Krenek’s Orchestral Music

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KRENEK: Potpourri. 7 Orchestral Pieces. Symphony “Pallas Athene.” Tricks & Trifles / Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz; Karl-Heinz Steffens, cond / Capriccio C5379

Ernst Krenek (1900-1991) often falls outside the mainstream of 20th century classical music because he was an iconoclast who followed his own muse and did not write music that was “fashionable” either to the modernists or to the neo-Romantics. Looking at my record collection, I have only two of his works in it, the Gesange des Spaten Jahres, Op. 71 No. 4: Ballade vom Fest sung by Mitsuko Shirai and the Symphonic Elegy: In Memoriam Anton Webern conducted by Dmitri Mitropoulos. The sales sheet accompanying this CD (I didn’t get the booklet) states that from the beginning “Krenek stood between the sometimes antagonistic musical worlds of his mentor Franz Schreker, who wrote in the world of late Romanticism, and Arnold Schoenberg who broke new ground. So, his own development towards becoming a unique personality in modern music history progressed correspondingly slowly. In his subsequent travelling years, as a composer he was on a quest for new means of expression” His only really well-known work is the singspiel Jonny Spielt Auf, often described as jazzy when it is most certainly not, and a piece I’ve never much liked because it contains too much dialogue and I don’t speak German. The pieces on this disc range chronologically from 7 Orchestral Pieces (1924) to the Symphony “Pallas Athene” (1954).

Potpourri, from 1927, is most certainly in the Schreker style; in fact, except for a few modern harmonic touches, this is a piece that could easily be played on your local FM classical radio station. A simple theme is introduced at the outset but, after a downshift in tempo, a different theme is heard on the oboe, lyrical and effusive, with light scoring from celli and low clarinets. This piece, like Jonny Spielt Auf, has a bit of a ragtime (not jazz!) influence, but only a bit. We get a bit bogged down in this Romantic theme until the three-minute mark, when the pace picks up again and a jolly, less ragtime-sounding theme in scampering eighths takes over. To be honest, I kind of liked this piece but not so much that I was enthusiastic about it. And, at 17:51, it goes on much too long without saying enough to warrant its length. The ragtime feeling—in places, almost a cakewalk—comes and goes throughout. I will say this, though: like it or hate it, the music sounds, for the most part, more American than German. It has that “characteristically American sound” that one associates with composers like McDowell, Copland and others.

By contrast, the 7 Orchestral Pieces of 1924 sounds like Berg—more melodic and less spiky than Schoenberg or Webern, but still very much in the atonal mold. These pieces I did like, not just because of their modernity but because they are generally brief, most of them under three minutes long except for the second (“Andante”) which runs nearly six. Here, Krenek actually uses a variety of composing styles, often leaning towards tonality even when the ear picks up some quirky harmonic changes, but he doesn’t lay into tonality, and therein lies the difference. Paradoxically, I found these less likable than Potpourri because, to my ears, they sounded mostly heavy and pretentious. The music lacks the intriguing quality that one heard in Webern in addition to lacking the more natural flow one heard in Potpourri.

To give you an idea of how lost I was, without noticing that the 7 Orchestral Pieces were over I found myself in the midst of the “Pallas Athene” symphony of 1954 without even noticing it. This was a problem for Krenek: he wrote music that had dramatic gestures but was not inherently dramatic, as was the music of Beethoven and Mahler. Or, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there is no “there” there. Each musical pontification follows another without adding up to anything. In a way, I feel sorry for Krenek; he obviously had the instincts of an artist but could seldom focus enough to make his music sound continuous or as if it had something to say. Even for those of you who hate, for instance, the music of Webern—and it is SO abstract that I can well understand your reaction—you have to admit that, if you listen carefully (as you are probably not willing to do), you’ll hear a musical progression moving forward. Non-melodic though it may be, Webern’s scores are not static. Krenek’s scores, though sometimes full of little melodic snippets, get bogged down in rhetoric. He is really and sincerely trying to be profound, but his muse only gives him individual musical figures, not a direction or resolution.

Ironically, it is the previously unrecorded Tricks & Trifles (1945) that I found most pleasing and coherent. Yes, it consists of a large group of short pieces knitted together, but the progression makes sense and the forward movement and development is pleasing. It’s also a predominantly tonal work, which tells me that Krenek was following a blind path by trying to emulate Berg or Schoenberg. There’s a wonderful naturalness and even humor about Tricks & Trifles that eluded him in the other music here.

Of course, the lack of continuity I hear in these works could be the fault of conductor Karl-Heinz Steffens. I know absolutely nothing about him and have never heard him before, so I don’t know if some of the faults I hear here are due to his inability to give a long view of the music, but my gut reaction is that it is Krenek to blame. If, however, you respond to Krenek’s music better than I do, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this CD.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Beltramini Plays Françaix & Nielsen

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FRANÇAIX: Clarinet Concerto. NIELSEN: Clarinet Concerto / Paolo Beltramini, cl; Swiss Italian Orch.; Alain Lombard, cond / Brilliant Classics 95994

The thing that startled me the most about this recording, made originally in 2013, is that it is conducted by Alain Lombard. Since I associate him with recordings made back in the 1960s and ‘70s, and haven’t seen any new releases by him in close to 20 years, I assumed that he was deceased; but no, he’s still very much alive and, in fact, 79 years old last month.

Lombard’s conducting style always struck me as lively but a bit too relaxed when called upon to play really fiery music. In these two works, however, his conducting is just fine, particularly in the Françaix concerto which is right up his alley. Italian clarinetist Paolo Beltramini is an outstanding technician with a lovely, bright tone who plays this French concerto with exactly the right ease and je ne sais quois. In the first-movement cadenza he dips into his lower range to produce some really lovely sounds. Irving Fazola would be proud of him. In the “Scherzando,” Françaix has the solo clarinetist duet for a while with one of the clarinets in the orchestra, a cute touch.

