Apr 28, 2024

Fauré: Complete Music for Solo Piano (CD Review)

by Karl Nehring

(CD1) Romances sans paroles (“Songs without Words”), Op. 17Ballade in F sharp major, Op. 19Impromptu No. 1 in E flat major, Op. 25Barcarolle No. 1 in A minor, Op. 26Valse-caprice, Op. 30Impromptu No. 2 in F minor, Op. 31Mazurka, Op. 323 Nocturnes, Op. 33; (CD2) Impromptu No. 3 in A flat major, Op. 34Nocturne No. 4 in E flat major, Op. 36Nocturne No. 5 in B flat major, Op. 37Valse-caprice, Op. 38; Barcarolle No. 2 in G major, Op. 41Barcarolle No. 3 in G flat major, Op. 42Barcarolle No. 4 in A flat major, Op. 44Valse-caprice, Op. 59Valse-caprice, Op. 62Nocturne No. 6 in D flat major, Op. 63; (CD3) Barcarolle No. 5 in F sharp minor, Op. 66Barcarolle No. 6 in E flat major, Op. 70Thème & Variations, Op. 73Nocturne No. 7 in C sharp minor, Op. 74Pièces brèves (8), Op. 84Barcarolle No. 7 in D minor, Op. 90Impromptu No. 4 in D flat major, Op. 91; Barcarolle No. 8 in D flat major, Op. 96Nocturne No. 9 in B minor, Op. 97; (CD4) Nocturne No. 10 in E minor, Op. 99Barcarolle No. 9 in A minor, Op. 101Impromptu No. 5 in F sharp minor, Op. 102Préludes (9), Op. 1032 Pieces, Op. 104 – I. Nocturne No. 11 in F-Sharp Minor, II. Barcarolle No. 10 in A MinorBarcarolle No. 11 in G minor Op. 105Barcarolle No. 12 in E flat major, Op. 106Nocturne No. 12 in E minor, Op. 107Barcarolle No. 13 in C major, Op. 116Nocturne No. 13 in B minor, Op. 119. Lucas Debargue, piano. Sony Classical 19658849882 4 

The French composer Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) is one of those composers who, although relatively well known to most classical music lovers, nevertheless seems to be under-appreciated. Perhaps he needed to be a widely traveled keyboard virtuoso, or perhaps to have written some memorable symphonies to capture the public imagination; whatever the reason, he certainly was a marvelous composer who created music of great beauty and refinement. He saw a purpose to music: “To my mind, art, and above all music, consists in lifting us as far as possible above what is,” he once wrote. These words take on extra meaning when we consider that Fauré was always something of an establishment outsider, and then in middle age, was beset (like Beethoven) with deafness. As a teenager, he had been taught piano by Saint-Saëns, 10 years his senior, who became his lifetime mentor and champion. Saint-Saëns encouraged him to compose, helped him get a job as a church organist, and remained his staunch supporter throughout his career. But although he played the organ for much of his life, he left no compositions for that instrument; however, he composed for the piano throughout his career. This new release from French pianist Lucas Debargue (b. 1990) brings them all together for us to audition and enjoy. 

Here we have yet another example of an album that largely owes its existence to the COVID-19 pandemic. Someone with more talent and energy than I have needs to write a book – or, at minimum, an article in The Atlantic or Gramophone – about the musicians that responded to the circumstances of the pandemic with music, such as pianist Igor Levit and countless other musicians with streamed recitals, and then any number of releases from musicians who suddenly found themselves unable to travel. With newfound time on their hands, many embarked on projects of composing and recording, and we are still enjoying the fruits of their labors. Debargue, for example, writes that “in 2020, when travel and concerts were disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, I was able to return to one of my favourite musical pleasures: lengthy sessions spent sight-reading at the piano. This was the occasion on which I discovered the Nine Preludes op. 103 of 1909 and 1910. And I was immediately struck by the profound originality and mastery of these brief pieces from Fauré’s final period… The late-period style of Fauré’s was a revelation. Initially, my reaction was negative as I found myself dealing with scores whose harmonic language was beyond my grasp. To decipher Fauré’s ultimate enigmas I needed to draw on all the passion that I have invested in studying tonal harmony over the years… This voyage of discovery has provided me with a number of musical pleasures that have transformed my life both as a person and as a musician. I needed to go into the recording studio in order for me to be able to be able to share this adventure with my listeners.”

