Scardanelli’s Motley

Signor Scardanelli

[August 1999. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:1.]

Thomas BUCHOLZ Chamber Symphonies VI-IX. • VI (Todesfuge): Ensemble Konfrontation of the Philharmonic State Orchestra, Halle, Thomas Müller (conducting). VII (Ex Sequi): Soloist Ensemble, Thomas Müller (conducting). VIII (Ellipse): Handel Festival Orchestra of the Halle Opera House, Howard Armand (conducting). IX (Tablatura): Lee Santana (theorbe); Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, Halle, Oliver Pohl (conducting) • THOROFON CLASSICS CTH 2380 (59:17)

Thomas Bucholz, a German composer of whom I know nothing, was born in Thuringia in 1961. He’s remarkably good, and as one listens to these chamber symphonies (whether they’re symphonies is quite another matter), one grows prematurely, wistfully anxious for an artform which may not make it terribly far into the next century. Bucholz’s music is subtle and well wrought, and there lies the insurmountable hurdle. How can elegance survive within a culture increasingly brutish, frenzied and peurile? Well, one never knows, and meanwhile there’s this for solace.

Two of these chamber symphonies reveal a happy connection to art music’s history. No. 8,Ellipse, employs an 18th-century idiom that succumbs to modernist distortions. While far from a novelty as a plan, Bucholz carries it off with style and humor. No. 9, Tablatura, comes very close to a concerto for theorbo, a large double-neck lute, and chamber orchestra. Here the idiom is present-day, yet in no way daunts. The disc’s first offering, No. 6, Todesfuge, the subtitle that of a Paul Celan poem, will soon enough acclimate the listener to Bucholz’s mastery of transparent textures which never stray far from the discourse they serve. I love this release and hope it sells like crazy. But I cannot resist quoting from the notes what is maybe the funniest thing I’ve lately seen. The author speaks (in translation) of No. 7: for ” … Ex-sequi (in the sense of following the deceased out of the grave), Thomas Bucholz uses the Bible and chorale verses selected by Heinrich Posthumus … .” Yes, I know it’s a valid surname and the other word is posthumous, but really! As a but one disappointment, part four of this five-part work drifts into sentimental kitsch: a male voice chants liturgical text to the occasional orchestral bell, and so forth. No. 7 is, in all other respects, a notable accomplishment. Qualiton Imports distributes this German label in the US.

Sylvio BUSSOTTI Piano Works • Martine Joste (piano) • MODE 65 (73:18)

Sylvio Bussotti, born in Florence, 1931, isn’t one of this writer’s favorite modernists, tho a modernist he most certainly is, in big, glossy spades. This piano disc reveals (to these ears anyway) a medium in which the composer’s grand-operatic / broadband idiom, proscribed as it is by the instrument’s scale, works rather more effectively at achieving those dramas that saturate Bussotti’s thoughts. There’s little in the way of artistic expression the man hasn’t tried: opera composer and director, stage designer, painter, violinist. A great deal of Bussotti’s musical notation bears a graphic appearance. One thinks of Roman Haubenstock-Ramati as another such. Musicologists credit the Bussotti with having rejected those dominant postwar systems — serialism, indeterminacy, and so on — by which avant-gardists went about their chores. These distinctions are not always obvious to the scoreless and clueless (albeit sympathetic) listener. The powerfully endowed pianist, Martine Joste, performs a pair of works dedicated to her, Sonatina Gioacchina and Petit bis, along with three other first recordings, Il Preludio; Bartok-Busoni, Caprice des 34 Mikrocosmos; and Brillante. Pour Clavier, a long work at 28:35, and Musica per amici round off the program. The spectacularly fine recording is the work of Jean François Pontefract, who was singled out for excellence some time ago in The Absolute Sound. Fernand Vandenbogaerde produced. (Mode’s Brian Brandt also produces a good deal on his own. He’s an admirable character in that he sticks to his alpine vision as altogether too many in the classical side of this businsess retreat into swamps.)

