Piano Music of Gurdjieff/De Hartmann

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GURDJIEFF-DE HARTMANN: Asian Songs & Rhythms, Series I-III. Music of the Sayyids & the Dervishes, Series I-III. Hymns, Prayers & Rituals, Series I-III. Hymns from a Great Temple. Fragments from the Struggle of the Magicians. Tibetan Dance. Tibetan Movement. Trinity. Tibetan Melody. The Essential Prayer. Return from a Journey. The Initiation of the Priestess. The Bokharian Dervish, Hadji-Asvath-Troov / Jeroen van Veen, Daff by Van Veen, pno / Brilliant Classics 94795

The close personal and artistic relationship between Georges Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann lasted several years, only ending when the former had a serious car accident and began curtailing his musical activities and moving him more towards writing about tales and legends. Their partnership dissolved permanently in 1929 when de Hartmann left Gurdjieff in 1929, at which point the latter stopped composing permanently. Instead, he spent hours improvising on his “lap harmonium,” Prior to all this, however, Gurdjieff collected and memorized an enormous amount of Middle Eastern folk music, believing, according to the notes, that “the music of different cultures both preserved and revealed essential characteristics of those cultures and conveyed deeper meaning rooted in their traditions.” One can approach these pieces, then, as being parallel to the Magyar folk music that Bartók and Kodály collected in the early 20th century and used as a basis for their own music, except that for the most part Gurdjieff and de Hartmann tried to keep the tunes intact as they stood and didn’t try to develop them in a standard Western classical manner.

Taken a few pieces at a time, the music isn’t bad to listen to, but prolonged exposure to the whole six CDs can bore the more imaginative listener. Despite the intriguing Eastern harmonies, the music is repetitive and tiresome. This is not van Veen’s fault; he is a splendid pianist who plays the slow pieces with great atmosphere and the quicker ones with a lively rhythm; he does his best to engage your interest, and there are certainly some very cute and interesting pieces in this collection, but the lack of any development and the unvarying rhythm of each piece eventually take their toll on the listener. If there is such a thing as high quality background music, this is it. I would also recommend this music in the main as an aid to meditation so long as you realize that every so often there are upbeat numbers in the set and this may spoil your getting deeper into yourself (CD 2 has the most uptempo music).

Of course, the real value of this set is to give a pianist, professional or amateur, who may wish to play some of these pieces the chance to hear them performed. There are other recordings out there of some of this repertoire, but having it all in one place is clearly helpful. A second pianist, Daff by Van Veen, plays with Jeroen on nine numbers if Series II of the Asian Songs and Rhythms, five pieces in Music of the Sayyids and Dervishes First Series, and a few other pieces thereafter.

Brilliant Classics was smart to offer this set at a discount price; depending on where you look online, you can buy it for anywhere between $18 and $24, which is certainly reasonable for a reference set of this nature.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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A Stunning French “Macbeth”

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VERDI: Macbeth (1865 French version) / Ludovic Tezier, bar (Macbeth); Silvia Dalla Benetta, sop (Lady Macbeth); Riccardo Zanellato, bs (Banquo); Giorgio Berrugi, ten (Macduff); David Astorga, ten (Malcolm); Francesco Leone, bs (Doctor); Natalia Gavrilan, mezzo (Countess); Jacobo Ochoa, bs (Assassin/Servant/1st Ghost); Pietro Bolognini, ctr-ten (2nd Ghost); Pilar Mezzardi Corona, mezzo (3rd Ghost); Teatro Regio di Parma Chorus; Arturo Toscanini Philharmonic Orch.; Roberto Abbado, cond / Dynamic CDS7915.02

Verdi’s Macbeth is rightly considered to be a flawed masterpiece. Roughly half of the opera is excellent, particularly the scenes with Macbeth and/or Lady Macbeth, but the scenes with the witches are pretty bad music and there are a few too many stop-and-sing-an-aria moments. Nonetheless, when the composer was asked to write a French version of his opera for Paris in 1865, he took the opportunity to revamp much of the score, which is why the good scenes are so good: they’re more mature Verdi. There are two recordings of the original 1847 version of the opera, but for the most part the later Italian performances, and most recordings of the work, are based on the 1865 revisions.

With all that being said, this is the first recording of the French version—in French. Of course, whether it’s sung in French, Italian, or Bulgarian, the bottom line is that you MUST have a baritone, soprano, bass and tenor who can present real characters and not just sing the notes, and in that respect I’m happy to say that all four singers here come through in that respect. From a purely vocal standpoint, however, soprano Silvia Dalla Benetta has some flutter in her voice and tenor Giorgio Berrugi just barely gets through his music with his strained instrument, but in Macbeth, as really in all of Verdi’s works, the focus and direction given to the music by the conductor is just as important, and Roberto Abbado delivers with a taut, urgent reading that encapsulates the essence of Shakespeare’s drama as well as Verdi’s music.

