Scardanelli’s Classical Motley

Signor Scardanelli

[January 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:2.]

VIENNAFEST: The Music of Franz Lehár, Johann Strauss, Jr., Eduard Strauss, and Other Favorites. The Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, Erich Kunzel conducting. TELARC CC-80547.

Flatbush, early 50’s: “duck’s-ass” haircuts, saddle-stitched trousers pegged at the cuff, on promenading shoulders, radios powered by loaf-size batteries emitting pop-goo; same pavement, earlier in the day, a Mutt-&-Jeff German duo blowing tunes out of brasses in hope of loose change; a solo itinerant calling Old Clothes!, chain-drive Mack trucks hauling coal (a Mack in spotless red stands in the Smithsonian among the nation’s quaint past), the Good Humor and knife-grinder’s vans with their I’m-in-the-neighborhood bells…. Several farms lay about Brooklyn, and the strangest of all, a village on stilts over water. Had I not zipped about Jamaica Bay in the outboard I helped a friend build, I’d not have known of its existence.

One’s musical tastes took shape at this time. We locate the louche, duck’s-ass crowd to one side of the divide, oneself to the other, an apprentice dweeb. A best-friend apprentice dweeb practiced on his clarinet three hours a day, his earnest, letter-carrier father in close attendance, for which tenacity said fellow-dweeb secured a chair in the New York Phil. WQXR, the “Radio Station of the New York Times,” broadcast the core repertoire that helped direct one’s single-point perspective. WNYC, the municipality’s commercial-free station, nurtured an interest in the modernist edge. One can only guess how a dot-com sensibility would react to WQXR’s dinner-music broadcasts. (Cabaret had yet to raise its frou-frou voice.) Even then, the programming seemed twee: Austro-German kitsch, Spanish zarzuela, and scattered about, a good many of the numbers Erich Kunzel and his Poppers perform here to a turn.

Talk about your degrees of separation! This Telarc’s ur audience dwelt in unself-conscious Gemütlichkeit, pastry, waltz and polka spiced, with, for kicks, Hungarian pizzazz. For morsels of the latter one goes to track 2, the elder Strauss’s masterful Overture to The Gypsy Baron, or to track 11, Emmerich Kálmán’s Overture to The Countess Maritza. And here am I, cheek by jowl with gansta rap imagining myself at my inauthentic roots. Well, never mind all that, the music on its own is a foot-tapping treat, as well as an interesting musicological dig. Yes, we’ve again the Overture to Die Fledermaus, and nicely done it is, but no Blue Danube or Tales from the Vienna Woods. Strauss Senior’s lovely Voices of Spring Waltz, this version with words — a rarity — soprano Tracy Dahl sings to a turn.

For good, lifelike sound, Viennafest gets an A absent the plus: rich, appropriately warm textures occupy a soundstage one can almost walk about. The production moreover conforms to a preference: the illusion of an orchestra within one’s space over the illusion of an orchestra within a hall within one’s space. As to that plus, several of the polkas come with sound effects. The musketry simulation in Strauss Senior’s Hunstman Polka is proportional and therefore convincing, but the buggy whip in Junior’s At the Double, Fast Polka plays in my room like an intimation of doom. The producer should have taken his decibelic cue from the shapely whip-crack opening of Ravel’s G-major piano concerto. And oh, the titles! In German, Eduard Strauss’s At Full Steam, Fast Polka reads Mit Dampf, Polka Schnell. Say it three time fast and you spit out a tooth. If it’s been a while since you bounced about to Senior’s Radetzky March — New Year’s Eve, say — it opens the show. A toothsome release.

 

Sergei PROKOFIEV: Songs and Romances. Victoria Yevtodieva, soprano. Lyubov Sokolova, mezzo. Konstantin Pluzhnikov, tenor. Andrey Slavny, baritone. Sergei Aleksashkin, bass. Yuri Serov, piano. Delos DE 3275 (three CDs).

A must-have release for the art-song collector and a pretty good bet for the song-friendly generalist. These five singers turn in what sounds to this Russian-ignorant listener like solidly idiomatic performances. Sergei Alexsashkin is one of those sepulchral Russian bassos — what a sound!

Songs and Romances’ virtues notwithstanding, and they seem to me considerable, this collection cannot but from hindsight reflect the compliant artist’s place in a dictatorship. A good deal of the music, much of it charming, is, to put it plain, unalloyed state-boosterism, as in “Lullaby” from Songs of our Days: “Sleep my baby […] There is a man in the Kremlin, known and loved by all the country. His great name is Stalin,” etc. Yet we need not condemn one of the age’s great composers for the horrors with which he chose to coexist. It takes suicidal courage to stand up to a homicidal despot. Even the sardonic Shostakovitch knew enough to consign much that he wrote to a desk drawer.

