Michael Kaeshammer’s Happy Jazz

Kaeshammer cover

McCANN: You Got It in Your Soulness. CARR: How Long Blues. TIZOL-ELLINGTON-MILLS: Caravan. BARBARIN: Bourdon Street Parade.* FARRÉS: Quizas, Quizas, Quizas. AGER-YELLEN: Ain’t She Sweet. COLEMAN: Ramblin’. SILVER: The Preacher / Michael Kaeshammer, pno/*voc; David Piltch, bs; Johnny Vidacovich, dm / Linus Entertainment 270729

I get far more jazz records sent to me, either by physical copy or MP3s via email, for consideration than I actually review. (Of course, the same is true of the classical side.) Normally, there are one of three reasons I turn them down: 1) too much old-timey stuff (particularly in the classical field) that I’ve heard far too often played much better by others, 2) pretentious modern music that, under its surface, has nothing to say, and 3) dull, uninteresting performances of whatever it is.

But every so often, I get a recording that just has so much joie-de-vivre in it that I can’t stop listening, and in those rare cases I’ll review the recording regardless of the repertoire. This is one such disc. Putting the CD in my player, the first thing I heard, after a spoken introduction by Kaeshammer, was the sort of piece I used to hear back in the 1960s played by the Ramsey Lewis Trio, certainly one of the most fun groups in jazz history. Then in the second track, Leroy Carr’s How Long Blues, the kind of jazz-New Orleans pop fusion that Fats Domino used to regale us with back in the late 1950s. And the fun just doesn’t stop. After that, you get one of Louis Armstrong’s favorites, Down By the Riverside, Juan Tizol’s miraculously undated Caravan, Paul Barbarin’s Bourbon Street Parade (and how many of you out there have even heard of Paul Barbarin??), then moving through a Latin number, the ancient chestnut Ain’t She Sweet, and ending with Horace Silver’s The Preacher.

Let me tell you, folks, in the course of listening to this record, a smile never left my face. No, it’s clearly not the most creative jazz in the world, but it doesn’t have to be. Michael Kaeshammer and his trio just kicked their shoes off and had a blast playing this stuff. I half-expected to hear Allen Toussaint’s Java and Professor Longhair’s Bald Head while they were at it.

Kaeshammer is a good pianist who knows how to improvise in addition to knowing how to arrange these pieces. You don’t need to know more than that to enjoy this recording. It’s a party CD. Put some burgers on the grill, roll out the beer keg and have fun. In a world where far too many jazz artists are still cowering from the paaannnn-demic and whimpering themselves to sleep, Kaeshammer and his friends are enjoying themselves and inviting you to join in. If nothing else, it may help you forget the exorbitant costs of housing and food nowadays long enough to tap your toes or get up and dance.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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If You Chop Down Thomas’ “Hamlet,” It Works!

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THOMAS: Hamlet / Thomas Hampson. bar (Hamlet); June Anderson, sop (Ophelia); Samuel Ramey, bass (Claudius); Gregory Kunde, ten (Laerte); Denyce Graves, mezzo (Gertrude); Jean-Philippe Courtis, bass (Ghost); Gerard Gardino, ten (Marcellus); Michel Trempont, bs (Polonius); Thierry Felix, bar (1st Gravedigger); Jean-Pierre Furlan, ten (2nd Gravedigger); Ambrosian Opera Chorus; London Philharmonic Orch.; Antonio de Almeida, cond /Warner Classics 7290872, also available for free streaming on Spotify or YouTube

For most of my life, I’ve been told what a “great” opera Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet is, yet most people—including several diehard opera-lovers I know—have always thought very little of it. When Franco Faccio’s Amleto was rediscovered and revived a couple of years ago, with its far superior libretto by Arrigo Boito and its more penetrating (if briefer) depiction of the character, many opera fans rejoiced. Yet the Thomas Hamlet persists, an albatross around the neck of the opera world, sold to the masses largely due to two scenes: Hamlet’s drinking song and Ophelia’s “mad scene” aria, neither of which are really dramatic and the latter of which is primarily a tuneful string of coloratura fireworks.

But recently, when reading baritone Titta Ruffo’s autobiography, I began to think a little differently about it when I learned how much thought he put into his interpretation of the title character, how hard he worked to get just the right tone and timbre of voice to convey Hamlet’s melancholy and feelings of alienation, and how much his interpretation was liked and appreciated by some very cultured listeners who knew the Shakespeare original very well (including, but not limited to, British critic and voice pedagogue Herman Klein). The excerpts that Ruffo recorded, not only sung passages from the opera but two spoken monologues (in Italian) from Shakespeare, clearly show an outstanding vocal actor, but in some ways his interpretation is just a bit too “outward,” designed to project into a large theater. This was indeed considered great acting on the operatic stage in his day—it’s very similar to several of Feodor Chaliapin’s operatic characters—but our view of drama has changed over the past century, and we now appreciate much subtler nuances nowadays.

Anyway, with my interest piqued, I decided to re-evaluate the entire opera. I listened to parts of the Sherrill Milnes recording (with Joan Sutherland as Ophelia), but although he does indeed interpret the role it is too big-boned, even more so than Ruffo. Hamlet is not William Tell or even Macbeth; he is more tortured, more indecisive, less able to cope with the tragedy that has befallen him. In a YouTube video, baritone Thomas Hampson explains Hamlet’s character very well: “He hasn’t lived long enough to be able to cope with the tragedy that has befallen him.” And he also explains that although the libretto of Thomas’ opera is clearly not pure Shakespeare, the legend of Hamlet predates Shakespeare and thus is not 100% dependent on the way he wrote the character…though, of course, it is the richest and fullest delineation of his character.

I found Hampson’s reading of the text to be near-perfect for our times and sensibilities. Playing to the microphone rather than to an audience in a huge opera house, Hampson scales down on the volume of his voice, not to a whisper but at least to a soft conversational level. This affords him the opportunity to give the words and the music even finer gradations of volume and expression than those Ruffo was capable of, and it works.

The biggest problem in the score, of course, was Ambroise Thomas. More of an entertainer than an artist, his goal was to please audiences with memorable and peppy melodies, not to entice them with musical or theatrical nuance. To a certain degree, the character of Hamlet is simplified in his opera. He is not a deeply tragic and conflicted character, but rather just a sad young man seeking revenge for his father’s murder. Many of the subsidiary characters in the Shakespeare play are omitted, and Ophelia is given a much more prominent role than in the play—simply because “coloratura” sopranos were highly entertaining to the French, thus he wanted to give them what they wanted. Most, but not all, of her “mad scene” consists of nothing but coloratura fiddly bits strung together to make a “scene.” It’s not quite as bad as Lucia di Lammermoor’s mad scene, but it’s only one step up from it.

The opera is also somewhat overloaded with peppy choral music, in-one-ear-and-out-the-other orchestral interludes, and scenes and arias for the other characters that simply aren’t very good. (And then there’s the ballet music, which is so awful that I think even Thomas didn’t like writing it very much.) One of the rare instances that is good is Gertrude’s aria, which, strangely enough, resembles Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila. But if you do some judicious pruning, you might be surprised at how effective, within limits, most of the music is.

I managed to trim the opera down from three and a quarter hours to two hours and four minutes. Some of the “pageantry” music I left in simply because it provides an effective contrast with Hamlet’s generally more introspective music, and contrast is necessary in any opera. As for Hamlet’s famous drinking song, “O vin dissipe la tristesse,” although it shows off the baritone’s voice splendidly, it is not normally a piece that fits the character—Ruffo didn’t much like singing it, but realized that this was one of the things that “sold” the opera because it showed off the splendor of his full voice—but in this performance, Hampson sings it as if through gritted teeth, almost mocking the others for celebrating when he himself was feeling morbid, thus I left it in. As for Ophelia’s “mad scene,” the earlier, slower sections are moderately effective, just as in the Lucia mad scene. It’s the coloratura fireworks that degrade it, making of it a purely entertaining piece rather than one that reflects her state of mind.

