Composed and deComposed: Music of Our Centuries

Steve Koenig

[November 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:1.]

It’s another new music season in New York. If Carnegie Hall is any indication, 20th century music is finally part of the general repertoire, where at least half of the works on the schedule seem to be Stravinsky and beyond. If you don’t believe me, check www.carnegiehall.org. Christoph von Dohnányi conducted the Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie on October 4th in an interesting program of Pärt, Beethoven and Henze. Arvo Pärt’s works are usually tiresome to me, although some of his miniatures, when played right, move me. So it was with the version of Fratres for violin solo, string orchestra and percussion. At first the violin part, well played by William Preucil, was too reminiscent of Glass’s Einstein, but the orchestra was beautiful, delicate, with Asian-sounding percussive touches. the violin strings sounded like kotos in pizzicato, a subtle pause, and the piece was beautiful without a trace of mawkishness. The Weingartner orchestration of Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue made sense in this program, as the pieces surrounding it were about textures. The hall itself was quite apt at revealing its spatial relationships, tags and rounds, but I just don’t like the piece this way; it turns crispy sfogliatelli into bread pudding.

Hans Werner Henze’s Requiem (Nine Sacred Concertos for Piano Solo, Trumpet Concertante and Large Chamber Orchestra) was the main course and highlight, despite the steady stream of departees throughout the work. Their loss. This work is no more difficult than, say, the Shostakovich 7th, Ives symphonies, or parts of Messiaen’s Turangalîla, which, come to think of it, also had streams of people leaving during Messiaen’s final Lincoln Center performance some years ago. This New York premiere comes some seven years after the performance by Metzmacher and Ensemble Modern released by Sony. This non-vocal requiem opens with a shimmering orchestra, quietly scintillating with rich dissonances. Even the harsh parts (one naturally resents loss) are magical. The piano is well-integrated with the orchestra, applying a constantly shifting dynamic range. The sonic signatures, to be simplistic, recall Shostakovian brass, Messiaenic piano, and Bernstein’s vibes and some resonance from his Mass. Although these nine mini-concerti have brief pauses, there is a unity in this passionate piece, and it is strong, intelligent and emotional, but not heart-on-sleeve. Dohnányi’s performance was slightly more transparent and deep than the recorded version, which was rougher and perhaps more urgent. I ascribe these differences to time; now we are more familiar with the piece, and I hope Dohnányi too records it.

The following day, Dohnányi and the Cleveland presented the New York Premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s Cantigas. Not as strong as the works I know from disc, nonetheless the work contains a gigantic swaying rhythm, reminiscent of the massive sections of Carla Bley’s 3/4. The winds draw you into the pulse. You begin to visualize Hollywood vistas opening up, but then you’re in the New World of Lindberg’s colors. The piece doesn’t go anywhere, although I doubt it’s intended to. It is a study in texture and orchestral color. The typical New York dilemma: two excellent programs the same night, both featuring Berio’s Folksongs. Mezzo Dagmar Pecková has a deep, glottal sound, without broad coloring, but she’s a real singer who understands and conveys the subtlety and ethnicity of the texts. Dohnányi gave me a new appreciation for the delicacy and craft of Berio’s orchestration. Although they gave it their best shot, the closer, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony is just plain silly. The opening brass fanfare, the pacing, the phrasing were all top-notch, although I prefer the first movement white-hot and slashing, with the Russian melodies deployed to the forefront.

In Carnegie’s series Making Music 2001, the October 7th chat-plus-concert features a brief talk with Henze, talking about his encounters with Cuban composer and guitarist Leo Brouwer and percussionist Stomu Yamash’ta. To my surprise and delight, the program was an astounding English-language performance of his opera El Cimarrón, originally a song cycle, the text taken from a setting of the autobiography of the runaway Cuban slave Esteban Montejo. Never one to eschew politics in much of his music, Henze here has nothing to scare away our editor; this is not a polemic work. [Sez who? Ed.] Although I’ve enjoyed the two versions on CD, hearing it English and seeing it performed reminded me this is a performance piece. The guitarist (David Tanenbaum, with at least one fine disc on New Albion, Acoustic Counterpoint), percussionist (James Baker, with discs on Mode), and flutist (Camilla Hoitnega) are called upon to act as well as perform. The percussionist has an array of nearly seventy instruments. Baritone Gregory Rahming was a spellbinding singer and actor, bringing to life this simple everyman’s story. When I told him he must record this, he responded, smiling, “Tell them.” I never found out who “they” were, but DG, are you listening?

