Gritskova Sings Prokoviev

570034bk Hasse

AwardPROKOFIEV: The Ugly Duckling. 5 Poems: No. 2, The Little Grey Dress; No. 3, Trust Me; No. 5, The Sorcerer. 5 Poems of Anna Akhmatova. Remember Me!—A Malayan Spell. My Grey Dove is Full of Sorrow. Anyutka. The Chatterbox. Mark, Ye Bright Falcons [The Field of the Dead]. The Rosy Dawn is Coloring the East. Katerina / Margarita Gritskova, mezzo; Maria Prinz, pno / Naxos 8.574030

Although this recording was released in May, somehow I missed it in the New Release Catalog, possibly because I was very tense about the Coronavirus and desperate to get my hair cut. (Sometimes these little stressors in life interfere with your reviewing.) But I’m sorry I did, because this is a very interesting CD on three counts.

First, of course, is the fact that Prokofiev’s songs are rarely if ever heard in concerts, no matter how many recordings may exist of them. Secondly, our singer, Margarita Gritskova, not only has a steady, interesting voice but also crystal-clear diction, both features being rarities nowadays. And thirdly, perhaps most importantly of all, Gritskova is a really interesting interpreter, and this is a quality sadly lacking from even the most famous and highly touted of today’s singers. I ignored the blurb in the booklet about her being “one of the leading singers of her generation” (which means absolutely nothing…which generation do you think she’d be a leading singer of?), or which conductors she has sung with. What captured my eye was that “Nelly Lee sparked Gritskova’s love of chamber music, to which she has devoted special attention ever since.” This explains her attention to musical detail and interpretation.

One other rarity about this CD is that Naxos has included all of the lyrics of all of the songs within, in three languages no less (Russian/Cyrillic, English and German), which easily widens the appeal of this album and, I would think, makes owning the physical disc much more appealing than if they had not.

Another interesting feature about this recital is that all of the songs are presented in chronological order, from 1914’s The Ugly Duckling to Katerina of 1944, with most of them dating from 1916 to 1934. The only song given out of order is Mark Ye, Bright Falcons of 1939, given before 1936’s The Rosy Dawn is Coloring the East. This gives us a chance to hear Prokofiev’s growth as a composer from an era when he was influenced by Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov to his more mature and original style, but even in Trust Me of 1915 one can hear him formulating his own voice, particularly in the oft-complex piano part with its chromatic, shifting harmonic base.

In this respect, then, Prokofiev’s song output is considerably more musically interesting than that of Rachmaninov, despite the fact that the latter wrote many more songs (108 to Prokofiev’s 62). As one follows the lyrics of Nikolai Agnivtsev’s bizarre little poem The Sorcerer, for instance, one notes how brilliantly Prokofiev matched the mood of the words to the mood of the music, clearly the equal of Mussorgsky’s Field Marshal Death in a more modern style. Considering that this disc only runs 66 minutes, I’m a little sad that Gritskova didn’t record all five songs in this cycle.

Listening carefully to the way Gritskova sings these songs, I would go so far as to say that she is an even greater lieder singer than her great predecessor, Irina Arkhipova—and Arkhipova was very good. Fritskova is simply more detailed, more intimate; in many of these songs, such as Remember Me!—A Malayan Spell, you almost get the feeling that she is singing for you alone. It’s almost like comparing the lieder singing of Fischer-Dieskau or Gérard Souzay to German and French recitalists of the 1920s and ‘30s. With the exception of an interloper like Ukrainian basso Alexander Kipnis, most of whose career was in Germany before the Nazis took over, you seldom heard this kind of intimacy combined with intensity from even such excellent singers as Gerhard Hüsch, Heinrich Schlusnus or even Elena Gerhardt, possibly the most interpretively interesting German lieder singer of her time.

Possibly due to her personal love for and commitment to chamber music and lieder, Gritskova has trained herself to have perfect control over every facet of what she does with the voice (as did Kipnis and Souzay). Each note has its own color and timbre, yet you never feel that she is over-accenting the words, and the same goes for her vocal placement. She can easily descend into the mezzo depths, and those notes have a full, rich sound, but once again you don’t feel that she is trying to show off by laying into any portion of her voice. In songs like My Grey Dove is Full of Sorrow or Anyutka, she also accents the words rhythmically in a way that makes the notes “bounce off” the piano line like someone dribbling a basketball in slow motion. And everything she does, every little detail, contributes to the interpretation of the words. It’s almost miraculous listening to such a young singer with this much intelligence.

From start to finish, this is a great album, clearly one of the best of the year to date.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Juraj Stanik Turns Inside Out

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INSIDE OUT / STANIK: Moving Forward. Onmo. Soul Eyes. Second Line. Early Bee. I Sing This Song for You. Who Cares. Inside Out / Juraj Stanik, pno; Frans van der Hoeven, bs; Roberto Pistolesi, dm / Challenge Records CR 73488

Pianist Juraj Stanik, a former classical cellist, dedicates this CD to Dutch pianist Rob Madna (1931-2003). Quoth Stanik:

He was not just a piano player and arranger. In fact, he was quite an influential musical character. Thad Jones asked him to write for and play in his famous Thad Jones, Mel Lewis orchestra. This indicates the level of his mastery. Bass player Frans van der Hoeven played in Rob Madna’s band for years. When I got back to the Netherlands, Frans and I decided to record at least one of Rob’s original compositions. Jazz musicians learn from listening to others. I have definitely learned a lot from listening to Rob’s music.