In the track list below, I’ve put a line through the tracks that you shouldn’t bother with. In the case of Ophelia’s “mad scene,” however, one should download or record the slower music in tracks three and four of CD 3 and excise the faster, flashier music.

CD 1

tracks 1

CD 2

tracks 2

CD 3

tracks 3

If you then listen to this abridged version as the “complete” opera, you’ll be amazed at how well much of the music works despite its dated style. No, it’s not the Faccio or the Joseph Summers Hamlets, but it is effective in its own way, particularly the way this cast sings it and the way de Almeida conducts it.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Stewart Plays Medtner’s Piano Sonatas

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MEDTNER: Sonata-Ballade in F#, Op. 27. Sonata in A min., Op. 30. Sonata in E min., Op. 25 No. 2, “Night Wind” / Paul Stewart, pno / Grand Piano GP888

The back cover inlay for this set claims that Medtner’s 14 piano sonatas are “the most significant achievement in this genre by any major composer since Beethoven,” but as much as I love Medtner’s music I’m not sure I agree with that statement. Surely Prokofiev’s nine piano sonatas are, as a set, more varied in style and rhythmically more innovative, as are Kapustin’s 16 sonatas, and I would even say that Scriabin’s 10 piano sonatas, as a set, were surely groundbreaking for their time. Medtner’s sonatas were, only, never a “set”; they were written at odd intervals in his career, none of them are numbered, one of them is really a Sonatina and a couple of them were published as part of one of his sets of “Forgotten Melodies.” In short, they are a very eclectic group.

Yet any new take on these somewhat uneven but mostly fascinating works is welcome. Paul Stewart, a pianist I hadn’t heard of (more on that in a moment), is apparently recording all of them, and this is Vol. 3 in the set. When finished, it will surely draw comparison with Geoffrey Tozer’s complete set on Chandos.

The reason I’d not heard of Stewart before is that he issued Vol. 1 of this series in 2012 and Vol. 2 in 2016, years in which I was still writing for a certain major classical music magazine which didn’t think me worthy to review them, thus I was never offered them. Indeed, I was even kept from discovering Tozer’s set until recently, thus I’ll be making some comparisons with his work in this review.

Making side-by-side comparisons between Tozer’s and Stewart’s recordings provided some interesting differences. The former plays everything in a fairly straight, linear style, as Medtner himself did (I have his own recordings of the three Piano Concerti plus some of the “Forgotten Melodies” and other smaller works), but sometimes (not always) they sounded a bit glib in regards to emotional content. Stewart plays this music with quite a few moments of rubato that seemed to me better suited to German and Austrian composers than Russians, but such moments are tastefully done and, in the fast passages, he does not drag out the music. His piano is also much more warmly recorded; Tozer’s sounds cold and metallic. These two specific features, keeping to a steady tempo rather than fluctuating and the piano tone, are the most obvious differences, although if one took each performance bar by bar one would surely come up with other differences.

For the most part, Stewart maintains an emotional connection to this music, even in those moments when he departs from score tempo. Tozer has an emotional connection a little over half of the time, which is pretty good. I really can’t say that either are ideal. Neither is Marc-André Hamelin, a super-virtuoso who always seems to just go so far towards giving the music he plays strong emotion.  I really wish that a good Russian pianist, or a meticulous German one like Michael Korstick, would tackle these sonatas as a set, but on balance I found myself liking Stewart more than Tozer.

The music is, as I’ve so often described Medtner in the past, technically challenging but not flashy, harmonically interesting but clearly not in line with the modern Russian school of his time, very meaty works that have a lot to say.

When listening to Medtner’s piano sonatas, I’d like to bring your attention to the left-hand figures. Much of the time, these are separate compositions in themselves, not merely an accompaniment to the right. On the contrary, close to half of what the right hand plays is decorative; it’s in the left hand that more than half of the thematic development takes place. This is very much the opposite of not only Beethoven, but also Brahms, Scriabin and Prokofiev. Most people tend to listen to the right hand in a piano sonata because they assume that this is where all the action is, but Medtner continually moves his focus from the right hand to the left.

Because of the anomalies in the tempi which I described earlier, I found this a difficult set to review. Some of Stewart’s rubato makes sense, but to my ears, most of it distorts the shaping of the music, yet the sound of his piano is clearly very attractive. It’s your choice.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Danielpour’s Piano Études

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DANIELPOUR: 12 Études for Piano. Piano Fantasy (“Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden”). Lullaby. Song Without Words / Stefano Greco, pno / Naxos 8.559922

As much as I’m not a big fan of Chopin, I have to admit that his piano etudes are clearly the most interesting as music, with Scriabin’s, perhaps, being second in line. It’s difficult to create pieces that are essentially finger exercises and make them interesting.

On this CD, Richard Danielpour shows how it can be done in a somewhat modern vein. His music is nearly always rooted in tonality, yet uses some unusual features such as modes and pentatonic scales to increase interest. In this series, he also adds in some playing of the inner strings of the piano, as in No. 2—right hand inside the piano, left hand outside but playing in the middle and bass ranges, which means using crossed hands—though he makes it just a little easier than it sounds by keeping the music slow and moody, with little movement. Each of his etudes has a description to indicate what is being worked on, i.e., five-finger arpeggios, rapid scales, octaves, and the “mirror étude” using repeated notes between both bands. As a set, they’re not as musically complex as Chopin’s but they are fascinating even as music, so I have to give him credit for that. A few of these pieces come to somewhat predictable conclusions, but not many, and as I say they are interesting to listen to. Danielpour creates at least one truly creative piece out of “sixths and trills” (No. 6), and he gives the “stride etude” a bit of a Fats Waller swing. Stefano Greco, a pupil of the legendary Aldo Ciccolini, handles all of them with aplomb.

The Piano Fantasy is described as a “free set of continuous variations” on the final chorale of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, but the theme is heard at the end rather than the beginning. Although not a stunning piece, it’s still quite good in spots. It’s a bit uneven, but the good portions of it are very good. The Lullaby and Song Without Words, on the other hand, are in-one-ear-and-out-the-other sort of pieces that I could have lived without.

I say get the CD for the piano etudes; they’re quite interesting as well as engaging; and the Piano Fantasy certainly has some very interesting moments.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Gentiane MG’s “Walls Made of Glass”

GENTIANE MG: Prologue. Flowers Laugh Without Uttering a Sound. Walls Made of Glass. The Moon,. The Sun, the Truth. Mésenges. Un pied en dehors du nid [One Foot out of the Nest]. Contemplating Joy. Little Tree. Burning Candle. Epilogue / Gentiane MG, pno; Levi Dover, bs; Louis-Vincent Hamel, dm / TPR Records (Three Pines Records), no number

Canadian jazz pianist Gentiane Michaud-Gagnon, who uses the professional name Gentiane MG, is an artist who takes her music very seriously. No playing of standards, not even bop or modern jazz standers, for her, but original compositions which express her state of mind and being.

On this CD, scheduled for release on September 23, she expresses her deep connection to the environment—objects, animals, plants and sounds—and attempts to convert these into music. As is often the case, even with skilled classical composers like Olivier Messiaen who did the same, there are hits and misses.

The opening “Prologue” is slow and moody, but uses some nice chord positions. It is played by Gentiane as a solo; the tempo is fluid, the mood pensive, but it fascinates  by means of its harmonies. This leads into Flowers Laugh Without Uttering a Sound, which starts as a sort of loop of a repeated short theme in bitonal harmony but has some lightly swinging interludes in an irregular rhythm. Her rhythm section is fully organic; they move and breathe with her. The single-note solo in the middle is very interesting in that she actually creates a cohesive and interesting musical structure using a minimum of notes. This piece is related to the many experimental jazz pieces of the late 1950s-early ‘60s without sounding derivative in any way. As her playing becomes simpler, it also becomes more intense in volume, rising to a climax before falling away again. It ends, harmonically, in the midst of a phrase.

