Three ECM Releases

Walt Mundkowsky

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

In Paradisum. Music of VICTORIA and PALESTRINA. The Hilliard Ensemble. ECM New Series 1653 CD 289 457 851-2 (75:23)

I approached the new Hilliard Ensemble disc with some optimism, and not only because it lacks intimations of hipness (no squalling Garbarek sax or “holy minimalist” vibe). Their 1984 recording of Palestrina’s Canticum Canticorum (Song of Songs), a cycle of 29 motets, rests in my file of select experiences. Now the group essays early music on at most every other disc. It’s a relief to welcome them back to the 16th century, but this concert program lies less ideally for the quartet than did their splendid 1998 Lassus CD.

The recital’s backbone is an entire Ordinary and Proper of the Requiem service, as preserved in the Graduale Romanum at Toul, Meurthe-et-Moselle, in France. Dated 1627, this edition reflects changes made in chant performance to enhance textual clarity. Into this sequence the Hilliards insert isolated pieces by the great masters around the Vatican, four from Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) and three from Spain’s Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611). The whole has the air of a treatise: to compare these major figures (a Libera me Domine setting by each), against the background of the era’s plainchant practice.

With singing of such seamless purity (aided by the lengthy reverb of the Monastery of St Gerold), this miscellany works effectively enough. But Palestrina and Victoria seldom reveal their secrets when done as the Hilliards now must, one voice per part. Without more mass, the individual lines can’t develop apt contours or motion, and the necessary contrast with the chant sections never occurs. (An x-ray may be revealing, but it makes an unsightly portrait.) It’s not a historical issue. For example, Spain’s Princess Margaret (daughter of the Dowager Empress Maria, for whom Victoria wrote his unrivaled 1605 Requiem) lived in a convent whose daily rites were sung by 12 priests and six boy trebles.

Anyone exploring this repertory can find superior alternatives. For the plainchant, a classic account by the monks at Solesmes has floated around the Accord catalog. (Mine is a 1986 pressing, 149172.) Pugsley / Gloriae Dei Cantores (GDCD 021) is also sung as worship (in up-to-date sound) and is unusually complete. Refined female voices and low price make Randon / Aurora Surgit ( Naxos 8.553192) an attractive adjunct. Palestrina’s Requiem is an early work (pre-1554). Both Berrini / Ars Cantica ( Sarx SX 010-2) and Michielsen / Cappella Palestrina ( Erasmus WVH 042) serve it well, with the former’s extensive notes perhaps a deciding factor. The Victoria Requiem noted above stands among Western music’s highest peaks. Hill / Westminster Cathedral Choir ( Hyperion CDA 66250) is my favorite, combining precision and grandeur. Using the same edition, Phillips / Tallis Scholars (Gimell CDGIM 012) takes a kindred course, with fewer singers. McCreesh / Gabrieli Consort (DG Archiv 447 095-2) can’t challenge their tight ensemble, but it presents a continuous ceremony. The unique vibrancy of Segarra / Escolania Montserrat (EMI CDM 7 69482 2) has disappeared, alas.

Johann Heinrich SCHMELZER. Unarum fidium. John Holloway (violin), Aloysia Assenbaum (organ), Lars Ulrik Mortensen (harpsichord, organ). ECM New Series 1668 CD 289 465 066-2 (63:10)

No other recent development in Baroque recordings has surpassed the explosion of interest in Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704), the finest and most radical virtuoso / composer of the German violin school. This rising tide has also aided his predecessor, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (c.1620-1680). He doesn’t aspire to Biber’s extravagant, anything-goes rhetoric, but as Andrew Manze says, “The known world was slightly smaller, but this music was still going to the edge of it.”

Like many of his contemporaries, Schmelzer delighted in intellectual games and fancies. His set of six Sonatae unarum fidium (Sonatas for one violin, 1664) was the first solo-violin collection published by a non-Italian. His dedication to Cardinal Carlo Caraffa is riddled with puns on Fidei (faith) and Fidium (violin), and the date of issue must be deduced from oddly capitalized letters (read as Roman numerals) in the full title. The works themselves are similarly ingenious — most often restless, wide-ranging flights spun out over a ground bass. Sonata IV is especially inventive. From a clearly stated four-note motif, Schmelzer draws noble sentiment, riotous dance, and many detours along the way. [We in the editorial aerie are unable to confirm fidium as violin, but we do trust in Walt’s erudition. Ed.]

