Historic Berlioz Broadcasts…But Are They Necessary?

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BERLIOZ: Lélio, ou Le retour à la vie* / Raymond Nemorin, speaker; Michel Sénéchal, ten; Bernard Lefort, bar; BBC Chorus; London Symphony Orch.; Jean Fournet, cond / Roméo et Juliette# / Nancy Evans, mezzo; René Soames, ten; David Ward, bs; BBC Symphony Orch. & Chorus; Alfred Wallenstein, cond / Cameo Classics CC9110 (live: London, *March 7, 1957; #January 6, 1956)

On the face of it, this would seem a rather superfluous release—two mono radio broadcasts from England in the 1950s of Berlioz performers by two good but not stellar conductors—but upon closer inspection, i.e. listening, one realizes that at least half of this two-record set is well worth having.

I speak of the Fournet performance of Lélio, Berlioz’ companion piece to the Symphonie Fantastique, which so many educated critics and musical academics have been slamming for years as an inferior and flawed work. I must say immediately that I disagree with that assessment. The whole point of Lélio is that it is a stream-of-consciousness piece in which memories and emotions flood the mind, producing a narrative-with-music in which the latter comes and goes as if conjured up in a dream state. My only complaint is that, when it is performed in English-speaking countries, the narration should be in English.

But this performance has more than a little bit going for it. First, there is the narration, given with a tremendous amount of emotion and inflection as it usually is not by the little-known Raymond Nemorin. Too often, the narration of Lélio is given in a whisper, which I always feel is the complete antithesis of what the madly passionate Berlioz wanted or was all about. As for the singers, although neither have what you could call glamorous voices they sing with greater feeling and understanding of the lyrics than any other version I’ve heard. Michel Sénéchal, a top-drawer comprimario tenor who was the French equivalent of Andrea Velis or Heinz Zednik, imbues the music with just the right feeling and interpretation of the text, and both his vocal placement and diction are superb. The way Nemorin comes in during Sénéchal’s opening song, you can almost picture Berlioz himself exploding in passion over the loss of his beloved, Camille Moke, which actually happened while he wrote this piece in Italy. Whoever coached Nemorin or suggested this style of delivery to him, hats off! He’s got it right!

In addition, Fournet conducts the whole work with a sense of structure rarely heard, and also adds a great deal of atmosphere to the proceedings: note, particularly, the sound he conjures up in “Froid de la mort.” The slightly subdued sound of the chorus is perfect. They don’t come blasting out at you as if singing “All’arme!” in Trovatore, but almost as if out of a dream. Our baritone, Bernard Lefort, also sounds like a comprimario. His voice is not as pleasant or as solidly grounded as Sénéchal’s, but he certainly sounds like a brigand on the loose, and here, appropriately, the chorus sings with great brio. It’s just all so French that it makes you smile. But of course, Fournet was already an old hand at Berlioz, having made the first commercial recordings of Roméo et Juliette (1942) and the Requiem (1943) for Columbia, both with tenor Georges Jouatte. Despite the mono radio sound, Fournet conjures up a splendid Berliozian sound, which of course means exceptionally clear, almost biting winds and emotional strings. Indeed, the subdued but passionate string tremolos that introduce the Aeolian Harp episode are particularly well played, and somehow or other Fournet brings out the feeling of nostalgia very well. It almost boggles the mind that he accomplished this with a British orchestra and chorus. Sonics aside, this is now my favorite recording of Lélio. It’s almost a shame that I couldn’t find any copy of his Roméo to hear.

The problem with this release is the performance of Roméo et Juliette—or, rather, the sound quality, which is exceptionally muffled, the orchestra also sounding rather distant. In my review of Warner Classics’ massive new Berlioz set, I complained about the dull top end in Riccardo Muti’s recording of this piece, which ruined the effects he was trying to make, but this is far worse. Wallenstein was a fine conductor who always seemed just on the edge of stardom but never quite made it there, so I suppose his fans will want this just because it exists, but when compared to the recordings of Toscanini, Colin Davis and Carlos Paita, this is rather a limp fish. None of the music has bite, particularly not the opening “Combats – Tumulte” which needs an edgy sound, and on top of this mezzo Nancy Evans sounds wobbly and dull in her aria. Tenor René Soames is in better voice than Evans, but his singing is too soft and lacking in energy. Only bass David Ward, of the three soloists, sings well, and he too sounds bored. Wallenstein does a fine job with the music, no question about it, but it’s like listening to the performance from outside the hall with the doors almost completely closed. The famed Queen Mab Scherzo lacks clarity, though the distant sound does give it a bit of a fairy-like feeling. Why they didn’t reissue Fournet’s 1942 recording of the piece as a companion to Lélio puzzles me; it would have been interesting to hear the same conductor in both works.

