Scardanelli’s Motley

[As explained in the editor’s preface, problems in the editorial aerie necessitate Signor Scardanelli’s Motley’s brevity. Our Man in the Attic promises to resume his customary pace in issue 3:2. Ed.]

Signor Scardanelli

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

Morton FELDMAN: Atlantis: String Quartet and Orchestra. Oboe and Orchestra. Atlantis. Pellegrini Quartet (names not provided). Han de Vries, oboe. Radio-Symphony Orchestra, Frankfurt, Lucas Vis conducting. hat[now]ART 116.

Atlantis is the disc’s title as well as one of three works. From its inception, hatART’s huge Morton Feldman survey — including this, fifteen releases — has played for this listener as a project of enormous significance. The first, Piano, with Marianne Schroeder, appeared in 1989 [hat Now Series 6035]. From there a love affair grew. Considering the scope of hatART’s Feldman list, it’s interesting to note the absence so far of what was at one time perhaps Feldman’s best known work, Rothko Chapel. Something to look forward to. Let’s remark the present release as the second hatART Feldman CD requiring an orchestra. The other, hat[now]ART 102, is the opera Neither, to words by Samuel Beckett, with Sarah Leonard, soprano, and the selfsame Frankfurt band, Zoltán Peskó conducting. Like Atlantis, Neither is a first-rate Hessian Radio, Hamburg / Hat Hut co-production.

Relative to Feldman’s later music, Atlantis of 1959 stands as and certainly sounds like an anomaly — a gorgeous anomaly to be sure, but an anomaly still. A graphic score’s very nature encourages liberties on the players’ side which sound in this interpretation an absolute knock-out, with its beautifully textured, pointillistic charms. The composer’s signature “voice,” as exemplified in the two sumptuous though atypically brief works rounding off this release, reflects a quite different vision and modus, along with, of course, an iron will toward their achievement. Like Nancarrow and Partch, Feldman knew what he was after. Atlantis’s attractions are all well and good (and I mean that quite literally), yet relative to String Quartet and Orchestra (1973) and Oboe and Orchestra (1976), one hears an incunabulum, an extraordinarily charming preface to distinctions yet to emerge. Hat’s Neither production is advertised as a recording first. No such claims accompany Atlantis, yet I have none of these three works elsewhere on recording. Feldman’s unique and uniquely spare way with color and texture finds no more impressive example than the remarkably seductive Oboe and Orchestra. The genius of Feldman’s mature music resides in its exercise of effects by the very skimpiest of means. As a matter of consistency, these economies operate within an understated atmosphere like none other in this world. Long ago in wilder times, peyote allowed me to contemplate as never before or since a few square inches of scratched-at soil as an assemblage of gemstones. The experience may well have prepared at least one listener for those qualities that set Feldman so very far apart.

 

Among the Feldman revelations hatART delivered, this in 1992, is a long, long work for three players, For Philip Guston. Bridge issued its performance of the work, with members of the California EAR Unit, in 1997. And now we’ve a new label, but first the headnote:

Morton FELDMAN: For Philip Guston. S.E.M. Ensemble: Petr Kotik, flute, alto flute, piccolo; Joseph Kubera, piano, celeste; Chris Nappi, vibraphone, marimbaphone, glockenspiel, chimes. Dog w/a Bone DWA 802 [three CDs].

Dog w/a Bone is a new label connecting to the Paula Cooper Gallery of NYC, with its long history as a performance space for new music and in particular Petr Kotik’s S.E.M. Ensemble. Kotik’s own six-hour Many Many Women, a setting of words by Gertrude Stein, is excerpted (!) on three CDs, DWA 803; and a compilation of Marcel Duchamp’s sonic adventures, The Entire Musical Works, arrives as one CD, DWA 801. For now we concentrate on Feldman’s close to four-hour For Philip Guston, which this reporter hears as a masterpiece. I was introduced to the work via hatART’s 1992 production with Eberhard Blum, Nils Vigeland and Jan Williams. Bridge issued the work, performed by members of the California EAR Unit (Dorothy Stone, Arthur Jarvinen and Gloria Chang-Cochran) in 1997. Both the hatART and Bridge are superb, though different in terms of recording technique, with the Bridge occupying a rather mistier place in time. This isn’t a criticism. For Philip Guston lends itself to a dream-world ambiance. I recommend this set unstintingly. Played and recorded to perfection. This production’s sense of proximity is especially seductive.

John CAGE: The Seasons: Seventy-Four, Versions I and II. Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra. Suite for Toy Piano. Suite for Toy Piano as orchestrated by Lou Harrison. The Seasons. Margaret Leng Tan, prepared piano and toy piano. American Composers Orchestra, Dennis Russell Davies conducting. ECM New Series 1696 / 465 140-2.

