Walt’s Ratatouille 2.

Walt Mundkowsky

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

After wild swings through Mahler (Winter & Winter 910 004-2, 910 046-2) and Wagner (910 013-2), pianist / arranger Uri Caine takes on the Goldberg Variations (910 054-2). The recipe doesn’t provide many shocks this time. Diddling with Bach has been old hat for more than a century, and lately I’ve sighted Goldbergs from accordion, brass quintet, cathedral organ, jazz trio, overdubbed guitars, and several string ensembles. Since Caine plies the anything-goes aesthetic of John Zorn, the flubs outnumber the bull’s-eyes. Still, with 72 tracks, the zigzagging course has its moments.

Caine bounces between recognizable Bach (in a range of guises) and extraneous material. He does the big numbers (opening and closing Arias, variations 13, 25, and 29) himself, and they’re perhaps sight-read. (He’s that inaccurate and stiff.) The remainder is a jumble of classical and jazz / pop eras and genres. Almost any sequence can stand for the whole. Say, Nos. 33-37: driving jazz combo; cranked-up synth and rat-a-tat samples; enervated Baroque trio; Salsa band; fragmented solo piano.

Obviously one doesn’t snag such a collection for insights into Bach, but for fun. The bad news is that Caine’s grasp of other musics — blues, jazz “hot” and current, klezmer, Latin, techno — seldom moves beyond cliché. A few individual bits deserve mention. When a quartet of viols delivers variation 4, Bach and Henry Purcell shake hands (causing me to dig out Phantasm’s sublime Art of Fugue [Simax PSC 1135]). Annegret Siedel (violin) and Michael Freimuth (lute) catch the Gigue tempo of variation 7 exactly, and a simple chorale ends Disc One on a high point. Naming the most riveting fusion of old and new manners isn’t tough. Over a rippling variation 19, poet Tracie Morris tears into a crass pickup artist (“bare-essential bag of trips / don’t whip me into a frenzy”).

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Like Montaigne, Astrée now flies the Naïve banner. Harpsichordist Blandine Verlet’s Froberger ou l’intranquillité (E 8805) proves that the label’s mission hasn’t changed: important early music stylishly presented.

Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-1667) studied under Frescobaldi (as the dashing Toccatas make clear), but he was also influenced by French lute masters. This linking of virtuoso dazzle and introspection still attracts. Dense counterpoint is interrupted by protruding bass notes, dance movements break into odd sections, chromatic harmonies don’t resolve. Stranger yet, Froberger’s private, wayward oeuvre has found sympathetic interpreters on disc.

Verlet’s impetuous, Romantic view emphasizes the mercurial — stretching pauses (the Sarabande of Suite XIX) or producing quirky rubato. (A mean-tone tuning scheme gives the expressive dissonances full voice.) As always, she puts across the rapid-fire passages (Toccata XVI, Canzon II) thrillingly, but structural highlights (the six-note foundation of the grand Fantasia I) aren’t ignored. This 1624 Ruckers instrument also appeared on her uneven WTC recording; typically for Astrée, the perspective is close-up but lovely, and the booklet speaks in touchingly personal terms.

Outstanding recitals from Gustav Leonhardt (DHM 7923-2-RC) and Christophe Rousset (Harmonia Mundi HMC 901372) have vanished over here, but solid choices remain. The former’s special authority (less “untranquil” than Verlet) can be glimpsed in five pieces on Sony SK 62732. Richard Egarr’s fine intégrale (four two-disc sets on Globe) doesn’t leave so imposing a profile. A rare CD by Enrico Baiano (Symphonia SY 96152) is worth hunting down.

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On Funèbre, a Karl Amadeus Hartmann entry from ECM New Series (1720 289 465 779-2), I should defer to our editor. He’s much better acquainted with this terrain than I. Hartmann (1905-63) found the German symphonic tradition congenial. He essentially wrote for his desk drawer during the Nazi years, and his later output is an anguished, clotted reflection on those times. This CD contains a valuable premiere, but the major items won’t displace old favorites. [Walt is at least as capable of discussing Hartmann’s symphonies as I. In the event, he alone covers this disc for this issue. Ed.]

Concerto funebre (1939, rev. 1959), for violin and strings, protests the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia. It opens on an unmistakable citation — the medieval hymn “Ye who are warriors of God,” which Smetana used in the latter stages of Má vlast. Slashing episodes follow, but the air of lament, powerfully moving, rules. Hartmann assembled his first few symphonies out of existing scores. The Fourth (1947) began as a 1938 opus for soprano and string orchestra; he scrapped the vocalist and recast the finale. Before it arrives, taut, piled-up lines (Lento assai) and muscular, racing figures (Allegro di molto) hit hard. A Concerto for Clarinet, String Quartet and String Orchestra (1930-35) is less strenuous. Its main feature is the unusual layout — lengthy outer movements bracket six sparkling dances.

Christoph Poppen and the Münchener Kammerorchester understand Hartmann, but its reduced forces are unfortunately no more incisive than the bigger bands. If Concerto funebre is nearly performer-proof, this one still ranks high. Isabelle Faust’s dry, hooded Introduktion captivates instantly (I had to replay it before continuing), and her luminous solos complicate developments, which come to a loud, harsh stop. In the Fourth, the collective palette is too creamy to be “searing” (Guy Rickards’ tag for it). The clarinet work achieves a surprising lyricism in the closing Fantasie, which Paul Meyer builds unerringly.

A common flaw mars the concertos: The soloists are too close. And funebre will never again carry the history it held for violinist André Gertler, Karel Ančerl, and his Czech Philharmonic players in 1968 (Supraphon 11 1955 2). Wergo’s much-honored box of the Symphonies (WER 60187-50, four discs) boasts a more penetrating Fourth.

 *

In conclusion, a CD that’s difficult to describe but easy to love: the Denis Colin Trio’s In situ à Banlieues Bleues (Transes Européennes TE 001). The reed-low strings-percussion lineup suggests jazz, except that it’s bass clarinet (Colin), cello (Didier Petit), and Persian zarb (Pablo Cueco). They’re improvising in a free harmonic idiom, but the result is closer to a Tangiers bazaar than to Braxton. Forget about World Music banalities; this complex, joyous outfit is unique.

Pairing bass clarinet and cello has great potential. They can spin out matching or highly contrasted articulations, and either can assume the upper or lower voice. (As “Gaspard” begins, it’s hard to define who’s doing what.) A superb trio’s hallmarks — sounding like one musician, and like many — occur everywhere. All the fast-moving selections cut an exciting swath, but I’m most drawn to “Yellah” (“the dance for heroes”), with its winding snake-charmer melodies, gripping drum solo, and quiet conclusion.

Cueco’s (largely) fingertip drumming astounds (from wispy filigree to gunshots), and it keeps the others airborne. Cellist Petit mans a mini-orchestra — floating thread-like violin tones or extracting thick, woolly chords, reinforcing rhythms or singing gorgeously. The bass clarinet’s inflexible, rubbery qualities aren’t apparent to Colin, who sports a varied upper register (into soprano-sax territory) and striking agility. Taped before an attentive, enthusiastic audience on 3-11-94, the disc has solid images and good detail.

This title can be had via Amazon or Verge Music Distribution (www.vergemusic.com), a splendid Canadian source of unusual stuff. Urgently commended for all levels of brow.