When a grandiose culture encounters a “lesser” one in its midst, the potential for something remarkable arises. One instance is when a man of the Hungarian minority within the Austro-Hungarian Empire journeyed beyond societal borders into villages in Transylvania. Béla Bartók lugged an Edison cylinder recorder and blank wax rolls to capture sound. Among the Romanians of the zone were Germans, Hungarians, Jews, Gypsies, Huzuls, Greeks, Turks, Russians, Armenians, Ukrainians and others living in harmony foe centuries until World War II split them and forced all to become chattel for insane dictatorships,
On a trek around 1910, Bartók strayed onto a flutist and a few fiddlers. We hear five cylinders among the thousands recoded after he gained the confidence of people who had no idea that such technology existed and relented to sing and play into a mysterious horn without losing their souls.
One single LP of a few cylinder came to the light when UNESCO funded Hungarian ethnomusicologists to preserve and publish their heritage, an action no longer a part of the UN’s agenda. Their editions of regional folk music extended into central Asia, covering Mongols and ethnic groups thriving along the Western route taken by the Magyars some one thousand years ago. Bartók’s research dried up when funding was no longer forthcoming and after a 1936 field trip to Turkey for which he prepared by studying their language, his expeditions ended with exile in New York.
When Bartók’s machine was at home with him, a few waxes were made of his son and relatives.
In 1915 he played the Romanian Folk Dances, composed after having heard the cylinders streaming above that document the first moment when he encountered these dances. The first contains its opening dance upon which a recording is superimposed, perhaps from an earlier trip to Biskra, Algeria. Although it seems like an accident, the pitches and their shapes oddly resemble his Romanian field recording: a serendipitous collage or perhaps an intention aside on stylistic propagation?
(an A440 pitch blown by Bartók at the end was his way of making sure the cylinders would be played back at the correct speed).
The remaining dances of a second cylinder are damaged by gaps in the wax, something now capable of being restored through a digital scanning of the original cylinder. It and many others will languish until the forces that possess such expensive technology awaken to what’s at stake and intervene to preserve all possible before time erodes them further.
Irén Marik (1905 Szölnök-1986 Independence California) had studied with Bartók for some six months, as she explained to me. After she played some of his works to the composer, he commented: “I see you understand it so we’ll work on other composers.”
Friends of Bartók’s that I had located in Budapest in 1984 implied that they had worked together for a good two years. Marik often made practice tapes at home on a 9-foot Steinway grand located in her one-bedroom house off the desert in California’s East Sierras. Her neighbor and companion, the writer Evelyn Eaton, once pulled me aside to hand over a large bag. “Irén throws them out but I always put them aside. Here you are, and make good use of them!” One was an unpublished performance of the Romanian Dances, undated but made c.1974 she was 71 years old. It may be of interest to compare the chain of how Bartók set the tunes like precious jewels and maintained the integrity of the music he captured, and how Marik grasps elements in his own playing.
The Romanian Folk Dances were further devoured when Bartók would perform them as a transcription for violin and piano, recording it with violinist Joseph Szigeti in 1929.
Classical music grows especially when cultures mix. Keeping it reined in creates atrophy and we can witness that when the languages of Bartók and others developed in this way, they end up keeping Western Classical music alive and healthy.
Back in late July of 1983, Janos Sebestyén the harpsichordist thumbed through his little black book and suggested I call an old scholar who had been a violist in the ancient Waldbauer-Kerpely String Quartet. Eager to ask him about Irén Marik and Etelka lurryreund he received me at home and spoke a greeting to Nicholas Milroy, Etelka’s son who had fled from Hungary around 1940:
After asking him about Ignaz Friedman, whom he heard and knew somewhat, my burning curiosity was if he could recall Debussy’s one visit and concert with Molnar’s quartet on 1 December 1910 in Budapest. They played Debussy’s String Quartet and Rose Féart, who had taken the role of Melisande the previous year in London, sang the Fêtes galantes and Pensées lyrics with the composer at the piano. Debussy played his Children’s Corner Suite and pieces from his Images and Estampes: Pagodes, Hommages à Rameau, and Jardins sous la pluie.
My inadequate German aside, he eagerly recalled the event, mentioning how pleased Debussy was with their performance of his quartet and comments on how he played his solos :
and her older step-brother Robert, a close associate of Liszt and Brahms, there was more to cover:
Molnar told of numerous rehearsals for Bartók’s String Quartet No. 1 which they premiered, saying that by the end they knew the work from memory. Putting Debussy and the classics aside he motioned me over to a bookshelf. Having no idea what awaited me, I turned off the cassette recorder and followed him to a shelf of red hardbound volumes. Eyeing a few, he reached out for one, flipped to a page and began singing a folk song he had collected before World War I, as he was then accompanying Bartók and Kodaly on their field work and was moved to share this treasure he encountered in a remote village in what is now Romania.
