June 30:  The Tomb Guardians  (Henningham Family Press)

                                         October 19:  Mr. Beethoven  (NYRB)

​latest publications

review of Beethoven books  (TLS, December 4, 2020)

paul griffiths

Mr. Beethoven

(Henningham Family Press, April 30, 2020)

shortlisted for the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize

longlisted for the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize

longlisted for the 2021 Walter Scott Prize

record of the week

6  György Kurtág: The Sayings of Péter Bornemisza
Tony Arnold / Gábor Csalog
BMC CD 279
Five years in the making, completed over half a century ago, and for a long time Kurtág’s biggest work (of half-programme length), The Sayings of Péter Bornemisza stands like a mountain, one presenting almost vertical cliff-faces. It was recorded by the artists who gave the first performance, the soprano Erika Sziklay and pianist Loránt Szűcs, but has drawn few other climbers. According to the documentation that comes with this new recording, Tony Arnold was invited to give a performance in Budapest in 2017, the first in two decades, and to repeat the work in the studio just over a year later. That a Hungarian institution (the Budapest Music Center) – and a notoriously demanding Hungarian composer – should have chosen a U.S. singer says much about Arnold’s abilities and sensitivities, among which is a crucial command of the language. Gábor Csalog would always have been the go-to pianist for such a venture.
The result is a huge achievement, that leaves one properly hammered but also fortified. Kurtág does not ease his challenge; he thrusts it straight away – at the singer, at the pianist, and most certainly at the listener – in a four-minute tirade of wild vocal leaps in which song is contorted towards snarls, yelps, groans, punctuated and propelled by hot alarm from the piano. This is the first of four movements making up what the composer calls a “concerto” for soprano and piano, using the term in the sense of the sacred concertos of Heinrich Schütz – for The Sayings of Péter Bornemisza is indeed a sacred work, or else a storming battle to test out just what a sacred work might be in modern times, a work that, in and through the words of a sixteenth-century preacher, takes hold of sin and death, the subjects of its middle movements, to end by wondering about the illusions of redemption.
Arnold goes at all of this full-frontal. Her recording is prefaced by one of Kurtág himself reading the entire text, but though this prologue is a sound document cherishable as a talisman of the composer’s presence with us, now past his ninety-fifth birthday, and surely to be invaluable to future singers of the work, all the meaning is delivered by Arnold’s performance. To give just some examples of single words, “undokságát” conveys the full sense of “odiousness” in those two final drawn-out syllables; “restség” (idleness) has a first syllable stretching out in contemptuous unconcern; “felindul” (starts up) slips out as a trickle of seeming innocuousness; “hiszi” (above), appearing at two signal junctures in the final movement, is a whisper of simultaneous hope and doubt. All the resolution of the work is here, in this one quiet word voiced from outside the closed doors of paradise.
Different kinds of expertise and commitment are required of the pianist; there is not the corporeal involvement that comes acorss vividly in this recording when Arnold is singing unaccompanied and her initial inhalations are drawn into the music. Nevertheless, Csalog’s intensity of sound and gesture builds to what one might call an intensity of form in the two long sections that are mostly solos for the piano. In the last movement’s third segment, desperate – and beautiful – melancholy is confronted by violence that turns out to be melancholy in another guise. Earlier there is a gently, poignantly sustained seven-minute song of mourning.
Exquisiteness is power. Sadness is grace. Rhetoric spirals in on itself.

