More of Simpson’s Superb Symphonies

SIMPSON: Symphony No. 1 / London Philharmonic Orch.; Sir Adrian Boult, cond / Symphony No. 2 / New Philharmonia Orch., Jascha Horenstein, cond / Symphony No. 3 / London Symphony Orch.; Jascha Horenstein, cond / Symphony No. 4: I. Allegro moderato; II. Presto; III. Andante; IV. Allegro vivace / Kensington Symphony Orch., Russell Keable, cond / Symphony No. 5: I. Allegro; II. Canone I; III. Scherzino; IV. Canone 2; V. Finale / London Symphony Orch.; Andrew Davis, cond / Symphony No. 6 / London Philharmonic Orch.; Charles Groves, cond / Symphony No. 7 / Royal Liverpool Philharmonic; Brian Wright, cond / Symphony No. 8 / Royal Danish Orch., Jerzy Semkow, cond / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking symphony or movement titles above

The pleasant-looking, pacifist, pipe-smoking Robert Wilfred Levick Simpson (1921-1997), who worked as a music producer at the BBC for nearly 30 years, was one of the most original and exciting symphonists of his time, but as far as the rest of the world is concerned, he is a non-entity.

The reasons for this are several, but chief among them is the fact that Simpson was never a self-promoter and lacked a high-powered agent to spread his name across the globe. Nor did he have a record label, as Benjamin Britten did, devoted to the recording and dissemination of his music. On the contrary, only a few of his symphonies were professionally recorded in studio settings. Most of the available performances are of live performances. These are generally very exciting and reasonably well recorded, but most of them are in mono sound and even when they are issued they tend to float through the ether of the classical world without a ripple of interest.

Of course, Simpson’s rather thorny style, based on bitonality and lacking recognizable melodies which people can hum on their way out of the concert hall, also has much to do with it. Yet even so, his friend and older colleague Havergal Brian, who became a sort of cause célèbre in the classical music world during the years 1969-1980, was and remains better known in the classical world. Although Brian’s name is still somewhat known to aficionados of modern music and there are quite a few studio recordings of his music, he too is largely ignored in the concert hall. But at least HE has a good reputation, while poor Simpson is barely known.

Simpson didn’t set out to become a composer, but rather to be a doctor. After two years’ study, however, he realized that he should switch majors. A conscientious objector during World War II, he nonetheless served with a mobile surgical unit during the blitz of London while taking lessons in composition from Herbert Howells. It was Howells who urged Simpson to pursue the Durham University Bachelor of Music degree, which he did, later gaining a Doctor of Music from that institution after submitting his First Symphony.

It was typical of his innate modesty, however, that during his long tenure with the BBC he never pushed his music but rather the music of Brian. Among his achievements were a performance of Brian’s early, late-Romantic “Gothic” Symphony under Sir Adrian Boult in 1966 and his 28th Symphony under Leopold Stokowski in 1973. The latter became something of a new item, since this symphony by the 91-year-old Brian was conducted by the then 91-year-old Stokowski.

In addition to writing 11 symphonies, Simpson also composed 15 string quartets, two string quintets, and a number of non-standard chamber works. I’ve yet to run across recordings of any of the string quartets, though I’m sure that a few exist. Happily, complete performances of Symphonies Nos. 1-8 are available for free streaming on YouTube, so that you can get a good idea of just how interesting and brilliant a composer Simpson was. These are the ones I’ve listed in the header, and now we will discuss them in order.

Symphony No. 1: Immediately announces a new and important composer with its dramatic opening. Simpson wrote in a bitonal manner, here pitting A and E against each other, and he often back off from his edgy, dramatic moments to create equally bitonal but quieter passages that evoked mystery and sometimes unease. This piece is in three linked movements, none of which are given titles or tempo designations, a practice that he would back off from with his second symphony but return to in the Sixth and Seventh. What grabs one immediately with Simpson, however, is not so much the extraordinary imagination of his writing but the strong emotional content. This was then and is today uncommon for most British symphonists, though of course one thinks of Vaughan Williams’ late symphonies (particularly the Sixth) as possible models that Simpson might have used as inspiration.

It should also not be ignored that Simpson was a strong pacifist, and that a possible subtext of his work was the lurking specter of war and its debilitating effects on humanity. Benjamin Britten, also a pacifist, wrote some of his edgiest and most emotional music for his War Requiem, which somewhat resembles Simpson’s music in mood if not in structure or melodic-harmonic language. The performance by Adrian Boult- a conductor often underrated in America (possibly due to the fact that it was primarily his recordings of Holst’s The Planets that were widely disseminated here), is taut and driving in the fast passages, achingly lyrical in the slow ones. (Boult was the longest-lived of Artur Nikisch’s conducting pupils; in addition to his immaculate baton technique, he also picked up from Nikisch the Hungarian’s penchant for brisk tempi, powerful emotional projection, and the insistence that every strand of the score should be clearly heard.) Little if anything in any Boult performance was mushy or sentimental, and this in itself made him an ideal interpreter of Simpson.s music.

At the outset of the last movement, which, surprisingly, is almost a scherzo, Simpson relaxes his bitonal bias a bit, though the harmony constantly seems to be in flux, flitting from one key to another before it returns. Eventually the orchestral writing becomes very complex indeed, creating a polyphonic web of sound, which Boult’s clean stick technique keeps clear and always audible to the listener. An outstanding performance of an outstanding work, in my view the finest First Symphony by any composer other than Brahms or Mahler.

Symphony No. 2: Complete in 1956 and dedicated to Anthony Bernard, the conductor of the London Chamber Orchestra, even though it was written for a large orchestra and premiered by John Barbirolli with the Hallé Orchestra in July 1957. Divided into three separate movements with titles, it too uses bitonality but is less abrasive to the ear. Jascha Horenstein, once a formidable name among great conductors but now sadly forgotten by many, made a superb recording of this work in 1971 which is the one presented here. A famous champion of Mahler and Nielsen, Horenstein clearly knew how to cope with such harmonically complex and driving music, though by the early 1970s his approach was just a shade less intense than Boult in his prime. Of course, some of my impression may be due to the way the sound is engineered, which seems to soften some of the climaxes a bit instead of “letting them all hang out.”

