New Music on Naïve Montaigne, Part Two

Walt Mundkowsky

[January 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:2.]

At first (in the early ’90s) there was Disques Montaigne, then Auvidis Montaigne, and now Naïve Montaigne. The new label has established a midline series, stocked with 20 previous titles and a sampler. Last time I covered half of the initial wave. The final six appeared November 14. As before, a selective tour:

NONO: La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura. Irvine Arditti, violin. André Richard, sound projection. MO 782133.

Subtitled “Madrigal for several ’travelers,’” Nono’s next-to-last work (1988) is a journey without destination. Process is everything. From Gidon Kremer’s improvisations, Nono chose snippets, altered most of them electronically, and prepared an eight-channel tape. Each channel is fed to a separate loudspeaker, and the “sound projectionist” can modify the tracks by varying their respective volume. The composed solo part is divided among eight (to ten) music stands placed at random; the violinist may address them in any order.

Obviously a stereo recording adds one more remove, and creates other problems. It kills the open-ended aspect and flattens the distinctions between channels, and the air of a soloist wandering in a large space. (But that crucial line separating “live” and canned material is surprisingly clear.) The taped backdrop hasn’t much energy — sheets of gray textures, Penderecki-style clusters and glissandi, frequent breaks in continuity. Still, the protagonist’s halting gestures accumulate emotional force, as he makes his way through a sonic landscape strewn with obstacles.

André Richard was Nono’s longtime electronic-studio partner, and violinist Arditti knew the composer well; their rendition conveys authority and great care. It’s especially fine at untangling layers of similar sounds. Arditti has a less quirky tone than Kremer (string-quartet leader vs. star soloist), but superb command of Nono’s arsenal of effects. What’s missing a bit can be glimpsed in the title’s nostalgica — a sense of madrigalesque song, however fleeting.

Kremer’s own account (DG 435 870-2) has been deleted, but it provides an instructive comparison. He writes touchingly of the mad rush before the premiere, and is given a spacious soundstage. Montaigne’s notes include diagrams and score extracts, while its cutting, steely timbres are sometimes more telling. The players follow suit: Kremer is more likely to exploit any hint of melodic potential. These high-profile affairs would seem the final word, but a new attempt has surfaced, Edition Wandelweiser Records’ EWR 0005.

RIHM: String Quartets III, VIII, V. Arditti String Quartet. MO 782134.

Even with the Ardittis’ advocacy, Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952) doesn’t quite belong here. He’s no avant-gardist, but a prolific and talented mainstream voice, apt to incorporate items from the Romantic or modernist card files. Rihm has said, “Many things are only registered, not named. But one thing is absolutely essential for me: direct speech.” These quartets (dated 1976, 1981-83, 1987-88) are so different from each other as to confound expectations.

Cast in six movements, the expansive Third Quartet is subtitled “Im Innersten” (To the Heart of Things). In fact, the 26:56 length strays all over the map. A schroff (brusque) beginning leads to meltingly gorgeous passages. Tense, unstable episodes follow, and the long-winded finale collapses when its ethereal violin imitates a stylus dragged across an lp. The Fifth (“without title”) is totally unrelated — a single movement with nonstop activity. (But not complexity: Everything occurs on the same plane.) Rihm’s closest brush with Nono and Lachenmann comes in the Eighth. At 15:03, it’s easily the briefest and most striking piece here. The bows bounced on strings, buzzing of insects or jigsaw, snapping pizzicati, and toneless squeaks make at least identifiable music. But threats emerge, from invading silences or the crumpling and tearing of paper (the score itself?). Even so, Rihm slips in conventional patterns: accelerando, call / response, crescendo.

Since the Ardittis commissioned the Fifth and Eighth, their brilliant execution is a given. The Fifth relies on an Irvine Arditti trademark — high-altitude harmonics delivered with an insanely beating tremolo, like a top spinning off course. The digital taping, via West German Radio, thins the quartet’s lean ensemble tone still further.

Anyone interested in this oeuvre should hear Rihm’s Fourth, by the Alban Berg Quartet (the dedicatees). It’s much tighter than the Third, and achieves beauties the Fifth’s attack mode denies. The ABQ’s live version takes possession of the music and audience; ditto the companion piece, Schnittke’s intricately argued Fourth Quartet. (In contrast, the Kronos [Nonesuch 79500-2] skate across the latter’s surface, and none too confidently.) As a single CD, this EMI is now import-only (CDC 7 54660 2), but it’s included in the ABQ’s 25th Anniversary Edition box (four discs, CDC 65765).

SCHOENBERG: String Quartets I-IV. Arditti String Quartet. MO 782135.

