Thar’s Gold In Them Montaignes!

[This piece had been intended originally for The Absolute Sound. It appears in La Folia in tandem with Walt Mundkowsky’s insightful Disques Montaigne comments.]

[Walt could not restrain himself with just one article on Montaigne so he contributed a second, and even Grant got into the action.]

Mike Silverton

[January 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:2.]

The collector of art music’s modernists surely remembers Disques Montaigne. The French label sold in the US at an import price of about $20. On the classical side especially, many “domestically” priced CDs are pressed in Europe, but retail for less because they connect to a parent conglomerate — Universal, BMG, Sony — thus skirting the middleman-distributor. Yet no few of these lesser priced “majors” reflect the morass into which the classical side of the business has slid, witness a general dumbing-down and category fudging (Yo Yo Ma Meets Godzilla). It hasn’t been a walk in the park for independents either — all the more reason to celebrate risky persistence.

Montaigne expired a few years ago, or nearly did — it’s not really clear — to be lifted from Limbo by Naïve. And you thought Virgin a curious tag! Speaking of which, Patrick Zelnik, formerly of Virgin, head up Naïve, a French enterprise involved in the main in pop. Thus Montaigne’s conventionally jewel-boxed, high-priced CDs are reappearing in the US via Harmonia Mundi USA as a midline series in remarkably handsome, gate-fold board wraps as Montaigne Naïve, sixteen of which I have in hand. I believe more are planned. (The one exception so far is the full-priced Roger Reynolds set.)

As a mercy to the reader, I’ll mention only those MNs that impress me as especially recommendable. Where better to begin than with Helmut Lachenmann as the very incarnation of the quandary in which a conscientious, abundantly gifted German modernist finds himself — indentured, so to speak, to a long and daunting tradition. MO 782130, also identified as Arditti Quartet Edition 17, features two remarkable works: The composer’s second string quartet, entitled Reigen seliger Geister, “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” (the serenely lovely interlude from Gluck’s opera Orpheus and Eurydice); the other, a most impressive orchestral work, ably performed by the Radio-Symphony Orchestra, Berlin, under Olaf Henzold’s direction, entitled (in translation) Dance Suite with German Anthem. The listener who thinks he hears these tunes is keener-eared than I. Originally a movement from a Haydn string quartet, Deutschland über alles is of course burdened by grim baggage, which is why Lachenmann deals with it, however obliquely, or not at all, so well is it impacted. Gallows humor? Possibly. One hears a grafting of profane elements onto cerebral austerities, resulting in an organism bearing amusing, provocative fruit. Like Ravel’s La Valse, the music builds to a heady climax, a nod, perhaps, to predictability, thus to a history which has the composer gazing Janus-like on Then and Now. The 19-part piece begins as a scattering of shards to a rhythmic footing that soon enough establishes, more by gesture than substance, a dance-like character rather outrageously labeled waltz, march, sicilienne, capriccio, gigue, tarantella, etc. A personal favorite.

One hears Lachenmann negotiating a high road peppered with speed-bumps: Hegel, Marxism, Second Vienna, the Frankfurt School, and even Pierre Boulez, who once contended that to turn one’s back on atonality and serialism signifies irrelevance. The good-bad old days. Think what you will, departures from tonality have permitted composers to regard the orchestra, for example, in an entirely different and as often as not remarkably attractive light: rather than interlaced lines of musical argument, as in the masterly symphonies of Karl Amadeus Hartmann (d. 1963), perceptions succumb to the kaleidoscopic, often pyrotechnical pleasures of fragmented, delicately bound textures, as a convenient segue to MO 782124, featuring two pieces for orchestra, Extenso and Apex, along with La Melancholia, an “opératorio” for vocal soloists, choir, orchestra and electronics, by the French composer Pascal Dusapin, for whom the burden of history hints rather more lightly at Debussy’s spirit, albeit evolved. Dupasin’s name is unfamiliar to you? No cause for embarrassment. The compilers of the 1595-page Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Classical Musicians are also in the dark.

Hence to Henri Dutilleux, “the Poet of the Night,” in company with Dusapin. MO 782125, Arditti Quartet Edition 16, features Dutilleux’s Ainsi la nuit (“Thus the Night”) of 1976 and Dusapin’s 1990 second string quartet, Time Zones (the composer names it in English), and his String Quartet No. 3 of 1992. One hears ample evidence for Dutilleux’s stature and poet’s “voice” in his string quartet, with its rich, starlit moments akin to Schoenberg’s perturbed Erwartung. Any attempt to briefly characterize Dupasin’s 14-part Time Zones is bound to fail. I’ll only hazard that, side by side, it renders the remarkably beautiful Ainsi la nuit dated, and that its high-energy conclusion had my wife Lee, generally indifferent to what I play, exclaiming, “That was wonderful!”