Having just finished reviewing Enrique Haneine’s stunningly creative new album, Unlayered, before hearing this one, my immediate thought was that these pieces were all quite good but much more conventional in structure. They hark back to the late bop era of the 1950s; there’s a bit of Bud Powell in them, a bit of Lennie Tristano, and a touch of bitonality. In short, they’re not bad at all but they are somewhat retro.

It’s difficult to imagine Stanik as a classical cellist; he plays jazz piano as well and as fluently as anyone I’ve ever heard, and as we all know, the cello and the piano take very different skills. The trio is also a very tight one; despite some cymbal washes on the offbeats, the bass and drums are very tightly connected to both Stanik’s own playing and each other. Van der Hoeven plays very light bass, almost understated, in true cool jazz fashion. None of the pieces here have really melodic or memorable themes/lines, yet all are well written. Stanik often uses asymmetric phrases, dropping a beat here and there as well as using turnarounds and contrasting themes that are gentle and melodic, providing a contrast with the stronger rhythmic material surrounding them.

Soul Eyes is a ballad, which contrasts with the two uptempo numbers preceding it. This almost has a Bill Evans feel to it except that Evans generally encouraged a looser interrelationship between the instruments in his trio. As in the first two pieces, Stanik dominates the solo space, but van der Hoeven does get a solo of his own here, interesting, gentle and understated.

I liked Second Line very much, a medium-tempo piece with a bit of New Orleans funk to the beat—but only in the theme statement. In the middle eight of each chorus, the rhythm irons itself out into a more conventional 4. Yet in his solo, Stanik plays some very complex figures and rhythms, really stretching himself out nicely, and Early Bee is a nice, if ambiguous-sounding, jazz waltz. I Sing This Song for You is another ballad, but Who Cares is a nice, uptempo jump tune handled with great deftness by the trio; Stanik is particularly good here.

The CD ends with Inside Out, a medium-tempo walking tune of ambiguous melody that contains some really creative playing by Stanik and van der Hoeven—possibly the latter’s best solo in the entire set.

In toto, this is a good CD of solid jazz pieces with some excellent solos, but not as excellent as I hoped it would be.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Enrique Haneine is Unlayered

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UNLAYERED / HANEINE: Behind the Missing Whisper. Luculent Jiggle. Thriving Ring. Queen of the Underground. Dance of Endless Encounter. Seldom Disguise. The Sweetest Finding. Illustrious Bickering. Oust No More. What of What We Are. Once / Thomas Heberer, tpt; Catherine Sikora, t-sax/sop-sax; Christof Knoche, bs-cl; Jay Anderson, bs; Enrique Haneine, dm/cymb/Udu dm/tamb / Elegant Walk Records 003

Jazz drummer-composer Enrique Haneine, whose first two releases I have praised on this blog, returns here with a new one, Unlayered. Although I am very much in awe of his musical talents, I hope he will forgive me for saying that I didn’t understand much of what he wrote in the publicity sheet for this release. The only part that registered with me was his description of “The jazz, Latin and Middle Eastern influence persists in the compositions, immersing into innovative complex rhythms and harmonies in a lyrical context.” After that, he lost me:

Dismantle to achieve a state of clear harmony. What of what we are, feel, do, say, want, does really belong to us, defines and captures who we are, contributes to our well being and direction of our evolution…Unlayered is about unveiling the manufactured essence of the sympathetic existence. Cutting through the shadows of the dusty transparent illusion. Grounding deeper, flying higher, dancing to the raw laughs around the source, drawn into the possibility of the possibility.

My apologies, but I just don’t get that.

Fortunately, I do get the music, and as in his prior releases it is wonderful. Haneine is a genuine composer who happens to work in the jazz idiom, as was Charles Mingus, not a “jazz composer” in the traditional sense of the term. His music is layered, structured and extremely well-balanced between the written and improvised passages; indeed, most of the opening track, Behind the Missing Whisper, is written out, a slow, repeated dirge in which Catherine Sikora’s sensual tenor sax appears to be the lone improvised voice. She begins as part of the ensemble, playing minimally along with the drones of the trumpet and bass clarinet, but as the piece evolves she becomes more creative little by little. In true Mingus style, the rest of the band suddenly melts away at the midpoint, leaving only trumpeter Thomas Heberer playing a solo in the middle range of his instrument against a sparse background of bass with occasional drum and cymbal accents by Haneine. A bit later, Sikora joins him to add her own comments, then Christof Knoche on bass clarinet; what started out as a sort of repeated canon now becomes a three-voiced jazz conversation, with each instrumentalist listening carefully to what the other is playing to create a unified whole. After a pause, we return to the opening phrases as a closing.