This ECM release embraces the music of John Cage in an antipodal fashion: at his most theoretical and austere (the two versions of Seventy-Four), and most accessible (The Seasons, Suite for Toy Piano, and, frothier still, Lou Harrison’s night-at-the-pops orchestration of same), with the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra falling in-between: it follows a scheme just short of Cage’s final takes on aleatory organization. Discophiles will of course recognize the name of Margaret Leng Tan as an assurance of success. Leng Tan worked closely with the composer and gained his enthusiastic support. The sensitivity with which she prepared her piano for this recording is continuing proof of an inestimable relationship. It is, truly, a lovely sounding thing, as difficult as that might be for purists of conservative tendencies to believe. Leng Tan has been hailed moreover as the Queen of the Toy Piano, an accolade seemingly out of left field until, again, one hears her at these miniature keyboards. (The pianist owns a formidable collection, several having been fabricated especially for her as a mark of gratitude from a toy manufacturer whose business took an upturn as a result of Leng Tan’s recordings and concertizing.) All in all, for the newcomer, a palatable introduction to Cage, or for the old hand, a fine addition to a collection.

 

Louis DUREY: La Musique de Chambre: Images à Crusoé. Élogies. Six Madrigaux. 3 Chansons basques, version for string quartet. String Quartet No.1. Le Bestiaire. Piano Concerto. Le Printemps au fond de la Mer. 3 Chansons basques, version for wind instruments. String Quartet No.2. Sylvia Sullé, mezzo-soprano; Fréderique Brodard, soprano; Marcel Quilléveré, tenor; Lean-Louis Paya and Lionel Pienture, baritones. Philippe Biros, piano. Ensemble Erwartung, Bernard Desgrapues, conducting. Mandala MAN 4980 / 81, two discs, distributed in the US by Harmonia Mundi USA.

To simplify matters, this two disc set consists of two string quartets, a piano concerto and settings of poetry by Saint-John Perse, Stéphane Mallarmé, Guillaume Appolinaire, and Jean Cocteau to instrumental accompaniment. The fellow kept good aesthetic company! We’ve two versions of Three Basque Songs (by Cocteau), one with string quartet, the other with winds. The remaining groups of settings call for mixed ensembles.

Louis Durey (1888-1979) was the least prolific and remains the least known of a loose association know as Les Six (Durey, Georges Auric, Arthur Honneger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and the group’s only woman, Germaine Tailleferre). The set is recommendable, then, as a vacancy nicely filled, unless you are such a maven your shelves already sag under the weight of rare Durey recordings. They would have to be on vinyl or even shellac. My Schwann Opus indicates the composer’s participation in two mixed-program CDs. I learned something of Durey’s life not touched on in the program notes. He became a communist in the Thirties and as such determined to compose music accessible to the proletariat. (Reminds one of Cornelius Cardew, for whom Chairman Mao supplanted the exclusionary usages of the avant-garde. Stefan Wolpe slipped into and, happy to say, back out of this man-of-the-people mode.) The only Durey work that sounds to me routine is a piano concerto dating from the Fifties. I won’t belabor the political implications. This Mandala set suggests that Durey composed his best music in the late Teens and early Twenties.

In the songs to instrumental settings, clearly the composer’s strength, a resemblance to Ravel is particularly striking. I kept thinking I was hearing, among other things, L’Enfant et les sortilès. Who influenced whom, if indeed an influence exists, is not so easily resolved, since Durey’s relevant dates parallel Ravel’s. The latter worked on the opera abovementioned, for example, between 1920-1925. Call it Zeitgeist; the coincidence stands as another excellent reason to look into this set. The listener will also detect a strong Orientalist streak, again perhaps as an aspect of the Zeitgeist that bound Les Six together: a disdain for and reaction to late Romantic (read: Wagnerian) murk. The vocal performances strike me as adequate to solid, the instrumental performances uniformly solid, and the recorded sound quite good enough. As the French say, Faute de mieux….

 

Michael FINNISSY: Seven Sacred Motets. Voces Sacrae, Judy Martin, director. Metier MSV CD92023.

Michael FINNISSY: Gershwin Arrangements. More Gershwin. Ian Pace, piano. Metier MSV CD92030.

