Kapustin’s Music for Saxophones

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KAPUSTIN: Quintet for Saxophones & Piano (arr. of Piano Quintet by C. Enzel).* Quartet for 4 Saxophones (arr. of String Quartet, Op. 88 by Enzel). Duo for Alto Saxophone & Cello+ / *Elisaveta Blumina, pno; +Peter Bruns, cello; clair-obscur Saxophone Quartet (Jan Schulter-Bunert, s-sax; Maike Krullmann, a-sax; +Christoph Enzel, a-sax; Kathi Wagner, bar-sax) / Capriccio C5369

It seems a bit odd that a composer whose work is so strongly influenced by American jazz has only actually written one work for the saxophone, that being the Duo that closes out this CD, but Christoph Enzel of the clair-obscur Saxophone Quartet managed to convince the now-aged composer (82 going on 83 years old) to authorize transcriptions of his Piano Quintet and String Quartet for that group of instruments. I was, to be honest, a little leery of how this would work out, in part because I am generally against transcriptions unless they are actually done by the composer him or herself, and in part because, to be perfectly honest, in a jazz-influenced musical environment the way one treats saxophones runs generally counter in terms of rhythm and rhythmic emphasis to the way one writes for strings.

To a certain extent, my fears were realized—not so much in how these sax players handled the rhythm as in the general “smoothness” of the writing as well as the very classical timbres of the soprano and alto saxes. Yet, in other ways, they allayed my fears because they do have a feeling for the jazz beat in those passages that call for it. Pianist Elisaveta Blumina, whose work I have praised quite highly on this blog, occupies a style somewhere in between the two worlds. She is not as loose rhythmically as Catherine Gordoladze, Daniel del Pino, Vadim Rudenko, Ludmil Angelov or Kapustin himself (I own a recording of the composer himself in the original Piano Quintet), playing more of a ragtime than a jazz beat, but within the context of the Quintet and with the help of the swinging saxes it’s not too much of a detriment. She at least tries as well as she can, and her technique is so fluid that it falls within the parameters of what Kapustin requires without hurting the music. Some of best moments come in the whimsical second movement of the Quintet, where her precise rhythmic approach is rather delightful and not too metronomic. Yet, ironically, it is in this movement that the sax quartet sounds the least jazzy, and I attribute this more to the music that Kapustin originally wrote for strings…as mentioned earlier, string writing, unless one is steeped in the tradition of such modern American jazz string groups as the Turtle Island Quartet or Poland’s equally jazzy Atom Quartet, is not going to swing like music initially conceived for saxophones.

If the reader thinks that I am marginalizing or dismissing these performances, he or she will be mistaken. I am nit-picking because I have a wealth of experience in listening to and evaluating jazz-classical hybrids, which I dearly love and wish there were more of. And I rush to point out that what happened here is not unique to the music of Kapustin. It is the reason I am generally against MOST transcriptions of classical music of all eras and styles from one instrument to another. Once in a while it works, but often it changes the coloration and impact of the music to such an extent that even the uninformed listener can sense that something is amiss.

In the fourth movement of the Quintet, Blumina plays very strong syncopations, which help to propel the sax quartet very well indeed. Yes, I would have liked a little more of a jazz feel in the fast right-hand runs, but she acquits herself well. And happily, the saxes have exactly the right feel for jazz syncopation, which helps propel the music with the right feeling.

In the saxophone version of the string quartet, ironically, there is less of a problem in the transference of a swing beat, largely because the clair-obscur Quartet has, as I mentioned, a fairly good idea of the jazz beat despite the ultra-pure tones of the soprano and alto saxes. By contrast, baritone saxist Kathi Wagner has a ball with the music, and in fact it is her sense of jazz time that helps to propel the entire group except in those obviously lyrical passages where a classical sense of time is more prominent. The concluding “Fuga” is perhaps the most formally classical of the four movements, but the quartet still manages to get a feel of jazz syncopation going in this music as well, with baritone saxist Wagner throwing in some neat slap-tongue effects.

The alto sax-cello duo is the one work on this album written for a saxophone, and happily cellist Peter Bruns seems to have some experience in playing jazz time, because he plays his instrument almost like a jazz bass (or at least like a jazz cello, reminding me of Oscar Pettiford and Fred Katz). It’s a wonderfully imaginative piece, too, in which the alto sax plays almost continuous eighth-note figures while the cello prods him rhythmically, and occasionally our saxist, Christoph Enzel, puts some grit in his tone which helps to bring out the jazz connection very well. The second movement in particular (“Sonatina – Animato”) brings out some pretty nifty counterpoint while still having at least a foothold in jazz time.

