Bedřich Smetana’s Masterpiece

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SMETANA: Dalibor / Valerij Popov, ten (Dalibor); Eva Urbanova, sop (Milada); Valeri Alexejev, bar (Wladislaw); Dagmar Schellenberger, sop (Jitka); Damir Basyov, bar (Budivoj); Valentin Prolat, ten (Vítek); Carmine Monaco, bs-bar (1st Judge); Alexandr Blagodarnyi, bs (2nd Judge); Bruno Pestarino, bs-bar (3rd Judge); Teatro Lirico di Calgliari Orch. & Chorus; Yoram David, cond / Dynamic CDS 296 ½ (live: Calglirari, 1999)

SmetanaBedřich Smetana was neither pleased nor comfortable when anyone brought up his popular opera, Prodaná nevĕsta or The Bartered Bride, in his presence; on the contrary, he was quite depressed about it, even on the occasion of the 100th performance when he was given a plaque and an honorarium including a bank book with money in an account for him. That was because he thought very little of it. He had knocked it off in a few weeks because he was tired of critics and audiences saying that he couldn’t write something in a popular style. He was thus not surprised that it took off at the opera house but, when he premiered the work he considered his masterpiece, Dalibor, two years later (1868), he was devastated by the fact that it was a flop. He died in 1884 convinced that Dalibor was a failure, but a revival two years later suddenly made it a huge success in the Czech Republic.

One of the criticisms against Dalibor was that it was “too Wagnerian,” but in listening to it today one hears very little of the daring harmonic sophistication of Wagner’s operas though it is clearly more complex music than The Bartered Bride. What made it “Wagnerian” in the ears of his contemporaries was the fact that the music was continuous, that there were no set pieces (arias, duets, etc.) for the audience to hum on their way out of the theater. But by 1886, audiences had become more sophisticated and Dalibor took off in his native land…but not much elsewhere.

The opera is set in the Middle Ages where the noble knight Dalibor is on trial before the King for murdering the Burgrave of Ploskovice; the Burgrave’s sister, Milada, is one of the key witnesses against him. But when Dalibor testifies on his own behalf, he explains that the murder was revenge for the Burgrave killing his best friend, the violinist Zdenék. Learning that the Burgrave was holding Zdenék prisoner, Dalibor offered to pay a large ransom as long as he was released unharmed, but when the Burgrave sent Zdenék’s severed head to Dalibor (he must have really hated his violin playing!), Dalibor killed him.

Seeing and hearing Dalibor, Milada is transformed by his noble bearing and high moral code and falls in love with him. The King admits that Dalibor had just cause but shouldn’t have taken the law into his own hands, so he is sentenced to death. Before he is taken away, Milada approaches him and tells him of her love for him and that she will do everything possible to have him released.

The rest of the opera in involved with various schemes to free Dalibor by a group of underground allies who are unfortunately found out and arrested. Milada, meanwhile, has disguised herself as a young man and secured a job as assistant to the head jailer, taking a page from Beethoven’s Fidelio. When Milada hears the bell toll announcing Dalibor’s execution, she joins the few rebels left in storming the castle and rescues Dalibor, but is wounded during the escape and dies in his arms. Dalibor, devastated by the loss, stabs himself and joins Milada in death.

In addition to the recording I am writing about here, which came out nearly a quarter-century ago on the Dynamic label, I’ve listened to four other recordings of the opera, two in Czech and two in German. The Czech recordings I’ve heard are those with Eva Dĕpoltová, Vilém Přibl and Václav Zitek, conducted by Václac Smetáček on Supraphon; Eva Urbanova, Leo Marian Vodička, Ivan Kusnjer and Zdenĕk Košler (also on Supraphon); Leonie Rysanek, Ludovic Spiess, Eberhard Wächter and conductor Josef Krips (live, 1969) and Felicia Weathers, Sándor Kónya, Gerd Nienstedt and Rafael Kubelik (also 1969). The Kubelik performance was the most frustrating for me because Kubelik was Czech himself, he normally conducted like a house on fire in live performances, and his is the greatest cast of singers, but for some reason he just couldn’t get the Bavarian Radio Orchestra to play the rhythms correctly. The whole opera sounds like a succession of plodding marches, none of which are right and all of which sound stiff and clumsy.