So there you have it. A great Lélio paired with a terrible recording of Roméo. If you can buy this as a download, just download the Lélio and save yourself some money.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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More Partch…by Harry Himself

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THE WORLD OF HARRY PARTCH / PARTCH: Daphne of the Dunes. Barstow: 8 Hitchhiker Transcriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California. Castor & Pollux / Harry Partch, kithara/surrogate kithara/chromolodeon/cloud-chamber bowls/gourdtree/ marimba/boo/bass/voc; Dean Drummond, Emil Richards, Frank Berberich, Gary Coleman, John McAllister, Linda Schell, Michael Ranta, Richard Lapore, Michael McCormick, Todd Miller, adapted vla / Columbia MS 7207, available for download or free streaming on Amazon.com or for free download & streaming on YouTube

Partch Delusion of the Fury

PARTCH: Delusion of the Fury / Harry Partch, zither; Jonathan Glaser, fl/perc/dm/claves; Linda Schell, adapted gtr/kithara/zither/marimba/chromatic org/ugumbu/claves; John McAllister, chromatic org I & II/Bolivian fl/ugumbu/claves; Danlee Mitchell, cloud chamber bowls/marimba/boo/chromatic org/zither/xyl/Bolivian double fl/dm / Columbia M2 30576, LP, available for free streaming on YouTube

For most classical listeners, Harry Partch is still persona non grata and his music still a confused enigma. This is mostly because of its microtonal bias, which upsets and confuses most people, but in part because while he was creating his own microtonal keyboard instruments (pianos, harpsichords and organs) in the late 1920s he was also creating his own method of composition, which does not follow prescribed rules. In the comments section under the extraordinary video of his Noh drama Delusion of the Fury is this comment from one musical snob:

Nothing special compared to Varèse, Stockhausen, Ruzicka, Boulez, Schaeffer, Henry, Xenakis, Glass or Reich. He is just one contemporary composer amongst others. It seems to me that you have never heard any other contemporary musician.

Which completely misses the point. Most of these composers did not write in or play microtonal music, and the few that did—among them György Ligeti, which the poster does not include—were standing on his shoulders. More to the point, some of these composers he mentions, particularly Varèse and Stockhausen but also Penderecki, wrote purposely ugly music intended to shock the listener. Partch wrote music that followed the speech patterns of everyday American life, particularly reflecting his long stretches during which he lived among hobos and street people. Of course, his music didn’t appeal much to them any more than it appealed to the academics, so by the time he made these recordings in 1968 and 1970 he was a lost soul, bitter from lack of recognition and still struggling to find an audience. Ironically, his biggest fans during this period were the stoned-out Hippies who dropped acid or smoked pot and found his music great to listen to while stoned, but Partch’s music is a psychedelic high without one having to use psychedelic drugs.

I found the first album by searching for the later version of Barstow as mentioned in the new Bridge release of Harry playing his earlier version of the piece. Much to my surprise and delight, the album was uploaded complete on YouTube. But then, in the suggested videos next to it, I also discovered Delusion of the Fury, so I decided to review that one as well.

Partch violaListening to the opening selection on the first album, Daphne of the Dunes, I was struck by one other thing I hadn’t noticed before, and that was how much some of his music sounded, rhythmically, like that of Moondog (Louis Hardin), another American iconoclast but, for some reason, one who is more accepted and acceptable to most people. This is largely due to the fact that, as he himself admitted, Moondog was “rhythmically avant-garde but harmonically reactionary.” He also wrote perfect fugues and canons while Partch took those forms apart and put them back together again his own way, which still upsets the Acamademics (yes, I purposely misspelled that to irk them). There’s a certain in-your-face quality to Partch’s music that also drives them crazy, but in a sense Partch was a Space-Age musical pioneer at a time when people were still brutally upset over the innovations of Schoenberg and Stravinsky (and of course, many still are), so there wasn’t much chance that his music would find an audience until the Space Age.

The other interesting aspect of Partch’s music is how some of it falls gratefully on the ear despite its way-out sonorities and highly syncopated rhythms. This was because he was, early on, an avid student of early (pre-Renaissance) music and knew almost as much about it as its more legitimate practitioners such as the Dolmetsch family or Ben Stad and his early music group (sadly, now completely forgotten except by record collectors). In a sense, then, Partch was both a pioneer and a reactionary who dismissed the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras as too much involved with harmony and complex classical form and not enough involved with more primal musical instincts. There are elements of belly dance and other Eastern influences in this music, which again was far ahead of its time, particularly for an American composer.

