Composed and deComposed: Music of Our Centuries

Steve Koenig

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

It’s alive, music is. The concert halls this year are filled with the most amazing work and, just like discs, I cry over the ones I couldn’t get to hear, such as the Messiaen piano festival at Cooper Union. Luckily, then there are the ones I’ve had the joy to hear. Even bombs can be exciting.

Kagel was coming to Carnegie! I don’t use exclamation marks, as a rule, but this is Kagel, Mauricio, the Argentine Darmstadt trickster musico who had the town plastered with posters threatening the U. S. premiere of Kidnapping in the Concert Hall. The composer is known for his theatre pieces, many of them, like Ludwig Van, available to us stateside on DG vinyl making us think they were “pure” music, without us even knowing they were the musical parts of films or plays. These were theater-music-games before John Zorn created his improvisation game-pieces, so what could this title portend? Well, we had to wait, as the first piece on the bill by the Schoenberg Ensemble and Netherlands Chamber Choir, conducted by the excellent pianist-conductor Reinbert de Leeuw, was Midnight Piece, using four fragments from the diary of Robert Schumann, in passages gothic and melodramatic.

Starting with a bell, voice on tape, the chorus was magnificent. Rattled dried rosebush accompanied the line “flowers reeling in the wind”; rather literal for Kagel, but touching. Delicacy and guitar-like harps momentarily brought to mind Pierrot Lunaire. There were funny moments as the percussion “poured” champagne. In the final movement, “Altarpiece,” the chorus rang like a Tibetan singing bowl. As it evolved, one wondered if there were deliberate strains of Verklärkte Nacht or Bartók’s solo violin sonata. The speaker developed a slight rasp at the words, “Oh you tones, is there immortality?” Midnight Piece achieves the high quality of Kurtág’s miniatures for voice, and this group must put it to tape. All their numerous recordings attest to this, but the precision and musicality of this choir in person was breath-taking, both soloists and chorus, and not the least mechanical. Even from our side seats, the surround was clear.

Then, unfortunately, came the headliner, a pompous, ineffectual disappointment of the type which both Ionesco, Poulenc and Haydn perpetrated with mastery, but here the story was inept and nonsensical. It didn’t have to be that way. Premise: During rehearsal of this piece, a phone rings telling the conductor that musicians are being kidnapped for ransom. Ok, let’s give it the noir suspension of disbelief. The performers acted it as if in a (bad) junior high school play. The one premises which would have made it work, and was written into the piece but not observed, was to have the musicians disappear one by one. When I asked Mr Kagel after the performance why this was not done, he murmured something briefly about how they’d done it elsewhere but here the stage didn’t permit…clearly not so…and then disappeared mid-word as if kidnapped himself. The music was lovely; lilting and charming for the “piece,” and mysterious and strange elsewhere, like an avant-garde Strauss waltz morphing into the opulent soundtrack from Edward Scissorhands, Turangalîla in Oz, or an even quirkier Dance at the Capulets. The sirens and police lights were realistic, but you can often hear this in the hall anyway. The constant telephone dialogue between the conductor and the kidnappers was laughable, and I believe it would have been in the same in German. Oh well. All this talent for naught, despite the fact that only a handful left before the end.

So many new and old releases, as always, and I’d rather hear them a whole bunch of times than report just my first impressions, so next issue we’ll hear about new releases from the col legno (Feldman, Cerha, Wolpe and Sciarrino), and NMC labels, as well as composers Beth Custer, Robert Gibson, Roberto Morales, Sally Beamish, James Fei and Julio Estrada.