The October 12th Carnegie Hall performance was an interesting mix. The first half the Emerson String Quartet performed Kurtág’s Officium Breve and Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4. The Kurtág, recorded by the Arditti on disques Montaigne, is a series of fifteen brief and often aching sighs; as if Luigi Nono’s quartet had been microscopically sharded. Two movements are variations on, and one uses outright, Webern’s Canon a 4, and the whole sequence of thirteen minutes or so is as striking as most of the earlier master’s works. After a false start due to a string break, the Bartók was fine but too perhaps too fine; homogenous, with little sense of the rasp or sprung ethnic dances I get from recordings of the Fourth by the Endellion (Virgin), Bartók (Canyon), or Fine Arts (Concert-disc LPs) quartets.

The second “act” was Maurizio Pollini, dapper as ever, entering with an affable smile, facing the audience, and then getting down to work at the piano. First were a Chopin prelude and polonaise. I was thinking, while listening, that Pollini is less a colorist than a dramatist. Liszt’s miniatures Nuages grise and La Lugrubre gondola were quite different from the Chopin, quite modern moody and dark rumblings. The Liszt Sonata in B minor seemed to fly by, interesting in itself but merely a good performance. Generous with encores, we had three more Chopin pieces that were stunning, the Ballade absolutely breathtaking. I thank the folks at the Carnegie press office for finding out the titles for me; I’m as frustrated at encores when I don’t know the pieces as I am when I’m dancing at a club and can’t find out what song I was just enveloped in. After the concert, I asked, rather, pleaded with Mr Pollini if, remembering last year’s amazing Stockhausen Klavierstück, he would record the cycle. He smiled and said yes, although not all of them. He led me to believe DG would be amenable to this.

Columbia University’s Miller Theater is a regular meeting ground for new music lovers, and although I passed on the season-opening retrospectives of the works of the Steve Reich, I was delighted to find Ensemble Sospeso had a Louis Andriessen program, as he is a composer I have a love/hate relationship with. Having heard one of his works broadcast on WNYC about twenty years ago, I had to find out who this composer was. Way before Nonesuch discovered him, we had to get the Dutch LPs through Records International for a pretty penny; remember, ten dollars was a lot for a disc in those pre-CD days. I collected five of them on Donemus/Composer’s Voice, and looking back, half are irritating in their minimalism, though so different from the Reich-Glass-Adams motoric mode. The other half still charm and surprise, so I was curious to see what he’d been up to in the last decade or so. Sadly, his health prevented the composer from appearing for the scheduled pre-concert talk.

Hout, for sax, marimba, guitar and piano from 1991, was clever and cute, though not deep, with its jazz-like sax riffs and honks. If it were a boy, it would be called a twink. The 1996 Tao, for solo piano, koto, women’s voice and chamber orchestra, used woodblocks and pregnant pauses, the brittle piano with and without sustain. It is no slur to say this is Andriessen does Takemitsu. Then it sounded, rhythmically, more like Cantonese opera, with harsh dissonances, chunky Messiaen piano chords and even more so when the chamber orchestra came in. Then, solo voice and amplified koto; a strange but poignant end.

I dreaded hearing 1982’s Disco, but it turned out to be a wonderful violin and piano piece, with piano’s overtones ringing like a harmonium. The teasing between Stephen Gosling’s piano and Mark Menzie’s violin great larger and grander, with dissonant violin slashes. La Voile du Bonheur is a romantic Fauré-meets-Amy Beach piece for piano and violin, which cut into a pop song a la the Melody Four. It was camp but it wasn’t kitsch. The prize of the evening was the world premiere of a very funny Andriessen collaboration with filmmaker Hal Hartley, and electronics by Michel van der Aa. I enjoyed it so much my notes are totally illegible. I came away with a new appreciation of the composer, and the same mixed feelings about his works.

Briefly, Speculum Musicae’s October 10th concert at Miller was titles “Contemporary Landmarks.” Tristan Murail resurrected his Désintegrations for ensemble and tape, but it was a diappointment, the first piece of his I ever found stale. Stephen Gosling was power itself in Xenakis’ Eonta, for piano and ensemble. Varèse’ Equatorial was given a performance so beautiful I had to go back to my discs to listen again, but they weren’t as good as this. (An aside: Why does Erato misspell the composer’s first name as Edgar on both of Nagano’s discs?) [Because when he settled in the US, Edgard became Edgar. Ed.] The surprise of the evening for me was the Mediterranean lightness and beauty of the world premiere of Elliott Carter’s Tempe e Tempo, a brand-new song cycle about time passing, with texts from Italian poets. I love Carter’s thornier works too, but this was exquisite, as was soprano Susan Narucki. Carter himself was present, and gracious as usual.

Upcoming performances at Miller include full nights each of Jean Barraqué, Kagel, Stockhausen, Boulez, Messiaen, and more Reich, plus Nono, Lachenmann and Scelsi, Daniel Schnyder and Ornette Coleman. You can check their schedule at www.millertheater.com.

