Martial Solal’s Last Concert

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COMING YESTERDAY / DUKE-GERSHWIN: I Can’t Get Started. SOLAL: Coming Yesterday. ELLINGTON-TIZOL-STRAYHORN: Medley: SOLAL: Sir Jack. YOUMANS-CAESAR: Tea for Two. TRADITIONAL: Happy Birthday. RAMIREZ-SHERMAN-DAVIS: Lover Man. RAYE-DePAUL-JOHNSTON: I’ll Remember April. RODGERS-HART: My Funny Valentine. Have You Met Miss Jones? / Martial Solal, pno; / Challenge CR 73516 (live: Paris, January 23, 2019)

“When I walked onto the stage on January 23, 2019,” Martial Solal wrote, “I did not yet know that I would decide not to play piano anymore after this concert, more than seventy years after my debut. To maintain a certain level, this instrument requires your daily attention; it requires delicacy, brutality, and especially energy. I have lived with these demands all my life, with the joy of seeing the progress, the technical and musical advances, the rhythmic and harmonic enrichments that we acquire over time. Of course, everything goes very fast at first. As long as you are gifted, if you spend a little time on it, if you listen to what was done before you, if you choose a path, everything may seem easy. Progress is rapid, illusions are immense, and then walls arise, walls that you want to reach and overcome. Seventy years to achieve this is a minimum… When energy is no longer available, it is better to stop.”

Thus ended the career of the then-91-year-old pianist who had been France’s first real jazz keyboard superstar, a man who came up during the bebop era, jammed with both Django Reinhardt and Sidney Bechet, made a tremendous impact at his American debut during the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival, then continued a brilliant career year after year until this concert.

Ironically for a man who came up playing the most modern jazz, Solal never moved beyond the bop/progressive swing orbit, which is reflected in his choice of tunes in this last album. He didn’t much care for free jazz, fusion or the other avant-garde styles that emerged from the mid-1960s onward, yet his playing, described by French critic Jean-Pierre Thiollet as “brilliant, unique and intellectual,” never failed to generate enthusiasm.

And he is superb on this CD as well. You’d never guess that this was the work of a 91-year-old man; it has the same freshness and sparkle as his earlier recordings, and that in itself is a testament to his greatness. The only other pianist I can think of who comes close to him for both longevity and brilliance is Dick Hyman. Hyman spent much of his career emulating the styles of earlier great pianists such as Jelly Roll Morton, Arthur Schutt, Fats Waller, Art Tatum and Bud Powell, though he does indeed have his own way of playing when he has a mind to.

The intro to I Can’t Get Started is typical of his style: bitonal, rhythmically asymmetric, and until he plays a few notes of the melody almost a minute in, you haven’t a clue what song he’s playing. Solal always marched to the beat of a different drummer, which in a way is an ironic statement because through much of his career he played entirely solo, without drums (or bass). I liken his style to a more modern, abstract version of Earl Hines, and although one can nitpick on a few moments here and there where his technique doesn’t sound quite as smooth as it did in decades past, it is still good enough to allow him to play whatever comes into his head.

Indeed, Solal’s abstract approach to both tune construction and improvisation continues throughout this recital, showing him to have still been operating at a very high level despite his years. I can’t think of too many contemporaries of his, save perhaps McCoy Tyner and one or two others, who could produce what Solal did on the piano.

In fact, his penchant for cerebral deconstruction of the music he plays continues throughout the set, and it is this that continually grabs one’s attention. The lack of a fully fluent technique does not interfere with what he is doing because what he is doing goes beyond technique. And occasionally he makes you laugh, as when he suddenly ends Tea for Two with the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. He can even take as simple a tune as Happy Birthday to You and turn it upside-down and inside-out, throwing in a bit of blues and boogie along the way. And there were a couple of moments in his treatment of Lover Man that reminded me of Dave Brubeck.

What a wonderful gift this is from the old man of French jazz, an icon for more than 60 years. This is a CD to treasure.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Italian Musicians Play Hindemith

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HINDEMITH: Flute Sonata. Oboe Sonata. Bassoon Sonata. Clarinet Sonata. French Horn Sonata. Trumpet Sonata. English Horn Sonata. Trombone Sonata. Alto Saxophone Sonata. Tuba Sonata. Echo for Flute & Piano / Claudia Giottoli, fl; Simone Frondini, ob; Luca Franceschelli, bsn; Simone Simonelli, cl; Maria Chiara Braccalenti, E-hn; Gabriele Falcioni, Fr-hn; Vincenzo Pierotti, tpt; Gabriele Marchetti, tb; David Brutti, a-sax; Gianluca Grosso, tuba; Jana Theresa Hildebrandt, spkr; Filippo Farinelli, pno / Brilliant Classics 95755

A sign of the times: a half-century ago, you’d almost never catch Italian chamber musicians playing Paul Hindemith, but here are almost a dozen of them (plus a German speaker who participates in the alto saxophone sonata) and they do a wonderful job. For once, Hindemith’s music sounds rhythmically livelier than usual, with what you might call an Italian accent in the rhythm, and the wind and brass soloists all sound lively and involved in the music.

I already owned the brass instrument sonatas, plus the sonata for four horns and piano not included here, on a Summit recording that is also quite fine, but these performances are their equal. As for the wind instrument sonatas, I admit that this is my first hearing of them but if the high quality of the brass sonatas is any indication they’re probably competitive with the best recordings out there.