5  Anthony Cheung: Cycles and Arrows
New Focus fcr215
It is all in the detail. Anthony Cheung has an intensely accurate sense of where his notes are going, and how and why. His music is so well made that it can give a friendly wave to jazz without falling flat on its face. It can even entice a quotation – from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, of all things – to play new games. And its precision is responsible for a wealth of sonic magic.
In this collection of ensemble and chamber pieces, all from 2013-15, the jazz flavour comes across most cheerfully in Assumed Roles, a kind of unconcerto for viola, when a family of springing motifs gradually comes to take over from a four-note pattern that has monopolized the music a while. And the ending of this piece, a long descent shadowing Mahler, again shows how, when Cheung reflects on something, the image remains firmly embedded in his own mirror.
Beethoven you might think a trickier customer, but Cheung handles him adroitly in a set of three Bagatelles for piano and string quartet. Quite apart from the odd quotation or reference, these pieces accept the Beethovenian definition of the bagatelle as something abrupt and compact, nothing mere about it. Similarly bagatellish in this respect are the five movements of The Real Book of Fake Tunes, for flute and quartet.
Though Cheung has a Chinese surname, he was born in San Francisco, and his music only begins to sound Chinese when he is writing for Chinese instruments – along with western ones – in More Marginalia. Even here, the otherness is held tightly in check as much as it is all through his music by abstraction.
All through, too, creative awareness lends a light in which the music reveals itself, beautifully. Yet one piece retains its even more beguiling mystery: Time’s Vestiges, for nine players. This, in twelve minutes or so, irregularly, executes a sweep from low to high – an arrow of time, within which there are many smaller arrows, cycles, and cycles on cycles. At the beginning, soloists take turns with a four-note shape not unrelated to that of Assumed Roles. Time is slow and sticky here, and the instruments need effort to extricate themselves. There follows a sequence of episodes gradually taking over from one another: an imaginary ocean of wavelets and sprays, a multi-instrument staccato pattering, a wonderful horn solo, and finally a crushed harmony of retuned strings in continuous ascent as the piano takes steps in the same direction. Haunting and memorable.
Not to be forgotten, too, is Après une lecture, an oboe solo of recurrent motifs with a startling close.
The excellent performances feature ICE, the Atlas Ensemble, the Spektral Quartet, Winston Choi, Claire Chase and Ernest Rombout.

Pierluigi Billone: Mani. Giacometti, 2 Alberi
Kairos 0015064KAI
Monolithic. The word comes readily, perhaps too readily to a mind pondering the music of Pierluigi Billone. This could be because the typical Billone composition lasts for an unbroken half-hour, as is the case with the two on this disc. Also, some of the titles look as if they might have been transliterated from cuneiform: MAAT ME, OM.ON, UTU AN.KI LU. But most of all there is an atmosphere of strangeness, remoteness, inexplicability. We know, of course, that what we are hearing is the product of a human being of our time; it comes to us with a name attached. But for how little we can penetrate it – as distinct from being awed by it, drawn by it and into it – it belongs with the artefacts of remotest antiquity. One can quite easily imagine cave painters putting down their pots of pigment to pick up instruments and play Billone’s Mani. Giacometti, whereas the idea of them playing Mozart is just absurd.
Mani. Giacometti is scored for a regular string trio, though it certainly does not sound that way. All the resources of Lachenmann’s string writing are in play, if to totally different effect, because Billone’s is not generally a music of gesture. It does not open itself to small-scale identification, which again is part of being monolithic. In a remarkable extension from one of the ideals of musical modernism, there is no language here, just the power, over the attention and the imagination, of sound itself. Action without language, without perceptible purpose, is the condition of ritual. And the effect of a single slab of time, unmediated, is enhanced by how sounds are often of long duration, in slow change, and you cannot tease one out any more than you can pinch out a flake stuck in a jar of treacle: it all sticks together.
Coherence and consistency imply not only a prevailing character but also some sort of process, to maintain close interest. Perhaps this has to do with how Billone places, through time, his slow, strong gradients, his interruptions and his occasional plateaux. In doing this, he inevitably relies very much on his performers. There are not, so far, too many different performances to consider. Mani. Giacometti, from its twenty-year history, has only a recording from the première to show for itself alongside the new one. Mani. Gonxha, however, for a solo percussionist with a pair of Tibetan singing bowls, can be witnessed on YouTube in seven performances by six different players, to set beside the version on another Kairos release. Inspection quickly reveals how much depends not only on acoustic and, especially, microphone placement but also on the skills, aptitudes and choices of the performer.
As for the pieces here, the performances speak for themselves. Members of the Manchester group Distractfold are compelling in Mani. Giacometti, all the way towards and away from the climactic passage that seems to arise in every Billone piece, and that here explodes just past the halfway point, with the musicians vocalizing syllables. There is full presence, too, in 2 Alberi from scapegoat, a duo formed by Joshua Hyde on alto sax and Noam Bierstone on percussion, for whom the composer wrote this piece, in 2017. Both performances may be compared with YouTube realizations made by the same artists, but though the visual drama is worth watching (particularly in 2 Alberi, if with the usual time-slip between image and sound), the compact disc is, of course, sonically far superior.
The two pieces come from series, and their titles could do with a little explaining. “Mani” for Billone means “hands”, and connotes the handcrafting that goes into his sound, from himself and from his musicians. But the word also calls up the manes, or tutelary deities of Roman religion. Billone appropriately names one of his own heroes in each instalment (Gonxha being Mother Teresa’s second name). As for 2 Alberi, its title, like those of 4 Alberi and 3 Alberi, refers to Emily Dickinson’s poem addressing a group of four trees “without Design / or Order”. However, there certainly is design and order in the interaction of Hyde and Bierstone (a hero of Mani. Gonxha, by the way). The beginning is with the sax alone in slow crescendos, slow teasings out of multiphonics; then comes the percussion crashing on (a small set-up of drum and a few metal objects) to up the temperature. Here the climax arrives later, roughly three-quarters of the way through, followed by what is perhaps the true destination: gentle rolls on the drum with the hands and soft sax tone. What was to happen has happened, and the piece departs.