For those readers who don’t understand the difference between good, enthusiastic singing and real drama, however, a bit of background and explanation are in order. I’ve heard quite a few live and studio recordings of this opera, going back as far as the early 1950s and a German-language performance with Josef Metternich as Macbeth, and in my view only a handful of singers really “get” the music. The best Macbeths I’ve heard are Leonard Warren (even better on the January 1960 live performance than on the 1959 studio recording), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (one of his finest operatic interpretations on record), Sherrill Milnes and the baritone here, Ludovic Tezier. These four give you a nuanced and truly dramatic performance from “inside” the character and do so with excellent voices. Other baritones who have recorded the role sing it with energy, but energy alone is not an interpretation. As for Lady Macbeth, the best I’ve heard are Maria Callas, Elena Suliotis, Fiorenza Cossotto (far and away the most surprising interpreter of this role, and in my view the very best) and the soprano here, with honorable mention going to Leonie Rysanek in the 1960 live performance with Warren.

One of the interesting things about this French version of the opera is that, even more so than Don Carlo, Verdi managed to get the French translation to match the Italian rhythms of his music. Reading the liner notes, this did not come easily; on the contrary, he was afraid that he would miss the deadline for the initial Paris performance because the first libretto didn’t satisfy him. Fortunately, the opera director gave him a little more time, Verdi took a really deep breath, and managed to finish the revision on time. One of the things, other than the Act III ballet music, that did not survive the cut when he transferred this new music over to Italian was Macbeth’s final aria, which here has a chorus included. In the Italian version, it doesn’t.

Perhaps not surprisingly, however, the Paris performances of Macbeth were a bomb. The French audiences, used to sprightly tunes and lots of high notes and trills, didn’t know what to make of the opera and didn’t return to see additional performances. This wasn’t the case, however, with Verdi’s other French operas, Jerusalem (a revision of I Lombardi) and Les Vêpres siciliennes, which were hits because they had a lot more tunes that the people could hum on their way out of the theater. But part of it was that many of the French were getting heavy into Shakespeare at the time, and they realized that Verdi had truncated and rearranged the play to suit his music. Had Verdi opened up some of the cuts in the drama, both they and we would undoubtedly think more of this opera than we do.

Abbado’s conducting has bite and drive; in fact, and I mean no disrespect, his conducting sounds more dramatically “alive” than many of his father’s opera recordings, all of which were well and musically shaped but somehow always seemed to miss the essential underlying drama of the music. The opera moves at an almost relentless pace, not overly fast but with an urgency in every note and phrase that keeps the drama in the forefront no matter how rat-a-tat those Italian rhythms are, and for this he must be commended.

Indeed, Abbado, like Riccardo Muti in the Milnes-Cossotto recording, pulls the various threads of the score together to present a unified whole, which makes every second of this recording work, even when a singer (like our Macduff) is sub-par. One good example among many of what I mean is the march, which almost sounds like Italian party music, that suddenly emerges in the scene with Lady Macbeth (CD 1, track 8). There’s not much you can do with it other than just to endure it, but Abbado manages to make it sound like a lighthearted interlude that momentarily defuses the tense drama between Lady Macbeth’s lines just before it and Macbeth’s lines immediately following it. (Muti did the same, by the way.)

For those listeners who can never get enough of a great baritone singing at or near full voice, Tezier’s performance is bound to disappoint. He is a real artist who colors and shapes his phrases like a great lieder singer. Yes, he does sing “out” when the music calls for it, but this is a real 3D interpretation of Macbeth. Were he just a speaking actor and not a singer, you could place his performance on the level of the greatest actors of the past 40 years such as Klaus Kinski or George C. Scott. It’s even more nuanced and more dramatic than Warren’s or Milnes’ Macbeth, and that’s going some.

Indeed, one of the most interesting things about this recording is that it feels like a live performance, and you get so caught up in the dramatic projection of the libretto that you scarcely notice that it’s in French and not Italian. Would that we had a French-language recording of Don Carlo this good…but we don’t.

After the witches’ scene at the opening of Act III, we get the mandatory ballet that the French public liked so much. Although I like ballet very much, I’ve always felt that a ballet fits into an opera about as well as a baseball game. Verdi, indifferent to all such ballet music with the sole exception of the Triumphal Scene in Aïda, wrote a piece of junk, as I expected he would have, though it’s lively enough to appeal to the masses.

Dalla Benetta’s voice sounds thinner in the “sleepwalking scene” than elsewhere, which isn’t too good, but her dramatic expression is spot on. Actually, the addition of the chorus to the end of Macbeth’s last-act aria adds something in terms of musical completion if not necessarily being a real dramatic coup.