There are some listeners out there, including some quite experienced ones, who have little patience for Hindemith’s music. They find his tonal clashes abrasive and many of his melody lines ugly. But of course, some of them have their own agendas to pursue, and I freely admit that Hindemith is not for everyone. Nonetheless, what often sounded abrasive and uncomfortable 30 or 40 years ago can now sound positively lyrical next to some of the abrasive bullshit music being written, performed and recorded today. Kaja Saariaho is just one name I can pull up off the top of my head whose music says nothing to me and in addition sounds consistently ugly .

But as I said above, the liveliness of these musicians’ performances sometimes give the music an extra rhythmic kick that Germans often lack. The third-movement “Marsch” in the Flute Sonata is but one example; here, Claudia Giottoli plays it with sparkle and élan, and on top of that her accompanist, Filippo Farinelli, gives it a jauntiness that you seldom hear from German pianists.

And it isn’t just Giottoli who plays this way; even Simone Frondini sounds alive and engaged in the oboe sonata, and it’s been my experience that oboists have a hard time sounding lively on their instrument. But to be honest, I didn’t find this particular sonata all that interesting musically; to me, it sounded pretty formulaic, as if Hindemith had written it on autopilot. The bassoon sonata, alas, has very little zip to it, but the bassoon is an even more lugubrious instrument than the oboe so I feel sorry for Hindemith for having tackled such a difficult project. Certainly, the second movement of this piece is among Hindemith’s most lyrical creations. And wait until you hear the wonderful life and energy in their performance of perhaps the best-known piece on this CD, the horn sonata.

The sonatas for trumpet, trombone and more unusual instrument such as the tuba, English horn and alto saxophone (I wonder what prompted that one?) are equally well played although, as I say, Hindemith’s approach to writing each of these was quite similar. Taken one at a time, they are delightful and fascinating, but absorbing them one after another can produce a feeling of déjà vu in the listener. Nonetheless, I found the trombone sonata different from most of its predecessors, particularly the first movement written at a very fast tempo and including some tricky syncopations for the piano accompanist. There’s a spoken introduction to the last movement of the alto sax sonata, untranslated in the booklet, that I haven’t a clue what it means.

The tuba sonata is also quite different, but then again, this was the last of these pieces that he wrote (1955), and by that time Hindemith’s style had become a bit more abstract and less linear. I’m sure that some listeners will find this the least palatable of these sonatas, but I found it quite interesting because it was so different, and yet valid. Even in his least accessible works, Hindemith always maintained a strong sense of structure in his writing, and this in itself holds one’s interest along with the strange interaction between the tuba, which in the first movement plays some extremely odd and difficult figures, and the piano which almost acts more as a commentator than an accompanist.

I really enjoyed this CD, even in its strangest moments. All of the musicians involved play with such energy that you never get bored.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Jaime Aragall’s Forgotten “Marina”

Marina LP cover

ARRIETA: Marina / Victoria Canalé, sop (Marina); Jaime Aragall, ten (Jorge); Antonio Blancas, bar (Roque); Victor de Narké, bs (Pasquale); Coro de Camera del Orfeon Donostiarra; Philharmonic Orch. of Spain; Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, cond / available at House of Opera as CD or available for free streaming on YouTube

Pascual Juan Emilio Arrieta Corera, now often known simply as Emilio Arrieta y Corena, was born Navarre in 1823, but somehow he acquired Italian musical training. Queen Isabel II took a shine to him and allowed him to concentrate on writing operas, hoping that one of them might click as big as Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia or Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore and make both Arrieta and Spain famous.

After only three operas, however, none of which became popular, Arrieta was sidetracked into writing zarzuelas but was never really fond of them or committed to the form, since the majority of them were very simple structures, almost high-grade pop tunes strung together and interrupted by spoken dialogue à la the French opéra-comique style. Marina, in fact, was one of three such works he penned in 1855, and although it became the most popular of the three it only had a local following within Spain.

That is, until the great Italian tenor Enrico Tamberlick discovered it. He was immediately attracted to its catchy tunes and saw possibilities in it for him to shine, but in order to bring it to Italy it had to be a fully-flashed-out opera complete with sung recitatives. Tamberlick contacted Arrieta and asked him if he would be amenable to doing this; the composer eagerly agreed and, in addition to writing sung recits, he expanded the work from two acts to three. Few of the tenor’s high notes are written in the score for the character of Jorge, but of course this was the era of “tack ‘em on if you’ve got ‘em,” and since Tamberlick was famous for his high Bs and Cs he did so.

The premiere of the operatic version of Marina took place in 1871 and, if possible, it was even more successful than the premiere of the zarzuela version. Tamberlick rode Marina to glory, making Arrieta’s name famous throughout Italy, but sad to say there was no sequel. Marina remained his one bit “hit” outside of Spain.

But one opera as popular as this one was enough for him. He was happy, Tamberlick was happy, and audiences left the theater humming and whistling the tunes from Marina. No matter that the music was entertaining and not much more than that; no matter, too, that Marina’s last aria was obviously cribbed from the mad scene  of Lucia di Lammermoor. In its own way, in its own time, Marina was as popular as Flotow’s Martha and Adam’s Le Postillon de Longjumeau.

But strictly entertaining and dramatically shallow works like Marina were never meant to stay popular forever, thus by the early 20th century Italy was through with it. Interestingly, however, the operatic version traveled back to Spain and became quite popular in that country again—now in its operatic garb, but still sometimes, and erroneously, referred to as a zarzuela. It became a vehicle for the great Spanish baritone Emilio Sagi-Barba and the tenor Miguel Fleta, who created the role of Calaf in the world premiere of Puccini’s Turandot. On February 17-18, 1928, Spanish HMV gathered these two singers and soprano Matilde Revenga in the studio to record an album of highlights from the opera, which began selling very well.