But this recording explodes like an atom bomb. I have absolutely no idea who conductor Yoram David is—I can’t find anything about him online other than that he conducted this performance of Dalibor—but he has the music firmly in hand and infuses it with a febrile energy that is palpable. And, except for the second soprano, Dagmar Schellenberger, who gets off to a pretty wobbly start in Act I, the singing is first-rate. Eva Urbanova has a typically Eastern European soprano voice, meaning somewhat edgy in timbre and with a noticeable vibrato, but the vibrato is even and she is one of the most exciting sopranos I’ve ever heard. Tenor Valerij Popov, a name previously unknown to me, turns in a terrific performance as the tragic knight with ringing high notes galore and a very credible dramatic portrayal of Dalibor. Baritone Valeri Alexejev is superb as the Czech King, and the whole performance jells so well that you stay riveted from start to finish.

Yet for some reason, this recording has no reviews online except at Amazon.com, and those are not very detailed or persuasive (one reviewer pans the recording because it is a live performance with stage noise). As for me, I was very impressed; this is clearly a masterpiece of music for Smetana, and why it isn’t performed much outside of the Czech Republic I have no idea. There isn’t a dull scene in it or a poorly written one, something you can’t say about Smetana’s “pageant opera” Libuše (some of which is good but much of which is just a bunch of fanfares with singing). So even though this recording was issued almost 21 years ago, I am reviewing it here in the hopes that someone out there will be as impressed by it as I was and buy a copy. If you are an opera lover, this recording belongs in your collection.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The Fine Arts Quartet Plays Dvořák

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DVOŘÁK: String Quartet No. 4. String Sextet in A. Polonaise in A + / Fine Arts Qrt; *Anna Kreeta Gribajcevic, vla 2, Jens Peter Maintz, cel 2; +Stepan Simonian, pno / Naxos 8.574205

Now this is the kind of CD I really enjoy reviewing: a good older composer in three works that are not at all frequently played or recorded. Indeed, Dvořák’s “American” Quartet is so well known and so often performed that I wonder if most concertgoers even know there were earlier quartets, and the String Sextet isn’t as well-known as the Quintet.

The Fine Arts Quartet, which seems like it’s been around forever, was founded in 1946, but this incarnation of the group only goes back as far as 1983 when violinists Ralph Evans and Efim Boico became members. Well-known violist Gil Sharon is part of this new incarnation along with cellist Niklas Schmidt.

Like most modern string quartets, the Fine Arts has a lean sound profile with biting violins and a very tight ensemble sound, but this is a style that they and the now-legendary Yale Quartet actually pioneered back in the 1950s. Interestingly, this American approach really doesn’t sound terribly different from the majority of Eastern European ensembles then and now, such as the Vegh and Smetana Quartets. Throughout my life, I’ve noticed that the most bracing, energetic and non-sentimental performances are generally given by Eastern Europeans, and this style permeated America from the 1920s onward via the influx of such musicians as violinists Jascha Heifetz, Josef Szigeti and Nathan Milstein, cellists Emanuel Feuermann and Gregor Piatagorsky, along with the early (and more interesting) Budapest String Quartet. It was also perhaps helpful that the anti-Semitic policies of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy also sent other similar musicians scurrying to our shores, some of whom went into chamber work and some of whom joined American orchestras as section players, sometimes lead players.

There are some remarkable things in this String Quartet, a few that Dvořák carried into later works and some that he didn’t, such as the use in the first movement of descending chromatic passages and vacillations from minor to major and back again, and it all goes past the ear so quickly that unless one is observant one is likely to miss some of it. Fine Arts does not linger on or exaggerate these moments, which is all for the better, for to do so would disrupt the musical flow and put too much of an undue emphasis on things that the composer simply wanted to be heard in time as the music progressed. They also do not linger on or drag out the slow second movement, marked “Andante religioso,” perhaps realizing that what seemed religious to Dvořák carries no religious connotations to others.

One aspect of the Sextet which I found interesting is that, rather than write for this combination in a “conversational” style, Dvořák chose to write for them almost consistently in ensemble, like a chamber orchestra. In fact, in my mind’s ear I could hear the second movement, titled “Dumka” (a Czech folk dance), being orchestrated and played in a symphony concert—but not, perhaps, with the right rhythmic lilt that the Fine Arts Quartet gives to it. The rapid third movement, “Furiant,” is also dance-like in character and quintessentially Dvořák, reminding one of the Slavonic Dances. We end with a Theme and Variations which starts out medium-slowly but really picks up some steam after the pause at the 2:20 mark.