Even admitting the vocal flaws of Dalla Benetta and Berrugi, this is a performance in which every single cast member pours their whole heart into the music, with the result that the end product is simply electrifying. Really, you have to hear it to believe it. It almost comes across as a dramatic cantata based on the Macbeth story, and if you approach it with that angle in mind you’ll find it rather satisfying as a dramatic conception if not really ideal. If nothing else, a baritone who can give the likes of Milnes, Fischer-Dieskau and Warren a run for the money in this role needs to be heard.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Gordon Grdina’s Solo Guitar Recital

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GRDINA: Koen Dori. Contra. The Chase. Benbow Blues. Wayward. Pendulum. Always Been the Song II / Gordon Grdina, gtr/oud / Attaboygirl Records 001

This is guitarist Gordon Grdina’s first solo album but not his first as a leader. In January of 2020 (does everyone remember January 2020? When things were still, like, normal?) he released an album by his Nomad Trio which I reviewed on this blog. I found some of the music exhilarating, some just OK, but I could tell that he was a serious artist.

In addition to being Grdina’s first solo album, it is also the first release on his new label, Attaboygirl Records, which he founded with photographer/visual artist Genevieve Monro. Also scheduled for release will be his first album with an entirely new group, Square Peg.

Grdina’s playing as well as his compositions straddle the divide between classical and jazz and do so in a very personal and interesting way. This music almost sounds as if he were making it up on the spot, and perhaps he was, yet it has direction and some structure in it that holds the listener’s attention. He develops his themes in all sort of directions, both linear and vertically, sometimes exploring the notes within a strange chord before moving on. This, of course, is a standard practice of jazz musicians but not classical ones, most of whom couldn’t improvise on anything unless the improvisation were written out for them, and the few times they do improvise the results sound very “safe” and linear.

My sole caveat about his playing, however, is that he often gets too wrapped up in just playing circular note patterns which really don’t go anywhere, as in Contra. This is the kind of track that he might better have left off the record, as it says nothing and really doesn’t go anywhere. It’s the kind of music you might hear at a frat party where there’s always some guy sitting in a corner, noodling on the guitar to himself, you pass, you listen for 30 seconds, and you say to yourself, That’s nice, and move on. Although The Chase opens in a very slow tempo—in fact, almost out of tempo—it was much more interesting because it developed. Here, too, Grdina bends pitches to the point where some passages sounded microtonal. Benbow Blues is also very interesting, using a series of scalar passages which Grdina ties together to create a unified whole.

On Wayward, Grdina switches from the guitar to the oud, which he also plays very well, ere creating interesting patterns that somehow coalesce into a cohesive whole. Here, too, he shows off his technique to full advantage, not only for his own gratification but to the service of the music.

Pendulum is another piece in which Grdina uses circular figures, but here the music is more structured and coherent. He ends this recital with the ballad-like Always Been the Song II, a nice piece that he develops in an interesting manner.

A very interesting album, then, with a couple of uninteresting moments mixed in with many extremely interesting ones.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Mingus & Amram Dig Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

AMRAM-HUGHES: Weary Blues. The Dream Keeper. Neighbor. Daybreak in Alabama. Sylvester’s Dying Bed. Border Line. Reverie on the Harlem River. In Time of Silver Rain. Bound No’th Blues. Democracy. Ma Lord. Railroad Avenue. Life is Fine / Eric Mingus, narr; David Amram, pno; Catherine Sikora, s-sax; Larry Simon, el-gtr; Dan Davis, a-sax/t-sax/contra-a-cl; Cynthia Chatis, Am Indian fl/fl; Scip Gallant, Hammond B3 org; Chris Stambaugh, bs; Mike Barron, dm; Shawn Russell, Frank Laurino, perc / Mode Records CD-A17

This CD was released in 2017, but unfortunately I had no knowledge of it. The concept is a good one going back to the 1950s, to recite poetry to jazz accompaniment. Way back when, David Amram was among the first to pursue this type of performance, but so was Eric Mingus’ father Charles, who accompanied Langston Hughes himself with his sextet in a series of poems (the flip side of the LP featured Hughes reading his poetry to a different jazz group featuring trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen).

This one features a tentet led by Amram on piano and featuring Eric Mingus as narrator and his wife, the outstanding alto and soprano saxist Catherine Sikora, along with guitarist Larry Simon, reedman Dan Davis, flautist Cynthia Chatis and a pretty hip rhythm section. Of course Mingus has a different voice and different style of delivery from Hughes, who read his poetry with a smile in his voice and a bit of “put-on” in his delivery, “Maybe I should just go and die!” he’d say in a cheerful tone of voice, implying of course the opposite.