Luculent Jiggle is an uptempo Latin-based piece using a repeated four note, upwards-moving and repeated motif that sounds a little like Irving Berlin’s Puttin’ on the Ritz. This, however, turns out to be just that, a rhythmic lick and not the theme; that is played by Heberer before the four-note licks return. Despite the strong accents on each of the four notes in the recurring lick, we can only grasp the beat a bit; there seems to always be an extra beat or two per measure to throw the listener off. Keeping the harmony in but one place, our intrepid soloists then improvise over the churning rhythm, and it is in their solos that a bit of harmonic variance is heard. Jay Anderson also gets a nice bass solo in this one, surprisingly melodic in structure rather than strongly rhythmic like everyone else’s, though it does become much busier in his last chorus—which again leads back to the four-note motif, which then just suddenly ends.

Thriving Ring is a slowish piece that moves forward in stutter-steps, even more asymmetric in rhythm than the previous pieces. Bass clarinetist Knoche channels his inner Eric Dolphy in this one, and trumpeter Heberer does a pretty good Ted Curson in the first half of his first chorus. After Hebeber slows down, however, Sikora enters and picks up where he left off; the bass and drums suddenly shift to a stomp beat behind her, pausing between their rhythmic accents to create a somewhat lurching effect. Haneine the takes a drum solo, proving that he even thinks like a composer when he is playing his instrument. There is nothing flashy here, but the layered rhythms he produces add to the quality of the music.

Queen of the Underground opens with a neat, uptempo series of beats played on the rim of the snare drum, then cymbals, before the bass and bass clarinet enter. The latter certainly does seem to be playing the tune’s melody, a curious, twisting sort of three-bar phrase repeated sometimes verbatim and sometimes with variants. Muted trumpet and tenor sax play soft held chords behind him as he progresses, improvising ever-so-slightly. Unlike Haneine’s previous two releases, in which the music was exceptionally complex, this one seems to stress simple musical gestures and motifs which somehow fit together to produce a complex piece of musical art. Knoche’s solo on this one is a gem. Haneine’s solo is a bit strange; he almost sounds as if he’s playing spoons (probably the Ubu drum).

Dance of Endless Encounter switches to a Middle Eastern rhythm. Once again, the building blocks of this piece, the small musical cells that Haneine uses, somehow coalesce to produce a unified piece…or, at least, a piece in which the various pieces overlap to create continuity. Heberer’s solo on this one is especially interesting and well constructed.

The remaining pieces on this album follow a similar pattern; perhaps describing each in detail would be a bit of overkill. Each follows a similar pattern, yet each is different. Haneine has a lot of ideas up his sleeve, and on this album he lets them drop one at a time; I was particularly struck by the form and shape of Illustrious Bickering with its twisting, turning melodic line set over a sort of Middle Eastern rhythm.. Overall, the album creates a hypnotic effect on the listener; once drawn into his simple-yet-complex webs of sound, the listener is able to follow every strand because nothing stands in the way of their essential clarity, though the rhythm remains complex throughout.

This disc is a worthy successor to Instants of Time and The Mind’s Mural, both of which I reviewed last September. Enrique Haneine is clearly a talent worth watching, and listening to.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Frank Martin’s Song Cycles

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MARTIN: Sechs Monologe aus “Jedermann”1 Drey Minnelieder.2 Trois Chants de Noël.2 Poèmes de la Mort 1,3 / 1Volker Arendts, bar; 2Susanne Thomas-Martin, sop; 3Christian Mücke, ten; Wolfram Schild, bs; Hugo Germán Gaido, Andreas Berg, el-gtr; Gerhard Koch, e-bs; Wolfgang Weigel, cond / Cantate CAN58013

This is a reissue of a CD recorded in 1998 and originally issued in 2000 containing four song cycles by that most original and interesting of 20th-century Swiss composers, Frank Martin. One of the more curious things about this release is that the second cycle, Drey Minnelieder, was written for soprano with guitar and flute, yet it is presented here with only piano accompaniment. The upside is that the liner notes for these pieces were written by Martin himself or by his wife Maria, which gives us a much closer look into their genesis.

Martin’s music fascinates me because it was a successful combination of tonality and atonality. As far back as the early 1930s, he developed his own thematic and harmonic style that kept lyrical top lines afloat over a sea of atonal accompaniments, and no two of his compositions really sound alike. Moreover, he was able to keep up this high level of creativity almost until the time of his death in 1974. Yet he is still rarely played outside of Europe; most Americans can only discover his superb music through recordings.

