The Linos Trio Does C.P.E. Bach

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C.P.E. BACH: Piano Trios (Keyboard Sonatas with Violin & Cello Accompaniment), Wq 89/1-6, Wq 90/1-3, Wq 91/1-4 / Linos Piano Trio: Konrad Elias-Trostmann, vln; Vladimir Waltham, cel; Prach Boondiskulchok, pno / Avi 8553480

This is a valuable release as it is the only one I could locate of all of C.P.E. Bach’s Piano Trios—or, as he called them at the time, Harpsichord or Keyboard Sonatas with Violin & Cello Accompaniment—which date mostly from his later period when his music took on a rhythmically quirky pattern that, to my ears, is unique in all of the music of his time. It is also a quite good release in that the Linos Piano Trio plays them with the right feel as well as a good amount of energy. It is, however, a defective release in that the violin and cello play with constant straight tone, which as I’ve said a thousand times is historically incorrect, and moreover that the violinist in particular sounds so anemic that at times his instrument doesn’t sound like a violin at all. It almost sounds as if he were blowing wheezy notes out on a nose flute. If this is your idea of a good violin tone, you need a psychiatrist.

But as I say, the music itself is fascinating, varied and quirky. Oddly enough, the trio sonatas Wq89/2 and 3 sound more conventional than most, though there are some odd pauses here and there in the music, but in each and every work there is also the unmistakable mathematical balance that Carl learned from his father, Johann Sebastian. Both he and Wilhelm Friedemann were among the best-musically-trained of the Bach sons, and they learned their lessons well, but only Carl took his father’s lessons to a new dimension.

And, of course, I welcome the fact that these trios generally sound different from each other. As much as I like C.P.E.’s quirky rhythmic style, you can’t push it too much without making it sound like a gimmick, which it really wasn’t. It was a building-block, a device that he used, and he certainly liked using it a lot, but no architect wants every building he creates to look the same and this was also true of Carl Bach. In trio/sonata Wq 89/1, for instance, each of the first two movements end abruptly, as if in the middle of nowhere…clearly a strange operating method for the 18th century.

Despite my caveats about the violin playing on this set, the Linos Trio certainly does a good job on each and every trio, and once you get used to the whiny violin tone their playing isn’t that bad. I compared their performances of the Wq. 90 trios to the recordings by Trio 1790, and although their pianist has a richer tone than Prach Boondiskulchok, their violinist sounds just as anemic (although they, too, play with good energy).

The Wq 89 trio sonatas are quieter, more introspective pieces than those of Wq 90 or 91, and there are more surprising passages in these, such as the sudden leap from piano to fortissimo or the other way around. Carl Bach was really playing around with his music at this point, experimenting in different ways, and it shows; among his other devices of this period was a much more angular way of writing, with sharp accents in the music he had only toyed with previously. In the trio sonata Wq 90/1, Bach abruptly changes keys, up and down, back and forth, with no preparation at all, taking the listener by surprise. Wq 90/2 has an odd, asymmetric swagger, using a great deal of syncopation, and the first movement is, surprisingly, connected to the opening of the second. With the trio sonata Wq 91/1, we encounter a second movement that is firmly in the Romantic style yet to come.

The last trio in this set, Wq 91/4, is the most unusual of all: a 14 ½ – minute arioso with variations. What’s unusual about this, particularly for Carl Bach, is that it’s in the “galant” style that Mozart used so often—but he didn’t. Perhaps he wanted to show that he could compete with the young whippersnapper.

As I say, then, a valuable recording for the music contained therein, though I will continue to look for performances with less undernourished string tone.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Event Horizon Releases Their Debut Disc

Event Horizon

MERTENS: Chelsea Playground. Escher Drive. Black Samba. KACZMAREK: Guess Not. Dark Waltz: When Sadness Comes… Event Horizon. Great, There is No Love. Evening Mist. Last Blue Jay. Strut. We Would Love to Have You / Event Horizon Jazz Quartet: Jim Kaczmarek, s-sax/t-sax/ fl; Scott Mertens, pno/kbds; Donn De Santo, bs; Rick Vitek, dm / GRB Records, no number

The Event Horizon Jazz Quartet is a collective of musicians who are all educators with roots in the Midwest. This in itself doesn’t impress me; as I’ve pointed out several times, most of the greatest and most creative jazz musicians in the world had NO academic background while some of the most predictable and routine musicians have had a ton of it, but Event Horizon is indeed a talented band.

One reason for their success is the extremely tight rhythm section of Scott Mertens, Donn De Santo and Rick Vitek, which operate beneath reedman Jim Kaczmarek like a single mind playing three instruments. This helps the unity of the band, and apparently it also inspires Kaczmarek, whose playing is consistently original. Like most modern jazz musicians, he employs a wide range of harmonic exploration, often using ninths and sometimes elevenths in the creation of his solos, but I was pleasantly surprised by the cohesive structure of them. Kaczmarek can “think ahead” as he plays, and by doing so he gives us unified improvised statements rather than just splattering notes up against the wall.

Mertens, who is the only other composer on this set besides Kaczmarek, is a facile pianist who uses rootless chords in the left hand to propel his bop-like lines in the right. He too is a good constructionist but, to my ears, somewhat more predictable. His playing sounds a lot like many other pianists around today. Annotator Larry Gray describes the next track, Guess Not, perfectly as moving between 3/4 and 4/4 (but not so frequently that it really loses the musicians) and an angular theme. On this one Mertens’ playing sounds more creative to me, creating a complete chorus that is a separate composition in itself based on the same chords. Kaczmarek switches from soprano to tenor here, exhibiting a tubular sound somewhat akin to Coltrane though his improvisation avoids the sheets of sound.

Escher Drive has, as described in the notes, a Latin-funk groove, to which I say sorry, but I’m not impressed by Latin-funk “grooves.”  To my ears this is a weak piece with flashy solos that say very little, though Kaczmarek’s is the most interesting. De Santo gets a bass solo on this one, pretty good if not remarkable. A banal, repeated riff that goes on forever ends it. To make up for this, Dark Waltz: Where Sadness Comes is an excellent piece with an interesting melodic line set over a constantly shifting harmonic base. After Kaczmarek’s theme statement, De Santo is first up for a solo, and here he is extremely interesting. The strange harmonies seem to inspire him. Kaczmarek’s solo is interesting as ever, and so is Mertens’ solo, here on electric piano.

Black Samba also has a Latin beat, but a more interesting one, opening with Vitek on drums before the saxist plays the very nice melody before leading into improvisations. Mertens has a good solo, De Santo a very fine one.

The title track is truly an inspired and creative work, created cooperatively by the quartet although Kaczmarek is credited as composer. The theme is decidedly bitonal, with myriad little rhythmic shifts within bars and an out-of-tempo second theme in which the saxist plays over swirling chords and arpeggios from the electric piano while the bass and drums play double tempo behind them. As we move back into the asymmetric rhythm, De Santo plays a nice solo while Kaczmarek whimpers softly in the upper range behind him. I couldn’t stop listening to this; it is clearly their best work on the album, a true improvised masterpiece.

This is followed by Great, There is No Love, a truly hip piece in the old 1950s cool school mold. Kaczmarek appropriately switches to flute to give this track a sort of Chico Hamilton vibe. Evening Mist is another jazz waltz with shifting meter and, in this case, an elusive but fascinating melodic line that sounds like an improvisation in itself. The soprano sax dominates this one in the early going, and Kaczmarek’s lines are utterly fascinating. Last Blue Jay disguises itself as a ballad, but is much meatier and more interesting in both construction and execution, with more shifting beats within bar lines and a simple but elusive melody. Strut is a slow funk melody with an interesting whole-tone melody and rising and falling supporting chords. Vitek has his best and most rhythmically complex solo on this one.

