Hrůša’s New Mahler Fourth

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MAHLER: Symphony No. 4 / Anna Lucia Richter, sop; Bamberger Symphoniker; Jakub Hrůša, cond / Accentus Music ACC30532

Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša, the son of architect Petr Hrůša, is described by Gramophone as being “on the verge of greatness.” Here he presents us with his Mahler Fourth.

With all the versions of this symphony out there, including an excellent recent one by Vladimir Jurowski, I approached this recording with a certain amount of trepidation. And well I should. Although Hrůša plays everything “right” insofar as the tempo shifts and phrasing are concerned, there’s something wrong with his interpretation in the first movement. Everything sounds artificial, as if he had listened to a handful of great Mahler Fourths and decided he wanted to do this and that and the other thing, but somehow much of it sounds as if it is oddly juxtaposed and not natural. In other words, his performance has no real “flow.” It sounds more like a herky-jerky taffy pull. Yes, there is energy in the playing of the Bamberg Symphony, but the oddness of the phrasing bothered me.

In the second movement, he over-accents certain notes too much, à la Bernstein, most of whose Mahler I dislike for that very reason. And yet again, every little slow-down or speed-up sounds artificial and a little jerky. Yet there were one or two moments of interest, not many.

In the third movement he finally settles down and draws out some really exquisite phrasing and playing from his orchestra. I also liked the way he went right into the fourth movement without a pause, and soprano Anna Lucia Richter did her best to sound like a child, coming at least halfway close. This movement, too, was phrased very well—although, when he brought in the fast passage which is a recapitulation from the first movement, this too had a herky-jerky rhythm about it.

I wouldn’t so far as to say that Hrůša is on the verge of greatness as that he is trying hard to be great and falling a bit short. There are some excellent moments in this performance, but to my ears he has a way yet to go.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Cruz Montero Plays Cuban Composers

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LECUONA: Danzas Afro-Cubanas (exc.) Suite Andalucía. FARIÑAS: Sones Sencillos. Alta Gracia. ALÉN: Variations on Silvio Rodríguez’s Theme. Emiliano / Yamilé Cruz Montero, pno / Grand Piano GP758

Having been greatly impressed by Yamilé Cruz Montero’s stupendous new album, Rapsodia Cobana, I poked around the Naxos Library and, lo and behold, came across this album from 2017 that I somehow missed.

Since this is a “pure” classical album and does not use percussion, the vibe is clearly more serious in tone. Interestingly, Cruz Montero’s piano is not miked the same way; the exciting, almost steel drum attack one heard on her new album is softened here. But she still plays like a woman possessed, digging into these pieces—particularly the opening Afro-Cuban dances of Ernesto Lecuona—with great joie-de-vivre.

As for the Suite Andalucía, this, too is played with great energy. Those of us older folk will immediately recognize the second piece from this suite, “Andaluza,” as the music slowed down years ago and turned into the pop song “The Breeze and I.”

But this is not to suggest that Cruz Montero plays it, or any other piece on this album, like pop music. As I said, this is very much her serious side as an artist, and she shows a remarkable sense of coloration, pacing and phrasing here. Yet in a few spots, i.e. the middle section of “Alhambra,” she again almost plays the piano as if it were a steel drum. Her rhythms bounce and swing; she proves the value of having an authentic Latin pianist playing this music. Just listen, for instance, to the way “Gitaneiras” rolls off her keyboard as if the notes had a life of their own.

From Lecuona we move on to the somewhat more modern music of Carlos Fariñas (1934-2002) who, sadly, spent most of his life under the thumb of the Communist oppressors of Cuba. Perhaps this is one reason why his music is only moderately more modern harmonically than that of Lecuona, but it is not without interest. Fariñas had his own manner of handling the rhythms of his native country in his pieces, as one will immediately notice in Son Sencillo No. 2, that is not metromically regular in meter. Yet this is nothing compared to No. 5, in which Fariñas gets involved in some very complex rhythmic work that I feel would confuse many a non-Latin pianist, particularly when he uses two voices opposing one another on top of it. The same composer’s Alta Gracia is a strange piece leaning towards atonality but never quite arriving there. It opens at a slow tempo but eventually gets into some Cuban boogie woogie, the bass being played eight to the bar but with extended harmony.

The opening of Alén’s Variations on Silvio Rodriguez’ Theme is unimpressive, sounding just like some innocuous popular tune, and although there are some interesting features in the variations there are only a few where he crosses voices and makes it more complex. Plus, it goes on for 15 minutes. By contrast, however, I did enjoy the same composer’s Emiliano, a piece built around an asymmetrical rhythmic base and using moving chromatics in the harmony.

