The Year’s So Far Best

Mike Silverton

[August 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:4.]

Heinz HOLLIGER: Schneewittchen (Snow White), opera in five scenes, with prologue and epilogue. Libretto adapted by Heinz Holliger from Robert Walser’s play Schneewittchen. Juliane Banse, soprano, Snow White; Cornelia Kallisch, alto, Queen; Steve Dadislim, tenor, Prince; Oliver Widmer, baritone, Huntsman; Werner Gröschel, bass, King. Orchestra of the Zürich Opera, Heinz Holliger, conducting. ECM New Series 1715/16, two CDs.

Excepting the Seven Dwarfs, who are mentioned rather than heard in Heinz Holliger’s perversely brilliant opera, there’s little that resembles Walt Disney’s animation, which is how most of us know this old folk-fairy tale elevated to print in 1812 by the brothers Grimm.

Holliger’s episodic Scardanelli Cycle (ECM New Series 1472/73) takes for its subject the German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin’s madness and confinement. The Swiss writer Robert Walser suffered a similar fate. Holliger’s interest in the creative personality’s descent into madness is available to interpretation, without much difficulty, as a bleak allegory: The composer addressing with consummate craft the artist’s place in a culture in which banishment to the margins is the price one pays for one’s disdain of the facile gesture. Holliger’s music is neither easy nor conciliatory, even if, here at the start of the twenty-first century, it reads as a rear-guard action. Consider: modernism’s avant-garde at the trailing edge, behind the times, if you will, as an especially poignant irony in view of Snow White’s vitality. Holliger’s idiom, its source Second Vienna, shows no signs of fatigue. His interest in Walser, which began in adolescence, resonates in the play’s strange turns, stops and starts, as characteristic of the author’s inability to deal with this world in an acceptably timely and businesslike fashion. While I cannot share Holliger’s interest in — let’s call it Walser’s epic indecisiveness — the composer’s devotion to the poet as his work shines with a dazzling brilliance.

Scardanelli Cycle is remarkable for its calm; Snow White, not. The characters declaim their parts in a manner the operatic Berg would surely have approved. As with the instrumental writing, the vocal lines are atonal, though not without, when apt, their moments of intense lyricism. Holliger’s portrayals are a marvel: Snow White’s passive yet crystalline demeanor and startling attitude shifts; the Queen’s saccharine hypocrisy and ill-veiled malevolence; the Prince’s preening absurdity, seasoned with voyeurism and a taste for necrophilia; the Huntsman’s contradictory realities; and finally the King, whose brief appearance is that of a superficially fond, indifferent parent.

The humor is dark, the ambiguities many, the plot line vertiginous. Is Snow White alive? It would seem so, but. Does she blame or forgive? Depends on the scene. As with Debussy’s Pellélleas et Mélisande, one is never quite sure of the geography. And as to when, at some indeterminate distance from the fairy tale’s pivotal events. I won’t spoil the fun (if that’s the word) by telling too much. However, to get a feel for the thing, I urge you play Snow White through, perhaps twice, before settling down to the libretto’s good English translation, which you must follow with care if you are to savor the full effect of Holliger’s vocal-instrumental fabric, for me the opera’s greatest strength. Rarely are words more pungently set, and the drama builds as a house of cards, to collapse into a puzzling but no less fascinating postlude (which might well have been called Walser’s Waffling). The vocalists are splendid, as is the orchestra and its conductor. The interpretive demands on Snow White and the Queen are considerable. The Prince’s mercuriality likewise requires adaptable chops. The only part that sounds to me straightforward in terms of execution is that of the Huntsman. (The King is an absurdist walk-on.) The plump, tri-lingual booklet with its insightful texts is as good as can be — altogether, a beautiful production.

Relevant to Snow White is ECM’s New Series CD 1540, Holliger’s Twelve Songs on Poems by Robert Walser, for counter-tenor and instrumental quartet, paired with Alb-Chehr, a Swiss tale for speaker and instrumental quartet. See also Robert Walser Rediscovered: Stories, Fairy-Tale Plays and Critical Responses, University Press of New England, Hanover and London, 1985.

 

Larry POLANSKY: Lonesome Road (The Crawford Variations). Martin Christ, piano. New World Records CD 80566-2.

Praise from the outside in: Hans Ott’s excellent recording in Zürich’s Swiss Radio (DRS) studio; Kyle Gann’s impeccable notes, with an additional note by the composer, who, along with Martin Christ, produced this New World release.

Comparisons with Frederic Rzewski’s oft recorded The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, 36 Variations on a Chilean Song are inevitable, yet an obvious dissimilarity obtains: at the outset, Rzewski states his theme, Sergio Ortega y Quilapayun’s El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido, in its own thumpingly catchy terms, putting it to variations which keep their roots in view in a dazzlingly rhetorical, unapologetically virtuosic sundry. In contrast, Polansky takes off on Ruth Crawford Seeger’s comparatively mild-mannered arrangement of Lonesome Road, already at a remove from the tune it draws upon. What Polansky’s up to is less immediately obvious to the ear, his variations being less illustrative of their source, and, relative to Rzewsky, less shiny-bright. (The insert provides a page from Crawford’s arrangement and the song’s words.) From a different perspective, one hears Rzewsky’s politics, about which the composer is not in the least reticent; Polansky’s, not. And Polansky’s is the longer work; indeed, parts had to be omitted in order to get it onto a single CD. (So why not a two-disc set of a work that plays out, in this truncated state, as already remarkable?) Lest I appear to be writing a negative impression under a year’s-best heading, let me be clear: for topsy-turvy variety, textural complexity and virtuosic fireworks, these Crawford Variations are second to none, as an opinion arrived at via Martin Christ’s performance, which sounds to me impeccable. For piano-variations aficionados, a must.

