Scardanelli’s Motley: A Survey of Recent Releases
Scardanelli’s Motley: A Survey of Recent Releases
[June 1998. Originally appeared in La Folia1:2.]
Editor’s Advisory: As the reader of La Folia 1:1 has already discovered, Signor Scardanelli is a gentleman of a delusional cast of mind. He sometimes thinks he’s Friedrich Hölderlin. Confusions of person and place notwithstanding, our permanent houseguest affects some rather astonishing insights, particularly with regard to music on recording. As the reader peruses Scardanelli’s reviews, he or she will note an erratic passage among eras and styles. This cannot be helped. Thwarted, Scardanelli becomes disconsolate, and so we allow him his little quirks, which, we hope you will agree, are not without interest.
Scardanelli evaluated the recordings to follow on Editor Silverton’s reference system: Mark Levinson No. 39 CD player, Mark Levinson No. 333 power amplifier, Wilson WATT/Puppy 5.1 speaker system, Transparent Audio Reference XL 1.5M balanced interconnects and 10-foot speaker cables.
JOHN ADAMS Gnarly Buttons. John’s Book of Alleged Dances; London Sinfonietta, John Adams (conductor); Michael Collins (clarinet). Kronos Quartet: David Harrington, John Sherba (violins), Hank Dutt (viola), Joan Jeanrenaud (cello); Nonesuch CD 79465-2 (60:56)
It would appear that John Adams is at his best when he’s at his most relaxed, more especially when he succumbs to a taste for buoyant vulgarity. In the contradictorily arty event, Phrygian Gate (1977-78) first alerted this listener to a young fellow’s winning ways. One heard a minimalist, yes, but of a richer, more elastic, more lyrically engaging stamp than the school’s then principals, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. (For Phrygian Gate, see pianist Ursula Oppens’ excellent American Piano Music of Our Time, Music & Arts CD 604, which also offers Elliott Carter’s superb Night Fantasies, a clutch of tangos, and more.)
This business of high art &-or-versus impish vulgarity is best exemplified by two Adams operas, both on Nonesuch, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer. Despite a librettist’s loftiest intentions, an opera about Richard Nixon cannot but traffic in irony. With Parsifal, there’s little to giggle at (unless you’re determined); with Nixon in China, very much to the contrary, notwithstanding its libretto’s gravitas. And so, poised as we are for drollery, we tend to take the bumptious, mechanistic clatter with which Adams infuses moments of charged emotion as something of an artful lark. The Death of Klinghoffer follows a line far removed from humor. The story’s core event, the murder at sea by terrorists of a wheelchair-bound Jew, imposes a sobriety once again serviced at instances of stress, most inappropriately, by Adams’ signature clatter devices. (There are other problems too.) Call me therefore an exasperated fan who sees Adams’ frailties in terms of unevenness. I find a great deal of the music full of pretense and empty gesture; other things delight, play after play. High marks to Nonesuch notwithstanding for its longterm Adams commitment.
On now to a prelim that nicely summarizes what I find most admirable in a composer I suggest in the main approaching with caution: Adams conducts the Orchestra of St Luke’s in The Wound-Dresser, with baritone soloist Sanford Sylvan, and Fearful Symmetries [Nonesuch 9 79218-2]. A work for instrumental ensemble and baritone soloist sets Whitman’s Civil War lines with a formal, high-art dignity as scant preparation for the bumptiousness to follow. Play Fearful Symmetries loud — “Tyger! Tyger! burning bright … ” — and you’ll think you’re foxtrotting in hell’s ballroom, a very engaging place, as it happens. (Has anyone noticed that when composers of music of elevated brow condescend to pop, the style they parody is generally of a quaintly passé cast rather than à la mode. It’s a question of ironic distance, of course, but a larger issue transcends even that: were the composer to engage in currently hot, which is to say teenage, styles — hip hop, for example, or some rock iteration — a confusion would intrude. Is this an arty borrowing, or does the composer propose to set up shop in the mall? Pop celebs sometimes aspire to classical, a direction rarely reversed for excellent reason.)
The present disc most pleases in terms of balance and poise. One hears a mature manipulation of Adams’ taste for country-&-westernish turns. John’s Book of Alleged Dances (a characteristically perky title) is, in its eleven well crafted, well played parts, a work of considerable ambition and charm. The observation applies unamended to Gnarly Buttons, the piece for clarinet and eleven players, one of these on banjo, mandolin, and guitar, two doubling on sampler and piano. Its three parts, The Perilous Shore, Hoe-down (Mad-Cow), Put Your Loving Arms Around Me, not to neglect our banjo-mandolin-guitarist, hint at the gist of these attractive goings-on. Were I challenged to identify the world’s foremost new-music ensemble, I’d probably start inching my way toward the door. Had you asked me to name a mere handful, the London Sinfonietta would be among them. The Kronos has been very nicely recorded here (Producer Judith Sherman, Recording Engineer Craig Silvey); the London players, superbly (Producer Philip Waldway, Recording Engineer Geoff Foster).