A very good recital, then, marred (in my opinion only) by the Variations of Alén. Well worth seeking out.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Cruz Montero’s Rapsodia Cubana

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RAPSODIA CUBANA / GAVILÁN: Pan con timba. El pájaro carpintero. Epilogo. LÓPEZ-NUSSA: Reencuentro. Danza de los Inocentes.  Zontime 1: Puesto y convidado. VITIER: Contradanza Festiva. Danza de fin de siglo. Tarde en la Habana. ALÉN: Danzón Legrand. Romanza Maria la O. Tico-Tico no fubá / Yamilé Cruz Montero, pno; Christos Asonitis, dm/cajón/pandiero / Naxos World NXW76154-2

Here’s an unusual album of Cuban music, scheduled for release January 22, written for piano to which percussion has been added. Cuban classical pianist Yamilé Cruz Montero plays here the music of several composers unknown in the West, such as Aldó Lopez Gavilán, Ermán López-Nussa, José Maria Vitier and Andrés Alén, with tremendous zest and drive. These pieces are more entertaining than deep, but it doesn’t really matter because they are interesting—not only rhythmically but harmonically and in the shape of the melodic lines. Every piece on this amazing album leaps out at you from your speakers like a juggernaut, and each one is fascinating.

Nor does the percussionist play throughout every track. The second piece on this CD, López-Nussa’s Reencuentro, is played mostly solo (the percussion comes in, very lightly at first, about halfway through), yet even here Montero maintains a lively rhythmic feel. She plays with so much energy and excitement that you almost feel as if she has been pent up for a long period of time and just now is able to get all of her feelings out on CD.

Cuban rhythms are, of course, very different from those of not only America but also of other Latin countries, but even as far back as 1906 recordings by Cuban musicians which circulated in the United States had a strong impact on American musical culture. Yet Cuban rhythms did not really cross with any mainstream American music until the 1940s, when jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie hired Chano Pozo (full name: Luciano Pozo González) to play conga drums in his big bebop band. Pozo’s recordings of Manteca and Cubano Be, Cubano Bop remain landmarks in the fusion of American jazz with Cuban rhythm.

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Yamilé Cruz Montero (from the artist’s website)

But here, Cruz Montero puts the focus on pieces with a strong classical bent. One of the most fascinating, to me, was Vitier’s Contradanza Festiva (track 3) with its remarkable, almost Bach-like use of counterpoint, and the same composer’s Danza de fin de siglo (End of the Century Dance) almost sounds like something Albéniz might have written. Come to think of it, I’d love to hear Montero play Albéniz’ Iberia. I’ll bet she’d put a Cuban stomp or stamp on it.

Nussa’s Danza de los inocentes combines an effervescent, almost stomping rhythm with complex polyphony and some very interesting themes, while Alén’s Danza Legrand puts a Cuban spin on the style of the famous French popular song writer of the 1960s. But to be honest, every single track on this stupendous CD is a gem. Everything is played with energy whether the tempo is up, slow or medium, and Cruz Montero’s articulation is so clean that not a note of it goes past your ears unnoticed.

I was also very pleased with Christos Asonitis’ percussion playing. He takes great care to add color and zest to each piece without interfering with the musical progression. This is not as easy as it sounds; it takes not only talent but great tact and taste. Listen, for instance, how he enlivens the Danzon Legrand without interfering with the very complex writing. In Zontime 1: Puesto y convidado, Montero adds a ragtime touch to the syncopation while Asonitis cleverly manages to play against the beat without pushing the rhythmic flow out of shape. A remarkable performance. Then, in Gavilán’s El pájaro carpintero  (The Woodpecker), the music shifts gears to a sort of uptempo Latino stomp, and Cruz Montero’s left hand provides a strong rhythmic kick of its own. And, in Alén’s quite complex rewriting of the old hit tune Tico-Tico, Cruz Montero shows us how much can be made of a simplistic but catchy theme.

Is there such a thing as a perfect album? This one surely comes close. Everything about it is charming, engaging and attractive, and there is clearly enough musical variety among these pieces to make it a must-have disc for those who like both Latin classical and pop-jazz music. Maravillosa!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Kremer Plays Weinberg

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WEINBERG: Violin Concerto.* 2-Violin Sonata+ / Gidon Kremer, +Madara Pĕtersone, vln; *Gewandhaus Orchester Leipzig, Daniele Gatti, cond / Accentus Music ACC30518-2 (*live: Leipzig, February 2020)

To me, Gidon Kremer is the modern-day Joseph Szigeti, an interesting and intense interpreter with a rather wiry Eastern European sound. (Bronislaw Huberman also had some of this sound in his playing, but mitigated it with some exquisitely sweet playing as well). One thing I must commend him for, however, is his unwavering dedication to the music of Mieczysław Weinberg. He was the only big-name artist to organize concerts of Weinberg’s music in Europe and England, and it is to the great discredit of such British musicians as Steven Isserlis, who I generally admire, for not participating in any of them…but Isserlis was scarcely alone. Aside from Kremer’s performances and a few recordings, only Polish musicians really dedicated themselves to promoting the music of this great and highly individual composer.

