The Music of Eliodoro Sollima

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SOLLIMA: Cello Sonata. Studi for Violin & Clarinet. Tre movimenti for Piano, Violin & Cello. Evoluziona No. 5. Quartetto No. 3 la leggenda di San Damiano. Aria for Piano, Violin, Viola & 2 Cellos* / Ensemble Kinari: Azusa Onishi, vln; Gianluca Pirisi, cel; Mizuho Ueyama, vla; Flavia Salemmi, pno. *Giovanni Solima, cel / Brilliant Classics 96287

From the publicity blurb for this CD:

Eliodoro Sollima (1926-2000) was a Sicilian musician raised in the town of Marsala, where the concert hall is dedicated to his memory. From 1954 to 1991 he taught composition at the conservatoire in Palermo, where he was also the institution’s director for 16 years. This is the only album dedicated to his music: new recordings made by a young contemporary music ensemble, who are joined by the composer’s son, Giovanni Sollima, a cellist and composer in his own right who has made several previous albums for Brilliant Classics.

What struck me from the very opening of the Cello Sonata was a composer who walked a bit of a tightrope between more tonal, melodic music and more modern harmonies. He clearly knew the basic principles of composition; his music has focus and direction, and makes logical sense. Despite the occasional modern harmonies, the cello line has sweep and a definable melodic structure. It’s the piano that takes things in a different direction, eventually pulling the cello along with it.

Yet the music holds your interest because of Sollima’s excellent grasp of structure as well his willingness to take some risks. The third and last movement of this Cello Sonata contains some extremely difficult, virtuoso passages for both instruments, which Gianluca Pirisi and Flavia Salemmi handle extremely well.

Interestingly, in the Tre movimenti Sollima abandoned his tonal bias to produce a mostly atonal work. Yet even here his gift for a melodic line comes through, and if anything it is an even more imaginative piece than the Cello Sonata. From phrase to phrase one never quite knows what to expect; it’s music that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Evoluziona No. 5 is cut from the same cloth, driving, intense and highly imaginative music that holds your interest. By Quartetto No. 3 we’re back to Sollima’s more Romantic side, but once again we note that there are some passages in which the underlying harmony slips around chromatically here and there.

Ironically, the Aria for Piano, Violin, Viola & 2 Cellos, on which the composer’s son also plays, is the most Romantic and least interesting piece on the CD, but all in all this is an excellent cross-section of Sollima’s works worthy of hearing and respect. He was clearly a fine composer, and several of these works deserve wider exposure.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Brauner Conducts Husa

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HUSA: Symphony No. 2, “Reflections.” 3 Frescoes. Music for Prague 1968 / Prague Symphony Orch.; Tomás Brauner, cond / Supraphon SU4294-2

Up until now, I had exactly one piece of music by Karel Husa (1921-2016) in my collection, the Stele for Solo Violin, thus this recording came as a bit of a revelation to me. Apparently Husa is much better known in France and the United States than in his native country. This is because he left Czechoslovakia at the age of 26 to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and Arthur Honegger, staying there to premiere his first String Quartet in 1950 which won him the Lili Boulanger Prize that year and the Bilthoven Festival Prize the following year. in 1954 he emigrated to the United States, where he became a professor at Cornell University. Among his pupils, says Wikipedia, were Steven Stucky, Christopher Rouse and David Conte. He also lectured at Ithaca College from 1967 to 1986. The last piece on this CD, Music for Prague 1968, was a memorial to the Soviet invasion of his native country which became one of his most famous compositions.

Although there are other recordings of these works available, I purposely avoided listening to them beforehand because I wanted to see if these recordings impressed me on their own without comparisons. They did. Conductor Tomás Brauner, on whom I found lots of “biographical” information telling me that he’s one of the most sought-after conductors of his generation but not what year he was born (so how do I know which generation he belongs to??), really digs into this music with an intensity that reminded me of the late Vaclav Talich. The second symphony is indeed very much like Honegger, utilizing astringent harmonies and orchestration to create and sustain a tense atmosphere. The undercurrent of menace in the first movement is absolutely gripping, thanks in large measure to Husa’s score but also to Brauner’s conducting. The fast second movement opens with a duo played by woodblocks and tympani which lasts nearly a full minute before sharp, stabbing strings enter the picture. Jumpy figures played by the lower strings are juxtaposed against the percussion, followed by staccato figures played by the upper strings, winds and brass. It’s kind of a perpetuum mobile with a sinister bent.

The third movement is similarly tense, and here Husa uses mixed chromatic chords in close proximity to one another in a way that suggests Ligeti. My impression of the 3 Frescoes was of music that, while cut from the same cloth, has a somewhat different feel to it: still somewhat tense but not quite as menacing, with somewhat lyrical phrases played in the top line by solo instruments which, if divorced from the edgy harmonic base, would sound quite lyrical. But then, the music jumps into high gear, things start sounding more threatening, and we’re off to one of Husa’s races. I should also add that these “3 Frescoes” are virtually a symphony, not only in structure but also in length, the first movement running 9:38, the second (more lyrical but still somewhat ominous), eventually reaching Mahlerian proportions of menace 6:44. and the last movement, which starts out relatively mellow but immediately jumps into a sort of menacing march which later morphs and develops into a fugue (while still remaining menacing), 8:40.

Then we reach Music for Prague 1968, which is considered to be one of Husa’s great masterpieces. By now we know what his basic moods and harmonic language is like, so that’s not much of a surprise, but here he also introduces elements of delicacy into his music, such as the high flute solo that opens the “Introduction,” followed by fluttering winds as the solo flute returns. With the arrival of ominous brass fanfares and occasional pounding tympani, one can easily imagine the Soviet tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia. At one point in this work, Husa also references a bit of Smetana’s Ma Vlast, a tip of the cap to Vaclav Talich’s classic 1954 recording of the work that he intended as a protest to the Soviet occupation of his homeland. The “Interlude” opens with soft, almost muffled snare drum rolls, followed by soft percussion (chimes, triangle, xylophone) playing rhythmic figures in the foreground. Husa keeps this up for the entire length of the movement (4:21), with the snare drum eventually increasing in volume, becoming more dominant and aggressive, and thus leading into the quirky, almost confused melee of the last movement, “Toccata and Chorale.”

This is quite the intense disc, superbly recorded and lacking nothing in either virtuosity of execution by the musicians in the orchestra or intensity in performance. Very highly recommended.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The Escher Quartet Plays Barber & Ives

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BARBER: String Quartet in b min. String Quartet in b min: Original last movement. IVES: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2. A Set of Three Short Pieces: Scherzo, “Holding Your Own” / Escher String Quartet / Bis SACD-2360

The Escher String Quartet is a New York-based group that plays in the brisk, no-nonsense style pioneered by the Stuyvesant Quartet of the 1940s and ‘50s, revived in our time by the Alban Berg Quartet and continued by the Emerson Quartet, and it speaks volumes for the state of the recording industry today that they are featured here by a Swedish record label. But no matter, for it is their quality of playing that is under review here and that is first-rate from a technical standpoint.