In toto, then, an interesting album with good music from start to finish and some really good performances of it. I can only hope that someday, a jazz saxophone quartet with good technique and a jazz pianist with an equally good sense of jazz time tackles the Quintet or even the Quartet. Happy listening!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Trojahn’s Great Second String Quartet

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AwardTROJAHN: String Quartet No. 2 with Clarinet & Mezzo-Soprano / Thorsten Johanns, cl; Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, mez; Minguet Quartett / Wergo 7383-2

Here is one of those recordings for which we should all bow down and be thankful that it exists. In a world that pays greater homage to formulaic modern music and especially the old-school stuff that gets rammed down our throats in buckets, we now have, at long last, a recording of a true modern masterpiece that was only written 40 years ago.

Manfred Trojahn (b. 1949) is not a composer who is well known, even within modern music circles, except for those in Germany. He began his studies in orchestral music, then took up the flute, composition and conducting, in that order. One of his principal composition teachers was György Ligeti, and it shows in his melodic structure as well as in his harmonic design. But unlike his other four string quartets, this one is truly an epic piece. As Trojahn himself says in the liner notes:

The commission was of course for a quartet with a conventional length of 15 to 20 minutes. But at some point, I noticed that what I was writing as a first movement began to take on dimensions with implications for the entire piece – if the first movement starts to grow toward 25 minutes, then you can imagine that the other movements will need to have similar durations to achieve a sense of balance… It is a very personal piece that is actually a kind of diary of my life at that time and immediately afterward.

Part of his inspiration came from Schoenberg’s Second Quartet, which used a soprano to sing texts by Stefan George. Trojahn added a mezzo-soprano and clarinet to the second, fourth and fifth movements of his quartet, using texts by the poet Georg Trakl, who died in a military hospital near the beginning of World War I at the age of 27. The poems that Trojahn chose were In ein altes Stammbuch (In an Old Family Album), Der Schlaf (Sleep) and In Venedig (In Venice).

Although Ligeti’s influence is quite evident, Trojahn has obviously developed his own style from the same basic approach. Indeed, some of the music in the opening movement almost sounds like a cross between Ligeti and Schoenberg, and I was delighted to hear a fairly strong underlying structure in this music. It goes somewhere; it says something coherent; it is not just a collection of “shocking sounds” as in the case of so much new music nowadays.

Yet of course this opening movement is very angst-filled and clearly not for the squeamish. There are no comfortable moments; it consists largely of sharp, jagged figures that explode in your ear, and when the music does recede from the sound barrier it is no less edgy or more comforting. The late jazz clarinetist Artie Shaw thought that his band’s theme song, Nightmare, was a reflection of Picasso’s painting Guernica, but for me the first movement of this quartet is much closer to Picasso than Shaw’s minor-key jazz piece. This movement does not, in fact, go on for 25 minutes, but it does go on for 17 and that is surely long enough to set the tone for the entire work. There is a full stop at 6:55, at which point the music becomes slower yet in pace and the musical expression turns more legato and less staccato, yet the mood remains dark although at this point Trojahn has clearly switches over from a Ligeti influence to that of Bartók before returning to the Ligeti mode. Yet again, no matter how rapid or overwhelmingly dissonant the music becomes, Trojahn has a clear eye on how the music is “built” both structurally and expressively, even when a series of repeated dissonant, rhythmic chords are played near the end of the movement.

Minguet QuartettInterestingly, the remaining movements are really not as long as the first. The second movement runs 8:36, the third 5:58, the fourth (and loudest) 1:21, the fifth 8:50, the sixth only 32 seconds(!) and the seventh 13:34. Clarinetist Thorsten Johanns is an excellent musician with a rich, liquid tone and great expressivity. Mezzo-soprano Tanja Ariane Baumgartner has a nice tone, an overripe vibrato, yet good expression in her interpretation of Trakl’s texts. The words of the first poem, in English, are as follows:

You keep coming back, melancholy,
O meekness of the lonely soul.
A golden day is glowing at the end.
Humbly bends to the pain of
patient
Sounding of pleasant sound and soft madness.
See, it’s already getting dark.
The night returns and sues
mortal,
And another one suffers.
Shivering under autumnal stars
The head bends lower every year.

