Oropesa Sings Mozart

MOZART: A Berenice – Sol nascente. Alcandro, lo confesso – Non so d’onde viene. Bella mia fiamma – Resta, oh cara. Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio! Chi sà, chi sà, qual sia. Misera, dove son! Voi avete un cor fedele. Ah, lo previdi. Vado, ma dovè? oh Dei! Ah! se in ciel, benigne stelle / Lisette Oropesa, sop; Il pomo d’oro; Antonello Manacorda, cond / Pentatone Classics PTC5186885

If you’re going to issue an album of Mozart arias, you need to do one of two things: 1) sing some of his more unusual arias, not ones that have been done to death by everybody else, and/or 2) sing them with good interpretation, not just as vocal exercises as most other sopranos do. Ion this new Pentatone CD, scheduled for release on May 7, soprano Lisette Oropesa has chosen the former route. In fact, there are several arias here that even I had never heard before, mostly because I’m not a Mozart completist. In fact, the only arias on this album that I have in my collection are “Ah, lo previdi,” “Ah! se in ciel,” “Bella mia fiamma” and “Vado, ma dovè.”

I’ll get the bad news out of the way first: like nearly everyone else nowadays, Oropesa is backed by a HIP orchestra, which means whiny, anemic-sounding strings. But the good news far outweighs the bad. For someone who switched from being a flautist to being a singer, Oropesa has an unusually rich, vibrant voice. She clearly doesn’t fit the modern-day mold of the average Mozart soprano, most of whom have pretty but bland cookie-cutter voices. She also sings with a fair amount of dramatic emphasis, which I also appreciated very much, and yet still has all the “coloratura fireworks” you’ve come to expect: high notes, runs and trills in abundance. The difference is that she uses the voice to convey the feelings behind the words, and this harks back to what I call the gold old days and others (primarily academics) abhor because she’s not “letting the music speak for itself.”

In addition, Antonello Manacorda’s orchestra, Il pomo d’oro (which, believe it or not, translates into English as “The Tomato”!), plays with a good amount of energy themselves, straight tone or not, so that’s another plus for this recording.

I kept trying to think whose voice Oropesa reminded me of but couldn’t come up with just one name. Marcella Pobbe came closest, but Pobbe never had those extreme high notes that Oropesa possesses. Although she is obviously a Latina, Oropesa doesn’t have the extreme edginess of tone that one associated with such coloraturas of Latino descent such as Mercedes Capsir. There is richness in her sound in addition to the bright, even vibrato. In the end, I decided that her voice is indeed unique. The highest notes are sung, as the old voice teachers used to say, “Aperto ma coperto” or “In the dome of the head,” a point right between the eyebrows and just above the nasal cavity. This produces an even brighter, less vibrant sound. On a modern digital recording like this, their sound is interesting and even stunning, but if she were recording in the old acoustic record days I’m sure the cramped frequency range of the recording horn would reduce it to a shrill whistle—not fair or accurate, but that’s what you got when you were a high soprano singing into a machine that clipped all frequencies above a mezzo-soprano’s high A. The point I’m making is that Oropesa thus has two “sounds” in her voice, the upper register and the rest of her voice. She integrates them very well, but their sounds are different.

With all of the above taken into consideration, then, I predict that this recording will get two entirely different types of reviews: favorable, like mine, from critics who prize expression over a cool reading of Classical-era music, and unfavorable from those who think that Oropesa gives out too much…or, worse yet, those who complain about her vibrato, not because it’s fluttery or uneven but just because it exists. Such scribes fail to realize that this is what a great number of star sopranos in the 18th century probably sang exactly like this (read the writings of Pier Francesco Tosi if you don’t believe me).

As for the music itself, it is typical Mozart, pretty but often shifting colors between light and dark. The biggest drawback is that, regardless of Oropesa’s interpretations, too many of these arias just sound too much alike. “Bella mia fiamma resta, o cara” is one of the outliers, opening with a slow recitative before moving into the aria proper, and containing a number of subtle tempo and meter shifts, but many of the others sound like re-writes of the same aria several times over. “Vorrei, spiegarvi, o Dio” is a slow aria that sounds like something Mozart dropped from Nozze di Figaro. Oddly, in this aria, Oropesa’s voice bears some resemblance to Maria Callas when she had perfect vocal control—except for those pure high head tones. In “Ah lo previdi,” there’s an interesting passage of descending chromatics played by the orchestra, and its being set in a minor key mark it as one of Mozart’s best concert arias.

But the sameness of material is just about the only criticism I can make of this otherwise excellent recital. I will surely keep her name on my radar should something more musically meaty appear with her in the future.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The Great Gladys Kuchta

Gladys Kuchta as Elektra

One thing you learn as you grow older and, ironically enough, discover great singers who were around when you were young that you never knew existed, is that not all outstanding opera artists were treated fairly, and in the case of three American sopranos this is certainly the case.