We end with an even rarer Polonaise for cello and piano, a nice piece but more of a fun encore than a meaty dish. Overall, however, this is an exceptionally fine recording, in places quite interesting and in others entertaining.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Daniel Jones’ Symphonies

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JONES: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 5 / BBC Welsh Symphony Orch.; Bryden Thomson, cond / Lyrita SRCD.390

This CD is a complement to Bryden Thomson’s two prior releases of Daniel Jones’ symphonies Nos. 2 & 11 (Lyrita SRCD.364) and Nos. 1 & 10 (SRCD.358) released four years ago. Jones (1912-1993) was a Welsh composer whose mother was a singer and whose father was an amateur composer who wrote religious and choral pieces. He studied English literature to start with, yet his Master’s Thesis was on Elizabethan poetry and its relationship to music. He then attended the Royal Academy of Music where he studied with Harry Farjeon, also learning conducting from Sir Henry Wood. He also served as a captain in British Army Intelligence during World War II.

Judging from the works presented here, Jones’ symphonies, all of which were written from 1947 onward, were starkly modern works based somewhat on the late style of Vaughan Williams but with his own individual approach. According to the notes, he described himself as “anti-impressionistic” and cited Purcell, Haydn, Berlioz, Elgar and Janáček as influences.

One of the most striking features of Jones’ work is its use of strong, angular rhythms. In this respect he owed a little something to Stravinsky as well. Indeed, in 1947 he wrote a sonata for three unaccompanied tympani, yet he also wrote the incidental music for Dylan Thomas’ 1954 radio drama, Under Milk Wood.

Despite the clipped rhythms and strong, extroverted style, his Third Symphony is clearly developed, following the time-honored rules of the musical establishment while still being strikingly original. Personally, I hear little or nothing of Elgar in his music save that composer’s most objective and least Romantic work, the Enigma Variations. Indeed, if I were given a blindfold test and asked to name the nationality of this composer, I might have guessed someone from the British Isles but one clearly influenced by modern Eastern European and German composers. There are even some hints in this music of the early scores of Bernd Alois Zimmermann, who also flowered in the early 1950s, but one must remember that several styles of modern composition were “in the air” at that time.

The Fifth Symphony, written in 1958, has a similar profile but a different approach. Jones prided himself on trying to make each of his symphonies an individual work that did not sound too much like its predecessors, but of course he had his own style and this permeated all of his work.

My caveat about these symphonies is that, although the music is powerful, it is not particularly well nuanced. Jones was evidently a very direct, almost brusque composer whose anti-Impressionism led him to develop a sort of “stiff upper lip” style that had no bend or give to it. The almost mandatory staccato rhythms he used were also rather inflexible. Thus I find the music good but not great; it says only so much and no more, most of its emotions riding on the surface of its orchestral brilliance.

You may, however, disagree with me…everyone hears music differently. I will say that Bryden Thomson’s performances are technically assured and probably about as good as we’ll get.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The Music of Guernieri

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GUERNIERI: Elementa I: Breath / Sebastiano Severi, cel / Elementa II: Fluctus; Lumina; Pulvis…sulla iv corda; Nihil / Giacomo Scarponi, vln; Cristina Marrai, pno / Lightscape. Elementa VII: Notturno; Aube; Apres-dinnada; Vesprada; Furiant – Notturno / Angela Beghelli, Laura Biffi, Maura Morongiu, sop; Marco Venturuzzo, fl; Adriano Piccioni, bs; Marrai, pno / Con Templum Cœli / Giacomo Scarponi, vln; Cristina Marrai, pno / Quartetto 2: Immaginari sonori Rapsodico / Quartetto Mirus / Adorno Te devote / Coro Euridice, dir. Maurizio Guernieri / Tactus TC 960701

This CD presents the chamber music of modern Italian composer Maurizio Guernieri (b. 1962). The composer describes his Elementa series as “meditations on the relationship between man and nature, and on the elements of nature, which, being often mismanaged by man, contribute to their own flourishing or decadence,” while Con Templum cœeli is a meditation upon looking skyward and the quartet explores “sound environments.” Adorno te devote is a vocal version of Con Templum.

