An Assorted Ramble

Grant Chu Covell

[August 2002.]

Leonardo BALADA: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3; Concierto Mágico for Guitar and Orchestra; Music for Flute and Orchestra. Rosa Torres-Pardo (piano); Eliot Fisk (guitar); Magdalena Martínez (flute); Barcelona Symphony and Catalonia National Orchestra, José Serebrier (cond.). Naxos 8.555039 (http://www.naxos.com).

These are authoritative renditions of amiable, spirited pieces. Compared to Balada’s earlier works, this music is at once autumnal and capricious. The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3 (1999) takes a giddy look at traditional Spanish sounds and textures, tossing them about in a brilliant orchestration. At the start a pasodoble, the Andalusian tune played at bullfights, is overtaken by a gently dissonant orchestra imitating a barrel organ. Acerbic 20th-century techniques are thrown in as well. Music for Flute and Orchestra (2000) is more in keeping with the modernist vocabulary of Balada’s earlier compositions. In the first movement, strings gently pick up the flute’s harmonies, creating a delicate and mystical mood. The second movement is more dance-like, suggesting Jolivet but overtly connected to Balada’s Spanish heritage.

Concierto Mágico for Guitar and Orchestra (1997) possesses brilliant momentum, especially in the last movement where string harmonics and glissandi swirl behind the intimate-sounding guitar. It’s hard not to hear this concerto as a spoof of other popular guitar concertos, when somewhat familiar guitar tunes suddenly self-destruct and vanish into the orchestra’s texture. This is not the cute and cheeky dissonance of Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez (though, to give Rodrigo his due, the guitar concertos are not among his most adventurous work). Balada is closer to the underrated Roberto Gerhard: Both composers have rich heritages and their works cover an immense variety of musical thought and expression. Both Balada and Gerhard are stylistically diverse, and unabashed about blending ethnic music with contemporary techniques and styles.

Decades ago Balada wrote vibrant works with political themes — Guernica (1966), Torquemada (1980), and an opera about Christopher Columbus from which four chilling excerpts make Thunderous Scenes (1992). His Sonata for Ten Winds (1980) is a great kitchen-sink summary of contemporary trends, along the lines of Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto. You can find Torquemada, Concerto for Piano, Winds and Percussion, Sonata for Ten Winds, and Transparencies of Chopin’s First Ballade on New World 80442-2. María Sabina, Thunderous Scenes, and Guernica are on New World 80498-2. Another Naxos CD (8.554708) gives us Violin Concerto No. 1, Folk Dreams, Sardana, and Fantasías Sonoras.

George ENESCU: Octet, Op. 7; Piano Quintet, Op. 29. Kremerata Baltica; Gidon Kremer (violin); Dzeraldas Bidva (violin); Ula Ulijona (viola); Marta Sudraba (cello); Andrius Zlabys (piano). Nonesuch 79682-2 (http://www.nonesuch.com).

Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica set a high standard with energized readings of two neglected pieces from George Enescu. He is perhaps most familiar as composer of several Romanian rhapsodies and other tuneful works for violin and orchestra (or piano). Among violinists he is celebrated as Yehudi Menuhin’s teacher (he also taught pianist Dinu Lipatti), and both violinists come together in a classic historical recording of Bach’s concertos on EMI CDH 7 610182. Much of Enescu’s music has fallen off the radar: His 1936 opera, Oedipe, Op. 23, convinced critics of his reach as a composer (one of its too-few revivals is preserved on EMI 7 54011 2).

As in After Mozart (Nonesuch 79633-2), Kremerata Baltica’s recent spin on Mozart and those who have been inspired by him, the group takes sensible liberties to modernize some of the music. Leonid Desyatnikov helped arrange the Octet, Op. 7 (1900) for string orchestra, and the lush work has become fleshier and its contrasts more dramatic. The Octet opens in unison with a sinewy line of wide leaps and chromatic contours. The four-movement work is cyclic and its opening statement appears throughout: faster in the second movement scherzo, slow and hesitant in the third movement, and fast but fractured in the last. Enescu uses naïve and folksy melodies (think of Janácek’s quartets) in a surprisingly sensual and expressionist harmonic language, and this item would make an ideal pairing for Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. It’s hard to believe Enescu could produce something so mature and inventive at 19.

