Scardanelli’s Other Motley: More or Less Classical

Signor Scardanelli

[July 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:5.]

Interesting things afoot at ECM! As concerns the American new-music aficionado, until recently, Manfred Eicher’s Munich-based label had been sending releases to the US which tend to position ECM a click or two away from the vanguard’s hard core. But not all that far: Arvo Pärt is a fine and important, not to neglect popular, composer for whom Eicher’s label has done inestimable good. My colleague and benefactor Mike Silverton long ago celebrated a two-disc EMC set of Heinz Holliger’s Scardanelli Cycle as a latter-20th-century masterwork. On balance, however, many ECM releases have addressed other than tough-minded stuff. As something of a contradiction in terms, ECM’s New series catalog contains music from the distant past, not that this is in any way a complaint: among the ECM discs I’ve recently received is a lovely compilation with violinist John Holloway (who wrote the English-language notes), organist Aloysia Assenbaum, and harpsichordist-organist Lars Ulrik-Mortensen performing the 17th-century composer Johann Heinrich Schmelzer’s Sonatae unarum fidium which I translate as Sonatas of One Faith [See Walt Mundkowsky’s remarks concerning the Sonatae. Ed.]; Antonio Bertani’s Chiacona a violino solo; and an anonymous sonata for scordatura violin and basso continuo, quite possibly by Biber, the composer of the far better known Mystery Sonatas. We’re here, however, to discuss ECM’s new new-music activity.

Never mind suspenseful build-ups. We recommend in no particular order ECM New Series 1583, a.k.a. 289 453 513-2, the late Alfred Schnittke’s Psalms of Acceptance for mixed choir, performed by the Swedish Radio Choir under Tönu Kaljuste’s direction; ECM New Series 1694 / 465 139-2, Peter Ruzicka / String Quartets, with the exemplary Arditti Quartet and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, here as speaker; ECM New Series 1621, a.k.a. 453 914-2, Jean Barraqué / Sonate pour piano, with pianist Herbert Henck. Barraqué, who died in 1973 at the young age of 45, wrote a piano sonata (1950-52) which, in terms of a course change, rivals those of his countryman, Pierre Boulez, whose three piano sonata dates are 1946, 1948, and 1955-57. Henck’s performances of the three occupy Wergo CD WER 60121-50, issued in 1985. As with the Barraqué CD, and as we’ve come to expect, the playing is impressive. Stockhausen cannot be omitted from this picture; we’ve Henck again on a two-disc Wergo set, WER 60136-50, issued in 1987, performing Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke (Piano Pieces) I-XI. The Now Series on hatART [6142] features the astonishing David Tudor’s performances of Piano Pieces I-VIII and the till then undoable No. XI. Let’s mention for the sake of completeness — in my collection if not in the world — three Koch Schwann Musica Mundi CDs, 310 016 H1, 310 009 H1, and 310 015 H1: Piano Pieces I-VIII, IX-XI, and XII-XIV, with pianist Bernhard Wambach. To return to our first purpose, no serious collector of modernist music should omit this Barraqué sonata from his or her collection.

Perhaps as much can be said of ECM’s Ruzicka release, for a detailed discussions of which see Walt Mundkowsky in this issue. Speaking of whom, this little delight: I asked Walt whether he intended to cover the Schnittke choral CD. No, he replied. Schnittke is not a favorite of his, and besides, he find the Psalms of Repentance too Orthodox and too orthodox. In truth, the Psalms do not promise to become a favorite with me either, but I can in all honesty recommend the release as an important addition to an important composer’s CDiscography. As you might expect, the music is rather bleak, in keeping with the composer’s persona, elsewhere relieved by a mordant, oddball sense of humor. The Swedish Radio Choir is nicely recorded: fine sense of distance, unusually smooth group integration.