The Six Monologues for “Everyman” were written in 1943 at the behest of baritone Max Christian, using Hugo von Hoffmansthat’s Everyman as its basis. At first, Martin tells us, he didn’t think they could be adapted to song—he considered himself very sensitive to words and how they were to be put to music—but eventually found six that he could use. This is the most problematic performance on this album, since baritone Volker Arendts had a very wobbly voice and was not really an interesting interpreter, but happily I discovered a live recording of this cycle given in 1960 by the great baritone Gérard Souzay with pianist Dalton Baldwin. It is available for free streaming on YouTube in six individual segments under the names of the songs: “Ist alls zu End das Freudenmahl,” “Act Gott, wie graust mir vor dem Tod,” “Ist als wenn eins gerufen hatt,” So wollt ich ganz zernichtet sein,” “Ja! Ich glaub; solches hat er vollbracht” and “O ewiger Gott! O gottliches Gesicht!,” and they are absolutely magnificent performances in every respect except that of the sound quality of the piano.

The music is surprisingly “gray” and somewhat colorless for Martin, and in fact both the melodic lines and the piano accompaniment sound very Germanic, almost like the music of Schreker. All the songs are on the slow side and mostly in minor keys, or at least tonality tending towards the minor.

Drey Minnelieder is a short cycle written in 1960 on mediaeval texts of the Nativity and Pontius Pilate, taken from the Mystère de la Passion of Arnoul Gréban (15th century) and Ode à la Musique of Guillaume de Machaut (14th century). As noted in the first paragraph, there is also a setting of this cycle for flute, guitar and soprano, but here they are presented only in the piano-accompanied version. Soprano Thomas-Martin, who at the time of recording was working as a singer in the Cologne Opera Chorus, had a solid (no wobble) but edgy, slightly nasal voice, but she was also a very intense interpreter who performs these songs with great intensity. Here the music also sounds Germanic, but rather more lyrical, at least in the top line, almost like a cross between Strauss and Hindemith. Thomas-Martin also sings the 3 Christmas Songs of Albert Rudhardt, a poet from Geneva who had previously provided the libretto for his satiric opera La Nique à Satan. These were written as a Christmas present for his then 15-year-old daughter Françoise as well as for his wife Maria who was a flautist. Interestingly, a flute is used in this recording but the player is unidentified. This music sounds very French in a somewhat modern style (think of Poulenc) but is by no means atonal.

Martin’s Poèmes de la Mort, written between 1969 and 1971, may be the first real classical piece ever written for electric guitars and bass. Martin admits being fascinated by their timbral possibilities when he heard them in pop music, but here they are used in a strictly classical fashion. However, when I say “strictly classical fashion,” I certainly don’t mean that they are used like acoustic guitars would be or in a soft-relaxed classical style. They retain their edginess and, in fact, are set to music that uses modal scales and odd harmonies, a shifting rhythmic base and strophic top lines for the singers. Here, again, Martin presents us with an entirely different style, this one almost sounding like something by Harry Partch with its sliding, uncertain harmonic underpinning. In its own peculiar way, this is a real masterpiece, and for whatever reason Arendts’ voice has no wobble here.

I should also mention that there is a recording of Drey Minnelieder in its original setting for guitar and flute by soprano Barbara Vigfussen. Her voice is much prettier and less edgy than that of Thomas-Martin, but oddly, she often sounds as if her voice is sagging a bit in pitch. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting alternative.

For the most part, then, this CD is well recommended. The booklet contains full texts and translations of all the songs as well.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Khristenko Plays Krenek’s Odd Music

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KRENEK: Toccata & Chaconne, Op. 13. Eine Kleine Suite von Stücken. 2 Suites, Op. 26. Piano Sonata No. 5. Sechs Vermessene / Stanislav Khristenko, pno / Toccata Classics TOCC 0399

Ukrainian pianist Stanislav Khristenko presents here Vol. 2 of his survey of the piano music of Ernst Krenek (1900-1991). Those familiar with Krenek’s compositional style will, of course, need no introduction to him, but for those who are unfamiliar with his music, it was very modern-German in style and scope. Like Hindemith, Krenek—a pupil of Franz Schreker—used a lot of bitonality and occasional atonality, but never crossed over into full-out atonal or serial music. Thus in the opening Toccata & Chaconne, the listener feels enveloped by a pianist playing in two keys at the same time without ever going all the way over to atonality or resolving the clash either. What I liked about it, particularly the toccata, was its vital rhythmic thrust; at least in Khristenko’s hands, the music almost bounces off the walls in a sort of moto perpetuo.

As a sort of music joke, Krenek then composed the Little Suite, using variations on the theme of the above and splitting it into six small movements in an imitation of dance forms (the last of them is a foxtrot, and a very clever one at that). This is followed by the Two Suites of 1924, much more serious works. One of the problems I have with Krenek is that, though his music is well written, it tends towards the turgid without offering very much to appeal to the listener, as in the case of Max Reger. I did, however, like the opposing two-handed runs in the fast part of the opening movement of the first suite, and the concluding Allegretto is another sort of fox trot.