The first of these is Gertrude Ribla (1914-1980), a Brooklyn-born soprano who left us exactly two recordings, Act III of Verdi’s Rigoletto conducted by Arturo Toscanini and a complete performance of some miserable specimen of an opera called Lord Byron’s Love Letters by Raffaello de Banfield. It is the former that captures one’s attention because it was the first of Toscanini’s two performances of this act in which he chose to use a meatier-sounding lyric soprano rather than the usual light, high soubrette-coloratura. His second performance from 1944 is the one everyone knows because it uses two big-name singers, soprano Zinka Milanov and baritone Leonard Warren, but although Warren was indeed an improvement on Frank Valentino the year before, it is Ribla who presents the more believable, vulnerable Gilda, and whose voice sounds younger and more pliable. It is a first-class performance.

The second of these was Lucille Udovich (1930-1999), of whom I wrote an appreciation way back in May 2016. Fortunately, she left us a fairly good-sized legacy of live performances and recordings, so I was able to do her more justice.

And now there is Gladys Kuchta (1923-2011), who had an even bigger and more impressive American career, mostly at the Metropolitan Opera, yet who is barely remembered today. I ran across Kuchta the same way I ran across Udovich, checking out recordings on the Naxos B2B website. I was investigating recordings by Jon Vickers and came across his December 1961 Met broadcast of Die Walküre on which Kuchta, who I’d never heard of before, was the Sieglinde, and was absolutely blown away. Here was a singer with the requisite power for Wagner, yet also with a surprisingly fresh, youthful-sounding voice as well as great interpretive qualities. Who was she?

As it turned out, she was an American who established herself in Germany and Austria after World War II. She sang at the Vienna State Opera, Deutsches Oper (for 17 years!), Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Bayreuth Festival, Teatro Colón and San Francisco Opera in addition to the Met. Her parents were of Polish origin though she was born in Chicopee, Massachusetts. Her obituary in The Independent tells us that she studied at Juilliard as well as with coloratura soprano Sinalda Lissitschkina. In 1951 she received a scholarship to study in Italy, and it was in that country that she made her debut as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni.

After engagements in Flensburg and Kassel, she joined the Stadtische Oper (West Berlin) in 1958 which changed its name to the Deutsche Oper in 1961, where she stayed until her retirement from opera in 1975. Among other roles, she sang in Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, Amelia in both Un Ballo in Maschera and Simon Boccanegra, Leonore in Fidelio, the title role in Ariadne auf Naxos, Isolde, the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier and Chrysothemis in Elektra. In later years, she switched to the title role in Elektra which became one of her most celebrated characterizations. At San Francisco in 1964 she sang Abigaille in Nabucco and the Dyer’s Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten.

Elizabeth Forbes, who wrote her obituary in the Independent, made the following observations:

It was in Götterdämmerung that she excelled: her stamina was legendary, and she never appeared to tire. As Isolde she also seemed to have inexhaustible breath, and energy to spare. I heard her give a performance at Munich in 1968, and her rage against Tristan in the first act was white-hot in its passionate emotion. That same year she sang a concert performance of Fidelio at the Royal Festival Hall, but Kuchta needed the stage to generate the dramatic intensity she usually displayed.

Kuchta also made a good impact at the Met, where she was a valuable member from March 1961 through March 1968. At the New York House she sang, in addition to Sieglinde, both Chrysothemis and Elektra in Strauss’ opera, Elsa in Lohenrgin, both Gutrune and Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung, Leonore in Fidelio (with Vickers), Amelia in Verdi’s Ballo (opposite Richard Tucker), Senta in Der Fliegende Holländer (with Karl Böhm, George London and Giorgio Tozzi), the title role in Turandot (her Calaf was the vastly underrated Flaviano Labó and the Liù was Licia Albanese), Donna Anna in Don Giovanni and the title role in Aida. Yet although she received consistently good reviews from the often-picky New York critics, she made only two commercial recordings, the 1958 Fidelio with Julius Patzak (issued in the U.S. on Nonesuch) and a 1962 German-language Contes d’Hoffmann in which she sang Giulietta.

One wonders why, until one remembers that her era was also the era of much more famous European competitors: Gré Brouwenstijn (particularly for Sieglinde), Leonie Rysanek (Sieglinde, Leonore and Senta), and especially Birgit Nilsson (Brünnhilde, Isolde, Donna Anna, Elektra and Turandot). But surely a record label that did not have Brouwenstijn, Rysanek or Nilsson on their roster could have taken a chance on her…except that they didn’t, so all we have of her are live performances, particularly since she was married to her agent, Friedrich Paasch.

Here are some impressive examples of her artistry:

BEETHOVEN: Fidelio: Abscheulischer! Wo eilst du hin?