Bf5quUjKMingus’ delivery is relaxed and laconic, which fits the poetry very well without sounding like Hughes. He also sings a few phrases in a nice, bluesy voice. Amram is an effective pianist whose playing has the right rhythmic feel without being flashy in any way. He is the only accompanist on Weary Blues, whereas Scip Gallant’s Hammond organ and soft drums are more dominant on The Dream Keeper. The tenor sax and flute also have extensive features on this one, bringing it more in line with the kind of records that Hughes himself made.

But this is an album that impresses more by mood than by analyzing the music; nearly each track has a relaxed, almost lazy progression, like heat drifting through the air on a hot summer day in the South. Each track has its own background music/sounds to match the mood, i.e. Daybreak in Alabama is only Sikora’s alto sax with drums, whereas Border Line features Larry Simon’s electric guitar in a nice, bluesy style. In Time of Silver Rain has no piano; the background music is guitar, Hammond organ and bongo drums. Like, go man, go! Just go!!

The way the album is laid out, it’s almost like a narrative of Hughes’ life as seen through his poetry; one might have called this album An Evening Exploring Langston Hughes. It’s not preachy or hysterical like so much of today’s rhetoric; it’s an album that relaxes you so that you can get the point of the poetry easily, as if absorbing its message by osmosis. And that is its strength as well as its charm. Life is Fine, for instance, is one of the poems that Hughes himself recorded for Verve in 1959-60. Mingus reads it as if everything in it was serious, and it works in its own way, whereas Hughes put tongue firmly in cheek and delivered the lines for their comic effect…it works either way.

A really excellent album that works on two different levels. Dig it, man!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Bertrand Plays the Chromatic Harp

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RAVEL: Jeux d’eau (arr. Bertrand). FAURÉ: Une chatelaine en sa tour. HOFFMANN: Quintet for Harp & String Quartet.* GORDON: Jeux de Création. DEBUSSY: Danse sacrée et profane.* CAPLET: Divertissements. Conte Fantastique / Anne-Sophie Bertrand, hp; *L’Ensemble Ondine / Naxos 8.551444

On this new release, French-American harpist Anne-Sophie Bertrand plays a fairly diverse program of music for harp, going back as far as E.T.A. Hoffmann, the older colleague and promoter of Beethoven, and as far forward as American composer Geoffrey Gordon (b. 1968).

My initial impression of Bertrand is of a good harp player, average talent, nothing much to write home about. Nicanor Zabaleta she isn’t, but she’s clearly good enough to play these pieces. At least she injects some energy into her playing, which I appreciated very much. Her performance of the Hoffmann Harp Quintet is on a par with that of Maria Nordmann with violinist Jacques Chestern and the Trio à Cordes Françaix, which is to say pretty good, although if memory serves me correctly the strings on the Nordmann recording played with more energy (and certainly with a lot less echo in the recording).

Absolutely the most interesting piece on this entire album is Gordon’s Jeux de Création, music that is not just modern (though mostly in a pentatonic, French-styled sort of way) but very creative and highly atmospheric. This is clearly the one and only reason to justify this CD’s existence on our planet.

I only wish I could be more enthusiastic about this release; I certainly went to review it with not only an open mind but the exectation that I would hear something really great, but in the end I didn’t see much reason to make it except that Bertrand probably has an “angel” who likes her playing and paid for the sessions. It’s just an OK disc but for the Gordon piece. None of the other performances made me sit up and take notice. It just toodles along in its own harp-y kind of way; a perfect record to play on your local FM classical radio station to mollify the masses, except that you’ll never hear the Gordon piece on the air. Why Bertrand couldn’t have included at least two more pieces like it, I don’t know, but if she had it probably would have made the whole enterprise worthwhile.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Semenenko & Belogurov at the “Crossroads”

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PREVIN: Violin Sonata No. 2. SCHEMMER: Violin Sonata. GAY: Violin Sonata / Aleksey Semenenko, vln; Artem Belogurov, pno / Bis SACD-2545

This album presents violin sonatas by three American composers who normally don’t get much exposure on disc, of which the only one I’ve heard of (but haven’t heard any of his music before) is André Previn. Of Tony Schemmer and Paul Gay, I know nothing except for what the liner notes tell me, that the first is a New Yorker who loved musicals, operas and Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts and “pursued jazz and conducting at the New England Conservatory,” and that the second hails from New Brunswick, Maine, also studied at the New England Conservatory and later in London, played the trombone and pursued conducting.

To be honest, I never thought very much of Previn as either a jazz pianist or a conductor; to me, he was just OK, nothing really special, yet this Violin Sonata is a surprisingly creative piece, leaning a bit here and there towards modern harmonies but largely tonal. Yet the music is highly creative and unpredictable, and both Semenenko and Belogurov play the heck out of it. Semenenko has the kind of lean, bright, razor-sharp timbre that is very much in vogue nowadays; he plays with a very light, quick vibrato and has impeccable control of phrasing, technique and rhythm, all of which work splendidly in this piece. Belogurov isn’t quite as exciting a player, but he’s not bland, either, the result being a very satisfying performance. I can’t say how this compares to other recordings of this work since I’ve not heard any, but on its own merits I’d say it’s up there with any rival recording.

