Schoch Jumps & Jives With Jazzettes!

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JAZZETTES / TANSMAN: Sonatine transatlantique (arr. Pascal). RAVEL: Violin Sonata. GROSZ: Jazzband. GRUENBERG: Jazzettes. COPLAND: Ukelele Serenade. SCHULHOFF: Violin Sonata No. 2. GERSHWIN: 3 Preludes (arr. Heifetz). MILHAUD: Scaramouche: Brasileira (arr. Heifetz). DEBUSSY: Le petit Nègre (arr. Frenkel) / Ursula Schoch, vln; Marcel Worms, pn / Zefir 9652

As I explained in detail in my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond (see link at the end of this review), “jazz” of the 1920s inspired a great many serious American and European composers, but not all their works were created equal. This was due in large part to the fact that most of the Europeans, and even some of the American composers, had only a superficial view of what jazz really was. Close to 90% of what was played and recorded in the ‘20s was syncopated dance music, not really jazz either in rhythm or improvisation, and most of the true jazz bands, like King Oliver’s, Jean Goldkette’s and Fletcher Henderson’s, were not seen by the public as different, or better, than Paul Whiteman’s or the George Olsen’s, while the pioneer small bands of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Noone, Red Nichols and Jelly Roll Morton were not that well known by the general public until many years later.

Thus a recording like this, though excitingly played and wonderfully programmed, must be taken with a grain of salt. The only three composers here who had first-hand exposure to Real Jazz in their time were Ravel (who even went to Chicago where he heard Armstrong and Earl Hines in person), Gershwin and Milhaud, and of those three only Ravel really “got it.” Not only the violin sonata presented here, but also his great Piano Concerto and even the insinuating syncopation of Bolero, all caught the flavor of real jazz better than most of his peers.

That being said, the Sonatine transatlantique of Alexandre Tansman, Polish-born and French by adoption, is one of the better works on this disc. Lively and energetic, Tansman at least caught the Charleston rhythm pretty well and his high level of craft as a composer led him to create an utterly fascinating work, and violinist Ursula Schoch “gets it” as few classically-trained musicians ever do. A former member of the Berlin Philharmonic and current member of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Schoch has exactly the right amount of jazz swagger to bring this music to vivid life, which makes this the clear choice among all recordings of this work (few as they are). Pianist Marcel Worms, on the other hand, is lively and energetic but just does not swing. This is not an indictment against him, however; 95% of classically-trained musicians have trouble with the feeling of jazz rhythm. Even Friedrich Gulda, who played jazz for more than 40 years in addition to his classical career, became an excellent improviser but had trouble loosening up his swing.

Almost predictably, then, Worms is at his best in the Ravel violin sonata, written between 1923 and 1927, and the even more complex Violin Sonata No. 2 by Erwin Schulhoff (more on that later). Here he maintains a nicely flowing accompaniment to Schoch’s outstanding violin playing, slyly teasing the syncopations without ever really loosening up the swing. This Ravel sonata is a hybrid that leans more towards classical than jazz, although Ravel was an avid fan of the new music and very much wanted performances of his late works to have a jazz swagger. Once again, though, when one considers how difficult it is to “swing” Ravel at any point if one comes from a classical background, he at least provides a nice ragtime feel in the second movement, which feeds into Schoch’s slyly insinuating, Joe Venuti-like playing of the top line. All in all, it’s difficult to imagine a finer performance of this score, particularly since it has been my experience that violinists have more trouble loosening up their beat than pianists. The last movement of this sonata, written as a moto perpetuo, finds the duo playing with perfect acuity and synchronization. Although it is the least “jazziest” of the three movements, Schoch once again finds a way to make her part swing, particularly the middle section with its continuous stream of sixteenths.

Ravel sonata

Wilhelm Grosz, an avant-garde composer who worked in Mannheim and Vienna, was one of those Europeans who got their “jazz” second hand. Not surprisingly, he wrote an essentially classical piece, another perpetuum mobile, in which he tried to convey the excitement of the new music without really crossing over to the “wrong” side of the tracks. It’s a very peppy piece in which the pianist actually gets the more interesting music, a more developed theme and variations which is played against the violin’s rapid sixteenths. Oddly, it bears a strong resemblance to Dvořák’s Indian Lament, particularly in its harmonic sequence but also in its rhythm. The closest it comes to jazz is the syncopated middle section beginning at 3:50, and both performers do a splendid job here within the piece’s circumscribed rhythmic constraints.