There are a few other recordings of the Violin Concerto available, by such artists as Benjamin Schmid (Capriccio), Ilya Grubert (Naxos) and Linus Roth (Challenge Classics). All are pretty good readings of the score, but until now my favorite performance was the one by Leonid Kogan with Kiril Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic. Ironically, Kogan had a richer, somewhat warmer tone than Kremer, but both played the piece with great intensity. This live performance with the Gewandhaus Orchestra under the excellent leadership of Daniele Gatti took place just before the Coronavirus pandemic shut everything down, in February of 2020, and the engineer (alas, I don’t have a booklet so I can’t report his or her name) did a superb job of capturing the sound as well as if it were a well-balanced studio recording.

I was particularly impressed by both violinist and conductor in the slow second and third movements. Gatti manages to nudge the tempo forward without making it sound pressed, and Kremer plays with a wistful, almost melancholy feeling that perfectly suits the mood of the music. Conversely, the almost violent fourth and last movement is played with the force of hammer blows.

If the Violin Concerto is a fairly known piece, however, the two-violin sonata is not. I could find no other commercial recording of this work. The first movement, with its aggressive ostinato rhythm in the first part, almost sounds like a modern version of something J.S. Bach might have written, only filtered through Weinberg’s mind, but suddenly, the tempo pulls back to a moderato in the middle section. Interestingly, Weinberg almost scores this like a violin concerto; at times, the second violin is playing rhythmic figures behind the first that sound like something an orchestra would do behind a soloist in a concerto. At least, that’s how it struck me. The music is almost consistently atonal or modal, rarely landing on a chord that sounds temperate to the average listener and the lines played by the two fiddlers is for the most part angular and almost abrasive.

The second movement is a typically moody exercise for Weinberg, but even here I detected the second violinist playing sustained chords much of the time behind the first, again as in the case of a concerto. At the 1:37 mark, Weinberg suddenly shifts gears to produce a rather tonal and haunting slow waltz melody played by one of the violins while the second provides pizzicato accompaniment before suddenly switching over for a few bars to play a counter-melody. In the third movement, one violin plays the quirky bitonal melody while the other plays a series of eighth-note figures around it—again, as if it was an orchestra accompanying the violin “soloist.” It’s a very interesting effect, however, and in toto I found this sonata a very interesting piece.

An excellent entry in the ongoing Weinberg catalog, then. Highly recommended.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Vickers & Leinsdorf’s Great “Walküre”

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WAGNER: Die Walküre / Jon Vickers, ten (Siegmund); Gladys Kuchta, sop (Sieglinde); Ernst Wiemann, bass (Hunding); Otto Edelmann, bar (Wotan); Birgit Nilsson, sop (Brünnhilde); Irene Dalis, mezzo-sop (Fricka); Walkyries: Carlotta Odassy, Martina Arroyo, Heidi Krall, sop; Mignon Dunn, Gladys Friese, Helen Vanni, Margaret Roggero, Mary Mackenzie, mezzo-sop; Metropolitan Opera Orch.; Erich Leinsdorf, cond / Walhall Eternity WLCD0365-3 (mono, live: New York, December 23, 1961)

I ran across this recording by accident in the Naxos website for reviewers and, since I missed its release in 2013, I decided to take a chance on it. I’m glad I did, because it is a real gem.

I’ve heard a fair number of Die Walküre performances and recordings with Jon Vickers as Siegmund—1958 Bayreuth with Hans Knappertsbusch’s funereal conducting, 1961 studio recording with Nilsson, London, Brouwenstijn and Leinsdorf, Karajan both live and studio performances from the late 1960s, as well as the 1968 Met performance issued by Sony featuring Nilsson, Vickers, Ludwig and Thomas Stewart, conducted by Klobucar.

Now, I know there are a ton people out there who prefer their Wagner slow, dragged out and sung in a “conversational” manner, but for the most part I don’t, so bear this in mind as I comment on and review this performance.

To my ears, the best overall Walküre is the live performance that Joseph Keilberth recorded in 1955 stereo with Hans Hotter as Wotan and Astrid Varnay as Brünnhilde. Both were great interpreters and in excellent voice as well, and for me the whole enterprise has a nice theatrical feeling to it. But so does this one in a somewhat more limited capacity.

Perhaps the greatest weakness, not from a vocal standpoint but from a theatrical one, is Otto Edelmann’s Wotan. He clearly had splendid voice, well suited in both size and timbre to the role, but at least from a purely aural standpoint he’s about as subtle as a Mack truck, and in Wotan’s Farewell he jumps the beat and loses track of the music, an egregious error which one should be prepared for. But I can live with it because he was such a splendid singer; if the lapse in the farewell bothers you, just replace the bad patch with the correct performance he gave with Dmitri Mitropoulos on February 2, 1957.

