Stawarz’s Lively French Suites

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J.S. BACH: French Suites, BWV 812-817 / Lilianna Stawarz, hpd / Dux 1739/40-2

By conventional standards, Polish harpsichordist Lilianna Stawarz has had a sterling career. From the CD Accord website:

After studying harpsichord under Władysław Kłosiewicz at the Warsaw Music Academy, she graduated with honors in 1988. In 1990 she received a degree from the Conservatoire National de Region de Rueil-Malmaison where she studied in the class of Huguette Dreyfus. She won second prize at the first All-Polish Wanda Landowska Harpsichord Competition and a prize at the Polish Piano Music Festival in Słupsk. She was also a finalist in the International Harpsichord Competition in Paris. She has participated in numerous master classes in Baroque music interpretation (Innsbruck, Villecrose, Cracow, Accademia Musicale in Siena).

Since 1991 Lilianna Stawarz has been associated with the Warsaw Chamber Opera, where she performs as a chamber musician, as well as conducting from her harpsichord larger instrumental and vocal-instrumental works, such as Bach´s St Mark Passion, Purcell´s Dido and Aeneas, Scarlatti´s Thetis on Scyros, works of Polish 18th century composers – Songs and Arias, or a cycle of six concertos – Marcin Mielczewski znany i nieznany. She also participated in the recording of six compact discs of 17th century music (Mielczewski´s Opera Omnia) and of an album of Polish Baroque music by Damian Stachowicz. Together with Jean-Claude Malgoire she collaborated in the preparation of and performed in the operas: Alceste by Lully (1997), Catone in Utica by Vivaldi (1998), The Return of Ulysses by Monteverdi, Tancrede by Campra.

But since she only plays Baroque music, and absolutely nothing modern, she is, by Nadia Boulanger’s definition, an incomplete artist.

My decision to review this CD was based on three things: 1) I didn’t have a recording of the French Suites in my collection, 2) when I sampled her playing on YouTube she seemed to be a pretty lively interpreter, and 3) although I like and appreciate certain pianists playing Bach, I really do love the sound of a harpsichord and so wanted good performances on that instrument.

Within the boundaries of those criteria, this is an excellent album. Stawarz is clearly better than the dull and boring Alessandra Artifoni on Dynamic CDS757, but by the same token she is pretty much equal to Richard Egarr on Harmonia Mundi HMU90758384DI and Christopher Hogwood on Decca 00028946673621, a shade less exciting than Glenn Gould on piano (Sony Classical). Thus your choice to obtain this recording will probably be based on sound quality.

Dux has recorded Stawarz pretty well, but chose to engulf her instrument in a fair amount of reverb. For the harpsichord, which has a very pretty sound but a somewhat dry one, this is not as bad as it sounds; the instrument sparkles in this sonic environment. Like most good harpsichordists, Stawarz has little control over dynamics, yet her instrument seems to be capable of some dynamic contrasts. I also liked her lively sense of rhythm; like her legendary fellow-countrywoman Wanda Landowska, Stawarz has fun with the irregular rhythms, such as in the concluding “Gigue” of the Suite No. 1, and this helps a lot in our appreciation of this music. I’ve long felt that the less stodgy you make Bach sound, the better it is, and Stawarz keeps your interest up by playing fairly briskly at all times, even in the slow movements. At times, such as in the slow movement (“Sarabande”) of the Suite No. 3, she shows a good grasp of runato as well.

If you like this recording, I also recommend that you seek out her 2010 album of C.P.E. Bach’s Keyboard Sonatas along with a Rondo and a Fantasia (CD Accord ACD 134, available to purchase as downloads at Amazon, Presto Music and Down in the Valley, or streaming at YouTube and Spotify (free) or Idagio and Apple iTunes (paid membership). Her performances are almost as lively as those of pianist/harpsichordist Preethi de Silva on Centaur or Bob van Asperen on Warner Classics.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Renata Dubinskaitė Sings Barbara Strozzi

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STROZZI: Cantate, arietta e duetti, Op. 2: No. 14. L’Amante segreto; No. 18. La Riamata da chi amava. Cantate e Ariette, Op. 3: Moralità amorosa. Sacri musicali affetti, Op. 5: O Maria. Ariette a voce sola, Op. 6: No. 4. Parla alli suoi pensieri; No. 8. Non vuole amar più. Diporti di Euterpe, Op. 7: Lagrime mie; Sino alla morte. Arie a voce sola di diversi auttori: Havete torto. Che si può fare, Op. 8 / Renata Dubinskaitė, mezzo; Canto Fiorito / Brilliant Classics BRI96436

Most lovers of early music know who Barbara Strozzi was, but I think that for the majority of those who admire Monteverdi, her name does not resound nearly as much. And yet she was the most prolific composer of the 17th century, writing—and publishing—eight volumes of her own music, the greatest amount by any 17th-century composer, and doing so without any help or patronage from the Church or the nobility. In part this was due to her birth father, Giulio Strozzi, a member of the Accademia degli Incogniti, one of the largest and most prestigious intellectual academies in Europe and a major political and social force in the Republic of Venice and beyond. Her mother was one of Strozzi’s servants, but when he recognized genius in Barbara at an early age he adopted her as his legitimate daughter and worked hard to promote her career.

Dubinskaite

Renata Dubinskaitė

Lithuanian mezzo-soprano Renata Dubinskaitė, happily, has a rich, firm, glowing voice and excellent diction. She also possesses interpretive qualities when the music calls for it. For the uninitiated, Strozzi’s music was marked by mood, tempo and harmonic shifts within her songs, which makes them still interesting to the modern listener. Very little in her music is routine or predictable; she followed her own muse and wrote what she liked in the style she liked. Her father arranged for her to take lessons with Francesco Cavalli, who at that time was probably second only to Monteverdi as one of the greatest Italian composers of the era, thus young Barbara had first-class grounding in the basics of music.

Listening to the full cantata L’Amante segreto, it’s obvious that Strozzi had an enormous influence on Italian opera of a century later. Everything is there: the alternation of lyrical and dramatic moments, sudden outburst of passion, then the equally sudden retreat to quieter, more lyrical passages. But Strozzi was not only first, she was often more original than her later Italian (and German) imitators. There are no pauses between recitative, aria and dramatic passages, but a continuous flow from start to finish. I would even go so far as to say that, with modifications based on later changes in music, she also had an impact, albeit indirectly, on such later Italian composers as Giovanni Pacini and Giuseppe Verdi. That’s how good her music was, and how striking original.