And there the matter may have ended but for the fiery, almost obsessive rivalry between Fleta and another Spanish tenor, Hipolito Lazaro. Lazaro envied Fleta for having created the role of Calaf because his voice was only half the size of Lazaro’s, and seeing this album on the market selling fairly well in Spain almost drove him to violence. “I can sing better than that old uncle!” was Lazaro’s cry. (Apparently, in Spanish culture of the time, to sing like or be an “old uncle” was the ultimate insult to a man’s virility.) So the next year, 1929, either Lazaro or someone at the offices of Spanish Columbia decided to record not just highlights but three-quarters of the complete opera with what was then an all-star cast: Lazaro, soprano Mercedes Capsir, baritone Marcos Redondo and the fabulous basso José Mardones. From the time that the Lazaro Marina came out, the album has been considered a collector’s item. It has been in and out of print on LP and CD for generations and is still considered to be the gold standard for that work.

Interestingly, stage performances of Marina had rather dwindled, even in Spain, by the time these recordings came out. In the 1950s, two complete recordings were made in mono, one on the Montilla label with soprano Maria Caballer, tenor Fernando Baño Ferrando and baritone Luis Sagi Vela, and another on the Carillon label with soprano Pilarín Álvarez, a young Alfredo Kraus and baritone Francisco Kraus, the tenor’s older brother. Both had modest sales, mostly within Spain, and sunk without a trace. In 1962 Catalan tenor Bernabe Marti, who married soprano Montserrat Caballé two years later, recorded his own version of the opera, but he had such an ugly voice that the album had modest sales. In 1987, then aged 60 and a world-famous tenor, Alfredo Kraus reprised the role of Jorge in live performances and made a new recording in digital stereo with soprano Maria Bayo and baritone Juan Pons. That version sold fairly well due to Kraus’ high reputation as an artistic tenor.

But…

Maria Bayo had a fluttery wobble in her voice and Juan Pons had a somewhat strained-sounding baritone, on top of which, for all his fine artistry, Alfredo Kraus was really too old by that point to sing the difficult music of the dashing young sailor who wins Marina’s heart. So I just kept on looking for another recording, and then came across this one on YouTube.

It’s superb.

At first I thought it was recorded in the 1980s because all of the copyright dates I kept finding for it were dated 1987 (including on the House of Opera website), but eventually I discovered that it came out 20 years earlier, in 1967. In fact, the label of the original Spanish Columbia LP clearly dates it as 1967.

LP labelThe star of this show is Jaime (Giacomo) Aragall (b. 1939), the gifted Spanish tenor who fought debilitating performances nerves for 15 years and, as a result, had a tendency to sing flat at times, yet many people forgave him because he had such a beautiful and superbly-placed voice. I first heard him around 1969 on the old Lorin Maazel recording of La Traviata, a performance ruined for me by the fluttery singing of soprano Pilar Lorengar…yet I never forgot the impression that Aragall’s voice made on me. He’s in top form here, tossing out his high notes with impunity, including high Cs which, of course, is one note that his more famous rival Placido Domingo never had.

But who are the other singers? Sadly, they are something of a mystery to me. The only info I could find on soprano Victoria Canalé was that she performed in a 1976 concert with the New York Philharmonic under then-music director Pierre Boulez. There were other singers on the program with her, and the repertoire included de Falla’s El Amor Brujo (normally sung by a mezzo or contralto) plus songs of Leonard Bernstein. Otherwise, she has no internet presence. The bass, Victor de Narké, apparently sang King Philip in Verdi’s Don Carlo in 1962, but that was all I could find on him. There is no information on baritone Antonio Blancas, but of course the conductor, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, was world famous.

I won’t pretend that de Narké is all that fabulous, certainly not in the same league with Mardones, but he gets by in what is, after all, pretty much a character part (he’s Marina’s suitor, a rough construction worker who keeps bringing her flowers and candy). Blancas, however, is nearly as good as Marcos Redondo, and soprano Canalé had a beautiful voice, pure and full. Plus, she had a pretty good trill, which is something that Capsir never possessed, and shows it off to good advantage in her music.

And here are two interesting facts regarding performance practice that I found worth noting. First, probably less consequential but still odd, is that all recordings of Marina use the full operatic version yet list it on the album covers as a “zarzuela”—which, in this version, it clearly is not. Secondly, and this will undoubtedly interest and rile up the historically-informed-performance crowd, in all recordings of the opera up through the 1950s the chorus sounds like a group of drunken amateurs. This, I was told by a historic record collector, is and has been Spanish performance practice since Arrieta was writing his zarzuelas in the 1840s and ‘50s, but on both the present recording and Alfredo Kraus’ 1987 remake, the chorus sounds lush, full and thoroughly professional. So, just like the use of heavy portamento in string playing, this is yet another aspect of real historic practice that has been rejected in our present day because it simply doesn’t fit our expectations.