A less than urgent recommendation for a disc I’d have been happier recommending without qualification, ECM New Series 1711 / 289 465 420-2: the problem has to do with the release’s sound quality, which turns steely hard in the loud passages (all too common in orchestral recordings, sorry to say). Excepting the post-mortem realization of the Bartók concerto, the performances are probably unique (I haven’t checked): Peter Eötvös, who conducts the Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra, and the most excellent Kim Kashkashian is the viola soloist. The program consists of the abovementioned viola concerto, along with works by Eötvös (Replica, for Viola and Orchestra) and György Kurtág (Movement for Viola and Orchestra). Eötvös is well represented on CD as a conductor of mostly new and recent music; as a composer, rather more rarely, and so the significance here. Bartók’s Concerto for Viola and Orchestra has never impressed me as a major work relative to his output, nor do I hear its completion by another’s hand as properly idiomatic.

CRI (Composers Recordings, Inc.) helps fill in a musical pothole with Earle Brown / Collected Early Works. As with Christian Wolff, fairly or otherwise, Brown links to the New York School, which in turn links to John Cage and Morton Feldman, whose CDiscographies dominate, Cage’s especially, fairly or otherwise. That’s a discussion I’d as soon skirt in order to linger at my response to this release. I suspect it has legs. A few of these works play as gems: Novara, for example, of 1962, for piano, flute, trumpet, bass clarinet, two violins, viola and cello (Brown conducting this 1974 Amsterdam recording). And yet as I listen I cannot help thinking how different it must have been for the enthusiast then, when the music was the cutting edge. One hears Michael Daugherty performing three selections from Folio (November, 1952, December 1952, and Four Systems) not as a cry of NOW OR NEVER! but rather as an aspect — a fascinating aspect, to be sure — of a not so recent past, much as one might respond to something of Dittersdorf’s. Like it or not, the modernist impulse’s pulse is mighty weak these days. Here would be the place to judge Nine Rare Bits for One or Two Harpsichords (1965) a thing of enormous and of course mind-bending charm. David Ryan’s notes are exemplary. Earle Brown’s brief statement ends on this ruefully comic note: “I feel this [release] to be an extremely authentic and artistically fulfilled representation of these works, written between 1952 and 1965 (not all that I wrote at that time, I hasten to add). Hopefully, future CDs will as successfully represent my work written between 1965 and 2050 as this does for my early work.” One knows exactly how Brown feels. Scardanelli in 2050! It boggles the mind!

Mode 80, Works for Piano, with the legendary Aki Takahashi, marks the fourth in that independent label’s Xenakis series. Brian Brandt is a tenacious fellow (as but one of several exemplary traits). If the Xenakis project comes anywhere close to Mode’s Cage project, it’s going to be a most impressive accomplishment, particular since (for example) much of the editorial aerie’s extensive Xenakis collection on other labels is largely o/p. Mode releases remain in print for dog’s years, a commendable and all too rare practice. www.mode.com / mode@mode.com.

On the subject of commendability, Hat Hut Records issues releases of composers relevant to modernism whom one knows next to or literally nothing about. Unhappily, other than his birthdate, 1945, such remains the case with Clarence Barlow biography-wise, even tho he did provide the good notes to hat[now]ART 126, Musica Derivata / Clarence Barlow, with Josje Ter Haar, violin; Job Ter Haar, cello; John Snijders, piano and Yamaha Disklavier, midi grand. With Barlow (from present evidence), labyrinth is the certainly term of choice. Here’s Art Lange’s back-page blurb: “Though seeming to face the same existential wall as John Cage and other post-WW2 composers, Clarence Barlow, like Beethoven and Ives before him, actually builds his own labyrinths, brick by brick, and then searches for an escape. To do so he devises various elaborate conceptual or mathematical guises to circumvent the traps of time, tonality, and style.” Yes, no question, but perhaps with style there’s more to say. The opening work, a trio entitled 1981, spins is web around iconic antiquities of the distant and recent past: piano trio fragments of Muzio Clementi, Schumann and Ravel. Here’s Barlow: “…[W]hich of our fantasies, even one we hold to be the most original, isn’t under the apparently globally unavoidable influence of tradition (symbolically speaking) ….?” These influences play out as numerous quotations from what must be for this crafter of mazes music’s Lost Horizon, even tho in the 24-plus-minute and marvelous variazioni e un pianoforte meccanico these curiously wrought retrogressions defer to manic exhibition, accomplished by the work’s player-piano component. Pianist John Snijders comports himself commendably. Another fine Hessian Radio recording.

Treatise “by” Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981) is one of those improbable marvels one has actually come to expect of Hat Hut. Well then, it’s now again. Let’s first deal with the rabbit ears I stuck on by. Cardew is one of new music’s more egregious eccentrics, having descended from the most austere of avant-garde heights into the Maoist trenches. A political conversion need not delay us, for in Treatise we discover a kind of perfection in the stand-alone graphic means for brilliant instrumentalists to do their things. In fact and effect, the ensemble creates the event. Put five other players and conductor in front of these graphs and be assured of a different (and doubtless less interesting) result. Annotator John Corbett has much of interest to say about the graphic score’s spine-like form, and yes, the quintet does impart a rather compact and columnar character to their joint interpretation. And what a quintet this is! Art Lange conducts Jim Baker, piano and electronics; Carrie Biolo, vibes, percussion; Guillermo Gregorio, clarinet, alto saxophone; Fred Lonberg-Holm, cello, electronics; and Jim O’Rourke, electronics. I go on at length about Gregorio in my other motley in this issue. You may have noted that, excepting Baker (to my knowledge), Biolo, Lonberg-Holm and O’Rourke are old Gregorio hands. I suggest that this is one of the most accomplished new-music ensembles one could ever possibly assemble. I certainly don’t mean to slight Baker. He’s astonishingly good — as if to the manner born! Another of Chicagoan Steve Mezger’s stellar recordings. hat[now]ART 2-122, two CDs, 141 never less than engaging minutes.

Perhaps Stefan Wolpe’s best known work — at least the most widely recorded — is the jazzy and quite beautiful Quartet for Trumpet, Tenor Saxophone, Percussion and Piano of 1950/50. The program of a recent hatART release, hat[now]ART 136, Counterpoise / John Carisi / Eddie Sauter / Christian Wolff / Stefan Wolpe, performed by two European ensembles, Accanto and Xaxas, operates by association. Carisi and Sauter, both from the world of jazz, studied with Wolpe in the USA. A shaky case is made for the inclusion of Christian Wolff’s not terribly interesting Exercises 26 and 27, Snare-Drum Peace March. The two Wolpe works consist of the above quartet, impressively performed and recorded, and Blues — “Stimmen aus dem Massengrab” — March of 1929, for speaking voices (the text is an Expressionist anti-war poem by Erich Kästner), two saxophones, trumpet, two pianos and percussion. If you’ve no recording of the quartet, don’t hesitate. It’s a marvelous piece. For the listener familiar with the quartet, the blues-march is the hot news. As an earnest of interpretive latitude and coincidence, one goes to another recent release, Decca 269 460 001-2, for a performance of the selfsame blues-march to a looser, rather jazzier fit. A “subversive” Decca release, another in the Entartete Musik series, features as its principal offering a Weimar-period stage gem, Wolpe’s Zeus und Elida, a “musical grotesque for soloists, speaker, chorus and orchestra,” which may remind one of other jazz-influenced Germans, Kurt Weill especially, though certainly not to Wolpe’s diminution. The plot revolves around Zeus, who cuts a rather clownish figure, falling in love with a picture of a female in an ad for Elida, a soap (reproductions of same provided in the notes). What most impresses is the young composer’s mastery of orchestral and vocal writing. Zeus und Elida is listed as op. 5a. Op. 5b, a chamber opera, Schöne Geschlichten (Pretty Stories), consists of a string of remarkably quirky jokes to, again, a most alluring accompaniment. Even if you’ve no highly developed interest in Wolpe, go for this one. You won’t be disappointed. Michael Kraus, baritone; Franziska Hirzel, soprano; Harry van der Kamp, bass; Hans Aschenback, tenor; Roman Bischoff, baritone; Werner Herbers conducting the Ebony Band and Cappella Amsterdam.