In this work, Simpson uses the clashes between B and the tonalities a major third above (Eb) and below it (G). As in the case of most bitonal or atonal music, the trick is not to work within the parameters one sets for oneself but to make the music sound inspired and emotionally interesting. Havergal Brian was a master of the short, terse bitonal symphony, but as I pointed out earlier, most of these works are cerebral despite their high level of ingenuity. The difference, I think, is that Brian worked from the premise that it was up to the interpreter to add emotion to his works whereas Simpson worked from the premise that it was his responsibility to make the conductor match his intensity. Considering this, I wonder how effective Barbirolli’s first performance was, since he was not a conductor given to tight, dramatic forms but rather to more relaxed, Romantic ones.

One of Simpson’s most clever constructions is the second movement of this symphony: if one removes the last few bars, this movement is a palindrome—the same backwards ad forwards—though the naked ear doesn’t always pick this up. This, again, makes him similar to but different from Brian, who would undoubtedly have made his feature somewhat more obvious had he written this symphony. After such a placid, almost lovely movement, however, Simpson rears his bitonally edgy head with the energetic last movement, in which the angular violin melody is underscored by thundering tympani. The descriptive notes on Wikipedia refer to its “sort of Beethovinian hilarity,” but in actual practice this movement is not really hilarious at all, though it is somewhat celebratory in its edgy, bitonal way.

Symphony No. 3: The Third Symphony (1962) opens quietly but quickly moves into Simpson’s trademark bitonal edginess and power. One thing you will realize by the time you reach this symphony is that the mood, if not the notes, are very similar to each other. This is, perhaps, a weakness in listening to the entire series in quick order. There isn’t as much variety in his symphonies are there are, for instance, in those of Mahler or Nielsen. Of course, Simpson never expected that anyone would listen to his full oeuvre in order; he was lucky if he got at least a couple of performances of most of them in live concert settings.

This is the symphony he dedicated to Havergal Brian. It is in two long movements marked “Allegro ma non troppo” and “Adagio – Presto.” The first movement is typically heavy and dramatic; the repeated  heavy brass chords with tympani near the end soon recede, leading to an edgy passage for winds that gradually increases in volume, leading to a string finish.

Simpson described the second movement as “a huge composed accelerando, but with the dynamics repressed,” Wikipedia states that “It is really a slow movement and finale, and the tempo is always increasing” and that it “takes a good while to climax.” Here, especially in the first movement but also in the second, it is the inner details that arrest one’s attention, not the overall frame of the work. Simpson’s mind was always moving and, with it, so did his music. The score is rich with details, some overt and many quite subtle, and it is up to the listener to absorb them all. The lengthy “Adagio” section in the section gives the listener a respite from his normally heavy style; despite the lack of a really recognizable melodic line, the music is quite attractive.

Symphony No. 4 (1972): This was Simpson’s largest symphony at the time and his first “regular” four-movement work. Here he toys with the harmony in a different way, sometimes using chords that are the same in structure but a fifth apart. He cleverly voices these in widely-spaced registers so the higher chord sounds like the harmonics of the lower one. It is also more richly scored than previously, using a larger orchestra. Interestingly, if one listens closely one will hear wind and string figures that seem like modern equivalents of those used by Haydn and Beethoven, but the unusual harmonic settings make them sound harsh and unusual. Perhaps the excellent sonics of Russell Keable’s recording have something to do with this, but to my ears the scoring also sounds richer than in the previous symphonies. Certainly, the excellent stereo imaging allows one to hear the different threads of the orchestration better and not as one block of sound. The second-movement scherzo is surprisingly jolly for Simpson despite the edgy harmonies. It’s also a VERY long scherzo, lasting 13 ½ minutes. The “Andante” movement is unusually warm and friendly-sounding music for Simpson, followed by a surprisingly happy-sounding “Allegro vivace.” A wonderful work.

Symphony No. 5 (1972): In my review of the Andrew Davis performance released on Lyrita, I said that although it is divided into five numbered sections, it is essentially one continuous movement. At no point in its 39-minute duration does one feel bored or restless listening to it. Even the soft second section (“Comodo e tranquillo”) has a feeling of tension despite its slow pace and very sparse orchestration (mostly just the flute, and then an oboe, then a clarinet, playing above sustained chords by the basses and possibly also the cellos). In the third section, marked “Molto vivace,” the volume slowly increases until we are caught in a veritable web of snarling brass making fair to overtake the staunch little flute which just keeps on going its own way. In the next section, “Canzone 2: Adagio,” the violas play a strange but lyrical melody against rhythmic repeated notes on the basses, but if one follows the long arc of the music and doesn’t just concentrate on the component parts, his sense of construction is as remarkable as his fiery and unexpected changes of mood and turns of phrase. In short, Simpson was a creator, someone who tempered his inspiration with a strong sense of musical unity, and as such commands our attention even today. Even the little rocking motion he employs at one point in the Finale is integrated not only rhythmically but thematically into the surrounding material; it’s unexpected and surprising, but he almost makes it sound as if it were an inevitable part of the composition, and he then re-uses it later in the movement to variations on that short motif.

Symphony No. 6 (1977): 1977 must have been a good year for Simpson, because it was the only one in which he produced not one but two symphonies. This one is divided into two sections, the first lasting roughly 15 minutes and the second almost 18. This, like Beethoven’s Sixth, opens more lyrically than the Fifth, although some edgy brass chords come and go, letting you know that something eventful is on the horizon. At 1:53, Simpson begins a somewhat quirky tune with a quirky rhythm, and things begin to move. Here the basses do not remain static but play a counter-figure of their own against the upper-range activity of the strings and brass. The liner notes explain that the basic idea of the symphony, proposed by gynecologist Ian Croft, was to write a symphony that simulated the growth of a living creature from a fertilized germ, and Simpson took this to heart. Of course, music only really expresses things in musical terms, no matter how pictorial that music might be, but it’s an interesting concept to keep in mind as you listen. There are all sorts of little things going on in the inner voices throughout this symphony, and here Simpson again holds your attention without being as flashy or as overt as in the Fifth. By the mid-point in the first section, things are quite lively indeed but, except for the spiky harmonies, not really very menacing.

As we move into the second part, the music becomes calmer. Apparently our living creature has found sustenance and perhaps a mate and thus sounds quite content with life. Simpson keeps on inventing, developing and switching themes and motifs as the work continues; he has a large fund of ideas, they’re all good, and somehow he makes them work together. At the 11;10 mark in this second section, for instance, he uses blocks of sound and strongly syncopated rhythms together, and a bit later on the tempo doubles as he works his theme out. Things become more and more hectic as our living creature, apparently pissed off at the world, seems to be going on a bit of a rampage.

