Month: January 2020

  • Bowing to Bach--Violin Solo Sonatas and Partitas


    Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin
    Tomas Cotik, violin.
    Centaur 3755/3756
    Disc One: Total Time:  57:43
    Disc One: Total Time:  60:50
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****


    Violinist Tomas Cotik explores the solo sonatas and partitas of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) in this new two-disc release from Centaur Records.  The six works are among the most personal expressions of Bach’s.  One might even romanticize that these are the composer using music to channel his personal loss at the death of his wife Maria Barbara that year (1720).  Even without that possible inspiration, the pieces are, like the solo cello suites, amazing feats of compositional skill with snapshots of musical style and dance music influences popular at the time.  The album places the first two sonatas on disc one sandwiching the first of the solo partitas.  Disc two reverses this placing the partitas as bookends and the third sonata at the center.  There is plenty of competition on disc with hundreds of recordings of all these works often chosen by one’s affinity for a particular performer or sound.  Some of that may also influence one’s decision related to this release.  Cotik’s performance takes a page from the authentic performance practice school which follows current understanding of Baroque style.  His instrument is a modern one, with what sounds like softer strings than one might find in a contemporary instrument.  Also interesting is his decision to use a Baroque bow.  This plays out rather impressively as Cotik is able to create delicate nuanced and full sounds for the slower movements and a tighter, brisker response for the faster passage work.

    Such sensibilities can be instantly appreciated in the Violin Sonata No. 1 in g, BWV 1001.  There is beautiful subtlety in the sound and phrasing in the opening “Adagio” and in the third movement “Siciliana”.  (The same can be said of his haunting performance of the opening “Grave” in BWV, 1003.)  A hint of the technical virtuosity to come appears in the second movement “fugue” (less strict than one might anticipate), but it is really in the superb “Presto” of the finale where Cotik’s technical virtuosity comes forth.  The first Partita in b, BWV 1002, is like a lone dance master revisiting popular dance forms.  Though not the longest, the eight movements here give the soloist plenty of opportunity to explore rhythms and an almost improvisatory feel that shifts in mood from slower expressive styles to faster-paced “doubles” that tend to explore a wider range of the instrument.  These are the moments where Cotik’s virtuosity shines with an almost breathless unfolding of the musical materials that traverse the range of the instrument.  Tone and pitch are also spot on in these often breathless renditions.  It makes those calmer, restrained moments even more stark by comparison.  Shaping some of these lines is another important facet in communicating the music’s power and Cotik manages this quite well with excellent rhythmic emphasis coupled with a fine sense of overall line.  The two partitas on disc two (BWV. 1004 and 1006) feature melodic ideas that are a bit more interesting than those in the first partita.  This is especially true of the third partita with its movements more closely aligned with Bach’s dance suites.  The real stand out amon them is the intense chaconne that concludes the second partita.  Cotik brings out these pointed dance rhythms very well here.  The “Corrente” of the second partita just zips along nicely with moments that feel the most improvisatory yet of the pieces.  The contrasts between these fast and slow dance extremes is brought out equally well in these two partitas.  The solo sonata in the midst of them also seems like the real crowning achievement of the sonatas themselves.  The most amazing is the extensive “fugue” movement.

    What is striking here by pairing the works this way is that we get two sides of Bach.  The one picture evokes a grand master of expressiveness and indivudal seriousness, the other a lighter, more public persona.  Two sides of a composer’s personality and interests that cut through the performances.  It is worth noting that even in the sonatas, some of that dance-like quality manages to seep nicely into Cotik’s interpretation.

    Solo Baroque works are certainly not always the first thing one turns to from this period, but here, as in most any work by Bach, there is a great deal to reward the listener.  The music is quite engaging and when played as it is here, it engages the listener without feeling too fussy or overtly academic.  At the same time, the performance have an air of authenticity to them that also help ease the listener into this fascinating sound world where one instrument can seem to still manage to infer harmonies, cross rhythms, and intriguing counterpoint.