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH Suite No. 3 in C major for Cello Solo, BWV 1009; DIETER SCHNEBEL Five Inventions (1987) for Cello Solo. Mit Diesen Händen (1992) for Voice and Cello Solo; Michael Bach (cello with curved bow); Mechthilde Seitz (mezzo); Mode CD 52 (66:06)
Mode? Brian Brandt’s Mode? One had sooner expected to find a Bach cello suite in a bowl of minnestrone. In light of the label’s modernist mission, Bach comes as quite a surprise. However, knowing Brian’s tenacity as I do, The Art of the Curved Bow’s volume-one designation is no idle threat. [Scardanelli has it right. Brandt is indeed a tenacious fellow. Ed.] The cellist Michael Bach (no relation) performs this third cello suite with a command of craft that puts him in contention with a Schwann Opus roster discouraging repetition here. Okay, redundancy. In classical on recording, it’s scarcely a fluke. But tempered here by a pair of fellow travelers that position this excellent disc far beyond the well-trod path. The first, of course, is Michael Bach’s curved, “Baroque” bow, among musicologists, an accoutrement of some controversy. So when is a bow a shtick? Questions of authenticity have little bearing on this report. We need only mention in this regard that our cellist-with-curved-bow intends to record Bach’s six unaccompanied cello suites (as he does here) with recent music for cello, some of which, or all of it perhaps, conceived for a bow capable of playing the instrument’s four strings simultaneously, unlike the customary straight bow, which apreggiates the chord.) The bow’s partner in novelty, the first of living composers to appear alongside old J.S. — talk about your challenges! — is Dieter Schnebel (b 1930).
I find the music of post-WW2 Germany especially fascinating. There is, first and obviously, Austro-Germanic music’s historic hegemony. Living German composers cannot but see themselves as heirs to, or quite possibly victims of, an intimidating inheritance — how to carry on, not to mention whence, in these O! so confusing times. I expect that they also see themselves as victims of their nation’s National Socialist gambol, the mention of which takes us directly to Schnebel’s Mit dieser Händen, for curved-bow cellist and mezzo, to words by the late Heinrich Böll. And heavy words they are, steeped in horrors, obliquely as poetry, thus all the more affecting. This recorded performance denies us the experience of Schnebel’s instructions to the cellist regarding gesture as an aspect of the text. From the insert, the composer’s speaks: ” The integration of text into a musical context should not be a simple setting to music. Rather, the text should be embedded in the music. Thus, in the instrumental introduction the text is transformed quite literally by the cellist’s gestures .” Fortunately, I don’t see the visual aspect’s absence as anything close to fatal. On its own, making its solemn, invisible way in the sweet spot, the work leaves a deep mark. I neglect Schnebel’s Five Inventions for Solo Cello of 1987 only because, compared with the impact of Mit Diesen Händen, it sounds a generic avant-garde exercise.
The insert’s an imaginatively designed, fold-out affair at one upper corner of which, speaking of Michael Bach, this: “He studied with Janos Starker and Pierre Fournier among others [and directly below] before he dropped dead .” So far as I’m aware, the cellist’s in good health. The death notice, itself a victim of graphics über continuity, attaches to Böll’s disturbing lines, which say just prior, ” with these hands you have hit the lieutenant in the face, just a minute before he dropped dead,” and go on to say, “These hands have haggled, with them you have touched the material of the trousers which you intended to sell, testing and praising them, ”
Very well recorded in Rosbaud Studio, South-West Radio, Baden-Baden, by Producer (and our cellist) Michael Bach Bachtischa and Recording Engineers Bernhard Mangold-Märkel (J.S. Bach) and Bertram Kornarcher (Schnebel). Koch International distributes Mode Records. I understand that Editor Silverton proposes to feature Mode in one of his label reports. [It’s true, I do. Ed.] Koch International distributes Mode.
BEETHOVEN Violin Concerto in D, op. 61; MENDELSSOHN Violin Concerto in E minor, op. 64; Jascha Heifetz (violin); Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Munch (conductor); RCA Victor Living Stereo CD 09026-68980-2 (61:54)
Really now, what to say? That to judge from what one hears, this fellow Heifetz has a future in music? Enough for present purposes to mention that two “Golden Age” stereophonic recordings (’55 and ’59), the work of Producer Jack Pfeiffer and Engineers Lewis Layton and John Crawford, make the trek to silver by way of ” 20-bit technology using a customized Studer transport with Cello electronics and universally compatible UV22 Super CD Encoding.” The outcome sounds to me first class.