Just when you think you’ve got a handle on a living composer’s — let’s call it métier, he proves you most extremely wrong. Earlier recordings convinced me that Finnissy belonged among art music’s wildmen, after the short-lived English fashion of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King and Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot, and on the continent, Berio and Ligeti, in North America, the American expat Conlon Nancarrow’s over-the-top player piano, and so on. To return to the United Kingdom, the once rambunctious Maxwell Davies has evolved into a regional bore — a candidate for Malcolm Arnold’s seat, if you like. Finnissy also? I think not.

These seven a cappella motets, for example, appear to range by one’s inexpert reckoning across a wide swath of old liturgical styles, coming to a halt somewhere in the mists of Byzantium. A blinkered auditor might be inclined to say that the composer gets it almost right, and yet this pervasive almost is quite obviously Finnissy’s perturbation of an aspect of music he obviously adores. The affection’s contagious. No great fan of unaccompanied choral singing, I nonetheless hear these Latin-titled pieces as an extraordinary experience, all the more, I suspect, for the listener better acquainted than I with the antique styles Finnissy manipulates.

From the notes: “We live in suprising musical times … when exhausted executives chill out to plainchant, when a medieval celibate can become a feminist icon. Michael Finnissy is a surprising composer too ….” No, gentlemen, sorry, it simply will not do. If it’s a commercial success you have in your sights, lay the weapons on the ground and come away quietly. This music is much too interesting ever to succeed along those low lines.

With these motets, Finnissy’s fidelity to models seems to me secure, with the barest amount of play, the word to be taken as looseness and license. For contrast, I recommend another Metier CD, MSV CD92010, in which Finnissy as pianist performs his Folklore, pieces of widely varying length “based on folk music.” If a folkloric connection there be, it’s remarkably tenuous. Among familiar tunes I simply cannot extract by ear are Three dukes went a-riding, My love is like a red, red rose, and Willow willow. The disc opens with Folklore II, 29-plus-minute conceit of highbrow deportment, with a generous infusion of melancholy introspection as perhaps the thread that binds it to folk. Finnissy appears to enjoy contraire ironies. A remarkably beautiful release, Metier MSV CD92011, entitled Michael Finnissy / Works for String Quartet, with the Kreutzer Quartet, includes Nobody’s Jig. To whom it doesn’t belong isn’t nearly so intriguing as the sloth-slow, funereal vapors into which it descends. Finnissy’s String Quartet of 1984 furnishes a picture of the wildman within.

These Gershwin paraphrases are another matter entirely. In pianist Ian Holm’s capable hands, we hear — yes, we really do hear! — a very large number of familiar and unfamiliar Gershwin tunes to which the composer applies a succession of well-fitting cerebrations. One would have thought Gershwin another of Finnissy’s abiding affections, had the notes not contained this rather arch, manifesto-like comment: “I had started by improvising on some of these songs as recital ’encores.’ They developed as part of an evolving discourse on popular culture, the British fear of élitism, the potency of cheap music … the annexing of inverted snobbery by aesthetics, legitimized rough trade and kitsch. Gershwin as focus came highly recommended by Grainger … Jerome Kern or Irving Berlin would have done equally well.” I find the “potency of cheap music” an especially resonant notion. A topic, perhaps, for another time, preferably dwelling on Finnissy, preferably via David Lefeber’s Metier Sound and Vision label. The executive producer is also the recording engineer. Lefeber’s sonic preferences are, as I hear them, typically English: lots of reverberant space and a cooler sound than not. Well recorded withal.

 

A new British label (new at least to the US), Black Box Music, has come up with an interesting hook, as independents must if they’ve a hope of surviving, which its executive producer and recurrent recording engineer Chris Craker entitles 20th Century Irish Series. The first to arrive at the editorial aerie is the work of Frank Corcoran, born 1944 in Tipperary his distance from which the soldier-singer regrets in the song of 1912. The CD, bbm1026, Mad Sweeney, takes its title from an elegantly crafted piece in a modernist, pointillist style for narrator and chamber ensemble setting Seamus Heaney’s translation from the Gaelic about a local king whose fortunes have taken an ill turn. Heaney, one of our period’s great poets, is well served: the music is splendid and the teckies of North German Radio positioned the able speaker — it’s himself, Frank Corcoran — in the acoustic midst of the instrumentalists. Many such productions (I report with knowing chagrin) would have stifled Corcoran’s narration in a separate booth. I don’t make a frivolous point. Music is an art, but so is recording, albeit on a lesser plane. In two words, well done, which applies as well for the players of Das Neue Werk NDR Ensemble, Dieter Cichewiecz conducting. Mad Sweeney opens the program. The closer, Sweeney’s Vision, is an electronically synthesized soundscape rich in rolling surf as an expression of the mad king’s surroundings. The first time I played Sweeney’s Vision, my wife declared, Do not get rid of that disc! Calm yourself, dearest, it stays. (We’re city folk. Storage is a problem.) A work handsomely performed by Stuttgart Wind Quintet — “the piece is about wind” — though Corcoran’s note neglects to say so, takes its thematic kernels from Stravinsky’s Le Sacre, not as a mugging, rather an homage.