As for the Nielsen Concerto, I have two fine recordings of it in my collection; an older one played by Benny Goodman with the Chicago Symphony conducted by Morton Gould and a more modern one by Anthony McGill with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Alan Gilbert. This performance, though a bit on the cool side for my taste, is lovingly crafted by soloist and conductor, with Beltramini sounding more involved to me than Lombard. Still, the music floats in one ear and out the other like a zephyr on a breeze, and to me that’s not quite enough.

A split review, then. The Françaix is splendid, the Nielsen just professionally played.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Robert Groslot’s Concerti

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GROSLOT: Piano Concerto / Jan Michiels, pno / Cello Concerto / Ilia Yourivich Laporev, cel / Harp Concerto / Eline Groslot, harp; Brussels Philharmonic Orch.; Robert Groslot, cond / Naxos 8.579057

Robert Groslot (b. 1951) is a composer who has been around for several years, written concerti for many solo instruments as well as a Concerto for Orchestra, yet has managed to fly under the radar of most classical aficionados. Which is a shame because, from the first crashing chord of this Piano Concerto, I was drawn into the web of his music and held fascinated to the very end.

Although Groslot’s current music—all three of these concerti were composed in 2010-11—plays into the modern trend towards “edginess” in terms of fast, spiky themes played by high winds, brass and strings with timpani undercurrents, it is not aimless or underdeveloped music. On the contrary, I found him to be a modern equivalent of someone like Erwin Schulhoff, a composer who thinks things through and has a definite game plan in mind. From a strictly technical standpoint, his music develops in the traditional sense; it does not meander, nor does it depend on the juxtaposition of themes for its structure; but it continues to move and change, and is highly rhythmic. Like so many other modern composers, Groslot treats the solo instruments of his concerti as if they were an integral part of the orchestra. In the case of the cello and harp this would certainly be the case anyway, except that their roles are expanded here for the sake of preserving the concerto form. But the music each of these three instruments play is not a separate thread under and around which the orchestra performs, as in the case of the virtuoso solo concerti of the Romantic era. Rather, they take the form of the sinfonia concertante as did the concerti of Stravinsky.

And my guess is that Groslot admires Stravinsky even if the Russian was not a direct model for these works. The rhythmic vitality of the music is very Stravinskian, as are the changing meters. By and large, except for big climaxes Groslot uses his orchestra sparingly in most passages, just a section or two, sometimes just part of a section, giving the Piano Concerto the feeling of going in and out of a full orchestra-chamber orchestra setting. The liner notes indicate that Groslot uses in this work “a minor triad with a major triad one major second above (in the beginning: C minor and D major)” which reappear throughout the concerto both melodically and harmonically. At the 15:20 mark, the pianist does get a virtuoso cadenza that almost fits the “classic” concerto form. At the 18:35 mark, Groslot uses a repeated rhythmic motif played by the strings that takes a bow to minimalism, but not for long. A trumpet fanfare and timpani roll gets us back on track very quickly. At about 20:30 we enter the last phase of the concerto, and here the music moves at an almost frantic pace, with short, jarring orchestral chords that stab at the listener before trumpet fanfares lead into a Petrouchka-like swirl of high winds and strings. Yet even this section relents somewhat as the French horns enter, playing a chorded passages, followed by the trumpets which continually rise in pitch with the drums pounding behind them. This is quite a work!

Both the Cello and Harp Concerti are receiving their premiere performances on this CD. The former opens with a remarkably lyric and even lovely theme played by the solo instrument with light background accompaniment (mostly lower strings and trombones, but later on clarinet and oboe interjections) before the music takes off, once again, in a sinfonia concertante sort of way. This time, however, the music, though rapid and rhythmic, sounds almost playful and light-hearted, the last thing in the world you’d expect from a cello concerto. Quirky, atonal figures played by solo wind and brass instruments (flute, trumpet, bassoon, etc.) come and go behind the soloist who, probably because the instrument is one that is normally an integral part of the orchestra, really does dominate the concerto. Yet even here, as the music develops, one hears the soloist being used, you might say, as a “section” of the orchestra except that it is by itself, playing against the other sections. I also noticed that Groslot wisely did not write very much for the orchestral cellos. The liner notes, again, tell us that the development uses the notes D, F, Bb, C#, G# and D# which have an important effect on the further development of the work. Structures, melodic and harmonic, made up of a minor third, fourth and another minor third (thus a major triad in first inversion combined with its minor third in the upper voice) regularly occur, as do a series of perfect fifths.” This is what I call taking musical analysis to extremes. Yes, everything said here is true, but when I listen to music I’m really not as interested in the intervals used or how such they’re used as I am in the music’s linear progression and how it affects me emotionally and intellectually. I can certainly hear all the notes being played and appreciate Groslot’s ability to use them in such a clever pattern, but as the late Rafael Kubelik once said, music that is merely clever doesn’t interest me. It has to be emotionally affecting and cohesive in order for me to appreciate it. I’m the kind of person who’s more interested in what these building-blocks make than what the building-blocks are, if you know what I mean.

For instance, at 15:30 into this concerto, Groslot creates a polyphonic web of syncopated notes in which the solo cello is one component. I could take the time to analyze it structurally, but why should I when I like the way it plays against the preceding and succeeding music? That’s much more important to me. Anyone can throw intervals on a piece of score paper and hope that they make sense, but it takes a master to know how to use those intervals to create music. Towards the end of the piece, the cello plays some isolated three-note figures, again almost playfully, but this time a cappella. I suppose this is the instrument’s cadenza. Following, a series of jabbing, two-note motifs are played by the soloist and picked up by the orchestra, which develops them. This is what I mean about the music developing and going somewhere.