Okay then, what does one say? I ask because dat ole debbil bandwagon be rumblin’ on by and the temptation to board is never far from one’s impulse toward self-promotion. Let’s be honest: If you want to remain in good standing with your fellow audiophiles, ya gots t’toe de Party Line, or at least pay it the occasional compliment. Need I remind the reader that high-end philovinylites spend for the originals of such as this what a caring parent would for a child’s lung replacement? Or maybe two, with a kidney for luck? Surely compelling reasons drive a behavior that some disinterested bystander might confuse with madness.
As with so much nostalgia, the stuff one reads — and reads and reads and reads — about stereo’s Golden Age cannot possibly live up to its press, audiophile or mass-market, the latter as an unexamined reflection of the former’s (make that Fremer’s?) analog agitations. As a music lover who buys into a good deal of the high end’s catechism, I find it embarrassing that influential writers celebrate a technology — as digital’s better no less! — that really ought to have been put out to pasture.
Let me attempt to set these thoughts on their proper course. No one begrudges the audiophile his vinyl. However long the odds, he may actually be a music lover who treasures his collection as unique and irreplaceable. Nor does one begrudge him the however-expensive means to play it. It’s none of my business what anyone spends, so long as it doesn’t frighten the horses or turn the nation’s youth toward crime. However, when Audiophilia’s philovinylites put the black flapjack up there at the head of the class, I say, No, rubbish, sheepdip, baloney! I’ve heard enough vinyl to recognize a nude emperor’s spiel. Given adequate know-how and attention to detail, a present-day teckie recording in digital enjoys a number of crucial advantages in distortion, signal-to-noise, dynamic, resolution, transparency, and whatever else I neglect to mention. This has nothing to do with measurements. I couldn’t take one were my life at stake. I say so by way of listening. That so many modern recordings amount to mediocrities (or worse) has everything to do with ham-fisted, careless, or indifferent production. The good-sounding exemplars (of which I’ve hundreds) prove this.
To return to the CD under review, one need only remark that here are performances of enormous historic, artistic, and technical merit. This is certainly not the first Living Stereo reissue I’ve enjoyed, and I hope it’s not the last. That said, one sees one’s first chore as clearing the air of hooey.
LEO BROUWER The Complete Guitar Works, Volume 1: Sonate, 6 Preludios epigramaticos, Dos temas populares cubanos, Elogio de la danza, 10 Estudios sencillos, Canticum, Un día de noviembre; Costas Cotsiolis (guitar);GHA CD 126.040 (56:01)
I cannot recall ever having had a more satisfying time getting acquainted with a guitar recital. Costas Cotsiolis (a stranger till now) is clearly as one with the Cuban composer, Leo Brouwer’s, music for solo guitar; equally obvious is his command. To make matters even more attractive, the recording is properly intimate and gorgeously detailed. For those who do not know him, Brouwer has written music in a wide range of styles, from steadfastly modernist to a Beatles paraphrase fit for your dentist’s waiting room. I would hazard to describe his solo guitar pieces as beautifully crafted and (here the meek are advised to take note) largely accessible. The music is very much in the Spanish-Hispanic tradition. For inhospitable, in the event Teutonic, contrast, I offer Hans Werner Henze’s Royal Winter Music I and II for solo guitar, of which I’ve two recordings: Wergo 60 126-50 and MD+G (Musikproduktion Darbinghaus und Grimm) L 3110. In truth, I overstate the case. Royal Winter Music isn’t all that acerb. To return to Brouwer, if enrichment you seek for heart and soul, here would be a likely site. Françoise-Emmanuelle Denis produced, Frédéric Briant (Musica Numeris) engineered these sessions the notes say not where. Qualiton Imports in Long Island City (NY) distributes the Belgian GHA label.
This well done CD calls to mind another for solo guitar that remains for me a favorite. A 1994 MusicMasters Classics [01612-67133-2] features Eliot Fisk in performances of George Rochberg’s Caprice Variations 1-51. Rochberg’s the fellow who took leave of the Atonal School’s American branch in order to irritate just about everyone who was anyone by thumbing his nose in the manner, for one, of Brahms. Seeing therein a cul de sac, many composers have broken with serialism, though none so anachronistically as Rochberg. A number of these caprices, and the word’s playful aspect is seldom better applied, trade on Webern, Beethoven, Brahms (often), Schubert, and Paganini. Fisk is among the best; nice recording too.
So maybe go for both — the Brouwer and the Rochberg (if you can find them). Be the first on your block to impress your dweeby audiophile pals with your acumen and taste. Qualiton Imports distributes GHA.
