Discovering the Works of von Einem

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VON EINEM: Concerto for Orchestra. Hunyady László. Serenade. Nachtstück / Berlin Radio Symphony Orch.; Johannes Kalitzke, cond / Capriccio C5357

Gottfried von Einem (1918-1996) was an Austrian composer noted primarily for his operas influenced by Stravinsky, Prokofiev and jazz. This was my first exposure to any of his music. My handicap was not having any access to liner notes.

The Concerto for Orchestra, his Op. 4, comes from 1944 when he was 26 years old. A bit of Stravinsky influence is heard in the music, but it is largely tonal and uses primarily “normal” rhythms with a bit of unusual syncopation, yet I would be loath to call it “jazz-influenced” except in the mildest of manner. It is, however, a very attractive work, actually more in the vein of some of Shostakovich’s more populist works such as the Piano Concerti (at least to my ears). Of course, the lack of a jazz feel in this music may be due more to the conductor and the orchestra than the music itself; very few German classical musicians, even to this day, really know how to swing when handed a jazz-influenced score. (No, this is not “profiling,” it just happens to be the truth.) Yet as the syncopations pile up in the first movement, one realizes that, if nothing else, von Einem was that rare sort of German who had a sense of humor in music; towards the end of the first music the riot of syncopations builds up into a quasi-Latin sort of beat. It is also very well-written music; von Einem clearly knew how to develop his themes and make them interesting.

The second movement, generally more lyrical, also employs some backbeats, again not really in a jazz sense, and here the tonality is more conventional than in the first. It’s a pleasant movement but not what I would call really interesting. The third-movement “Allegro” has a sort of jolly march beat about it, and is again quite playful with harmonic movement. Within this march beat, however, von Einem again plays with our expectations, shifting the rhythm around within each bar, and there is a passage for the trumpets at the 2:40 mark which does indeed sound jazz-influenced, and this leads into a highly syncopated brass-and-strings section that is remarkably complex and, yes, jazzy.

We then leap ahead to his Hunyady László suite of 1981-82. The music in this is much more sophisticated in its language and subtler in its use of both harmony and rhythm, yet still recognizably the same composer. A stately theme opens up the first of the three pieces in this suite, titled How the White Swan Laments. He again uses a few brass syncopations, but as with everything else in this score the effects are more subtle. To my ears, however, this added subtlety had its downside, and that was a certain lack of imagination, although the second piece, Song of the Voivodess Lupul, returns to some of the syncopated energy heard in the Concerto. In the last piece, How Yesterday’s Death of the Count Saddened Me, von Einem becomes more lyrical while avoiding cheap sentimentality, but this is the kind of piece I hear all the time on my local classical music radio station—mostly in one ear and out the other except for a few good effects, like the drum roll at the 5:15 mark that ups the energy level for a little while.

Next up is the Serenade of 1949. I found this the most interesting piece on the CD so far, beginning with a skittering figure played by the basses and cellos that eventually moves to the upper strings and includes a musical theme that seems to have some form but is basically comprised of little melodic snippets, or what jazz musicians call riffs, that he ties together neatly. As in the first piece, the music is again highly syncopated, in fact in an even more complex manner than the Concerto. The “Adagio” is also more interesting than the analogous movement in the Concerto, using very Stravinskian themes and harmonic movement. By contrast, the whimsical third-movement “Intermezzo” has a Bartók-like feel to it, and the final “Allegro” is equally playful though returning to Stravinsky’s neo-classical period. It also has a certain kinship to Britten’s string orchestra works of the 1930s.

Perhaps most impressive of the later works on this CD, however, is the concluding Nachtstück für orchestre (1960), a moody, slightly dark piece with a strange but lyrical melody into which von Einem interjected startling brass interruptions.

In brief, von Einem was a very skilled and sometimes interesting composer whose music is worth hearing if not worth keeping in one’s collection.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Alexandre Bloch’s Chausson a Mixed Bag

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CHAUSSON: Poème de l’amour et de la mer.* Symphony in Bb / *Véronique Gens, sop; Lille National Orch.; Alexandre Bloch, cond / Alpha 441

Ernest Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer is one of the great orchestral song cycles of all time, up there with Berlioz’ Les nuite d’été and Duparc’s L’invitation au voyage, yet there haven’t been nearly as many good recordings of the Chausson and Duparc cycles as there are of the Berlioz. Much of this is due to the interpretation, or lack of it, of the singer, but much also falls on the shoulders of the conductor.

