[Waste not, want not. I wrote these reviews for TAS about four years ago. A few of them ran, most of them didn’t. For permission to include those that did, sincere thanks to The Abso!lute Sound, Subscription Services, Box 3000, Denville NJ 07834, phone 888 732 1625. Look for further TAS resurrections in forthcoming Follies. To include the lot now would certainly amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Ed.]
[June 1998. Originally appeared in La Folia 1:2.]
RACHMANINOFF: Symphonic Dances for Orchestra, Opus 45. Vocalise for Orchestra, Opus 34, No. 14. Dallas Symphony Orchestra Johanos (conductor) David Hancock (engineer) Doug Sax (A/D re-mastering) Analogue Productions APCD 005
RAVEL: Fanfare. La Valse. Alborada del gracioso. Rapsodie espagnole. Menuet antique. Valses nobles et sentimental.Minnesota Orchestra Skrowaczewski (conductor) Marc Aubort (engineer) Doug Sax (A/D re-mastering) Analogue Productions APCD 007 Theoretical question: In the era of bits is bits, does a putatively painstaking re-translation of analogue to silver really make an audible difference? Pragmatic answer: Yes. Actually, I wish I could say it were otherwise. One’s instincts in matters techno-bankrollish are, or more accurately have been, pinch-penny populist. Your reporter metamorphosed from caterpillar to high-end butterfly less than gladly. The Rachmaninoff and Ravel exist, respectively, as grist for comparison in two-disc VoxBoxes CDX 5035 (Copland, Ives, Rachmaninoff) and CDX 5031 and 5032, Ravel’s complete works for orchestra. Wish I could say, Go for the cheap ones. I cannot.
And this is scarcely a scoop. Audiophiles have been kvelling over these recordings for years. Were the reader to have acquired the VoxBoxes, he’d surely recognize superior sound. David Hancock and Marc Aubort are superb recording engineers. Curiously, Aubort has been the busier of the two over the intervening years. I’m puzzled by Hancock’s relative inactivity. (He is too.) Analogue Productions’ executive producer, Chad Kassem, tells me that while a good deal of praise has already appeared, no one has of yet remarked on these CDs specifically. So then:
Direct comparison of VoxBox to Analogue Productions reveals in the latter’s case a markedly heightened proximity to what must surely be the masters’ true content. In Hancock’s Dallas recording, one observes shortcomings as well as virtues, especially the restricted high end of Hancock’s then ribbon mikes; the mids, however, abound, and that of course is where music essentially happens. True and warm low end. Lovely, close-up perspective. Amazingly lifelike soundfield. Superb location. Right-on timbres. And too, a little debris and noise. But, to quote a friend, duh troot’s duh troot. You’re there. Returning to the VoxBox becomes an exercise in despair. Some insensitive brute erected a cotton-wool wall.
Ditto for Aubort’s Minnesota gigs. Gone is another cotton-wool wall. Aubort’s mikes and where he puts them, the hall’s acoustic: very different matters indeed. And great, great recordings — better, I’m happy to say, than ever I’ve heard them. Aubort’s low end is a wonder; the sheen, gut, and sweetness he extracts from strings, likewise. Brasses glow from within. And on in extravagance. Impossible to say too much for truly gratifying technology in the service of truly gratifying performances — technology re-assumed by the wonder-working Doug Sax. (I’d really enjoy seeing what a fair-minded colleague has to say about these Analogue Productions CDs in re their LP equivalents.)
ROCHBERG: Caprice Variations. Eliot Fisk (Guitar) John Taylor (producer & engineer) MusicMasters Classics 01612-67133-2
George Rochberg is the American who, from String Quartet No. 3 onward, rattled art music’s serially gilded cage with virtuoso warps into the Romantic past amidst idioms emphatically à la mode. It’s a common enough practice now, but back in the early Seventies, well . . . . Rochberg’s goal, in his own words, aims at “maximum variety of gesture and texture and the broadest possible spectrum . . . from the purest diatonicism to the most complex chromaticism.” Caprice Variations, a “short history of music” (as an earlier commentator called them), rather handily address the composer’s stated aim via dazzling craft and the listener’s good luck at having such as Rochberg around.