The Arditti Quartet excels at the analytical — dazzlingly so. An Arditti performance tends to an examination of the musical body’s skeleton, nervous system, musculature, organs and athletic prowess over an expression of the creature’s emotional life. The Arditti’s performances of Schoenberg’s four quartets want for a certain period humidity [MO 782135]. The same might be said for the their readings of Alban Berg’s two quartets, the op. 3 and Lyrische Suite [MO 782119]. On the other hand, if you listen to the Arditti’s performance of Anton Webern’s Six Bagatelles unaffected, you’re on the wrong page [Anton Webern / The Complete String Trios and Quartets, MO 782136]. Similarly, the two-CD set of Iannis Xenakis’s Chamber Music 1955-1990 [MO 782137], with pianist Claude Helffer and featuring the Arditti ensemble and as soloists, makes as strong a case as you’re likely to hear. Xenakis’s tool box — set theory, symbolic logic, probabilistic calculus (or so we’re informed) — flies in the face of what a traditionalist believes the creative process ought to mean. Not to worry. With Xenakis, a profoundly human character dominates the foreground: angular, boisterous, unsubtle. Tender moments are few, and yet, for example, I cannot listen to the string quartet of 1983, Tetras, without being amused and moved.

As I’ve mentioned Claude Helffter, the pianist’s close association with Boulez serves to recommend his performances of that master’s three piano sonatas, which, like Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke, set a direction for Europe’s post-war avant-garde [MO 782120]. The Americans who followed these overseas leads, most prominently Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter, we sometimes call “uptown,” which significantly departs from the terrain occupied by John Cage, Morton Feldman, David Tudor, Earle Brown and Christian Wolff, comprising the music department of the likewise post-war New York School.

One of America’s most evocative composers, Roger Reynolds, colors (close to literally) a Romantic sensibility steeped in atmospherics and a taste for mysticism with a modernist’s palette. The two-CD set, MO 782083, features the Arditti in masterworks for string quartet: Coconino, a programmatic depiction of “A Shattered Landscape,” Ariadne’s Thread, with synthesized sounds, and Visions, the title of which says it. Works for solo violin and cello complete. These stateside performances, recorded by Josef Kucera, afford the Arditti a much welcome, warmer character than they customarily receive in European productions.

Remaining with the metaphysical, we turn to the Englishman Jonathan Harvey. His Bhakti, for chamber ensemble and synthesized sounds, is a hugely ambitious work which, given its Rig Veda-orientalist cast, traverses ripe ground without ever dipping into cliché [MO 782128]. While there are moments when one thinks he’s listening to Messiaen, I hear the resemblance as a conscious gesture. Besides, there’s a great deal here that sounds like none other than Harvey. I hope future re-issues include this fine composer’s first Montaigne CD, with the Arditti and others.

Pierre Boulez, his Ensemble InterContemporain, and pianist Yvonne Loriod perform in festive wise Olivier Messiaen’s Seven Haiku, Colors of the Celestial City, Stained Glass Window and Birds (a recording premiere), and Exotic Birds. Given these forces — Loriod, a fine pianist, was married to Messiaen — one would need to look hard for more idiomatic or sympathetic readings [Homage to Olivier Messiaen, The 80th Birthday Concert, MO 782131].

Montaigne’s Morton Feldman disc [MO 782126] affords excellent, atypically succinct examples of what establishes, for me, Feldman’s place atop Parnassus. As for the program’s brevity, Feldman’s notoriety rests in good part on his having employed untoward lengths of time as an aspect of the music’s core. No work on this CD exceeds 17 minutes (Routine Investigations, For Frank O’Hara, I Met Heine on the Rue Furstenberg, and two distinct compositions, I and II, of The Viola in My Life). Few composers have achieved a synaesthesia comparable to Feldman’s. His regard for the painters with whom he associated translates to sound as little else I’ve heard. As for color’s palpability, the composer’s tribute to the poet Frank O’Hara is scored for flute doubling piccolo and alto flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin and cello. No ascetic, he!

The Spanish composer, Roberto Gerhard’s, The Plague plays for me as a completely successful narration to music. (Speech fits the modernist mold better, often, than atonal vocalization.) The text, drawn from Camus’ novel, unfolds stage-front to an appropriately menacing orchestral accompaniment. Epithalamion for orchestra completes [MO 782127].

We finish with two more Arditti Edition releases. Wolfgang Rihm’s third, fifth and eighth string quartets deal with their relationship to history on a level with Lachenmann’s, but rather less ironically [MO 782134]. A spirit — quite likely Schumann’s — haunts this modernist’s musical thought. I hesitate to employ the term neo-Romantic, since so much weary, ersatz rubbish attaches to the term. There’s little question that this is a composer of great originality and energy. (The bulk of Rihm on recording resides on the German cpo, Wergo and col legno labels.)

If Lachenmann and Rihm can be likened to linchpins that hold, then Mauricio Kagel invites characterization as the Spirit of Accommodation. MO 782129 offers string quartets one through three and a triviality, Pan, for piccolo and string quartet. The first and second quartets, composed in the naughty, disruptive Sixties, are naughty and disruptive: as much about noise as not — louche delights along épater les bourgeois lines. String Quartet No. 3 of 1986-87, a period for some of turnabout retrenchment, wouldn’t upset one’s maiden aunt. There you have it, a conciliatory note upon which to end.

Happy discoveries!