Here are some of the recent discs which have come my way. Next issue I’ll be covering some wonderful col legno releases, including another worthy and different performance of Morton Feldman’s Crippled Symmetries, as well as a Schubert-with-Ligeti program, and some more of their live Donaueschingen boxes. I will also report on new works by John Eaton, Jonathan Harvey, Libby Larsen, Music from China, and Julio Estrada’s new radio or theater piece based on the Mexican classic surreal novela, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo.

Zez Confrey. Piano Music. (Naxos American Classics 8.559016, 62:29.)

From the Georgian Republic, and living in New York since 1992, Eteri Andjaparadze has a good feel for these twenty-four ragtime-influenced works of Confrey’s. I wouldn’t give up my Eubie Blake’s, but these are full of charm and played with panache. I look forward to hearing the meatier offerings in Naxos’ new American series, which so far includes complete discs of works by Antheil, Piston, Hanson, Ives and Sessions.

Norman Dello Joio. Piano Works. (Elan CD 82420, 74:54.)

Recently, a foreign pianist friend who excels in conservative twentieth century piano music asked me for suggestions of American composers to consider for his recitals. I believe Dello Joio might be perfect for him. These three sonatas, and nocturnes and other shorter pieces have a scent of Debussy, but without a program. Jaemi Kim has the breadth of these subtle but not fragile 1940s compositions.

Eaken Piano Trio. I’ll Be Home For The Holidays. (Naxos 8.554714, 76:03).

When it comes to Christmas music, call me Grinch. This is mostly because I hate treacle, and I am a devout atheist. My neighborhood has loudspeakers playing “non-denominational” on the main shopping drag; I walk home a few extra blocks out of my way to avoid Sinatra singing “White Christmas.” I only play Phil Spector’s Christmas record in August. (Don’t tell anyone I cherish a Grandma Moses Christmas LP from RCA.) This disc came to me because I am an admirer of the music of Pennsylvanian composer Scott Robinson, who has a fine ensemble Gypsophilia, and who I first met via a private tape of a moving work of his for string trio and chorus “the Stolen Child,” based on folk ballads. Any chorus looking for accessible and rich work should seek the score. Here is is represented by the fifteen-minute “Great Is the Miracle,” based on European Jewish melodies. It is another excellent piece in a conservative but far-from-vapid style. The rest of the disc consists of better-than-salon arrangements of composers ranging from Les Brown to Gounod and José Feliciano. It is a stocking stuffer for even curmudgeons like me, and at Naxos price, it would be silly not to buy a bunch.

Richard Fawkes. The History Of Opera. (Naxos Audiobooks NA 41612, 4 CDs, 5:17:53.)

This is a tour-de-force. Covering literally the whole history of opera from Vecchi and Peri in the late 1500s all the way through the usual bel canto and romantic suspects, plus Schreker, Szymanowski, Janacek, Britten and (!) Birtwhistle. Operetta is likewise given its due in all its forms from G&S to zarzuela. The musical excerpts are often but not exclusively taken from the Naxos/Marco Polo catalog, and each one is well-chosen and illuminating. Fawke’s book is interesting for even those knowledgeable about opera, and mostly on-track, despite a few oversimplifications, such as that Lulu was never completed after Berg’s death because “no one dared” to, without giving the juicy background of why. Robert Powell’s narration is easy on the ear and engineered without that unnerving male-chest resonance often found in spoken-word discs. Each opera mentioned is tracked separately for easy reference. The dozen of other Naxos Audio collections of poetry and literature I’ve heard so far are likewise high-quality both in sonics and choice of narrator, and available for the usual low Naxos price. As they have instituted a historical recordings series, I dream of Naxos being able to cheaply license the invaluable theater and spoken-word catalogs of the 1950s and 1960s left to die in the vaults of Columbia and RCA.

Gustav Mahler. Symphony 6. (Titanic ti-257, 76:22.)

Although he has his detractors, I’ve never heard a performance by Glen Cortese and the Manhattan School of Music Orchestra which hasn’t revealed a new aspect of works I thought I knew inside out, ranging from a Symphonie Fantastique to Mahler’s Second performed in a church. I was alerted to this release through John Marks’ newsletter. The kind folks at Titanic, which I knew of mostly as a Bach-and-little beyond label, with a little Sephardic stuff thrown in via the group Voice Of The Turtle, obliged me with this, as well as a lot of back catalog material I’ll report on later this year. Although I haven’t had time to assess it compared to the billion others Sixths, this is gripping throughout and beautifully-recorded, both spacious and detailed. The scherzo is especially taut and driven.

More anon.