Friday, May 31, 2013

Hugo Wolf – Mörike-Lieder – Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau & Svjatoslav Richter

   Romantic period delivered not as many new musical forms as preceded eras of Classicism or Baroque, the characteristic of 19th century was rather to make new use of many older constructive ideas than to create them from the beginning. Musical form was less important than emotional content and musical psychology took primate over intellectual constructions. Many historic forms were still in use, but with new esthetical attitude and in more flexible meaning, from sonata form, through symphony, to concerto and opera. Some more ideas have been developed from previous forms. Most independent and new forms were symphonic poem and romantic song. While first form has limited scope only, song became the hallmarks of the time. Since Schubert, Chopin, Schuman, through Wagner, Brahms and Tchaikovsky to Mahler and Strauss, song remained primary language of romantic music.
   Romantic song was not only a popular way of organizing musical material in composition. Second element of the song was lyrical content which in fact usually took over the overriding role in construction. Such idea was a foundation of solo songs by Hugo Wolf who was composing his songs in predominantly through-composed form. He was strongly affected by Richard Wagner’s solutions, in many fragments he used lots of chromaticisms and nonperiodic phraseology. Hugo Wolf was one of most talented lieder composers of romantic era, he composed 250 songs in 10 years period from 1888 to 1897. He didn’t wrote typical cycles of songs, but he focused on one composer or one set of poetry at a time, so he composed songs to Eduard Mörike (Mörike-Lieder) in 1888, Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff (Eichendorff-Lieder) in 1889, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Goethe-Lieder) in 1890 and Michelangelo Buonarrotti (Michelangelo Lieder) in 1897. He was also author of Spanisches Liederbuch (1891) and Italienisches Liederbuch (1892, 1896).

Hugo Wolf: Mörike-Lieder – D. Fisher-Dieskau & S. Richter (1973)

   Probably most praised phonographic release of Wolf’s songs is life recording of great tenor and congenial interpreter of romantic song Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau and Svjatoslav Richter – pianist of unlimited possibilities, one of those few presenting comprehensive profile of technical, intellectual and emotional qualities in piano art. Their Innsbruck recital in October 1973 was great success although it wasn’t only one success of this duo, they were acting together a lot and publishing recordings with Schubert and Brahms recitals. The record published two years after Innsbruck recital by Deutsche Grammophon (2530 584) is one of greatest positions in Wolf’s discography. It captures the atmosphere of live performance and renders its dramatic tension.
   This selection comprises 18 most characteristic songs out of 53 songs contained in 4 volumes of complete collection of Mörike-Lieder cycle. Preserving the original idea of Hugo Wolf, artists had been trying to construct recital basing on the same opening and closing songs and common highlights. Perfect example is Der Feuerreiter, the song that requires virtuoso technique and dramatic skills of both musicians. This is also the one clearly showing the New German School impact on artistic song and its consequences in Wolf’s style. About 30 years after Liszt and Wagner’s songs, Slovenian composer establishing new relations between words and music made next step towards expression and modernism. The importance of Hugo Wolf’s songs is undeniable. Fortunately there are singers performing and recording these works, Wolf is present in concert and in radio programs. Recorded recital belongs to events of great artistic importance – for its unique qualities and for giving Hugo Wolf the place in our memory it deserves four stars.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Steely Dan – Countdown to Ecstasy

   Steely Dan was one of most original American bands of 70’s of rock and pop rock genre. According to some critics accurate assessment of the genre should be jazz-rock. And it’s understandably since it was not quite easy task to classify this band’s music. Although it was advanced in harmonic complexity, band arrangements and soloing, it was more rock than jazz. Despite Steely Dan was more ambitious in creative productions than many popular groups, professional aims of this band were reaching the level of artistic music. This attitude should be considered as important element of fusion culture. But the idea of songs designed in details and played by professional and versatile musicians should be considered as the return to the tradition of artistically developed popular songs. The strophic and formal pattern with instrumental solo choruses in place psychedelic jamming, the discipline against freedom, this was like backtrack moving out of dead end.
   Without any doubts this was just one of artistic rock projects. Arrangements were ambitious as much as in many other bands of early seventies. In most progressive rock projects musicians were trying to merge this still best selling genre with different noncommercial traditions. Many musicians were trying to build original song constructions intertwined with jazz, ethnic, traditional, popular or even classical music. And there were dozens of groups, every one developing its original style and seeking means of expression that could attract audiences.