A unique dimension of this recording is the piano itself. Rather than the typical Steinway, Yamaha, etc. that we usually encounter on an album of this sort, Debargue has instead chosen to record these tracks on an Opus 102 piano (pictured right). As he explains, “this recording is not just about offering a summation of a benchmark reading of Fauré’s music for the piano; it also provides an answer to other needs that I feel, specifically the desire to invest this recording with an experimental aspect. I needed the sound of the piano to express a spirit of experimentation in the clearest possible way. The project found an ideal complement in my choice of an Opus 102 piano, an innovatory concert grand that has one hundred and two keys (as opposed to the standard eighty-eight) and a choice of keyboard that to my ears makes total sense in this repertoire.” Although of course Fauré would not have written any notes for any of those 14 extra keys, there does seem to be a clarity of sound to this recording, especially in the upper registers, that adds to the lister’s musical enjoyment. Let’s give credit to both the piano and the engineer – but we should certainly not forget to credit Debargue, n’cest-pas?

Clarity is a hallmark of Fauré’s piano music in general. It is not dreamy and impressionistic; it is more straightforward than that. Still, it is imbued with charm, color, and wit. It is fascinating to sit down and listen to his music develop from disc to disc, from the more straightforward sound of some of his early works to the more reflective, ruminative later works. Debargue provides brief comments on all the works included in the set, making this box an excellent way for someone to take a deep dive into the world of Fauré’s music for piano. Trust me – it would prove a most rewarding swim.

 

 

Apr 24, 2024

Fred Hersch: Silent, Listening (CD Review)

by Karl Nehring

Billy Strayhorn/Duke Ellington: Star-crossed Lovers; Fred Hersch: Night Tide LightAkrasiaSilent, ListeningStarlightAeonLittle Song; Russ Freeman: The Wind; Hersch: Volon; Sigmund Romberg/Oscar Hammerstein II: Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise; Alec Wilder/Ben Berenberg: Winter of My Discontent. Fred Hersch, piano. ECM 2799 589 0962

The veteran American jazz pianist Fred Hersch (b. 1955) has had some daunting challenges in his life, which you can learn from the pianist himself in this YouTube video  We previously reviewed an album that Hersch recorded in his home during the dark early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. That album was recorded on a less than ideal piano in a less than ideal (at least in terms of recording acoustics) room; however, Hersch’s talent and love for the music made his 2021 release Songs from Home (Palmetto PM2197) a winning collection of tunes that is well worth a listen (you can find our review here). Fast-forward to April 2024 and we have a new release from Hersch on the ECM label, this one recorded under much different circumstances, on a beautifully tuned piano in an acoustically perfect European hall under the watchful eyes and ears of a world-class producer and engineer.

 

As you can see from the list of titles above, the program is a mix of covers and originals by Hersch. The mood throughout, however, is consistent from one track to the next. I nearly typed “cool and calm,’ but then thought the better of it. “Warm and calm” might be a better way to put it, for Hersch’s playing is intimate, poetic, communicative, searching, measured – warm and calm, reassuring and inviting. His compositions have at times the feeling of being improvised on the spot. Listeners will find themselves being drawn into Hersch’s musical imagination, in some sense searching with him for the next notes along his musical path. This sense of closeness is enhanced by the superb engineering. The only thing that would make this release even finer would be liner notes; fortunately, however, you can glean more information about the recording from the pianist himself by watching this video from ECM

Even without notes (not unusual with ECM), Silent, Listening is an album that offers a remarkably rewarding listening experience to those music lovers who appreciate commitment and communication expressed with probing simplicity. It is a beautiful album, highly recommended.

Apr 21, 2024

A Beethoven Odyssey, Volume 9

by Bill Heck

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas 28, 29. James Brawn, piano. MSR Classics MS 1473

I had mixed feelings as I started listening to this, the last volume in James Brawn’s traversal of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Not mixed feelings about the performances: see below for more on that front. No, it was just that we have reached the end of this excellent cycle. Those who have seen reviews of several earlier volumes by our colleague JJP and me will recall that we were, to say the least, favorably impressed. Naturally I was eager to hear the latest. But it was a bit like opening that last present at the birthday party when I was a little kid: the cycle is complete; there’s nothing to anticipate, no wonderful surprises to look forward to. 

Those who have followed this cycle know that these volumes have not comprised a cycle in the common sense of starting with Number 1 and counting up; instead, the volumes have been a series of programs, each consisting of two or three sonatas chosen for musical reasons. This final volume does include two consecutive sonatas, though, and the two present both similarities and interesting contrasts.