 

Morton FELDMAN: Piano and String Quartet. Members of the Ives Ensemble: John Snijders, piano; Josje Ter Haar and Janneke Van Prooijen, violins; Ruben Sanderse, viola; Job Ter Haar, cello. hat[now]ART CD 128.

As much as I want to declare this the most beautiful and beautifully recorded Feldman performance I’ve heard on recording, ’twould be an impossibility: it’s certainly up there with the best of them, but that’s the thing: there exist an abundance of superb Feldman recordings, many of which, like this release, are on hatART CDs. It was, in fact, this fine Swiss label that turned me on to what has become in my mind as Feldman’s high place among the 20th century’s great composers. For information, www.hathut.com.

I lack the nerve and knowledge to sort Feldman’s music hierarchically. Let’s just say that Piano and String Quartet of 1985 is a late masterpiece (the composer died in 1987) which I can recommend without hesitation as a superb example of Feldman’s mature manner, consisting as it does of a serenely revelatory or maddeningly repetitious flow, depending on who’s doing the listening, in what mood, at what time of day. The joy and/or problem resides in the lengths to which Feldman goes to spell out, here as elsewhere unhurriedly, remarkably transparent ideas for which, in my opinion, recording is the ideal medium. At a concert, attendance in one’s briefs (I write in late June), fidgeting, walking about, leaving the room for a drink or a whiz (I’m 66) are bad form. Further, in recordings of this quality, one achieves the better “view” of the music’s harmonic textures, overtones and decays, all of which are of enormous significance to Feldman’s aesthetic. (The Editorial Aerie’s sound system, recently upgraded with Nordost’s Valhalla interconnects and speaker cables, reveals an extraordinary recording, which is what Piano and String Quartet requires if it’s to be savored as it should. Read extraordinary in these particulars to mean superior resolution, dynamic gradation, and soundstage dimension.)

Piano and String Quartet is essential, marrow-deep Feldman: the piece flows slowly through ideas that rise one off the other like early-morning mists from a glass-perfect pond. The decays are as significant as the often organ-like, see-saw sonorities, the music’s point being the casting spells (or the trying of patience), as revealed in the manner in which Feldman lays out his languorous tonalities amidst hints of resonant space. When the pace quickens ever so slightly, so do the listener’s anxieties. The same subjective response applies to stretches of harmonic ambiguity. It isn’t all sweetness and light: our pond is not without its Darwinian stresses. For me, the magic works.

 

Oliver KNUSSEN and Maurice SENDAK: Higglety Pigglety Pop! and Where the Wild Things Are (opp. 21 and 20). Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life: Cynthia Buchan, mezzo-soprano; Lisa Saffer, coloratura soprano; Rosemary Hardy, soprano; Christopher Gillett, tenor; David Wilson-Johnson, bass-baritone; Stephen Richardson, bass-baritone. Where the Wild Things Are: Lisa Safer, soprano; Mary King, mezzo-soprano; Christopher Gillett, tenor; Quentin Hayes, baritone; David Wilson-Johnson, bass-baritone; Stephen Richardson, bass-baritone. London Sinfonietta, Oliver Knussen, conducting. Deutsche Grammophon (as part of its 20/21 series) 469 556-2, two CDs.

Where to begin? Before I heard a sound, I was already impressed by a remarkable production’s visual aspects. Slipcase, booklet and gatefold packaging all feature beautifully reproduced and imaginatively applied examples of Maurice Sendak’s art, including a pair of delightful pop-up monsters. A company called WAP and art director Hartmut Pfeffer are responsible for what I judge among the best I’ve seen, and the competition’s stiff: as with the LP, graphic artists are having a field day. The 120-page, tri-lingual booklet likewise attests to Deutsche Grammophon’s commitment to quality. In the matter of noblesse oblige, at a time when labels, retailers and distributors are pulling back with regard to classical, one is all the more impressed by DG’s stick-to-itiveness. Several major labels used to issue new music as a matter of course. In this regard, even DG has pulled back to a position of relative safety: Messiaen and Boulez are Big Names; Knussen less so, yet no unknown, he.

While Sendak’s well-deserved fame rests on his children’s books, it would be disingenuous to categorize these two little operas as ideal children’s fare. Where the Wild Things Are is about as child-friendly as Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges, which, plotwise, it somewhat resembles: a naughty child, sentenced by his mother to a spell of solitude, encounters the fantastical. Sendak’s Max dominates his monsters and remains, we assume, the brat he was; Colette’s unnamed boy emerges from his domestic ordeal a chastened humanitarian. The curtain comes down on Max as the same little terror he was when he entered our field of attention. Ours is the more cynical period, despite Ravel’s sensibility, along with that of the “Jazz Age,” having passed through the miasmas of a devastating war. (Ravel’s L’Enfant foxtrot remains for me one of the most endearing art-music turns on a then popular dance.)

Max’s hunger finds satisfaction at opera’s end. Higglety Pigglety Pop!’s baby, a secondary character, refuses to eat. The principal character, a Sealyham terrier, is all appetite and ambition. At the opera’s outset, she devours a houseplant she’d been conversing with in rhyme and then leaves home in search of something better, which she finds. A happy ending? Not if you’re the salami. Curious to know what I mean? You’ll have to buy the set, a decision I doubt you’ll regret.

Remaining with the Ravel analogy, Knussen’s writing sounds to me as lissome and rich as that of the French master. But we must remind ourselves of the date: Knussen succeeds in entertaining the listener (and doubtless the opera-house audience) without the dumbing-down that more or less signifies the post-modern Method. Perhaps that’s why his music appears to fit Sendak’s likewise piquant creations so comfortably: two large talents mesh. The notes tell us that the operas are meant to be performed as a pair. Move over, Cav-&-Pag!