The closer, We Would Love to Have You, is a peppy combination of Calypso and Songo that sounds like a close cousin to Sonny Rollins’ St. Thomas. Here the whole band just relaxes and has fun with the music; nothing to really make you sit up and say “Wow!,” but every solo is engaging, particularly the ones by pianist Mertens and Kaczmarek, the latter very much in a Rollins groove.

This is a surprisingly eclectic and interesting album despite one or two so-so numbers. Event Horizon clearly has a lot to offer, crossing jazz styles effortlessly and with a great deal of interest in the solos. Bravo!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The Wisdom of Solomon

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BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 1.1 Variations & Fugue on a Theme by Handel. Piano Sonata No. 3. Intermezzos in Bb min, E & Eb min. Rhapsodies in G min. & B min. BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerti Nos. 2 2 & 5.3 Piano Trio No. 7, “Archduke.” 5 Piano Sonatas Nos. 3, 8, 14 (2 vers.) & 23. Cello Sonata No. 5.6 CHOPIN: Polonaise in Ab, “Heroic”; Ballade No. 4 in F min.; Nocturne No. 2 in Eb; Waltz in E min., Op. Post.; Études in E, F, Ab, F min. & F. Fantasias in A & F min. Scherzo in Bb. Nocturne in Bb min. SCHUMANN: Piano Concerto.3 Carnaval. MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 15.4 Piano Sonatas in Bb & D. HAYDN: Piano Sonata in D, Hob. XVI:37. TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concerto No. 1.7 SCRIABIN: Piano Concerto in F# min.7 LISZT: Fantasia on Hungarian Folk Themes.8 BLISS: Piano Concerto in Bb.9 GRIEG: Piano Concerto in A min.3 J.S. BACH: Italian Concerto in F / Solomon, pno; 1Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI; Lorin Maazel, cond; Philharmonia Orch., 2André Cluytens, 3Herbert Menges, 4Otto Ackermann, 7Issay Dobrowen, 8Walter Süsskind, cond; 5Henry Holst, vln; Anthony Pini, cel; 6Gregor Piatagorsky, cel; 9Liverpool Philharmonic Orch.; Sir Adrian Boult, cond / Profil PH20032

The title of this review was also the title of an article on Solomon, published in either High Fidelity or Stereo Review back around 1970, when reissues of his recordings were appearing in the U.S. on EMI’s Seraphim label. Of course, as a young American not yet 20, I had never heard of him before; apparently, though he toured Europe rather extensively, he didn’t concertize in the United States; but I quickly learned from his recordings how interesting he was. It was at least another decade before I learned that his last name was Cutner, and just now that I learned that Cutner was a last name changed from Schneidermann—and that he had studied the piano with Mathilde Verne, a pupil of Clara Schumann. But one thing I quickly realized was that he was surely the best British classical pianist of his time, an artist who could easily hold his own against such formidable names as Arthur Rubenstein, Rudolf Serkin, Alfred Cortot and even that meteor of the piano world, Dinu Lipatti, who was dead long before Solomon suffered the stroke in December 1956 that ended his career.

A child prodigy who took pre-World War I England by storm, Solomon found himself at an artistic crossroads by age 14. He stopped concertizing and went to France to study with Lazare-Lévy who, aside from Alfred Cortot, was the most influential piano pedagogue in that country (several of his recordings are available for free streaming on YouTube). As the liner notes put it, “Lazare-Lévy was particularly attentive to the manual dexterity of his students and to their complete bodily interaction while playing.” Solomon reappeared in concerts after the War, touring Germany in 1923 and the U.S. in 1926 and 1939. His career now firmly established, he went on to become, as I said earlier, the best British pianist of his time.

The comparisons with Cortot and Lipatti seem particularly apt to me since I hear elements of both in his style: the warm, deep-in-the-keys richness of the first and the eclectic dynamism of the second. Of course, had Lipatti lived he would surely have been the dominant pianist of the 1960s and perhaps even the ‘70s—his was a talent admired by every musician and critic who heard him, an almost impossible approval rating to acquire (imagine conductors as diverse in style as Furtwängler, Toscanini and Karajan all wanting to work with him!). But I’m also convinced that if Solomon hadn’t had his stroke we Americans might never have heard much of Clifford Curzon, who somehow slipped into his niche as the favored British pianist of the time.

It almost seems appropriate that this massive retrospective on his career comes from a German label since, aside from the British, it seemed to be Germans who most appreciated his unique talents. My online acquaintance, the great German-born pianist Michael Korstick, rates Solomon as one of the most powerful influences on his own playing. Yet like so many pianists of the now-distant past, Solomon, like Artur Schnabel, has been swept aside to a large extent by the forces of history and public relations. No living pianists compare themselves to them, no PR sheets mention their names as influences on the young little piano machines who can rattle off notes at 90 miles an hour but have absolutely no concept of what musical style or phrasing is. As I said, Solomon stood aside from virtually every other British pianist of his day, though except for Great Britain and postwar Germany, very few countries got to hear him in person.

With the exception of some Schubert sonatas issued on CD by Testament, Mozart’s Piano Concerti Nos. 23 & 24 with Herbert Menges, and the Beethoven Piano Sonatas Nos. 27-32, issued and reissued on CD by EMI (now Warner Classics), this set covers the bulk of the great pianist’s output. Sadly, no 20th-century works other than the Scriabin and Bliss Concerti appear to have been in his repertoire; everything else here consists of late Classical era and 19th-century chestnuts, as was the case of most pianists of his time. The exploration of much contemporary music was apparently off the table with him.

The back cover of the booklet claims that the recordings span 1942 through 1956, but they actually go further back than that. CD 3 contains three recordings from 1932—the Chopin Polonaise, Étude in Ab and Fantasia in F min.—and one from 1934 (the Chopin Étude in F). But Solomon, like Cortot, was not a pianist who had “periods” during which he played music much differently from any other time in his career, thus these performances are all of a piece.

The non-collector may feel that big boxed sets like this tend to contain a lot of ephemera, performances of many standard works that may be interesting to hear once as a novelty but lack any real lasting value. This is only true, for me, in the case of the concerti. Except to hear an individual turn of phrase here and there, what is the real value in having performances of such chestnuts as the Beethoven Second and Fifth, Tchaikovsky First, Mozart 15th and Grieg Piano Concerti aside from hearing warm, musical, satisfying performances of these routine works in restricted mono sound? I was, however, interested in hearing him perform the Schumann Concerto as well as that composer’s Carnaval because of his connection to Clara Schumann through his teacher, and certainly the Scriabin Concerto which would seem outside of his field. I was also very curious about the last two CDs, which are taken from live Berlin concerts of February 23 & 24, 1956, just to hear how much (if any) his Beethoven changed a bit from his studio recordings.