Symphony No. 7 (1977): Though written in 1977 like the Sixth Symphony, it didn’t receive its premiere until 1984. It opens with slow, ominous-sounding basses, then violas with high winds above them. We are told that this symphony “explores resonances inherent in a ‘cluster’ harmony which is introduced in horizontal form at the very outset of the symphony,” but I, as a listener, am more focused on what the music conveys to me rather than such niceties of construction. As usual, Simpson is focused on the harmony as the genesis for all his other ideas, including both melodic lines and their variants. Though in one continuous movement, the symphony is in three distinct sections although the first takes up more than half the symphony (it runs over a half-hour). One thing I like about Simpson’s symphonies are their terse construction; at no point does one say to oneself, “This is repetitive” or “This is going on too lung.” He says what he has to say, then moves on to the next statement/section. Simpson used harmony the way other composers use melody or rhythm, which is to say as the genesis for all the other features of the music. He played in his mind with the harmony for so long that various different permutations presented themselves to him, and he went to work allowing these to dictate the progression. In a sense, it is not unlike the improvisation of a jazz musician except that he took time to flesh out his ideas with extraordinary orchestral textures. All of his music is inventive but none of it is “comfortable” listening. Brian Wright’s performance, the world premiere of the work, is for some reason recorded in mono sound, which puts a bit of a damper on our appreciation of his use of texture, but the different strands of the music are certainly clear enough for us to appreciate what Simpson accomplished.

Symphony No. 8 (1981): By the time the Seventh Symphony was premiered, Simpson had already written his Eighth Symphony, which ironically was premiered in 1982, two years before the Seventh. Due to his use of unusual modern harmony, it’s hard to call any of Simpson’s symphonies “jolly,” but this one opens with what is, for him, a surprisingly lighthearted “Poco animato” that almost sounds like a scherzo. It is scored for high strings and chirping flutes, with the basses playing a somewhat foreboding drone figure underneath which takes the music a bit outside of its “jolly” tone. Nor does this mood last: as the movement develops, it slowly but surely becomes more stark and violent and less cheerful, with punching brass outbursts. Just as it reaches its climax, it collapses into a genuine “Scherzo” but one which is threatening and sinister. This mood is, again, created from the harmonic placement on up, not from the top down, and to my ears the tempo seems just a bit slow for a scherzo.

Predictably, the ensuing “Adagio” is quite passionate, starting with a slow fugue. Slowly, the nightmarish first part gives way to calm and serenity before eventually moving into the “Allegro” finale, energetic as always in his symphonies.

A complete set of Simpson’s symphonies, along with the Variations on a Theme by Nielsen, was issued by Hyperion Records in 2006. Most of these are conducted by Vernon Handley, though the 11th Symphony and Nielsen variations feature the City of London Sinfonia conducted by Matthew Taylor. Although Hyperion is offering most of this set for sale as MP3 downloads at Presto Classical for only $40, several pieces are only available if you buy the physical CDs, i.e. the second half of Symphonies Nos. 3 and 6, the last movement of the Symphony No. 5, the first movement of the Seventh, the first and third movement of the Ninth, the last movement of the Tenth and the second movement of the 11th. In order to get all of the music, you have to purchase the physical CDs, and that’s a problem because the set is OUT OF PRINT. You can, however, get a used copy on Amazon for $124. Thus even the one label that has done Simpson a service by recording them all in the studio impedes your hearing these marvelous works unless you cough up some serious coin.

What Hyperion should do is to make the set available for streaming on Spotify, which gives the record company some financial remuneration each time a listener uses that service. But of course such a thing never occurred to them; they’d just as soon have the records out of print than to make this valuable music available to a wider public.

Nonetheless, I urge you to investigate these marvelous works on YouTube if nothing else. They will reward your patience with some seriously invigorating listening.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Wadada Leo Smith’s Solo Trumpet Recital

TRUMPET / SMITH: Albert Ayler. Rashomon, Pts. 1-5. Howard and Miles – A Photographic Image. Metallic Rainbow (For Steve McCall). Sauna – A Healthy Journey (For Petri). Malik el-Shabazz and the People of the Shahada. Leroy Jenkins Violin Expressions. James Baldwin – No Name in the Street; War. Amina Claudine Myers. Sonic Night – Night Colors (For Reggie Workman). Discourses on the Sufi Path – A Remembrance of Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, Parts 1-4. Family – A Contemplation of Love, Parts 1-4. Trumpet / Wadada Leo Smith, tpt / Tum Records 002

On this second set by Wadada Leo Smith, the trumpeter plays a cappella for a little over two hours, broken up onto three CDs. I made mention in reviewing his other release coming out on May 21, Sacred Ceremonies, that he seemed locked into generally regular patterns, particularly in the first disc, but here I found his playing to be more consistently adventurous and thus much more interesting.

As I mentioned in my review of Sacred Ceremonies, Smith has, at age 74 (the recordings were made back in 2016), retained the beautiful tone and full control of his instrument that he had when younger, and that in itself is miraculous, but here he stretches himself out more. I found this remarkable considering that he plays all of this music alone, without musical partners to inspire him, but that is what happens here. I would also add that this is even more stunning when one considers that these pieces were recorded in a small church in Finland, and not even in his home stomping grounds, so to speak.

Smith manages to contrast stark, sparse notes with small runs and flurries masterfully; even the bent or distorted notes have an emotional impact on the listener. Here is a seasoned musical soul communicating with itself, and doing so in a way that would put many a younger trumpeter to shame. I know this is going to be misconstrued, though I hope it is not, but Smith has nearly as much full control of his horn and his ability to translate his musical intentions into sound as did Bunny Berigan back in the 1930s. Granted, the style is different but the results are similar, a translation into sound of anything and everything he hears in his mind. And, like Berigan, there is no “waste” in his playing. Every solo has something to say and does so with strength of conviction.

Some of his most innovative and individual playing comes in the five-part suite based on Akira Kurosawa’s film, Rashomon, which “challenges the viewer’s belief as to what he or she sees in the film. It is a psychological game, where guessing might be used as the basis for information and to use that information to connect the imagery and action to understand the meaning of the film.” Smith’s playing here is among his most daring works, employing a number of buzzes, slurs and occasionally overblown notes to create a potpourri of sounds that seem to have meaning but in an abstract and enigmatic way.

I was particularly pleased, and surprised, to see that Smith included a piece paying tribute to not only Miles Davis but also Howard McGhee (1918-1987), one of the earliest bop trumpeters after Dizzy Gillespie. Although generally forgotten today except by musicians, I fell in love with McGhee’s playing during his early stint with the Kansas City-based orchestra of Andy Kirk, who also mentored the great pianist Mary Lou Williams. Williams, who stayed for several years, not only became famous for her piano stylings but also for her arrangements, and thus almost came to be assumed to be the orchestra’s musical leader and “heart,” much to Kirk’s consternation. McGhee only stayed a year or two, however, before he was off to stardom on his own. To be honest, Smith doesn’t quite capture the haunting softness of Davis’ muted tone—few trumpeters could, or can even today—but he makes an interesting piece out of it.

