[April 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:3.]
SOUTHWEST CHAMBER MUSIC: COMPOSER PORTRAIT SERIES. CAMBRIA MASTER RECORDINGS CD 8801-8811 (12 discs).
Would that there were more of this kind of thing. But why begin a review with a doleful wish when a handsomely slipcased set addresses one’s discontent? With a happy heart and smile, we mention, first, that the recordings by and large play to a high sonic standard. The audiophile listener will find little to criticize. Mathew Snyder of Alpine Recordings did much of the engineering and all of the post-production work. The hallmark, a velvety sweetness, especially creamy in the midrange, yet hard-edged where need be, nicely approximates a live-music ideal. Each jewel box features a spectacular Hubble telescope snapshot of deep space. One reminds himself that many of these pretty formations are a hundred light years or so in diameter. Ars may be longa but it’s no match for the cosmos. A dozen CDs occupy eleven enclosures, the John Cage-Lou Harrison-Harry Partch set a swing-out double.
Let’s begin with that threesome and a gripe. If we go on the premise that there’s only so much room in the marketplace for new, recent or unusual art music, perhaps it’s time to cut back on Cage. Bearing in mind good composers from whom we hear too little, Cage’s discography leans toward excess. At least this Southwest choice avoids the pretty, percussive chestnuts. Atlas Eclipticalis with Winter Music and Songbooks are rough going and, for this listener, a bore. To begin, it’s a vocal-instrumental version. Cage’s speech-rambles raise no gooseflesh here. As to performance flexibility, I’ve Atlas Eclipticalis and Winter Music on recording for piano and flute doubling piccolo and alto flute (Cage encouraged simultaneous play), and an Atlas Eclipticalis alone, identified as instrumental parts for flute 1-3, for, again, flute doubling piccolo and alto flute (hatART NOW Series 6141 and 6111). Harrison’s Suite for Violin and American Gamelan and Partch’s delightful transcriptions of hobo graffiti, Barstow, here performed in the version for baritone with guitar, are a pleasure. (The Cage, a live performance, falls below the set’s sonic standard. The Harrison and Partch are up there with the best.)
Composers who command their own CDs: Anthony Vazzana; Charles Wuorinen; Richard Derby; Stephen “Lucky” Mosko; Mel Powell; Wadada Leo Smith (yes, the jazz trumpeter!); Morton Subotnick. Composers who share CD space: William Kraft / Ernst Krenek / Joan Huang; Alexander Goehr / Elliott Carter; Cage / Harrison / Partch, abovementioned; Robert Linn / Frederick Lesemann. Soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson, an established modernist interpreter — she made her 1966 début in Berg’s Lulu — appears on five! So much for laundry lists.
Among the collection’s more interesting novelties, Anthony Vazzana’s Whispers and Chants sets verse by a prominent West Hollywood book dealer, Jacob Zeitlin. Bryn-Julson delivers her rather romantic lines against a subtly voiced instrumental ensemble: alto flute, horn, viola, two percussionists, and harp, Jeff von der Schmidt, Southwest Chamber Music’s artistic director, horn and conductor. It’s an attractive work that rather sets the overall tone. The Portrait Series leans backward (as a pleasure), in a moderately Uptown, academic posture, rather than forward into postmodern reprise and audience-friendly simplistics and cliché. With Dylan Thomas the vehicle, Bryn-Julson achieves a mountaintop in Charles Wuorinen’s A Winter’s Tale, which, as the notes point out, makes nonsense of the convention that serial (or somewhat serial) music is incapable of expressing ecstasy and delight. Schmidt again conducts.
Other high points: Wuorinen’s two trios for horn, piano and violin; Mosco’s CD entire; William Kraft’s Music for String Quartet and Percussion; Carter’s Quintet for Piano and Winds; Leo Wadada Smith’s two remarkably affecting string quartets; Morton Subotnick’s two computer-abetted string quartets, atmospheric, affecting, gorgeously crafted works. That should be enough to whet interest.
This Southwest set is a necessary addition to the new-music enthusiast’s library. For the curious generalist, it does a pretty fair job of answering the question, What’s new and interesting in classical? It’ll cost you $135 plus tax and S/H (the term is bass-ackward — it ought to be handling-&-shipping). You’re not going to commit suicide or throw a tantrum should the music disappoint, particularly if you’re acclimated to high-end audio tariffs, as $1.5k Interconnects and $7k phono pickups. I mean, really — I wish I had a buck for every time I’ve read some high-end hardware reviewer intoning “It’s all about the music!” Well, yes, and here it is. Your move. For ordering or information, try www.swmusic.org. The phone for Southwest Chamber Music of Pasadena, CA is 1 626 685 4455; toll-free for ordering, 1 800 726 7174. The North American distributor, Albany, is at 1 805 374 0051. If you’re curious to know more about Cambria Master Recordings, they’re in Lomita, CA at 1 310 831 1322.
Wulf Weinmann, the man behind the German label col legno, provides a useful and economical service to the new-music maven and curious generalist who may not want to spring for col legno’s collections. A midline offshoot, col legno collage, offers releases consisting of the work of major moderns culled from these multi-disc sets. A complaint: even though we may intuit from “collage” that these are re-released selections, the point ought to be made clearly on the traycards. However, to be fair, it’s the rare collector who owns the sets from which these good and interesting performances have been lifted.
The col legno collage CDs I find especially recommendable:
20501, György Ligeti, a selection of keyboard works, Erika Haase, piano. (Sony Classical’s Ligeti survey is superb — seven individually released CDs and a masterful two-disc performance of the wonderfully goofy opera Le Grand Macabre — but it seems to have petered out prior to completion..)