Also moot for the purposes of this review is whether or not their style would be appropriate for all manner of string quartets, for they are playing the music of two early 20th-century American modernists. Samuel Barber, of course, was not nearly as edgy, idiosyncratic or provocative as Charles Ives, but his lone string quartet, written in 1935-36, remains a now-and-then favorite of many quartets; and of course, the slow second movement was later arranged for full orchestra and has found fame as his best-known piece, the Adagio for Strings, which received its world premiere by Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra. The Escher Quartet plays this with a lovely legato and very light string vibrato, which works exceptionally well for this piece.

The final version of the third and last movement, which runs only 2:18, is followed by the original 1936 finale, which runs 5:28. But it’s not just the length that’s different; so too are the themes as well as the tempo, a bit slower than the revised version. Speaking personally, I thought this an effective third movement which could then be followed by the revised version as a fourth movement, but that of course is just my opinion.

Ives’ First Quartet, subtitled “From the Salvation Army (A Revival of Service),” was written between 1898 and 1909. Those familiar with the composer’s more bitonal works may be quite surprised by this piece’s tonal bias. I found it a good piece but more formulaic than his later, more mature works. It shows a young composer trying to find a style of his own within the then-prescribed limits of how far a composer could go within the tonal idiom; in short, it’s a good piece but not a great one, and not just because it is tonal. There are moments here and there where his originality comes forward, but he just as quickly leaves them to return to a more “regular” way of writing. The second movement sounds the most like an American folk song. The quartet remained in three movements until 1961, when Ives pianist-scholar Ralph Kirkpatrick “persuaded editors to reinstate the fugue and to publish the quartet as a four-movement work.” This reinstated final movement is clearly the most complex and interesting part of it.

This is followed by a Scherzo for quartet entitled “Holding Your Own,” This is written in Ives’ more familiar atonal style, and contains several quotes from such famous American tunes as “Bringing in the Sheaves,” “Massa’s in the Cold, Cold Ground” and “My Old Kentucky Home,” all suitably disguised and reharmonized.

The second quartet was described by the composer as a conversation between four men “who converse, discuss, argue (in re ‘Politick’), fight, shake hands, shut up – then walk up the mountain side to view the firmament!” Yet much of it, particularly the first movement, is slow and moody, not fast, loud and argumentative, and despite the clashing harmonies it is really quite original and fascinating to listen to. By the middle of the first movement, when the tempo picks up, one of the first things you hear is Emmett’s familiar song Dixie, but the quote doesn’t last long and the “four men” are soon back to arguing among themselves, this time more vociferously.

Yet it’s in the second movement that the verbal fight really breaks out, punctuated by moments (I would suppose) of calm reasoning. One of the things I really liked about this movement was Ives’ way of mixing in gritty counterpoint along with quotes of tunes like “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” as the musical argument continued. Yet if anything, it is the long third movement, “The Call of the Mountains,” where things get really gritty in a complex way. This is really an ingenious and fascinating quartet, and the Eschers play it superbly.

An outstanding recording, then, both artistically and sonically.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Tom Nazziola Visits Distant Places

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NAZZIOLA: Cat and Mouse. Over the Horizon. Crossing the Line. Red Sky. Bass Palmas. Rochester Suite. Get the Point. Interstellar. Just Passing Through. Pablo’s Journey. Velvet Carnival. The Golem (Overture) / various musicians including Tom Nazziola, vib/udu/bs dm/marimba/pno; Todd Reynolds, Rachel Golub, vln; Monica Davis, vla; Dave Eggar, cel; Terence Goss, a-sax; Dan Willis, sop-sx; Michael Lowenstern, bs-cl; Doug Oberhamer, pno; Freddie Bryant, Jack Morer, Ian Smit, Paul Livant, gtr; Greg Chudzik, Gregg August, bs; Dave Anthony, cajon; Sergio Krakowski, Scott Feinder, pandeiro; Joe Tompkins, perc; The Fillmore Contemporary Percussion Ens. / Digital CD, available via Bandcamp (tomnazziola.bandcamp.com)

Tom Nazziola is a percussionist-composer who specializes in “live film music” (not sure what that is) and jazz. This is his latest release, but my first exposure to him. He describes this album, scheduled for release on August 13, as a tribute to places he has visited, mostly in the past.

Tom NazziolaThe first track, Cat and Mouse, is described as “Bach-inspired.” It is a fast-paced, circular melody line into which he has woven some interesting counterpoint, which he plays himself via overdubbing on three instruments (marimba, vibes, and udu). It’s quite interesting, becoming quite complex as he moves into later sections of the piece. By contrast, Over the Horizon features members of a string trio (violin-viola-cello) who appear to be playing both written notes and improvisation over Nazziola’s marimbas; he even throws in a few bass drum whacks for good measure. The meter is asymmetric and somewhat hard to follow, but if you just let yourself into the music you can absorb it pretty easily as Nazziola keeps the harmony on a pretty basic level. They get into a sort of rock beat, which didn’t thrill me at all, but since they use acoustic instruments I could tolerate it.

The third track, Crossing the Line, is a showcase for guitarist Freddie Bryant, and this, too is a rhythmically complex piece in which the rhythm (played by Sergio Krakowski) leans towards rock, but not too much. For most of the piece the rhythm is pretty straightforward, but around the 1:40 mark it becomes quite complicated for several bars.

By now you get the drift of Nazziola’s composing style: complex rhythmic constrictions around which he weaves lines for various instruments, all of them played at a consistently uptempo but, with the different textures and sounds, entirely different results. Bass Palmas is, obviously, a showcase for the bass player, in this case Gregg August; Red Sky features Jack Morer’s electric guitar, surprisingly in more of a jazz than a rock mode, with a shuffle rhythm behind him. None of the music here is what you would call profound, but it is all superbly crafted and extremely interesting to listen to because of the way Nazziola produces and plays with the rhythm. In the Rochester Suite, he finally adds saxophones to the mix and the opening section, titled “Garbage Plate,” also features a bass clarinet. Despite the small size of the bands used on the individual tracks, Nazziola has a fine ear for proportion, instrumental color, and balance.

The second piece in the Rochester Suite, “Sibley Tower,” is the first ballad we encounter, played mostly by pianist Doug Oberhamer with Dan Willis on soprano sax; because it is only one ballad and does not overstay its welcome, it provides a good contrast to the preceding and following music. Indeed, the very next track, “5th Floor Annex,” is one of the loudest and most dynamic since it showcases Nazziola and Dave Anthony on the snare and bass drums. This is followed by an electric guitar duet between Jack Morer and Ian Smit, “Going Home,” which surprisingly turns out to be a very nice ballad track and not a screaming heavy-metal rockfest.