The 51 variations on Niccolò Paganini’s 24th Caprice were conceived in 1970 for performance on violin and were so performed by Gidon Kremer on a Deutsche Grammophon LP. Guitarist Eliot Fisk perceived them as ideally suited to his instrument and worked with Rochberg on their transcription to a degree where attribution to Rochberg-Fisk would not be out of line. (I corresponded with Rochberg briefly years ago. He suggested my sending him some poetry to consider for setting to music. Rather than paths of glory, I chose the course to the chicken coop. In, as it happens, a very small world.)
Eminently listenable stuff — neither intellectually forbidding nor pandering to a median taste. Rochberg’s manipulations of Western art music’s past never had much to do with the gallery; rather, I should think, with the discovery of exits from (for some) over-austere procedures. Fisk’s brain-to-body transmission system ought to serve as a model for 21st-century cybernetics. This is one puissant guitarist! And one ideal CD. Recording at its best serves a living art. I’ve written elsewhere about kitsch engineering — excessive reverb as phony swank, that sort of thing. Here we have, soundwise, a lesson in propriety. To play the disc loud merely puts you closer to the instrument, ambiance remaining at ease to the rear. Altogether, a most pleasurable treat.
SAARIAHO: Du cristal, for Symphony Orchestra. . . . à la fumée, for Alto Flute, Cello and Symphony Orchestra. Nymphea, for String Quartet and Electronics.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor) Petri Alanko (alto flute) Anssi Karttunen (cello) The Kronos Quartet Joseph Magee (producer) Ondine ODE 804-2
Kaija Saariaho, a native of Finland, has made her mark primarily in electro-acoustic music, as among the genre’s innovative practitioners. These two (for this composer rare) orchestral works, when I heard them first about a year ago, impressed all the more for their subtle displays of instrumental-ensemble command. This is wonderful poetry. It is as if Saariaho translated the riches of her electronic palette into acoustic equivalence. And thus the music’s distinctions, despite just about universal employment of the contemporary symphony orchestra as an apparatus of brilliant parts. (Edgard Varèse, as much as anyone, sketched the arabesques of the late-20th-century orchestra’s textures and directions. Where, for example, would Boulez be without him?)
The orchestral pieces (they translate as From Crystal and . . . Into Smoke) are, as their titles suggest, companion works, despite the latter’s concertante demeanor, with its solo alto flute and cello, as against Du cristal’s commensurately atmospheric group effects. The titles also nicely encapsulate the music’s heft and feel: Du cristal’s icy-cold house of mirrors, . . . à la fumée’s richly colored, lambent mists with, for spice, fiery bursts. Nymphea (1987), for string quartet and electronics, stands, on the other hand, as a heartening glimpse into art music’s future, or a significant aspect of that future at least. Saariaho understands and exploits in wizardly wise the curious alchemy of acoustic-electronic intermodulations (to generalize a term from a specialized vocabulary). Think for a moment of the piano’s influence on the course of music. Would there ever have appeared an Appassionata Sonata, or Franz Liszt’s manic-showboat excursions, if technology had stopped at the harpsichord? Substitute computer for piano and listen to Nymphea with open, attentive ears.
One’s initial reason for promoting this CD in a publication for audiophiles is the audiophile quality of the orchestral recordings especially. The listener is immersed in Du cristal via a beautifully staged and detailed, wide-range recording. The alto flute and cello’s prominence in . . . à la fumée produces a fairly typical, tho hardly significant deficiency common to solo instrument-orchestral recording: the orchestra’s removal some steps to the rear in order to highlight the soloists. In the case of the electro-acoustic Nymphea, conventional sonic assessment no longer obtains. We’ve no real-life equivalent for electronically generated sounds other than, in the main, in-performance audio systems inferior to those most of us have at home. I’ll simply offer that for one who routinely reviews electro-acoustic music on disc, Nymphea sounds, as sound, pretty damn good.