One thing that struck me was how Trojahn had the string quartet drop out completely in the opening lines of this poem; the only sounds you hear for more than a minute are just the mezzo and clarinet before the strings return, softly, underneath them. Perhaps because he was writing here for a voice, Trojahn’s music is more lyrical and, in places, even more tonal than usual, although the astringent chords played by the quartet beneath her are atonal indeed. It almost sounds, in a way, like “Mahler meets Schoenberg.” With the third movement, which again is purely instrumental, we return to Ligeti’s style. The music here is, if anything, even edgier and more biting than in the first movement.

The brief fourth movement again features the soprano and clarinet, but this time in loud, edgy music that matches the previous movement. Here the text is:

Cursed you dark poisons
White sleep!
This very strange garden
Twilight trees
Filled with snakes, moths,
Spiders, bats.
Stranger! Your lost shadow
In the Sunset,
A dark corsair
In the salty sea of tribulation.
Fluttering white birds on the night hem
Over falling cities
Of steel.

In the fifth movement, which follows without a break, the mezzo sings:

Silence in the room at night.
The chandelier flickers silver
Before the singing breath
Of the lonely;
Magic rose cloud.
Blackish swarm of flies
Darkens the stone room
And it stares from agony
The head of the golden day
The homeless.
The sea stays motionless.
Star and blackish ride
Disappeared on the canal.
Child, your sickly smile
Followed me quietly in my sleep.

Here the music returns to a more legato style and a more tonal bias, but the voice and clarinet do not perform together as in the second movement. Rather, then alternate with each other, both voice and clarinet backed by high, edgy sustained notes in the violins. The very short sixth movement acts more like a brief, edgy interlude between the fifth and seventh, which opens with loud, edgy string tremolos before moving into much more abstract territory. Despite some lyrical interludes, the underlying tension remains consistent throughout the movement which even the frequent pauses in the musical flow do not disperse.

This is truly a masterpiece, one of those works that bear repeated listening to catch all the cross-references and continuation of musical material, brilliantly played (and recorded) by the Minguet Quartett.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The Mark Segger Sextet Lifts Off!

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LIFT OFF / SEGGER: Lift Off. Cluttertone News. For the Bees. #18. …. One Note. Slow Motion. Bassline / Mark Segger Sextet: Jim Lewis, tpt; Heather Saumer, tb; Peter Lutek, t-sax/cl; Tania Gill, pno/melodica; Rob Clutton, bs; Mark Segger, dm / 18th Note Records (no number)

This disc, available February 7, is the second release by the Toronto-based Mark Segger Sextet. According to the publicity sheet, “Much of this music was written in the two weeks leading up to the recording session, after a tour playing improvised music in Europe. Segger’s music reflects a wide range of creative interests, from the swing of Mel Lewis and his jazz orchestra to the genre expanding string quartet writing by composers like Bartók and Ligeti (heard clearly on For the Bees.)”

The album gets off to a frenzied start with the fast-paced free jazz piece Lift Off, in which trumpet and trombone play wild, dizzying figures in counterpoint over the roiling rhythm section. Staccato chords by the piano introduce a sort of stabilizing influence that slows down the pace temporarily while trumpeter Lewis plays above it, but then the brass duo, now joined by the tenor sax, come roaring back to destabilize the meter and pace yet again, and it stays that way through to the end.

By contrast, the opening of Cluttertone News sounds almost normal and tonal, with lush chords played by trumpet, trombone and tenor sax, behind and around which the bass and drums play asymmetric rhythms, the former sometimes plucked and sometimes bowed. Some of those bowed bass lines get pretty far-out, however, and in fact it is the bass that gives us the “cluttertones” in this “news.” The piece ends abruptly, in the midst of nowhere.

For the Bees may indeed be influenced by Bartók and Ligeti, at least harmonically, but the initial theme swings merrily along—until, yet again, it is that darn bass that interrupts the proceedings and takes us into far-out territory. I liked this as a stand-alone piece, but felt that the pattern was too similar to Cluttertone News to follow it on the CD. In the middle section, the three horns play atonal zig-zag patterns that cross each other in a sort of counterpoint, then become more amorphous in structure, clearly the Ligeti influence. The one problem I had with this piece was that the different musical influences didn’t really seem to mesh, but rather interfered with each other.