Henry COWELL A Henry Cowell Concert • Chris Burn (piano) • ACTA 7 (55:32)

It was San Franciscan Henry Cowell (1897-1965) who first used the piano’s innards to achieve his effects. With its tinkly thrums and distant thunder, The Banshee of 1925 (track 10 of this release) serves as a remarkably atmospheric example of Cowell’s unorthodoxies. Chord clusters via fist and forearm blows are his innovation as well. John Cage formulated his ideas about the prepared piano where Cowell left off to seek elsewhere for inspiration. These technically secure Burns readings allow us to observe aspects of Cowell’s work as rather more charming, even naively so, than alarming. I understand that George Antheil, a professional bad boy if ever one was, removed a holstered handgun and placed it on the piano as he sat down to a recital. Which brings me to a preference. A solo-piano disc, The Bad Boys! George Antheil, Henry Cowell, Leo Ornstein, performed by Steffan Schleiermacher, hatART Now Series CD 6144, released in ’94 — a year after this Acta — is the more voluptuously played and better recorded. But Burns’s Cowell is very good indeed, and we have the distinct advantage of a 21-part, one-composer program. I hear the recording as a little on the thin side but perfectly acceptable. For Acta distribution in the US, it’s Cadence / Northcountry, email

DONAUESCHINGER MUSIKTAGE 1992 col legno WW 3CD 31850 (three discs: 76:23; 80:11; 68:11) • DONAUESCHINGER MUSIKTAGE 1993 col legno WWE 1CD 31875 (78:08) • DONAUESCHINGER MUSIKTAGE 1995 col legno WWE 3CD 31898 (three discs: 76:59; 69:42; 74:27)

We recommend these releases primarily to the collector of largely European avant-garde art music. Let’s begin with summary of music-festival predecessors on this German label, or rather, those to date imported into the US by col legno’s American distributor, Qualiton Imports: DONAUESCHINGER MUSIKTAGE 1990 [AU 31819 CD, two discs], DONAUESCHINGER MUSIKTAGE 1996 [WWE 3CD 20008, three discs], 75 JAHRE DONAUESCHINGER MUSIKTAGE 1921-1996 [WWE 12 CD 31899, 12 discs in a slipcase offered at a reduced price, at least in the US]. In addition to the Donauschinger festival CDs, we’ve III INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL LENINGRAD 88 [AU31806/1-6CD, six discs] and FESTIVAL ALTERNATIVA MOSKAU 9.-23. OKTOBER 1989 [AU 31840 CD, five discs].

So far as I am aware, no label other than col legno troubles to bring these festival mementos into the marketplace. Our exclusivist is Wulf Weinmann, whose name appears as that of producer on the releases here mentioned, along with everything else, I believe, under col legno’s distinctive logo. The just-received 1992 three-disc set devotes two full sides to Dieter Schnebel’s Sinfonie X, with X for mystery over chronology, or as this reporter hears it, Why over What. But then, having no German, I am of course insensitive to the work’s ever so lengthy spoken-word passages. Disc three offers music by Helmut Zapf, Martin Smolka, Dimitri Terzakis, and Bernfried Pröve. 1993’s single disc features Mathias Spahlinger, Johannes Kalitzke, Günter Steinke, and Christopher Pugh. For 1995, another three-disc set, we’ve Josef Anton Riedl, Sabine Schäfer, Vinko Globokar, Toshio Hosokawa, Hanspeter Kyburz, Olga Neuwirth, Michael Hirsch, Julio Estrada, and Michael Obst.

One cannot fault these Musiktage samplers for their preponderance of German participants. Were there an American equivalent of like scope and dedication (this will happen when hell freezes over), nationality, obviously, would play a large part. From the ’95 set, Globokar’s Masse, Macht und Individuum sounds to me a masterpiece; by way of unhappy contrast, Toshio Hosokawa’s New Seeds of Contemplation — Mandala sounds a tepid bore. To repeat oneself in so short a notice, what I have to say here is of scant interest to those readers attracted to these releases on the strength of their historic significance, and so one withdraws into silence, but not before mentioning that a great many ensembles and conductors participate, for the most part top-flight. The recordings range soundwise from adequate to excellent. col legno in the US is a Qualiton import.