GOETHE LIEDER. Dawn Upshaw (soprano) Richard Goode (piano) Max Wilcox (producer & engineer) Elektra Nonesuch CD 79317-2
We have on the one hand the Analogue Über Alles set and on the other — well, a disc like this. So what means “like this”? Flaming fantastic as sound and substance, that’s what. Is there a more revealing expression of software-hardware syncretism (or, alas, incompatibility) than an exemplary recording of soprano voice with piano? Elektra Nonesuch has never promoted itself as an audiophile label, and yet I hear in Dawn Upshaw’s (forgive me) nonesuch recital canned sound as good as it gets. One uses “canned” innocent of ironic edge. It’s important for audiophiles whose life’s-blood flows from AC outlets to remember that these Schumann, Schubert, Hugo Wolf, with one by Mozart, settings of Goethe’s verse are the living heart of kammermusik, the chambers in the main the drawing rooms of electricity-less gentry. As to what (forgive me twice) dubbing itself an audiophile label amounts to in an age when the quality of vinyl pressings is moot to all but a claque of tube-lit Luddites, I made enemies at Reference Recordings a few years back by suggesting that they look rather more keenly to repertoire than sound no better than, and sometimes not as good as, recordings I’d rather be listening to. My editor got a call I can summarize as, Don’t let that asshole ever review our stuff! Gee, what a blow. [We’ve since made it up — Ed.]
Whether tyro or veteran Lieder buff, you’re certain to want this example (with Michael Steinberg’s informative and entertaining notes as a bonus) of a beautiful voice in remarkable performance of music easy to love but by no means easy to do well, and in this case, outstandingly well. Richard Goode is a dandy accompanist, neither meek not overbearing, whose poetic lines provide the mirror-foundation to Upshaw’s own. He performs, sonically, in his vocalist’s vicinity, which is close to the listener, as it should be. Why smudge a detail-rich art with cavernesque effects? The excellent Max Wilcox recorded in Manhattan’s American Academy of Arts and Letters, a venue I’ve encountered on other good-sounding discs. I go out on no limb in predicting a hit.
STUPPNER: Extasis & Nirvana: King Ludwig’s Tristan-Fantasies with Death and Nirvana Overlooking the Starnberg Lake on 13th June 1896. Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra Hubert Stuppner (conducting) Alessandro Nava, Danilo Prefumo (producers) Nuova Era CD 6881
In music, postmodernism is no mere term of convenience; it half-frames an unfinished, here and there nostalgic stretch of evolutionary change. One knows he’s crossing postmodern terrain when the roads begin taking hairpin turns, if not precisely rearward, then sharply away from the disciplines that brought art music to where it now stands, casting about for direction. Ironic distance is one of the phenomenon’s more immediately recognizable features: to restore expired idioms or indeed revert to actual quotes through the peculiarly distorting lens of that which intervenes — Alfred Schnittke’s floating a tango atop a dissonant stew, for example, or Wolfgang Rihm’s Schumannesque reliefs within harmonically avant-garde structures. (To speak in this context of an avant-garde is itself an exercise in irony. The avant-garde — Ligeti, Berio, Stockhausen, Cage, Xenakis, Maderna, Carter, Nono, Boulez, et al. — has at least one foot rooted in history. And yet one likes to think, with instances to encourage the belief, that challenging music lives in fact as well as symbolically.)
More than a couple of Germans have snagged their robes on the Bard of Bayreuth’s exposed canines. Jens-Peter Ostendorf’s Mein Wagner, for large orchestra, the title an ironic echo of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, assaults the ear like a goose-stepping army [Thorofon CD CTH 2038]. Hubert Stuppner (b 1944) transforms Mad Ludwig of Bavaria’s suicide by drowning (the king was Wagner’s premier benefactor) into a bizarrely circular paraphrase of Tristan und Isolde’s Act I Prelude, whence, with Isolde’s final aria, the artfully orgasmic Liebestod (Love-Death) for orchestra. Those who have difficulty coming will find in Extasis & Nirvana their frustrations mirrored in art. As if observing, in mathematics, the intuition-defying Peano curve in motion, one’s attention to the music rides ever inwardly on process in anticipation of a climax that never quite arrives. And you think you’re hearing Wagner. And so, to refresh the memory, this listener went to the source, which he sees in the light of Stuppner’s brilliant travesty more clearly than ever as a still-life, so to speak, of coitus reservatus. From still-life to still-born. Is it not common in poetry and fact for young lovers to wish to die at heights of sexual ecstasy? I suggest they not look to Stuppner for help.
