Archive for April, 2010

Kalinnikov: Symphonies 1 & 2


CHAN 9546 CD cover

Vassily Kalinnikov: Symphonies 1 & 2
Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Neeme Järvi
Chandos CHAN 9546, DDD
Symphony No. 1  (37:37)
Symphony No. 2  (37:33)

This writer feels that had Vasily Sergeyevich Kalinnikov not died of tuberculosis two days before his thirty-fifth birthday, we would be mentioning him alongside people like Rachmaninov, Lyadov, and the mighty “Russian Five” (Rimsky-Korsakov, Moussorgsky, Borodin, Balakirev, and Cui).  His two symphonies can be very favorably compared to those from the aforementioned, especially when you consider that Kalinnikov got his music education on the cheap.

Kalinnikov was born January 13, 1866 in Voina, in Russia’s Oryol District, to a very poor family.  From this village, Kalinnikov received a scholarship to Moscow’s Philharmonic Society School, but his family’s poverty forced him to leave school and make a living playing violin, bassoon and timpani in theatre orchestras.  Semyon Kruglikov is possibly even more obscure than Kalinnikov, but scholars of Russian music rightfully point out the significance of this important music critic and teacher.  Kruglikov took notice of Kalinnikov, taught him harmony, and introduced him to other musicians.  Tchaikovsky found for Kalinnikov the conductor’s job at the Maly Theatre in Moscow and later a similar job at the Moscow Italian Theatre, but it was in 1899 that Kalinnikov contracted tuberculosis and had no choice but to resign and move to the warmer climate in the Crimea.  This is where Kalinnikov wrote most of his music before he died at Yalta in January of 1901.

Kalinnikov’s symphonies — especially his first — are as full of Russian character as the music of his contemporaries, especially The Five, in that they follow very much the same structure and flavor and also suggest Brahms’ and Rachmaninov’s use of dynamics and thematic development, and Tchaikovsky’s use of rhythm.  The distinguishing feature in both works is Kalinnikov’s creative changes and modulation, since they wind up in unexpected – but entirely listenable – keys.  Kalinnikov was especially effective in weaving various themes together without consuming excessive amounts of time.

Kalinnikov’s beautiful sense of melody is evident in the slow movements of both symphonies, particularly the serene Andante commodamente in the first symphony, where the supporting orchestration is sublime and never out-of-character.  A lovely passage occurs toward the end of the andante cantabile in the second symphony when the celli take the melody, then hand off to the violins, winds and harp during a descending pattern, closing the movement in a fashion that echoes the melancholy of Rachmaninov and reeks wonderfully of Russian flavor.  This is as enjoyable for musicians as it is for listeners, and here Järvi and the RSNO treat this beautifully and flawlessly.  The Andante commodamente might be the best part of the disc; the music will probably stay in your head long after you turn off your CD player.

The third movements in both works feature strongly-flavored folk dances, punctuated by several fortissimo bursts from the orchestra and winding up with forceful flourishes, played here to the proper effect by the RSNO.  Dvořák probably would have been very pleased.

The final movement of Kalinnikov’s first symphony is more towering and creative than its counterpart from #2; the oboe melody from the second movement gets new life in the concluding theme, back-loaded not only with strong brass parts but with flavorful use of percussion.  It is as majestic as the Finale of Rachmaninov’s second symphony, but is perhaps more memorable because Kalinnikov weaves his themes and makes his points without consuming nearly as much time and effort as does Mr. “Six-Feet-of-Gloom.”

The RSNO have produced many fine recordings, and this one is no exception.  It’s not totally perfect; the first symphony includes wonderful E-flat and G-Major sequences in the Finale where the violins play 16th-notes underneath powerful chords from the brass, and while they stay together, the entire violin section gets slightly disjointed from the brass.  This may be a result of the acoustics in Glasgow’s Henry Wood Hall, however.  In this writer’s opinion, Neeme Järvi should have taken a slightly slower tempo here.  One of the RSNO cellists also let slip a stray A-string during the third movement of that same work.