In this performance of the Poème, conductor Alexandre Bloch pulls out all the stops to produce not only a rich texture but also an exciting reading of the score. Indeed, I like his conducting here better than André Previn’s rather bland but more Romantic reading on the old EMI recording, but unfortunately I do not prefer Véronique Gens’ singing of the text to the multi-dimensional performance that Janet Baker gave with Previn.

There was, from about the 1870s to the 1950s, a French “tradition” of singing both opera and art songs in a matter-of-fact manner, of just singing the notes on the page and ignoring the text. This was not only diametrically opposed to the much more intense operatic and art song style of German, Austrian and Italian singers, but also to what had come before it, when composers like Gluck, Spontini and Berlioz demanded the utmost in emotional connection with the words. The harbingers of change were baritone Gérard Souzay and soprano Régine Crespin, who restored a deep emotional connection with the words of every song he sang. I’ve covered this in a previous article on this blog.

What Gens gives us here is neither the bland singing of yesteryear nor the fully-connected emotion of Souzay, Crespin or Janet Baker. Indeed, she sings “out” a great deal more than I expected her to judging from other recordings, and as always, her voice is beautiful, secure and perfectly produced. Yet what I hear is pretty much on the surface of the words: not quite a generic interpretation, but one that sounds consistently excitable without showing a full understanding of the poetry. It is the sung equivalent of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy shouted at the audience without seeming to understand the nuance or the dark humor of the speech. “Hey! Get yer Chausson here! I got lots o’ Chausson to shout at ya!”

Now, I’m sure some listeners will enjoy this performance, and on its own terms that’s all right. It is, as I say, one of the most exciting readings I’ve ever heard; it just doesn’t happen to be very subtle or three-dimensional. Nor is it just the great Janet Baker who scores over Gens. Listen to Susan Graham sing it with Yan Pascal Tortelier and the BBC Symphony on Warner Classics. Tortelier is more relaxed than Bloch; his reading does not have quite the frisson of his competitor; but it has more nuance and, to my ears, more color in the orchestra. Graham isn’t quite Janet Baker, but she also has more nuance. She shades and modifies her voice to just the right color for the words she is singing without losing some of Gens’ excitement. This is a very, very good recording; if the Baker did not exist, it would certainly be my top choice.

Yet whatever my misgivings about the Poème, I really enjoyed Bloch’s performance of the Symphony. True, it’s not terribly nuanced, but it is exciting, and in a symphony poetry and perfume are not as important. This is almost as good a performance as that of Charles Munch, though I still feel the Munch recording’s extra nuance lift it above this one. I really enjoyed this version from first note to last. Bloch brings out the music’s architecture with clarity and imbues the symphony with tremendous energy, and his phrasing in the slow movement is quite elegant. The Lille National Orchestra responds to his every thought with great aplomb, too.

A split review, then; recommended for the second work, but not the first.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Tom Culver Sings Ellington With a Swinging Group

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DUKE’S PLACE / ELLINGTON-KATZ-THIELE: Duke’s Place [C Jam Blues]. ELLINGTON-NEMO-MILLS: I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart. ELLINGTON-BROWN-RUSSELL: I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues. Do Nothin’ ‘Til You Hear From Me [Concerto for Cootie]. ELLINGTON-JAMES-GEORGE: Everything But You. ELLINGTON-GOINES: Just Squeeze Me. ELLINGTON-BIGARD-MILLS: Mood Indigo. ELLINGTON-STRAYHORN: Something to Live For. ELLINGTON: I Love You Madly. ELLINGTON-PARISH: Sophisticated Lady. ELLINGTON-DAVID: I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So. TIZOL-ELLINGTON-MILLS; Caravan* / Tom Culver, voc; Nolan Shaheed, ct; Ricky Woodard, t-sax; Josh Nelson, Rich Eames, pno/arr; Pat Kelley, Larry Koonse, gtr; Gabe Davis, bs; Kevin Winard, dm/perc; *Mark Winkler, voc / Café Pacific Records CPCD 16060

This is an odd sort of album. Tom Culver, a West Coast cabaret singer who, as he puts it in the inlay of this CD, was told by singer and vocal coach Marilyn Maye that he could swing, “and I do when I get a chance,” does just that—he swings a little. No more than Tony Bennett, who sings jazz but is generally considered to be more of an excellent pop singer, and a little less than Harry Connick, Jr., who in turn doesn’t swing as well as a host of other jazz singers. His voice, at this time of age at least, is somewhat dry and slightly strained, like old-age Mel Tormé on an off-night. This doesn’t mean that he’s not pleasant to listen to; I can even enjoy old-age Tony Bennett, so my tastes clearly do not exclude this sort of singing; but taken on his own merits, it’s the kind of CD I would enjoy hearing but not review.

