Composed and deComposed: Music Of Our Centuries

Composed and deComposed: Music Of Our Centuries

Steven Koenig

[April 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:4.]

I first encountered György Kurtág on a sale table twenty years ago in Madrid, a Hungaraton LP with two extended vocal works performed by Boulez and Ensemble Intercontemporain. Carnegie Hall presented an all-Kurtág concert in their “Making Music 2000″ series. Kurtág was supposed to appear and perform, but is, moderator Ara Guzelimian told us, “reluctant to travel.” Instead, the impeccable Charlies Neidich, Kim Kashkashian and Robert Levin dropped their plans for a composer they love and performed the first part of the concert, strangely programmed. Kurtág wrote a piece in tribute to Schumann, and so the concert opened with Schumann’s Märchenerzählungen clarinet trio, seemingly a soundtrack for an already soporofic movie. This was followed by “A Kurtág Garland” of miniatures, programmed by the players, followed by the Hommage à R. Sch., itself a collection of gestures Each was a tiny sliver, and though such jewel-like pieces can be moving, and indeed some small strokes were beautiful, these pieces were no more than slight. Luckily, we stayed for part two.

Soprano Susan Narucki and violinist Daniel Phlllips were perfectly paired in Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragmente, affirming that most of the the composer’s strongest works are vocal settings of text fragments, as in that first Hungaraton LP. Kafka-Fragmente consists of forty-one phrases taken from various Kafka works. Melodies, chirping sounds, violin slurs, surprise twists, whispered speech; the cumulative effect was wondrously breath-taking, and both artists were afforded well-deserved ovations. I hope this pair will record it. Meanwhile, I recommend Kurtág’s pieces for string quartets (including, of course, some “microludes”) by the Ardittis on Montaigne MO 78007, with some Lutoslawski and Gubaidulina thrown in for good measure.

Ensemble Sospeso has done it again, giving us a one-composer concert you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. This time it was an all-György Ligeti concert, and it shed new light on pieces I knew, but not well. One day I’m going to make good on my threat to our Editor and hear the Sony complete Ligeti Edition I think I spied on his shelf. At Columbia University’s Miller Theater, the program began with Stephen Gosling performing four pieces from the composer’s two books of Piano Etudes. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” flutters up the scale and then down. “Galamb borong” begins too close to minimalism for me, but uses a rich left hand. It too begins fluttering, with with Ravelian colors. “Open Strings,” is romantic, and the final “Devil’s Staircase” finds the rogue ascending, falling back, ascending higher. There’s a “jazzy” run and I think I heard a few chords from Chopin’s Death Sonata. Ligeti’s Horn Trio, in hommage to Brahms, always leaves me cold, although I give special marks to violinist Mark Menzies. Rehearing the excellent performance on Bridge 9012 (Rolf Schulte, William Purvis and Alan Feinberg) confirmed that it wasn’t this performance; I just don’t like the horn writing of the piece, despite some nifty horn blats here and there. The piano and violin are given some great interplay, and in the closing lament, the piano gives quiet beauty and joy, but then the horn returns. Oh well. The 1966 Concerto for Cello and Orchestra was delicately luxurious. I love the sonority Ligeti creates when the bass and, in turn, the violin partner the the cello. The woodwinds make you aware of the wood in the bodies of the string instruments, the flutes beautiful cousins adding tonal variety. It ends in an exquisite falling silence. If cellist Christopher Finckel didn’t make seamless one very extended note, as I suspect it should be, everything else he did was breathtaking. I was wary of what I had thought was a boringly thorny piece, the Chamber Concerto, having given away my Decca Headline LP ages ago. Instead, I found a flowing Corrente movement,no more difficult to digest than Verklärte Nacht, followed by a Calmo, sostentuto, and a movement Preciso e meccanico which was motoric but not dry. Only the final Presto didn’t impress me, despite a great lumbering dinosauric bass and piano duo, taken up in turn by the cello. Relistening to that Decca David Atherton performance, silvered on London 425 623-2, I can’t imagine what had scared me. Maybe it was the Double Concerto.