The rest of the cast is, in my personal view, as good as it gets. Here we get Nilsson in her 1961 prime, not in her 1968 mode when she was pushing the voice a bit more to get the notes out. As one critic once said of an Enrico Caruso performance in 1918, “he used to be a gusher; now he’s a pumper.” In 1961, Nilsson’s voice was still a bit on the brassy side but here it cuts like a silver sword rather than sounding like a factory whistle at five o’clock. My sole complaint is that she does not sing the written trills in “Ho-yo-to-ho,” but then again, very few Brünnhildes do (Varnay did sing them in 1955).

Irene Dalis, as Fricka, sounds a bit too beautiful of voice at times, but in other moments she lashes out at Wotan with great dramatic effect. But the real surprises, to me, were “young” Vickers—in 1961, his voice was brighter and had a pleasing, regular vibrato which disappeared by 1963 as his voice started to become even larger, warmer and more baritonal—and Gladys Kuchta as Sieglinde. I will grant you that Kuchta did not have as glamorous a voice as Leonie Rysanek or Gré Brouwenstijn, but she had qualities that they lacked. For one thing, she sounds young and impetuous. When was the last time you heard a Sieglinde who really sounded young? (The amazing thing is that Kuchta was already 46 years old at the time and had been singing professionally, mostly in Germany, for two decades by this time.) For another, she really interprets the words and projects a real character rather than just singing the notes, and I will argue that this is all Rysanek really did in this role was sing the notes.

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Yet perhaps the biggest surprise to me was the sound quality. For a Met broadcast, this has absolutely phenomenal sound. Rather than the usual flat, two-dimensional quality that afflicted most Met broadcasts from the 1930s into the 1970s, this one has surprising roundness and captures the resonance of the old Met. As a result, everyone sounds normal and not compressed, and this applies to the orchestra as well as the singers. It is just a shade less impressive than the average stereo commercial recording of that period.

Compared to his studio recording, Leinsdorf conducts a more supple performance as well, though he is exciting in those moments when the music is meant to sound more impetuous. I will grant you that his cast for the studio recording is better, but John Culshaw ruined it by placing the voices “in the middle” of the orchestra instead of letting them sing out. As a result, even such huge voices as Nilsson’s and Vickers’ sound as if they were recorded in the lavatory down the hall from the orchestra. Here, the balance is natural and clear.

Say what you want, but for me this is now one of my favorite performances of Die Walküre. I even prefer it to the 1950 Furtwängler-La Scala performance with Flagstad, Frantz, Treptow and Konetzni, which up until now was my favorite mono recording of the opera.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The ISO Project Presents an Occurrence

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BJARNASON: Violin Concerto.* VAKA: Lendh. TÓMASSON: In Seventh Heaven. JÓNSDÓTTIR: Flutter.+ JÓHANSSON: Adagio / *Pekka Kuusisto, vln; +Mario Caroli, fl; Iceland Symphony Orch.; Daniel Bjarnason, cond / Sono Luminus DSL-92243

According to the booklet notes, this is the third and last CD devoted to music by contemporary Icelandic composers played by the ISO, including by the orchestra’s conductor, Daniel Bjarnason. The names are mostly unknown to Western audiences, as is their music.

The program opens with Bjarnasson’s Violin Concerto, which begins with the solo violin plucking a few notes while someone whistles along with it. Then a few tremolos from some of the orchestral strings come in as the soloist plays his quirky, atonal melody. The tempo increases and falls back again; the orchestral strings, now playing loud pizzicati, urge things along but the tempo remains rather amorphous and, it seemed to me, in a very irregular meter. The piece is in one continuous movement lasting 23:41, with some very energetic, almost explosive episodes along the way. The solo violinist, at least early on, almost sounds like a giant intruding insect on top of the orchestra, though it quiets down for a brief spell while the massed forces engage in some musical turmoil.  I found this to be a consistently interesting and innovative piece, certainly one of the finest compositions I’ve heard in recent years from a conductor-composer who is not named Esa-Pekka Salonen. It bears a familial resemblance to the music of Swedish composer Kalevi Aho, at the very least a cousin in terms of sound underlying structure and surface excitement without resorting to the usual slam-bang-edgy devices so overused nowadays, particularly by American composers who think themselves original by using the exact same devices over and over.

I was, however, a little perturbed by the purposely rough, edgy, microtonal figures played by the soloist at about the 9:20 mark. These seemed to me a bit of pandering to those who like to hear punk rock influences in classical music, something I abhor. Fortunately, this episode doesn’t last too long, and we get back on track as the basses in the orchestra stealthily come in behind one of the soloist’s lines. In the next sequence, the soloist again plays somewhat edgy figures, but this time almost in the rhythm of a very fast hoedown. I’m not sure if the soloist is doing this or two violins, but there is clearly another (high) violin line being played over the first…and then our whistler returns for a jolly little interlude. It ends quietly.