20502, Mauricio Kagel, orchestral works.
20504, Iannis Xenakis, orchestral works.
20505, Luigi Nono, orchestral and chamber works.
20508, Wolfgang Rihm, orchestral and chamber works.
20509, Pierre Boulez, orchestral and chamber works.
20510, Alfred Schnittke, orchestral and chamber works, two pieces for organ.
20511, Helmut Lachenmann, orchestral and chamber works.
Actually, I omitted only one from this series, the Bruno Maderna disc, 20503. I find his music rather lumpy. However, if you’re a fan . Rihm and Lachenmann, two audibly thoughtful Germans, seem to this listener to be pondering their place along the Great Line from, however, antipodal perspectives. My insightful colleague Walt Mundkowsky considers Rihm a neo-Romantic. The much evidence to back up the charge, and yet there’s a good bit of the modernist in him.
ANTHONY BRAXTON QUINTET (BASEL) 1977. hatOLOGY 545.
This is, for Braxton fans, an invaluable addition to the man’s huge discography. The ensemble consists of Braxton, alto and soprano saxophones, clarinet; George Lewis, trombone; Muhal Richard Abrams, piano; Mark Helias, double bass; and Charles “Bobo” Shaw, drums. To make matters even more tempting, it’s a first release of these nicely done Swiss Radio DRS tapings of a live event. In order to compare, I’ve gone back to another hatART Braxton, Compositions No.10 & No.16 (+101), performed by a quintet that includes a great favorite, Guillermo Gregorio, hat[now]ART 108, and a hatART four-CD set, Anthony Braxton / Willisaw Quartet (1991). Braxton isn’t easily pinned down to any one style, feature or camp. The Guillermo and Co. interpretations sound anything but free-jazzy, and these 1977 sessions most certainly do. Lewis’s trombone is a thing of mischievous beauty. For the ’77 set, Braxton recruited the inestimable Abrams; for Willisaw sessions (live and studio), his pianist is the rather differently inestimable Marilyn Crispell. Ignoring the many exceptions to the following generalization, let say for the sake of brevity and convenience that this nigh-archival Basel souvenir would be as fitting a place as any for the tyro to begin his or her investigations. Good music, good recorded sound.
Hugo WOLF: 22 Lieder. Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, soprano; Wilhelm Furtwängler, piano. EMI Référence 5 67570 2.
This is a midline reissue of a 1969 release, the year Wilhelm Furtwängler’s widow discovered a tape of the live 1953 Salzburg Festival recital. It’s mono of course and there’s some distortion, though in no way is it so intrusive as to discourage me from recommending this release. (It seems that nobody knows who made the tape or how.) If you’re a Lieder fan, the recital falls in the gemstone category. Producer Walter Legge’s notes are a show by themselves; Furtwängler as accompanist reveals a remarkable facet of a musical persona. And Schwarzkopf is Schwarzkopf.
DOMENICO SCARLATTI: KEYBOARD SONATAS. IGOR KIPNIS, HARPSICHORD AND CLAVICHORD. SERAPHIM CLASSICS 74281.
I have the fondest memories of Fernando Valenti’s Scarlatti harpsichord sonata LPs acquaintances played at decibel levels imitative of large, muscular men having at steel rails with mauls. The harpsichord and its period were rather a novelty (pace Wanda Landowska), the authenticity movement having just got under way, and we young folk either didn’t know or care that the instrument’s voice relative to the piano is delicate and small. Another fond memory: a visit to the Brooklyn apartment of a fellow amateur chorister who introduced me to LPs of Bach’s church cantatas, which he played feloniously loud on a crude but what seemed to me then marvelous sound system. An American Jew, he fought in Isreal’s 1948 war as a lieutenant, I believe it was. He was also fond of Schoenberg, which got me started at some later time in that direction too. Having achieved a minimally testosteronic geezerhood, I play these exquisite Kipnis reissues of mid-to-late 70’s originals at an appropriately discreet level. I read somewhere that the French wrote the best Spanish music. Let’s not neglect old Domenico in this consideration.
JIN HI KIM: KOMUNGO. OODISCS oo70.
Jin Hi Kim, who often performs with her husband Joesph Celli (the man behind oodiscs), is a composer and komungo virtuoso. Let me say at the outset that the relationship between instrumentalist and producer has nothing to do influence-wise with outcome: this is the most rewarding oodisc I’ve heard in quite a while. Should the komungo be unknown to you, it’s a long, six-string, half-round zither with three movable bridges, sixteen convex frets, normally plucked with a pencil-size bamboo stick. It’s related to the Chinese ch’in (thank you, Grove). A misty traycard photograph reveals (I think) the instrument raised from the floor, with Kim’s opposed hands close to a harp position. In any event, despite its being plucked rather than bowed, the instrument’s voice has a rather sultry human quality — throaty, a little melancholy, sweetly rhapsodic, with sexy glissandi, a ravishing vibrato and tail-away decay. The ten-number program offers a nice assortment, from what sounds to this inexpert listener like Korean traditional to otherwise, in keeping with Kim’s vanguard credentials, though not as either-or severity but rather with a sense of affectionate, pleasingly vague transition. The program’s closer, EK for JC, for electric komungo (!), is, as I hear it, the most daring and among the most alluring of the lot: a left-channel / right-channel event with lovely ticky sounds produced mayhap by that heretofore absent bamboo stick. The graphically attractive notes provide information primarily about performance provenance. (Celli is a stickler for good-looking releases. Would that everyone was.)