This serviceable recording of a string orchestra wants physical depth. (One includes the mildly redundant physical in order not to be misunderstood. Metaphorically, this deliciously mischievous stuff fairly drips depth.)
HARBISON: Oboe Concerto. Symphony No. 2. SESSIONS: Symphony No. 2.The San Francisco Symphony William Bennett (oboe) Herbert Blomstedt (conductor) Andrew Cornall (producer) Jonathan Stokes (engineer) London CD 443 376-2
Any number of good-sounding recordings have come out of San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall; few, however, are better than this, or closer to the artistic mark. (The Group for Contemporary Music’s executive director, Howard Stokar, tells me that recording engineers love to work in this hall.) Blomstedt’s a terrific conductor — one of the very best — and his orchestra’s ensemble, its singleness of purpose, is remarkable. Aggregate virtues in a good cause indeed! It’s gratifying to see so grand an enterprise like Decca (a.k.a. London, along with Decca’s Argo and L’Oiseau-Lyre nephews) involving itself in this sort of thing.
And that brings me to the Big, (by me) Unanswered Questions. First, what it is about music that we respond to? Well, the pulse of its progress, obviously, be it as direct as that of Dixieland jazz or concealed from easy observation as John Cage’s Freeman Variations. We find certain harmonies and progressions melancholy, others uplifting, others introspective, and so on and on in single-malts and blends. To return to jazz rather farther out than Dixie, we know it when we hear it, much as the politician who recognizes pornography without, however, being able to define it. When we come to Cecil Taylor, for example, a reviewer’s reluctance to chatter on appears (to this now prudently tight-lipped writer) the wiser course. Taylor’s music is jazz all right, but without the usual signposts and topography, and why I know it’s jazz I’m sure I couldn’t articulate as other than vague speculation: Because the debris of Taylor’s inter-stellar journeys, like those, say, of Anthony Braxton and Eric Dolphy, filter as hints through the consciousness of a native of planet Earth to their earthy origins? Maybe.
I’m not trying to conflate genres, but rather observe by way of analogy that John Harbison’s Second Symphony (1987) and Oboe Concerto (1990-91) address the Big Questions, which in the event remain unruffled by precise speculation. What is it about these works that engage one’s eagerness to jump into the drama, to join in the chase, that Roger Sessions’ Second Symphony (1946) takes longer to provoke, and indeed by other means? (One speaks of a private reaction in the hope that it mirrors the reader’s, should he trouble to acquire this disc on the strength of one’s remarks.) Sessions was Harbison’s teacher; thus the program’s good and effective rationale. The elder of the pair is an inspired craftsmen and creator, his resonantly contrapuntal Second Symphony an exemplar of architecture over drama, or better put, melodrama. (William Schuman’s similarly contrapuntal, roughly contemporary writing drips a high-minded, moral purposefulness that Sessions, thank the muses, had the good sense to avoid.) As to architecture and another analogy, it’s not a case of apples and oranges with Sessions-Harbison so much as the Acropolis and Antonio Gaudí’s Barcelona cathedral. The Harbison symphony with its four titled movements — Dawn, Daylight, Dusk, and Darkness — is for one thing the more overtly programmatic.
I know of no better introduction to Sessions and Harbison than this superb-sounding disc of ideally played performances. (Koch International Classics has quietly established itself as an important purveyor of American art music with, relevant to our subject, members of the Group for Contemporary Music in warmly recommended performances of Sessions’ 1958 Quintet for Two Violins, Two Violas and Cello; the 1971 Canons for String Quartet; the 1966 Six Pieces for Violoncello; and the 1938 String Quartet in E minor, with Howard Stokar as producer, Jerry Bruck and Richard Brause engineering.)