3  A Bag of Bagatelles
Nicolas Hodges
Wergo WER 6810 2
The title is too modest. Bagatelles are indeed being bagged here – Beethoven’s Op. 126 set – but so are pieces by the other composer represented, Birtwistle, that are not exactly bagatellish: Variations from the Golden Mountain (2014), which plays for over ten minutes, and Gigue Machine (2012), which does not completely give up the ghost until more than a quarter of an hour has gone by. Hodges introduced both, and his performances here, recorded by WDR in Cologne just over a year ago, are spectacular.
The earlier composition’s odd title nods to the Goldberg Variations, though perhaps only so far as to acknowledge a formidable model of laying down music bit by bit to create a wholeness. Ushered in by bright clatter, which will go on to echo through the piece, this is essentially a slow movement, though its cautious step can go as far, briefly, as to a limping run. The pacing is mostly done by single notes, shadowed by muffled chords. These are notes, though, lost in the music they are part of. Only towards the end does the fog clear, to expose what is still more ominous. A revolving pattern of three notes seems to have drawn out the essence of the clatter, only to be punishingly challenged by a repeating note. There is also one of the most frightening sounds a piano has ever been caused to emit: a sforzandissimo crush at the top end that could be a screech of pain or else the sudden stab that opens the wound. This appears to be setting up a metallic resonance at the other end of the city.
Though Gigue Machine was written earlier, it fits well after Variations from the Golden Mountain, not only because this makes for a satisfying slow-fast progression but also for how the machine seems to get going by rethreading the elements that came out at the end of the variations (screech/stab excepted). The result is soon a cascade of askew ostinato upon askew ostinato, as if these were indeed the motions of a clockwork engine that has met with an accident and had its wheels buckled. It lies there like an overturned beetle, firing away, often in 6/8 gigue rhythms, mostly severe and astonishing but sometimes cheeky, until it runs out of steam.