Now, of course, all you can really get out of Marina is some top-notch entertainment wrapped in a well-written score with plenty of tunes that people can hum. Had it been a comedy with some interesting plot twists like Martha or L’Elisir d’Amore, it would probably be much more popular, but it’s hard to get excited over an opera whose plot simply revolves for 110 minutes around a young woman who wants the handsome, hunky sailor Jorge instead of her dumpy ship’s fitter boyfriend Pasqual. There’s no dramatic conflict in the libretto. It’s just a matter of Jorge not knowing for some time that Marina has the hots for him, and once he finds out of course he’s her man. The End. But as Ayn Rand once pointed out, no matter how intellectual your pursuits are, even in music, everyone loves what she referred to as “tiddlywink music,” and Marina certainly fills the bill. Arrieta was a good enough composer that what he wrote is by no means uninteresting although it is pretty much formula Italian opera music with one or two authentic Spanish tunes thrown in for color. By and large you’ll enjoy Marina if your sights aren’t set too high, the same way you can occasionally enjoy Donizetti’s Fille du Regiment for the same reason. It’s a pick-me-up for tired businesspeople or, in this day and age, Covid-19-weary travelers.

Thus I recommend it for what it is and make no pretensions that it’s better than that. And this is clearly a first-class performance of it.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The Alchemy Sound Project Has “Afrika Love”

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AREND: The Fountain. TONOOKA: Dark Blue Residue. WASHINGTON: Afrika Love. BOSHNACK: The Cadillac of Mountains. LINDSAY: Kesii / Samantha Boshnack, tpt; Michael Ventoso, tb; Erica Lindsay, t-sax/cl/a-fl; Salim Washington, t-sax/fl/bs-cl/ob; Sumi Tonooka, pno; David Arend, bs; Chad Taylor, dm / Artists Recording Collective, no number

I’ve given rave reviews to each of the last two CDs by Alchemy Sound Project, thus I expected no less than excellence when sampling this album. I was not disappointed.

There are some jazz septets that play as a small group, with the individual players interacting with one another as in the old polyphonic New Orleans groups, and some jazz septets that play more or less as a small orchestra. Alchemy Sound Project is one of the latter, but what makes them unique is that they go out of their way to avoid cliché voicing and arranging. The sometimes combine a saxophone with a trumpet or an oboe or clarinet with a trombone, or just mix the voicing up as they see fit from moment to moment. In this respect they remind me of two of the most gifted and original arrangers of the 1960s, Charles Mingus and Rod Levitt, as well as of yet another creative arranger from the 1980s, David Murray, whose work I consider to be extremely underrated. And like Mingus and Murray, they use very fluid forms and irregular meters with impunity, creating a swirling sound that encompasses the listener and pushes the music forward without respect to a basic pulse.

Within this setup, then, it amazes me that when two soloists play at the same time, as for instance the saxophone duo in the opening track, that they are able to follow what each other is doing while the rhythm section is doing its own thing, and there often at odds with one another. I can’t recall hearing more than a few bars, during the theme statement that comes and goes, where the bass and drums play the same rhythm. They are constantly breaking it up and moving it around. Of course, this pulls the music far away from any semblance of a swing or bop beat, but their goal is the creation of art music, not entertainment, and in this they succeed very well.

One hears high reed combinations in the ensemble chords behind the soloists in Dark Blue Residue, and here the soloist have changed, from piano and saxophones to trombone and then piano. Sumi Tonooka plays in a single-note style, primarily with the right hand alone, in a manner similar to McCoy Tyner which isn’t bad at all. And lo and behold, the group suddenly throws in a few bars of swing beat around the two-minute mark just to prove they can do it!

Not all the solos are on an equally wild plane, but the whole purpose of this wonderful band is to allow each soloist to say his or her thing and get out without worrying about whether or not the next soloist up will top him or her. It’s a completely unselfish and egalitarian approach to playing jazz. Mingus had it in his bands, and so did Levitt and Murray. As good as the leaders were on their instruments, no one in those groups were really top dog. All contributors tried to operate at their best, but no one was trying to outshine anyone else.

 As a result, written descriptions of what is going on in this music are difficult to conjure up. The music is so complex that it would take two or three listening to catch everything that is going on, the soloists—though different in style—all feed into one another, and in the end just sitting back and absorbing it all is the best approach. The title tune, for instance, opens with an a cappella solo played by what sounds like a derby-muted trombone, followed by trumpet and reed mixtures on bitonal chords, with an oboe solo that eventually opens up as the rest of the band coalesces into luscious and indescribable chords behind it and the drums play cymbal washes around it. But that only tells you what is happening technically. You really need to listen to this music, and listen carefully, to catch all of its complexities and subtleties. The piece keeps morphing and shifting, trumpeter Boshnack comes in for a sparse but interesting solo, then after a brief ensemble lick (which turns into a new theme) we hear the alto sax coming in and out around it. But the music evolves yet again, the theme develops, and life, along with the music, goes on. How do you put all this into words? And what can these words convey of the emotional and cerebral impact of this music? As Duke Ellington was wont to say, it is “beyond category.”

Some of the sections of these performances actually sound like free jazz or something very close to it. Other sections do swing (Afrika Love does so around the 6:50 mark) only to fall back again into some amorphous meter, perhaps to return to swinging if and when they feel like it. Truly collaborative ensemble jazz like this is exceedingly difficult to pull off well, but this septet somehow has it all worked out. How much is really written out and how much improvised, besides the solos? It’s difficult to tell. My guess is that they had certain ensemble passages written out that they could play, switch around, repeat or mix together as the mood moved them, but without seeing the scores this is just a guess on my part.

Paradoxically, the one thing that is consistent on this set is the wild variety of instrumental voicings, which is kind of like saying that a mix-it-yourself salad tastes the best even if it includes veggie combinations that could never exist naturally in one country at any one time. “Alchemy” is surely the perfect name for this group, for they are musical alchemists. There is variety galore in their music, yet absolutely nothing they play sounds “wrong” even when it is wholly unconventional.