Guernieri’s writing uses microtones and clashing harmonics within an amorphous framework of sound. Part of the fascination of Elements I: Breath is the incredibly rich, deep tone of Sebastiano Severi, a masterful cellist with a wonderful technique. Guernieri also uses dramatic upward flourishes at unexpected moments to create drama as the music progresses, but I’d have to give some credit to Severi for imparting so much feeling to the score as well since Guernieri’s music is as much about mood as about the notes being played.

One can also hear this in the dramatic violin-piano duets of Elementa II. After reviewing so many recordings where the instruments and/or singers are swathed in reverb, it’s a real pleasure to hear a CD where the musicians are miked quite closely, making it sound as if they were playing in your living room. Here Guernieri relies heavily on long-held notes while the harmony shifts underneath, moving to faster, more dramatic passages in Lumina. Strange things are definitely happening here! No. 3, titled Pulvis…sulla iv corda, features edgy, rough-sounding bowing from the violin against both low and high-end chords from the piano, while in Nihil he uses an ostinato rhythm in the piano against high, edgy violin figures, sometimes lyrical and sometimes quite edgy.

Lightscape and Elementa VIII are played by a trio of flute, bass and piano. Here, Guernieri focuses on the lyrical aspects of the flute but does not ignore the ostinato rhythms that the piano can produce or the low, long lines of the bass. One thing I particularly like about his music is that he uses a varied approach from piece to piece; he does not just have “one voice” as so many modern composers do. Even within this one piece, Guernieri shifts rhythms and moods frequently, creating a mosaic of sound and feelings.

Elementa VII combines a trio of female voices with the chamber trio to create a multi-faceted work in which Guernieri pulls out all the stops rhythmically, melodically and in terms of constantly shifting meter. In Furiant- Notturno,  he uses strong contrapuntal figures  for both the voices and the instruments, often playing against one another.

We then hear Con Templum Cœli in both of its forms, as an instrumental and as a choral work. Here Guernieri relies more heavily on tonal harmonies and simple ostinato rhythms to make his points, and the music becomes even richer in the choral version.

This is one of those rare CDs of modern music that holds your interest from beginning to end. all of it superbly played and sung.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The Happiest Day of Martin Mitterutzner’s Life

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MAY: Heut’ ist der Schönste Tag im Meinem Leben. Ein Lied geht um die Welt. TAUBER: Du bist die Welt für Mich. CARSTE: Hallo! Wie wär’s mit einer fährt ins Glück? GROTHE: Mon bijou. MARTINI: Plaisir d’amour. FISCHER: Süduch der Alpen (Tarantella). WINKLER: Ja, der schöne chianti Wien. COTTRAU: Santa Lucia. TOSTI: Marechiare. L’alba separa dalla luce l’ombra. DI CAPUA: O sole Mio. STOLZ: Gruss aus Wien. SIECZYNSKI: Wien, du Stadt meiner Träume. KÁLMÁN: Gräfin Maritza: Wenn es abend wird. DE CURTIS: Verghissmeinnicht (Non ti scordar ti me). STOLZ: Uno-Marsch. Mein Herz ruft immer nach dir, oh Marita. SPOLIANSKY: Heut’ nacht oder Die. BOHM: Still wir die Nacht / Martin Mitterutzner, ten; Deutsches Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken; Christoph Poppen, cond / SWR Music 19104CD

Following on the heels of Daniel Behle’s and Jonas Kaufmann’s successful recordings of old German tenor chestnuts and Viennese operetta arias, tenor Martin Mitterutzner takes a crack at the repertoire once trod by the likes of Joseph Schmidt, Richard Tauber, Marcel Wittrisch and Jan Kiepura back in the 1930s.

First we must start with a caveat. Mitterutzner doesn’t have nearly the voice of those tenors mentioned in the above paragraph, not even as much as Kiepura who probably had the least voice of that lot. Yes, it’s a pleasant timbre, but he just gets by, and when you consider that none of those 1930s tenors I named had particularly large voices, that’s not saying much. But he’s miked well and sings with a pleasing style, though not as good or as individual as the styles that Tauber, Schmidt and Wittrisch had.