DE PABLO: Notturnino. Concierto de Camera. Dibujos. Cinco Meditaciones. Cuatro Fragmentos de Kiu. Ensemble 2e2m Paul Méfano (conducting) Eric Daubresse (producer) Adda CD 581260
Here’s a new-music ensemble I’m eager to promote now and farther along. This French Adda CD comprises a splendid, good sounding intro to a Spanish composer of gratifyingly elitist bent. Spain is better known to the outside world for music redolent of regional spice — Falla, Albeniz, Granados, Turina, et al. Were I to play these Luis de Pablo tracks to you unidentified, you’d be hard-put to guess nationality. I certainly would, and I fancy myself pretty good at the game. However, the music’s style is easily located: Pablo occupies a remarkably tasty slice the serial/post-serial pie. I need not point out that avant-garde addresses an artform’s cutting edge. In art music, the term rather paradoxically refers to the modernist movements that have pretty much succumbed to minimal, post-minimal, post-modern and neo-Romantic tendencies. Confusing? Yes. An academic bore? I quite agree. One makes the point in part as an expression of loss. Complexity in music is not, of itself, an impediment. It merely asks for more attention — for curiosity over laziness and a taste for discovery.
A photo of Luis de Pablo has a balding, bearded man seated, feet propped on sill, at the open French doors to a white room, a studio perhaps, on what must be a pleasant, sunny day. On or near some picturesque coastline? The building’s cozy decrepitude encourages one to think so. Next to the composer, a Siamese gazes off to the left, pale eyes in dusky face. Pablo, chin in cupped hand, looks out at the camera, good natured and welcoming. He’s wearing and old sweater and embroidered Spanish slippers — the sort of artist-intellectual you’d love to have to dinner for laughter and good talk. It’s that kind of portrait and that kind of music. There exist composers quick and late whose art is of necessity extra-musical: We hear something more than an assemblage of ideas in pursuit of formal, apolitical ends. Penderecki’s landmark Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima springs to mind. Schnittke, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Allan Petterson, Henze — each in his way projects his time in a less than rosy light. It’s been a harrowing century and, like it or not, art is the mirror. And then there are the Haydns of this world who, as Mozart discovers Original Sin, go their obliviously brilliant way. Haydn’s symphonies, early to late, are among those accomplishments that make of an evolving, still surprising “classical” tradition one of humanity’s crowning joys. When the PCniks acknowledge this — when academia’s left validates the possibility of qualitative hierarchies in esthetics as well as telescopes, of the very idea of artistic excellence — the world will become, if not a happier place, better adjusted to reality.
Excuse me, I’ll just deflate this soapbox, return it to my hip pocket and myself to the subject: the Haydn-class Luis de Pablo writes good-natured music at the far end of the spectrum of outstanding craft and delicacy. Even in Cinco Meditaciones, when the atmosphere turns dark, it’s a peacock’s lustrous purples and blacks. Paul Méfano’s Ensemble 2e2m is in top form. Handsomely detailed recording. Try it, you’ll like it.
STRAUSS: Sonata in E-flat, Opus 18. DVORAK: Romantic Pieces, Opus 75. Sonatina in G-major, Opus 100.Arnold Steinhardt (violin) Lincoln Mayorga (piano) Doug Sax (producer, engineer, mastering) Sheffield Lab 10039-2-F
The performances are lovely, and so’s the music, but they’ll have to wait. This is a report on Sheffield Lab’s “20+(arrow)16 Ultra Matrix Processing” system. It works. (In the recording business, where miracles occur quarterly, thus outnumbering weeping images of the Blessed Virgin, to say that something actually works is no small matter.) I’ll be receiving other 20+(arrow)16 exemplars farther on. For now, it pleases to report a recording a thick cut above the average. The violin’s resolution, of the highs particularly, is a treat. The illusion of appropriate size and position within the image is another. I’ve lots of piano discs as good-sounding as this, a few a little better. In my experience, the violin’s a far more difficult bird to render wholly successfully, and Doug Sax has done a John James Audubon-quality job. I can see through his recording to Steinhardt’s instrument, which I hazard to describe as superior — bright and upwardly extended, with a full, darkish midrange, a thing of sculpted wood under varnish. The reality of Steinhardt’s bowing from a reasonable distance is quite thrilling. It’s not an especially wide soundstage, nor should it be. I’m curious to know what 20+(arrow)16 technology and Sax’s miking technique will accomplish with vocal, instrumental, and mixed ensembles. For now, the heartiest of recommendations.