OFFENBACH: Hoffmanns Erzählungen: Sie wollen gehn? (w/Sandor Kónya, ten)

STRAUSS: Elektra: Allein! Weh, ganz allein

STRAUSS: Elektra: Confrontation scene (w/Regina Resnik, mezzo)

STRAUSS: Elektra: Recognition scene (w/Hans Sotin, bs)

WAGNER: Die Walküre: Fort, denn eile (w/Birgit Nilsson, sop)

WAGNER: Götterdämmerung: Immolation Scene

I hope you feel about her the same way I do. She was really an impressive artist.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Gabriel Evan Does John Kirby (& Others)

TCHAIKOVSKY: Waltz of the Flowers. VASQUEZ: Rumba Azul. RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Arabian Nightmare. EVAN: South 5th Street. Negotiations of South Williamsburg. TRAD.: Diane [Tropical Moon]. ROBINSON-CONRAD: Singin’ the Blues. ELLINGTON: Jubilee Stomp. JOHNSTON: Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes. MANCINI: Lujon. SHAVERS: Effervescent Blues. BLANC-HERNANDEZ: Rumba Tambah / Gabriel Evan Orchestra: John Zarsky, tpt; Evan, a-sax/s-sax; Joe Goldberg, cl/t-sax; Joe Kennedy, pno; Ben Fox, bs; Michael Voelker, dm/perc / self-produced CD, available at http://www.gabrielevan.com

Here’s a new CD, scheduled for release on April 30, that pays homage, for the most part, to one of the most original, innovative yet sadly underestimated small bands of the late 1930s-early ‘40s, the John Kirby Sextet. I first encountered this astonishing group back in the mid-1970s when I picked up a 2-LP set devoted to their radio transcription discs of the period 1941-44 and was immediately hooked. The Kirby band consisted of six virtuoso musicians—trumpeter Charlie Shavers, only 19 years old when he joined them in 1938; clarinetist Buster Bailey, who along with Benny Goodman had studied his instrument with Franz Schoepp, first clarinet of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; alto saxist Russell Procope, who later went on to a long career as a member of Duke Ellington’s orchestra; pianist Billy Kyle, the man who could “make the piano smile,” later known for his work with Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars; Kirby himself, who had played bass with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra for several years; and drummer O’Neill Spencer, undoubtedly the least-known member of the group, whose fleet, virtuosic yet understated playing was ideal for this band. I wrote an extensive appreciation of them way back in April 2016, the early days of this blog.

And now here is a sextet led by New York-based saxophonist Gabriel Evan which, in at least half of this album, pays tribute to the Kirby band. But I’m a bit offended that their music is referred to in the publicity sheet as “bug music” and “cartoon music.” Yes, one or two of Kirby’s numbers were featured in cartoons, but this wasn’t the reason the band played them. Within each tight, brilliantly-conceived Kirby arrangement were innovative solos, particularly by Shavers who in 1938-39 sounded more like Dizzy Gillespie than Dizzy himself did in that period. Yes, their music was meant to be entertaining, but it was also jazz-conceived. The Raymond Scott Quintette was much more geared towards cartoon entertainment than the Kirby band.

Interestingly, the CD starts off with a number that I would have sworn was recorded by Kirby, Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers in swing tempo, but I checked my collection and it isn’t so. The one number Kirby recorded from the Nutcracker was Bounce of the Sugar Plum Fairy. The Evan band simulates the tightness of the original Kirby Sextet, but with trumpeter John Zarsky fluffing several notes in the introduction to this tune it’s hard to compare him to Shavers, one of the greatest virtuoso trumpet players of his time, although Zarsky almost redeems himself by going into an extreme upper register that Shavers never had. But perhaps the biggest difference between these two groups is that the Evan band plays with a rather stiff concept of swing. Even a brief listen to any one of the Kirby Sextet’s dozens of original recordings will show you that their sense of swing was looser and more relaxed. But I’m not blaming Evan too much. Most modern jazz musicians, though brilliant in many ways, simply don’t know how to swing. The feeling for a swing beat has since gone the way of the dinosaur in jazz, although many modern-day jazz groups can stomp in the style of pre-swing jazz.

The genuine Kirby numbers reproduced here in this set are Arabian Nightmare, Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes and Effervescent Blues. Even contributes two originals, South 5th Street and Negotiations of South Williamsburg, and there are new arrangements of Duke Ellington’s 1928 Jubilee Stomp and the Frank Trumbauer version of Singin’ the Blues which, although attributed in the booklet to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, was not one of that group’s collaborative efforts (as were Tiger Rag, Ostrich Walk, Livery Stable Blues etc.). It was actually written by the band’s second pianist, J. Russel Robinson, with lyrics added by Con Conrad.

Interestingly, Evan’s own South 5th Street is looser and more swinging than some of the Kirby tributes, and on this one clarinetist Joe Goldberg finally gets a solo. His playing here is looser and bluesier, albeit less virtuosic, than Bailey’s own playing. He reminded me of Joe Marsala, who led a small band that played a sort of hybrid of Chicago jazz and swing at the Hickory House in New York (a band remembered for its many black players at a time when few besides Benny Goodman went for racial integration, plus Marsala’s wife, Adele Girard, the greatest jazz harpists who ever lived).