A few days ago while researching Debussy’s trip to Budapest, translations of Molnar’s published comments were contained in a tasty article by Gergely Fazekas entitled “Unhealthy” and “Ugly” Music or a ‘Compass Pointing towards a Purer Art of Superior Quality’? published in 2008. To put it mildly, Molnar was not thrilled with Debussy’s music, as his close relationships to Kodaly and Bartók had a greater impact on his understanding of new musical directions.
On Debussy coaching the quartet, Molnar writes:
He agreed with everything, remarked only two things in the Andante. At the end of the climax (in the middle section) he found the little crescendo of the phrases not expressive enough. He sang the melody and made all the phrase endings pass into forte, then at the beginning of the next wave sank back into being piano. At another place he said: ‘I would like you to play it more purple.’
Five years later and greater familiarity with Debussy’s music, another Molnar article appeared:
I have to divide Debussy’s faults into two groups if I want to be fair with him. The first group will contain the features I personally didn’t like; the second will contain the undeniable faults.
. . . to cut my particular criticism short, I just hate it when sturdy, vigorous Frenchmen play at being irritable, oversensitive creatures with a world view that wraps a mystically flickering universe in a pink veil. Incompetence often resorts to pompous sophistication to make up for a lack of wholesome ideas.
When a flurry arose, Molnar retracted: “I became aware that the ‘debussysts’, i.e. those who think of their prophet not without bias but in a fever of excitement caused by a half extinct theme of fashion, were not happy with my essay.”
Soon after he was approached by Kodaly: “It’s as if you were passing yourself off as his former lover.”
No wonder Molnar was eager to move over to the folk song anthologies! Four months after this visit, Molnar was gone.
While the Waldbauer-Kerpely were never recorded, the first evidence of how a Hungarian string quartet approached Debussy’s masterpiece comes through the Lener Quartet, captured in London on 15 March 1928.
Their first violinist Jeno Lener was born in 1894 and may have attended the Debussy event but certainly the older group’s members were teaching and available to advise the Leners.
In 1949 Mieczyslaw Horszowski spent time in Sao Paolo to give concerts and visit a recording studio. Some fifty years later, unknown lost test lacquers were salvaged and brought over to New York by the Brazilian pianists Ciro Dias and Joao-Antonio Parizoto-Filho who handled them like the treasures they are. While many of the discs were playable, a missing set of the Chopin Piano Sonata in B minor, Op.58 wasn’t retrieved until a few years later.
Horszowski played the work throughout his life and recordings survive from performances given in his nineties but to opportunity to hear him at the youthful age 57 would prove fascinating. Thanks to new audio software, three movements escaped the fate of the first movement, with the chipping of its sonic surface leaving gaps that rendered it unplayable:
Too late and too bad, but at least we can hear the other movements. It’s important to rescue these artifacts and save them before the elements and space-saving actions of negligence destroy culture.
Before arrivals came from all corners of the earth, our Native Americans had ongoing traditions that others were – and still are – unaware of. One of the first to explore their culture was Natalie Curtis Burlin (1875-1921),
a pioneering musicologist who went West in her twenty-eighth year to record and document the singing and ceremonies of our primary residents. Her astonishing work is preserved on a website.
While Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924)
was based in New York, he often met with Curtis. According to her website,
The Indian themes Curtis published caught the attention of other musicians and composers interested in folk music, including Percy Grainger, Kurt Schindler, and Ferruccio Busoni. Grainger and Curtis became good friends, and Grainger continued to use Curtis’s arrangements in his concerts and lectures throughout his career. In Europe as a teenager, Curtis had studied briefly with Busoni, and he had continued to follow her work. In 1911, Busoni asked Curtis to send him a selection of Indian melodies that might serve as suitable themes for an experimental composition. He used the melodies she sent as themes for his Indian Fantasy [and Indian Diary for solo piano].
A Cheyenne war song from her book on American Indian music was used by Busoni as his Indian Diary’s second piece, performed by his pupil Edward Weiss (1892-1984) in 1952:
Busoni channeled the outlines of the rhythms and war cries into a modernist setting, an example that paralleled the way Bartók was then expanding his musical language. Note at 0:57 – 1:02 how Busoni quotes a phrase from his own Piano Concerto, a surrogate self-insertion into the narrative.
Another European who temporarily resided in the United States was the composer Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904).
His patron Brahms had offered to will him his life savings if he and his family would relocate to Vienna from Prague but the Czech composer turned down Brahms’s offer for lifetime support, preferring his homeland and not to exist in the Austro-Hungarian capitol as a second-class citizen. Such a sensitivity occurred on a daily basis as his people were under German-speaking rulers and when he discovered music of the African-Americans, it transformed his music. Informing Brahms of his composing a symphony using themes from their Spirituals, Brahms implored him to send the music his way to be proofread by himself and offered to a better publisher. Dvořák’s presence in the United States as a teacher led to his advising budding African-American composers such as Will Marion Cook, the future mentor of Duke Ellington. Right after hearing this new music, he spoke to a reporter: In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.