Don’t let any of these quibbles turn you away; this is really a solid compilation that will likely send you searching for recordings of Kalinnikov’s other works.  This disc is a result of Chandos taking the first symphony from their CHAN 8611 release and the second from CHAN 8805.  If you can manage to find these two CDs still available, you’ll also obtain recordings of Kalinnikov’s last-ever composition, the lovely symphonic picture The Cedar and the Palm and his Overture to Tsar Boris, as well as two tone poems by Alexander Glazunov.  The two discs may still be available from Chandos and/or other on-line sources and are well-worth the trouble of looking.  Nevertheless, the RSNO’s performance here is very enjoyable – a CD definitely worth the purchase.


Diana Ross & The Supremes: The No. 1s


Diana Ross & The Supremes: The No. 1s

UTV/Motown Records
Catalog # B0001368-02
79 min, 38 sec (ADD)
Released: 3 Feburary 2004

This time-capsule (released in February of 2004) makes a nice primer to the music of Diana Ross and the Supremes, including some of Ross’ solo material dating from 1970 forward.  Given the title, this is not a complete Supremes compendium.  Regardless, if you’re not familiar with this material nor with the legendary Funk Brothers, start with this disc of the Supremes’ re-mastered hits, but please, please also get the DVD “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” because the Motown founder Berry Gordy belligerently omits the musician credits the CDs — a common practice at Motown, unfortunately.  The Motown house band musicians (known as the Funk Brothers) are a huge reason why so much of this music was massively popular, and so the “Standing…” DVD is a great piece of music education by itself.  Most of the material on this CD also represents the excellent songwriting of the Brian Holland-Lamont Dozier-Edward Holland Jr. team, although a few duds and one cringe-inducing bomb from 1967 are here to illustrate the rare disasters.

This disc takes you through the Number 1 hits in chronological order beginning with “Where Did Our Love Go,” complete with the footsteps, the incessantly repeated – and occasionally out-of-tune – “baby, baby” backup vocals, and slightly overdriven bass of the legendary James Jamerson.  Interestingly, some timing problems among the musicians are revealed here.

“Baby Love” represents the Supremes’ second No. 1 hit, from 1964, and features the sweet precision of drummer Richard “Pistol” Allen, who died in June of 2002 but whose handiwork thankfully graces a large chunk of the Motown catalog, as well as a plethora of American jazz recordings.  The drums and bass you hear here underscore why Motown had smashing success with groups like the Supremes, who did not become “Diana Ross & The Supremes” until 1967.

1964’s “Come See About Me” is one of the Holland-Dozier-Holland team’s best songs, where the backing vocals of Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard are best integrated with Ross’ lead vocal, although Wilson and Ballard’s intonation is occasionally flat.  As carefully crafted and recorded as was much of the material here, it is interesting that they never went back to fix these problems.  Ross follows the text beautifully, from strong declarations in the beginning of the third verse, back to reflective moods with a breathy vibrato, and this shows her as a thoughtful reader of lyrics, not just a great vocalist. “Pistol” Allen’s drumming and James Jamerson’s bass powerfully drive this song, and the modern-day remastering comes close to bringing Allen’s hi-hats loud enough into the mix, where they really belong.  The song is punctuated by some tasteful (and very tasty) guitar work, but interestingly, the G-minor proximate chord leading to the D-major chorus is misplayed by the unidentified guitarist in the first tag.

1965’s “I Hear A Symphony” is popular almost 40 years on, but leaves me thinking that Holland, Dozier and Holland “mailed it in” — we get more “baby, baby” for this regurgitation of “Where Did Our Love Go” and “Baby Love.” It even begins in the same key: C major.  But hey, it was still a Number 1 hit.  Right?

(baby, baby…)

The Holland-Dozier-Holland team’s 1966 smash “You Can’t Hurry Love” is a genuine classic and one of the best-sounding recordings from this era; it translates well on this CD with the remastering.  The genius of Jamerson is evident here in that he often changes chords one beat before the rest of the band takes the same change.  This might sound like a bad idea until you realize that Jamerson is following Ross’ vocal relatively closely — a fine example of James Jamerson’s creativity and imagination.  Likewise, his fast, angular, impressive (and spotless!) playing powers another beloved Supremes classic, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”

The track that truly represents wasted space on this CD is the horrid, cornball-upbeat swing disaster called “The Happening,” which was featured in a 1967 hippie film of the same name that starred Anthony Quinn, Faye Dunaway, and Milton Berle — supposedly it is as wretchedly bad a film as this is bad music.  The lyrics here are completely out-of-character with the too-happy arrangement, which goes over the top with particularly dreadful flute and piccolo parts.  Sadly, this was actually a Number 1 pop hit in 1967, which leads to the inevitable “what were they thinking!” question.  You can listen to it, but it will be three minutes of your life you will never get back.