The one number that puzzled me by its inclusion was Diane [Tropical Moon], which is NOT the more famous “Diane” song from the ‘30s that everyone knows. It’s a somewhat intricate arrangement but, again, it doesn’t swing and there seemed to me nothing in it reminiscent of jazz. Yet Evan’s arrangement of the Trumbauer recording of Singin’ the Blues certainly does swing, much more so than the original—except for Bix Beiderbecke’s solo, of course, which as usual is played virtually note-for-note here. (And why not? You can’t improve on perfection, and this was one of Bix’s two or three most perfect solos on record.) I certainly hope that no one calls this performance bug music or cartoon music.

The Evan band, as I might have predicted, gets the 1920s feeling of Ellington’s Jubilee Stomp down perfect, although it’s not quite as fiery a performance as the one by a little-known band called the Bratislava Hot Serenaders, in my view one of the greatest re-creators of ‘20s jazz that ever existed. The highlight of this track is Joe Kennedy’s piano solo.

Evan’s original Negotiations of South Williamsburg is next, a strange, slow number in the minor with an almost Klezmer feel to it. I really liked this one; it was entirely different from all the other music on the set and, except for the Klezmer clarinet, closer in feel to a real Kirby performance than some of the others. At 1:41 the tempo increased substantially and the band played in a somewhat loose groove. Very nice. Another surprise on the album was Lujon, a Henry Mancini tune I’d never heard before., taken at a nice, relaxed tempo with a bit of the Latin “exotica” one heard throughout the late 1950s-early ‘60s (i.e., Martin Denny)—but again, to me honest, it wasn’t a jazz performance.

After a pretty nice romp through Charlie Shavers’ Effervescent Blues, the CD concludes with another non-jazz piece I’d not heard before, Rumba Tambah, and this one DID sound like cartoon music to me.

A mixed bag, then. A few nice tributes to earlier jazz greats, a couple of interesting originals, and a few ditzy rumbas that, to me, didn’t have a place on this album.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Emil Tabakov’s Seventh Symphony

TABAKOV: Symphony No. 7 / Bulgarian Nat’l Radio Symphony Orch.; Emil Tabakov, cond / Toccata Classics TOCC 0597

This is Vol. 6 in a series of recordings devoted to the complete symphonies of Bulgarian composer-conductor Emil Tabakov (b. 1947). For some reason, I overlooked the first five releases, but I’m glad I decided to review this one because the music is pretty interesting.

Written in 2004, the symphony strikes a balance between tonal music and bitonality—it never really moves into atonality. The opening section is highly dramatic, using a lot of brass, winds, and later on, percussion. To some extent, I felt as if Tabakov was pushing too hard to make his music sound edgy-modern. It’s quite possible that that was the case. It has some interesting ideas but, to my ears, sounded a bit formulaic.

Which doesn’t mean that it’s poorly constructed or ephemeral music, just that it’s not really inspired. Of course, I enjoy the music of other composers who spent long weeks and months constructing their music, among them Meyerbeer and Brahms, so I’m not saying that this is altogether a bad thing. But Meyerbeer and Brahms had very personal styles of writing music, and Meyerbeer in particular generally aimed at making his music entertaining despite the many interesting things in it just as Tabakov obviously aimed at cashing in on the modern fad towards this particular style, and in doing so he was successful but not, as I say, original.

To my ears, the most original music here was the third-movement scherzo, a wild and orchestrally imaginative piece that I enjoyed—except that it went on far too long. The last movement is similar: some good ideas but beaten a bit to death.

Of course, you may get much more out of this symphony than I did. As I say, it’s interesting, but has its flaws.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The Music of Eduardas Balsys

BALSYS: Violin Concerto No. 1.* Reflections of the Sea. Dramatic Frescoes *+ / *Džeraldas Bidva, vln; =Indrė Baikštyté, pno; Lithuanian National Symphony Orch.; Modestas Pitrėnas, cond / Ondine ODE 1358-2

Eduardas Balsys (1919-1984) was considered to be Lithuania’s greatest composer of the 20th century but, like so many Slavic composers from smaller countries, his work is scarcely known in the West. This disc presents three of his works written between 1954 (the Violin Concerto) and 1981 (Reflections of the Sea).

According to the booklet, the Violin Concerto (1954) was composed during the period when Balsys wrote in an essentially tonal style based on Classical and Romantic music with dramatic inflections. His music reminded me of some of Vaughan Williams’ Romantic-period works, but he definitely had his own voice.

The line for the violin is highly lyrical and definitely Slavic in nature. Balsys clearly knew how to construct fine lines and yet still impart some dramatic interest to his scores; although for my tastes the music is still too redolent of late Romanticism, he clearly knew how to create and release tension without straying too far from tonal harmony. The third movement is clearly based on folk music rhythms and possibly even on folk harmonies. Here, too, Balsys uses some very complex cross-rhythms and cross-voicing.

By contrast with the Violin Concerto, however, Reflections of the Sea (1981) is quite modern in harmony, a fascinating tone poem that does indeed morph into tonal territory but still has an undercurrent of portent about it. This is clearly a more modern side of Balsys, and I really liked it. I also wondered why Ondine didn’t lead off the CD with this, since it is clearly superior from start to finish over the Violin Concerto but, hey, no one ever went broke underestimating the tastes of the classical public. Tunes they want, tunes they get.

