The Year’s Best

Grant Chu Covell

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

John CAGE: One5. Morton FELDMAN: Triadic Memories. Louis Goldstein (piano). offseason productions 226 (2CDs: 65:12 + 68:59)

This has got to be 2000’s best piano recording. These two discs had better garner prizes and commendations throughout the industry (we’re wild about it here at La Folia) or else Western Civilization is coming to an end.

Everything comes together in this phenomenally well-recorded 2 CD set. The piano is so rich and so closely miked, and the piano’s tuning is superb (alas, the piano and the piano tuner isn’t credited). Louis Goldstein plays with such control and delicacy. There are slight sounds of Goldstein breathing and moving, but they remind us of the human aspect of performing. Each and every note unfolds as if it were the most important note in the whole piece, wonderfully articulated and well-placed.

I find myself getting lost in the Feldman and wishing it would never end, savoring the resonance and reverb, and the repetitions of patterns and gestures. I need to be in the right mood to truly enjoy the Feldman as it’s much like savoring an eagerly anticipated delicacy. I will have no other recording of Triadic Memories in my collection, and several other recordings of 20th century piano music went out of the house after this one came in.

This is also a set of discs that will shatter commonly held misconceptions about Cage and Feldman. Several people I know think Feldman was no more than an improviser and dabbler with graphic notation, or who think that Cage was all about silence and doing anything at all for the sake of music. These two are traditionally notated works (ok, the Cage is a little different) which performers must interpret and perform, just like any other work in the standard repertoire.

These two seemingly simple works are expansive and engrossing. The Cage is just over twenty minutes, but the Feldman is a mammoth piece with precise large and small structural layers lasting over an hour and a half, requiring endurance and commitment for performer and listener. Large expanses in each of the works are single notes, and the Feldman is built from short gestures that repeat with slight modifications. Goldstein seems endlessly fascinated with the Feldman, and his playing is hypnotic as he explores the work’s wonders.

Seek out this recording. Demand your local outlet carry it, and play it (well, as much as you can of the Feldman) for anyone who will listen. If you’re in Boston on Monday, February 5, 2001, go to Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory to hear Goldstein play this work live. It’s a free concert too.

Gustav MAHLER: Symphony No. 10 (Deryck Cooke performing version). Berliner Philharmoniker, Simon Rattle (cond.). EMI 7243 5 56972 2 (77:26).

Nineteen years after Rattle’s Mahler 10 with his Bournemouth band (EMI 7 54406 2) comes a more mature, somewhat resigned and world-weary performance. In this new recording, the Berlin Philharmonic has a much more refined and focussed sound than does the Bournemouth Symphony. The meandering viola section solo in the first movement — a section of the orchestra rarely so brutally exposed — is so confident yet haunted here. This is a bold recording, but one which also exposes the weaknesses of Cooke’s performing version of Mahler’s incomplete symphony.

Between Rattle and an unlikely Pierre Boulez, we’re seeing mature and musical Mahler performances. This 10th is more Visconti-esque than any other. This recording is less sentimental, less saccharine, and less “we should be sooo happy to have Mahler’s last great tragic work….” Gone is the idolatry and self-aggrandizement Mahler evokes in so many conductors (don’t get me started on a particular excessively lionized musician whose recordings make me cringe), and what is left is interpreted music.

I hear more details and subtleties in this new recording because of Rattle’s experience, the differences between the two orchestras, and nearly two decades of technical advancement. Tempos sway with more restraint and the colors of the low brass and winds blend more effectively with the strings, especially in the Adagio’s main arching theme and its subsequent variations. The enormous outburst in the Adagio with its celebrated dissonance of stacked thirds is more precise than terrifying, reflecting an interpretation that goes more for mastery of the score than raw or overblown emotional power.

It’s clear that Cooke’s performing version of Mahler’s unfinished 10th is the best and most compelling completion of the work that we’ll ever have (Yeah, there’s another established bunch of reviewers who like it too.). The movements Mahler failed to orchestrate in their entirety–the two scherzos and the concluding Finale–are not treated as oddities or lumbering extracts, but are integrated with Mahler’s fully orchestrated Adagio and Purgatorio (the tiny terrifying third movement) to create a meaningful five-movement form. Consequently and ironically, the last movement becomes more problematic when there is less bombast. The strange exposed solo tuba part (Would Mahler have added a tremolando string background?) and the pointed slowing down of the three note figure which runs through the other movements (Would Mahler have repeated this so many times?) stand out more than ever before. More than any other recording, it’s clear that Cooke’s completion is in fact a performing version as Cooke so adamantly states on the score, and Rattle should be commended for making this 10th so pure and lucid and honest to Cooke’s intentions.