The well recorded collection divides in broad terms into three categories: pure art song, song based on folk elements, and propaganda music. According to the annotator, these 72 numbers appear together as a coherent collection for the first time. “In fact, most are rarely performed outside of Russia and are less frequently recorded (the current Schwann catalogue has entries for fewer than 20.)” What we do not hear are the songs from Lieutenant Kije and Alexander Nevsky, since, again according to the annotator, they were never intended as chamber music. Makes sense. (A number of Kije recordings leave out the songs, a great mistake. My favorite recording occupies a Vox Box [CDX 5021] entitled Prokofiev / The Film Music, consisting of Lieutenant Kizheh: Symphonic Suite, op. 60, with baritone Arnold Voketaitis; Ivan the Terrible, op. 116; and Alexander Nevsky: Cantata, op. 78. Leonard Slatkin conducts the St Louis Symphony and Chorus. A brilliant Marc Aubort-Joanna Nickrenz production. Grab it if you can find it.)

 

Claudio MONTEVERDI: L’Orfeo, Favola in musica. Soloists, Ensemble Elyma and Coro Antonio Il Verso, Gabriel Garrido conducting. K617 K617109 (two CDs).

Do you think me neglectful for having failed to list the vocalists and their parts? You ain’t seen nuttin’ yet!

The label, a French import distributed domestically by Harmonia Mundi USA, is called K617, after Mozart’s K. 617, Adagio and Rondo for Glass Harmonica, Flute, Oboe, Viola and Cello, which someone in the front office clearly adores. I’ve heard a few recordings of Monteverdi’s early, some say Europe’s first-ever opera, and for flavor and panache, Maestro Garrido’s beats all. The conductor and his instrumentalists engage in gorgeous turns and ornaments as is entirely appropriate for music of this period. The recording itself is very good: one is immediately captivated by the exuberant, brass-driven overture. Nothing delicate about these goings-on! The opera’s abundant melancholy moments will tug at your heart. However, if you’re curious to know what these fine singers are carrying on about, or indeed who’s who, you’d best seek out the libretto in book form or have another recording on hand. Instead of those boring old notes and libretto, we have for our reading pleasure K617’s tri-lingual catalog, and a handsome thing it is, leaving nothing to the imagination with regard to what’s available and what lies ahead, much of it with Garrido and his excellent Ensemble Elyma, which appears to be Palermo-based. A friend at HM-USA assures me that forthcoming K617s will be properly provisioned. Go for this beauty only if you’re willing to forgo the text essentials. I cannot wait to hear Garrido’s way with Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers.

 

Lucia DLUGOSZEWSKI: Disparate Stairway Radical Other, for string quartet. Exacerbated Subtlety Concert (Why Does a Woman Love a Man?), for timbre piano. Tender Theater Flight Nageire, for three trumpets, horn, tenor trombone, bass trombone and percussion. Space Is a Diamond, for solo trumpet. The White Oak Ensemble (Contrad Harris, Margaret Jones, violins; David J. Bursack, viola; Dorothy Lawson, cello). Lucia Dlugoszewski, timbre piano. Gerard Schwarz, Edward Carroll, Norman Smith, trumpets; Robert Routch, horn; David Langlitz, tenor trombone; David Taylor, bass trombone; Lucia Dlugoszewski, percussion; Gerard Schwarz, conducting. Gerard Schwarz, solo trumpet. CRI CD 859.

Lucia Dlugoszewski, who died in April, 2000, had wanted our editor to do the notes to this release. Mike wrote a reminiscence that includes what Lucia had told him about her less than happy relationship with John Cage and Morton Feldman. CRI’s then director Jody Dalton found the piece unsuitable as it stood. Our editor in turn found many of Mr Dalton’s suggestions intolerable and therefore withdrew. The task of annotation fell to Hal Rammel, as living proof of the ill-wind saw. Hal did the better job by far.