The Harp Concerto, played here by the composer’s daughter Eline Groslot, happily takes an entirely different approach to the instrument from the norm. Rather than have it play “angelic” music, it uses the instrument’s oddly ethereal sound to make it mysterious, even a bit edgy. Alberto Ginastera did something of the sort in his harp concerto, but made the soloist “shoot” the notes out as if they were being played by a Flamenco guitarist. By making the soloist’s music here rhythmic but quieter, Groslot has found a new way of writing for harp in a modern context that brings it more in line with the mood and rhythms of the Piano Concerto, except that here less timpani are used. Indeed, Groslot also tends to avoid the celli and basses in his orchestral writing here, emphasizing the upper-range instruments (including glockenspiel) to create a web of sound around the soloist.

Eventually, however, the pressed, rapid tempi dissipate, the mood becomes darker and more mysterious, and Groslot presents us with an eerie, Twilight Zone-like web of sound. Yet this, too, eventually accelerates as trumpets, winds, and timpani suddenly jar us out of our dream and into a rather harsh reality in which the harp soloist is merely window dressing for the feverish orchestral activity going on. Rapid little triplets figures played by the horns and flutes come and go, followed by sharp, stabbing figures by the brass, high strings and timpani. This, again, quiets down, leading into a particularly quiet, dark passages played by the soft strings—only for the concerto to stop on a dime and end!

As in the case of Groslot’s chamber music, which I reviewed earlier on this blog, this is an exceptional album of music by a modern master who deserves to be more widely known.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Philippe Jordan’s Monumental Beethoven

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BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 1-9 / Anja Kampe, sop; Daniela Sindram, mezzo; Burkhard Fritz, ten; René Pape, bs; Singverein Wien (in 9th Symphony); Vienna Symphony Orch.; Philippe Jordan, cond / Wiener Symphoniker/Sony Music WS018

This is Philippe Jordan’s second complete Beethoven Symphony cycle, the first having already been issued on a set of Blu-Ray DVDs with the Chorus & Orchestra of the Paris Opéra (Arthaus Musik 109249) in 2016. Much attention is being drawn to this set, however, because it is the first ever made by the Vienna Symphony, the better-known Philharmonic’s little cousin.

The symphonies have all been released previously as individual discs (paired oddly, as on this set, as 1/3, 2/7. 4/5, 6/8 and 9), and even as individual releases they’ve garnered excellent reviews. Richard Osborne, veteran critic of Gramophone, raved about symphonies 1 & 3 that “the first movement of the Eroica…is tauter here than in Paris, less given to mannerism. The pace is a touch brisker than that we remember from recordings by Toscanini, Szell, Karajan, Bruno Walter and others (mm=54 as opposed to mm=52)… here are old skills married to new inspiration. At this late hour in the history of Beethoven on record, it would be unreasonable to ask for more.”

Of course, I have no idea what other recordings of the Beethoven Symphonies Osborne may have heard, but I will be upfront about my experience with them. In addition to having heard Furtwängler’s Third, Fifth, Seventh and Ninth (so badly mannered in terms of tempo distortion and tempo manipulation that I had no desire to hear the rest of them), the Beethoven 2nd by Pierre Monteux & the San Francisco Symphony, 1951, the Beethoven 5th by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the complete sets by Karajan-Philharmonia, Bruno Walter (stereo), René Leibowitz, Karajan-Berlin I, II and III (the last being overall the best, though his Ninth from series II is still my favorite among non-traditional readings of the score), Roger Norrington’s Second and Eighth symphonies issued on EMI back in the 1980s; the little-known but very good set by Hiroyuki Iwaki, and the recent set conducted by Yondani Butt, I also own the following:

Beethoven 5ths recorded acoustically by Friedrich Kark and Arthur Nikisch
Symphony No. 1 conducted by Sir George Henschel (1927)
Acoustic and electrical recordings of various Beethoven Symphonies conducted by Felix Weingartner
Beethoven 5th by Richard Strauss, Staatskapelle Dresden
Beethoven 2nd by Clemens Krauss, VPO
Complete set of Toscanini-NBC 1939
Complete set of Toscanini-NBC 1949-1952
Toscanini Beethoven 5ths of 1931, 1933, 1936 (NY Phil), 1939 (BBC SO) & 1945 (NBC);  Beethoven 9th of 1938 (NBC), 1941 (Teatro Colon) & 1948 (NBC); Beethoven 1st, 4th & 6th of 1937-39 (BBC), Beethoven 3rd of 1953 (NBC) & Beethoven 5th & 8th studio-recorded in 1939 (NBC)
Beethoven 1st, 3rd & 4th by Charles Munch, BSO
Beethoven Symphony No. 4 by both Carl Schuricht & Carlos Kleiber
Beethoven 3rd by Hermann Scherchen (fastest version on record before modern-day) & 8th
Beethoven 8th by Pablo Casals, Marlboro Festival Orch.
Beethoven 9th by Dean Dixon, Hessischen Rundfunks Chorus & Orchestra
Complete set of Michael Gielen w/SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg

I’m not listing this all here to brag. I’m sure other collectors have even more Beethoven Symphony recordings than I do, but I’m simply trying to illustrate that I know my Beethoven pretty well; and, with some exceptions, tend to consider Toscanini to be “home ground,” although my choices of what I consider his best performances may surprise you (the live 1938 9th and the studio-recorded 8th of 1939, for instance). My point is simply that I know my Beethoven Symphonies very, very well.

When the Gielen set came out in 2012, I did not hesitate to praise it as the best overall stereo or digital integral recording. No previous set, to my ears, had such a combination of warmth, excitement, humor and imagination. I still like it very much, but have to admit that I am now willing to demote it in favor of this new Jordan set. The King is dead; long live the new King.