Solomon and Maazel

Solomon and Maazel take their bows in Turin, March 23, 1956

With that being said, the opening performance on this set, the Brahms First Piano Concerto in a live performance with Lorin Maazel conducting from March 23, 1956, is absolute dynamite. This came from the period when Maazel was a real firebrand on the podium, doing his best to channel his idols, Toscanini (who, ironically, despised him) and Rodziński. For whatever reason, he mellowed by the mid-1970s and never returned to his earlier style of conducting. Although I can’t say that Solomon’s playing is as powerful as that of Vladimir Horowitz with Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic, it is surprisingly virile and exciting along with his usual limpid legato in the second movement. This performance was previously released on a Guild CD in 2009 and garnered good reviews. Its only drawback is the sound—not nearly as bad as the 1935 Horowitz-Toscanini broadcast, though still a mid-‘50s mono broadcast tape with some pitch fluctuation—but Maazel is breathing fire and brings out so much detail in the orchestration that I think you’ll be amazed. I know I was. This is now my favorite recording of this concerto.

The Handel Variations stem from a 1942 live performance, and here the sound is particularly boxy, probably due to the heavy noise reduction. I sometimes have the same problem when removing surface and other artifact noise from old, damaged acetates, but what I do to restore some of the original sound is the boost the treble and add a very light amount of reverb. As a performance, however, it is astoundingly good.

The Beethoven concerti were about as I imagined they would be: nice, crisp performances but nothing special in either tempo or phrasing, but they’re surely nice to have if you’re a Solomon fanatic. The “Emperor” sounded eerily like the 1944 performance that Walter Gieseking recorded with Arthur Rother, except that the Gieseking recording was in pretty good early stereo while this one is in boxy0sunding mono. Solomon’s 1932 recording of Chopin’s “Heroic” Polonaise is really terrific; the Ballade, Nocturne and Études are about the way Rubinstein played them. (Without ever having heard his recording of it previously, it turns out that I played the E-flat nocturne much the same way when I was younger and could play the piano.)

The Schumann Concerto is a warm reading, very Cortot-like in its deep richness of tone and straightahead phrasing, and for once conductor Herbert Menges turned in a really fine job, but after hearing it my choices are still the Lipatti-Karajan and Cliburn-Reiner recordings, with Dénes Varjón and Heinz Holliger right behind them. Solomon is just too soft in his approach for this concerto, particularly in the first movement where more dynamism is called for. On the other hand, the Mozart Concerto No. 15 was a real surprise for me; Otto Ackermann conducts with real zest and backbone, and although Solomon plays it in a pearly fashion he does have zest and sparkle, though you definitely have to increase the treble on this one. The live performance of the Mozart Sonata No. 8 from August 1956 (shortly before his stroke) is even livelier and crisper, almost on the same level as Nadia Reisenberg or Friedrich Gulda (the latter being my favorite pianist in the Mozart sonatas). By this point I started to realize that Solomon, like many other classical artists, was generally better in live performance than in the recording studio. It wasn’t so much a lack of excitement per se as simply a more “alive” interpretation; he got much more under the skin of the music in a live setting. For a perfect example of what I mean, listen to his terrific performance of the Haydn Sonata No. 50 in D from a live BBC broadcast of August 28, 1956. I can think of very few pianists (Wanda Landowska and Anne-Marie McDermott are two) who played Haydn this well.

The booklet does not say whether or not this 1952 performance of the Brahms Sonata No. 3 is live or a commercial recording, but if the latter it is clearly “one that got away,” for Solomon is emotionally wrapped up in the music and produces a truly dynamic performance. One reviewer on Amazon, reviewing the Testament release of this performance, called it a “desert island disc.” I would agree. The way Solomon plays it, this sonata sounds as if it was inspired by the Liszt sonata: it is unusually large for Brahms, five movements instead of four and lasting nearly 40 minutes, and his canvas includes a great many coloristic effects not normally associated with this composer. (Both this Brahms sonata and the Liszt sonata were composed in 1853 and published in 1854, and of course the two composers knew each other.) The sound, however, is dry and boxy, dulling the “ring” of the piano in those powerful upper-right-hand passages. The Beethoven “Archduke” Trio, a live performance from 1943 with Henry Holst and Anthony Pini, is a very clean, straightforward performance in absolutely dreadful sound (the two string instruments are distorted to the point of caricature), but is worth hearing at least once for Solomon’s Cortot-like pianism.

CD 6, containing the Beethoven “Pathétique,” “Moonlight” and “Appassionata” Sonatas, duplicates the contents of Seraphim LP 60286, issued in 1978 and my first exposure to Solomon’s Beethoven. I remember being most deeply affected by the slow, measured, almost ghostly treatment of the Moonlight’s first movement, which was (and remains) wholly unique in my experience. Here, Profil has added a 1954 recording of the same composer’s Cello Sonata No. 5 with Gregor Piatagorsky to fill out the CD. Having not heard it in nearly 40 years, I was surprised at how good Solomon’s “Pathétique” was, not only clean but almost as passionate as his live performances. Except for the last movement, which for me was just a shade too cautious, it’s right up there with Schnabel, Gieseking (the 1949 live version, not the studio recording), Lewenthal, Korstick and Kovacevich. The “Moonlight” was as good as I remembered it; the “Appassionata” is good but not as good as many others (Schnabel, Gieseking, Korstick, Kovacevich). I would rather they had included his superb performance of the “Waldstein” instead. But the Cello Sonata No. 5 is terrific, with brisk tempi, taut phrasing and exceptionally warm playing by Piatagorsky.

Much to my surprise, the Tchaikovsky First is a pretty good performance, due in part to the exciting conducting of Issay Dobrowen, a vastly underrated conductor. Although a studio recording, Dobrowen brings out some of Solomon’s best qualities; except for some extra moments of rallentando, the opening section is almost as taut a performance as the legendary 1943 Horowitz-Toscanini live performance. The problems come in the second theme, when Dobrowen suddenly slows down things for a few bars, thus halting the momentum he had built up. The Scriabin Concerto is an add performance for this music—very lush and Romantic in scope, with Solomon limning the music with delicate traceries, particularly in the first movement—but  in this concerto, Dobrowen keeps the tempo pressure up more consistently than in the Tchaikovsky, and it works. Very nice to hear Dennis Brain on first horn in all these Philharmonia Orchestra recordings. The Liszt Fantasia on Hungarian Folk Themes just misses the excitement of the performance by György Cziffra with André Cluytens, but is still very good in its own right.

CD 8 opens with the most modern work on this set, Arthur Bliss’ Piano Concerto, of which Solomon gave the world premiere. For once, no apologies are needed for the sonics, which are bright, crisp and clear. The conductor, one of the finest of the 20th century, is Sir Adrian Boult (a close friend of Toscanini, who was a mutual admirer), who draws astonishingly powerful, virtuosic playing from the 1943 Liverpool Philharmonic. It’s really a stupendous work, not only modernistic in harmony but dynamic and exciting, and Solomon tears into it with relish. My sole complaint regarding the sound is that the strings sound a bit edgy and rough at times, which I attribute to Boult driving them to play some of those high-lying passages at quadruple forte. But as I say, this is quite a musical trip; Bliss managed to build huge structures out of his themes and tie them together so well that they make quite an edifice although, at times, it seemed to me that the piano part was an add-on to what was going on in the orchestra. In the slow movement, it sounds as if Bliss had the piano feed lines to the orchestra which would then develop them, another unusual aspect of this concerto. The third movement begins with mysterious biting brass chords under which a solo bass plays a pizzicato line before the piano and strings enter playing Bliss’ fascinating bitonal lines. As the movement develops, Bliss utilizes some remarkably tricky rhythms which are interspersed with slower, quieter sections, including one with a piquant cor anglais solo and another featuring a solo viola (neither player identified). No question about it, this is clearly a performance that rates six fish in the Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music. I seriously doubt that you’ll find a better or more intense performance of this concerto anywhere nowadays.