By contrast Louis Gruenberg, a composer best known in America for his Afro-bullshit 1930s opera The Emperor Jones, wrote his Jazzettes in 1924—still a period of jazz infancy—with a much better feel for America’s native music. Once again Schoch is simply splendid, skittering over the rhythm with joie-de-vivre, while Worms does a sort of tap dance rhythm behind her. In the second movement, however, Gruenberg chose to present us with a thorough-composed spiritual rather than a blues (apparently he wasn’t listening to Bessie Smith). Oddly enough, it’s the best piece in the suite in terms of both structural interest and emotional communication. Schoch ends by playing five notes very high up, softly, with the edge of her bow. The syncopated but more ragtime-influenced last movement sparkles, with hints of the cakewalk (another predecessor of jazz) and, yes, a bit of the blues.

The liner notes tell us that Aaron Copland, born in 1900, “had been raised from his boyhood onwards with jazz,” but considering that the only jazz he could have heard in New York City (his hometown) until he left for Paris in 1921 where he studied for three years with Nadia Boulanger was the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, this is hyperbole. He grew up with ragtime, and that is what informs his Ukelele Serenade, a nicely syncopated piece (though he did eventually get the hang of jazz a bit in the 1950s).

Next we get the Violin Sonata No. 2 of Erwin Schulhoff, whose jazz-influenced music has been revived like wildfire since pianist Kathryn Stott’s groundbreaking Bis album of the early 2000s. Schulhoff was, quite simply, a superb and highly original composer, despite the fact that he tended towards bourgeois tastes and in fact set Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto to music. Like many of the Europeans, his exposure to jazz was second-hand and largely confined to the likes of novelty pianist Zez Confrey and the Paul Whiteman Orchestra (which also impressed Arnold Schoenberg). Thus performers must work a bit overtime to push his music into the true rhythms of jazz, but it is possible, as Schoch proves here. The score itself is highly complex and goes far beyond mere “novelty” music; indeed, Schulhoff’s contribution to the jazz-classical axis was to influence jazz by introducing those who studied his scores to remarkably advanced and sophisticated harmonic writing. Worms plays well here because the music is so much more classical than most of its predecessors on this disc, providing Schoch with a cantus firmus while she goes flying off into realms of her own. They work so well as a duo that one’s mind is continually engaged in the ongoing musical development, which is both appealing and complex. The moody, smoldering second movement is probably the closest thing Schulhoff wrote to a real blues (in terms of feeling, not blues form), and in this instance Worms’ playing catches exactly the right mood. The third-movement “Burlesca” is highly syncopated but not really jazzy, yet again the music is so cleverly written that one is swept up in its progression. Interestingly, the last movement uses the theme from the “Burlesca” but takes it in different directions.

Next up is the most famous and popular piece in this collection, the Gershwin piano preludes in the violin-piano arrangement by Jascha Heifetz. Heifetz’ own recording, with Emanuel Bay on piano, actually caught the swagger of the music pretty well. Schoch does an equally fine job here, articulating the music in a different way from Heifetz while still retaining a jazz feel. Worms is pretty good but not as loose as Bay. We hear another Heifetz transcription in the Brasiliera from Darius Milhaud’s Scaramouche. Milhaud, of course, wrote the first truly successful jazz-classical hybrid in history, La Création du Monde, and although Brasiliera is more Latin and not quite as jazzy it is certainly effective. The finale here is Debussy’s La petit Négre, a cakewalk piece (Debussy didn’t live long enough to hear jazz) and quite charming. The transcription here was made for violin by Stefan Frenkel, and both Schoch and Worms play it with lightness and energy.

