Monday, August 31, 2015

Ralph Vaughan Williams — Riders to the Sea, Magnificat

★★★★

   Modern era in musical theatre is probably the best time for traditional opera. For about a century historic works are preferred by audience and by artists. Directors of opera and choreographers are searching for forgotten works while forgetting contemporary masterpieces. This phenomenon has been intensified with the decades. Composers found some solutions like festivals and commissioning system giving them chance to hear and see their works, but such successes as those of romantic composers could not happen anymore. And yet, despite such experience, despite problems with production and money, 20th century musical stage occurred to give opulence of great works. One of composers active in opera genre was Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). His six operas were not successful at once but were important at least as a part of author’s stylistic development. It is significant, the most successful opera by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Riders to the Sea duration is 35 minutes only.
   The synopsis of Riders to the Sea is as simple as short. Based on play by John Millington Synge is the story of passing by, mourn and vanishing. Maurya, Irish mother who lost four sons, father and husband in the sea, during the show is losing her last two sons. This story shows some tendency in works of Vaughan Williams who was interested in creating music full of dramatic tension. Written in 1927 opera was revised in 1932 and premiered in 1937. Years between the wars were fruitful in Vaughan Williams’ creative life. In 1932, the year he closed working on Riders to the Sea he composed also Magnificat. He was sixty years old and his personal composing style was in best shape.

Vaughan Williams — Riders to the Sea, Magnificat (1972)

   In sixties and seventies music of Ralph Vaughan Williams was well presented in United Kingdom and USA. Many EMI recordings were published by Angel label for US market. The same happened with Riders to the Sea release by EMI in 1971 and by Angel in 1972 with painting Queen Maeve walked upon this strand by Jack Butler Yeats as cover art. Both compositions presented on EMI 1971 album Riders to the Sea and Magnificat for contralto, woman’s choir and orchestra are works of middle period in Vaughan Williams creative life. This was time of balanced use of most innovative techniques for strong emotional content. Both compositions are musical pictures of mother’s pain and have similar dramatic sense. Elegant distance and clear sincere expression show noble and honest nature of Vaughan Williams’ music.
   Album was recorded in 1971 with Ambrosian Singers and Orchestra Nova of London. Featured contralto Helen Watts recorded both works. In Magnificat she performed solo, in opera she sung role of Maurya. Other parts in Riders to the Sea were sung by Margaret Price (Cathleen), Norma Burrowes (Nora), Benjamin Luxon (Bartley) and others. Both works are presenting perfect, performed with lots of space and culture of sound, these recordings are basic for Vaughan Williams discography. This is substantially the merit of conductor of these recordings Meredith Davies (1922-2005) who was known for his devotion to English modern music, he was renowned especially for his performances of works by Benjamin Britten, Frederic Delius and Ralph Vaughan Williams. He conducted also premiere recording of earlier Vaughan Williams stage works – Sir John in Love, a four-act opera based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. Four stars.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Stanley Clarke — School Days

   Stanley Clarke was one of youngest stars of jazz in seventies. He debuted in 1966 and when in 1976 he published his fourth solo album School Days, he was already noted as the best electric bass player and one of most influential artists on fusion jazz scene. Three prior albums gave him position of independent artist and classic of fusion jazz. He was famous as virtuoso for his innovative technique and wide creative horizons. Suggesting in the title and cover graphics a retrospective look to the past, maybe frolicsome reference to theoretical foundations or even some basic musical ideas, he made School Days one of most popular and influential albums in the history of bass centered recordings. And he achieved this position before he turned 25. In his rich discography one can find many great albums but it was School Days that became so popular and influential.
   Perfect equilibrium between virtuoso exhibition, creative invention and popular trends is what made this record so important. From the other hand, on earlier and later albums qualities of Stanley Clarke’s playing are always on constant, highest level. Maybe School Days just hit the moment? Whatever it was, in mid seventies Stanley Clarke’s records were bought not only by jazz audience. Album was recorded in June 1976, most of material at Electric Lady Studios in New York City, and last song Life Is Just a Game at A&M Studios in Los Angeles. Stanley Clarke’s solo in Life Is Just a Game and improvisation in duo with Billy Cobham was one of highlighted moments in fusion jazz legends. Over thirty musicians, new sound of electronic instruments, new rhythmic and emotional density and perfect arrangements were enormously attractive. Album was best seller and had peaked on 2nd position of Billboard Jazz Albums.