And why do I like it so much? Four reasons. No. 1, the performances are not lacking in detail, although I do miss some of the wonderfully subtle rubato that Toscanini alone seemed to be able to slip into otherwise straightforward readings. No. 2, they do NOT use a HIP orchestra with its attendant sniveling, whiny, straight-toned strings and winds. No. 3, with only a few exceptions (noted below) the tempi are correct for every movement of every symphony. And No. 4, perhaps most important of all, these performances have FIRE in them. Whether it was because the VPO wanted to make a point or just because they enjoyed working with Jordan so much, they honestly sound like cavemen and women who have just discovered fire for the first time. Every note, every bar simply crackles with energy—much like Toscanini, Munch, and certain of the others I mentioned above.

I know it’s closer to score, but I felt that the opening section of the first movement of the Second Symphony was a shade fast. But so what? Never will you hear the rhythms of his symphony “bounce” off the bows of the strings as they do here. These musicians are hungry wolves, and they’ve managed to recreate the illusion of a world premiere of the symphony. And there are all sort of little accents in this symphony’s Scherzo, which Toscanini (and others) did bring out but not quite like this. As I say, it’s a matter of “bounce” and enthusiasm.

Nor is this confined to the Second Symphony; it’s there in the first, the fourth, the fifth, and so on down the line. They simply can’t wait, through their playing, to show you how great Beethoven really is. It’s as if it had been cooped up inside of them all their lives, and this was their chance to let it all out. Every accent, every dynamics marking and in fact every single note and phrase are played as if to say, “THIS is how it goes, folks! Forget all the others!” And God love them for it. Just listen, for instance, to the strokes of the tympani at 10:53 of the first movement of the Second Symphony. It sounds like the fist of fate come down to push the last few bars over the finish line. Not even Toscanini achieved that effect, and Lord knows he practically split his spleen trying to make Beethoven “sound” the way he heard it in his mind every time he conducted it. Trust me, you’re going to hear all kinds of little details in these performances that you’ve never heard in these symphonies before.

And one other thing: I really, really appreciate the fact that Jordan and the orchestra play these symphonies pitched at A=440. There’s been so much of a fetish made over the years, including by Norrington, to perform these symphonies at A=432 (as pushed by the Schiller Institute), but that’s not 100% historically correct. As I pointed out in my article on the myths of the Historically-Informed Performance crowd, A=440 to 443 was being used as early as the 17th century; in 1725 Rome it was 441, and in 1810 England it was A=444. More importantly, however, we’re not living in the early 19th century. We live in the early 21st century, and 99.999% of the music we hear is pitched at A=440, so just get used to it.

I thought that perhaps Richard Osborne was referring to Toscanini’s 1953 Beethoven Third when he said that Jordan conducts his performance faster; the 1949 recording, originally issued in 1956 as part of the complete Beethoven Symphony set on LPs, replaced in the early 1970s by the slower 1953 performance but restored for the BMG CD reissue of the 1990s, is pretty brisk, the first movement clocking in at only 14:06 compared to Jordan’s 16:39, but no—for the most part, Jordan is faster than Toscanini’s 1949 recording. Nor does he ignore, here, the subtle tempo changes called for in the score. He must have taken an extra repeat that Toscanini in 1949 did not. Hermann Scherchen, in the late 1950s, took the first movement at Beethoven’s mm of quarter=60, which is almost breathless and, yes, perhaps a bit fast, but Scherchen does not introduce all of the rubato touches that Toscanini and Jordan did. Some of Jordan’s rubato struck me as just a bit overdone, such as the slightly exaggerated slow-down before the symphony moves on to its development section, but it’s clearly not out of line. I also liked, again, the almost continual rhythmic accents, none of the m overdone yet all of them telling in their effect.

Even I, who has seen all of Beethoven’s metronome markings for these symphonies, was taken a bit aback hearing Jordan’s brisk tempo for the second-movement funeral march, but his sensitivity in phrasing helped carry the day. By contrast with the second movement, the third is just a shade slower than Toscanini in 1949 or Charles Munch, yet still effective. But THEN Jordan and the VSO jump into the last movement feet first, and even in the quiet passages they make your heart pound with excitement.

In my view, the opening of the fourth symphony is one of the hardest to bring off in the entire series. You need to play the slow opening section with a feeling of mystery, as if you don’t know what’s coming, then spring the fast section on the listener like a bolt of lightning. At Jordan’s tempo, which is Beethoven’s, the opening lacks a certain amount of mystery. But it’s all due to the tempo and not incorrect phrasing: if you use an audio editor to slow down that introduction by three per cent, you’ll hear that the mystery is there. This is one section where I feel certain that Toscanini’s tempo was right and Beethoven’s metronome marking was wrong. But when was the last time you heard those very soft cymbal strokes in the background of this intro? I never have before! As for the second movement, this, too is taken at a quicker pace than Toscanini, but in this case it doesn’t hurt the music at all, and Jordan is one of the very few besides Toscanini to get the syncopated rhythms down perfectly.