The Piano Quintet, written 40 years later, is a dark and world-weary essay. (We hear it in its original form.) Those who treasure the ghostliness of Elgar’s Piano Quintet, Op. 84 (1919) will be happy to find this companion piece. Tonality is wrung round almost as in late Strauss, except that Enescu is decidedly darker and moodier. Compared to the Octet, Enescu has developed his use of the lower instruments (used mostly as accompaniment in the Octet), and his palette of string sounds is much like Ravel’s. The piano is demoted to equal standing with the four string players, but Andrius Zlabys seems comfortable in this challenging and less glamorous rôle.

Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica won a Grammy for After Mozart. They are poised to win another with this offering.

Peter EÖTVÖS: Atlantis; Psychokosmos; Shadows. Márta Fábián (cimbalom), Dietrich Henschel (baritone), Dagmar Becker (flute), Wolfgang Meyer (clarinet), WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne, Kölner Domchor, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Südwestfunk Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden, Peter Eötvös (cond.), Hans Zender (cond.). Budapest Music Center BMC CD 007 (http://www.bmcrecords.hu). Distributed in the U.S. by Qualiton (http://www.qualiton.com). Additional information at http://www.eotvospeter.com.

Like a true explorer, Peter Eötvös neither repeats himself nor goes where anyone else has trod. The forms, structures and ideas in his music follow no established patterns or trends. Every work uses a different configuration and spatialization (where the players are positioned during a performance), something he probably picked up from working and playing with Stockhausen in the 1960’s. (He played an electrochord, a modified zither coupled with a synthesizer.) Some have found his recent opera, Three Sisters, infuriating because he has collaged Chekov’s narrative into Rashomon-like sequences which present the same mundane events from three different viewpoints (and all the women’s parts are sung by countertenors).

Atlantis (1996) is one of the more innovative and astounding works I have heard. It’s scored for a lopsided orchestra of quintuple winds (orchestras are generally triple winds) but only ten string players. The orchestra is further augmented with a saxophone quartet, three synthesizers, electric piano and bass guitar, and soloists include a baritone, boy soprano and cimbalom. (The cimbalom is a traditional Hungarian zither that has crept into contemporary compositions by Boulez, Dutilleux and Kurtág. In the standard repertory it figures in Kodály’s Háry János.) Atlantis’ text is credited to Sándor Weöres, but there are also stretches of wordless vocalizing and glissandi.

As if we were cast overboard with anchors tied to our ankles, Atlantis plunges us forcibly into a murky and soporific world. The first movement sounds as if it is being played backward, so unusual are the solo voice parts and the swells and ebbs of the texture. The second movement is more delicate and adds a “virtual” choir played by synthesizer. The third and last movement offers closure; at its end the orchestra yields to the synthesizers (perhaps it’s actually a tape). Atlantis is apocalyptic, proceeding inevitably and with its own logic. Not especially violent, it is bleak and resigned. The ten strings appear at the end of each movement playing bits of Transylvanian tunes, and we hear fragmented music that’s been run over and trampled. (Elsewhere, in another disc’s notes, Eötvös says that each movement ends with the sound of a phonograph needle stuck in the final groove of a scratchy record, but I don’t find it here.)