Interestingly, the Piano Sonata No. 5, though very much in Krenek’s bitonal style, is actually rhythmically lively and uses at least halfway attractive themes, which Khristenko plays with wonderful lift and drive. Though the development is somewhat thorny, here Krenek’s use of lighter, almost dance-like rhythm holds one’s interest better than in some of his other works. But yes, the music does get rather thick at times, for instance near the end of the otherwise accessible first movement. The second movement isn’t too far out, either, but then there’s the third movement with its jagged, asymmetrical rhythms, beat displacements and persistently bitonal progressions. I had a strange reaction to this piece in that I liked each movement individually but felt that, somehow, it didn’t add up to a cohesive piano sonata. So shoot me.

Ah, but then we reach the Sechs Vermessene of 1958, and this is a real odd gem, a suite of six kaleidoscopic miniatures that sound for all the world like Webern. The back cover inlay to this album claims that they sound “as if advanced musical modernism were meeting the freest of free jazz,” but without a scintilla of a jazz beat I have to disagree. What they do sound like are pieces that Krenek improvised into being, perhaps while recording them on tape, and then transcribed them for publication. That is certainly possible, but one most remember that not all improvised music is jazz-related.

Nonetheless, even with the weak moments in the music mentioned above, this is clearly a fascinating album, perhaps more representative of Krenek’s musical thinking in a nutshell than any other single disc I’ve heard. He may well have been more a craftsman than a genius, but taking this album in toto one is impressed by his range. Even when he’s not great, he at least never really fails.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Søndergaard Plays Brubeck, Desmond & a Little Tizol

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BRUBECK: In Your Own Sweet Way. Brandenburg Gate. Kathy’s Waltz. The Duke. Why Not. The Basie Band is Back in Town. It’s a Raggy Waltz. Dzekuje (Thank You). Broadway Bossa Nova. DESMOND: Embarcadero. Bossa Antiqua. Here Comes McBride. TIZOL: Perdido / Jens Søndergaard, a-sax/s-sax; Ole Kock Hansen, pno; Lasse Lundström, bs; Aage Tangaard, dm / Storyville SVL1014332

Dave Brubeck seems to be a jazz composer not much in favor with today’s musicians, perhaps because his unusual combination of classical formality and the blues doesn’t have a parallel niche nowadays, but here is Danish saxist Jens Sondergaard and his quartet tackling several of his pieces along with three by Paul Desmond and Juan Tizol’s Perdido, a Desmond favorite.

Søndergaard doesn’t sound like Desmond and in fact doesn’t even try. He pours his own warm alto sound into the Desmond method of phrasing, sometimes switching to soprano sax for a number or two. For those who forget, or haven’t heard him, Desmond used a very hard reed, drawing an almost clarinet-like sound from his alto.  For that matter, pianist Ole Kock Hansen doesn’t try to emulate Brubeck’s chunky, deep-in-the-keys approach, playing in a smoother, more conventional style. And yet it’s an interesting set that gives a new feel to these old chestnuts.

To my ears, however, the star musician in this quartet is bassist Lasse Lundström, whose playing is more interesting and harmonically daring than either Norman Bates or Eugene Wright of the old Brubeck quartets. He does, however, emulate the light, bouncing swing of Wright, who was a big improvement over his predecessors in the famed Brubeck Quartet.

The Sondergaard group does an especially fine job on Perdido, rewriting it somewhat and giving Lundström plenty of room, which is all to the good. His solo following the opening statement of the tune is simply astounding in its virtuosity and ingenuity, and in fact it seems to spark Søndergaard to one of his best solos as well. Two pieces from the famous tour album are included, Brandenburg Gate and Dzekuje (Thank You), and these are given nicely swinging performances. In the former, Hansen and Søndergaard give us a bit of Brubeckian classical counterpoint in a nice duo-chorus before the end. Kathy’s Waltz begins in 4, with the bass and drums providing a really nice, swinging support for the piano and, later, saxophone in 3.

Needless to say, Hansen’s piano dominates Brubeck’s tribute to The Duke, and he does a fine job with it. Hansen also sets up and maintains an excellent beat on Bossa Antiqua, which features yet another tasteful solo by Lundström, who then introduces the next number, Here Comes McBride, all by himself.

I also liked the programming of the tunes on this album, with the somewhat laid-back Here Comes McBride followed by the very perky Why Not, then The Basie Band is Back in Town on which the quartet sets up a really nice, swinging groove, including a rare (but brief) drum solo by Aage Tangaard, who keeps excellent time throughout. I was also quite happy to hear It’s a Raggy Waltz, one of my all-time favorite Brubeck pieces, done to a turn. After doing a nice job on the lyrical Dzejuke, the quartet wraps the program up with Broadway Bossa Nova.

This is a really nice recording: nothing fancy, mind you, just good, solid musicianship mixed with a healthy dose of imagination.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Brian Giebler Traces an Old-Fashioned Lad’s Loves

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A LAD’S LOVE / GURNEY: Ludlow and Teme.* In Flanders.* BRITTEN: Canticle II: Abraham & Isaac.+ Fish in the Unruffled Lakes. WARLOCK: In an Arbour Green. QUILTER: Love’s Philosophy. IRELAND: Ladslove. We’ll in the Woods No More. VENABLES: Songs of Eternity and Sorrow: Because I Liked You Better* / Brian Giebler, ten; *Katie Hyun, Ben Russell, vln; *Jessica Meyer, vla; *Michael Katz, cel; +Reginald Mobley, counter-ten; Steven McGhee, pno / Bridge 9542

Young American tenor Brian Giebler, a graduate of the University of Maryland, Eastman School of Music and the Royal Academy of Music, has a light but attractive voice and, better yet, crystal-clear diction. In this recital he gives us mostly older British songs on the loves of various lads down through the ages, mostly focused on songs of the 1920s.