When the Kneisel String Quartet premiered Dvořák’s American Quartet at Carnegie Hall in 1894, it deeply influenced a young African-Canadian composition student Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943)
who followed Dvořák’s developing his art through African-Americans’ sacred music. As a university-trained composer he used European practices such as modulations and structures to infuse his rhythmic syncopations. Jett’s Juba Dance was seized by the Australian Percy Grainger, who fortunately recorded it in 1922, heard here in a new restoration that extinguishes the notion that pre mic recordings (into horns) mask colors and details. It mirrors developments in the emerging Jazz genre and opened a path that led Dett to compose an oratorio for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, a bridge covering disparate realms.
Percy Grainger (1882-1961) learned to speak Norwegian and Danish while collecting folk music in Scandinavia and was an early exponent of mixing Nordic and Asian music into an otherwise restrictive Classical sphere. Their examples were noted by Henry Cowell (1897-1965),
a composer who grew up in a San Francisco replete with friends of Chinese, Irish, and Italian backgrounds, sharing their traditional music from such an early age that it became his as well. His astute observation on the pitfalls of co-opting traditions into a more palatable and commercial venture initiate a well-defined 1946 essay co-authored with his wife Sidney Robertson Cowell on the use of folk music.
How WILL vou TAKE your folk music: longhair, Broadway or straight? The first two are easy to find on records, and the last, the real mountain music, was fairly well represented during the days when the talking-machine companies wanted to build up their market in rural America. But such music is the rarest of colllectors’ items today. For a good many years the record companies have been playing it safe, assuming that city people are too frail to stand the shock of hearing the real thing in the old mountain style. So we have been carefully spoon-fed on diluted versions, mixed with as many elements of familiar popular or symphonic music as possible, so that folk music won’t prove too hard on our nerves. It is hard for those of us who are familiar with American music outside of the big cities to understand why such careful translation into urbanese has so long been considered necessary. The wonderful things in the old Bluebird and Brunswick catalogs, for example have all been allowed to go out of pririt. Yet the few that turned up in the drives to gather old records during the war were grabbed instantly by city collectors, and dealers’ lives were made miserable by demands for more of them. The result is that today you can get Roy Harris’ “Folksong Symphony” and Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” both of which use American tunes in serious symphonic composition, without any pretense that the result has anything to do with folk tradition, except rather indirectly and incidentally. You can also get a lot of pieces which use titles implying some connection with folk music, although that connection is usually so remote as to be more hopeful than real.
Cowell later noted that whenever sagging, tedium, or saturation started to impede innovation in Classical music, traditional music came to the rescue, as seen in Brahms’s attraction to Hungarian and Czech music, Debussy and Ravel’s being enamored with primal Russian elements and the Javanese gamelan, and how Bartók found himself by in situ contact with remote musics in Transylvania and North Africa, a search that led him to a far greater destiny than the lesser life of enduring the limits of a pianist’s career on his composing, as he placed second to Wilhelm Backhaus in the Anton Rubinstein competition held in Paris, 1905.
Meanwhile back in America, an insurance executive was quietly experimenting with dissonance before it gradually became tolerated on the music scene. Charles Ives (1874-1954)
had the good fortune to belong to a time when small towns had marching bands that blared out popular rhythms and melodies, and an unanticipated concurrence of two oncoming ensembles playing diverse pieces delighted his curiosity and fathered his explorations. Composers often convey the excitement of their creations when recordings exist of their own performances, such as Ives playing and singing his patriotic They Are There:
Another example is the performance of a forgotten work by the Russian-born American composer Leo Ornstein (1895-2002)
who took themes and rhythms from Tatars dwelling relatively undisturbed in pre-Soviet Russia. A piece derived from this contact was lost. In the words of his son Severo:
This piece was written sometime during the 1920s or 1930s but was never published. Sometime in the late 1940s Ornstein received a request for a copy, but he was unable to locate the manuscript. Recalling that he had taught the piece to a former student, Andrew Imbrie, he wrote asking Imbrie for a copy. But Imbrie was likewise unable to find the score so instead he made and sent Ornstein a tape recording of the piece. Ornstein then made an abortive effort to remember the piece, but quickly gave it up. What is presented here is the recording Imbrie made, followed by a snatch of the brief effort Ornstein made to recall it.
Force and impulsion explode in the composer’s own struggle to resurrect it, a reminder of the way of the frenzy experienced by the creator is usually reduced in the hands of others.