Morton FELDMAN Piano and Orchestra. Cello and Orchestra. Coptic Light • Alan Feinberg (piano). Robert Cohen (violin). New World Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conducting) • ARGO 448 513-2 (73:35)

For fans of Morton Feldman’s music, as well as for the generalist who’s happiest having taken a chance that yields a rich reward, an invaluable release. With, however, flaws of omission and comission, neither having anything to do with these splendid performances, happy to say. Comission first: the traycard tells us that these are, all of them, presumably, world premiere recordings. Probably true for Piano and Orchestra and Cello and Orchestra. At least I’ve no other. I do, however, have a very good Coptic Light on a German cpo CD, 999 189-2, performed by the German Symphony Orchestra, Berlin, under Michael Morgan’s direction. Don’t be scandalized. Happens all the time. And I can only speak of classical releases. Taking in the business entire, we’re probably looking at an epidemic of Pinocchio noses. As to omission, the notes withhold dates. In view of its crystaline perfection, we really ought to have been told that Coptic Light of 1986 is Feldman’s last work for orchestra (he died in ’89).

The ensemble, a training tool for conservatory grads, is more than up to the task, as are its excellent conductor and these two fine soloists. Alan Feinberg’s reputation, particularly with regard to postwar art music, needs no further recommendation here. My guess is that nobody reading this owns the cpo CD abovementioned. Feldman’s is as unique a voice as exists in music. If you’re unfamiliar with its serene, inner-lit transparency, I envy you the occasion.

Paul GALBRAITH Plays Haydn • Paul Galbraith (8-string guitar) • DELOS DE 3239 (56:55)

The British guitarist Paul Galbraith (who currently resides in Brazil) plays an instrument of his own devising, for a description of which see Scardanelli’s Motley in La Folia 1:5, which I especially recommend should the reader be unaware of Galbraith’s astonishing Bach transcriptions. Now, equally well recorded, we’ve the guitarist’s transcriptions of four Haydn keyboard sonatas (Hob. XVI:46, 47, 44, 2). Galbraith’s way with Bach and Haydn may disturb purists, particularly those who prefer their old music (a) in original state and (b) crisp. In order to plumb his instrument’s expressive depths, Galbraith inflects his performances with, where feasible, loving caresses. The bravura moments are most impressive. No purist, I! One hears these Haydn transcriptions as nothing short of ravishing. Recorded in the First Congregational Church in Los Angeles, Peter S. Myles producer, Jeff Mee (who assisted John Eargle in the two-disc Bach set) recording engineer. Immoderately recommended.

György LIGETI Le Grand Macabre, opera in four scenes, 1997 version • Soloists; London Sinfonietta Voices; Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor) • SONY Classical S2K 62312 (two discs: 43:12; 59:15)

This fine production stands as volume eight of Sony Classical’s exemplary, composer-supervised György Ligeti Edition. An earlier CD set of Le Grand Macabre exists, but as Ligeti, in his introduction, explains, it’s not quite the same. Collectors who have the Wergo discs [WER 6170-2 / 286 170-2] will not have splurged on an unnecessary duplication. For a start, this Sony performance is in English. The plump booklet lacks only a word about the work from which Michael Meshke and Ligeti drew their libretto, La Balade du grand macabre, by the Belgian playwright, Michel de Ghelderode (1898-1962), of whom there’s this in Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia: “His dramas, close in spirit to Elizabethan farce, feature grotesque caricatures of lonely, psychically damanged people in a perpetual struggle between good and evil.” While the citation mentions the fantastic paintings of Breughel and Bosch as sources of inspiration, let’s suggest here that Alfred Jarry’s seminal King Ubu, as well, perhaps, as the Dadas, must surely have motivated the francophone playwright with equal vigor. In any event, Ligeti couches a quite perfect spirit of grotesquerie in a music-drama this listener hears as a masterpiece of amoral zaniness. Another such comes to mind: Harrison Birtwhistle’s Punch and Judy, for which go to ETCETERA KTC 2014.

