A Wake for Montaigne?

Grant Chu Covell

[April 2001. Orginally appeared in La Folia 3:3.]

I have over 50 separate Montaigne releases in my collection. I pick up releases on Montaigne without question, even if composers and performers are totally unknown to me. Others here at La Folia have written about Montaigne re-issues and favorites, and I just can’t keep quiet. Montaigne has documented some of the best contemporary European composers and performers such as the Arditti String Quartet, Reinbert de Leeuw, Ensemble Recherche, and Ensemble Modern, etc., and the recordings sound terrific. Here I go delving into some of the remote releases that have come out on Montaigne. Some are remaindered and briefly carried by folks such as the Berkshire Record Outlet (http://www.broinc.com/), and some may be gone forever, so I’ll keep my paean short.

Back issues at La Folia contain discussions of Luc Ferrari’s piano works (MO 782110), Horatiu Radulescu’s Inner Time (MO 782030), and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet (MO 782097).

A mature and direct Concerto for Piano and Orchestra opens the disc given over to three works by Joël-François DURAND (MO 782093). Stefan Litwin is the pianist with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. The concerto is just over twenty minutes long, rarely lyrical, but with weighty gestures being tossed out by piano and orchestra. Much of the piano writing is chordal, except for a meandering solo towards the end. I’m having trouble describing what makes this concerto unique, and I think it comes down to what must be its intentionally focussed yet cumbersome nature. The other two works are for strings, a String Trio and Die innere Grenze for string sextet. The trio is a short sparkling work performed by members of the Ensemble InterContemporain, and it plays with serialism in an inventive way that will get you all caught up in its colors and not on its structure.

Roberto GERHARD is a greatly under-appreciated 20th century symphonist. Montaigne’s spread of Gerhard’s four symphonies are on two discs. (They put many of Gerhard’s ballets into one brick and I don’t think they did same with the symphonies.) I was obsessed with Symphony No. 4 on a Boston to San Francisco flight several years back as its imposing tuttis stood up to the airplane noise. Symphony No. 3 has a tape part, a homemade assemblage of concrète which wanders through the orchestra much like the episodes in Varese’s Deserts, but here in Gerhard, the tape (very rare in Gerhard’s output) is integrated with the orchestra. At its premiere, Gerhard’s Symphony No. 1 was overshadowed by the German premiere of Boulez’s Le Marteau sans mâitre, despite its clear continuation of Schoenberg within the British symphony tradition (OK, Gerhard’s clever quotation and integration of Schoenberg’s Begleitungsmusik, Op. 34, give this away). I’d put Symphony No. 1 on a par with Carter’s Variations for Orchestra too. Symphony Nos. 1 and 3 are on MO 782103, and Nos. 2 and 4 are on MO 782102. Victor Pablo Pérez conducts the Orquesta Sinfónica de Tenerife on discs that I think made their way to Montaigne from Astree.

James DILLON is represented with two discs on Montaigne, one is orchestral, the other is chamber. Yes, I’m partial to orchestral stuff (MO 782038), but the chamber disc (MO 782037) is fascinating. Evening Rain for solo voice performed by Françoise Kubler is a delightful textless work. Dillon isn’t restrained by any classic tradition (it’s harder to hear this in the orchestral disc): A Roaring Flame for female voice and double bass is an inspired setting that gently tugs and plays on the apparent differences between voice and low string instrument.

I have to mention both Iannis XENAKIS releases. Xenakis’s chamber music from 1955-90 for piano, strings and piano with strings is two CDs on MO 782005, containing over a dozen works played by the Arditti String Quartet and Claude Helffer at the piano. At close range and great saturation you start hearing similarities and relationships in Xenakis’s output: contrast the different works for string quartet (Tetras of 1983 vs. Tetora of 1990) and consider how the Xenakis uses the strings vs. piano in Akea for piano quintet. The solo works like À R. for piano and Embellie for viola are like encores (OK, really difficult encores). La légende d’Eer (MO 782058) for 8-channel tape is an oddity on the Montaigne list as the entire work is for tape. Similar in rawness to Kraanerg, La légende d’Eer takes its title from the end of Plato’s Republic, and is 46 minutes of a densely shaped and writhing texture, doubtlessly harnessing its imagery from Xenakis’s own experience of war.