At a New York party around 1930, the upcoming Canadian virtuoso pianist and composer Colin McPhee (1900-1964)
heard 78rpm shellacs recorded some two years earlier in Bali that were brought back by anthropologists. McPhee’s reaction was such that he decided to abandon Western music at that moment and soon moved with his philanthropic wife Jane Below to the isle, living there for many years, documenting the music. Here is one of the discs that inspired him to exit from the West, retrieved from a collection that contains McPhee’s own discs, some of which exist in one known exemplar, saving lost music that had been out of reach to the Balinese themselves and the rest of the planet, the case of a world music trek that led to an unforseen and fortuitous repatriation.
When hostilities in the air, McPhee returned to New York with music he had transcribed from the gender wayang, their shadow puppet theater genre, published as Balinese Ceremonial Music for Two Pianos. His colleague Benjamin Britten was in the States and the two headed into a studio to record Gambangan.
And with Asian music being played on Western instruments with equal temperament tuning came Minimalism, a dreadful label meant to cover vastly differing music that uses evolving repetitive patterns. It fortunately helped bury the rotting academic dissonant style of overly structured music so much better seen than heard, considered an intellectual highbrow experience, by injecting new life into the culture’s bloodstream. It even meant that the piano would be replaced, by electricity, and sonically sculpted. One of America’s greatest composers, Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016), began her musical life by wearing a cowboy hat and playing in accordion bands at Texas rodeos. Her interest in electronics opened a path of innovation and lifelong discoveries.
Until now, America’s newness as a continent, its unique mix of people from all over the planet, made it a hotbed for the musical and cultural innovation that occurs when contact is made between forces meeting for the first time and blending their experience without the pressure of the commercialization that Busoni despised. May their works continue!
How lucky can one get? New things appear on the path as sound archaeology mixes and messes with varied eruptions so let’s hang out here and check what’s turned up.
The oracular backwards percussion that inhabits Strawberry Fields Forever was a bare inkling of what lay ahead for a curious boy on the threshold of becoming a teenager.
David Lynch later shared some good news in a dream sequence.
Twenty-five years after it reappeared with something new added as a plethora of a tasty language also summoned forth Brooklyn’s Au Revoir Simone:
Their joy in using analog synthesizers syncs into new graphic representations of David Borden’s The Continuing Story of Counterpoint.
Six parts that thrive with a vocal line that has its section busily bombinating within a modular tail chasing that clairvoyantly implies what may follow as inevitable or a drop down into a sudden revelation, accumulating a psychic interplay as these pieces proceed in time.
Trumpets with electronics have gone further. Grasshopper, from Brooklyn, brings in the right kind of modal terror:
Nate Wooley began mixing his brass with electronics much earlier and has a new large scale work in The Complete Syllables Music, of which this is an excerpt:
Overstimulation continues with Arbiter projects soon to appear that will divine pagan, wanna-be Westerner, and occult fairy tale in the origins of Russian music, the sage pianist Mieczylaw Horszowski will be heard
fathoming two bottomless Beethoven works that resonate in a foundation given to him by his teacher, whose own master had been Beethoven’s assistant, and two linked cellists Tibor de Machula with his teacher Felix Salmond astonish by revealing what has been hidden inside their otherwise well-known instrument,
and Veena Dhanammal, whose grandson T. Viswanathan (skip ahead to 2:38 for his performance)
was preparing liner notes but suddenly died three days after we began to reawaken her.
Dhanammal was a blind veena master who was recorded in the 1930s and was grandmother of the dancer Balasaraswathi:
New books appear and one came quite close. Alex Shoumatoff stopped in on the last day of his 69th year with more good news (in front of Beatrice Muzi’s recent sculpture):
An indefatigable explorer and environmental activist, Shoumatoff’s latest book has arrived to shake up any and every user of the insidious palm oil that lurks where you least suspect it and must lead to saving the deforestation of the planet’s lungs:
Busy time with nature and music on everyone’s mind. Let’s not allow culture and our Earth to spiral into a Totentanz.
We’ve been engaged in searching within Russia’s soul and how its classical music grew from a mere dozen into a global phenomenon. Just a miniscule teacher-pupil chain led from the local works of Glinka into the far-fetched paths of Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Scriabin, the development of conservatories, professional orchestras that wield an influence felt everywhere. All in a half-century of feverish fervor. Their music divided early into a faction seeking to rival the West and take up its theory while another shunned foreign influences to delve into Pagan rites, folk music, fairy tales, the occult, mythic dreams, and explore the unfathomable East.
This give and take was not lost on Ravel and we will close in on a Menuet included in the Tombeau de Couperin to encounter varied approaches. First comes the highly-touted style of Walter Gieseking,
a player upheld as an exemplary master of works by Ravel and Debussy.
The record company’s London producer kept the mic at an Impressionistic distance to muffle snorting caused by the pianist’s nasal polyps, dragging the vinyl’s listeners into a Turneresque landscape.