Even better is the violin sonata of Tony Schemmer, which is steeped in jazz devices and calls for the performers to swing. Belogurov does pretty well in this respect but Semenenko is even better, curving and shaping his lines with the insouciance of Stéphane Grappelli. A shame that the famed French violinist never played it—it’s clearly his cup of tea. Moreover, Schemmer keeps the listener on his or her toes by constantly shifting the meter and taking the music into very unexpected side roads as it develops; this is clearly a first-rate and very American piece. I especially liked the brief passage at 4:45 in the first movement where Schemmer has the violin and the piano running figures in opposite directions. The second movement has strong hints of the blues, reminding me of some of William Grant Still’s compositions, while the third is a real swinger in asymmetric rhythm, with both artists giving it their all. But there’s also a fourth movement, and here Schemmer writes in a surprisingly formal 4/4 for the piano introduction, only bringing in a bit of jazz swing once the violin arrives, playing simple figures until the piano starts to swing, leading both instruments into a nice little duet in 5/4 which later leads into a two-voiced fugue. A really fun and interesting piece!

Gay’s sonata opens with an echt-Romantic figure played by the solo violin; after the piano’s entrance, the music moves along with a nice melodic line that is not too surgary, and the music develops in an interesting manner. The tempo picks up around the three-minute mark as the movement fairly gallops along for a while before slowing back down for its conclusion. The second movement opens with violin pizzicato, the piano also playing clipped single notes for a while; this is a graceful but still interesting waltz. The waltz tempo continues into the third movement, titled “Idyll,” and here I was a bit bored since the music just ruminated and didn’t really go much of anywhere despite a switch to march time in the middle. Fortunately the last movement, titled “Games and Epilogue,” is more interesting and unexpected.

All in all, then, a surprisingly interesting collection of pieces, of which only the Gay sonata has any real structural weaknesses. I really liked this disc because at least these musicians took some risks for a change.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Strange Jazz from Montreal

Jazzlab Cover Art

LE PREZ: La Grande Sauve Majeur. Humor de la Seconda Noche. Pum la Suite. Bluesy del Lunedi. Criucm. Le Grain Blanc dans les Volles. Casse-Pattes/Casse-Gueule/Casse-Tête. Lunes & Marées. Compte-Rendu / Jazzlab Orchestra: Jacques Kuba Séguin, tpt; Thomas Morelli-Bernard, tb; Mario Allard, s-sax/a-sax/cl; Benjamin Deschamps, s-sax/t-sax/fl; Samuel Blais, s-sax/bs-cl; Félix Stüssi, pno; Alain Bédard, bs; Michel Lambert, dm / Effendi Records, no number

This is the eighth album made by the experimental Jazzlab Orchestra of Montreal but the first I’ve heard. The music presented here was all composed by bassist Auguste Le Prez, who does not play on the album, and although all of it has some sort of definite beat to it, none of it is conventional. On the contrary, the pieces use dark melodic lines and bitonal or atonal harmonies; it almost sound like bop on some heavy downers.

As you can see from the personnel listing above, the “orchestra” is really an octet with only one each trumpet and trombone but three reed players and the normal complement of three rhythm players. What catches your attention in this music and holds it is the absolute sincerity of the musicians involved and their high level of creativity and originality in their solos as well as in their arrangements. Indeed, I’ve not heard a “small band” of this high a quality since the old Rod Levitt Orchestra of the 1960s, which made one album for Riverside and three for RCA Victor before disappearing into the void. And the titles of these pieces are every bit as strange as the music within them, i.e., The Great Major Rescue, Humor of the Second Night, The White Grain in the Volles and Paw-Breaker/Mouth-Breaker/Head-Breaker.

As in the Levitt Orchestra, Jazzlab uses a clever variety of voicings to make their five-man lead players sound like eight or nine. I found it amusing that, in the promo sheet accompanying this release, they chose Humor de la Seconda Noche as one of three tracks recommended for air play. Are they kidding? With its asymmetric rhythm, combination of bitonal and Middle Eastern harmonies and elusive lead line, no one is going to hum this piece on their way out of the concert. This is a band that’s quite serious about its music; frivolity or lightness of approach is not what they’re about. For me, that’s all to the good, but…you know the average jazz fan. If the music is difficult to follow, they’ll simply tune out, and that’s a shame because they’ll be missing a lot.