Steely Dan – Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)

   When in August 1973, less than one year after the debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill, ABC Records released their second album Countdown to Ecstasy, critical acclaim of this production was great. In fact the enthusiasm of critics was much higher than commercial effect. The Steely Dan’s lineup was almost the same as on debut album, with guitarists and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, bass guitarist Walter Becker, drummer Jim Hodder and Donald Fagen playing pianos and synthesizer. After vocalist David Palmer had quit the band, Donald Fagen main vocalist supported by Becker, Hodder and group of additional background singers. The sound of Steely Dan was also enriched by group of sideman musicians Rick Derringer and Ben Benay on guitars, Victor Feldman on vibes, marimba and percussion instruments, Ray Brown on string bass in Razor Boy. There were also four saxophonists section in My Old School arranged by Jimmie Haskell with Ernie Watts and West Coast veteran Bill Perkins.
   Sound of this album was totally different than older productions. Producer Gary Katz made this album a groundbreaking project. Denny Dias was featured in lineup as Stereo Mixmaster General. Sessions took place in the Village Recorder in Santa Monica and the Caribou Ranch in Nederland, Colorado (on original LP cover misspelled as Carabou Ranch). Recording conditions of two modern studios gave stable basis for professional arrangements being some kind of artistic answer for older popular music. No wonder back cover photo shows the band in engineering room centered around the mixing table with ashtrays, catch in hard workers’ resting poses. The sound of Countdown to Ecstasy album shows this was the real space of creative efforts.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Al Jarreau – We Got By

   While many debuts are just one time hits with no further development, only some are groundbreaking events. Very few only are both instant hits and the opening of beautiful artistic career. This was the case of Al Jarreau’s first album. He started to sing in San Francisco jazz clubs in 60’s, first with George Duke trio and after 1967 with guitarist Julio Martinez. Until the moment he run his career as a professional jazz singer Al Jarreau was working as a therapist and rehabilitation counselor. This occupation had paramount importance, he was always working in contact and through the contact with people he brings support. When he was on the stage, he was always establishing this close bound with the audience, like it was continuation of his previous occupation.
   In 1968 he became professional musician and next year he decided to move to Los Angeles and from this moment on he was on his way to professional career. Series of club and television appearances gave Al Jarreau many possibilities to develop his interpretative skills and in effect to create his original style. His phonographic debut in the age of 35 was late and very mature. Recorded for Reprise label of Warner Bross the album in monochromatic green cover showed new kind of vocal sensitivity, with deep soul feeling and virtuoso articulations continuing mainstream tradition with quite brave style. Smooth R&B arrangements gave these songs some commercial advantages and whole album quickly became blockbuster, giving Al Jarreau German Grammy Award.

Al Jarreau – We Got By (1975)

   Nine songs were written by Al Jarreau, arranged by Al Jarreau and keyboardist Tom Canning, with strings and horn arrangements by David Grusin, who also played additional keyboards in few songs. Some vocal arrangements were made by Al Jarreau with Morgan Ames. It was recorded with drummer Joe Correro and bassist Paul Stallworth, with Larry Bunker playing vibes and guitarist Arthur Adams in You Don’t See Me. Limited but made with good taste, clear and economic in meanings, accompaniments gave solo singer great space for unveiling in interpretation new vision of vocal expression. Al Jarreau is great singer shaping every phrase and every sound with perfection and warm frankness. Shortly this way of singing became his wide recognizable style.
   Maybe this looks somehow modest but this was a real returning to the trend of mainstream jazz singing. With scat singing and improvisations constructed in the instrumental way, Al Jarreau established in post fusion era a new and really influencing attainment. Shortly after the success of his first album, artist recorded his second album Glow, giving concerts and TV appearances all over the world. After months of rapid career, Al Jarreau became one of most respected jazz singers of late 70’s and 80’s. In time of Broadway engagement he was overhauled with live gigs, so in 90’s his star had faded for few years to shine again in new century. His triumphant comeback after great Tomorrow Today (2000) album was a reprise of the style defined by his 25 years earlier debut.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Peter Hofmann sings Richard Wagner