The Grieg Concerto, recorded in 1956, is actually in stereo. It’s a very good performance but, to my ears, not a particularly special one. When I was very young, I had a terrific (and vastly underrated) recording of this by Kjell Baekkelund with the Oslo Philharmonic led by Odd Grüner-Hegge on RCA Victrola (check it out: it still holds up very well), and I also like the recordings by Lipatti with Alceo Galliera and Shura Cherkassky with Adrian Boult. This fits into the same mold, which is certainly a very good one, but as I said many paragraphs ago, this is often the problem when you get big compilations like this. You’re going to find performances that are very good but oftimes no better than many others available out there.

Solomon’s live February 1956 performance of Schumann’s Carnaval is one of the best I’ve ever heard, quite exciting and dynamic. This, too, is a desert island performance for me. He was clearly on top of his game in this, his last year as a performer. The live Beethoven Sonata No. 3 is also excellent, played crisply and with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor, while the live “Moonlight” Sonata follows the same pattern as his studio recording except that the first movement is faster—in fact, almost taken at the standard tempo—which doesn’t quite create the same feeling of unease and melancholy as his studio recording—though, oddly enough, he does slow it down a bit further as the movement proceeds, and even adds some rallentandos to try to recapture the mood of the studio version. The second and third movements are also faster, but the second also includes some moments where the tempo is held hack a shade to create tension. The third movement is actually too fast; despite his digital dexterity, several of those fast left-hand upward runs are blurred and smudged.

The last disc opens with a lively and smiling performance of Bach’s Italian Concerto. By this time Glenn Gould’s famous recording of the Goldberg Variations had been released and it was suddenly OK to play 18th-century music on a modern keyboard again, as long as you kept it clean and didn’t use any sustain pedal. And yes, this is so good that it could almost be confused for a Gould performance. The Brahms pieces which follow, and close out the set, are all played superbly. One thing this collection has shown me is that Solomon was as great an interpreter of Brahms as he was of Beethoven. In fact, I think his slightly more Romantic sensibilities suited Brahms even better. Except for that unique first movement of the “Moonlight” Sonata, there’s nothing really unique about his Beethoven, excellent though it is, but his playing of Brahms is, to my ears, head and shoulder above anyone we have today. in that music.

We then close with three pieces by Chopin. This performance of the Fantasia in F minor is even more exciting than his earlier version, and the Scherzo in Bb minor is also exemplary.

So there you have it. Roughly half of this collection I would rate as top-notch performances worth having at any cost, though I would surely replace his version of the “Appassionata” Sonata with his “Waldstein.” If you already own these performances I’ve rated so highly, you’re pretty much set, but if you don’t this collection is a wise acquisition as at least half of the set is indispensable. Europadisc has the best price at £37.76, which translates to $47.14 or $4.71 per disc.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Sarah Willis Combines Mozart & Mambo!

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MOZART Y MAMBO / MOZART: Concerto Movement for Horn in Eb, K.370b.* Rondo in Eb for Horn & Orch.* Horn Concerto No. 3 in Eb.* PRADO: Qué Rico Mambo.+ OLIVERO-MOZART: Sarahnade Mambo (based on Eine Kleine Nachtmusik).^ DAVIS-PRIETO-MOZART: Rondo alla Mambo (based on 3rd mvmt of Horn Concerto No. 3).+ CARRILLO: Dos Gardenias.*+ SIMONS: El Manisero (The Peanut Vendor)*+ / Sarah Willis, Fr-hn; Adel Gonzáles Gómez, bongos; Eduardo Ramos Hernández, timbales; Alejandro Aguilar Rodriguez, congas; *Havana Lyecum Orch.; José Antonio Mendéz Padrón, cond; ^Havana Horns; +Harold Madrigal Frías, tpt; Yuniet Lombida Prieto, sax; Jorge Aragón, pno / Alpha Classics 578

Sarah Willis, a relatively young French horn player, was born in Maryland but grew up in Tokyo, Boston, Moscow and London. She is a member of the Berlin Philharmonic’s horn section and presents television and online programs about classical music. On this CD, she has apparently chosen to startle the classical world by combining the music of Mozart and the mambo, in some cases mambo-izing Mozart’s own music.

Did you know that there’s a statue of Mozart in Havana? I didn’t. Apparently it’s one of the few artifacts from the old days when Cuba was a free country that the disgusting Castro regime hasn’t yet torn down. I really do feel sorry for the people of Cuba; most of them are good, decent folk who live under the thumb of a totalitarian socialist-communist regime, and even the collapse of the Soviet Union didn’t deter them from being just as oppressive, if not more so, than their model.

As an old-school fan of pre-1970 Latin music, I was particularly happy to see their inclusion of one of my favorite pieces by Perez Prado, the Cuban bandleader who formed his orchestra in Mexico, added scoring along the lines of Stan Kenton’s big band, and then took America by storm in 1951-52 with such hits as Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, Qué Rico Mambo, Mambo No. 5, Patricia and Tijuana Taxi.

Willis’ Mozart performances are spirited and full of life, played with great technique. Since she uses a good, old-fashioned Alexander Model 103 (pictured in the booklet), she also has a bright, compact tone rather than the thicker, muddier sound you get nowadays from Yamahas and other brands of horns. The Cuban orchestra musicians play as if their very lives depended on it; perhaps, knowing the Castros, they did. Especially in the opening Concerto Movement in Eb, they really kick butt.

Unfortunately, the Havana Horns which accompany Willis on Qué Rico Mambo have a very rough, ugly sound, but at least their intonation is secure and they do know the style. I was, however, happily surprised to hear Willis reprise a little of Qué Rico Mambo in her cadenza for the Mozart Rondo. And conversely, Mozart’s themes for the opening section of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and the third movement of the Horn Concerto No. 3 are mambo-ized by Edgar Olivero, Joshua Davis and Yaniet Lombida Prieto into Sarahnade Mambo and Rondo alla Mambo. These are a lot fun although guaranteed to annoy classical purists who consider Mozart’s music to be sacrosanct. The only piece I disliked was the sappy, romantic-styled pop tune Dos Gardenias.

This is basically a fun CD to play if you want something a little different to lift your spirits. One Euro profit from each album sold will be donated to buy “instruments for Cuba.” I’d rather she bought them a big-ass motorboat so they can get the hell away from Raoul Castro and his regime of thugs, but what the heck.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The Namirovsky-Lark-Pae Trio Plays Bridge & Brahms

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MASTERPIECES AMONG PEERS / BRIDGE: Piano Trio No. 2. BRAHMS: Piano Trio No. 1 / Namirovsky-Lark-Pae Trio: Misha Namirovsky, pno; Tessa Lark, vln; Deborah Pae, cel / TyxArt TXA18104

The Namirovsky-Lark-Pae Trio is a young group formed in 2012. Their repertoire spans not only conventional classical works but also Bluegrass, Middle Eastern and East Asian music. On this release they have paired Frank Bridge’s Piano Trio No. 2, the lesser-known of his trios, and Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 1, his more famous and oft-recorded.

The Bridge Trio is a real gem, opening with soft violin playing before moving into atmospheric, almost Eastern-sounding modes with light piano arpeggios behind the strings. When the piano increases in volume and begins playing meatier music, the two strings move into rhapsodic, modal lines that cut across bar lines. I really liked this trio’s intensity in this music, and particularly Deborah Pae’s rich, luscious cello tone. It’s a very atmospheric composition but also one with real meat on its bones. Not having previously heard it, however, I wondered if the trio’s echt-Romantic reading was wholly appropriate, since much of Bridge’s music calls for a more direct and less sentimental approach. I did, however, very much like their light-footed approach to the soft but lively second-movement “Molto allegro,” and they really rip through the final “Allegro ma non troppo.”