The first movement of the Fifth Symphony starts off like a rocket and never lets up. In this, as in so many other movements of so many of the other symphonies, all I could think of was how much criticism and damnation Toscanini, and Michael Gielen after him, went through in the course of their careers for having the audacity to try to take Beethoven at least close to his score tempi. Now, as I pointed out in the previous paragraph, they weren’t always right; yes, I do think that Beethoven’s metronome ran slow, thus his marked tempi are probably a SHADE too fast. But orchestras back then did play music at a much quicker pace than they did during the late Romantic era and into the first half of the 20th century; modern scholarship had proven it. In fact, this performance is not only in line with the one that Gražinytė-Tyla has online but also with the one that Toscanini performed on VE day in 1945, forced to be played in a half-hour to celebrate the victory because that was all the time NBC would allow him. Toscanini did it by cutting some of the repeats, but the tempi were so close to this that I demand that every infidel who damned him come back from the grave, kneel down in obeisance, and apologize to him, the greatest architectonic conductor of all time. He and Beethoven knew what they were doing. YOU did not. The second movement, like most slow movements in this cycle, is taken a shade faster than you’re used to but still has the same kind of lilt that Karajan gave it in his excellent 1955 recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra.

The solo horn literally jumps on you in the “Scherzo,” much the same way that Aubrey Brain did in Toscanini’s live 1939 BBC Fifth—but, again, the tempi are ever brisker here. This is a true scherzo in the classic sense of the word, albeit one with sharply-accented attacks (oh yeah, that’s another thing…this orchestra is really “together” in a way you almost won’t believe) and an almost manic drive in the louder and faster sections. Jordan also takes every repeat. Personally, I question the wisdom of this; I feel that the music scores more points by not being heard so often; but that’s what Beethoven wrote, and Jordan sticks to it. His use of rubato in the section just before the pizzicato string passage is wonderful, and the orchestra really does walk on “little cat feet” during this section. The last movement, predictably, is brilliant in every respect, and I need to compliment the entire horn section of the VSO. They play with a bright, hunting-horn quality, which is exactly what Beethoven wanted.

The Sixth is also faster than Toscanini’s BBC and NBC performances of 1939, even a bit brisker than Karajan’s early-1980s recording (from his third and last Berlin Philharmonic cycle). How utterly refreshing! After all, the first movement is described as “Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arriving in the country.” They’re not described as relaxed feelings. So all you little pajama boys who prefer slower performances, please get lost. Interesting to hear the clarity of the winds at 5:55 into this movement, even clearer than in Toscanini’s versions. And once again—I can’t stress this enough—rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. It has to be slightly syncopated at all times. It has to “bounce.” And this is exactly what Jordan has achieved here. I should also note that he and the orchestra execute the sometimes sharply contrasting dynamics markings perfectly. The second movement, it turns out, is no faster than the Toscanini versions cited above, but I was amazed by the subtlety of Jordan’s and the orchestra’s phrasing, using muted celli (which I don’t think Toscanini did) to better convey the feeling of a brook rippling. The score at this point directs the two solo celli to play “con sordo,” meaning muffled, which to my mind indicates using mutes. It’s a small detail, but a telling one that shows you how much care Jordan and the orchestra took in the preparation of these scores. The clarinet and flute also do a great job of simulating birds chirping.

The third movement is also taken a bit faster than Toscanini or late Karajan, but again Jordan makes it work. Excellent feeling of suspense leading into the thunderstorm, but since he is using a reduced orchestra Jordan doesn’t quite pack the punch in the storm music that Toscanini and Karajan did. This, for me, was one of the very few moments in the entire set where I felt a bit let down. Jordan conducts a very fine rendition of the “Happy and thankful feelings after the storm,” though not quite as warm or elegant as the Toscanini-BBC recording, which I always felt was a miraculous performance.

On to the Seventh Symphony, where the first-movement introduction is, again, taken even faster than Toscanini, who was brutalized for taking it as fast as he did. But as Toscanini always said, “Is ‘Adagio,’ not ‘Lento’!” (Same thing with the opening of the Schubert Ninth, which he insisted was marked in cut time, not 4/4—and again, he was right and his critics were wrong.) It’s also marked “Poco sostenuto,” which means “a little sustained,” not dragged out. The second movement, too, is quicker than Toscanini, but then again, it is marked “Allegretto,” not “Andante,” “Adagio” or “Lento.” Jordan also takes an extra repeat of the first subject of the third movement, which I don’t think I’ve ever heard before. He also doesn’t drag out the Trio theme as so many conductors before him have done.

In addition to all the recorded performances I mentioned earlier in this review, I also heard Janos Ferencsik conduct the Seventh Symphony with the Chicago Symphony back in the 1980s. His last movement was almost as brisk and energetic as this one, as were Toscanini’s versions, but the key word is “almost.” Jordan takes them one better, and rides us out on a blaze of glory.

The Eighth Symphony has, for me, long been a toss-up in terms of approach. Should it be played in a jolly, lighthearted manner, as Pablo Casals did with the Marlboro Festival Orchestra, or a bit grittier and more serious, as Toscanini did? Jordan sounds happy and ebullient at the first movement’s opening, but start to become more serious and dramatic at the 3:31 mark. I found this an interesting and appropriate interpretation. In Toscanini’s studio recording of 1939—not the one from the broadcast Beethoven cycle in December—at the point in the score analogous to 4:34 in this performance, he really “leaned into” the repeated syncopated violin passages, creating a weird sort of dramatic tension. Jordan doesn’t go quite that far, but he does play them more seriously and dramatically than Casals, and many others, did in the past. Again, a small point but an important one. The remainder of the symphony goes predictably well. I don’t mean to gloss over it; the Eighth has always been, I felt, a “sleeper” among the symphony cycle, but by this point in the set I had come to expect excellent things from Jordan and the orchestra, and they delivered. Nice detail in the clarity of the pizzicato basses in the middle section of the third movement, though.