Taken in all, this is an extraordinarily delightful and ear-opening CD. I was glad to have a chance to hear some of the offbeat pieces in this collection, despite their peripheral connection to jazz.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Martin Salemi Has Short Stories to Tell

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SHORT STORIES / SALEMI: Confidence. (Working) Summer. Si J’avais Su. Early Morning. Unsaid. Regina. C. FISCHER: Lennie’s Pennies. LENNON-McCARTNEY: Julia / Martin Salemi, pn; Mike Delaere, bs; Toine Cnockaert, dm / Igloo Records IGL285

This is one of those very rare recordings that fuse a warm, relaxed feeling with real invention and interest. Martin Salemi, a 29-year-old Belgian pianist, makes his CD debut here with an album that mixes in the styles of Bill Evans, Lennie Tristano, and a touch of Claude Bolling. The opening track is a perfect case in point. Starting out in a soft, slow mood, it suddenly explodes in the middle with an extended double-time improvisation featuring some nifty right-hand runs before moving back to the slower tempo and showing off some classically-influenced counterpoint.And his trio partners, bassist Delaere and drummer Cnockaert, are right there with him.

The second piece, (Working) Summer, is a calypso-sounding sort of piece in 5/4. Salemi clearly has fun with this, indulging in some remarkable phrases in which the rhythm is skewed by means of a slight holding back or tenuto on certain notes in his improvisation. He becomes quite busy, turning eights into triplets and then into sixteenths as he turns up the heat within the trio. Cnockaert takes an interesting, tasteful drum solo that definitely adds to the atmosphere.

Si J’avais Su is one of those ballads that, somehow or other, have “French” written all over them. Don’t ask me to define exactly what it is; it’s just something in the chording and the melodic progression that reminded me of some of Claude Bolling’s and Jacques Prévert’s work in the past. Salemi plays it, and everything on this album, with a light but very definite touch. Every note emerges crisply and clearly, as if it was etched in glass.

It has long amazed me that so many jazz musicians misattribute the songs they play to composers who never wrote them. Lennie’s Pennies is one such. The CD inlay attributes this tune to Lennie Tristano, but as luck would have it, I happen to know that this was a gentle parody of Tristano’s style composed and recorded by the tremendously talented West Coast pianist-composer-arranger Dr. Clare Fischer, who passed away several years ago. Fischer’s own recording present the music as very tongue-in-cheek, starting with an out-of-tempo introduction in which the original Pennies From Heaven tune was played with typically quirky Tristano changes before moving into more serious playing. Salemi is rather serious from start to finish, but he certainly captures Tristano’s style and energy quite well.

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Left to right: Delaere, Salemi, Cnockaert

Early Morning, another Salemi original, is a waltz with yet another sort of Gallic accent about it, played with Evans-like sensitivity—again, ramping up the volume and the swing in the more excitable central section. Equally interesting is his reworking of the Beatles tune Julia, in which Salemi gives us just enough of the original melody to let us in on what he’s doing, This one is an a cappella solo. Unsaid, another Salemi original, is taken at either a brisk 3 or a medium-tempo 6/8, whichever you prefer to call it. This one definitely rides above some nifty chord changes, firmly tonal yet continually surprising. Cnockaert.again throw in some Caribbean-styled rhythm behind the pianist. This one almost sounds like a Dave Brubeck sort of piece…just wonderful! As per usual, Salemi gets quite worked up in the middle section. I love the fact that he doesn’t keep his moods static, and the rhythm section just flies behind him on this one.

The finale, Regina, is another piece in irregular rhythm, suggesting but not quite achieving a bossa nova. Salemi’s chord structure here is modal, using occasional movement down a half-tone to suggest variety while essentially staying in one place the whole time. Cnockaert’s drums are subtle and just right in terms of the “push” he gives the beat, creating a motor rhythm somewhat the opposite of Salemi’s. A bit of Blue Note-era bluesy funk is thrown in in the middle by the pianist, with both bass and drums getting busier behind him.

I really can’t praise this album highly enough. If the reader gets the feeling from the above review that I didn’t quite describe Salemi’s playing in enough detail, it is only because there is so much detail that it’s better to just listen and not analyze too much. Get it!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Thomas’ “Of Being is a Bird” Fascinating

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OF BEING IS A BIRD / THOMAS: Helix Spirals / Parker Qrt / Selene (Moon Chariot Rituals) / Third Coast Percussion & Spektral Qrt / Capricious Toccata / Nathan Giem, vln / Of Being a Bird for Soprano & Ensemble* / Claire Booth, sop; Aurora Orch.; Nicholas Collon, cond / Caprice & Rush for Solo Violin / Nathan Cole, vln / Love Twitters / Nicola Melville, pn / Nimbus Alliance NI8323 (*live: London, July 7, 2015)

Having been very impressed by Augusta Read Thomas’ CD Ritual Incantations, I decided to peruse some of her other discs and ran across this one. It is much in the same vein: energetic, sparkling and often challenging music.