Next is Marcelle Meyer, who also recorded Ravel’s complete solo piano works. Meyer was very tight with Jean Cocteau and a literary elite, seen here with the poet Raymond Radiguet who died at age twenty-three.
Her performance dates from the time of Gieseking’s:
Madeleine de Valmalète cut her first shellacs in a Berlin studio in 1928, her twenty-ninth year. De Valmalète lived a week beyond her 100th birthday, which she celebrated walking to chat and embrace each and every guest. She was the second woman in France to obtain a driver’s license and the first pianist to record the cycle. (photo at her centennial celebration:)
Her Tombeau is published on Arbiter CD 144:
From Cairo comes Henri Barda, whose family hastily left Egypt during Nasser’s revolution. Settling in Paris he studied with Lazare-Levy after having had lessons with Ignace Tiegerman.
The complete Tombeau from a 2012 concert is on YouTube and within the cavernous hall we experience his Menuet:
For those of you who have troubled to hear all four, we now close in on to the middle section’s climax, a dream within a dream that dissolves into the opening’s return. Here are all four playing this excerpt and note how some will give emphasis to the right hand whereas others show how the left hand creates a rough awakening that bears lingering shards of the oneiric journey, followed by a slower tempo, as if one has need for a moment of regaining consciousness. I leave it to your ears to observe who is doing what and would welcome any comments. . .
A pioneer who took the guitar away from flamenco and into global concert life, Andres Segovia was an innovator who luckily commissioned composers for what seemed to be a new instrument as many could not imagine it apart from café settings. I managed to hear three recitals of his when he was past eighty: twice at Lincoln Center, which had such wretched acoustics that if you wiggled in your seat he would be drowned out and the 92nd St. Y where his music was finally audible.
Segovia’s earliest recordings project a romantic who occasionally sentimentalizes with slides that slither into being overly expressive. A Bach example from c. 1927 shows his novelty in transposing keyboard and violin music, something Bach did all the time in each and every direction as the integrity of his notes could succeed with any format.
Prelude, Allemande, & Fugue:
One piece new to the non-guitar world was Francesco Tarrega’s tremolo study, written right before Segovia’s birth but not well known beyond a few musical circles.
This piece and othesr from his nation are among the best facets of his art as he thrived in their origins and how they fired composers like Albeniz to take them into his Modernism:
Slightly younger than Segovia was Diego del Gastor who went quite far with Flamenco and merits as much attention as Segovia (thanks to Anna Wayland for bringing him to everyone’s attention!)
Hitting the concert circuit, Segovia and others had the Madrid impresario Quesada arranging tours throughout South America. One time he collided with Spain-loving Artur Rubinstein and Ignaz Friedman. The pianist’s granddaughter Nina Walder (seen with grandpa Ignaz and her brother Paul)
managed to have an informal talk (in French) with him and one excerpt is translated in my Friedman biography:
In Argentina, Friedman toured with Andres Segovia, who was eleven years younger: the two were fast friends. Segovia recalled:
“ [Friedman’s itinerary] was fuller than mine because it encompassed Brazil and Chile and I was simply engaged for Buenos Aires, other large towns and in Uruguay only Montevideo. So he went twice to Chile, twice to Brazil. I had to go to Mendoza and knew that Friedman was going to play there, not a public concert, but a private one in the most exclusive casino in Mendoza. I attended his concert at this special aristocratic club. Naturally the public gathered there was not musical, an audience of rich people who had nothing to do with music and I remember something very funny. During the concert he noticed immediately that they were not musical. At the end of a variation on a theme of Paganini [La Campanella] he fell asleep during the trill to attract the attention of the audience. There was a colonel wearing many decorations which were later abandoned as they hadn’t had any wars in Argentina and this colonel slapped Friedman’s shoulder and said ‘What did you play- is it Mozart or yours?’ Can you imagine! Friedman answered ‘LISZT’: the colonel said ‘Ah!’ and disappeared.
“The next day we took the train to Buenos Aires and we passed through a desert which created a dust, such a fine dust that entered through the window’s cracks and one had to ask always for a damp towel from the conductor to line the windows. When we arrived I saw placards for [Artur] Rubinstein’s concert. So I tell Friedman ‘We are going tonight.’ Friedman refused but then accepted. The impresario Quesada reserved a loge that faced Rubinstein. He started with a Chopin Nocturne. Then, as Friedman was preparing himself to suffer the Chopin, Rubinstein suddenly saw Friedman and completely lost his nerves and played in a very nervous way. Ignaz took my arm, saying ‘this is not right, this is not so!’ and I said ‘It’s not me who’s playing.’ Then came works of Albeniz. Albeniz wrote his music in a terribly difficult way. Sometimes [Rubinstein] simplified or played it wrong and it was I then who took Friedman’s arm saying ‘It is not so!’ Afterwards we went to see him and Friedman said ‘Artur, good, very good, especially Albeniz.’ Then when I came, ‘Artur, good, very good, especially Chopin.’”
