The Free-Reed Review
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CD Review: Accordeon de Concert
Christine Rossi, Bayan

1) Scarlatti: Sonate en Mi majeur 3:13
2) Scarlatti: Sonate en La Majeur 4:35
3) Busoni/Bach/Lips Chaconne 15:54
4) Liszt La Campanella 4:48
5) Semyonov: Kalina Krasnaya 6:28
6)Wurthner: Variations on Dark Eyes 8:37
7) Andre Astier: Fantasie en Mi mineur 6:55
8) A. Puchkarenko Skifi XXe siecle 5:47
9)Gervasoni: Minimetism 3:33

Total time: 61:19
Released: 1992
Review date: July 2000

Label: REM Editions
Order from: Christine Rossi-Chmykov
2176 Route de la Turbie
Quartier Fenouil
06 190 Roquebrune Cap Martin

A CD Review by Dr. Paul A. Magistretti

To cut the melodic line with cesuras required by logic, impetus and fantasy, and to allow air to circulate is like breathing a constantly renewed life into musical phrases; it gives them a relief indispensable to their comprehension. This is why all ancient treatises compare musical interpretation to eloquence.… Air is what plays the principal role in phrasing. What would become of a phrase if it did not float and if it did not detach itself freely from an azure or gray sky? In order to give breathing all its value, it is necessary that the note preceding it be full, never shortened. This does not mean an allargando, but it is something belonging remotely to the same family. It is rather an imperceptible rubato. (Excerpts from Wanda Landowska On Music).

Christine Rossi from Monaco is arguably the best accordionist in the world. Few if any have noticed. She's a young woman (b. 1968) who at this point produced one solo CD, Accordeon De Concert (1991). The CD is an anthology, a wide-ranging one, with each of the varied selections exquisitely played -- au contraire, more than played: inhabited. What she seems to do better than other accordion artist is to make the listener forget the instrument and experience the music. Crucial to her ability is the fact she possesses the best phrasing of anyone I've heard. She holds every note whether playing staccato or legato, never shaving time to get to the next (often the case with accordionists), giving her playing both the fullness and the natural breath-like phrasing one finds in the performances of masters of other instruments.

Critical to this almost peristaltic seize-hold-release, is how she finds micro-silences, inhalations and exhalations between notes which are music's very essence. A control of rubato combined with a fluent emotional sense of line is what makes musical phrasing bond sympathetically to the body and psyche of a listener and create a mysterium coniunctionis (an alchemical term meaning a mysterious fusing) of sense, mind and soul. It sounds like I'm being mystical, but when we hear Casals, or Gould or Segovia, etc. we readily experience those moments when the coniunctionis happens and we instantly know nothing could be more natural; for everything has come together and is singing clearly and freely in our hearts and minds, it's a spell, an incantation cantabile and as recognizable as when the most complicated rhythms of an untold number of drums coalesce into oneness.

Until I heard Ms. Rossi play I often wondered if the accordion could sing in exactly the same way I've heard other instruments sing, for while accordionists have achieved phenomenal virtuosity, power, nuance, velocity and expressiveness I hadn't quite heard the aforementioned breathing-singing control and shaping of a phrase that reminds one of the origin of all music, the human voice. Too often the accordion seemed a creature, if not a captive of the machine age, a concept that Tom Fabinski's interview with Peter Soave brought out beautifully. In that interview Mr. Soave lamented the complexity, mixed sonorities and lack of a distinctive voice of the bayan/accordion, an instrument that when he's performing at his best he plays better than anyone. Mr. Soave finds the bandoneon more expressive in its way, due to its simpler construction, extended odd-shaped bellows and almost malleable double octave reeds. He concluded a bandoneon's lightness, technical limitations and normally single note voice allowed him to "sing" with it more expansively than he does with the bayan.

And yet, along comes Ms. Rossi and to my ears she has wrested a singing voice out of the machine like no one else. What she accomplishes seems like a revelation.

Her playing isn't without flaws. Her performance of the Busoni/Lips transcription of Bach's Chaconne lacks the power and drive of Lips, but what she lacks in power she makes up in nuance. Also, I think she was intentionally aiming at the origins of the piece as a movement from Bach's D-minor Violin Partita approaching it as if we're hearing a violin and basso continuo instead of an object of pianistic pyrotechnics. I suspect Ms. Rossi -- and I have no evidence of this -- may have trained as a violinist for she often exhibits that kind of sensibility. In contrast to her Chaconne, a pianist like Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli roars through the Chaconne a full two minutes faster than Ms. Rossi. To be sure, a Lisztian approach like Michelangeli's is usually the case -- well, that was the point of the transcription. However, hearing Isaac Stern do it creates a entirely different impression and suggests the direction of Ms. Rossi's performance. Ms. Rossi takes a slower, meditative pace revealing much that is missed in the thrilling displays of others. A superb bayanist like Lips (the adapter of the transcription everyone plays) naturally aspires to the Liszt model and that's legitimate and often breathtaking; however, there's always an underlying paradox in such powerful renditions, for ultimately the sound and fury of an accordion will never match the brute power of a piano or pipe organ; so are free reed players overreaching and failing to appreciate the integrity of their own instrument? Perhaps we need to define the soul of the accordion more carefully understanding what it is and isn't. I thought Ms. Rossi took such questions under advisement and did a beautiful and individualistic interpretation of the Chaconne with only minor glitches -- one or two bellows changes.

What mainly happens when you listen to Ms. Rossi, is you become enveloped within the music. Stories unfold and moods transpire, a quality that happens too infrequently when listening to concert accordionists -- and understandably so, for the concert accordion with its weight, complexity and demanding interface is the most technologically complex and difficult instrument in the world to play. Often when we free reed enthusiasts listen to concert accordionists we find ourselves amazed by what feats the artist has been able to accomplish with such a complicated machine. Anyone who knows and/or plays the instrument has inside knowledge that escapes the public at large. Often when accordion performers attempt to excite a mass audience they feel compelled to do so by putting on a show, playing faster and louder, because everyone understands velocity and volume. I've seen Dick Contino perform many times and he does an excellent job, but it's essentially a stage act with the accordion as a prop. To his credit he never fails to excite a mass audience and the less they know about the instrument, the better. I'm often reminded of one of my favorite actresses, Maria Ouspenskaya, who in a role in Kings Row (a forgettable Hollywood movie of lust, madness and sadism wherein Ronald Regan has his legs amputated by a malevolent doctor and Betty Fields goes mad from incest) described to two young lovers her illustrious career as a concert pianist before the crowned heads of Europe: "When I was a young girl I played the piano faster and louder than anyone." She expressed an unfortunate aesthetic to be sure, but in the mind of Hollywood it covered everything a mass audience would want to know about performing music (and perhaps anticipated most of pop, rock and rap). Too often accordionists are driven to bridge a perceived gap of appreciation by resorting to faster and louder in trying to appeal to dumb and dumber.

Peter Soave (in Tom Fabinski's fine interview: American Bandoneon Master) speaks of the bayan's complexity and mentions the relative simple technical nature of other instruments and their straightforward interfaces. I agree with his argument and add my own call for further development of the accordion along the lines of simplicity and acoustical control and expression. However, Ms. Rossi almost obviates my criticism because she makes her instrument (despite some harshness inherent in its recorded sound) sing all too well. I guess the lesson here is that one can never overlook the surprising suis generis effect of talent.

Ms. Rossi's two Scarlatti renditions are wonderfully played and she finds the essence, the specific inner nature of each one and plays them accordingly. In fact, her method seems to be playing music from the inside out. My feeling is she must be a thoughtful, sensitive introvert who seeks to find what is within each piece and never to impose her own persona on what she undertakes. If I'm accurate, she possesses an unusual combination of psyche and soul, which would explain both her approach to music as well as her infrequent recordings. In the two Scarlatti sonatas you will find in miniature what makes her so good. Listen to the cadenzas and how they perfectly weave their variegated, shaded way to a full crescendo. The path is sinuous, reflective and absolutely perfect in a musical sense, totally deconstructing any thoughts of the accordion as a mechanical device. Often I hear accordionists play cadenzas as displays of machine-gun speed (no contest, a bayan/chromatic accordion can play faster than any other instrument). But mindless velocity is not a consideration for Ms. Rossi: the musical line, Casals' audile "rainbow" is her abiding aesthetic. But cadenzas and their technique are only a small part of her playing. The two Scarlatti sonatas are developed as distinct creatures, living expressions with beginnings, middles and ends -- the relative cycle of all organic things (including music) that aspire to vitality (for music at its best simulates a virtual creature having an auditory and allusive life).

I've already touched on the Chaconne and it may be Ms. Rossi's most difficult performance. However, if a listener has difficulties with it, I think it is because we've become so used to turbo performances and the work as an objet de brute force. If the listener can shake such preconceptions there is much to appreciate: first of which is a fresh look at this well-trodden ground. If there is a criticism it's only that in some of the power moments I wanted her to have just a little more snap in her attack, but I'm quibbling and she is only at the start of her career. In her reflective moments nothing was lacking and much was beautifully played; these moments came to life as if risen from the dead, for they are the beauties which are usually blown by in other performances as interludes between the big stuff.

The Liszt transcription of Paganini's La Campanella in Mademoiselle Rossi's hands owes more to Maestro Paganini than to Liszt. For with this piece she has seemingly transformed her instrument into a violin as if by the force of her imagination. You can almost hear her fingers on the strings. It is from this piece that I got my notion she was a violinist, for she projects the soul of a string player in her phrasing and dynamics. I can't imagine this oft-played, many times tortured piece played better. It alone is worth the price of the CD.

But she's not done. I've heard Semyonov's fine arrangement of the theme Kalina Krasnaya played many times, twice in concerts by the composer, on a recording by him, by the late bayanist Robert Sattler and on a recent recording by the excellent classical bayanist/bandoneon player Eugenia Marini. Ms. Rossi plays it best. No one else captures the heartbreak, the fantasy and hope, thereby inspiring a movie of our own imaginative creation. She makes a single note surprisingly emerge from a cluster of sound and it's breathtaking, a musical touch I've rarely heard accordionists aspire to, let alone achieve. Her shaping of the theme in its simplest rendering is touching and perfectly done and when globular, sound cluster moments happen they don't turn into chaos and mush, as in other renditions; instead, there's a sense of confusion in the soul and inchoate human feelings struggling inside a wall of sound. Ms. Rossi takes us on a journey with Kalina Krasnaya -- one of her strongest performances -- and finally leaves us spent and alone on a shore of irony and pain with a final dissonant chord.

When Ms. Rossi takes on Rudolf Würthner's arrangement of Dark Eyes she journeys into the forties/fifties European vaudeville circuit. For Herr Würthner was a renowned showman who played a reverse (treble to bass) instrument, a leftie if you will, and was an outstanding performer. Ms. Rossi does a fine rendering of an interesting arrangement of this old warhorse, but more than that she (at least for me) evokes a period in time with her performance. She reveals the arrangement's showiness and humor and plays it without mocking its attacks on the theme. She finds constant freshness and subtlety, transforming what other players would play as flash and dash virtuosity into pure musicality. With all her performances she does what performers do who strive to recreate period music, i.e., doing for Würthner and the other composers on her CD what performers on say, Archiv (Das Alte Werk) and other labels do for Bach, et al.; that is, she seeks to find and recreate the heart of the music with integrity and not overwhelm it with her ego -- a rare quality in an egocentric age.

At this point I should mention that there seems to be two concepts about the nature of music. One is that music is an inanimate assemblage of notes awaiting a performer to defibrillate it; the other is, that music is animate in potentia; that the combination of notes has a soul which the performer seeks to find and channel through his/her own being. I can appreciate both approaches, though in the case of the latter when the soul of the music and the heart and mind of the performer combine there is a powerful fusion across time and space that dwarfs everything else. I obviously place Ms. Rossi in the latter camp of the very few.

André Astier's Fantasy in E-minor is Ms. Rossi's seventh selection and it raises an interesting point. Why has no one done an entire CD of Astier's music? It's great music, written exclusively for our instrument by a superb composer-performer; yet, his works remain virtually unknown in the music world. It seems a crime of omission as ridiculous as if no pianist ever did a CD of Chopin, for I agree with Peter Soave's oft-stated remark, that André Astier was the Chopin of the accordion. Ms. Rossi does a beautiful job here. I've only heard this piece played a few times in concert and on CDs and she does it better than anyone. The first few notes tell you that she understands the grace, the pathos and the Gallic wit of what the piece is all about. There's a little cadenza, a rush of notes, then she hesitates, an exquisite pause in which we take a breath. The effect is all her own, but worthy in a different context of Piazzolla's expressiveness. Then, after that first breath and a few notes another sigh of silence and we've set the mood and the pace for what follows. The first time I heard her play this piece I literally jumped out of my chair. I had been waiting for years for someone to make such musical sense, to breath life into the accordion like this -- and I don't disparage other artists. However, accordionists seem to rush on and on and on like street dragsters ignoring every kind of emotional/musical street sign in the unwritten score. Sure, they stop, they speed up, but they can't seem to develop the emotional complexity and the sensuality of musical phrasing to the degree I find in Ms. Rossi. With Fantasy in E-minor Ms. Rossi develops a fine sense of drama and mood: you feel you're in a French café and a little happy and sad and ironic, watching life go by and wanting to be a part of it, but too sophisticated and vulnerable to get involved. This kind of imaginative-emotional transformative appeal is what I find in her playing -- and really if music doesn't affect our emotions, fire our imaginations and take us on a inner journey and change us in some way what is its purpose?

It may seem that I'm treating all the pieces on the CD as program music. But all music is program music on some level. Some allusions may be obvious -- like the mimicry of raindrops, a storm, etc., or sound images evocative of clouds passing across the moon, or Moonlit Melancholy. In complex, sophisticated and seemingly abstract works (Bach's Art of the Fugue, Beethoven's late quartets, etc.) we're merely given a greater challenge and more freedom to find metaphors across time and space with our feelings and imagination. Also, music can be both explicit in occasion and numinous in realization like it is in the St. Matthew Passion. But we're always supposed to experience a transfiguring effect, fusing our senses and minds; I refer to the previously cited mysterium coniunctionis.

The last two pieces are modern and good. Skifi XXe siécle by A. Puchkarenko floats on a rhythmic ostinato throughout, except for a meditative change of mood in the middle. The title refers to the Scythians, the fierce nomadic horsemen noted in Herodotus, and brings them into the 20th century. I assume the pulsating rhythm is the restless pounding of horsemen across the Steppes. At any rate, the music is dance-like with a distinct Bartok flavor; it swings and has a syncopated finale, ending on an ironic bellows-shake glissando, an oft-used device in Russian compositions, but seemingly witty here like the neighing of horses and the collapse of nomadic freedom. At times, too, I thought of Honegger's Pacific 231. Ms. Rossi's rhythm and dynamics are perfect; for example, listen to how she emphatically hits a chord, sustains, fades and then brings it back up with perfect control and keeps moving.

The second piece ala moderne, Minimétisme was written by Pierre Gervasoni especially for La Belle Rossi and it's a nice miniature of the moan and squeak genre, avoiding most of the self-conscious excesses that ruin such things. In this piece distortion opens into micro-intervals and knee vibrato coupled with repetitive notes (minimalism) contrasting with the tension of two manuals perpetually playing against each other (mimetism); a light-hearted allusion to two trends in modern music.

My enthusiasm and advocacy in this review are obvious and sincere. I truly believe she is that good. Also, I feel a fine artist has been all but ignored in the years since the release of her CD and attention is long, long overdue.

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