Next up is Lendh by Icelandic-Canadian Veronique Vaka (b. 1986). The notes claim that “Her work intends to create a poetic context between what she sees, hears and feels in the unspoiled nature.” Here we have the formulaic opening of so much modern Western music, the loud thud or clang (in this case a thud) followed by atonal figures, but in Vaka’s case they move slowly, like dinosaurs across a frozen tundra of sound. For the most part, this score consists of slow-moving, pitch-fluctuating tone clusters which create a strange ambience. A trombone choir plys a brief interjection, but for the most part the scoring consists of strings (both high and low) and a few woodwinds. My sole complaint of this work was that it went on too long (11:36) but said very little.

In Seventh Heaven was written by Haukur Tomasson (b. 1960). It is quite different from the previous two works in that it is rather chipper and upbeat, using upward-moving high wind and string figures, sometimes overlaid on one another. The open chording almost reminded me of Copland, but in a more modern context. The music is primarily bustling and effervescent, although with some ominous moments tossed in by the bass trombones. Later on, it is the tympani that thump down below.

Flutter, by Thuríƌur Jónsdóttir (b. ? ), is one of those ambient sound type of compositions, mostly of sound effects with occasional atonal whines from high instruments and percussive sounds produced by others, that simply say nothing and do not impress me. Mostly, it sounds like a dog panting while isolated atonal notes are played by members of the orchestra and a lot of percussion knocks around in the background. Big deal. It also has the defect of being far too long (20 minutes) for what it has to say, which really is nothing.

Next up is Adagio by Magnús Blöndal Jóhansson (1925-2005), considered the first really modern Icelandic composer. The notes tell us that, after the death of his wife in the early 1970s, he composed nothing until around 1980 after fighting a long battle with alcoholism. This Adagio, a really stunning work based on a few simple motifs, appeared suddenly that year, and is considered to be his last major composition. It consists of a few simple gestures by soft, mid-range strings, a few thumps here and there from the basses, and a celesta solo.The ISO plays it with great affection.

An interesting album, then, and one worth hearing despite my misgivings about the Vaka and Jónsdóttir pieces.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Ivan Ilić Rediscovers Reicha

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REICHA: L’Art de Varier / Ivan Ilić, pno / Chandos 21093

This, Vol. 3 in pianist Ivan Ilić’s projected series of the music of Anton Reicha, focuses entirely on his long set of theme and variations entitled L’Art de Varier. Written in 1804, it is clearly based on the sort of extended variations that J.S. Bach had written more than a half-century earlier, yet both the melodic material and its development sound so much like Schumann that it’s uncanny.

To the best of my knowledge, there is only one other recording of this piece available, by Italian pianist Mauro Masala on the Dynamic label, one of my favorite “indies” in that they do a superb job of recording offbeat repertoire—mostly operatic, but sometimes instrumental—in generally first-rate performances.

Interestingly, Ilić’s performance is considerably longer than Masala’s, running nearly 87 minutes rather than 75. How on earth Chandos managed to fit this onto one CD baffles me; the most I can burn on a disc is about 82 minutes and 15 seconds. The reason this baffles me is that Ilíc plays it faster than Masala, and with considerably more energy. The music practically leaps out of your speakers; it has energy and emotional involvement whereas Masala plays it cleanly but somewhat coolly. Perhaps the fact that Ilíc is Serbian has something to do with this. It has been my experience that Eastern European musicians (which includes Russians, Ukrainians, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Hungarians etc.) tend to play, as a rule but not always, with more passion. Whatever the reason, I can say without doubt that this is clearly the better recording of this work.

I’ve discovered that Reicha was an early friend of young Beethoven, and this makes sense, too. Some of these variants put you in mind of the Beethoven of the early 1800s, when he was really spreading his wings and developing his own highly dramatic style of writing. Indeed, some of the variations played here, such as No. 6, sound remarkably like Beethoven. FYI, E.T.A. Hoffmann, who wrote his own music in a relatively conservative style but also praised Beethoven highly, also admired Reicha, as did Hector Berlioz.

What impressed me the most was how varied Reicha’s variations were, as well as how much chromatic movement there is in several of them, such as No. 11. He apparently had an endless fund of ideas to draw on. It would be nice to say that this work may have influenced Beethoven’s own Eroica and Diabelli Variations, but as I said earlier, the resemblance here is more that of Schumann, who came much later, than of his contemporaries. After a while, you almost stop listening to Ilić’s dazzling technique and focus entirely on the music itself. It almost takes on a life of its own, as well it should. In Variation 14, Reicha pretty much states the theme “straight” but constantly shifts the underlying harmonies, sometimes dipping into the minor. Variation 15 is explosive and, here again, resembles Beethoven; when changing into the minor in this one, he pulls the melodic line towards the minor as well.