As the recital progresses, in fact, one becomes not only more aware of the extraordinarily wide range of Strozzi’s musical and dramatic gifts but of the extraordinary qualities of Dubinskaitė’s voice. In addition to her excellent range, vocal placement, and ability to sing fioratura as well as those peculiar one-note Baroque trills (what was called, at the time, “spotted flute technique”), she can also color her tones to some extent, an art that I thought was lost in our modern era. She is clearly a master singer and one who I will be on the lookout for in the future. And happily her backup group, Canto Fiorito, is not as annoyingly whiny as so many modern-day HIP groups are, although only the harpsichordist really seems to play with emotional passion when called for.

This is a superb album of Strozzi’s music. If you’re already familiar with her, you need to get it, and if you aren’t, you really need to hear it.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Rautavaara’s “Aleksis Kivi”

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RAUTAVAARA: Aleksis Kivi / Jorma Hynninen, bar (Aleksis Kivi); Lasse Pöysti, spkr (August Ahlqvist); Eeva-Liisa Saarinen. mezzo (Charlotta); Helena Juntunen, sop (Hilda); Gabriel Suovanen, bar (Young Alexis); Marcus Groth, bs (J.L. Runeberg); Lassi Virtanen, ten (Mikko Vilkastus); Jaakko Hietikko (Uncle Sakeri); Jyväskylä Sinfonia Markus Lehtinen, cond / Ondine ODE 1000-2D

This is the story of an artistic idea, given to the composer by the principal singer in the cast, which was then developed and expanded on for two years until it became a finished masterpiece, yet this masterpiece has no home today except sporadically in his home country of Finland.

It is a three-act opera based on the life of that country’s greatest author, poet and playwright, Aleksis Kivi (1834-1872), who was the Finnish equivalent of Johann Goethe, Alexander Pushkin and Anton Chekhov rolled into one. The problem is that, unlike those other three writers, Kivi is barely known outside his native country, and since the opera is not an action plot but a psychological drama depicting his struggles for acceptance and eventual success followed by his rapid decline (Kivi went mad and died in an asylum at the age of 38), it doesn’t so much lack for drama as it lacks for action. His role must be played by a baritone with an outstanding voice and far-above-average acting skills, and its success or failure onstage cannot be covered over with moronic and irrelevant “Regietheater” staging filled with naked nuns and insane people. And yet it deserves survival if for no other reason than that it contains some of Rautavaara’s most hauntingly beautiful and inspired music.

To summarize the plot as best I can, there is a prologue showing Kivi at the end of his life, visited by a Professor of literature, August Ahlqvist, who berates him for his “disgraceful” literature. The first act then opens in a brighter mood and happier times in the author’s early years when his creativity was at full flower. Kivi, whose real last name was Sternvall, is visited by his patroness, Charlotta Lönnqvist, and her pupil-assistant Hilda, to whom Aleksis reads one of his recent poems. They are joined by a group of well-wishers—members of the artistically progressive Young Finns—who congratulate him on winning a prize for his play, but Aleksis criticizes one of them for his “cheap aesthetics.” Kivi’s view was that the common people should not be described in prosaic terms but given ideals that they should strive for.

In Act II the mature Kivi, embattled by the literary establishment and embittered by fate, begs Professor Ahlqvist to support the publication of his books, but after poring over them for a while Ahlqvist just silently walks out. Kivi then hides from the band of Young Finns, ashamed of his failures. After Kivi is given some money by a supporter and goes out for some liquid fortification, Ahlqvist monologizes that such “defilers” of the national language must simply not be supported but crushed.

Act III opens with Kivi going into am empty theater to drink and meditate until the mythical beings in his subconscious appear to him in frightening hallucinations. (He’s got the DT’s.) He then falls asleep, with half of the last act taking place in real life and the other half in his visions. Ahlqvist reappears, pushing a decrepit old poet who he idolizes but who opposes Kivi along in a wheelchair. Characters from Kivi’s play, The Cobblers on the Heath, appear, possibly from the stage and possibly from the author’s imagination. Charlotta tries once again to recue Kivi, but it’s too late. Ahlqvist now appears as a devil with horns. In the epilogue, set in the mental hospital, Kivi encounters his younger self and sings of an “Isle of Bliss.” The doctor, another manifestation of the evil Ahlqvist, ushers Charlotta in. The final song presents a vision of the Isle of Death which awaits him.

The problems with the opera, cited above, probably make it doomed to failure as a stage play, and certainly not a work that will travel the globe; and speaking personally, I disagree with Kivi’s idea that the common people must be idealized and given goals to strive for. (Some of ‘em strive and some of ‘em don’t, and that’s just how life goes.) Yet in a sense, Aleksis Kivi is a universal topic, the struggle of the individual artist against society and the artistic establishment. One thinks of such tragic figures as Robert Burns or Franz Kafka, those tilters at literary windmills who were crushed in their lifetimes but glorified after their tragic early deaths. But oh my God, that music! It’s absolutely transcendent; it shimmers and glows in one’s ears and mind like the remnants of a beautiful dream, even in the dour, fatalistic moments. It’s so good, in fact, that it grips you from the first notes and never lets go. It’s not so much that you can’t escape it so much as that you don’t want it to end. And oddly enough for a modern composer, Rautavaara wrote in a largely tonal style with occasional real arias, albeit modern ones, in which the soloists’ voices resound—particularly Hynninen, who is in fabulous voice from start to finish. Kivi and his buddies even get a pretty good drinking song in Act II. Atonality only comes into the opera during the Act III mad/hallucination scene. Thus, for me at least, it is the extraordinarily high quality of the score that places it on an exalted level, even above such other near-misses among modern operas as Lennox Berkeley’s Nelson or Poul Ruders’ The Thirteenth Child.

The only times when one’s attention wanders during this opera is when Ahlqvist is onstage, because his is a speaking part and not a singing role. Apparently, Rautavaara wanted a first-class speaker in this role, and according to Wikipedia Lasse Pöysti was one of Finland’s greatest dramatic actors, but of course in these moments all Rautavaara could do was to create a sort of “holding pattern” in the music behind Pöysti while he pontificated to the struggling author. Yes, Rautavaara made up for this with absolutely sparkling music for Charlotta and Helen, and except for the Ahlqvist moments the music never lacks for imagination or color, but this, too was a flaw that made for some dull moments within an otherwise lively and organic musical creation.

As for the performance itself, it is excellent. Every single one of the singers in the cast has a fine and individual-sounding voice, each one of them acts with the voice and they present an excellent ensemble cast in general. This is exactly how modern opera should ideally sound, but as we all know, we’re lucky nowadays if we can even get our standard warhorse operas to sound this good. Operatic voices, as a whole, have deteriorated quite bit since 1997 when this was recorded.