Gustav MAHLER Des Knaben Wunderhorn (Lieder to poems from The Youth’s Magic Horn) • Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo); Thomas Quasthoff (baritone); the Berlin Philharmonic, Claudio Abbado (conductor) • DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 289 459-2 (57:06)

At this point in a listener’s life (butt calluses never thicker!), I play a Mahler symphony rarely. Not so for the orchestral song cycles, and certainly at the head of that list, Das Lied von der Erde and Des Knaben Wunderhorn in that order. I won’t pretend to familiarity with every recording of Wunderhorn, but of those I have heard, this DG sounds to me — well, if not the absolute best, certainly neck-in-neck with the front runners, and it has the added advantage of a fine recording and availability — no small matter, that. The production, which bears DG’s 4D logo, is the work of Producer Christopher Alder, Tonmeister Ulrich Vette, and Recording Engineer Reinhard Lagemann; the venue, the Philharmonic’s Berlin hall.

Baritone Thomas Quasthoff is a wonder. The man possesses a superb instrument, but equally important, he thinks like a musician. His interpretations sound to me a match for Fischer-Dieskau in his prime, and Quasthoff’s is the more attractive voice. Between them, to quote the excellent annotator Donald Mitchell, the mezzo and baritone enact to perfection the music’s portrayals of “sorrow, heartbreak, protest, terror, and pain” amidst the cycle’s “few genial, sunny inspirations.” These “old German songs” come from an anthology assembled by two literary figures central to German Romanticism, Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano. Even then, in the early 19th century, a misty, rather haunted nostalgia served as an antidote for those in the middle and upper-middle classes with arty inclinations to industrialism’s bottom-line realities. Mahler’s orchestrations, while certainly daring by late-19th-century standards, yet succeed in capturing quaint innocence and angst. Quite an accomplishment and a beautiful release!

Luigi NONO PolifonicaMonodiaRitmica. Canti per 13. Canciones a Guiomar. “Hay que caminar” soñando • Angelika Luz (soprano). United Voices and Ensemble UnitedBerlin, Peter Hirsch (conducting) • WERGO WER 6631-2 (57:52)

One asks himself, What’s not to like about this disc? It’s a question that looks to the snowballing unpopularity of the kind of music Nono exemplifies as few other modernists have done. The conductor, Peter Hirsch, provides the first-rate notes. Rather than summarize them, I’ll address this excellent (and well recorded) release from a personal perspective. Lest you miss the music’s purpose and point, the listener is best served, it seems to me, attending to these exquisitely crafted miniatures in a contemplative frame of mind at a quiet time of day, if possible, alone. Morton Feldman admired Turkish carpets for the subtle irregularities of their patterns. He is foremost among composers in transposing visual aural imagery. Indeed, if we can accept the terms in a figurative spirit, with Feldman, transposition approaches transliteration. I am not comparing Feldman to Nono. That would be absurd. Yet Nono’s greatness, like Feldman’s, resides in the extraordinarily purity of the sounding tapestries either weaves into air, with air taken metaphorically as the bottomless vessel into which music disappears and yet remains.

The texturally spare Polifonica – Monodia – Ritmica of 1951, for six players and percussion, looks to Webern for inspiration and purpose. From hindsight, of the Second Vienna Trinity, Nono’s affinity to this exquisite miniaturist seems a most natural thing. The wonder of it is the 1951’s work reflection of Webern’s musical character, no less the composer’s. Yet a few dramatic passages on toward the conclusion have about them a Berg-like sound. The annotator makes much of Nono’s ideas about song. Perhaps then the title Canti per 13 (1955) is not so enigmatic. Here the forward-facing, assertive harmonies lay themselves out in long, colorful strokes. Canciones a Guiomar (1962/63), for soprano, women’s voices and instruments, on lines by Antonio Machado, is (as no great insight on my part) a masterwork. Several times recorded, of course. As the others are probably hard to find at this point, and as this so very, very good — and well recorded — heartily recommended. Should you not know it, you will have discovered a work of astonishing transparency. I cannot imagine a poet’s words better served. Not slavishly, mind. Text provided. The recentmost work and longest of this program (1989, 26:43) carries forward Nono’s affection for high-pitched sonorities, of which Canciones a Guiomar is an earlier example. “Hay que caminar” soñando, for two violins, is best characterized in the fine annotator, Peter Hirsch’s, words: ” … prolonged resonances that fade into nothingness. The last part of the caminar ’ends’ with twelve seconds of silence — con arco fermo (with the bow held in place) at the end of a resonance that wants never to end, the resonance of the last porous wooden sound — crini / legno (played with the hair and wood of the bow similtaneously). Crumbling sound on the edge of audibility, endangered silence, stillness. The silence of Kafka’s sirens before whom Odysseus in vain plugged his ears.”