Rattle’s timings haven’t changed much: the three central movements are within seconds. The greatest differences are in the opening Adagio and the concluding Finale, though not by far (25:11 vs. 23:53 and 24:47 vs. 24:19).

Dean ROBERTS/Werner DAFELDECKER: Aluminium. Erstwhile 009 (http://www.erstwhilerecords.com/).

Aluminum is just over 40 minutes of really good electro-acoustic improvisation from two guys using just guitars, electronic manipulation and simple percussion. This type of music is different from my usual fare, but I’ll listen to any interesting sounds, especially if they’re well recorded, well juxtaposed and can stand on their own. I was engrossed, wondering how the sounds were produced, and how improvisation could ever possibly sound this good (experience, the best tools, and experience). This recording demonstrates a rich density of sounds and subtleties, and the electronic manipulation and noise producing techniques are varied and balanced. From the outset we hear the bracing sounds of sine waves blended with strident sustained single notes from the guitar. I hear fingers, picks, glass and wood used to set the guitar strings sounding. Sounds with reverb and effects processing stand aside short almost accidental percussion, and rich complex sounds are balanced against delicate dry ones. Obvious patterns, cells and other crutches of improvising are cast aside. These guys know what they’re doing and aren’t some kids trying to make some noise just to cram a CD full to impress the neighbors.

Erstwhile (http://www.erstwhile.com) is a small independent, producing consistent content with really good artistic goals. Take solid players and let the tape (ok, digital mastering equipment) roll. Put it in nice packages and keep the notes to a minimum. Here is a label which will surely grow in its influence and relevance to upcoming generations of musicians.

Philip GLASS: Symphony No. 3; Two Interludes from The CIVIL warS. Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra; Mechanical Ballet from The Voyage; The Light; Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Dennis Russell Davies conducting. Nonesuch 79581-2

I can’t help listening to Glass’s music without imagining a stentorian voice intoning documentary drivel: “And with the American automated stapler industry in shambles, du Broulliard’s patent 20,473,184e ensured that the French would achieve its dream of industry supremacy. But this was to last for a mere 23 years until the Tonga uprising.”

Does this mean that Glass’s music intrinsically has something missing or that is forever suited to accompaniment? As opera or film score, Glass’s music is excellent, but I have trouble listening to Glass as concert music on its own. Concertos are clearly the genre where Glass’s concert music excels. I can’t imagine voiceovers in the Violin Concerto as the solo violin so completes the work. Gidon Kremer and Christoph von Dohnanyi join with an unlikely orchestra–the Vienna Philharmonic–in a wonderful performance on DG 437 091-2.

What makes this disc compelling is that the performances are stellar. All five of these works are orchestral. Three are from operas, and are intentionally designed as connective tissue. From the Robert Wilson collaboration, the CIVIL warS, two interludes are short and perfectly contained. The Mechanical Ballet from The Voyage has nothing to do with George Anthiel’s similarly titled work. Symphony No. 3 is for string orchestra, and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra gives a precise and velvety performance.

Louis ANDRIESSEN: Rosa, the death of a composer (libretto/scenario by Peter Greenaway). Lyndon Terracini, Miranda van Kralingen, Marie Angel, Christoper Gillett, Roger Smeets, Phyllis Blanford. Schonberg Ensemble and Asko Ensemble, Reinbert de Leeuw (cond.). Nonesuch 79559-2.

I’m a big Andriessen fan, and am happy to hear in Rosa some of the qualities that originally drew me into his music (De Staat is high on my list as one of the most memorable performances I’ve ever experienced). Andriessen’s sound is heavy on brass and winds, reinforced with saxophone choir, electric guitar and percussion. Strings appear rarely, but the colors are essentially big band with a symphonic twist. I can’t help comparing this music to Ellington’s score for Anatomy of a Murder, given the similarity between subjects and ensembles.

The plot of this opera is somewhat base and vulgar, demanding similarly rude and base music. The writing is assertive, colorful and designed to shock. Happily this work has more momentum and energy than some of the other the Andreissen discs which Nonesuch is churning out. The balance is excellent despite my wish to hear more orchestra in practically every opera. The singers are clear, and de Leeuw ensures that everbody is sensitive to the words and the underlying music.

Clearly Greenaway-Andreissen collaborations are of great power. I hope Nonesuch gets their recent Vermeer opera out soon.