Psychokosmos (1993) is a Mahlerian canvas for cimbalom and orchestra that covers ground (or should I say seas?) similar to Atlantis, though the orchestra’s winds and strings are traditionally balanced. Shadows (1996) is something of a double concerto for flute and clarinet with chamber orchestra. (Eötvös must have a thing about small string sections: Another version of Shadows with even fewer strings is on Kairos 0012082 KAI.) Like Atlantis, Shadows defies any immediately grasped logic. Three unequally shaped movements become transcriptions of dialogue between the soloists, the orchestra providing commentary with small sub-ensembles that shadow them. A tapping drum invades the first and second movements — the second developing into an unexpected bout of rhythmic gyration — while the last is pensive and gradually fades away. These two fine works are best appreciated apart from the Atlantis juggernaut.

A year ago (http://lafolia.com/?p=4054) I wrote about Eötvös’ Vocal Works (Budapest Music Center BMC CD 038), a misleadingly titled disc which collects a theater piece, a concert excerpt from Three Sisters, a choral work, and two electronic compositions that have voices as their sources. Eötvös is becoming a big favorite: In a few months I’ll have thoughts on his Zero Points, paired with a Fifth Symphony by some guy named Beethoven (Budapest Music Center BMC CD 063).

George LOPEZ: Das Auge des Schweigens; Blue Cliffs. Klangforum Wien, Johannes Kalitzke (cond.). Durian 013-2 (http://www.durian.at/lopez.html).

Born in Cuba but now living in Austria, George Lopez writes uncompromising and coarse music, almost as if he were completely indifferent to its listenability. Xenakis may seem an inevitable and appropriate model, but Lopez draws much inspiration from nature and his beliefs, inviting a more fitting comparison with Xenakis’ teacher Messiaen.

Das Auge des Schweigens (1993-94), in three movements lasting 27:21, opens aggressively with slow-moving glissandi in the low strings. The work takes a long and tortuous ornamented line with continuously changing texture and intensity. Single notes and crawling chords are belted with percussion attacks. Scattered repeated notes fall into silence, and then a short motive propels the music into new territory. Lopez states that this piece brings together Max Ernst’s painting of the same name, a transcription of an electrocardiogram, and the experience of a total lunar eclipse. Not easy listening.

Blue Cliffs (1985-89) requires 13 players, and Lopez remarks that several quotations from the Buddhist classic Blue Cliff Record are inscribed into the score. Here Lopez’s kinship with Messiaen is most evident. The composition was set down in Washington’s North Cascades, and a respect for the landscape has been deeply etched into it. Like Das Auge, Blue Cliffs three movements reveal a continuous writhing texture of great variety. Now and again small instrumental groups seem lifted from Debussy or early Stravinsky, but they are soon torn apart by string glissandi or barbaric bassoon sounds. The chaotic motion suggests a work dictated by nonmusical or unusual forces.

I once played this disc right after Xenakis’ electroacoustic Persepolis (Fractal OX) — a tough spot for anything to follow — and it stood up well. Klangforum Wien is a fantastic ensemble and Johannes Kalitzke (a well-established composer in his own right) leads these works with assurance. Durian has but a few releases, and the ones I’ve heard are very good. A two-disc set, Klangforum Wien Live at Konzerthaus Wien (Durian 097 / 98-2) has music by Beat Furrer, Uli Fussenegger, Michael Gross, Mayako Kubo, Helmut Lachenmann, Andreas Lindenbaum, Giacinto Scelsi, Schoenberg, Wolfram Schurig, Donna Wagner Molinari and Hans Zender, and will leave you craving more of this label and ensemble.

Hermann MEIER: Klavierstück 1968, “meinen Freund dem Pianisten Charles Dobler gewidmet”; Klavierstück No. 1, “für Lilo Mathys”; Klavierstück “für Urs Peter Schneider”; Sonate für Klavier; Klaviervariationen “Hermann Gattiker gewidmet.” Dominik Blum (piano). Timescraper Music Publishing / Edition Wandelweiser Records EWR 001 (http://www.timescraper.de/).

One of the year’s happy discoveries. I had never heard of Swiss composer Hermann Meier before this disc, and now I am eager for more. His is a common name, but a targeted search for the composer dead-ends at Web sites for the label and pianist.