The CD closes out with Dramatic Frescoes (1965), another more modern piece by Balsys, in fact even more modern in harmony than Reflections. This also seems to be a violin concerto, although there are also prominent parts for the piano, and here Balsys also shows some real imagination in his orchestration, creating colorful swirls of sound not only in the upper range but also with the basses and celli.

I really liked the last two pieces on this CD, and in fact I’ve found other outstanding works by Balsys on YouTube, among them the Symphony-Concerto for Organ, Bass Guitar and Orchestra and the secular oratorio Nelieskite mėlyno gaublio, defined as “Lithuania’s answer to Stravinsky’s Les Noces and Orff’s Carmina Burana.” It, too, is a really cool piece, as is Portraits (1983), also for organ and orchestra, a musical tribute to three guys I’ve never heard of before, Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Stasys Šimkus and Juozas Gruodis, so Balsys really was an excellent and original composer of whom the Violin Concerto is NOT typical or representative of his best work. But, as I said earlier, you can never go broke underestimating the tastes of the average classical listener.

Highly recommended for the last two works. Then go to YouTube and enjoy!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The “Charmes” of Women Composers

A. MAHLER: Die stille Stadt. In meines Vaters Garten. Laue Sommernacht: Am Himmel. Bei dir ist es traut. Ich wandle unter Blumen. C. SCHUMANN: Liebst du um Schönheit. Er ist gekommen. Warum willst du and’re fragen. O Lust, O Lust, vom Berg ein Lied. Geheimes Flüstern hier und dort. VIARDOT-GARCIA: Nixe Binsefuβ. Hai luli. Der Gartner. On Georgian Hills. Two Roses. Golden Glow of the Mountain Peaks. Do Not Sing, My Beauty, To Me. KAPRÁLOVÁ: Navždy. Potkali se včera lide dvá, Až jednoho dne se budeš plat. Ruce / Olena Tokar, sop; Igor Gryshyn, pno / Orchid Classics ORC100154

This disc showcases the talent of Ukrainian soprano Olene Tokar in a program of songs by women composers. The liner notes perpetuate the myth, now long since proven false, that Gustav Mahler forced Alma Schindler to give up composing when she married him. Surviving letters in Mahler’s hand, which surfaced approximately 20 years ago, have shown that this was a lie, one of thousands perpetuated by Alma herself in her memoirs. One of her daughters said that anyone who believes most of what her mother wrote in her memoirs is crazy. Alma was a pathological liar in addition to being one of the most disgusting human beings who ever lived. She had a continuous stream of affairs all through her three marriages, prostituted one of her daughters to a local priest in return for sexual favors, and spread lies about any man who refused to succumb to her seduction. One such permanently damaged the relationship between Wassily Kandinsky, who refused to have sex with her, and Arnold Schoenberg, telling the latter that Kandinsky was an anti-Semite, which was not at all true.

But—and this is clear from listening to them—these specific five songs are the best things she ever wrote, Tokar has a typically bright Slavic voice with a touch of flutter in sustained tones, but it is an essentially attractive voice and she is a very sensitive interpreter. Interestingly the first song, Die stille Stadt, almost sounds like a cross between German and Russian music of the late Romantic era, and there are some very interesting sudden harmonic shifts in it. Igor Gryshyn is an OK pianist, lightweight and not particularly involved in his playing, but he gets by.

Clara Schumann was a solid, professional composer, but neither very original nor very interesting. Her music toodles along in its predictable way. It is light and entertaining yet strangely uninteresting. Tokar does what she can with these songs, which sadly isn’t much. Gryshyn is his usual detached self. O Lust, O Lust is probably the most interesting of them.

Next up is a real musical genius, Pauline Viardot-Garcia. I have written extensively about her work on this blog (click HERE for one such article), and these songs are yet further proof of her excellence as a composer, particularly of songs. Three are in German and four in Russian, and I would defy any listener, in a blindfold test, to tell me that they sound like the work of one composer. Viardot-Garcia was a musical chameleon, and these songs are all outstanding. Nixe Binsefuβ is a perfect example: you absolutely cannot predict where the melodic line is going, yet once you hear it, it makes sense. (Viardot-Garcia also had the habit of playing and singing these songs for visitors without revealing that she had written them; you had to drag it out of her.) Tokar handles the tricky vocal pyrotechnics in this song, including quick trills, extremely well, but each and every song, as usual for Viardot-Garcia, is a little gem in its own way.

We end with the songs of another musical genius, Vitĕzlava Kaprálová, who died at the age of 25. Her songs are more modern, more Bartók-influenced, yet with a lyrical quality entirely her own. Oddly enough, it is in this music that Gryshyn sounds the most interesting as accompanist.