JOHN CAGE Music of Changes, Books I-IV; Joseph Kubera (piano); Lovely Music, Ltd. LCD 2053 (46:20)
The insert’s back page reads like a Downtown Who’s Who. Lovely Music, Ltd. is Mimi Johnson’s label. Lovely’s first releases date back to the Vinyl Era as a one-woman operation, which it remains. (For those yet wet behind the ears, the Vinyl Era peaked six months this side of the Louisiana Purchase.) Mimi is also the wife of Robert Ashley, among the most innovative of American opera composers of this or any period. “Blue” Gene Tyranny, a senior Downtown pianist of note, produced. Tom Hamilton, Music of Changes recordist and editor, is a composer-performance artist whose O.O. Discs CD, Off-Hour Wait State [OO 26] and Monroe Street CD, Sebastian’s Shadow [msm 60103] remain two of my library’s joys. Executive producer Thomas Buckner is both an important new-music vocalist and patron. When the cultural histories of this period appear, Buckner’s name will figure large.
Cage’s title pays tribute to the I-Ching, the Book of Changes, which he’d begun using as an engine, so to speak, of aleatory procedure. The good notes are at pains to explain that in Cage’s hands chance operations are in no way dismissable as mere child’s play. As the listener soon enough intuits from Kubera’s superb performance, the work unfolds as conceptually precise as anything notated can be. It is also, and quite on the other hand, an assertive manifesto of modernist intent. Who recalls Imogen Coca of TV’s Show of Shows? She did a number which, even as a kid, I thought delightfully droll. It’s called (I believe) “I Love Modern Music,” the words to which Coca declaimed amelodically with that wonderfully crooked grin of hers. In the event, that’s my memory of it, and it ties in quite nicely with the impression Music of Changes imparts as a cutting-edge paradigm. It never ceases to amaze how music like this operates (for one listener at least) as the aural counterpart of the badly mislabeled abstract expressionist school of painting. Pierre Boulez’s second piano sonata stands for its part as a European declaration of a change in direction. The personal aspects of Sonata No.2’s relationship to Music of Changes, detailed in the notes, makes for an especially interesting read.
The Great Irony: In cultivating aleatory procedure — composing by chance over intent — Cage set out to evict personality, which long had served, with particular emphasis in the nineteenth century, as art music’s heart and soul. Music of the Romantic and post-Romantic periods is, if nothing else, an expression of its composer’s demi-godlike apartness. All this ego business absolutely had to go. But didn’t. Cage tells a story about an African prince who attended a symphony concert and was asked for his impressions. He said that everything sounded the same. Cage found this amusing and instructive. To anyone new to Music of Changes, or Boulez’s second sonata, or for that matter, Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke, it will all sound pretty much the same. Familiarity engenders not contempt but rather a discerning ear. Cage sounds like Cage, cashiered ego notwithstanding. The mission failed, it pleases to report. Go for label info to www.lovely.com.
ANTONIN DVORÁK Serenade in D minor, op. 44, for Winds, Cello and Contrabass. Quintet in G major, op. 77, for Violin, Viola, Cello, and Contrabass; Linos Ensemble o Capriccio 10 599 (64:44)
This excellent recording is a co-production of Capriccio, a label of Delta Music GmbH, and Bavarian Radio, one of Germany’s several state-sponsored media-cultural apparats. We touch on it here owing to Editor Silverton’s mother’s née: Smetana. Thus he flaunts an affinity for the music of the Czech Republic and commands this report. I’d love to tell him to stuff it but am unwilling to accept banishment from my tormenter’s superb audio system. And then, too, there’s the pleasure — I confess it! — of these lovely performances. The members of the Linos Ensemble, “professors at German conservatories [and] soloists of leading German orchestras,” engage in some of the best ensemble playing it’s been my pleasure to hear. No pickup band, this! The familiar op. 44 Serenade and less well known op. 77 Quintet could easily model for Gemütlichkeit. The sonically warm, easygoing recording does an especially convincing job of space. Too often producers mistake a cathedralesque swimminess for intimations of greatness. This is small-ensemble music of enormous charm, the very thing, ideally, for a middling-to-intimate venue, and that’s what one hears, thanks to Recording Supervisor Wilhelm Meister and Peter Jütte, his recording engineer. Delta’s American office is in LA. See www.deltamusic.com.