2Vykintas Baltakas: Ouroboros
Kairos 0015045KAI
Lithuania is one of the heritage sites of The Rite of Spring, traces of which seem to have been in the mind of the most prominent current Lithuanian composer as, in 2004-5, he wrote his Ouroboros-Zyklus. There is the signalling and burbling of pipes, along with a couple of almost direct quotations of woodwind trills. Context, however, is everything, and here the Stravinskian echoes are firmly borne along within an almost half-hour sway of music that is sometimes witty, sometimes alarming, and all of it captivating. The starting point is a single note, D sharp on the treble staff, at first bouncing around a quartet of woodwinds (flute, oboe, clarinet, soprano saxophone). Activity remains largely high and higher, as the ensemble grows and carries the piece on and through further stages. The basic principle is one of increasing variegation to a state of collapse, ready for a new phase to begin: hence the title. That D sharp is somewhere in the texture almost throughout, though the main focus may be elsewhere, higher. Trills and quick flurryings suggest music continuously simmering, especially in the work’s later stages. There is also a startling vocal contribution. After the first phase has exhausted itself, everything clears for a gentle babbling of women’s voices, recorded, suggesting a break back into infancy. This will recur at the end of the piece, but first time round it introduces the live soprano, whose soaring and often beautiful line proceeds as the music’s standard-bearer. This is altogether a rare piece: fresh, often ravishing in sound, and, while rich in reference and connotation, completely itself.
It very much outshines – outblazes – the other two works on the record, which make one sit up only when they recall their glorious cohabitee. Lift to Dubai (2009), product of a programme that took composers to faraway places, enshrouds recordings from the named territory in music for some or all (usually just some) of a mixed ensemble. There is very little of your picture-postcard east-west conjunction, but nor is there very much else. Smokey Arnold (2015) comes from another idea, that of replacing one of the numbers (“Heimweh”) of Pierrot lunaire with a movement for the same instrumental formation. Baltakas succeeds in conveying homesickness by other means, and perhaps the moroseness could be taken as comic, but thirteen and a half minutes is a long time for such a joke.

Christian Mason: Zwischen den Sternen
Winter & Winter 910 267-2
Tuvan Songbook, Sardinian Songbook
nonclassical nonclss039
(Full disclosure: I have written words for a forthcoming piece by this composer.) Composed for the ensemble recherche, Zwischen den Sternen (Between the Stars) is a view of the heavens from a position firmly on earth. Christian Mason uses as his telescope one of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus (“Between the stars, such distances, and yet how much vaster are the distances we learn of here,” in Edward Snow’s translation), but the words fall away to leave the musical imagery shining clear. Distance is there from the start, in how the piano maintains a slow swing from a pure fourth to a harmony that the partial use of just intonation makes delicately and deliciously strange. The gesture is arresting, even commanding, enough to initiate a forty-minute composition. Strings tease out wispy harmonics from the piano’s pronouncements; a steelpan splashes in with its own wonderfully wonky intonation, which marries happily with the piano’s. After a few minutes, the stars’ energy enlivens the wind trio, before fading into the top treble to give place to a homely scene of the piano musing on three notes, to which the other instruments gently and glowingly hum. Soon the music is spinning in circles within circles that crash and fray, the flute adding whooshes of exhilarated exhaustion as after running a race. Then the opening returns, to lead this time into a slow actualization of distance as the portable instruments depart, leaving the cellist to pick out echoes of the basic melodic elements, pizzicato. Thematically and tonally integrated, the piece floats in its own space, firmly on course.
Mason’s Songbooks for string quartet, arrangements of songs from Mongolia and Sardinia, need not be shamefaced in this company. The source material, whether Asian or Mediterranean, makes much of overtones, encouraging Mason to skid off on more explorations of natural tuning. Rhythmic excitement, too, is rampant. And there is distance – not only in how the music arcs across the globe but also in the increasing separation of the players as they go from one Sardinian song (recordings by the Tenores di Bitti provided the models) to the next. The Ligeti Quartet swing into everything with high-precision vim, not least – but certainly not only – when given the chance to take part vocally.