From Qualiton distributors come the the following releases of new music. When I saw the Francisco Guerrero disc, I thought how strange the Arditti should be performing him. They rarely cover Renaissance choral composers; that’s the domain of the Kronos. This is a different Guerrero, however, born 1951 in Andalusia, and his seven-part-plus-encore Zayin (Almaviva/WDR DS-0127, 66:49),the Hebrew representing the numeral seven) puts the listener to the test. The various, or should I say varied, movements of Zayin are for trio, quartet or, in the seventeen-minute “Zayin VI,” for solo violin. The opening tract (the notes refer to “combinatorial analysis”) is a four-minute denseness of noise, at first off-putting, noise-freak though I am. Following is a string-sawing, top of the instruments, like a spinning top about to go off-kilter, becoming slow, with lots of interesting ideas coming through, the piece starting to come into its own. I broke down and read the notes, which said the opening was intended to be a “closed world,” and so as this world opened up, with Pendereckian upward slurs, leapfrogging microtones, and undeniable momentum, I was riveted. The solo violin part lost be for a while, and the final quartet brought me back. The recording is near, but not on top of the strings. It doesn’t capture all of the microtonal grit and resin I’d like to hear (and others wouldn’t) during the intricate horsehair acrobatics. I can’t find any other pieces by Guerrero (check out the same-named Renaissance guy too, he’s good) in my collection, and would be curious to hear more. You already know if this piece is for you or not. Packaging is in a slipcase with a large trilingual booklet, with some delightfully unintentional semi-erotic translations (though the original intent comes through). I beg to differ with the note-writer about any audible connection with an “Andalusian style,” even from contemporary composers of that region, other than “a fierce and proud temperament.” This is not nationalistic music by any stretch; he opens by saying Zayin is influenced by fractals.

Speaking of nationalism, I jumped at the chance to see how a Venetian orchestra with a German pianist and, I assume, a Russian-born conductor would cope with Charles Ives’ Fourth Symphony (Mondo Musica MFCH 10600, 56:48). Indeed the opening chorus has a Russian sound (although the choral director is Italian). In the second movement, Bernd Glemser’s piano solo takes off with the freedom and spirit of a jazz pianist, all to the good of this piece. Kudos to the percussionist as well. This overlap in itself seems very Ivesian to me. I had to go back to compare to earlier recordings, as I’m more familiar with Ives’ smaller pieces, orchestral, chamber and vocal, than with the symphonies. Isaac Karabtchevsky, with second conductor Giuseppe Marotta, do quite a fine job with this piece, giving it momentum, urgency, and when called for, the polyrhythms are just-right. Honestly, it doesn’t sound “American” the way performers who are familiar with the source materials might inflect it, nonetheless this is a very strong performance. The Farberman on Vanguard is more American-sounding and smoother, but less exciting. The chorus on the RCA Serebrier is tight but just too Anglican, although the orchestra does right by the dissonances, polyrhythms and the “tunes.” The only thing which might undermine this Italian Ives for persnickety audiophiles is the slightly muddy recording, although it probably sounds the way it did indeed sound in this 1999 live recording from the PalaFenice, despite the bit about 20-bit recording. Maybe not your only Fourth, but definitely a positive for the Ives collector.

The disc ends with Alban Berg’s “Der Wein,” soprano Solveig Kingelborn’s rich voice sweeter, and her phrasing appropriate for Stefan Georg’s text, printed here only in German. Glemser’s piano stands out from the coagulated but emotional playing of the strings; again he is an impressive part of the ensemble. Here Karabtschevksy’s conducting is impeccable, and moving. If there’s any chance you stumble upon Capitol 10″ L8150, Werner Janssen’s spooky take on this is non pareil. Charlotte Boerner’s voice is thinner, more delicate. It’s more out of control, too, but considering the texts, it’s hardly inappropriate. The flip side also contains a commentary by critic Alfred Frankenstein. Robert Craft’s recording with Bethany Beardslee, contained in a two-LP box (Columbia M2S 620), has the soprano contributing yet a different take on the text, more pushing and using more vibrato. I’d hate to be without any of these. On CD, a live 1957 recording has Hermann Scherchen with the Bavarian RSO (Arkadia CDGI 752.1) taking a more operatic tack with the orchestra, more, say, Das Lied Von Der Erde. Soprano Annelies Kupper sounds more German, more angry, less infatuated with the wine-soaked texts. Still, the arc of the conducting, if sloppy, makes this too a must for oeonophiles.

The German label col legno had an auspicious introduction to the USA some years ago, coming in as the highest-priced label not from Japan. As a gimmick, “when possible,” the first batch of each release would come autographed by the composer. There was no way to tell so from the outside; one merely had to buy, at the going rate of $25 per disc. Despite a few discs of bizarre performances or combinations (an otherwise unavailable, therefore mandatory, thirty-minute Luis de Pablo piece combined with a forty-minute Dvorák 8th?), col legno prided itself on new performances of new works, and so we (friends became enemies clambering for used copies) bought what we could and cursed the label. Two or so years so ago, Qualiton took over distribution and the price dropped to a realistic level. col legno, sadly and wonderfully, also releases multi-disc sets from festivals such as the Donaueschinger, and I just received the latest four-disc installment, Donaueschinger Musiktage 1998 (col legno WWE 4CD 20050). I hope to cover it in detail next issue, but for most new-music freaks all I have to say is it contains new or unavailable pieces by Toshio Hosokawa, James Dillon, Klaus Huber, Christian Wolff, Wolfgang Rihm, Younghi Pagh-Paan and three folks I’d never heard of (always the treat). Me, I’m still working my way through the twelve-disc 75 Jahre Donaueschinger Musiktage 1921-1996 (col legno WWE 12CD 31899) which, curses, contains four discs they’d already released and I had bought, dearly, so I gave those as a gift to a grateful friend.