The kicker here is an absolutely outstanding backup band of jazz pros, not one of which coasts or fails to entice the listener. If you were to throw the late Mark Murphy into the midst of this band, he’d take off like a rocket and dazzle the listener with his outstanding ability to improvise like a horn, not just swing a little. My particular favorites among the musicians were tenor saxist Ricky Woodard, whose style reminded me a bit of Al Cohn, pianists Rich Eames and John Nelson, who are subtle but inventive harmonically, and drummer Kevin Winard, who knows exactly what to play at any given moment for heightened effectiveness yet remains tasteful throughout. This band can swing, and this they do in every single track.

Indeed, they’re so good that they are, for me, the real show, and by the time I reached Squeeze Me they were my primary focus of attention from moment to moment and chorus to chorus. True, none of them sound like Ellingtonians, not even like the members of Duke’s various small bands that recorded throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, but they have their own feel for swing, with a bit of a shuffle-beat feel at times (e.g., Mood Indigo, so often taken as a really slow ballad, but here taken at a medium-slow swing tempo), and every note and phrase that Woodard plays in every track is a gem. I liked him so much, in fact, that he is now on my short list of current jazz musicians I’d like to hear more of.

Of course, you might find Culver’s voice as hip as a ’50s Caddy with the top down rolling through town playing Miles Davis or Dave Brubeck on the radio. If so, you’ll certainly enjoy that side of the CD as much as the band. Everyone hears music differently, and I’m not here to judge; I just give you my opinion and leave it at that.

Two songs that surprised even me were Something to Live For, an Ellington-Strayhorn collaboration I’d not run across previously (and I own a TON of Ellington records), and I Love You Madly, which I thought would be Duke’s finger-snapping tune which he played as a closing theme at most of his live performances (I was fortunate enough to see Ellington himself with his band in person once, in 1973), but turned out to be a medium-tempo swinger with lyrics I had never heard before.

Just think of this as a superb jazz set into which some guy in the audience walks up and asks to sing along with, and you’ll dig it.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Yuri Favorin Tackles Alkan

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ALKAN: Super flumina Babylonis. Symphonie for Solo Piano. Grande Sonate pour piano / Yury Favorin, pno / Muso MU-022

Young Russian pianist (32 years old) Yuri Favorin, a pupil of Lidiya Grigorieva in piano, Ivan Mozgovenko in clarinet and Vladimir Dovgan in composition, here takes his licks on the music of Charles-Valentin Alkan, and not just any pieces. Oh, no; Favorin has chosen for this release the three most difficult of all his pieces: Super flumina Babylonis and both the Symphony and Grande Sonate for solo piano. In doing so, he goes up against some of the most formidable Alkan pianists of all time, among them Raymond Lewenthal, Marc-André Hamelin, Vincenzo Maltempo and Laurent Martin.

Much to my surprise, Favorin plays these pieces with great sensitivity and nuance. Although, in my own personal opinion, no one played or plays Alkan quite as well as Lewenthal did way back when and Maltempo does today, I was smitten by Favorin’s lyrical style, somewhat liked Bernard Ringeissen (an Alkan specialist whose recordings have, for whatever reason, dropped out of sight and out of favor) but with less pedal. Ringeissen’s overuse of pedal effects was the one thing I didn’t care for in his otherwise very fine readings of Alkan’s music.

Indeed, Favorin’s lyrical approach imbues not only the soft passages but also those incredibly dense, fast ones that are the bane of so many pianists not named Lewenthal, Hamelin or Maltempo. Moreover, his way of integrating these more florid passages into the evolving fabric of the music is almost magical, creating a unified whole were others—even, at times, Maltempo, and certainly Hamelin—tend to make a sharp contrast between these different moods and sections.