My sole complaint about this work was that Reicha really did not change the theme enough from variation to variation; it is always in the forefront and always the same note-sequence, which made it somewhat predictable for me as the variants continued. This was a trap that neither Beethoven nor Schumann, later on, fell into; they changed their themes around so much that by the fourth or fifth variation, you’re in a different world. Yet Reicha could be more playful than Beethoven, i.e. in Variation 32 where he keeps returning to a four-note rhythm with pauses in between.

My assessment of this disc is that it is a real gem. Great music played with a perfect touch, tone and feeling that you’ve probably not heard before, with near-perfect recorded sound. Go for it!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Christian Mason “Between the Stars”

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MASON: Zwischen den Sternen / Ensemble Recherche: Melise Mellinger, vln/Scordatura vln; Laura Hovestadt, vla/Scordatura vla; Åse Åkerberg, cel/Scordatura cel; Eduardo Olloqui, ob; Mario Caroli, fl/bs-fl; Shizuyo Oka, cl/bs-cl; Klaus Steffes-Höllander, pno/ handkerchief harmonica; Christian Dierstein, cymb/dm/assorted perc / Winter & Winter 910267-2

Young composer Christian Mason (b. 1984) presents here an extended fantasia for prepared and regular pianos, strings and percussion in which he attempts to capture the feeling of the stars. It’s a strange piece, to be sure, using microtones in the manner of Julián Carrillo or Harry Partch but in his own personal style. The music moves quite slowly at first, with a piano playing a repeated, isolated notes while the Scordatura strings (instruments purposely tuned to produce dissonance and discords) slither around it, Nor is it just the opening that moves slowly; so too does the development section. The piece is divided into six titled sections with two unnumbered Interludes, the first between I and II and the second between III and IV.

It’s difficult to say who the target audience is for this music. It is clearly too dissonant and complex to appeal to most listeners, and so far as I know (I may be wrong) the number of those who like this sort of piece is relatively small. Yet it is clearly a creative and interesting piece, and I can imagine it being played in a darkened room with projections of slowly-moving stars on the ceiling of the concert venue. About 52 seconds into the first Interlude, the music picks up a bit in pace and becomes much louder, but then recedes again from the sound barrier. That is when the percussion kicks in: drums, cymbals and such instruments as Tibetan cymbals on snare, Sengalese drums, African slit drums, crystal bowl and “3 small pieces of metal with indefinite pitch.” Despite this array of percussion, the piece only becomes noisy intermittently and then quiets down as the music progresses.

By and large, Mason’s development is minimal and kept within a relatively narrow range although the violin and viola skitter around as things change, following which one hears the woodwinds (oboe, bass flute, bass clarinet etc.). It certainly creates a strange ambience. In many of my reviews I’ve complained of the music being recorded with too much resonance, but in this specific case I would say that it is possible recorded too clearly; a bit of ambience around the instruments would surely have given the piece a more “unworldly” sound. As it is, every instrument one hears stands out like cacti in the desert sun, which has the effect of bringing the “star sound” very close to one’s ears without a buffer. You, however, may feel differently from me.

I found the music very interesting for long stretches of time but, as a total piece, a bit overlong. Although Mason does not actually repeat anything, one gets the feeling of déjà vu as it progresses.

As I said earlier, this is clearly not a CD for everyone. I admit enjoying the listening experience for the purpose of this review, but it is not a piece I would play again, at least not for a long time. Just a bit too bizarre without seeming to have a real purpose other than shocking the listener.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The Ciconia Consort Plays American Pioneers

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FOOTE: Suite in E. ANTHEIL: Serenade for String Orchestra. IVES: Hymn: Largo cantabile. COPLAND: Appalachian Spring (vers. for 13 instruments) / Ciconia Consort; Dick van Gasteren, cond / Brilliant Classics BC96086

The Ciconia Consort, a.k.a. The Hague String Orchestra, is a group of 20 musicians founded in 2012. This disc focuses on the music of American composers who their conductor, Dick van Gasteren, has characterized as pioneers.

We start our journey with Arthur Foote, the Wagner-and-Brahms-influenced American pedagogue who made it to age 84 (1937), by which time his music was considered to be part of the past, but his string Suite in E is a lively piece with many interesting turns of harmony. Van Gasteren, who studied conducting with Bernard Haitink, is a lively interpreter who gives the music lift and drive.

Interestingly, the Antheil Serenade No. 1 dates not from his most adventurous and fertile period, but from 1948, by which time he had settled into more traditional forms, yet the piece does sort of combine a Stravinsky-ish feel with American rhythms, at times leaning towards jazz. The slow second movement, however, is moody and a bit eerie, with somewhat ominous string tremolos and spot solos.