I could go on giving moment-by-moment descriptions of these pieces but, as I say, the joy you will derive from just listening and discovering this music moment by moment surpasses any attempt I could make at telling you what you’ll hear. I was completely enraptured in the music from start to finish, and to be honest, I seldom have my attention so riveted in a recorded moment to moment, jazz or classical, as much as I was held attentive by this CD. In an era when so many jazz groups, regardless of genre, tend to pigeonhole themselves, Alchemy Sound Project simply cannot be pinned down—and that is their glory.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Sochacka Plays Bacewicz

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BACEWICZ: Piano Sonata (1930). Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. 2 Études. Concert Étude / Joanna Sochacka, pno / Dux 1689

Joanna Sochacka, who does a good job of hiding her birth date online, appears to be a Polish pianist in her 30s. On this disc she plays the fascinating music of Grazyna Bacewick, one of many women composers who deserves to be better known…certainly better known than the now-ubiquitous Florence B. Price, whose music was nicely constructed but utterly conventional and unoriginal.

Sochacka opens up her recital with the somewhat better known of Bacewicz’ numbered piano sonatas, the second, in an amazingly powerful and hypnotic performance. I have a recording of this work on Piano Classics by Morta Grigaliunaite, and it’s a fine one, but Sochacka’s playing is even stronger and the phrasing tighter. For me, this is one of the truly great 20th century piano sonatas, and why it is not played even more often than it is baffles me. But then again, Bacewicz’ spiky harmonies and bitonality clearly won’t sell to the millions of people who listen to classical radio stations hoping to chill out with Chopin or relax with Rachmaninov. Hearing the sonata again is almost like hearing it for the first time; it is so fascinating and so full of interesting musical ideas that one almost gets lost in its complexity.

Interestingly, Sochacka caresses the equally bitonal “Largo” as if it were a lullaby to her child—except, of course, for the louder, spikier music in the middle of the movement, which she deftly weaves into the legato flow of the music. She is clearly a pianist who knows what she is about, and I’m exceedingly grateful to her that she has chosen to play good contemporary music and not the same-old-same-old that every other pianist plays.

The first of Bacewicz’ two Études from 1952 is a gentle piece with an attractive if elusive theme, and again Sochacka plays it well. The second is brisk and playful, a welcome relief from the composer’s usually complex and harmonically thorny style.

The first numbered piano sonata, dating from 1949, is already is Bacewicz’ mature style although less shockingly dramatic than the second. Here, Sochacka creates a nice musical flow that does not ignore the inherent drama in certain passages. I would say that the first sonata is more lyrical than the second, but within that lyricism Bacewicz created some mysterious passages that lead the listener into her musical labyrinth.

The last two works on this disc are recorded here for the first time. I really liked the 1949 Concert Étude, in which Bacewicz employs some fast, running  scales and arpeggios in the right hand, sometimes within the standard scale and sometimes pentatonic. The early piano sonata from 1930, written when the composer was 21, is an interesting piece although the composer didn’t much like it and so didn’t give it an opus number. I found it quite interesting, actually, certainly better than all the romantic sonatas we hear ad infinitum nowadays.

This is clearly an interesting disc as well as a valuable one for Bacewicz collectors. Brava, Joanna!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Kantorow Conducts Saint-Saëns

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SAINT-SAËNS: Symphony in A. Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2 / Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liege; Jean-Jacques Kantorow, cond / Bis SACD-2460

I’m not sure if this is Vol. 1 of a projected series of recordings of Saint-Saëns’ complete symphonies, similar to the one issued on Naxos by Marc Soustrot, or just a one-off, but I sincerely hope it is the former, because these performances have an energy to them that reminded me of Charles Munch, my favorite French conductor (although he was technically Alsatian, meaning he came from that area of France than was most strongly influenced by German musical culture as well).

This is particularly evident in the early (1850) unnumbered symphony in A major, written when the composer was only 15 years old and influenced by Mozart. Mozart may indeed have been his influence, but at least the way Kantorow conducts it, it sounds much different, even different from Mozart’s late period of the “Haffner,” “Prague” and “Jupiter” symphonies. Comparing him to Soustrot, one hears a clear difference in approach. Soustrot is generally more lyrical in his phrasing, Kantorow more dynamic in his. There’s an undercurrent of restlessness in each and every bar of this work that one can compare, for instance, to the way Toscanini conducted Schubert (and Mozart) compared to his more sedate contemporaries. If one thus projects this style into future Saint-Saëns works such as the famous “organ symphony” No. 3 or the opera Samson et Dalila, one can hear essentially the same composer in both.

But as I say, Kantorow’s musical approach reminds me of Munch first and foremost. There is lyricism when it is called for, as in the slow movement of this and the succeeding symphonies on this disc, but his tempi are consistently faster than those of Soustrot. This gives an almost constant forward pressure to the phrases and a more energetic feeling of rhythm in both the slow and fast sections of the music that holds one’s attention more forcefully than in the Soustrot recordings. And mind you, it’s not that Soustrot gives dull or featureless performances of the Saint-Saëns symphonies so much as Kantorow simply approaches them with a more dynamic and almost theatrical style. Moreover, the SACD sonics of this CD has an immeasurably greater realism and presence for the orchestra. One hears every detail of the orchestral texture in an almost 3-D manner, and sometimes these details, partially obscured by Naxos’ more ambient sonics, take you by surprise.