Lovers of French mélodie can’t go wrong with a the disc of songs by Georges Auric (Timpani 1C 1049, 64:35), as that label continues exploring the Gallic byways. With bilingual notes, the witty and ironic songs are easy to enjoy, and mezzo Sonia de Beaufort, tenor Martial Defontaine with pianist Alain Jacquon make a most tasty ménage. If you like Poulenc songs, these are less intellectual but more charming.

Another beautiful disc contains the complete lieder of Alma Mahler-Werfel with one bonus Zemlinsky piece (Globe GLO 5199 64:48). These are all premiere recordings in orchestral versions arranged by the conductor, Julian Reynolds, with soprano Charlotte Margiono and members of the Brabant Orchestra. (Remember Satie’s piece “Geneviève du Brabant”?) Bilingual texts included. Mahler-Werfel’s songs to be strong, if not first-level, as are the performances. Highly recommended if you like the songs of Strauss and Mahler; the orchestral sound is similarly lush and the texts hold up under repeated exposure.

Pierre Boulez, the ever-adapting composer, hit Carnegie Hall this year in a series called Making Music 2000, utilizing his Ensemble Intercontemporain with his IRCAM tekkies. The first concert in the series, this one at the Weill Recital Hall, ranged from his earliest to most recent pieces. The Sonatine for flute and piano from 1946, in early recordings, was choppy; you could hear the construction more than the music. Here, flutist Sophie Cherrier offered fluid tonalities, and with pianist Florent Bouffard, revealed the piece’s inherent rhythms. The piano playing was very physical, and the flute had a multiphonic, almost phlegmy sound. The Douze Notations for piano, composed a year earlier, also belied any stodginess and the dozen utterances (I’d hesitate to call them “studies”) were both individually exciting and coherent as a whole. Structures, livre II, for two pianos, 1961, played in the mid-register for the first part, and the second made lots of zig-zags. The beautiful sonorities brought to mind the sound of Messiaen piano, doubled. Trading and overlapping phrases made this an abstract kind of boogie-woogie, ending with one looooong note dying away. Pianists Dimitri Vassilakis and Hideki Nagano were clearly in a single mind-space.

After intermission was Messagesquisse, for six cellos plus solo cello, and then the tiny 1994 piano piece, Incises, performed by Vassilakis, so short there’s barely anything to say about it. The most recent piece of the afternoon was first commissioned for the Donaueschingen Festival. Antheme II, for violin and electronics, composed between 1992 and 1997. Boulez told the audience about its construction, starting with a keyboard because “theoretically,” he explained,” a key is a key…. If it works for the violin, it works for the whole family.” The piece works in movement from electronic to acoustic to electroacoustic. Boulez talked of “transgressing the world you have in front of you” and using micro-intervals, making them precise and audible, and using rhythm as well as intervals. He mentioned the problems of getting the proper spatial distribution in Weill Hall because “in small spaces, it [the effects of the computer] works very little, but it spite of the proximity” he was going ahead with Hae-Sun Kang on violin and sound technician Andrew Gerzso. Sadly, for all that work, the piece neither moved nor impressed, as did the rest of the program. Technology can’t save a boring piece.

The release of Répons in Deutsche Grammophon’s 20/21 Series of contemporary music is a revelation (DG 289 457 605-2, 60:59). Boulezians (Boulezers?) have been looking forward to a recording ever since the maestro-compositeur toured the piece with more equipment and roadies than all the rocks bands in the world combined. A friend wagged it would have been cheaper for the French government to fly all of the audiences worldwide to Centre Pompidou to hear Répons. I missed its performance at Columbia University, but most of my spies were amazed at the piece, composed and recomposed from 1981-1984, and longing for recordings.

The thing that strikes first is that this piece sounds very French, the woodwinds clearly in lineage from Chausson, Faure, Poulenc. The gestures, of course, are more modern, but the roots are clear. The electronic program is cleanly integrated with the orchestra and soloists, and although the title refers to call-and-response (in other words, a concerto), it is the movement of themes from group to group in smooth transition that strikes most. It is incredibly busy, yet everything is clearly audible and sensible, even to those not used to difficult music. The notes say that arpeggiated chords by the musicians are in turn arpeggiated by the computer program. As spatial relationships and sonorities are a prime factor in this music, it is notable that this two-channel stereo recording is rich with detail, and yet one can hear the forest, the trees, and the electronic windchimes with richness a clarity; an amazing feat of sound engineering.