No. 28 usually is considered the first of Beethoven’s “late period” sonatas; I had not heard it in some time, so it was fun to be reacquainted. To me, the first movement sounds improvisatory, bringing to mind a pianist jamming, playing with a series of themes and riffs – although in this case, the jam is at an otherworldly musical level. (Readers who are taken aback at such a comparison should feel free to dismiss this as crazy rambling.) It is astonishing to realize that Beethoven was composing things like this despite his near-total deafness. More generally, this work, as the excellent booklet points out, looks back to earlier sonatas in terms of structure, but a few moments listening reassures us that Beethoven is probing more deeply, is experimenting more freely than in those previous works. At the same time, the mood here is fresh and light in what is a rather short sonata (Brawn completes it in just over 20 minutes). Perhaps the most likely listener reaction to this work is simple joy.

No. 29 (Hammerklavier) is harder to categorize. Beethoven seems to throw in everything, and the technical demands on the pianist are outrageous:  the work not only may be the most difficult of Beethoven’s piano compositions but is one of the more difficult by any composer. Moreover, this is a huge, sprawling work; Brawn’s timing here is about 48 minutes.

I mentioned earlier the favorable reception of previous volumes in this series by JJP and me, so it will come as no surprise that I am more than satisfied with this one as well. Indeed, this review can be relatively brief because most of what I could say would simply repeat positive comments that I’ve made earlier. As in the previous volumes in the series, there is a certain rightness about Brawn’s playing: upon listening, one is left with a feeling that yes, of course, that’s exactly the way it should be done. It’s always possible to hear what’s going on: Brawn eschews excessive use of the sustain pedal, his articulation is clear without being so ostentatious as to distract from the music. I don’t mean to say that the performances are without character; rather, in each case, the “character” seems to fit well with the work being performed. 

Beethoven in later life

And I certainly don’t mean to say that Brawn, or anyone else, plays any of the sonatas, particularly the late ones and even more particularly the Hammerklavier, in the only possible way. As just one example, a point that struck me upon listening was the range of possible approaches in the fourth and final movement of the Hammerklavier. In the central section of this movement, the titanic fugue, it strikes me that Brawn focuses on clarifying inner details of the intertwining voices. Contrast this with, say, the early 1950’s recording by Rudolph Serkin (which miraculously still sounds quite good), with its stricter adherence to, and even emphasis on, an almost metronomic tempo. Again, I don’t mean that one fails to play in tempo or the other obscures the notes, just that one performance can’t do everything, especially is such a formidable work as this. Which is “correct”, which is “better”? Obviously neither, they are simply different, and both are the products of deep insight (and undoubtedly of incredibly difficult work during practice sessions).

Given the number of Beethoven sonata cycles out there, it would be silly to proclaim one “the best” or to suppose that one set of interpretation has said everything that there is to say in such musically rich works. But Brawn’s entire odyssey is one to which I shall return often.

As usual in this series, the recorded sound is excellent, with the rich tones of the Steinway D presented in all their glory. As the booklet notes, Beethoven “…often complained about the limitations of the piano, proclaiming…’It is and remains an inadequate instrument’”. Not to denigrate the often insightful recordings relying on “original instruments” or copies thereof, but I can’t help wondering what Beethoven would have thought of the contemporary use of period instruments to allow us to hear that with which he was so dissatisfied. At least in this case, I have to think that Beethoven would have approved of the newer instrument.

In summary, if you’re not familiar with Brawn’s Beethoven Odyssey, now would be a good time to check it out. Start anywhere and enjoy some fine performances of this wondrous music. Oh, and that business that I mentioned earlier about nothing to look forward to? Brawn’s Facebook postings indicate that, for now, after twelve years of work on this project, he wants to spend more time on performance and music education (one of his great passions). That’s understandable. But I hope that we’ll see something new in the way of recordings in the not too distant future.