A nice recital, then, with mostly good music on it, nicely if not very deeply sung by a talented soprano who still has some way to go before I would consider her a great artist.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Edward Gregson’s Music

GREGSON: 3 Matisse Impressions. Serenata Notturna for Violin & Piano. Cameos for Trumpet & Piano. Oboe Sonata. Alarum for Tuba. Love Goddess for Viola & Piano. Divertimento for Trombone & Piano. Tributes for Clarinet & Piano / Soloists from the Hallé & BBC Philharmonic Orchs.: Amy Yule, fl; Yuri Torchinsky, vln; Gareth Small, tpt; Jennifer Galloway, ob; Tim Pooley, vla; Katy Jones, tb; Sergio Castelló Lopez, cl; Ewan Easton, tuba; Paul Janes, pno / Naxos 8.574224

Edward Gregson (b. 1945) is an academic as well as a composer. All of the works on this CD except for Cameos, Alarum, Tributes and the Divertimento are first recordings.

Judging from the first work on this CD, the 3 Matisse Impressions for flute & piano, he writes in a grateful style based on the French impressionists. This could easily pass as a late work by Ravel or Koechlin. I was especially impressed by the second piece, which uses a sort of stepwise harmony that matches the direction of the melodic line. The third piece, “Danse,” is highly rhythmic and in this case sounds more American than French.

The Serenata Notturna uses a lyrical, tonal melodic line for the violin over more atonal accompaniment by the piano. This, however, changes by the three-minute mark, with the violin now fully committed to angular, atonal lines that match the piano’s rugged harmonies.

Personally, I found the Cameos for trumpet & piano fairly conventional and uninteresting, but if you think that’s bad, wait until you hear the Oboe sonata from 1965. Completely unoriginal, uninspired music. Gregson evidently became better with age, which is immediately evident when this treacly oboe sonata is over and we reach the much edgier, and more interesting, Alarum for tuba. Love Goddess for viola and piano is also pretty good, with a rising chromatic line for the violist at one point that heightens the tension. But something struck me while those last two pieces were playing, and that is that Gregson really doesn’t have a personal voice or an identifiable style. His music, though solidly written, sounds generic.

The 1968 Divertimento for trombone & piano is a bit more interesting than the Cameos or Oboe Sonata, particularly in his use of chromatic smears for the soloist. Classical trombonists rarely play these sort of things well, or at least they used to play them pretty badly, but this is the 21st century and Katy Jones does an outstanding job. The second and third movements, however, are far less interesting than the first.

The Tributes for clarinet & piano are the latest music on this disc, written in 2010. They’re also interesting harmonically, but only just. I found the second movement, dedicated to Gerald Finzi, to be particularly uninteresting.

My reaction to this CD is pretty much summed up in the fourth paragraph. Gregson’s early works are tonal, uninteresting junk while several of his later works are quite interesting…but none of them are so interesting that they make me think that he’s very original. He’s an academic composer, he does his job well, and now, apparently, he has an “international reputation.” Worth hearing once for the interesting moments.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The Dark Music of Ustvolskaya

USTVOLSKAYA: 24 Preludes. Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-6 / Natalia Andreeva, pno / Divine Art DDA 25130

I have, indirectly, violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja to thank for introducing me to the strange, painful music of Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006). She was said to have been a pupil of Dmitri Shostakovich, but Shostakovich once said that he was her pupil, and he often sent unfinished works to her to get her feedback. Somewhere along the line, however, their relationship was severed, and Ustvolskaya later said that he caused her great pain.

Whatever the real story, Ustvolskaya’s music is all about pain and suffering. It is the bleakest music I’ve ever heard. Ustvolskaya’s world is a circular trap from which there is no escape. One does not feel sadness or loss when listening to her music; those feelings are too shallow for her. What one feels is a resignation to loneliness, isolation and complete despair. Her official list of published works includes just 21 pieces written between 1946 and 1990: five symphonies, the piano Preludes and six Sonatas, and several pieces for chamber groupings. She once said, “I do not believe in composers who produce hundreds of compositions by the production method.”

Apparently, Ustvolskaya was always a shy and retiring woman and virtually lived the life of a hermit. She spent her entire life in St. Petersburg (a.k.a. Leningrad during the Soviet era) except for a brief trip to Europe in the late 1990s to take part in a contemporary music festival. Aside from Shostakovich, her only other composition teachers was Georgy Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolai’s grandson, but her music resembled neither. “My music is not influenced by any other,” she once proclaimed. I should say it wasn’t.

Unlike the exceptionally bleak Violin Sonata and Duo for Violin and Piano that Kopatchinskaja often plays in concert, these piano pieces have more of a forward rhythmic motion. They are not, like those violin works, painfully static blocks of sound evoking the tortures of a lost soul, but they are also clearly not fun music, either. Harmonically speaking, Ustvolskaya is more conventional than many other modern composers. Her works use bitonality and the pentatonic scale, but little else. Her principal style of composition was also relatively simple, clear and uncluttered. She did not write, for the most part, “busy” music, even though several of the Piano Preludes are taken at a relatively brisk clip. And although the piano was her instrument and she left us this body of work for it, I really don’t get the feeling that she felt that she could convey all the bleakness and pain she felt inside with it because, at base, the piano is a percussion instrument and one cannot produce infinite gradations of volume or feeling on it as you can on other instruments.