Elizabeth PANZER Dancing in Place • Elizabeth Panzer (harp) • OO DISCS oo56 (64:70)

I remember reading something Mark Twain said about heaven as a place where angels strum harps the day long. He went on to confess an inability to attend a terrestrial harp recital for fifteen minutes without squirming, never mind eternity. Thus would be hell the preferred destination. Mr Clemens’ musical (un)interests were really quite encompassing. He’s been told, he said, that Richard Wagner’s music is better than it sounds. One wonders, would curmudgeonly Samuel L. have been as good a music critic as curmudgeonly GBS?

Harpist Elizabeth Panzer counteracts her instrument’s lace-curtain burden with a nicely varied program by a number of prominent moderns, as well as three of her own pieces, beginning with Invocation, as an effective demonstration of unorthodox chops. I especially like Gustavo Matamoros’ curious, often droll textures trotted out across an approximately narrative spread in Re:Elizabeth. The work, which employs tapes the performer activates, “having set volume thresholds so that [the music’s taped aspects] aren’t necessarily audible … .” Eleanor Hovda’s brief Dancing in Place has a nice, malevolent lushness to it. At 15:32, Kitty Brazeton’s ambitious Down n Harp n All a Rond o luxuriates in a number of pyrotechnically campy runs — real Fountains of Rome stuff — as a counterpoint to rather arid passages of plucking-with-thumping, and so on. I find the work as puzzling as I do enjoyable. Richard Einhorn’s instantly lovable New Pages has Panzer in a lyrical, rhythmically sure-footed duo with herself. In all, six composers have written works for the harpist (those I’ve mentioned plus Eve Beglarian and Wendy Chambers). David Merrill’s recording is just as intimate as it needs to be.

Gerard PAPE String Quartet No. 2, Vortex (1988/89). Pour un Tombeau d’Anatole (1984) . Sorrows of the Moon (1986). Cerberus 1987). Catachresis (1987). Three Faces of Death (1988/89) • The Arditti Quartet. Janet Pape (voice), William Albright (organ). Ann Arbor Chamber Orchestra, Carl Daehler (conducting). The Prism Orchestra, Robert Black (conducting) • MODE 26 (72:21)

Gerard PAPE Electro-Acoustic Chamber Works: Two Electro-Acoustic Songs (1993). Le Fleuve du Désir (1994). Monologue (1995). Battle 1996). Makbénach (1996/97) • Janet Pape (soprano). Cécile Daroux (flute). The Arditti Quartet. Nicholas Isherwood (bass vocalist). Daniel Kientzy (saxophone). Ensemble 2e2m, Paul Mefano (conducting) • MODE 67 (74:24)

I called Brian Brandt recently — I’m forever pumping him for information — and said in passing that I recently played and very much enjoyed a disc I’ve had for some time, Mode 26, issued in ’91, featuring the music of Gerard Pape, a fellow Brooklynite. Brian told me about his second Pape CD and sent it to me for review. (Which service I was unable to perform for the first Pape Mode. With occasional exceptions, as a Fanfare reviewer to whom releases are assigned by editor, I wasn’t at liberty to write about everything that caught my fancy.) Other than having provided its headnote, I’ll not comment now on Mode’s first Pape CD, except to mention that precious little of its good program prepared me for the second.