Walls Made of Glass is a ballad, but once again in an irregular meter: it sounded to me like 10/4, but I may be wrong about that. The Moon, The Sun, The Truth is a more energetic piece that constantly teeters on the brink of atonality, and is surprisingly energetic with some light interludes in which she sprinkles a few arpeggios. This one also features an extremely fine bass solo by Levi Dover which uses the atonal bias of the harmony to his advantage. I did, however, find Mésanges (Chickadees) to be a rather weak piece, built primarily on nothing. Only another good solo by Dover saved this track from being completely boring. To me, it said very little, even with Gentiane becoming busier at the keyboard towards the end.

Un pied en dehors du nid (One Foot out of the Nest) was more interesting with its quasi-Latin feel, though also set to an irregular rhythm, but this piece, too, was built of very simple musical blocks. Her piano solo, though somewhat minimalist in style, once again made something interesting out of a series of simple but interesting musical gestures. Contemplating Joy, which opens with cymbal washes and light drum taps, moves into sparse arpeggiated chords on the keyboard which, this time, do not much coalesce into anything. Fortunately, Dover’s bass again saves the day with a solo that suddenly pulls the loose ends together while creating a surprisingly fine theme around these fragments.

Little Tree is also comprised of little musical gestures in the opening, but this time the music opens up like the bud of a flower as drummer Hamel suddenly gives the music a nice forward-moving kick—for a while, at least. Harmonically, and only harmonically, this piece reminded me of some of Herbie Nichols’ strange piano pieces from the late 1950s. Gentiane seems to want to avoid as much as possible strong themes or a development section that moves well beyond the parameters of the basic structure of each piece, but here, a bit past the halfway mark, she suddenly opens up in a flurry of notes that extend the music into some surprising nooks and crannies.

I felt that Burning Candle came closest to capturing in sound the image it was trying to project. thanks to Hamel’s delicate brushwork on the snare drum and, once again, Dover’s sensitive and very creative bass playing. Gentiane is indeed lucky to have two such gifted musicians in her trio, particularly Dover whose musical imagination is on such an extremely high level. I was, however, somewhat disappointed by the “Epilogue,” which to my ears sounded suspiciously like the theme for the 1970s movie Love Story.

On balance, however, this is a very interesting album of sensitively played and written pieces. It makes great late-night listening with the lights turned down low.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Re-Evaluating Titta Ruffo

Ruffo

When I was younger, most of the Titta Ruffo recordings I heard were the ones reissued by RCA Victor and their European affiliates, LPs that emphasized the monstrous size and power of his voice. I took him to be a “belter” with a stunning voice that didn’t always really record very well on the acoustic recordings. Because of its size and ultra-heroic ring, the warm, rich mid-range that was so often praised in reviews simply wasn’t there, and although one could hear some of it in the electrical recordings, a top-end limit of 6000 Hz really wasn’t enough to capture all that it had to give.

But in recent years, reading more from those who heard him in person and also hearing more of his less “spectacular” recordings, I’ve altered my view of him, and this in turn led me to read his autobiography, My Parabola, published in 1995 by Baskerville Press,

Ruffo was born into a small, poor Italian family from Pisa on July 9, 1877. His mother was a gentle, sensitive woman whose primary focus in life was keeping house to please her husband, a gruff, stoic metal welder (sometimes elevated online to the status of an engineer, but he wasn’t one) whose only hobby was hunting with his friends. Shortly before Ruffo’s birth, his father had a wonderful hunting dog who he loved and depended on, which he had named Ruffo. Ruffo was accidentally shot, and died shortly before his second son was born, so his father gave him that first name—Ruffo Cafirero Titta—although his mother hated it and would only call him Cafiero. He had an older brother, Ettore, who became a composer, and two younger sisters, Fosca, who became a soprano, and Nella. Thus the parents with no musical interests whatsoever turned out three professional musicians.

Boris Godunov

As Boris Godunov

At the age of eight, Ruffo’s father obtained a job as metalworker in a plant in Rome. The small family followed him there a month later and, shortly thereafter, the boy obtained a job as helper in another foundry for a pittance, which he felt necessary to earn in order to help his financially struggling family put food on the table. A year later, his father was made owner of the foundry after the original proprietor’s death, and Ruffo joined him there, working alongside him for six years. During that time, Ruffo came to understand why his mother wilted under his wrath. Used to ordering everyone around on the job, he treated not only her but his own son like a menial servant, with anger and sometimes physical violence—and this for less than one lira per week. Ruffo’s originally gentle, friendly nature became sour and embittered; he often withdrew into himself and, although he never begrudged his brother Ettore’s education, he began to worry about his own lack of one. Eventually, the time came when his father dressed him down quite nastily for some trifling reason in front of the other workers, and Ruffo simply exploded with rage at him. Dumbfounded at first, his father recovered enough to throw him out. “You are now grown up, so go out and earn your living. Get out! And never set foot in this place again!”

Ruffo was extraordinarily relieved to be out from under his father’s boot heels but had no idea where he was going or what he would do. He ended up working for another metal-working shop, but this time for a kindly owner who greatly appreciated his zeal and energy in the workplace. Ruffo responded by creating perfect little wrought-iron art works—first a rose, then a salamander, which he gifted to “Maestro Peppe” as tokens of his gratitude. After his meager salary had been raised a few times, Ruffo bought a copy of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. It was his introduction to literature as well as adventure stories, and it spurred his imagination, transferring his love of metal arts to that of literature. In time, this led to a dissatisfaction with his job and his stature in life; he wanted something more, but didn’t know what.

After making an improbable repair of a wealthy farmer’s oil press, Ruffo incurred the jealousy of his co-workers and so resigned his job—only to have the farmer and his wife, who were childless, take him on as a live-in hired hand at a good salary for a couple of months. Eventually, however, his father showed up, begging him to return home because his mother was getting ill worrying about him. He initially refused, but then capitulated. When he returned home, a change had taken place with his brother Ettore, who was now studying flute and piano and attending the St. Cecilia Academy in Rome. Thus his return home was fortuitous and eventually led to his real life’s work. Ironically, however, he was initially unimpressed by his brother’s playing the music of Verdi, Donizetti and Bellini. It just plain did not interest him in the least…he wanted to be Garibaldi.

Pathe labelBut now he was truly lost. He didn’t want to return to iron work; he enjoyed living, working and sometimes even sleeping in the open air that the mere thought of being trapped in any kind of a workshop was abhorrent to him, yet he did temporarily (and reluctantly) return briefly to his father’s workshop. And eventually, the new musical atmosphere in his house eventually got to him when he saw his brother intently studying the score of Cavalleria Rusticana, and particularly the tenor’s opening “Sicliana.” Then Ettore invited Ruffo to come with him to hear a performance of this same opera with the great singing stars Gemma Bellincioni and Roberto Stagno. The experience overwhelmed him. He was completely silent on the walk home with Ettore, but when they arrived Ruffo asked him to play Turiddu’s serenade on his flute. He did so and, spontaneously, Ruffo sang the aria—in a beautiful tenor voice he never even knew he had. Everyone was stunned, but especially Ruffo.

It might have been the beginning of his real career, but not just yet. Since he, unlike his brother, didn’t have much education and couldn’t yet read music, he clearly could not have gotten into the St, Cecilia Academy, so back he went to his iron work for a while. Ironically, what drew him eventually back to music was not something his brother said or did, but his father, who up to that time had shown little interest in music. At one of the cafes in town, his father had heard a marvelous young man, who had recently arrived in Rome to study voice, sing a few arias, and had been smitten. The young man was Oreste Benedetti, who would himself become a well-known baritone in Italy. Ruffo’s father told Ettore about him and advised him to hear him, thus Benedetti was soon a visitor to the Titta household. Like Ruffo, Oreste had been a laborer who one day discovered that he had a good singing voice. Ettore played the piano while Benedetti sang “Vien, Leonora” from La Favorita, not only with an excellent voice but also with great subtlety and musicality. Interestingly, Benedetti aroused two contrasting feelings in Ruffo: a feeling that his tenor voice was inconsequential next to the visitor’s, but also a strong desire to resume singing at any cost. His father, surprisingly, offered Benedetti a bedroom at their modest house so that he could have the pleasure of hearing him sing when he wasn’t studying at the Academy. Thus the young baritone, five years Ruffo’s senior, stayed with the family for about a year. Sadly, he started becoming very ill around 1914 and died three years later at the age of 44.