In the piece dedicated to Malik al-Shabazz, which focused on his contribution to the Civil Rights movement in America, Smith plays in the sparse, spaced-out-note style he exhibited in Sacred Ceremonies; some of it was quite effective, however. Other tributes on CD 2 are to jazz violinist Leroy Jenkins, with whom Smith and saxist Anthony Braxton played in the late 1960s, and writer James Baldwin. In the second of these, Smith plays in interesting staccato stabs and lip trills amidst his usual lyricism. There is also a tribute on this disc to pianist-organist Amina Claudine Myers, one of the very few women musicians in the male-dominated AACM.

The last CD opens with more tributes, to bassist Reggie Workman, another Muslim mentor, Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, and members of Smith’s family. On the first of these, Smith plays in his sparse-note style that dominated the first CD of Sacred Ceremonies, but on the second he is livelier and much more adventurous; indeed, this is some of his most exciting and original playing on this set. But the finale, titled simply Trumpet, is the most startling of all. Smith plays fast atonal licks using a surprisingly choked tone, sometimes even achieving chords by humming one note while playing another. A real tour-de-force.

This thoughtful and surprisingly inventive session has to be one of Smith’s finest in recent years, a must for his many admirers.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Sheppard Skærved Plays Hallgrímsson

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HALLGRÍMSSON: Klee Sketches, Books I & II. Offerto, in Memoriam Karl Kvaran / Peter Sheppard Skærved, vln / Métier 28616

From the notes written by the composer:

In the year 2005, the highly esteemed British violinist, Peter Sheppard Skærved, contacted me and asked if I would be interested in providing him with a few short sketches for violin solo, which he intended to perform in a concert at an exhibition in an Art Gallery in Mexico City. Soon after our conversation I sent him a few short pieces for solo violin, which he performed in Mexico City and at other venues.

Many years later I came across these sketches, when I was looking for a particular composition. I have always loved the violin and enjoyed composing music for it. I decided to take a closer look at them, and I soon found myself revising this material and adding new pieces. I decided to keep the original title “Klee Sketches” for this collection, even though they have with time developed into quite substantial compositions. There are now 15 pieces which I have divided into two books, in case a violinist would like to include few but not all of them in a programme.

Paul Klee was a highly educated and cultured man who also happened to be a very good violinist. He gave nearly all his paintings and drawings titles that were not only very apt, but also very clever. The titles created an additional dimension to the artwork itself. Some of these titles are playful and quirky. I decided since my music was an Homage to Klee, to give my pieces unusual titles as well, that not only reflected the musical content, up to a point, but also forced me into unfamiliar territory as a composer.

In order to get closer to Klee the violinist, I read his diaries, where he discusses in many instances his activities as a violinist. He also expresses with confidence his opinions on the music he is performing, as well as opinions on fellow musicians, conductors, soloists and composers. I soon began to feel I was composing these pieces for Klee, to perform at his house for a selection of friends, and that I could travel back in time and accept his invitation to attend the first performance.

I admit not knowing that Paul Klee played the violin, but such was the case. And, as it turns out, Hafliði Hallgrímsson’s other piece on this recital, Offerto, was also written in memory of another abstract painter, Karl Kvaran.

Kvaran - Reputation

Karl Kvaran, “Reputation”

Although the music is decidedly modern, not all of it is as abstract as the art that inspired it. The first piece in Book I of the Klee Sketches, in fact, titled “Klee practicing an accompaniment for a popular song,” alternates between a fairly tuneful melody and abstract moments. In this piece I found Hallgrímsson to be an interesting composer, one who can both juxtapose themes and develop them intelligently. The other pieces in Book I of these variations bear such titles as “And now for the art of string-crossing,” “Klee experiments with a new scale,” “Klee takes a legato line for a walk (version B)” (version A is in Book II) and “Do not neglect your pizzicato.” Some of these pieces, such as the third named here, really are nothing more than exercises. In fact, I would go so far as to say that these works in toto are essentially etudes for the violin, modern string equivalents of Czerny or Chopin etudes for the piano. I think the thing that surprised me, who was assuming much spikier, more abstract music, was how tonal they are at heart, representing more the kind of music that Klee played on the fiddle than his abstract paintings, and this even went for the final piece in Book I which is titled “Klee entertaining Kandinsky.”

As a sidelight, I might point out that Klee’s activities as a violinist seem to be better known that I had imagined, and on YouTube you can find such videos as violinist Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu improvising a 30-second piece inspired by Klee’s painting, Senecio, so apparently Hallgrímsson is not alone in his being inspired by Klee musically.

The four individual pieces in the Offerto suite are both longer and, ironically, much more abstract than the Klee sketches, yet even within these pieces are surprisingly beautiful, lyrical moments. Hallgrímsson is quite evidently a modern composer who doesn’t like being pigeonholed and thus feel comfortable shifting styles within a single composition…a perfect example is “Written in sand,” which employs a very lyrical line but also delves into quarter-tones, and in the third piece, “The flight of time,” Hallgrímsson is surprisingly edgy, almost frantic, eventually sending the violinist screaming into its highest register. Even in a relatively “simple” piece like “Almost a hymn,” the last number in Offerto, he manipulates his material so skillfully and yet so subtly that, unfamiliar as it is, one simply soaks it in and says to oneself, “Yes, that’s how the music should have gone,” even when he again briefly dips into quarter-tones. Somehow it all makes sense.

The second Klee suite picks up where the first leaves off, though it does contain alternate versions of “Frau Klee is Sleeping” and “Klee takes a legato-line for a walk.” Here, Hallgrímsson plays a bit more with in-between pitches, particularly in “Klee ‘sounds out’ an etching he is contemplating.” “Klee sketching a tree” is particularly fascinating, being both descriptive and abstract at the same time.