Certain modernists, in discussing their work, revert to opacities, perhaps in order to camouflage the absence of meaningful content. One recalls Elvis Costello’s quip that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Yet I think it helpful in this instance to quote from the composer’s insert remarks. In writing of his indebtedness to Julio Estrada, the Mexican composer-theoretician, Pape tells us that “[t]he critical [idea I owe] to Estrada is that of composing for each of the various micro-parameters of sounds as independent, polyphonic trajectory of change over time: pitch, intensity, timbre and space. The possibility of composing an independent rhythm for each of the sonic micro-parameters leads to a new way of compsoing for the sound where pitch no longer dominates and where rhythm takes on [a new] meaning … I have also developed some new ideas aboutt the meso-structure of harmony. Instead of composing from the exterior … I have explored composing harmony from the inside of the sound, that is, as a continuum from the relative simplicity of the tone to the increasing complexity of the harmonic series, cluster and noise.”

On the face of it, opacity? Not really. When you’ve played this CD (and you really must), you’ll probably agree that Pape actually addresses what one hears as rather revolutionary in character and yet reminiscent of the postwar avant-garde’s great break-away microtonalist, Giacinto Scelsi. For apt example, I don’t think the resemblance between Scelsi’s Canti del Capricorno, composed between 1962-72 [WERGO WER 60127-50], and Pape’s remarkably lovely Two Electro-Acoustic Songs of 1993, for soprano voice, flute and electronics, is a coincidence. And please do read “remarkably lovely” as a lot more fun to listen to. The interplay betweeen voice, flute, and technology unfolds as a wonder. Pape’s rather analytical words fail to take into account his keen poet’s ear and craft. Conversely, I’ve never succeeded in sitting through a full play of the Capricorn Songs. Much too incantatory-shamanic for my taste, and they go on forever. As a rule of thumb, composers with a lively interest in literature usually write good stuff. Before I get into this point, allow me to mention that, again back at Fanfare, as the in-house specialist, as it were, I thought I’d go nuts from all the electro-acoustic stuff I’d been assigned to write about. I appear to have recovered sufficiently to recognize in Battle, a piece for electronically manipulated vocal quartet (two sopranos, tenor, bass), a preponderance of delightfully histrionic, high-flying originality. The piece describes a kind of Manichean struggle in Clive Barker’s novel Weaveworld. The term Makbénach comes from Gerard de Nerval’s The Story of the Queen of the Morning and Soliman, Prince of Genies. Look, when the Arditti Quartet and Paul Mefano’s Ensemble 2e2m involve themselves with a composer, you know something’s afoot. For Makbénach, a new-music star, saxophonist Kientzy, joins Mefano’s band for, to repeat oneself, a handsomely textured, melodramatic, Scelsian-sounding ebb-&-flow. I’ll leave off hear with a recommendation especially to new-music collectors.

Fredrick RZEWSKI The People United Will Never Be Defeated! Down by the Riverside. Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues • Marc-André Hamelin (piano) • Hyperion CDA67077 (73:33)

Contributor Charles Cockey has this to say (informally, as part of an email exchange):

“I’ve not heard Hamelin do the Rzewski, regarding whom I’m in a distinct minority, it seems. I find his highly didactic intentions creating blocky overbearing pieces, albeit with sections and moments of brilliance. I’m willing to listen to MAH’s rendition, simply because I agree with you wholeheartedly as concerns his playing, period. A few years back Ligeti was in Berkeley, giving some seminars and concerts, and I heard all his then extant piano etudes played by Volker Banfield, with Ligeti (and blackboard) in attendance. Ligeti would come out after each etude and discuss and illustrate on the blackboard what it was he had in mind, and then Banfield would play the piece a second time, and we could then listen for the hidden forms Ligeti had so carefully constructed.

A few weeks later Ligeti was doing much the same in LA. My then-girlfriend, a wonderful lady, was at that time working in LA, so I drove down and spent a week or so with her and going to the Ligeti events. Mark-André Hamelin played the Études, again with Ligeti and blackboard in attendance (and I believe the premiere of one more of the at that time not completly finished set). The difference was beyond astounding. Where Banfield’s playing (and pedaling?) was mushy and indistinct, Hamelin’s was totally sharp, crisp, alive, focussed, and much much more important, totally revealing of all Ligeti’s intentions to the point that Ligeti got up from his seat not once!! Just sat and smiled and nodded, and at the end came up and shared a bow with Hamelin. I’ve been a wide-eyed more than fan of Hamelin’s from that day forth. Truly astounding and revelatory performance!! Unless you’ve heard him play these pieces, I can truthfully say that you have never heard these pieces. It’s as simple as that.”