And now we come to the Ninth. The first movement is taken at the faster clip that Toscanini used in 1938 and 1948 (NBC) but not in 1936 (New York Philharmonic) and 1952 (NBC) where “tradition” dictated that he slow it down a bit. In fact, I think it’s even a bit faster than those, perhaps closer to the one from the 1939 broadcast cycle. But Jordan introduces some very interesting little ritards and moments of rubato here and there that Toscanini did not. Towards the end, he slows down a bit to allow for the finale to make its effect. For me, the problem movement has always been the second, which just goes on rather monotonously with its repetitive triplet-beat rhythm, making it almost sound mechanical. The only conductor I’ve ever heard make it work by syncopating the rhythms a bit more than usual was Dean Dixon. Jordan doesn’t syncopate it as strongly as Dixon did, but he’ not as mechanical as Toscanini was in the 1939 broadcast. Jordan also elongates the pauses at the end of the first exposition of the theme, which helps alleviate that “squeezebox” sound that I hate. And again, all repeats are taken.

The third movement, which clocks in at 14:12, is clearly one of the fastest on record, yet Jordan manages to make the strings “float” although he keeps a steady forward push to the tempo so that the music does not “float” as Toscanini achieved in his 1939 broadcast performance. In the last movement, the vocal soloists are Anja Kampe, a pretty good soprano with a bit of a flutter in her voice; mezzo Daniela Sindram, who I’d never heard of before; tenor Burkhard Fritz, who sang a simply glorious Das Lied von der Erde under the direction of Marc Albrecht; and world-renowned basso René Pape. I’ve long argued that a great vocal quartet can make or break a performance of this symphony, but rarely have we had four perfectly-balanced voices that blend properly. The only three times I can recall hearing were in Toscanini’s 1938 broadcast with Vina Bovy, Kerstin Thorborg, Jan Peerce and Ezio Pinza, Dean Dixon’s 1960 broadcast with Shige Yago, Marga Höffgen, Fritz Wunderlich and Theo Adam (in his pre-wobble days), and Karajan’s 1974 or 1975 recording with Anna Tomowa-Sintow (in her pre-wobble days), Agnes Baltsa, Peter Schreier and José van Dam. Pape has clearly lost nothing of his voice; he sounds magnificent; but I was a bit taken aback by the way he sharply accented some of the words in his opening solo. The two women sound OK in the first ensemble. Fritz’s voice doesn’t sound as large here as it did in the Das Lied recording, but all of the singers are a bit recessed in the sound space here, not so much that they sound too distant but enough so that their volume tends to equalize. The tenor solo is taken at the original brisk clip, which only a few recordings use. Fritz sounds as if he’s pushing a bit, and the voice has a very Germanic timbre which means somewhat plummy and not exceptionally bright, but he acquits himself well. The orchestral fugue is brought off splendidly, with the flute quite prominent. In the later quartet passages, where, metaphorically speaking, the rubber meets the road, all four singers are rhythmically precise, but Kampe’s flutter keeps them from blending perfectly. I rate this vocal quartet a B, the same as Toscanini’s 1939 and 1952 performances. Not quite top-tier, but far better than all the other modern recordings I’ve heard.

Even by taking generally faster speeds, Jordan and his highly talented orchestra do not sacrifice elegance when it is called for. And there is yet one more thing. As you continue to listen to symphony after symphony, in places it almost seems as if the sound of the orchestra has lifted itself up and taken off with wings. One can argue—as I might—that Gielen is subtler in various movements, and he is, but he’s not “home ground.” This set is, the same way that Walter Gieseking’s Beethoven piano sonatas are home ground whereas Annie Fischer, brilliant though she was, was a unique interpreter.

This set clearly goes to the very top for me among stereo or digital recordings. I only wish that Jordan had filled out the last CD with the Choral Fantasy. Heaven knows we need a better-conducted performance than those of Ozawa, Abbado or Barenboim in recent years.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Carla Marciano Explores Psychosis

Marciano001

PSYCHOSIS / HERMANN: Themes from “Taxi Driver,” “Marnie,” “Twisted Nerve,” “Psycho,” “Vertigo.”  From “Marnie” to “Twisted Nerve.” WILLIAMS: Theme from “Harry Potter” / Carla Marciano Quartet: Marciano, a-sax/sopranino-sax; Alessandro La Corte, pno/kbds; Aldo Vigorito, bs; Gaetano Fasano, dm / Challenge Records CR73486

This album is saxist Carla Marciano’s “heartfelt homage to one of the greatest geniuses of film score, the composer and conductor Bernard Hermann, whose music has dazzled me since I was a child.” Since all of the films chosen here are psychological thrillers, she titled her album Psychosis. As a tag ending, we get a piece by John Williams for one of the Harry Potter films.

Not too surprisingly, the arrangements presented here are often slow and atmospheric, with her husband and pianist Alessandro La Corte playing the inside strings of his instrument at the outset of the Theme from “Taxi Driver.” Since the only one of these films I’ve ever seen, and saw it only once (once was enough), the only theme I kind of recognized was the one from Psycho. Essentially, these are free-form variations on each theme. Marciano is clearly a very fine alto saxist with a beautiful tone, although to my ears she plays just a bit “outside” the music when compared to a transcendent genius like Catherine Sikora. Nonetheless, she is very fine and the music produced here is certainly interesting. Only at the six-minute mark do we finally hear the drums, and then they are very heavy, playing a quasi-rock beat.

The Theme from “Marnie” starts with a much faster, more aggressive beat before moving into the typically 1960s-type tune that consists of the film theme—albeit with tempo and mood changes. I suppose that, within the framework of these arrangements, a certain stop-start feeling was inevitable, but personally I found it a bit precious and overdone. La Corte does, however, play a fine piano solo on this one, and Gaetano Fasano’s drums are very interesting. The pace quickens as Marciano plays very intense, almost Coltrane-like lines. On Theme from “Twisted Nerve,” Maricano switches to sopranino sax, playing fast. edgy lines, after which the bass pays its own sole above the drums with the piano chiming in with some sprinkled chords. La Corte is also very busy on this one though, when he plays, they mostly stick to just one chord. When Marciano enters, again on sopranino, she is all over the map, playing an equivalent of Coltrane’s “sheets of sound.”