The other piece on the disc is the eighteen-minute Dialogue de l’ombre double, for clarinetist Alain Damiens with electronics, realized here also by Andrew Gerszo. (Damiens is a master interpreter, with two CD gems of modern solo clarinet on Adda 581066 and 581277, both titled Clarinette on the labels, but with the respective composers on the traycard spines. Choose Berio and Stockhausen, or Xenakis and Globokar.) Back to Boulez. Dialogue begins with one note and the clarinet playing circles around it, winding up back at the tonic. The electronics kicks in and swirl further. Like Anthème for violin, I’d prefer this piece as is without the effects. There’s clearly motion and melody, and Boulez’ programs simply clutter up these solo pieces, unlike in his ensemble pieces, where they enrich the sound and the composition.

In the same DG 20/21 series is a reissue of two important Kagel pieces, 1898, named for the beginning of recorded discs, and Music for Renaissance Instruments (DG 459 570-2, 74:00). 1898 was commissioned in 1973 for DG’s 75th anniversary. It features a children’s chorus plus instrumentalists we now think of as the masters of contemporary recordings: among others, percussionist Chris Caskel, violinist Saschko Gawriloff, cellist Siegfried Palm and half of the piano-playing Kontarsky brothers, Aloys. Kagel recounts a wonderful story of a photo of an early recording session with a hybrid instrument invented for recording sessions, called a Stroh-horn, a flat-stick violin amplified with a horn used to resonate the sound. It is not specified is that is what is used here, but the sounds of strings, horns, and children laughing make this a special piece, and sets forth Kagel’s idea that music should be fun as well as well-constructed. Music for Renaissance Instruments presaged the burgeoning “original instruments” movement when it was recorded in 1967. Kagel chose the instruments for their timbres, and make no mistake this is no variations-on-Purcell. Squeaky, noisy, excellent flow; it could almost be a free-improvisation piece realized this year. This disc would be the crown jewel of this series, if it weren’t for the third recording of Messiaen’s opera Saint François d’Assise (three tableaux will be performed this month at BAM), a Takemitsu disc, and the complete Berio Sequenzas in performances that, finally, turn these pieces into music rather than studies. More next issue.

Decades ago, I had read about Ferruccio Busoni’s piano concerti and found a used copy, so I gambled two bucks on that Angel box, coupled with the composer’s Sarabande and Cortège, two studies for Doktor Faust. As soon as the needle hit, I played all three sides over and over. It’s romantic, it’s long (this version is shorter than most, at 68:42), with a grand, swirling Brahmsian beginning, and a piano richly resounding a theme which was noble but not pompous. This was the first concerto I fell in love with as an adult. The fourth movement is an orchestral tarantella with delightful little piano solos, and lots of fun time changes. The last of the five movements adds a male chorus in praise of Allah from a Danish poem about Aladdin. This was premiered in 1909, when both near and far Eastern appropriations were de mode. It was one of the few LPs in my collection I replaced with a CD, even thought it was missing the Faust studies (issued years later on a different disc). I also love the live 1988 Donohoe/Elder recording on EMI CDC 7 499996 2. The Postnikova/Rozhdestvenko two-disc Erato from 1991 makes it sound like turgid Tchaikovsky (the orchestration does indeed allow for a Tchaikovskian interpretation, but please, not so dull). It includes Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica on the second disc, though I prefer the Jacobs/Oppens on Nonesuch LP 79061. There are many possible ways to hear this, but the first, Ogdon’s, is a fun romp that belies its length. Now I’m not a fickle lover, and I hold by what I say above. Nonetheless, a new performance blows all the others out of the water. That doesn’t mean I’m giving up my old ones, but it’s love at first audit of Hyperion CDA 67143, distributed by Harmonia Mundi. I’ve already played this five times. Pianist Marc-André Hamelin, from all I’ve heard so far, can do no wrong, in the music of any century. The surprise for me here is the conducting of Mark Elder, with the Ork that Rattle built, the Birmingham, and the engineering which makes detail heard but not stand out from the whole fabric. The piano, the orchestra and the male chorus are of one blend, and instead of being overwhelmed by the totality of the piece, I’m overcome with emotion. “Hearts flamed in ecstasy, hearts turned to dust again/ Playfully life and death staked each his claim.” This is just beautiful. Just beautiful.

Stay tuned for the “Music Of China” concerts, striking new compositions from Pennsylvanian composer Scott Robinson, and new releases from col legno including Ligeti and Feldman, and from Disques Montagne, including the string music by Bruna Maderna courtesy of, you guessed it, the Arditti Quartet.