Three Reviews

Walt Mundkowsky

[April 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:4.]

La Folia. Atrium Musicae de Madrid, Gregorio Paniagua (directing). HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 901050 (44:19)

A longtime staple of the Harmonia Mundi catalogue, Gregorio Paniagua’s La Folia deserves comment for its title alone. But one would search in vain among current early-music bands for the madcap antics this CD preserves.

Paniagua’s liner notes aim for epigrams, not scholarship: “In Spain, where men are solitary ¼ where there have been — and still are — very distant men, full of uncertainty and hope, madness [la folie] takes root with quite extraordinary facility.” A 1610 source pinpoints the dance called La Folia: “The noise is so great and the rhythm so fast that some of them seem to have lost their senses.” The album’s contents are never mentioned, and are arranged in medleys with untranslated (and irrelevant) Latin titles.

Encroaching frenzy is conveyed through injections of the bizarre. Already on the second track, a stately consort of flute and strings is nudged by Hindu percussion and noisemakers. Then jazz-clarinet licks intrude on “Oratio pro-folia” (Speaking for madness). The oddities intensify. A gunshot-like slap leads to mutterings, rattling percussion, more consort music, duck calls, a solo sitar, jew’s harps. (Ennio Morricone meets the Renaissance.) “Parsimonia aristocraciae” offers a superb harpsichord solo, dance tunes alternating with more florid sections — until a chain saw (massacre) takes over. Paniagua manages to orchestrate the anarchy. More gunshots preface a “Turkey in the Straw” hoedown, and Herbie Mann flute riffs thankfully give way to a Frescobaldi harpsichord framed by church bells and twittering birds. At the end, a real truck (“carrus triumphalis”) backs into the proceedings.

La Folia works as well as it does because Paniagua has the gift of seeming seriousness and a restless ear — and five spirited cohorts. One might expect the numbers without stunts (like the opening “Fons vitae” [Fountain of life]) to sag, but the sharply pointed rhythms and frequent lead changes banish the thought. Even with instrumental doubling, it passes belief that a mere sextet can make a racket this thick and varied. Eduardo Paniagua and Andreas Prittwitz (flutes) and Daniel del Rio (violin) often spark the ensemble, but I incline toward the dashing harpsichord of Albertina de Huete, whose period dignity is the object of many a prank.

I hesitate to anoint an audio spectacular because my all-Stax system, while hardly an obstacle, doesn’t represent current practice. But ignoring the contribution of engineer Jean-François Pontefract is impossible. The house recordist when Harmonia Mundi’s reputation for sonic excellence was minted, he’s definitely in on the joke here. This 20-year-old taping has lost none of its zip — a pungent, seductive surface that occasionally delivers a nasty whack.

For the serious collector, Jordi Savall’s La Folia 1490-1701 (Alia Vox AV 9805) is judiciously organized (from early dances to Baroque elaborations), liltingly played and gorgeously recorded. But it’s not crazy.

[Walt’s good opinion of the Paniagua CD’s sonics we second con mucho gusto. Ditto its deliciously goofy aspects. We take mischievous pleasure in remarking the recording’s publication date, 1982, when the compact disc appeared in the marketplace to audiophile cries of Abomination! Conspiracy! Our fragile, click-&-pop world is at an end! Ed.]

 *

Piano XX — Vol. 2. Massimiliano Damerini (piano). ARTS 47216-2 (71:03)

In 1993 Our Editor alerted Fanfare readers to the conspicuous talent of pianist Massimiliano Damerini. That disc, devoted to Salvatore Sciarrino’s rigorous-to-splashy solo output, disappeared several years ago. Piano XX is older. Taped in 1987, it began life as a three-lp set (on Frequenz); this CD edition for a budget label is relatively recent. As half of a comprehensive survey of the 20th century, it doesn’t quite work, but Damerini nails the avant-garde items.

Nikolay Roslavets’ gloomy 1915 Prelude makes an odd curtain-raiser. Damerini plays up its obsessive, displaced harmonies — a more arresting angle than Steffen Schleiermacher’s labored tread (on hat [now] ART’s Soviet Avant-Garde 2). Bartók and Prokofiev certainly belong here, but not for these works — respectively, Sonatina on Transylvanian Peasant Themes and Suggestion Diabolique. Even more puzzling is the inclusion of a disjointed Kodály piece. The competition is fierce in Alban Berg’s Op. 1 Sonata (1908), and this performance can’t approach Pollini (for elucidation of the fluid structure) and Gould (for fin-de-siècle decay).