(If the generic audiophile label lays itself open to criticism — and I don’t mean to single out Sheffield Labs — the subject would be repertoire. Would that their catalogs were half so into meaningful difference as their technical people. While it’s certainly true that in matters of esthetic curiosity High Enders are in large measure weenies, it’s likewise true that within a commercial milieu of less than blockbuster profit reports, one doesn’t exactly play Russian roulette in taking the odd chance on exotic, adventuresome, and far-out repertoire, of which there is more than a tad, and of that, more than a tad of exceptional quality.)
SPIKED! THE MUSIC OF SPIKE JONES. Spike Jones and His City Slickers and His Other City Slickers Paul Williams (compilation producer) Bill Lacey (digital remastering and audio restoration) BMG Classics / Catalyst 09026-61982-2
Remember Spike Jones, in-your-face vulgarian, slapstick philistine, case-hardened sound-clown? Now take a wild guess. Who’s among the least likely of annotators to these lesser-known eruptions from 1941 (“Red Wing”) through 1952 (“Deep Purple”), with a late loner from ’62 (“Powerhouse”)? Try one of the republic’s denser novelists, Thomas Pynchon, who begins his remarks from a posture of political correctness in affixing Spike Jones to his period’s systemic and relatively cordial racism. This, as Pynchon reminds us, was the age of Amos ‘n’ Andy, The Goldbergs, and dialect jokes. Some few years earlier, Al Jolson appeared in blackface with, presumably, an easy conscience. Closer to our own time, could The Treasure of Sierra Madre, with its simian banditos, be made today? It’s now PI to show Mexicans as other than jes’ plain folks. On the other hand, villainous Colombians abound in meretricious films whose plots turn on cocaine. And what a slimy-slick lot they are — the Colombians, that is. I’ve not had the pleasure of the Lalaland types. As Pynchon mentions, racial hostilities, rather than abating, have relocated to a far harsher light. However, Pynchion’s singling out “Deep Purple” as a parody of a black man, Billy Eckstein, seems a tenuous plank to his argument. Could SJ’s City Slickers be having at, merely, a then popular vocalist?
Be the social issues as they may, Jones’s musical pratfalls operate with the precision of a 21-jewel movement. Pal-Yat-Chee’s a wonderfully uncouth turn on Verismo, and the disc’s longest entry, the 20-minute Nutcracker Suite, a likewise prolish send-up (with, as Pynchon tells us, its today unacceptable Chinese bit) of an equally familiar highbrow icon. Were it not for his targets’ familiarity, few of these travesties would be nearly as amusing. Like 18 hotdogs with the works, a disc to relish, but not at one sitting.
As to matters audiophilic, Spiked! will make of your lovingly assembled, exquisitely tweaked system an astonishingly lusty table-model radio. Sixteen of the disc’s eighteen tracks are in benighted mono, recommendable in the event as an antidote to nostalgia. The two vastly superior stereo offerings, Powerhouse and Frantic Freeway, were produced and engineered — and this is a scoop — by Wilma Cozart and Bob Fine who worked under the appropriately whimsical noms de guerre, Bonnie and Clyde.