Biber fans are already indebted to violinist John Holloway. His 1990 rendition of the protean Mystery Sonatas (Virgin VCD 7 90838-2, now only as import) is superbly attuned to their scene-painting and religious symbolism. He views these Schmelzer works as their true forerunner — “elegiac, meditative, serene, improvisatory.” His main rivals are Reinhard Goebel in the Biber (DG Archiv 431 656-2) and the scintillating Manze here (on Harmonia Mundi 907143). They supply what Holloway omits, the last ounce of mercurial daring and attack. Manze does Schmelzer with Biber in mind; his tempos, both fast and slow, are more extreme than Holloway’s. The sonic images preserve these distinct outlooks. Manze is caught in close-up, with sharp transients and plenty of space; the ECM disc lets one hear more of the site — the lovely library of a monastery, Kloster Fischingen, in Switzerland.

Holloway realizes the supporting continuo in atypical fashion, with two keyboard players. An imposing organ would overwhelm matters; this instrument is an enticing little model with wooden pipes and a pleasing flute register. Manze goes with sheer pluck: harpsichord and theorbo. Each team features a probing harpsichordist.

Jean BARRAQUÉ. Sonate pour piano. Herbert Henck (piano). ECM New Series 1621 CD 289 453 914-2 (46:25)

Cards on the table: I consider Barraqué’s vacuum-sealed Sonate (1950-52) the most powerful piano work of the postwar era. And this is the current performance (out of three) that I’d select to convince skeptics.

Jean Barraqué (1928-1973) was described by Antoine Goléa as “enigmatic, secretive, difficult, the enemy — it must be said to his credit — of all acclaim.” Like Boulez, he took Messiaen’s composition class, and Messiaen’s pianist wife Yvonne Loriod championed the Sonate. One critic understood its importance. In Since Debussy (1961), André Hodeir wrote, “No music of this density has been composed since the Grosse Fuge, the only ancestor worthy of this unique score.” That isn’t so preposterous. Alone among serialists, Barraqué admired Beethoven, and their defiant attitudes, heroic counterpoint, and large dramatic spans have more in common than one might suppose.

At a suggested timing of “about 40 minutes” (which pianists rarely meet), the piece falls conveniently into two parts. Dichotomy is the main organizing tool and expressive device. Both parts alternate “rigorous” and “free” sections. (Everything is serially determined in the former, while dynamics and rhythms become more expansive in the latter.) Part One is mostly fast, active, and situated in the middle of the keyboard. Part Two reverses and destroys this progress — it’s slow, static, and fixated on the lowest and highest keys. All these parameters suffer some leakage, so the overall path is tangled. Barraqué’s use of encroaching silence still seems revolutionary. This isn’t allied to Webern — silence as a structural component — but appears “in the shape of irrational pauses that grow steadily longer and more threatening” (Hodeir).

Obviously Sonate demands exalted pianism — minutely graded articulations and headlong energy — but no more so than Beethoven’s Hammerklavier. (In either case, the cautious need not apply.) I’ve never located Loriod’s pioneering lp, which Richard Toop amusingly dismissed — “an aura of mystery, dubiously reinforced in the late fifties by an ’historic’ recording whose relationship to the score is at times itself something of a mystery.” In 1969 Claude Helffer performed it for Astreé, as did Roger Woodward (with more panache and wildness) on EMI three years later. (A CD of either would be valuable, since Barraqué attended both tapings.) Cpo’s 1998 Barraqué intégrale (999 569-2, 3 CDs) enjoys a decent success rate — except for Stefan Litwin’s Sonate, which is much too slow and picky. Former Boulez associate Pi-hsien Chen constitutes an immense advance (on Telos tls 006). She’s highly attentive to the score’s complexities, and commands the technique to execute them cleanly. A Spartan piano sound robs her playing of some color.

And so to Herbert Henck. His artful notes trace the deepening involvement that led to this CD, and they read like a detective story. (The printed score is filled with errors and ambiguities. Barraqué was extremely nearsighted, and assigned proofreading chores to assistants.) Henck’s comprehension at least equals Chen’s, and he surpasses her in molding events into long, cogent paragraphs. He’s also much more daring about Barraqué’s silences, stretching the rest fermatas to the breaking point, but the line always holds. ECM’s gorgeous sound is a huge asset, delivering tiny pedaling details and thunderous jolts.

After listening to Sonate, it’s impossible for me to proceed directly to other music. Barraqué also had trouble moving beyond the finality his masterpiece posed. In the three years that followed, he finished only a brief electronic Étude and the revision of an earlier work, Séquence. Eventually he hit upon a mad, unending project: a musical setting of Hermann Broch’s novel The Death of Virgil. In it, the dying poet struggles to decide whether he should burn his Aeneid.