Salvatore Sciarrino’s Chamber Music on Kairos

Mike Silverton

[December 2002.]

I had intended to begin these Kairos comments with a several-disc report on Helmut Lachenmann. In ordering from the Austrian label’s American distributor a few CDs I’d missed, Lachenmann among others, I found myself deflected by an astonishing chamber music program released in 2000. (We never promised timely reviews. A print magazine actually discouraged me from covering releases older than a month or so. I can almost understand why. Many classical titles disappear from view soon after publication. Kairos is one of those rare, stubborn labels that maintains a viable list. You’ll have no trouble in obtaining this release.)

To begin a review of Salvatore Sciarrino’s music with a Lachenmann name-drop is less a stylistic ploy than you might imagine. A colleague to whom I’d recommended Lo spazio inverso remarked a similarity to the eminent German’s style. Well, yes. Both men are at classical music’s outré brink, a categorization to be understood ironically as what’s become of the 20th century’s vanguard as it struggles in a multicultural Sargasso to keep its head above neo-Romantic slop-surges, not to neglect the New Simpletonics’ and Machine Shop School’s tepid eddies. For an appalling example of the latter, I recommend you avoid Michael Nyman’s Facing Goya (Warner Classics 0927 45342-2).

With Lachenmann, one hears a fine, adventuresome, tough mind at work. In a conscious and purposeful way, the man takes classical music to the edge of the world, that precipitous horizon off which seafarers once feared they might drop. And he knows how to hold one’s interest with zippy novelties. If I’m to segue to Sciarrino coherently, I must emphasize “conscious and purposeful,” since, as I hear it, with Lo spazio inverso (the CD’s title) another quality takes precedence.

These five chamber pieces, dated 1981 to 1996, sound less like intellectually crafted sound sculptures than aspects of nature. I’m not suggesting that Sciarrino, a steadfast avant-gardist, enunciates pastoralism’s latest word. We’re nowhere near the Grand Canyon, a Persian Garden, or the Moldau’s banks. Sciarrino’s chamber works rather more resemble the Hubbell Telescope’s vistas or, here on earth, those photographs of an environment we never knew existed — at least quite like that. The music is magical in calling to mind a spare opulence, strangely clothed. Even those music lovers acclimated to the idiom — those, say, who’ve heard some Lachenmann — will find the music unique in utterly enchanting ways.

Some nine years ago, I was taken to task by a Fanfare reader for having said little of substance about a Dynamic CD (CDS 82, released in ’93) of Sciarrino’s music for piano, 1969-1992. I suppose the guy had grounds for complaint. My comments, Impressionistic in character, were about as revealing of detail as Whistler’s Thames studies. Not everything I’ve heard, but certainly a good deal of Sciarrino’s music prompts that kind of response: gush over enumeration. I’ll try to do better.

As you can see below, Sciarrino employs conventional instruments. In what now amounts to a niche tradition, he puts them to unconventional use. Nothing in the string trio is likely to remind you of Saint-Saëns or Brahms, though, with Sciarrino, it makes as much sense to discuss a vastly magnified droplet’s relationship to tonality. That’s the “nature” aspect at work: One doesn’t wonder about the music’s architecture and its ornamentation or indeed what it’s about so much as contemplate these pieces as one would a starry night.

But yes, with respect to conventions, Sciarrino resembles contemporaries and forebears in having pushed instruments to their expressive limits. In Lo spazio inverso, the CD’s title work, a gossamer drone occurs throughout, and I’ve no idea how it’s produced. Suffice that it’s enchanting. If we can speak of a plan — one wants not to break the magical spell — Muro d’orizzonte begins slowly and sparely, allowing the listener to acclimate to the music’s relationships before they accelerate in pace and amplitude, not, however, toward an heroic coda. Far from it. Omaggio a Burri allows a long look at Sciarrino’s pointillistic preferences, consisting for these 13 minutes of dots and shots, sighs and small mammalian squeaks. The marvel of it is, everything succeeds. Let’s make that the keystone: success. While certain chamber works convey the impression of larger forces at play — seem symphonic — the earliest and most amply populated of these works, Introduzione all’oscuro (1981), for 11 musicians, emphasizes individuality within the group. There isn’t a predictable moment anywhere in Lo spazio inverso’s 61 minutes. If that interests you (it’s not everyone’s cup of tea), this release is not to be missed.

The CD plays on my system as an exemplar of transparency and resolution, a quality I’ve found to be typical of these Kairos releases.

Salvatore SCIARRINO: Lo spazio inverso, for flute, clarinet, celesta, violin and cello; Muro d’orizzonte, for alto flute, English horn and bass clarinet; Omaggio a Burri, for alto flute, bass clarinet and violin; Codex purpureus, for string trio; Introduzione all’oscuro, for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, trumpet, trombone and string quartet. Members of Ensemble Recherche, Kwamé Ryan (cond.). Produced by West German Radio, WDR Köln, Wolfgang Müller, recording producer; Harry Vogt, producer; Ute Hesse and Frank Wild, sound engineers. KAIROS 0012132KAI, http://www.kairos-music.com/, distributed in the USA by Albany Music Distributors, 915 Broadway, Albany NY 12207, http://www.uncommonlyclassical.com/.

[Mike’s review of Dynamic CDS 82 appeared in the Sept. / Oct. 1993 Fanfare. That CD has been reissued, as Dynamic S 2015. (Amazon lists it.) For Grant’s thoughts, go here. W.M.]