And believe me, I know what I’m talking about, having gotten pretty heavily into the old records of those tenors when I was in college. As coincidence would have it, that was exactly the period of time that Seraphim, the budget American label of EMI, was reissuing Tauber and Schmidt recordings on LP, not to mention the even cheaper Eterna label that cranked out vintage recordings of old singers (adding the older Leo Slezak and others to the ‘30s stars) which I also listened to.

Yet someone at SWR Music must have thought that Mitterutzner was the bees’ knees, so here is his tribute to singers he’s never heard sing live, sprinkled with a few instrumentals like Hans Carste’s Hallo! Wie wär’s mit einer fährt ins Glück? and Ernst Fischer’s Süduch der Alpen (Tarantella). Christoph Poppen conducts everything on this CD with an ebullient style and flair, sometimes making up for Mitterutzner’s lack of individuality. Fritz Wunderlich he isn’t.

The record thus makes a nice break from routine for those who are tired of the same-old-same-old in tenor repertoire. It’s a nice, cheerful 71 minutes’ worth of fun music, pleasant to hear if lacking in individuality. If you want something closer to the real thing, pick up Behle’s Nostalgia album, which includes several arias along with the songs, or just get a Joe Schmidt album and you’ll be in tenor heaven.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Contemporary Music from…Luxembourg!

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2021 winnerBOUMANS: Melosis. PÜTZ: Moods. SANAVIA: Hélice. ZELIANKO: Sonata della Farfale. WILTGEN: Orbital Resonances / Solistes Européens; Christoph König, cond . Naxos 8.579059

This has to be one of the strangest CDs ever issued by Naxos: a collection of modern music written by composers born between 1959 and 1983 from Luxembourg, a Grand Duchy of only 998 square miles on the border between France and the Netherlands. This is the country lampooned by Leonard Wibberley in his popular book (later a movie) The Mouse That Roared, in which the Duchy of “Grand Fenwick” successfully invades and takes over the United States while everyone is in lockdown during an air raid drill.

I brought up The Mouse That Roared because, in a musical sense at least, that is what these composers are trying to do, “roar” loudly enough so that someone outside of Luxy pays them some attention. And indeed the first piece on this CD, Ivan Boumans’ Melosis, is an excellent piece resembling some of the French moderns of the late 20th century. It is an energetic work utilizing an essentially atonal atmosphere in which strings, brass and tympani interact in a constant struggle for attention, with a slower, more lyrical episode in the middle featuring a brief viola solo and interaction with the vibes and French horn. The composer’s notes reveal his affection for the music of Dutilleux, which he was analyzing when involved in a discussion with a medical student talking about melosis and mitosis. At the 9:20 mark, a set rhythm finally asserts itself as the winds cavort around the horns before moving into a pseudo-Latin kind of beat. Like all the works on this CD, this is a premiere recording.

Marco Pütz, the oldest composer represented on this disc, contributes Moods (2013), a tribute to the composer’s father-in-law Robert Weller. This one has fairly tonal upper lines played over altered chords positions, which makes it sound atonal when those chords are “rootless” and tonal when they are not. This, too, is an excellent piece that by and large would not offend too many concertgoers who normally shy away from “modern music,” whether it be eight or eighty years old. There is an explosive middle section with a moving bass line beneath the frenetic playing of brass and tympani.

Jeannot Sanavia’s Helice is a lighter, airier work yet no less interesting or well composed. Its moto perpetuo rhythm is meant to depict a propeller and parts of a plane as depicted in a 1937 fresco by French artist Sonia Delaunay. It is marked by some very complex and clever contrasting rhythms, a colorful orchestral palette, and intermittent moments of both a regular motor rhythm and syncopation. Sanavia, like her male counterparts, also likes to use the tympani.

Next up is Sonata della Farfale  by Tatsiana Zelianko, a modern-day “sonata da camera” using microtones in both the solo and ensemble string parts, yet still developing her themes in a creative and interesting manner. The second and third movements depart even further from Zelianko’s 18th-century model, but are also interesting and effective music, ending with a mechanical-sounding “Allegretto volante.”

The program ends with Roland Wiltgen’s Orbital Resonances, the “spaciest” and most amorphous piece on this CD. Light, airy, swirling sounds congeal to produce a feeling of weightlessness, though a rather rude-sounding French horn makes its interjections to try to break up the mood, before the music becomes faster, louder and brassier while the glockenspiel continues to flit around in the background and the lower strings play a repeated rhythmic motif, later taken over by the upper strings with trombone interjections.