Get the Point is just a fun piece, played in a funky R&B style with John Hollenbeck on drums while Nazziola provides a sort of sub-level wordless vocal and finger snaps. Following this is a piece played by The Fillmore Contemporary Percussion Ensemble, Interstellar, which is one of the longest tracks on the album at 7:35. Interestingly, I couldn’t find this group online under that specific name (though there is a Contemporary Percussion Ensemble out of Arizona State University), so I can’t tell you any of their names or who’s playing which instrument, but they’re very good. At around the 6:30 mark, they rise to a tremendous crescendo, following which they indulge in what sounds like some very complex interwoven passages, possibly improvised.

Just Passing Through appears to be a live track, with rock beat, featuring bass and drums with a screaming audience at the beginning. As you wend your way through this album, you’ll discover a number of strange and wonderful things, among them Nazziola’s fascinating piano solo on Velvet Carnival and the combination of Middle Eastern and bluegrass fiddling on the Golem Overture. The promo material for this disc tells us that he wrote the score for The Golem, but I don’t know which one it was; the 2018 Israeli film of that name featured a score by Tal Yardeni. But this is an interesting, multi-movement piece that holds your attention from first to last.

This is a fascinating album that is well worth the $8 he is asking for it as a digital download.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Toke Møldrup Plays Geoffrey Gordon

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GORDON: Cello Concerto, after Mann’s “Doktor Faustus.”1 Fathoms, 5 Impressions of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”2 Ode to a Nightingale3 / Toke Møldrup, cel; 1Copenhagen Philharmonic Orch.; Lan Shui, cond; 2Steven Beck, pno; 3Mogens Dahl Chamber Choir / Bis SACD-2330

This CD highlights the music of British composer Geoffrey Gordon for cello, one work each with orchestra, piano and mixed choir. When the Cello Concerto started, I immediately thought to myself, “Here’s another composer who follows in the footsteps of Thomas Adès’ edgy style,” but by the end of the first minute I realized that Gordon has his own way of composing. Yes, there is edginess in the orchestra, but also some melodic lines as well, and in fact the solo cello part is largely comprised of little melodic cells that develop slightly as the music progresses. Although I can’t say that Gordon’s music impressed me quite as strongly as that of Kalevi Aho, I’d say that he’s closer to Aho in style than to Adès.

There’s a nice organic feeling about this piece that I liked, not least of which was its continuous structure. Though divided into nine sections titled “Prologue,” movements 1-3, “Cadenza,” movement 4, another “Cadenza,” movement 5 and “Epilogue,” the whole piece flows seamlessly from start to finish, a continuous and continuing development every way except harmonically. For the most part, this concerto stays in one basic chord or mode throughout most of its length, with only a few small excursions outside of it. Yet Gordon avoids sounding monotonous by means of his continuously shifting the orchestral colors and rhythmic interplay of the various instruments.

In a way, it sounds less like a cello concerto than like a symphony with cello obbligato, similar to Berlioz’ Harold en Italie. Because of this, I found myself focusing on the content of the music more so than the style of the soloist, although Møldrup is a fine cellist with a bright, compact tone. The music calls much more for legato phrasing than for pyrotechnics, though the cadenzas are certainly somewhat virtuosic. Since this is the first time I’ve heard this music, and haven’t seen the score, I can’t say how close the performance is to the written notes, but it seemed fine to me. I should point out that Møldrup is the principal cellist of the Copenhagen Philharmonic, an orchestra with which conductor Lan Shui has worked with before, particularly in his recording of Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies.

It is in Fathoms that Gordon moves into a more restless, energetic style than the Concerto, producing a veritable swarm of notes from the piano, often in circular chromatic patterns, over which the cellist plays virtuosic, continuously edgy music. Yet in the “Ferdinand and Miranda” section, Gordon writes a surprisingly melodic theme which is later disrupted with edgy outbursts. Yet the music is highly imaginative and unexpected; nothing falls into a neat category for the listener. In “The Isle is Full of Noises” the pianist plays the inside strings of his instrument as well as to slap the outside of it. I should also note that this piece was commissioned by Møldrup.

Ode to a Nightingale is for the unusual combination of a cappella chorus and solo cello, set to the poetry of John Keats. Here, Gordon juxtaposes a tonal melodic line (albeit with several altered chords in the accompaniment) for the chorus against edgy, angst-filled outbursts for the solo cello, and very effectively, too. My lone complaint of this piece is that it went on a bit too long yet did not really add anything to what was already said.

All in all, however, this is a fascinating CD, beautifully recorded and presenting some very diverse and interesting music.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The Spektral Quartet Plays Thorvalsdottir

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THORVALSDOTTIR: Enigma / Spektral Qrt / Sono Luminus DSL-92250

This strange little CD—and I say “little” because it’s only 28 minutes and 28 seconds long—presents the odd sound world of Icelandic composer Anna Thorvalsdottir. Ignoring the paid publicity about how the Spektral Quartet has been nominated three times for those fake, paid-for Grammy awards, the group is clearly comprised of top-notch musicians.

And odd this music certainly is. Thorvalsdottir’s music is “Written as an ecosystem of sounds where materials continuously grow in and out of each other.” From the very opening, I wasn’t really sure what I was listening to…it sounded like a swarm of percussion instruments, though only the quartet is listed as the musicians on the album. Doyle Armbrust’s liner notes read as follows:

If you would, coax your mind back to a time when you believed ducking your head beneath the covers was ample defense against the bogeyman. Do you remember, in the haze of half-sleep, seeing something or someone in your room that didn’t belong? As you breathlessly flicked on the light, you were relieved to find it was only a chair lopsided with laundry, or a vacuum propped against the doorframe. That faint halo of light, surrounding this once sinister and now innocuous object, that is the penumbra – that permeable border between light and dark. This is the space where Enigma lives.

We’ve all been living in an in-between of sorts for the last year, haven’t we?

Well, no, “we” haven’t, but I suppose “you” did. I took the precautions I was told to take but didn’t let it affect my mood or frame of mind. I just put on my big girl clothes and went about my life as normally as I could, cautious but unafraid.

Taken on its own terms, however, Enigma is a strange and powerful piece. I’d like to see the score to understand how the Spektral Quartet achieved the effects they did, as some of them are bizarre to say the least. At least the knocking against their instruments was clear to me, playing in a complex percussive manner behind the atonal drones of the viola and cello. As for the music, it does indeed grow organically, setting a frightening mood (which, I again emphasize, I didn’t buy into last year or even this year) and sustaining it throughout the length of the piece. Enigma is divided into three separate but untitled movements. The second opens with sounds that resemble a huge truck driving outside the studio, followed by a sort of siren—then more percussion effects. I didn’t care too much for this movement as it seemed less well organized and structured to me, sounding more like a string of effects, although a few snippets played by the viola had a sort of quasi-melodic form. Later on, the cello creates a sustained droning effect underneath as the other strings play melancholy, drawn-out phrases.