The Ives Hymn, though written in 1904 when the composer was 30 years old, is a bit more conventional than many of his later works but is already leaning towards bitonality. We wrap up the program with the ever-popular Appalachian Spring of Copland in the arrangement for just 13 string players.

Although this is a fine program and very well played, a bit more imagination could have gone into it. The Ciconia Consort could have picked more imaginative pieces by both Ives and especially Copland, whose more avant-garde pieces of the 1920s and early ‘30s are still not all that well known, and they could have added a piece by the most avant-garde of all American composers of the 1930s and ‘40s, Harry Partch. Otherwise, a nice disc.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Stephanie & Paolo’s New Double CD

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J.P. JOHNSON: Jingles. A Flat Dream. Ain’tcha Got Music. Caprice Rag. You Can’t Lose a Broken Heart.* Over the Bars [Steeplechase Rag]. Toddlin’. A Porter’s Love Song to a Chambermaid.* Jersey Sweet [Just Before Daybreak]. Riffs. JOHNSON-SMITH: How Could You Put Me Down? JOHNSON: Carolina Balmoral. If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight).* Carolina Shout. Victory Stride.* Snowy Morning Blues. You’ve Got to Be Modernistic. Keep Off the Grass. JOHNSON-MACK: Old-Fashioned Love*  / Stephanie Trick, *Paolo Alderighi, pno / ALDERIGHI: I Love Erroll.* GARNER: Passing Through.* Paris Bounce.* Misty. Nervous Waltz.* Mambo Carmel.*+ CALLENDER: Pastel.* GARNER: Play, Piano, Play.* One Good Turn.* Something Happens. Trio.* Dreamy. That’s My Kick.*+ Dreamstreet / Paolo Alderighi, pno; *Roberto Piccolo, bs; Nicola Stranieri, dm/conga; +Stephanie Trick, perc / AT Music Productions ATCD006

The piano duo of Stephanie Trick and her husband, Paolo Alderighi, are back on silver disc with this new double CD devoted to two of their favorite pianist-composers, James P. Johnson and Erroll Garner. The twist is that they only play together on a few tracks, and it’s only on a handful of Johnson pieces that they play piano four hands, which is their trademark. On three of the Garner tunes, Stephanie plays percussion.

As one can see, the selection of Johnson songs includes several titles that only aficionados of the pianist would know, such as A Flat Dream, Over the Bars [Steeplechase Rag], Toddlin’, Jersey Sweet, Carolina Balmoral and Victory Stride, but I think I was shocked to read, in Stephanie’s liner notes, that James P. Johnson is “a name most people don’t recognize, despite his immense contribution to twentieth-century music.” Well, perhaps she’s right about the name, but most jazz musicians know him and I would think that the public at least knows the name of four of his most famous songs: If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight), A Porter’s Love Song to a Chambermaid (his biggest hit during the Swing Era), Carolina Shout (played and recorded by both Duke Ellington and Fats Waller), Old-Fashioned Love and especially Charleston, the one monster hit by Johnson that does not appear on this CD.

The program opens with Jingles which, despite its ragtime form and title, is one of Johnson’s most swinging pieces. It was recorded in a late-1920s Brunswick session that also included You’re Got to be Modernistic. Trick plays it much the same way Johnson did on the record, with almost mindblowing swing and drive. It’s clearly evident from this piece that Johnson had formal training—in fact, even more and better formal training than Jelly Roll Morton. Like ragtime king Scott Joplin, Johnson grew up with a through immersion in composition, counterpoint and harmony, and in fact wrote what he called “a Negro symphony,” Yamekraw, in the late 1920s. As in the case of her Fats Waller covers, Trick sounds so much like her source that one could easily mistake these for really high-fidelity recordings by Johnson himself (he did live until 1955 and made quite a few recordings in the late 1940s and early ‘50s for such labels as Blue Note). And yet, she does throw in some licks of her own, inspired by Dick Hyman’s playing of Johnson’s music.

I was delighted by the descending chromatic passages in A Flat Dream, and there are also some felicitous passages in Aint’cha Got Music, one of his late-‘40s pieces. One thing Trick makes clear is that Johnson’s music was much richer harmonically and more difficult to play than that of his most famous pupil, Fats Waller. The lay listener may want to think of James P. as the “graduate course” version of Fats.