Indeed, one of the fascinating things about Humor is that, until pianist Félix Stüssi plays a few bars at the 4:04 mark, there aren’t any real solos to speak of. This is largely collective improvisation, a very modern version of what the old New Orleans bands did more than 100 years ago, and in fact because of this approach it’s very hard for me to assess the band in terms of its solo strength. Not that the soloists aren’t good—they are—but they aren’t the raison d’être for this recording. Their goal is obviously the whole, the collective, and not “Hey, look at me, I’m soloing.” Even the soprano sax introduction to Pum la Suite doesn’t seem so much like a solo statement, even though it is, so much as a contribution to a whole that is radically different from the norm. One of the very few early jazz recordings I can think of to use as a parallel is the Frank Trumbauer-Bix Beiderbecke recording of Fud Livingston’s Humpty Dumpty, a piece built around the pentatonic scale, using modal harmonies borrowed from French classical music. The Jazzlab Orchestra is pretty much a modern-day descendant of that sort of experimentation.

If I had to single out any soloists for praise, however, they would be pianist Stussi and tenor saxist Benjamin Deschamps, not because the others are uninteresting but simply because those two push the envelope a bit further. I’d have to see the scores to determine just how much of this is written out and how much is improvised, however, because I’m pretty sure that there are several ensemble passages on this record that are not fully scored.

One way, I noticed, that the orchestra manages to create the illusion of more brass is by scoring the trumpet and trombone together, sometimes in thirds but sometimes even closer, in seconds in those passages were bitonality is dominant. There’s a really excellent solo by trumpeter Séguin in Bluesy del Luendi that goes a bit “outside,” but once again it’s tenor saxist Deschamps whose playing has the most structure. This is a rare piece for the orchestra, in fact, in that the focus for once is actually on the soloists and not the whole.

Criucm, another piece selected by the promo sheet (and an untranslatable title), is yet another Middle Eastern-sounding number. Personally, I’m not so certain that I’d have selected this piece and Humor as featured examples of the band simply because the Middle Eastern influence is not the primary focus of their compositions and arrangements, but yes, it’s a very interesting piece. Among others, we also hear a rare solo in this one by bassist Alain Bédard.

But wherever you sample this extraordinary band, you’ll find something interesting and original. They take nothing lightly or for granted; they are serious jazz artists trying in their own way to fuse improvisation with written charts that, although not entirely based on classical music, nonetheless have a strong internal structure, and every solo, every gesture in these superb performances add to that whole. Well worth checking out!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Mompou Songs by Alavedra

Alavedra

MOMPOU: Cinq Mélodies.* Combat del somni + / Montserrat Alavedra, sop; *Frederic Mompou, pno (live: January 19, 1977); +Miguel Zanetti, pno / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking links above

This was going to be a review of the new CD by Montserrat Alavedra and the composer at the piano, Mompou Live (Marchvivo MV 001), but since the label has seen fit to not provide downloads for reviewers and there is only one song available for streaming online, and you have to pay to hear it(!!), they can go shove it. Instead, I will review what I’ve found online which is a much shorter program but equally fascinating.

Montserrat Alavedra, who I had never heard of before, was a Catalanian soprano born in 1945 who specialized mostly in early music. This means that she was trained to sing with no interpretation of the texts, and she carried this into her performances of more modern music like that of Mompou, but since the composer was a reactionary who wrote in an earlier, tonal style and subscribed to the bizarre French “tradition” that gripped France between 1905 and 1955 (but not before or after) that singers were not to interpret the words they sang, she was one of his favorite singers of his songs. Alavedra made a decent amount of recordings, many of them of early music, before dying of cancer one day before her 46th birthday in 1991. She had a bright, clear voice with a flicker-vibrato typical of many Spanish sopranos, but also an exceptionally beautiful timbre.

With that being said, her voice is somewhat distorted on the highest notes in the live performance of the Cinq Mélodies, though not so much that you can’t appreciate her singing. (One thing you notice is that she had an exceptionally rich low range for a soprano.) Mompou’s music had some of the harmonic sense of Ravel, but that was about as far as he went, yet the settings of these poems by Paul Valéry are excellent (the complete texts, in English, are available under the video on YouYube). There is also some pitch distortion in the piano introduction to the last song, but fortunately it doesn’t last long.

The songs of Combat del somni appear to be from a commercial recording session in 1967; the songs are very much in the same vein as the previous cycle, but Alavedra’s voice is better recorded. In the last of these songs, Mompou uses some interesting descending chromatics in the harmony.

A very short recital, then (less than 30 minutes), but clearly worth hearing. These are excellent performances of songs not frequently recorded.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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DAVID AMRAM!!