This is especially evident in the large-scale works. The Symphonie is part of Alkan’s massive set of 12 Études in the Minor Keys, which includes the Concerto for Solo Piano (three movements), Comme le vent, En rhythme molossique, Scherzo diabolico, the Ouverture in b minor and Le Festin d’Ésope. How I would like to hear him play all the rest of these pieces! In Favorin’s skilled hands (and mind), the Symphonie has a real symphonic feel about it—one can almost hear it orchestrated, the way he plays it. I would rank it up there with Maltempo’s recording, and to be honest, I prefer both of them to Hamelin in this work. His way of “bouncing” the syncopations in the score makes perfect sense and enhances the passages which precede and follow those. His pacing of the second movement, “Marcia funèbre: Andantino” is perfect, and he makes the transition from minor to major effective by means of a carefully-judged rubato. In the finale, he makes Alkan’s “charnel house of notes” (as one critic unkindly referred to them) make perfect musical sense. He does, however, play with exuberance when the music calls for it; in the third movement of the Symphonie he clearly knows how to make a contrast, and the last movement is played in a perpetuo moto fashion, but he doesn’t overdo the drama though he plays each note and phrase with the proper dynamics.

Favorin also understands the underlying meaning of the Concerto, which is subtitled “The Four Ages of Life.” The four movements are titled “20 Years Old,” “30 Years Old,” “40 Years Old” and “50 Years Old.” Since Alkan lived to age 74, I’m a little surprised he didn’t write further pieces (perhaps separate ones) continuing his life cycle. Especially in the first two movements, Favorin produces a whirlwind of sound, but not quite with the glibness of Hamelin (a superb virtuoso but not always a sensitive interpreter). In places, he had me on the edge of my seat, yet continued to maintain his ability to pull the disparate parts of the score together better than anyone except Lewenthal of sainted memory. By doing so, he is able to build the music to tremendous climaxes while making the transitions sound gradual rather than having a steamroller come in and plow the notes up into a heap of sound. I know it’s hard to put a musical concept into words, but I hope the reader can understand how much I liked his approach. In the third movement he again introduces some rubato to slightly (and I stress the word slightly) emphasize some of the harmonic transitions, and again they make sense and perk up the listener’s ears.

Young Favorin clearly has a ton of talent; this is clearly one of the best Alkan CDs I’ve ever heard in my life. I give it six fish!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Joey DeFrancesco’s “Key of the Universe”

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IN THE KEY OF THE UNIVERSE / DeFRANCESCO: Inner Being.2,8 Vibrations in Blue.3,8 Awake and Blissed.4 It Swung Wide Open.4 In the Key of the Universe.4,6,8 And So it Is.1 Soul Perspective.2,4 A Path Through the Noise.1,4 Easier to Be.1,4 P. SANDERS-L. THOMAS: The Creator Has a Master Plan5-7 / Joey DeFrancesco, org/kbd/1tpt; Troy Roberts, 2s-sax/3a-sax/4t-sax/5bs; Pharoah Sanders, 6t-sax/7voc; Billy Hart, dm; 8Sammy Figueroa, perc / Mack Avenue MAC1147

Master musician Joey DeFrancesco can play not only the organ but also the trumpet and other keyboards; although he has mostly made his name in soul and R&B-styled jazz, he also plays more standard and open forms of the music; and he is a master at all he touches. Ordinarily, soul-styled jazz is not my thing, but DeFrancesco is just so talented, and has such highly skilled musicians on this set as Troy Roberts, Pharoah Sanders and Sammy Figueroa, that I just had to hear what kind of music they made.

At first I was afraid that I was in for one of those “ambient jazz” CDs that seem to clutter the musical landscape nowadays, but fear not. DeFrancesco, bless his heart, doesn’t like ambient jazz any more than I do, thus most of the tracks here are in a fairly good groove and swing.

We start off with Inner Being which, like several of the pieces here, does indeed begin with soft, ambient sounds before moving into real jazz. Troy Roberts’ entrance on soprano sax almost sounds like Kenny G, but in the second chorus he plays in unison with DeFrancesco and the music becomes more interesting, and his second solo is anything but Kenny G-like, using some outside chord positions and swinging fairly hard. DeFrancesco’s first solo, by contrast, is fairly minimal in terms of notes except for some double-time passages, but he swings and is always an interesting improviser. When Roberts re-enters, he plays a chorus in which the rhythm is fragmented with the accents moved around, then the finale.