The next piece, simply titled #18, combines a nice, loping, easy swing with atonal figures, and again the initial beat is interrupted here and there for free jazz interludes. Pianist Tania Gill is heard here for the first time in a solo role, although much of what she plays seems to be rhythmic material designed to prod the band into further cacophony. The loping swing figures return here and there during Segger’s drum solo.

I can’t say why the next piece is represented by four dots in succession as a title, but so it is. Perhaps this is because this is the most abstract composition on the album, a series of little splattered notes played over the long, sustained lines of the tenor sax—and it only lasts a minute and a half. One Note certainly lives up to its name, presenting long-held, repeated Bs that overlap one another, with little burps of sound (also played on a B) from the tenor sax. Between you and me and the lamppost, I didn’t “get” this piece at all.

Slow Motion begins, actually, in a pretty uptempo, a repeated figure into which the trombone interrupts with almost comical low-range blats. Lewis gets a rare solo on this one, and although it becomes almost cacophonous after a while, I enjoyed it for its wild sense of humor. This piece very obviously took a lot of rehearsal to get right.

We end our excursion with Bassline, one of the fastest pieces on the album in which stop-time is used as a compositional device in the early going before it moves into a sort of stiff march rhythm behind free jazz cacophony. Little solos stutter their way out of the ensemble here and there, sometimes played staccato (trumpet) and sometimes legato (tenor sax), with the trombone playing something in between. I also felt that this piece had the strongest structure of any music on the album, thus the sextet clearly saved its best for last.

Lift Off is certainly a strange album with some very interesting and often likeable pieces on it, challenging one’s perceptions of jazz while taking some great risks. Definitely worth a listen!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Introducing Olga Mykytenko

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VERDI: I Masnadieri: Dall’infame banchetto…Tu del mio Carlo. Un ballo in Maschera: Morrò, ma prima in grazia. Il Trovatore: Tacea la notte placida…Di tale amor. I vespri Siciliani: Arrigo! ah! parli a un core; Mercé, dilette amiche. Il Corsaro: Egli non riede. Attila: Santo di patria; Liberamente or piangi. Ernani: Surta è la notte…Ernani, involami. Macbeth: Nel di della vittoria…Or tutti sorgete; Una macchia è qui tuttora. Luisa Miller: Tu puniscimi, o signore. La traviata: È strano!…Ah, fors e lui…Sempre libera / Olga Mykytenko, sop; Bournemouth Symphony Orch.; Kirill Karabits / Chandos CHAN 20144

In the opera world, one of the most reactionary and entrenched remnants of old-timey music, the advent of a great new Verdi soprano means 40 times more than the advent of a great new singer (of any category) whose repertoire ranges further and wider afield. The old stuff is pretty much all they ever want to hear; the few times they hear anything modern, they generally hate it or, worse yet, dismiss it as “not music”; thus when new voices are trained nowadays, they’re trained for the exact same repertoire their forebears sang a century or more ago.

Here, then, we are presented with the debut solo recital of Olga Mykytenko, so of course it’s all old stuff. Well, at least it’s Verdi and not Donizetti or Mercadante, and to show her versatility we get the (almost) obligatory arias from such early Verdi garbage as I Masnadieri and Il Cosaro along with the more standard fare. Mykytenko, who is no spring chicken (she’s 45 going on 46) and who sang at the National Opera of Ukraine in Kiev from 1995 to 2003, has had one previous recording released, a complete Iolanta conducted by Vladimir Fedoseyev on the Relief label.

Mykytenko has an excellent voice as far as Slavic sopranos go. Yes, it has that steely-brilliant sound that so many of them have, but it also has a fair amount of beauty in it as well, and she has a simply phenomenal technique, able to sing not only fast staccato and runs but also trills and grupetti (mordents and grace notes for the uninformed) with great security. Insofar as emotional expression goes, however, she is an atypical Slavic soprano in that she is generally more genteel and restrained than her sisters-at-arms. The Slavic sopranos of old would have thrown tons of chest voice into Amelia’s “Morrò, ma prima in grazia” from Un ballo in Maschera whereas Mykytenko sings it with some feeling but much more restraint. Of course, I have no idea if she has always sung thus, but it’s telling that in a recital meant to introduce her to Western audiences she emulates Emmy Destinn, the great Czech soprano who sang for most of her great years at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Near the end of this aria, a flaw in Mykytenko’s voice: the penultimate high note is not only squally but not properly supported with the breath.