Ivor Gurney’s song cycle for tenor, piano and string quartet, Ludlow and Teme, owes its configuration to Vaughan Williams’ famous early cycle, On Wenlock Edge. I smiled to myself recognizing several turns of phrase within these songs (as well as several modulations) stolen outright from Vaughan Williams. (Even the third song in this cycle is titled “’Tis Time, I Think, By Wenlock Town”!) Well, at least the music is pretty good in itself, and since my download copy of this CD didn’t include a booklet it was fortunate that Giebler’s diction was so good that I didn’t need it. The pick-up string quartet plays very well behind him. In Flanders, though a separate song written five years earlier, is in much the same style.

Next up is Benjamin Britten’s famous Canticle II: Abraham & Isaac, apparently representing a lad’s love for his father who is about to sacrifice his ass to his god. I was very upset by the use of a countertenor in this piece; Britten clearly wrote Isaac for mezzo-soprano, though he was close friends with countertenor Alfred Deller and in fact wrote the role of Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for him. Why ruin a piece of music by going against the composer’s wishes? I thought all you classical folk were into Historically-Informed Performances? Happily, Mobley’s voice isn’t too “hooty,” and he has good diction, but I didn’t much like the change and cut the performance short at the five-minute mark.

The next five songs are all by excellent British composers of the period, Warlock, Quilter, Britten and Ireland, and these, too, Giebler sang extremely well. Britten’s early (1937-41) Fish in the Unruffled Lakes, an excellent song cycle, was new to me, and I must also give praise to pianist Steven McGhee for his excellent, lively accompaniments. We end with a song in the old style by the more modern composer Ian Venables (b. 1955), Because I Liked You Better.

A good recital overall except for the desecration of Britten’s Canticle.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Hemmerlé Plays Roger-Ducassse

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ROGER-DUCASSE: Barcarolle Nos. 1-3. Études Nos. 1-3. Arabesques Nos. 1-2. Rythmes. Sonorités / Patrick Hemmerlé, pno / Melism MLSCD013

Up to about a dozen years ago, I would have said that Charles Koechlin was an even more forgotten composer than Jean Roger-Ducasse, but David Zinman’s landmark recording of the former’s complete music for The Jungle Book and several recordings of his piano cycle The Persian Hours re-established him, and of course there have been many recordings of his work since. Yet although most of Roger-Ducasse’s music is available on CD he is still, as Patrick Hemmerlé points out in the liner notes, a stranger in the concert hall. Examining my catalog of recordings, I previously had only two works by him: Clarionerie played by the great pianist Nadia Reisenberg, and his Sarabande in a broadcast performance from the 1940s conducted by Arturo Toscanini (a champion of French music of that period).

Hemmerlé gives us some idea of why he is ignored and why he became forgotten, and both are tied to his somewhat surly, misanthropic personality. “He did not court potential performers of his music,” he writes. “Although he was played regularly whilst he was alive and very much a part of the musical scene, he had not the prepossessing personality which would have helped the diffusion of his music. If anything he rather hindered it. Furthermore, this side of his personality is reflected in the music and renders it difficult. A work by him is never given to the listener. Even when the message is in appearance quite a simple one, one still has to make an effort to go towards it, to assimilate the layers of complexities behind which the heart of the composer hides. I believe this is actually what he wanted.”

The opening piece on this recital, Barcarolle No. 1, opens with a surprisingly loud chord before descending into Impressionism. My reaction was that his music was more rhythmic than that of Debussy or even Koechlin; this piece, at least, also has an attractive melodic line, something that those other two composers did not always create. But it’s also true that there are “hidden” complexities to his music, particularly in the sense that his writing fir the left hand is, to my ears, much more complex than that of Debussy, Ravel or Koechlin. This doesn’t mean that those other composers wrote simple music for the right hand, only that it more often than not matched the rhythm of what was happening in the right. Roger-Ducasse often has two contrasting rhythms going on at the same time, certainly more often than the others. In fact, at least in the first Barcarolle, one could actually just play the left hand music and hear a complete, separate composition, something that is clearly not true of Debussy or Koechlin. But, again as Hemmerlé says, he does this subtly. He doesn’t come to you; you have to come to him.

In the Étude No. 1, in fact, the right hand plays mostly fluttering figures, dancing little arabesques, while the left hand provides the complete melodic line. This is an even more extreme case than the Barcarolle No. 1. And once again, his sense of rhythm is stronger and much more clearly defined than in the cases of those other composers mentioned. Perhaps, though French, he was influenced just as much or more with the Russian Scriabin as he was by his own peers. Incidentally, Roger-Ducasse was the star pupil and close friend of Gabriel Fauré, but even Fauré’s music lacked the clear rhythmic profile of his pupil.