The Theme from “Psycho” opens with a double-time, out-of-tempo solo by La Corte. The famous Psycho “scream” motif is then followed by Marciano and the trio playing a fairly rapid yet choppy theme which eventually swings. This is then developed in a choppy, angular manner before taking off again with a jazz beat. Fasano gets a rare drum solo in this one, too. We then get not one but two themes from Vertigo, titled “Prelude” and “Scene d’armour.” La Corte plays an electric piano on the first of these which creates a strange effect, and Aldo Vigorito plays an electrified bass. This then leads into the more melodic “Love scene” music. Marciano is particularly intense on this one, at the 7:15 mark quite clearly playing “sheets of sound” in emulation of Coltrane.

We close out this CD with John Williams’ theme from Harry Potter, apparently based on a popular series of children’s books about a wizard or some such thing. Overall, a very interesting CD in which Marciano & Co. play some very interesting variants on unusual material.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Marek Jakubowski is Patient and Stubborn

Drukowanie

PATIENT AND STUBBORN / JAKUBOWSKI: Smoky Little Fire. Interludium 1. Why Why Why. Every Suspect. Easy Going. Free Will. Friday. Patient and Stubborn. Interludium 2. Tomorrow Again. 2013 / Marek Jakubowski Trio: Adam Bieranowski, pno; Piotr Max Wiśniewski, bs; Jakubowski, dm/perc / RecArt 0011

Drummer-led jazz combos are a bit more common now than in the past (as are bassist-led combos), but still in the minority. Marek Jakubowski, whose album Colors (which I haven’t heard) was also released this year, follows it up here with Patient and Stubborn.

The trio’s style is very much in the mainstream of modern jazz, meaning that it is essentially tonal and occasionally leans towards a rock beat (as in the opening track), but the sparse single-note lines played by the group’s pianist, Adam Bieranowski, are fascinating and complement the percussive quality of the music set up by the drummer and composer. It’s not often that you hear a pianist who works in one rhythm while the drummer works in another and yet both find a way to put the pieces together to make a whole. Bassist Piotr Max Wiśniewski is clearly competent, but his contribution doesn’t really add much to the piano-drums dialogue. Were they to use a bassist such as Thomas Fonnesbæk, whose aesthetic is simultaneously melodic and rhythmic, the results might be quite different.

After the opening selection, Biernakowski plays a brief Interludium of 25 seconds which leads directly into Why Why Why. I have to say that, although the group’s rhythm leans towards a rock beat, it is a somewhat loose one and does not pound on one’s nerves with the same unrelenting, aggressive style as most such groups do. I suppose this is the “stubborn” part of Jakubowski’s personality. Themes as such don’t seem to exist in his music; the pianist just begins playing what sounds to me like an improvisation, and off we go. I’ve yet to have it explained to me why so many modern jazz musicians mix rock in with jazz, but whether we like it or not—and I certainly don’t like it—rock music has been with us since 1954 and this specific sort of rock beat has been around since at least the late 1960s, which is a half-century ago. Rock really is the disease that keeps on giving.

In Every Suspect, the trio actually moves away from a rock beat towards a sort of slow shuffle which I found very interesting, and at about the one-minute mark the meter is broken up into irregular divisions which capture the listener. This irregular meter continues as the piece progresses, the steady 4 not returning until 2:07. For all the drummer’s skill and inventiveness, I continued to be amazed by the resiliency and imagination of Bieranowski’s playing. He is by no means flashy, but he knows exactly what he’s doing and how to achieve synthesis with the drummer’s beat. Sadly, we’re back to a rock beat in Easy Going, and in this one I was annoyed by its heaviness and insistence, so I skipped it.

Free Will begins like a ballad except that the pianist plays many lines in double tempo, this moving us away from the kind of ballad that bores you into a semi-comatose state. There’s a fascinating section beginning at 1:10 in which the pianist plays one rhythm, single-note, in his left hand while improvising an entirely different rhythm, also single-note, in his right. When the drums enter, they’re playing double time with some really nifty tricks thrown in for good measure. I found this an absolutely fascinating track, one of the best on the album.

Friday is a really nice tune, a sort of medium-slow, loping piece with yet another simple theme that almost sounds like an improvisation. Everything sort of flows here and lacks much of the aggression of some of the other tunes on the album. At 2:11, we suddenly increase the tempo to a blistering-fast pace, with bassist Wiśniewski finally making an impact; he even gets a solo here, and a pretty good one it is, too. The tempo eventually returns to the initial pace as the piece finishes. The title track, Patient and Stubborn, is a strangely elusive piece built around a few small gestures by the pianist while Jakubowski plays rhythmically amorphic drums licks behind him. Eventually the piece coalesces, although the drums remain in their own peculiar meter and feel while the pianist plays a medium-slow straight 4.  There’s another bass solo on this one, good but not as fine as the one on Friday.

Another short piano Inerludium, this one sounding quite classical in nature, brings us to Tomorrow Again, a piece that seems to be in 11/4 or something close to that, with the meter broken up irregularly. This is another light, quiet piece with neither pianist nor drummer playing aggressively. Bieranowski explores this simple yet elusive theme with some really fascinating and oftimes baroque variations as the drummer-leader continues playing his own way in the background.

The album closes out with 2013, a piece in which the pianist plays a running bass line in the left hand while playing sparse notes and chords in the right, a pattern that repeats itself a couple of times before the bass and drums come in—with another soft-of rock beat—but by and large this piece is more interesting than some of the other rock-influenced pieces. Bieranowski is particularly inventive here, moving into and out of some very complex playing without trying to show off as a virtuoso, and even Wiśniewski pitches in again here, although by the three-minute mark the rock beat started to get on my nerves. Fortunately, it went away fairly quickly.