So here is one more modern Icelandic composer one must consider a major creator, albeit, on this CD, in small forms. His music is thought-provoking and consistently intriguing. An extremely fine recording in every respect. Skærved plays as well as he ever has, and the recorded sound is nigh-perfect.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The Eblana String Trio Plays British Composers

FINZI: Prelude and Fugue for String Trio. WOOD: Ithaka. BEAMISH: The King’s Alchemist. MOERAN: String Trio in G / Eblana String Trio / Willowhayne Records WHR067

The Eblana String Trio, founded in 2006, consists of violinist Jonathan Martindale, violist Lucy Nolan and cellist Peggy Nolan. On this disc they pay tribute to four British composers of which probably the best known outside England is the late Gerald Finzi. Like so many of his contemporaries, Finzi wrote in a relatively consonant style based on older music. There are some nice touches in his use of counterpoint and a few mild excursions of unusual tonality, but nothing that would ruffle the feathers of the average classical music radio buff. Thus his Prelude and Fugue for string trio is interesting for the way he manipulated the three strings and the solid professionalism of his composing style, and I was glad to hear it.

The trio plays with an excellent combination of suave finesse and rhythmic energy when the music calls for it. Judging from this recording, which is my first hearing of them, they have a very warm sound, Even when they are playing totally separate, opposing lines, they sound as if they are operating as a unit and not as three competing instruments.

This is especially apparent in Ithaka by Hugh Wood, a composer born in 1932 who at this writing is still with us. I must be honest: I was absolutely surprised by the complete modernism of this piece, which is given its first recording here. So is Hugh Wood? Apparently, he has spent much of his life as an academic, which then doesn’t surprise me that I’d not heard of him before, but I surely will be on the lookout for his other works. And please understand, it’s not just the modernism of Ithaka that intrigued me, but the highly intelligent manner in which Wood put the piece together. This is music that does not remain within the confines of its edgy opening statements, but evolves and changes direction in both surprising and intelligent ways. I consider it one of the finest modern works I’ve heard by any composer, British or otherwise. Indeed, within its nine minutes and 40 seconds, Wood gives us three contrasting but connected sections, within each of which he morphs and modifies the music as it develops. This is a great piece.

The next composer we hear is Sally Beamish (b. 1956), whose music has an eerie, almost unearthly sound to it. The piece is her impression of the life of John Damian, a European alchemist of the middle ages who served at the court of King James IV and was known by the title “the French leech.” Beamish states in the liner notes that her music is based in part on the French folk song “L’homme armé,” but this is only a part of her remarkable powers of invention. Like the Wood piece, it changes in tempo and mood but, unlike the Wood, is divided into four separate movements of which the last, “Avis Hominis,” consists of strange, upward-moving, darting figures by the violin. Originally commissioned by the Britten Sinfonia, this, too is its first recording.

The recital ends with a very tonal and rather conventional piece, Ernest Moeran’s String Trio in G. The interest in this work is in its very fine polyphonic writing; the themes themselves are conventionally tonal, though Moran did use some nice modulations throughout. I was particularly taken by the “Adagio,” in which Moeran uses the intervals between the two lower instruments (viola and cello) as moving parts against the melody line of the violin, and in which neither melody nor harmony is ever quite predictable. The liner notes quote from a letter he wrote to his friend Peter Warlock while composing it, in which he said that “It is an excellent discipline in trying to break away from the mush of Delius-like chords.” I’d say that he succeeded. The last movement is also interesting in addition to being rhythmically brisk.

This is an interesting survey of British string trios written between 1931 (Moeran) and 2013 (Beamish), showing complementary and contrasting musical styles within the same basic framework. The recorded sound is also superb, forward and not too overripe with echo.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Wadada Leo Smith Plays Sacred Ceremonies

SMITH: Nyoto, Parts 1-3.+ Baby Dodds in Congo Square.+ The Poet: Play Ebony, Play Ivory.+ Ascending the Sacred Waterfall – A Ceremonial Practice.* Prince – A Blue Diamond Spirit.* Donald Ayler’s Rainbow Summit.* Tony Williams.* Waves of Elevated Horizontal Forces.*+ An Epic Journey Insider the Center of Color.*+ Ruby Red Largo – A Sonnet.*+ SMITH-GRAVES: Celebration Rhythms.+ Poetic Sonics.+ SMITH-LASWELL: Mysterious Night.* Earth – A Morning Song.* Minnie Riperton – The Chicago Bronzeville Master Blaster.* SMITH-LASWELL-GRAVES: Social Justice – A Fire for Reimagining the World.*+ Myths of Civilizations and Revolutions.*+ Truth in Expansion.*+ The Healer’s Direct Energy*+ / Wadada Leo Smith, tpt; *Bill Laswell, el-bs; +Milford Graves, dm/perc / Tum Records Box 003

Veteran avant-garde trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, who will turn 80 this December, presents here an album of duo and trio performances with electric bassist Bill Laswell and the now-deceased drummer Milford Graves who passed away on February 12 of this year.

Scheduled for release on May 21, Sacred Ceremonies was recorded in three separate one-day sessions at Laswell’s studio in West Orange, New Jersey (not far from my old college stomping grounds of South Orange) in 2015-16. Laswell and Graves had already made a duo album together in 2013 (Space/Time Redemption), thus the present album may be seen as a follow-up.

The focus of the first CD, however, is on Smith and Graves as a duo. After having listened to so many newer free jazz albums by John Wolf Brennan and Ivo Perelman, with and without pianist Matthew Shipp, I found it interesting to hear Smith again. His chops were in great shape for these sessions, and he plays with the energy and creativity of a man half his age, yet in a sense his music is far less “outside” than that of Perelman. On the first disc of this 3-CD set, he sounds more like Freddie Hubbard than like Don Cherry (of the old Ornette Coleman Quartet) or Lester Bowie (of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, a group founded around the same time Smith was playing with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians). But as someone who enjoys a sense of order in music, no matter how avant-garde it may try to be, I found myself liking his playing very, very much. As in the case of other older free jazz musicians like Lennie Tristano, Smith had a firm grounding in music theory and composition, thus he understands that any solo, no matter how “free,” has to have a certain amount of structure and make some sense. There are a great many modern avant-gardists who could learn lessons in musicianship by listening to Smith’s recordings. To reuse a quote I’ve used often in my reviews from the late Charles Mingus, “You can’t improvise on nothing!”

In the opening three-part original suite Nyoto, Smith stays within a basically tonal bias, using scales in various permutations and meters both obviously and subtly different. Occasionally, but not often, he introduces growls and buzzes on his horn, or sticks a straight mute in and plays with that for a while. Behind him, Graves employs a steady stream of complex drumming in which he combines jazz and African rhythms. In some ways, I found their playing as a duo to be more confrontational than integrated. Graves sets up patterns of his own and sticks to them no matter what while Smith explores his scalar figures. The trumpeter is listening to the drummer, who basically sets the tone for each piece, and not the other way round. But this is fine as long as the inspiration lasts.