I was pleasantly surprised by their gutsy, powerful performance of the Brahms Trio. This is a rendition that can actually stand comparison with some of the legendary recordings of the past, such as those by Heifetz, Feuermann and Rubinstein and Szigeti, Fournier and Schnabel. They have the full measure of this long and oft-complex work firmly in hand, and because of this they throw themselves into the music with abandon. I think Brahms would have liked their rendition of it.

Hey, sometimes my reviews are short even when I like the music and the performers, and this is one of them. This trio is good, the performances have a great sound, style and guts, and the acoustics are perfect. Go for it!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The Greatest Beethoven Quartets Ever…for 99¢!

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BEETHOVEN: Complete String Quartets. Grosse Fuge / Colorado String Quartet: Julie Rosenfeld, Deborah Lydia Redding, violinists; Marka Gustavson, violist; Diane Chaplin, cellist / Musical Concepts Classical Library, available for download at Amazon.com HERE for just 99¢

This is the bittersweet story of one of the very first all-female string quartets in America, their up-and-down career which lasted 31 years, and their greatest legacy: the finest performances of the Beethoven String Quartets you are likely to hear.

From the Classical.com webpage:

Founded in 1982, the Colorado Quartet rose to international attention with back-to-back first prizes in the Naumburg Competition and the First Banff International String Quartet Competition in 1983. For the next thirty years, the quartet would remain prominent artists on the American and international chamber music scene before disbanding in 2013. The ensemble was one of the first all-female quartets to gain significant stature.

Founding member Deborah Lydia Redding, who was second violinist with the ensemble from its founding to its last performance, said during an appearance on WNYC’s “Around New York” that the quartet’s name came from the fact that she grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and was one of a team tasked with putting together a resident quartet at the University of Colorado. That ensemble subsequently went to the Juilliard School, “and the rest is history.”

The Colorado Quartet was based in the New York City area, became Quartet-in-Residence at Bard College, and appeared as artists at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival and Great Performances series. Members also taught at Yale University, Oberlin College, and the Banff Centre.

The quartet premiered dozens of works, including major quartets by Karel Husa, Richard Wernick, Ezra Laderman, and Tamar Muskal, and many other works, including a substantial number of commissions.

The Colorado Quartet recorded frequently, with releases on many labels, including Albany Records, New World, Fidelio, Mode, and Bridge.

Their recordings for Bridge, one of America’s finest and most exploratory classical CD labels, included Irving Fine’s String Quartet, Richard Wernick’s String Quartet No. 6, and a piece with guitarist Sharon Isbin. For Mode they recorded Henry Cowell’s String Quartet No. 3, and for Albany they recorded Laura Kaminsky’s Transformations and Jan Krzywicki’s String Quartet. On all these recordings, the Colorado Quartet played but one work; the only album I could find completely devoted to them was an Albany CD of the string quartets of Karel Husa, Ezra Laderman and Mel Powell. . But now for some additional info. Perhaps because they identified so much with contemporary music, the Colorado Quartet was sometimes overlooked for their insightful performances of the standard repertoire. Yet Alexander String Quartet founder Sandy Walsh-Wilson told me, upon hearing of their disbanding, that he was very sorry to see them go. They were so good that they sometimes subbed for the Alexander Quartet and vice-versa. Perhaps it was simply age that caught up with them and led to their disbanding in 2013, but one of their greatest achievements was this set of the complete Beethoven quartets, recorded for the small Parnassus label from Woodstock, New York, for which they also recorded Brahms’ String Quartets as well as a disc including Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet and Mendelssohn’s Op. 80 Quartet. The latter won the Chamber Music America/WQXR Award but, for whatever reason, their Beethoven set flew under the radar. I was fortunate enough to be selected to review the last installment in the series, which included the Op. 95 quartet plus all of the late quartets, with the Grosse Fuge firmly in place as the last movement of the Op. 130 Quartet (with the published finale following it, as should be).

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L to R: Marka Gustavsson, Julie Rosenfeld, Diane Chaplin, Deborah Lydia Redding.

To say that the set bowled me over would be an understatement. Here, at long last, was a set of the late quartets to stand comparison with the legendary 1960 recordings by the Yale Quartet for Vanguard. Every note was in place; they played with a rhythmic bounce that was infectious; they dug into each quartet, bringing out just exactly what Beethoven put into it without exaggerating or trying to be too cute by slowing down the Adagio and Andante movements to something resembling a funeral march. I had found my ideal set of these quartets—yet, somehow, locating copies of the rest of their cycle proved elusive, and when they broke up in 2013 Parnassus just deleted all of their recordings from its catalog.

Just how good is this set? Well, let me give you my own journey for an example. My first set of the complete Beethoven Quartets was the one made by the Hungarian Quartet for EMI, issued in the U.S. on their budget Seraphim label. I even saw the Hungarian Quartet play a few of the Beethoven Quartets in person in 1969 at my college (Seton Hall University). After a few listening, however, I began to realize that although their playing was correct and had a good tone, they were just too reserved for Beethoven.

I then sampled a couple of discs in the Guarneri Quartet’s series on RCA Victor, and although they played them with a bit more energy there was something wrong with their sense of rhythm. It was just too foursquare for me; their pacing sounded stodgy, not so much because of their tempi but because of their plodding, clomp-clomp sense of pacing. In 1970 I discovered the Yale Quartet’s phenomenal set of the Late Quartets, but alas, that was all they recorded of the series. Later in the 1970s I listened to the highly overrated Alban Berg Quartet’s recordings for EMI, which I found, and still find, to be a strange combination of blistering tempi and icy-cold playing.

On and on I went. I loved the Tokyo Quartet’s performances of the Middle Quartets, but both the Early and Late Quartets just didn’t have enough of a straightforward zest and drive. In the 1990s I explored the Vermeer Quartet’s series on Teldec. Great playing, good energy, but nearly every tempo in every single movement from start to finish was too slow. After that it was the Kodály Quartet, whose performances I reviewed in my article on Naxos’ Complete Beethoven Box. Quite good, better than the Hungarian, Juilliard, Berg and Vermeer Quartets but not quite getting under the skin of each movement in each piece. Then I went through the Emerson Quartet’s series. I loved their performances of the early quartets, but they just brought the exact same approach to the middle and late quartets: sprightly but not under the skin of the music. I felt the same way about the overrated Tákacs Quartet series on Decca. A couple of years after hearing the Colorado Quartet’s album of the late quartets, I also heard the complete set by the generally wonderful Alexander String Quartet. I liked their early quartets though not on the same level as Emerson, their middle quartets were nearly as good as the Tokyo Quartet, but the late quartets somehow lacked energy. Then there was the Belcea Quartet’s series: plenty of energy, a nice, edgy quality that suits Beethoven, but the violinists’ insistence on playing with constant straight tone robbed the music of richness and made all their soft, sustained notes sound scratchy and anemic. Plus, they dragged out the slow movements to ridiculous proportions; the Molto adagio; Andante of the Quartet Op. 132 is extended from its normal length of about 16 minutes to a ridiculous TWENTY minutes.

So here I am, at long last able to review the Colorado Quartet’s complete series thanks to the anonymous beneficence of either the performers or Parnassus Records—or both—in offering the entire series for sale for a paltry 99 cents. This is clearly the greatest complete set of the quartets ever made, and now I am going to tell you why.