Stanley Clarke — School Days (1976)

   Title song opens first side, School Days with straight riff and cheerful theme with background voices by Clarke. In central part nice spatial effect based on strings gives space for electric bass solo expressive and consequently developing main riff motive. Coda with phrase sung by Clarke changes this short perspective giving a kick to next track. Quiet Afternoon is so much natural from formal point of view, it can be used as improvisation workshop for students. This is just theme and improvisation on background of bass and drums (Steve Gadd) with Clarke overdubbing himself with piccolo bass guitar especially build for artist what was officially mentioned in credits. Solo on piccolo bass Clarke played in third track The Dancer. Last song on first side has thicker facture, with synthesizers (David Sancious), two percussionists (Gerry Brown, Milton Holland) and guitarist Raymond Gomez. It could be seen as an answer for opening song, not only because of its joyous mood.
   Second side starts with beautiful acoustic ballade played by Clarke on upper bass with the bow, and with great pizzicato improvisation with elements of classic guitar technique. Playing the same on guitar would be a certificate of virtuoso level, on double bas it was just breaking the boundaries. As a counterweight acoustic guitar solo by John McLaughlin is based on sound nuances and acoustic effects impossible to execute on any other instrument. This perfect duo only accompaniment is conga and triangle played by Milton Holland. Great inspirational moment. This beautiful, reserved and magic composition is like an interlude leading to next track Hot Fun which again has more rhythmic and dance intensity, and beyond where all accumulated energy finds an outlet — to a grand finale and the only song with lyrics Life Is Just a Game. Lyrics are short but sung with nice voice. This conclusive composition is space where three basses played by Stanley Clarke are interfered with great solos by George Duke (keyboards), Icarus Johnson (guitar) and rousing drums by Billy Cobham. Power of great soloists was multiplied by string and brass orchestra of 23 members. For such nice and powerful piece of joyful music four stars is just rigorous rating.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Breakout — Karate

★★★

   Blues in Western Europe was known a long before rock music had happened. English bands playing blues standards became the first force of rock movement in sixties. In East European countries blues was known mainly as American folk music, it was played more as a kind of exercise for jazz than stand alone repertoire. In sixties, after first wave of East European rock, based predominantly on rock and roll and some elements of local folk traditions, appeared deeper interest on blues and blues-rock. In seventies next generation of independent East European rock music expressing more complex emotionality was based on stylistic solutions of British blues school, these bands gradually evolved to their own ideas of blues-rock and folk-rock.
   One of very first was Polish band Breakout formed February 1st, 1968 in Rzeszów. In fact first period in band’s history was more rock than blues, but already in these early recordings some ideas of blues were clear. The founder of the group Tadeusz Nalepa (1943-2007) became godfather of Polish blues scene. Breakout was his most famous bands although it wasn’t the only one. In 1965 he started his first band called Blackout performing songs and original songs in style of early pop rock. Nalepa was composer and lyrics came from poet Bogdan Loebl. After this group was transformed into Breakout, the style begun to change, but authors were still Nalepa and Loebl. Breakout was disbanded in 1983, but next decades Tadeusz Nalepa was reactivating band on many occasions. As his name was almost synonymously associated with this band, one of later bands was called Nalepa-Breakout. 

Breakout — Karate (1972)

   The first decade in history of the band was the period of most progressive projects. This was the time of creation blues-rock scene in Poland. During five years between 1969 and 1974 Breakout published seven studio albums. Fifth album Karate was ambitious attempt to repeat success of third album Blues published one year earlier. The lineup of Breakout was smaller than on earlier albums, including Jerzy Goleniowski on bass guitar, Józef Hajdasz on drums, Tadeusz Trzciński on harmonica and Mira Kubasińska playing maraca and leader Tadeusz Nalepa who was singing and playing guitars.
   In main part this album continues the style of earlier recordings. All songs were written by Bogdan Loebl and composed by Tadeusz Nalepa. There are two hits: Nocą puka ktoś (Someone Knocks at Night) and Rzeka dzieciństwa (River of Childhood). Album Karate became even bigger success, giving some examples of blues-rock instrumental improvisations for the first time in Polish rock. Title song is instrumental composition alluding to jamming riffs in style of American blues-rock bands. Solos by Tadeusz Trzciński and Józef Hajdasz on drums were something new in Polish rock. This one was a clear sign of band’s aspirations to evolve in more progressive direction. Four stars for overall effect and importance in Polish blues.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Günter Wand — Anton Bruckner — Symphony in C Minor No. 8

★★★★★

   After great century of radical artistic experiments and many new ideas in music esthetics, old symphonic form in its late romantic shape still remains most significant form in repertoire of every philharmonic orchestra of civilized world. These works are demanding highest quality, quantity, space and volume of orchestral sound. Most popular and are symphonies by Johannes Brahms, Antonin Dvořak, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler. Symphonies of these and many other composers are basic repertoire of musical education and every symphonic orchestra. Some esthetic ideas, especially those which are understanding history of musical forms in categories of progress, indicate symphonies by Bruckner and Mahler as the greatest achievements in 19th century history of this form. Especially these two composers are great symphony innovators and their cycles of symphonies are milestones in the history of music.
   As far as Mahler’s symphonies were instant hits, symphonic works by Bruckner were somehow neglected. Although historians of music were talking about both composers in the same breath, in modern times critics and artists were paying more attention to Mahler, considering Bruckner’s symphonies as too much of formalistic and academic. This situation had changed in last decades of 20th century, when many great artists tried to revive interest in Bruckner’s legacy, especially symphonies. From contemporary the point of view these refreshed symphonies showed how attractive is late romantic symphonic music and how much potential it has. In sixties and seventies these works were in repertoire of every ambitious conductor and orchestra. Following these phonographic editions some conductors took on the challenge to record complete set of Bruckner’s symphonies.