Holland-Dozier-Holland’s excellent “Reflections” then redeems the CD with Jack Ashford’s tambourine and a muted Rhodes piano setting a pensive, yet soulfully pulsing mood.  The slightly unexpected chord changes are accentuated by the fact that Ross’ vocal begins not with a verse or chorus, but with the tag that leads into the first chorus.  Likewise, the song ends not with a chorus, but with more verse material, which goes far in complimenting the “unbalanced” mood.  The irony in the music here is that the D-flat major chorus helps Ross convey a resigned feeling while the bridge — which is in a minor key — stylistically offers a sub-conscious “glimmer of hope” before the third verse plunges us back into reality in B-flat major with the blues seventh-note coloring the mood.  This is one of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s best-ever songs, sung in character to a “T” by Ross.

1968’s “Love Child” contains some polish in the form of a string part in the right channel, but the bass, drums, syncopated single-note rhythm guitar, tambourine, and xylophone help adequately convey the driving, urban grittiness represented by the lyrics and the excellent instrumental opening of this song.  One of the other impressive elements here is that the snare drum is held from the first chorus before returning to accent the beginning of the second verse, and then to power the remaining choruses on each quarter note.

The Gamble and Huff-penned (with Jerry Ross) “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” – recorded with The Temptations – is an interesting piece in that it possesses the older, early-1960’s Motown style, but with the updated (ca. 1968) recording technology, we get a cleaner result.  Eddie Kendricks’ wonderfully expressive falsetto in the first verse meshes nicely with Ross’ voice in the following verse, and the background vocals are sung excellently and in-character.  The mostly schmaltzy string and horn parts mar this track (again, the piccolo rears its ugly head); a spare horn section not only would have been more in keeping with the endearing early Motown catalog, it would have allowed us to hear more of the backup vocals from the Temptations and the Supremes.  But then, we are talking about a song recorded in 1968.

The excellent Ashford and Simpson composed-and-produced “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (from 1970) begins the final third of the disc, which consists of Ross’ solo material.  This piece that often sticks in the minds of listeners as being the best from this era.

“Touch Me In the Morning” (written by Ron Miller and Michael Masser) would have been best left as it started, simply with piano and Ross’s voice.  Had this been done, we might have been left with a stunning, evocative piece of music.  Unfortunately, we get the pre-disco, Las Vegas lounge-flavored drums, harp, strings, and horns.  OTOH, the theme from the film Mahogany, “Do You Know Where You’re Going To” contains much the same instrumentation, but for the most part it fits better and is slightly better music.

Four disco tracks follow, none of which represent Ross well, but certainly sold lots of records between 1976 and 1981.  “Love Hangover” and “Upside Down” hit Number 1 on the pop, dance, and R&B charts.  From a musical perspective, the best of these four is the four-minute version of 1980’s “I’m Coming Out,” which kicks off with an extended overture of Nile Rodgers’ tasty guitar (unfortunately played on a Fender Telecaster, rather than a sweeter-sounding Fender Stratocaster), the late Tony Thompson’s excellent, booming drums, and the gritty-yet-wonderfully slippery bass of the late Bernard Edwards.  These three guys, who were the core of the 70’s group Chic, set such a funky, urban mood that Ross’ smooth vocal seems as much out of place here as the trombone (!) solo; Ross doesn’t let loose stylistically until there are a mere 14 seconds left in the track.  Even then, she should have gone back and sung something different than what she actually commited to tape.

This compilation closes with the syrupy “Endless Love,” sung with Lionel Richie and still an incessant staple on soft rock radio stations.  Ross delivers a better vocal on this track than on the four tracks preceding it, but unfortunately her vocal was not placed as prominently in the mix as it should have been.  The “bonus track” (such as it is), a remix of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” is as much a throwaway as the remake of this song that hit the charts in the mid-1980’s.

This disc goes a long way toward illustrating the durability and strength of Ross’ voice, as well as the popularity of a good cross-section of the Motown sound as it changed with the times – many times.  If you are familiar with only one or two of the songs contained herein, buy this CD and get up-to-speed on this important part of American musical history.

(baby, baby…)