Whether you live to see a stage production of this work or not, this recording is a must for lovers of modern opera in general and Rautavaara admirers in particular.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Neeme Järvi’s (First) Sibelius Set

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SIBELIUS: Symphonies Nos. 1-7 / Gothenburg Symphony Orch.; Neeme Järvi, cond / Bis CD-622-24

This set of the complete Sibelius Symphonies by the conductor I’ve come to refer to as “Pop Järvi” (since two of his sons, Bravo Paavo and Kristjan, are also conductors) is his first, his second cycle being recorded for Deutsche Grammophon. In my view, it is the most exciting set of these works in modern sound, rivaling the recordings of Symphonies 1-3 & 5 by the legendary Robert Kajanus, who was Sibelius’ favorite interpreter of his works. (By the way, ignore the designation on the album cover that Kullervo is included. It isn’t. It’s a three-CD set, and each CD is packed from start to finish with the symphonies. Järvi’s recording of Kullervo is available separately, on Bis CD-313.)

The difference seems to be the tendency towards presenting what is in these scores as opposed to certain critics trying to “read” something into the music that simply isn’t there. The most positive review I’ve read online admits that Järvi has studied and absorbed these scores, that he pays attention to the minutest detail, but that he somehow doesn’t “get” Sibelius, but the recordings everyone else likes are those with a lot of Romanticisms in them, a lot of “warmth” and tempo fluctuations, none of which is indicated in the scores. The Kajanus recordings prove as much and, yes, Sibelius was thrilled by them.

With that being said, I do feel that Järvi is a little cooler in the slow movements of the first and fourth symphonies than Kajanus was, and if that’s a failing then so be it, but I’d rather have a little less moosh in these works than muscle. Sibelius’ model for his symphonies was NOT Bruckner or Brahms; he was his own man, and what he wrote he expected to be played with feeling.

And make no mistake, you hear details in these recordings that elude a great many of Neeme’s rivals, including not only Leif Segerstam (who gave us some very exciting moments but many more that were too slow and Romantic) but also his son Paavo. Neeme Järvi later re-recorded these symphonies with the same orchestra for Deutsche Grammophon, but to be honest only the Fifth is an improvement over this Bis version. (For the record, Paavo Järvi’s Sibelius set on RCA-BMG has gotten uniformly worse reviews than that of his father.)

One of the things I really like about this set is the 3-D orchestral sound. Kajanus tried, bless his Finnish heart, but the dull, dated 1930-32 sonics worked against him. Sir Thomas Beecham, whose Sibelius recordings also get short shrift even though he was the composer’s favorite conductor of his music in the post-Kajanus world (and whose tempi were often even faster), achieved only slightly better clarity than Kajanus.

As usual in most Neeme Järvi performances, forward propulsion of the music takes precedence, yet his phrasing is never so clipped that the legato is impaired. In the slow movement of the Fourth, for instance, he draws out particularly mysterious sounds which contrast nicely with the relatively jolly final movement, and the various moods in the slow movement of the Second are perfectly judged and executed. The Gothenburg Orchestra had a generally bright profile anyway, particularly in its strings and brass; during his tenure with the orchestra, Järvi often referred to it as his “Vienna Philharmonic.” (He called the other orchestra of which he was music director, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, his “Berlin Philharmonic” because of their more burnished sound.)

Personally, I prefer this set not only to Segerstam’s but also to either of Finnish conductor Osmo Vänska’s sets, which I find to be more superficial in feeling. Yes, there are moments when I felt that Segerstam’s Helsinki Philharmonic had a more substantial sound and thus a more visceral impact on certain sections, but I just couldn’t take his ultra-slow readings of various movements.

As is so often the case in sets of this sort (Vänska’s first set with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra was an exception), the symphonies are programmed out of order: Nos. 1 & 4 on CD 1, 2 and 5 on CD 2, and Symphonies 3, 6 & 7 on CD 3. Not ideal programming, but if you purchase this as a download you can easily arrange them in the proper order (CD 1 will run 80 minutes exactly), but having them on 3 CDs makes the set more affordable than many others which are spread out onto four CDs (including Järvi’s later remake on DG). The brass crescendos in the first movement of the Fourth Symphony are hair-raising, as they should be, and Järvi gives this slow music more muscle than we hear in many a rival recording. (I tend to think of Järvi as a sort of “junior Artur Rodziński,” the latter being one of my all-time favorite conductors and a man who, in turn, I sometimes refer to as “the junior Toscanini.”)

Personally, looking at the scores as you listen to these recordings, I don’t really understand why these recordings are in such disrepute. I found nothing objectionable about any of them except one thing: Järvi never, ever gives you a “soft” orchestral profile, and ever since John Barbirolli recorded these symphonies that seems to be what everyone wants in this music. Except me…and hopefully, except you.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Dmitry Smirnov Plays Solo Violin Sonatas

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BARTÓK: Solo Violin Sonata. J.S. BACH: Partita No. 2 for Solo Violin. SCHNEEBERGER: Solo Violin Sonata / Dmitry Smirnov, vln / First Hand Records FHR117

I’ve never heard of violinist Dmitry Smirnov, who judging by his photos seems to be quite advanced in years. Apparently he has been a soloist in Russian with the Mariinsky Theater, St. Petersburg and Moscow orchestras as well as making guest appearances in Lucerne, Basel, Argovia (Aargau, in Switzerland) and Gstaad, mostly out-of-the-way places as far as most international careers go.

On this disc he tackles two familiar pieces by Bartók and J.S. Bach and one rather unusual piece by composer Hansheinz Schneeberger (1926-2019), who Smirnov knew personally in his last years. According to the booklet, Schneeberger instructed him on the proper style for the music of Bartók and Veress as well as his own, emphasizing “the inherent flow of the music.” This is evident in his approach to the Bartók sonata, a fine performance that compares well with the recordings by Barnabás Kelemen (Hungaroton) and Tamsin Waley-Cohen (Signum), both of which are in my collection. Smirnov’s performance of the Bach Partita is also very good without breaking any new ground of surpassing the best recordings of the past such as the great set by Joseph Szigeti. I will say, however, that his technique in the last fast movement is outstanding.

But the prize of this collection is the Schneeberger sonata, a wonderful modern piece that combines bitonal harmonies with a lyric top line, almost like a combination of Enescu, Bartók and Shostakovich. The fast second movement, “Allegro comodo e grazioso,” is in fact about as lyrical a piece as you are likely to hear in a modern violin sonata, grateful to the ear while still playing around with the harmonic base. One might almost characterize it as a tonal movement with bitonal touches rather than the other way around; and in all of this music, Smirnov plays with passion and commitment.