Günter Wand — Anton Bruckner — Symphony in C Minor No. 8 (1979)

   One of conductors famous for achieving best results in this challenge was Günter Wand (1912-2002) conductor and composer famous throughout postwar decades for his work on post of music director in Cologne Opera. Born in Elberfeld (today part of Wuppertal), he started his career in the age of twelve attending production of Johann Strauss operetta The Gypsy Baron in his native city. In his twenties he took his first post as music director of city theatre in Allenstein (today Olsztyn) where he founded first orchestra and gave many successful productions of operas by Bizet, Verdi and Wagner. His great career started in 1939 when he started work as conductor of Cologne Opera, after the war he took the post of Generalmusikdirektor what was associated with the position of 1st conductor for both of the Cologne Opera and in Gürzenich Orchestra. In late 1970’s Günter Wand recorded with Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester complete sets of symphonies by Franz Schubert and Anton Bruckner. In 1980’s he was conductor of NDR Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg and made new series of recordings. In last years of his life he made recordings of selected Bruckner’s symphonies with Berliner Philharmoniker.
   First recording of Bruckner’s symphonies with Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester was great artistic success of Günter Wand, who was known for his reliable and amenable attitude to historic works. Since he was convinced the first interpreter’s obligation is to reveal composers intention and to create musical performance as close to original as possible, he was ideal conductor for bringing new works or establishing new standards for known compositions. Wolfgang Seifert called Wand “one of the most unusual and independent interpreters”. For Bruckner’s symphonies Wand’s performances were the act of pure congeniality. This is one of three Bruckner’s symphonies in this key – the same first two symphonies. Recorded in 1979 Symphony in C Minor No. 8 was probably the most difficult challenge. This mighty work (here 83 minutes) is great construction of absolute music. Although there are no reasonable programmatic explanations of this symphony, later it was nicknamed ‘Apocalyptic’. Recorded with WDR Orchestra, album shows great scale of sound and expression of Bruckner symphonic form. This great achievement deserves five stars.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Richter and Rostropovich Play Concertos by Robert Schumann

★★★★★

   Romanticism was artistic and intellectual movement of various directions and currents. One of dominants of the era was social and philosophical background of artistic activities. This was not new idea, but in prior eras it was always limited to one clear idea and all answers were already known. The one and only question was about how to render idea to find full understanding of listeners. In romanticism many composers were searching for new, more capacious musical construction and a new shape of musical forms. One of such ambitious composers was Robert Schumann (1810-1856), who was experimenting with new forms and trying to renew some classical ideas. He started as music critic and he was always aware of the possibilities and importance of meaning in absolute music. Most famous examples are his cycles of piano miniatures, cycles of songs and four symphonies. Also at least two of his concertos are concert favorites.
   Robert Schumann started composing piano concertos when he was twenty, but results disappointed him and in effect he criticized the idea of the form. In 1828 he worked on piano concerto in E-flat major, next year he tried to compose concerto for piano and orchestra in F major, then in 1839 he wrote one movement of concerto in D minor. When he was thirty, he wrote Fantasy in a Minor for piano and orchestra which became the first part of Piano Concerto in A Minor Op. 54, finished in 1845. His next concert pieces were Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra Op. 86 and Introduction and Allegro Appassionato for Piano and Orchestra Op. 92, both composed in 1849, Cello Concerto in A Minor Op. 129 from 1850 and three concert works from 1853: Fantasy in C for violin and orchestra Op. 131, Introduction and Allegro for Piano and Orchestra Op. 134 and Violin Concerto in D minor.  Both concertos in A Minor are definitely most famous of Schumann’s concertos.