HEINZ HOLLIGER Lieder ohne Worte I and II, for Violin and Piano 1981/83; 1988/94). Sequences on John 1:32, for Harp (1962). Trema, Version for Solo Violin (1981/83). Präludium, Arioso and Passacaglia, for Harp (1987). Elis, Three Night Pieces for Piano (1961, revised 1966); Thomas Zehetmair (violin); Thomas Larcher (piano); Ursula Holliger (harp) o ECM New Series CD 1618 / 475 066-2 (77:18)
We recognize Heinz Holliger’s name as that of a great oboist with a vast discography. Holliger is also an important composer. (One Holliger under two hats is not to be conflated with the tandem lives of Engelbert Humperdinck, the opera composer (b 1854), and the pseudonymous Vegas-genre ballad-belter Arnold George Dorsey (b 1936). In a label feature in this issue, Editor Silverton celebrates hatART’s Morton Feldman series as central to his love for the New York School composer’s music. The first of ECM’s Holliger-as-composer releases, the two-disc Scardanelli-Zyklüs [Scardanelli Cycle, ECM New Series 78118-21472-2], struck this listener with comparable force. One was, first of all, astonished at the coincidence: Scardanelli, meet Scardanelli! It is, finally, an episodic masterwork’s muted portrait of madness that speaks to the heart, though ineffably subtly. What a marvelous thing it is, art’s capacity to elevate its milieu to a crystalline perfection, even here as a “costume piece,” albeit in an idiom very much of the high-culture present. (It is convenient still, with aspects of European art music, to speak of a high culture other than sarcastically.)
On recording (which is to say, of the music I’ve heard), Scardanelli Cycle is Holliger’s magnum opus. The present release serves as an attractive pendant to that masterwork, and as an important addition to a yet small CDiscography — for Holliger as composer, that is. A glance at the headnote reveals a creative span of just under 30 years. Fine considerations of development aside (the good notes fill the void), a quality informs these works. The handsomely flashy Trema for solo violin the exception (affording Zehetmair an exceptional outing), a mood of introspection shading at times to melancholy imparts to Holliger’s music its distinctive feel. Mind, nothing here will drive one to a suicide’s grave. I find the music’s feathery moods and moments of sadness an attractive accompaniment to one’s own quieter thoughts. ECM is Manfred Eicher’s label, and it is he who produced. Stephen Schellmann supervised these Radio DRS, Zürich, sessions. (I use “supervise” as a loose equivalent to Tonmeister. One is a verb, the other a noun, and let’s just let that go, shall we?) As is ECM’s “house-sound” custom, an ample ambiance bathes the well detailed, warmly recommended events.
FELIX MENDELSSOHN A Midsummer Night’s Dream, opp. 21 & 61; BENJAMIN BRITTEN Nocturne, op. 60; Mendelssohn: Lynne Dawson (soprano); Susanne Mentzer (mezzo); Women of the Philharmonische Koor Toonkunst, Rotterdam; Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Jeffrey Tate (conductor); Britten: Robert Tear (tenor); English Chamber Orchestra, Jeffrey Tate (conducting); EMI Classics Red Line CD 6 69864 2 (73:00)
I recommend this attractive, budget re-release in all respects save one. Never mind the curious pairing. The listener who buys the disc for the oft-recorded Mendelssohn will soon enough discover another delight, of which, as I write, but three CD performances exist (according to my current Schwann Opus, which looks a lot more reliable than in days past but which, I’m told by a friend, is not). The Red Line’s insert, headed Romanticism, consists in the main of a time-line sorted by Politics, Music, Literature and Art, History of Ideas, Economics and Inventions, with nothing whatever about the music, and worse, without the music’s texts. The Britten, its full title Nocturne for tenor, 7 obbligato instruments and strings, op. 60, sets lines by Shelley, Tennyson, Colerdige, Middleton, Wordsworth, Owen, Keats, and Shakespeare. One goes for the words to an invaluable albeit (according to Schwann Opus) o/p London CD, 417 153, issued in ’86, featuring tenor Peter Pears, the great Barry Tuckwell’s horn, and Britten conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and the English Chamber Orchestra in the brilliant op. 31 Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, and the op. 18 Les Illuminations, for Tenor and Strings (the title that of Rimbaud’s lines). If you’ve access to Nocturne’s poems (here unascribed), I offer no further impediment to a gorgeous performance gorgeously recorded, though in the absence of credits, I’m unable to say by whom.
STEPHEN LUCKY MOSKO Psychotropes (1983). Renderings (1995). Rais Murad (1978). Indigenous Musuc II (1984): I Piano. II Native Songs and Dances. III Het Wapen van Amsterdam;Vicki Ray (piano); the California EAR Unit;OO Discs CD oo39 (59:25)
As a listing-to-blasé, perhaps even jaded reviewer, one blushes to confess that Stephen Mosko’s CD had one going. The disc’s good annotator, Josef Woodard, attaches Mosko’s esthetic to forebears. I disagree somewhat and most respectfully. With regard to school enrollment, Mosko strikes me as something of a truant. Attachments notwithstanding, I find myself most consistently delighted by abrupt challenges to questions one had just thought of asking: Is that a lyrical passage? Is it heading toward a development? Is that tonality in the wings? Is the man a Romantic or maybe a cleverly disguised nihilist? Or, in sum, What’s going on?! Such are the pleasures of armchair insecurities! And really, isn’t this new music’s great gift, its ability to surprise and delight, and sometimes perplex?