By and large, the best description I can give of this score is that it sounds like a bad acid trip. It also has an overly-whiny quality which is foreign to me personally, but if you buy into the concept it is certainly a strange experience, well worth hearing at least once.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Lan Shui’s “Russian Spectacular”

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MUSSORGSKY: A Night on Bare Mountain. Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel). BALAKIREV: Islamey (orch. Lyapunov). BORODIN: Polovtsian Dances* / Singapore Symphony Orch. *& Youth Choir; Lan Shui, cond / Bis SACD-2412

Normally, this is the kind of CD I totally ignore, not because I’m adverse to the Mussorgsky or Borodin pieces but because I’ve heard them ad infinitum. In addition to this, until two days ago I had never even heard of conductor Lan Shui. But YouTube videos of him conducting the Mahler Seventh Symphony and a complete concert performances of Carmen prodded me to investigate this disc.

I had two immediate reactions to the Night on Bare Mountain: first, that Bis’ highly-touted SACD sonics are absolutely perfect for this music—you hear things in the orchestration that you never quite heard before, or never heard so clearly—and second, that Shui, despite conducting with a lot of energy, is meticulously careful over all those little details in the music that other conductors skim over (even such renowned conductors as Stokowski). There’s also an odd ritard at the 5:12 mark that I’ve never heard before and, in a straightforward blockbuster like this, I’m not sure really belongs there, but for the most part Shui gives you your money’s worth of blockbuster playing…and yes, the sonics are simply spectacular. And if nothing else, Shui avoids “juicing up” the scores with more colorful orchestration as Stokie did.

The slow finale to this piece is played very slowly, and although I found it atmospheric I am again not so sure that it fits the character of the music. By and large, Russian conductors do not romanticize their native music, and as a rule I am averse to slow performances of almost anything. (My lifelong motto has been, “Watery-eyed ascetics do not impress me.”) But I guess it gets by.

Shui is also a bit slow in the “Promenades” of Pictures at an Exhibition, and moreover phrases the music with a more legato feel than I’m used to hearing. Apparently he has a Romantic soul and can’t help showing it off, but in those pieces that call for energy, such as “Gnomus,” “Tuileries,” “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” and the last two pieces, he certainly has it. But I’m going to say something that may startle you and perhaps him as well: Russian music calls for more direct, from-the-gut playing. Listen to Yuri Temirkanov’s recording if you want an idea of what I mean (or even Toscanini’s old 1953 hi-fi spectacular version). Nonetheless, Shui’s ultra-legato phrasing works very well in “The Old Castle” and “Catacombs,” and the Singapore Symphony is clearly a first-rate orchestra.

Perhaps I’m reading more into this than is actually there, but in “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle,” the way the trumpet is phrased put me more in mind of Chinese music than of Russian…it has to do with the accenting of the notes on the rhythm. So perhaps it might be more accurate to describe this CD as a “Euro-Asian Spectacular,” combining the Eastern European aesthetics of Russia with the more Asian aesthetics of China. Regardless, I guarantee that you’ll find the music phrased differently throughout this suite than in any other performance you are familiar with, and you may very well like it even more than I did.

As I mentioned earlier, however, the “Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba Yaga)” and “Great Gate at Kiev” are simply stupendous and will pin you to the wall. Bis’ SACD sound gives tremendous depth and fullness to the orchestra despite the surface excitement.

I was only previously familiar with Balakirev’s Islamey as a piano piece, and a technically difficult one at that, but apparently Lyapunov orchestrated it. Here we have a blending, so to speak, of three cultures: Middle Eastern, Russian and, via Shui’s rhythmic accents and phrasing, Asian, but I liked it very much. Last up are Borodin’s famous Polovtsian Dances, which Shui takes at mostly faster-than-normal tempos. This is, for me, the greatest performance of this music I’ve ever heard, and if you think the SACD sonics were great in Pictures, you simply won’t believe your ears in this work. In addition, the Singapore Symphony Youth Choir is absolutely stunning.

I’m not sure if you will read this as a negative review or simply a mixed one, although the latter was my intent. Shui is obviously a first-rate conductor and the Singapore Symphony one of the world’s first-class orchestras, but for better or worse I have my own standards in this music in regards to phrasing and tempi. Sometimes Shui hits the bull’s eye, and sometimes he skirts along the edges of the music, but one thing is certain. You won’t hear performances like this anywhere else.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Christian Baldini Conducts Modern Works

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BALDINI: Elapsing Twilight Shades.1 LUTOSŁAWSKI: Chain 2: Dialogue for Violin & Orchestra.2 LIGETI: Violin Concerto.3 VARÈSE: Amériques / 2Maximilian Haft, 3Miranda Cuckson, vln; 1Munich Radio Orch., UC Davis Symphony Orch., Christian Baldini, cond / Centaur CRC 3879

For those who haven’t been paying much attention, we’ve had a good crop of Italian musicians emerge in the past several years—and by musicians, alas, this does not include singers for the most part, though there are a few—who specialize in modern music. Christian Baldini, who is of mixed Italian, Argentinean and American heritage, is one such, and as a freelance conductor who has worked with some of the best orchestras (Munich Radio, Netherlands Symphony, Scottish Chamber Symphony and NW German Philharmonic among others) he likes to play as much modern music as these and other orchestras will let him.

This program opens with his own piece, Elapsing Twilight Shades, and if I would caution him to be careful to write music that is more unified in structure than shocking I hope he will not take it amiss. Elapsing Twilight Shades is full of stunning and often jarring effects, including a fairly heavy dose of woodblocks and other percussion, but for the most part I found it rambling. Happily, he follows this with Lutosławski’s Chain 2 for violin and orchestra, and this he conducts quite effectively. I’m not sure that the composer wanted the violin soloist to play with straight tone, but that’s what we get here, and the edgy sound it produces does seem effective for what is essentially an abstract work. Though there is far more structure here than in the Baldini piece, it still tends to rely on shocking effects for its overall musical impact. With that being said, I really liked the second movement, which is a bit more lyrical and had some interesting things in it. Judging by the lively applause, the Munich audience really enjoyed it.

The Ligeti Violin Concerto, despite its strangeness, is clearly a first-class work, and I was very impressed by our soloist, Miranda Cuckson, who plays it with not only technical fireworks but also with tremendous feeling. Here everything falls into place in a first-rate performance that does full justice to the music. Listen particularly to the way she plays the slow second movement, with so much heart that you’d think she was in love. Unfortunately, the horns crack a couple of times which mars its effectiveness. Cuckson also plays the “Intermezzo” movement with tremendous passion. She is one outstanding violinist!

We end our excursion with Amériques by one of the most controversial composers of the 20th century, Edgard Varèse, the grandfather of music as sound and not structure. He is probably most famous for being constantly cited as an influence by Frank Zappa, who particularly liked his quote, “The modern-day composer refuses to die!” Varèse specialized in the use of non-musical instruments such as air raid sirens and sleigh bells, which are heard in this piece. I can’t say in all honesty that I’ve ever liked any of his pieces I’ve heard, and since I’ve “experienced” Amériques before I felt that I knew what to expect, but to my surprise Baldini actually pulls the music together better than I’ve ever heard it before.

