Among the Year’s Best, So Far

Mike Silverton

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

Gabriel Valverde: LUMINAR. Mode 94 [KOCH International, US distributor]

On those rare occasions, all the more invaluable for being rare, one knows at the outset that he’s on to something special. Gabriel Valverde’s Espacios Inasibles (Fleeting Spaces) is just such an event, opening as it does with a brief, skewed and somber fanfare, a moment so ominous yet expertly compressed that one sits poised for what must follow, in the two-part event (Fragmentaciones and Luminar) a display of masterfully understated color and texture: deft gesture over bombast, which seems on short acquaintance among Valverde’s great strengths. We’ll return to the composer as soon as we discharge a few redundant thoughts on the means and meaning of discovery.

Fact: a recording of new music introduces the listener to compositions and performances he’d likely not otherwise hear, and it also instructs. Fact Two (and if any more occur in the course of these remarks, I’ll wedge them into their appropriate slots): the existence Mode’s Brian Brandt and his like. This listener remains indebted to these stubborn, hardy souls for discoveries I’d not have wanted to miss. Mode’s Website, www.mode.com, is attractive and clearly laid out. You can see for yourself how extensive a list Brandt has put together. This indy’s Cage project is unique, and that’s good of course, but Cage we all know. More to my point, Mode’s Gerard Pape and Chaya Czernowin CDs, to name two relative unknowns whose work seems to me impressive, are what one values most. Add to those rare birds Gabriel Valverde.

The abovementioned ominous fanfare foreshadows the concluding work, 5000 Voces of 1994-5, for mezzo, chorus and ensemble (Marie Kobayashi, Choir Vox Nova, and Ensemble 2e2m, Olivier Cuinder conducting). As I’m still full of the Xenakis disc (about which, see below), it does occur that there are many paths to dark places, perhaps motivated by the twentieth century’s grim history, which certainly propelled Xenakis and others to expressions of rage and dismay. No rage here; dark shadows rather. As a title, Terra Incognita (1992-7), for string trio and tape, serves as a guarantee: one is indeed on unknown terrain. Again, understatement within a quite magical environment until it turns turbulent, again, happily, magically. Valverde is in no way a regional composer, nor could one describe what he does as post-modernist. His musical persona is cosmopolitan / international and harmonically complex, i.e., a modernist holdout. Admirable grit!

Kaija Saariaho: FROM THE GRAMMAR OF DREAMS. Ondine ODE 958-2 [Qualiton Imports, US distributor]

The Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho moves, on recording, from strength to strength. Years ago, when I knew she was good, I recall a Fanfare colleague comparing her work to the sounds of a vacuum cleaner. The more of Saariaho’s music one hears, the more impressive she becomes. The present CD, Ondine ODE 958-2, is entitled From the Grammar of Dreams, a piece for two sopranos alone, not to be confused with another on the same program, Grammaire des rêves (The Grammar of Dreams), for soprano, mezzo, and chamber ensemble, in the event the excellent Avanti, Hannu Lintu conducting. The French-titled piece I hear as among Saariaho’s most commanding conceptions on wings of effortlessness, which is only to say, in that signature airborne manner she wields so affectingly. Through exquisitely woven vocal and instrumental harmonies, Saariaho conveys Paul Eluard’s serenely voluptuous imagery in a commensurately voluptuous embrace wherein the two women’s voices achieve a quite magical synthesis with their ensemble. From the Grammar of Dreams, on the other hand, sets lines by Sylvia Plath in as nervously flighty or wan a manner as the poetry requires.

The Ondine CD’s ambitious program is entirely vocal, and the music spans a number of years. Dates notwithstanding, it’s all vintage Saariaho. The instrumental settings also include Miranda’s Lament, again with soprano, and Caliban’s Dream, this with baritone, both texts rom Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Il pleut, for soprano and harp, reveals the composer at her most Impressionistic, yet that unique floating quality prevails.