Vibrations in Blue, which starts with some strangely Middle Eastern-sounding mode, features Roberts on alto. His solo approach on this instrument is similar to his soprano playing except that he introduces a somewhat harder edge to the instrument, including some buzzed notes, and leans even more towards a funky “Blue Note” sort of style. De Francesco is absolutely amazing on organ here: what incredible chops this man has, and what a vivid imagination, and thank goodness, his music is funk-blues-oriented but NOT rock-oriented. Bless him!

Awake and Blissed is more bop-oriented, played at a brisk tempo and moving Roberts down the scale from alto to tenor sax. Here, too, one begins to appreciate the sound foundation laid down by DeFrancesco on the bass range of his electric keyboard. This man can really swing, and in the next track, It Swung Wide Open, he and the whole group moves the bop feel up a couple of notches. DeFrancesco plays so much on his keyboard instruments that you have a hard time realizing that this is just a trio and not a quartet. He plays a chase chorus with Roberts, again on tenor, that is simply spectacular.

In the Key of the Universe includes both Robert and Pharoah Sanders on tenors. It’s an unusual, simple but snaky riff tune in a medium tempo, and Sammy Figueroa is also back on percussion behind drummer Billy Hart. Sanders is the first up as soloist, and I was gratified to hear that he has modified his most outré tendencies of the late 1960s through the ‘80s, returning to his earlier, more musically logical playing style without sacrificing feeling or imagination. Inspired by Sanders’ groove, DeFrancesco really digs into his own chorus with flurries of notes interspersed with bluesy chords. The Creator Has a Master Plan is a Sanders original; he is the only tenor player here, and also does the vocal honors as, surprisingly, Troy Roberts moves over to play bass. It’s a slow, soulful piece, surprisingly melodic in a Gospel music sense for someone who made his name as a free jazz maverick. His vocal is minimal and confined to one chorus, but his tenor playing is rich and filled with nuance. Later on, he introduces some gurgling rhythmic effects.

The slow, moody And So It Is opens with DeFrancesco playing muted trumpet and keyboards simultaneously in tandem with Sanders, who takes the first solo, one of his very best. Roberts is again on bass. After the organ solo, DeFrancesco again plays organ and trumpet together, the latter in tandem with Sanders who then takes another solo. His later playing on this track is also very fine. Soul Perspective is a quasi-Latin tune in a nice, relaxed medium tempo, and here Roberts double-tracks himself on tenor and soprano saxes, particularly in the opening theme, although his solo is on tenor, again a bit gritty and hard-edged. DeFrancesco’s organ solo, by contrast, is all played in double time and full of interesting phrases. In the last chorus, which fades out, DeFrancesco and Roberts again engage in a chase chorus.

A Path Through the Noise, the slowest piece on this CD, is a very nice ballad on which Roberts plays lovely tenor while DeFrancesco backs him on organ with drums. Then comes a rarity, a DeFrancesco trumpet solo on open horn, also very lovely and reminiscent of Chet Baker, which he immediately follows with a brief organ solo in double time, after which Roberts returns. In the finale, Easier to Be, we again get a soft, ambient opening before moving into a Latin beat with DeFrancesco doubling on trumpet and organ, the former stating the theme along with Roberts on tenor. Then DeFrancesco plays rhythmic organ while Roberts plays a really nice tenor solo combining a bit of Stan Getz with some of Cannonball Adderly.

I very seldom review jazz organ records and even more rarely keep them in my collection, but this one is a keeper in every way. The only other contemporary jazz organist I’ve heard who is anywhere near DeFrancesco’s class is the amazing Barbara Dennerlein. No one else even comes close.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Farewell, Michael Gielen

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Gielen around the time of his Cincinnati Symphony tenure

When growing up in the early-to-mid 1960s and beginning to get into classical music—on my own, since my father detested it—I would buy whatever recordings were the least expensive, which meant several small off-brand labels and RCA’s Victrola series (Columbia’s Odyssey series started a few years later, as did EMI’s Seraphim label). This meant a lot of recordings by conductors who weren’t terribly well known in America, such as Peter Maag and Odd Grüner-Hegge, at least until RCA started reissuing Toscanini and Charles Munch on Victrola. When I entered college in 1968, the student bookstore had a discount rack of classical LPs and these were mostly on the Vox label (I think a lot of East-coast colleges had some kind of sweetheart deal with Vox at the time), and this is where I first encountered Michael Gielen. I found his performances of that era to be quite solid if not the most exciting I had heard. Within a few years of graduation, I had forgotten about him.