The Étude No. 2 opens with a falling and rising chromatic figure (again, played by the left hand) that is closer in feeling to Debussy or Ravel, but he takes it on a chromatic journey all its own. The left hand plays the slow-moving melody as well as several of the chords while the right continues to trace those falling and rising chromatics. At about the 2:30 mark, however, he reverses this, giving the chromatic movement to the left hand while the right plays more melodic figures. Very strange! Eventually, the chromatic figures venture into modal scales to which Roger-Ducasse applies extended chords in the harmony. Eventually, the two hands create a really complex web of chromatic movement up and down against each other.

Indeed, this kind of cat-and-mouse game with the listener seems to be at the heart of every piece, as if Roger-Ducasse purposely set out to tease the listener with the way his voices “move” within each piece. At least in the works presented in this recital, no piece is anywhere near as complex as Debussy’s late Préludes or Koechlin’s The Persian Hours, and Roger-Ducasse never engages in the kind of impressionistic subtlety in which both melody and harmony are deconstructed the way Koechlin did, but it still requires some concentration to get the most out of his music. Unless your ears are following what both hands are doing, you’re missing at least half of the music at all times. These are miniatures, but miniatures put together with the skill of a master clockmaker who knows how to make his clockwork run sideways or backwards when he feels like it.

And, to be honest, the titles he gave his pieces don’t seem to be meaningful in any way. His barcarolles don’t really have a barcarolle rhythm, on the contrary, you could just as well call any of the barcarolles here an etude, or an arabesque, or a fantasie for all the difference it makes. All are in 4/4/ time (except for the Arabesque No. 2 in triple meter, though Sonotrités also begins in 3), most in medium tempo, and all play the same game with their clockwork. This doesn’t mean that each piece sounds alike, however: Roger-Ducasse clearly knew how to vary his approach to keep his pieces from sounding alike, but they certainly all do sound similar. Of course, the pieces that Hemmerlé chose here were all written within a fairly narrow period of time, from 1914 to 1921 with the sole exception of the first Barcarolle from 1906, but I have a feeling that this cross-section pretty much describes his working methods in general.

Hemmerlé plays all of this music with not only great digital facility but also with a wonderful forward momentum and a legato flow that keeps the clockwork whirling perfectly in synch. A very interesting CD.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Krommer’s Surprising Symphonies

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KROMMER: Symphonies Nos. 6 & 9 / Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana; Howard Griffiths, cond / CPO 555 337-2

If I were to ask you to name three major composers of symphonies and string quartets between the last decade of the 18th century and the third of the 19th, the first two would be easy answers: Beethoven and Schubert. But I’m willing to bet you, unless you’ve heard the previous two releases in this series, that you’d puzzle a long time without every coming up with the name of Franz Krommer.

In his once widely read characterizations of famous composers, Heinrich Riehl wrote:

Hardly any musician has given me so much trouble as this Krommer: sometimes his works attracted me, sometimes they repelled me, and yet even when I disliked them they kindled my lively interest. […] But it was not only Krommer’s compositions per se that posed riddles: I found it an even greater riddle that this once so popular master of chamber music could be so utterly forgotten soon after his death. By that I mean forgotten not only in the sense that musicians dropped his quartets from their programmes […], but in a larger sense: that he was hushed up by history, that even his name no longer appeared in histories of music.

KrommerSo who was this man? He was born in Kamenice u Jilhavy, a small market town in the Czech Republic, as František Vincenc Kramář on November 27, 1759. Between 1773 and 1776 he studied the organ with his uncle Antonin, later playing the organ alongside his uncle the next year. In 1785, now also proficient on the violin, he moved to Vienna to plauy that instrument in the orchestra of the Duke of Styria, In 1790, he was named Maestro di Capella at the Cathedral in Pécs, Hungary. Five years later, he returned to Vienna, later performing the same role for Duke Ignaz Fuchs in 1798. From 1813 until his death in January 8, 1831, he succeeded Leopold Kozeluch as composer for the Austrian Imperial Court. Like Schubert, he composed nine symphonies of which one is lost, but in his case it’s the Eight Symphony rather than the Seventh (although Schubert’s Seventh Symphony has indeed been found in piano score and orchestrated by Felix Weingartner), but in the field of chamber music he was astonishingly prolific, writing no less than 79 string quartets and 35 string quintets.

This presentation of his Sixth and Ninth Symphonies reveals an absolutely astonishing composer. His music is exciting and vital; even in the slow movements he, like Beethoven, maintained a dramatic profile, and in addition his musical thought process is exceedingly original. Also like Beethoven, Krommer’s music is strongly rhythmic, but in his case the rhythms are based on Czech folk music and not German or Austrian. And although his music is indeed tonal and melodic, the melodies are not strongly memorable ones as in the case of Beethoven or Schubert. This is one possible reason why they were forgotten, although Riehl has a point that he should never have been erased from the annals of musical history.