The point is not made, but I’m inclined to believe that this performance on Lucia’s timbre piano, recorded in January, 2000, may well be the final remembrance of the composer-performer at work. While Cage’s prepared piano antedates Dlugoszewski’s innovation, it’s a different animal. Cage’s amounts to a one-man percussion group; Dlugoszewski’s operate rather more like a one-woman chamber ensemble in which percussive effects play a negligible rôle . In the present instance, subtitled Why Does a Woman Love a Man?, she turns in an appropriately sensuous performance. (I’ve seen Lucia at a couple of her timbre-piano concerts. The instrument’s innards are worked with an assortment that more than a little resembles debris. From such as this, poetry! I’m also inclined to observe that a timbre-piano performance is better heard than seen. An instrumentalist at work is sometimes distracting, in Lucia’s case, decidedly. But, as concern’s the future, the observation is, alas, fatuous. Will acolytes take up where Lucia left off as several have done during Cage’s lifetime and after his demise. Unlikely.)

Dlugoszewski sounds in rhapsodic command of her timbre piano, yet in terms of virtuosity, the wreath goes to Gerard Schwarz, whose trumpet explores sound-worlds one had thought beyond navigation. Curiously, in view of Dlugoszewski’s considerable oeuvre, Space Is a Diamond seems to be her best-known work, and credit for that must go to Schwarz. I wonder how many trumpeters could do this piece nearly as effectively or would even dare try.

Dlugoszewski’s titles do an effective and, if you think about it for a moment, rather fair-minded job of preparing the listener for the uniqueness (and doubtless for some, inaccessibility) of her musical thinking. It’s definitely out there. One might even call it anti-conventional, if we take convention to embrace the usages of the pre-Minimalist avant-garde. In this light, Dlugoszewski stands off-center a maverick modernist, with, again, modernist understood as an esthetic at odds with post-modernist practice. (Her failure to win over Feldman and Cage may very well look to what the two New York School stars regarded as a lack of apparent system in her methodology, or better, in an absence of methodology.)

Disparate Stairway Radical Other, a work for string quartet, engages, as does our stellar trumpeter, in buoyant improbabilities. I hear it as the program’s best-conceived entity, which means, I suppose, its most coherently organized yet surprising event. The piece sails through clearly related episodes of whimsical topsy-turvy via an array of curiously animal-sounding turns — birds, quadrupeds, little things that clatter over sunbaked rock, in formations suggesting counterpoint. I expect the White Oak Ensemble broke a few group sweats in order to get it as right as they do.

Tender Theater Flight Nagiere for three trumpets, horn, tenor and bass trombones, and percussion, sounds to this listener the quite perfect expression of Dlugoszewski’s nonesuch art. There is, first of all, a most unusual ensemble which, in the composer’s hands, makes its own kind of sense, or better, creates its own little universe: impressions range from a perception of structure (the old bit about music as aural architecture) to a visitation from the spirit world, and, of course, animal activity. The work is, among many extraordinary things, a zoological garden and enchanted wood, albeit on another planet. Gerard Schwarz and another of Lucia’s fans, bass trombonist David Taylor, participate.

Disparate Stairway Radical Other and Exacerbated Subtlety Concert are recent recordings. Tender Theater Flight Nageire and Space Is a Diamond date from the Seventies. Good sound all around and, of course, echt performances.

 

ENSEMBLE GALILEI: From the Isles to the Courts. Ensemble Galilei: Liz Knowles, fiddle; Deborah Nuse, Scottish small pipes, fiddle; Sarah Weiner, oboe, recorders, pennywhistle; Sue Richards, Celtic harp; Carolyn Anderson Surrick, viola da gamba; with Jan Hagiwara, percussion, and Nancy Karpeles, bowed psaltery. Telarc CD-80536.

Because From the Isles to the Courts is such agreeable stuffed-unicorn fare, let’s dispatch our sole gripe. The program dwells on a charmed, Camelotian past, consisting as it does of a medley of largely British and Irish traditional, new numbers conceived in similarly idyllic terms, and a few pieces with a history about which something might have been said. The insert dwells rather narcissistically on the ensemble and its members’ compositions. Track one is identified as “Cantigas 7 and 338 from the Court of Alfonso X.” Nothing more. Alfonso X of Castille and Léon, 1221-1284, a.k.a. Alfonso the Wise, ordered the transcription of hundreds of cantigas: secular and religious songs of Spanish and Portuguese origin set in the vernacular. The Galilei’s charming versions are instrumental, and that’s fine, since no one makes claims for period precision, which might have posed a point of contention were the program other than a who-gives-a-damn delight. Similarly, Sinfonie and Musette from L’Isle de Delos, is credited to Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, 1664-1729, period. I would have thought as a matter of gender pride a few words appropriate for a woman whose career under the patronage of Louis XIV was reported as a marvel. (My New Grove puts her birth at 1666 or 1667 but makes no mention of L’Isle de Delos in the catalog of works.)