Meier worked as a schoolteacher, but he studied piano, organ and composition at the Basel Music Academy. Vladimir Vogel instructed him in 1948-49, and the next year brought lessons with René Leibowitz. Like much of the European avant-garde, he progressed through serialism and dodecaphony, and by the late 1960’s he was creating graphic scores that could be realized as fully notated works (the cover art is based on a 1960 Meier illustration). In 1975 he worked at the Heinrich Strobel electronic-music studio and wrote a piece for tape that won a regional prize in Switzerland. His music, neither naïve nor provincial, tends towards spare and expressive lines.

These five piano compositions cover the gamut of Meier’s interests and abilities. The earliest work on the disc, a Sonata for Piano (1950-52), has three movements with punchy rhythms suggesting a close study of Schoenberg’s Serenade, Op. 24, or the Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene, Op. 34. Even though contemporary trends were elsewhere (Boulez’s Second Sonata [1948] and Cage’s Music of Changes [1951]), Meier handles this classic serial style confidently, and has written effervescent music with expressive lines much like Webern’s early songs. Neither ornate nor virtuosic, and the simplicity of the bare voices is akin to Bach’s Inventions. The last movement unfolds as theme-and-variations with what sounds like a fugue at the end.

Klavierstück 1968, “meinen Freund dem Pianisten Charles Dobler gewidmet,” a haunting realization of a graphic score, is wonderful. It blends three distinct types of material: a lean and magisterial tune that’s immediately echoed, clusters executed tremolando, and clusters played as chords with some notes held via the pedals. Moving slowly, the opening statement is interrupted by the clusters and rhythmically repeated chords. This engrossing entry doesn’t suggest a graphical parentage. Compared to the graphic works of Haubenstock-Ramati, Meier has created something much more interesting and musical.

Klaviervariationen “Hermann Gattiker gewidmet” (1952) is the hardest piece to follow. The notes indicate many tempo changes, but the single track has no index points. The theme is not easy to pick out, and the 17:01 duration is an unbroken stream of contrasting gestures and moods. More detailed program notes would have helped. Klavierstück No. 1, “für Lilo Mathys,” (1956) is so clearly by the same hand. The melodic line is scattered with wider jumps and gently dissonant contours. Among the generous pauses and rests, intermittent activity focuses on specific regions of the keyboard. At the halfway point a crisp staccato gesture bursts out like birdsong. Klavierstück “für Urs Peter Schneider” from 1987 (music of Urs Peter Schneider appears on Wandelweiser EWR 0101) contains more clusters, but combined with a perky and lilting line. It’s as if the sound of something twitching, like a branch tapping against a window, has been rendered for piano.

Blum has been recorded at a Boesendorfer Imperial. It is clear that he really loves this music, and he plays with great passion and care for the details, especially when Meier’s style changes from piece to piece. The pianist is part of Steamboat Switzerland, a group that has used Meier’s music as source material for its improvisations.

Giacinto SCELSI: Hymnos; Hurqualia; Konx-Om-Pax; Canti del Capricorno (selections). Pauline Vaillancourt (soprano); Douglas Ahlstedt (tenor); The Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic and Concert Choir, Juan Pablo Izquierdo (cond.). Mode 95 (http://www.mode.com/).

This is glorious Scelsi — a must-have item for Scelsi fans, and the perfect disc to make converts out of skeptics and innocents. I take my Scelsi appreciation seriously yet cautiously: This is a disc I play when everyone else is out of the house.

Initially I was wary of the disc’s order. Selections from Scelsi’s intimate song cycle Canti del Capricorno (for voice alone and sometimes voice with instruments) are scattered between three big orchestral works, Hymnos, Hurqualia, and Konx-Om-Pax. But the short and delicate songs are refreshing after the larger and more violent pieces. Pauline Vaillancourt and Douglas Ahlstedt give us numbers 1, 2, 18, 14, 15 and 19. We hear growls, nasal sounds and sometimes one singer must produce two vocal sounds at once. Canti del Capricorno is a rich cycle to draw upon, its primal and exotic qualities definitely more comprehensible in small doses. Vaillancourt has recorded another selection (numbers 1, 3, 5, 8, 12, 13, 16, 17 and 18) on the obscure Allegro-distributed Société Nouvelle d’enregistrement (SNE 571) along with selections from Georges Aperghis’ Récitations. (My Aperghis rave will have to wait until another time.)