One of the delights of Helix Spirals is that the first movement is played pizzicato by the entire quartet, an interesting device that other composers have only used for intermittent passages. Here the opposite is true: at about 2:20 one hears a couple of sustained notes (I think by the viola), and only at 3:00 do the two violins switch from pizzicato to sustained bowing for a few passages. The music, largely tonal, is thus broken up in such a way that the listener feels disoriented, even more so when, at about 4:30, sustained notes play against pizzicato that seems to be running backwards rhythmically!

The second movement starts with pointed rhythmic figures being played by the viola, with the cello still in pizzicato mode while the two violins play sustained notes above it. This is then developed by Thomas in an interesting manner, with other instruments (including the cello) taking turns at playing the quirky bowed figures while the others indulge in pizzicato. Then suddenly, the third movement begins with the entire quartet playing sustained music in traditional quartet orchestration in C major. What should sound normal now sounds strange. Eventually the music becomes more animated with eights replacing the whole notes and leaping figures alternated by all four members of the quartet. The interaction becomes denser during the development section, eventually overlapping one another. It’s a strange ending to a strange piece.

The next selection, Selene (Moon Chariot Rituals), combines the marimba and percussion quartet Third Coast Percussion with the Spektral Quartet…you might call it her “strings and things” piece. This is highly syncopated in an almost jazzy way, and I found it a shade disappointing that the musicians involved here didn’t have much feeling for jazz swing, which would have made the performance ideal. It is an almost continuous swirl of syncopated figures, I would surmise dotted eighths and sixteenths, later shifting to mysterious sustained figures. This sort of tempo shifting continues throughout, the music really becoming quite rapid in pace and strongly syncopated at 7:30. At around 10:42, the music becomes slower yet again, but this time new variants are introduced and the mood, too, becomes quite different, as if one had suddenly opened the door to a performance of entirely different music.

Violinist Nathan Giem then attacks Thomas’ Capricious Toccata with vigor and brio. It’s typical Thomas, rhythmic and energetic with sustained notes as interludes. Of Being is a Bird is the most ambitious piece on this CD, an orchestral song cycle based on poems of Emily Dickinson (heck, don’t all women composers eventually set poetry of Emily Dickinson?). The music is bitonal and atmospheric. Soprano Claire Booth has a beautiful voice, but her diction is completely unintelligible. I couldn’t make a single syllable out without following the text. This is the world premiere performance, given at Wigmore Hall in London in July of 2015, yet the recorded sound is as crisp and clear as if it were made in a studio. Great engineering job! There are but two poems set to music, Of Being is a Bird and The most triumphant Bird I ever knew or met, separated by an orchestral interlude in Thomas’ familiar hocket-style writing. The first song is set to slow, atmospheric music while the second is energetic and driving.

Caprice and Rush for solo violin is played by Nathan Rush, who is first associate concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (i.e., the third one over from the left). He has your generic fine, bright tone and impeccable bow control you would expect from a musician in that position. The music here alternates between lyrical and serrated figures in Thomas’ normal mode when writing for strings. This collection concludes with Love Twitters, which I personally felt was the least original and communicative piece on the disc. It’s just busy music, energetic but to my ears conveying nothing much.

Nonetheless, most of this album is fascinating music, well played and interpreted by the various performers. Well worth a listen!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Pickard’s Fascinating Songs Presented in New CD

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PICKARD: Binyon Songs. The Phoenix.* The Borders of Sleep / Roderick Williams, bar; *Eve Daniell, sop; Simon Lepper, pn / Toccata Classics 0413

John Pickard, whose powerful, edgy orchestral works are among the best being written nowadays, emerges here in an entirely different style. Granted, these are songs and singers have range and technical limitations that instruments do not, but Pickard has almost completely abandoned his modernistic, bitonal and occasionally atonal style to produce some very lovely music in a modern vein. Granted, occasional pieces like “The Burning of the Leaves” in the Binyon Songs move towards bitonal harmony in the piano accompaniment, but by and large Pickard has chosen to take an almost Ralph Vaughan Williams approach to song writing: good, well-constructed music but largely lyrical and tonal.