Sit back and brush up on your French as Walder and Segovia let their conversation go wherever it cares to:
Nina Walder, Lydia Friedman Walder. (Friedman’s Blüthner piano, living room in Villa Friedman, Siusi, Bolzano, summer 1982)
Rubinstein and Friedman knew of each other since 1910 if not earlier. According to Rubinstein, they shared an evening in Lemberg (L’vív). Rubinstein sat backstage as Friedman played the first half, then the joined forces for a Chopin’s Two-Piano Rondo.
The younger Artur described how his crowd was impatient to hear him and out he went to dazzle in the second part of their show and that Friedman took being bested in a gentlemanly way!
Ella Brailowsky (wife of the pianist Alexander) once described Rubinstein’s Memoirs as fiction. My favorite part are any and all sitings of Kapnik, a shnorrer (moocher) who always seemed to empty Artur’s pocket, as if he had some blackmail and had to be paid off: Kapnik always impressed as being a fictitious realization of Rubinstein’s alter-ego who was compensated as a way of keeping a disliked part of himself at a distance.
Now, now, now! Rubinstein is an adored cultural figure and his admirers fiercely defend his memory and legacy but if we imagine that he “bested” Friedman back in 1910, why don’t we hear Rubinstein’s very first recordings, made for the Favorit label in that year? For some reason they have always been excluded from any “complete” edition.
First the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody no.12 (abridged due to the 4 minute playing time of a shellac):
Then a Strauss-not-sure-whose-arrangement-this-is of the Blue Danube Waltz.
Friedman’s earliest recordings came a little over a decade later and here are two examples of his Chopin: the Prelude no. 19 and Etude in G-sharp minor Op. 25, no.6 (one take for both:)
(photo: Ignaz Friedman, his only known color photo, location/date unknown)
It was a joy to discover Friedman’s playing when I was sixteen and hearing him after being introduced to Rubinstein’s Chopin one month earlier came as a revelation that compelled a 27 year of hunt to get his biography in print. An LP set for Danacord in 1985 came about when visiting the legendary Jesper Buhl in Copenhagen and his enthusiastic consent to restore and release all of Friedman’s known recordings.
Celebrating the Danacord release in Geneva, 1985 with Lydia and Nina Walder
They were later poorly and inaccurately released by others on CD format but one example of his art is on Masters of Chopin (Arbiter 158) and for those eager to pair off Friedman and Rubinstein at their height, have a listen to Friedman playing the Chopin Second Sonata’s Funeral March and Presto and then place it against anyone else’s!
Before a country like ours became standardized to death, before mass media linked and limited our goals and souls, our new world was a frontier rife with wanderers, enigmatic stragglers who embezzled, seduced and abandoned, purveyed mysteries, enlightenment seasoned with fraud wherever they set up alongside genuine visionaries, practitioners of traditional customs.
Master chronicler Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Leadbelly, brings forth a character haunting the societal landscape bequeathed by Mark Twain and Faulkner: the Medicine Man. His identity was captured in a 1930s Library of Congress recording.
Before singing his first note, Leadbelly’s twelve-string Stella guitar projects its melody within a restless narrative accompaniment that opens onto an unstable world of sudden arrivals and longed-for departures. His divine perspective that gazes downward onto a populace recounts their stories before targeting a detailed description of their actions and then giving voice to the protagonist himself, all anchored by a unique rhythm that supports the momentum of lyrics and their suave delivery.
The Medicine Man
Oh the Medicine Man, [the?] Ba’,
He’s traveling through the land
Oh the Medicine Man, [a’] Ba’,
He’s traveling through the land
Got the grip in his hand, Baby,
And he’s doing the best he can
Got the grip in his hand, Baby,
And he’s doing the best he can
That was a Doctor who used to sell medicine
And got to be a blind man
And he’s sitting on side the road begging all he can
And everybody come on and seen him that knowed him
And you know that he was a good doctor
And everybody in the Black [sic?*] started to do something for the good doctor
And he had his old medicine case in his hand
And everyone invited people to come on and go on and let him know who he was
Oh the Blind Man, oh Babe,
He’s sitting on the road again
Oh the Blind Man, Baby,
Sitting on the road again
Got the grip in his hand, Baby,
Got the grip in his hand
Got the grip in his hand, Baby. . .
I’m the Medicine Man, Baby,
And I’m on the road again
I’m the Medicine Man, Baby,
On the road again
Oh I declare, Baby
I’m setting on the road somewhere
Baby I declare, Baby
I’m setting on the road somewhere
With a grip in my hand, loaded,
I’m doing the best I can
Got my grip in my hand, loaded . . .
*hard to discern this crucial word. . .