Before we amble further along these maudlin lines, let’s first note that, despite a handle that calls to mind a narrowly specialized out-patient clinic, the California EAR Unit is a first-rate new-music ensemble with a considerable CDiscography to its credit. Let’s also mention as an audiophile aside that these recordings sound just fine. The ensemble’s flutist and co-founder, Dorothy Stone, produced; Tom Erbe did the recording, mixing, and editing. I refuse to explain anything about these titles, except to relieve your mind. Indigenous Music II, the second of its three parts called Native Songs and Dances, suggested to me when I first looked the disc over some dreary exercise in multicultural PC. Never you mind! This wonderfully off-balance, percussion-rich essay may well paraphrase the carryings-on of indigenes, though not perhaps of this planet.
I once interviewed Joseph Celli, OO’s main man, for Fanfare. Joe was at particular pains to describe his releases as objects to look at as well as to hear. I thought then, and do still, that with respect to the visual, the competition’s stiff. A lot of little labels try hard in this department, and many succeed. However, Indigenous Music’s fold-out insert sports a 19×1-inch illustration that really takes the prize. It’s as deliciously strange in its way as the music. For OO information, go to www.hear.com/o.o./.
LIGETI: Cello Concerto. Piano Concerto. Chamber Concerto for 13 Instruments.Ensemble Modern Peter Eötvös (conductor) Dr. András Wilhelm and Andreas Neubronner (producers) Ferenc Pécsi and Stephan Schellmann (engineers) Sony Classical CD SK 58945
György Ligeti’s 1967 Chamber Concerto has had several good recorded performances: members of the London Sinfonietta under David Atherton’s direction on a warmly recommended CD reissue [London 425 623-2] with Melodien, for orchestra; Double Concerto, for flute, oboe, and orchestra; and 10 Pieces for Wind Quintet besides. Friedrich Cerha’s Ensemble “die reihe,” Vienna, performs it on a Wergo CD reissue [WER 60162-50] as an aspect of that good label’s extensive Ligeti survey. The 1966 Cello Concerto’s dedicatee, Siegfried Palm, performs the work with the Orchestra of the Hessian Radio, Frankfurt, under the estimable Michael Gielen’s direction, on another of these Wergo CD reissues, WER 60163-50. Another still, this one given over entirely to Palm [WER 6063-2], offers the same performance, along with Penderecki’s Sonata for Cello and Orchestra, Webern’s Three Little Pieces for Cello, Hindemith’s Cello Sonata, Op. 25, No. 3; and Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Cello Sonata. I don’t know whether this new Sony offers the recording premiere of the 1985-87 Piano Concerto. It’s the only one I’m aware of, and it’s also reason enough to commend this over the discs I’ve mentioned.
Problem: One’s TAS audience isn’t a monolith. A friend, and for one’s purpose, an atypical case who already has Wergo LP performances of the cello and chamber concertos, groused at the program: Why couldn’t Sony release, as with the Piano Concerto, more recent work? All right, it’s a valid criticism, but one that doesn’t much move me to anger or despair. I’m far too delighted with this CD to fault it on conceptual grounds. On practical grounds, it’s quite perfect, and I don’t use the word lightly. The sound is amazingly fine — actually, I wouldn’t know how to suggest improving it — and I thank Providence for Peter Eötvös and the Ensemble Modern. That music as difficult to play and intriguing to hear as this has executants as good as this lifts one’s fixation on a just-so hardware mélange from narcissism to celebration of a marriage made, if not in heaven, then in Santa Ana, CA (power conditioners), Ogoura Hills, CA (CD transport and processor), Elkhart, IN (power amplifiers), Lynnwood, WA (speakers), Rancho Cucamonga, CA (interconnects and speaker cables), Szombathely, Hungary and Haltzendorf, Austria (recording sites), and Hamburg, Germany (Sony Classical HQ). Multilingual, to say the least.
And multicultural too! Back in polytheistic times — as I was a toddler, my memories of the period are vague — humans made offerings to the gods: In my town, it was the libational spilling of wine on the earth before getting on with the barbecued virgin. Today, for like reasons, one strokes the Big Siblings of Correctness by invoking the multicultural bit. We hear in the Piano Concerto Ligeti’s studies of Central African rhythms. So there. Of the European vanguard that left its highwater-mark on the Fifties through the Seventies, roughly speaking (roughly in that the beat goes on), György Ligeti’s are among the most engaging, and as a consequence, more popular works in a genre, in terms of a broad public, widely perceived as inaccessible. Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, for example, features the Kyrie from Ligeti’s 1963-65 Requiem, thereby elevating it for a time, among casual listeners, to a familiarity approaching that of the “Elvira Madigan” Andante from Mozart’s K. 467 Piano Concerto. (Do I tax the reader’s memory? Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs occupies, or did till recently, the peculiar expanse.) Ligeti’s relative popularity — relative, that is, to the musical avant-garde’s isolation from general attention — by no means bears the taint of compromise. Attend to this disc for some of the most uncompromising, colorful music you’re ever likely to hear. Ligeti’s attractions, it seems to me, have much more to do with genius over posturing, a genius consisting in large measure of an ability to render utterly novel soundscapes as pungent and palpable.