Like Beethoven, he made surprising changes of harmony, but in his case they are more frequent. Also, both his thematic material and its development move along corss-current lines; it does not flow forward in what seems like an inevitable progression. Add all these factors together and you have a composer whose music would still have sounded modern had it been written in the time of Smetana or Dvořák, though its lack of memorable melodies would probably still have made it less popular.

Perhaps, then, it is better that he be revived today when our more modern ears can appreciate his individuality without criticizing him for not following the set models of his time. Apparently, his first symphony of 1797 came out of the tradition of Haydn and Mozart, as did Beethoven’s First, but like Beethoven he developed his own working method by the time of his Third Symphony. Krommer’s music is full of jagged edges, frequent brass and string explosions, and other devices generally unknown in music history with the exception of Hector Berlioz, who undoubtedly knew nothing of him. Interestingly, considering how many years he lived and worked in Vienna, his symphonies not only weren’t much influenced by Beethoven but Beethoven and Schubert seem to have either ignored or not known of his innovations. Just as there is only a bit of Beethoven in Krommer, there is little if any Krommer in Beethoven and practically none at all in Schubert’s works.

Indeed, once Krommer sets his rhythmic whirlwind in motion, it scarcely ever pauses for a breather through to the end. This undoubtedly irked those listeners who wanted to hear their warm, mooshy-gooshy slow movements, which Krommer failed to provide. His Ninth Symphony, ostensibly in C major, starts out resolutely in A minor before changing over. The first movement has a slow Adagio introduction, but by the end of the first minute Krommer is already throwing in loud string-brass-tympani bombs to warn the listener that one his musical storms is coming. Yet for all this, the Allegro section of this movement is for the most part very jolly despite the frequent outbursts, and once again his musical progression is very original, again dipping into the minor here and there.

In short, Krommer didn’t really fit into the Teutonic school of composition so prevalent, and popular, in Austria and Germany of his time. This, too, probably contributed to his being erased from history after his death. But upon listening to some of his earlier symphonies, as well as a couple of his string quartets, I found the problem. Krommer was essentially a one-trick pony. Everything he wrote followed the same pattern, and although the daring key changes and explosive orchestration is exciting, there’s really little variance from work to work. Perhaps this was the reason why his name was erased from the annals of history after his death, although it has been my experience that there are quite a few gooshy-lyrical Romantic composers whose work, though inferior to Krommer’s, is artificially kept alive for reasons that escape me.

Nonetheless, these are two symphonies worth checking out for an alternate school of symphonic writing within the Austrian Empire.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Collins Plays, Conducts Vaughan Williams & Finzi

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VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 5. FINZI: Clarinet Concerto / Philharmonia Orch.; Michael Collins, cl/cond / Bis SACD-2367

Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony both delighted and puzzled listeners. Essentially melodic and warm, it made a stark contrast to his edgier Fourth. Some welcomed this as a return of the “old” Vaughan Williams while others puzzled over such a melodic work in the midst of the Second World War. But Vaughan Williams had poured himself into a number of relief efforts during the war, including the safe passage of German-Jewish refugees; he saw this symphony as a means of providing some hope and uplifting of spirits during a very dark time. Eventually he would write his even more angst-ridden Sixth Symphony, a powerful piece which is still not played as often as it should be.

My favorite recording of this piece is the one by Sir John Barbirolli with the Hallé Orchestra, but in this new recording conductor Michael Collins makes a strong case for his reading as well. And of course, Bis’ SACD sound is far superior to the old Barbirolli version. The modern-day Philharmonia plays extremely well under his guidance, and despite its generally genial surface Collins manages to bring out the shades of gray and darkness that the composer put into it. I was especially pleased by the bright playing of the horns, something that has deteriorated in recent decades in other orchestras.

Perhaps the most interesting and telling movement in the work is the Scherzo. Despite its brisk tempo, this is clearly not a jolly scherzo but a somewhat dark and muted one. Wind figures leap out of the shadows of the muted strings to play semi-grotesque figures, suggesting an undercurrent of menace within a purportedly happy front. The harmony, too, shifts back and forth between the major and the minor, and there are a surprising number of long-held notes and chords that belie its scherzo-like qualities.

Gerald Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto is a work of contradictions: the lyrical, placid melodic lines, particularly those written for the soloist, contrast with the sharper, more dramatic orchestral scoring. Finzi also moves the harmonic base around a bit, shifting the harmonies underlying the orchestra—but, again, not those underlying the clarinet. Collins has a bright tone, which I liked very much, and his phrasing on this instrument is as smooth and unruffled as that of his conducting.

If I seem a little less than enthusiastic, however, it is because in many spots within both the symphony and the concerto Collins is a bit too smooth for my taste. As slow as Barbirolli’s conducting was, he brought out more edge in the Fifth Symphony than this, but if you are looking for a superb-sounding recording of these scores, look no further.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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