Scelsi’s orchestral works build intense textures from very few pitches. Some movements (or sections of movements) focus on one single pitch played by different instruments in different octaves and colored with accents, microtones and extended techniques. In these three works Scelsi also uses long pedal tones, prominent percussion, and groups of amplified instruments. Every passing beat is a laboratory of orchestration: We may hear two horns playing a D with an oboe playing the same D an octave higher, and suddenly they will fade away and reveal muted violas and cellos playing the same notes. It’s all very miraculous and entrancing, and has no precedent in Western music.

From the single pitch that opens Hymnos (1963), Scelsi creates the illusion of overtones and notes that are just not there. Scored for organ and two antiphonal orchestras (the players in one standard orchestra divided into two groups that face each other onstage), the work is in arch form with a trance-like central section. The outer sections move slowly, as if Scelsi were describing the motion of planets.

Hurqualia (1960), subtitled “A Different Realm,” is unexpectedly vibrant and active. The pensive opening is shattered by percussion and aggressive repeated notes, including a propulsive minor-third gesture not unlike that in Ride of the Valkyries. There are three groups of amplified instruments; one includes a musical saw, and another playing in unison (oboe, English horn and E-flat clarinet) sounds particularly non-Western. I confess to using the 1990 Accord (201 692, a three-disc set of Scelsi’s complete works for orchestra and chorus with orchestra) to test-drive headphones and speakers, because Hurqualia has such a rich variety of colors and timbres.

Most all of Scelsi’s titles are strange: Konx-Om-Pax (1968) links the word “peace” in Assyrian, Sanskrit and Latin. Its subtitle is “Three Aspects of Sound as the first movement of the Immovable; as Creative Force; as the syllable ‘Om’.” The work opens quietly with a delicate harp texture that has been captured very well here. The short second movement exposes blinding power, and a chorus is introduced in the finale — waves and valleys of sustained single pitches become dissonant chords.

The Accord set mentioned above is a cornerstone of the Scelsi fan’s collection. No two recordings of Scelsi’s orchestral music sound the same. This is a boon for the Scelsi lover who scoops up every recording, but it points out a flaw in Scelsi’s largest scores. The notation often fails at providing complete and incontrovertible instructions as to how instruments in large ensembles should be balanced. I base my remarks on seeing the Quattro Pezzi (su una nota sola) (1959) in the Koussevitsky Collection at the Boston Public Library. (That Koussevitsky had a Scelsi score in his possession boggles the mind!) In the denser textures, every instrument has its own dynamics, different from all the others. Almost every note has a dynamic, and sometimes one note ends with a decrescendo and the next begins with a crescendo; it’s not clear from what dynamic the second note should start. Conductors usually solve these problems themselves, but sometimes the publisher distributes a more completely edited score (a page from the Quattro Pezzi appears in the catalog put out by Scelsi’s publisher Salabert, and unclear dynamics are evident).

This is the second volume in Mode’s ongoing Scelsi series, promisingly titled “The Orchestral Works I,” and it makes a perfect introduction to the composer. The orchestral music is much grander and mellower than in the Accord set, and the combination of miniature vocal works and enormous orchestral ones makes very clear Scelsi’s non-Western interests and preoccupations. Juan Pablo Izquierdo commands the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic with a greater evenness and zest than I hear in his disc of Xenakis and Varèse (Mode 58), and I can’t wait for more. In truth, it’s easier to listen to Scelsi than to describe his music. I recommend this disc wholeheartedly.