To repeat oneself in the service of excellence, these performances by cellist Miklós Perényi, pianist Ueli Wiget, and the Ensemble Modern under Peter Eötvös are as good as they get. This German new-music group has been in existence since 1980; I don’t know that I’ve heard them in better form. The hand of Peter Eötvös, one of the ablest new-music advocates on the scene, is obvious in the management of these revelatory goings-on. The productions (Wilhelm-Pécsi in Hungary for the solo-instrument concertos, Neubronner-Schnellmann in Austria for the Chamber Concerto) take us into the music. What a jewel of a release!
MARK O’CONNOR Midnight on the Water; Mark O’Connor (violin mostly, guitar, mandocello); Sony Classical CD SK 62862 (69:45)
In this corner in the white trunks, on the side of the angels, introducing Sony Classical’s György Ligeti edition of (so far) seven CDs. Ligeti’s an important and hugely entertaining composer, the performances are terrific, the recorded sound, excellent. More, bis, encore! Well, all right, yes, isn’t that what a classical label does? Ha! Would that it were consistently so. We live in interesting times. I’ve been getting promos from Sony Classical I cannot bring myself to mention no less describe, plus a spate of pleasantries of something less than classical mien. That mischievous term postmodern, protean by nature and inclination, can be bent to mean full-time confusion. There’s been a lot of talk in the music business about sagging profits propelling the half-cooked pabulum currently clogging music shop bins. I don’t doubt it. However, could good, old, postmodern, full-time confusion also be playing a rôle ? In terms of the Timeless Verities, or more accurately their absence, could it be that we simply don’t know what anything qualitatively weighs any more? Is Beethoven an Olympian Immortal or just another boorish DWEM? Who’s better, Nine Inch Nails or Charles Ives? If the former, does one come to that judgment owing to sales; if the latter, owing to what? Some stuffed shirt’s say-so?
So, as I say, pleasantries, with, for example, violinist Mark O’Connor teaming up with the likes of Yo Yo Ma (who seems hellbent these days on pleasing everyone in sight) in earlier Sony Classical releases. The present Mark O’Connor mostly solo violin disc — he appears twice on guitar and once on mandocello — warrants kind words for a couple of reasons. There’s a given here in La Folia: one addresses audiophiles, or those who aspire to that narcissistic condition, or those curious to know more about it. (In our context, condition’s an interesting word. Ought one to address one’s co-religionists as audiophiliacs, for example?)
Okay, Treat the First. My player’s HDCD light popped on. While it’s not always a guarantor of top-notch sonics, here, I’m happy to say, it is. The sound of this O’Connor-produced, “live” CD is flat-out gorgeous! One hears O’Connor’s instruments enveloped in textures that spell Violin, Guitar, and the one-time Mandocello, though I confess to no knowledge of this last — it just sounds right.
Treat the Second. O’Connor’s range and execution are never less than interesting, often intriguing, and always fun. He alternates a string of folk-like, “country” pieces — “The Cricket Dance,” “Follow the Scout,” Fancy Stops and Goes,” and suchlike titles — with numbered improvisations and caprices, this last group in homage, more or less, to Paganini and Locatelli (the composer, not the romano cheese). As an instance of Midnight on the Water’s charms, the fifth caprice, in F major, bears that I-sold-my-soul-to-Satan stamp that cast Paganini in a close to inquisitorial light. Somehow I just don’t see O’Connor appearing before the Star Chamber, though the devilish dexterity flourishes in spades.
(As supplemental listening, I recommend for the dernier cri in Paganinian deviltry Mark Feldman’s over the top Music for Violin Alone [Tzadik CD TZ 7006]. A world apart from O’Connor’s gentility, here we’ve a Paganini up to his eyebrows, or so it sounds, in what the authorities like to call controlled substance. No, I’m not calling Mark Feldman a head. I speak rather, and always, in terms of impressions. More on Tzadik another time.)