I would go even further and say that these performances almost sound more German than French, and that’s OK too because, in my view, Saint-Saëns was the most Germanic French composer of his time. Even as a young man, he was most enthusiastic about the most advanced German music of his day, including that of Schumann and Wagner. He used more complex structures borrowed from German music and developed his music along German lines; one can even hear this in such late works as The Carnival of the Animals, satirical though most of that orchestral suite is.

I must also congratulate Kantorow for rejecting the ahistorical use of whiny “straight tone” in the strings. By the mid-19th century, most orchestras were not using this style any more, and to impose a modern revisionist musical theory on music of the past is not only wrong but offensive to the ear. The numbered first symphony, though written only three years later, is clearly influenced by Schumann in both mood and structure. Perhaps Kantorow takes the opening “Adagio” section a trifle too fast, but I find this approach quite exciting and dynamic. Nonetheless, I can just hear many Francophiles shouting “C’est tout faux!” and preferring some slower, softer version of the symphony. The only really faulty performance, I thought, was the last movement of the Symphony No. 1, which Kantorow rushes so much that it sounds pompous and bombastic. Soustrot conducts it at a saner tempo—it is, after all, marked “Allegro maestoso”—which generates enough excitement without trying to make it explode.

Something else struck me while listening to these performances, and that is how Kantorow has brought Saint-Saëns’ musical style into line with that of Hector Berlioz. Born in 1835, Saint-Saëns was 34 years old when Berlioz died in 1869, and thus would clearly have known of his remarkable music if not the man himself. Although Berlioz’ musical style borrowed only a few features of German music, particularly from Beethoven, I consider it inconceivable that a genius like Saint-Saëns would not recognize the greatness in his quirky older contemporary, particularly in his operas, and British musicologist Alan Blyth agrees with me. (You can certainly hear traces of Berlioz in Saint-Saëns’ own favorite of his operas, the eccentric Le Timbre d’argent.)

An unusual feature of the Second Symphony is that the opening movement almost sounds like a sinfonia concert ante, with string and wind solos interspersed in the opening section, followed by a fugue for the entire string section. And there are delights galore in this symphony, particularly the eccentric “Scherzo” which sounded, to me, influenced to some extent by the Symphonie Fantastique. By contrast, the scurrying final movement sounds as if it were influenced by Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony. (Well, why not borrow from the best?)

A very fine album, then, save for the last movement of the first numbered symphony. I recommend it to all admirers of this splendid composer.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Groslot’s “Intimacy of Distance”

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GROSLOT: The Intimacy of Distance.* My Green Shade Forest. Trittico incantevole / *Charlotte Wajnberg, sop; Brussels Philharmonic Orch.; Robert Groslot, cond / 8.579100

Belgian composer Robert Groslot, whose earlier albums were on the TyxArt label, now seems to be a member in good standing of the Naxos roster. This is all for the better, as he is clearly one of the most original as well as one of the most musically interesting of modern composers. Now maybe someday they’ll recognize the fact that Nancy van de Vate exists.

The five-part orchestral song cycle that opens this album is a perfect example. Absolutely nothing you hear is predictable or formulaic; everything is fresh, bold, and exciting, particularly the orchestral writing which is one of Groslot’s specialties. Judging from the title, one might think that The Intimacy of Distance was written during the global “pandemic” which has everyone cowering in fear of the boogie-man virus, but in fact it was written the year before it hit, in 2019. Set to the symbolist poetry of Elisa Nathalie Heine, it stretches the limits of what the orchestra can do without involving the soprano soloist in its orgiastic atonal explosions. She sings graceful, lyrical lines above the fray. Charlotte Wajnberg, the soprano for whom the cycle was written, performs it here, and she has a lovely, crystal-clear voice but, alas, garbled and unintelligible diction (a common failing among modern singers; apparently, they don’t feel as if they have to enunciate clearly anymore). Thankfully, Naxos has provided the lyrics of all the songs in the booklet. Some are sung in German, but even in the songs sung in English you can’t make out a single word that Wajnberg is singing. Perhaps someday a soprano with a similar range but better diction such as Amu Komsi or Barbara Hannigan will tackle this music. I was particularly struck by the fast, almost violent nature of the third song, “Heimkehr,” where even the vocal line is somewhat skewed away from tonality—though it is still in the orchestra that Groslot provides his most unusual sounds. By contrast the fourth song, “Blood Moon Kulning,” opens with low-register clarinet flurries, and in this, a slower song, I could actually make out some (but not all) of the words that Wajnberg sang. And, even though it is the composer conducting, I must give kudos to the Brussels Philharmonic for their virtuosic and emotionally involved playing throughout this CD.

Interestingly, My Green Shade Forest, though obviously meant to evoke natural beauty, is just as abstract in its actual form as the song cycle, only more pastoral and with sparser orchestration—save for the unsettling fast section in the middle, but even this is not as densely scored. Here, Groslot pulls back a bit on the bitonal and atonal harmonies to create more sparkling sounds without giving in to the modern-day trend towards soft or “ambient” music.

The CD ends with Trittico incantevole, a piece commissioned by the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra to honor the painter Peter Paul Rubens. Rubens’ art vacillated between images of historic wars and battles and typical Catholic religious fantasies, but his almost 3-D style, so realistic and yet with a flow that almost made the characters “move” on his canvases, was what grabbed Groslot when he composed this work. My attention was diverted for a minute or so while listening to this CD, thus when Trittico began it almost sounded to me like an extension of Green Shade Forest, but about a minute in I realized that this was an entirely different piece; equally atmospheric but more subtly complex in its use of contrasting rhythms and moving inner voices. There is also more “space” in this piece as Groslot pauses here and there before moving on to the next section.