Richter Rostropovich Schumann - Concertos (1961, reissue 1971)

   Piano Concerto in A Minor is great success of Robert Schumann and His idea of emotionally driven concerto being continuation of Beethoven’s symphonic concerto and antithetic to concertos of Schumann’s contemporaries. The compact shape, fresh and clear melodic invention and construction subordinated to the clear dramatic idea are features of this work. The 1958 interpretation by Svjatoslav Richter (1915-1997) is probably the best rendition of Schumann’s Piano Concerto ever. Richter as virtuoso pianist had technical excellence and intellectual base sufficient to create great works of art. What makes him unique is his possibility of profound emotional connection with the composer’s idea and with listener’s sensibility. He communicates not as middleman; he is the fully proficient element of this process. His vision of Schumann is touchingly simple, like he was just playing notes finding them instinctively their natural place. Orchestra of Warsaw National Philharmonic conducted by Witold Rowicki sounds very good, with lots of space for soloist and well balanced proportions.
   Cello was one of instruments Schumann have studied in his youth, so he knew possibilities and limitations of the instrument enough good. But his idea of joining soloist with orchestra was rather to create emotional dramatic tension in musical narration than conventional piece in concerting style which he had so much criticized. He wrote concert in three united movements with concise solos and considerate answers in orchestral parts. In effect Cello Concerto in A Minor Op. 129 is Schumann’s great achievement and one of the best cello concertos ever. Its cheerful feeling, slide along and flowing action, reducing make it invariably great position in concert repertoire. Interpreted by Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007), one of best cellists recorded ever, Schumann’s Concerto sounds perfect, light and meaningful. Accompanied by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, Rostropovich’s 1961 brilliant performance shows charm of Schumann’s Cello Concerto. Many qualities mentioned on Richter’s interpretation of Schumann’s Piano Concerto and Mstislav Rostropovich’s rendition of Cello Concerto in A Minor Op. 129 have their counterpart in each other. No wonder Deutsche Grammophon joined these two recordings in one album in 1961 and republished it in 1971. Five stars for these breathtakingly performances is quite natural rate.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Flora Purim and Airto Moreira — The Magicians

★★★★

   In the years of fusion and jazz rock explosion some new trends and styles were seen as next stage of modern jazz with new melodic and rhythmic idioms, new sound and different formal solutions. Those were the times when popularity was not in contradiction with ambitions and number of copies sold was not the measure of quality. Those years names of Flora Purim and Airto Moreira were definitely at the top of jazz celebrities’. They were playing and singing with many greatest artists. Later this popularity helped them to achieve good position in jazz and to continue their careers with smooth jazz. In their discography many records are made with greatest artists of last half of the century, but best known part of their catalogue are mutual recordings signed by both or by one of them.
   Observing habits and social values in artistic circles one can find interesting feature connecting jazz rather with classical music than with rock or more popular genres. Jazz musicians often play with members of their families while rock musicians in most cases were separated musical career and their families, sometimes even hiding family life out of fans sight. No such politics in jazz. Flora Purim and Airto Moreira, the two Brasilian jazz musicians are probably most famous marriage in the history of jazz, although marriages of jazz artists were quite common since early jazz and through all later decades. They were active long before their US debut, but their international fame begins with groundbreaking recordings with revolutionary electric Miles Davis band (Moreira) and with Chick Corea’s Return to Forever (Moreira and Purim). Contribution to artistic qualities of these bands and to whole fusion style was proportional to their fame.


Flora Purim and Airto Moreira — The Magicians (1986)

   Most albums Flora Purim and Airto Moreira (or just Airto) have ever recorded, they were doing together. Many issues were signed mutually by both or they were taking part in each other’s projects. Optimistic, light mood was a kind of original temper in their early works in eighties became main movement in smooth jazz. One of their popular releases of these years was The Magicians album. It was recorded in March and April 1986 at Les Gonk Studios in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara Studios in Santa Barbara and Fantasy Studios in Berkeley. Flora Purim once again confirmed she was number one vocalist of fusion jazz era. Melodious phrase, deep and subtle voice, wide spectrum of expression means with some fusion electronic modifications, everything natural and tasty. In the title song main vocal was recorded by Airto Moreira, who once again occurred to be quite competent singer. This song opening the second side of the album is new version of classic Airto’s song written by Egberto Gismondi and Airto Moreira and published on 1975 album Identity.
   In 1986 everything was softer and easier. It is striking even if quite understandable – times have changed and music has to fit. Nine relaxing songs covering span between Latin jazz and funky, mainly in samba and bossa rhythms, with perfect solos of keyboardists George Duke, Marcos Silva and Kei Akagi, guitarists Ricardo Peixoto, Larry Ness, David Zeiher, Jeff Elliott on trumpet. Whole list of performers was much longer including drummers supporting Moreira, Celso Alberti and Tony Moreno, four bass players Gary Brown, Bob Harrison, Keith Jones and Randy Tico, vocalist Kenny Loggins, trombonists Daniel Reagan and Rolando Gingras. Featured position had saxophonist Mary Fettig. She played some great solos on tenor, alto and soprano saxes. The sound of this San Francisco born saxophonist, perfection of phrase and construction of solos made Mary Fettig third hero of this album. Four stars to avoid frustration of underestimating good crossover between smooth jazz and popular music.