Things pick up when Damerini moves into the postwar era. Stockhausen’s Klavierstück VII (1954-5) takes an etude-like interest in harmonics and pedaling. Keys silently held down are caused to sound when others are played staccato. These delicate quasi-Oriental sonorities can become a string of isolated effects, but Damerini imparts unusual coherence. If I prefer him to Herbert Henck (in the acclaimed intégrale on Wergo), it’s because the latter’s warmer ambience swallows detail. Both have to bow to the late David Tudor, whose mastery in this repertoire was such that Boulez and Stockhausen squabbled over his services like anxious suitors. Fortunately, hatART has released his 1958-9 studio tapings for West German Radio. Their sound is stunning.

As Italy’s preeminent new-music pianist, Damerini must have done Berio’s Sequenza IV (1966) and Bussotti’s Music for Friends (1957, rev. 1971) many times in concert; the renditions bespeak long familiarity. The Berio belongs to a series of 13 pieces for various solo instruments. Its complex pedaling instructions serve a different purpose than Stockhausen’s — to elongate or highlight selected musical “events” while others move past. The gestures in Bussotti’s conflation haven’t worn well.

What makes this disc essential is its final track, Brian Ferneyhough’s Lemma-Icon-Epigram (1981). Ferneyhough’s reputation — high priest of the New Complexity, producer of densely (over)articulated scores — shortchanges his music somewhat. It may lead performer and listener to the limits of the graspable, but it’s full of color and invention, and its broad outline expresses a dramatic arc. The two long movements have little relation to each other — we go from highly active and linear two-part writing to “tremendous verticalized icy rigor,” still chords whose shapes are altered by “a sun passing over them” (Ferneyhough). The final movement should resolve matters, but it’s very brief. One senses the various strands being pulled through a tiny ring. Ferneyhough considers this last section a failure that taught him a lot. I wouldn’t trade it for most “successes.” Damerini was the work’s original exponent; only James Avery (on a CD coupled with a magazine issue) has followed suit.

*

Johann Sebastian BACH Goldberg Variations, BWV 988. Charles Rosen (piano). SONY SBK 48173 (75:53)

The Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080. Charles Rosen, Olsen Archers (piano). SONY SB2K 63231 (74:25)

Any appreciation of Charles Rosen should be subtitled “The Pianist As Thinker.” Indeed, his books have cast a longer shadow than his recordings. The range of both impresses. The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven is accepted as a standard reference, and The Romantic Generation will be. In between, his monograph on Schoenberg’s free-atonal period is slender but thought-provoking. He’s done large chunks of Beethoven, and is the fittest component in Boulez’s 1978 “complete” Webern box. (Sony should reissue his outstanding — in both senses — Boulez and Elliott Carter performances.) But I’d like to focus on his neglected 1969 Bach set.

Rosen’s version of the three- and six-voice Ricercars from the Musical Offering, the Goldberg Variations, and The Art of the Fugue appeared on Odyssey, the Columbia budget line. (Finding three unwarped lps in the same box was as challenging as the works themselves!) The major items have found their way onto Sony CDs, but are packaged in a way that suggests ignorance of their stature.

First, the Goldbergs. Rosen’s 75:53 travel time shouldn’t imply a leisurely trip; he takes all repeats. Actually, his tempos are brisk, even impetuous — as befits a clear-eyed Beethoven player from the Schnabel camp. He refuses to sentimentalize the “Black Pearl,” Variation 25, and is often more poised than sprightly. Knowledgeable about Baroque conventions but never their prisoner, Rosen’s fingers are in sensational form.

Such cultivated, Apollonian work wasn’t the norm back then, but after Landowska and Gould, the Goldbergs were established. What Rosen accomplished for The Art of the Fugue broke new ground. At the time, forced marches on organ or harpsichord were the solo-keyboard alternatives. He argued that the music transcended considerations of tone color, and that it made sense to use the instrument most familiar to us: the piano. Of course his execution — a model of clarity without dullness — clinches the deal. Evgeni Koroliov’s celebrated 1990 Tacet recording (it’s Ligeti’s Desert Island Disc) follows Rosen’s example.

I’m delighted that these landmarks are available, cheap and contained on single discs. But, but, but. Sony has ditched Rosen’s elegant commentary in favor of junk that serves nobody. (Hopefully his forthcoming book, Critical Entertainments: Music Old and New, will include it.) At least his Goldbergs is marketed separately. The Art of the Fugue gets second billing in Bach: The Keyboard Album, behind Rosalyn Tureck’s slog through some early pieces. Thirty years on, these Rosen discs aren’t my sole guide through late Bach. But I’ve learned immensely from them, and so can anyone.