A very nice CD, then, with the emphasis on the last work.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Suré Eloff Sings Berg

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BERG: Jugendlieder: Vol. 1: No. 1, Herbstgefühl; No. 2, Spielleute; No. 4, Lied des Schiffermädels; No. 5, Sehnsucht I; No. 8, Vielgeliebte schöne Frau; No. 9, Sehnsucht II; No. 10, Sternefall; No. 14, Ich will die Fluren meiden; No. 15, Geliebte Schöne; No. 16, Schattenleben; No. 17, Am Abend; No. 21, Liebe; No. 23, Grabschrift. Vol. II: No. 1, Traum; No. 5, Süß sind mir die Schollen des Tales; No. 10, Winter; No. 11, Fraue, du Süße; No. 12, Verlassen; No. 13, Regen; No. 15, Hoffnung; No. 18, Eure Weisheit; No. 20, Mignon; No. 22, Das stille Königreich / Suré Eloff, soprano; Nathaniel Schmidt, pianist / Centaur CRC3438

South African-born soprano Suré Eloff, who studied both in Cape Town and at the University of Texas, Arlington, has a crystal-clear, pure voice with just a bit of a flutter in it. She is also a fine interpreter, which helps in the presentation of these early Berg songs.

It’s interesting to me that although your standard classical vocal fan can’t stomach any of Berg’s later music, they love his early songs. The reason I find this interesting is that, even in this music, there is something unusual going on in the harmony that leads one to believe that as he matured his music was going to change and change drastically; none of his early music is as “comfortable” to listen to as the contemporary songs of Wolf or young Zemlinsky. Even his mentor in 12-tone music, Arnold Schoenberg, wrote music that was more harmonically conventional than early Berg, and this comes out in song after song on this album (although “Regen,” from Vol. 2, is the most conventional of the lot). I should point out that the songs are not sung in the order presented in the header to this review but, rather, intermixed between Vols. 1 & 2, and even when two or three songs in a row are presented from the same volume, they are generally not in numerical order, but the sequencing used on this disc presents a nice contrast in both tempo and key as she moves from song to song.

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Suré Eloff

The musical and emotional impact of each song is greatly helped by her accompanist, pianist Nathaniel Schmidt, on whom very little information is available online. All I could find on him was that he recorded an album of contemporary music titled Satellites on the Dancing Monkey label, and that he “returned” to downtown Calgary for a recital, which indicates to me that he is Canadian, yet he and Eloff make a wonderful duo here. Every little nuance in Eloff’s singing is mirrored and emphasized by his strong, emotional playing.

Overall, then, a very fine album. Although mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley, who also has a fine voice, recorded all of the Jugendlieder for Centaur in 2015, her pianist, Kuang-Hao Huang, isn’t half as expressive as Schmidt, but if you want all of Berg’s Jugendlieder I would recommend getting the Bentley set as well to fill out the set even though the Eloff-Schmidt duo is better in terms of emotional commitment.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Martin Salemi’s “About Time”

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SALEMI: Remembered. Doubt. One Fine Day. Lamento. Late April. Still Water. Most of the Time / Martin Salemi, pno; Boris Schmidt, bs; Daniel Jonkers, dm / Igloo Records IGL 331

Belgian jazz pianist Martin Salemi sent me audio links to this, his new album for review because I had some very nice things to say about his previous release (Short Stories, reviewed November 2017). Like its predecessor, it is essentially low-key jazz; this is not the kind of music I generally like, but Salemi has a certain way with the music that makes you listen.

It’s a very European concept of jazz, by which I mean that it owes a lot more to subtle classical music like Satie and Debussy than to Bill Evans. There’s always something interesting going on with the harmony, which I feel is the “heart” of Salemi’s musical ideas. In the opener, Remembered, for instance, things move along quite placidly until the 2:05 mark, which is when his improvisation kicks in. Nothing flashy, but everything well thought out and it makes musical sense. His rhythm section acts as a sort of “heartbeat” to his playing, and in fact when Schmidt begins his bass solo it almost sounds at first as if it were Salemi playing the hammers inside the piano, the sound is so gentle and subtle. Yet his solo is highly rhythmic in its own way, including a passage where he suddenly shifts from 4/4 to a rapid 6/8 for a couple of bars, with drummer Jonkers following him.

And thus does the album proceed from track to track. Doubt has a hint of a rock beat, but thankfully only that. The tempo becomes even faster on One Fine Day, but the general vibe remains soft and subtle. One thing I noticed, and I don’t know if this was accidental or done on purpose, but most of these tracks seem to be in similar keys, and this does not provide sufficient contrast in the programming. With Lamento, however, both the key and the mood change to a sort of soft Latin beat.

By and large, this is what I’d characterize as a late-night quiet jazz album, wonderful to listen to when you want to wind down and calm out your mind before going to bed but not something so dull that it bores you before you can relax. Very nice music for that sort of thing.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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A Fischer-Dieskau Anthology

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CDs 1 & 2: SCHUBERT: Das Fischermädchen. Du bist die Ruh’. Ständchen. Ich auf der Erd’. Die Winde sausen am Tannehang. Der Einsame. Im Abendrot. Abschied. Aufenthalt. Erlkönig. Seligkeit. Heidenröslein. Hark, Hark the Lark. Fischerweise. Die Forelle. Der Strom. Litanei auf des Fest Aller Seelen. SCHUMANN: Die Lotosblume. Du bist wie eine blume. WOLF: Der Tambour. Der Feuerreiter. Starchenbotschaft. STRAUSS: Traum durch die Dämmerunng. Ständchen. Morgen. LOEWE: Erlkönig. BEETHOVEN: An die ferne Geliebte. HAYDN: Eine sehr gewöhnliche. Der Gleichsinn. Die zu späte Ankunft der Mutter. Gegenliebe. Geistliches Lied/Gebet zu Gott. Das Kaiserlied / Gerald Moore, pno / SCHUMANN: Liederkreis. BRAHMS: 4 Serious Songs / Hertha Klust, pno / TELEMANN: Die Einsamkeit. Das Glücke kommt. Das Frauenzimmer. Seltenes Glück. Die vergessene Phillis. Falschheit. Lob des Weins / Edith Picht-Axenfeld, hpd; Irmgard Poppen, cel