As the recital continues, her few vocal flaws come and go but one really begins to admire her basic technique. One chink in her armor is that she seems incapable of singing really softly when the score calls for it: “Tacea la notte placida” is sung very placida but not so much tacea. In the cabaletta, “Di tale amor,” she has the quick trills and staccato notes needed for the music, but alas her conductor, one Kirill Karabits, is one of those stodgy sticks-in-the-mud who has very little idea how to conduct Verdi and takes sluggish tempi to boot. In this scene, too, I felt that Mykytenko did very little acting with the voice, and the same goes for “Arrigo! ah parli a un core,” an aria that the late Cristina Deutekom used to sing the bloody hell out of. For Mykytenko, she might as well be pondering which gluten-free bread she hopes to find at the supermarket. The Vespri “Bolero” moves at a sluggish pace. Why, Kirill? Your soprano clearly has the goods to deliver the grace notes and trills at the written tempo. Wake the hell up and follow the score, you idiot!

But of course, given the limited scope of this recital, what I really wanted to hear were the dramatic arias from Attila and Macbeth, since these call for singers with fire in their bellies and inexhaustible high notes (pretty much what 90% of all operagoers really go to hear anyway). She opens up Odabella’s “Ancor di patria”with pretty good steel in the voice, but insofar as real feeling and drama go, she can’t hold a candle to Cheryl Studer, who was in turn not quite as incendiary as Deutekom in the role. We seem to be going down, down, down in terms of acting the with voice—dramatic interpretation—even as we train vocal acrobatics like Mykytenko. Now, if you watch one of her videos on YouTube, she constantly moves, and wriggles, and waves her hands and arms, but that’s not a substitute for real from-the-gut drama. Your wriggling around doesn’t impress me much, honey. Give everything you’ve got into the role and I’ll sing your praises from here to Mars and back.

It was almost painful for me to listen to the whole “Ernani, involami” scene, taken not only at sluggish tempi but with no forward momentum or drive in the orchestral playing. Where did Chandos get this conductor from? Was this the best they could do? Mykytenko gives us Generically Dramatic Emphasis on the words, but not one of them comes from the heart. Damn, I miss Leona Mitchell.

And then we come, at last, to the Macbeth arias. Or at least the music for them. A whole string of prior Lady Macbeths came to my mind, among them Callas, Borkh, Nilsson, Scotto, even Fiorenza Cossotto. I admit that Mykytenko does a bit better in “Or tutti sorgete” than I thought she would—for our time, this is pretty passable—but even Cossotto sounded more cracked-in-the-head and power-mad than she. Go and listen to her recording if you don’t believe me. Mykytenko sounds somewhat angry and upset, which is not the same thing. Verdi insisted that Lady Macbeth sing in a cracked, strangulated voice, particularly in the “sleepwalking scene.” Callas and late-period Scotto were absolutely perfect in “Una macchia.” Mykytenko sounds professional, and she sings the high D-flat too loudly. Karabits sounds as if he’s conducting a ballet scene from Delibes’ Sylvia.

Next up is the big nothing aria from Luisa Miller, a Verdi opera I’ve never liked and probably never will. The recital wraps up with Violetta’s big scene from the Act I finale of La traviata, which Karabits opens up as if it were the Prussian March through Poland. Here, however, Mykytenko must have gone through several takes, because her voice is perfect in legato, technique, placement and tone from start to finish. Again, there’s no “inner” feeling when she sings “Ah, fors’ e lui,” but she does do a short messa da voce on the word “amor” before she starts singing “Ah, quell’amor,” and she does sound moderately happy in “Sempre libera,” again conducted too slowly.

But maybe Mykytenko got shafted in this recital. If you go to YouTube and listen to her very different performance of “Sempre libera” from 2009, everything is more secure and she sings with much more feeling (plus the tempo is faster). Deterioration from a decade ago? Possibly, but maybe not. Maybe she was having vocal difficulties during these sessions and she and Karabits didn’t get along.