This is yet another excellent CD of music by Groslot, though to my mind pride of place goes to The Intimacy of Distance as the finest and most interesting work presented here.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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More Modern Music by Polish Performers!

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SCHNYDER: Alto Saxophone Sonata. MESSIAEN: Le merle noir for Flute & Piano. M. GÓRECKI: Clarinet Sonata / Szymon Zawodny, a-sax; Łukasz Długosz, fl; Andrzej Wojiechowski, cl; Izabela Paszkiewicz, pno / Dux 1728

It’s so seldom that I get two, let alone one, downloads of Dux albums for review that I thought I’d celebrate by reviewing these two back-to-back. This one is a bit unusual in that it features the relatively well-known Polish flautist Lukasz Dłgosz and, in the opening piece, the jazz-influenced music of Swiss composer Daniel Schnyder, whose work I covered in some depth in my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond (available on this website for free reading).

The Schnyder sonata is a very fine one, blending the jazz and classical elements seamlessly as he generally does. The trick in performing his music is to have a fine enough technique to be able to negotiate all of the tricky technical passages while still being able to project the proper jazz rhythm when called upon to do so. Listening carefully to this performance, I felt that alto saxist Szymon Zawodny did an excellent job on his end, but that pianist Izabela Paszkiewicz was just a shade too formal in her playing of the syncopated rhythms. This wasn’t enough to damage the performance entirely, though it did make, you might say, “the crooked straight and the rough places plain.” I was, however, very glad to have it since I didn’t have a recording of this piece in my collection. At a few places in the first movement, such as at the six-minute mark, it almost sounded as if the duo was playing a Latin rhythm, which may have been  Schnyder’s intention since the title of this movement is “Manhattan excavation sites.” This the duo did very well.

The second movement, “A travers les ondes élastiques de l’atmosphere” (“Through the elastic waves of the atmosphere”), more classical than jazz, is a strange, slightly eerie piece that exploits the lyrical side of the alto sax…one might say a “Johnny Hodges” kind of piece. Though tonal, the tonality wavers a bit, moving in and out of neighboring tones and half-tones. In the third movement, “A brasiliera,” Schnyder most decidedly sets up a Latin-type rhythm but with irregular divisions in the beats for the piano while the alto sax glides smoothly overhead except for some surprisingly gutsy playing at about the three-minute mark. A very nice piece.

Messiaen’s very brief Le merle noir (the blackbird) is typical of this composer’s bird music: indefinable crushed chords in the piano part while the solo flute explores its own bird-song in the upper range. It makes an effective contrast with the Schnyder piece.

The recital ends with an unusual chamber work by Mikołaj Górecki (b. 1971), son of the more famous composer Henryk Górecki. Mikołai evidently pursues a similarly Impressionist-influenced style to that of his father, mixing in a few mixed or crushed chords within its basically pentatonic structure and emphasizing ambience. The difference seems to be, at least in this piece, that the younger Górecki doesn’t mind tightening up the tempo and increasing volume to create some edgy passages within his essentially lyrical framework. This is especially evident in the fast, quirky, and slightly jazz-tinged second movement, titled “Molto energico.” One could almost imagine Benny Goodman playing this piece in concert. Despite the quick tempo, however, there’s a certain menacing overtone to this music, reminiscent of Jack Nicholson running down a haunted hallway in The Shining. We return to slow and mysterious music in the final “Lento,” in which Górecki explores extended chords around which a strange clarinet line coils like a snake.

This is another excellent album, highly recommended.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Karol Rathaus’ Piano Trios

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RATHAUS: Trio Serenade for Violin, Cello & Piano. Trio for Clarinet, Violin & Piano / Marcin Hałat, vln; Marcin Mączyński, cel; Piotr Lato, cl; Aleksandra Hałat, pno / Dux 1712

Karol Rathaus (1895-1954) is still a little-known composer nearly 70 years after his death. No one assembles Rathaus Festivals of his music, there have been no anniversary years of either his birth or death dates, and the recordings still tend to trickle out, I’d even say ooze out slowly, rather than coming in a steady stream, yet he was clearly one of the most interesting composers of his time.

Here, a talented ensemble of Polish musicians pay tribute to this unfairly ignored Austrian-Jewish composer with two of his larger chamber works and, interestingly, the first piece on this disc was one of his last, written in 1953 when he was living at Salisbury Cove, Maine. Despite the designation “Trio Serenade,” the music is in Rathaus’ bitonal, edgy style, combined with an unusual sense of lyricism and his usual tight, well organized structure. There are surprises a-plenty in this score; Rathaus was never a predictable composer, and happily this stayed with him until the end. Moreover, the three musicians involved in its performance attack the music with passion and energy galore, which helps considerably to hold one’s interest even in the softer, more lyrical moments.

The second movement is in a lively 6/8 rhythm, here played with an almost manic energy that gives the music a spiky, serrated sort of profile. The piano leads things off and then directs the strings through Ratnaus’ bitonal maze of unusual figures. The middle section is in a slow, mysterious 6/8, at times closer to a central tonality.