Encomia to follow. Who better than the oft disappointed audiophile to appreciate that a performance must pass through a portal on one side of which we’ve the recording venue and technical staff, and on the other, the listening space. Producer Erica Brenner and Recording Engineer Michael Bishop bring us an exemplar of exquisite resolution, airy transparency, articulate dynamics and a dimensionally rich soundstage. This is one of those just-right events that carries through to the music, which the quintet plus two guest instrumentalists play with a flair you don’t get to hear all that often. The mix of maybe-echt traditional and positively-faux traditional holds up remarkably well, and I swear that this is the truth: I’d been listening to these folks for about five minutes or so, thinking, hey, here’s one to review, before I noticed that track nine offers the Galelei’s take on the old La Folia variations — whose, of course, we do not know, and never mind once more. I’m familiar with a few, and these sound to me more like the ensemble’s than those of Marin Marais, Corelli, Scarlatti,Vivaldi, Geminiani or C.P.E. Bach. The Irish and English reels and the like, the new-old music, the courtly stuff — wonderfully toothsome, every morsel.

 

Luc FERRARI: Chansons pour le corps, for chanteuse and five instrumentalists with recorded memories. Et si tout entière maintenant… , symphonic tale for actress, field recordings on an ice-breaker and orchestra. Elise Caron, chanteuse; Carol Mundinger, Sylvan Frydman, clarinets; Christine Lagniel, percussion; Michel Maurer, piano; Michel Musseau, synthesizer (Chansons pour le corps). Anne Sée, voice; Nouvel Orchestre Philharmonique, Yves Prin, conductor (Et si tout entière maintenant). Mode 81.

Giacinto SCELSI: Piano Sonatas No. 2 (1939), No. 4 (1941). Suite No. 9, Ttai (1953). Louise Bessette, piano. Mode 92.

I’m covering these together as a courtesy to symmetry: both are identified as the first of projected series, and for that, long life and good health to Brian Brandt, one of recording’s most tenacious new-music maven-partisans. Mode is an indy in structure alone. In terms of output, call it a major.

Giacinto Scelsi’s volume one requires the attentive listener to hear out two works from what I’d otherwise have preferred to skirt as of a period preceding, and quite distinct from, that which establishes the composer as a commanding and fascinating presence. So much for hazy generalizations. The piano sonatas of 1939 and 1941, as engaging as they are on their own terms — the slow middle movement of Sonata No. 4 is a thing of melancholy majesty — contain generous amounts of those tendencies Scelsi later drew upon to a far heightened degree: repetitive patterns and clusters which sound, as I say, proto-Scelsian but which also hint at Minimalism. For reasons of comparison, I returned to a pair of hatART CDs I’d not played in some time: a performance of Suite No. 9, with Marianne Schroeder, on hatART CD 6006 and Sonata No. 2 on hatART 6092, again with Schroeder, whose interpretation of Suite No. 9 immediately impressed me as significantly different from that of Louise Bessette. It wasn’t till I played Schroeder’s reading of Sonata No. 2 that the full force of difference made its impression. Particularly in the piano sonata, with its opportunities for extremes of expressivity, does one recognizes Schroeder’s affinity for a Lisztian sweep and grandeur which suits the music well. Hers is by far, in either case, the lusher, more atmospheric reading. Besette’s relative sobriety works better for the suite than for the sonata, since the former, like most of Scelsi’s mature work, examines tones, harmonic relationships, the cracks between, just the sort of thing that must not be rushed, whereas with the sonata, sturm und drang pyrotechnics play as a better fit. Go to http://www.moderecords.com/ for information concerning subsequent Scelsi releases.

Luc Ferrari’s an original, we’ll give him that. One listens to Chansons pour le corps and Et si tout entière maintentant as if at the movies, one’s back to the screen. The listener experiences these suggestively cinematic, nicely erotic goings-on as he stares at the on-light of his left-channel amplifier. (Not much happening there, sad to say.) Chansons pour le corps in five parts (Les Yeux, Les Mains, Les Seins, Le Sexe, Chantons dans les silences) features quite lovely, harmonically transparent small-ensemble writing, a singing voice provided with likewise charming melodies and a rather less present speaking voice, the latter afloat on swimmy reverb. The musical aspects sound at moments the slightest bit Middle-Eastern and the overall effect is enchanting. The words in both works are those of Colette Fellous, the least of whose problems would appear to be frigidity.