  • Score accuracy: The Colorado Quartet observes all of Beethoven’s tempi exactly as written or pretty close to it. There are no quirky or funny moments in these performances; they’re not trying to score points by over-accenting certain things or wringing pathos or bathos out of the slow movements as other quartets are wont to do.
  • Great tone. Each member of the quartet plays with a light, fast vibrato, which is EXACTLY how 18th and 19th-century string players performed—at least, the best ones. Not for them the scratchy, undernourished sound of straight tone (perhaps this was one reason why they broke up; by 2009, straight tone had become more than regular performance practice, it had become a religion).
  • Perfect recorded sound. I’ve already alluded to the bizarre acoustic of the Alban Berg Quartet’s recordings, and should add that some of the Kodály Quartet’s performances sound as if they were recorded in an empty high school locker room. Producer-engineer Judith Sherman knew exactly how to record this group so that their sound was forward and visceral while still putting a bit of natural room acoustic around them.
  • Consistent style and energy. I’ve already alluded to the fact that these performances by the Colorado Quartet have a wonderful springy “bounce” to the rhythm that no one else has ever achieved, but I should also add that despite their being recorded over a period of years, not just months (the late quartets alone were recorded in May 2004, June and December 2005, and May 2006. Without liner notes, I have no idea what years the other quartets were recorded in), it is they, and not the stodgy Juilliard Quartet, that sounds as if the entire set was made, as the RCA publicity put it, “in a marathon session from dusk to dawn.” The four women of the Colorado Quartet are so laser focused on this music, and the performances just so consistently perfect in feel, tempo and energy, that you almost get the feeling that they did indeed start recording at five o’clock in the evening and just finished at six a.m.

Details abound in these performances that point to their complete absorption of Beethoven’s music and their unique ability to reproduce it in sound—too many, in fact, to discuss or enumerate, but for just one example of a perfect fast movement listen to the finale of the Quartet No. 2 in G. If you can name me even ONE other string quartet who pulls this off with the insouciance and complete unity of sound, as if they were four instruments played by one mind and pair of hands, I’d like to know who. No, not even the Alban Berg or Emerson Quartets were this good, and they were quite good indeed. And in the late quartets, who other than the Colorado Quartet has been able to make the Quartet No. 13 in B flat, the one with the Grosse Fuge, sound this cohesive? Listen to the Belcea Quartet’s recording, which gets a heap of praise. Each movement sounds discrete, almost as if Beethoven had written a suite rather than a unified work which many (myself included) consider to be his masterpiece.

In short, the Colorado String Quartet’s performances of these works are not just excellent; they are perfect in every respect—execution, rhythm, musical style and interpretation. As in the case of some of Toscanini’s Symphony performances or Michael Korstick’s Sonatas, you get the feeling that you’re hearing Beethoven directly, not an “interpreter” trying to score points with his or her cleverness. And in these specific works, which I believe are Beethoven’s most difficult to pull off properly (just read my comments above for the list of failures), Colorado’s astounding readings, which sound deceptively effortless, are just that. It’s like listening to Beethoven without a middle man (or woman).

Fortunately, you needn’t take just my word for it. Here are a few other comments on this set:

The quartet pays meticulous attention to Beethoven’s markings while interpreting them in ways that I have never heard before, I know these pieces extremely well; I have played them, analyzed them, and listened to many excellent performances and recordings of them; yet these recordings reveal elements in the music that I have never noticed before.

Elaine Fine, American Record Guide

Purchased this out of curiosity and, of course, the low price. Having never heard of the Colorado Quartet, I didn’t have very high expectations but what a pleasant surprise! The skill and execution of the Colorado Quartet leaves little to be desired. The interpretations are fairly straight forward, allowing the music to breathe and speak for itself and does it ever! Couple that with very competent recording and it makes for a highly enjoyable listening experience.

I have other performances of the Beethoven quartets by higher profile ensembles (Alban Berg, Tokyo, Julliard, Lindsay, Italian, Guaneri). This set compares very well and would go so far as to say that listening to these recordings offered new insights into Beethoven quartet writing.

To wrap this up, to say that this Colorado Quartet cycle is a bargain is an understatement. Whether you already have other recordings or this is your introduction to Beethoven string quartets, this is well worth your time. Beautiful music that is beautifully played and recorded.

“Goldenrod,” Amazon reviewer

My new favorite quartet cycle…I can’t get over how great this set is. The performances have lots of nuances that make many other sets, by comparison, sound rigid and driven. Perhaps the fact that the quartet is all women is the reason they bring a new sensibility to these works. There are occasional moments of less than perfect intonation, but nothing worse than you would hear in a live recording, so don’t let that deter you. So for now this will be my go-to set.

As others have remarked the sound is excellent, warm and close, as if they were playing right in front of you. I heard inner lines that I never heard in other recordings, which was especially exiting in the Grosse Fuge.

This would be a bargain at 10x the price, and even more (I don’t want to give the publishers any ideas tho :-)). Buy it!

Chris, Amazon reviewer

Whether you take my word for any of this or not, what have you got to lose? Will 99¢ really make or break your budget? This is clearly the greatest bargain in classical music. Nothing else even comes close.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Duo Maiss You Plays 20th-Century Europeans

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AwardBARTÓK: Violin Sonata No. 2. LEISTNER-MAYER: Viola Sonata. JANÁČEK: Violin Sonata / Duo Maiss You: Burkhard Maiss, vln/vla; Ji-Yeoun You, pno / TyxArt TXA 19130

Duo Maiss You consists of German violinist-violist Burkhard Maiss, a founding member of the Jacques Thibaud Trio whose prior experience include first-chair positions (in moth instruments) with various chamber orchestras, and Korean pianist Ji-Yeoun You who pursued a solo career which won her awards before working as a chamber musician. Under Maiss’ leadership, they have truly become a “German duo” in the traditional sense of the term: they employ a warm, rich sound on all three instruments and tend towards a lyrical, legato style of interpretation.

This is immediately borne out in their recording of the Bartók Second Violin Sonata. Maiss plays with a languorous warmth and relaxation in the first movement, more than I was used to from other recordings, while You plays with a rich, deep-in-the-keys approach that belies her previous successes in the delicate, wispy music of Mozart and Chopin concerti. Nor do they let the dramatic aspects of this sonata go by without great attention to detail and robust playing. I particularly like the fact that Maiss’ violin retains its fullness in the upper register while using a quick, fast vibrato; this neither undernourishes his tone nor overdoes the throbbing vibrato that other violinists bring to the music. His playing, however, is not as lean and angular as that of Bartók’s favorite violinist, Joseph Szigeti, though he comes surprisingly close in the second movement. (Bartók favored Szigeti because of his somewhat tight, wiry tone, which he felt was perfect for the Magyar folk music on which many of his works were based.) According to the liner notes, part of the naturalness of sound of this recording came from a combination of digital and analog (tube) microphones. I would attest that this combination worked perfectly to capture a natural sound.

Roland Leistner-Mayer’s Viola Sonata, of which this is the first recording, is early Modern in style. The composer, born in 1945, has never been a fan of the atonal or bitonal schools of composition, but one can hear within this basically tonal work a number of fascinating details, such as chromatic movement of both the top line and the harmony as well as the occasional use of modality. It surely resembles the work of Sibelius or Bartók quite strongly. Like them, Leistner-Mayer is not a composer who wallows in pathos or bathos; rather, his music clearly has a backbone and avoids easy categorization. I would also toss in the solo violin sonatas of Ysaÿe as another example of early Modern music that still holds considerable interest today. Duo Maiss You is deeply involved in this music, drawing out every bit of raw emotion in it. Perhaps the fact that they recorded this work in the composer’s presence has much to do with this.