Fast-forward to 1980. By now I was living in Cincinnati, where the local symphony had been having trouble trying to find a good, solid replacement as music director since the untimely death of Thomas Schippers in December 1977. Their short-term solution was to hire the veteran conductor Walter Susskind. Susskind had been a vital and interesting conductor in the 1940s and ‘50s, but by the time he came to Cincinnati he was old, tired, and—as it turned out—very ill. His performances were often lackluster and uninteresting. When he died in 1980, a wide search went out for his replacement, and Gielen was chosen.

By that time I was reviewing local classical performances for a local weekly, and so was present at Gielen’s first press conference. I had no idea at that time of his slow but steady rise to stardom at the Royal Swedish and Frankfurt Opera houses, his startling premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s supposedly “unplayable” opera Die Soldaten in 1968 or his tenure as music director of the Belgian National Orchestra. I also hadn’t known that he fought a terrible battle with German critics from the late 1950s onward for daring to conduct Beethoven’s symphonies at or near the written score tempi, which was still considered “brutal” despite the groundbreaking work of Felix Weingartner, Arturo Toscanini, Charles Munch and Hermann Scherchen. Nor did I know that he was a composer, or that he had been raised in Buenos Aires, but the latter fact was given to us at the press conference prior to his speaking.

Gielen was not a warm presence. He spoke English with a somewhat heavy and rather clipped German accent. Although he was Jewish, he had strong Teutonic features and a brusque manner. A friend of mine who was also present at that press conference joked that he was the only Jewish musician she had ever seen who came across like a German field marshal.

As it turned out, he was also brusque, clipped and stern in rehearsals. The Cincinnati Symphony musicians, used to Schippers’ relaxed manner and Susskind’s old-world schmoozing, absolutely hated him. They thought he was a dictator and a cold fish, but from his very first concert—the Mahler Third Symphony, a work that hadn’t been played by the orchestra in decades if at all—he absolutely floored me with his command of the orchestra as well as the music. Everything flowed in an organic and cohesive whole, imbued with both elegance in the slow passages and fire in the fast, loud moments. I could immediately tell that he was a master conductor, and I was hooked. But the audience at that debut concert—a Friday afternoon—was comprised of a great many of the symphony’s older, more staid patrons, and they didn’t take kindly to it. At one point in the middle of the symphony, an old man was heard yelling out, “It’s ten after two!”

Gielen’s programming irked the staid Cincinnati crowd and also didn’t endear him to the orchestra. My most vivid memory of his unusual programming was to juxtapose movements from Schubert’s Rosamunde with Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra as a contrast between the first and second Viennese schools of music. Not only did he conduct the Schubert with passion and energy, but he also conducted the Webern with elegance. Naturally, the rest of the audience loved the Schubert but hated the Webern. I found it utterly fascinating.

The one and only time I disagreed with him was in his performance of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, not because he took the tempi very fast, like the Toscanini and Munch recordings, but because, in the third movement, he introduced a luftpause in the music just before the horns entered to play the trio theme. This luftpause is not in the score, yet he conducted it that way not only at that concert but also in his recording of the work for Vox and, as it turned out, in other recorded performances he made except one, the mid-1990s RCA/BMG recording with his beloved SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg. I suppose that if he had seemed a more approachable person, I would have gone backstage and asked him why he did this, but as I say, he was a somewhat cold and forbidding personality and I didn’t want to confront him.

Gielen continued to give remarkable and mostly superb concerts with the Cincinnati Symphony until 1986, at which point he returned to Germany and the SWR Orchestra, which became his artistic home until his retirement in 2014 due to his deteriorating eyesight. Before that time, I was in contact with a very nice German man who became a pen-pal (he dropped out of my life around 2012 without explanation; perhaps he died), and he encouraged me to write Gielen a letter telling him how much I had loved and appreciated his work with the Cincinnati Symphony, but the image of this stern taskmaster was still in my head and I felt as if I didn’t dare intrude on him. By this time, however, I had learned through his friend that Gielen the Forbidding was something of a sex addict back in the 1980s and had several affairs while in Cincinnati (and, I presume, afterwards in Germany). I didn’t judge him on this; God knows I’ve had enough trouble trying to grapple with the nearly 60 years of illicit affairs that Toscanini had with women; but in Gielen’s case it really shocked me because he seemed about as romantic as George Patton.