Partch was also highly concerned with sonority, not as an adjunct to his style of composition but as a major component of it. The actual sound of those gongs, bells, chromatic keyboards, kitharas, cloud chamber bowls, boos and chromatically sliding violas was as much a part of the music as the notes and rhythms being played. Of course, there were some pioneer classical composers who experimented successfully in creating a 3-D sound even within the formal classical tradition, among them Spontini, Berlioz, Wagner and Mahler, but Partch went several steps further, and this, too, upsets both the casual listeners and acamademics.

Even by comparison with the wonder chamber group of chromatic musicians known as Partch, Harry’s own performances have a certain insouciance and swagger that’s difficult to duplicate. The difference comes from, you might say, outsiders trying to replicate what he did and an original for whom this was as natural as breathing. By the same token, only a few modern musicians, among them pianist Joanne MacGregor, have had much success in channeling the weird energy that one hears in original Moondog compositions. Those who took the time to read my brief appreciation of The Beatles will get what I mean. It’s the same reason why almost no one else’s arrangements of Beatles songs sound nearly as good as the originals. It wasn’t just the specific timbre of the Beatles’ instruments and voices that made their recordings so wonderful to hear but also the arrangements themselves—sometimes simple, sometimes complex—all judiciously edited by Lennon and/or McCartney to fit their very specific style that made their recordings sound better and more interesting than any remakes. But an original like Harry Partch could take his own earlier material, expand on it, and create something that was different but equally interesting. This certainly applies to Barstow, which is richer in texture and more complex in form (particularly the echoing of the spoken lines in song) than the original.

The second side of the Columbia LP, and the second half of this little Partch concert, is taken up with Castor & Pollux which is divided into eight sections as follows:

Castor
a – Leda and the Swan
b – Conception
c – Incubation
d – Chorus of Delivery From the Egg

Pollux
a – Leda and the Swan
b – Conception
c – Incubation
d – Chorus of Delivery From the Egg

A description is given in the original LP liner notes by Danlee Mitchell:

CASTOR & POLLUX is a dance-theater work with a beguiling program. It is structured in two large sections, each section comprised of three duets and a tutti. The first section is entitled CASTOR, the second, POLLUX. The first duet of each section is titled Leda and the Swan (insemination); the second, Conception; the third, Incubation; and the tutti, Chorus of Delivery From the Egg. By its contrapuntal texture, CASTOR & POLLUX shows well the melodic capabilities of the instruments, and the two tutti section grand finales to the glory of birth. In the liner notes to PLECTRA & PERCUSSION DANCES, first issued by Partch on his own GATE 5 record label, he relates the story:

“It begins with the encounter of Zeus, the male swan, with the beautiful Leda, and ends with the hatching of the fertilized eggs–first Castor, then Pollux. From the moment of insemination, each egg uses exactly 234 beats in cracking. All of the right heavenly houses are in conjunction, and misfortune is impossible. Pairs of instruments tell the story in characteristic ways.”

The notes also provide us with an excellent technical description of Partch’s compositional methods by the composer himself:

The major contribution of Monophony [Partch’s name for his system] as an intonational system is its realization of a subtle and acoustically precise interrelation of tonalities, all stemming or expanding from unity, 1/1. This interrelation is not capable of manifold modulations to “dominants” or to any other common scale degrees; it is not capable of parallel transpositions of intricate musical structures; it does not present any tone as any specific tonality identity. Conversely, it is capable of both ordinary and hitherto unheard modulations to the natural limits imposed by Just Intonation and the arbitrary limit of 11; it is capable of an expanded sense of tonality, from Identities 1-3-5 to Identities 1-3-5-7-9-11. It is capable of great variety in that expanded sense; it does offer twenty-eight possible tonalities, more than are inherent in Equal Temperament, and therefore a greater total of tonality identities; or assumable senses, that does Equal Temperament.

So there you go. Straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. Interestingly, Partch’s use of the simplest rhythmic cell, 1/1, is exactly the same used by that of avant-garde jazz composer Henry Threadgill, whom one must also cite as a descendant of Partch’s extraordinary musical aesthetic.