(A small-world postscript: I told Grieve Smith, an old friend, that I’d just finished a review of Spiked!. Grieve, pony-tailed scion of Southern gentry, Scot and Creek Indian forebears, erstwhile Princeton instructor of Latin and classical Greek, connoisseur of organs and English liturgical music, film recording engineer, imparter of that skill at NYU, and long-in-the-tooth raconteur, replied with a tale. In ’40 or ’41 — anyway, before Pearl Harbor — Grieve saw Spike Jones at Milwaukee’s Riverside Theater as the featured attraction of a vaudeville show (plus first-run movie and newsreel). Sight gags, it seems, competed with the aural. The City Slickers performed on risers. At the rear, above the rest, sat a woman at a harp. She did nothing for the set other than knit an afghan that snaked its great length to stage front — an object, obviously, of many hours’ labor. At a just-so moment of the set’s finale, she put down her knitting and struck a showy arpeggio. Player and instrument promptly toppled backward onto, I imagine, an awaiting pad. Earlier in the set, Jones held an instrument aloft which he identified to the audience as a guitarlet, declaring this its first appearance ever in the civilized world. It was in fact a toilet seat fitted with guitar neck, strings, and related accouterments. When I mentioned this to HP’s second in command, a big-time guitar buff, FD said he’d long heard rumors of a toilet seat-guitar but that this was, for him, its first anecdotal confirmation. Talk about your Dead Sea Scrolls!) [This is one of the reviews that appeared in TAS. The then managing editor, Frank Doris, and I thought the Bob Fine-Wilma Cozart jape a hilarity. It’s an obvious lie, of course. It elicited not a single response! Ed.]
ADAMS: Harmonielehre. The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra Edo de Waart (conducting) Robert Hurwitz (producer) John Newton (engineer) Elektra Nonesuch CD 9 79115-2
The Adams in question is John, the composer of Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, two operas in uniqueness of conception akin to those of Robert Ashley, whose Improvement, an Opera for Television, likewise appears on Elektra Nonesuch, one of the contemporary scene’s more consistently interesting contributors. I’ve loved this Meet the Composer Orchestra Residency Series disc since 1985, the year of its release. Two other recorded performances, one just received, demonstrate its extraordinary worth by negative example. We begin with the absurd, volume four [AU 31806-4 CD] of a col legno six-disc set entitled III International Music Festival Leningrad 1988 featuring one J. Domarkas directing the Lithuanian Philharmonic Orchestra in what sounds a sight-reading in someone’s back yard. To say more is to laugh at the infirm, and as a wit once remarked, a gentleman is someone who never gives offense unintentionally. We move on to potentially stiffer competition, Simon Rattle on EMI 5 55051 2 with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. David Murray produced. Engineer Mike Hatch, who’s done fine work, gives us a rather cramped, congested sound. Quite apart from production values, in comparison with De Waart and the San Francisco, Rattle and his players haven’t a clue. Where is the magic, the music’s remarkable surge, its life-giving elasticity, its exhilarating pulse?
Harmonielehre, a masterpiece of neo-Romantic cast, is particularly vulnerable to failure in unfeeling hands. With this big-boned work, more than most, interpretation is all: An insipid or wrongheaded performance guarantees a turgid bore. Adams never comes out and says so, but the title, it seems to me, is ironic, taking as it does the name of Arnold Schoenberg’s 1910-11 treatise on harmony leading apace to the dread atonal note-row — ironic in that the eponym looks exclusively to the future in bass-ackward relation to Adams’ Janus-face demeanor. Despite the obvious perils of a neo-Romantic esthetic, staleness and pastiche chiefmost among them, Adams’ Harmonielehre is curiously, persistently fresh. (That’s the nice thing about a wear-proof medium: endless repeatability. How much music stands up to the possibility? Or ought to?) I urge the reader to share in a pleasure. [In general, my CD collection sounds better by way of my Wilson / Levinson / Transparent reference system, with this Nonesuch comprising the rare exception. I certainly am not calling it a bad recording; rather, not quite as impressive as I once heard it. Ed.]