For Ustvolskaya, writing music was a painful but cathartic experience. She put so much of her raw emotions into it that it was difficult for her to attend public performances, though she did so occasionally. Dutch critic Elmer Schoenberger, according to the liner notes, first encountered her in 1991 at a concert devoted entirely to her music. After the 20-minute-long Violin Sonata, he tells us, she bounded onto the stage and bowed mechanically to the audience. It was expected of her, but she didn’t like it. Afterwards, when he spoke to her through an interpreter and told her that she had a small but rabid following in the Netherlands, she just kept repeating spasibo (thank you) over and over in a mechanical manner. Schoenberger said that he “saw panic in that childlike face with the dyed red hair, as though she wanted to say, ‘do please just go away.’” Another Dutch critic, Thea Derks, interviewed her in 1994 during her first visit to Europe, said that during her interview she found the composer to be “a very simple woman, who fears the world and especially journalists.

Pianist Natalia Andreeva, who wrote the liner notes, tells us that “Any page of Ustvolskaya’s music is as recognizable as a Picasso brushstroke…without hearing a note…The most distinctive features of Ustvolskaya’s notation fall into seven categories:

  1.  Absence of bar lines
    2. Time signatures restricted to 1/4 or 1/8
    3. Preference for flats and double flats rather than sharps
    4. Numerical indication of rests
    5. Cluster notation
    6. Use of accents – Ustvolskaya uses accents in an “extreme” way
    7. Dynamics – Ustvolskaya uses precise (often extreme) dynamic markings, sometimes in conjunction with contextually unusual expression marks, such as “expressivissimo.”

In these specific works, I would add one more thing. Perhaps because, in her mind’s ear, the piano was somewhat limited in expression, Ustvolskaya used repetitious rhythm to (literally) hammer home her points in many of the faster, louder passages. But she wasn’t using minimalism; that was a compositional technique abhorrent to her, the mere repetition of a motif over and over and over. She never resorted to those kind of cheap tricks in her music. Since every note and phrase was wrenched from her psyche, it had to have meaning. She had no patience with any music that seemed to her shallow or entertaining.

One will note that her first sonata actually used bar lines and time signatures other than 1/4 or 1/8, but she quickly abandoned these. One will also note that, in the opening of the fourth sonata, she used tone clusters to give the impression of no key, and even when she moves beyond that point she is resolutely bitonal. By this time, too (1957), her music has become much bleaker than before. Earlier, particularly in those quicker and louder passages, you got the impression of a soul trying to escape imprisonment, but with the fourth sonata she has come to grips with the fact that there is no way out. She is trapped in a prison of her mind just as Soviet Communism has trapped her physically and socially. By the time of her Fifth Sonata (1986, a few years before the break-up of the Soviet Union), the music has become as bleak, bare and nihilistic as her Violin Sonata. In her mind, there was no way out. Her spirit had been completely crushed.

excerpt from Piano Sonata No. 1

excerpt from Piano Sonata No. 4

Excerpt from Sonata No. 6 (manuscript)

Personally, I hear in this music a metaphor for our present-day state, where global governments around the world are forcibly overriding the rights of the individual. This is our new Soviet Communism, a means of completely crushing the spirits of people and forcing on them a rule of law that brooks no resistance. Except for being sent to slaughter or a Gulag, this is not terribly different from the Soviet system that Ustvolskaya suffered under for most of her life. The rights of the individual were always subjugated to the betterment of the collective. And there was no way out.

Interestingly, Ustvolskaya was not a fan of identity politics in music. In 1990, when her Fourth Symphony was performed in Heidelberg, she rejected an invitation to attend because it was part of a Festival organized by the Women’s Composers Institute. She wrote the following in response to their invitation:

With regard to the “Women’s Composers Music Festival,” I would like to say the following: Can a distinction between music written by men and music written by women really be made? If we now have “Music Festivals of women composers,” would not it be right to have “Music Festivals of male composers”? I am of the opinion that such a division should not be allowed to persist. We should only play music that is genuine and strong. If we are honest in that, an interpretation of a concert of women composers is a humiliation for music. I sincerely hope that my comments do not offend anyone, what I say comes from my innermost being.

Her music is clearly idiosyncratic and unrelated to anyone else’s; you can’t even say that it sounds “Russian.” It just sounds – different. Different, and bleak. Our performer, Natalia Andreeva, is unfortunately too young to have known or met the composer, but she has been in contact with her widower, Konstantin Bagrenin, who approves of her approach and encourages her playing his late wife’s music. I would say, particularly judging by the two late sonatas, that she gives her all.

Andreeva’s liner notes indicate a certain relationship between Ustvolskaya’s Preludes and those of Scriabin. There is a faint resemblance, but by 1953, when they were written, Ustvolskaya was already in her own sound-world. They’re just not quite as different from other preludes as the sonatas are different from anyone else’s.