As for Delusion of the Fury, subtitled A Ritual of Dream and Delusion, this was in part designed as a way of striking back at the musical academics for their decades of ignoring or demeaning him. In the opening part of the film, we see close-ups of his various instruments including a percussion contraption which he called Spoils of War. At about the 3:10 mark in the film we hear a definite Middle Eastern belly-dance sort of rhythm. The music grows increasingly more complex rhythmically while the film version shows stills of performers wearing Japanese Noh-styled masks and costumes interspliced with the performance itself. Ironically, the soundtrack of the film is pristine and clear as a bell, but the video portion is blurry and muddy. Once again, the original LP liner notes are helpful in understanding Partch’s intentions:

Partch’s own words, prefacing his elaborate and complicated score, help to establish what he has called “all the information that I thought might be necessary to a performance:”

“STATEMENT: Words cannot proxy for the experience of knowing – of seeing and hearing. The concept of this work inheres in the presence of the instruments on stage, the movements of musicians and chorus, the sounds they produce, the actuality of actors, of singers, of mimes, of lights; in fine, the actuality of truly integrated theater. These introductory pages consist largely of technical data. They contain no argument, no exposition. I feel that the only investigation that has genuine integrity is the seen and heard performance.

“SYNOPSIS: It is an olden time, but neither a precise time nor a precise place. The ‘Exordium’ is an overture, and invocation, the beginning of a ritualistic web. Act I, on the recurrent theme of Noh plays, is a music-theater portrayal of release from the wheel of life and death. It opens with a pilgrim in search of a particular shrine, where he may do penance for murder. The murdered man appears as a ghost, sees first the assassin, then his young son looking for a vision of his father’s face. Spurred to resentment by his son’s presence, he lives again through the ordeal of death, but at the end – with the supplication ‘Pray for me!’ – he finds reconciliation.

“There is nowhere, from the beginning of the ‘Exordium’ to the end of Act II, a complete cessation of music. The “Sanctus” ties Acts I and II together; it is the Epilogue to the one, the Prologue to the other. Act II involves a reconciliation with life. A young vagabond is cooking a meal over a fire in rocks when an old woman approaches, searching for a lost kid. She finds the kid, but – due to a misunderstanding caused by the hobo’s deafness – a dispute ensues. Villagers gather and, during a violent dance, ‘fore the quarreling couple to appear before the justice of the peace, who is both deaf and nearsighted.”

“Following the judge’s sentence, the Chorus sings in unison, ‘Oh, how did we ever get by without justice?,’ and a voice offstage reverts to the supplication at the end of Act I.”

One can easily infer from this scenario Partch’s own anger at the judgments of his music by the academic establishment, who he considered “both deaf and nearsighted.” Some of the mime actors in the video are excellent; Partch made it clear that if they were also musicians, they must find a way to move without bumping into any of the larger contraptions onstage, but several roles are for Noh actors/dancers who do not play at all.

As the music becomes faster and more complex, all attempts at entertaining the listener disappear. This is Partch’s edgiest, longest and most dramatic score; there is no room in it for entertainment except on a higher plane. At the 56-minute mark, when black dancers are involved, the music sounds more African. Partch also splices in some scenic views of the ocean, ostensibly shown on a screen during the performance.

Partch LP labelThe entire work, which runs 72 minutes in the film but a little over 74 minutes in the commercial recording, was issued by Columbia on four LP sides which divided it up to roughly 18 ½ minutes per side—a waste of vinyl. They then compounded their error by issuing another LP on which Partch explained and played his individual instruments. This made it a three-LP set and, to make matters worse, they put it out on their more expensive (and prestigious) Masterworks label, which made it a pretty expensive investment, particularly for those who may have wanted to sample Partch’s piece but weren’t willing to shell out close to $20 in 1970 dollars for it. And, of course, neither of these Partch albums have been re-released on CD; the first is only available as MP3 downloads through Amazon.com. Yet another reason to hate record companies.

One of the more fascinating aspects of watching the video of Delusion of the Fury is that Partch was a pioneer in the merging of modern music with dance and mime elements, an aspect of his work that goes back at least to Oedipus from 1952 and his dance satire, The Bewitched, from 1955. Benjamin Britten took this concept a step further in the 1970s with his opera Death in Venice, the production of which combined not only operatic singing and acting but also mimed characters, projections on a screen behind the performers, and the piped-in voice of Apollo from above. But once again, Harry Partch was the pioneer. By the 50-minute mark, Delusion of the Fury has almost become a modern microtonal ballet scene similar to Stravinsky’s Le sacre du Printemps. Well, what the hell, there are still thousands of people who detest Sacre.