The People United is with reason Rzewski’s most popular work. The attractively ham-handed leftist anthem works as the perfect foil to Rzewski’s extravagantly endowed variations. This is a long, intensely detailed work in which virtuoso technique and a bravura sensibility are most welcome components. I’ve heard some good recorded performances, including the composer’s own on hatART (which contributor-to-be, John Wiser, prefers), and for my money, Hamelin’s is at the head of the line. Remarkably fine recording to boot.

Dmitri SHOSTAKOVITCH 24 Preludes and Fugues, op. 87 • Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano) • DECCA 289 466 066-2 (two discs: 62:21; 79:22)

The story takes on the cliché colorations of all such because, like most of them, it’s true. When Shostakovitch presented his preludes and fugues to the apparat, it responded with Yech! Formalist, bourgeois, obscurantist rubbish! when, of course, the appropriate response to a masterpiece is Yikes! Eureka! Wowie! Annotator David Gutman provides the tale’s sorry details (in which none of this brutish language appears). Ashkenazi provides the interpretations, and oh my, do they satisfy! I’ve a three-disc set of these pieces on Melodiya / BMG Classics 74321198492 performed the woman who gave their premiere, Tatiana Nikolaeva. By comparison with Ashkenazi’s extraordinarily nuanced lyricism, Nikolaeva takes a rather more architectonic course. I prefer Ashkenazi’s reading by no small margin, and, at two discs over three, this nicely recorded Decca set is the better bargain. If you’re unfamiliar with these masterful Bach homages rich in Shostakovian tang, you’re in for a treat, along with no few surprises, one of which, No. 7’s two-minute-plus morsel of a fugue, plays as a sparkling endearment Ravel might have been proud to write.

(The composer’s opus 87 is not to be confused with his 24 Preludes, op. 34, for which see a 1991 London, 433 055-2, which includes Charles-Valentin Akan’s 25 Preludes, op. 31, performed most agreeably by pianist Olli Mustonen.)

TAN Dun Bitter Love • Ying Huang (soprano), New York Virtuoso Singers, vocalists and instrumentalists, Tan Dun (conducting) • SONY CLASSICAL ASK 61658 (60:03)

I was prepared to dislike this disc. It arrived from Sony, unbidden, in that label’s insertless, pre-pub format, in order, I suppose, to discourage grubby hacks such as oneself from selling the thing to pay for his Pop Tart fix. I begin with “dislike” in order to make amends.

Your reporter is impatient with crossoverish, world-musicky endeavor, as so much of it wallows in a generically postmodernist idiom quite innocent of talent and thought — other, that is, than aiming to court its audience’s LCD, and that’s not liquid crystal diode.

Yet one needs to give credit where it’s due. Bitter Love draws on Tan’s opera The Peony Pavilion, which sets the Romeo and Juliet story on its ear. It not a question of feuding families so much as social position. A rich girl’s ghost is made love to with such success by the poor scholar for whom she pined away that she bounces back to life. I’ve read a few Chinese love stories and this one sounds in character. The disc’s success resides in the aptly spooky atmospherics the composer creates by means that normally set one’s teeth on edge — a meld, namely, of Western classical, exotic, and pop-based idioms. The secret agent, methinks, is forbearance with taste. The music’s lyrical eeriness croons its way through moments of nicely contained agitation. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the recording itself is exquisitely and sweetly detailed. The instrumental aspect quite painlessly blends acoustic with electronic, Western with Asian (e.g., pipa, xun, dizi, piri, taeponso, water gong [this latter a guess re: region]). The featured soprano, Ying Huang, performs in large measure as an opera diva, consumptive-heroine mode. The remaining solo vocalists, including Tan Dun, perform, as another noteless guess, Peking-opera style. I see among the listed instrumentalists my old friend Joesph Celli (MIDI horn, etc.), whose OO Discs I’ve reviewed in this space and shall again. While I’m liklier to play something of Helmut Lachenmann’s for R&R, fair’s fair — this is, of its kind, an impressive release.


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