But I hope I have made clear that “largely lyrical and tonal” does not mean uninteresting. I think Pickard is constitutionally incapable of writing poorly constructed or formulaic music, and these songs—any one of which would serve a singer well in a vocal recital—are consistently fine as well as emotionally powerful statements. Of course, it helps that they are presented here not only by Roderick Williams, a British baritone with an incipient flutter in the voice but a really lovely tone, great interpretive skills and crystal-clear diction (thank God for once!), but also the really outstanding pianist Simon Lepper. This duo clearly worked hard and long on honing every phrase of each song to communicative perfection. They surely did not intend this to just be a “read-through” of these obviously superior examples of modern British song writing. Indeed, the aforementioned “Burning of the Leaves” is almost a vocal tone poem in and of itself, magnificent and compelling from start to finish.

Unfortunately, the longest song on this album, The Phoenix, is given not to Williams but to soprano Eve Daniell, and she has a horrid voice. Wobbly, pinched, nasal and nasty-sounding, I can’t imagine that someone with a voice like this would get professional engagements, but there you are. The music is superb, however, and with an artist of the quality of Tony Arnold to sing this it would be a moving and fascinating piece. Fortunately, Lepper is still the pianist here, and he carries off his part of the performance beautifully.

Having suffered through 16 minutes of Daniell’s caterwauling, Williams’ warm voice in the ten-piece cycle The Borders of Sleep was like a balm on the ears. Nor is this just a metaphor, for Pickard’s music here is among his loveliest and most accessible. In the first song, “Tall Nettles,” Williams ends on an perfectly-floated high G, and in the second, the somewhat edgier “The Trumpet,” he articulates the musical line with perfect rhythmic acuity and a fine declamatory style, never pressuring the voice too much. Bravo, Roderick! The third song, “The Mill-Water,” lay somewhere between the two stylistically. This cycle was based on the poetry of Edward Thomas who, like Wilfred Owen of War Requiem fame, was killed in the first World War, though his poetry is less directly connected to the international conflict. Interestingly, Pickard wrote the songs in a completely different order from how they appear on the CD. As he put it in the notes,

As I worked on the songs, a sort of imaginary narrative began to emerge: a soldier at the Western Front lies in his bunk, half-awake (at ‘the borders of sleep’, as the last poem says) the night before going over the top into no man’s land. Recollections of the natural world from back home (he is a country man) and of lost love merge with images of war. The memories darken, culminating in the macabre vision of the central song, ‘The Gallows.’

In “The Gallows,” Pickard alternates between strophic phrases, punctuated by somewhat detached chords from the piano, and lyrical ones in which the keyboard plays a more consistent and insistent rhythm. The vocal line often hovers between major and minor, sometimes encompassing notes that could fit either/or. This gave him a good amount of leeway in focusing on the connection between text and music. For the most part he did an admirable job, and the song’s atmosphere carries over to the rest of the cycle. Most certainly it carries over to the next song, “Rain,” in which the poet muses “nothing but the wild rain on this bleak hut, and solitude, and me remembering again that I shall die and neither hear the rain nor give it thanks for washing me cleaner than I have been.” Pickard captures perfectly the surreal mood of the words in his music, giving the pianist soft, blurred figures to play behind the singer. Contrast this with “No One Cares Less Than I,” with its driving energy and edgy, bitonal harmonies, and one can see that this poetry got a good grip on the composer as he wrote the music.

Needless to say, “Last Poem” and “Lights Out” take us to a quieter space, and there is a certain Britten-esque quality about these songs without copying the great composer that I liked very much. Williams remains consistently excellent to the very end, which ends on a soft, a cappella phrase. Overall, then, a decidedly worthwhile disc to acquire. Just set your CD player to skip over band six and you’ll thoroughly enjoy it.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Discovering Kalevi Aho’s Horn & Theremin Concerti

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AHO: Concerto for Horn & Chamber Orchestra. Acht Jahresietzen (Eight Seasons), Concerto for Theremin & Chamber Orchestra / Annu Salminen, Fr horn; Carolina Eyck, Theremin; Lapland Chamber Orchestra; John Storgårds, cond / Bis SACD-2036

I tell you, entering the sound world of Kalevi Aho is like entering a labyrinth in Alice’s Wonderland. It is strange but intriguing, wondrous and bizarre all at the same time. Nothing I’ve yet heard by him sounds the least bit “normal,” and certainly does not meet one’s expectations. His Chamber Symphonies, as I stated in my review of them, are almost free fantasias written for orchestra and, in the case of the third, practically a concerto for alto saxophone and orchestra.