LIGETI: Cello Concerto. Piano Concerto. Chamber Concerto for 13 Instruments. Ensemble Modern Peter Eötvös (conductor) Dr. András Wilhelm and Andreas Neubronner (producers) Ferenc Pécsi and Stephan Schellmann (engineers) Sony Classical CD SK 58945
György Ligeti’s 1967 Chamber Concerto has had several good recorded performances: members of the London Sinfonietta under David Athertons direction on a warmly recommended CD reissue [London 425 623-2] with Melodien, for orchestra; Double Concerto, for flute, oboe, and orchestra; and 10 Pieces for Wind Quintet besides. Friedrich Cerhas Ensemble “die reihe,” Vienna, performs it on a Wergo CD reissue [WER 60162-50] as an aspect of that good labels extensive Ligeti survey. The 1966 Cello Concertos dedicatee, Siegfried Palm, performs the work with the Orchestra of the Hessian Radio, Frankfurt, under the estimable Michael Gielens direction, on another of these Wergo CD reissues, WER 60163-50. Another still, this one given over entirely to Palm [WER 6063-2], offers the same performance, along with Penderecki’s Sonata for Cello and Orchestra, Weberns Three Little Pieces for Cello, Hindemiths Cello Sonata, Op. 25, No. 3; and Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Cello Sonata. I dont know whether this new Sony offers the recording premiere of the 1985-87 Piano Concerto. It’s the only one Im aware of, and its also reason enough to commend this over the discs I’ve mentioned.
Problem: Ones TAS audience isn’t a monolith. A friend, and for ones purpose, an atypical case who already has Wergo LP performances of the cello and chamber concertos, groused at the program: Why couldn’t Sony release, as with the Piano Concerto, more recent work? All right, its a valid criticism, but one that doesn’t much move me to anger or despair. I’m far too delighted with this CD to fault it on conceptual grounds. On practical grounds, it’s quite perfect, and I dont use the word lightly. The sound is amazingly fine actually, I wouldn’t know how to suggest improving it and I thank Providence for Peter Eötvös and the Ensemble Modern. That music as difficult to play and intriguing to hear as this has executants as good as this lifts ones fixation on a just-so hardware mélange from narcissism to celebration of a marriage made, if not in heaven, then in Santa Ana, CA (power conditioners), Ogoura Hills, CA (CD transport and processor), Elkhart, IN (power amplifiers), Lynnwood, WA (speakers), Rancho Cucamonga, CA (interconnects and speaker cables), Szombathely, Hungary and Haltzendorf, Austria (recording sites), and Hamburg, Germany (Sony Classical HQ). Multilingual, to say the least.
And multicultural too! Back in polytheistic times as I was a toddler, my memories of the period are vague humans made offerings to the gods: In my town, it was the libational spilling of wine on the earth before getting on with the barbecued virgin. Today, for like reasons, one strokes the Big Siblings of Correctness by invoking the multicultural bit. We hear in the Piano Concerto Ligeti’s studies of Central African rhythms. So there. Of the European vanguard that left its highwater-mark on the Fifties through the Seventies, roughly speaking (roughly in that the beat goes on), György Ligeti’s are among the most engaging, and as a consequence, more popular works in a genre, in terms of a broad public, widely perceived as inaccessible. Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, for example, features the Kyrie from Ligetis 1963-65 Requiem, thereby elevating it for a time, among casual listeners, to a familiarity approaching that of the “Elvira Madigan” Andante from Mozart’s K. 467 Piano Concerto. (Do I tax the readers memory? Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs occupies, or did till recently, the peculiar expanse.) Ligeti’s relative popularity relative, that is, to the musical avant-gardes isolation from general attention by no means bears the taint of compromise. Attend to this disc for some of the most uncompromising, colorful music youre ever likely to hear. Ligeti’s attractions, it seems to me, have much more to do with genius over posturing, a genius consisting in large measure of an ability to render utterly novel soundscapes as pungent and palpable.
To repeat oneself in the service of excellence, these performances by cellist Miklós Perényi, pianist Ueli Wiget, and the Ensemble Modern under Peter Eötvös are as good as they get. This German new-music group has been in existence since 1980; I don’t know that I’ve heard them in better form. The hand of Peter Eötvös, one of the ablest new-music advocates on the scene, is obvious in the management of these revelatory goings-on. The productions (Wilhelm-Pécsi in Hungary for the solo-instrument concertos, Neubronner-Schnellmann in Austria for the Chamber Concerto) take us into the music. What a jewel of a release!