CDs 3 & 4: DONIZETTI: Lucia di Lammermoor: Cruda, funesta smania (w/Theodor Schlott, bs). GLUCK: Orfeo ed Euridice: Che faro, senza Euridice. MOZART: Die Zauberflöte: Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja; Papagena! Papageno! (w/Lisa Otto, sop). VERDI: Falstaff: Act II (w/Josef Metternich, bar; Cornelis van Dijk, ten). VERDI: Don Carlo*: É lui desso…Dio che nell’alma infondere (w/Boris Greverus, ten); O signor, di Fiandra arriva; Quest’ è la paceche voi date (w/Josef Greindl, bs) / RIAS Symphonie-Orch.; Berlin; *Berlin State Opera Orch.; Ferenc Fricsay, cond. / LORTZING: Zar und Zimmermann: Einst spielt’ ich mit Szepter. Der Wildschütz: Wie freundlich strahlt die holde. WAGNER: Tannhäuser: O du mein Abendstern.* PUCCINI: La Bohème: O Mimi tu più non torni (w/Rudolf Schock, ten)+ / Berlin Philharmonic Orch.; *Philharmonia Orch.; +Berlin Symphony Orch; Wilhelm Schüchter, cond / WAGNER: Die Meistersinger: Was Euch zum Leide Richt’ und Schnur (w/Wolfgang Windgassen, ten) / Bayreuth Festival Orch.; André Cluytens, cond / TCHAIKOVSKY: Eugen Onegin: Sie schrieben mir – Wenn für die Ehe (w/Sena Jurinac, sop) / Vienna State Opera Chorus & Orch.; Lovro bon Matačic, cond/ HANDEL: Giulio Cesare: Va tacito e nacosto / Berlin Radio Symphony Orch.; Karl Böhm, cond / HANDEL: Berenice: Si, tra i cappi / Munich Bach Orch.; Karl Richter, cond / HAYDN: La vera costanza: So che una bestia sei. MOZART: Le nozze di Figaro: Hai già vinta…Vedrò mentr’io sospiro / Wiener Haydn-Orch.; Reinhard Peters, cond / MOZART: Don Giovanni: Finch’an dal vino; Là ci darem la mano (w/Irmgard Seefried, sop); Metà di voi qua vadano. ROSSINI: Guglielmo Tell: Resta immobile. GOUNOD: Faust: Avant de quitter / Berlin Radio Symphony Orch.; Ferenc Fricsay, cond / MOZART: Così fan Tutte: La mano a me date (w/Ernst Häfliger, ten; Hermann Prey, bar; Erika Köth, sop) / Berlin Philharmonic Orch.; Eugen Jochum, cond / VERDI: Otello: Rodrigo, beviam! (w/Piero di Palma, Florindo Andreolli, ten) / New Philharmonia Orch.; Sir John Barbirolli, cond / STRAUSS: Die Frau ohne Schatten: Mir anvertraut, daß ich sie hege (w/Inge Borkh, sop). Arabella: Und di wirst mein Gebeiter sein (w/Lisa della Casa, sop) / Bavarian State Orch.; Joseph Keilberth, cond / HINDEMITH: Mathis der Maler / Berlin Radio Symphony Orch.; Leopold Ludwig, cond / VERDI: Il Trovatore: Il balen del suo sorriso. Rigoletto: Cortigianni, vil razza dannata! I Vespri Siciliani: Si, m’abboriva…In braccio alla dovizie. Un ballo in Maschera: Eri tu che m’acchiavi. Falstaff: Eh! paggio! / Berlin Philharmonic Orch.; Alberto Erede, cond

CD 5: SCHÜTZ: Symphoniae Sacrae II: Singet dem Herren ein neues lied. TUNDER: Da mihi, Domine. BRUHNS: Erstanden ist der heilige Christ. J.C. BACH: Ach, dass ich wassers gnug hätte in meinem haupte / Else Göhrum-Jennewein, Bertha Krimm, vln; Hermann Hirschfelder, Marianne Klemm-Ott, Walter Henschel, vla; Hermann Klaiss, Werner Taube, cel; Lisedore Prätorius, hpd / J.S. BACH: Cantata 157: Ja, ja, ich halte Jesum feste. Cantata 73: Ach, unser wille…Herr, so du willt. Der freide sei mit dir, BWV 158 / Michael Schwalbé, vln; Aurèle Nicolet, fl; Lothar Koch, ob; Irmgard Poppen, cel; Edith Picht-Axenfeld, hpd; St. Hedwig’s Cathedral Choir; Berlin Philharmonic Orch.; Karl Förster, cond / J.S. BACH: St. Matthew Passion: Mache dich, mein Herze rein / Munich Bach Orch.; Karl Richter, cond / PEPPING: O haupt voll blut und wunden / Berlin Radio Symphony Orch.; Artur Rother, cond

CDs 6 & 7: MAHLER: Songs of a Wayfarer / Philharmonia Orch.; Wilhelm Furtwängler, cond / SCHUMANN: Scenes from Goethe’s “Faust” / Vienna Philharmonic Orch.; Wolfgang Sawallisch, cond / MOZART: Warnung: Männer suchen stets zu naschen. Ich mochte wohl der Kaiser sein. Cosi dunque tradisci – Aspri rimorsi atroci. / Vienna Haydn Orch.,; Reinhard Peters, cond / TELEMANN: Funeral Music for a Dead Canary / Helmut Heller, vln; Heinz Kirchner, vla; Lothar Koch, ob; Edith Picht-Axenfeld, hpd / HANDEL: Cuopre tal volta in Cielo /  HANDEL: Apollo und Daphne / Agnes Giebel, sop; Thomas Brandis, vln; Ottomar Borwitzky, cel; Berlin Philharmonic Orch.; Günther Weissenborn, cond / HANDEL: Dalla Guerra amorosa. J.S. BACH: Amore traditore, BWV 203. Cantata 212, “Mer hahn en neue Oberkeet” / Berlin Philharmonic Orch.; Karl Förster, cond / Profil PH20074

This massive set, with a playing time of nine hours spread over seven CDs, covers the period 1948 to 1969 with the bulk of it coming from the period 1948-1959, thus it gives us a chance to hear Fischer-Dieskau as an evolving artist stemming from his first opera production (the Don Carlo in German directed by Fricsay) to the time of his commercial stereo recording of Italian opera arias under Alberto Erede. It’s a bit mind-boggling and, for me, is pretty much the last word on Fischer-Dieskau’s interpretive abilities with the exceptions of his mono album of Strauss songs with Gerald Moore, his 1960 recording of Das Lied von der Erde under Paul Kletzki, and his interpretation of Britten’s War Requiem. Otherwise, you pretty much get the full monty here, including several recordings issued on CD for the first time and quite a few rarities from live performances over German radio.

Fischer-Dieskau was clearly one of the finest singers and interpreters of his time; he had a wide range of tastes and interests, including one in which he did not indulge himself vocally, and that was jazz. He grew up as one of Germany’s “swing kids,” adored American jazz and once while on a tour of the U.S. he refused to fly back home from New York until he had the chance to see one of his idols, Ella Fitzgerald. Yet to my knowledge he never sang a note of jazz and certainly never recorded any.