Apr 17, 2024

Rachmaninoff/Gershwin Transcriptions by Earl Wild (CD Review)

by Karl Nehring

Rachmaninoff: Songs transcribed for the piano by Earl Wild - Dreams Op. 38 No. 5The Little Island Op. 14 No. 2Midsummer Nights Op. 14 No. 5O, Cease Thy Singing Op. 4 No. 4On the Death of a Linnet Op. 21 No. 8Do Not Grieve Op. 14 No. 8; George Gershwin: Three Preludes; Earl Wild: Fantasy on Porgy and Bess. John Wilson, piano. AVIE Records AV2635

Sadly enough, Earl Wild (1915-2010) has become somewhat a forgotten figure among followers of classical music. Perhaps Bill Heck and I are a bit more tuned into his name than most, because for many years, Wild resided in Columbus, Ohio, where Bill and I both attended graduate school and where we both live today. In addition, we are both quite fond of his recordings of the Rachmaninoff piano concertos, which he originally made for Reader’s Digest with Jascha Horenstein conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and have subsequently been rereleased on other labels including Chandos and Chesky. Wild was a remarkable virtuoso who was skilled not only as a performer (he was the first American pianist ever to be invited by Arturo Toscanini to perform as soloist with the New York Philharmonic) but also as a transcriber, particularly of the music of Gershwin and Rachmaninoff.  Interestingly enough, accordion to Wikipedia, Wild also holds the distinctions of being both the first pianist ever to perform a recital on U.S. television (1939) and evert to stream a performance on the internet (1997). He is also the only pianist ever to have been invited to the White House to perform before six consecutive U.S. Presidents: Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. What a career! 

On this release from the American pianist John Wilson (not to be confused with the English conductor of the same name), we hear Wild's transcriptions of seven songs by Rachmaninoff, three brief preludes by Gershwin, and then Wild’s own Fantasy on Porgy and Bess. The Rachmaninoff transcriptions are elegant and expressive, richly romantic as you might expect. Wilson clearly loves this music, and that love comes through in his playing, which is clear, confident, and convincing. These are songs, imbued with melody and emotional overtones; however, they are not sappy or sentimental, but are carefully crafted pieces of serious music. The three Gershwin Preludes are in turn bouncy, moodily reflective, and finally a bit skittish. None, however, sound legitimately jazz-like or particularly inspired. At least to my ears, this is not top-drawer Gershwin. YMMV.

The needle on the old Gershwin-O-Meter bounces back up the scale with Wilson’s rendition of Wild’s take on Gershwin, however – the Fantasy on Porgy and Bess is in an entertaining romp through the familiar themes from Gershwin’s tuneful work. You can tell that Wild enjoyed putting these tunes together for the keyboard, and you can tell that Wilson enjoys playing them for us at the keyboard. In the liner notes, which are based on a conversation between Wilson and the English music broadcaster Jeremy Nicholas, Wilson recalls that it was Gershwin’s music that first lured him into classical music. He goes on say, “the first Earl Wild piece I learned was his Porgy and Bess. I just loved it. I’d played most of it since I was 19, so when I came to record it, it was in my heart. I think it’s perhaps his perhaps his best crafted transcription.” 

The liner notes, although not extensive, are heartfelt and revealing. And as we have come to expect from AVIE, the engineering is first-rate, capturing the sound of Wilson’s Steinway in fine fashion. If you are a fan of melody, this release is one that should be right up there on your audition list. 

Apr 14, 2024

3 Shades of Blue/Kind of Blue (Book/CD Review)

by Karl Nehring 

Kaplan, Janes. 3 Shades of Blue: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and the Lost Empire of Cool. New York: Penguin Press, 2024. 

Miles Davis: Kind of BlueSo WhatFreddie FreeloaderBlue in GreenAll BluesFlamenco Sketches. Miles Davis, trumpet; John Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, alto saxophone; Wynton Kelly, piano (Blue in Green only); Bill Evans, piano (all other tracks); Paul Chambers, bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums. Columbia/Legacy CK64935

 

In a couple of recent posts I have shared some thoughts by jazz musicians concerning the influence of classical music on jazz (you can find those posts here and here). In his new book, 3 Shades of Blue, James Kaplan tells the interlocking life stories of three key figures in jazz: trumpeter Miles Davis, saxophonist John Coltrane, and pianist Bill Evans. Those with even a passing knowledge of jazz history are no doubt familiar with at least one of those three names, while those with a bit more knowledge will likely recall all three from their appearance on what today is probably the most widely known jazz album in history, Miles Davis’s landmark 1959 recording, Kind of Blue. Of course, all three musicians released other notable albums, such as Davis’s Sketches of SpainBirth of the CoolIn a Silent Way, and Bitches Brew; Coltrane’s CrescentGiant Steps, and A Love Supreme; and Evans’s Sunday at the Village VanguardEverybody Digs Bill Evans, and Conversations with Myself.