   The difficulties in Wagner’s music are legendary, especially vocal one. Melody was a primary component of his music and his theoretical solutions. He called melody “the only form of music”. Richard Wagner’s musical ideas were subordinated to his idea of music drama, called also Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art). One of main issues of this reform was changing the style of the melody. In place of periodic structures he proposed the idea of Unendliche Melodie (infinite melody), the new kind of non-divided and not ended sequence of structures depending of lyrics and stage drama. One deep consequences of this attitude was the level of difficulties in Richard Wagner’s opera is so high, special trained voices are demanded to perform it safely. Among singers performing Richard Wagner’s opera and drama roles many are specialists dedicated exclusively to this music and ready to meet the high requirements special trained voices.
   One of most promising voices in Wagnerian stage in 1980’s was phenomenal tenor Peter Hofmann. His debut was Tamino in 1972 in Lübeck performance of Mozart's The Magic Flute. He was 28. Two years later he made his Wagner debut sunging Siegmund in Die Walküre production in Wupertal and in 1976 with the same role he debuted in Bayreuth Festival production. The same year he was singing title role in Parsifal and in next years also title hero in Lohengrin, Tristan in Tristan und Isolde and Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Peter Hofmann was active in many opera houses all over the world. He was also recognized as popular music singer, recording and performing in 1980’s. In 1994 he has been diagnosed with Parkinson disease and in 1999 he withdrawn of public performances. He died in 2010.

Peter Hofmann – Richard Wagner (1983)

   In 1983 CBS Records Masterworks released Peter Hofmann’s album with Highlights from six Wagner’s operas and dramas. Recorded in Stuttgart with Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart under Iván Fischer, this recording had captured one of best moments in singers career. He reached full capabilities, has won international recognition and married for the second time with successful singer Deborah Sasson. The program of this recital is composed of most famous fragments of Richard Wagners stage works. There are mainly lyrical arias and monologues, most of them presented in such way as they were songs or standalone dramatic scenes. It’s definitely comprehensive set of most beautiful excerpts from Richard Wagner’s operas and dramas.
   First side comprises two fragments from Wagner’s most consequent opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and three fragments from dramas Die Walküre and Siegfried. Interesting performance of Walther von Stolzing Preislied Morgendlich leuchtend im rosigen Schein is more dramatic while scene with Nothung from Siegfried: Nothung! Nothung! Neidliches Schwert! shows more subtle aspect of Wagnerian hero. Second side of the album shows three extensive fragments from operas. Beautiful Rienzi’s Prayer Allmächt’ger Vater, blick herab, the dramatically lyric Rome narrative Inbrunst im Herzen, wie kein Büßer noch sie je gefühlt from Tannhäuser (with Victor Dornberger as Wolfram) and Gral narrative In fernem Land from Lohengrin. This is just one beautifully set and perfectly recorded album. In comparison with other Wagnerian recording this can be seen as incomplete but fresh and creative.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Richard Wagner – Der Fliegende Holländer


   The central figure in German romanticism was Richard Wagner who was connecting early romanticism with post romantic aesthetics. He started as a composer of operas continuing the style of Carl Maria von Weber and Giacomo Meyerbeer, but dissatisfied with the results, he criticized previous solutions frequently used for stage works. He created the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) as a fundamental connection of various elements subordinated to the parent structure. As a technique of establishing such connections he was using leitmotifs – motifs characteristic to dramatis personae, situations, ideas or things. Rich chromatics and advanced harmony, symphonic orchestrations and organic unity of dramatic and musical narrative are his great achievements fulfilled after 1851 in his music dramas, Parsifal and Der Ring des Nibelungen tetralogy.
   After earlier works, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, he composed Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg). When Richard Wagner was already famous as opera reformer and composer of music dramas, he did not mind the parallel work on regular operatic works, so was also successful composer of more traditional stage music like Tristan und Isolde which is considered as first atonal music. He renounced his very early works and the first opera which he regarded as a new beginnning was Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) composed in years 1840-1843. Inspired by stormy sea travel from Riga to London and by story by Heinrich Heine, Der Fliegende Holländer became a major step in the history of German romantic opera.

Richard Wagner – Der Fliegende Holländer (1965)

   As a perfectly romantic performance of Der Fliegende Holländer one can consider 1965 recording conducted by Hans Löwlein. It was reissued in Resonance series by Deutsche Grammophon in 1979 as the opera cross-section. The brightest star of this performance was Evelyn Lear singing convincingly dramatic role of Senta. Her ballad Jo ho hoe! Traft ihr das Schiff is astonishingly fresh even half a century after the recording. Dutchman in rendition of Thomas Steward and Eric sung by James King made the main group of soloists. Other soloists were Kim Borg as Daland, Johannes Elteste as Steuermann and Christa Emde as Mary. Powerful sound of Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin (in choir of sailors from 3. act) and Bamberger Symphoniker are playing with great sound and culture. This dramatic legend on wandering sailor whose only redemption can be love, a version of sea wandering exile, like wandering Jew in mediaeval Christian mythology, here presented in clear sound and dramatic interpretation, gives Richard Wagner key position in history of romantic state of mind.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Captain Beefheart – Clear Spot


   Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band were probably most uncompromising performers of crossover music during sixties. Its original style covers wide span of different directions from experimental rock to free jazz, and from R&B to protopunk. They were in situation of outcasts. After they met some artistic freedom in late sixties, when any kind of music was easy to sell just because of its counter-culture aspect many things have changed. Next decade became slow pursuit of solutions with commercial potential. This was much easier for naïve pop stars than for natural rebels, but in both cases it was inevitable.
   Like many others in early 1970’s, Captain Beefheart was evolving towards fulfilling audience expectations and to achieve commercial success. In his music the only reasonable solution was to merge experiments with blues and R&B sound. He was moving towards such idea for two years already. In fact, it was since Lick My Decals Off, Baby and Mirror Man when band was moving back to folk roots of progressive rock. Published in October 1972 Clear Spot became just next step in this direction, because it was also the last of Captain Beefheart’s albums before two commercial albums of 1974 – Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans and Moonbeams.

Captain Beefheart – Clear Spot (1972)

   The Magic Band played in 1972 sessions with guitarists Zoot Horn Rollo (Bill Harkleroad), Rockette Morton (Mark Boston), drummer Ed Marimba (Art Tripp) and Orejon (Roy Estrada) playing bass guitar. The guest guitarist was Russ Titelman (in Too Much Time). This lineup was augmented by horn sections and singing back vocals The Blackberries ensemble with Venetta Fields. And since The Magic Band was never only a psychedelic group, such lineup was quite clear vision of its development. The Magic Band sound quality was always on the level of best ensembles of progressive rock and rhythmic precision exceeded even these levels was comparable to modern jazz. With producer Ted Templeman who also co-authoring horns arrangements and engineer Donn Landee they created thick, expressive sound with strong rhythmic continuum, showing the ambitious plan of market expansion.
   Also original cover conception with transparent vinyl inside was the idea of provocative exposure. It was abandoned as too expensive. Original edition was sold in transparent plastic cover with white insert. The photo is showing Captain Beefheart and three musicians of the Magic Band in control desk of Griffith Park Observatory Planetarium in Los Angeles. This became the base for cover design of later editions. Clear Spot is seventh album in official discography of Captain Beefheart. Commercial success was moderate – 191st position on Billboard Top 200. In fact this album is quite average Captain Beefheart’s release, what means it’s still great. Every song here could be a hit. In 70’s times Circumstances, Crazy Little Thing and Big Eyed Beans from Venus were great alternative for ABBA, today whole dozen of songs sounds just perfect. Four and a half star for drive and clear intentions.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Lucio Battisti – Una donna per amico

   Italian song, like Italian design, is a class of its own. Artistic possibilities coming from the land with such plenty of sun, with rich soil and magnificent landscapes, blossom in culture with lots of contexts and experiences. Melodic material always depends of language, and Italian language has exceptional values of rhythm and intonation. It was observed in the history of Italian opera, although there were some other factors creating singing culture of Italy. Every Festival of Sanremo shows a bunch of great songs based on perfectly balanced lyrics and music. Singing is Italian number one tradition and song in Italy is better than in other countries. One of best personalities in Italian song scene for few decades was Lucio Battisti, an artist remembered far away from Italy for great successes of his seventies albums, especially the one called Una donna per amico (A Woman as Friend) which became a real blockbuster.
   During the time Battisti recorded his 13th album, he was in breakthrough moment of his career. He was very popular personality with series of number one hits, presented in Italian television as well as on the radio in Italy and abroad. One year earlier his Greatest Hits were published by Numero Uno, becoming an opportunity to take stock of the achievements and artistic ambitions. He made this album as the kind of closing all past trends and ideas. His new album recorded in 1978 was indicating clearly the whole new direction. Lucio Battisti, who was always a trend setter, presented his songs in somehow new perspective, in original arrangements – just like he intended to make the sharp turn from disco and heading to the future in much easier way.