I have to admit that this CD took me by complete surprise, not because the music was good but because it was GREAT. There is not a poor piece on this CD, all is played with great precision and energy by Solistes Européens, and the recorded sound is just resonant enough to give some space around the orchestra without swamping it in excess reverb. This is a gem of a record!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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More Stanchinsky…A Journey Into the Abyss

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STANCHINSKY: Humoresque. Mazurkas in Db, G# min. Nocturne. 3 Preludes. Sonata in Eb min. Prelude in the Lydian Mode. Canon in B min. Prelude & Fugue. Canon-Preludes / Witold Wilczek, pno / Dux 1559

Since my curiosity was piqued by Peter Jablonski’s recording of piano music by Alexei Stanchinsky, I poked around and found this CD which was issued last year. Strange that I didn’t select it for review, but here it is.

As you can see, seven pieces on this CD are duplicates of the material played on the other: the two Mazurkas, the Nocturne, the 3 Preludes and the Sonata in Eb minor. But here we start out with a strange, thunderous and altogether sinister piece that Stanchinsky titled “Humoresque.” It consists of rapidly-descending chromatic figures and crashing chords, revealing a very turbulent side of the composer.

Even more interestingly, the liner notes give us a lot more information about Stanchinsky which puts his early death into perspective. Apparently, he was showing signs of mental illness even when he was studying with Tanayev. When his teachers asked him to come by the next afternoon for a private lesson, Stanchinsky fought him, saying that he preferred the night. His fellow students found him to be extremely talented but prone to unexpected blow-ups and fits of temper. He was seen as highly intelligent but constantly depressed. When his father died (in either 1908 or 1910, sources vary), he suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be confined to a clinic for six months, where he was diagnosed with dementia praecox (precocious madness), nowadays classified as a form of schizophrenia. Small wonder that his mother-in-law objected to him marrying her daughter and tried to keep them apart! I’d have done the same thing in her case. These liner notes also claim that the local authorities viewed Stanchinsky’s death not as a sort of tragic accident but, rather, as a suicide. This, too, makes more sense in view of the facts.

Young Wilczek approaches these pieces from that viewpoint, and thus infuses them with more nervous energy than Jablonski did. I have to agree with his approach. Take, for instance, the Mazurka in Db, where Wilczek makes much more of the contrast between the outer sections of the piece—a bit wild and manic—with the “calm center” of it, and for me, this works both musically and psychologically.

The question that arises, however, is: Are these works invalid as music because they were the product of a disordered mind? I don’t think so, and apparently neither did Taneyev, who was clearly not prone to admiring works of “madness.” The music, though highly unconventional, is well-ordered and superbly crafted. Apparently, Stanchinsky was able to focus on composition, bypassing the split in his brain that eventually led to madness…but it’s telling that once, when separated from his wife and child and depressed, he destroyed several of his manuscripts.

Nonetheless, the smoldering intensity with which Wilczek plays this music is completely apropos, and if anything he has an even wider dynamic range than Jablonski. He is completely zeroed in on this music and makes it more interesting, such as in the Prelude No. 2 in D, where the notes virtually explode from the keyboard yet still retain good phrasing and articulation. Wilczek also plays the Sonata a minute faster than Jablonski, with a very positive effect on the music. The generally higher level of nervous energy in these performances brings out Stanchinsky’s genius more fully.

Stanchinsky

Alexei Stanchinsky

Yet although his compositions were apparently the products of his lucid moments, the feeling of darkness never quite escapes them. Stanchinsky’s music always seems to gravitate towards a “dark night of the soul” filled with despair; there is no way out and no light at the end of his tunnel. His music makes Mussorgsky’s sound bright and gay.Even a relatively calm piece such as the Prelude in the Lydian Mode, which on its surface sounds a bit Chopin-esque, tends to snake its way into dark corners where he can hide himself from the world. My theory is that he was an extraordinarily sensitive person who let things bother him to the point of mania; he could not come to grips with tragic events or disappointments, so he internalized them where they grew and festered in his mind until he could no longer bear them. The exceedingly strange downward chromatic figuration of the melody of his very brief  Canon in B minor (1:09) also feels like the product of a mind that is fleeing from something, but doesn’t know where to run.