The same is true of the works presented here. Aho’s Horn Concerto does indeed place the solo instrument front and center in the sound texture, yet the highly dramatic, almost sinister-sounding music that swirls around it resembles a sea tide running backwards more than a standard concerto. Aho always seems to be more concerned with texture and feeling than form, with the result that his music penetrates deeper into his psyche than almost any other modern composer (with the possible exceptions of Leif Segerstam, John Pickard and one or two others). The five linked sections of this “concerto” continue down a dark path; there is none of the jollity of Mozart’s or Strauss’ horn concerti here, but rather edgy string figures, swirling winds and a sense that you may not get out of this labyrinth and back into the light. As Aho puts it in the liner notes:

The Horn Concerto differs from my other concertos in that the soloist does not stand in front next to the conductor but moves around several times during the course of the work. The horns first entries are heard from backstage. After that the soloist becomes visible and plays from behind the orchestra, moving gradually from left to right while playing. In the end, the hornist leaves the stage again. This gives the work a ritualistic character as if the solo horn brings something from afar to the audience and orchestra and, when all is said and done, disappears from view.

Among the special features of the solo part in this single-movement concerto are micro-intervals. Of the highest overtones on the horn, the seventh, eleventh and thirteenth are approximately a quarter-tone too low. This makes it possible for the horn to play even quarter-tone scales in the highest register, as these impure overtones are combined with pure overtones of the horn in the same register.

Pretty wild, huh? But the music is even wilder in the hearing than in the description of it. Even the quiet, lyrical passages, more tonal in character than the louder ones, have a certain unease about them. Aho is clearly trying to draw the listener into a sound world where normal parameters of music are brushed aside.

And even in the case of so strange a work as the Theremin concerto, titled Eight Seasons, Aho was also writing for a specific virtuoso performer, in this case Carolina Eyck. While playing the Theremin part in Lena Auerbach’s First Symphony with the Washington National Orchestra, contrabassoonist Lewis Lipnick recommended that Eyck listen to Aho’s Contrabassoon and Tuba Concerti and ask the composer to write something for her. This is the result.

EyckA cello and a bass actually dominate the first section of the piece, titled Harvest, until Eyck enters on the Theremin. Her playing is simply extraordinary; Clara Rockmore would be very proud of her. She displays an extraordinary range on the instrument as well as complete command of such musical devices as portamento and glissando, which are very hard to control in pitch. She’s also good at changing dynamics, something that earlier Theremins were virtually incapable of producing. It is in the fourth section, Christmas Darkness, that Eyck performs wordless singing around her Theremin playing. Plain and simple, she is astonishing. In the fifth section, Winter Frost, she plays upward and downward-moving whoops on the instrument to simulate a winter storm. The next section, Crusted Snow, is as good an example as any of Aho’s composing genius. He starts with an idea for a mood, writes logically constructed themes and variants,and then works a specific instrumental texture to fill it in. In this way, he consistently appeals to both one’s emotion and intellect.

The music becomes more agitated as the “seasons” progress, and Crusted Snow moves into Melting of the Ice and then Midnight Sun. Quietude finally returns in the final segment, Midnight Sun, and only here does Aho achieve something like relaxation in his score. Eyck again sings wordlessly as she plays in this finale.