Et si tout operates by way of a fascinating plan: Fellous’s French texts, narrated by Anna Sée (I drooled), progress against a separate space in which we hear a polyglot crew and the sometimes alarming noises of their ice cutter, its activities augmented by sweeping orchestral passages I find rather clotted in texture. However, against the novelty of a whole, the unexciting instrumental writing scarcely counts as a death-blow. I’d like to hear a few more of Mode’s Ferrari project (and if I know Brian Brandt, I certainly will) before I try to sort in my mind where the gentleman stands in the Temple of Art.

 

CATALAN WORKS FOR STRING QUARTET: Josep SOLER: Quartet No. 1 (1974); Quartet No. 5 (1995). Miguel ROGER: Quartet No. 2 (1994). Albert SARDÀ: Quartet (1978). The Kreutzer Quartet (Peter Sheppard Skaerved, Gordon MacKay, violins; Bridget Carey, viola; Neil Heyde, cello). Metier MSV CD92026.

It’s been said a hundred times in fifty different ways and needs to be said again (and again): were it not for fiercely dedicated independents such as David Lefeber’s Metier label, music lovers with a taste for adventure would be far less served. This Catalan string quartet disc is a remarkable release.

We begin at the brilliant surface. The recording itself, the venue an English church, (Caudillo Lefeber’s also the engineer) is about as good as they get. This is exemplary string sound and the ambient space is exactly right (contrary to one’s general opinion of the overly resonant, midrange-thin character of English chamber-music recordings). The Kreutzer Quartet plays with precision, heart, and soul. The annotator, first violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved, writes of a Catalan School, along with references to other composers that the sub-connoisseur may find tough going. Not to fret. Your reporter, likewise ignorant of differences among Spanish schools of the 20th century, fails to detect a stylistic or spiritual lineage — a commonality, if you like — among these quartets, yet they impress me, the four, as unique and uniquely engaging and therefore in need of discovery and dissemination. Once again, up Metier! One point our annotator makes is certainly well taken: that music created and performed outside what we like to think of as centers of great economic and cultural significance is too often disregarded. I find myself both guilty of this attitude and much chastened by what I hear emitting from my speakers.

Miguel Roger’s second string quartet of 1994 impresses as perhaps the most daring in terms of departure from the richly Romantic foundation from which the program takes flight, yet nothing here could ever be confused with anything partaking of full-tilt modernism along the lines of Nono, say, or the New York School, though we do hear a great deal of atonality that, in the case of Soler’s fifth quartet of 1995 especially, serves the music’s elegiac mood most handsomely well. I’m listening as I write to Sardà’s 1978 Quartet as, in effect, a running reminder of how passionately juicy this Catalan music is. Maybe I ought to reconsider my comment about one’s failure to detect a Catalanesque character. Let’s go back to that “richly Romantic foundation.” I remain yet largely a stranger to Catalonian musical culture, but I think I’ve succeeded in detecting (as will you) a rich vein of agreeably histrionic expressivity — and I intend that as praise — common to the four quartets. Whatever, marvelous stuff.

Snail mail: Metier Sound & Vision, East End, Compton Abbas, Dorset SP7 0ND, UK. Email: Lefeber@enterprise.net. Web address: http://freespace.virgin.net/metier.records.

 

Morton FELDMAN / Stefan WOLPE: For Stefan Wolpe: Choral Music of Morton Feldman and Stefan Wolpe. The Choir of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Harold Chaney, conductor. Benjamin Ramirez, Thomas Kolor, percussion. Stephen Foreman, tuba. New World Records 80550-2.

As a Morton Feldman fanatic, I count this an invaluable CD for my introduction to the strikingly beautiful For Stefan Wolpe (1986), for chorus and two vibraphones. So far as I’m aware, there is no other recording. Add to that two earlier Feldman miniatures, Christian Wolff in Cambridge (1963), for unaccompanied chorus, and Chorus and Instruments II (1967), for chorus, chimes and tuba, and we’ve a must-have release, with Wolpe’s (for this listener less urgently engaging) choral music as lagniappe. The remarkable title work unfolds by means of wordless Feldmanesque textures — velvet flirting with discord — alternating with vibraphones. The structure is loosely modular, the pace characteristically tectonic: 31 enchanted minutes in length. The performances sound to me faultless. Strangers to Feldman be warned: his art calls for sitzfleisch. Listen attentively for subtleties and your patience will be rewarded. (My passion for Feldman’s music does not blind me to in-amber preservations of New York School slugs, e.g., New World 80540-2, a two-disc set recorded by Radio Bremen in 1972 of simultaneous performances of David Tudor’s Rainforest II and John Cage’s Mureau, with Tudor’s electronics and Cage’s voice, live and on tape, my candidate for the year’s most boring release.)