Marlboro Music Festival – 50th Anniversary.
(Sony SM2K 89200, 2CDs, 56.35 + 58:42)

Although I’ve never yet been to the Marlboro Festival, I grew up there via vinyl. The Marlboro Record Society’s discs introduced me to Schoenberg and Bach. Later, via Columbia, they filled in the in-between. This celebratory release contains all first releases of material recorded from 1974 to 1997. Rudolph Serkin’s 1974 performance of the Beethoven Concerto 4 is valedictory rather than patrician; it has an accomplished ease that doesn’t go for thrills, but follows the long lines. I’m not familiar with his studio versions, but I like this. I don’t like the Beethoven Choral Fantasy, but this one, conducted by Peter Serkin, is better than most, eschewing pomp, and instead making it a charming sketch for the Ninth Symphony. The real treat is the chamber music, especially Janácek’s Mládí, in the best performance I’ve heard since, and very similar to, the Prague Wind Quintet on a Supraphon LP. It eschews reminding you that this is “wind music”; it’s a striking piece of chamber music with varying flavors reminiscent of both French chamber and Slavic folk. The version by Ensemble Villa Musica on MD+G is, by comparison, youthfully jittery and episodic, more Stravinskian, if you will. I like both views, but prefer this Marlboro as my primary version. Dvorák’s Op. 77 Quintet is the other major piece, and I find myself surprised to find I have no other version of this half-hour piece in my collection. At midprice, and with quite attractive packaging of white boards with green leaves, this is much more than a momento.

Simon Bainbridge. Ad Ora Incerta: Four Orchestral Songs from Primo Levi; Four Primo Levi Settings.
(NMCD059, 53:54,

When I was a senior in high school, I first encountered the writings of Primo Levi, an Italian who survived the work camps of the Second War. The book Primary Elements expanded my awareness of what a twisted and subjective thing morality is when faced with the choice of comply or die. Later, this survivor, who seemed to have come to terms with his life, committed suicide. “Il Canto di Corvo” has this crow accompanied by wind (actually, string) currents spiralling ever upwards, totally unnerving the listener. Master orchestration, Kim Walker’s bassoon seconding the crow’s voice, then taking its individual flight pattern, one is strangely moved. Mezzo soprano Susan Bickley’s voice is stunning in its bittersweet mournfulness. I listened to the entire before reading any texts or notes, because this soundworld was immediately unique and I didn’t want to be distracted from it. I couldn’t come back immediately, because this frightfully aching music is unnerving, yet thoroughly tonal and accessible, but come back I did, repeatedly. I’d buy any other Bainbridge offerings unheard just from these pieces. The excellent booklet offers texts in the original Italian with English translation, full multilingual pedigree and photos of all the artists, the BBCSO conducted by Martyn Brabbins in “Ad Ora Incerta,” the Nash Ensemble in the four final songs. I’ve only encountered Bainbridge via a single song, on NMC D003 by soprano Mary Wiegold, with text by Michelangelo, which shows his style, but these Levi settings… wow.

Jocy de Oliveira. Inori à Prostituta Sagrada.
(ReR BJOCD , 72:48,

My first and only other encounter with Ms De Oliveira was a spell-binding Brasilian LP of electroacoustic works that I have infuriatingly misplaced within my collection. (I resent books, CDs and LPs without printed spines.) She’s also done Messiaen piano works for VoxBox, and other rarities mentioned in the notes are pieces which were written for her by Xenakis and Berio. This striking opera’s booklet disappointingly has only a summary without libretto. The notes speak in passing of the “myth of the sacred prostitute,” but the listener craves to know more of what’s going on. It’s the first part of a trilogy “which focuses woman’s values [sic],” according to de Oliveria’s notes. The soundworld is spectacular: high soprano singing and in vocalese, as well as everything else Cathy Berberian and Yoko Ono might do. Instruments include ethnic flute, computer bass rumble and upperworld scrabble, reeds and trombone, and of course percussion. Musically, this is gorgeous stuff. Those who love Sainkho Namtchylak or Shelley Hirsch, or Leonardo Balada’s more spare opera Maria Sabina (CRI) should jump at this. The texts are in Japanese, indigenous Brasilian languages, as well as English and the romance languages. This was recorded in Rio de Janeiro, except for one section recorded in New York at Roulette. The only musicians I’m familiar with here are the Korean singer and ajeng player Sang Won Park, and Joe Celli on oboe. Recall that Celli’s O.O. Records originally was Organic Oboe, which label brings us part two of the trilogy, Illud Tempus, to be reported on next issue and which includes full texts.