The real issue I had with CD 1 was that the first four tracks sound essentially alike. Just taking one and listening to it is exhilarating, but listening to all of them in sequence sounded like different takes of the same piece—interesting but not varied. Only towards the end of Baby Dodds in Congo Square do we hear Smith suddenly break out and play a remarkable series of double-time licks that are as thrilling as they were unexpected. And happily, this carries over into the fifth track, Celebration Rhythms, in which Smith creates some truly amazing and convoluted figures, sometimes using a “choked” sound on his horn. Here, he does indeed sound like Don Cherry. But soon afterward, Smith reverts to the same scalar playing heard earlier in the CD, and my attention began to wander. I mean, it was nice to hear, but he’d already said these things on previous tracks.

CD 2, which opens with Laswell playing a sort of muted, distorted electric bass, struck me as far more interesting. Here, there seemed to be more of a give-and-take between the artists, with each feeding into the other. Smith’s playing is along the same lines as on CD 1 but, if one listens carefully, it is more varied in ideas as well as harmony, partly because he is playing with an instrument that uses harmonics and not just percussive effects. In all of these tracks there is an underlying feeling of rhythm, but Laswell so breaks it up into asymmetrical bits that it keeps the trumpeter on his toes. Smith is particularly inventive in The Blue Diamond Spirit and in Rainbow’s Summit the duo indulges in a more lyrical approach to free jazz.” In Tony Williams the duo engages in more rhythmic playing, with Laswell setting up a sort of ostinato rhythm with his bass over which Smith plays some very interesting figures.

The third CD features all three musicians together and is, in my estimation, the most interesting disc of the three. With Laswell and Graves playing against each other, they create a fascinating web of rhythm and harmonic underpinning for the trumpeter, and in fact Laswell himself has some interesting solos here against Graves’ drumming. Inspired by the interplay of these two artists, Smith gives out with some of his most interesting and inspired  improvisations. This session was clearly an inspiration for all three musicians. Here, each track has a different meter, tempo and vibe, and the musicians respond brilliantly to each other. The Healer’s Direct Energy features some of the most complex drumming on the entire set.

A bit of a mixed review, then, but worth getting for CD 2 and especially for CD 3.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Lily Pons’ Finest Moment

DONIZETTI: La Fille du Régiment / Lily Pons, soprano (Marie); Raoul Jobin, tenor (Tonio); Irra Petina, contralto (Marquise of Berkenfield); Salvatore Baccaloni, bass (Sgt. Sulpice); Louis d’Angelo, bass (Hortentius); Marie Savage, speaker (Duchess of Krakenthorp); Lodovico Oliviero, tenor (Peasant); Wilfred Engelman, bass (Corporal); unknown (Notary); Metropolitan Opera Chorus & Orch.; Gennaro Papi, conductor / Sony Classical 886443147522, also available for free streaming on YouTube or Spotify (live: New York, December 28, 1940)

Here is not just an opera performance but a moment in time—a famous comic opera turned into a personal showcase for the soprano as well as a political statement, Lily Pons’ famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) December 1940 broadcast of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment.

The reason I’m reviewing it here and now is that I just tripped across it on YouTube yesterday, listened to it, and was blown away. There were several reasons why I was blown away. First and foremost, I never really liked Pons’ voice after she left France for our shores in 1931. I always found it a bit shrill and pallid, emotionally inexpressive, and with the tendency to go flat. Second, I had heard that the performance was heavily cut and that Pons had added not only the “Marseillaise” to the performance but also a bit of Lucie’s Act I aria (“Que n’avaons-nous des ailes?”) from the French version of Lucia di Lammermoor, so I wasn’t interested in hearing it.

But, as it turns out, none of this matters. This is a helluva Fille du Regiment—in fact, the most exciting and fun performance I’ve ever heard. And it’s not just Pons who’s great in it. French-Canadian tenor Raoul Jobin, who I always found somewhat strained of voice and dull in interpretation, really delivers one of his greatest performances here. Irra Petina, a singer barely remembered today, sings the best Marquise of Berkenfield you’ll ever hear in your life, and Salvatore Baccaloni is, without question, the greatest Sergeant Sulpice ever recorded. On top of all this, Gennaro Papi, who in 1913-15 had been Toscanini’s assistant conductor at the Met, pulls everything together and conducts like a house on fire.

Pons, the original genius of self-marketing, promotion and what we now call “branding,” spared no efforts to make this a performance that people would remember. She made sure that the premiere of this production was not a regular weekday performance but the Saturday afternoon broadcast, which meant that millions would hear it (and all of the New York music critics had to attend and review it). And although she gave seven performances of it under the auspices of the Met (all of them with Papi), only three were given at the New York house. The others were performed at the Philadelphia Academy of Music (January 21, 1941),  the Metropolitan Theatre in Boston (April 1, 1941), Cleveland’s Public Auditorium (April 16, 1941) and the Fair Park Auditorium in Dallas (April 26, 1941). In short, she made it her own traveling road show and, because each outside performance was a premiere in that city, all of those performances got major newspaper reviews. Oh, yes…she also made the cover of Time magazine for her efforts. Possibly the best review, in that it perfectly described what you hear on this recording, came from Arthur Loesser, a splendid classical pianist, musicologist and the highbrow brother of famed musical composer Frank Loesser, in the Cleveland Press:

“The Daughter of the Regiment” is a slight, unpretentious piece which never aimed at being anything but light entertainment. Our father’s generation thought of it as hopelessly outmoded, but it is sufficiently remote now so that its resurrection seems animated by a certain freshness, especially when done as it was last night with much liveliness and high spirits.

Like Musical Comedy

It contains many easy tunes, some snappy choruses, some coloratura stunts on the tonal flying trapeze, some cute costumes and dancing, and a fair amount of custard-pie comedy. Indeed, to the naked ear, it is indistinguishable from what we usually call musical comedy.

Originally leveled at the tired business man of Paris of 1840, it turns out to be pretty good medicine for the tired business man, as well as tired doctor, lawyer, merchant chief – and music critic – of Cleveland of 1941.

Chief vocal feature of the show was the singing of the famous coloratura soprano Lily Pons, in the title role. She developed some charming phrases in her slower numbers, especially the air: “Il faut partir,” toward the end of the second act.

Thus, this is a performance of Fille du Regiment that fizzles like a bottle of champagne that some idiot shook up before the cork was popped. It’s so full of fun and high energy that you’d swear you could actually see the performers as they sing it.