This is tremendously interesting music, brilliantly performed and exceptionally recorded. Go for it!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Mendelssohn’s Rare Motets Featured on New CD

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MENDELSSOHN: 2 Psalms, Op; 78: 1. Warum toben die Heiden. Kyrie Eleison. Ehre sei Gott in her Höhe. Piano Trio No. 2, Op. 66.1,2 Richte mich, Gott. Heilig ist der Gott Zebaoth. Jauchzet dem Herrn, alle Welt. Cello Sonata Op. 58: II. Adagio2 / Flemish Radio Choir; Hervé Niquet, cond; 1Pekka Kuusisto, vln; 2Pieter Wispelwey, cel; 2Alasdair Beatson, pn / Evil Penguin Records Classic EPRC 0024

Here’s something really unusual: a collection of motets by Felix Mendelssohn, interspersed with the Piano Trio No. 2 and the Adagio from his cello sonata, featured on a label called Evil Penguin Records Classic!

Evil PenguinOrdinarily, I steer clear of religious choral music unless the composer’s last name is Bach or Beethoven, and even in the case of the former I don’t like most of J.S. Bach’s religious cantatas, but these works by Mendelssohn are really interesting. For one thing, they’re very lively; in fact, the first one almost has a rhythm, and certainly a harmonic bias, similar to Hassidic music. For another, they use a great deal of counterpoint, showing Mendelssohn’s love for Bach’s music (not surprising when you consider that he was the principal person responsible for the great Bach revival in his time). The liner notes also indicate that the reason the Piano Trio No. 2 is included here is that the last movement is based on the Lutheran chorale “Herr Gott Dich Loben Wir,” which was used by J.S. Bach in his Cantata 130. A slim connection, but a connection nonetheless. A little stronger is the “Adagio” from the Cello Sonata, Op. 58, which is based on the chord structure of “Es ist vollbracht” from Bach’s St. John Passion.

But of course, what really matters is the quality of the performances, and these are absolutely superb. I’m familiar with, and a fan of, Hervé Niquet, but oddly as a conductor of offbeat operas, Simon Catel’s Semiramis and Gustave Charpentier’s Didon on the Glossa label. Here, he leads a particularly animated Flemist chorus in vigorous and very non-contemplative readings of these brief motets by one of the greatest composers who ever lived.

I already had a good performance of the Piano Trio No. 2 by violinist Marie Bader-Kubizek, cellist Dorothea Schönwiese and pianist Hrvoje Jugović on Brilliant Classics 94490, yet although I felt that pianist Alasdair Beatson sounded just a shade underpowered at times this one is easily its equal. This is largely due to the driving energy of violinist Pekka Kuusisto, who seems to be running the show from the violin chair. This is more of a modern-non Romantic view of the work, with only brief moments of relaxation in the tempo, otherwise driving the music home with force and determination. If they seemed to be a bit lacking in sensitivity in the second movement, they at least do not wallow in pathos or bathos. The third movement skitters with remarkable fleetness, sounding a bit like the Scherzo in this composer’s Midsummer Night’s Dream music, and the last, a lively sort of 6/8 jig, is perhaps the best example of how well this ad hoc trio played together for this session.

The motet Richte mich, Gott sounds perhaps less Bach-like than those previously sung, but it’s still a fine example of how good a composer Mendelssohn was. (Really, except for the drippy Alto Rhapsody and Elijah, I don’t think he wrote any bad music.) Heilig ist der Gott Zebaoth starts very high in the sopranos, singing a rhythmic rather than a melodic figure which feeds into the tenors’ line when they make their entrance. Interesting to hear how he used his choir almost like a string quartet, writing melodic-rhythmic figures that play off each other and not dreary tunes hoping to convey “spirituality.” By contrast, Jauchzet dem Herrn seemed to me the most religious of the lot. The CD, as I mentioned, closes out with the “Adagio” from the Cello Sonata, and here pianist Beatson is really quite eloquent, followed in mood and spirit by cellist Wispelwey. A really lovely performance and a nice conclusion to this interesting disc.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Fonnesbæk & Kauflin Plunge Into the Jazz Abyss

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SYNESTHESIA / FONNESBÆK: Synesthesia. Panic Attack. Waiting. Semiosis. Catwalk. KAUFLIN: Lost. Skybound. PORTER: It’s All Right With Me. LENNON-McCARTHY: For No One. PETERSON: Nigerian Marketplace / Thomas Fonnesbæk, bs; Justin Kauflin, pn / Storyville SVL1014310