I was utterly fascinated by the music from start to finish; occasionally, Leistner-Mayer uses strong motor rhythms to propel the music, as in the explosive second-movement “Scherzo,” but rhythm is not his only or primary device. Rather it is, as suggested by the expansive first and third movements, more involved with bringing out a deep melancholy rather than trying to entertain audiences with easy-to-assimilate devices. Indeed, this third-movement “Adagio” is almost a little world in itself, rising from melancholy to a volatile outburst of passion, after which the sadness is somewhat mitigated, as if he has discovered a way to internalize it and help it pass through him. Yet later on, he returns to the melancholy; he just can’t shake it.

The sonata ends with an “Allegro agitato” that sounds so Eastern European that one will have a hard time believing that he is a German composer. Here, as in the “Scherzo,” the strong rhythms return, and his use of modes (combined with chromatic key shifts) sound so much like Bartók that I think you’ll be amazed. But he is only like Bartók, not a carbon copy of him, just as the music of Giuseppe Martucci was like Brahms without using a single quote from the German master he admired so much. The mood also shifts in this movement, but away from the explosive opening towards a sadder theme reflecting inner anguish. Surprisingly, it ends abruptly, almost in the middle of nowhere.

The Duo also dives deep into the Janáček Violin Sonata, one of the few chamber works by this excellent composer (great instrumental music, ugly operatic music) I hadn’t heard before. One thing about Maiss and You is that they seem to never play anything at less than 100% intensity, something I appreciate in any artist. The dramatic moments are highly explosive and the lyrical ones sweeping, with a broad legato feel that nonetheless never lacks feeling. The slow second movement of this sonata, though quite interesting, is not angst-ridden but, rather, almost a love song, but even here the Duo approaches it with a view to bringing out as much emotion as they possibly can. In the occasionally edgy, occasionally lyric third movement, they alternate between the musical moods with stunning emotional shifts, and they continue their attention to detail in the slow but by no means placid fourth movement.

This is clearly one of the best chamber music releases of the year, highly recommended.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Gabriela Lena Frank Spreads Her Own Wings

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HER OWN WINGS / FRANK: Milagros.* Leyendas+ / Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival: Sasha Callahan, *Greg Ewer, +Megumi Stohs Lewis, vln; Bradley Ottesen, vla; Leo Eguchi, cel / Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0136

Gabriela Lena Frank is a composer who believes in messaging her music. In this release, we are told, she “tells a story of place and identity, of family and friendship.” Normally this type of verbiage means nothing, but in this case Frank is exploring her personal heritage through music, since she is the daughter of a mother of mixed Peruvian-Chinese descent as a father of mixed Lithuanian-Jewish descent, thus she combines a bit of the music of all of these cultures.

Frank’s music is essentially tonal but imbued with chromatics. To this end, she can shift the tonal center at will without sounding as if she were writing bitonally. She also has a strong sense of lyricism within this chromatic structure. The opening of Milagros is typical of her work: a few serrated, downward chromatic motifs, interrupted by strong chords, which lead into more melodic material with a strongly tonal bias. In Milagros, one encounters a more atonal sound world in the second piece, titled “Zampoñas Rotas,” which also has what I would describe as a rock beat. Why, Lena, why? Please tell me what is so wonderful about a rock beat. I just don’t get it. Towards the end of this movement, one hears long-held, edgy, high-pitched violin notes with thumps from the cello and viola interjections. In the next section, “Mujeres Cantando,” could best be described as edgy Latino music except that it lacks a Latin rhythm. This section was very creative, however, and attests to a creative imagination. In “Adios a Churín,” she even tosses in brief moments of jazz cello.

Compared to earlier works of hers that I’ve heard, Milagros sounded to me like a much more unified and interesting piece despite the various influences involved. Whereas previously Frank’s work struck me as a potpourri of ideas juxtaposed in a seemingly random fashion, here she exhibits a much stronger sense of structure. In short, the contrasting bits fit together better, at least in Milagros, because she has separated them into the different sections of the work, even though one can still hear a cultural mixture here and there. What was one, for her, a mosaic has become a melting pot, and this is all for the better. Sometimes, as innovative composers mature, they stay the same; at other times, they tend to become more conventional; but occasionally they grow and expand on what they had experimented with earlier, and this is the case with Frank. Except for the repetition of those strong downbow chords—not repeated frequently, but often enough—I hear tremendous growth in Frank’s music here.

In Legends, she opens with a bow to her mother’s Chinese side. “Toyos” sounds for all the world as if it were written by a Chinese-born composer who had also studied Western form, while the second section, “Tarqueada,” almost sounds like American hoedown music with its sliding chromatic violin playing despite the Hispanic-sounding title—at least until the edgy string playing comes in to transform it into a piece with strong backbeats. I should mention, at this point, that the playing of the quartets of the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival is exceptional, alert to every shift of mood and style and playing with strong emotional commitment. The Chinese influence returns in “Himno de Zampoñas,” oddly enough…or, perhaps one should say, a Chinese-Peruvian influence.

Occasionally, like so many modern composers nowadays, Frank gets hung up on effect in Legends, such as in the second half of “Himno de Zampoñas” where we get somewhat meaningless repetitions of edgy string gestures. This was a weakness of her earlier work which she avoided in Milagros for the most part, but to her credit she does not keep it up. “Chasqui” also has fast, somewhat edgy string playing, but all of it is of a piece, contributing to the musical evolution and not so much an “effect.” I really liked this piece in and of itself; it could easily be played as an encore at any string quartet concert and be assured of great applause, as it is both effective on the surface and well written. The music even swings a bit towards the end.

“Coquetos” is another Latin-inspired piece, and here Frank does indeed simulate Latin rhythms but with twists of her own. The meter is irregular and seems to constantly shift in the introductory section, although once the piece starts in earnest she switches to a sort of driving, pulsating rhythm in 3 (or perhaps 6/8) using a minor mode as its primary harmonic setting. This is another excellent piece. By and large I found Leyendas to be a mosaic of contrasting pieces and less of a melting pot, but each individual section is fascinating and well constructed despite the surprising elements within. “Canto de Velorio” is almost an ambient piece, slow and moody, but with an underlying edge to it and a fascinating, slithering cello line that pushes things along. I would say, too, that the sliding chromatics and occasional lack of harmonic grounding in this piece also refers to her mother’s Chinese heritage, but I could be wrong. Eventually, this piece devolves into a long-held series of screaming strings (a bit of effect here) before the viola pushes the violins with a strong motif of its own before the volume drops and we hear a slow 3 rhythm as one violin plays soft tremolos, the second pizzicato, and the viola and cello play a theme. Even this falls to the wayside as more changes occur towards the end.

An unusual album to say the least, but for the most brilliant music and consistently well played and recorded.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Joey Alexander’s “Warna”

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WARNA / ALEXANDER: Warna. Mosaic (of Beauty). Lonely Street. Downtime. Affirmation I. We Here.* ‘Tis Our Prayer. Our Story. Affirmation III. The Light. HENDERSON: Inner Urge. SUMMER: Fragile / Joey Alexander, pno; *Anne Drummond, fl; Larry Grenadier, bs; Kendrick Scott, dm; Luisito Quintero, perc / Verve 0848840

Jazz phenom Joey Alexander, the Indonesian-born pianist who became a sensation at age 13, is now a few years on in age (17, though this album was recorded when he was 16) and has graduated to a major label, Verve.