He was also one of those very rare singers whose voice was naturally placed and who didn’t need much training but the rough condition of his voice in the two clips from his 1948 Don Carlo suggest to me that he went to someone, possibly Georg A. Walter who is often cited as his only voice teacher, to tidy things up a bit before he started recording in 1949. Whatever the actual case, he managed to keep his voice in fairly good shape over the next quarter-century, only running into vocal problems again around the mid-1970s when he was 50 years old, and from then on his voice went in and out of focus depending on the day he sang and how he was feeling physically at that moment. He managed to keep going, with his vocal state changing, into the mid-1980s before it all collapsed on him, and by that time he was 60 and had already left more records than you could easily fit into one room in your house (at least in their original 78 and LP formats).

As you can see, this set is divided up into four sections: two CDs of lieder, two of opera excerpts, one of religious stuff, and two of “concert music.” Although these are mostly recordings of later vintage and not archaic 78s, engineer Holger Siedler must once again receive the highest praise for his restorations. Even on the early 1950s Schubert recordings, Fischer-Dieskau’s voice is so beautifully reproduced that you’d almost swear that he was in the room with you…and he has done the almost impossible by making two excerpts from the baritone’s debut, the 1948 Don Carlo broadcast, sound listenable for the first time. (I would even encourage him to restore the whole thing, but it’s not really worth it…the music is so horribly chopped up that they even omit the Friar in the Act I duet scene.) Of the lieder discs, I missed a few of my “old friends” from his early mono EMI recitals such as a few Schubert songs (Der Jüngling und der Quelle, Der Tod und das Mädchen, Der Doppelgänger and Auf dem Wasser zu singen) and much more of the Strauss lieder, but at least they included his classic early accounts of Morgen, Traum durch die Dämmerung and the Ständchen, which are unsurpassed in his entire catalogue.

From a purely technical standpoint, Fischer-Dieskau was an almost purely instinctive singer, though the booklet notes reiterate that he did study for at least a year with famed tenor Georg A. Walter beginning at age 16. With his natural voice placement, he just opened up his mouth, started singing, and whatever interpretive details came into his head. he was able to impart to the music. Yet many German critics (and some musicians) didn’t like this approach; they considered it too “fussy,” the same way many Germans considered Artur Schnabel’s piano playing to be too fussy. And even some listeners who could accept this approach in lieder, which after all are intimate little poems and stories set to a normally delicate piano accompaniment, absolutely hated his singing in opera, where they wanted less nuance and more belt-it-out sound. Personally, I liked Fischer-Dieskau in opera, particularly as Posa in Don Carlo, Wolfram in Tannhäuser and Kurwenal in Tristan, and as the protagonist in Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, while admitting that there were just certain roles he didn’t “inhabit” well. These were usually the villains like Iago in Otello, though surprisingly he sang a splendid Don Pizarro in Fidelio, and Mozart’s Don Giovanni. In the latter role he easily brought out the seductive side of the character but never could “get” the dark, evil, lecherous side as John Brownlee, Cesare Siepi, Eberhard Wächter, Mario Petri, Ingvar Wixell, William Shimell and Bryn Terfel did so well. Listening to his Falstaff excerpts, he also had some difficulty bringing out any real humor in the character, though he at least tried. (Similarly, the warmth and humor of Hans Sachs was also beyond his capabilities, not just interpretively but vocally…with his high, light voice, the music lacked the proper weight much of the time.)

But to return to our regularly scheduled review, listening to these early lieder recordings is pretty much a treat from start to finish. His Erlkönig isn’t on the same level as the perfect interpretation by Lula Mysz-Gmeiner, but it’s at least as good as those of Ernestine Schumann-Heink and Alexander Kipnis. which were quite excellent. One of the few songs that I felt was rushed too much was Schubert’s Heidenröslein; six seconds longer would have given us a superb reading at a proper but relaxed tempo. To counter this, however, Hark, Hark the Lark is absolutely perfect; this is exactly the tempo you need to give the music its proper swagger and bird-like “chirpiness.” (And in all these recordings, Siedler managed to capture the original recording studio ambience that even EMI releases didn’t have. He is a genius of sound engineering.)

As good as F-D’s An die ferne Geliebte is, I didn’t think he got as deep into the lyrics as Jon Vickers did—for me, his performance of this song cycle is perfection—but he does a splendid job on the Wolf lieder and has a ball with the little-heard Haydn songs. I don’t know if you can really refer to the Telemann songs as “lieder”— they technically fit more into the “concert music” repertoire, since the music is not as word-specific as most German lied—but they’re interesting to hear and feature Fischer-Dieskau’s first wife, Irmgard Poppen, on the cello (she tragically died in 1963 during childbirth) as well as the excellent German harpsichordist Edith Picht-Axenfeld. Plus, he knocks of an excellent trill in Das Glücke kömmt selten and some neat trills in Ein Stand, der ohn’ Gefahr ist. Some of his portamento effects and accenting of the rhythm probably isn’t authentic style, but who cares when he brings out so much in the words and music??

The operatic excerpts open with a real rarity, “Cruda, funesta smania” from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, conducted at a wonderfully brisk clip by Ferenc Fricsay. (I wonder if this was a complete recording and, if so, who the Lucia was?) Foscher-Dieskau’s Papageno was a classic; the complete recording was only marred by Josef Greindl’s very wobbly Sarastro and Rita Streich’s generic, non-scary Queen of the Night. (You HAVE to sound menacing in “Der holle Rache”!) The Meistersinger excerpt heard here is from a live performance, and in it Fischer-Dieskau sings Fritz Kothner, not Hans Sachs (Windgassen sings Walther). Likewise, the Falstaff excerpt has him singing Ford—Josef Metternich sings the title role and some Dutch tenor named Cornelis van Dijk sings Bardolph, but it’s an extraordinarily lively performance. Had it been in Italian, I would have liked to hear the whole recording. Another oddity is the Onegin-Tatiana scene from Eugen Onegin with Sena Jurinac, likewise the “O Mimi tu più non torni” duet from La Bohème with Rudolf Schock in surprisingly good voice, the tone bright, focused, and not throaty.

As mentioned earlier, Holder Siedler did a fantastic job getting surprisingly decent sound out of the recording of Fischer-Dieskau’s debut as Posa in Don Carlo, but omigod is this a chopped-up rendition of the score. In all honesty, Fricay, who was a gold-plated, first-class musician, should have been ashamed of himself for putting on a performance this messed up. Boris Greverus, our Carlo, has a very dark tenor voice that actually sounds more baritonal than Fischer-Dieskau’s, and the tone is unlovely, but he manages pretty well.