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AMRAM: Violin Sonata / Elmira Darvarova, vln; Tomoko Kanamaru, pno / Theme and Variations on “Red River Valley” / Carol Wincenc, fl; Face the Music Ensemble / Giants of the Night, a Concerto for Flute & Orchestra: II. Andante / Wincenc, fl; Hsin-Chiao Liao, pno / Portraits / New York Piano Quartet / Blues & Variations for Monk / Howard Wall, Fr-hn / Five Readings from Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” for Speaker & Jazz Quartet / Ekayani Chamberlin, Adira Amram, Douglas Yeager, narr; The David Amram Qrt: Amram, pno; Rene Hart, bs; Kevin Twigg, dm; Adam Amram, congas / Urlicht AudioVisual UAV-5987 (live: New York, September 7, 2012)

This CD, a reissue of an album originally released in 2014, is one of the very few to contain the chamber music of a real individual who carved his own career out over more than a half-century. David Amram, French hornist, pianist and guitarist, who holds the world’s record for the most performances given of the Brahms Horn Trio (when he was in the Army during the 1950s), composer, arranger, conductor, and honorary member of the Beat Generation (he appeared in the film Pull My Daisy with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, for which he also wrote the score), is as of this writing still with us…he’ll be 91 years old on November 17 if the Dreaded Coronavirus doesn’t finish him off. I’ve loved and admired him for years because his music is always wholly original as well as delightful. Just think of him as Gunther Schuller’s non-evil twin. One of his most famous quotes is, “I can be high all the time on life…Anyone who expects me to be an introspective cosmic sourpuss to prove I’m a serious composer had better forget it!”

Surprisingly, for him, the Violin Sonata is a fairly thorny work harmonically, being largely bitonal, yet with a strong underlying syncopation to the rhythm which is typical of his music. The recorded sound is surprisingly dry and “tight” for a digital recording, but what the heck, I’m still happy to have it, and both Elmira Darvarova and Tomoko Kanamaru play the piece with energy and enthusiasm. There are a few allusion to jazz rhythm in the last movement, but for the most part this is a serious work.

Amram, still hip

By contrast, the variations on “Red River Valley” is lyrical and fully tonal, played with exceptional beauty of sound by flautist Carol Wincenc and a string ensemble called “Face the Music.” After the theme statement by the flute, the strings pick it up with some nice alternate harmony; then Wincenc returns to play the variants, some of which swing a little. A bit later on, the flute plays the melody straight while the strings play a variation underneath her; this section ends on an unresolved chord. Then the strings begin to swing, as does the flute—not as hard as a jazz musician would swing, but still better than most such groups.

The slow second movement from his Flute Concerto, here reduced to piano accompaniment, is also played very well by Wincenc. This has some blues inflections in the top line that are quite nice, and when we reach the variations they are quite jazz-like indeed. You also note one of Amram’s great gifts as a composer: no matter how involved the music becomes, it is always engaging one way or another. It’s difficult to say, however, whether or not the piano’s variations are meant to be jazzy because pianist Hsin-Chiao Liao doesn’t swing at all. From a compositional standpoint, Amram also takes great care to keep the individual “voices” clear and uncluttered. At the 13:47 mark, he introduces an entirely new, lyrical and very American-sounding theme for the flute.

Portraits is played by the New York Piano Quartet; the title doesn’t tell us who the portraits are of, however, and I didn’t get a booklet for download with the music. This, too, is a fairly serious piece and also with an “American” sound about it. In the variation section, Amram is both complex and accessible at the same time, combining two divergent themes in different keys with a pizzicato violin accompaniment in yet another key. As the tempo increases, the music stays bitonal but clears up a bit, and there are some passages that swing.

Next up are the Blues and Variations for (Thelonious) Monk, played on Amram’s old instrument, the French horn, although not by him. For much of the opening section there doesn’t seem to be much of Monk in the music; it’s fairly serious and somewhat complex music, but it doesn’t have Monk’s unusual rhythmic sense. Then, at the 1:43 mark, it slowly begins to change, including the hornist spitting through his instrument to create a rhythmic pattern and playing some passages slightly distorted by moving the player’s hand inside the bell. It’s a very ingenious piece although, to be honest, I’d have a hard time thinking this was a tribute to Monk had it not been for the title.

The program finishes with his Five Readings from “On the Road” from “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac. This is very much a jazz-drenched piece with Amram himself playing the piano and actress Adira Amram, an actress who appeared on The Sopranos, doing three of the readings. But all of them are hip and all of them swing. During “On the roof of America,” we hear a flute playing along with humming—possibly the same person, but since no flautist is mentioned I’m assuming it must be Wincenc (there is no other instrument accompanying her in this piece). Amram returns on piano for “On hearing Shearing,” but in order to appreciate this track you need to hear his bop recordings of the late 1940s (believe it or not, on both piano and accordion!) to understand how he impacted Kerouac. His later cool sound from his Lullaby of Birdland days was really a different Shearing. We end with the rather cynical voice of Douglas Yeager reciting “So in America,” a fairly dour piece reflecting Kerouac’s darker side.