He is still an interesting improviser; so much is clear from the opening track which, like the album itself, is named after the Indonesian word for color. This is an apt title for both the song and the album as a whole, because as he had matured Alexander’s playing has become warmer and more colorful. It also retains a certain amount of the surprising energy that he had a couple of years ago on his last release; like the late Filipino pianist Bobby Enriquez, Alexander has some particularly wild outbursts in his improvisations. But “a certain amount” is all he has retained. With age has come, to my ears at least, a lessening of the kind of explosive playing he exhibited two years ago. It is not a serious impediment in today’s jazz world, where laid-back jazz apparently sells like hotcakes; I’m sure that this album will take off in sales; but somehow, Alexander’s inner tiger has been tamed.

Mind you, he’s still a fine jazz pianist. I’m not disparaging his skills in the least. It’s just that his wildness has been supplanted by a somewhat more sedate approach. Not all, but much, of his individuality is now suppressed in favor of a more reflective musical persona.

Perhaps the better integration of his trio is either a cause or a symptom of this. On his earlier releases, the bass and drums almost had to work overtime to catch up to Alexander’s explosiveness, but here they are tightly interwoven into the fabric of his playing. This, too, may be a result of maturity, but I certainly miss the old Alexander. The only earlier example who comes to mind at the moment is George Shearing. Those who have heard Shearing’s wild and unpredictable playing during his bebop years, 1946-49, will understand what I mean. By 1951 or ’52, give or take a few months, Shearing had settled into a cooler groove with his famous combo (the one with Margie Hyams on vibes) that took the world by storm—the Lullaby of Birdland group. The difference was that Shearing had a very distinctive touch; he almost sounded like a classical harpsichordist playing jazz, and his improvisations remained unique. Many tried to sound like Shearing, but almost none succeeded. Alexander does not sound as unique here as he formerly did, although there is a wild half-chorus on Lonely Street that sounds like his old self. The tiger is tamed, and only occasionally does he shed the leash and halter of conventional jazz to reclaim some of his younger vitality.

The question then arises, Why? Is it Alexander himself who has chosen to play this way, or was it perhaps a directive from Verve Records to fit in more? Considering the rather tame opening tracks, I was actually surprised to hear much more of the old Alexander come through on Downtime. This could pass for how he played a couple of years ago, but immediately following is Affirmation I, a ballad so insipid that at first I thought it was a mistake. Joe Henderson’s Inner Urge is next, a great performance that momentarily recaptures the Alexander of two years ago. For seven minutes and 16 seconds, I thought I was listening to one of his earlier albums, but by and large this set just sounded conventional. In We Here, flautist Anne Drummond is actually more interesting and exciting than the pianist.

I certainly wish him well in his career; he earned his jazz stripes early and proved his mettle legitimately. I just wish he could recapture more of the magic he had.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Gritskova Sings Prokoviev

570034bk Hasse

AwardPROKOFIEV: The Ugly Duckling. 5 Poems: No. 2, The Little Grey Dress; No. 3, Trust Me; No. 5, The Sorcerer. 5 Poems of Anna Akhmatova. Remember Me!—A Malayan Spell. My Grey Dove is Full of Sorrow. Anyutka. The Chatterbox. Mark, Ye Bright Falcons [The Field of the Dead]. The Rosy Dawn is Coloring the East. Katerina / Margarita Gritskova, mezzo; Maria Prinz, pno / Naxos 8.574030

Although this recording was released in May, somehow I missed it in the New Release Catalog, possibly because I was very tense about the Coronavirus and desperate to get my hair cut. (Sometimes these little stressors in life interfere with your reviewing.) But I’m sorry I did, because this is a very interesting CD on three counts.

First, of course, is the fact that Prokofiev’s songs are rarely if ever heard in concerts, no matter how many recordings may exist of them. Secondly, our singer, Margarita Gritskova, not only has a steady, interesting voice but also crystal-clear diction, both features being rarities nowadays. And thirdly, perhaps most importantly of all, Gritskova is a really interesting interpreter, and this is a quality sadly lacking from even the most famous and highly touted of today’s singers. I ignored the blurb in the booklet about her being “one of the leading singers of her generation” (which means absolutely nothing…which generation do you think she’d be a leading singer of?), or which conductors she has sung with. What captured my eye was that “Nelly Lee sparked Gritskova’s love of chamber music, to which she has devoted special attention ever since.” This explains her attention to musical detail and interpretation.

One other rarity about this CD is that Naxos has included all of the lyrics of all of the songs within, in three languages no less (Russian/Cyrillic, English and German), which easily widens the appeal of this album and, I would think, makes owning the physical disc much more appealing than if they had not.

Another interesting feature about this recital is that all of the songs are presented in chronological order, from 1914’s The Ugly Duckling to Katerina of 1944, with most of them dating from 1916 to 1934. The only song given out of order is Mark Ye, Bright Falcons of 1939, given before 1936’s The Rosy Dawn is Coloring the East. This gives us a chance to hear Prokofiev’s growth as a composer from an era when he was influenced by Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov to his more mature and original style, but even in Trust Me of 1915 one can hear him formulating his own voice, particularly in the oft-complex piano part with its chromatic, shifting harmonic base.

In this respect, then, Prokofiev’s song output is considerably more musically interesting than that of Rachmaninov, despite the fact that the latter wrote many more songs (108 to Prokofiev’s 62). As one follows the lyrics of Nikolai Agnivtsev’s bizarre little poem The Sorcerer, for instance, one notes how brilliantly Prokofiev matched the mood of the words to the mood of the music, clearly the equal of Mussorgsky’s Field Marshal Death in a more modern style. Considering that this disc only runs 66 minutes, I’m a little sad that Gritskova didn’t record all five songs in this cycle.

Listening carefully to the way Gritskova sings these songs, I would go so far as to say that she is an even greater lieder singer than her great predecessor, Irina Arkhipova—and Arkhipova was very good. Fritskova is simply more detailed, more intimate; in many of these songs, such as Remember Me!—A Malayan Spell, you almost get the feeling that she is singing for you alone. It’s almost like comparing the lieder singing of Fischer-Dieskau or Gérard Souzay to German and French recitalists of the 1920s and ‘30s. With the exception of an interloper like Ukrainian basso Alexander Kipnis, most of whose career was in Germany before the Nazis took over, you seldom heard this kind of intimacy combined with intensity from even such excellent singers as Gerhard Hüsch, Heinrich Schlusnus or even Elena Gerhardt, possibly the most interpretively interesting German lieder singer of her time.

Possibly due to her personal love for and commitment to chamber music and lieder, Gritskova has trained herself to have perfect control over every facet of what she does with the voice (as did Kipnis and Souzay). Each note has its own color and timbre, yet you never feel that she is over-accenting the words, and the same goes for her vocal placement. She can easily descend into the mezzo depths, and those notes have a full, rich sound, but once again you don’t feel that she is trying to show off by laying into any portion of her voice. In songs like My Grey Dove is Full of Sorrow or Anyutka, she also accents the words rhythmically in a way that makes the notes “bounce off” the piano line like someone dribbling a basketball in slow motion. And everything she does, every little detail, contributes to the interpretation of the words. It’s almost miraculous listening to such a young singer with this much intelligence.

From start to finish, this is a great album, clearly one of the best of the year to date.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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