In addition to this wonderful CD, I’ve also run across an excellent performance of Stanchinsky’s 12 Sketches  by Ekaterina Derzhavina on a Profil disc. Her playing is a shade more brusque than Wilczek’s but she, too, captures the conflicting emotions in his music and mind perfectly.

Highly recommended.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Jablonski Revives Stanchinsky

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STANCHINSKY: Piano Sonata in Eb min. Nocturne. 3 Preludes. 5 Preludes. 3 Songs Without Words. Mazurkas in Db & G# min. Tears. Variatons. 3 Sketches. 12 Sketches / Peter Jablonski, pno / Ondine ODE 1383-2

From the liner notes by Anastasia Belina:

Alexey Stanchinsky… was a rare talent, a musical genius, and a genuine innovator who consistently broke new ground in his short creative life. It is difficult to glean much about his life from the sources that are currently available. His music is rarely performed both in, and outside of, Russia. It is not surprising, then, that there is still no biography of Stanchinsky, and his name does not figure in major music history books. His works are neglected today not because his music is considered not worthy, but because it remains largely unknown, and because several factors that contributed to its neglect still need to be re-considered and re-evaluated.

A contemporary of Stravinsky, he studied with the same teachers, particularly Sergey Tanayev, but died at age 26 as the result of a heart attack brought on by trying to cross a frozen river to see his wife, whose mother had broken up the marriage, and infant child. The kind of Russian tragedy that would surely have been the subject of a song, if not a Chekhov play.

The music on this CD reveals a late-Romantic composer already trying to break free of the conventions of that idiom. The piano sonata, a one-movement work lasting less that 12 minutes, is densely and concisely written. There are no superfluous passages or trashy melodies to contend with; everything is compact, with nary a note or theme wasted or overdone. It reminds you a bit of Medtner, eight years his senior, rather than Stravinsky, but Medtner too was a brilliant composer. There are some incredible passages in this sonata wherein Stanchinsky uses dense counterpoint briefly but tellingly.

His 1907 Nocturne uses falling chromatics in the opening lyrical section, but then opens up into a tumultuous middle section which, the notes tell us, “contains some of the most difficult piano writing present in Stanchinsky’s output that is not always ‘pianistic’, but nevertheless very effective in setting the atmosphere of turbulent emotional outburst.” The other pieces on this CD, most of them very short, have the same characteristics. One wonders if he knew the music of Scriabin…probably so, as there are several similarities between them.

I was particularly impressed by the Prelude in Bb minor (track 8) with its constantly moving bass line. Brief as it is, it is a remarkable piece by any assessment. Indeed, most of his preludes are fairly brief, but they never sound incomplete. Stanchinsky was a bit like Webern in that respect; nothing is wasted in his compositions. The Song Without Words No. 2, though clearly a melodic work with a strong Russian theme, is far from the treacle often written by Rachmaninov. The sad thing is that so much of his surviving output (he destroyed several of his manuscripts in a fit of depression before his death) consists of these short pieces, which have good ideas but are almost like glimpses of a beautiful woman in parts but not in whole. Stanchinsky clearly had a superior musical mind, but what survives just seems to tantalize us without providing some meat and potatoes to go with the hors d’oeuvres.

Throughout all of these pieces, Jablonsky plays with a superb legato and technique as well as a smoldering undercurrent of passion. He is perfectly suited to this repertoire although, after hearing this CD and exploring Stanchinsky a bit more, I ran across a superb album by one Witold Wilczek on the Dux label titled A Journey into the Abyss that probes this composer a little more deeply. Stay tuned for another review of Stanchinsky and his music!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Moreno Valiente’s Mahler Fifth

cover IBS-192020

MAHLER: Symphony No. 5 / Orquesta Filarmónica de Málaga; José María Moreno Valiente / IBS Classical 192020

While the rest of the classical reviewing community is doing cartwheels over Osmo Vänska’s series of Mahler Symphonies, of which I’ve only really liked No. 7 so far, here we get a young conductor leading an Andalusia-based Spanish orchestra in a truly monumental performance of a symphony once approached only gingerly by a few maestri but now considered one of the cornerstones of the symphonic repertoire.