Titta Ruffo 2During his tenure in the Titta household, Benedetti received free tickets to the opera as a pupil of the Academy and shared them with Ruffo; these experiences of hearing live opera revived his interest in singing and his hopes to become a singer himself.  Listening to Benedetti’s recordings today, it’s easy to understand Ruffo’s enthusiasm. The older baritone had not only a beautiful voice and an easy delivery, but was a surprisingly musical singer for his time. He seldom if ever distorted the music and always sang with an excellent feeling for the character.

One day at the shop, trying to give his co-worker Pietro an idea of how good Benedetti was, Ruffo started singing an aria from Donizetti’s Belisario. All of a sudden, the “real” Ruffo voice emerged out of nowhere: powerful, rich, and nassive. When he told Ettore about it, however, his older brother was incredulous; he thought he was joking, and began to laugh. So was Benedetti—until he heard him. The “lovely” tenor voice of age 16 had now blossomed into the powerful baritone voice we know two years later. Benedetti took him to his teacher, Caio Andreoli, the next day. After hearing him, Andreoli told Benedetti that “this is a voice which will he the rival yours in a few years,” but advised him to stop singing for at least one more year. Ruffo’s mother and brother were thrilled by the news; his father was not told of this, however, because although he thought that it was OK for Benedetti to become a professional singer, he only thought of his son as a craftsman in metal work which was at least a steady income. During his year of silence, Ruffo continued to go and hear Benedetti sing, taking his finesse in phrasing and subtle gradations of volume as a singing lesson for himself.

Ettore gave Ruffo singing lessons to work on his voice, but somehow it seemed to take a step backwards and he began to lose confidence in himself. Nonetheless, Ruffo auditioned for a position at the St. Cecilia Academy and was accepted. He studied with a Professor Persechini, whose pupils were three tenors and four baritones, but the singer who got the most time and attention was Giuseppe de Luca. Only one year older than Ruffo, de Luca was nonetheless already five years into his studies and was thus rehearsing full roles. Worse, Persechini didn’t like Ruffo’s voice at all. He called it “sluggish” and predicted that he would never have a career. He also thought that Ruffo had a bass voice, not a baritone, and began training it as such. Conversely, he received great praise in his recitation classes with Virginia Marini, an outstanding Italian actress in her day, acclaimed for her flawless diction and acting skills on a par with Eleanora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt. But his battles with Persechini and the lack of respect he was shown eventually led to an outburst. Ruffo told him he didn’t understand his voice and was doing him more harm than good and walked out.

Rigoletto

Ruffo as Rigoletto

He now saw “all the roads closed” to him “except that which led to the shop.” although his business “was going to the dogs.” By luck, however, he picked up a good outside job and so could make a living while working a few hours a day, by himself, on his voice. On the recommendation of a friend, he auditioned for an old baritone, now a teacher, named Senatore Sparapani, who marveled at his voice but could not teach him for free as this was now his only livelihood. Ruffo agreed to 50 lira per month and scraped up the money by working constantly with no time off. But it was worth it. In Ruffo’s own words, “One hour with Sparapani was worth more than a month with Persichini.” The problem, however, was continued cash flow. Ruffo managed to pay for the second month, but by the third was flat broke. Sparapani kept him on that third month for free but finally reluctantly, had to let him go.

Back at the shop, Ruffo worked diligently on an extraordinarily elaborate 15th-century portico owned by a wealthy American who was willing to pay 15,000 lira, an enormous sum in those days, for the work. Much to his consternation, however, his father had already accepted 9,000 of it for himself, even though most of the work was done by Ruffo and his trusted colleague Pietro (with input on the design from his brother Ettore). Yet somehow, he managed to embarrass his father enough to pay him fairly. He took this money and set off for Milan, where he intended to audition as a baritone and make his stage debut. There he auditioned for and studied with another baritone, Lelio Casini, who was very enthusiastic about Ruffo’s voice. His wife said that his voice was similar to but better than Benedetti’s, a compliment which Ruffo could not accept since he admired Benedetti above all others. But Ruffo, unfortunately, had rented a cold, drafty room as his lodgings, and caught bronchitis which stubbornly refused to clear up. He lived in the cold, damp winter air of Milan wearing a coat that was too light, and his bronchitis got worse, not better. He saw nothing but a dark end in sight for him.

Iago

Ruffo as Iago

And once again, luck came to him, this time in the form of a somewhat wealthy family who heard his story and took pity on him. They gave him medicinal pills to take for his bronchitis and, better yet, offered to let him sleep in their lodging for a few nights which were warm and comfortable, not dank and cold like his room. Eventually, spurred by guilt, his landlady gave him some heat for his room as well. He ate next to nothing for days, but somehow managed to slowly recover. When he was finally able to sing again, one of his new benefactors made the comment, “You sound like Tamagno!,” which will give you an idea as to the size of his voice. Then a little more luck; running into the older baritone Oreste Mieli, the latter told Ruffo that he was looking for good, young singers to make recordings for newly-formed Columbia Records. Ruffo did so, and was paid 20 lire for them; they were issued but seem to have disappeared. This was, after all, 1897; Columbia was then a very small company and distribution wasn’t that good. Yet with his voice restored, his lessons with Casini resumed and he made real progress. Casini, too, was a real artist, inflecting his singing with, as Ruffo described it, “exquisite pianos, inflections, and irresistible tone colorings,” thus his teacher’s singing was a much a lesson to him as anything else.

Then came a difference between them. Casini wanted him to keep studying with him further, but as Ruffo explained to him, this was financially impossible. He MUST make his debut soon so as to have a steady income. Once again, when his luck came, it came in twos. After auditioning for one impresario and being hired to sing the Herald in Lohengrin in Rome for his debut, two days later he was signed by another, Cavallaro, to sing with his company for a full year. The tenor in his Rome Lohengrin was none other than the famous Spaniard Francesco Vignas, who became a fan of his overnight and never stopped talking about him.

IMalena label’ve spent so much time describing Ruffo Titta’s early years in detail because they show the character of the man. For the most part scrupulously honest, he was exceptionally hard-working and took great pride in doing the absolute best he could whether in ironworking or singing. He took understandable pride in the results of his labors, meaning that he had supreme confidence in himself, but this should not be construed as egotism or arrogance. He never forgot where he came from and knew that a fluke of nature could put him back in the ironworking shop very quickly, thus he never took his voice for granted. Following the advice of his teachers and colleagues, he never smoked, ate a healthy diet, and worked on his voice to keep it strong and fluid. But he wasn’t completely truthful when, in 1913, he wrote an article in Musical America claiming that his brother Ettore had been his only good voice teacher. On the contrary, although Ettore helped to coach him between “real” instructors, Sparapani and Casini were clearly the ones who not only helped settle his voice (though his time with each was brief due to financial hardship) but who also, by example—along with Benedetti and his dramatic coach Virginia Marini—made him the artist he was. He also received good advice from an operatic dilettante with the soul of an artist but a “wretched baritone voice,” Cesarino Gaetani, who complained of other great  baritones who, in his estimation, all had beautiful voices but were not true artists. He also received what he felt was invaluable advice on how to interpret his roles from Gigi Macchi, a respected Sicilian judge who was also an opera fanatic. When Ruffo took on the role of Valentine in Faust for the first time, for instance, he and Macchi began to analyze the character, “exploring its depths and unearthing the most subtle shades of meaning.” In this way, Ruffo became a true interpretive artist and not just a Big Mouth belting out high As, but few listeners have paid close enough attention to the interpretations beneath the glorious voice on his records.