For me, these are indispensable recordings of Partch’s music. If you enjoy him, I urge you to listen and/or watch these performances.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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More Music from Robert Groslot

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GROSLOT: Poème Secret.1, 3 Confused Conversations.2 Hibernaculum.4, 5 The Green Duck.2 The Phoenician Sailor.2, 6 Statement, Reflection & Conclusion / Eline Groslot, hp; Peter Verhoyen, 1fl /2pic; 3Geert Baeckelandt, 4Marja Pavolic, cl; Ann-Sofie Vande Ginste, Gudrun Verbanck, vln; Bieke Jacobus, vla; Lieselot Watté, cel; Stefan De Schepper, pno; Dimitri Mestdag, 5ob/6E-hn; Peter Nuytten, bsn; Eliz Erkalp, Fr-hn; Roel Avonds, bs-tb / Tyxart TXA18113

Here is another disc of chamber music by Belgian composer Robert Groslot, and it is just as fascinating as Matrix in Persian Blue which I recently reviewed. He has a real knack for combining the opaque textures of Debussy with a more driving rhythm and more modern (but not abrasive) harmonies in the manner of Honegger or Françaix. This is immediately apparent in the opener, Poème Secret, scored for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet, clearly the kind of instrumental combination that someone like Debussy would have reveled in. The music opens with opaque textures but quickly introduces a strong forward propulsion in which the winds and occasionally the strings play fast, double-time figures, then drops into an Andante section before resuming its rapid pace. Whole-tone scales abound in this piece, as well as chromatic chord movement, and Groslot uses the harp sparingly for color.

The piccolo-piano duet Confused Conversations, divided into four short pieces titled “Small Talk,” “Tête-à-tête,” “Whisper” and “Schmooze,” is generally quick, witty music with a hint of Poulenc about it. Indeed, the subtle musical humor that permeates this piece, in the form of abrupt pauses and high-range piccolo twitters against the piano backdrop, is a constant joy to hear. Piccolo player Peter Verhoyen does a splendid job with it. In “Whisper,” Groslot has the piano play a running, single-note line while the piccolo tries to mime it as closely as possible, but after a few pauses they become somewhat disconnected.

Hibernaculum for woodwind quintet returns us to a Debussy/Françaix-like feeling, the opening in particular spacing the instruments out with only a few passages in which they play in concert. Once again, Groslot uses pauses as a composition device to pull the listener in, and once again he introduces witty moments where the quintet plays with a great sense of fun. Once the music really picks up its pace and gets going, the listener is in for a treat, with the contrapuntal lines interspersed with moments of intriguing scoring in which Groslot plays the individual instruments against each other like sections of an orchestra. Eventually the tempo relaxes and we get some really lovely passages as well.

Next up is the piccolo solo, The Green Duck, in which Groslot juxtaposes various musical ideas that just seem to flow into one another. At times the solo instrument creates its own counterpoint while at others it plays humorous spaced notes. The Phoenician Sailor, written for the unusual quartet of piccolo, English horn, bass trombone and piano, begins quietly in an enigmatic mood but quickly has the piccolo and piano play interjected rhythmic figures against the bass trombone line before the entire quartet begins to engage in quicker rhythms, sometimes together but more often with the instruments scored one against the other. Groslot has an outstanding ear for instrumental color, and this is nowhere more evident than in this piece. A few little motifs that remind one of sailor songs also come and go.

The finale, Statement, Reflection and Conclusion, is a flute solo in three brief movements. Once again, Verhoyen captures the mood of the music perfectly with its quirky stop-start motion and clever juxtaposition of various rhythms, some of them syncopated. Some of his music does indeed juxtapose themes, but at times Groslot does develop the music as well. You just never know what you’re going to get from moment to moment, and this is the wonderful thing about his music. All of it somehow fits together, yet it is full of surprises.

Another excellent album filled with good, interesting music, this time geared primarily towards the flute and piccolo.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Patrick Barnitt Holds Sway

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SWAY / GORDON-WARREN: The More I See You.1, 2 CAHN-CHAPLIN: Please Be Kind. RODRIGUEZ-MOLINA-RUIZ-GIMBEL: Sway.2 PORTER: I’ve Got You Under My Skin.2 BARNITT-McDONALD: ACL Blues. McEVOY-BROOKHOUSE-DRUMMOND-PIERROT-THORP: Cascade.2, 6 McCANN: The Truth.2, 5 LAMM: Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? KRIEGER-DENSMORE-MANZARAK-MORRISON: Touch Me.2 RENIS-TESTA: Quando Quando Quando.2, 4, 5 CANNON: Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey? STYNE-GREEN-COMDEN: Just in Time. ARLEN-MERCER: One for my Baby2, 3 / Patrick  Barnitt, voc; Bijon Watson, Walter Simonson, Jeff Jarvis, Barbara Loronga, tpt; Paul Young, Duane Benjamin, Nick DePinna, Rich Bullock, tb; Rusty Higgins, Mike Nelson, 6Everette Harp, a-sax; Eric Morones, Brain Clancey, t-sax; Ken Fisher, bar-sax; 1Robert Kyle, fl/t-sax; Paul McDonald, pno; 2Stephan Oberhoff, pno/Hammond B3/kbds/gtr/perc/strings; Ricky Z, gtr; Cooper Appelt, bs; Jake Reed, 3Kendall Kay, dm; 4Celso Alberti, perc/dms; 5Laura Pursell, voc / PBMUSIC 002

Patrick Barnitt is a jazz vocalist and actor from out in La-La Land. Reading the brief bio that came with this CD, he has been fortunate enough to play roles in some known films and TV shows, none of which I’ve watched: the horror films Coffin, Coffin 2, Star Trek: First Contact and The Last Day along with guest spots on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. But it is as a jazz singer that he apparently feels the most comfortable and is the most proud of. Under the tutelage of famed pianist-singer-teacher Smitty Smith, he developed his talent and was able to move into the L.A. jazz scene, regularly performing at the Dresden in Hollywood.

My first impression of Barnitt’s voice when I started this CD was that he sounded like a more swinging version of Jack Jones, whose voice I liked very much, thus I was surprised to see his voice described as a tenor. It’s more of a light high baritone with a touch of Harry Connick, Jr. in it. This set is pretty much a collection of swing standards with a few more up-to-date surprises. The Paul McDonald Big Band which accompanies him is a very tight, professional outfit whose arrangements are pretty generic but also very swinging. My lone disappointments on the disc were his slow ballad renditions of I’ve Got You Under My Skin and Quando, Quando, Quando. I much prefer the uptempo versions, including those of the first tune by Frank Sinatra and Al Bowlly.

If you’re looking for a jazz singer who improvises in the manner of Al Jarreau or Mark Murphy, however, you won’t find it here. Barnitt swings but doesn’t improvise. For me, the most impressive tracks were the self-composed ACL Blues and his version of the old chestnut Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey?, both taken at a real uptempo clip and showing how well Barnitt can swing. The guitar solo on the former by Ricky Z is quite good, bluesy but not too much like hardcore rock guitar, which I appreciated. The rock-influenced Cascade was not at all to my taste, but c’est la vie. Someone will like it.

Interestingly, Barnitt’s voice is recorded clearly in a forward space while the orchestra (and backup singers) always seems to be swimming in an echo chamber, but again, some folks will probably like this. The slow bluesy number The Truth is a duet with Laura Pursell, who sings out a lot more than most female “jazz” singers I am asked to review. The fine singing and sparse arrangement work well together, and there are excellent solos here by one of the tenor saxists and trumpeters. I was really happy to hear Barnitt sing Does Anybody Really Know What Time it Is?, one of my favorite songs by the jazz-rock band Chicago, and McDonald’s arrangement sticks fairly close to the original (including the trumpet solo), which is a good thing since that version was nearly perfect. He also sings a cover version of The Doors’ Touch Me. The set closes with the old Frank Sinatra standard, One for My Baby.

Overall, a fine album with good singing and a solid big band backing. Some of these tracks will stay in your mind after the album is finished playing.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Irrera Brothers Play Robert Morris

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MORRIS: In Variations.  …gradually…  Drawn Onward: Fantasy for Violin & Piano / John Irrera, vln; Joseph Irrera, pno / Centaur CRC 3696

Robert Morris, who has been teaching composition at the Eastman School of Music since 1980, here presents his music for violin and piano played by the Irrera Brothers. The music itself is very much of the 12-tone school and built around leaping figures in the violin part, but what distinguishes this disc is the emotional involvement and intensity of the performers.

Which is not to say that the music itself is “ordinary” in the normal sense of that term. Morris is clearly a more interesting (to me) composer than Elliott Carter, for instance, whose music was similarly 12-tone but unspeakably ugly and often indecipherable. Morris hears his own compositions as music, not as an intellectual game played with his listeners, and thus holds one’s attention as the music is developed, and the Irrera Brothers help bring it to vivid life.

In the first piece, In Variations, Morris also uses luftpausen as a way of making his music less consistently busy and somewhat easier to grasp, with good results. In the second piece, titled …gradually… , Morris uses similar figures but rearranges them. Here it is the piano part that is considerably different, highlighting a moving or “walking” bass line of single notes against the violin’s lines. They range from tender to fierce with various mutations in between as well as moving the interaction of the two instruments “from agreement to conflict.”

But the weakness of Morris’ music is that it all sounds pretty much alike. Because he uses and re-uses the same devices over and over, it doesn’t really go anywhere interesting, and the lay listener would have a very hard time trying to tell these pieces apart. Since I was playing this CD, as I normally do, in a different room from my computer and listening on the speakers in the computer room, I had no idea when the second piece ended and the third began, and I don’t think you’d be able to tell without looking either. Yes, it’s better music than Carter’s, but it’s nowhere near the level of genius one hears in Webern or the inspiration in the music of Schoenberg or Berg. It’s good but not great.

Nonetheless, as I mentioned early on, it is the playing of the Irrera Brothers that makes this disc. If just one of these pieces was heard in a recital, surrounded by contrasting works in other styles, I’m sure it would make a good impression, yet even though the CD is less than 44 minutes long, this much of Morris’ music is a bit much to take in one sitting. Better to listen to just one piece at a time, stop the CD and try to absorb it all before moving on to the next.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Lawrence Moss Presents a New Dawn

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MOSS: Ligeti Light / Kadisha Onalbayeva, pno / New Dawn / Kiev Philharmonic Orch.; Arnold Winston, cond / Voyagers / Composers’ Choir; Daniel Shaw, cond / Moments / Eric Kutz, cel; Audrey Andrist, pno / Grand is the Seen / Danielle Talamantes, sop; Sarah Eckman McIver, fl; Joel Ayau, pno / Gamelan for Flute & Percussion / McIver, fl; Lee Hinkle, perc / De Profundis / Khasma Piano Duo / Dreams by Day and Night / Danielle Talamantes, sop; McIver, fl; Hinkle, perc; Joel Ayau, pno / 5 Bagatelles for Percussion / Hinkle, perc / Inside, Outside: 4 Haikus for Our Time / Talamantes, sop; McIver, fl/pic / Innova INN027

This is the second CD of works by Lawrence Moss, the album’s producer, to be issued by Innova. This one features a mixture of piano, orchestral, choral, vocal and chamber works featuring a variety of different performers (see above).

We immediately enter his musical mind with the piano solo Ligeti Light, which the composer states combines his admiration for the Hungarian composer with his love of painting. There are many pauses in the music, and Moss alternates short, deft musical gestures with sparkling piano runs high up on the keyboard. There’s also a moment at 3:25 where the pianist is instructed to tap his or her instrument.

New Dawn is an orchestral tone poem based on five Tang dynasty poems, one for each (very short) movement. This music, too, uses brief gestures; it tells its stories indirectly, more via suggestion than stating things right out. Moss uses a lot of high-lying phrases, scoring them primarily for winds and high strings, and uses the orchestra in one or two sections at a time rather than as a full unit. At the 5:55 mark, we suddenly get a short but quirky waltz, as if danced by someone with one leg. Very interesting!

By contrast, I really didn’t care much for Voyagers, a choral piece based on two Walt Whitman poems—not because I don’t like Whitman (I do) but because the music sounded like that B.S. minimalist stuff you hear all the time and, what’s worse, the chorus has lousy diction. You can’t understand a single syllable of what should be singing in English. Let’s just forget this ever happened, OK?

Moments for cello and piano, the most recent composition on this disc, sounds like a stab at 12-tone music. Some of it works, particularly when he allows the music to breathe and become lyrical, but several of the fast phrases sounded a bit forced to me, as if he made a conscious effort to write this way and wasn’t really inspired. I also didn’t much like Eric Kutz’ cello tone, which was thin and pallid in both his high and low registers, but particularly the high. Hey, Eric: do us a favor and listen to Emanuel Feuermann playing Chopin’s Polonaise Brillante. That’s the way it’s done. The music here also sounded, to me, much more fragmented and less connected, as if Moss couldn’t quite decide which way to go so he chose different directions, some of which didn’t work out.

Grand is the Seen for soprano, flute and piano also uses Whitman as its basis. Soprano Danielle Talamantes has an attractive timbre but is somewhat nasal in the top range and she, too, can’t enunciate English clearly enough to be understood. Except for the spoken lines, which were clear, she could have been singing in Danish or Hungarian for all I knew. The music, however, is quite interesting, giving wide-ranging intervals to both the singer and flautist, and the piano part is a real tour-de-force.

Also very fine is Gamelan for flute and percussion, the percussion being primarily vibraphone, brass chimes and gong. This sound fascinates Moss as it also, for a time, obsessed Benjamin Britten, and I like it, too. Here, too, Moss seems much looser and more creative in his use of notes, where to put them and how to develop them, sometimes indirectly and sometimes in a linear fashion. Moss also has the flute play. at times, in a manner similar to that of bamboo or reed flutes. Very interesting!

De Profundis, written for piano duo, also has a quasi-Eastern sound wedded to its bitonal structure. Written in three sections, the third quotes a bit of Josquin des Pres’ Mass. The music here is almost entirely abstract, again interrupted by moments of silence, yet tightly woven into three good structures.

Talamantes returns to sing Dreams by Day and Night, a three-song cycle based on the poetry of Li Bai. Talamantes is no more intelligible in these songs as she was in the Whitman, and here she also spreads her tone under spressure. For me the music here is more conventional and less individualistic. I also wasn’t real thrilled by some cat whacking bongos in the background of the second song, “Of Drinking Wine.” If you’re gonna bang bongos, you better be writing something hip like the music of Fred Katz.

The 5 Bagatelles for Percussion Solo also feature bongos—in fact, they start out on bongos—but percussionist Leo Hinkle then jumps on his bass drum, gong, and other paraphernalia to create a nice mosaic of sound. Still, a percussion piece is a percussion piece; unless you’re using vibes, marimba or xylophone in the mix, your “music” isn’t going anywhere, even in those moments when the percussionist moans out a doleful note from his throat. Even though Moss does include a marimba in the fourth piece (“Duet”), Baby Dodds did it better.

And guess what? Talamantes comes back one more time for the concluding Inside, Outside: 4 Haikus for Our Time. Just between you, me and the lamppost, I always wonder what composers mean when they add the tag line, “for our time,” particularly in this case when the haikus are:

Inside car
sitting, waiting

Outside rain
drizzle, sprinkling

On the windowshield
kittenpaws
creeping

Softly

I mean, really: these haikus could apply to virtually any period of time going back at least to the 1830s when boxcars were invented. The music, however, is interesting and appealing, short phrases—generally melodic and consisting of long notes—given to both the soprano and flute. Were I able to understand anything that Talamantes sang, it would have been a great finish to the CD

And there you have it. A few so-so pieces but mostly fascinating and well-written music with a bit of stylistic variety.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Groslot’s “Matrix in Persian Blue” Released

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GROSLET: Ce lac due oublié que hante sous le givre…* Le bel aujourd’hui.+ Matrix in Persian Blue / Asasello Quartet; *Jan Michiels, pno; +Liesbeth Devos, sop / Tyxart TXA 19123

The music of Belgian composer Robert Groslot is haunting in its quality yet modern in its language. His music leans ever-so-slightly in the direction of tonality while never quite arriving there, and in these remarkable chamber works for string quartet with piano or vocalist one is immediately captivated by the sounds he creates. It is almost like the work of a modern Debussy: well structured yet using opaque textures, with a bit of an edge to the sound like the music of Honegger or Françaix.

The opening work on this CD, a nearly 25-minute piece for piano quintet, employs a variety of devices including portamento slides for the violins yet never becomes cluttered or overly busy. Groslot is apparently uninterested in writing music merely for effect; every note of his works means something and adds to the whole. In this piece there is a pizzicato section for the strings that oddly resembles, but does not duplicate, the style of Marius Constant, but again these devices are used in the service of an excellent musical mind that creates structures that are complex but never cluttered.

Yet in many ways Groslot’s music is difficult to describe because a mere litany of the technical devices used do not give the reader an impression of the actual music. It must be heard to be fully felt and understood, and it is to their credit that the very talented Asasello Quartet fully enter the spirit of the music as well as the notes.

The song cycle Le bel aujourd’hui is based on four poems by Stéphane Mallarmé, the words of which are unfortunately not given in the booklet either in French or English. I had to look them up on Emily Ezust’s LiederNet Archive. Soprano Liesbeth Devos has a high voice that unfortunately tends towards a shrill, wiry sound up top, but her singing is expressive and her diction excellent. Here, again, the Debussy comparison is apt, with grateful vocal lines and a little more of a tendency towards tonality to help ground the singer. Groslot also uses the string quartet here more as individual instruments than playing together as a unit; each instrument in the quartet gets his or her own line to play, only occasionally using the two violins together in harmony while the cello plays a fairly consistent pizzicato counterpoint to the proceedings. In the last song, Le vierge, the vocal line leans more towards the atonal and the first violin sustains very high, bright tones while the others play delicate counterpoint, often in moving pizzicato lines.

Groslot’s only (so far) work for string quartet alone is built along the same lines as the preceding works: bitonal leaning towards atonal, with bouncing counterpoint and using the quartet members individually rather than together. And once again, there is a lot of pizzicato and fast-moving bass lines played by the cello. The first violin also gets a soaring, long-note solo. Disparate parts, but somehow all fitting together to make a cohesive whole. In this work, particularly, Groslot leaves the Debussy model behind. Eventually, the polyphonic complexity grows to a point where one is caught up in its web. The second movement (there are only two) begins, unusually, with the quartet playing together, but they soon separate and toy with one another. A most interesting and unusual piece, which ends with a series of rapid-moving figures.

This is surely one of the most interesting and unusual set of pieces I’ve heart in a long time!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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