The Free-Reed Review
Critiques of Compact Discs, Books and Music Scores
Double CD Review:
No.1: Larry Adler Goes Classical
total time: 44:56
Label: Danwell Records (1019-2)
No. 2: Larry Adler Salutes Gershwin and Other Greats
total time: 51:13
Review by Henry Doktorski:
Larry Adler is the dean of concert mouth-organists. Born in 1914, he studied piano as a child, but was expelled at the age of twelve from the prestigious Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore for playing "Yes, We Have No Bananas" instead of a waltz at a piano recital. Two years later, Adler realized his life's work when he won the first prize silver cup in a harmonica contest sponsored by the Baltimore Sun newspaper. He has been playing ever since. (I heard him perform live in concert -- at the age of 83 -- with the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops in 1997. See A Living Legend: Interview with Larry Adler.)
Early in his career he showed his preference for the classics which were appreciated by high society. Instead of "Turkey in the Straw" or "St. Louis Blues," Adler played pieces such as the Vivaldi violin concerto, the Bach A Minor violin concerto, the Marcello oboe concerto, short pieces by Fritz Kreisler and Albeniz, as well as the Rhapsody in Blue and the great standards by songwriters George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers. In the 1950s, classical composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Darius Milhaud wrote original works for Adler.
Although there are no original works for harmonica on these CDs, with the possible exception of the two selections from the British movies "Genevieve" and "High Wind In Jamaica" which were composed by Adler himself, the program offers an exciting selection of transcriptions. Adler is accompanied on some numbers by piano and on others by full symphony orchestra or dance band. I cannot praise the musicianship highly enough. Adler exhibits an effortless virtuosity on the mouth organ; his arrangements span the full range of his four-octave instrument and show off his ability to perform two-part counterpoint. Beethoven's "Minuet in G" is unaccompanied. Adler's transcription needs no accompaniment; his double-stop counterpoint provides its own harmonic background.
Some of the pieces are introduced with a spoken monologue by Adler, presumably recorded from some of his live performances. (During the solo Minuet I could hear audience noises.) I believe a great part of Adler's success was his charming personality; he could be very funny at times. I especially enjoyed Adler's spoken introduction to Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue:
"When I was about sixteen years old, Paul Whiteman played on the bill at the Roxy Theater with his own film, The King of Jazz, and I used to hang around outside the stage door and no matter who came in or out, I'd blow the mouth organ at them, thinking I might get a job.
"So one day the great jazz saxophonist Frankie Trumbower heard me play and he took me into Whiteman's dressing room and said, 'Paul, listen to this kid.' I played Poet and Peasant. When I finished, Whiteman said, 'Play Rhapsody In Blue.' Well, I was sixteen and I couldn't play Rhapsody In Blue, but neither could I admit it. So I said, 'I don't like Rhapsody In Blue.'
"Whiteman turned to a young man sitting in the room and said, 'What do you think of that, Gershwin? He doesn't LIKE Rhapsody In Blue!'"
Two tracks deserve special mention due to their uniqueness. The Gettysburg Address is simply that: a woman actress reciting Abraham Lincoln's speech accompanied by Adler playing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" on solo mouth organ. It seemed a little odd to me to include that on this CD, but I suppose it does have historical value. Another unusual track was the Bach/Gounod "Ave Maria" for harmonica and rock combo: guitar, drums and bass guitar. The tempo was faster than I have ever heard; it was almost danceable in an easy-listening light-rock style.
My favorite tracks, of course, were the pieces from the top-forty classical hit parade with orchestral accompaniment: Debussy's Claire de Lune, De Falla's Ritual Fire Dance and Khatchaturian's Sabre Dance were performed with expertise, fire and aplomb. On the other hand I thought Ravel's Bolero was for the most part boring, but my ears perked up slightly during the section toward the end when the piano played the melody and Adler doubled two octaves and a major third higher.
On the Gershwin CD, I especially enjoyed Scott Joplin's Entertainer, for mouth organ and pizzicato string orchestra: a superb arrangement. The Gershwin medley for harmonica and piano was also memorable due to the beautiful and sensitive duet playing.
These two CDs by Danwell Records are re-mastered recordings of previously released Adler LPs, some which were recorded live. The sound is amazingly clear and free from scratches and hiss which one would expect on recordings which are several decades old. The engineers deserve commendation for their fine work.
Although the performances and mastering are superb, the CD booklet track titles leave something to be desired. I would have liked to know 1) when the selections were recorded, 2) who was the pianist accompanying Adler, 3) which orchestras were playing, and 4) who were the arrangers. In addition, the composers of the pieces were not mentioned in the CD booklet, only the titles, and one of them, Dinicu's Hora Stacatta was even misspelled.
Yet despite these inconveniences, I dare say that this album will be treasured by aficionados of the classical harmonica; I personally am thrilled to have them in my collection.
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