Schoenberg’s canonical quartets number only four, but are crucial to each period in his output. The high point is the rarely encountered First (1904-05), a Straussian tone poem which must be kept aloft for an unbroken 45-minute span. The Second (1907-08) marks an immense advance, and brings a soprano along for the last two movements. “Ich fühle luft von anderem planeten” (I feel the air of another planet), she sings, as Schoenberg leaves Romanticism behind. He tries to pour 12-tone procedures into classical molds in the Third and Fourth (1927, 1936), and manages the task with less spillage in the latter.

Barring their First (a sizable exclusion), the Ardittis’ traversal can stand with any. They perform Schoenberg after absorbing (say) Brian Ferneyhough, so the unsteady harmonies in the Second’s final movement are major events. (“Like suitcases just too full to shut properly,” as poet Philip Larkin said of Thelonious Monk’s chords.) The serial quartets are dispatched with phenomenal clarity (the unison opening of the Fourth’s Largo is breathtaking). But the usual source of much tension — backwards glances to Brahms, even while Schoenberg forges ahead — hardly counts.

As an adjunct to the Ardittis, a Pražák Quartet disc (Praga PRD 250 112) is ideal. In the First, the Czechs produce the desired “orchestral” weight, and a rich, spontaneous grasp of the flow that makes the Ardittis seem pedantic. Honors are split in the Second. The Pražáks take an alert but traditional line, shortchanging the revolutionary aspect. Soprano Christine Whittlesey, though, brings theatrical punch, an unstressed top end, and vividly pointed German — none of which applies to Dawn Upshaw’s prim vocalizing with the Ardittis.

Two older sets demand mention. If one can abide the rough 1936-37 sound, the Kolisch Quartet readings (made in Schoenberg’s presence) should fascinate. The Archiphon CDs (ARC-103 / 4), from shellac discs, are exhaustively documented. Since 1971, the LaSalle Quartet’s landmark Neue Wiener Schule box (DG 419 994-2) has been essential, almost as much for its massive book as for the perceptive, refined performances. A recent Philips Duo (464 046-2) reinstates a 1967 intégrale by the New Vienna Quartet, but only budget price commends it above these.

WEBERN: Complete String Trios and Quartets. Arditti String Quartet. MO 782136.

Like his onetime mentor, Webern’s progress can be traced through his quartets, from late Romantic (the Langsamer Satz, String Quartet and Rondo of 1905-06) to freely atonal (Five Movements, Six Bagatelles) to serial (the Op. 28 Quartet). This last phase led the young Boulez to exclaim, “Any composer who has not deeply felt and understood the ineluctable necessity of Webern is completely futile.”

Webern wasn’t alive to enjoy or deflect the subsequent icon status, and he encouraged more expressive playing than the hardline serialists would later permit. He coached Peter Stadlen in the Op. 27 Variations for Piano, and that annotated score (Universal Edition 16 845) is revelatory, containing directions like “precipitately,” “with a grand gesture,” “with pathos,” and (gasp!) “very warm and heartfelt.”

This highly concentrated repertoire vanishes under routine musicianship; fortunately, nearly every CD alternative can be admired. As with the LaSalles, the Ardittis see Webern’s post-Romantic trajectory as Boulez does: “the threshold of the new music.” (For the rest, it remains the water’s edge.) The sequence on the Montaigne disc says it all. Movements, Bagatelles and Op. 28 are followed by the Op. 20 String Trio, a conflicted fusion of 12-tone manner and classical matter. The lush tonal efforts come last, mere footnotes. (It’s worth recalling that before turning to Schoenberg for guidance, Webern tried to engage the archconservative Hans Pfitzner.) Immaculate digital sound seconds the group’s virtues — razor-sharp transients and pellucid ensemble, close-up perspectives devoid of edginess, the whole a trifle inhuman.

Other bands find different facets. The Artis (Sony SK 48 059) give the early outpouring its due, and locate “that peculiarly Austrian sensation of poisoned happiness,” to borrow Martin Anderson’s incisive phrase. (Stupidly deleted, this splendid CD can be obtained from Berkshire Record Outlet [www.broinc.com].) Distinctly more high-powered are the Juilliards, in Boulez’s first Webern overview (Sony S3K 45 845). The Emersons figure strongly in his new compendium (or on a single disc, DG 445 828-2), falling on the Arditti (i.e., more objective) side of the Juilliards. Quatuor Parisii (Accord 201642) opt for bold drama and arresting timbral shifts. Such big-boned sonorities and inflected rhythms resound clangingly in the rigorous Op. 28, except as a link to the composer’s early self.