So you think you know what a piano-bass jazz duo sounds like? Well, maybe you don’t unless you’ve heard this extraordinary pair, because bassist Thomas Fonnesbæk plays like no one else. He’s lyrical, inventive, and percussive all at the same time. He can act as a ground bass, lead voice, or alternative soloist at any given moment—sometimes, perhaps performing two of those roles simultaneously. He tends to stay a lot in the upper range of his instrument, which generally makes it sound more like a cello than a bass, and he has absolutely no fear. He’ll go anywhere and do whatever is necessary to perform what he wants to say. And his partner, pianist Justin Kauflin, has “big ears” and goes wherever Fonnesbæk or his own muse leads him. I would best describe Kauflin’s style as “minimalist Lennie Tristano” or perhaps a combo of Tristano with John Lewis. His playing is not just precise technically but absolutely crystalline in execution, and he holds nothing back intellectually. Rather than show off, like so many jazz pianists today (even good ones), he is more concerned with creating musical structures that have walls, ceilings and floors. In his own composition Lost, he is not above tossing in a quote from the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby, but only if it fits and helps him bridge the gap between point A and point B. He does not cite others’ work unless it has a structural function.

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Fonnesbæk and Kauflin (photo: Brigitte Soffner)

Perhaps the casual jazz listener can get a handle on how this duo functions when listening to the well-known Cole Porter standard, It’s All Right With Me. As Kauflin states the melody straight, Fonnesbæk is flitting around him, creating fascinating, syncopated counter-figures. Then, as the pianist moves into an almost Baroque fantasy on the theme, the bassist continues in the same vein, showing us how “basso continuo” can be something creative and not just a functionary role. By the third chorus, Kauflin is flying and Fonnesbæk is still working around him, somehow fitting into whatever he plays not just effortlessly but with a real purpose. As Kauflin steps aside to play chorded fills on the keyboard, Fonnesbæk steps up his game, producing a bluesy, ingenious chorus of his own. You never miss any other instruments because they never stop interacting or inventing. Later in this tune, Kauflin also plays off-the-beat counter-figures to his own left-hand musings.

The duo takes one of the more obscure Beatles tunes, For No One, and turn it into a jazz ballad of sorts. I say “of sorts” because the bassist’s continually edgy (albeit soft) background lines belie the concept of a ballad. Nonetheless, both musicians forego their normally busy style here to play sparsely, relaxing the beat just enough so that it swings instead of rocking. This is the closest thing to “ambient jazz” on the album, and it’s still more complex than most tunes in that genre.

This is then followed by three Fonnesbæk originals in a row, with Panic Attack being the funkiest and most swinging of them. This almost sounds like Cannonball Adderly meets Bach. It swings but it’s quite complex in both conception and execution. The bassist’s solo is so complex that you’d think he was playing his strings with both hands! Waiting is more relaxed, almost at a medium tempo but with a ballad feel, and here again we hear the extraordinary interaction that this duo can create. Kauflin’s lines become increasingly complex but also more swinging as the piece unfolds. I simply can’t get over the extraordinary, almost Baroque quality of Fonnesbæk’s playing; every note has a firm center, yet he tosses each one off like pellets striking a bell. He has the harmonic acuity of a great pianist and the perfect timing of a great percussionist. Semiosis is a relaxed swinger, with both players leaning back a little from their classical chops and giving us a bit more conventional piano-bass interaction. It almost has the feel of one of Vince Guaraldi’s more relaxed pieces, played at a nice waltz tempo.

Oscar Peterson’s Nigerian Marketplace has a line that closely resembles Sonny Rollins’ Pent-Up House, only not quite as angular. The duo really takes off on this one, and Fonnesbæk’s solo is absolutely extraordinary, flitting around the bass with melodic and harmonic impunity. From here we move on to Kauflin’s Skybound, with its quasi-calypso beat and sunny harmonies. Here the duo almost sounds playful as they lean back from their normal complex interactions, though Kauflin’s solo work in the middle of the tune becomes quite busy.

In the finale, Catwalk, the duo again sounds more relaxed. The whole set, then, almost seems like an unwinding, starting from a point of greatest tension (musically speaking) and arriving at a point of relaxation. Fonnesbæk is as inventive as ever here, but less busy, and Kauflin relaxes as well. It’s a fine ending to a simply extraordinary album, one you’ll listen to again and again.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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