So there you have it. Without having seen or heard her “live,” my judgment is that Mykytenko is a good soprano with some real attributes, among them musicianship and a pretty solid technique, and some real problems, most notably uneven voice support and inability to feel the characters she is singing from within. If this is what you want, go for it. I’d rather pull out my Sondra Radvanosky recital disc and hear some real singing in the old stuff.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Lintu Conducts Lutosławski

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LUTOSŁAWSKI: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 2 / Finnish Radio Symphony Orch.; Hannu Lintu, cond / Ondine ODE 1322-5

This new release features two of Lutosławski’s symphonies performed by Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu with his regular orchestra, that of the Finnish Radio. For reasons known only to the conductor, they are presented on this CD in reverse order, the Third coming first and the Second after. Many conventional classical buffs would probably argue with my feeling that Penderecki’s music was uglier and more abrasive; surely, much of the music heard here will not thrill or even entice them. But of course, most casual classical listeners don’t know music from a hole in the wall, so this review is not for them. The rest of us can admire the elements of surprise, combined with fine craftsmanship, that make up this music. In the Third Symphony, Lutosławski almost seems to be creating a musical message via allusion and allegory; themes are brief, often aborted and sometimes juxtaposed. The liner notes erroneously attribute some of this to the “political turmoil” in Poland at that time and the Solidarity movement, which the composer said were of little consequence in his writing.

I will say, however, that in some respects I didn’t care a lot for this symphony. It’s not that the writing is too radical to follow so much as it’s simply too fragmented. As fine a conductor as Lintu is, even he could not manage to find any real structure in this score, and I don’t blame him. The symphony has its moments, but I felt that Lutosławski, to paraphrase the title of a very old pop song, was reaching for something but not finding anything there. He keeps putting his hand in and grasping, and he grasps in sometimes interesting ways, but all he comes up with are nothingburgers. Where’s the beef?? This symphony, to my ears, is Lutosławski’s musical equivalent of Alice wandering the hallway of Wonderland, opening doors too small for her to go through and alternately eating cakes and drinking fluids that make her grow larger and smaller in size. Well, perhaps that was the composer’s intent, but if so I’m not buying in completely. As I say, there are some very fine and interesting moments, but fleeting moments of concentrated excellence cannot always be put together to make a symphony, and this is what happens (or doesn’t happen) here. Incidentally, there’s a very prominent piano part in this symphony, yet the pianist is not credited anywhere on the CD or in the booklet. Curiouser and curiouser!

The Second Symphony, dating from 1967, is equally modern in style but, to my ears, a more coherent piece of music. The various motifs and phrases blend into and/or complement one another, and there is more structure to the work—and this despite the title of the first movement, “Hésitant.” For all the pauses and juxtaposed ideas, the music is more coherent. The scoring in this first movement is also lighter, only occasionally sprinkled with percussion and featuring small groups of instruments in almost chamber-orchestra-like writing.

The second movement, “Direct,” is even more tightly structured and lacks the hesitant quality of the first as well as the disjointed feeling of the Third Symphony. The opening is dominated by the basses, playing a slow, rumbling series of overlapping whole notes, leading to a long crescendo in which other instruments of the orchestra engage. At the 2:40 mark, it almost sounds like an orchestra tuning up as the music becomes still louder and, apparently, more chaotic, but eventually an inkling of order sneaks through the cacophony and we reach a passage resembling one of Leif Segerstam’s symphonies. Eventually, we also hear swirling wind figures that almost resemble the explosion of a supernova in the cosmos, and yet the music inexorably marches on its own crazy-quilt pattern. Later on, sharp-edged figures zigzag across the landscape and cross each other. This, I really liked.

A split review then, but not of the performance, only of the music.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Monica Gutman Plays Schulhoff

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SCHULHOFF: Piano Sonata No. 3. Ironien.* 10 Klavierstücke. Musik für Klavier. 11 Inventionen / Monica Gutman, *Erika Le Roux, pno / Wergo 7385-2

Over the last 18 or so years, the wonderful piano music of Erwin Schulhoff has become standard fare on recordings, at least. Since I am disabled and thus unable to get out of the house as I was once able to, I have no idea how his music is faring in live concerts, but if it’s anywhere close to his presentation on silver discs I’d be very happy. Of course, it clearly does not appeal to the atonal-squeamish; he was very much a modern composer of his day, used a great deal of extended harmonies, bitonal or atonal chords, and a melodic line that followed the harmonic progress of his music rather than leading it. As far as I’m concerned, his only real negative is that he was an ardent Communist who even went so far as to set Marx’s Communist Manifesto to music, but he was such a great composer that I can simply dismiss that one piece and admire all the rest.

Of course, his great introduction to the classical world came from Kathryn Stott’s now-legendary album of his jazz-and-ragtime-influenced piano pieces for the Bis label. On this CD, only the 11 Inventions (which were also on Stott’s CD) have any grounding in the popular music of the 1920s, and in fact all have been recorded before.