Perhaps the most egregious cut in the opera is the now-famous tenor cabaletta, “Pour mon âme,” with its nine (sometimes eight) high Cs, made famous by Luciano Pavarotti in 1968 and sung ever since by a laundry list of tenors, some of whom only sang it in concert and not in an actual performance. Some mean-spirited scribes have suggested that Pons was responsible for cutting it because she didn’t want the tenor to get as much applause as she did for her high-range pyrotechnics, and perhaps there is some truth to this, but you have to take two other factors into consideration: 1) not one French or French-Canadian tenor I know of has ever sung this cabaletta in the entire 20th century. It is generally the province of American (Rockwell Blake, Chris Merritt, Lawrence Brownlee) and various Latin tenors (Pavarotti, Kraus, Florez, Camarena, Alagna), and 2) Raoul Jobin had a limited top range that stopped at a high B. So why risk exposing himself to possible failure if his high Cs weren’t secure? (Of course, he could have transposed it down a half-tone, but as I said, since no one was singing it at that time he probably didn’t even bother with it.) Nonetheless, if you’d like to splice in a recording of “Pour mon âme,” as I did, I suggest using the performance by Chinese tenor Yijie Shi, whose voice sounds the most like Jobin’s. After all, this is the best Fille du Regiment there is, so why not? You may as well have it.

The bottom line is, this is plenty of fun but not great art. It’s an opéra-comique equivalent of a musical comedy, a bon-bon that you sometimes need when you’re feeling a bit blue and funky, and God knows we can all use a pick-me-up in these uncertain times. So go for it!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The Purple Why Returns to “Markstown”

MARKSTOWN / TINTWEISS: bells into. Ramona, I Love You. How Sweet? Contrapuntal. N.E.S.W. up/down. The Purple Why theme / live: St. Mark’s Church-in-the Bowery, New York, August 21, 1968 / Universal Heroes. Just Be Mine. Monogamy is Out. Space Rocks. “We Are All the Universal Heroes” / live: Town Hall, New York, September 14, 1968 / The Purple Why: James DuBoise, tpt; Mark Whitecage, t-sax/fl; Trevor Koehler, bar-sax; Judy Stuart, Amy Sheffer, voc; Steve Tintweiss, bs/melodic/voc; Laurence Cook, dm / Inky Dot Media CD 003

For a handful of those reading this review (or perhaps none at all), this release of two concerts from 53 years ago relives a time when, believe it or not, avant-garde jazz once rubbed elbows with Hippie rock and folk musicians. Yes, you read that right. The first of these two concerts, given at St. Mark’s Church-in-the Bowery during a week-long series of benefits to raise money for the victims of the Nigerian-Biafran conflict. Being only 17 years old at the time and about to start college, and having no interest at that time in avant-garde jazz, I didn’t even know it was happening.

But the music here is fascinating: somewhat like the then-new Art Ensemble of Chicago mixed with a little Charles Mingus, it has the loose rhythmic feel and experimental solos of the former but something of the structure of the latter. Even more so than the music itself, however, I was absolutely amazed at how well it was recorded. Though clearly a reprocessed analog recording, the stereo sound and the realistic representation of the group along with the actual ambience of the location runs rings around some of Ornette Coleman’s live performances from the mid-1960s, where the sound is variable and sometimes downright awful considering its time.

Judging from the eight or ten people clapping during the performance, it doesn’t seem that The Purple Why attracted anywhere near the kind of crowds that came to hear the others involved in these concerts (particularly, I would say, such big names as Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs and Country Joe McDonald), but what they lacked in numbers they made up in enthusiasm. Bassist-leader Steve Tintweiss’ vocals suggest that the band was pretty stoned for this first concert, yet it didn’t seem to affect their creativity, just the poor quality of his singing. Although the concert is broken up on this CD into six different tracks (not counting the final applause), the music is played continuously with no breaks between numbers.

Near the end of the fourth track, it sounded to me as if the group was running out of energy and ideas—all except Tintweiss, who plays a superb bass solo—but at the start of track 5 things pick up again. I guess it was all just part of the ebb and flow of a live performance. Trumpeter James DuBoise explodes in a blistering trumpet solo that has some echoes of Don Cherry in it, and Tintweiss’ bass solo is wholly remarkable, distorting and stretching the strings of his instrument in a tortured expression of feelings.

The sound on the Town Hall Concert isn’t quite as good as the one from St. Mark’s Church. The band seems a bit more distant from the microphones, which makes the instruments sound just a bit muddy and less crisp, but it’s still good enough to her what’s going on. This session sounds a bit more like the AEC and less like Mingus, but is still interesting music. Nonetheless, it seemed to my ears more rambling and less structured than in the August concert despite some excellent solos. This is more of a “throw the notes up against the wall and see what sticks” approach. Some people like this style of jazz very much, but for the most part I don’t, and Tintweiss’ hoarse screaming doesn’t enhance the listening experience very much. The women “vocalists,” one of whom was Tintweiss’ girlfriend at the time, also contribute some atonal screams.

A mixed bag, then. The first set is marvelous by any standards, but the second is more of an acquired taste.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Madre Vaca’s “Elements”

The Elements - Madre Vaca

THE ELEMENTS / SHORSTEIN: Fire. CARTER: Water. MILOVAC: Earth. PIERRE: Wind / Madre Vaca: Jarrett Carter, gtr; Jonah Pierre, pno; Thomas Milovac, bs; Benjamin Shorstein, dm / Madre Vaca Records MVR-010, also available at Bandcamp & Soundcloud

This CD, scheduled for release on June 12, is the fourth by Madre Vaca whose name means “Mother Cow” in English. I listened to and rather liked their jazz version of Schubert’s Winterreise, but this one is even more fascinating. Being a true collective, each of the four group members took a turn writing the basic scores for each of the four elements.

The liner notes tell us that “Each pi9ece stands on its own, but together they are a jazz symphony.” Of course, to imagine this one must stretch the definition of a symphony from a composition written for large forces, usually an orchestra, to one written for a quartet. I would rather refer to it as a large jazz chamber work, which does the music no disservice but, I think, defines it better.

Indeed, as one listens to the highly inventive music presented here, one is less conscious of the solo contributions, excellent as they are, so much as the overall structure of each piece in itself and the totality of the four movements put together. And this, in turn, is also not an insult to the music, even though most extended works, whether quartet or symphony, are generally written by one composer.