Hamlet

As Hamlet

For the most part, we can skip a discussion of his career, since he became famous all over Italy in a relatively short time and then, little by little, conquered the rest of the Western world, but a few things deserve special mention. One in particular was an older soprano he met on his first sojourn to South America, Adelina Fanton, whose name he disguises in the book by calling her “Benedetta.” Benedetta-Fanton was not merely older and a more established artist; to the young baritone she represented a higher, more sophisticated form of artistry to which he aspired. She criticized his scruffy looks (shaggy long hair and a string tie), so he got a haircut and new clothes. She told him he must always aspire to a higher calling onstage and not just think of himself as “a voice.” He had already been thinking of this himself, but she inspired him to go further. Without ever getting involved with her sexually, she became his muse and his artistic advisor during those crucial early years.

Another thing that caught my attention was his delving deep into the characters he sang on the stage. When doing Rigoletto, for instance, he didn’t just study the libretto, but also Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’amuse that it was based on. When performing the slave Neluska in Meyerbeer’s L’Africana, a rather surfacy opera without much depth to the characters, he tried to give his performance depth by projecting as well as he could the inner feelings of the character. After singing “Se andate per comprar un bue de lavorar,” which ended with a sustained high G resolving into middle C in which his voice rang out with particular brilliance, the audience “burst out as one in formidable applause. I remained immobile in the middle of the set without acknowledging the ovation so as not to destroy the illusion that I lived as my character and his spirit was real to me.” When performing Iago in Otello, he not only studied Boito’s libretto carefully but also Shakespeare’s play in full (in the Italian translation by Guido Carcano), looking for nuances he could bring to the character. When performing in Thomas’ rather shallow Amleto, he nonetheless studied Shakespeare’s original play once again, digging deep into the title character until he not only thought like him but felt like him. Then, when he performed Amleto for the first time, he did something really daring: he changed the words of the libretto to bring them closer to what Shakespeare wrote. This brought him mixed reactions, shock from established, old-school musicians but a stunned realization from those who knew their Shakespeare that here was a real artist and not just a voice to belt out the drinking song. In addition to recording sung excerpts from Thomas’ opera, Ruffo also recorded two spoken monologues (in Italian) from Shakespeare’s play, including the famous “To be or not to be” monologue. Herman Klein, the astute voice teacher, pedagogue and critic, extolled these recordings to the skies, pointing out how intelligently he captured the feeling of the character.

Tonio

Tonio in Pagliacci

By these means, step by step, and without having yet seen or worked with Feodor Chaliapin, Ruffo slowly became not just a phenomenal opera singer but a stage artist of the first rank…and, when in doubt, there was always Benedetta to fall back on. This is no small thing. The era in which he sang had not yet produced deeply psychological operas, nor were opera singers expected to do any more than just convey love, anger, jealousy or hatred by means of vocal inflections. Anything beyond that was not merely a bonus but unexpected, although there were opera singers—mostly female—who by emulating Sarah Bernhardt brought a certain realism to their stage roles. From what one can gather, Fanton was one of these, thus the young baritone accepted all of her suggestions to make himself better.

Those readers who find in his book moments of uncontrolled egotism are missing the point. Ruffo was well aware that he had an unbelievably superb vocal instrument, which he did not earn but was simply born with, though he took great pains to keep it working at peak efficiency. Thus when he speaks of the voice doing unbelievably superb things, he is not necessarily saying that he did unbelievably superb things. On the contrary, the book shows his mistakes and bad side as much as his good side. There were moments when he made conscious decisions to put his foot down for some reason or another, often costing his impresario pain and/or money, which were morally justified, and other such moments which were, as he admitted, stupid and which backfired on him. He doesn’t pull any punches on himself. He was the uneducated son of a laborer who grew up in the school of hard knocks, had to think fast on his feet in order to survive, often went hungry and cold in his early years, and sometimes had to make snap decisions as to what to do in financially or morally ambiguous situations. In short, he was just human, like all of us.

Rodrigo in Don Carlo

Rodrigo in Don Carlo

Returning to the voice itself, as I mentioned above, trained or natural he handled it with good taste, control and intelligence. Edmund St. Austell, Professor Emeritus at Purdue University is one of the few modern writers who have noticed this, stating that “self-taught or not, he handled his voice with great intelligence, and made it do what he wanted. The measured vibrato in the upper register is a good indication of the exact control he had over the voice. He also holds it down on the bottom and in the middle, which is intelligent, because a voice of that size could exhaust itself quickly if he did not tone it down in the middle, and lie in wait, as it were, for the big notes, which are, especially in verismo opera, “the sound that pays the rent.” All this, while perhaps typical, was not exclusive. Given a chance, and solo exposure, there were more shades in the voice than we hear in this explosive duet with Caruso.”[1]

The book bears this out., and it was no accident. On p. 233, we read of his spending several hours trying to find exactly the right gradations of volume and shades of color to portray the “convent crook,” Fra Bonifazio, in Massenet’s Le jongleur de Notre Dame. He adds:

Some readers will find it strange that I…speak of the colors of the voice, but for me it’s the most natural thing….I believe that a student of singing, after having the fundamentals firmly implanted in his voice—name, sounds that from the lowest notes to the highest are composed, free, supported, united above the palate, without muscular contractions, sustained only by natural respiration—I believe, I say, that every student of singing, if he be endowed with feeling and imagination, and finally with talent, would be able with practice to form all the colors of a palette of sounds, and thus express every one of the emotions of the soul in all their tints and shadows. Surely it is not easy to do or quickly done.

Barnaba in Gioconda

Barnaba in Gioconda

Yet many contemporary critics, reviewing his live performances, missed the forest for the trees. Because the voice was so impressive, that was all they normally reported on, but a few noticed the difference between him and his peers. Oscar Thompson, writing in Musical America on January 18, 1922 of his Don Carlo V in Ernani, noted that “Ruffo made something more dramatically of the rôle of Don Carlos than his predecessor did.” Writing a year later of his Don Carlo, W.J. Henderson of the New York Herald added that “Mr. Ruffo once more demonstrated, in the role of Don Carlos, his ambition to shine with the finer lights of a polished vocal art, a matter in which his sincerity has now been placed beyond a doubt.” In December 1924, now writing for the New York Sun, Henderson went further in describing his Gerard in Andrea Chenier as showing “an appreciation of effectiveness of restraint…his singing has improved in tonal quality because of his avoidance of the natural temptation to give free rein to his vigorous impulses and his powerful voice.” Yet perhaps the most insightful and detailed praise of his acting abilities came from both Thompson and Henderson for his assumption of the role of Neri Chementesi in Giordano’s now-forgotten opera La Cena delle Beffe. In this opera, he played the part of a Florentine competing with another, Giannetto Malespini, for the affections of Malespini’s mistress, Ginevra. This rivalry was heightened by a cruel joke that Neri and his brother played on him by tying him up in a sack and pricking him with their swords. There are, however, various shades and hues to Neri’s character, all of which, apparently, Ruffo brought out brilliantly.

But perhaps the highest compliment came from a man who handed them out very rarely—a young British music critic who would soon replace the legendary Fred Gaisberg as the classical A&R director and record producer at EMI. This was Walter Legge, who, writing in the Gramophone in 1928 in which he recalled a recital Ruffo had given in London six years earlier. Legge stated that “From the his first phrase the audience was vanquished by the overwhelming beauty of his voice…But more: Ruffo’s infinite subtlety, variety of tone-colour, interpretive insight and sincerity, his magnificent control, stupendous breathing powers, and impeccable phrasing stamped him as a genius.”

Ruffo LakmeYou can indeed hear this genius on quite a few of his recordings, ranging from something as overdone as the prologue to Pagliacci, which Klein hailed as being sung exactly as Leoncavallo wrote it and wanted it, to such esoterica as the aria “Do not weep, my child” from Anton Rubinstein’s The Demon. The latter was an aria (and opera) closely identified with Chaliapin, and Ruffo sings in the original Russian, “Nye plach, ditya,” which he learned during his first (1903) season in Odessa. If one listens with fresh ears, however, one will find numerous subtleties in others of Ruffo’s recordings, perhaps expected in Iago’s “Era la notte” but far less expected in such war-horses as Don Alfonso’s “Vien, Leonora” (La Favorita), Nilakantha’s “Lakmé, ton doux regard se voile” [in Italian], and even in Valentine’s “Dio possente” from Faust. His various recorded excerpts from Rigoletto, most of them from 1907-08. show him delving deep into the nuances of the title character in a way that presaged such artists as Giuseppe Taddei, Tito Gobbi and Piero Cappuccilli.