The recital presented here is performed by Monica Gutman, a Romanian pianist who studied in Germany at the Detmold Musikhochschule as well as in England with the superb, and often underrated, Louis Kentner. Her playing here has some muscle when needed, but largely relies on a singing legato. For those who feel that Schulhoff needs a singing legato in order to make his music palatable, this will then be a first choice, but I give the edge to Margarete Babinsky in the Piano Sonata No. 3 and to Stott in the Ironien and the 11 Inventions.

The problem, to my ears, is that Gutman flattens out the dynamics too much and emphasizes Schulhoff’s rhythms too little. The result is a sort of cross between Schulhoff and Debussy that never really existed.

So why am I reviewing this CD? As an object-lesson for all of you Historically Informed Performance nuts out there. This is how “traditions in performance” get started. One day, a performer you’ve never heard of gives a recital or makes a recording of music that is new to you. You like the music but, having no other frame of reference (yes, I know, in this case we DO have frames of reference; I’m just giving you a hypothetical example), laud it as a “classic” or a “definitive” performance when it is nothing of the kind. Ironically, you HIP people get away with a lot of murder of poor, innocent, good music because no one alive today could possibly have heard a performance from the 18th or 19th centuries, nor even from the early 20th, so you make up your own “traditions” based on “research” which consists of written descriptions that you cannot or do not interpret correctly. The you go about ruining the sound of music with your pathetic, whiny, unnatural-sounding Straight Tone string and wind sections that, if the composers had heard them, they would boil you in oil and then feed your remains to scavengers.

So there.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Malin Byström in a New Recital

Bystrom - Orchestral Songs

BERG: 7 Frühe Lieder. DUPARC: Au pays où se fait la guerre. Chanson triste. Le manoir de Rosamonde. La vie antérieure. Extase. L’invitation au voyage. RANGSTRÖM: Den mőrka blommen. Skold och svard: Sköldmön. 6 Poems by Bo Bergman: No. 1, Vingar i natten (Wings of the Night); No. 3, Melodi. The Dark Flower (excerpts): No. 1, Vingar i natten (Wings of Night); No. 2, Bon till natten (Prayer to the Night) / Malin Byström, sop; Helsingborg Symphony Orch.; Stefan Solyom, cond / Swedish Society Discofil SCD1168

Malin Byström is a Swedish soprano trained at the University College of Opera in Stockholm and coached by Jonathan Morris, still a frequent collaborator, since 1997. In 2016 she received the Litteris et Artibus medal, and in 2018 was appointed Court Singer by the King.

Byström has a pronounced flutter-vibrato that is occasionally uneven, though it evens out on sustained high notes; this takes some getting used to. Her performances, however, are expressive, which compensates for some of this. In Berg’s 7 Frühe Lieder, her interpretations are similar in style and form to those of Susan Graham in the piano-accompanied version with Malcolm Martineau, but in the orchestral versions no one can beat the late Jessye Norman.

The problem that I hear in Byström’s singing, however, is a certain sameness in approach regardless of the material. She sings the Duparc songs exactly as she sings the Berg, and the Rangström exactly as she sings the Duparc. I suppose that, for those with limited experience in older recordings, this is just fine, but for me it’s not quite enough. I still have the sound of Janet Baker’s voice in my ears singing Au pays où se fait la guerre, L’invitation au voyage , La vie antérieure and Le manoir de Rosamonde as well as Gérard Souzay singing Extase in my mind, and Byström doesn’t really measure up to them, particularly in vocal control.

By contrast, however, Stefan Solyom’s conducting is really exceptional, much better, in fact, than André Previn’s mushy accompaniment for Baker on her EMI recordings of these songs. I was especially impressed by the way he conducted Le manoir de Rosamonde. Interestingly, in the Duparc songs Byström seemed to have tightened up her vibrato a bit. Her upper range at full volume has a peculiarly unpleasant timbre, however, as in the case of many Scandinavian sopranos.

In the music of Ture Rangström, however, Bylström has few rivals, and she sings these pretty well. So the CD is valuable for this material, at least, and Solyom’s conducting continues to impress in these songs as well.

It isn’t often that I recommend a vocal recital CD for the conducting, but this is one those rare times. Bylström’s singing, though uneven, is at least interesting most of the time.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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