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CD Review: De profundis & Et exspecto
Friedrich Lips, Bayan

      1. Cordoba 4:32
      2. Asturias 4:50
      3. Malaguena 3:57
      4. Spanish Dance #5 3:46
      5. Dance of the White Indian 3:41
      6. Sentido unico 3:11
      7. Basso ostinato 3:47
      8. Humoreska 2:08
      9. In Memory of Albeniz 3:22
      10. Maiden Dance from the Ballet Sea Horses 2:04
      11. Quadrille from the Opera "Not Only Love 4:37

      12. De profundis 11:02
Released: Undated, but circa 1991
      Produced by Herbert & Johannes Scheibenreif in cooperation with Pigini


      1. Chaconne 13:13
      2. Prelude and Fuge in A-minor 8:52
      3. Tocatta and Fugue in D-minor 8:48
      4. Cantata: Ich ruf'zu Dir. Herr Jesu Christ BWV 639 3:25
      5. Monastery at Ferapont 4:08
      6. Et exspecto 16:56
Released: Undated but circa 1992
      Produced by: Herbert & Johannes Scheibenreif in cooperation with Pigini

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A CD Review by Dr. Paul A. Magistretti

Friedrich Lips is certainly the world's premier bayan artist. His performances, books on theory (The Art of Playing the Bayan), transcriptions (Bach's Chaconne, etc.) and pedagogical skills at Gnesin Institute (his roster of students and their achievements is impressive) demonstrates his astounding talent and rarely equaled accomplishment. With these two CDs De Profundis and Et Exspecto, both titled for pieces by Sofia Gubaidulina and which are the highlights of these two recorded anthologies, we belatedly add to our survey of his impressive discography.

In listening repeatedly to these two albums and having heard him play the program he essentially presents on De Profundis in person several years ago, I've come to some conclusions. On these records (and others) Lips presents himself as an organist; that is, the tonal image of the instrument, his use of reverb and the sheer size and power of the playing as projected by electronic means are intended to support such an illusion. For example, listening to Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on the Et Exspecto album I often found myself imagining E. Power Biggs at the manuals of a mighty organ somewhere in time and space. In fact, I'm sure a listener who didn't know it was a bayan would mistake it for an organ. I've made this test with several people and no one guessed it was an accordion. So, it seems that Lips must have purposely aspired to an illusory organ. However, it's not an illusion he carries over into the concert hall -- for when I saw him play in person he didn't opt for any audio assistance. I can only conjecture that Lips (or his sound engineer) made a conscious choice to present the bayan as an organ and in one stroke place himself and the instrument invisibly in the ranks of an established field and beyond question in the matter of instruments (or, maybe Pigini wanted to showcase its excellent Mythos?). Anyway, it's certainly one way to make the general public hear the music and the artist and not get lost in what the instrument is or isn't (while attempting to overpower cognoscenti with a Pigini's size and power) . Of course, in the matter of the two Gubaidulina pieces reason prevailed. These two selections are superb avante garde compositions and take full advantage of the bayan's unique physical and tonal qualities and there is no mistaking the instrument. The pieces are masterpieces of their kind and if you appreciate modernist aesthetics, they alone are worth the price of the albums. Gubaidulina has composed a number of pieces for the bayan (and for Mr. Lips) and Lips plays them better than anyone. In some respects he plays them better than he plays any other kind of music, showing an amazing refinement of expression as well as a careful choice of registers. Gubaidulina's music in these two instances is programmatic, it has a scene, mood and theme to portray and does so powerfully. Often modernist music uses sound for its own sake and the results can seem limited to experimentation, theoretical sketching, abstraction, the look of notes on a page and/or stretching the limits of means and media, which to my taste can have a diminished psychic-emotional impact. Gubaidulina's works aren't like that. Yes, they are comprised of squeaks, globs, wheezes and even the use of the air release valve, but none of these elements exists to create an effect as an end in itself; she avoids self-consciously tormenting the muse's navel -- nor is she interested in displaying a few minutes of cleverness at avoiding keys, harmony, melody and rhythmic regularity. Gubaidulina's two pieces are deeply religious in nature and very evocative. De Profundis is based on the psalm, "Out of the depths of my despair, Oh, Lord, I call to you" and her technique is one of contrasting a defined chorale with clusters of sounds. Et Exspecto is based on the appearance of Christ ("And I await"). The main theme of the sonata presents the conflict between earthly and heavenly spheres by contrasting musical effects: a chorale struggling with sound clusters in the first three movements -- with a moment of startling chromatic intervals, that's played beautifully -- and a fourth movement where the chorale enters quite simply and turns mystical as ritual elements interplay and the chorale aspires to a tragic grandeur built upon simple chords that eventually become dissonant until everything dissolves in a whirlwind (air release effect). If you like this kind of music you won't find better or better performances.

The De Profundis album also contains selections by Spanish, Brazilian, Cuban and Argentinean composers and shows Lips' broad range of accomplishment. When he performs these works they are presented in rich, multi-layered arrangements -- check out his Malagueņa, for example. However, there's an interesting and troublesome phenomenon with these recordings, at least to my ears. When I listened to them on several different systems the sonorities seemed muddled, obscuring the beauty that was there. I often felt I lost the lead vocal thread along with the relative values of the other voices. However, when I switched to a headset most of what bothered me disappeared, including much of the reverb. I note this for the listener, because only with a headset did the details, crisp performing and subtle dynamics come across (despite quality systems and speakers). Perhaps any additional acoustic element (i.e., a room's acoustics) pushed the recordings over the edge and muddied them -- that was my impression.

While these two recordings show Lips at the top of his form, there are a few moments of prestomania: shorting of notes. It's very slight with a master like him, but I'm sensitive to this kind of one-way rubato, which I've found to be endemic with accordionists and deadly with lesser talents than Lips -- maybe it's worth noting (if not, skip ahead).

First of all, it can be a subtle affliction that listeners don't consciously appreciate; because when listeners enter the world of a performance everything seems of a piece. So, if everything is short-timed, you accept what you hear -- that's the relative situation. But as the playing continues a listener can become disturbed on a subconscious level; thus, when the performance is over listeners are left with a sense dissatisfaction and wonderment as to why the music wasn't more emotionally effective. I think most listeners conclude they "just don't like" accordions, which may be the very reaction syndrome that has kept free reed instruments and their artists from wider appreciation. Short-change playing is prevalent with accordionists because of the accordion's lack of a sustain mode, as well as an ingrained aesthetic overemphasis on quickness and a plain intrusive technical need to cut things short in order to get to the next note -- all of which gets increasingly worse once a player starts short-timing. When accordion players do succumb to hot-fingers the effect stifles any and all natural phrasing/breathing and gives rise to the curse of the endless lung.

On the simplest level, few instruments are quicker at turning on and off a note than an accordion, so players take that tendency and run with it, failing to give the instrument's expressive nature a chance to live. Accordionists don't seem to consider sufficiently the need for legato playing which organists study to compensate for their instrument's on/off nature. Of course, an organ has sustained and sympathetic vibrations, true reverb and resonance (even a lag) that an accordion can't legitimately produce, which may be why too many bayanist's opt for reverb effects, or a room with lots of reverb -- begging the question of their instrument and performance by wrapping accidental factors around themselves.

So, accordions stop and start instantly and if the player is always stopping short then the player is always stealing and never giving back time. What results is a breathy, sketchy, almost outlining sense of the music which gets as wearisome as dealing with lines of code that hint at a performance that never gets booted. I find the tendency in many of the Russian players who have obviously been influenced by folk music and the Russian concept of quick-quick-quicker tempos -- thrilling in their proper context, but usually the province of stringed instruments. The prevalence of quick-quick-quicker playing by accordionists also mostly ignores the other equally emotional tradition in Russian folk music, the slow, a-tempo, gypsy song. Fast folk music is usually led by domras and balalaikas, stringed instruments that vibrate after a note is plucked, so if a string player rushes on and on there is a continuum of sound, a mixing of vibrations across bars and measures that has its own aesthetic. Gnesin Institute where Lips teaches, as I understand it, is dedicated to folk music and domra players are the "stars." Bayanists often fall into the ranks of accompanists (I've heard from a good source). So, in a musical culture like that it's only natural for free reed players to be influenced by the crisp, rapid, staccato playing of the domra. A bayan can more than match the speed of any plucked instrument and if it's kept in the background then the rubato troppo breve effect isn't so bad, especially with the strings vibrating the lead voice across bars and measures. But when bayanists become soloists and the habit carries over it can become an unfortunate stylistic approach. Unfortunate, because bayanists should really strive for the opposite effect -- holding notes, utilizing breathing and caesuras, extending musical phrasing and avoiding the shorthand breeziness that comes too easily to the fingers -- but not to human breath or feelings. I think Piazzolla knew the psychological impact of what I've just stated and emphasized natural breathing and even used rubato longo to the instrument's advantage as no other free reed artist has and thereby captured the heart of the world.

Lips avoids prestomania for the most part, although on some of the Spanish selections where we're used to hearing a guitar, the difference between a plucked string and a rapidly touched key was obvious to the bayanist's detriment. Still, his playing is beautifully realized -- once I reverted to a headset. Without the headset there was too much muddiness, which was unfortunate, because these two CDs have some fine playing. The only false note on either recording is Lips' rendition of Piazzolla's Sentido Unico. The whole sound quality of the recording changes as if there was a misguided attempt to make his instrument sound like a bandoneon. Lips plays the piece well, but I struggled and could barely listen to it. It seemed so wrong -- a terrible disservice to Lips, Piazzolla and their respective instruments. It would have been better for him to present the piece as a bayanist would play it, just as Yo Yo Ma does as a cellist in playing Piazzolla. Lips did exactly that when he played Sentido Unico in person -- it wasn't Piazzolla, but it was lovely. A faux bandoneon per bayan doesn't seem like any kind of instrument at all -- they are two very different instruments and the bandoneon's physical nature was what inspired and permitted Astor's aesthetics -- letting him hang onto notes forever, as well as flash over them in an instant creating an emotional vise of contrasting dynamics, but always being intensely honest.

For the most part Lips does very well with the Spanish/Latin selections and manages to compensate for the need of a different kind of attack -- i.e., the clean, percussive, non-legato, but sustained vibrations of a guitar, or piano. I've heard Albeniz, Grandos Villa-Lobos, etc. played on piano and guitar -- instruments for which they were destined -- by artists like Alicia de la Rocha, Guiomar Novaes, Lecuono, Segovia, Parkening, etc. and Lips does very well in such a crowd of talent. He uses some nice bellows staccati, too. Being extremely critical someone might say that the bayan can't compete on a level of attack with pianos or guitars. Also, there's the matter of what Piazzolla did with knee accents, so that even some impressive staccato/accented bellows work on Albeņiz' Asturias by Lips still seemed a bit too breathy and in need of more bite. But this is being very critical -- for the works are well played.

Lips' organ approach and the resultant sound (as recorded) seem to work very well when we turn to the Schedrin pieces. I really feel Lips is at home and happy with this series of short dances and programmatic selections. It's wonderful stuff and seems a nice touch leading up to the powerful, modernistic De Profundis.

The Et Exspecto album finds Lips in great form and his organist's approach to the music perfect, for many of the selections were transcribed from Bach's organ repertoire. Having listened to Christine Rossi play Bach's Chaconne, however, I think I prefer her violinist's sensibility for this piece when it's played on a bayan. I just don't think a free reed instrument can match what Busoni intended when he transcribed it for the piano. Busoni's vision needs a pianistic attack if it's to be offered as Lips plays it -- with his kind of pyrotechnics, pace and power. Rossi plays it more leisurely, sweetly and with a definite reversion to its origins in violin literature and I think she better balances the music and the instrument aesthetically. Also, as I've remarked elsewhere, she h-o-l-d-s notes like no other accordionist. Rossi's version seemed to me the way to go (i.e., I've heard a number of the world's great bayanists do the Chaconne and have always come away with the same opinion). The reason I feel the way I do is because the bayan can never achieve the power of a piano or organ; so it seems to be overreaching when a player kicks in the afterburners, even with a reverberant sound and the dbs cranked up.

Lips' performance of Bach's Prelude and Fugue in A Minor is excellent and my particular favorite of everything I've heard him play. The prelude is a just little muddy (on speakers) due to the registers in a couple of places, but the fugue is full of fire and clarity; it's some of Lips' best playing.

I've heard the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor so often on the organ that it was difficult to be fair. Lips gives an excellent reading, as good as a fine organist would do, but with so many organ versions skipping through my head I had an errant thought: he achieves an organ sound and the recording creates the illusion of size, but there's a paradox in the attempt; the bayan psychologically betrays the physical effort involved in creating bigness (with electronic help). The magic of an organ is that its enormous power emerges without any extraordinary effort on the part of the performer. The organ's effortless power is what gives it a magical and majestic nature; it's why the organ seems like the Voice of God -- for it expresses metaphorically omnipotent power through graceful, numinous means. Organists lightly touch keys and without sweat or strain they rattle the rose windows of our imaginations reflecting heavenly transcendence. An organ says that God is vast, beautiful, passionate, majestic, powerful and divinely cool, particular when speaking Bach. In contrast, a bayan subliminally betrays the efforts of a human being and so it can never achieve an organ's mystique, even if it seeks that illusion via electronics. So, while I appreciated Lips' D minor greatly and enjoyed it, I had a qualified response. The Cantata was a much different matter, because the human voice is at its heart; here the bayan can sing with its own vox humanus better than an organ. Once I went to my headset I found this to be a rich, deeply felt performance with all the subtle voices in place and beautifully played. It brought to mind again how often I've been thrilled by the live performances of accordionists under proper acoustic conditions and been disappointed by their recordings. The free-reed world has tremendously talented people, who are sabotaged by producers and recording engineers. I think too many technicians hear a bayan's multiple reeds, conflicting overtones and complex sonorities as something akin to Phil Specter's rock and roll "wall of sound" and record it as such. Afterwards, discerning the results can be difficult for a performer, because he or she was sitting in the best seat in the house: between the two manuals and above the instrument and didn't hear anything was amiss. Even on playback (the music being so ingrained in the performer's mind) the performer can think they are actually listening to the right voices at the right volume and clarity without noticing the murkiness and chaos -- this is an understandable psychological condition that makes it easy for even the most sensitive artist to fail to realize that the overall audio results lacked a proper dynamic relationship between the voices. I feel what I've just stated happened here on many of the cuts.

Not to worry, however, throughout Et Exspecto Lips gives us some beautifully performed Bach. Also, Solotarjow's programmatic picture of The Monastery at Ferrapont, interpolating a Russian folk song into the scene, shows Lips in his element and is good. Although, I had some slight (alas) problems with his seeming to be too abrupt and single-minded with some of his dynamic contrasts between piano and forte on Ferrapont and would have liked more varied and subtle gradations of these expressive levels (of which I know he's a master) -- but nothing was ruined.

I think anyone who either listens to bayan music and/or has followed Lips' career will be happy to own these CDs. They offer some excellent playing, including some of his best playing (when heard through the sonics darkly), but his performances of Gubaidulina and Bach are well worth having as benchmarks for these two composers as played on the bayan.

Addendum by Henry Doktorski

Regarding the inconsistent equalization of the various tracks on these two CDs: I believe it was a mistake by the engineers. These were the first two CDs released by LIPS CDs and produced by Dr. Herbert Scheibenreif of Austria. Some of the tracks were apparently taken from previously released LPs.

On some of the tracks, the sound engineers boosted the bass so high that the left hand sounds almost like an organ pedal. Way too lopsided, unbalanced. It's artificial and sounds contrived. I could hardly listen to it.

The other tracks, however, were mixed properly by an experienced technician and are true to the instrument, and much easier to listen to.

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