are moments where this works coherently and others where the fragments sound more isolated. By contrast, Pietro Rigacci’s chaconne Lucrezia is somewhat more conventional in its form if quite surprising in its turns of phrase which are anything but.

We close out this package of “dedications” with Sinfonia for Four Strong Strings by Argentinian composer Gabriel Senanes. The composer claims that the title of this “piece has little connection with its music: it is obviously a play on words, or two: ‘for four,’ and then ‘strong strings.’ I also like the idea of a symphony for a single instrument. And this idea completes the title, which has sense only in English and looks funny to me.” The music is esentially laid out like a symphony structurally, and although it is more tonal in nature than many of its predecessors on this disc it is no less well written. Senanes has a strong sense of construction and thus keeps the violin within certain boundaries, using strong downbow attacks on the first beat of each bar as a simulation of a full orchestra in the first movement. In the second, the strong lyrical quality of the solo line makes the listener imagine an orchestra behind the violin. The third-movement “Tango” is not really “just a tango,” as the composer claims, but a re-imagining of that native Argentinian dance, while the concluding “Rock and Ball” is a furious piece set in rock rhythm…something I never thought I’d hear a classical violinist attempt to play.

This is surely a remarkable disc and one of the finest violin recitals of any music I’ve heard in the past two years.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Rebekah Heller’s Strange Bassoon Adventure

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METAFAGOTE / STEIGER: Concatenation. FUJIKURA: Following. ECKARDT: A Compendium of Catskill Native Botanicals, from Book 2: “Wild Ginger.” LARA: Metafagote / Rebekah Heller, bsn; electronics / New Focus/Tundra tun006

They say that if you live long enough, you’ll hear things you never imagined possible. This is one of them. Any preconceived notions you may have had about bassoon music are blown clear out the windows by this new release, for Rebekah Heller and her bad-ass bassoon (just look at her attitude on the cover!) are here to explode them.

The music is modern, challenging, and best of all, interesting. Four composers with a single directive, to write music for solo bassoon and electronics, all responded with different and very imaginative settings. I can’t say that any of this music is easy or accessible, for it is not. On the contrary, it’s rather forbidding; but it’s well constructed, interesting, and stretches the instrument to entirely new limits.

Rand Steiger’s Concatenation, which opens the recital, sets the bassoon in an echo chamber, occasionally using feedback, echo effects and distortion to propel his ideas. The composer has described this work as one where “a set of contrasting materials, any one of which could have been the subject of an etude, are laid out and interwoven into a continuous conversation. In this piece, there are seven different kinds of material,” and as each character is introduced the different kinds of material “begin an increasingly interwoven dialogue with each other.” My lone complaint was that, in the closing two minutes of the piece, it became so deconstructed that even I had some trouble following it.

Next up is Dai Fujikura’s Following. This is surprisingly lyrical, and in fact includes no electronics at all. It gives Heller a chance to show just how good she is on the bassoon; her tone is so pure here that most of the time it sounds like an alto saxophone, and a very fine one at that (think Johnny Hodges or Jimmy Dorsey). Although lyrical, the piece is also quite daring harmonically, but Fujikara never loses sight of the long line of the music and holds the listener’s interest from start to finish. There is also some real invention and development going on here, which makes the performance all the more interesting.

By contrast, Jason Eckardt’s A Compendium of Catskill Native Botanicals, Asarum canadense, “Wild Ginger” uses microtones and snippets of melody which simulate the feeling of ritual chanting. This, too, is played without any electronics or overdubs. In this piece, Heller’s tone surely does not resemble anything but a bassoon. The music also includes several surprising “dead stops” in which one assumes the music is over, yet it continues to go on and develop.

The last piece is perhaps the most complex. Felipe Lara layers seven bassoons in all, six of them pre-recorded, bookended by the sound of waves rushing up on the shore. Some of the pre-recorded bassoons are sped up in order to enhance the upper range of the instrument, and there are also some odd “knocking” sounds thrown in for good measure. Slithering, rising chromatics are heard just before the four-minute mark, enhancing an already strange musical experience. Later on, at about 6:30, a sort of reverb-echo effect is achieved by having the pre-recorded bassoons overlap sustained B-flats in almost a hocket style while the “live” bassoon plays stabbing figures in and around them. Later on the background bassoons play varying figures while the live one distorts tones and plays somewhat microtonally. Eventually the interaction becomes quite complex, the background bassoons almost sounding like a choir behind a vocal soloist. It’s a very odd piece, but also a very interesting one.

By and large, this is a fascinating release, and each piece is the world premiere recording. If nothing else, it should expand the minds of listeners and other composers as to the timbral and technical possibilities of the bassoon, and instrument that, too often, gets no respect.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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

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