IANNIS XENAKIS: Volume One of Iannis Xenakis’s Orchestral Works. Timpani 1C1057 [Qualiton Imports, US distributor]

This French CD is labeled Premieres. My large though hardly complete Xenakis collection reveals an Aïs, for baritone, percussionist and orchestra, the present program’s first work, on a 1994 Neuma CD, 450-86. These misstatements do happen now and again, doubtless unintentionally. Besides, the Timpani version is the better performed and recorded by far. Indeed, these handsomely produced readings by the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra under the excellent Arturo Tamayo’s direction capture Xenakis’s brutalist-grandiose aesthetic as well as anything I’ve heard on disc. Xenakis is the very model of a uniquely voiced, high-energy composer, and these are commensurately characteristic and vigorous performances. (Xenakis performances that ignore or stint on aggression will never get to the music’s soul. With this composer, life and music are one. It’s a biography worth investigating.) Tamayo knows what he wants and gets it, though I doubt he would have succeeded nearly so well in Aïs without the spirited participation of the baritone soloist, Spyros Sakksa, for whom the term baritone may be misleading: he’s obliged to emit sounds having little to do with this vocal range as it’s normally employed. But then, this is Xenakis!

SADIE HARRISON: TAKING FLIGHT, CHAMBER MUSIC BY SADIE HARRISON. METIER MSV CD92053.

The British Metier label is another of those steadfast, one-man independents to which I am indebted for the discovery, inter alia, of this remarkable Australian’s music. David Lefeber, producer, also engineers his releases (and, for all I know, makes the coffee and replaces the paper towels). Taking Flight, a string quartet, leads off the program. It’s performed by the Kreutzer Quartet, whose readings of four Catalan string quartets I covered in La Folia 3:2, another Metier release which, again (and to say it again), I’d not have wanted to miss. (See also this issue’s Scardanelli’s Motley for comments about the music of Anthony Powers, Metier MSV CD92038.)

The title work, the string quartet Taking Flight, reveals two qualities which in less gifted hands would likely comprise an odd-fellowship wandering into incompatibility. The aural imagery sparkles. The music’s mercuriality sets one adrift in a house of mirrors, and yet the tone is serious impinging on tragic — a marvel in the hearing, and thus, I think, a masterpiece. It delights to report that Taking Flight’s strong performance is by the same Kreutzer Quartet that blew me away via the four Catalan string quartets abovementioned.

Traceries, for violin and piano (Peter Sheppard Skaerved, the Kreutzer’s first violin, and Aaron Shorr), Impresa Amorosa, for piano (Shorr), and Arcosolia, for violin and piano (Skaerved and Shorr) confirms that avian seriousness one detects in Taking Flight, a quality that seems on early acquaintance so essential an aspect of the composer’s aesthetic. Its epigrammatic texts from the Greek Anthology, the six-part Aster, for soprano (Lesley Jane Rogers), flute (Nancy Ruffer), violin (Gordon MacKay), Bridget Carey (viola) and cello (Neil Heyde) reveals in several of its moments tissue-thin textures no less likely to shred as any of these wonderfully commendable creations. Great performances all, and nicely recorded. www.metierrecords.co.uk.

ANTHONY POWERS: FAST COLORS, CHAMBER MUSIC BY ANTHONY POWERS. METIER MSV CD92038.

What prompts one to declare a release among the year’s (so far) best is as interesting as a matter of psychology as it is of choice: a decision such as this can be influenced by other than the music itself, which in the case of Anthony Powers — make no mistake! — is first-rate. As to that psychological angle, we look to this reporter’s dependence on feisty independents and the dissimilar viewpoints they promote as engines of. The operative term is diversity (much degraded of late by multiculturism’s inanities). I really cannot see this Powers CD, for example, appearing on Mode. Mode’s proprietor, Brian Brandt, exercises a sensibility different from, yet not so terribly far out of step with, that of Metier’s David Lefeber. Joseph Celli (oodiscs), Jim Staley (Einstein), Al Margolis (Pogus and a La Folia contributor), Phil Niblock (XI), Hal Rammel (Penumbra), Werner Uehlinger (Hat Hut), and Franz Koglmann (between the lines), Georg Graewe (Random Acoustics), to name but several stalwarts and the labels they operate, issue recordings remarkable for their editorial consistency, and yet it’s all new music, and none of it’s banal. Irritating perhaps, offputting on occasion, most often challenging, frequently enlightening, sometimes endearing. Nor would it be accurate or fair to store this rather startling melange in one drawer.