I could have lived without most of the religious music—I didn’t care for much of it strictly as music, and the religious themes repulse me—but Fischer-Dieskau was apparently deeply religious himself and put his heart into it. For better or worse, I thought he sang the Schütz piece much too loudly, and the accompanying strings sounded harsh and grating. undoubtedly the fault of the original recording. But if you think the Schütz is bad music, wait until you hear the drippy piece by one Franz Tunder—and the Nick Bruhns piece is even worse. With all the excellent recordings we have of him singing J.S. Bach, some of it with Karl Richter conducting, why even include this third-rate junk? Thank goodness that we at least get some good music from J.C. and J.S. Bach to listen to. Aside from the Bachs, the only great music on this CD is the final piece by one Ernst Pepping (1901-1981) which is extremely interesting, well-written, and just modern enough to hold one’s interest without sounding too dissonant. And one thing the Pepping piece reveals is that, in his younger years, when Dietrich took certain high notes they still had a high baritone “sound” but more of a tenor vocal placement—undoubtedly the effect of Walter’s teaching.

CD 6 starts with a classic, Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer conducted by Furtwängler. Like most conductors of his time, Furtwängler hated the Mahler Symphonies but he liked these songs, thus when they came out on LP the flip side of the album consisted of seven Brahms songs with Hertha Klust as the pianist. The conducting is a little slow by out standards today, but Furtwängler was an excellent conductor and thus moves them pretty well while bringing out a wealth of color from the orchestra. In fact, the remastering is so good that you hear all kinds of orchestral details here that you never heard on the LP. The scenes from Schumann’s Faust are excellently sung but conducted with a little too much legato by Wolfgang Sawallisch.

The Mozart concert arias from Warnung with orchestra from 1969 are all excellent music; by this time, we can hear that although Fischer-Dieskau’s upper register was still intact, his lower range had become fuller and richer with age, although this was to change by the mid-1970s. He also sings some excellent turns and trills in “Un bacio di mano.” I had never heard Telemann’s Funeral Music for a Dead Canary before, but it’s a surprisingly lively piece with great humor in the music and, although Fischer-Dieskau never quite captures the humor, he does sing in a sprightly manner. Lots of trills in the recitative “Was soll ich mehr zu deinem”…apparently, in Germany in those days, mourning a canary meant that you had to have your trills in order! Surprisingly, in the 1960 recording of the Handel cantata with his wife on cello, Dietrich’s voice sounds surprisingly darker than usual. I might not even have recognized him in a blindfold test.

The last CD starts with a rarity, Handel’s dramatic cantata Apollo e Dafne in its first-ever appearance on CD. This is a 1966 recording with soprano Agnes Giebel and members of the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Günther Weissenborn. The odd thing is, I mostly remember Giebel from her recording on Vox; I didn’t know she had recorded for a major label. She had a nice voice, very pretty if rather inexpressive, but Fischer-Dieskau makes up for her deficiencies. A note to all of you HIP fanatics out there: this is the way this music is supposed to sound: full-blooded and dramatic, not like some wussy crap played and sung by MIDIs. Dalla Guerra Amorosa is a solo cantata, also full o’ trills.

J.S. Bach’s cantata Amore Traditore is possibly the closest he ever came to writing a then-conventional opera scene. In it, a lover bitterly complains, “Treacherous love, you will deceive me no more!…I want to find out if I can cure my soul of this fatal wound, and if I can live with your arrow. No more will hope be a façade for pain, and may the joy in my heart be worth more than your jesting about my constancy.” But the second Bach cantata, which ends the set, is titled “We Have a New Governor.” This is one of his more humorous pieces, the lyrics being:

We have a new governor
in our chamberlain.
He gives us beer that goes to your head–
That’s the simple truth!
But the parson is always cross…
Musicians, get ready quickly!
Mieke’s smock is already shaking,
The giddy little thing.

Bass: Come on, Mieke, give me a kiss!
Soprano: As if that’s all you want!
I know what you’re like, you lazy good-for-nothing bum!
You always want something more;
The new master has a very sharp look.

Bass: Ah, our master does not scold!
He knows as well as we do, and maybe even better,
how enjoyable is a little bit of fun.

Aria, Soprano:
Ah, but it’s a little too enjoyable
when a couple gets really cozy
Oh, there’s a buzzing in the guts
as if you had fleas and bugs
And a crazy swarm of wasps
were annoyed at each other!

Bass, Recitative:
The master is good, but the tax collector
Comes straight out of hell!
Quick as lightning he can slap a new tax on us,
the very moment we’ve just gotten out of hot water!

Aria, Bass:
Ah, Mr. Tax Collector, don’t be too hard
on us poor peasants!
Leave us our skin at least;
Eat up the cabbage
Like caterpillars, to the bare stalk
That should be enough for you!

How about that, boys and girls? Old Bach had a jolly side! Who would have thought it?

So except for several really awful religious pieces on CD 5, this is really a great set and an excellent cross-section of Fischer-Dieskau’s abilities, lacking only the Britten War Requiem as a final bookend. The bottom line, however, would be whether or not you, personally, need this set. If you are a lifelong, rabid Fischer-Dieskau collector, the answer is obviously no unless you see enough items here that you don’t have but want, but for the rest of us, who collected him to a point but not avariciously, the answer is yes, because it showcases him in so many different kinds of music, some of the recordings being of quite unusual music, that it’s worth having the whole thing together in one package…plus, you can’t beat the remastering job. At $35 for the entire set (the rate on Amazon.de), you’re talking about $5 per CD, and it’s definitely worth the investment despite the lack of texts and translations for the rarer pieces.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Roseanna Vitro & Friends Pay Tribute to Bird

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PARKER: People Chase [Steeplechase].1,5 The Scatter [Red Cross].1,2,6 Bird’s Song [Relaxin’ at Camarillo].3,5 Parker’s Mood.4,5 Grapple With the Apple [Scrapple From the Apple].1,6,8 Audubon’s New Bluebird [Bluebird].2,6,7 Sheila, Jazz Child [Cheryl].1,3,6 Quasimodo.3,6 Now’s the Time.4,5 Yardbird Suite.1,5 Medley: Ko-Ko/NOBLE: Cherokee.5 STRACHEY-MASCHWITZ: These Foolish Things 1-3,6 / 1Roseanna Vitro, 2Bob Dorough, 3Sheila Jordan, 4Marion Cowings, voc; 5Gary Bartz, a-sax; Alan Broadbent, pno; Dean Johnson, bs; Alvester Garnett, dm. 6Mark Gross, a-sax; Jason Teborek, pno; Johnson, bs; Bill Goodwin, dm. Add 7Paul Myers, gtr; 8Mino Cinelu, perc / Skyline SKYP 2101

With all the tribute albums to Charlie Parker (Bird) that have come out this year, you’d think this was the centenary of his birth or death, but actually the centenary of his birth was last year—the year of the Dreaded Pandemic From Hell—so I guess that they held off releasing this CD until now, particularly since some of the tracks to complete this album couldn’t be made until May of this year. It’s scheduled for full release on September 24.