Describing the music herein is difficult not because the music is so complex that it defies such description—from a composition standpoint, each piece is made up of different motifs and rhythms knitted together by the musicians either as an ensemble or by the connecting solos—but because one must ideally notate it in order to convey the wonderful complexity heard in each piece. The one thing that struck me as a constant in this music was the intention of each musician to contribute to the whole rather than to grab attention by going into some outré “outside” solo, which each musician is clearly capable of doing.

And although all three of the melodic players (guitar, piano and bass) contribute excellent solos (and, occasionally, duo-improvisations or chase choruses), I must single out guitarist Jarrett Carter fir his refusal to limit his instrument to soft plucking. He, like Henry Robinett, is not afraid to play strong, gutsy passages when needed, and as the quartet’s lead “voice” he raises the others’ energy level up to his own. Whish isn’t to say that there aren’t some extraordinarily tender moments in these pieces—there are—but by using effective dynamics contrasts in addition to volume, tempo and rhythmic contrasts, they have made this quartet about as eloquent as any I’ve heard in a very long time.

Interestingly, Carter’s composition, Water, evolves into a conventionally swinging piece with Pierre’s piano solo as its centerpiece, but it, too eventually moves into other sections. Here, however, the basic themes are all tonal and uses an almost catchy melodic line of five notes repeated in various permutations. Milovac’s Earth opens with an irregular march tempo interrupted by bass lines played in suspended time. One might refer to this as the symphony’s (or quartet’s) slow movement although it, too, goes through several harmonic and rhythmic changes. It also includes a remarkable piano-guitar duet into which the drums enter, pulling the music slowly towards harsh, edgy rhythms with Pierre pounding dark chords on the piano. Then suddenly, at the 4:35 mark, it suddenly turns into a nice, medium-tempo swinger, but does not remain so; the tempo and intensity slowly increase as guitar and piano play a duo improvisation.

Perhaps it’s just me, but it seemed as though the last movement in this symphony, Pierre’s Wind, seemed the lightest and least complex music of all. Mind you, it’s not a bad piece, but the themes struck me as somewhat weak and it tended to ramble more than the previous three pieces. I’m speaking now as it being a piece of this multi-movement work and not necessarily as a stand-alone piece, but even in that respect it was far less complex, staying in mostly one chord (with small tonal modifications as it went along) and possibly because of this, Pierre’s solo on this track tended to fall back on predictable licks. Perhaps strengthening this piece in their future performances would help make it a more satisfying finale.

Nonetheless, The Elements is an excellent album containing mostly interesting, complex music, superbly conceived and played. I liked it very much.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The Artium Trio Plays Reger

REGER: Piano Trio in E min. 3 Pieces, Op. 79d. 2 Pieces, Op. 79e / Artium Trio / Brilliant Classics BRI95727

The Artium Trio—Francisco Lima Santos, violinist, Pedro Gomes Silva, cellist and João Barata, pianist—is a fairly young group. Their only “home page” is on Facebook. And here, this group of young musicians tackles the music of one of the thickest and at times dreariest of composers, jolly old Max Reger. An organist, Reger wrote music that, although interesting, always seemed to be tied in to Lutheran chorales, mixed with a fair amount of counterpoint which he learned from Bach.

I can’t say that they completely eliminate the dreary from Reger’s music—after all, it’s in the notes—but they clearly approach his scores with a Latin energy that is immensely refreshing. The strings play with a lean tone that is decidedly anti-German in feeling, and pianist Barata attacks the keyboard with gusto. With that being said, and with all due respect to these fine musicians, I still found the first movement of the Piano Trio to be fairly turgid music. You can only do so much to dress up dour music and try to make it sound cheerful. They do an exceptionally fine job on the final “Allegro con moto.”

Much to my surprise, however, most of the short pieces played here are among Reger’s lightest and most charming works, excepting the Romanze in D major from the Op. 79c set, which is typical Romantic drivel.

Basically a good album, then, although even this energetic young group could only do so much to resuscitate the mostly dreary Trio.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Molteni Plays Petrassi & Dallapiccola

PETRASSI: Partita for Piano. Toccata. Piccola Invenzione. Invenzioni for Piano. Petite Piece. Oh les beaux jours! DALLAPICCOLA: Sonatina canonica. 3 Episodi. Quaderno musicale di Annalibera / Andrea Molteni, pno / Piano Classics PCL10222

I’m certain that someone will interpret this as an insult, but unfortunately, as a famous bard once said, facts are stubborn things: Andrea Petrassi looks like the high school nerd that everyone else made fun of. I know because I went to high school and there were boys who looked like Molteni in my class and they were picked on. So there.

But he plays with vigor, energy and not a little bit of sensitivity in these works by two of Italy’s mid-20th-century modernists, Goffredo Petrassi and Luigi Dallapiccola. If the first piece on this CD, Petrassi’s Partita for Piano, sounds more old-fashioned than you might expect, you have to remember that he was only 21 at the time and was modeling this work after Bach. Considering those two things, it’s a fairly impressive suite that he wrote at that time. Molteni sparkles as he rips through the music with energy and élan. The 1933 Toccata is also based on an 18th-century model, but by this time Petrassi’s harmonic language had evolved considerably.

Although Molteni is one of those modern pianists who like to dazzle the listener with their technical flash, he does not ignore good keyboard articulation. This keeps him from sounding as if he is smearing the figures; every note is cleanly and clearly struck, and in modern music of this sort it helps to create good forward momentum and legato flow. He certainly handles Petrassi’s quirky rhythms and bitonal harmonies with ease while still creating excitement with his lively approach.

And make no mistake, some of this music by Petrassi is difficult indeed, particularly (but not exclusively) the little two-piece set titled Oh les beaux jours! with its quixotic melodic lines. The second of these pieces, titled “Petite chat,” must have been attributed to a particularly hyperactive and schizophrenic cat whose movements seem to run in three directions at once, sometimes stopping on a dime and changing direction like a kitty on cocaine.

Dallapiccola was also a modernist who could be as bizarre as these later Petrassi pieces. In the first of these, the “Allegro comodo” of the Sonatina canonica, he is quite lyrical, but immediately afterwards he begins breaking up both line and rhythm with unusual formations. In addition, we have the knotty harmony and rhythm of the first of his 3 Episodi (“Angoscioso”) which sounds far in advance of its time.

Indeed, as one gets deeper into Dallapiccola’s music, the more abstract it becomes, particularly in the Quaderno musicale di Annalibera around Nos. VI-VIII. Here the composer was venturing into a musical realm that would only find acceptance several years later, which is one reason why he was considered such a “difficult” composer—not only for the musicians who played him, but also for the audiences that listened to him.

A strange but wonderful album of music that, although far from centrist, will keep you coming back to listen.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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