Walt’s Ratatouille 1: Mostly Strings

Walt Mundkowsky

[November 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:1.]

My first La Folia effort (2:3) tackled three of Alfred Schnittke’s finest chamber works. Prime recommendations for the Piano Quintet and String Trio were, alas, not readily available. Since then, a program of EMI imports from Allegro (www.allegro-music.com) has restored them. In the former, pianist Ludmilla Berlinsky and the Borodin Quartet (EMI/Virgin 0777 7590402 4) have it all: rhythmic acuity and rounded tonal weight. Their main coupling is Schnittke’s often-recorded Third String Quartet, projected as powerfully as the piece can bear. (A ride in a luxury sedan, if you will. Those desiring the equivalent of a quicker suspension should turn to the dedicatees, the Orlando Quartet, on Emergo EC 3955-2.)

My other pick for the Piano Quintet (Orbelian/Moscow Quartet, Russian Disc RD CD 10 031) offers striking unanimity and a smaller scale. (Its discmate is an equally knowing account of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet.) This can be had through Berkshire Record Outlet (www.broinc.com) for a mere $1.99.

If anything, the other selection is even more important. Gidon Kremer, Yuri Bashmet, and Mstislav Rostropovich are heroic players, and each had a personal connection to Schnittke. So this studio taping of the String Trio (EMI 5 55627 2) should be great, and it is. Alert to every turn in mood or argument (even for Schnittke, the terrain is unstable), the star ensemble produces a huge, sinewy sound. The top-billed Concerto for Three (1994) is remarkably buoyant, with a punch-line ending. It joins the spare textures of the late works to a capricious wit more typical of the composer’s youthful output: a 60th-birthday present he gave himself, to salute three musicians he loved.

The only real competition for this String Trio comes from Kremer-Zimmermann-Schiff, a shatteringly intense live version which Philips kept buried in a 10-disc Lockenhaus box (434 030-2) that’s now gone.

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Allegro distributes Milan-based jazz label Red Records, which made me wait until 1995 for a CD of Paul Bley’s Ramblin’ (RR 123117.2), an album I always want nearby. As with Schnittke, I ardently admire pianist Bley, but within narrow parameters. (He might be profiled as combining Monk’s harmonic ear and jagged phrasing with the technical prowess, and more, of Bill Evans.) Ramblin’ was done with bassist (now audio mogul) Mark Levinson and drummer Barry Altschul, in a Rome studio on 7-1-66 — the middle of Bley’s most creative period.

Of the six tracks, the three by Annette Peacock strike hardest. “Both” is an articulate essay in independent parts, each player often choosing his own tempo. Bley yields to his sidemen at surprising junctures. An elegy to saxophonist Albert Ayler, “Albert’s Love Theme” highlights Bley’s anguished lyricism. His pedaling can turn single notes into ice sculptures, and vaulting, tormented figures resemble cries. Piano and bass solos suddenly break off, unable to continue. “Touching” is also central to Bley’s art, a fractured ballad with frequent lacunae. Ornette Coleman (whose legendary group with Cherry, Haden, and Higgins began life as a 1958 Bley quintet) contributes the title tune. As elsewhere, the pianist cuts the rumbling blues line into tiny motifs. “Ida Lupino” became Bley’s signature song; its interest lies in the way he defuses or isolates the ’40s-style gestures. Only his own “Mazatlan” swings in straight-ahead fashion.

Soundstaging and dynamics are standard for the era, ditto the tape hiss and occasional pre-echo. And the packaging is careless — a cover photo lifted from another album, no notes, an incorrect composer credit. Bley’s distinctive dark sonority survives, though, and the tacky processing falls away.

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I’ve delayed addressing Peter Ruzicka’s String Quartets (ECM New Series 1694 CD 289 465 139-2), in the hope that further exposure would modify my lack of enthusiasm. No such luck, I’m afraid. Ruzicka has held prominent conducting and administrative posts (he currently heads the Salzburg Festival), and is regarded in Germany as a valuable composer. The bulk of his oeuvre involves collage or quotation, and the full orchestra. (A 1981 work’s subtitle, Four Fragments on Schumann for Piano and 42 Strings, aptly outlines the approach.) Since he has a varied background and theatrical instincts, such “music about music” can be momentarily attractive. But usually the string quartet is less a coloristic than a dialectical medium — not Ruzicka’s forte.