All in all, then, an interesting disc with some excellent pieces and performances on it. If you have a taste for the outré in modern music, this is the place to be!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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A Collection for Brain-iacs

Brain cover 190296756634

DENNIS BRAIN HOMAGE / 11-CD set, contents as below / Dennis Brain, Fr-hn on all tracks. PO=Philharmonia Orchestra; DBWE=Dennis Brain Wind Ensemble (DB, Neill Saunders, Edmund Chapman, Alfred Cursue, Fr-hn; Emanuel Hurwitz, vln; Terence Weil, cel; Gareth Morris, fl) / Warner Classics 190296756634

CD 1: MOZART: Divertimento No. 17 in D, K. 334 / Aubrey Brain, Fr-hn; Lener Qrt. / Horn Concerto No. 2 / PO; Walter Susskind, cond / Horn Concerto No. 4 / Hallé Orch., cond. Malcolm Sargent (1st mvmt), Laurence Turner (2nd-4th mvmts) / Cosi fan Tutte: Per pieta [sung in English] / Joan Cross, sop; PO, Laurence Collingwood, cond.

CD 2: BEETHOVEN: Horn Sonata / Denis Matthews, pno / STRAUSS: Horn Concerto No. 1 / PO, Alceo Galliera, cond / MOZART: Divertimento No. 16 in Eb, K. 289 (excerpts) / DBWE / Cosi fan Tutte: Per pieta / Sena Jurinac, sop; Glyndebourne Orch.; Fritz Busch, cond / SCHUMANN: Adagio & Allegro. DUKAS: Villanelle / Gerald Moore, pno / HAYDN: Symphony No. 31, “Horn Signal,” I. Allegro / PO, J.A. Westrup, cond / MENDELSSOHN: A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Nocturne / PO, Rafael Kubelik, cond. DELIUS: A Mass of Life: Prelude / w/Ian Beers, Ray White, Fr-hn; Royal Philharmonic Orch.; Sir Thomas Beecham, cond / WAGNER: Siegfried: Siegfried’s horn call

CD 3: MOZART: Piano Quintet in Eb, K. 452 / 2 vers: 1) DBWE, Colin Horsley, pno. 2) Bernard Walton, cl; Sidney Sutcliffe, ob; Cecil James, bsn; Walter Gieseking, pno / Ein Musikalischer Spaβ / PO, Guido Cantelli, cond / Divertimento No. 14 in Bb, K. 270 / DBWE, George Malcolm, pno

CD 4: BEETHOVEN: Piano Quintet in Eb, Op. 16 / same as second Mozart Quintet recording in CD 3 / STRAUSS: Horn Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 / PO, Wolfgang Sawallisch, cond / MENDELSSOHN: A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Nocturne / PO, Paul Kletzki, cond / L. MOZART: Concerto for Hornpipe & Strings – excerpt / D. Brain, hosepipe; Hoffnung Symphony Orch., Norman del Mar, cond.

CD 5: BERKELEY: Horn Trio / Manoug Parikian, vln; Colin Horsley, pno/ HINDEMITH: Horn Concerto / PO, Paul Hindemith, cond / G. JACOB: Sextet. IBERT: Trois Pièces Breves / DBWE

CD 6: MOZART: Horn Concertos Nos. 1-4. BACH: Mass in B Minor: Quomiam tu solus sanctus* / STRAUSS: Four Last Songs+ / *Heinz Rehfuss, bar; +Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, sop; PO, Herbert von Karajan, cond

CD 7: MOZART: Sinfonia Concertante in Eb, K. 297b.* Divertimento No. 15 in Bb, K. 287. Cosi fan tutte: Per pieta+ / *Sidney Sutcliffe, ob; Bernard Walton, cl; Cecil James, bsn. +Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, sop; PO, Herbert von Karajan, cond

CD 8: HANDEL: Overture (Suite), HWV 424 / Frederick Thurston, Gervase de Peyer, cl / Aria in F, HWV 410. Aria in F, HWV 411 / Stanley Smith, Natalie James, Michael Dobson, Edward Selwyn, ob; Edward Wilson, Cecil James, bsn; Alfred Cursue, Fr-hn / HAYDN: Divertimento in C, “Feldparthie,” Hob.II:7. Notturno No. 3 in C, Hob.II:32 / MOZART: Serenades Nos. 11 in Eb, K. 375 & 12 in C min., K. 388 / London Baroque; Karl Haas, cond

CD 9: C.P.E. BACH: Six Sonatinas: in Eb, Wq. 184/4; in G, Wq. 184/3; in C, Wq. 184/6; in F, Wq. 184/2; in D, Wq. 184/1; in A, Wq. 184/5. DITTERSDORF: Partita in D. MOZART: Serenades Nos. 11 in Eb, K. 375 & 12 in C min., K. 388 (stereo recordings) / London Baroque; Karl Haas, cond / MOZART: Serenade No. 11: IV. Minuet – Trio (Sextet version) / London Wind Players; Harry Blech, cond

CD 10: Dvořák: Serenade in D min., Op. 44. GOUNOD: Petite Symphonie. STRAUSS: Sonatina No. 2 in Eb, TrV 291, “Frohliche Werkstatt” / London Baroque; Karl Haas, cond

CD 11: BEETHOVEN: 11 Dances, WoO 17, “Mödlinger Tänze” Nos. 2, 1, 3, 10, 11. D’INDY:  Chansons et Danses, Op. 50. STRAUSS: Suite in Bb Major, Op. 4. R. ARNELL: Serenade, Op. 57. N. KAY: Miniature Quartet / London Baroque; Karl Haas, cond

Dying young due to an accident or illness is one sure way to become a legend in the classical world, the same as in the jazz or pop fields, but not all legends continue as such well beyond their time. Ginette Neveu was a wonderfully intense violinist, but no more intense than Joseph Szigeti or Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg who had careers of normal length. Pianist William Kapell left us some dazzling recordings, but the more his live performances emerge—particularly his Chopin—the less enthusiastic one becomes of him. Even so, there have been a few, aside from singers who are in a class of their own since their voices were wholly unique, whose names are still revered by those in the know, particularly pianist Dinu Lipatti and French horn player Dennis Brain.

Brain was the son of one well-known horn player (Aubrey) and the nephew of another (Alfred), both of whom were highly sought after as first horns by various orchestras. Aubrey, like his son, had a smooth, burnished tone and a fine technique, but lacked a bit of enthusiasm in his playing. Alfred had a somewhat flawed technique—his low range was always a problem, and he wasn’t as facile as his brother—but he was one of the damn most exciting horn players in the world. Edged out in England by his brother, Alfred came to the United States. A free spirit, he played for several years in the Cleveland Orchestra under Artur Rodzinski, then moved to the Northwest where he played with the Seattle Symphony under Albert Coates. In the late 1940s, he became a chicken farmer and played as a free-lance horn player with various orchestras. Floating around somewhere out there in the ether is his recording of the Strauss Horn Concerto No. 1 with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, a bit rough around the edges but exciting enough to have you on the edge of your seat.