This is clearly an outstanding release, and unique in its own way. If it were a current recording, rather than having been released in 2015, I would certainly give it one of my “What a Performance!” awards.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Bourassa’s Strange Piano Fantasies

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BOURASSA: Small Head. Blues Masqué. Triadique. Interlude Y. Gaspard. Interlude X. Remous Part I. Interlude Z. Andante. Arch 65. La Buissonne. KVQ. Musique Pour Film. Epilogue 1983 / François Bourassa, pno / Effendi Records 162

At first listen, François Bourassa’s piano music sounds slow, soft, and a bit drippy. You think to yourself, Oh God, more ambient jazz. But if you let it play, you’ll discover that it morphs and changes: subtly at first, then more obviously. Like ripples that suddenly appear on the surface of a calm pond, and you wonder what’s making them. And then the water begins roiling, bubbles come to the surface, and you hold your breath, wondering what fantastic creature might emerge.

Welcome to the world of pianist Bourassa. Ethan Iverson’s terse notes put it well:

The melodies float in the air. His music is right on the line between composed and improvised: certain things must happen, yet there’s also room to experiment. Is Maurice Ravel dreaming of Paul Bley—or is it the other way around?

Indeed.  Normally this isn’t the kind of music I respond to well. I’m not a romantic dreamer and I resist music that wants me to loll around and dream. But Bourassa is, as I say, somewhat different. His music keeps you guessing where it’s going next. I find it less gimmicky than that of Keith Jarrett, though it is not music I’d listen to more than two times a year.

But at least I’d put it on a couple of times per year because this music has substance. Though largely tonal, Bourassa continually flirts around the edges of the harmony, subtly and suddenly shifting it into a neighboring key and sometimes back again. For each ordinary moment there is at least one extraordinary one. It’s one of those lazy summer Sunday afternoon CDs, when you want something relaxed yet interesting to float through your brain. It sounds a bit like Debussy in a half-awake state.

Which brings us back to Iverson’s basic question: is this music composed or improvised? If the latter, the improvised moments must be brief and subtle indeed, because all of this music sounds of a piece. In short, nothing in it sounds spontaneous; all of it sounds well-organized and “finished.” Nonetheless, a horn player could easily improvise over it, and in fact such a pairing would add a little backbone to the music. There were times, such as in Gaspard, where I felt the music was too much like kitsch and didn’t really say anything. Yet following Interlude X is Remous, surely one of the most interesting (and swinging) number on the CD, and although Andante starts out soft ‘n’ sweet, it picks up in the middle and becomes quite complex.. So go figure.

A strange album, then, with a few down moments but several very interesting ones.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Zimmermann Continues His Beethoven Cycle

BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonatas Nos. 5-7 / Frank Peter Zimmermann, vln; Martin Helmchen, pno / Bis SACD-2527

Having been impressed by Frank Peter Zimmermann’s August 2020 release of Beethoven violin sonatas Nos. 1-4, but much less impressed with his album of the Martinů Violin Concerti and Bartók’s solo violin sonata, I decided to take the plunge and review this disc as well.

Perhaps it’s just my perception, but it seems to me that the difference lies in the imaginative, sprightly accompaniments of his pianist on these sets, Martin Helmchen. Helmchen’s infectious bounce and drive at the keyboard either inspires Zimmermann to give a bit more in these works than he did in Martinů and Bartók or the two of them urged each other on in rehearsal, because the Zimmermann on these Beethoven albums is almost a different player, not only more energetic but much more nuanced and interesting. As I said earlier, these are performances on the level of the great set of the complete sonatas by violinist Barbara Govatos and pianist Marcantonio Barone on Bridge 9389 A/D, my favorite set of these works to date.

One small but significant factor I noticed was the pianist’s subtle use of rhythm. Most of the time he’s straightforward, but then there are superb moments of rubato where he subtly shortens a note here and then elongate another in the course of a single bar, giving the music more elasticity, and Zimmermann follows him superbly. It is this that impressed me so much in the Govatos-Barone set, and it also impressed me in this new Zimmermann-Helmchen release.

I did notice, however, that although Zimmermann plays very responsively to detail, he maintains a uniform sweetness of tone from start to finish. He is loath to play more roughly when the music calls for it, and that is where Govatos betters him. She was unafraid to “speak” dramatic truth on her instrument when those moments came, whereas he is. This may seem to some like splitting hairs, but I think it important in Beethoven. (It’s also important in Martinů, which is why I wasn’t crazy about his performances of those concerti.) Nonetheless, I’ll have to wait to hear his “Kreutzer” sonata in the next CD to judge him more fairly in this respect, so stay tuned.

Even so, I’d have to say that barring a release of all 10 sonatas by that gifted genius Patricia Kopatchinskaja—which I don’t think will happen, since she believes that there are “too many recordings” of the standard repertoire out there already—this is probably the best alternative to Govatos-Barone and, in terms of rich and highly realistic sound quality, even a shade better. But I still say that there were several moments in these sonatas where Zimmermann should have forsaken his sweet tone and let a bit more emotion hang out (the last two movements of No. 5, for instance). Nonetheless, this is a fine reading of these chestnuts, recommended especially for Helmchen’s work at the keyboard. He is well worth hearing and studying.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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