Lichtspielmusik (MO 782068) brings together arrangements of some film music, back when film music was a new and curious genre. Arnold Schoenberg’s Begleitungsmusik zu einer Lichtspielscene, Op. 34, is arranged for chamber orchestra by Johannes Schöllhorn alongside works by Kurt Weill, Franz Schrecker, Alban Berg, Hans Eisler, and Josef Matthias Hauer. Ensemble Recherche is conducted by Lothar Zagrosek.

Cristóbal HALFFTER (be sure to spell it right) is represented on Montaigne with three discs. The third (MO 782111) has Elegías a la muerte de tres poetas españoles a somewhat requiem-like work for the poets Antonio Machado, Miguel Hernández and Federico Garcia Lorca. Outbursts punctuate lethargic passages in each of three elegies. Skilled orchestration reflecting the romantic tradition but with the pensive, philosophical quality only possible after Darmstadt. Each of the other discs contains large orchestral works and a concerto.

The Helmut LACHENMANN series is the most comprehensive introduction to this beguiling composer. The disc with Reigen seliger Geister and Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied (MO 782019) must rank as the most impossible recordings of all time. The Arditti String Quartet takes on Lachenmann’s exceptionally non-traditional string instrument writing: bowing the pegs, tapping the back of the instrument, etc. (the notes to the score and the score itself details precisely the many minutely different methods of sound production for the soloists and everyone in the orchestra). The Tanzsuite presents such a variety of dynamics and colors in the solo strings and orchestra that without amplification and goings on in the control room it would be impossible to hear everything in the score. I have never heard anything like it, and even with the score in front, it is a challenge to reconcile what one hears with what is written (which is one of the things Lachenmann is all about). Lachenmann appears as pianist in the solo works Wiegenmusik and Ein Kinderspiel in MO 782075. Imagine an antipode of Schumann’s Kinderscenen, or the time you tried to get the knitting needles out of the piano.

Irvine Arditti has confessed that the most difficult music his quartet has ever commissioned and performed is the 3rd and 4th string quartets of Brian FERNEYHOUGH. MO 789002 puts the Third String Quartet with the Sonatas for String Quartet, a short Adagissimo and the Second String Quartet. MO 782029 puts the Fourth String Quartet with Kurze Schatten II for guitar, Trittico per G. S. for double bass and Terrain for Violin and an octet of winds (the same octet forces Varèse used in Octandre). This is formidable music and brilliantly played.

Of the many Arditti Quartet Edition discs on Montaigne, I would single MO 782002 as one of the most endearing. Issued most recently as the from France disc, the Ardittis are joined by a percussion trio, Trio le Cercle, in music of Georges APERGHIS, François-Bernard MÂCHE, Xenakis and Allain GAUSSIN. Aperghis and Mâche are truly inspired composers, each working in unique and unexplored territory. Aperghis tends towards intricate and theatrical music, and Mâche often incorporates tape so that performers need to mimic or confront themselves or sounds on the tape. Mâche’s Eridan on this disc sets the quartet against, amongst many things, our comprehension of bird noises. Mâche’s music is informed by much extra-musical content here creating a transformed string quartet.

For Stefan Wolpe (MO 782048) is a commemorative disc. Included are works by Wolpe. rks Morton Feldman, John Cage, Elliott Carter and Johannes Schöllhorn performed by a whole carload of folks from Ensemble Recherche.

I could go on and on. There are individual discs with music of Younghi PAGH-PAAN and Julio ESTRADA, the many Arditti Quartet Series discs, and the composer series of Mauricio KAGEL, Arnold SCHOENBERG, Oliver MESSIAEN, Jonathan HARVEY, Morton FELDMAN and Luigi NONO. If you see any of them, check ’em out. In Naïve’s hand’s we will be seeing new discs, and hopefully, a back catalog reissue.