    Cotik has been building a steady fine catalogue of quite varied musical styles.  He has recorded one of these works before as part of a collection of music.  This release will allow some comparison there, but really it gives us a window into his interpretations of Bach’s intimate music.  The sound helps provide an equally warm ambience that aids Cotik’s performance without blurring it with echoes or delays.  Instead, it provides us a perfect seat with this music front and center.  One can hear for themselves how the use of the Baroque bow changes the articulations and strength of tone that Cotik coaxes from his instrument.  The faster movements seem to breeze by more than many other contemporary interpretations which may be due to this change.  That said, the bottom line is that Bach’s music really does shine here with both its moments of beauty and fascinating, virtuoso demands and displays.  Disc two seems to be the most engaging of the two, most likely because the music there is also more interesting, but that is not to take away from the equally fine work that occurs on disc one.  It is really a feast for Bach lovers interested in hearing Cotik’s approach and sound ideas for the performance of this music.  Centaur’s release is certainly worth exploring and the performances here are worthy of repeated exploration and enjoyment.



  • Tiomkin Ballet Music Premieres



    Tiomkin: Paris Under the Stars—Ballet Music for Albertina Rasch
    Slovak National Symphony Orchestra/William Stromberg
    Intrada 7158
    Disc One Total Time:  45:58
    Disc Two Total Time: 36:54
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****



    Hollywood composers of the Golden Age often honed their skills either as concert composers and performers, in jazz groups, in musical theater, or in the early days of radio.  Most all would try their hand at concert music when the opportunity arose.  Over the last couple of decades such music has surfaced by Korngold, Waxman, and Rosza with much of the latter’s music finding its way onto a series of Naxos releases.  Now Intrada has provided us a window into another great film composer whose early career had connections in modern dance and ballet.  Dimitri Tiomkin (1894-1979) is best known today for scores like those for High Noon, Dial M for Murder, and The Alamo.  Many of his greatest scores have managed to find their way to release.  This new release though provides a picture of Tiomkin’s early style from the late 1920s into the 1930s in a collection of music composed for the Albertina Rasch Dancers.


    Rasch (1891-1976) was one of the early pioneers of modern dance and would adapt her technique to Broadway theater and film.  Her troupe performed on vaudeville as part of Ziegfield productions and they even appeared at the Moulin Rouge.  Early projects included work on George White’s Scandals.  Prior to heading to Hollywood, she began conceiving intriguing abstract choreography for pieces like Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.  Tiomkin was one of the duo piano act that came with the Rasch dancers.  It was he who suggested some of the musical staging of Gershwin’s music to Rasch.  This would lead to her developing what would come to be referred to as “American Ballet” blending classical ballet movements with those of American jazz and popular dance.  Tiomkin would compose a number of ballet works for her troupe and these are now being resurrected for the present album.


    Most of the music on this Intrada release is seeing its world premiere recording.  The scores have been lovingly reconstructed by Patrick Russ where applicable.  He also created the score editions from the original manuscripts and supplemented orchestrations as needed.  With William Stromberg on hand to shape the music with this Slovak orchestra, one can hope for a rather fascinating collection of early 20th-Century music.  The pieces here come from a period between 1927 and 1932.  A period filled with many potential directions for concert music, Tiomkin’s work here demonstrates familiarity with current modernist trends as well as nods to classical repertoire and modern jazz.  Within Tiomkin’s own style, one can hear the likes of Antheil and Gershwin blending into a unique musical tapestry.


    Disc one kicks off with the delightful “Snow Ballet”, a work that was originally intended for a 1930 MGM musical revue (The March of Time) but was shelved and inserted eventually into a 1933 film, Broadway to Hollywood.  The music features a variety of sounds and percussion effects to create a wintery atmosphere.  Antheil’s concert jazz of the 1920s is a distant cousin to the music that Tiomkin wrote for the Mars Ballet.  Originally for another MGM short film, the ballet sequence was cut, but the music itself would be performed at a Hollywood Bowl concert in 1932.  It is the only one of the pieces in this collection that received a recording.  Though brief, it makes for a fascinating blend of modernist techniques within a jazz idiom.  A more substantial piece is the foure-movement Choreographic Suite which was premiered in 1930 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  Each movement intends to create various moods and to that extent it works quite well.  Of the movements, the final “Exotica” is perhaps the most fascinating with its bluesy blends of sound and a post-impressionist feel.  Tiomkin’s Ukrainian roots are filtered into the beautiful waltz here as well.  In the Land of the Narcissus was orchestrated by Hans Spialek and is a rather brief colorful tone poem miniature.  Tiomkin explores Spanish rhythms and melodies in another equally wonderful concert piece, the Fiesta Suite.  The different movements all have connections to different film projects that Tiomkin was involved with in the 1930s (Search for Paradise, Ziegfield Follies).  The final “Fandango” is really an excellent piece of music that features fun, shifting rhythms and firmly has a wonderful folkloric element blending jazz and rumba dance rhythms in an exciting conclusion.  The suite here is certainly an excellent candidate for pops performances.  An early piece originally for a 1929 Colortone Review short follows (The Heart of the Dancing Doll).  The music here has a nice blend of musical theater lushness and engaging thematic writing.  Spialek provides a great deal of fascinating orchestral color in his arrangement.  The music may recall silent film scoring for some.  The disc concludes with the brief Toe Dance, possibly his earliest piece of this collection.  The music was created for a 1926 performance by Rasch’s troupe.  Another wonderfully light piece that has beautiful orchestral writing and melodic invention.


    The album takes its title from the piece which opens disc two, Paris Under the Stars.  Tiomkin wrote this for a 1927 musical review that was presented at the Moulin Rouge.  Four pieces make up this piece.  First is a more European-style orchestral tone poem with Mexican musical references in “Tampico”.  A brief second number presents the “Albertina Rasch Girls”.  It features a fine trumpet solo with banjo and light orchestral style, something one might here in musical theater (more Herbert with some Paul Whiteman-like orchestral style).  American musical styles appear in “Hell Bent”.  The piece concludes with a “Romance”.  In this rather fascinating blend of American jazz and blues with European music, one can get a window into what was fascinating to French composers in this period, especially the group that would form Les Six.  There is an open quality to the sound here that is not overly rich orchestrally and which presents clear rhythmic punctuations and syncopations that certainly were fascinating to those hearing this music in its time.  Of course, sometimes the music seems like it could easily accompany an animated short from Warner Brothers with its excellent quick changes of mood and descriptive musical gestures.  Creoles Blues is another of these early works that was not used in the Moulin Rouge program.  Tiomkin would perform this as part of a piano suite in 1929 and there was sheet music published of this as well.  Russ had his work cut out for him in pulling together workable music for Duet (Sitting on a Garden Wall).  He has reconstructed this music from songs that Tiomkin wrote for a 1930 film, Hell’s Angels.  The Rasch Specialty is of interest to film music fans for several reasons.  It was first performed in 1927 and its orchestration is by Edward Powell.  Powell would head to Hollywood where he would have a long career as an orchestrator on hundreds of films.  The melody here would also reappear in Tiomkin’s Choreographic Suite heard on disc one, and even in the “Min Title” of his score for the 1946 film Duel in the Sun.  Some classic examples of theater music appear in the three Vaudeville Dances that follow.  Each are great examples of the sort of music that was commonplace for stage shows at the time.  The last three selections present Tiomin exploring specific rhythmic dances and adapting jazz harmonies and syncopations from the brief 1928 Bolero, to a ragtime-influenced Cakewalk (1932), and a intriguing modernist Scarlet Jazz number to bring things to a close.


    Intrada’s sound here is really quite superb.  The music is captured in a way that really lends itself to the style of this music with just enough crispness for the rhythmic vitality of the music and a nice imaging of the orchestra across the sound picture.  The orchestra seems to be having a great deal of fun with this music as well which further adds to the excellent energy and beauty that Stromberg gets from them.  Truly a labor of love for all involved, this is a release that should have great appeal.  Fans of 1920s and 1930s music that comes from the theatrical worlds and popular jazz music of the time will find a great deal to enjoy here.  This is the sort of music that was becoming the “rage” and was further spurred on by Paul Whiteman’s famous 1924 concert.  Ferde Grofe, who was also involved in that concert arranging some of Gershwin’s work, was also instrumental in some of the arranging work on these pieces originally.  But really, one can hear Tiomkin’s embrace of the American musical styles of this time quite well.  Melodic ideas are also engaging even when the music is simply working as support for a dramatic stage interpretation.  All around this is an excellent release that is likely to fly under the radar.  This is a welcome release that is certainly among the finest work Stromberg has also done and one can only hope there is more to come.