On to Anthony Powers (finally!), who, ante-Metier, was a stranger to me, which puts him in the same handsome boat as Sadie Harrison and the three Catalan composers of those four delectable string quartets, though surely not on the same bench. The byword for Powers is elegance. A clue that’s not quite: he studied with Nadia Boulanger, yet, if from this you infer a Gallicized sensibility, you’ve taken a wrong turn. Back, then, to England? Not from where I’m sitting. Like Valverde, Powers reveals neither national nor ethnic affiliation. Call him cosmopolitan (which on occasion has served as a cuss word.) Powers could as easily be from Hamburg or New York, though if the latter, Uptown, where the atonalists tend to group around America’s Olympian, Milton Babbitt. Powers’ harmonic language is challenging, yes, but listing toward cool and remarkably collected. The key for me, as a personal matter, is the number of times I’ve had to play this disc in order to arrive at an overall sense of purpose and direction, and I’m not at all sure I’m there. Direction, of course, is one thing, but purpose is quite another. It suggests an agenda, a membership shading toward partisanship, and I’m not hearing it. Fast Colors (an amusing title!), for flute, clarinet, violin and cello, opens the program. Double Sonata: clarinet, piano, violin, cello. In Sunlight: violin and piano. Quintet: flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello. And finally, as a true tour de force, Another part of the island: flute, clarinet, piano, percussion, violin and cello.

MARILYN NONKIN: AMERICAN SPIRITUAL / NEW PIANO WORKS. CRI CD 877.

The disc’s title, American Spiritual, is unfortunate. Perhaps the omitted “s” is meant to pique interest. As an allusion to American spirituals in some off-center context? To spirituality itself? The questions are irrelevant. What we hear — nicely recorded, I’m delighted to say — is a triumph of interpretation. I would recommend this release to anyone who thinks that modernist, other than tonal music (how that for a euphemism?) all sounds the same. Try, for example, the purely abstract, non-referential austerities of Milton Babbitt’s Allegro penseroso against the near-Impressionist elegance of Michael Finnissy’s North American Spirituals or Jeff Nichols’ Chelsea Square. Nonkin is intimately connected to the program’s four works. The portraiture is of individuals in clearly defined, dissimilar spaces. As a matter of fact over vague possibilities, the spiritual bit attaches to one work only, and that tenuously, to the Finnissy piece, which derives its thematic substance not from native grass roots but fellow-Brit Michael Tippett’s oratorio, A Child of Our Time. While about connections, Jeff Nichols’ Chelsea Square takes its direction from a poem of the same name by Douglas Crase I’d not have wanted to miss (it’s there in the notes as a generous touch). Jason Eckardt’s White Veil requires a virtuosity and capacity to shift moods Nonkin flat-out aces.

Eckardt and Nonkin are co-founders of the new-music group, Ensemble 21.

SANKT GEROLD VARIATIONS 1-12. PAUL BLEY, PIANO; EVAN PARKER, SOPRANO AND TENOR SAXOPHONES; BARRE PHILLIPS, DOUBLE-BASS. ECM 1609 (012 157 899-2).

Propstei Sankt Gerold, a long-time ECM venue, is the Austrian monastery where the trio performed their twelve variations. (I got this from the publicity sheet accompanying the disc. ECM’s classy inserts are almost always textless.) Let’s begin with that: the Editorial Aerie’s audio system reveals one of the better-sounding new music / jazz recordings we’ve heard, and that’s pretty high praise. In our opinion — Signor Scardanelli’s and mine — jazz-ensemble recordings are as a genre better even than classical, if we can agree that better means closer to live; in such a rare and lovely light does this release stand: a midrange to die for in an acoustic not nearly as reverberant as the venue might suggest. Small-group music requires the intimacy Engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug provides. And yet there’s all that space and air! A wonder.

The program begins on something akin to a deception, but not quite: the first variation announces itself as a raucous, free-jazzy blast developing into a remarkable abstraction. These near-to-art-music impressions never fully vacate the premises, though we never do return to the aggression of that curtain-raiser. (Thus have I wearied of sorting jazz of this quality and originality from modernist art music. It’s a disservice to the participants and, frankly, a bore, as in, Who cares?) Paul Bley only once luxuriates in that Parnassian cocktail-lounge demeanor which has this listener on the pavement, looking in. In the main, the trio appears to be sharing one metabolism. There is so much to admire: the attention to detail, the inspiration each player so obviously draws from the others, the extraordinary yet coherent range of texture and mood. This one I’ll be playing for company — not everyone who stops by. Just the Happy Few.