He has termed these pieces “extracts from a diary: notes of interim states of body and mind. . . . ” That promises something mercurial, but the four (dated 1969, 1970, 1992, 1996) are so similar in syntax and vocabulary as to have been written in rapid succession. And that style is generic modernism: disjunct sections punctuated by silence, stronger on texture than direction. Events develop little momentum (a by-product of Ruzicka’s wan aesthetic?). Most of the borrowed music (Webern, Pfitzner, late Mahler or Beethoven) is inserted baldly; transformation rarely occurs. This grey sameness is banished by the Fourth Quartet, which adds a rôle for speaker (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau here) — a patchwork of citations on art. Regrettably, Ruzicka exploits poet/novelist Cesare Pavese’s final journal entry (8-18-50) before his suicide: “Not words. An act. I won’t write any more.” The sequence ends predictably, on Wittgenstein’s famous dictum, “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”

The Arditti Quartet could play this sort of material in their sleep (indeed, the Third Quartet opens with nearly six minutes of squeaking string harmonics, an Irvine Arditti trademark). Another group might make more of the Romantic interpolations, of course. Apart from the spotlighting of Fischer-Dieskau, the sound is splendid.

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Zurab Nadarejshvili’s First String Quartet (1985) naturally inclines toward the prevailing models for lament (Shostakovich, Schnittke, Silvestrov), but it’s amazingly assured for a student opus. (A late starter, the composer did not get his conservatory degree for another two years.) I was blown away by a St Petersburg Quartet concert performance, and their 1999 recording (Delos DE 3247) is scarcely less potent.

Two flanking Adagios carry the main action — overlapping drones which underscore a solitary instrument reciting ancient Georgian chant. (Nadarejshvili maintains tension through exquisite balances and shifts of volume and mass.) Separating them is an Allegro vivace employing twisted folk dances; its energy seems increasingly forced, and finally turns desperate. The St Petersburgers’ mastery of this score’s demands — exact individual intonation and unison ensemble, varieties of pizzicato and eerie, parched tone — made a Shostakovich cycle (now begun on Hyperion) inevitable.

With a timing of 26:49, the Nadarejshvili proposes a stirring emotional journey, and grows upon recollection. The rest of the CD isn’t so rewarding: Prokofiev’s two endeavors in the genre. The musicians appear engaged, and they deliver the folkisms of the Second Quartet with more rhythmic snap and tangy accents than the Emersons manage on DG.

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At Our Editor’s prompting, I covered a Fred Frith/Ensemble Modern collision last time (Traffic Continues, Winter & Winter 910 044-2). Stefan Winter’s label (handled by Allegro) has thus far aroused as much comment for its packaging (“like a small, nicely bound book,” Mike says) as for the discs themselves. Winter often means to elicit an initial jolt (Mahler strained through klezmer and John Zorn, Satie on accordion), but when that passes, the actual music-making can sound threadbare indeed. Bagpipes from Hell (910 050-2) marks a happy exception. Vittorio Ghielmi’s slant on a program of Baroque viol pieces is extravagant, but usefully so — miles away from Jordi Savall’s inward-facing stance.

True to Winter & Winter’s agenda, the fold-out leaflet contains reproductions of Bosch, but not a word about the music. Pungent bowing animates the brief “Vielle” (Hurdy-gurdy) of Dautrecourt, called Sainte-Colombe (?-1695). The younger Marin Marais (1656-1728) and Antoine Forqueray (1672-1745) get the most space. The former’s “La Rêveuse” (The Female Dreamer), with its wayward, mysterious phrases, compels speculation. Forqueray’s three titles boast varied effects, from the growling theme of the Couperin portrait to the sinuous motion in “La Girouette” (The Weather Vane). Ghielmi crosses the Channel to meet Christopher Simpson (1615-1669), advocate of “divisions” — a largely improvised form of variations over a ground bass. This example requires light, nimble strokes leading to a scurrying high-pitched conclusion. Imitations of bagpipes and bells have charm, and Forqueray’s son Jean-Baptiste (1699-1782) contributes a halting, tender farewell.

Ghielmi and lutenist Luca Pianca (founder of a wacky Baroque outfit, Il Giardino Armonico) focus on vivid hues rather than a firm sense of line. Naturally Pianca makes an activist continuo partner; his rude strumming on the simpler numbers is more Pete Townshend than 17th century. To interrupt the continuity (a frequent Winter & Winter gambit), he also does two solo turns from Silvius Leopold Weiss (1686-1750), a Bach associate and the last great lute composer. Pianca’s instrument is bewitching, but the elaborate counterpoint needs a stronger pulse to register. Taped at Villa Medici-Giulini, the 24-bit, 96 kHz digital recording preserves the musicians’ experience (even if the lute comes across somewhat larger than life-sized).