This is quite an album. For Amram lovers, indispensable.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Szlezer Plays Szymanowski

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SZYMANOWSKI: 20 Mazurkas, Op. 50. 4 Polish Dances. 2 Mazurkas, Op. 62. Polish Songs / Marek Szlezer, pno / Dux 1680

Polish pianist Marek Szlezer, who just turned 40 last month, presents us here with all 22 of Szymanowski’s Mazurkas in addition to some pieces I’d not heard before, the non-vocal Polish Songs. As I’ve said on several occasions, even though Szymanowski was heavily into the Impressionist school of music you have to play the mazurkas with some semblance of real mazurka rhythm, which most British and American pianists simply do not and will not do. Like it or not, the mazurka and the polonaise are authentic Polish folk dances going back centuries, just like the Hungarian czardas or the Russian hopak and kazatsky. Indeed, most of the time we don’t even hear Chopin’s mazurkas and polonaises played with the correct rhythm. And I know, because I’m part Polish and grew up with that music (along with polkas, oy vey!).

Ironically, my gold standard in this music, to this point, has been the outstanding recordings by Korean pianist Sinae Lee on Divine Art. For whatever reason, she “gets” the Polish rhythms absolutely correct in every single piece that calls for them, and in comparing her performances to Szlezer’s I still find her recordings completely valid. In fact, she actually uses less rubato and a less broad rubato than Szlezer does, and all of her mazurka performances are a few seconds shorter than his.

My general feeling—and I may be wrong about this—is that Szlezer tries to bring Szymanowski more in line with Chopin in terms of style, but although Chopin was indeed Polish you have to remember that he left Poland when he was still very young and spent most of his life in France, and the French tastes were quite different from the Poles. Nonetheless, Szymanowski was clearly updating the Chopin model in these works, and there is certainly room for variance in the method of playing them. When called upon to do so, Szlezer does not back away from inducing strong, powerful mazurka rhythms from the keyboard.

Marek Szlezer

In fact, one might argue that Szlezer’s performances are more interesting than Lee’s because of this, and looking at the scores there is certainly room for interpretation. The first mazurka, for instance, is marked “Molto rubato,” and in this one Lee uses almost as much as Szlezer; in the second, Szymanowski marked it “rubaznie,” the Polish word for rubato, and there are many other detailed instructions in the score, i.e. “poco rit.” on the eighth bar, “à tempo, poco più staccato senza ped.” (“in tempo, with a little staccato and pedal”) in the ninth, only reverting to “Tempo I” in bar 29. Later on in the same piece, he has eight bars marked “Poco meno, tranquillo” with pedal, a bit later “dolcissimo” with a “ritard” at the end of the phrase, reverting to Tempo I again after this passage is over. So as I say, both Lee and Szlezer make their own choices in these very detailed instructions, and both are valid because both play a correct mazurka rhythm even when things slow down a bit.

What I find curious and even fascinating about them are the unusual modal and even Middle Eastern harmonies he uses, such as in the 12th mazurka. Such deviation from even traditional Polish folk music mark these as “mazurkas with a difference”; at times, Szymanowski seems to be channeling Charles Koechlin’s The Persian Hours in his harmony. In mazurka No. 14, he complicates matters by having the left hand play an opposing rhythm against the right, which stays in strict mazurka time, and later there are passages he speeds up rather than slowing down. If you take the time to pay close attention to this music as you listen, you’ll find an extraordinarily wide range of styles, rhythms and modes, far more in fact than in the Chopin mazurkas. As for the two Op. 62 mazurkas, these are more diffuse works that almost seem to circumvent the mazurka rhythm (with Szymanowski almost constantly writing two different rhythms for each of the pianist’s hands), thus a more impressionistic interpretation is not only possible but undoubtedly necessary in order to maintain the structure of the music.

Perhaps, if Szlezer gets around to recording all of Szymanowski’s piano music as Lee did, his set may supplant hers as the version of choice, but right now I’m more than happy to have two different interpretations of the mazurkas to listen to since both have their own virtues. The same is true of the 4 Polish Dances, where both Lee and Szlezer accent the rhythms strongly but both do them a bit shorter or longer than the other. Again, with Szymanowski this is valid, just as it’s valid to interpret Mahler’s scores with a bit more or a bit less rubato and rallentando depending on how you feel about a certain phrase—as long as it works.

As for the Polish songs, I have to admit that, since I didn’t get a booklet with this download, I don’t know much about them since they don’t appear at all on Sinae Lee’s set of the composer’s complete piano music, but they are charming if somewhat simple by comparison with the other music on this set and I was glad to hear them.(Szlezer has informed me on Face book that ”

Concerning Szymanowski’s arrangements – they are original pieces written for piano, however because of the added text they were usually treated as a mere harmonization and therefore not treated as part of his ‘official’ piano output.” In these, Szlezer uses far less rubato, and when he does it is less broad than in the mazurkas.

An excellent album, then, which I highly recommend to all lovers of this composer’s music.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

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