And it was also during the 2000s that SWR Music began issuing new Gielen recordings, which I was lucky enough to obtain and review, which broadened my knowledge of his vast repertoire. Since his retirement the same label began issuing boxed sets under the title “Michael Gielen Edition,” much like the similar treatment given to Toscanini and, in recent years, Munch and Fritz Reiner by RCA (now a part of Sony Classical). I’ve reviewed most of them on this blog and will continue to do so if further sets are issued. I consider them to be even better performances and more important ones than the Reiner set, and in some ways even surpassing the Toscanini due to both the superior sound quality and the astonishing range of music he conducted.

Gielen’s style is hard to pin down because he took such a varied approach. He could conduct even more gently and relaxed than Toscanini in certain works, particularly French music, and partly because of the superior musicianship of today and partly due to his ability to communicate his wishes much more fluently in German than in English, his SWR Orchestra performances are sometimes superior musically, not to mention technically due to top-drawer digital sound. Yes, there are certain works here and there where I felt that Gielen was just a bit too relaxed, just as there are performances here and there where Toscanini was too tense, but no conductor is perfect, not even such major ones as those two. In my estimation, Michael Gielen was the greatest and most consistently excellent conductor of the latter 20th and early 21st centuries, and even though his career was nearly five years behind him when he died of pneumonia on March 8 of this year, I still think his recordings will hold up to future generations just as those of Weingartner, Toscanini and Munch still do. He was a truly great and original artist who had his own ideas about phrasing in the classical repertoire. No one’s Mahler cycle is quite like his, and in my estimation his late Beethoven cycle on SWR Music is the modern-day equivalent of Toscanini’s, a masterful set of performances with unorthodox yet vital phrasing that sheds new light on these well-worn works. I would also go so far as to say that his set of the Brahms Symphonies, with their no-nonsense, non-Romantic phrasing, are also right up there with Weingartner’s and Toscanini’s performances.

Gielen did not always conduct with the incredible white-hot intensity of Toscanini, but much of the time he came close, and he imbued works by modern composers with the same spirit. I would also recommend his Wergo recording of Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten as a prime example of how well he could conduct modern music. No other conductor of that time wanted anything to do with the opera, but Gielen took the attitude “It’s just music” and made it work. It’s a shame that, for whatever reason, the in-house recording that was issued on LP and, later, CD is in mono sound, despite its being from 1968.

Unlike the Cincinnati Symphony, the musicians of the SWR orchestra of Baden-Baden und Freiburg came to like Gielen as much as they respected him, thus his work with that orchestra represents a kind of lifetime achievement that many modern conductors, with their hectic international schedules, running and flying from venue to venue, will probably never achieve. We lost a giant in the conducting world, and his like may never be seen again.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Beets & Rosenberg’s Tribute to Django

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REINHARDT: Douce Ambience. Tears. Django’s Tiger. Nuages. Djangology. WELLS: You Look Good to Me. ELLINGTON: In a Sentimental Mood. REINHARDT-GRAPPELLI: Minor Swing / Stocholo Rosenberg, Martin Limberger, gtr; Peter Beets, pno; Frans van Geest, bs / Maxanter Records CD 74608 (live: Ruïnekerk in Bergen, the Netherlands, October 26, 2018)

For several decades now, Stocholo Rosenberg has been, to my mind, the very best of those guitarists who followed in Django Reinhardt’s footsteps, although like so many of his class he sticks primarily to Django’s earlier, pre-electric guitar style (1933-1946), refusing to complete with the legendary guitarist from his electric period (1947-53). In a way this is a shame, since it propagates the idea that either Reinhardt was better in his acoustic days (he wasn’t; both periods are simply incredible in the way he played and what he played) or that the acoustic era is the one more worthy of propagation. Still, excellence is excellence, and Rosenberg is clearly tapped into Reinhardt’s aesthetic.

Yet although I was quite familiar with Rosenberg’s playing, I hadn’t had any exposure to pianist Peter Beets, his co-star on this new release. Beets, a Dutch jazz pianist, is primarily known for straightahead jazz who has played with Chick Corea, Wynton Marsalis, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Johnny Griffin and George Coleman among others.