You Can’t Lose a Broken Heart, a medium-slow-piece, is the first of five in this program to feature the only (so far as I know) full-time piano-four-hands jazz duo as hubby Paolo joins in. They give the piece a rocking, almost funky beat with that little “push” on the first and third beats of the bar that creates swing. One can always tell Paolo’s playing from Stephanie’s if you listen very closely: he has a richer tone  but also a more legato flow to his playing whereas Trick has “the beat in her blood,” if you know what I mean. The slight contrast makes for interesting listening. I really loved the “slow drag” feeling that Trick gave to the bass part of Toddlin’, played as a solo, and in A Porter’s Love Song (one of the duets) Stephanie and Paolo depart quite a bit from the original piece, upping the tempo and imparting a Latin beat to it. In the improvised chorus, they break up the tune into little bits, shift the harmony around, and have a lot of fun. Stephanie, solo, also has great fun with her relaxed and inventive version of Jersey Sweet [Just Before Baybreak], and I was especially impressed by her tender version of How Could You Put Me Down?

If I Could Be With You is taken at a real ballad tempo, with the duo emphasizing the lovely melody in the opening chorus, then rewriting it in the second, playing the chorus as the bridge, transposing it upwards and adding richer chords in the second go-round. It almost becomes a concert piece in their hands. Then Trick takes Carolina Shout places that Johnson, Waller and Ellington never did.

Victory Stride was an orchestral piece by Johnson; I’ve never heard it in that context, but the Trick-Alderighi duo really make something magical of its minor-key tune, playing a sort of modified boogie beat behind the second chorus. They then play it softly and plaintively before bringing in hints of the boogie beat into the full-stride improvisation. This is a real masterpiece. So too is Trick’s extended version of You’ve Got to be Modernistic, one of Johnson’s trickiest chromatic pieces. (He recorded it twice, as a piano solo for Brunswick and in an orchestra; version for Victor.) Old-Fashioned Love is also taken wistfully as a duet, while this program ends with a solo version of Keep Off the Grass.

The second CD features Paolo playing a tribute to Erroll Garner, whose music came out of stride piano but morphed after World War II into an idiosyncratic style of its own, using the left hand to strum chords like a guitar while the left played asymmetrical, swinging figures. Although this program opens with an original by Alderighi in tribute to Garner and includes Red Callender’s Pastel, he managed to come up with a dozen pieces written by Garner himself including the overplayed chestnut Misty. The others, however, are scarcely overplayed, and in fact a few were new even to me. Passing Through is probably the most stride-like piece on the disc, but in each and every number on this CD Alderighi channels Garner while adding ideas of his own. And does he swing here! It’s particularly nice that he includes bass and drums on most of the set. As much as I enjoy hearing either Stephanie, Paolo, or both playing without accompaniment, I’ve long wanted to hear either or both play with a rhythm section, as Stephanie did at certain jazz festivals during her Fats Waller period. It not only adds a new dimension to their playing, but it puts their swinging into sharper focus. I was particularly impressed by drummer Nicola Stranieri, evidently a big fan of Buddy Rich; he has much of the famed drummer’s technique as well as his swing and drive. In most of these performances, he eschews his sometimes classical approach to give out with some really hard swinging. In Paris Bounce, he captures Garner’s quirky style perfectly. All that was missing was Garner’s humming along with his own playing to sound authentic. (The Beatles did a perfect Garner imitation on their record of You Know My Name (Look Up the Number), on which they also parodied Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones.)

Misty is modeled after Garner’s original solo recording of it on Mercury, but with some twists of his own, while Nervous Waltz turns out to be one of his quirkiest tunes, undoubtedly written with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Roberto Piccolo plays a nice bass solo on this one as well. Stephanie drops in to add a little extra percussion (it sounds like a tambourine) on Mambo Carmel as Stranieri switches to conga drums for the first section of this tune. He plays drums on the second section, but then takes an extended conga solo with Algerighi dropping a few notes in here and there.

By and large, however, this is less a set for analyzing than for just leaning back, relaxing, and enjoying. It’s almost like finding an unissued Erroll Garner record in digital stereo; it’s that good. Stephanie returns to add her tambourine to One Good Turn, a piece that sounds like a combination of Johnson’s Old-Fashioned Love with the blues.

I think the main thing that struck me about this 2-CD set was that, had they not been a married couple, each CD could have been issued separately as a showcase by each pianist to one of his or her favorite jazz composers of the past, but as a package it gives one a chance to compare and contrast the styles of each pianist as well as Johnson and Garner. The history of jazz, though it passed through several generational styles fairly quickly and one style seemed to feed into the next, is not so much a continuum as a mosaic. It almost boggles the mind to consider, for instance, that at the time when Jelly Roll Morton was performing on NBC’s Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street radio program in 1940, Thelonious Monk was playing at Minton’s Playhouse in those evening jam sessions that led to the birth of modern jazz, and that James P. Johnson was still playing in the early 1950s when Bud Powell, Art Tatum and Horace Silver ruled the piano roost. Stephanie and Paolo have snap-frozen two piano icons in time and given us recordings to treasure, showing us the richness of each of these two titans’ legacy while adding to their own as performers.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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