Heiner Goebbels. Surrogate Cities.
(ECM New Series 1688, 70:10)

I have three other Goebbels discs but this one threw me with its daring. I listened to “Suite for Sampler and Orchestra” before reading the notes, or even noting the title. and this concerto is a stunner. I wondered throughout why use a sampler when the textures were ones which could be produces by a standard orchestra, but then the voices came in, cantorial voices which were mutated and distorted into beautifully horrific arabesques. Other movements use the voice of David Moss, well known to the improvising world. This piece is spectacular. “D&C” for orchestra is based on a Kafka story where a city is destroyed; there are massive blocks of sound, with that sounds like a repetitive strip-tease phrase circling the orchestra, then a few chords clashing, horns quieting out. I will report more on this disc in detail after I absorb the individual pieces. I keep playing it through as a single program.

Manfred Gurlitt. Soldaten.
(Orfeo Musica Rediviva c482 992h , 47:55 + 67:03,

This opera is taken from the same Jacob Lenz text as B. A. Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten. The music here is quite different. Gurlitt’s music as heard here is pleasantly not avant-garde, a comfortable bed for a bitter story. The notes place him in the Kurt Weill-Richard Strauss continuum, but he is more “operatic” than either in terms of orchestration and setting of text. His other major opera was Wozzeck, and his opera Nana, from the Zola novel, was banned by the Nazis. He ultimately left Germany in 1939, under the gun for sociopolitical rather than for musical content, although, he expatriated to Germany’s ally Japan. Soldaten, conducted by Gerd Albrecht, a master of contemporary opera, is interesting, although I suspect it is stronger on stage, and even here could be a touch more passionate. Admirably filling a gap for the curious, the fat accompanying book contains facing English-German libretto, and fascinating essays which also refer to the disc by track, of which there are thirty-three.

Bohuslav Martinu. Works for Two Pianos. Clinton-Narboni Duo; Talich Chamber Orchestra, Vladimír Válek, conductor.
(Elan CD 82422, 61:42,

Martinu’s works have always been magical for me, mixing wisps of Czech folk music with twentieth-century modernism. Many of his pieces get labelled “jazzy.” This disc came as a delightful surprise. The Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra is performed with, dare I say, élan, compared with the other performance I own on Olympia, which is “modern” by way of being clunky. (Don’t confuse this piece with the oft-recorded Double Concerto, which is for two string orchestras.) The thrilling part of this disc aren’t the unsurpassed performances of the Concerto Grosso and the above work, but the works without orchestra of which I have no other recordings. Although only seven minutes, La Fantaisie is a stunner, rich and modern. Martinu lovers must have this, and newcomers will find this a fine introduction to his work, though I’d probably suggest starting with nearly any performance of his first symphony, or the Frescoes. The booklet advertises the duo’s other discs for Elan with works by Tailleferre, Poulenc, Bartók, Randy Snyder and Paul Bowles. I can’t wait to get my hands on them.

Alan Petterson. Seven Sonatas for Two Violins.
(BIS CD 1028, 70:13,

The Swedish composer Alan Petterson is mostly known for his many long, moody symphonies. Many say he’s depressing, but I don’t think feel his sometime-melancholy as oppressive. His work is emotional, not at all vapid a la most-of-Pärt and company. These seven are a set, composed in 1951. They go beyond Bartók’s duos, yet also have a folk flavor permeating these expressive and perhaps even expressionist pieces. Flights of humours are anchored in structure, although Petterson says, “I call the duets sonatas but…they are much more timbral pieces with their own formal conceptions.” These would not be out of place in, say, the Arditti’s repertoire. Duo Gelland is to be thanked for presenting these works, and as encores, there are four short pieces for piano, or violin and piano, courtesy of Leonard Wallin, closing this erstwhile concert. An earlier recording from Josef Grünfarb and Karl-Ove Mannberg on Caprice CD CAP 21401, recorded in 1978, is more romantic and virtuosic in approach; it is also more clunky and grinding. The BIS breathes his music; the other one has studied it. I much prefer this new one by Duo Gelland, but probably won’t discard the old one for its alternative view and my. This BIS is a most necessary addition to my shelf.