Oh yes, this is no ordinary Mahler Fifth. Immediately following the opening trumpet fanfare, Moreno Valiente digs into it with the tragic cast that Klaus Tennstedt once had for this work. And just listen to the masterful manner by which Moreno Valiente handles that tricky contrapuntal passage that begins around 5:40 in the first movement. Then, after the tympani plays its version of the opening fanfare, the strings and horns dig into their turbulent contrapuntal passage with real commitment. It’s not just that the orchestra plays it well; it feels the music well.

The second movement is just as great as the first, the hectic, wild opening being under complete technical control while still projecting the proper feeling of the music—and without the distortions of a Bernstein to interfere with what Mahler actually wrote. And he brings out so much detail in the orchestration that it baffles you to consider why you’ve never heard these details so clearly before. Then, in the third-movement scherzo, there is the buoyancy of the rhythm, so perfect that you could almost bounce a ball on it.

Moreno ValienteMoreno Valiente’s approach to the “Scherzo” takes Mahler’s instructions to “Do not rush” certain passages literally, relaxing the tempo in such a way that at times it almost sounds like an “Andante,” yet he manages to integrate this with the faster tempi preceding and following those pages to make a coherent whole. The famous “Adagietto” floats in the ether like series of passing clouds, occasionally becoming louder by degrees and then just as gradually moving back down to a softer level—and again, it all sounds organic. The finale is a real delight, much like Beethoven’s peasant dance after the storm in his Sixth Symphony.

Let me tell you, Moreno Valiente is some kind of conductor; if this performance is indicative of his work as a whole, he is headed for stardom…I hope. I’ve now put this above Riccardo Chailly’s very fine recording as my modern-digital Mahler Fifth of preference.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Sosnowski & Nuss Play a Tribute to Spring

cover GEN 21747

L. BOULANGER: D’un matin de printemps. BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonata No. 5,, “Spring.” SOSNOWSKI-NUSS: Intermezzo: Cadenza to Nuss’ “Elegy for Fukushima.” NUSS: Elegy for Fukushima. TAILLEFERRE: Violin Sonata No. 1. HAMAZU: 4 Pieces for Violin & Piano Around Sakura / Malwina Sosnowski, vln; Benyamin Nuss, pno / Genuin GEN 21747

On this sort-of concept album, Swiss violinist Malwina Sosnowski and German pianist Benyamin Nuss pay a little tribute to spring with this program combining Boulanger, Beethoven and Tailleferre with more modern works including pieces of their own.

The CD opens with Lili Boulanger’s fascinating D’un matin de printemps, her last composition before she died. The duo attacks it with élan and charm, although from the outset I noted that there was too much reverb around the instruments, a bane of many of today’s recordings. After a gentle, almost hesitant start, Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata moves into a joyful, bouncy rhythm. My impression of Sosnowski is that her playing is on the light side like that of many French violinists, with a bright, pointed tone, while Nuss plays with an equally light, bubbling style on the piano. Although a pleasant performance that I wouldn’t walk out on if I heard it in person, it’s not unique in any way.

Yet we enter a complete different world with the Intermezzo: Cadenza for Nuss; Elegy for Fukushima, a mysterious piece with edgy but soft string tremolos and extended-chord arpeggios before settling down to a strange melody for the violin over crushed chords, then the harmony also straightens out. This, as it turns out, is the Elegy itself.

Next up is the charming (if not particularly individual) violin sonata by Germaine Tailleferre, the only female member of Les Six, and this, too is played with the light, airy quality that one heard in the Beethoven.

We end our journey into spring with 4 Pieces for Violin Around Sakura by German-Japanese composer Masashi Hamazu (b. 1971). This is a strange piece which begins with unusual harmonies before moving into a very lyrical theme for the violinist as the pianist resolves his chords and things progress from there. This is a very creative piece, with brief uptempo flourishes interrupting the otherwise calm progression, until at last both instruments move into the brighter tempo and it sounds very much like French music of the neo-classic school—yet with interruptions in the original, slower tempo. The brief second movement begins briskly but again has moments of slower music. Thus the piece goes on, picking its own way through whatever strikes Hamazu’s mind at any given moment: sometimes light and jolly, sometimes slow and pensive. The liner notes tell us that this piece was commissioned for this CD, thus this is the world premiere performance.

Generally speaking, a very nice CD with some interesting moments. I look forward to hearing further outings by this duo to see if they will expand their repertoire even further.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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