Another one-composer CD in the series surely earns a singling-out: his program reveals a taste for motoric, high-energy forms and morbid subjects: Raymond Deane, Solo and Chamber Works, bbm1014. With regard to Seachanges (with Danse Macabre), Deane says that he “was much impressed by the ubiquitous imagery of death in Mexico, which evoked … the medieval Totentanz tradition in Europe: a defiant carnivalesque response to the Plague.”

Deane and Corcoran both appear on the Black Box CD entitled The Irish Chamber Orchestra / Contemporary Works for Strings, bbm1013. Excepting a concerto for alto saxophone and string orchestra, which wants originality, an excellent program receives first rate and very well recorded performances (Chris Craker, engineer; Bill Sykes, post-production — names appearing in tandem and to good advantage on many of these releases). This chamber orchestra is a real find and a perfectly fine excuse on its own terms for acquiring this most interesting release.

The same might be said for E-Motion / John Feeley / Contemporary Works for Guitar, bbm1002. I’m no expert, certainly, but I’ve covered enough solo guitar CDs to recognize a huge talent when I hear one. Feeley knows his craft, has been beautifully recorded again by Craker, and the program, in which neither composer here discussed appears, is very good indeed.

John CAGE: One5. Morton FELDMAN: Triadic Memories. Louis Goldstein, piano. Offseason Productions 226 (two discs). To inquire or purchase: www.anomalousrecords.com; email orders@anomalousrecords.com.

John CAGE: Dream. Sonatas and Interludes. Louis Goldstein, piano, prepared piano. Greeneye 4794. Orders@anomalousrecords.com.

Grant Chu Covell sent me the Cage-Feldman set, and I was instantly smitten. Only later did I think to ask how he came by it. Seems there’s an Internet Cage chatroom where a few of the participants wrote warmly of Louis Goldstein’s performances. I acquired the Sonatas and Interludes CD directly from the pianist.

Permit me to quote Nicholas Slonimsky on Ignacy Paderewski (Baker’s Dictionary of Music, Schirmer Books, 1997): “As an artist, Paderewski was a faithful follower of the Romantic school, which allowed free, well-nigh improvisatory declensions from the written notes, tempos, and dynamics; judged by 20th-century standards of precise rendering of the text, Paderewski’s interpretations appear surprisingly free, but this very personal freedom of performance moved contemporary audiences to ecstasies of admiration.”

I suspect that my response to One5 and Sonatas and Interludes falls remarkably close to those “ecstasies of admiration” of Paderewski’s public. It does seem to this listener that in Louis Goldstein, Cage has his Paderewski. Whatever their virtues, other recorded performances of Sonatas and Interludes are by comparison angular and motoric. Even Julie Steinberg’s on a Music & Arts release [CD 937], which continues to impress me as elegantly nuanced, takes a different route from the gently curving flow of Goldstein’s approach. But languorous, not. Goldstein takes Sonatas XIV and XV at a faster pace than does Aleck Karis on a similarly excellent Bridge release, 9081A/B. That said, as a generality, I’d not have imagined Sonatas and Interludes available to such caressing phrasing — to such volupté. This is of course the quality I heard first in the more recently (and beautifully) recorded One5: a greater sense of languorous delicacy than one normally hears in performances of Cage’s later, Zen-inflected music. (The composer’s oeuvre contains many such double-number compositions, the Arabic numeral usually expressed as a superscript. Thus, in keeping with Cage’s usage, One refers to a score for solo instrument; 5 to the piano version.)

No less engaging are the sinister shadings Goldstein applies to the initial minutes of Morton Feldman masterwork, Triadic Memories. Again, that unanticipated dimension! Further and better, Goldstein segues from one harmonic-rhythmic field to the next with a firm sense of overview. I have no performance of Triadic Memories on recording that attempts to “speak” in quite this way and would be surprised if I did — as different as they are, one from the other, the composers of the New York School rely especially heavily on interpretive sensitivities: in the present example, sinuosity over angularity as a matter of consistency, small moments of dramatic intensity, metronomic where necessary, with nothing straining at its leash. I count these CDs invaluable additions to my Cage and Feldman collections.

To contact the pianist directly, louieg@wfu.edu. That wfu as in Wake Forest U.