The Clarinet Trio, dating from 1944, opens much more lyrically and here, again, the bitonality is toned down somewhat in the first movement as all three instruments play quite lyrically for a spell. At about the 5:40 mark, the piano occasionally plays a bit more forcefully with low-range single bass notes, yet the feeling of calm is essentially maintained. The energetic second-movement “Allegro” surprisingly maintains its allusions to basic tonality despite its going ‘outside” along the edges, played at a quick clip in asymmetric meters, with the stress beats displaced almost from bar to bar (and sometimes from beat to beat). It ends abruptly with a sharp piano chord before moving into the surprisingly lyrical “Epilogue.” Rathaus wrote masterfully for the unusual combination of violin and clarinet, in a style completely different from but equally valid as Bartók’s in his Contrasts. In the Bartók work, both violin and clarinet are treated rhythmically, the former playing with a purposely rough tone in order to emulate Hungarian folk music, while Rathaus really pushes the limits of what a lyrical style can do while still being “modern” music. A fascinating piece.

This is surely one of those recordings that serious musicians will seek out and want to own. High praise goes not only to the musicians but also to the engineers, who recorded these trios with good, forward mike placement yet also with a nice natural reverb around the instruments. Very well done!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Mascarenhas & Gulda Play “Jazzical” Music

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GULDA: Concerto for Cello & Wind Orchestra.* KAPUSTIN: Nearly Waltz. Elegie. Burlesque / Oliver Mascarenhas, cel; Johannes Nies, pno; *Wind Ensemble of the NDR Radio Phil.; Gerd Müller-Lorenz, cond / GILLESPIE-PAPARELLI: A Night in Tunisia. Blues ‘n’ Boogie. LEWIS: Delaunay’s Dilemma. FOSTER: Doin’ the Thing / Friedrich Gulda, pno/recorder; Hans Last, bs; Karl Sanner, dm / Dreyer Gaido DGCD21126

This could have been a fun and wonderful CDs, with a German-Indian cellist—which in itself is odd—playing the jazz-influenced classical music of Friedrich Gulda and Nikolai Kapustin, followed in turn by Gulda himself playing four jazz pieces on both piano and recorder with bass and drums.

First is Gulda’s concerto for cello and wind band, and if the rhythm here sounds closer to rock or funk music than to jazz it’s probably because it came from the period in which that style was popular. Although I’m not crazy about this aspect of it, the actual music is interesting and creative, and about a minute and a quarter into the first movement Gulda suddenly switches from fusion to a Mozartian lyric theme, then it’s back to the jazz influence. No one could ever claim that Gulda was a boring or conventional composer!

I don’t know whether it’s due to the microphone placement or his own playing, but Mascarenhas’ tone sounds a bit smallish in this concerto. If he couldn’t project strongly, he should have insisted on closer microphone placement to make his contribution sound a bit stronger. Even in the context of a wind band, his sound is neither large nor brilliant, though his technique is certainly secure.

Oddly (and what about Friedrich Gulda wasn’t odd?), this concerto is in five movements instead of four, titled “Overture,” “Idylle,” “Cadenza,” “Menuet” and “Finale alla marcia,” and not too surprisingly it is the cadenza movement, which involves improvisation, that is the longest of the five at 10:42. In the “Idylle” Gulda suddenly turns romantic, giving us a sweet, simple little melody that could have easily become treacle but is handled in such a way that it avoids that tag. About three and a half minutes in, the tempo suddenly quadruples and the music becomes a bouncy little waltz before resuming its slower pace (with some really lovely scoring for the French horns). Another aspect of the recorded sound that I didn’t care for was its dry, clinical quality. Both cellist and orchestra sound as if they were recorded in a studio with blankets on the walls to absorb sound. Mascarenhas plays well from a technical standpoint but only exhibits the most rudimentary grasp of a jazz beat. At the 7:30 mark in “Cadenza,” Gulda suddenly quotes Jimi Hendrix’ Purple Haze. I cut this short, of course.

The next movement puts us back in the 18th century, and final “marcia” is nothing more or less than German polka music. Sorry, Friedrich, but this concerto is just too much of an unpalatable pastiche of opposing styles of music that just don’t go together.

Happily, the Kapustin works are all excellent little vignettes, typical of this wonderful composer’s style. Once again, Mascarenhas plays with a nice little tone and a decent if not entirely successful attempt to swing. Happily, pianist Johannes Nies has a bit better grasp of jazz style than Mascarenhas, thus in Elegy where the piano takes over for the entire middle section (with the cellist just tossing in a few pizzicato notes), you actually get some swing in the playing. The Burleske, with its irregular meter closer to rock than jazz style, Mascarenhas does a fairly good job keeping up with Nies.

The jazz quotient picks up considerably as soon as we hear Gulda, on piano, playing A Night in Tunisia with his trio of the time. He was still a bit rhythmically stiff in 1958, the time of these performances, yet he clearly knew what he was doing. Hans Last contributes some metronomically-bound bass playing.

Most people don’t know this, but Gillespie’s Blues ‘n’ Boogie was the theme song of the Billy Eckstine bop band, written while he was a member of its trumpet section. Gulda plays it considerably faster than the original tempo, and if the looseness of his swing doesn’t  quite recapture memories of Bud Powell it’s certainly good within its own limits. The set winds up with Frank Foster’s Doin’ the Thing, on which Gulda suddenly switches from the piano to the block flute (or recorder) for the opening chorus before moving back to the piano, then again to the recorder for a nice solo.

So the last seven tracks are fun to listen to, but I really couldn’t take that cello concerto. It’s just too much of a pastiche musically and, to my ears, doesn’t work.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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