Dennis Brain 2

The legend persists that Dennis began playing the horn at the age of three, but in a 1956 BBC interview he dispelled that rumor, saying that if he had picked up dad’s horn and tooted a few notes he didn’t remember it. He began piano lessons around age 7 and continued in that vein for several years. At age 14, his father came up to him and suggested that he “have a go” at the horn. He took to it like a duck to water; in three years he was quickly surpassing his father in terms of technique and even style, and by the end of the 1940s he was already becoming a living legend.

Like his father and uncle, Dennis only played a single F Alexander (occasionally a single B-flat) from the late 1930s through 1944, but after the War, when he joined the brand-new Philharmonia Orchestra, he switched to a double horn, which has a thumb trigger that switches between F and B-flat when pressed. The Philharmonia was the brainchild of EMI’s classical recording director, Walter Legge, not just for recording purposes but to be a full-time performing group. This was not only an expensive proposition for a recording company to get involved in, but a risky one, as there were four other full-time orchestras in London: the London Philharmonic, London Symphony, BBC Symphony and the Hallé Orchestra. After conducting the premiere concert of the Philharmonia, Sir Thomas Beecham got into a big argument over power-sharing. Beecham decided to form an orchestra of his own, which became the Royal Philharmonic, so now Legge had five rivals to content with. Even more frustrating to Legge, Dennis decided to be principal horn of both the Philharmonia and the Royal Philharmonic from 1946 to 1948, later rejoining them for Beecham’s tour of the United States with that orchestra in 1950 (he also played for them on and off until April 1954, and in December 1953 he made, unbilled, one last appearance with them on record, the “Dawn and Rhine Journey” music from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung). Yet the Philharmonia prevailed because it really was the best British orchestra of its day, not only with Brain leading the horns but with the vastly underrated Manoug Parikian as concertmaster and the finest first-chair players in all of England. Robert Marshall’s superb Brain discography, available for free reading or download online by clicking HERE, includes a listing of all of Dennis’ recordings both live and commercial, and the number of records he made with the Philharmonia alone from 1945 to 1957 is simply staggering. One of the most famous was the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 led by Constantin Silvestri because of the way Dennis phrased the horn solo in the slow movement, but time and fashion have apparently buried this recording because I couldn’t find it online.

An avid motorist, Brain owned a Triumph TR2 sports car and was known for careening around the back roads of England at speeds near 100 mph, but he was also known as an excellent driver. During Philharmonia rehearsals, when he was bored, he would read his motoring magazines which he had on his music stand instead of the scores, which he usually had memorized. On September 1, 1957, after finishing a concert led by Eugene Ormandy in Edinburgh, he decided to drive home that very night even though he hadn’t slept well the night before and was overtired. His colleagues begged him to stay in Edinburgh overnight and avoid a trip of 534km or 332 miles in the dead of night, but Brain convinced them that, since he was an excellent driver, he’d make it. He didn’t. He fell asleep at the wheel and crashed his car less than two miles from his home, an accident in which he died instantly. Thus the career of the greatest horn player of his time—some would say, of all time—came to an abrupt and tragic end.

It wasn’t just his near-flawless technique and ease in absorbing boatloads of new music that made him a legend. It was the fact that only Dennis Brain could actually change the coloration of the sound on one held note—not just  change the volume level, but the color of the sound. Of later horn players, only Marie-Luise Neunecker can do this, but not to the full extent than Dennis could. You can hear this especially well in one live recording not included in this set, the 1954 performance of Schubert’s Auf der strom with tenor Richard Lewis (it’s on YouTube).

This set doesn’t include his very first recording, but that one didn’t really show him to much advantage. It was a recording of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 14 played by Rudolf Serkin and the Busch Chamber Players (apparently using the reduced orchestration) conducted by Adolf Busch. His father played first horn and Dennis second. It does, however, start with a chamber work featuring father and son, Mozart’s Divertimento No. 17 with the outstanding Lener String Quartet from February 16, 1939. The horns really don’t get a lot to play, and most of the time they are receded in sound, but when they do come forward you can appreciate their warmth of sound. From this we jump to two of his most famous earlier recordings, the Mozart Horn Concerto No. 2 conducted by Walter Susskind (March 1946) and the Mozart Concerto 4 labelConcerto No. 4 conducted by Malcolm Sargent (first movement) and Laurence Turner (second through fourth movements) from June 21, 1943. Why they used two different conductors on the same day remains a mystery; possibly Sargent had artistic differences or simply an argument with the recording producer, and walked out. Both are played with Dennis’ usual gusto, but at the tail end of the Concerto No. 2 he makes a rare mistake, adding an extra note. Ironically, Brain fans around the world copied this in their own performances, only to discover when they read the score that this note was not in there! CD 1 ends with a rarity, “Per pieta” from Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte sung in English by soprano Joan Cross from January 1947. Cross is perhaps best known for having created the role of Ellen Orford in the world premiere of Britten’s Peter Grimes. She had a good singing technique but a very unattractive timbre, I would almost say an ugly voice. I hope she got down on her knees and kissed the ground every day of her life knowing that she was a British soprano singing in Great Britain; she would never have had such a big career anywhere else in the world.

CD 2 opens with two more famous recordings, the Beethoven Horn Sonata that he filmed with pianist Denis Matthews when both were serving as musicians in the British Army (April 3, 1944) and his first recording of the Strauss Horn Concerto No. 1 with Alceo Galliera conducting. But the latter performance isn’t nearly as exciting as the one he gave in March 1956 with Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony, a recording originally unpublished that has since appeared on CD (ICA 5159, a multiple-CD set that also includes his performances of the Mozart Concerti 2 and 4 with Günther Wand and Paul Sacher, respectively, conducting). But this is just the first of several instances in this set where the Brain fancier will he scratching his or her head wondering what Warner Classics was thinking of. The rest of this CD consists of “bleeding chunks” from various chamber works and operas plus his famous studio recordings of the Schumann Adagio & Allegro and Dukas Villanelle with Gerald Moore as pianist. In the latter, you really pick up your ears at the perfection of his triple-tonguing. Of special interest here are the “Per pieta” sung by the fabulous Sena Jurinac, a soprano virtually forgotten nowadays (and Fritz Busch conducting) and the first movement of Haydn’s “Hornsignal” Symphony (No. 31), conducted by one J.A. Westrup, from September 1942. Another rarity is the “Nocturne” from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream music conducted not by Paul Kletzki, which is the famous recording (that shows up on CD 4), but by Rafael Kubelik. Not only is the tempo taken closer to score (meaning faster), but you hear all sorts of orchestral details in this performance that are not often recorded all that clearly.