Could this song be an evocation of something Leadbelly had witnessed or heard about? Nearby Choctaw Indians had medicine men in their lives and ex-Slaves would have sought after them and anyone else for the health care that they and their descendants are still denied.
Or is this mythic narration a risque blend of truth that also opens onto an allegory for a hand-held grip residing in a Medicine Man’s trousers? Either way, he would have been in demand and this irresistible song from a remote time etches its mantra-like ritornello into you for good!
When a cello plays you expect its low range to provide a buttress that stabilizes its highest singing registers that copy operatic and lieder singing. Before the mid-19th century cello works were infrequently composed, apart from Beethoven’s five sonatas, one by Chopin, as most composers shied away due to the difficulty in balancing it against other instruments that would invade and obliterate its tessitura. Bach alone fathomed its depths. He also wrote for viola da gamba (leg viola) but ventured far with an unaccompanied instrument to offer dance rhythms and polyphony. One wonders if he was aware of Marin de Marais. . .
Tibor de Machula (1912-1982) playing Bach came as a jolt. So many violinists have Hungarian pedigrees, as did a smattering of cellists who were of lesser interest to the music scene due to their smaller repertoire but de Machula’s approach has reshuffled the pecking order. Cello playing flourished mostly by apeing violin and vocal styles, something that negates any hidden and unique properties in its ties to earlier and distant instruments. All the mannerisms and limitations that burden older styles,the sliding, egomaniacal display, publicly airing one’s nervous system, or regression into gelid remoteness like Heifetz’s, is now becoming a freeze-dried abstraction lacking healthier origins. The riddle of what lies within a cello comes through an instrument that spanned the Silk Route and was adapted into European versions: the morin huur, a two-stringed horse-headed Mongolian fiddle.
Although Hungary was repressed under Russian domination, one escape route came by their extensive UNESCO funded research into salvaging and publishing traditional music and uncovering their own origins beyond Transylvania. One team entered Mongolia in 1967 when it was closed to many non Soviet-bloc countries.
The Hungarian team located Dorzhdagva, a master of whom photos have yet to surface, who plays and sings to epically recount his instrument’s origins, imitating a horse’s sway and rhythm:
His fiddle richly emanates overtones, an integral part of their throat singing, with possible origins in Buddhist chant that inevitably grasps harmonics, prominent in Tibetan and Japanese monastic orders.
Csangos, the Hungarian settlers who remain on the far-eastern extremity of their European settlements transform a cello into a percussion instrument that they call the gardon, imitating the morin huur’s trot.
As Hungarians continue to name boys Attila, one wondered if something inaccessible or lost remained when playing classical music on the cello. De Machula had an early debut in Budapest and was welcomed at the Curtis Institute of Music in 1927 (age 15) where he studied cello with Felix Salmond for three years. Soon after returning to Europe he became principal cellist of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1936 (age 24), remaining there until he was offered to lead the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam in 1947. Aside from too few studio recordings, live performances were limited by his orchestra’s schedule and it is rare to hear him in action. De Machula’s daughter Barbara created a documentary film on her father (http://www.tibordemachula.com).
Barbara de Machula generously provides us with Bach’s Cello Suite in D major from a 1976 recital. We hear part of its opening Prelude:
I was stunned not only by de Machula’s playful polyphony, his courage to project low tones that are usually restrained under the sonic carpet, but a sound evoking the morin huur itself, one that arrived when Mongolians and nearby groups migrated West to the Danube. The lowest string envelops the music with an aura of overtones to project a colorful and captivating Bach. Like the Hungarian pianist Irén Marik, de Machula displays a uniqueness in Hungarian master musicians who grasp a work’s entirety, instantaneously, and then labors to have the body realize what they have intuited. De Machula’s bowing channels the morin hour’s soul with a rhythmic life of its own that creates a synthesis of instructed, genetic, and personal elements. The cello seemingly plays itself
There were fewer active instrumentalists when Pablo Casals (1876-1973) picked up his cello. They tended to accept predominant violin styles as a guiding model for approaching other string instruments.
Casals emerged from a narrow void to forge his own cello practice. He seemed reluctant to allow elements of traditional music to overlap with Bach, whereas flamenco and cante jondo were seized by Albeniz, Falla, and Debussy for their compositions. His cello viscerally rang out, expressing himself and his instrument in a Schumannesque-Brahmsian manner. A 1930s performance of the same Prelude is played by Casals:
Jack Bruce (1943-2014), a classically trained cellist, composer, bass player, and singer shared his love for an instrument that dominated before life made him into a rock star.
Arbiter is preparing to release performances by de Machula and his teacher Salmond that will bring to light their eclipsed traditions.