 

Those with an interest in jazz will gain an insight into the musical and biographical influences that contributed to the sound of those and other recordings by not only these three but other jazz luminaries as Kaplan weaves the three biographies into an overview of the development of different forms of jazz such as swing bebop, post-bop, cool jazz, modal jazz, harmolodics, and free jazz. But of special interest to fans of classical music might be to learn that all three of these jazz giants were influenced by classical music. For example, Kaplan writes that one piece that Miles almost became obsessed with was Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s 1957 recording of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G… Miles wanted to put wide-open space into his music the way Ravel did. He wanted to use different scales the way Khachaturian, with his love for Asian music, did… Davis told Evans that the new album he had in mind would make use of some of the Western classical themes they’d analyzed together…”

 

Evans had been classically trained, but ultimately decided that he wanted to become a jazz pianist. He moved to New York, the hub of jazz, determined to try to make the transition. As Kaplan describes his tiny apartment, “on the music stand were pieces by Chopin, Ravel, and Scriabin, as well as Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. When he practiced he loved to play classical and then modulate into improvised jazz. The tempo turning to idiosyncratic rhythm, the harmonies close cousins to those in the European music.”  (An interesting fact not mentioned in Kaplan’s book is that at some point later in his career, Evans struck up a friendship with the legendary Canadian classical pianist Glenn Gould; in fact, Evans recorded his famous overdubbed solo album Conversations with Myself using Gould’s piano.)

 


As for Coltrane, Kaplan observes that “almost everyone associated with John Coltrane took note of his voracious appetite for learning about music in general and his instrument in particular… Like Charlie Parker, he made a point of learning to play in every key; also like Parker, and like Miles, he listened broadly and deeply, not just to jazz but to the modern Europeans. ‘Trane and I,’ Jimmie Heath recalled, ‘used to go to the Philadelphia Library together and listen to Western classical music – they had the headphones, you know. We would play Stravinsky and people like that and listen to all this music we could.’”

 


There.is of course much, much more to be found in this deeply researched, engagingly written book that lays out the life stories of these three giants of jazz who combined to give us one of the great recordings of the twentieth century. If you are a fan of Kind of Blue, Kaplan’s book will give you an inside look into its creation and creators. But if you are one of the few people who have not by now given a listen to Kind of Blue, you really ought to give it a listen. It is one of those rara albums that most people – even those who profess not to like jazz – seem to be able to enjoy once they give it a listen. It has a gently swinging quality to it that soon will have you bobbing your head or tapping your tors. In fact, chances are good that you have heard some of this music before – So What and All Blues are floating out there in various arrangements all over the place. Like a great recording of a great symphony, Kind of Blue is an album that can be enjoyed over and over again – it always proves to be just as satisfying a musical an emotional experience each time. It truly is a landmark recording well worth seeking out.

Apr 10, 2024

Schubert: The Complete Impromptus (CD Review)

by Karl Nehring

Four Impromptus, D 899 - Impromptu No. 1 in C minorImpromptu No. 2 in E flat majorImpromptu No. 3 in G flat majorImpromptu No. 4 in A flat majorFour Impromptus, D 935 - Impromptu No. 1 in F minorImpromptu No. 2 in A flat majorImpromptu No. 3 in B flat majorImpromptu No. 4 in F minor. Gerardo Teissonniére, piano. Steinway & Sons 30220. 

The last time we encountered the American pianist Gerardo Teissonniére (b.1962), it was in his recording debut for Steinway & Sons (you can read our review here). Teissonniére, who was born in Puerto Rico and now resides in Cleveland, where he has long served on the faculty of the Cleveland Institute of Music, certainly made a bold move in leading out with such monumental repertoire. However, he delivered a memorable performance that the label captured in audiophile-worthy sound. When I saw what Teissonniére had chosen to record for his next release, I could hardly contain my excitement, because Schubert’s piano music is right up there in the same exalted atmosphere as Beethoven’s. Once again, Teissonniére is clearly showcasing his desire to record music of the very highest quality.

 

As the American composer Evan Fein so aptly describes this music, “the elements of dance, song and storytelling permeate the entire oeuvre of the early Romantic Austrian composer Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1828). They are combined and uniquely represented in each of Schubert’s eight individual yet intrinsically connected works for the piano known as the Impromptus, D 899 and D 935, two sets of four pieces each written in the last year and a half of the composer’s short life.” Teissonniére artfully projects that feeling of dance, song, and story as he weaves his way through these fascinating pieces. He plays with a sense of confidence, with a big tone – not in a loud, brash way; rather, in a confident, assured way. As it was in the Beethoven release, his Steinway is captured in sound of lifelike clarity and power (it was engineered by Daniel Shores at Sono Luminus Studios – they do great work there). Great music, great music, great sound – Great Caesar’s ghost, it’s a good one!

Apr 7, 2024

A Jazz Musician on Classical Music and Jazz

by Karl Nehring

In a recent review of a CD that paired the Duruflé Requiem with Four Lenten Motets by Poulenc (review to be found here), I appended an interview with the late jazz saxophone player Jackie McLean in which he spoke of borrowing chords from Poulenc and then going on to discuss the influence of classical composers on other jazz musicians. Those who have followed Classical Candor for any length of time may recall that we have offered occasional reviews of jazz releases, justifying those reviews with the argument that there is a sense in which some forms of jazz can reasonably be regarded as examples of chamber music.  One jazz musician who holds strong views about the relationship between jazz and classical music is the pianist Ethan Iverson (see photo), two of whose albums we have reviewed previously: Every Note Is True (see review) and his latest, which includes a formal piano sonata of his own composition, Technically Acceptable (reviewed here). 

 Iverson, who like many jazz pianists has classical training, recently caused quite a kerfuffle with a recent New York Times column about Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the provocative title, “The Worst Masterpiece,” which, as you might imagine, raised a few eyebrows.  Perhaps even yours?


While in Oslo on a European tour earlier this year, Iverson sat down for an interview with Norwegian journalist Filip Roshauw. Among other things the pair discussed the Gershwin controversy and delved into the relationship between classical music and jazz. With Iverson’s kind permission, I have included some key portions from that interview below. You can find the full interview at Iverson’s substack website, Transitional Technology (see TT 373 here). By the way, Transitional Technology is a treasure trove of musical knowledge of value to anyone with an interest in music – and not just jazz, but classical as well. Iverson is a delightful writer s well as a gifted musician; Transisitional Technology is well worth checking out by classical and jazz fans alike.


***********************************************************************************


Filip Roshauw: I thought I'd ask you about the title of the new album, Technically Acceptable. You’ve mentioned that it’s a quote from a book, but I wondered if it has more meaning than that?


Ethan Iverson: It's not a serious title. I want to make people smile! But if you want me to becomparatively serious for a moment, between the trio and the sonata, this is the set of tools that I’m going to be using from now on: Playing open and loose trio music on one hand, and writing serious formal music on the other. I am confident in my abilities in these fields. I’m technically acceptable.


FR: Does the idea of letting those two aspects live within the same album feel new to you this time around?


EI: Yeah, I think so. Of course, nothing's truly new. There's always a precedent. But as far as I know, no jazz pianist has put a sonata on a record on a jazz label like Blue Note.


FR: When I read the title, I was also reminded of something you mentioned somewhere. You wrote an article about Billie Holiday, and you considered the title “Billie Holiday: Technician.” And it seems that a lot of stuff that you've written is about assessing jazz from, I guess, a technical standpoint in some way. That it is music that can be explained in those terms. And the piece that you've chosen for this title is a deceptively simple, Count Basie-ish tune..

EI: Well, that's right. A lot of the time, something simple on the surface is full of complexity underneath.  Many people think they've got Billie Holiday's number, but, actually, they don't have her number. The same goes for all great jazz. The composed melodies of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue can be scratched out on a paper napkin, but there are so many other elements that make the album very sophisticated. Often there hasn't been enough of the proper terminology to describe those sophisticated elements, and as a writer and critic, I am trying to move that discussion forward. The song “Technically Acceptable” is a medium tempo rhythm changes tune in the Count Basie idiom. You're correct, that does not seem very hard. But I was talking to the great bass player Ben Street, and I mentioned I was taking that piece on the road to play with local rhythm sections. And Ben said to me,  "There's nothing harder than medium tempo rhythm changes.” 


FR: Let's talk about the idea for the Piano Sonata. Obviously you've composed stuff before, but what was the idea behind this specific piece?


EI: Longer formal composition started happening about a decade ago. I have worked a lot with the choreographer Mark Morris and his wonderful Dance Group, and Mark asked me to arrange a set of Beatles themes for Pepperland, the evening-length celebration of the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. We could only get rights to a certain number of songs, only six pieces, and we needed an hour show. So to fill up the time, I wrote some original compositions that were related to The Beatles or the idea of the swinging ‘60s.  Paul McCartney liked classical music, when they worked on “Penny Lane,” he told George Martin to put in the piccolo trumpet from Bach's Brandenburg Concerto. In fact, there's obviously a lot of European classical music references in the Beatles. So…well…even though I never did this before, I realized I should write a sonata allegro for Mark Morris’s dance. The composition went very quickly, and I really liked the result. After that, I thought, “What am I, a sonata composer now?” Apparently I was! During the pandemic I wrote six sonatas for diverse instruments plus piano. In fact, there were seven because one didn't go well and I withdrew it. So the Piano Sonata was actually the eighth full-length sonata, which meant I’d already done a certain amount of groundwork in terms of refining the aesthetic and learning how to shape a longer narrative. What I like about the Piano Sonata is that it sounds like me, meaning it doesn't sound that different than when I'm playing jazz. The frame is new, but the actual chords and melodies are kind of the same. When I've shown the Sonata to other people I trust, they all say, yeah, this is what you do. So it's not a big stretch. I don't have to suddenly think, what do I do now that I'm writing formal music? It's like I am just doing what I always do, and it just happens to be notated — which may make it more valid than it might be otherwise. 


FR: It’s hard not to think about the article you recently wrote in The New York Times about Rhapsody in Blue, “The Worst Masterpiece,” which in a sense is about how Gershwin’s piece became the road not taken in American classical music.

 

EI: Exactly! With my sonata, I am trying to say this is the road we could take. It's the 21st century, and we should all know all these idioms. 


FR: There’s been a lot of debate about decolonizing classical music or music education in the last years, and it seems like your point has been that jazz deserves a different place in all of this, that it needs to be defined and analyzed on its own merits.   


EI: My mentor Billy Hart says jazz is America's classical music. Billy gets that phrase from John Coltrane, who said that every culture has its classical music. And I know what they mean, and I respect that opinion. Still, at this point, for better or for worse, when we talk about classical music in casual conversation, we're talking about the European tradition. I love the European tradition. I'm a piano player, after all – all piano players love the European tradition. I don’t like the word “decolonizing” because that sounds like you want to shame people who love Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin — meaning, you want to shame me! Get out of here! Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin are truly great! But when you get to the establishment and the academy in America, someone like John Coltrane is definitely not considered to be as serious as someone like Gershwin or Aaron Copland. But honestly, Coltrane was bigger and better than either. I like Gershwin, I like Copland – I'm not against those guys. But in terms of some sort of absolute peak of an aesthetic, Coltrane was much, much greater. Coltrane is actually like Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin. My dream is that classical musicians, especially in America, could learn to be a little more humble and take John Coltrane more seriously. That goes for all of us: let’s take Duke Ellington seriously. Let's take Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, and Billie Holiday seriously. Let's use their techniques for our American music, regardless of what genre we call it. The specific issue of swing and blues is still not too well understood in classical circles. And that was part of my argument about Rhapsody in Blue, for I feel like it has obscured the issue of how hard black rhythm really is. Since it's a flashy, virtuoso number with a few big beautiful tunes, no one has to swing or even really play in steady tempo. It's got this sort of quick-change musical theater “bluesiness” to it. While it's good for what it is, at this point — a hundred years later! — I’m ready for the people on those classical concert stages to be able to dig in and really swing and really play some blues. It's about time. 


FR: But do you see any movement there? 


EI: There is some movement, but there could be a lot more. Look at all those people who were so upset about my piece! It just shows how I'm right. While foaming at the mouth, my critics don't see the obvious piece that's missing with rhythm, blues and frankly, black music. 


FR: It’s surprising that people became that upset. I mean, the title is well chosen, it’s a bit provocative, but I didn’t read the article as a diss on Rhapsody in Blue. Rather, it felt representative of how many people have perceived that piece, from Leonard Bernstein and onwards.  


EI: I had thought of that phrase, “the worst masterpiece,” when practicing Rhapsody in Blue in order to perform it in concert. One day I said to myself, somewhat in despair, “God, this is the worst masterpiece.”  Aha! That’s a good title, I've got to use it…Unfortunately, many read the title and did not consider the essay. If I had the chance to publish again, would I change the title? I don't know. 


FR: How did your jazz interest start?


EI: My parents weren't musicians or music fans. Music came in through the TV set. Early things I liked weren’t really jazz, but they were jazz-adjacent. The James Bond movies, what was that music by John Barry? The Pink Panther cartoon, what was that music by Henry Mancini? Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown Christmas music. Stuff on Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. When I was ten years old or so, I started on a journey to find my first jazz records.