CD 3 is where you really start scratching your head: not one, but two complete performances of Mozart’s Piano Quintet in E-flat, one with his “Dennis Brain Wind Ensemble,” a group that included both strings and winds from the Philharmonia which were used as needed for recordings with little-known Colin Horsley on piano, and another with a cast of distinguished soloists, particularly the great Bernard Walton on clarinet, Sidney Sutcliffe on oboe and Walter Gieseking as pianist. But since both are fairly common recordings and the Gieseking version is superior in every way (articulation, phrasing and pacing), why even bother with the first? Why not give us a fun piece where Dennis and the other Philharmonia horns whoop it up, William Steinberg’s wonder stereo recording from July 1957 of the suite from Der Rosenkavalier instead? It’s not all that common, it’s part of EMI’s archives, and he sounds great in it. Happily, we do get Guido Cantelli’s fine August 1955 recording—surprisingly, also in stereo—of Mozart’s A Musical Joke with Dennis having some fun, and a good performance of the same composer’s Divertimento No. 14 by the Brain Ensemble.

Incidentally, I ran across a website, MusicBio.org, which has a little blurb on it for the Brain Wind Ensemble obvious translated through one of those clumsy online translators from some foreign language, because it constantly translated “Brain” to “Mind.” This was particularly funny in the opening line, in which they said that “The Dennis Mind Blowing wind Quintet and Outfit were music artists who played chamber music concerts and recordings with Dennis Mind, among the great horn players of music history. Dennis Mind (Might 17, 1921-Sept. 1, 1957) was a child of Aubrey Mind (1893-1955), also a renowned horn participant. Dennis started his professional profession before graduating from the Royal Academy of Music in 1939, having discovered horn playing from his dad and body organ from G. D. Cunningham.” I wonder which body organ Dennis played.

CD 4 is almost great from start to finish: the Beethoven Quintet with Gieseking and the same musicians who did the superior Mozart Quintet, both of the Strauss Horn Concerti conducted by Sawallisch, and the very funny movement from Leopold Mozart’s Concerto for Hosepipe and Strings. This came from one of Gerard Hoffnung’s comical music festivals; Dennis just stuck a horn mouthpiece into a standard garden hose, put a horn bell ad the other end, and played. No valves. And he got all of the notes on pitch. The only bit of a downer is the too-slow version of the Midsummer Night’s Dream “Nocturne” with Paul Kletzki.

CD 5 opens with the excellent Horn Trio by Lennox Berkeley, played to perfection with Philharmonia concertmaster Manoug Parikian and pianist Colin Horsley, who apparently did much better in modern music than in Mozart. The Britten Serenade labelHindemith Horn Concerto is a famous recording with the composer himself conducting, but to be honest, Brain sounds bored. His playing is leaden, stodgy, and completely lacking feeling. Of course, Hindemith must share part of the blame for not inspiring him to play better, but to me this is one of Dennis’ poorest performances. His only real successor, Marie-Luise Neunecker, does a much better job of it on her recording with Werner Andreas Albert. Warner should have included the landmark 1944 recording of Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings instead—except that this was one of Dennis’ recordings made for British Decca, not EMI, and apparently Universal, which now owns the Decca catalogue, didn’t want to share it. Another reason to hate record companies. The Gordon Jacob Sextet and Ibert Trois Pièces Breves are, however, excellent pieces and very good performances.

CD 6 is the all-Karajan CD: the four Mozart Horn Concerti (famous recordings from May and November 1953; this is where Karajan caught him with a motoring magazine on his music stand, discovered he was a superb driver, and let him drive his own personal Mercedes), Bach’s “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” with baritone Heinz Rehfuss, and Strauss’ Four Last Songs with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf from June 1956. I’m sure there are people out there who are crazy about these recordings, but except for the Bach they really don’t impress me much. I never liked Karajan’s Mozart; despite the good, brisk tempi, he always sounded to me as if he was trying to make the violin section sound like 101 Strings, which is all wrong for Mozart, although I admit that this recording of the Concerto No. 4 is Brain’s best, and this is his only recording of the Concerto No. 1. For Concerto No. 2, I much prefer the performance by Hans Rosbaud and the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, available on Hänssler Classic 93129. No. 3 gets a more idiomatic reading from Hans Müller-Kray and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony, a 1952 performance on SWR Classics 10184.

As for the Strauss songs, the Karajan recording is, again, much too goopy and Schwarzkopf just doesn’t sound all that good. Amazingly, there is a far superior performance—also with the Philharmonia, from September 1953—in which Schwarzkopf sings very well with conductor Otto Ackermann. This is a much more exciting performance with superior sound to the Karajan, and in my view should have been included instead.

CD 7: More bloody f-ing Mozart. I mean, come on, already. Not everything he wrote was a masterpiece, and these Divertimenti are just that, little divertissements that he tossed off for wealthy patrons to talk and eat supper to. The Sinfonia Concertante in Eb is quite nice, however, and for once Karajan conducts Mozart with a unified string sound. At the end of the disc we get yet another “Per Pieta,” this time the one by Schwarzkopf from Karajan’s complete recording of Cosi. It’s nice, but she doesn’t sing it as well as Jurinac did and once again we get Herbie’s mushy Mozart sound. Why not include Schwarzkopf’s excellent “Abscheulischer” from Fidelio instead? Karajan conducts, but he was always a better in Beethoven than he was in Mozart, and Schwarzkopf is on fire here. Plus, Dennis sounds great in all the horn passages.

LBE LP coverCD 8: This is the first of four CDs featuring Brain with the “London Baroque,” not to be confused with the permanent performing band of the same name founded in 1978 by Charles Medlam and Ingrid Seifert. Surprising for me, the conductor is Karl Haas. Looking him up on Wikipedia, it seemed that he was the German-Jewish pianist who hosted the syndicated radio program Adventures in Good Music from 1959 until the 1990s, but there isn’t a single word on his Wikipedia bio about his living and working in England during the 1950s or his recordings with Dennis Brain. After further digging, I came to realize that there was another Karl Haas (1900-1970), a German conductor and musicologist who studied and worked in Karlsruhe, had a collection of rare and valuable early instruments, and emigrated to England in 1939. Around 1943 he founded the London Baroque Ensemble, which he led until 1966. Another surprise: although the recordings were issued on Parlophone and Odeon LPs in the U.K., in America they came out on the Westminster label. And not all of them included Dennis Brain. In this particular group of performances, however, the group was rather misnamed as there was very little Baroque in their repertoire, only Handel and, if you consider him a Baroque composer (which I don’t), Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. All the other composers they recorded were Classical (Mozart and Haydn) or even later, Romantic and early Modern composers (Beethoven, Gounod, Dvořak, Strauss, d’Indy, even Arnell and Kaye). According to the Brain discography cited above, the personnel changed from session to session but they always played well and with enthusiasm.