An interesting album, then, and if you happen to enjoy rock music more that I did you’ll certainly appreciate it!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Kaufmann Channels Tauber

Kaufmann

VIENNA! / STOLZ: Wien wird bei Nacht erst schön. Im prater blüh’n wieder die Baume. SIECZYNSKI: Wien, du stadt meiner Träume. may: Heut’ ist der schönste Tag in meinem Leben. J. STRAUSS II: Wiener Blut: Wiener blut.* Ein Nacht in Venedig: Sei mir gegrüßt, du holdes Venezia! Hör mich, Annina, komm in die Gondel. Ach wie so herrlich zu schaun. Die Fledermaus: Dieser Anstand, so manierlich.* Die Tanzerin Fanny Elssler: Draußen in Sievering blüht schon der Flieder. LEHÁR: Die lustige Witwe: Lippen schweigen.* KÁLMN: Die Zirkusprinzessin: Zwei Märchenaugen. ZELLER: Der Vogelhändler: Finale: Schenkt man sich Rosen in Tiro! WEINBERGER: Frühlingsstürme: Du wärst für mich die Frau gewesen. LEOPOLDI: In einem kleinen Cafe in Hernals. MAY: Es wird im Leben dir mehr genommen als gegeben. BENATZKY: Ich muss wieder einmal in Grinzing sein. KREUDER: Sag’ beim Abschied leise Servus. G. KREISLER: Der Tod, das muss ein Wiener sein / Jonas Kaufmann, ten; *Rachel Sorensen-Willis, sop; Vienna Philharmonic Orch.; Adám Fischer, cond / Sony Classical 886447625828

The transformation of Jonas Kaufmann as a serious and conscientious artist noted for his insightful portrayals of Florestan, Parsifal, Tannhäuser and Die Winterreise into a “pop opera” artist is now complete. First, his management pushed in to Puccini arias, which he had no business singing (the voice is too dark and as far from Italianate as you can get, plus there’s nothing you can do with Puccini’s two-dimensional characters). Now, he has been called upon to channel Richard Tauber. True, Tauber didn’t record all of the music presented here but except for Heut’ is her schönste Tag in meinem Leben, one of Joseph Schmidt’s specialty songs, this is all pretty much Tauber territory. In Wien, du stadt meiner Träume you can hear Kaufmann doing a line-by-line imitation of Tauber, likewise in Wien wird bei Nacht erst schön which, ironically, Tauber never recorded.

There are two questions that popped into my head when listening to this album. First was, is this material that Kaufmann asked to record, or something Sony Classical wanted him to record? And secondly, who exactly is the target market for this disc? Most people who even remember hearing, let alone collect, Tauber recordings are undoubtedly in my age bracket (68) or older, and we are very much a dying demographic. Younger opera audiences aren’t even interested in the voices of the opera singers. All they really want is their dumb-ass Regietheater, which alienates us—the Tauber crowd—like rat poison in our pumpkin pie. It’s possible that Sony Classical initiated this project, possibly as a response to Daniel Behle’s superb album of Tauber-Slezak-Schmidt chestnuts, Nostalgia, which I reviewed earlier on this blog.

Insofar as the quality of the performances go, however, you really couldn’t ask for much more. Kaufmann may not have quite the pipes to be a Tauber clone, though he does sound like a cross between Tauber and Jon Vickers, but an artist he most certainly is, and if this includes “playing” Richard Tauber for an hour or more, just as he can expertly play Parsifal or the protagonist of Die Winterreise, so be it. I certainly bought into the concept. Plus, he is accompanied on this disc not by some also-ran conductor but by Adám Fischer, certainly one of the finest artists of the podium we have been fortunate to have since the latter quarter of the 20th century. But to my ears, it is Fischer and not Kaufmann who doesn’t quite jump into the joie-de-vivre of this very schmaltzy music both feet first. His conducting is not quite foursquare, but it’s not full of beer and schnitzel, either. Just compare the Behle-Helmuth Froschauer performance of Heut’ is her schönste Tag to this one and you’ll hear what I mean. Kaufmann combines high-minded art with letting his hair down, as Tauber himself did; Fischer remains on a loftier plane. Yet his performances are not stiff; they have flexibility and an excellent flow; they’re just not ebullient.

As the album went on I began to enjoy it more and more. It’s hard to get down on someone who can do this sort of thing as well as he does, and Lord knows he has great pipes and stupendous vocal control—better vocal control, in fact, than Tauber himself, a very fine artist but one who “worked around” a recalcitrant technique.

I was less pleased, however, with the singing of soprano Rachel Sorensen-Willis on three duets. Her voice is not altogether unpleasant, but has an odd timbre, with a very rapid (but consistent) vibrato, a somewhat tight quality, and absolutely no sense of fun. It’s like asking Nina Stemme to do a job better suited to Lucia Popp. I’m sure there were at least a dozen operetta sopranos chomping at the bit to do this album that could have carried it over with better style and kitsch. Moreover, Sorensen-Willis’ voice doesn’t blend with Kaufmann’s. Just listen to the Wiener Blut duet; every time they sing together, even softly, her somewhat wiry timbre stands out and doesn’t blend at all. But my opinion may not be yours; my cousin, who is a huge opera and operetta fan, thought that her voice matched his. So everyone does hear things differently.

I would recommend your sampling the album on YouTube, where I see that Sony Entertainment has uploaded a few tracks (Wien, du stadt meiner Träume, the Wiener Blut duet and Wien wird bei Nacht erst schön) and see what you think. I personally found it an entertaining recital. What’s your verdict?

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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