FR: Are you able to pinpoint what you liked? Was it the chords, the texture of the music, the rhythms?


EI: I don’t know exactly, but I can say this: Jazz is equally dependent on harmony and rhythm. Probably a lot of folk and pop music is rhythm first, and probably all European classical music is harmony first. But jazz is right in the middle. At a subliminal level, that reliance on both sides must have been part of my attraction in the beginning  — and it's still part of my attraction now.

Apr 3, 2024

Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini; Respighi: Toccata for Piano and Orchestra; Casella: Partita for Piano and Orchestra (CD Review)

by Ryan Ross

Joshua Pierce, piano; Anton Nanüt, conductor; RTV Slovenia Symphony Orchestra. MSR 1839                  

This disc’s program notes by Eric Salzman state that all the works on it are “modernist pieces with strong connections to tradition,” and “can be regarded as neo-classical.” While he qualifies the latter label for each in turn, these claims seem variably strained to me. Despite the fact that two of the pieces are by Italian contemporaries, it would be truer to acknowledge the heterogeneity of the music here and gladly stick to that. (As an aside, I am thoroughly exasperated by the looseness with which the term “modernism” is thrown around these days.) What really strikes me about this offering is not only how much each work should be considered on its own terms, but also how easily the familiarity and accessibility of the Rachmaninoff Paganini Rhapsody can impede fair hearings of its disc-mates here; what these other works need are fair hearings, regardless of the conclusions the listener may reach about them. 

I tried with the Respighi, I really did. But little do I see myself returning to the Toccata for Piano and Orchestra very often for the purpose of listening pleasure. That said, I cannot fault Pierce and company; they do as fine a job as one could ask. I just find the composition itself to be clunky and aimless. True, the title “Toccata” promises nothing in terms of strict form or consistency. But this 21-minute clump of undigested manners and influences is not the composer’s top-drawer product. That is not to say there aren’t beautiful moments and passages of exciting virtuosity – there definitely are both. But these elements do not make a strong impression in total. Still, I encourage listeners to give this piece a try and see for yourselves. Your experience may differ, and the music at least deserves a chance. I remain grateful to these performers and their recording for mine. 

 

I admit that my exposure to Alfredo Casella’s music has been patchy; this was my first encounter with his Partita for Piano and Orchestra. I did not think much of the piece at first, but I stuck with it for many hearings. I’m glad I did – this is music that needed time and exposure to grow on me. I could sense the composer’s distinctive voice from the start, but my affection was a bit slower to follow. What I hear now when I listen to it is refulgent, tuneful music that beams amiably. I also took the time to listen to a competing recording from Naxos (8.573005), and find the present rendering by Joshua Pierce and company to be more convincing. This Partita being the most squarely “neoclassical” work on the disc, I appreciated the latter’s crisp, brisk approach (excepting the finale, where the Naxos performance’s tempo is actually a bit quicker). 


Speaking of brisk, try out this Paganini Rhapsody! At 21:43 it is definitely one of the fastest performances I have ever heard (perhaps the fastest). Not even Yuja Wang (whose own recently recorded performance of this work I reviewed here some months ago) blazes through at such a pace. Technically, Pierce acquits himself very well. I also like his tone and articulation. While there are more soulful, more glowing performanes out there, his expressiveness is acceptable. But, not all that dissimilar to my feelings about Wang’s performance, there are just too many fine interpretations available for me to enthusiastically push this one. Even if it did not feel too breathless, which it does, this Paganini Rhapsody would be middling. I’m afraid my recommendation here is for collectors only. 

 

If the Rachmaninoff is the hook for customers to also sample the less-familiar repertoire, and the lesser-familiar repertoire lures the explorer to buy yet another recording of the Rachmaninoff, this disc was shrewdly calculated. There is likely something here for most classical listeners, and for me there is plenty: the wholly satisfying Casella Partita, the well performed but disappointing Respighi Toccata (which I’m nonetheless glad to have in my collection), and a fast Paganini Rhapsody. On balance, the price of the disc is worth what it offers. Maybe barely worth it, but worth it all the same.

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing for the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.

I am honored to contribute writings to Classical Candor. In an age where the classical recording industry is being subjected to such profound pressures and changes, it is more important than ever for those of us steeped in this cultural tradition to continue to foster its love and exposure. I hope that my readers can find value, no matter how modest, in what I offer here.


Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@gmail.com

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa