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CLASSICAL  January 2008

CLASSICAL January 2008

Subject:

Quasthoff Crosses The Tracks

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 8 Jan 2008 11:04:35 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Thomas Quasthoff
Watch What Happens
The Jazz Album

*  Gershwin: There's a boat that's leavin' soon for New York
*  Blake: Watch What Happens
*  Fain: Secret Love
*  Wonder: You and I
*  Arlen: Ac-cen-tchu-ate the Positive
*  Loewe: I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face
*  Swift (attr. Cunningham): Can't We be Friends?
*  Chaplin: Smile
*  Gershwin: They All  Laughed
*  Rodgers: My Funny Valentine
*  Legrand: What are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?
*  Ellington: In My Solitude

Thomas Quasthoff (baritone), various musicians.
DG B0006239-02  Total time: 49:44

Summary for the Busy Executive: Who's got rhythm?

I have no idea why great Lieder and opera singers get bitten with the
yen to sing classic pop.  After all, most of them have not really studied
it or, even better, gone through the fire of making their living with
it, and the style and repertoire require as much study and effort as
Lieder does.  You cannot just step in and let fly.  One of the great
camp recordings of all time -- Lauritz Melchior singing "Please Don't
Say 'No,' Say 'Maybe,'" complete with high C -- often gets dragged out
at parties, and even the great Heldentenor's fans have the good sense
that shows love doesn't mean blind.  Renee Fleming's "Over the Rainbow"
is a road accident of laughably bad taste, something you would never
accuse her of in her home style.

Quasthoff does better than most.  He has the standard conversational
style down pretty well.  He has made an effort to master colloquial
English and has gotten to the point where he sounds as if he lives in
an ethnic enclave of Milwaukee.  The Midwestern final "r" in particular
gets hit pretty hard, and here and there a vowel heads back across the
Atlantic.  However, overall Quasthoff almost passes.  He does better in
slow numbers than in fast.  The two best tracks are "I've Grown Accustomed
to Her Face" and "In My Solitude." It's obvious that he loves each and
every song on the program, although he gives you something personal only
in these.  He also communicates as a great Lieder singer should, removing
the curse from such turkeys as "Secret Love" and "What Are You Doing the
Rest of Your Life." And, of course, the voice is beautiful.

Nevertheless, the title of the CD, The Jazz Album, amounts to nothing
more than false advertising.  The problems, predictably, come down to
rhythm and improvisational freedom.  In the opening number, Gershwin's
rousing "There's a boat," you have only to compare Quasthoff with the
great Cab Calloway to know what's missing in both departments.  It's not
that Quasthoff does a terrible job.  It's that he doesn't come up to the
level of Robert Goulet as a jazz singer.  Quasthoff is a jazz singer
only if you're willing to loosen the definition.  Furthermore, when you
think of the singers in his weight class -- Johnny Hartman, Billy Eckstine,
Nat Cole, Frank Sinatra, even Steve Lawrence -- you have to admit that,
sadly, this album really comes down to an indulgence.  In the words of
the Ellington song, "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing,"
and Quasthoff swings fitfully, rather than easily.  Furthermore, if you
don't improvise on a regular basis, you either don't do it well or you
fall into imitating your betters.  There are times when I get the feeling
that Quasthoff tries to impersonate Sinatra, phrase by phrase -- and not
the good Sinatra, either; the one who tried to get by on iconic status.
As a musical-comedy star who began as a band clarinetist once remarked:
"If you don't keep it up, you solo and suddenly it's 1957."

The arrangements, mostly by pianist Alan Broadbent and film composer Nan
Schwartz (no relation) are quite good.  Schwartz takes up the orchestral
charts and Broadbent the ones for small combo.  The worst arrangement
(and the worst track on the disc) goes to Steve Gray's ricky-tick setting
of the Arlen and Mercer classic "Ac-cen-tchu-ate the Positive." It's as
if neither Gray nor Quasthoff has heard of syncopation, let along swing.
Fortunately, Gray confines himself to that one arrangement.  The thing
is, why did Quasthoff let it through?  He would have done better to trust
himself to Broadbent and a string bass.  I think it indicates yet again
his lack of experience with jazz.

Die-hard Quasthoff fans won't care, of course.  The curious, I think,
will be disappointed, though they might give credit for Quasthoff's
sincere effort.  Fans of jazz and pop should probably stay away.

One small note.  "Can't We be Friends?" was written not by Eric Stephen
Cunningham and Christopher Paul Lang (whoever they may be), as stated
in the liner notes, but by Kay Swift and Paul James for the 1930 show
Fine and Dandy.  This mistake, thanks to Deutsche Grammophon, has spread
all over the Internet.

Steve Schwartz

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