Lucio Battisti – Una donna per amico (1978)

   Album was recorded in legendary The Manor Studios in Oxfordshire and partly in studio Audio International in London. Producer and keyboardist Geoff Westley was the one who decided about the musical shape of the album. He was also arranger and giving background voices together with other singers. Musicians were mainly British - drummer Gerry Conway, playing bass guitar Paul Westwood, guitarist Pip Williams and others. Original idea was to create arrangements with lots of silence, which was fresh in disco era and hits overcrowd and excessively filled in. As many times before Battisti wrote his songs to lyrics by Mogol. This duo made perfect set of songs, even if some of them are still in disco dancing rhythm tiring easiness. Songs are about changing emotions and different relations with woman and about different faces of friendship and love.
   From very first bars of opening song Prendila cosi’ (Take It As It Comes) this album shows new concept of pop music. In place of decided disco rhythms, listeners received cozy arrangements with studio refinement. The band was recorded and engineered with lots of space. Arrangements are filled with slightly syncopated discreet rhythms and shadowy synthesizer’s background. Alto saxophone solo by Derek Grossmith gives this song a smooth jazzy touch, which is not a common feature yet, but reveals general tendency exploding in 80’s with different implementations of this idea in recordings by Carmel and Sade. The place of this record in history of Italian popular music is fixed. It hit the top of Italian charts immediately after it was issued, and although this record was published in December 1978, with nearly one million copies sold, it was on 4th position of bestselling albums of this year. Thirty five years after release one can say it is basic album for whole generations.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Cyprien Katsaris plays Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony

   Romanticism was the time of great success of Ludwig van Beethoven’s music. In the times of the birth of romantic ideology and a growing worship surrounding artists, poets and composers, the last great Vienna classic became the social mind hero. He was seen as an unrivaled creator of music reaching highest levels of metaphysical mysteries and human spiritual powers. Especially his symphonies and sonatas were considered as the exposure of 19th century mind. And this music was played not only in original settings, but also by every possible instruments and ensembles. Piano sonatas were transcribed for various chamber lineups to meet social needs. The same way, the whole cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies was present virtually in everyday life with its various piano transcriptions. Some were easy, like four-hands editions for home playing, others were highly artistic arrangements demanding virtuoso pianist.
   One of greatest piano virtuoso ever and the prominent composer of 19th century was Franz Liszt (he was also known under the name Franz Ritter von Liszt or Hungarian form of his name as Liszt Ferenc). He was strong personality in New German School (Neudeutsche Schule) forcing new ideas in writing and constructing musical forms. An important part of his artistic activity were public performances as the master of romantic piano. Like every romantic virtuoso Liszt was composer of his own repertoire but also and author of numerous piano transcriptions. He was not only transcribing music for piano, organ and other instruments, making many free editing changes, composing paraphrases, variations, reminiscences, fantasias and other creative elaborations common in romantic culture. Among most famous were his transcriptions of music by Richard Wagner who was Liszt’s son-in-law and complete of nine Beethoven’s symphonies.

Cyprien Katsaris – Beethoven-Liszt Symphony No.7 (1985)

   Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 was transcribed by Franz Liszt in 1838 along with Fifth and Sixth. Five years later he transcribed Third. Other transcriptions were unpublished while Liszt was playing them during his European touring. In 1863 Breitkopf & Härtel ordered transcriptions for planned publication of complete set. Cyprien Katsaris, one of the best pianists recording in last four decades, recorded this one in 1985 for Teldec complete edition pressed in Direct Metal Mastering technology. This recording has all the advantages to become a legend. Virtuoso cycle of great works demands great technique as well as great intellectual and emotional possibilities. And Cyprien Katsaris is one the only artist with such temperament and professional possibilities. Powerful sound, wide range of dynamic and expression means, deep emotionalism and suitable distance to the form – these are qualities giving Katsaris' recordings exceptional place between best achievements of piano masters.
   Program of the album comprises also 1982 recording of Robert Schumann’s Exercises (original title is Etüden in Form freier Variationen über ein Thema von Beethoven, WoO 31). The choice is strongly justified since basic subject of the Exercises is the Allegretto theme of the same Beethoven’s Symphony. The comparison of these two compositions shows stylistic difference between Schumann and Liszt piano works. This is also a perfect occasion to experience the versatility of Cyprien Katsaris’ pianistic art. This is phenomenal attribute of his art. His interpretations are always subjected to a composer’s style to the point he is hard to recognize as a performer. He owes his position to unforgettable renditions of Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart and great set of late romantic virtuoso music. In Liszt’s transcriptions of Beethoven’s music there are all qualities of his art. Five stars (out of five) for rendition which is so much complete.