Neri in Cena delle buffe

Neri in Cena delle buffe

Although Giuseppe de Luca complained that Ruffo “bawled” his voice away and the baritone himself said that his vocal collapse at age 52 was proof that he “never really knew how to sing,” the fact that he was able (excepting a few off-days here and there, as all singers have) to maintain his mostly natural vocal placement for 31 years is no mean feat. Moreover, whether he was in pristine voice or not, he continued to sing until 1937, at which point he wrote this autobiography. As late as 1929, critic Oscar Straus wrote in the New York World of Ruffo’s Amonasro that his “powerfully savage impersonation easily outranked that of the other participants, and shared the vocal honors with Mr. Lauri-Volpi, the Radames.” And once again, Ruffo explains how he did it in his book, on pp. 221-22:

I nearly always arose at dawn, took a brief walk…back at the house, I sat at the piano and vocalized patiently, seeking to track down the natural virtues of my voice which had been compromised when I was led astray by the advice of too many voice teachers. I started to vocalize like a student again, beginning with the light sounds, taking the voice as far as the intonations of tenor character….After three months of study [with Vincenzo Ucelli, the former accompanist of Angelo Masini] I was able to easily accomplish agile and wonderful modulations in my pianissimo and my fortissimo notes…With clearly defined variations I was creating a white voice, then a dark, more intense sound that I call blue; enlarging the same sound and rounding it I sought the red; then the black, too, the tone with maximum darkness, To obtain this iridescent palette I formed sounds which I call suoni di bocca (mouth sounds) which is to say verbal and not vocal sounds. In this regard I am able, after my rich experience, to state with authority that a singer who wants to make a long career without forcing his larynx and respiratory apparatus, ought to adopt more verbal sounds that vocal sounds, even if he has at his disposal an extraordinary vocal endowment.

Ruffo, Caruso & Chailiapin

Ruffo, Caruso & Chailiapin

Given my technique I was able to continue, for a period of twenty uninterrupted years, to sing in all seasons and all climates, in Russia at thirty degrees below zero and in the hottest weather of Egypt and Havana. Wherever I went my voice was always ready and dependable.

I think his refusal to teach, claiming that he had “no right to capitalize on my former fame,” stemmed more from the knowledge that numerous young baritones would flock to him wanting to be “the next Ruffo,” and this he could not do because he knew the voice itself was a gift. Otherwise, he clearly knew how to keep a voice, even a huge, natural one, in good condition over an extended period of time and under heavy use.

So that’s my take on Ruffo Titta, a.k.a. Titta Ruffo. You may or may not agree, but I still maintain that he is worth listening to for far more than sheer vocal prowess.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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[1] http://greatoperasingers.blogspot.com/2010/10/titta-ruffo-voice-of-lion.html

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Chamber Works of Rathaus

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RATHAUS: Eine kleine Serenade for Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn, Trumpet & Piano.# Pastorale & Danse for Violin & Piano. Song of the Autumn for Clarinet & Piano. 3 English Songs.* 5 Moods After American Poets.* Dedication & Allegro, “Hommage à Chopin.” Rapsodia notturna for Cello & Piano / Karol Rathaus Ensemble: Marcin Hałat, vln; Marcin Mączyński, cel; Piotr Lato, cl; Aleksandra Halat, pno w/ #Piotr Nowak, tpt, Pawel Cal, Fr-hn & Damian Lipień, bsn; *Roksana Wardenga, mezzo / Dux 1854

Of these chamber works by Karol Rathaus, one of the most interesting yet neglected of Polish-Jewish composers, only the vocal works are recorded here for the first time, but I have none of them in my collection so they were all new to me. One thing that jumped out at me was that the 1927 Eine kleine Serenade clearly had some (though not a lot) of jazz influence, particularly in the rhythm of its first movement, and it was an unalloyed pleasure to hear once again a composer who followed his own muse, did not try to copy anyone else, and yet be able to produce works that were structurally interesting and actually said something. The second movement also had some light allusions to jazz which did not pass my notice, and in fact Rathaus blended these jazz elements skillfully and subtly into his classically-based theme and development. This was a real advance on Gershwin, whose music was all about bustle and energy but not particularly brilliant in form at times. The 10-minute theme and variations which followed, however, were more French than American or Polish in style, resembling some of the contemporary chamber music of Milhaud or Honegger (perhaps even a bit of Ibert). The tempo picks up about three minutes in, and Rathaus suddenly turns to bitonality for much of this section. Then the tempo slows down again as the muted trumpet, playing with some jazz smears, creates its own quirky theme against which the others contribute their own bits. The last part of this movement, played in a very fast tempo but without any jazz allusions, wraps up the piece in fine fashion.

The Pastorale for violin and piano was quite surprising, being somewhat edgy despite its slow tempo at the beginning, and when it became more consonant in tonality the tempo picked up, almost resembling klezmer music transcribed from the clarinet to the fiddle (but with modern harmonies). A very strange and complex piece! I should also like to give very high praise to the musicians involved in this project. They not only play with a varied tone color, but also get under the skin of this music very well. They manage to make each and every little tempo or theme change, each little pause, seem meaningful and interesting. How I wish there were more musicians like them! The “Danse” portion opens with a steady 4, medium fast, but soon the tempo doubles as we move along, at times pulling back a bit only to rush forward again at a future point. Ti ends abruptly, with a cute little flourish on the piano. The instrumental Song of the Autumn is a nice little piece, but not much more than that.

The 3 English Songs are set to texts by Shakespeare, Browning and Swinburne, so Rathaus clearly had good taste. Happily, mezzo-soprano Roksana Wardenga has a very pleasant voice and an attractive timbre, but her English diction is simply abominable. Fortunately, the lyrics are included in the booklet. Interestingly, although the texts are of British poets, the musical style sounds very much like the modern American music of the period such as Copland. Rathaus chose a nice “galloping” sound and rhythm for Browning’s poem, “As I ride, as I ride.” In Swinburne’s “The Oblation,” he uses the pentatonic scale quite a bit.

Also excellent are the 5 Moods after American Poets. Here he uses texts by e.e. cummings, Dorothy Parker (if you can believe it!…”If I had a shiny gun, I could have a world of fun speeding bullets through the brains of the folk who give me pains”), Emily Dickinson (not as surprising), T.S. Eliot and Elizabeth Coatsworth. Listening to Wardenga sing the Parker song, I figured out part of her problem. She swallows her consonants. Here’s a tip for you, Roksana: putthe words on the lips, and let the breath run them out. Think about it. It works.

Although the next piece is subtitled “Hommage à Chopin,” thank goodness it doesn’t resemble Chopin’s music too closely, but is actually a very interesting, moody piece with different sections that contrast in theme, key and tempo. The final section is a mad, bitonal romp.

We end with the Rapsodia notturno for cello and piano, a quiet, reflective piece that does not whine or wallow in bathos like so much of the Millennial classical music I turn down for review. In the midst of the piece, Rathaus suddenly ramps up both the tempo and the emotional intensity to good effect.

This is a truly outstanding CD which I heartily recommend to all. Excellent, intriguing music written in a variety of styles, yet somehow making a complete whole as a program.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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The Americus Brass Band’s Tribute to Jim Europe

Jim Europe cover

HANDY: St. Louis Blues. BROOKS: Darktown Strutters’ Ball. BETHEL: That Moanin’ Trombone. EUROPE-SISSLE-BLAKE: Good Night Angeline. HENRY-ONIVES: Indianola. CARLETON: Ja-Da. LEWIS-YOUNG: How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm? HANDY: The Memphis Blues. EUROPE-SISSLE: On Patrol in No Man’s Land. COBB-RACHMANINOV: Russian Rag. VON DER MEHDEN: Congratulations [Castle’s Lame Duck Waltz]. HANDY-LAUGHNER: The Hesitating Blues / The Americus Brass Band; Richard Birkmeier, dir; Selwyn Gibson, Gerald Wheeler, voc /  Cambria CD-1263

James Reese Europe (1881-1919) was once the dominant African-American musician of his day, but except for a few historical societies that have kept his name alive over the last century, he has become a marginalized figure. Born in Mobile, Alabama, he took up the violin and became very proficient on it, but even after he and his family moved to Washington, D.C. when he was ten, and later yet when he moved to New York City when he was 23, there were no opportunities for a black man (or woman) to play classical violin in public. Europe quickly figured this out, and just as quickly became involved in the growing ragtime scene in New York. He also realized that most African-American musicians scuffled for jobs because they had no agents and, at the same time, were working individually against one another for the few jobs that came up. Europe solved this problem for them by founding the Clef Club, which was both a venue for playing music between gigs (so that people could hear how good they were, and possibly hire them) as well as a sort of “central casting” locale where club owners could call and quickly form a band to attract their customers. In a sense, then, Europe was the first black artists’ agent.

He also formed a ragtime band of his own using the best talent available at the Clef Club. They were so good that they caught the ear of the famous white dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle, who hired Europe to write tunes for them to dance to as well as forming bands to play them. His most famous composition thus became The Castle Walk, which was a sensation around 1911-12, as well as other pieces with the Castles’ names in the titles. In 1912, the Clef Club made history when its house band, augmented to twice its normal size, played a ragtime concert at Carnegie Hall to benefit the Colored Music Settlement School. (Some of the people Europe hired for the multi-piece banjo section couldn’t even actually play their instruments, but since he wanted to get them work and have them paid, they “played” banjos with rubber bands for strings!) Sadly, all of this came to an end when Vernon Castle volunteered for the British Army, became an ace pilot for the RAF, but tragically died in a plane crash during a simple training flight in 1918, leaving Irene a widow.

Good Night Angeline sheet music coverBut to return to Europe, he made recordings for Victor in 1913-14, the first all-black band to do so, of some very hot ragtime numbers. Yet his dreams were to create a new form of symphonic music related to black culture, which he would ease into through all-black musical revues on a par with those starring George M, Cohan. When America finally entered World War I, Europe applied for a commission in the New York Army National Guard where he fought with the 369th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed “The Harlem Hellfighters,” when they were assigned to help the French Army overseas. He also formed a band in that unit which provided much-needed entertainment for both French and American soldiers during respites in their battles. Ironically, by going into the armed forces at just about the same time that real jazz first came to New York, Europe completely missed this new development although, as I mentioned earlier, his band was hailed for playing “jazz.” He and the band both survived the war, returned home safely, marched (and played) in one of the victory parades down Fifth Avenue, and then gave concerts in New York and made a dozen records for the Pathé company. Ironically, although the records were made in New York, Pathé was a French label, thus they are not listed in the Discography of American Historical Recordings.

That Moanin' TromboneThe playing of the Hellfighters’ Band is much more polished than that of his Clef Club ragtime band on Victor, but the performances lacked some of their spirit and raw energy. Yet one must also take into account the fact that, by 1919, Pathé’s sound quality was markedly inferior to Victor, Columbia and Brunswick discs. They were about as bad as the dinky little Gennett company of Richmond, Indiana, a label famous for the large number of jazz legends they recorded but not for their dismal sound quality.

Thus this album of recreations, apparently made in 2019 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Europe’s original recordings, goes a long way towards restoring the band’s style. The Americus Brass Band, founded more than four decades ago by students of the Music Department at California State University in Long Beach, has made a specialty of playing American military and old concert band repertoire in addition to giving some concerts honoring Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force Band, although its primary focus is the music of the Civil War period.

Having been familiar with Europe’s Hellfighters Band recordings for nearly 40 years, I was amazed at how close to the originals these recreations were. I say that not because I questioned this band’s musicianship, but the contrary, that their knowledge of jazz and how a jazz rhythm differs from a ragtime rhythm would somehow color their performances, make them sound too loose, closer to a jazz feel than Europe’s original recordings sounded. But they’re not.. They’re perfect.

Now, when I use the word “ragtime,” the reader must understand that there was black ragtime and white ragtime. White ragtime was so close to marches that one could scarcely tell the difference. Black ragtime, even in its pre-jazz style, had a looser rhythmic feel—just compare Scott Joplin’s own piano rolls of his rags to any white pianist’s recreations to hear what I mean—and this crossed over to the band style. The black musicians really knew how to make those clarinet smears and trombone slurs nudge the music slightly forward, not quite on the beat 100%, whereas the white musicians were just attempting to emulate the blacks and not quite succeeding (unless they came from New Orleans or Chicago, and had formed their musical style listening to and sitting in with black musicians). The way this band, and Europe’s, played such familiar pieces as Ja-Da and Darktown Strutters’ Ball will tell you all you need to know about the difference. (Incidentally, I also recommend that you listen to how Bunk Johnson’s 1947 band of African-Americans played pieces from Joplin’s Red Back Book…they have the same feel to them.) Feeling the difference between these performances of these two selections, as well as St, Louis Blues which was a relatively new song at the time, will tell you everything you need to know about the real black ragtime style and how it was supposed to sound. Please remember that, when the Europe band played for the soldiers in France, those who were musicians came backstage afterwards and asked Europe if they could examine the instruments. They were certain that they were “rigged” in some way because they sounded so different from the way they played them. But the instruments were completely normal; it was the players’ style that was different. (Nowhere, I think, is this as noticeable as in their rendition of How Ya Gonna Keep “em Down on the Farm.)

Noble Sissle, who along with pianist-songwriter Eubie Blake brought Jim Europe’s dream of an all-black musical to life in 1921 with Shuffle Along, had been the band’s singer and performed on some of the recordings. Believe it or not, I was even more apprehensive about the vocals on these recordings, certain that either the voices or the singing style would sound wrong—again, due to a century of changing pop styles—but by golly, they’re just fine. Relaxed, musical, and very much in the style of 1919.

Thanks to the extraordinary digital sound quality, which suddenly expanded the original tone of Europe’s band from a faded black-and-white print to wide-screen digital Cinemascope, I have to admit that I actually enjoyed these recreations better than the originals. This band literally worked their tails off to come as close to Jim Europe’s style as was humanly possible in 2019, and they succeeded. It doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to close your eyes and picture yourself sitting there in a 1919 New York concert hall, listening to the Europe band in person. That’s how close they come to their models. (It even crossed my mind to junk Europe’s original Pathés completely and just keep this CD, but I decided in the end to keep both.)

James Europe’s death was sudden and shocking. After a concert with his orchestra in May 1919, he dressed down his twin percussionists, Steve and Herbert Wriight, for walking offstage while other musicians were playing solos. Herbert Wright became incensed, threw down his drumsticks and stabbed Europe in the neck with his penknife. The wound seemed superficial; Europe put his hand over the cut vein to stop the bleeding, told the band he was going to the hospital to have it stitched up, and would see them in the morning for rehearsal, but at the hospital they couldn’t stop the bleeding, and Europe died. He was only 38 years old.

From a musical standpoint, Europe’s career was quite good for its time but not extraordinary. What was extraordinary were his ingenuity, business acumen, leadership qualities and a vision to place African-Americans in the forefront of American culture. As Eubie Blake put it, Europe was “the musical Martin Luther King of this time.” Thus this music should not be praised too highly in terms of art; it was entertainment, but entertainment on as high a level of ingenuity and craftsmanship as the best the white population could provide, and that was his point. People are people, and no race is either inferior or superior to any other.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Rachmanov Plays Scriabin

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SCRIABIN: 3 Pieces, Op. 2. Études, Op. 8: Nos. 2, 4, 5, 7, 9-12. 2 Pieces for the Left Hand, Op. 9. Preludes, Op. 13: Nos. 1, 3, 4. 5. Preludes, Op. 16. Piano Sonata No. 2, 4, 9 & 10. Preludes, Op. 22. Fantasie in B min. 2 Poems, Op. 32. Waltz in Ab, Op. 38. 2 Mazurkas, Op. 40. Études, Op. 40: Nos. 2-5. 3 Pieces, Op. 45. 4 Pieces, Op. 51: No. 1. 2 Pieces, Op. 59. 3 Études, Op. 65. 2 Dances, Op. 73 / Dmitry Rachmanov, pno / Cambria 1272

Cambria Records, a small U.S. label from California, has here released a 2-CD set of Scriabin’s piano music played by Dmitry Rachmanov, DMA Professor and Chair of Keyboard Studies at California State University He is also the Northridge President of the American Liszt Society of Southern California.

The publicity blurb for this 2-CD set states that Rachmanov is presenting the complete solo piano works of Scriabin, but not only is this set not identified as Vol. 1, as you can see he doesn’t even present the sets of music here complete, omitting four of the 12 Op. 8 Études, only four of the six Op. 13 Preludes, and just the first of the 4 Op. 51 pieces. After emailing Prof. Rachmanov, he provided the answer:

…while this audio recording represents just those works recorded some time ago and in part only now being released to commemorate the composer’s sesquicentennial, more recently I have been working on the Scriabin videography of his piano works, and so far (it is an ongoing project) it has covered a much larger slice of the composer’s works, though it is not complete yet.

On balance, I find that his performances of early Scriabin strikes exactly the right balance between the more lyrical, Chopin-like side of the composer and the daring visionary yet to come. My readers know that I have been round and round the mulberry bush on Scriabin ever since Ruth Laredo’s very fine set of the complete piano sonatas (including some incidental pieces like Vers la flamme) way back in the 1970s, and have liked different things I’ve heard in almost all of them. Insofar as capturing the excitement of Scriabin’s music, I have been most fond of the set by Vincenzo Maltempo on Piano Classics and the complete piano music as recorded for Vox, also many years ago in the ‘70s, of his complete piano music, but the Ponti set has a very thin, tinny sound and I think he sometimes overdoes the heat. On balance—and I stress that term—I’ve eventually settled on Dmitri Alexeev’s complete set of Scriabin’s solo piano music on Brilliant Classics, but felt there was some room for improvement based on the few piano rolls that Scriabin himself left us.

Rachmanov provides the requisite muscle in the early works. The important thing to remember regarding Scriabin is that, although he was indeed heavily infatuated by Chopin in his early years, he was already leaning towards something entirely different which began to emerge at around the time of his second and third piano sonatas. Indeed, in later years he wrote to a friend that he could scarcely bear to hear his earlier music any more because it did not represent what he had become.

In addition to Scriabin’s own recordings, my other gold standard in his music is the small set of recordings made in the early 1950s by Vladimir Horowitz. Normally I avoid Horowitz like the plague; I’ve often referred to him as “the screamin’ demon of the keyboard,” a man who pounded out music so relentlessly and so insensitively that he drives me crazy, but there are a few recordings and performances I except from this judgment (his early recording of the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3, which he coached with the composer and his live performances—not the studio recordings—that he gave with his father-in-law, Toscanini, who curbed some of his more exhibitionist tendencies), and the Scriabin recordings are among them because he actually heard Scriabin play his own music when he was about 10 years old and the impression stayed with him.

All of the early music on this set is played with great intensity, yet still has a bound legato feeling, forward momentum and highly musical phrasing.. I found myself riveted by every note and phrase he plays in the music from this period.

It’s difficult to point out highlights because much of it is so good, but he makes the most I’ve ever heard of Scriabin’s earlier music, which is basically everything before the Op. 30 Sonata No. 4. Rachmanov almost makes it sound as if he had written this music himself; there is clearly enough lyricism for such pieces as the Op. 9, No. 1 Prelude, but even in the quieter pieces there is an undercurrent, you might say, of tension bordering on a sort of nervous energy that clearly presages the later works to come, and I for one do not believe that Scriabin changed his approach to music so much as he simply refined and modernized his style of writing.

For a microcosm of what I mean, listen to how he performs the second of the five Op. 16 preludes, invigorating the musical line with a slightly syncopated reading of the repeated chords which produces that somewhat “nervous” energy I alluded to. This is a first-rate interpretation, one that completely changes the Chopin-like elements of the music to make them sound more Scriabin-like. Then, in the fourth prelude in this set, he uses the very slow tempo to project a morbid, almost funeral march-like feeling to the music…again, lifting it out of the mundane and making it sound expressive to a very high degree.

And yet, when Rachmanov gets into the “real” Scriabin of the later works, I had some serious reservations. These performances just seemed to me a bit too fast, a bit too highly pressured. His phrasing becomes much choppier, even more so than Ponti, and the tempos are rushed just a bit too much. Thus I am a bit leery about accepting these performances as the most valid or definitive, but exciting they most certainly are, and you may completely disagree with me.

So what started out, for me, as a very enthusiastic response to Rachmanov’s performances of the early Scriabin became rather negative as he moved into the later works. To my ears, this is not only not the way Scriabin should be played but also not the way any late-Romantic Russian music should be played. But as I said, in the earlier pieces, he is simply phenomenal.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Who Was Henriëtte Bosmans?

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BOSMANS: Violin Sonata. Arietta for Violin & Piano. Piano Trio / Solarek Piano Trio: Marina Solarek, vln; Miriam Lowbury, cel; Andrew Bottrill, pno / Toccata Classics TOCC 0654

Toccata Classics, one of the more adventurous classical labels, specializes in issuing recordings of music by little-known or once-famous-but-now-neglected composers. Some of them are just late Romantic music of a type I definitely shy away from, while some others—primarily the modern composers—are not all that creative or interesting to me, but when they hit the jackpot they hit it big.

Henriëtte Bosmans (1896-1952) is clearly an obscure figure, a Dutch-Jewish composer born in Amsterdam in December 1895 and growing up in a musical family. Her mother was a concert pianist and a teacher at the Amsterdam Conservatory, while her father first cello in the famed Concertgebouw Orchestra, though he died when Henriëtte was only eight years old. Henriëtte also became a concert pianist, making her debut at age 19, but also began writing music at age 17—pieces for violin and piano dedicated to her mother.

This music, too, is clearly late Romantic, but there’s something in it—you might say an integrity, a resolute desire to avoid the easy melodies that characterized such pieces—that make it interesting. It is clearly well structured music, focusing on interesting themes and good development, that to my mind put it in line with the similar works of Ethel Smyth, the difference being that Smyth’s music was heavily influenced by German culture, particularly that of Brahms, whereas Bosmans’ music has a whiff of Russia about it. The first movement is surprisingly long—nearly 15 minutes—yet Bosmans managed to hold one’s interest by means of her surprising musical development as well as the peaks and valleys of dynamics changes and emotional content. At the very end of the movement, she also increased the tempo to provide a sort of energetic coda. The second movement is an almost devious-sounding scherzo in a quick 3 (possibly 6/8) rhythm, played in the minor, and here Bosmans cleverly changed the tonality subtly in places. By contrast, the slow movement is fairly uninteresting, in one ear and out the other, but it acts as a lead-in to the fourth movement, surprisingly written in a “Moderato” tempo rather than a very fast one. Here, Bosmans creates a two-voiced fugue between the violin and piano after a brief introduction by the latter instrument. After a non-fugal interlude, she slightly increases the tempo and returns to fugue-land, and a pretty nice fugue it is, too.

Sadly, I found the Piano Trio to be a fairly dull affair, formulaic, uninteresting technically, and conventionally “pretty” music. You may feel differently, but for me this music just went in one ear and out the other, leaving little impression.

The performances are good, but the recorded sound is not. It is peculiarly muffled and exceedingly dry, much different from most of Toccata Classics’ releases. It sounds as if it were recorded in a very small space with no natural reverberation around the instruments, and this may affect your appreciation of how well nuanced and occasionally intense these readings are. Worth hearing at least once, however.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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

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