FELIX MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY Violin Concerto in E minor, op. 64; JEAN SIBELIUS Violin Concerto in D minor, op. 47; Sarah Chang (violin); Mariss Janssons conducting the Berlin Philharmonic; EMI Classics CD 5 56418 2 (59:11)
Never mind recordings in their dozens of either work. Young soloists are obliged to hang out their chops for scrutiny in repertoire such as this, the doing of which does not necessarily serve the discophile’s interests. I recommend this release on two counts. The first, weaker than the second by reason of the above, is Sarah Chang’s way with this music. She is indeed a talent, and on this we need not linger. Our soloist and Mariss Janssons’ Berlin band sound just peachy, with the emphasis on sound. Producer Simon Woods and his recording engineer, John Kurlander, have done an exemplary job of capturing Chang’s signature delicacy and élan down to the smallest nuance in what transpires for me as a lifelike relationship, proportionwise, to the orchestra. In this regard, the art of recording has come a long way from the bad old days when soloists with statuesque egos insisted that their instruments predominate in a similarly titanic manner unknown to concert-hall attendance, unless perhaps you’re standing on the podium or it’s your chin on the fiddle. We end on a note of cheerful contradiction. While (to repeat) both are excellent, the Sibelius concerto, recorded live with appropriately enthusiastic applause, is the better recorded in terms of air and spacious transparency. A most appealing release.
SHOSTAKOVITCH Suite on Verses by Michelangelo Buonaroti, for Bass and Orchestra, op. 145a. Three Romances on Poems by Alexandr Pushkin, for Bass and Orchestra, op. 46a. Six Romances on Words by Japanese Poets, for Tenor and Orchestra, op. 21; Anatolij Kotscherga (bass, op. 145a). Anatolij Babykin (bass, op 46a). Wladimir Kasatschuk (tenor, op. 21). Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, Michail Jurovski (conducting); Capriccio CD 10 777 (58:08)
The disc is a treat in its entirety. But that’s not the half of it. The late work, the op. 145a settings of Michelangelo’s poetry, I judge a masterwork on the order of Shostakovitch’s Symphony No. 14, for Soprano, Bass, and Chamber Orchestra, op. 135. But that’s not the half of it either. My Schwann Opus tells me that this most satisfying performance happens also to be the only one available! Amazing but true! (For Shostakovitch’s 14th, I count nine performances, including my very good Deutsche Grammophon [437 785-2], still in print, thank goodness: Neeme Järvi conducting the Gothenburg SO; Ljuba Kazarnovskaya, soprano; Sergei Leiferkus, bass.) I see little point in carrying on at length. If you know the symphony and love it for its grim beauties, you’d be foolish indeed to ignore this equally bleak rarity. For the coup de grâce, we return to Schwann Opus. It seems that these are also the only extant recordings of either set of Romances! The vocal soloists have been recorded in good, lifelike balance against Maestro Jurowski’s Cologne players. The suite’s bass, Anatolij Kotcherga, sounds to me especially apt (which is not to denigrate his able discmates).
ANTON WEBERN Passacaglia, op. 1. Six Pieces, op. 6. Symphony, op. 21. Five Pieces, op. 10. Variations, op. 30. (Bach) Die musikalisches Opfer, Fuga ricercata a 6, Webern transcription; The Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi (conducting); London CD 289 444 593-2 (67:59)
Lest you tend to dismiss interpretation as of secondary significance, I recommend a comparison between the Webern performances of this handsomely recorded London CD with those of Pierre Boulez on either of two complete-Webern sets, Sony Classical SM3K 45 845 9 9 (three disc), re-released in ’91, or Deutsche Grammophon 437 786-2, 447 099-2, and 447 765-2, released in ’95, ’95, and ’96 respectively. Ah, but then, you cannot. Schwann Opus says they’re all o/p. To quote my Uncle Eddie, the swing-shift foreman down at the sewage plant, We’re in deep solid waste, folks. (That’s not quite how unc puts it, but as this is a high-tone webzine, the euphemism’s in order.) Away, away! from matters offputting to those to hand. The news is good, or maybe not, depending on where you sit. I much prefer Boulez’s view of Webern as a figure rooted in German Expressionism who developed inexorably to the aphorist whose mots motivated, more perhaps than Schönberg or Berg, so much that followed, flowered, and ultimately faded in the rarefied atmosphere of the European avant-garde.
We need look no farther than Webern’s pivotal op. 21 Symphony. This 1928 gem marks the composer’s cleanest break with late-Romantic tumult for a detached lucidity which, in Boulez’s care (I speak of the DG performance with members of the Berlin Philharmonic), plays as a wonder of crystalline poise. Conductor Dohnányi attempts to connect Webern’s sole symphony to the orchestral mainstream by fleshing out an intimate, serenely elitist work for nine instruments to something approaching a campaign speech. Notwithstanding the gesture’s chutzpah in this cultural climate of ours, a frail objective collapses under the weight of its assignment. And yet a kind of liquid elegance informs a release I’d not hesitate to recommend to the meek as, so to speak, a set of training wheels. Given what I hear as Dohnányi’s goals, the lush acoustic of Cleveland’s Severance Hall fortifies impressions in no small way. .