In this set, the duo, accompanied by Martin Limberger on rhythm guitar and Frans van Geest, play five compositions by Reinhardt (although Django’s Tiger is really just an improvisation on Tiger Rag), one piece written by both Reinhardt and his bandmate Stéphane Grappelli, and two other tunes, Clement Wells’ You Look Good to Me (which Django never played) and Duke Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood. One thing you notice immediately is that the old Reinhardt style has been both updated and softened. The updating comes in the form of a looser, more modern sense of swing, generally due to the fact that van Geest is a far more fluid and fluent bassist than any of those Django had to work with—his solo in the opener, Douce Ambience, is absolutely superb, as is most of his playing even just in his role as a rhythm instrument—while the softening comes from the fact that rhythm guitarist Limberger doesn’t play with the strong “chunka-chunka” attack that Django’s rhythm section (his brother Joseph and his cousin Eugene Vées) did. In addition, Rosenberg’s playing is also more delicately plucked than Django’s own.

These are important differences to make, yet even so there are moments when Rosenberg sounds very much like his mentor had Reinhardt lived, say, into his fifties, and 50 is Rosenberg’s age now. Yet he certainly possesses a good amount of his idol’s inventiveness, turning out original choruses in the Reinhardt manner.

Beets is another story. I would be nice to say that his playing reminds one of those occasions when Reinhardt was accompanied by Grappelli on piano or some other pianist of his time, but his playing is more fluid and further-reaching in harmonic audacity. There are several moments in his solos where he sounds a bit like Bill Evans, other times when he sounds a bit like a softer version of Oscar Peterson.

Of course, time does not stand still in the jazz world, and it is now nearly 66 years since Reinhardt’s untimely demise, but knowing his mentality I’d wager that the legendary Gypsy guitarist would have gravitated more towards the hard-edged jazz of today rather than its softer cousins. Still, as I mentioned earlier, van Geest is simply extraordinary and Rosenberg does occasionally capture some of Django’s fire. Beets plays an excellent chase chorus with Rosenberg on Tears, played here just a hair faster than Django himself did, and Rosenberg also provides an excellent solo cadenza near the end of the tune.

That being said, Django’s Tiger comes surprisingly close to capturing the spirit of the original without sounding like a carbon copy, particularly in Rosenberg’s playing, and here the rhythm guitar is a shade more aggressive. Beets also plays very well if in a somewhat different style—sort of The Tiger Rag Meets George Shearing—with a surprisingly gutsy final flourish at the end of his solo. This seems to spur Rosenberg on to one of his most dazzling and complex solos, two choruses of absolute Gypsy fire, the second of which uses some licks that Reinhardt himself might have played. Then another chase chorus between pianist and guitarist that really cooks. Towards the end Rosenberg does indeed use some of those harder, banjo-like downstrokes in his playing that were essential parts of Reinhardt’s style.

I’ve always felt that Nuages was one of Reinhardt’s best compositions, a simple but lovely melodic line set over an interesting chord sequence. His own recordings of it, and there are several, were always very different from one another. Rosenberg’s opening chorus is full of inventive and interesting ideas if not quite as startling as some of Django’s own; Beets plays a fairly subdued, if nice, solo. When Rosenberg returns, it is to play an extremely complex double-time solo with some excellent ideas in it.

You Look Good to Me is a real swinger, played well (especially by van Geest and Rosenberg) with a nicely turned solo from Beets. The group’s energy level rises in this one, though the style is far from anything Reinhardt would have played. In a Sentimental Mood is a nice piece but by no means an outstanding one; Rosenberg plays a flashy double-time solo but it’s mostly filler material and says nothing. Beets also just seems to be filling space, though he does a better job a camouflaging it. It’s almost a relief when they finally just give it up and swing into the opening of Djangology, again played with a lighter, more modern feel and sense of rhythm. Beets pretty much ignores the tune and just plays an inventive solo on the chord changes, but Rosenberg manages to breathe some life into Django’s ghost.

The wrap-up is Minor Swing, one of the best of the Hot Club Quintet’s early recordings and a very fine piece collaborated on by Reinhardt and Grappelli. Once again the rhythmic tension is too relaxed for the piece, but Rosenberg digs in and does a great job in his solo. Beets does, too, though he’s on a different plane. Here, again, van Geest plays a very good solo in keeping with the spirit of the original. The best part of this track is yet another excellent Beets-Rosenberg chase chorus, in part of which the two soloists create a sort of two-voiced canon playing figures opposed to each other’s.

All in all, it’s a nice album though aesthetically a little strange with sometimes mixed results.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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