This disc opens with some unusual Handel pieces, the “Trio Overture” and two “Arias” for wind ensemble, and these are presented here for the first time on CD. The problem is that, between CDs 8 and 9, Warner again clutters up the set with too much Mozart: complete mono and stereo recordings of the Serenades 11 & 12. Granted, the mono performances are a bit zippier in tempo, but not by too wide a margin, and the stereo recordings have much better sound which allows you to hear Brain clearer. But this is what happens when you have a committee or a panel to decide what goes into a set and what doesn’t. They should have put me in charge; I’d have set them straight, ha ha ha! I ditched the mono versions of the two Serenades, including in their place the 1955 stereo recording of the J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 with the Boyd Neel Orchestra (on which Dennis switches to a single B-flat horn to get the right sound) and the fascinating Horn Concerto written in 1951 by German modernist Othmar Schoeck. It’s a marvelous piece, too seldom heard even today, and Brain plays it magnificently. And speaking of operatic arias with horn obbligato, Warner completely forgot about Eleanor Steber’s 1947 recording of Micaëla’s aria from Carmen, so I tossed that one in there, too. I did, however, like the Handel Overture and the Haydn Divertimento in C and the Notturno.

CD 9 contains some interesting and not-often-recorded works by C.P.E. Bach and Dittersdorf along with the stereo recordings of the Mozart Serenades 11 & 12. All of these performances are wonderfully lively, and as I mentioned above, the stereo sound allows you to hear Dennis’ contributions much better.

CD 10 features all-Romantic-era “Baroque” music, the Dvořák Serenade in D minor, Gounod’s rarely-heard Petite Symphonie for Winds and Strauss’ “Frohliche Werkstatt” Sonatina, which is actually a fairly lengthy piece that sounds like a symphony for wind ensemble. The last movement is by far the most creative; the rest of it sounds like so much of late Strauss, well-crafted music with nothing interesting to say. I would have substituted his one and only recorded performance of the Brahms Hoorn Trio with violinist Max Salpeter and pianist Cyril Preedy—but NOT the standard, muddy-sounding copy that has circulated for decades (I once owned it on the Everest LP, “The Art of French Horn”). A small label called Past Classics has done a miraculous job of cutting through the ambient hiss and distant microphone placement to bring the instruments into much clearer focus; this is the pressing to acquire. Since the Horn Trio was shorter than the Strauss Sonatina, I filled the remaining time with the last five minutes of Ljuba Welitsch’s recording of “Tatiana’s letter scene” from Eugene Onegin, on which Dennis plays magnificently.

The last CD opens with five Beethoven dances for winds and the previously unreleased Chanson et Danses by Vincent d’Indy . Both are excellent, but the Beethoven is especially bubbly and fun to hear. The Strauss Suite in Bb, an early work, is much more inventive than the Sonatina. After this we get two more pieces issued on CD for the first time, Richard Arnell’s excellent Serenade and Norman Kay’s cute but not very substantial Miniature Quartet for Winds.

So there you have my assessment of this excellent but imperfect tribute to Dennis Brain. In and of itself it’s certainly worth getting for the many superb and sometimes quite rare performances contained therein, but it could have been a nearly perfect set of his greatest and most interesting recordings, period, if they had ejected roughly two CDs’ worth of Mozart and included some of his more interesting recordings, including a couple from Decca. (I should point out that the sextet version of the Mozart Serenade No. 11by the London Wind Players conducted by Harry Blech IS a Decca recording, made on September 28, 1946, so they obviously had some conversation with Decca to include that.) But of course, even now that the once-independent record labels have all been swallowed up by greedy multi-corporate conglomerates, they still vie with each other for the small classical CD market that still exists (although, as I explained in my very first posting on this blog, I’m sticking with CDs because they always sound better than playing music through my computer or phone). For those who are interested, I’ve uploaded my text boxes of the CD track listings Dennis Brain CD tracks here in case you’d like to see my choices  Feel free to download and use them if you wish; you can print, cut them out, and tape or glue them to those white CD envelopes to make your own set. All of the recordings I’ve substituted are available online, the Beecham “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” on the Internet Archive and all the others on YouTube.

*                      *                      *                      *                      *                      *

Had Dennis lived, he might have disappointed us all. For at least a year he had been telling his friends and colleagues that he wanted to give up the horn and become a full-time organist. With his innate musical skills, I’m sure he would have been a very good organist, but he wouldn’t have been unique. Britain produced a good number of first-class organists, of whom the most famous was E. Power Biggs, but Dennis Brain was really unique on the French horn. He set a standard, inspired countless young horn players, and has remained a legend on that instrument. To have him switch from horn to organ would be like having James Galway, Clara Rockmore or Michala Petri suddenly switch to keyboard instruments. Yes, they’d be very fine musicians, but they wouldn’t be the Galway, Rockmore or Petri who are legends on their respective instruments. We should be grateful for what we have and treasure it always.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Kevin John Edusei’s Schubert

SM296 cover 5 & 6

SCHUBERT: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 6 / Munich Symphony Orch.; Kevin John Edusei, cond / Solo Musica SM296

As an adjunct to my review of René Jacobs’ Schubert Symphonies, I ran across this (and two other) CDs of Schubert Symphonies conducted by one Kevin John Edusei (b. 1976). Looking him up on Wikipedia, I learned that Edusei is of mixed German and Ghanaian heritage, his father being a physician from Ghana and his mother being a historian and theologian. In addition, his maternal grandmother, Antonie Wingels, was an opera singer at the Theater Bielefeld. His musical training progressed from pianist to percussionist to sound engineering to conducting, studying the latter with Jac van Steen and Ed Spanjaard with additional conducting classes under David Zinman, Pierre Boulez, Péter Eötvös. His other conducting mentors were Marc Albrecht, Kurt Masur and Sylvain Cambreling.

Judging from this (and the other) CDs issued so far, which cover Symphonies Nos. 3-8, including the extremely rare No. 7 and the full version of the Eighth, his style is a bit more conventionally phrased than Jacobs, with a smoother legato. On the plus side, his tempi are every bit as brisk as Jacobs’, he uses the leaner, more authentic scores for these symphonies, there is excellent clarity in the orchestral texture and, wonder of wonders, no straight tone in the strings!!!!! Because of this, plus his recording the complete Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, this places his incomplete cycle—which I hope and pray he will finish—at the top of the list for Schubert Symphony performances.

But as good as the Fifth Symphony is, the Sixth is even better. Never in my life have I heard such a dynamic performance of this “little” C Major symphony. The opening chords are absolutely explosive, and Edusei never once allows the pace to slacken, not even through the “Adagio” opening section. When he reaches the “Allegro,” he punches out the orchestral chords with the force of a Toscanini. And there are absolutely no slack moments; the symphony just keeps on rolling along, impressing the listener at every turn of phrase. Kudos to Edusei!

There is a wonderful feeling of unity and “completeness” about these performances that I really enjoyed. No orchestral detail is left to chance, yet it never sounds as if Edusei is purposely over-accenting things in order to score points. It’s very “pure” Schubert, lean, exciting and yet smooth at times, emotional without being overwrought and extremely satisfying.

I highly recommend this disc as well as its companions. This is touchstone Schubert conducting of the highest level.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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