And what a tribute it is, including vocals by one singer who actually knew and sang with Parker, Sheila Jordan, as well as the late Bob Dorough, who just made it to this album before his death on April 23, 2018 as well as Marion Cowings, a master of scat singing. Jordan’s voice has finally dropped in pitch from the way she sounded even into the early 2000s, but the girlish sweetness of tone remains the same…plus it’s a treat to hear her with a full band and not just a bass playing.

Indeed, although the album was Vitro’s project it really does sound like an open jam session in which she or the band invited these other three excellent jazz singers up to the stand to pitch in. She had an urge to put new lyrics to Parker’s compositions, thus creating a bop counterpart to Lambert, Hendricks & Ross’ classic Sing a Song of Basie LP from the 1950s; Jordan, Dorough and Cowings, all of whom she considers models and/or mentors, were thus invited to join in. The rhythm sections seem to vacillate between a bop beat and a swing one, but bop came out of swing anyway just as R&B did. Of the two alto saxists, both try to channel their inner Parker pretty well but for some reason Gross’ tone sounds a bit more like his model.

Yet in the end, I think Bird would have enjoyed this tribute because it really does come from the heart. All of these singers and musicians obviously admired Parker, and if I single out Jordan for top honors among the vocalists it’s simply because her improvisations are the most imaginative and interesting. Interestingly, Vitro’s style, though clearly good, sounds closer to young Sheila as she sounded on her recently-released lost 1960 album than modern-day Sheila.

But as I said, everyone is in there pitching and every singer and musician gave his or her all on this effervescent set. There’s not a bad track on the entire CD, they programmed the songs well. The Ko-Ko/Cherokee medley is the only instrumental on the set.

Strange though it may sound, there are too many highlights on this album to spend time describing them all. The album is flawless in the sense that there isn’t a bad or indifferent track or solo from start to finish, yet except for Vitro’s excellent new lyrics the album doesn’t break any new ground. But it didn’t have to. This is jazz perfection as you rarely hear it in any genre nowadays. What a shame that it wasn’t issued on Blue Note, who could have given it bigger promotion, but nowadays as long as you know about the record you can go online and buy it regardless of who put it out.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Fassbaender’s Excellent Loewe CD

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LOEWE: 5 Gesänge der Sehnsucht, Op. 9: No. 2: Meine Ruh’ ist hin; No. 3: Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh; No. 4, Der du von dem Himmel bist; No. 5, Sehnsucht; Book 7 No. 2, Im Traum sah ich die Geliebte; Book 8 No. 4, Mädchenwunsche.  6 Lieder, Op. 9 No. 1: Szene aus Faust. 6 Nachtgesange, Book 1, Op. 9: No. 1, Die Lotosblume. 12 Gedichte, Op. 62: No. 3, O süsse Mutter; No. 4, Süsses Begrabnis; No. 5, Hinkende Jamben; No. 6, Irrlichter; No. 10, Das Pfarrjungferchen. Frauenliebe, Op. 60 / Brigitte Fassbaender, mezzo; Cord Garben, pno / Deutsche Grammophon 28942368026

This album, recorded in 1988 and rereleased in 2015 but not previously reviewed by me, came under my radar because I’ve been on a bit of a Carl Loewe kick lately. And the problem I’ve run into is that, with few exceptions (Johannes Martin Kränzle, Roman Trekel, Thomas Hampson and Fassbaender), most modern singers don’t have a clue how to sing Loewe, which is probably the reason he’s not as frequent a visitor to song recitals as he should be.

The problem is that most of Loewe’s songs are NOT “polite lieder” in the sense that most of Schubert’s, Schumann’s, Brahms’ or Mahler’s are. They are little dramas in music—you might say stories, or you might say dramatic epics—in song, thus they don’t sound very good when you interpret them subtly. Just imagine, for instance, that every Schubert song was like Erlkönig, Der Tod und das Mädchen or Winterreise and you’ll know what I mean. Loewe’s songs demand a full-blooded, almost operatic approach to the lyrics, and for whatever reason the older singers (e.g., Paul Bender, Lula Mysz-Gmeiner, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, young Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Kim Borg, Josef Greindl and Hans Hotter) “got” Loewe better than even such normally fine interpreters as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau or Thomas Quasthoff, who underplayed the drama in each song.

But by and large, Brigitte Fassbaender has been an operatic animal more than a lieder singer, her father Willi was one of the better interpreters of his time, and so she approaches these songs with both refinement of voice and enthusiasm of approach, with excellent results. Were these recordings released on an old mono LP or 78s, they would be collectors’ items. That’s how good they are.

For this program Fassbaender chose a few lieder to go along with the ballads, and she is wise enough to understand that they need a slightly different approach. Loewe wrote so many songs that to do a full edition of them would take a couple of dozen CDs. CPO tried to record a complete Loewe edition in the early 2000s, but except for Trekel and veteran bass Kurt Moll, none of the singers on those discs really understood Loewe’s style and so did not give them the “operatic” interpretation that most of them need in order to be effective.

Since I have young (1941 vintage) Schwarzkopf doing several of the 12 Gedichte, including “Irrlichter,” I was able to make a few A-B comparisons with Fassbaender, and the latter even takes some of these songs a bit further than young Lizzie did, which is all for the better. And thankfully, Fassbaender was still in prime vocal estate in 1988 (a smart singer who never over-extended herself, she preserved the voice for decades while many of her contemporaries fell apart) which makes them doubly valuable.

So if you listen to this CD and decide you like Loewe, where do you go from here? I suggest Kim Borg’s 1958 recording of seven Loewe songs with Huber Giesen as pianist, along with a few songs by Trekel and the two that Kränzle has recorded, but then head back in time. Go to YouTube and dig up Mysz-Gmeiner’s Herr Oluf, Lawrence Tibbett’s Edward, and as many Loewe songs as you can find by Bender, Greindl, Hotter et. al. I guarantee you, you won’t be disappointed. And then I urge you to go to Emily Ezust’s LiederNet Archive and dig up the words to all the songs. With Loewe, the words mean everything towards your understanding his music and the right approach. Enjoy!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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