One explorer of Central Europe and Mongolia is the Berlin-based American composer Arnold Dreyblatt (http://dreyblatt.net), who absorbed Csangos and Mongolian idioms to create a musical language that expands into text and installations. Instruments have are excited, rewired to create layered overtones and circulate in a flurry above solid grounded pitches that release them.
These sublime roots continue to inspire a composer’s investigative wanderings.
He would enter dressed like a CIA operative who tried to act inconspicuous while delivering internal espionage capers. Sunglasses shielded his eyes as he hypnotically intoned texts with precise metrics that supported his myths. Robert Ashley’s half-sung narrative practically breathed down the neck of his subjects, coming as closely as one ever could to their physical presence while suddenly leaping out into a divine perspective via altered states of phonemes and consciousness.
Ashley began composing dissonant academic music but that soon gave way to electronics and his gift for writing led to texts that place him as a Faulkner of the Corn Belt:
. His greatness as a writer rivals and often surpasses his musical ideas.
This in-and-out of mundane and divine regions was traversed at the breathtaking speed of a rapid voiced volley of overlapping cosmic ironies. To hear Ashley speak of his passion for reading financial journals in order to ferret out their hermetic language and how he could embed it in his works brings us within the workshop of his ingenious creations and how they and he acquired an identity.
As the Soviet Union was thawing in 1990, more individuals were able to travel outside the Iron Curtain for the first time. When I came there in 1987, the U.S. Embassy’s cultural attaché had a rolodex with phone numbers of the underground cultural protagonists. Artists were plied with Russian publications such as A-Ya, a magazine covering work of emigrées, defectors or busy away from the censors. Printing on heavy paper was essential as copies had to reach to hundreds of readers, hand to hand on the samizdat network that kept everyone informed of what the official media prohibited. According to Elizaveta Butakova of the Courtauld Institute of Art, London
“A-Ya was a tri-lingual magazine published in Paris from 1979 to 1986. Published in Rus- sian, French and English, it featured contemporary non-conformist Soviet art of the period and was edited by the unofficial sculptor Igor Chelkovski, who had emigrated to Paris in 1976. A-Ya featured some of the most important Russian artists of this period, including Ilya Kabakov, Eric Bulatov, Oleg Vassiliev and Komar and Melamid, and yet its importance has been understated.”
Our diplomats paved way to collectors, underground musicians, jazz fanatics, a classical musician banned from playing in major cities but cosy with a housekeeper whom he impatiently kvetched at to hurry up with our tea, and pianist Sviatoslav Richter’s sexy assistant (Georgian-Ukrainian) who received me in his apartment on Bol’shaya Bronnaya Street while he away in Germany.
Dmitry Ukhov spoke faultless English and was as up to date as anyone in the US on the Jazz scene, an avid listener to and familiar with Indian raga scales, classical music old and new and more. On the morning of a lecture scheduled to introduce Russian composers to Ashley, David Borden, Steve Reich, Arnold Dreyblatt, La Monte Young, and John Zorn at the House of Composers, an early phone call informed that I was not to present any new music but instead bring over the guitar and cover American Blues and the music by Reverend Gary Davis. It was a genre rife with anti-authoritarian messages that the older male caryatids couldn’t detect. Suspecting this to be a power-ploy cooked up by their malignant cultural tsar Tikhon Khrennikov, a Stalin-era apparatchik-composer assigned to serve as Shostakovich’s official antagonist, Dmitry and I first stopped down the street near Dom Kompository to pick up two elderly sisters. Ukhov kindly shlepped my guitar while I hooked one sister onto each arm in dry, invigorating zero-degree weather. The composer nomenklatura did not seem particularly happy when recognizing that Scriabin’s two daughters were smilingly accompanying the American. These were the people who purged many of their friends. A photo album had many faces cut, for to have them recognized after their deportations would have risked the sisters’ lives.
Elena Scriabina Sofronitskaya had been Vladimir Sofronitsky’s wife and is seen in a documentary of Vladimir Horowitz’s return to Moscow, the memory of which was still shuddered over by the US embassy’s staff, recalling how the maestro’s windows had to be covered with mylar to prevent any light from entering his bedroom at Spasso House, the Ambassador’s residence and how his mandatory Dover sole had to be flown in fresh, daily from Helsinki, whisked through their diplomatic pouches and rushed over by an embassy driver to the main kitchen.
Ukhov’s New York arrival was timely as Phil Niblock’s Experimental Intermedia Foundation was hosting the debut of clarinetist-composer Roberto Paci Dalò from Rimini, Italy. In the audience were John Cage, Leroy Jenkins, and several other composers and performers that Ukhov had only heard on clandestine recordings. After a slight nudge he approached several and appointments were eagerly made as his presence was a novelty at that time. I tagged along and one visit yielded a few inspiring hours with Robert Ashley at his Tribeca loft, a time when that area was industrial and largely uninhabited. Here’s the conversation that ensued on a December day in 1990: