The NMC Songbook
How can we sing now? Almost a hundred different answers come in The NMC Songbook (NMC D150), or songbox, a collection of four records released to celebrate both the label’s twentieth anniversary and a significant number of releases. Inevitably, even though we have a great range of composers here, well known and not so, a lot of the answers are framed in the same terms, not only in being set out for solo voice and piano but also in accepting the old conventions of song: lyric persona, word painting, atmospheric or illustrative figuration in the accompaniment. In the midst of so much careful sensitivity one can be grateful for the occasional rude assault, such as Dai Fujikura’s ‘Lake Side’, a montage of textual scraps (‘Go to Tesco’ and a lot of ‘git’ and ‘pillock’) collected by Harry Ross – grateful, too, for the sharply precise humour of Morgan Hayes’s ‘A Dictionary of London’, to words by Dickens, or Richard Causton’s duet ‘English Encouragement of Art’, after Blake.
Since all the songs have words in English (except for the three that have no words at all), English subjects crop up quite frequently; there are, in particular, several rural scenes, including Howard Skempton’s pristine lakeland picture ‘Silence on Ullswater’, sung with appealing freshness by Benjamin Hulett, and Brian Elias’s unaccompanied John Clare setting, ‘Meet Me in the Green Glen’, beautifully done by Susan Bickley. There are also several that refer to the woeful state of the nation. Two composers set excerpts from the proto-communist manifesto of 1649 The True Levellers Standard Advanced, both for voice with drumming accompaniment, though the songs are different in tone, Christopher Fox’s emphatic, Luke Bedford’s quiet and ominous. James Dillon is also evidently thinking of the present in his choice of words by Blake: ‘Albion is sick, America faints!’ Rich piano chords here, slowly turning as if trying to shrug something off, give birth to a counter-tenor’s warning. And is Luke Stoneham’s electronic contribution a political piece? A burst of white noise takes us into – and another takes us out from – a quiet soundscape of respiration with the distant sounds of a pop song, a barking dog and a crying baby: the stage is set for a song, but there is no song, no singer.
Among other outstanding items are Stuart MacRae’s stalwart lament, for counter-tenor (Michael Chance) with just touches of guitar accompaniment (Antonis Hatznikolaou), Chris Dench’s setting of a definition of love from Tristram Shandy, where the voices of mezzo (Loré Lixenberg) and baritone (Omar Ebrahim) supported by sumptuous, downward flowing and fluttering piano (Jonathan Powell) give the impression of a couple on an immense double bed who are singing out but not speaking to each other, Jonathan Harvey’s imagining of Blake’s ‘Sunflower’ for high soprano (Clare Booth) and super-high, resonant piano (Huw Watkins) – curious that the three Blake songs in the box should be so different and all winners – and Donnacha Dennehy’s version of ‘Swift’s Epitaph’ for counter-tenor (Andrew Watts) and percussion (Owen Gunnell), where the emphatic and rhythmically alert opening for drum and vibes evaporates into trickling glockenspiel and then almost works its way back beneath the voice’s strange chant, an altogether magical piece.
Almost as haunting are some of the simplest songs: Jonathan Lloyd’s duet with strummed guitar ‘The Greenwood’s Lament’, Bláar Kindsdottir’s ‘haiku’ and Bryn Harrison’s ‘An Oblique’, which is effectively placed at the end. The editing also shows its neatness in taking us from Lyell Cresswell’s droll and dour ‘A Recipe for Whisky’ for baritone and temple blocks straight into Michael Berkeley’s unashamedly lush ‘Echo: hommage à Francis Poulenc’.
What do we want of a song? That it stay with us. Many of these surely will.
Their lineup of sax (Finn Peters), percussion (Dave Price) and piano (Ivo De Greef) gives the group Noszferatu ready access to that busy hinge between jazz and New York minimalism also occupied by Bang on a Can and the Dutch post-Andriessen gang. This is a place where energy counts, but so does precision, and Noszferatu show plentiful amounts of both in their debut recording (NMC D166), which features works by British composers, most of them writing for these players. Given the neon-nocturne, city-lights premise, the range is broad – from the ominous unfolding of Jonathan Powell’s Drempel, well chosen as the title track (that title coming from the Dutch road sign ‘Let op! Drempel’, advising drivers of a coming ramp), to the sweet-natured English take on Reich and Glass offered by Andrew Poppy’s Now the Hammer Fell. Maybe the standout piece – certainly for humour – is Dave Price’s Lee’s Game, based on snatches of recorded speech from a Korean friend with whom Price communicates in a macaronic mix of English, Korean and Polish. By no means just funny, also touching, the piece is most obviously a commentary on the tripups that will happen – but also the leaps – when people run up to the edges of their linguistic boundaries. But since the players have to keep pace with the recorded voice, in timing and accentuation, this ten-minuter is also a virtuso challenge, brilliantly answered here. From Joe Cutler, who as ‘creative associate’ makes this trio a quartet, comes Sikorski B, worrying at a haunting phrase. Paul Newland’s Trance takes a different line, disturbing in how the same melodic spaces are re-encountered from everchanging angles and approaches. There is also, not written for the ensemble but obviously unmissable, a tantalizing piece by Howard Skempton for two vibraphones: In Tandem, a simple statement that keeps revolving but remains a puzzle.
Hèctor PARRA: chamber music
Imagine César Franck rewritten in the age of Ferneyhough and Lachenmann. That may give some impression of the chamber works by Hèctor Parra presented on a portrait album (Kairos 0012822 KAI) by ensemble recherche, who perform with typical strength. There are two compact piano trios in prime position here, Wortschatten (Word Shadows, 2004) and Knotted Fields (2007), both of them exhibiting not only a Romantic paradigm of musical flow – the instruments often exchanging intimacies at the pace of song, especially in the former piece – but also Romantic gestures of ardour and longing, at times including brushes with Romantic harmony. This is not pastiche. The terms in which the composer writes of his music are abstract and Ferneyhovian (he was a pupil), and though he describes Knotted Fields as coming out of ‘an intense reflection on our classical heritage and its validity for the composition of today’, it emerges that he is thinking here of sonata form rather than of the late Romantic pangs, urges and caresses the piece intermittently replays. It is as if these things are arising of themselves, while the composer’s attention is elsewhere. An earlier piece, Abîme for flute, oboe, string trio and piano, shows the same perhaps unconscious taste for the textural and expressive richness of former times. An excited light flickers in the dark over a painting from another age.
The programme also includes a short piano piece and two works with electronics: L’Aube assaillie, which is otherwise a solo cello sonata, and a string trio dating from 2006. This is by far the strongest piece here, having its own rhetoric, within which Romantic echoes play only a small part. The cello again has the central, guiding role, with the upper instruments seeming to huddle in its shelter. Apparently derived from string effects, and presumably pre-recorded, the electronic component steals or bursts in now and then with gusts that might sound like bowing on metal or the slow-motion crashing of glass. Stopping suddenly, moving on, the live players make their way through this stormy musical weather, which they have brought on themselves, and the work ends with a question mark, like someone peering out from under an umbrella.
Arvo PÄRT: In principio
Time stands still. In principio (ECM 2050) is the eleventh full cd of music by Arvo Pärt that Manfred Eicher has brought out, and the paradoxes remain very much as they always were. The music is at once austere and lush, objective and personal, ancient and modern. Take the title piece, a setting of the first verses of St John’s gospel, in Latin. A choir forcefully intones a few words on an A minor chord, supported by strings, whereupon timpani hammer the point home and brass answer with a major chord. The whole thing is repeated again and again, each time with a different chord from the brass, sometimes plus bell, until all twelve major chords have been sounded. This is the first of five sections, and the last is its mirror image, the choir (with brass) now going through all the major keys and the strings responding with pulses of A minor. The effect is of some barbaric monument that has mysteriously survived intact into the present age. Stupedously rhetorical gestures – those clamours of brass, the thumping timpani, a cymbal crash – come across as embarrassingly overblown and exhausted unless one can find them renewed by the alien context. A process is going on. This is how it is. Then there is the driven performance by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and National Symphony Orchestra under Tönu Kaljuste.
The programme includes two other pieces playing for 15-20 minutes: La Sindone, a tone poem on the Turin Shroud that begins like one of Messiaen’s orchestral scores of the 1930s but soon becomes becalmed, and Cecilia, vergine romana for choir and orchestra, whose opening uncannily recalls the movement from Khachaturian’s Gayane that Stanley Kubrick used to suggest the peaceful monotony of interplanetary travel. Of three smaller compositions, Mein Weg, for strings and percussion, offers a fair imitation of Philip Glass. Lennartile (For Lennart), a solemn elegy for strings, somewhat Sibelian, was touchingly commissioned by the late President of Estonia for his own funeral, and Da pacem Domine, for choir and orchestra, finds the composer at his most distilled, most engaging.
Gérard PESSON: orchestral music
You have to like a composer who quotes an adverse comment on his music from Lachenmann and goes on to profess admiration for that same senior master, as Gérard Pesson does with reference to the title opus on his Aggravations et final (ææon AECD 0876). Agreement seems to rest on a mistrust of inherited formulae and a taste for previously unwanted sounds, but where Lachenmann brave aim is to wrest beauty from what has not yet been aesthetically experienced, from the raw matter of the world (the dark matter, perhaps), Pesson finds delight in the shreds of material circulating in his well stocked memory, so that mistrust, delighted mistrust, becomes a way of being. In a revealing comment from the same note – a witty comment, too, for his prose is as polished and angled as his music – he remarks: ‘At times whilst writing Aggravations, I indeed thought that I had captured the music too late, when it was already in its “spin-drying” phase.’ To quote him again, he says of another work here, Rescousse, that each of its nineteen sections is based on a different source: ‘Those are, in no particular order: a verse by the American poet Susan Howe, an Arab mode, a Hindu rhythm, a Greek rhythm, yet others by Ravel and Messiaen, a chord from Bruckner, an old English song, an Ethiopian lullaby, a techno bass line, a page by Lachenmann (the first of Mouvement), a hymn composed by Gerard Manley Hopkins, etc.’ The references, filtered into the jumpy but smooth-running machine of his music, may not be recognizable, and one may well make connections other than those he mentions. For example, Aggravations et final (2002) which is scored for orchestra, seems doomed at the start to keep circling round Bernard Hermann’s knife jabs for the shower scene in Psycho, and Rescousse (2004-5) hits on ‘Frère Jacques’ early on. But shreds are, after all, shreds; the labels on them may be unreadable or easily misread. What is clear is that all this material is being recycled, not only with virtuosity but also with a delicate mix of irony and joy.
Brisk and bouncy, these two works are finely presented here, Aggravations by Lucas Vis and the WDR Symphony Orchestra, Rescousse in a particularly enjoyable performance by the Ensemble Modern conducted by Brad Lubman. Pesson’s orchestral sound is light, his gestures glancing; no sooner is something suggested than it is whisked away, in music set most often to a skipping pulse.
These same qualities are found again in an extraordinary piece that closes the programme, Wunderblock (2005), in which Pesson rewrites the first movement of Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony with the wisps and fairydust of his own orchestral manner. The effect is like being shown the interior of a great cathedral at night by torchlight: the architecture is all there, but at the same time lacking presence, except when a sudden shadow is flung across the vault (that is, when Bruckner’s orchestration is momentarily evoked). By making this also an accordion concerto, for Teodoro Anzellotti, Pesson reveals unexpected connections between Bruckner’s ostinatos and those of a fairground organ.
Presumably the ostinatos were part of the attraction, but, as he has shown before, in Mes Béatitudes, Pesson is susceptible also to Brucknerian melody, and a thread of such melody, though by Wagner, turns up here in his Cassation for string trio, clarinet and piano, a nocturne with a Spanish flavour that is just one character trait Pesson shares with Ravel. The record also includes a set of three piano pieces, Vexierbilder II, a second set of ‘picture puzzles’ which, in Hermann Kretschmar’s elegant performances, have Pessonesque qualities of dreamy delicacy and mystery without any explicit references.
Gérard PESSON: piano music
More Pesson comes in an album of piano music (col legno WWE 1CD 20285) played by Alfonso Alberti, who does not quite have the control of sound and breath that Kretschmar displays on the ææon collection, and who is more closely recorded, even if this has the advantage of picking up strongly the noise effects included in some of the pieces other than the set Kretschmar plays. Nevertheless, Albert shows a sense of Pesson’s elusiveness and intrigue. Most of the pieces are short, down to the two seconds (discounting resonance) of Excuse my Dust, an arpeggio whisking up the keyboard like the twirl of a magician’s cape, appropriately placed at the end of the programme. Many other items are similarly rudimentary. The first of the Trois Pièces of 2008 is made with just a few notes (a rare example of Pesson’s sophistication failing him, since the piece is compromised by the example of Ligeti’s Musica ricercata), while the second is a very slow melody without accompaniment, the third then explaining why these economies were needed: to step around a bunch of prepared strings. Other pieces play with references, in a necessarily more elementary way than Pesson can achieve with a chamber group or orchestra. Butterfly’s Note-Book is a set of ten tiny pieces, each reflecting Puccini’s opera in a sequin. ‘En haut de mât’ hauntingly evokes one of the most haunting moments in Wagner: the Steersman’s song in Tristan. This is Jatékók without tears.
Matthias PINTSCHER: sonic eclipse
A new Matthias Pintscher selection (Kairos 0013162 KAI) is full of his customary finesse but at the same time disturbing. a twilight’s song – a cummings setting for soprano and mixed septet from 1997 – projects a typically beautiful soundscape of dabs, smudges and broken lines, and concerns itself with a typically Pintscherian topic: the mirror. Reflecting on reflection, the song is bewitched and bewitching. All the other music here, however, is later, written between 2008 and 2010, and troubling not only in itself but also in what it intimates of a dark turn in Pintscher’s thought – troubling because the darkening seems at the moment to be closing more avenues than it opens. The fine timbral imagination is still there, whether the outfit is an unaccompanied chorus (she-cholat ahavah ani) or a standard modern ensemble with trumpet and horn soloists (sonic eclipse), but both these works drag a heavy anchor in the form of a middle-register note the music seems unable to get away from, or to forget. As a result, a sense of oppression pervades, even when the music is energetic, as often it is in the double concerto, or exultant, as it becomes towards the close of the choral piece, which sets a passage from the Song of Songs.
The cummings song and the trumpet-horn concerto were recorded by ICE under the composer’s direction at, or around the time of, a concert devoted to his music at Miller Theatre, New York, in October 2010. The choral piece is sung by its commissioning group, the vocal ensemble of SWR, Stuttgart.
Alberto POSADAS: Liturgia fractal
Following the forking pathways of Ligeti and Kyburz, Alberto Posadas creates music of fermenting self-similarity – and sometimes abrupt difference – in his Liturgia fractal of 2003-7, written for, and beautifully presented on record by, the Diotima Quartet (Kairos 0012932 KAI). At its simplest, as at the start, Posadas’s fractal music is a species of elastic canon: a small motif is copied from line to line, over and over, with more or less consistent change in some direction or other, whether a transformation of contour or a slow slide (often upward), producing an effect at once homogeneous and dynamic. The music is strongly determined, in that the generating element is a constant reference-point, and the resulting degree of stability provides a well-upholstered foundation for the ear, given that the music is so finely composed and played. We know where we are, and are happy to be there. At the same time, however, there is a fearful awareness of the arbitrary. Yes, we know where we are, but we know, too, that we could very easily be somewhere else. This tightrope of certain uncertainty is securely traversed by both composer and performers, and Posadas and his msuicians also masterfully overcome what could be a problem, that the emphasis on the minuscule rules out the possibility of long lines. These do appear in the fourth of the five movements – Arborescencias, a mini-concerto for violin and string trio that may be performed as a separate piece – though even there the melody is often evidently built from small, alike segments. Elsewhere the music is made largely from dust motes, but shaped into swirls and gusts so as always to keep the larger picture in sight. What may also surprise is the haunting and sometimes moving effect created by music whose genesis is so abstract and objective. The muted chords that run through much of the second movement, Modulaciones, strikingly convey the piece into a glistening new world, and the retrieval of that world in the next movement, Órbitas, is momentous within the context of this subtly nuanced music. The end of Órbitas is another powerful juncture, with the four instruments in galloping motion sounding indeed like four suns in orbit around their mutual centre of gravity, and then a peep into the harmonics at the begining of Arborescencias. All that seems puzzling is the title, with its suggestion that these five movements form a sort of string quartet mass, for there is nothing liturgical here, only an exciting freshness.
Alberto POSADAS: Glossopoeia
The second Kairos album of music by Alberto Posadas (0013112 KAI) presents works varied in scale – two chamber compositions (Nebmaat and the final third of Glossopoeia), one for a fifteen-piece ensemble (Cripsis) and one for a grouping of almost double that size (Oscuro abismo de llanto y de ternura) – but is less engaging, and even less various, than the first, which was devoted to his string quartet cycle Liturgia fractal. Debts to Grisey are more obvious, in the spectral luminescence of the larger scores and in the ominous evocation of ancient Egypt in Nebmaat, and one may begin to tire of the almost constantly tremulous musical substance. Also, the composer’s attention to detail and his formal persuasiveness are sometimes subverted by crudely sweeping gestures, especially those that relentlessly gather up the music into the high treble, as happens almost identically in Nebmaat and Cripsis, though similar events in Oscuro abismo result in moments of thinned-out beauty – and indeed there are other positive features, such as they way the two bigger pieces seem to come to an end and then find the means for a postlude.
Much the best thing here, though, is the section from Glossopoeia, deriving from an IRCAM collaboration with the choreographer to create a piece for two dancers, four instrumentalists (viola, cello, bass clarinet and percussion) and electronics. The music gives the impression one is travelling through a dark, complex space (Posadas is good at this; Nebmaat draws some of its inspiration and design from a pyramid), within which strange beings can coalesce as if out of the echoing air. Movement is slow but gripping, and the spectral harmonies are being left behind. One might well wish Kairos had stuck just with the whole of this hour-long work, though maybe the earlier sections were more intricately involved with the dance.
Composed in 2009, Glossopoeia is the most recent work represented here. On the record sleeve the chronology is confused by the misdating of Cripsis (2001, not 2007) and Nebmaat (2003, not 2008).
Roger REYNOLDS: piano music
Where has the time gone? A new double album of piano-centred works by Roger Reynolds (Mode 212/13) reminds us that this rather lonely West Coast composer, one who might seem more attuned to Europe or Japan for his fierce-minded radicalism, has been at work for half a century, and also that not so much has changed – or, rather, that a great deal once changed, through the sixties, before slowly changing back again. Of the two big works from that awesome decade – both playing for around twenty minutes – the solo Fantasy (1964) makes discreet use of inside-piano techniques that had not long been introduced by Cage and Tudor, while Traces (1968), the outstanding piece here, has the piano traced by flute and cello, and the whole caboodle traced again by electronic transformation (which may require some adjustment of playback volume). Reynolds also had the advantage during this period of working with the explosive virtuosity of Yuji Takahashi, who is the artist in these recordings, made in analog and therefore presumably archival. (Takahahsi is also happily represented by a much newer recording, of a 2007 piece, imAge/piano, and by the judicious programme notes.) Reynolds and Takahashi together sound intent on world conquest, and yet what comes over in Fantasy now – and in other pieces in this collection – is a sense of frustration and melancholy. Along with the brightness and the electricity goes the gloom of a basement club just before dawn, when all the punters have gone and only the pianist is left playing.
Traces is different, though it, too, has changed. Where in its time it was most striking for sonic innovation, in how the piano sound interacts with the flute and cello tracers as well as in how the modulation works, now it comes across as a dark and often menacing sound drama, contemporary not so much with Cage, Stockhausen, Lucier and Rzewski as with Pinter. The flute and the cello, often scanning the piano with sustained sounds, may seem to be using searchlights, or extreme means of questioning. There are times when all three instruments seem in the same boat (a beautiful ‘waterdrop’ section of separated, noise-filled notes from flute and cello matching the piano tones), and others where the cello and the flute sound like the piano’s soothing companions, but perhaps these effects are being cynically manipulated by the interrogators. The ending, when they lose their victim (as they did before, the piano hiding in the upper treble above them), remains disturbing.
The album also has fine contributions from two younger pianists: Marilyn Nonken in the concerto The Angel of Death and Eric Huebner in solo pieces, his vivid presence showing how another 2007 composition, imagE/piano, comes back to the concern with elemental figure in Epigram and Evolution of 1960.
Roger REYNOLDS: Sanctuary
As Steve Schick points out in the notes that accompany the recording of Roger Reynolds’s Sanctuary (mode 232/33), the percussionist’s is a dramatic art – an art of gesture and also an art that often involves visually exciting objects, sometimes objects whose sounds are surprising and nearly always objects that stand apart from the musician, waiting. It is very good, then, that this is a dvd recording – or, rather, two dvd recordings, one made under studio conditions, the other at a public performance (in an excessively reverberant space at the National Gallery of Art in Washington), as well as documentaries.
The percussionist – and Schick draws attention to this, too – is also unusual among western musicians in being able to feel a direct kinship with musical performers in quite other cultures. Skills of timing, attack and alertness to others are much the same for percussionists on a noh stage as on that of Carnegie Hall. Even the instruments may be the same, for where the violin and the oboe have a long history of development within western art music, percussion players face an instrumentarium with entanglements still in other sources and purposes: cow bells, temple blocks, maracas – not to mention one Schick is seen using in this piece, an empty Glenfiddich bottle.
If not this last, many percussion instruments retain an association with sacred music and ritual, and even a brand new composition can profit from (or be compromised by) this, especially when several musicians are involved in what can then become a ceremony of signalling, of verse and response, of solo and chorus, of sound and silence. To examples by Xenakis and Stockhausen can now be added Sanctuary, an enactment in three parts that together last an hour and a quarter: ‘Chatter/Clatter’, for a soloist operating on a small array of resonant items with fingers or coins (this is Schick’s role, and it is unfortunate he does not reappear after this introductory section), ‘Oracle’, for four musicians (red fish blue fish) who have their own setups, from which they come forward to play on a chosen instrument placed centrally by itself (a canister containing water and having protruding spindles of different lengths), and ‘Song’.
Patterns of pulses – steady, accelerating, decelerating – form the basic material, repeated and reworked by musicians whose actions and reactions are engrossing. Inserts of percussion-based electronic music suggest the soloist’s irrepressible memories in the first part, but are more puzzling in the second, which is much the longest. ‘Song’ – where the performers at last attack the cowbells that have been standing unused for so long, and where melody at last flowers – is wonderful in its arrival. A purely audio version would surely seem long, but the studio dvd recording, made under the direction of Ross Karre, one of the percussionists, rivets the attention on what seems indeed to have the necessity, the excess and the strangeness of a rite.
Rolf RIEHM: aprikosenbäume gibt es
What we are all the time looking for is the unlooked-for sound we did not know was there but that suddenly, or maybe with some effort, shifts the limits of the possible to include it – not a new sound, in truth, for a sound by itself is nothing, but a new context for sound, a place we have not been before. Such a place is the half-hour title track on Rolf Riehm’s album aprikosenbäume gibt es, aprikosenbäume gibt es (Cybele SACD 860.701). After a sprinkling of words – evidently the title, in Danish as it turns out, recorded by the poet responsible, Inger Christensen – a contrabass clarinet starts to speak, with Kurtágian firmness, assembling and reassembling a small repertory of notes and motifs with something of the open yet secret purposefulness of change-ringing. There is the sense, perhaps from the pauses, of an instigation, but nothing is being instigated. Then something is. Other instruments begin to enter as if in sympathetic vibration: trumpet and trombone, and later violin and cello, after the presumed soloist has stopped a while. Events can be crude: imitations, doublings, a chime of octaves (in homage to Ligeti?), as if the musical language had been reduced to basics. But this is the primitivism of shipwreck survivors. The sound of assertion is also the sound of challenge, the sound of music that will not behave itself.
This refusal to ingratiate – so rare and refreshing in the contemporary musical landscape – is found again in the two other pieces on the record: Ahi bocca, ahi lingua for four male singers and Schlaf, schlaf, John Donne, schlaf tief und quäl dich nicht for violin, bass clarinet, keyboard and accordion with recorded voices, those of a singer and, again, the poet involved, in this case Brodsky (from whose Elegy for John Donne comes the line ‘Sleep, sleep, John Donne, sleep deeply and do not torment yourself’), of which the latter shares the desperation and indelibility of aprikosenbäume. All three works are performed by the ensembles for which they were written: ascolta, Hilliard and recherche. Notes on them (in German) may be found at the composer’s website.
Rolf RIEHM: Die Tränen des Gletschers
Simultaneously austere and white-hot, three orchestral works by Rolf Riehm in SWR recordings (Telos TLS 128) seize attention and sound like nothing else. Sometimes the sounds themselves are new, yet full of ancient expressive force; an example comes right away in the opening gesture of the first piece on the album, Die Tränen des Gletschers (The Glacier’s Tears), where a roar quickly lifts off into a wail of violins, and there is a sustained moment of breathtaking strangeness later in this work. Much more often, though, the vocabulary is familiar but not its usage: single notes or chords that are forcefully repeated in a way that calls to mind Ustvolskaya, or more rarely Messiaen; melodies laboriously put together out of isolated notes, as if the orchestra were learning to speak after some dreadful accident; a C minor chord like a faint blue horizon at the close of a piece whose cumbersome macaronic title, Nuages immortels oder Focusing on Solos (Medea in Avignon), testifies to its compartmented structure, though everything in this score hangs together tightly, thanks partly to the distinctiveness of Riehm’s aural vision.
It is a matter of constructing again with what has been destroyed, of going back to basics, of finding again how one note will fit with another – a search given telling images here in melodies composed across an abyss of silence from the middle register. Returning to the elemental, restoring the elemental, also means forgetting about personal style and voice. Events in these pieces are often big and strong, but curiously without rhetoric, affirming only themselves. (Riehm is also capable of reducing the orchestra to one or two soloists, or leaving out whole sections for long periods; he has no hangups about always making a good orchestral sound, and there is much in his music that comes across as raw and yet also, in another paradox, crucially judged.)
The massive Glacier’s Tears – perhaps not intended as an environmental manifesto when it was composed, in 1998 – is aptly given prime position on the album, even if Nuages immortels (2001) also has much to say. Berceuse (1984-5) may give some clues to how Riehm reached these startling later works.
Rolf RIEHM: Wer sind diese Kinder
—— Why is it like this?
—— Because it is broken.
—— Why does it have to be like this?
—— Because the world is broken.
The logic of Rolf Riehm’s music is simple. It is also consistent throughout his output, its implications realized in the diverse works he has been producing for more than half a century. And it is exemplary, in this time of ours when music seems – forgivably, to be sure – to have thrown up its hands in the face of the world.
A Wergo release (6755 2) makes the point baldly: Riehm is the only composer of note to have taken account explicitly of the western adventures in the Middle East that have disfigured recent history. We might wonder why this does not surprise us.
—— Because it is broken.
With Riehm, brokenness beckons a hard engagement with a form music finds difficult: collage. Wer sind diese Kinder (2009) includes elements of a shattered monument – a big, elegiacal symphonic work in G minor, with shades of Wagner and Brahms – in turbulent mix with interventions from a solo piano always at cross-purposes with the orchestra, other solo instruments rising up from within the ensemble, and recordings of speaking voices. What keeps the work going is partly its energy, one might even say its fury, and partly an intermittent echoing of the opening gesture, an initiatory wail of protest. Wholeness, though, is not the point, and is forever being undermined by sudden switches of focus, in a work whose half-hour duration is formed of forty-five segments, none as long as two minutes and some over in ten seconds or so. Brokenness can also be a stammering with rage.
‘Objects and forms are adrift. No anchorings. Violations, to the marrow, of the perceived body. As if from burning sources, whole complexes wash up.’ Thus the composer, with reference to this work, in the indispensable volume of his writings published by Schott. He also reports how, at the radio studios in Frankfurt, he recorded Hölderlin’s ‘Song of Destiny’ recited in Arabic by a speaker whose voice was affected because, as it happened, that was the day of a bomb attack on a crowded Shiite market in Baghdad. The piece confronts the world, and the world punches back.
—— Because the world is broken.
‘Who are these children’, the title asks, with no question mark, because the answer is everywhere. They are there in the ancient text delivered in the final speech recording, from Hesiod’s Theogony: ‘For of all the children that were born of Earth and Heaven, these were the most terrible, and they were hated by their own father from the first.’ Nor have they ceased. This urgent piece stays urgent.
It is coupled with a solo piano work of similar length, Hamamuth – Stadt der Engel (2005), again impelled by the grievous absurdity of the war in Iraq. Though a piano alone cannot command the multifariousness of a big orchestral work questioned by recordings, this is again music of disjunction, and again it begins with a signal of exception – a jangling as if of alarm bells – recurring all through as the effort is made to build with rubble. Nicolas Hodges is the electric soloist in both works, with the soon to be lamented SWR orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg under Beat Furrer in Wer sind diese Kinder.
—— Why is it like this?
—— Why does it have to be like this?
It is like this again in a second Wergo album of recent works (7314 2), including one that again addresses the Iraq war, in a way at once more personal and more distant. Travelling back from India to Germany, the composer and his wife found themselves flying over Iraq, looking down on an expanse of brown-gold. No more could they tell if this was desert sand than that it was a war zone. Aloof they were, disengaged from reality – except that the aloofness and the disengagement were indeed their reality, which is the reality also of all us observing catastrophes, by way of news images, from within an encapsulated security.
Riehm’s response was to compose a piece for solo contrabass clarinet that would convey at once of estrangement and involvement. The instrument begins by pacing out notes one by one – hence the title: Ton für Ton – in its lowest register, creating a kind of labyrinth in shadow sound. Jumping to a middle register and then an upper, and swinging through wide leaps, the bass clarinet becomes vastly more forceful, sometimes imitating a trumpet before ultimately achieving continuous tone, slowly sliding in pitch. Theo Nabicht‘s very ready and completely accomplished performance becomes at this point astonishing. A brief return below suggests a gesture of despair, but the point has been made, if by a kind of geometrical inversion. Where the aircraft was safely above the bombs and the snipers, the bass clarinet’s removal is to its depths, away from all possibility of evoking hostility and damage.
It might be argued that such a piece works as a political statement only by virtue of its composer’s verbal explication, without which it would be perceived as a remarkable essay in virtuosity and no more. The same argument could be applied to the cello solo on the same disc, Im Nachtigallental (2007), which again receives an outstanding, vivid and thorough performance, from Erik Borgir. In this case the narrative is the death of Orpheus, which might be regarded as itself marking a withdrawal from the modern world, were it not that Riehm in one of his essays movingly expresses how, at a time of events we cannot absorb, cannot articulate, cannot address, retelling the desperations of the classics may bring us consolation.
Moreover, we can hardly go on upholding the myth of pure music, addressing us only in sound, when almost any music comes to us now as enveloped in commentary as it is in connections with other music. In such a situation the composer may justly use the programme note as part of the score and expect to be read as well as heard.
—— Because it is broken.
—— Because the world is broken.
—— Because it is broken.
The album affording these two solo stories also offers a compact dramatic two-hander for recorded voices and live instruments, Lenz in Moskau (2011), where text is not only around the work but within, at the core, and where the instrumental contributions are often reactive. This study of the poète maudit is that much less likely to export outside the Germanophone realm.
On the other hand, although Au Bord d’une source (2006) – like the soon-to-follow Wer sind diese Kinder – includes recordings of recitation (with Inger Christensen again present, as elsewhere in Riehm’s output), the continuity here comes firstly from the interplay of symphony orchestra with tenor recorder, a solo instrument chosen deliberately for its outsider status and so for the possibility it creates of a conflict that is, one might say in this instance, purely musical, expressed in sound gestures. But does that make it a greater work? It includes, for sure, some beautiful and affecting passages – none more so than a duet quite early on for the soloist and a high fine line of orchestral sky (drawn by a piccolo?) – and yet it is the obstreperous rough-and-tumble of Wer sind diese Kinder that speaks.
Wolfgang RIHM: “CONCERTO”
Rihm’s productivity itself changes the musical experience. Generally those networks a piece activates, within, through and from which to be heard, will include, perhaps most importantly, that of other works by the composer. The selfhood of a Beethoven sonata or a Lachenmann string quartet is made partly by how it relates, and does not relate, to the composer’s output. But with Rihm these relations lie dormant. His music remains, surely for most of us, a map with a few islands, a few strands of coastline, and large, large areas of white paper. A new Rihm piece comes to us, therefore, almost from out of nowhere. And there are gains in this: of anonymity, of an individuality in each piece that is self-created, not dependent on coordinates of linkage.
That said, memories of Gejagte Form are invoked by “CONCERTO” for string quartet and orchestra, subtitled ‘Dithyrame’, which leads off a new Rihm collection (Kairos 0012952KAI). The opening is fizzing with energy and size, and so it goes on, seeking a placidity that comes only occasionally and uncertaily – first with some melody for massed strings that might suggest the composer had been listening to Vivier, later with stronger meat. Any problems involved in placing a contrapuntal, intimate ensemble out in the orchestral field are immediately forestalled, for all members of the solo team are at work constantly, and the battle with the orchestra is omnipresent, in the nature of the setup, rather than a matter of dialogue, which barely exists. Rihm suggests the image of a beast with four mouths in an orchestral cage. At the end the cage dissolves, and the quartet comes out with a hesitant chorale, ending on a minor chord whose pat wrongness may be right. The piece was, of course, written for the Arditti, who gave the first performance with the Concertgebouw in 2000. Here they are joined by the Lucerne Symphony under Jonathan Nott.
The other piece, or pair of pieces, is very different: gentle, light-textured, playing with reminiscences from the standard repertory, turning on a dime between Chopin and Stravinsky, but all under a delicate veil of strangeness. Sotto voce (1999) and Sotto voce 2 (2007) could form one of Rihm’s series, but they also work well as the slow opening movement and the finale of a concerto. Again there are subtitles, appropriately ‘Notturno’ and ‘Capriccio’, the former starting out from wonderful high chimes with which the piano awakens the orchestra, the latter full of wit and shadows. Nicolas Hodges characteristically hones power into crispness and elegance, without the power – expressive power – being any less felt and present. One might imagine someone tracing designs on ice. There is excellent support from the Lucerne Symphony, this time with John Axelrod conducting.
Wolfgang RIHM: Fetzen
A collection of chamber music by Wolfgang Rihm – Fetzen (Winter & Winter 910 178-2), or ‘Scraps’ – is music to get lost in. The programme starts, as probably most listeners will, with the composer’s Twelfth Quartet (2000-01), a piece at once airy and sombre, playing continuously for just under fourteen minutes. A quasi-chorale in soft, widely spaced chords, a bubbling up of pizzicatos and a kind of quick march in triplets get things going, along with a moment of lyrical serenity that will return to bring the piece towards its unsettled resting place. Development, which comes to take hold strongly, tends to be in a musical Brownian motion, with a short motif – a fidget and a stop, suggesting more a question than an idea – imitated often contrapuntally, as if one question were spawning more, never to be resolved.
Nor do the questions end there, for the quartet is recapitulated entire, now with an added piano part, as Interscriptum, completed in 2004. The piano’s role is multifarious. It can double the strings, put in points of bright light among the clouds, add a new layer of winding motivic search, interpose comments that make the strings’ wafting into a dialogue, or join in with the strings (as, for instance, at one striking moment where a burst of rapid repeating notes acts as a signal) as if it had been there all along. One may feel it to be enriching the quartet or railroading. In any event, it undermines the hesitant selfness the quartet was moving towards acquiring.
There is yet more disturbance, for between these compositions comes a sequence of eight short movements – the opus from which the record takes its title – in most of which material from the quartet returns to be taken in other ways. Composed between 1999 and 2004, these movements could be understood as worked-up drafts, or perhaps better as alternative routes and landscapes. Most of them include a part for accordion, which can enter the action unnoticeably, notes in its upper register sounding like string harmonics – though Rihm also makes wonderful use of the instrument’s curdled bass, not least in the almost motionless, post-catastrophic last of the series. The original quartet was music of shadows; by now we seem to be hearing shadows of shadows.
Performance and production are exceptional. This may be one of the warmest and most inward recordings the Arditti have made, fully at home in these troubled and troubling mists. Nicolas Hodges’s pointed intensity brings his part in Interscriptum vividly to life, while Teodoro Anzellotti is at once dramatic and sensitive in the accordion infiltrations.
Daniel ROTHMAN: la música: mujer desnuda
There is something haunting about Eric Huebner’s record of piano music by Daniel Rothman (Albany TROY 967). The three pieces are utterly different, but they open up, one after the other, in decreasing order of size, like a set of Russian dolls. Of course, the last does not open up. It leaves us with a conundrum extending into the silence that follows. We go back to the beginning to find out how we got there, and we find the route has changed. The pieces sound different; they make a different effect, one after another; we have to go back again; and so we are caught in an endless spiral.
First comes a composition whose title is an entire poem by Juan Ramón Jiménez: la música: mujer desnuda – corriendo loca por la noche pura (music: naked woman – running mad through the pure night). It lasts over half an hour, and consists of single, soft notes for almost half that duration – a tremendous challenge to Huebner’s powers of persuasion, and one he surmounts effortlessly. His playing is full of grace and light all through.
After its extremely diffuse opening the piece gets more active, but it is also becomes fixed for long periods on small patterns, as if tangled in something and struggling to get free. Through the last five minutes the right hand is stuck to a pair of chords in the upper treble, while the left hand plays a slow, ruminative recitative, gradually rising until it meets the right hand in exultant iteration. The effect is strange, and poignant.
The second piece, QUEENS PLAZA, is a fifteen-minute slice of frozen jitterbug: the music trembles irregularly in the middle and low registers without getting anywhere, until in its last twenty seconds or so it wonderfully floats free. And up there, in the high treble, is where the last piece, Telling the Bees, spends its entire four-and-a-half-minute life. Again the music is tremulous, now like something that glistens as it rotates in the light. There is a Debussyesque cadence that comes forward a few times and stops short; at another moment the music thins to a thread, a soft chime, and makes one anxious for it to continue, as it does, now with more variety, before it settles into a beautiful and delicate pattern that is played three times. Then nothing, or the whole thing again, or whatever else we want to do with time this music has for a while magicked.
Kaija SAARIAHO: D’om le vrai sens
Shaped in shadows, Saariaho’s music is wonderfully evocative of things indistinct, unsaid, remembered, submerged, half-forgotten. Add to that a clarinet bounding with electric vitality and you have the materials for a concerto of productive misalliances, D’om le vrai sens, which, playing for just over half an hour, is the longest piece on a compilation of recent orchestral works by the composer (Ondine ODE 1173-2).
The work’s title comes from the Lady and Unicorn tapestries in the Musée de Cluny, which might seem to have been waiting for some rendezvous with a composer of mystery, colour (though the basic cherry-red of the tapestries is not particularly Saariahesque) and French-medieval alliances. All that, however, is very much in the background. To the fore are Grisey grisailles enveloping – or, much more often, being thrust off by – a virtuoso clarinet. Though Saariaho writes a movement for each of the six tapestries – first the five senses, then the enigmatic ‘A mon seul desir’ – associations either pictorial or thematic are minimal. The slow, bending music of scent, for instance, would do just as well for hearing, while the febrile scherzo for touch is the kind of brilliant fast episode any concerto needs. Most striking are the outer movements. The first, which is indeed devoted to the aural sense, begins with a cloudscape into which the clarinet inserts itself like a wild man. Then the ending is all ticking bell sounds and mists, an imagery of time devoid of human presence, which the clarinet powerfully asserts. Kari Kriikku is consistently spot-on in this central role, written for him; Sakari Oramo conducts the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, here and in the other two scores: Laterna Magica and Leino Songs.
Of these the former is a twenty-four-minute tone poem written for the Berlin Philharmonic and seemingly meant – though this is not made explicit – as a memorial to Ingmar Bergman. Extracts from Bergman’s writings on light are whispered, in German translation, by woodwind players close to the beginning of the piece and again at the end, and though there are nice conjunctions of soft breath and instrumental gasp, the effect is maybe a bit too spooky. In the second half Saariaho’s ostinatos move up a couple of gears to go on the rampage.
Least dependent on ostinatos, and also brief, delicate and sensuous for the most part, the Leino Songs will probably wear best. Saariaho’s first published settings of Finnish words (by the national poet Eino Leino), they were composed for, and are beautifully delivered by, Anu Komsi.
Rebecca SAUNDERS: dichroic seventeen
Rebecca Saunders plays a dangerous game in so often starting at a point of tension and going up. This is so within both the individual gesture – a sudden attack on a string instrument, as it might be (and often is), followed by a rise in pitch or dynamic level – and the form, where such gestures will tend to follow one another in escalation, involving a rush of different colours, which could come from low solo strings, percussion, piano, guitar and accordion, to take the case of dichroic seventeen, the biggest of four pieces for mixed instrumental formations recorded on her debut album (Kairos 0012182KAI), all four of them dating from 1998-9. When the only way to go is up, then the only way to calm down is to keep silent, as the instruments tend to do in between their interjections, and as the music in general frequently does, exerting itself and then relapsing to gather breath. It says much for Saunders’s resourcefulness – and for that of the performers, who are members of musikFabrik under Stefan Asbury – that these cascades of shatter and gloom maintain themselves so strongly. They are definitely going somewhere – but where? Each time the answer is the same, but each time it is a surprise. The passion stops – vanishes elsewhere, unheard, or exhausts itself – and we are left with something simple, slow and gentle, something like a memory, beautiful and melancholy. Storms reminiscent of Rihm (with whom Saunders studied) have abated to leave a scene of desolation suggestive more of Kurtáág. If this is the destination, then the volatility might have been at once a strategy of approach and a thicket to be hacked through before sleeping beauty could be found. But perhaps that beauty is a mirage, which Saunders, with her formidable energy, was striving to avoid.
Rebecca SAUNDERS: Stirrings Still
Rebecca Saunders’s album Stirrings Still, of instrumental pieces alertly conveyed by members of the Cologne ensemble musikFabrik (Wergo WER 6694 2), suggests music made stroke by stroke, breath by breath. Each sound, expressing a process of transformation that will often end in a diminuendo al niente with or without a bending away in pitch, seems to continue from what went before and to lay down its own promise or challenge. One by one they go – stirrings still indeed. (The title of Beckett’s last prose piece is specifically the title of the last, strangest and most touching of these five compositions.)
Similarity in how these works speak, though, is not matched in what they say, for that is intimately bound up with the choice of medium. Blue and gray, being a duo for double basses, has a lot of lumbering wrestling, whereas Vermilion, for cello, electric guitar and clarinet, is tense with the strains of keeping these three instruments together. The less colourfully titled Duo for violin and piano – the only piece here dating back to the nineties – intriguingly comes up with snatches of precise keyboard melody that recall the composer’s use of music boxes during the same period, while Blaauw, written for and recorded by the outstanding mF trumpeter, finds two voices within the one instrument, for the player uses a double-bell trumpet and keeps the resonance going by projecting sound into an open piano.
In Stirrings Still itself the stirrings are not single sounds but threads of a quiet, distuned chorale for flute, oboe and clarinet that proceeds, frail and noble, until it stops for a little under a minute, and then proceeds again. Bowed crotales enter later, and later still a piano, everything dust-soft and tending towards silence. The imagery is unique, and true to the dauntlessness in the writer.
Rebecca SAUNDERS: a visible trace
visible traces (Wergo WER 6852 2), the second in a series of compilations from musikFabrik, takes it name and much of its importance from a 2006 piece by Rebecca Saunders, a visible trace. Setting her music under epigraphs from Calvino and Beckett, Saunders responds to at least two meanings of ‘trace’, as vestige and track, and to how in either sense a trace is evidence, a connection. A lot that happens here happens slowly: sounds, often microtonally inflected and featuring non-standard techniques, come forward through long crescendos out of near-silence, may be imitated by other instruments, and become absorbed in bundles of tones. Other events – a glissando, a piano attack – slice through time like a razor; given the decelerated tempo to which the rest so compellingly (through the nineteen-minute duration) makes one adapt, these are not so much heard as remembered, caught not in the present, as they occur, but in the immediate past, as memories, traces. Everything is fresh and clean, and evocative in a way quite devoid of the expressionist drama that often attaches itself to unusual sounds and interruptions. Quiet, intense concentration is, rather, the music’s expressive character and its mode of being.
The other three works here offer contrast, the record’s only universal feature being the excellence of the playing. Mauro Lanza’s Vesperbild sets up a haunting atmosphere of whistling chimes, faint noises and two-note, tick-tock ostinatos, out of which solid, electrified tuttis keep arising, until, at a bang, a chorus of toy instruments finds its voice, to make the sound-picture still more, but gently, surreal. Nicolaus A. Huber’s Music on Canvas has a lot of taut waiting, as if the ‘canvas’ were to be interpreted as the silence on which the music scantily inscribes itself, though windows of ‘non-musical’ sound – the recorded noise of a crowded hall (in a shopping mall?) and the choppings and rustlings of percussionists preparing food – suggest another blank space, outside the concert hall. If the piece is to be understood as pointing to the separation of ‘art’ from ‘life’, the problem is at least partly self-created, and the ‘art’ is abandoned to do little more than lament its desertion. Finally comes an exuberant suite, Metamorphose, Bernd Alois Zimmermann composed for a film in 1953-4.
Rebecca SAUNDERS: cinnabar
The titles of musikFabrik’s collections may be forced, as with coronation (Wergo WER 6855 2), but the playing is outstanding right through, and the four pieces here are all brilliant examples of their very different types. Perhaps, too, there is something stoutly upfront about them, something red and gold, that justifies the epithet.
Vykintas Baltakas’s (co)ro(na) makes a lively opener, full of trilling signals that jump in electric connections around the ensemble out of some modal past. There are also two classics of the modern-ensemble repertory: Magnus Lindberg’s Joy of twenty years ago – the kind of music Boulez might write if he would just sit down and relax, with its big sensuous chords folding into one another – and Iannis Xenakis’s insistent Thallein.
The real treasure, though, is Rebecca Saunders’s cinnabar, a double concerto in which a fine wire – a persisting upper note – is stretched tight between solo trumpet and solo violin almost throughout the quarter-hour piece. It is hard not to accept the title’s image of a scorching red, and yet there are other levels of metaphor in this characteristically gripping composition. The relationship between the soloists, for instance, is nicely ambiguous: are they antagonists,or helpmates, or teacher and pupil, or image and reflection, gesture and echo? Then again, the quality of the sound turns on a knife edge between fierce and tender. Marco Blaauw and Juditha Haeberlin are in excellent tense, undulating accord in the solo parts, and the ending is at once magical and poignant.
Salvatore SCIARRINO: Storie di altre storie
Humour and mystery, and electric performance: a collection of orchestral pieces by Salvatore Sciarrino, Storie di altre storie, (Winter & Winter 910 144-2) has it all. The mystery – of vaporous figures, soft dynamics, whistlings and whisperings, sudden intimations of danger and enticement – is the classic Sciarrinesque quality, found here in a classic piece: Autoritratto nella notte of 1982, which is alive with charge in this performance by the WDR Sinfonieorchester under Kazushi Ono.
The same performers offer Efebo con radio from the same period and the more recent title composition, in both of which the humour comes in. Efebo con radio (Boy with Radio) is a self-portrait in retrospect of the pre-teen Salvo escaping into the popular music he picks up – or, as it appears from this piece, having it escape into him. A vocalist, here Sonia Turchetti, not only sings the snatches of old favourites that appear (touching to find ‘Second-Hand Rose’ as part of Sciarrino’s genealogy) but also enacts Signora Sciarrino and a radio announcer. The orchestra affectionately colours in the song accompaniments and trails around the musical flotsam with impressions of static. As the composer intimates in his note, it is here, in the between-station noise and distortion, that we enter his particular world. What is irrelevant to the boy, an annoyance, is the man’s universe. It is just astonishing that this charming, delightful and profound piece had to wait nearly thirty years for its first recording.
Storie di altre storie, for orchestra with accordion soloist (Teodoro Anzelotti), is a well chosen companion, since it also has to do with music being cherished and salvaged within a context of threat. A cold wind moans at the start around a resuscitation of Mozart’s Adagio for glass harmonica, and remains for Machaut’s rondeau Rose, liz, which here opens as if it were about to become the adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. But it stays too long, and when three Scarlatti sonatas come bounding into the curious programme, Pulcinellified, the whole thing becomes at once elegant and cheesy.
Faintest by far of the four pieces here, but most haunting, is Il giornale della necropoli, which features Anzellotti again, with Lucas Vis conducting. In much of the piece silver-grey wisps of tone are being laid down one by one, in slow patterns of rise and fall; the composer aptly speaks of ‘dunes’. Something is failing, or being failed, over and over again, and yet with its frail grasp on existence the music goes on. To quote Sciarrino again: ‘The symphony orchestra seems naked, compared to its former sensual splendour.’ (The notes, presented with the record only in Richard Toop’s English translations, are available also in the original Italian and in German on the Winter & Winter website.) Occasionally a clock ticks; latterly there is a bell. And now and then the fabric is ripped by the accordion, which seems, with pattering descents, to find a way out, but is blocked by silence.
Salvatore SCIARRINO: orchestral music
Neglected on record for so long, Sciarrino’s orchestral music is favoured with a three-pack (Kairos 0012802 KAI) to add to the selection on a recent Winter & Winter release. Eight works are included, all in first recordings, across a span from the composer’s mid-twenties (Variazioni for cello and orchestra) to his mid-fifties (Il suono e il tacere and Shadow of Sound). Tito Ceccherini conducts the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI.
Sciarrino’s music generally is tremulous with the rhythms of life – pulse, respiration, walking – and with the sounds of heartbeat and breathing, so that when large resources are involved one may have the impression of travelling slowly within the body of something animal: a sleeping giant, perhaps, though one capable of waking up at any moment. The music creates darkness around itself, by its softness, its continuity, its intimacy, and this may be reflected in a title, as in the case of Allegoria della notte for violin and orchestra (1985), which is otherwise one of those rather unusual pieces in which the typical Sciarrinian faint allusions and half-hints are tightened into focus, the piece starting and ending in the neighbourhood of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. ‘From flashes of consciousness’, the composer writes, ‘(or intermittent remembrances) there emanates another music, literally generated from the echo of that lyrical momentum. Indefinably prolonged, this echo lets us perceive another space, in parallel: the other side of Planet Mendelssohn, the uninhabited one.’ (It is a pity Sciarrino’s notes – almost as suggestive as his music – are not included in the album’s booklet; several of the relevant ones may be found in his collection Carte da suono.) The Mendelssohn quotations, just fragments, are like cusps of sunlight at the planet’s edges; otherwise we move over the dark surface, through the night, painted with typical subtlety. Most of the time the soloist (Marco Rogliano) is in regions of high and super-high harmonics far above the range of the Mendelssohn. The violin seems our guide, our lifeline, scanning and prompting the orchestra. Time is stretched out. A wisp of melody, returning again and again, connects the music with another of Sciarrino’s nightscapes, Autoritratto nella notte, written three years earlier and similarly scored for a modest orchestra.
The biggest pieces included in this collection, Morte di Borromini (1988) and I fuochi oltre la ragione (1992-7), are both disaster scenes, and it would be a shame to spoil the shock of the wounds they reveal. The text spoken in the former is given in the booklet only in the original Italian, but an English translation may be found here.
No less disturbing are the three later works. In Recitativo oscuro (2000), written for Maurizio Pollini (whose son Daniele takes part in the recording), the piano speaks instantly from a position of anxiety, which the orchestra seems to hear but not understand, repeating one of its guest’s early gestures as a skeletal percussive imprint, a death knell, through much of the rest of the piece. Long periods of silence from the nominal soloist supervene, interspersed with inconclusive outbursts. The ending is hair-raising and enigmatic.
According to the booklet Sciarrino has said his music ‘increasingly seeks to become voice’, and in Il suono e il tacere it startlingly achieves that ambition. Over a persistent heartbeat the strings groan, in quasi-vocal gestures that begin with an upbeat-downbeat pair and develop from there, slowly bringing in other parts of the orchestra or prompting antagonistic responses that grow into quasi-ring-modulated clangs – the sound, perhaps, of a heavy blade swinging overhead. One might imagine that as it ‘seeks to become voice’ Sciarrino’s music has been taking lessons from Kurtág’s.
This work’s definition, force and presence, exceptional in Sciarrino, find a balance in the wide spaces of Shadow of Sound, where much happens at the edge of hearing and therefore, as it seems, in the far distance. But, alarmingly, the groans of Il suono e il tacere have not ceased.
Salvatore SCIARRINO: Sui poemi concentrici
New-Age Salvo? In 1987 Sciarrino put together a hundred-minute orchestral score, Sui poemi concentrici (On the Concentric Poems), from music he had written for a television reading of the Divine Comedy. Now, on three records (Kairos 0012812 KAI), comes a version almost half as long again – extended, the note paradoxically explains, ‘to strengthen the musical urgency’. We are into Feldmanesque dimensions, except that Sciarrino’s music, in keeping, perhaps, with the image of concentricity, moves in larger and smaller circles within an essential sameness. His solution to the problem of accommodating Dante would seem to have been the very tactful one of providing a subtle, strange and haunting environment for the reading voice or voices. We seem to be under a vast dome, whose ceiling is made of rumbling: from a bass drum or timpani, it seems, on the first record and from a thunder sheet on the third. Strings keep rising in slow, airy melody; soloists – a changing selection from an ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, viola d’amore and cello – ruffle the surface with Sciarrinesque breaths or rustles; other events slowly come and go. Multiphonics from the wind ensemble, suggestive of ring modulation, are prominent at first but slowly fade away. One can listen enrapt to a few minutes of this, but it is hard to know how to use almost two and a half hours of it – perhaps as background music in an upscale restaurant. Several fascinating Sciarrino releases have come out recently, including a collection of orchestral works on this same label, another on Winter & Winter and Nicolas Hodges’s recital on Metronome. Sui poemi concentrici is something else.
Valentyn SILVESTROV: Symphony No. 6
‘for to end yet again’. The release of a recording of Silvestrov’s Sixth Symphony (ECM 1935) presents us with another grand postlude to the symphonic tradition, and this one – according to Tatjana Frumkis, the leading scholar of his music – the last of the last, bringing a certain phase of his output to a close. This leaves open the question of what Silvestrov has done since writing the end of the end. To his Sixth, which he wrote in 1994-5 and revised in 2000, he has added a Seventh, as part of a prodigious current output.
In the Sixth, once again, Silvestrov works with gestures, and even with fully formed melodies, evocative of the music of a century ago – evocative in this case quite specifically of Mahler, and in particular of the Adagietto from that composer’s Fifth Symphony. This might sound like nostalgia for nostalgia, and unbearably sentimental. For Silvestrov, however, Mahler is at once irretrievably lost and immediately present. The entire symphony – which is divided into five movements but plays as, and sounds like, an undivided whole – is made of echoes, not only in the metaphorical sense that the ideas have a history but also in two directly practical ways: ideas keep recirculating, like questions that never receive answers, and much of the material has built-in reverberation, as chords or single notes are attacked and then sustained in diminuendo. As Herbert Glossner observes in the booklet notes, Silvestrov uses the orchestra like a giant harp, for sonorous resoundings. Being so much constituted of echo in these ways, the echoing of Mahler is fresh and poignant. It must help, too, that Silvestrov’s musical world is one in which Mahler is still a living presence. Silvestrov was nearly forty when Shostakovich died; the senior composer’s later symphonies – themselves treating Mahler as a nearby colleague – were central to his experience of new music as a student and young composer. Perhaps that is why Mahler’s expressive force is still available to Silvestrov – available and simultaneously unavailable, as if seen through a smeared window, to borrow again from Glossner. Or one might be reminded, in the delicate fourth movement, of how Tchaikovsky could summon the spirit of Mozart. Over the vast plains of Russia, and of Silvestrov’s Ukraine, the echoes never die away.
Valentyn SILVESTROV: choral music
The Cathedral of the Dormition in Kiev was founded nigh on a millennium ago, and, to judge from photographs, has the look of an ancient church. What we see, though, was built in 1998, to replace a structure – itself dating back only as far as the nineteenth century – demolished in 1935. If one were there, the physical building might seem tremulous, a mirage, for what really holds the place together is memory – and, perhaps, wishful thinking.
This was an appropriate venue in which to record the sacred choral settings by Valentin Silvestrov that appear on the latest of several ECM albums devoted to his work (ECM 2117). The music has a hovering unreality, partly because so much of it is sung by a section of the choir (or soloists) against sustained harmony, but also partly because it is composed so much – like the church in which it is happening, and indeed like a lot of Silvestrov’s later output – out of the glow of vanishing memory. The dates given in the accompanying booklet – 2005 and 2006 for most of the pieces – seem quite evidently mistaken, for these chords and these melodic figures do not belong to our time. They may not evoke medieval Rus, but they are drenched with the nineteenth century, or in some cases the popular music of the early twentieth, where Tosti’s shadow takes over from Tchaikovsky’s, or from the anonymous shadow of folksong as Romantically interpreted. Connections with other aspects of Silvestrov’s work are therefore close, and some of these pieces sound like numbers from his Quiet Songs with the piano’s resonances interpreted chorally; there is a soft naturalness to much of the solo singing, and the choral sound, too, is unforced, bending to the supple rhythm as grass bends in the wind. The title of Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich’s booklet essay, ‘Voices like Bells’, communicates another effect of these choral harmonies, an effect occasionally intensified by pealing entries. Most of the texts seem to be from the Orthodox liturgy, with the exception of the Latin Ave Maria, set twice. (No words are provided.) But liturgical performance would seem unlikely for music so personal, so nostalgic, so sweet, so close to the edge of the sentimental and so close, also, to disappearing – music that only just is.
London SINFONIETTA: Vine / Hall / Meredith
The latest release in the London Sinfonietta’s Jerwood Series on its own label (SINF CD1-2009) begins in smart, straightforward fashion with Ian Vine’s ocre oscuro, in which a rapidly zigzagging, rather folkish violin line (Clio Gould) turns out to contain material for slower and more sombre ensemble music that comes out from underneath it. Emily Hall’s Think about Space curiously but effectively turns a catchy rhythmic idea, of three beats against four, into misty puzzlement for what sounds like a run-down rock band. Anna Meredith, in her axeman for solo bassoon, gives John Orford’s instrument the chance (but for under three minutes) to sound like a rampant electric guitar. Recorded at Kings Place in November last year the piece gets the yelping applause it cries out for, and it is a pity the audience at the Queen Elizabeth Hall the year before was not more quietly receptive to the composer’s flak for electrified ensemble, which makes at first dreamy but increasingly dynamic, eventually pounding progress toward its brutal climax.
Howard SKEMPTON: Ben Somewhen
The title piece on the Howard Skempton album Ben Somewhen (NMC D135) is a breath of fresh air – even where it goes deep and dark into the sounds of a double bass accompanied by two cellos. Lasting just over twelve minutes, it plays through a sequence of inventions – often but not always with double bass to the fore – that come and go with a particularly Skemptonian air of being right and being casual at the same time. You may be reminded of other things: Janáá?ek in a violin figure, the gently happy light music of the fifties. Or the delight may just be in the gesture itself: a moment when almost the whole eight-piece ensemble seems to be heaving something up, a duet for single harp notes and string harmonics (from the double bass exploring its viola side?). The title comes from a collection of drawings by Ben Hartley, of which a few are reproduced in the booklet and many more may be found on the website devoted to him. Skempton describes his composition as ‘a musical commentary on fifteen...drawings’, and perhaps it would be nice to known which ones he had in mind. But it hardly seems to matter, for the music does its own work with plain but characterful line and Englishness.
Also engaging, and focussed more fully in the deep and dark, is a suite from Delicate, a ballet the composer scored for two cellos and percussion. Again there are undertones: Wagnerian, Asian, Scottish. And again this is an intriguing world all its own. As in Ben Somewhen, the unconducted performers, members of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, are beautifully in tune with Skempton’s cool but also with the opportunities here for nuance.
Quite a lot of Skempton’s music can be accommodated on a CD. This one has two other strangely simple, simply strange instrumental pieces – a chamber concerto and a clarinet quintet – and four choral settings, sung by Exaudi under their conductor James Weeks.
Howard SKEMPTON: piano / choral music
A new gathering of Howard Skempton’s music (mode 226) is divided roughly equally between piano pieces, played by Daniel Becker, and unaccompanied settings delivered by James Weeks’s group Exaudi. The latter have a spare elegance that might make one think of Shaker furniture, except that even in these highly distilled items the fragrance remains of English hymns and the cathedral tradition, despite the fact that the texts are secular (Mary Webb, Longfellow, Emerson and Shelley are among the poets represented). Skempton does indeed have a transatlantic drawl at times, but it comes over more in the piano pieces: in a harmonic change reminiscent of Glass, or a touch of ragtime (as in Resister). These, though, are transient echoes; Skempton is unique.
His uniqueness comes partly from the freshness of his ideas, even (or perhaps especially) when most elementary, and from his wit, his way of catching you off-balance by coming up with something other than the expected chord, the expected rhythmic continuation, the expected repetition. (Decision Time is a good example.) Somehow these things have to be registered without being in the slightest underlined, for knowingness in the performance would be disastrous. Somehow the simplicity has to be left untouched by any obvious nuance of colouring or rubato and yet kept from banality. Becker gets this right. There are pieces you might think belonged in a pedagogical volume (the last of the Three Nocturnes, for instance) but that here are given a lift by self-abnegating artistry. A Skempton classic, his Cardew memorial Well, well, Cornelius, is touching and even profound. Happy, too, is the programming. Dreamy pieces alternate with ones that skip, and sometimes an adjacency points up how the same motif crops up in different contexts (Leamington Spa and The Durham Strike, for instance).
An earlier garland, of pieces for a variety of soloists and small groupings, has been re-released on the same label (mode 61), but the new record is the place to start.
Mauricio SOTELO: Wall of Light Black
It is the mix of the primitive and the sophisticated in the music of Mauricio Sotelo that engages and unsettles, seduces and repels, draws one in with wonder and has one running for cover. Here is a composer, born in Madrid in 1961, who is fascinated by the rhythm, the melody, the sensuality of flamenco, and who also, when he hears the shoes scuffing the floor in the darkness, thinks of Lachenmann (like whom he studied with Nono). All the four pieces on his debut collection (Kairos 0012832KAI) are, to a greater or lesser degree, invaded by or infused with flameco, heard in a night of instability.
Three of the compositions are for ensemble (musikFabrik) led by an instrumental soloist: a percussionist in Chalan (2003) and Night (2007), a saxophone player in Wall of Light Black – for Sean Scully (2005-6). Chalan, written for the tabla player Trilok Gurtu, starts with a noisy swirl – the booklet reproduces Sotelo’s sketched plan, which fits this description – gradually evaporating to reveal the drumming hands. All the rest is the ensemble wondering whether these are its soul or a stranger. For a stretch the ensemble just takes over, loud and hot, though with some wonderful soft chords that sound like coloured breath. Then the soloist returns, with voice as well as hands at the outset of what develops as a cadenza, whose effect on the ensemble becomes irresistible. Wind instruments blare and wail, percussion patter excitedly: flamenco is born from its supposed origins in India. Finally the vision fades into the silence of a question.
Wall of Light Black and Night are painted with the same brush: bold but capable of fine detail – and one begins to understand the appeal to this composer of Sean Scully’s paintings, their utterly straightforward chequerboard designs filled with panels of rich, dense colour. (It seems a pity that Scully’s Wall of Light Black is not illustrated in the booklet, but an image of it can be found on the website of the Snite Musuem of Art.) At the centre of the former the sax arrives at slow flamenco melody, microtonally bending – bending, it might seem, beneath the weight of the ensemble, pressing on the solo line with spectrally loaded harmony. Soon allurement becomes a kind of rage, before the soloist attains a wilder brilliance and the music, again, evaporates, coming close here to Haas’s in vain.
If flamenco is stared at as a dangerous visitor in these ensemble pieces – stared at and danced with, a dangerous visitor who may be oneself – the fourth and most recent work gets under its skin, being a twelve-minute guitar solo, Como llora el agua (As the Water Cries), composed largely of typical gestures skewed by an unusual tuning. Juan Manuel Caññizares, for whom Sotelo wrote the piece, offers a beautiful, virtuoso and soulful performance.
Most often a composer will allude to another tradition in a spirit of celebration, playfulness or satire. In Sotelo’s music flamenco feels more like a curse, part of our human branding.
Karlheinz STOCKHAUSEN: Gruppen
It is hard to remember Gruppen. The brass chords rotating through the orchestras stick, of course. Something of the skein of violin solos near the start. Squeaks from the E flat clarinet. The big splash from the electric guitar, reminding us that this strange piece without time or tradition belongs to the mid-fifties. The sound of drums rumbling along with brass or low strings. But big gaps remain in the mental image, and there is no overall shape to which the scattered memories can be attached. The circulating brass chords, especially, always seem to come much earlier in the piece than expected. Surely they should be the great climax, placed near the end. Instead the piece goes on and even grows from this spectacular catastrophe – catastrophe because the intervention has nothing to do with its surroundings, beyond the accumulating passage that leads up to it. In delivering this moment the work seems to have noticed there is an audience and turned from its internal arguments, echoes and deliberations to give them a thrill.
As to those internal matters, one can listen to them again and again and still hear new details, still have the sense that the music is careering by a little out of reach. There is too much information here – or perhaps not enough. The exciting recording by the WDR Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Tamayo, Peter Eötvös and Jacques Mercier (BMC CD 117) makes one realize again how fragile much of Gruppen is. Three orchestras are called into being – a hundred and nine players are involved – but the score is full of blank spaces. Whole passages are occupied by chamber ensembles – and chamber ensembles of unusual and fascinating kinds: violin and marimba accompanied by divided cellos (a strikingly beautiful instant), or pizzicato cello and bass soloists with drums, or piano with brass quintet. The work seems, fifty years on, still startlingly new in its sonic invention, especially in the combination of noise and pitched sound, but it can also sound irredeemably ancient, falling into ruins.
Gruppen will probably never be fully graspable, but this recording takes one a long way towards the piece. The sounds are fresh and sure; the players include a nicely snappish pianist, taking on the role of instigator implied by the score; and the performance finds the work’s true climax in the sustained sequence where all three orchestras are fielding their brass and percussion teams. Here the piece might be felt to be reliving the catastrophe that gave birth to it, after which it faces its life in the aftermath with some of its most beautiful music – not least the passage where instruments are taking wide slow steps up and down against scraps and tremulations.
It is good to have on the same disc an awesome recording of Punkte, begun a few years before Gruppen, heavily revised in the sixties and touched up again in 1993. Like Gruppen, Punkte is full of new orchestral combinations, but it is at once more normal, keeping the orchestra together on the platform, and wildly abnormal. Gruppen, by means of direct imitation, contradiction, antiphonal interaction, build-up and acceleration or deceleration, creates continuity and even drama. Punkte is all inarticulacy. The orchestra produces one sound after another – extraordinary sounds, again mixing noise into notes, which is why one is seized by the thing for twenty-five minutes. Then, just when it has found a voice, it snarls and goes.
Karlheinz STOCKHAUSEN: Kontra-Punkte
A collection of fifties Stockhausen from ensemble recherche (Wergo WER 6717 2) steps into a huge vacancy, for of these pieces – Kontra-Punkte, Refrain, Zeitmasze and Schlagtrio in the effective order on the record – only Refrain was easy to find before. Kontra-Punkte, though everywhere regarded as a classic, had not been recorded for many years, Schlagtrio perhaps never since its 1976 debut. It is very good to hear these pieces played expertly and with a modern feeling for shape and nuance, and yet the empty space around them, the isolation remains. Though all these works are now over half a century old – older, one would guess, than most of the musicians who play them here – they have not been assimilated into our performance culture. To some extent that must be because of Stockhausen’s decision to avoid conventional media – a principle that was exciting at the time but that has, in an increasingly standardized musical world, left his works without a home. However, their neglect also confirms an inner detachment. As Richard Toop points out in his excellent notes, the young Stockhausen exuded a love of sound, and these pieces are full of striking gestures and textures – things possibly all the more thrilling or atmospheric for what the music conspicuously lacks: a rhetoric of motion to be sensed, even unknowingly, not observed, as the composer’s processes can be. Almost any other composer would have dramatized the serial farewells of Kontra-Punkte, how the ten instruments drop out one by one, but with Stockhausen one has to strain to notice each ‘finis’. One can follow, and enjoy, the way the piano in Schlagtrio moves inward from its extremes and gives way to the timpani in the middle of the piece, but, again, there is no attempt to engage the listener in the operation. Instead, through whatever changes of tempo or dominant note value, the music retains a steady and sublime timelessness. Where most music would be futile were there not someone listening to it, this music would not. It would still be achieving its purposes, which are ineffable. One keeps wanting to come back to these pieces, not least for their strangeness, and these performances reward repeated listening with their beauty of detail and, not least in Kontra-Punkte, the feeling of wholeness that comes from sensitive interplay. There is also, for all the kaleidoscopic sound, the ultimate silence.
James TENNEY: Ergodoi
James Tenney was, as James Fulkerson remarks in the notes for a commemorative release by the Barton Workshop (Mode 185), an eagerly versatile musician, with interests in computer music and guided improvisation, in special tunings and in none, in new notations and in old. To some degree this record exemplifies that, for it includes pure electronic music from the time when Tenney was a pioneer of composing with computers (Ergodos I and II, created in 1963-4), instrumental pieces notated with differing degrees of freedom, and samples of instrumental performance guided only by the electronic music being played simultaneously (drawing again on Ergodos I and II). For all their differences, though, the tracks bear witness to a single viewpoint, even if this is not necessarily the viewpoint Tenney espoused in talking about his music.
Tenney seems to have wanted his music understood as ergodic (hence Ergodos), i.e. having the quality that any part of it would be representative of the whole, in distinction from the strong goal-orientation most characteristic of the western tradition. In this, of course, he was by no means alone, nor was he alone in creating music free of thrust (refreshingly free, in his case), music that invites one to observe its passing, not be swept into its flow. However, the overpowering impression from this very attractive record is not at all of aimlessness but rather of a very definite, short-range connectedness – the kind of connectedness one might find in a folksong (the reference is apt for all sorts of reasons), where one phrase impels the next without defining any longer-term future. This is the effect of his student-age Poem, a two-minute flute solo clearly looking back to Debussy and Varèèse, and it is the effect, too, of the solo pieces he wrote almost half a century later for flute and clarinet, Seegersong #1 and #2. It is even the effect of Ergodos III for two pianos (1994) – at least in this performance, by Frank Denyer and Nora Mulder, whose rush to balance and answer one another conveys a lot of charm and humour. Loosely notated, the music springs with life.
Much the same may be said of two of the three instrumental-electronic performances. That of Ergodos II with four solo strings (violin, viola, cello and bass) has the instruments enveloping the electronic sounds in dialogue, all without bathetic imitation. But perhaps more remarkable still is the percussionist Tobias Liebezeit’s discreet and attentive response to Ergodos I, where he seems the gatekeeper at the entrance to a strange and alarming world.
Claude VIVIER: Siddhartha
The biggest work Claude Vivier accomplished in his short life was a half-hour orchestral piece, Siddhartha, which he wrote in 1976. Still in his twenties, he made a journey that year across Asia, visiting Japan, Bali and Iran. Perhaps he carried his score in his rucksack. What went into the music, though, was not so much the flavours of the east as those of Stockhausen, with whom he had recently studied, and the Parisian spectralists, who were just beginning to make a mark. Siddhartha is the massive exposition and development, in a quasi-ceremonial context, of a melody; there is an obvious connection with the major composition Stockhausen had been writing during the time Vivier was his student: Inori (1973-4). The orchestra is divided into eight groups, and though the layout is not clearly identifiable in the recording (Kairos 0012472KAI), the Stockhauseneque form of call and response certainly is. Siddhartha is tectonic: it shudders, gets shocked and broken by turns of events, stands waiting for long periods. But what is most remarkable, in this relatively early piece, and despite the Stockhausen influence, is the thoroughly individual language of sound. Here is a young composer responding with eagerness and joy to the opportunities of large resources. Here is a young composer, too, who already has a startlingly individual melodic style, and who often clothes his melodies – again in a very individual way – with complex chords suggesting artificial spectra. The sound of his later and better known works, notably Lonely Child, is already here, and though the piece surely needs a live performance in order to make its full effect, this WDR recording, with Peter Rundel conducting, is powerfully impressive.
From the same sessions comes a recording of Vivier’s other work for large orchestra, Orion (1979), which he wrote after a frustrating experience with Siddhartha, and which is less than half as long. Orion is more effective and more shapely; it knows what it is about. But many of us will prefer the inchoate and ungainly earlier piece, which has a lot more of what makes Vivier extraordinary.
Maybe part of what makes him extraordinary is the coexistence in his output of music that is totally his own, as Siddhartha is, with pieces that reflect a bit too clearly his love of other music, especially Balinese. The Cinq chansons for solo percussionist belong to this latter category, and are included here in performances by Christian Dierstein.
Stefan WOLPE: Piece for oboe quartet
Stefan Wolpe’s Piece for oboe, cello, percussion and piano has pretty much everything that music from 1955 could have: a sense of danger on the edge of meaninglessness, poetry on the edge of abstraction, and a thrilling togetherness of disparate personalities. To these it adds things unique to this composer: a loping continuity through extreme fragmentation, lightness even under conditions of adversity, and tomfoolery. A new recording (on Bridge 9214) does this wonderful piece proud. In particular, the players – Peter Veale on oboe, Beverley Ellis on cello, Pascal Pons on percussion and Sven Thomas Kiebler on piano, with James Avery conducting – have a sure sense of where the music is going and why, and of how its playfulness and beauty depend on matched sonorities. Everything in Wolpe’s background – dada and political activism, quasi-serial speculation and folk music – comes together here in a sudden splash, and this recording should help establish the work’s special place. If early post-1945 music were to have a canon (and the bizarre scoring of this piece keeps the question open), Wolpe’s quartet of tangled colour and drama would be in it.
The excellent documentation, by Austin Clarkson, suggests that Wolpe planned the work when he was in Palestine in 1937. If that is so, he remarkably anticipated the works for small ensembles with percussion by such composers as Barraqué, Boulez and Stockhausen that came out alongside his own.
Wolpe’s enthusiasm for the oboe was spurred by his friendship with the Berlin-born player Josef Marx, for whom he wrote not only the quartet but also a sonata with piano, completed in 1941. This, performed by Heinz Holliger and James Avery, is the main coupling, and the record has extra interest in including an abandoned slow movement as well as the definitive four-movement work. Wolpe began writing a movement in lazy, oriental style, and one can almost hear him getting irritated with this before giving up to compose music more in keeping with the first movement (and the finale), music not so dissimilar in tone and melodic shape but more intensively based on motivic working and irregular ostinatos.
The Piece in Two Parts for flute and piano (1959-60) – presented as an interlude between the two big oboe pieces, and recorded by Robert Aitken and, again, James Avery––shows where this motivic dynamic was leading: towards a music of supple give and take, subtle echoes, including echoes of characteristically poetic gestures from the oboe sonata of two decades before. The difference is that now the music has no safety net of traditional form; it just flies.
Stefan WOLPE: songs
A new album of songs for voice and piano by Stefan Wolpe (Bridge 9209) includes a bunch of early, somewhat Hindemithian mini-ditties nicely sung by Tony Arnold, but by far the most striking piece comes from much later – 1950 – when the composer set part of Albert Einstein’s speech asserting the need for peace and mutual understanding now that Truman had committed the United States to making a hydrogen bomb. What impresses here is, to some extent, just the piece’s existence – that Wolpe could feel it appropriate to treat current issues directly, and that he was able to do so with the necessary immediacy, writing a piece that could be performed the month after Einstein made his statement. Of course, this is not the only way for music to involve itself in the world’s debates, but it certainly is one way – or it was. Of course, too, effective involvement requires that the piece stand up artistically, which this one does. The choice of the Einstein text was itself a masterstroke, for the physicist provided words of simplicity undergirded by a colossal reputation – words, too, that were being voiced from off the political stage, as they are again in Wolpe’s setting. They are words calling politicians to account. Einstein could utter them only once. Wolpe made them utterable again and again. And what guarantees them reutterability is the great arc they make in the musical setting from declamation to intimacy. Wolpe starts with a big flourish, a rising idea that is played first by the piano and then given words by the baritone: ‘The idea’. By the end we are almost in the world of lullaby: ‘And the basis of trust is loyal give and take.’ We have come from the podium to the nearness of people speaking (or singing) each to another, which is perhaps the forum within which all political ideas need to be tested.
Hugh WOOD: chamber music
A composer who takes the trouble to disclaim any Boulezism in a piece, and who ends the same composition emulating Ligeti (following string harmonics into the ionosphere), is obviously not your run-of-the-mill reactionary-Romantic-Schoenbergian. He is, to be sure, Hugh Wood. A collection of chamber pieces by him (Toccata Classics TOCC 0075) shows thorough consistency across the near half-century that separates his Overture for piano trio, Op. 48, from his 1959 Op. 1 Variations for viola and piano. The language is out of Schoenberg by Mátyás Seiber, who was Wood’s teacher: emphatic; hexachordal; phrased and formed with allegiance to the Viennese classics from Haydn to Brahms; and insistently motivic. But startling gestures can suddenly appear, as in the first movement of the Clarinet Trio, Op. 40, which may be the most powerful work here.
It is partly Wood’s openness to the alien that makes him unconvincing as a fuddy-duddy, but the almost constant motivic working is important too, for often we seem to be hearing both the generous expression and the construction that brings this expression about. The Poem for violin and piano, Op. 35 – the ‘non-Boulezian’ piece – is a case in point. This opens with a rhapsodic idea, a sudden pang of joy, and then proceeds, as it were, to go around to the back of that idea and explore what could have made such a thing happen. The brush with the avantgarde that Wood experienced in the late sixties and early seventies is not represented here, the pieces being later or, in the case of the Viola Variations, earlier; but it has not been forgotten. Continuity – with Schoenberg, with Brahms, with Beethoven – is asserted against, and sometimes in the immediate presence of, discontinuity.
Performances, by members of the London Archduke Trio joined by the clarinettist Roger Heaton and viola player Paul Silverthorne, are admirable.
Iannis XENAKIS: percussion music
Steven Schick’s recent book The Percussionist’s Art: Same Bed, Different Dreams is an extraordinary example of musical writing that comes from inside the action. Now comes the action itself, almost tangibly felt in the sound that pats, purrs and wallops out of a three-record set of percussion music by Xenakis (Mode 171/73). Included are the two solo pieces, four duos (Xenakis wrote twice for the unexpected coupling of harpsichord and percussion) and three works for percussion ensemble. Schick plays the solos and takes part in two of the duos (not those with harpsichord, which he relinquishes to colleagues); the ensemble pieces are performed by the group he has trained, red fish blue fish, playing without him.
One surprise emerging from the collection is that Xenakis turned to percussion only during quite concentrated periods. After the lone Persephassa, written in 1969 for Les Percussions de Strasbourg to release over the ruins of Persepolis (during the brief time when the Shah’s government financed a festival there), the composer produced four varied percussion works between 1975 and 1981 (the solo piece Psappha, another sextet for the Strasbourgeois – Pléïades – and two duos) and a further four in the late eighties (including Rebonds for solo drummer and Okho for three). Schick, in his excellent notes, observes a move from colourful to homogeneous set-ups, and yet even when Xenakis calls for a great variety of instruments, as he does in Persephassa, the sound is uniform for long stretches. Perhaps it has to be, given that, as Schick also observes, Xenakis’s percussion music reawakens the ritual use of such instruments, a use that depends on pattern repetition (a constant here, from Persephassa onwards) and on signalling (which requires there to be distinctive timbre characters that can be identified as callers and responders), as also on strong pulsation. The solo pieces have all these qualities as much as the sextets do. In Psappha, variegated instruments seem to be signalling to each other, moving the music on towards the final home-run for pounding drums and clanging bells. Rebonds is more a declamation.
Schick is superb in both these pieces. His sense of timing is acute, whether expressed in phrasing or in how, unforgettably, Rebonds A gradually runs out of steam. It is the shapeliness of sound and rhythm – the presence of the body in the slap of a hand on a drum (something Schick’s students emulate in Okho) or the flow of a gesture – that makes these performances almost visual in their effect. Schick is also excellent in the extraordinary Dmaathen, where he has to encourage, support and applaud the virtuoso strangeness of the oboe part – strikingly enunciated by Jacqueline Leclair – which is made of multiphonics, a harmonic clean as flute tone and elemental (perhaps only elementary) tunes.
Peter ABLINGER: 33–127
So innocent and so frightening, 33-127 (mode 206) offers an unnerving sample of the art of Peter Ablinger, born in Austria but long resident in Berlin. The piece can be quite simply described. An electric guitar steps down a scale through around three octaves. At some point the scale is interrupted by recorded street noise into which wilder behaviour from the instrument is dubbed. After the interruption the scale continues on down. There is a pause of a few seconds, and then it all happens again, with a slightly different scale and a different burst of noise, this coming at a different point and lasting for a different length of time. In the original version, 1-127, this sequence of events occurs 127 times and the duration is around 80 minutes. 33-127 is the 33rd member of the group, presumably because it omits 32 repetitions, and so lasts an hour, a more manageable length for a cd.
However, the number of repetitions does not matter too much, because it is hard to get beyond twenty without one’s discomfort level becoming intolerable. This is partly because the timing of the noise is unpredictable. It might come after two notes of the scale or after ten; one may be taken by surprise or held in growing anxiety. The guitar, which might suggest a human presence with which one could connect, is no help. It offers no warning and expresses no surprise, dismay or anything else one might have hoped for. It just goes on as if there had been no interruption at all, its scale continuing from the point it would have reached if indeed there had been nothing in the way. Presumably Seth Josel – for it is he – recorded the scales alone, and then the interruptions were edited in. If he had to play the scales with the interruptions in place, then the calm he shows here is miraculous.
But there is more to this work’s needling power than the irregularity of the noise events. The irregularity also of the scale’s starting point (the A, B flat or B above the treble staff) and intervals similarly unsettles. Every time it is the same, and every time it is different. Sequences so fiercely mechanical seem to be telling us something, and one keeps returning – despite the irritation, because of the irritation – to the strange chamber where the notes go on falling, trying to stay with them longer.
Peter ABLINGER: Voices and Piano
As so often, a simple idea opens up a whole new world. Peter Ablinger’s simple idea in Voices and Piano, written for and recorded by Nicolas Hodges (Kairos 0013082 KAI), is to take stretches of recorded speech and provide them with piano accompaniments, creating a song cycle (his own appropriate term) for speaking voices and piano. The cast list includes some distinguished names: Bertolt Brecht, Gertrude Stein, Lech Walesa, Morton Feldman, Hanna Schuygulla and Mao Tse-tung lead the group of nineteen assembled here, with varieties not only of language but also of rhythm, tempo, melody and timbre. In many cases the piano exerts itself in synchrony with the voice, and somewhat in tune (Brecht), but it may also offer an underlay (Apollinaire) or atmosphere (Feldman), a parallel track (Duchamp) or the spectacle of someone playing Grandma’s Footsteps behind the speaker (Heidegger) – or it may seem to occupy many of these categories at different times, or all of them at once.
Often the piano music is tightly if irregularly pulsed, under or above the sloppier rhythms of speech, and one might have the impression of a pixilated photograph of the voice. In most cases the piano plays coextensively with the recording, but the short Mother Teresa item has her appearing well into the piece and only briefly. The nineteen pieces represent as many different relationships; the piano analysing the speech or undermining it, agreeing or ignoring, adding its own advocacy or voicing difference, cloaking the voice or exposing it. Some of the pieces are miniature dramas partly staged by the piano: Hanns Eisler being interviewed by the edited-out chairman of the House Unamerican Activities Committee (an archive used also for the Brecht and Welles items), Ezra Pound manically imitating other voices in a statement about his wartime behaviour. Of course, with him and others one’s response to the speaking voice will depend on one’s knowledge and opinion of the individual; the music, being neither supportive nor satirical but deadpan (if witty, expressive and evocative in its own ways), appears to embrace and even to endorse almost any view one thrusts forward. Tracking the voices, the piano gives us a precise and detailed readout, but in its own language.
Hans ABRAHAMSEN: Schnee
Hans Abrahamsen’s Schnee (Winter & Winter 910 159-2) is a wonder. How to say how? It is a sequence of aural images of snow, in some cases onomatopoeic (the swish of brushing off a wooden deck, the soft ease-crunch of steps through a fresh snowfall) but more often poetic, suggesting crystalline whiteness, cold light, gentle falling. It is a set of ten canons, ten systematic processes in which the same ideas are floating in slow spirals seen in mirrors. It is a study in melancholy (and joy). It is a succession of five pairs of movements, where the second in each pair repeats the first, as if the first had been music on glass and could now be overlaid on something else. It is simultaneously time standing still, splitting, revolving and accelerating away – standing still because we are held under the spell of a basic melody throughout, splitting because layers will move at different speeds, revolving because the same ideas are constantly being refracted and reformed as layers knock against one another, and accelerating away because the movements get shorter and shorter, from nine minutes down to one for a total length of just under an hour.
A tune picks itself out right at the top of the piano as one of the string instruments keeps repeating a superhigh harmonic, almost pitchless, creating gasps of intensity, fire in ice. This is the pristine sound world, new and unforgettable, established at once. The tune is repeated and then overlapped, in the first intimation of the kind of interference pattern of past and present that is one of the most remarkable features of the work. On a larger scale, the entire first movement (for piano quartet, sounding as no piano quartet ever did) is embedded in the second (for the full ensemble, adding a second piano, percussion and three woodwinds), and on the largest, perhaps all the movements are doubles of one another. Certainly every listening, of which there will be many, brings new relationships into focus – though it is easy, too, to be snow-blinded by the beauty, which persists immovable, through changes of character, speed and tuning, adjustment to the last being accommodated in three short interludes.
The performers are the ensemble recherche, who know what they have in front of them.
Mark ANDRÉ: durch
Anyone unprepared is going to be startled by the first record devoted to the music of Mark André (Kairos 0012732 KAI), where a sense for the freshness of unorthodox sound – an inheritance from his teacher Lachenmann, whose booklet essay is sadly not translated – goes along with an implacability suggestive of Ustvolskaya right the way through forms that move compellingly towards endings of rapt near-silence. Like many of André’s pieces, the four works here are all titled with single words extracted from their contexts, and if this implies fracture – if, too, the musical progress is often slow and broken – musical progress there definitely is, from sound to sound, from sound to silence, from silence to sound.
The programme is bounded by two mixed trios: durch (2004-5), for saxophone, percussion and piano, and ...als... II (2001), for bass clarinet, cello and piano with live electronics. Both have to do with the matching of sonorities, breathtakingly beautiful in durch, where a piano resonance may be prolonged by the sax, a sax tone embraced by a softly played gong, or a high harmonic projected out of some other sound by a bowed cymbal. The pages from the score reproduced in the booklet are not completely decipherable, but they testify to the precision with which such events are notated. In ...als... II the atmosphere is more consistently dark, the pianist operating at the very bottom of the instrument (and also inside it, to stop notes or knock on the frame). Both titles come from Luther’s translation of the Bible, and it is again a pity the booklet does not include the composer’s explanations. The word ‘durch’ (through), for example, comes from a passage in St Luke: ‘Strive thus, that you enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, are drawn there, as if to enter, but will not be able to.’ With reference to this, André asks his listeners to understand that ‘the search by way of the basic materials and the composed spaces refers directly and explicitly to the question of the presence or disappearance of the track’. One is left to wonder whether the delicate, hushed rustlings at the close represent the track found or irretrievably lost.
André’s note also pays homage to the musicians for and with whom he prepared the piece: Trio Accanto, comprising Marcus Weiss, Christian Dierstein and Yukiko Sugawara, who made this recording. The other three pieces are done by members of ensemble recherche, including the remarkable Shizuyo Oka playing bass clarinet not only in ...als... II but also in the solo piece ...in, Andréé’s contribution to Witten’s In Nomine project, a single gapped line of vocal as well as instrumental sounds, the latter including wonderful resonances forming within an undamped grand piano. By comparison with the eloquence of these stammering compositions, the long glissandos and abrupt raspings of the string trio ...zu... seem ordinary.
Mark ANDRÉ: iv
More recent pieces than could be included on Mark André’s powerful Kairos disc of two years ago indicate a compelling and unsettling development in his work, into regions of extreme bareness. The new record (Stradivarius STR 33837) has members of the Ensemble Alternance playing three items from his sequence iv, that title to be understood not as a Roman numeral, and not this time as a detached element from Luther’s Bible, but as an acronym for ‘introversion’. Each of the three works sets out a landscape of noises that barely ruffle the surrounding silence, and each breaks into fuller, pitched sounds around the halfway mark, sounds that one might naively imagine as representing a turn to extroversion, though there is also a sense of something being discharged on the way to a totally interior space, from which only the Hawking radiation of faint rustlings or groans is audible. Two of the three are solo pieces: iv 2 for clarinet (2007) and iv 3 for cello (2008), each playing for about twelve minutes. The third, iv 4 (2008-9), is a shade longer and scored for flute, oboe, clarinet and tuba.
This bigger piece differs also in being divided into movements (the fourth and most extended of the five is the moment of tuned sounds: single notes whose rise and fall suggests the rotating beams emitted by lighthouses) and in having the capacity for dialogue – which it certainly uses, as when the instruments softly patter out messages to each other, like prisoners trying to avoid alerting their warders. If this is introversion, perhaps the four are to be imagined as internal voices. On the other hand, all of them are corporeal. Besides breath sounds there are heartbeat rhythms, and one becomes aware of the tuba as a reverberant hollow body.
The other pieces speak more evidently of introversion, and, indeed, of failure, contravening the implicit public, demonstrative character of the virtuoso solo. What grabs attention here is withdrawal, almost silence – except where the marvellously controlled multiphonics at the centre of iv 2 are concerned – so that it is hard to imagine these compositions working in performance, except in the most intimate halls. On record, though, they make their case. Even the creaking of the cellist’s chair seems part of the proof of survival offered by iv 3. The clarinet piece, though, is a puzzle, as an obvious change of aural perspective soon after the beginning, and the introduction of other sounds (tapping on a tympanum, perhaps), suggests that the performer has to work with a recording, though nothing of this is mentioned in the limited notes or on the C.F. Peters website.
Two earlier compositions, Contrapunctus for piano and “…zum Staub sollst du zurückkehren…” (“…unto dust shalt thou return…”) for mixed septet, pursue a line towards silence and so prepare for the stillness of the iv pieces. Where the composer goes from here will be interesting to observe. There exists a sentimentality of silence, of desperation, of the last gasp, and some listeners will prefer the greater resistance, even pugnacity, of the works on the Kairos album.
Mark ANDRÉ: ni
MusikFabrik’s series of concert recordings goes on producing good things. The longest piece on the most recent (Wergo WER 6856-2) is Saariaho’s Graal théâtre in its cut-down version, which has already been recorded, as has the full symphonic original, though one can understand why musikFabrik should have wanted to present their own version. Not only is this a fine showcase for their lead violinist, Hannah Weirich, who sings the line beautifully, with a sense for its folkish roughness as well as its silvery gleam, it also abundantly reveals how the work proceeds so much in dialogue between the soloist and other members of the ensemble, not least Marco Blaauw on trumpet.
Also here is Grave, a hot and extrovert piece by Ian Willcock, and ni, a sequence of seven short movements by Mark André. In the first of these the music seems to be stifling itself, to leave distant animal-like wails and a susurration. Then comes a pizzicato study making the ensemble into a huge guitar, followed by a blast of wind instruments into the reverberating piano, with percussion. These movements, too, map as decrescendos, perhaps as moves ‘nach innen’ (inwards), the words compacted in the title. At the centre of the piece is a faint nebula of swirling, scraping, eructating noises around a couple of bright stars of piano-centred sound, and the next two movements maintain this kind of background, the finale completing the return by restoring elements from the first movement. However, the gap between intensity and dimensions (movements of two to three minutes) is puzzling, and André is still best represented by the pieces on his Kairos album.
Georges APERGHIS: instrumental music
Though known principally as a music-theatre man, with an emphasis therefore on vocal writing, Georges Aperghis has also produced a copious amount of solo instrumental and chamber music, listed on his informative website. In this part of his output we hear the same voice (or, one might better say, the same voices), at least to go by an anthology of concert pieces by him (Kairos 0012942KAI), which shows he likes to find out what instruments have to say, to each other and to themselves: to say and not to sing, for the gestures have the pattern and the roughness more of speech than of song.
The album’s two solo pieces – Alter ego for tenor saxophone and Volte-face for viola – thus have something in common with his classic Récitations for singer-actress. Played by Marcus Weiss the sax piece is nearly all demisemiquaver muttering in different registers, ending in an astonishing multiphonic tremulation extended by circular breathing. Genevièève Strosser, an Aperghis regular, projects Volte-face as the interior dialogue of a tough, hydra-headed personality. She is joined by Pierre-Stéphane Meugé in Rasch, where the two instruments are sometimes almost blended together in rapid alternation, stuck in an alliance that seems increasingly irksome to them as the piece goes on. Crosswind is another (mostly) wordless drama, in which the viola is beset by all four members of the saxophone quartet XASAX. Signaux, a much earlier piece heard from the ensemble in multitracked triplicate, seems dumb in comparison. Otherwise there is a lot of fun here, if by no means as much as in Récitations.
A state of tension, a state of crisis seems to be the unrelenting condition of the Cleveland-born, Berlin-resident Mark Barden’s music, to go by the portrait album produced by the Siemens Foundation under the terms of their Young Composers Prize (col legno WWE 1SACD 40413). In flesh/veil, an octet for pairs of flutes, violins and cellos with electric guitar and piano, the cause is the almost immediate echoing within duos and the frayed sound that sticks around, now and then in the background, like something refusing to be forgotten. In Chamber it is the loss of language suffered by three men, and how their vocal communications so much signal anxiety and distress. In the solo piano piece die Haut Anderer it is obsessive repetition, reaching an extreme in nearly four minutes of intensive chinking on one high treble note, where difference (in how upper partials come forward) serves to keep the sameness active. In a tearing of vision it is again a sound high in the piano, but higher still, a crinkling shiver that activates the other instruments of the ensemble but ignores all opportunities to grow and change, as they grow and change, an element that, by staying infantile, becomes worrisome and has to be drowned out, but cannot be drowned out.
Alam, for a mixed octet, seems to indicate a further, shared reason for the music to be in suspended panic. This piece begins with three recorded male voices successively reciting the same lines by a Palestinian poet, Zakaria Mohammed, in the original Arabic: ‘Pain / My pain is a jug / on the table. / I have no stick to hand / to break it.’ An electronic drone is there, too, and quiet thunder, continuing as the wind and string instruments come to life in long tones, each loudening or persisting like an ache, while the percussionist snaps around them much more actively. The language alone tells us where we are – and this piece, one may note, features three men possessing words, while the three of Chamber, all North American, have none. We know the place, then. And we know the date, 2011, though it could have been any time in the period of these works, ranging from 2006 to 2014 – that is, from the composer’s mid-twenties to his mid-thirties.
The latest of the six pieces is, perhaps significantly, the most depressed and dour, bruised and numb. This is Monoliths, comprising five separate two-minute blocks scored for seven instruments with electronics – five monoliths indeed, that stay or pulse for their due time. Now even the emergency cannot be spoken of, and the work makes an ominous finale.
Richard BARRETT: transmission
Something of the melancholy of solo performance – and certainly something also of the power, and a little of the comedy – is strongly projected by the new collection of pieces by Richard Barrett on NMC (D117). The solo musician addresses an audience, whether seen or unseen, who not only will not but cannot reply in kind. Enter doubt – and one may note that the album takes its title from its last and biggest number: transmission. How far can the soloist trust that transmission will be possible, when no-one else has the ability to transmit? How far will the soloist feel bound to go in bending, skimming, rephrasing what has to be transmitted – music – in terms of what the soloist knows to be generally shared: words? How much are these performances – these works – interpretations of an ideal music that cannot be transmitted? How much do they gain, rather, from the noises, shapes and meanings of words – things that so clamorously rush into them?
Such questions are raised by Berio. They are raised by Bach. But they are particularly pertinent in the case of Barrett, where words and speaking are almost always incipient behind the surface, at times breaking through. A poetic connection with Celan is only part of this. Beyond it, or perhaps as part of it, Barrett writes a kind of music in which small elements rapidly gain identities by means of repetition and transformation, so that they start to take on the character of words in some jabbering dialect. In the disc’s most startling piece, interference, the breakthrough occurs before anything else has been heard. This solo for contrabass clarinet starts with the (man) soloist vocalizing in a very high register, a register normally (if that is quite the word: there is not much normality here) associated with keening or sacred ululation. The effect is electric. Something desperate is going on – is being transmitted, indeed, or at least its transmission is being transmitted. So hot is this process that the words, from Lucretius, are burnt. And it says a lot for Barrett’s skills – as also for those of his destined performer, Carl Rosman – that the temperature stays super-high when the instrument takes over.
There is another participant, in addition to the unfamiliar instrument and the defamiliarized voice. From time to time the player whacks a pedal drum, whether to belabour, encourage or merely punctuate the monologue one is not sure. The whole scene, rivetting throughout its twelve minutes, could be compared with one of Beckett’s late ‘dramaticules’ – Ohio Impromptu especially.
A piece for more usual clarinet (though the unusual clarinet in C), knospend-gespaltener, comes across, despite its title from Celan (‘budding-fissured’), as the comedy of this series. Again Rosman is the expert player. There are also pieces for metal percussion, trombone, violin and electric guitar, all played by the astonishing musicians of ELISION, with whom the composer has had a long relationship.
Franck BEDROSSIAN: Manifesto
Franck Bedrossian, though not a pupil, may be Xenakis’s most direct heir, in terms of uninhibited sonic imagination, feet-not-quite-on-the-ground theorizing and a touch of naivety. His portrait album Manifesto (æon AECD 1106) makes the point, offering a selection of solo instrumental and ensemble pieces, all but one of them completed in 2007-8. The performances are exemplary.
What Bedrossian calls ‘saturation’ seems to involve not so much high density (though that certainly happens at times) as an intensity of instrumental gesture coming out of free jazz, a matter of trills, tremolos, swoops and leaps that are deliberately impure, containing something of the player’s corporeality. This is often exciting, but easily outstays its welcome. It may also lead to banalities: repeated notes, or motifs that speak an elementary language of expression. Humour can be the saving grace, as it is in the title piece (for eight wind) and Propaganda (for sax quartet and electronics), which are certainly – for other reasons, too – the compositions that stand out. Both lasting around eight minutes, the wind octet begins with a magnificent tutti growl, before the instruments start spurting as individuals, while Propaganda suggests a small, huddled family wondering how to comport itself in relation to the (electronic) world outside – or is it inside?
Of the rest, It for mixed septet has some wonderful mixed timbres in its slower passages, the saxophone solo La Solitude du coureur de fond is a generally slow study in multiphonics, played astonishingly by Pierre-Stéphane Meugé, and the accordion solo Bossa nova takes the instrument off towards stutters, whines and rumblings, again decisively projected by the performer, Pascal Contet.
Ed BENNETT: My Broken Machines
Ed Bennett’s music is assertive, even blatant. The title of his anthology (NMC D169) might suggest Ligeti, but this is Ligeti with absolutely no frills, music made of ostinatos and other kinds of repetition, processes of accumulation (as in the title piece, involving a mixed quintet from his own group, Decibel) and gradual movements through pitch space: mechanical forms and form-building means, applied to objects – yelps, booms, snarls – taken from jazz. The sound is distinctly urban, the demeanour streetwise. Even a string quartet, in For JF, sounds raw.
Perhaps the more appealing pieces are those not so cocky. Monster is a comedy for solo bass clarinet, burbling, growling and hollering against – or is it with? or even in ignorance of? – a recorded track that starts out mimicking its voice and goes on to suggest a sweeping radio dial. Paul Roe is the excellently characterful performer.
Another strong solo piece, Ghosts, features the viola d’amore of Garth Knox, who plays it with electric tension. A fanfare gesture is the recurrent point of departure, undermined or argued against by slow multiple-stopped glissandos, high brightness, dusty noises or the performer’s humming.
Some aspects of this piece – the slow glissandos and the begin-again form – can be found in Slow Down, which surprisingly turns out to be a piano trio, composed for and presented by the Fidelio Trio. (Indeed, all the works are performed by the musicians for whom they were made to measure.) String chords slide – inexorably, one might say, except that they come to points of turning – while the pianist, playing inside as well as out, picks out tones that are often going in the opposite direction, the piece being as much ‘slow up’ as ‘slow down’. The latter, though, fits the music better. Time is decelerated, and a search goes on through points of consonance that are by no means destinations. And though the instruments rise as much as they fall, there is the sense all the time of a winding down, an ending, that is moving even though (or maybe because) it comes from a broken machine.
Michael BERKELEY: Magnetic Field
The term ‘conservative’ is a blunt tool. Michael Berkeley’s music may not sound like Lachenmann’s, but nor does it sound like anything else. Things one might think of as conservative, such as the shapely phrases, the imitative counterpoint and the use of repetition to guarantee large-scale form, are clothes the music seems to wear with some irritation. It might want to be off in the wilds with Scelsi, but no, it has to stay and be civilized, and even learn to share some of the pleasures of civilization, if still with a kernel of madness at its heart.
Two works on a new record (Chandos CHAN 10364) show this, not so much in their preference for defiantly poetic titles over the generic ones that obstinately remain in common circulation within the area of chamber music – Magnetic Field rather than String Quartet No.4, and Abstract Mirror for a quintet with two cellos – as in the musical substance supporting these titles. Magnetic Field has its super-attractive pole in the note F; Abstract Mirror works its reflections around a beautiful symmetrical chord. Each work opens with its key feature, which is there again at the end. Along the way comes the struggle of obedience and discontent, of pleasure and frustration. More than one circle is completed as the close arrives, with an inevitability that is at once satisfying and sinister.
These elegantly disturbing compositions are finely played by the Chilingirian Quartet (with Thomas Carroll in the quintet) and coupled with a quartet, No.2 (1941), by the composer’s father.
Pierluigi BILLONE: 1+1=1
Two bass clarinets. No. One bass clarinet and one bass clarinet. The title is 1+1=1 and it deserves to be taken seriously. This is not a duet. It is a solo piece, in that it is a single body of sound emanating from two instruments – or from the space between two instruments, in the case of beats that occur, as often they do occur, when the two slide near one another in pitch. Much of it is very quiet, this body of sound, making slow undulations, like those of breathing. One might think of someone breathing while asleep, or of the body of sound as a real body, curved and substantial, but consisting only of its own breathing, only of the sound of its own breathing. Occasionally a tone will glow, like soft light, above the breathing, within the breathing. And there is space for more dynamic, even hurtling, charges of sound to arise, often gradually, for the piece is long: seventy minutes long, long enough for bass-clarinettishness to become the norm, and long enough for there to be a shock when that norm is broken and we hear the voices of the two performers, a woman (Petra Stump) and a man (Heinz-Peter Linshalm). With this sharp reminder of their presence, the piece suddenly seems like a ceremony. Their voices go on mumbling, on a level more ordinary than, and below, that of the bass clarinet sound. Two acolytes are holding up a sacred image, and it does not matter where they cast their eyes.
The achievement is theirs, Stump’s and Linshalm’s, in a compelling performance that makes bass-clarinettishness inexhaustible. It is the achievement, too, of course, of the composer, Pierluigi Billone. The piece had its first public performance in Vienna a year ago; the recording (Kairos 0012602KAI) was made shortly before.
Harrison BIRTWISTLE: Lied
Two figures, call them Cello and Piano, are drifting through the dark. It is not the dark of night but rather an underground dark, the dark of a damp and echoing vault. But no, the two figures are all there is, and the impression of darkness around them comes from what they are and how they speak. They converse. A chord. A brief motif. The conversation is at once dismal and tight, intense. Both participants come together in an upward flurry, a kind of snap fanfare. Then the conversation goes on, and arrives at points of vehemence: isolated, spotlit high notes that, from Cello, sound like moments of pain, where from Piano the effect is of an image of pain. Here is the contrast between a string instrument, mimicking vocal behaviour in how physical extremity so directly conveys mental, and the keyboard, whose top octave requires no more exertion of person or thing than its middle range. Piano moves from this disturbing game of showing wounds, real or imagined, to whisper, and its whispers are whispered on by Cello. Soon Cello is singing a song, but it is not the song, not the song promised in the title. That song arrives a little later, in a higher register, and with delicate accompaniment from Piano that makes it into a lullaby. It has to end, and it ends. Thereupon Piano comes forward. With what? A summons for the song to continue? A demand that it should? A prayer? A remonstration that the song was too short or, conversely, that it was a distraction, a mirage, that it was not the song at all, that it was the wrong song? The moment – four chords, ten seconds – could be interpreted in countless ways, but it fixes itself here with exactness and irrevocably. It is the right moment at the right time. And another right moment follows to conclude. Cello responds, surely, to what Piano has just uttered. But the nature of its response could be anything from weariness, exhaustion, to quiet defiance or murmured discontent, or to an unillusioned gesture towards the greater truth that will soon supervene, the truth of silence.
This is Birtwistle’s seven-minute Lied for cello and piano, recorded in its world première performance by Adrian Brendel and Till Fellner at last year’s Ruhr Piano Festival, and released as part of a three-record set (Edition Klavier-Festival Ruhr 553067). It is a small piece, but it settles itself firmly into time as something that will persist. A whole drama is there, solid and moving and inexplicable. The set includes other new pieces, among them a short set of variations by Tatyana Komarova that has the excellent Lars Vogt touching on modes from Prokofiev to Pärt and creating a surprising wholeness. Robert Levin performs a sonata written for him by John Harbison. Player pianos perform works written for them by Krzysztof Meyer and Steffen Schleiermacher. There are also Mozart performances (this was 2006) and various variations (sets by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Franck et al.) spun by a talented bunch of young pianists.
Harrison BIRTWISTLE: Orpheus Elegies
According to one of the legends, Orpheus was torn to pieces after returning emptyhanded from the underworld; dismemberment is equally the condition of Birtwistle’s Orpheus project, in which the story has been found written across lumps and particles over the last four decades. Among the most recent, Orpheus Elegies, composed in 2004 for oboe and harp with intermittent counter-tenor, comes across as extraordinarily poignant and powerful in a recording by Melinda Maxwell, Helen Tunstall and Andrew Watts (Oboe Classics CC2020).
The work is a constellation of twenty-six fragments, most of which are made of song or dance for the two instruments, each element lasting around a minute and based on a quotation from Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. In three rather longer movements a whole sonnet is sung, and in four others the singer comes in with part of the poem, his intervention generally displacing the oboe or confining it to functions of punctuation or drone, so that the texture remains one of melody and accompaniment – though Birtwistle’s typically strong harp writing includes a capacity to signal, initiate and dismiss, or to summon the echoing darkness of the nether regions. Tunstall is excellent at all this, and Maxwell projects the immemorial laments of her part with the high eloquence of total objectivity, superbly sustained and contrasting with Watts’s rightly more febrile, expressive presence. All three musicians are magnificent in Elegy 20, which they fittingly place in penultimate position (the ordering is free except where the first and last pieces are concerned, the entry into and exit from the labyrinth), and where, to Watts’s fine melisma on the word ‘singst’ and Tunstall’s wonderfully dull-bright ostinato, Maxwell makes the repetition of a three-note motif a haunting echo of the soprano saxophone from The Triumph of Time.
There are correspondences, too, operating within the work. Elegy 20, before the juncture just mentioned, has an episode of dance that picks up threads from a couple of other segments, and several pieces exemplify what Birtwistle means, quoting Klee, by the ‘dividual’: that which is a sample of something potentially longer, even infinite. Some of the movements, whether fast and dance-like or slow and melancholy, seem to be switched on and switched off again; some bend towards the same kind of evocation, as in the case of three beautiful sections in which the oboe keeps varying a line of lament (Elegies 3, 6, 9 and 21, of which the last sounds like a double of the first and ends with a striking gesture of closure in the sound of a sigh Tunstall creates). The chain-of-fragments form may be a nod to Kurtág, but we are deep in Birtwistle territory all through this work – deep and at a peak.
Harrison BIRTWISTLE: The Shadow of Night
Night’s Black Bird, pictured by Adam Birtwistle, surely stares out from the cover of an album of his father’s orchestral music (NMC D156), but the main work here is The Shadow of Night (2001), a piece that this recording will place up there with the senior Birtwistle’s earlier symphonic chunks The Triumph of Time and Earth Dances (and probably also the so-far-unrecorded Exody). It will do so by the power, beauty and sweep of the performance, by the Hallé under Ryan Wigglesworth, and it will do so also by allowing us to enter this dark but also luminous realm time and again, always to find new features and new connections.
A lot was said at the time of the first performance – not least by the composer himself – about melancholy, pessimism and the presence of Dowland, much less about sheer beauty of sound (one juncture, towards the halfway mark, is close to Debussian woodwind stillness) or about melody, in which this score, like much of Birtwistle’s music of the last fifteen years or so, is abundant. The Shadow of Night is singing music, whose lines very often move in changing circles, as if voicing the same self-examining question repeatedly in different ways, or as if searching for a resolution that will never be found. The lift and fall at the opening of Dowland’s ‘In darkness let me dwell’ is a recurrent image, but not, it seems, a structural one; it is not how the music is made but how it is. As to what drives the piece, this remains at once hidden and sure. Without mimicking known patterns of exposition and development, Birtwistle is aware that two minutes into a half-hour piece is a very different place from twenty minutes in; the drama of the piece invokes the weight of experience that it has – and we have – accumulated.
Faced with another orchestral commission soon afterwards, Birtwistle did what he had done on previous occasions and took a different route between the start and finish of one work or passage to come up with another, in this case Night’s Black Bird. Having the two together makes for fascinating comparisons, though one will probably go back oftener to the bigger piece (Night’s Black Bird is half as long). It is also good to have, at the end of the disc, The Cry of Anubis, an offshoot from the comic world of The Second Mrs Kong in which a solo tuba lashes, hectors and cajoles the companions this instrument normally has to solidly support.
Harrison BIRTWISTLE: Chamber Music
Blessed with the cello of Adrian Brendel as an immaculate, sensitive and poignant running thread – plus, of course, transparent sound – this outstanding release (ECM 2253) offers an indwelling with Birtwistle in his infinite mode of grey melancholy.
The longest work is his Bogenstrich (2006-9), which, lasting a little over half an hour, places a three-movement cello sonata between mirroring songs, both setting Rilke’s ‘Liebes-Lied’ to more or less similar melodic lines, but with divergent accompaniments: for piano in the sparkier prologue, cello in the epilogue. This is a trio, then, in which one or other of the performers is always silent. Even the ensemble, therefore, speaks from and of the poem, in which the ‘bowstroke’ Birtwistle extracts as his title is that of an unknown, and surely unknowable, musician playing on the strings that are the two lovers. The song, in both versions, is beautifully made, and given an appealing freshness by Roderick Williams’s singing, especially in the higher register. Of the cello-piano movements, wonderfully projected by Adrian Brendel and Till Fellner, the first, ‘Lied ohne Worte’, is a double of the song as it first appears, and the others pick up elements or junctures. It is not by accident that the five movements have more or less the same duration, and perhaps it is not surprising that Birtwistle produces one of his most coiled compositions by intercalating genres, as before in, for example, Pulse Shadows.
Yet the other things here are no makeweights. Twelve songs for soprano and cello, set to poems by Lorine Niedecker and composed between 1998 and 2011, find Birtwistle treading near the Kurtágian miniature, of bare musical images freighted with feeling. Some of these songs are exquisite – like the first, consisting of just a few vocal phrases over a more sustained cello line, finding a little cadential melody for the last words (‘the state I’m in’), but not ending there, going on into a couple of light hums. There are cross-references between movements here, too. Amy Freston, with her naturalness and delicate ease, almost makes one think these are old, old folk songs.
For a remove from song there is the Piano Trio of 2010, for which Lisa Batiashvili joins the instrumental team. Characteristic Birtwistlian features abound: stalling in ostinato, bursts of jerky dance, wandering against the pronounced pulse. There is also a Carterian sense here of three characters, except that Carter, the optimist, would have his characters living their own lives. In Birtwistle you cope with conditions long pre-existing.
Martin BUTLER: American Rounds
Charm, wit, unpretentiousness – these are not qualities that prevail in much new music that finds its way onto record, but prevail they do in the chamber pieces by Martin Butler featured on his album American Rounds (NMC D120). The enjoyable title work – commissioned as a companionpiece for the ‘Trout’ Quintet by the Schubert Ensemble, who perform everything here – gives the lowdown on hodown, taking an amused and amusing look at folksy clichés and their perpetrators, from Aaron Copland to John Adams, but doing so entirely without cynicism. Butler’s way, which seems to be characteristic, is to work with two or three layers of material that is based on repetition but that allows knocks, echoes and changes of gear to ricochet from one layer to another. The music has a brisk life to it, even when it is slow (as the third of the four short movements of American Rounds is slow).
The success of American Rounds led the Schubert Ensemble to ask for a follow-up, this time a piano quartet: Sequenza notturna. Here again Butler’s writing is clear and characteristic. Bell sounds in the piano, in not-quite-repeating patterns, seem to wake the strings up and motivate them to start singing their motifs. The sense, despite the title, is more of dawn than darkness, and the simplicity of Butler’s elements allows his lines to resonate with suggestions of all kinds of chants and dances.
A big solo piano piece, Funérailles, also makes use of bell chords to set the music going. Clangour alternates with delicate chiming, each handing over to the other through a repeated single note. Changes are rung on these prototypes, whose union gives rise to a melody that winds on its way, always the same but always transforming itself, in true Butlerian fashion. The music gains formidable weight and power, and the wind down is sombre.
Self-sustaining melody, melody that works and reworks a small motif or two, is a highly productive feature also in the smaller pieces here: Siward’s River Song for solo cello, Suzanne’s River Song for violin and piano, and Walden Snow for viola and piano.
Benet CASABLANCAS: The Dark Backward of Time
Big music, boldly driving, expertly composed, seeming to come straight out of 1930s modernism (Schoenberg in the Barcelona sun): such is the art of Benet Casablancas as represented on a disc of orchestral pieces from the last three decades, delivered with appropriate energy by the Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya under Salvador Mas-Conde (Naxos 8.579002). The main work is The Dark Backward of Time, from 2005, which owes its title to Prospero’s description of memory as ‘the dark backward and abysm of time’, and much of which fits the source in being tempestuous, though the composer’s unquellable imagination keeps the storm going – a few breathing spaces apart – for close on twenty minutes. An earlier piece of similar length, Postlude (1991), intimates a stage of reliance on imitative counterpoint before the vigorous style of constantly onward urging took over.
Curiously for a composer with such a command of abstract symphonic poetry at expansive length, Casablancas has written a lot of what he calls ‘epigrams’ – not as epigrammatic as many of Webern’s pieces, but all done in two or three minutes, or perhaps a little longer in the case of slow movements. This collection includes a set of three from 2001: a soaring opener and a mostly bright and festive finale around a nocturne (another favourite genre) that has some echoes of Mahler and Bartók.
The catalogue on Casablancas’s website indicates a composer excited principally by instruments, so this programme is true to his output in offering just one vocal item, a dreamy love song that is also considerably the earliest piece here, dating back to 1981. From the nearer end of his career, Intrada sobre el nom de DALÍ (2006) is another epigram, quicksilver in tone but characteristically sure all through.
A companion album (Naxos 8.579004) adds scores for smaller forces done by another fine Catalan ensemble, the Sinfonietta/Modern/InterContemporain-scale BCN 216. Shakespeare again features, in the Siete escenas de Hamlet for a narrator (Paul Jutsum) setting the scene for colourful musical illustrations, and there are more epigrams and nocturnes.
Aaron CASSIDY: instrumental music
Moving into synergy with Huddersfield University, Elision has retained old friends (Liza Lim, Richard Barrett) and made new ones, notably Aaron Cassidy, who is, with Lim, one of the composers represented most fully on two albums Huddersfield’s Centre for Research in New Music has put out on its own label (Huddersfield Contemporary Records HCR 02CD and 03CD). The lower numbered of these features the higher number of performers: an all-star mixed ensemble in works by Lim, Cassidy and Bryn Harrison, interspersed with solo pieces from the cellist Séverine Ballon and oboist Peter Veale. Trumpet (Tristram Williams) and trombone (Ben Marks) fight it out pretty much alone on the other disc.
Lim offers a nice showpiece for Williams as well as Ballon, but her best work here arrives in the ensemble piece Songs Found in Dream, where characterful scenes for a mixed octet fold into and emerge out of shadowy noises. Other highlights include Mary Bellamy’s feather-light and floating study in spectral effects developed by Ballon and Bryn Harrison’s mesmerizing heterophony of slowly revolving parts given a subaqueous aura by a recorded track, while the Cassidy pieces announce an exciting voice.
This is a more than usually appropriate term, since the effect of Cassidy’s decoupled actions (score samples on his website indicate how, when writing for solo trumpet, for example, he writes separately for embouchure and keys, prescribing rhythm, dynamics, tempo and shape but not the notes or clouded notes that will result) is paradoxically to suggest a vocal sort of expression, partly because of how the music is phrased. Much of the trumpet solo sounds like impassioned muttering complaint, broken by just a thread of fine lament. The instrument – the player – is dismembered, and yet a voice persists, is even intensified.
No wonder Cassidy is taken with the pantings of Francis Bacon, and perhaps even more with Deleuze’s book on the artist, from which (in English translation) he quotes in his titles, that of the trumpet piece being What then renders these forces visible is a strange smile (or, First Study for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion). In Cassidy, as in Bacon, the body is at issue – the body of the player, but even more so that implied by the piece of music as an articulating presence, torn yet whole. Gaps may appear. The trombone solo has long silences, during which, to judge by the online video recording of the same performance, the player must freeze, as if in some time frame other than ours (as a painted image is in a space other than ours). The ensemble piece – into which the trumpet and trombone pieces are bent as components, as is a duet for oboist and clarinettist also available in video form online – thins twice to the faintest whisper, and is more generally unusual in putting forward only a few of the nine players at any time. One has the impression of a dramatic scene in which the group of characters onstage keeps changing, but in which a tone of delicate intensity is maintained, or of a piece of fabric fraying into glistening strands.
A sentence must be added in praise of Veale’s extraordinary breath control in Cassidy’s memento/memorial, of which two performances on the cd (and a third online) testify to how the notes may change but the trajectory and the drama remain the same.
Niccolò CASTIGLIONI: Altisonanza
Pianissimo strings in harmonics whistle a folksong. A rollicking dance rhythm gets going and stops. High woodwinds rush about in sunlit brilliance. A clarinet sounds out a birdsong. A piano insistently stays in its top octave.
Castiglioni’s imagery is at once captivating and bewildering. Can the world recreated within a piece of music really be so wonderfully simple – so full of delights and so overt in structure, just repeating or shuffling the same bright objects? Sources in Stravinsky (Petrushka, the late choral pieces) and Webern are clear; the frequent approach to Messiaen is probably a matter of drawing on these same sources and others (birdsong, of course, and chant). But we seem to be somewhere apart, suspended in space, and unsure whether this is levitation or levity.
WDR recordings under Emilio Pomàrico (Neos 11031) offer Altisonanza, an orchestral triptych from the early nineties, and Le favole di Esope, an ‘oratorio’ of 1979 made of short movements for choir (singing in Latin) and orchestra interleaved with even shorter orchestral interludes, the whole spinning and blithe. As in earlier pieces, Castiglioni has no compunction about keeping everyone involved. One of the interludes among the Aesop settings is just for trumpets, and there is almost never anything like a tutti anywhere – until the bizarre emphatic major chord slapped on to round off the choral work. Such a gesture, from almost any other composer, would have to be ironic, but Castiglioni’s intentions remain concealed. He makes his compositions as if he were making toys, with skill and panache.
What are they for? That question he leaves to us.
Friedrich CERHA: Spiegel
Anyone encountering Cerha’s Spiegel series for the first time – and most of us listening to the works’ belated debut recording (Kairos 0013002 KAI) are going to be in that situation – will not take long to make the connection with Ligeti’s Atmosphères and Apparitions. Slowly changing sound masses, clusters, micropolyphony, the simultaneity of high speed (in the figuration) and stasis (in the overall effect) – all are here. Curiously, the booklet provides an unexpected and perhaps unanticipated prompt, for it includes a photograph of the composer at Salzburg with a person who looks very like Ligeti, but turns out to be the sculptor Karl Prantl, dedicatee of one of the works (Monumentum) included to fill the double album.
The story may not, however, be so simple. Cerha in his booklet essay confirms that he completed the set of seven scores in 1961 after two years’ work, whereas Atmosphères was not started until February 1961 and not heard until late October that year. Moreover, Cerha further states that his starting point was his own Mouvements, which he dates to February 1959 (the UE website has ‘1959-60’), and so to before the completion and first performance of Apparitions. All we can say, perhaps, is that two composers who knew one another were working with similar ideas (as, of course, were others at the time: Xenakis, Scelsi, Penderecki). And if Cerha was indebted to Ligeti (not a bad model to choose, after all), then the arrow of influence may well have gone the other way, too, for Spiegel IV, first performed in 1971 (all seven premières were delayed), could easily have opened some of that territory between magic space and junkyard in which Ligeti’s opera was to unfold.
Other pieces in the series have different characters. The second is for strings alone; the third and sixth, which are both well below the twelve-minute average, are monolithic – though stone is not the substance evoked here so much as some kind of glistening fabric or rainbow mist. No less fascinating are two that are more dramatic. The opener has a wedge of seething, buzzing string tone that emerges from the work’s first uproar to become an ominous, even frightening presence; this piece also ends beautifully with wandering trails of melody. Spiegel V, moving seamlessly between shimmering distance and implacable force, similarly shows how Cerha’s control of orchestral colour is a control also of orchestral geography. Both these works are scored for a Mahlerian orchestra, which will count against their being played very often – though this recording documents a complete performance given by the SWR Symphony Orchestra under Cambreling at the 2006 Bregenz Festival.
Nor should Monumentum be overlooked. It ends with a Spiegel-type invention from almost thirty years later: the song of the trees heard as a fractal hymn. Unforgettable.
Friedrich CERHA: Bruchstück, geträumt
The year of Friedrich Cerha’s eighty-fifth birthday brings a release exclusively of recent works (Kairos 0013152 KAI), of which the newest is particularly striking: Bruchstück, geträumt (Offcut, dreamed), composed in 2009 for Klangforum Wien, who play it here under Sylvain Cambreling. A sense of dream is indeed evoked by the opening, almost completely still, very quiet and ultra-high, where violins and bowed crotales create a glistening gauze. Bell sounds strike the hours out of time, and the dream also includes other gestures that seem estranged, unable to acquire or embody the energy they need. Despite this, and even though the score uses just fifteen instruments (strings, brass, percussion, harp, piano), the piece has a symphonic weight and measure. It appears to be ending as it began, but then goes on a little beyond, movingly.
Cerha mentions in the notes his wish now for immediacy rather than development, and yet Bruchstück, geträumt plays for an unbroken span of almost twenty minutes. Its companion pieces, though, are indeed fragments, or fragmentary. Some of the Nine Bagatelles for string trio last only around a minute; the longest clocks in at three. But though these are Webernian dimensions, Cerha’s composition is more continuous in each episode, more defined in character, a cycle of slow movements (two headed ‘Malinconia’. the third an odd contemplation with itches) offset by pieces that may be humorous or strange – or both – but always energetic. The Zebra Trio, formed by Ernst Kovacic (who was responsible for the commission), Steven Dann and Anssi Karttunen, play the piece as if it were already a classic.
Instants, for orchestra, is momentary in another way: a score lasting over half an hour that is rather like a screen across which different actions can pass. There are some unusual and beautiful doublings here, some gorgeous textures, with just a delicate wisp of Berg now and then, all proudly presented in this performance by Peter Rundel and the WDR orchestra. One might think that the composer, in his eighties, wanted to set out the fruits of his experience, and to enjoy himself; Boulez’s Notations might be a parallel. Bells chime again, but this score offers a much more exuberant run than Bruchstück, geträumt.
Aldo CLEMENTI: guitar music
Maybe if you are born with a name like Clementi you find yourself retracing old, old steps. Certainly Aldo of that ilk writes music that has a shadowy existence, music that sounds like a shred of something long lost. The dislocated canon is his preferred form. Unlike most canons, which rather depend on the voices paying attention to one another, Clementi’s have their lines adrift. Parts come and go, perhaps at their own speeds, generally slow, and make harmonic sense only within themselves, the general harmony being a haze. Not much of his music has been recorded, which would make a whole cd devoted to him (Mode 182) specially interesting even without the participation of ELISION, whose presence is a recommendation all itself.
Where these players are normally white hot (as on a recent Richard Barrett disc; see above) here they have to be wan cold, and they do it very well. The repertory centres on the guitar, whose tones – fragile, gentle, evanescent – suit the nature of Clementi’s music, and the guitarist – Geoffrey Morris – is one who understands that, with this composer, soft stumbles are the way to go, and yet that they have to be finely measured and executed. Fantasia su frammenti di Michelangelo Galilei is almost unbearable in how phrases are deflected from their destinations as one of them unthinkingly interrupts another. Everything here comes from an early seventeenth-century lute book, whose pages are flipped to convey a very Clementian sense of dull uselessness. The same sense, and the same unhurried pace, may be found in Otto variazioni (2002), which is the most recent piece on the album and is dedicated to Morris. In a nice production moment, the last note of this solo composition is repeated as the first of C.A.G., where the guitar is joined by vibraphone, flute and violin. Contrary to what one might guess, this has nothing to do with Cage, or with cages (easily evoked by the traps in which Clementi’s music blithely finds itself); rather, the letters are those of the notes to be found in the name of Clementi’s colleague (and another composer whose music should be more available) Camillo Togni. The letters, transposed and inverted, waft in the air. They do not know where to go. They wait for silence.
Aldo CLEMENTI: flute music
So many flutes together sound like multitudinous voices – howls of anguish or delight or ecstatic praise, it is hard to be sure which – blowing in the breeze: such is the effect of Fantasia su roBErto FABbriCiAni (1980-81), which opens this musician’s album devoted to music by Aldo Clementi (Mode 224). Twenty-four pre-recorded flutes are playing, some of them microtonally, in great rotations of wonderful, impenetrable sound, against which the ‘live’ soloist picks a path along the letters of his own name. The music arrives from nowhere and fades into potential endlessness. From, as usual with this composer, very precise and defined means comes an extraordinary poetic image. Magic.
Overture (1984) is day to the fantasia’s night. There are now just twelve parts, playing canons on diatonic elements suggestive of folksong; one might think of a system of mirrors showing reflections of bright objects placed within, one after another. The Passacaglia (1988) again uses diatonic material, this time taken from flute pieces by Bach, Mozart and Schubert, though the quotations are so short as barely to register as such: they are just flecks spinning within the many parts.
Two later pieces, luCiAno BErio (1995) and Parafrasi 2 (2004), move away from these dense accumulations, both being four-part canons whose faltering progress conveys the wary fortitude of one going forward through – the impression is enhanced by the withdrawal of the earlier complexity – a vast empty space. There are excellently informative notes by Gianluigi Mattietti.
Richard CRAIG: inward
Richard Craig’s collection of flute music (Métier msv 28517), recorded with close immediacy, places the listener in a wind tunnel whose walls are of flesh and metal, these sometimes heard as simultaneous alternatives, sometimes in undulating union. Altogether this is remarkable playing, remarkable possession of the music by the performer through a wide range of styles and situations – or of the performer by the music. Hard to say which. The rhythm of the record is that of the music exerting itself.
Ferneyhough’s Unity Capsule (1975-6) is the oldest piece here, and the jumping-off point for many of the works by younger composers, even if Craig’s performance acknowledges this work’s still daring novelty as much as its classic status. He takes it faster than his predecessors on record, but with exhilarating definition. In the first half of the piece one might have the impression of a dancer working against entrapment – entrapment that then becomes itself dance. The ending is wonderful, with a winding down into iteration, followed by disappearance in a puff of smoke.
Among the six other pieces, Sciarrino’s Venere che le grazie la fioriscono (1989) is beautifully presented as an incantation and dance, the former whispering around a few notes, the latter done with tuned key slaps. Evan Johnson’s l’art de toucher le clavecin, 2 (2009) sends piccolo and violin, playing harmonics, along a line of intense light, like a horizon between blackness and blackness. It is wounded light, with occasional groans and gasps from the flautist; it is also light of – however flickering the sound – immense expressive reserves. The unusually delicate piece by Richard Barrett that gives the album its title, inward, has faltering flute lines not so much accompanied as ignored by a percussionist, whose crotale scintillations are eventually replaced by commemorative drumbeats. Ending thus with the apparent death of the flute, this is a record full of fluting life.
Marc-André DALBAVIE: chamber music
Marc-André Dalbavie shows his firm adroitness in works for small ensemble, played here by members of L’ Itinéraire (Soupir S209), as much as he does in his big orchestral pieces. Specific chords may make French connections (to Debussy, Ravel and Messiaen, not Boulez), but the way the music is decisively driven forward by harmonic-rhythmic energy, often calling on scales and arpeggios in rapid recyclings, is more in the line of Magnus Lindberg, out of U.S. minimalism and Ligeti. If one may regret that the music has so much need to signal its intentions – and that it knows so much what it is about – Dalbavie’s expertise can at moments be captivating. He also has a nice sense of humour, as when, in the opening of the first piece here, Palimpseste, a single note, left behind after a rotating waterfall of figuration has worn itself out, is lobbed around the ensemble. The disclosure of one note turns out to be the start of a whole process of revelation, whereby, behind, the luminescent screens of ostinatos, Gesualdo’s madrigal ‘Beltàà, poi che t’assenti’ begins to appear, a ghost (but more substantial than a ghost, rather a statue) not only from four centuries ago but also from the nearer past of Stravinsky’s Monumentum. Perhaps inevitably, Gesualdo’s yearning harmonies start to bleed into the agile brilliance that covers them, nicely confusing the palimpsest relationship.
The other recent piece on the programme is Dalbavie’s Horn Trio, which belongs to a group of works in which the piano part is essentially the same, a group that so far includes a concerto (for Andsnes) and a quartet picking up the instrumentation Debussy intended for his fifth sonata (for Ax). Of course, this saves time for a busy composer, and also encourages pianists to play more than one piece, but it is an attractive notion of itself. Perhaps, though, it would be more effective if one knew other members of the family. Heard alone, the Horn Trio, despite some intriguing Ligetian disintonations, sounds as if it could have been made to show how Dalbavie’s ostinato-arpeggio manner maintains impetus more securely than it does interest. Playing continuously, the piece has a typically rather conventional form of slow introduction, fast movement, slow movement and quick finale. As the arpeggios decelerate towards the slow movement, they evoke pealing bells and patterns of change ringing.
Two compositions from the mid-1990s indicate that Dalbavie’s manner has not changed very much in the last fifteen years (though it did before that). In Advance of the Broken Time is for the same ensemble as Palimpseste – flute, clarinet, string trio and piano – and its arpeggiated play of light and shadow is not so different,except that there is no avowed source for the sombre harmonies. Tactus, commissioned by the Scharoun Ensemble, puts forward a bigger formation, that of Schubert’s Octet plus piano, and has an effective slow movement with shades of Schoenberg’s Farben. The pianist in all four pieces is almost a soloist, and Dalbavie is lucky to have the collaboration of Fuminori Tanada – whose own music it would be good to hear more of.
Brett DEAN: Carlo
Brett Dean’s disc Water Music (BIS CD 1576) offers what seems to be the first recording of his Carlo from 1997, a product of the curious late-twentieth-century fascination with Gesualdo (alongside operas by Sciarrino and Schnittke and, just spilling over into 2001, a quartet by Georg Friedrich Haas). Dean’s nice idea was to have music for string orchestra spread out from under one of the Neapolitan composer’s most celebrated madrigals, Moro lasso, heard from a recording controlled by a sampler. The madrigal stays intermittently present – or at least its disconcerting opening does, sometimes transformed. Meanwhile, the strings seem to be pursuing an investigation, musical and also, by implication, forensic. As the atmosphere grows more sinister and dramatic, there is no need for the composer’s note to explain that what we are hearing is ‘an orchestral echo’ of the night when Gesualdo returned home unexpectedly in order to trap and murder his wife and her lover. Even before this the music gets melodramatic at times, and bouncy at others, in either event reducing its aim. More touching than any of this is the moment when the madrigal’s chromatically slipping bass is brought back by a solo violin, what was once substructure now fully revealed, its malign influence evaporated.
Found materials are again effectively used in two of the other, later works here: the title piece and one that similarly has a familiar title, Pastoral Symphony. Both begin with natural sounds – a quiet dawn chorus in Pastoral Symphony, bubbling in Water Music – and both end bleakly, suggesting that nature’s bounty can be wasted. Along the way in both comes quite a bit of mid-twentieth-century rhythmic exuberance, and again one wonders if the showiness helps. Pastoral Symphony also has its moment of melodrama, as the Bernsteinian whirl leads up to the sound of a tree falling. This work is for small chamber orchestra, Water Music for solo sax quartet with strings, percussion and trumpet. H.K. Gruber conducts the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, with the Raschèr in Water Music. Dean himself takes charge for The Siduri Dances for flute and strings, featuring Sharon Bezaly.
Donnacha DENNEHY: Elastic Harmonic
Gerald Barry has had to hold the standard for Irish music long enough; it is good to find him being joined by such a lively talent as Donnacha Dennehy, subject of an NMC release (D133). A lot of the music here is in a jerky Bang-on-a-Cannish style, though with traits that are individual, perhaps national. For instance, the percussion solo Paddy – a title preparing us for a dose of Irishly ironic Irishry – sometimes sounds like the pattering of the bones. As for more personal features, Dennehy seems to like a fair amount of dirt and cloud in the sound, but dirt and cloud scrupulously defined. This liking crosses over from such pieces as Glamour Sleeper and Streetwalker, both for small mixed ensemble, to what is by far the outstanding piece here: Elastic Harmonic for orchestra with solo violin (Darragh Morgan, skittering and dreaming over the infinite greys of the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra under Gavin Maloney). An elastic harmonic world is created by pairs of chords pulling back and forth from one to the other in constantly changing rhythmic quantities, so that the same step or tug is undertaken over and over again, irregularized by stretching or compression. While this goes on in the middle to bass register, through harmonies beautifully dulled by their complexity or by percussion participation, the deep stagnancy has shafts of light coming in from elsewhere in the orchestra, often in not-quite-predictable rotating patterns, and the violin keeps its place on top hovering. There are occasional echoes of the thunderous numbness of Philip Glass and, more productively, of the dense restedness of Claude Vivier, but the piece, first performed (on Irish television) in 2005, is its own thing and a wonder to hear.
Donnacha DENNEHY: Grá agus Bás
Grá agus Bás (Love and Death), on Donnacha Dennehy’s album of the same name (Nonesuch 7559-79772-7), is a wonder: music of power and punch that once heard – but who will stop at once? – cannot be forgotten. The premise might seem hazardous: a crack instrumental ensemble, playing a pulsating score that is sure and individual enough to withstand the invited comparisons with Reich and Glass, is partnered with a master of the Irish song style, incantatory and ornamented, known as ‘sean-nós’, or ‘old tradition’. But there need be no fear: the two go together like bars of different metals, separate but strong.
The singer, the remarkable Iarla Ó Lionáird, fully inhabits his own world and yet is equally congnisant of what is going on alongside. The ensemble, Crash, sound excited and eager for a collaboration that has enlivening rivalry about it as well as respect. They have their own rhythm, swirling in rapid rotation, often suggesting a gallop. Ó Lionáird is the rider. His phrases seem to know the instruments’ racing activity, even to subsume it. And the instruments know what he is about. There are majestic moments of supporting unison, but the motifs that swirl and jump around and dance – the motifs that form the ensemble’s main substance – are often drawn from, or accommodate, the singer’s, even though their pace and energy are so different. A more directly physical melding comes from how the electronic system gives the voice echoes and reverberation that join with the ensemble sound. At times – notably in the final fade – one may be unsure quite how much of the sound is vocal and how much instrumental.
Yet another level of connection, and perhaps the most fruitful, is the infiltration of just intonation into an equal-tempered universe (or the other way round). In an instrumental break close to the end, the violin slides up between microtonally deviant pitches against thumping from the rest of the ensemble. It is, movingly,as if something natural and fragile were being crushed by a machine – until a point of agreement comes, and it seems, miraculously, as if what is tender has proved tougher. There may be a metaphor here.
And that is not the end, which is breathtaking, and becomes more thrilling when one knows that is going to happen.
The companion work is a set of Yeats songs.
James DILLON: Philomela
James Dillon’s first work for the theatre, Philomela (æon AECD 0986), is opera thrown at the canvas. The raw and rugged instrumental performance, by the Remix Ensemble under Jurjen Hempel, seems appropriate to the rather defeated heft and splash Dillon achieves with a relatively small grouping in a work where the voices are caught in dark swirls, recalling events that happened long ago and have left as their main residue the sullen passion of disgust. Harmonies are generally static, ideas circling, as in The Book of Elements, which came immediately before this 2004 score, but of course without the brilliance of resonance (except when piano, harp or tuned percussion come forward), in a dulled, perhaps stunned, universe. There is no attempt at the precision – or the concision – with which Babbitt treated the same story in his classic piece for soprano and tape. The voice one most remembers from this opera is the orchestra’s, and it comes from the belly.
As Dillon points out, the myth is one of unvoicing. Philomela (Anu Komsi) is raped by her brother-in-law Tereus (Lionel Peintre), who cuts out her tongue so that she cannot speak of his crime; Procne (Susan Narucki), her sister and Tereus’s wife, then serves up their son Itys for supper, severing his communication with the future. There is, therefore, an argument for treating these characters as grumbling shadows who have largely lost their means of expression and can no longer connect with the emotions of desire, guilt and vengeance that drove them, those emotions washing around, defused, in the orchestral environment, whose sluggish rhythms will often suggest the nether world as a cellar club after everyone has gone or fallen asleep.
Coming as a streak of lightning across this sombre collapse, the third of the five acts (which play continuously for a total duration of just over an hour and a half) is a violent scena for the violated title character – and, no less urgently, for the orchestra, raised from its slumbrous posture. After this the voices fade. In the fourth act they are heard only in recorded form within what is essentially an orchestral piece; in the fifth, which again belongs mostly to the orchestra, they seem to be abandoning their roles, as if even the fumbling memory had become exhausting.
DONAUESCHINGEN 2008: Ferneyhough / Pauset
Of eleven works recorded at the 2008 Donaueschingen Festival for one of Wulf Weinmann’s regular compilations (Neos 10944), two make the set worthwhile. One is Ferneyhough’s Chronos-Aion, which he aptly describes as a ‘concerto for ensemble’, the ensemble being the Modern and the concerto aspect having to do with the frequent emergence and interplay of small groups or, more rarely, soloists. Concerto-style display and vivacity, however, are absent, or present only in negative guise. There is the persistent sense of a weighty piece of machinery falling apart, of a collective time fraying. Moreover, the concertante groups, when suddenly given the spotlight, seem most often embarrassed, even scared. They rush about in search of cover again within the ensemble, or they just stop, and wild solos are outnumbered by sad songs bumping around the same few notes. Frank Ollu conducts a strong, desperate performance.
The other piece that stands out is Brice Pauset’s Fifth Symphony, Die Tänzerin, which at last provides an opportunity to hear one of this historically conscious but by no means retrogressive composer’s larger works, and which proves him as meticulous, resourceful, melancholy and questioning on this scale as in the chamber and keyboard works that have hitherto represented him on record. The background to Die Tänzerin, one of six symphonies he has produced in recent years, is explained in his programme note, which appears only in excerpt with the recording but fully on his publisher’s website. The piece itself fascinates and disturbs. Noises, piano sounds and a kind of tentative line in string harmonics at the start create the image of a fractured dance, and much of the music that ensues has this sense of something trying to piece itself together – against (or is it with the help of?) the might that comes rolling in every now and then, most alarmingly with dumb rotations in the bass a little before the halfway point in this fifteen-minute composition. These interventions suggest some mindless machine – but also the mindless machine that is the human body, with its more or less regular pulse. And there is a corporeality in the finer music that extends, one likes to think, the main continuity, even where the writing is gauze-thin and scintillant. Oppositions that manifest themselves powerfully seem also illusory; the music exists as if slightly out of reach, drawing us in, drawing us back.
DONAUESCHINGEN 2009: Cendo / Moore
A second volume of recordings from the 2009 festival at Donaueschingen (Neos 11052) features three world premières, beginning with that of Franck Bedrossian’s ensemble piece Swing. Not for the first time, it is difficult to understand how the composer’s concept of ‘saturation’ differs from the heated overlay of personalities that will easily crop up in jazz, and though the work is remarkable in maintaining a hectic, jittery character for over twenty minutes – maintaining it as implicit through patches of sparseness, withdrawal – the abundance is, perhaps deliberately, uncontrolled and undifferentiated. One feels one knows the piece long before its end.
Georges-Elie Octors conducts the Ictus Ensemble here and in Introduction aux ténèbres by Raphaël Cendo, who also refers to ‘saturation’ in his note, though excess in his piece is an excess that was. The scoring is for a bass-baritone soloist delivering phrases from Revelation (in Latin), together with a solo double bass, the ensemble and live electronics, all creating a burned-out landscape with ash blowing in the wind. Where the text promises catastrophe, here it has already happened. The bass-baritone, vocalizing into the microphone out of a belch, murmur or stutter, is the scarred witness to the unspeakable, the double bass his shadow. This is striking, but two problems arise, material and expressive. The former concerns the use of electronic transformation, which masks or undercuts what is being achieved by the vocal (Romain Bischoff) and instrumental (Nicolas Crosse) soloists, while on the expressive level one is left unsure about the position of irony. Someone muttering dire warnings is potentially comic, and this aspect is not convincingly allowed for. Besides, at almost forty minutes the work is long.
Much the most effective piece is also much the shortest, at thirteen and a half minutes: Christopher Trebue Moore’s Strange Attractors for reed trio (oboe, clarinet, bassoon), percussion and electronics. The title refers to those poles around which chaotic systems may swirl, and the music effectively deploys such elements – a pitch, a gesture, a timbre – as it goes about its unrepeating progress. Skirling woodwind are to the fore at first; around the midway point comes an electronic cadeza, into which the percussionist filters back, opening a wedge into which the woodwind players can quietly shove. Once again, ace performers are involved: Peter Veale, Carl Rosman, Alban Wesly and Dirk Rothbrust.
Joël-François DURAND: Ombre/Miroir
The title of musikFabrik’s collection shadow games (Wergo 6854 2) picks up an image from two of the four works featured: Joël-François Durand’s Ombre/Miroir and Ferneyhough’s Shadowtime, represented by its penultimate scene. The moniker has much less relevance to Michael Jarrell’s …Prisme/Incidences…, a cutdown single-movement violin concerto in this composer’s expertly managed and lustrous Boulezian manner, but there are certainly shadows and gamesomeness in Stefano Gervasoni’s far niente, the latter half of which suggests a double bass dreaming of little beings jumping about whistling.
It is good to have a second recording of part of Shadowtime – and one so different, with Omar Ebrahim flinging all his expressive resources at the spoken text. The ensemble is excellent here, too: alert and characterful. The piece is a whirlwind.
It is also good to hear more from Durand, following his Mode album. Ombre/Miroir is a concerto for flute and ensemble, the two at first separate and opposed – the flute high, the ensemble dominated by sludgy low wind – yet also in parallel, in that both are caught on monotones. Interpenetration leads to more melodic fluency all round, and to the characteristic emergence of a secondary soloist, on muted trumpet. The last two minutes, as in the oboe concerto La Terre et le feu, which was featured on the Mode release, mark a magical arrival, the flute joining other instruments in spectres of spectralism. Pages from the score may be inspected at the composer’s website.
ENDYMION Ensemble: Sound Census
The temptation is to take the Endymion Ensemble’s double album Sound Census (NMC D160), representing two dozen composers, as a thermometer telling the temperature of contemporary music in Britain, in which case the reading would have to be: more or less modal, alternately perky and ruminative. Of course, one has to take into account the patient’s condition at the time. Most of these pieces were written to celebrate the ensemble’s thirtieth anniversary or the seventieth birthday of Anthony Gilbert; miniature dimensions and a bright tone are therefore to be expected. But it is not so easy to explain the modalities, circling around the poles of Parisian Stravinsky, late Ligeti and Stockhausen, except as expressive of a desire for belonging, for finding the unfindable home – unfindable because, so often, tonal centres are makeshift locations, apt to disintegrate or alter at no notice.
The other temptation is to rank order the pieces. One that stands out is Joanna Bailie’s Axis, music with a Feldmanesque combination of faintness and resolution. A piano, playing one note at a time, comes to be joined by other instruments (bass clarinet, strings, alto flute); then everything is becalmed, a continuous soft sounding, slowly fluctuating in content and colour, a grey glow. Also exceptional, and altogether different, is Simon Holt’s Disparate, a title to be understood in two languages, English and Spanish, with the sense in the latter, according to the composer, of ‘a foolish remark or an architectural folly’. Fittingly, perhaps, the piece is heard twice over: as an oboe solo, and as the same solo now given with auditors: piccolo, horn, trumpet, double bass and harp, whose echoes, shadows and silences lend completely different meanings to the oboe’s darts, its multiphonics and its singing games. Melinda Maxwell is the expert soloist. Yet another treat is Morgan Hayes’s Shatner’s Bassoon. Like Holt and others, Hayes takes advantage of the Endymion lineup to field an unusual ensemble: no bassoon (the title comes from a satirical tv sketch), but clarinet, trumpet, trombone, violin, double bass and soloesque piano. Manoeuvrings through an omnipresent idea – present even when it is absent, present in its absence – play tricks with time, and the piece is intricately, quickwittedly composed.
Among the rest, there are strong, memorable contributions from the Anthonies Gilbert and Payne, from Philip Cashian and from Vic Hoyland. The playing is lively and beautiful throughout.
Morton FELDMAN: Orchestra
Has Feldman’s music lost its memory? Or is it dumbfounded rather by what it sees (hears) ahead? Either way – and perhaps both have some relevance – its shocked stillness is very beautiful and very poignant in the performances Brad Lubman conducts with the DSO Berlin on a selection of orchestral works (mode 238).
Misty, glistening, muffled, evanescent – the qualities of the sounds stay much the same throughout (except in the problematic realization of a graph score, Intersection 1, which is also problematic in its uncharacteristic loudness). Nevertheless, the pieces have their own identities – most markedly so, of course, in Voice and Instruments 1 (1972), which adds a wordless soprano to its Classical-scale orchestra, in this case the magically pure voice of Martha Cluver, encountering the woodwinds in some breathtaking moments. Structures (1960-62), On Time and the Instrumental Factor (1969) and Orchestra (1979) are all for full-scale orchestral resources without soloist, but with differences that have to do with a growing sophistication in the handling not only of sound but of time.
This is where the metaphor of lost memory comes in, because there is a growing sense through these pieces of an effort (inevitably failing) at retrieval. All three move slowly, but where Structures seems to be motivated by exploration, finding new things, the later works sound like attempts to resummon shapes, gestures that have been lost. On Time, which like Structures lasts around eight minutes, appears never to come near what it is searching for, remaining in a wonderful cloud of resonant uncertainty, but both Voice and Instruments 1 and Orchestra, in their longer durations, get glimpses. Orchestra gets glimpses, too, of the fuzzy repetitions of Feldman to come.
The paths of all these works, whether leading forwards or backwards, are marvelously sustained by Lubman and his players, and the sounds – some shimmering like metal resonances, some dampened and lustreless – are ineffable.
Brian FERNEYHOUGH: ensemble music
The life of Ensemble Exposé over the last quarter-century seems to have been one of spasmodic eruptions – a suitable condition, no doubt, for a group presenting a Ferneyhough collection (Metier msv 28504) centred on three pieces from just before he went into Shadowtime. Two of these are chamber concertos: Incipits for viola with percussionist sidekick and six other players, and Allgebrah for oboe and string nonet (not previously recorded). However, the former, in its overlapping segments, has more in common with Flurries for three duos; Allgebrah is not only much more continuous but notably longer, at almost eighteen minutes. The album also includes the composer’s more recent contribution to the Witten In Nomine project – a sparkling and partly humorous miniature for piccolo, oboe and clarinet – and two older works: Trittico per G.S. for double bass and the very early Coloratura for oboe and piano. Thus spanning almost four decades, the record shows some enduring characteristics – the restless switchbacks of temper, the energy in a line, the sense of instruments speaking (often at cross-purposes, with each other and, notably in the double bass solo, strongly projected by Corrado Canonici, with themselves) – as well as the distance travelled. To astonishment these performances also add logic, providing not only vivid gestures but also notions of how the music is not always centrifugal but can sometimes loop through thematic links, points of harmonic suspension or junction, and fleeting references to dance or march rhythms.
Flurries, placed first, is a good place to start. It begins as a sequence of two-part inventions, for violin and cello, clarinet and piano, and piccolo and horn (instruments that, the one drowsy, the other immediately pepped-up, are kissed awake by the clarinet). Then everyone plays together and other groupings condense out of the mix. The three winds find unexpected territory between Varèèse and Schumann, and the ending is a halting cello solo.
Incipits also ends with disintegration, as perhaps does Allgebrah, unless the final oboe cadenza is to be interpreted as an escape on the part of an instrument whose tones and lines have hitherto been scratching themselves into the surface of the accompanying strings. The secondary groups in Incipits come rather to observe, perhaps like Job’s comforters, as the viola (Bridget Carey) unfolds its stories, each inscribed on the medium of a different percussion underlay. Allgebrah – despite, or perhaps on account of, its less colourful scoring – covers a wide range, including rare moments of beautiful tense repose as well as the more typical helter-skelter polyphony. Christopher Redgate is the outstanding soloist, to whom the instrumentalists under his brother Roger rightly pay close attention.
The booklet informs us that ‘allgebrah’ was what Adolf Wölffli called his fecund creative principle, and the piece, adding to the musical Wölffliana of Per Nørgård and Wolfgang Rihm, lives up to the fantastical architecture, divergent perspectives and bewildering detail of the Wölffli drawing on the cover.
Brian FERNEYHOUGH: chamber concertos
If they had wanted to guarantee success with their first Ferneyhough album (0013072 KAI) Kairos could hardly have done better than acquire these brilliant Elision recordings from 2003-7. Four of the five works come from the composer’s non-series of chamber concertos: La Chute d’Icare, Terrain, Incipits and Les Froissements d’ailes de Gabriel, which differ not only as to solo instrument – clarinet, violin, viola and guitar respectively – but also in matters of ensemble, relationship and form. The clarinet piece, for instance, goes as a lightning bolt across the changing configurations of a mixed septet, whereas Les Froissements, doubling resources and length, moves in whorls and eddies and arrows into nowhere, building up a sense of time hanging heavy. Terrain places the highly virtuoso violin in what turns out to be not such an alien landscape of the seven wind and double bass from Varèse’s Octandre, while Incipits gives the viola some familiar companions in fellow strings but also a contrary and directing percussionist. All four compositions have been recorded before, but these alive performances bring out new things. Carl Rosman’s hot, robust clarinet in La Chute d’Icare, for instance, introduces a different kind of energy, to which his colleagues respond, reconfirming the piece as a Ferneyhough showstopper, with its cadenza in the right place and its startling way out of that cadenza. Erkki Veltheim in Incipits and Graeme Jennings in Terrain are also outstanding, though there is a funny little buzz a couple of times in Incipits, which is another of those pieces that make an instant and sustained effect.
The one item not previously available is also a winner: no time (at all), for two guitars, a 2004 piece that takes the two guitars of Les Froissements, tuned a quarter-tone apart, and lets them play games by themselves, in what is indeed an unusually humorous score from this composer. There are also evocations of the delightfully wonky world of Harry Partch.
Joshua FINEBERG: Empreintes
One may think a stone falling into a pool does not so much disturb the water as identify it, or allow it to identify itself, bring it to life. In rather the same way, the sudden bursts in Joshua Fineberg’s generally slow music do not fracture it but allow it to continue its succession of steps, lighten (for a moment) the load of past collecting around these consecutive nows, each of which seems incomplete – a fraction, perhaps, of an always-sought, always-elusive spectrum.
The term is inevitable. A spectralist connection shows up right away in the first and earliest composition on Fineberg’s second potrait cd (mode 208), his IRCAM commission Empreintes for ensemble and electronics (1995), though this recalls Grisey more than his teacher at the time, Murail. Its magical opening, with crotale twinkles ushering in a waft of high sustained sounds, invites the listener into a characteristic world of drifts interrupted by ruder gestures that leave echoes (or “imprints”) in which instrumental and electronic sounds are often fused. Jeffrey Milarsky conducts the Ensemble Fa in an incisive and colourful performance.
All for smaller forces, the other pieces all bring forward a moment-by-moment searching or sifting for a completeness that will never be found, a species of melancholia that is perhaps most exquisite in The Texture of Time for flute and electronics (2006, written for an played by Patrice Bocquillon) and most moving in Broken Symmetries for flute, clarinet, violin, horn and cello (2000-01), where the return into the cello's lowest note comes as a token of inevitability and an expression of despair.
Beat FURRER: Begehren
Beat Furrer’s Begehren (Kairos 0012432KAI) is another instalment in Orpheus’s long history, but with the myth reduced to the rudimentary situation of two unnamed characters, a man and a woman, who are ineluctably sliding past one another despite there being such huge desire (Ger. Begehren) between them for communication, meeting and union. It is partly because the situation is so elemental that it can sustain a ninety-minute drama that is compelling in its continuity and memorable – often touching, too – in its detail. What helps, as well, is the space Furrer provides. The entire libretto, in German and Latin, covers just five and a half pages of the cd booklet. There is no English version, but this matters much less than in the case of this composer’s FAMA (also available on Kairos), because Begehren is so much less a word drama. The male vocalist (Johann Leutgeb) is heard most of the time whispering, and the ensemble – an expanded ensemble recherche, with a dozen players – echoes, surrounds and inhabits him, drawing us into a Sciarrinesque sound world. It may even seem that the man is describing, or naming, an action that is essentially instrumental, and that he is outside this action, his face pressed up against the glass. Perhaps the tragedy for the woman (Petra Hoffmann) is that she cannot get out of the musical action. Insistences on isolated notes in the high register, from A to C, come across less as cries for help than as alluring if probably hopeless invitations into a world of purely musical being, a world that Orpheus the musician would have wished to enter but cannot. One of the most poignant episodes, late on, comes when the male character begins to hum. Another has the chorus singing the consonances of a better world. Furrer himself conducts the performance, which is that of the premièère at Graz in 2003.
Beat FURRER: String Quartet No. 3
An irregular gathering of gentle clatters and a featherlight low ruffling, repeating like sea waves in a sheltered bay, wash in what develops, appropriately from this oceanic start, into more than fifty minutes of uninterrupted music – or, rather, of music that is forever being interrupted by its own shifts of position. The piece is Beat Furrer’s Third Quartet of 2004, recorded by KNM Berlin (Kairos 0013132 KAI), and the shifts suggest a traverse of a giant chessboard, whose squares, as at the start, generally involve repetition before the next move can be made, whether a bouncing on one sound, an episode like breathing, an ostinato pattern or an immediate and unexpected replay. An overall low dynamic level and the prominence of sounds that impress themselves more as noises and gestures than as pitched tones – clicks, taps, scrapes, sul ponticello whisperings, quick glissandos, all beautifully presented here – convey a sense of fragments of beauty and meaning being retrieved from exhaustion and breakdown. Eventually one might begin to wonder, because it is so hard to take hold of so long a span, and because the same kinds of texture keep recurring, whether a particular square is indeed new, whether it has not been visited before, in which case the crisscrossing of the board would be potentially endless.
There is something else. Around halfway through, another world begins to be glimpsed (it is identified in the note), as if behind frosted glass. One might have imagined this closed-off realm would seem a lost paradise, from which the quartet is excluded, but it seems just as much as if the other music is clamouring to be let in, to be admitted to a world so strange, so absorbing and so fully itself.
Beat FURRER: Piano Concerto
Another collection from the productive Beat Furrer (Kairos 0012842 KAI) is led and dominated by his Piano Concerto, a typically resolute piece, constantly alive with colour and drama throughout its continuous span of almost twenty minutes without ever sounding like any other piano concerto (except at times Ligeti’s, not least in its sense of elaborate machinery gone haywire). It starts out with the soloist stuttering in the far bass before finding a way to break through, at first on a false trail, with the orchestra providing magical chords as if resonating with the piano. From this point the piano pursues an effort to ascend, most often in rapid chordal figures, indomitable despite the slips and stallings it has to deal with, and despite the complications brought about by the orchestra, in which there is an echo piano. (The piece was written for Nicolas Hodges, who is magnificently strong, brilliant and characterful, with excellent support from the WDR Symphony Orchestra under Peter Rundel.) A little after the midpoint the tempo suddenly slows, producing the effect of a steep drop in temperature, for a section of ice music in which the piano’s sometimes familiar chords are answered by clicks and shiverings. Again we are rising, until the pianist is striking the instrument’s top notes, seemingly with the resonances prolonged by crotales. Then, with a burst of orchestral fireworks, speed is resumed, though soon it appears that the piano has no further to go. As the soloist is stranded in the extreme treble, stuttering again, the orchestra slowly and quietly steals away. There was one life and it is over.
Among the rest, the piano trio retour an dich (1984), is not dissimilar in its narrative intensity, the instruments circling one another before and after trying out various kinds of wary mutuality. The excellent players are Benjamin Kobler (piano), Ekkehard Windrich (violin) and Ringela Riemke (cello). A second chamber piece, spur for piano quintet (1998), has elements of comedy in how the piano wobbles rapidly through octaves or has its reiterated chords or more spasmodic actions gently mocked by the strings. There are also three solo vocal items, all moments from music-theatre pieces of the last few years, and all featuring a solo instrument as the protagonist’s aura, shadow or interlocutor. The three vocalists have the passionate presence Furrer’s work expects. Petra Hoffmann (soprano) and Eva Furrer (bass flute) meld in a quivering cloud of breath and lyrical tone in the St John of the Cross setting from invocation (2002-3); Isabelle Menke speaks the central role, with Furrer now on contrabass flute, in the sixth scene of FAMA (2005), as on the complete recording on the same label; and Tora Augestad (soprano) is angelic and touching, with Uli Fussenegger on double bass, in the first part of what seems to be a continuing project, lotófagos (The Lotus Eater). The book offers the St John of the Cross poem in the original and in German translation, but there are no texts for the other two pieces.
Stefano GERVASONI: Antiterra
Stefano Gervasoni’s collection Antiterra (aeon AECD 0866) takes its name from an ensemble piece of 1999 that offers his characteristic experience of little things – single notes or small motifs – placed in formal structures at once ice-cold and red-hot (a sforzando high G on piccolo oboe right at the start sets this paradoxical temperature), but the outstanding sample of his music here is the most recent: Epicadenza (2004), for percussion soloist with two trios and cimbalom ‘contra-soloist’. His own note on the plan and sense of the work, available on his useful website, is interesting and persuasive, and yet does not chime too well with what seems to be going on in this gripping twenty-minute slow movement.
The percussionist – operating, as one might expect in Gervasoni, without any sort of showy virtuosity – produces a succession of scrapes, rattles, beats and jangles over the precarious progress of the trios, made up of strings (viola, cello, double bass) and wind (flute, clarinet, horn). It is as if a solemn ritual is going on, from which the cimbalom’s occasional trills and clangs are excluded; they sound like punctuation marks coming in the wrong places. (In performance the instrument is hidden behind the percussion set-up.) Halfway through, the strings set out on a chorale-canon that rises very slowly and quietly – one might say ‘ominously’, were it not that the music’s expressive face, while fascinating, is hard to read. The title, according to the composer, is to be read as ‘epi-cadenza’, the piece being based on a percussion solo he imagined as the coda to an immense unwritten work. However, one also hears ‘epic’ here.
Of the rest, Antiterra, for twelve instruments, is presented as the climax of a little ‘An’ trilogy, with An for quintet and Animato for octet. Each of the outer pieces has something gentler folded into the austerity: a couple of Schubert gestures in An, consonant harmonies stealing into Antiterra. Animato shows the composer’s playful side. A typical Gervasoni touch, found in this piece, in Antiterra and strikingly in Epicadenza, is to move to a quite different place just in the last minute or so. Two song cycles with ensemble frame the programme, setting words by Emily Dickinson (Least Bee) and Philip Levine (Godspell). There are fine performances from the mdi ensemble of Milan, and Epicadenza features the percussionist for whom it was written: François Volpé.
Gérard GRISEY: Les Chants de l’amour
A single album (Kairos 0012752KAI) happily brings together the two big Grisey works from after Périodes hitherto unavailable on record: Les Chants de l’amour for twelve-voice choir and synthesized sound (1982-4) and Le Temps et l’écume for four percussionists, two synthesizers and chamber orchestra (1988-9). By the time he wrote the latter piece Grisey was talking about his desire for fast music; he was aware of Nancarrow, and saw his new score, ‘Time and Foam’, as mediating among three kinds of time: the human rhythms of pulse, breathing and walking that were always important to him, the much slower pace of whale song and the extreme rapidity of ‘insect time’, the time Nancarrow had brought over his horizon. Even so, the piece generally has a steady respiration, like that of Partiels, with sustained electronic tones providing the atmosphere for the soft machine of percussive iterations and the orchestra’s spectral chords, wielded with Grisey’s characteristic splendour. It is an appealing piece, if suggesting the composer was marking time before finding a new path in the 1990s.
Les Chants de l’amour, which, at thirty-five minutes, is almost twice as long as Le Temps et l’écume, is altogether stronger and stranger. The first work he had done with vocal sound since 1970, this is for the most part music for thirteen voices, the thirteenth being electronic, marvelously created at IRCAM with the assistance of Jean-Baptiste Barrièère. Somewhere in the background is Stockhausen’s Stimmung; nearer, perhaps, is Vivier’s Chants; but the electronic voice makes for something quite exceptional. Grisey aptly describes this voice as ‘at different times divine, monstrous, menacing, seductive’; often it sounds like an Easter Island statue come to life, though it can also be a small child, being taught by the human voices how to sing and how to feel. Around their infant god the singers chant, ululate, ripple up in arpeggios and crash together in collective sounds. The piece is spacious, but there are judicious tide-shifts in the choral wash, as well as some startling interventions from the electronic other.
Performances here are thoroughly convincing. Les Chants de l’amour is sung by Schola Heidelberg under Walter Nußbaum; Emilio Pomáárico conducts Ensemble S and the WDR symphony orchestra in Le Temps et l’écume.
H.K. GRUBER: Busking
If one trumpet concerto, why not two? The success of Aerial encouraged its soloist, Håkan Hardenberger, to press H.K. Gruber for a follow-up, Busking, now recorded on an album that has Gruber conducting the Swedish Chamber Orchestra (BIS CD-1781). This is a different sort of piece, as one might gather form the title – a comedy concerto that has despair in its history, where the trumpet is given banjo and accordion as sidekicks, and where everything springs from a jaunty little nonsensical theme that could have come out of a fifties pop song. Gruber cites the Picasso painting ‘Three Musicians’ as an image behind the piece (it is duly reproduced on the cover), and the reference accords with the Stravinskian side of his musical personality.
That side is more fully represented, though, in his two violin concertos, another unalike pair, both of which are offered on the same disc. Shades of U.S. popular music are more distinctively summoned here, especially in the second concerto, Nebelsteinmusik, a homage to the composer’s mentor Gottfried von Einem. Pastel colours of English music are less expected, but perhaps listeners of all sorts to this music, so rerun and yet so appealing, will find their own experiences, predilections and prejudices mirrored back at them. One is reminded of the old joke about the situation in Austria, as opposed to Germany, being desperate but not serious. Gruber’s effortless skims, through a tonal language redolent of former times, are not meant to re-establish anything, even though the environs of Pärt or Adams may be briefly passed through. All is smiles, albeit with gleaming teeth. Just once, in this generously filled collection, does the music accept the responsibility of power, at the point where the first movement of Busking (rhythmically tricky, as Gruber says in his note, and as the Stockholm musicians show) yields to the second.
Katarina Andreasson is the exceptional soloist in the fiddle concertos: utterly secure, brilliant and airborne.
Sofia GUBAIDULINA: Glorious Percussion
Gubaidulina’s second violin concerto, In tempus praesens, written for and aleady recorded by Anne-Sophie Mutter, appears again in a performance of great beauty and tense control by Vadim Gluzman and the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra under Jonathan Nott (BIS CD 1752), paired with another big recent single-movement concerto by this composer: Glorious Percussion, with five such musicians electrically participating.
The two works share many features. There are the emphatic gestures that make Gubaidulina’s voice unmistakeable – and unquestionable. There is the persistency of conflict – between violin and orchestra, of course, in In tempus but also, both there and in the other piece, between high and low, purity and darkness, lightness and weight, singing and snarling. There is the general sparseness of scoring. There are the repeated stagings of the same drama of assault on a peak ending in failure or weakening. And there is the invitation to read this drama as a history of the soul.
After a particularly brutal hammering, In tempus praesens arrives at a cadenza in which the violin reaffirms its determination to carry its principal motif ever upward, but it encounters a blizzard of whirling figures and is lost sight of. Bouncings of the bow on the strings suggest a broken spirit, but soon divided cellos are leading consolation, and suddenly victory is achieved. Perhaps the low brass belch near the end is evil’s dying breath, or perhaps it is the sound of the forces of darkness rousing themselves once more. In any event, the music decisively insists on some kind of metaphorical interpretation. Gubaidulina loves sound, but loves more what sound can say.
So it certainly is in Glorious Percussion, which may be the more likeable piece because its story is more unusual. The pattern that keeps unfolding here is one of a rattling pulsation that seems to pose a question or challenge, a briskish trudge (alternating notes or chords suggesting alternating feet) and a rotating ascent. There are remarkable sounds, from the soloists, from the orchestra, and from combinations of the two, and the piece comes to a stirring climax, which, however (and inevitably), leaves its questions unresolved.
Georg Friedrich HAAS: …und…
It is disappointing to find a Georg Friedrich Haas collection unengaging – even a whole new Georg Friedrich Haas piece unengaging. The performers are the Collegium Novum Zürich, the city’s new-music ensemble, and the new piece on their Haas album (Neos 10919) is one they commissioned: …und… (2008), for chamber orchestra and electronics. Enno Poppe conducts.
One of the great things about Haas’s music is its rawness, which comes not only from the microtones but also from how he works so often with slabs or bands of more or less unified material and with big processes of steady mounting or decline. …und…, however, seems to have only the disadvantages of being unkempt. The basic idea of bringing together real and virtual instruments might have some point, but the latter are so unsubtle and sometimes so buzzingly ugly as to prove unwelcome presences in a characteristic Haasian soundscape of heavy clouds slowly turning into or away from the light. Also, the progress of the piece can only remind one of stronger works – not least the wonderful in vain. There is an arrival halfway through this half-hour score into a luminous triadic zone, this time with reminiscences of Lohengrin, and a final monster chorale that fails to convince. Coupling the piece with Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich… only reinforces the point. Unfortunately for the Swiss team, though, there is already a stronger account of this work for ensemble and solo percussionist on one of Klangforum’s Kairos discs – which, as luck would have it, also includes the third piece here. Haas conceived ‘…Einklang freier Wesen…’ as a set of ten instrumental solos that could be played individually or in any combination, reduced performances going under the title ‘…aus freier Lust…verbunden…’ (the titles are from Hölderlin’s Hyperion). Klangforum do the complete thing; CNZ offer a version for bass flute, bass clarinet and two percussionists that sounds thin, partly from the comparison but also because one misses the Klangforum oomph.
Saed HADDAD: The Sublime
Jordanian by birth, German by present residence, thoroughly trained both in the near east and in Europe (ultimately with George Benjamin), Saed Haddad is a composer of superb craftsmanship working within the modernist mainstream, and his music is well served by dynamic and colourful performances from the Ensemble Modern on his first cd (Wergo 6578-2). According to Dan Albertson, who contributes a substantial and sympathetic note, the works here, though all dating from 2004-7, represent two phases of the composer’s creative life, and come after other phases he has outgrown. (By 2004, when he was working on his doctorate with Benjamin, he was already into his thirties.) Inevitable questions of cultural allegiance are addressed in most of these pieces by a use of modalities that suggest the Arab world, and sometimes also by introducing Arab instruments, notably the qanun, a zither, which has a solo role in On Love I. The tension is productive, and expertly managed, but the danger of a facile exoticism is not avoided in the works from 2004-6, whether for ensemble or for solo violin. Albertson is surely right to set the two later compositions apart. The seven Etudes mystérieuses for piano barely sound oriental, and when they do it is by way of Messiaen and Ligeti (the latter an unavoidable model but a very hard act to follow). Finally – and far and away the album’s strongest piece – comes another ensemble work daringly entitled ‘The Sublime’. Steel drums, splashing into a slowly evolving harmony, spark off a parade of dramatic episodes linked by connections of rhythm (often a triplet pulse) or harmony (with the rising arpeggio a significant motif), until the piece is rounded off with a piccolo solo, leaving one wondering where Haddad will go – indeed, has gone – next.
Sadie HARRISON: An Unexpected Light
Sadie Harrison has now produced two discs of dialogues with music from other places, her Lithuanian collection An Unexpected Light (NMC D125) following The Light Garden Trilogy, where her ear was turned towards Afghanistan. Born in Australia, living in England and claiming nothing Lithuanian or Afghan in her background, she is, as she notes an outsider. That is no disadvantage. Indeed, outsiders may be better equipped to detect the general in the particular, or to home in on what is special about the particular – folk melodies in this case, mediated by Harrison’s warm response to Lithuanian musicians (the violinist Rusn Mataityt plays in everything here: a concerto, chamber works and solo pieces) and poetry (that of Sigitis Geda). What matters is where the outsiders’ outside is, from what direction they listen.
Sometimes Harrison speaks, in her notes, of a contrast or conflict between the folk tunes and ‘aggressively uncompromising writing’, but this is not so easy to hear. What surrounds the borrowed melodies seems to be developed from them, or at least consistent with them. And in her treatment of her sources Harrison is much closer to Bartók than to, say, the Berio of Voci. Her identification with the Lithuanian material, and with Lithuania generally, is touching. If one did not know, one could easily take this music as that of a native composer.
A little more sense of the outside could have helped. Even just the prevailing bell chords of ...an angel reads my open book..., for violin and piano, give this set of miniatures a poignancy missing in the other selections.
Stephen HARTKE: The Horse with the Lavender Eye
Around sixty years ago some of the most prominent U.S. composers – Stravinsky, Carter and Copland among them – were deciding that neoclassicism was played out. Many of their successors are now striving to prove them wrong, not least Stephen Hartke, represented on a new cd The Horse with the Lavender Eye (Chandos CHAN 10513) by a selection of chamber and piano compositions from the 1980s and 90s. Everything here is highly accomplished, engaging, witty and kicked off by ideas brimful of vim – all Stravinskian virtues. And Stravinsky himself is sometimes just over the edge of the disc, as in the third movement of the title work, scored for violin, clarinet and piano, where the trilling clarinet almost quotes from The Rite of Spring. One might be reminded occasionally of Messiaen, too, though this is very much U.S. music, and by no means only in the jazz movements, such as the catchy centrepiece of the Piano Sonata. A fourth Gymnopéédie, one of several ‘post-modern homages’, speaks with a transatlantic accent, and The Horse winds toward a slow close somewhere between Messiaen and Copland.
Like neoclassicists before him, Hartke tweaks and formalizes older notions of phrase, pattern and texture but structurally goes where these things take him. That Piano Sonata ends up in twinkling territory where the abrupt chords of the first movement keep being re-encountered. Xak Bjerken is the pianist here, elegant and spry, and he has fine colleagues playing with him in the chamber pieces: Richard Faria on clarinet and Ellen Jewett on violin in The Horse, and fellow members of the Los Angeles Piano Quartet in The King of the Sun – a work that has been recorded before, though not with this precision and life.
Jonathan HARVEY: …towards a pure land
A fully packed disc of orchestral music by Jonathan Harvey (NMC D141) – so fully packed it has to come with a warning to the listener to increase the gaps between pieces – has Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra presenting two of the three works that came out of a period (2005-7) when the composer was ‘in association’ with them: ...towards a pure land and Body Mandala. These could hardly be more different. Body Mandala, as its title suggests, is centred in the corporeal, with throbbing sound masses and exuberant woodwind solos that convey a sense of the cosmos as comedy, whereas ...towards a pure land fixes its gaze on serenity – the serenity of timeless strings continuing on their path come what may, as in The Unanswered Question, so that eventually the rest of the orchestra falls in with them. There are, however, similarities. Both scores eschew electronics but by no means deny themselves the marvellous, whether in arresting spectral clangs or snow drifts of sustained strings sparkled with tuned percussion.
Just as inviting are the soundscapes of the three earlier works: Tranquil Abiding (1998), for a chamber orchestra set to the rhythm of breathing, the song cycle White as Jasmine (1999) and Timepieces (1987). Anu Komsi, singing the songs of search for the ‘lord white as jasmine’, is angelically bright and at the same time vulnerably human, which is exactly what the music seems to need. Timepieces takes us back to a more experimental, raw and Stockhausenish phase of Harvey’s output, and though it has its debatable moments (the acceleration of one layer to meet another in the middle movement), its unsolved puzzles, cross-rhythmic rages and disappointed close exert a fascination equal to that of the more fully achieved and luminous music here.
Jonathan HARVEY: Speakings
The Jonathan Harvey collection Speakings (æon AECD 1090) draws its title from an astonishing big orchestral piece, almost half an hour long, the composer wrote in 2007-8. Electronic magic here makes it possible for the title to be literally accurate, for not only do instruments and groups play with the rhythms and phrasing of speech (or sometimes of song, or dance-song), they also have vocal timbres mapped onto them. The effect can be uncanny; it can be magnificent; and it can also be funny. Instrumental music, which so often seems to want to speak to us, at last begins to gain a voice, and yet is still frustrated by its lack of a vocabulary. Everything of speech is here but words. Instead we have all kinds of sub-verbal gesturings – narrating, whining, grumbling, maundering, exclaiming, whispering – in a conversation of abundant life and variety – until the piece settles into a lightly Messiaenized chant and spins up into a high treble fizz, leaving behind a few stray voices. The textures are always clear, and there are moments of startling beauty or power that seem independent of the electronic transformation, such as the passage when a trilling horizon of strings is revealed, and the music teeters on an edge between Far Eastern melody and Wagner, or the majestic declamation of the brass. Ilan Volkov conducts the BBC Scottish Symphony in a strong and vivid performance.
Two concertante pieces for smaller forces complete the programme and fit the scheme of music that wants to voice itself; they also share with Speakings a colourful lightness of texture, using only what instruments are necessary, and an essentially monodic style. Scena, with solo violin, sounds like a voyage through death into a world of luminous song and dance. Jubilus, a piece of beautiful modal musing for viola and ensemble, has more to do with memory.
Jonathan HARVEY: Run Before Lightning
Spirited performances by members of the Milanese Dynamis Ensemble call attention to Jonathan Harvey’s resourcefulness and range in writing for small instrumental forces. The album, Run Before Lightning (Stradivarius STR 33796), takes its title from the latest work here, an energy-swept duo for flute and piano from 2004, and covers the three decades back to Quantumplation (1973-5), one of the classics for the Pierrot-plus combination and a work that strikingly combines the abstract (instruments voyaging like planets, at different speeds, but now and then recognizing one another melodically) with the exuberantly physical (especially in how the tam tam sends the instruments off on their orbits at the beginning and – happily? scarily? – collects them back again at the end, the piece having a palindromic shape).
Harvey’s music of all periods has a lot to do with wonder, but it can also touch keenly on fragility and loss, nowhere more than in Flight-Elegy, a memorial piece from the eighties that has a violin etching song in an extremely high register with a murmurous-ringing accompaniment produced by rubbing the undamped strings of a piano. It is impossible to hear this and not be moved.
Stirring in a different way is the unison dancing for piccolo or flute and piano that takes over large parts of Nataraja (1983), interspersed with segments of song or of action held back. The Riot, written ten years later and adding a bass clarinet to the mix, is similarly (and characteristically) a work whose electric activity is underlain by beatific calm.
Interspersed among the rest are three solo piano pieces, played by Candida Felici, who also contributes the useful notes: Vers, a flurry for Boulez’s seventy-fifth birthday; Tombeau de Messiaen, which (again characteristically) evokes Messiaen without falling into pastiche; and the tiny Haiku, which appropriately leaves the programme hanging in the air, still resonating.
Jonathan HARVEY: Ashes dance back
Jonathan Harvey’s range as a choral composer is unrivalled, from Stockhausenesque vocal-electronic soundscapes, pre-verbal eructations and ritual melodies to resonant Anglican harmony, not excluding Ligetian clusters and Tibetan deep-bass drones, all working to a synthesis that can be thrilling. It is so in recordings by the Latvian Radio Choir (Hyperion CDA 67835), happily finding the choral traffic between Britain and the Baltic moving a bit the other way.
The choir’s own Kaspars Putninš leads them in the earliest piece here, also much the shortest: ‘The Angels’, Harvey’s contribution to King’s College’s 1994 carol service. Otherwise performances are in the highly experienced hands and deft hands of James Wood, who has been with the two biggest works – Ashes dance back and The Summer Cloud’s Awakening – since their premières.
Ashes dance back is the most striking piece here, a seventeen-minute voyage for voices and electronics through the elements of air, fire and water. Phrases from Rumi are heard along the way, but language is more consistently stripped to consonantal noises (burned to ashes, perhaps) and further, to sounds melding with the recordings of wind, flames and running water. Air and fire intermingle to some degree; water arrives as a destination and is there at the end, in a duet with solo soprano.
Almost twice as long, and with intermittently important solos for flute and cello, The Summer Cloud has the strangeness and obduracy of a ritual from an unknown culture – also the uncertainty as to why events are following each other as they are. Harvey can switch from deep, deep basses (with detuned cello sounding more like a double bass) to exuberant choruses with dancing flute – a move from Tibet to Tippett – and call across to Stockhausen almost in the same instant. As performed here the work crackles with life, even if the larger form remains puzzling.
Marahi, for voices alone, is a hymn to the divine feminine, as revealed in personages sacred to Christians (Mary) and Buddhists (Varahi), the title compounding their names. There is a typically Harveian compounding, too, of purity (ringing triads) and humour (animal noises). The Goddess smiles.
Herbert HENCK: Trepulka / Hannenheim
Herbert Henck’s latest disc (ECM 1937) – and most sadly his last, it would seem, following a stroke he suffered in 2005 – is typically luminous and typical, too, in being devoted to unusual music. Indeed, this music is so obscure that one might be reminded of the popular legend that there are still, on remote Pacific islands, Japanese soldiers – they would now be in their eighties – who never got word of their country’s capitulation, and who have maintained their watch all these unregarded decades, living off the land and cleaning their guns every week with oil they render from fish livers. So, similarly, this music has been lying in wait. And it has a special strangeness in waking now from a sleep that has lasted since the nineteen-twenties.
The Austrian composer Johann Ludwig Trepulka had, until Henck dug around, been totally forgotten by history. He was a pupil of Hauer who, barely out of his teens, published a set of seven Piano Pieces with Epigraphs from Lenau, in imitation, Henck tells us, of his teacher’s set with epigraphs from Hölderlin. They are very appealing. Trepulka’s technique was to fulfil the requirements of fully chromatic composition, Hauer-style, by taking a little thread of tonal melody, or a chord, and transposing it until all twelve notes had been sounded. Faint echoes of Scriabin or late Liszt arise, though Trepulka’s harmonic vision is rose-tinted, for all the severity and weight Henck brings to the set’s last, longest and most imposing number (‘In the east the bright moon rises, and God bedecks the heavens with stars’). The soft, sweet discords in sequence also carry a distinct aura of cocktail lounge music circa 1923. It is impossible to guess how far Trepulka might have travelled by the time he vanished on the eastern front in 1945. His son guards a pile of manuscripts, still waiting.
Norbert von Hannenheim is only slightly less unknown. He studied in Berlin with Schoenberg and, before that, with Schoenberg’s pupil Alexander Jemnitz. Henck tells us of a large output, and the works he plays on this record – four compact piano sonatas and a fragment from a concerto – certainly testify to the composer’s facility in a twelve-note idiom that is strongly motif-driven and contrapuntal, Schoenbergian but with a vitality of its own. Von Hannenheim came from Transylvania, Jemnitz from Budapest, and perhaps there is a Bartókian dash in his music. Questions will remain, because the half hour recorded here seems to be almost all that is left of his work. He, too, died in 1945, in his case soon after the war, in hospital, apparently after some years of mental decline.
All these pieces come from well before – from the lively Berlin of the immediate pre-Nazi era. Most impressive of the sonatas Henck plays is No.12, in which a big, searching adagio is followed by an allegro that wants to go on smiling, and bustling and twinkling, in the face of defeat. Henck finishes his programme by performing the solo part of the slow movement from von Hannenheim’s Second Piano Concerto, whose orchestral score is lost. Marked molto lento, this is music of deep despair and deep patience. There is a hole in the middle where we should be hearing woodwinds, according to the programme note. Nothing could speak more eloquently of the loss this record at once amends and represents.
Nicolas HODGES: Redgate / Clarke
Two composers associated with the ‘new complexity’ of the 1980s, Roger Redgate and James Clarke come together on Nicolas Hodges’s disc of their complete piano works (Coviello COV 60809) more as complementary figures than as companions. Redgate’s Pas au-delà of 1989 at the start wrenches us straight into new-complexity territory with its charges of rapid action, spiky-sparky in the right hand and thunderous in the left, all thoroughly directed and illuminated by Hodges’s astonishing pianism, the hands engaged in processes of thought that speak through a steely beauty maintained at bewildering speed. This is the kind of music – and, no doubt, the kind of playing – Redgate relishes, but he also offers an attractive triptych of miniatures denuded to suit amateur competence, écart–arc–trace, and the latest of his pieces here, Monk (2007), has moments more contemplative and humorous, besides bringing forward a jazz feeling discernible behind some of his other pieces.
Clarke, even so, is worlds away – though perhaps not so many worlds as all that, his protracted ruminations being as searching and challenging as Redgate’s drives of intensity. Intelligent programming places the turn from one composer to the other at 1981, in works from the heyday of new complexity: Redgate’s Genoi Hoios Essi and Clarke’s Red Skies. The Redgate piece is explosive, trapped in itself and trying to get out, and Hodges brings it to an end with huge power. The Clarke is content where it is, at a vantage point from which clouds of luminescent notes can drift by, to take up an analogy of the composer’s. At an extreme point, in Untitled No. 3 (2006), the material is reduced to hardly more than a pair of chords, sufficient to sustain an eleven-minute piece.
The alluring strangeness here comes not only from the music’s simplicity but also from its silence as to its derivations and destinations. Nothing is being proved; no historical necessity is being claimed. We are just left with an enigma, which Hodges presents as effectively and attractively as he does Redgate’s storms. He is outstanding, too, in the album’s most haunting track, Clarke’s Island, which starts out like a passacaglia, fiercely ruptured, and moves on to Bali, a repeating broken chord and exquisite resonance effects. An earlier recording by Hodges was included in an all-Clarke collection on the zeitklang label, but this alternative has more shape and nuance.
Heinz HOLLIGER: Gesänge der Frühe
From some place where composition abuts transcription and documentary comes Holliger’s half-hour choral-orchestral Gesänge der Frühe, which closes and crowns an album about meeting Schumann in the autumn of 1853 (ECM 2055). We also meet Hölderlin, or rather we feel Hölderlin’s shine. Holliger wrote the work in 1987, when he was part way through adding orchestral items to his Scardanelli-Zyklus, settings for small chorus of poems from the time after Hölderlin’s mind had turned. Since this was Schumann’s fate, too, and since the composer first dedicated his Gesänge der Frühe, his last set of piano pieces, to the poet’s character Diotima, a union of these blighted spirits must have seemed inevitable – especially when Holliger discovered he could fit one of the deranged Hölderlin’s ‘Scardanelli’ poems to the chorale that opens the Schumann. The effect is astonishing: powerful, glorious and frightening – frightening for the power and the glory, for the new grandiloquence given the music, and for the daring to transcribe. Through a gauze curtain of high strings the choir – a mass of voices now, not the select group of the Scardanelli-Zyklus – sings forth this belated Schumann-Höölderlin collaboration, joined at the climax by a recording of Holliger playing the original Schumann chorale on an out-of-tune piano. Recorded material continues: we hear an actress reading portions of letters by Bettina von Arnim, who knew both men, together with the scratching of her pen, imitated by the orchestra.
The chorale haunts the rest of the piece – in allusions or direct recollections in the choral writing, or in an arrangement for a breathy woodwind group – as it does Schumann’s piano sequence. Each of the remaining three movements includes a ‘Scardanelli’ poem, set more in Holliger’s style of romantic exhaustion, or exhausted romanticism. We also hear more from those who were there at the time – not Höölderlin, who remains silent except in his poetry of elevated disconnection, but doctors and eventually Schumann, in the voice of Bruno Ganz. The third movement builds away from a fractured, distorted reprise of the chorale (to Hölderlin’s ‘An Diotima’) towards the arrival of Ganz’s reading from the composer’s diary. Then in the finale a further transmogrification of the chorale starts up, again set to a Hölderlin poem, now sounding like a Salvation Army hymn clouded and refracted, and becoming overlaid with a Lutheran chorale Schumann set while institutionalized and a funeral march to create a hammering, appellant close: Ives with angst.
Unable to let go of this material, Holliger returned in 2003 to consider the work Schumann wrote immediately after Gesänge der Frühe – the last music he wrote before his confinement, but music that is not available to us because his widow burned the manuscript forty years later: a set of romances for cello and piano. Holliger’s Romancendres (Romance-ashes) is a moving attempt to catch the shadow of this missing opus, drawing on the testimony of Joseph Joachim, our only witness to what the music was like, as well as grieving for the loss and taking the occasion as a challenge to create instrumental fantasies in modern terms. Inside-piano effects, sometimes breathtaking, enable the two instruments occasionally to speak almost with one voice; the third movement exacerbates the ‘rascally trills’ to which Joachim refers, cut off by a piano cluster that sounds like Clara slamming the volume shut. Christoph Richter and Dénes Várjon give a mesmerizing performance of this whisper-fine, whisper-intimate music, and add what sounds in context like a beautiful dumb insult: the three cello romances from the tragic year of 1853 that Clara allowed to appear in print – her own.
Heinz HOLLIGER: Induuchlen
Nobody should ignore Induuchlen (ECM 2201), the new album of recentish compositions by Heinz Holliger, simply because the two big works set Swiss dialect poems. As Michael Kunkel points out in an excellent booklet essay, Holliger has done as much as any composer to establish contemporary music’s literary canon, centred on Beckett, Celan, Walser and Hölderlin; now he demonstrates that more local figures – Anna Maria Bacher, who was born in 1947 and writes in the Walser German specific to her native valley just over the border in Italy, and Albert Streich (1897-1960), from Brienz – may yield as much to, for and in music.
There is an element here of cherishing the small and overlooked, in the way that Holliger typically cherishes marginal sounds – an element, too, of having us listen to a language that is estranged. But at the same time Holliger’s response is as intense and serious as it was when he was dealing with more cleebrated writers, and may even be startlingly similar. For example, the Bacher group, Puneigä, recalls the composer’s Scardanellizyklus in its tight forms, such as canon or chorale, stretched tighter by nonstandard instrumental usages, and also in its interleaving of poetic settings (though this time for a solo soprano) with ensemble pieces (for a mixed sextet).
But the stand-out piece – and certainly in terms of performance – is the Streich set that gives the record its title. This title, ‘Darkening’, comes in turn from one of the four poems, which the disc presents in a recording by the poet himself (Bacher is also recorded speaking all her poems). As Bacher recites it, the poem is a rum-ti-tum rhyme:
uber Bäärga embrin,
leid si im Grund
Liid ubere Wääldren
si gespirren ne chuumm,
liid uebere Fäldren
en duuchtige Fluumm
Spinnd um mi z ringsum
und liired mi in,
Weis nimma, ob i diheimmen
old wiit, wiit furt bin.
The booklet unfortunately gives no English translation, but perhaps one could be attempted on the basis of the regular German that is offered:
over behind the hills,
into the dale
Lies over woodland
this gentle waft,
lies on the floodland
soft softer than soft.
Spins all around me
and wraps me in grey,
I don’t know if I’m home yet
or far, far away.
In Holliger’s interpretation, which makes a five-and-a-half-minute enactment out of these few lines, the experience of darkening is existential. The songs are set for countertenor and natural horn, both musicians finding themselves indeed ‘far, far away’, for the singer is often in baritone territory (deeply so through much of this number) while the horn’s range is extended by having the player sing into the instrument and produce chords. One might feel, in this slow, groping piece, that the two participants, horn and voice, are trying effortfully to find one another. Or one might feel that they are two aspects of a single personality, struggling to reconnect. The further development of the song is breathtaking, and the performance all through – by Kai Wessel and Olivier Darbellay, the artists of the première – is exceptional: virtuoso, of course, but with a forthright simplicity.
Framing the programme are two instrumental works: Toronto-Exercises for mixed quintet, progressing from a study on one note to a mensuration canon, and a pocket percussion concerto, Ma’mounia.
Simon HOLT: A Book of Colour
Not so much for the sound, but for the sense of music being caught in strange harmonies and struggling to escape – struggling with a force arising from those harmonies and their conflicts yet also seeming to belong to something, some dumb being or impulse, that is projecting itself through what we hear – Simon Holt’s piano music, recorded by Rolf Hind as A Book of Colour (NMC D128), may call to mind Scriabin. There is also the common imagery of fire, which is perhaps the same thing: an energy in the flickering and in what drives the flickering. The title work is a set of five pieces, of which the third is ‘A Shapeless Flame’, with a lot of rapid right-hand oscillations and runs, and the last ‘The Thing that Makes Ashes’, so called, we are told, after the euphemism for fearful fire used by ‘an African tribe’. This makes a strong, ranging finale to a work whose quieter sections are also very beautiful: ‘Figurine’, rotating a harmonic idea in a way Holt likes to do, and ‘Some Distant Chimes’, a landscape of bell sounds, not all of them far off. And here may be the place to pay tribute to Hind’s playing, where a remarkable immediacy goes along with total command. In a programme of great variety lasting over an hour, Hind moves as an explorer in a forest he has made his own.
Besides fire there are Goyescas among these pieces in the big, bold Tauromaquia and the short bit of rush ‘Duendecitos’, the opening item in A Book of Colour. Another recurrent image is that of black light, in Nigredo, which is Holt’s largest piano composition so far, playing for a little over a quarter of an hour, and Black Lanterns. These the composer wrote for two mentors, Davies and Birtwistle retrospectively, and they have parallel atmospheres (trajectories, too, for in Holt’s music an atmosphere is a trajectory) of brilliant blackness. Both end hauntingly, Black Lanterns with dissolution, Nigredo with an upbeat hanging in the air at the end of the record.
One is left waiting for more. Nearly all the music here dates from the period 1984-94, when Holt was in his late twenties and early thirties. From the last fifteen years we hear only the curious Klop’s Last Bite of 2004, a kind of serio-comic strip telling of a duel between a bedbug and a flea in ten frames averaging a minute in length. Though the subject invites a lot of scrabbling about for the left hand, the voice and the dynamism are those of the earlier pieces.
Toshio HOSOKAWA: flute music
By his own very suitable analogy, Toshio Hosokawa draws with the flute like a calligrapher, but of course the drawing has to be drawn again by a musician who can make what is necessary seem spontaneous, what is created natural. In an album of this composer’s flute music (Naxos 8.572479) Kolbeinn Bjarnason fulfils these requirements in exemplary fashion. Apparently he is a master not only of the western flute but also of the shakuhachi, and perhaps that wider experience, that wider awareness, is at issue here, in how the thought goes right through each note, from the attack (or the emergence from silence) to the letting go, or in how the sense and the sound of breath are always present in his playing.
The five major compositions show how Hosokawa’s music has followed a line rather akin to that of his near contemporary Saariaho, from the tail end of avantgardism into a mysterious ungrounded modality. Sen I (1986) is a lively solo in which the performer’s vocalizing must overlap with and penetrate the instrumental gestures (though a little of this goes a long way, and the piece might seem overlong, at almost twelve minutes, if not played with Bjarnason’s sympathy and address). Lied (2007), with piano accompaniment, conveys a story of modal figures slowly unfolding, with flavours of early Messiaen.
Stronger are the pieces that come between these poles: Vertical Song I (1995), another unaccompanied piece, ending extraordinarily; Fragmente II (1989), in which flute and string quartet make soft veils and occasional skirmishes against an almost continuous F sharp (an image of light in the composer’s sho concerto Cloud and Light); and Voyage V for flute and ensemble (2001), where the soloist is beautifully echoed and caressed by the other instruments – and alarmingly parodied, as it seems, by a wild piccolo outburst a little before halfway through this seventeen-minute composition, whose later stages have a ghostly whistling that sounds like radio interference. Here the modality is discovered from the inside, not applied or learned.
There is a well deserved encore: a folksong arrangement by the composer for alto flute.
Mari KIMURA: Polytopia
Deeply involved with new music as composer and performer, the Japanese violinist Mari Kimura offers a bright rainbow of solo pieces with digital intervention on her album Polytopia (Bridge 9236), nearly all of this repertoire written for her. The programme begins sumptuously and colourfully with Variants by the computer-music pioneer Jean-Claude Risset, where grand phrases are harmonized or copied in a digital hall of mirrors. Then comes the single classic, if such a wild piece can be so termed: Nancarrow’s Toccata for violin and player piano, whose inclusion here is justified because Kimura plays against – very much against, in the context of this three-legged sprint contest – a recording of the player piano part. The title track is a piece of Kimura’s own, again involving a digitally generated ensemble or whole orchestra of violins, this time responding to more epigrammatic and various ideas. Her GuitarBotana brings a return to the fun aspect of her repertory, setting her abruptly sweeping violin against wobbles from a ‘GuitarBot’, or robotic guitar, all in a kind of Hawaiian bluegrass style.
The longest work here is The Old Rose Reader by Frances White, typically simple and haunting, with slow, dreaming lines from the violin that revolve around, away from and towards a descending four-note motif over an electronic part of light percussion and drones. A man’s voice recites the evocative names of old roses and – much less effectively – more extended passages that threaten to break the music’s spell. By the time we get to Milica Paranosic’s ComeCryWithMe and Robert Rowe’s Submarine the sound of the violin in an electronic echo chamber is starting to wear a bit thin, but Tania Leóón’s Axon provides a strong finale, with the violin in folksy-arpeggio and highly virtuoso modes accompanying a soundtrack as vivid as a film.
Garth KNOX: Spectral Strands
‘Music video’ has all the wrong connotations; we need a new term for the captivating Spectral Strands (Wergo WER2062 5), product of a collaboration between Garth Knox and the visual artist Brian O’Reilly created at ZKM, the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie in Karlsruhe. Performing with his usual certainty and presence, Knox plays standards of the recent solo viola repertory – works by Scelsi, Sciarrino, Grisey and Saariaho – together with a strong piece for viola d’amore and electronics written for him by the British composer Michael Edwards. What O’Reilly offers is certainly not accompaniment, but nor does it upstage the music; rather it seems to come from a parallel universe, which the music opens up. The visual element does not mask but rather depends on what happens musically, which is superlative. (Knox plays an extended version of Grisey’s Prologue, though without a full account of the composer’s role in the extension or the effective use of reverberating percussion.) Phrased with the music, it presents glimpses of a complex, intangible shaping that, rapidly fluttering, often suggests something avian while also subtly echoing at times the strings and bow of the instrument which, very definitely, is at the centre of the experience.
Colour is used with fine care. The Sciarrino pieces – his Tre notturni brillanti, scattered as interludes – are monochrome; the Scelsi (Manto I) and Grisey (Prologue) have tinges of crimson and its complement, bottle green. Edwards’s 24/7: freedom fried, which starts out with the viola d’amore in strangely urban and hectic territory and works down to the naturalness of breathing, is given a much fuller but still muted palette, of acid colours greyed or blanched. As is sometimes apparent, O’Reilly works with degraded footage, but hardly ever, if at all, is an original image discernible; instead, light and shadow are taking on lives of their own, much as sound and silence do in music. Of course, each of the compositions here stays inside a certain restricted space, and so the visual component – mirror, extension, sibling – can aptly do the same. One might wonder afterwards how this approach would work with more changeable or mobile music, but while listening and watching the magic is complete.
György KURTÁG: Kafka-Fragmente
The release of a version by Tony Arnold and Movses Pogossian (Bridge 9270 A/B) brings the number of commercial recordings of Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragmente to four. Clearly something is at stake here. So exposed for both performers, the soprano and the violinist, the work’s mostly tiny movements offer forty steps on the way to failing, and yet performers feel bound to come to the piece and fail again, in their own ways. One of the benefits of the new recording, quite apart from the exceptional studio recording made by these artists, is that it shows us the context of failure by offering an ancillary DVD that includes excerpts from what was evidently a lengthy and exhausting rehearsal directed by the composer. This is invaluable as a record of Kurtág in action, but perhaps the most important words are Arnold’s, referring to a different rehearsal, at which he was coaching a string quartet in Beethoven: ‘It seems that for Kurtág harmony doesn’t simply affect rhythm, rubato and timbre in music, it actually creates them.’ And she seems to use this important insight in her performance with Pogossian – in, for example, the sixteenth fragment, where the degree of consonance or dissonance between voice and violin gives the music at once expressive force and dynamism.
Also on the DVD is a complete performance of the work, recorded in concert in Yerevan, but background noise makes one want to return quickly to the studio recording on CD. Besides, the video direction is elementary, and Kafka-Fragmente does not lend itself to the visual medium. At one point in the rehearsal sequence Kurtág asks Arnold not to ‘dance’; what he seems to want is an erect, stable, expressionless posture, with all the drama in the voice.
Arnold’s drama is touching, with a sense, from the freshness of her singing and from her thoughtful involvement, that the experiences reflected, refracted or directly conveyed in these miniature scenes are happening to her, right now, as she utters. Even though she lacks perfect familiarity with the language, she puts her person, as well as her voice, into the texts and into the notes, and the result is a recording that holds up strongly alongside the others, which are more allies than competitors. Also remarkable is Pogossian’s contribution, which is always beautiful, across a great range of colours and gestures, and always seems on the edge of speaking – or beyond.
More and more the twentieth fragment, the sustained slow movement of this fractured sonata, comes across as the heart of the piece. So is it here.
György KURTÁG: Jatékók
The title of Marino Formenti’s double album Kurtág’s Ghosts (Kairos 0012902 KAI) is almost inevitable, this being a recital that continuously blurs the line between the Hungarian composer’s Jatékók and music evoked within that compendium, but at the same time it seems too wispy a term for performances so often strong and intemperate. Formenti delivers vehement anger in Messiaen’s exotic stomp Ile de feu I, sees through the exhilaration to a dance of death in the eighth number from Ligeti’s Musica ricercata and finds desperation in a couple of Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze – qualities that marry with his Kurtág interpretations and yet do not at all seem imposed, rather freshly brought to light by way of the newer music. They are also, of course, qualities this pianist likes to find. There is less of Kurtág’s wit here, in the choice of pieces or in how they are played, and less of his simple delight in sound and imagery, except in the very early stages, when the piano chimes in discovering prefigurings of two folksongy pieces – homages from the third volume to the composer’s teacher Ferenc Farkas – in songs by Machaut. It is just possible that Machaut, who traveled widely, heard a Romanian colinda at some point; more likely we are encountering turns of modal phrase that are universal figments of European music.
Further connections abound in this fascinating and powerful collection. Traits from the last of the Farkas homages turn up not only in Machaut but also in Kurtág’s homage to Scarlatti from the same third book. The tiny Russian Dance, also from this third book, is discovered to echo – or pre-echo, as it is placed here – the fifth of Bartóók’s Hungarian Peasant Songs, while Sirens of the Deluge, from the sixth book, follows seamlessly after the earthquake from Haydn’s Seven Last Words. Carefully plotted on the large scale as on the small, Formenti’s first half works through modern and eighteenth-century connections to a destination in folksong, which is effectively where it began, and his second has much to do with Schumann and death, ending with a sequence of memorials from the sixth and seventh books interleaved with Liszt’s tributes to Wagner and, less obviously but touchingly, ‘The Poet Speaks’ from Schumann’s Kinderscenen.
György KURTÁG: choral music
Choral music has been strongly favoured in Hungary ever since the post-1945 intensification of music teaching led by Kodály, but Kurtág has gone there only three times, producing works that are finely presented by the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart under Marcus Creed (Hänssler Classics CD 93.174), with a great range of dynamics and colours, and precision tuning. The three groups of settings were begun almost simultaneously, during the years 1979-81, but one of them, Songs of Despair and Sorrow, took a lot longer than the others to develop, perhaps because it is on a quite different scale. Omaggio a Luigi Nono (to poems in Russian, four of the six being by the composer’s frequent collaborator at the time, Rimma Dalos) and Eight Choruses to Poems by Dezsö Tandori (one of the most highly regarded Hungarian poets among Kurtág’s close contemporaries, represented here by compact conundra) are made up of instants, down to under a minute and not exceeding two and a half. The seven Songs of Despair and Sorrow are much bigger; the biggest is almost as long as the whole of Omaggio a Luigi Nono, whose six utterances are over in nine minutes, and the whole cycle runs to twenty-two minutes – longer than the other two works together. There is the difference, too, that the Nono and Tandori sets ae unaccompanied, whereas Despair and Sorrow carries the weight of ensembles of accordions, brass, strings, keyboards and percussion, for a total of twenty-eight players, however sparingly deployed.
The extra size of Despair and Sorrow, vertical and horizontal, may make this the most effective of the three in live performance, though by the same token the work is not going to be performed very often. It will always be a special piece – a history of a century of Russian suffering (the poems, again in Russian, are all this time by Russians, from Lermontov, who also led off the Nono cycle, to Tsvetayeva) and also a requiem of contemporary aloneness and disquiet.
As much as in his more abundant and better known solo settings, Kurtág time and again seizes the words into graphic musical images. The first foot of the Lermontov piece that opens Despair and Sorrow – ‘So weary’, as it is translated in the booklet, matching the rhythm of the Russian – is given a rise and fall that conveys abject weariness, and that remains almost omnipresent. (Being so much longer, these songs tend to make more use of unifying themes, chords or atmospheres.) The static harmonies given to Akhmatova’s ‘Crucifixion’ sound like the gazes the poem is talking about, how we can look at Mary Magdalen and St. John but must turn our eyes from Christ’s mother.
It is the same in the two unaccompanied sets – but all three works also use features special to the choral medium: the aura of liturgy, already mentioned, and aspects more of substance than tradition, such as the simple facts that words can more naturally be repeated, in different vocal parts, or that men and women can have their separate say (or sing). A striking example of male-female antiphony comes in the tiny third number of Omaggio a Luigi Nono, where the first phrase (‘Love for a month’) is sung by the women, with reference to the opening of Tristan, the second phrase (‘Suffering for years’) is done similarly by the men, and just the third (‘And so everything is past’) involves both. Or there is the extraordinary ‘Prince H. standing before his stepfather’ from the Tandori group, which is a recitative for the tenors (uncanny the effect of a soliloquy delivered chorally) with accompaniment from the rest of the choir.
Also worth mentioning, besides such feats of expression, is the beauty of so many of Kurtág’s word-sized melodies and his chords. The poems are lit – or they shine from within.
György KURTÁG: …concertante…
A double album featuring recordings from the Kurtág eightieth birthday festival in Budapest last year (BMC CD 129) makes available two of the composer’s most recent works for the first time: ...concertante... for orchestra with violin and viola soloists (2002-3, rev. 2006) and Hipartita for solo violin (2000-04), his Opp.42 and 43. The orchestral piece was written for Hiromi Kikuchi and Ken Hakii, the violinist and violist of the Orlando Trio; Hipartita, including a particle of her name, was for Ms. Kikuchi alone.
The title ...concertante..., like that of Kurtáág’s ...quasi una fantasia..., is a faint echo – in this case of Mozart’s double concerto, of course. Otherwise all is changed. Two people who were singing together, and to each other, in 1780 are now treading carefully, or sometimes dancing, through a landscape of debris and explosions. It would be hard to think of a work that generates such tension, even anxiety, about that will happen next, such an atmosphere of sullen disquiet. The composer’s son, also Gyöörgy Kurtáág, talks in the sleeve notes of a “stammering form,” and that description, whether or not it stems from the composer himself, is perfectly apt. All the visions here are unattainable. Hard to be sure of – perhaps deliberately, or of necessity – is the rhetoric of performance. The two soloists hardly come across as such, and it is sometimes difficult to tell who is playing what, which may also be intentional. Encountered in live performance, the work establishes itself as a story of two almost silent – perhaps benumbed – voyagers taking a gingerly course through a landscape of catastrophe. No recording can quite capture that. On the other hand, while much of the orchestral playing here, by the Hungarian National Philharmonic under Zoltán Kocsis, is delectable, some seems over-emphatic. But this may be in the nature of the piece. Having an unbroken span of over twenty minutes, ...concertante... is remarkably long by Kurtág’s standards, and a more overt kind of vehemence may be required to sustain such a span.
Hipartita has the more typical form of a chain of movements, eight in number, though some of these are substantial. The work begins with a howl and includes moments of dream, lament, protest and game – the characteristic Kurtágian genres. ‘Oreibasia’ (Mountain-Climbing) is an essay in grim determination. At the end, longest of all, comes a slow movement in which a strand of melody is tested and, inevitably, found wanting. Kikuchi’s performance is fluent and appropriately songful; other violinists will probably want to drive into this music harder.
Also included from the Budapest festival is Zwiegespräch, a dialogue between the two György Kurtágs, father and son, in which music for string quartet by the one (played by the Keller) is answered by the other’s synthesizer. This recording presents one station in a continuing project, which is perhaps most useful for encouraging the senior Kurtág to write more pieces for string quartet.
Another continuing project, now thirty-four years in progress, is Kurtág senior’s Jatékók. The album ends with a half-hour selection – including, as always, Bach transcriptions – recorded in 2006 in what was billed as György and Márta Kurtág’s last recital in Vienna, at the Mozartsaal. The recording is weird, much inferior to that recorded a decade before in the same place for ECM.
György KURTÁG: Akhmatova Poems
A clutch of recent releases from Budapest Music Center includes a first chance for most of us to hear something from György Kurtág’s ninth decade. Famously hesitant in earlier years – when he turned fifty his catalogue did not extend beyond Op. 12 – Kurtág has been accelerating with age. Lately there have been Brefs messages for nine players (his Op. 47) as well as smaller instrumental pieces, all emerging in the interstices of a long delayed opera: a setting of Beckett’s Fin de partie.
The composition on the new disc (BMC CD 162) is Four Poems by Anna Akhmatova, which he set for soprano and ensemble as his Op. 41, a score he finished in 2008 for a première in New York on January 31, 2009 – and it is this first performance that is recorded here, along with other pieces from the concert, given in the Zankel auditorium of Carnegie Hall: Kurtág’s Troussova, and his friend Ligeti’s Melodien and Cello Concerto. (The programme also included a third work by each composer: Kurtág’s Splinters and Ligeti’s With Pipes, Drums, Fiddles.) Péter Eötvös conducts the UMZE Ensemble, with Miklós Perényi in the Ligeti concerto and Natalia Zagorinskaya in Troussova and the new cycle, which Kurtág dedicated to her.
One hardly needs to hear Troussova on the same album to recognize that the Akhmatova songs come from a different Kurtág – in terms of the smoothness of the vocal line and the centredness of the harmony, with a lot of motivic repetition and strong hints of folksong modalities – but also from very much the same composer, where the immediacy of expression and the almost tastable instrumental colours are concerned. The new vocal character brings forward memories of Stravinsky’s Japanese and Russian songs, especially in the first and second numbers, both of which are brief (1' 20" and about twice that), the latter also having very Stravinskian appoggiaturas. Kurtág here enfolds the voice – or illuminates it, or represents an illumination radiating from it – with an ensemble of woodwinds, strings and percussion (including piano and cimbalom), constantly changing in timbre but swimming through time with the vocal line.
The third song, as long as the other two put together, takes us into more familiar Kurtágian territory, not only in repeating the trio of violin (often scratching the ceiling), cimbalom and double bass from Scenes from a Novel but also in being a funeral flower. There is the cold air of a cemetery here, continuing to the end, where – after tubular bells have poignantly echoed the last line of the poem – a succession of muffled chimes suggests also a favourite Kurtág image out of Bartók, a lake of tears.
Similar in length, the final song moves onto a larger, louder plane. Brass join the ensemble, stimulating a wilder anxiety in the vocal line, but then everything dies back to the essentials: the almost numb voice, at once serene and alert, and the gathering of instruments around it. The trajectory, through four poems all about poets, has come from playful bewilderment to a stark vision of ‘the poet in disgrace’ at work within a frozen city. Placed here, after death, this final song seems to remind and warn us of art’s immortality, of how the artist can still speak, and bear witness, from beyond the grave.
By contrast with Troussova, where the singing voice is closely identified with the suffering persona of Rimma Dalos’s poems, the Akhmatova cycle puts forward a more elusive vocal personality – more abstract, perhaps, but perhaps also more telling, We are not observers, now, of someone’s distress. Rather, this is distress, expressed at one moment with hair-raising shock.
Audience noises are acceptable in such a vivid memento of an important occasion, an occasion given further lustre by a beautiful performance of Ligeti’s Melodien and an account of the same composer’s Cello Concerto in which Perényi’s wonderful playing is matched in tone and sensibility by his colleagues.
György KURTÁG: Signs, Games and Messages
Movses Pogossian proved himself as a Kurtág performer in 2009, partnering Toni Arnold in a vital account of the Kafka Fragments. Now, on his recital album In Nomine (Albany TROY 1301), he offers ten solo pieces form the composer’s Signs, Games and Messages, done with the same extraordinary keen musicianship. Across a seemingly limitless range of timbres, nuances and – not least – dynamic levels, everything is perfectly in focus and immediate. By no means does such control compromise expressive force. On the contrary, because every gesture – every note – is exactly as it is, with no weakening by approximation or gradual approach, the music’s voice is at once impeccable and strong.
It is so through quite a variety of moods and stylistic regions, from sly dance to folk lament. The longest item is the piece that gives the album its title, an almost-five-minute stretch of unbroken melody, superbly maintained in this performance. Equally telling is Pogossian’s handling of a line that keeps whipping back through recurrence in ‘Hommage à J.S.B.’ Later in this intelligently composed selection come two touching studies in muted stumblings, one after the other: ‘Hommage à John Cage’, which is a kind of postscript to What is the Word, and ‘…féerie d’automne…’, whose frail leaves carry plainsong traces.
Though these Kurtág pieces, seemingly not recorded by a violinist hitherto, last for under eighteen minutes, the disc would be worth having for them alone. The playing is breathtaking. The music, even (or perhaps especially) when most simple, opens a long perspective for future encounters that will yield more and more.
Hardly less remarkable is an eight-and-a-half-minute solo piece by Tigran Mansurian, Lamento, whose first half seems to be shifting around in search of stable ground from which to lament, the second half coming when this has been found. Pogossian’s way with the long diminuendo, of structure as well as volume, is astonishing. Also included are encounters with musicians close to him: his wife, Varty Manoueian, in Prokofiev’s Sonata for two violins and the pianist-composer Artur Avanesov.
György and Márta KURTÁG
At once intimate and astonishing, small and colossal, György and Márta Kurtág’s appearances together at the piano, playing Játékok pieces and Bach transcriptions, were treasures – and one has to write in the past tense, because it seems that the recital they gave in Paris on September 2012 was a farewell. Happily it was video-recorded, and has been released by ECM on DVD (ECM 5508), joining a handful of audio-recordings going back to the mid-1970s. To these may now be added a ninetieth-birthday salute from the Budapest Music Center: an album (BMC CD 233) offering Játékok selections as well as, from prehistory (in terms not only of compositional style but also of recording technique), a 1955 performance of a suite for piano four hands by Kurtág in four short movements, Játék-sized but childlike in a rather different way. This bright, folksy piece from 1950-51 is now the earliest Kurtág available (excepting only a lone ‘Apple Flower’ from 1947 brought into Játékok), and makes for an interesting comparison with what Ligeti was writing at the same time and in very much the same milieu.
Before dismissing this tiny smiling opus, however, one should remember how often traces of folk melody drift across the multitudinous equally small but now open spaces of Játékok – a point made immediately by the BMC compilation in going straight from the suite finale to ‘Hand in Hand (Hommage à Sárközy)’, a Játékok duet the Kurtágs included in their first recording, for Hungaroton, but then dropped from their repertory, possibly because of potential misunderstandings as to the dedicatee. (The name seems to be fairly common; Kurtág was perhaps thinking of the mathematician András Sárközy). Listening to a lot of Játékok, one will be reminded of the folk spring all the time, but also of how Kurtág’s musical mind, mapped in these hundreds of figurings, is replete with the western classical literature. ‘Fugitive Thoughts about the Alberti Bass’, for instance, another piece from the BMC disc and one not otherwise recorded by the Kurtágs (in this case, Márta), has a soft pulsation recalling the sonatina from Bach’s cantata Alle Menschen müssen sterben together with sparks from Debussy’s last prelude, Feux d’artifice, among other intimations. This fullness with history is poignantly addressed by András Wilheim in his note, when he suggests that the album ‘preserves perhaps the last moment of a great period of performing art, when tradition was fully incorporated into the new, showing that history can continue, there is no rupture’ – though one might want to counter that the rupture is indeed there as well, for the Játékok pieces, however perfectly formed and finished, have the nature of drafts, for what can no longer be positively completed.
These two new releases, the ECM DVD and the BMC CD, serve in some ways different purposes. With the latter we may be more aware of listening to messages from the past, whereas the DVD, not only with its living image but also with its consistency of sound and occasion, brings us into the immediate presence of the two artists. Their performance seems to be uncut, allowing us to observe their body language between pieces as well as their interaction at the keyboard. Their tender crossings of arms make the ‘embracing sounds’ version of ‘Virág az ember’ a love song, but no less touching is the gentle descent of György Kurtág’s hand to depress a key in ‘Hommage à Márta Kurtág’. Sometimes one may wish the director, Isabelle Soulard, had just kept one camera on the keyboard, capturing the play of hands through an entire piece – she happily comes close in ‘Hommage à Christian Wolff’, where György Kurtág’s hands are constantly folding over one another – but then, of course, we need to see, too, the wider view: Márta just behind her husband’s left shoulder, or he just behind hers, each the other’s first listener.
If it cannot provide this eloquent testimony, the BMC CD is full of great things. Right away it offers powerfully intense performances by the composer – some of the sounds hard engraved – of two memorial pieces, recorded when they (and, to be sure, memories of the friends they remembered) were still fresh. The epitaph for György Szoltsányi was recorded four months after it was written; even closer to events is the recording of the piece for the choirmaster Lajos Vass. He died on November 6, 1992; Kurtág wrote the memorial piece for him within the next twelve days; and the recording was made just two months later. Never mind that neither piece was recorded again by either of the Kurtágs; these are moments that cannot be repeated.
The programme continues with a long sequence of Márta Kurtág recordings from 1978, when she was often surprisingly more forceful and angular than in later versions of the same pieces; compare, for example, this ‘Tumble-Bunny’ with that on the ECM DVD, from thirty-four years later. So startling a difference may be ascribed simply to Márta’s age at the time, but again the music may have felt more driven when it was new. In any event, there are welcome lessons here in variety of interpretation. Hardly less valuable are the tracks for which there is no comparison, recordings of pieces to which, once more, the Kurtágs never returned, such as – an item one might have thought irresistible – ‘Bluebell’, a poem in four short lines, the last monosyllabic.
Wilheim’s note tells us that the recordings here were selected by the Kurtágs, but not whether the original sequences have been maintained. However, in the case of the final group, from a recital given in 2001 (before a far noisier audience than the Kurtágs were to have in Paris eleven years later), one guesses at least that the composer did indeed follow ‘Antiphony in F sharp’ with ‘Dirge (2)’, as he did in Milan in 1992 (another joint recital issued on CD) and as he did again in Paris in 2012.
Such a firm liaison may help other pianists in navigating Játékok and finding linkages by contrast. But, to extend what was noted above, the experience of listening to so many of these pieces in a short time is to find wholeness not only in the incorporation of folk sources and the western tradition but also internally, in how the same ideas keep returning in so many forms and combinations: wide-spanning, almost breaking melody (the ‘Virág az ember’ model) and, conversely, constrained chromatic chorale, rises of anger or desolation (and one cannot tell which), emphatic pounces, a sense always of the human body as well as the mechanical instrument, of those hands as they touch.
Helmut LACHENMANN: Ausklang
Lachenmann’s response in 1984-5 to the challenge of writing a piano concerto was Ausklang (Conclusion), a vast space – the duration is 54' 40" in this second recording (Ensemble Modern Medien EMCD 003) – within which possibilities of dialogue are tried out as if for the first time, or the last. A few dribbling ideas – points of slantwise communication between the piano (held to sounds we know) and the orchestra (seemingly unconfined) – are enough to open up this space. Typically, Lachenmann’s command of form, of expectation, of continuity, is extraordinary, maintaining the space, the space of open possibility, through whatever passes, or fails to pass. Failure – silence – is constantly implicit. We owe what we hear, it seems, to a great pressure of presence, of will to be, at this moment. The moment may be brief, but it is seized.
The new recording does not replace the version by Massimiliano Damerini and the Cologne Radio Symphony under Eötvös (col legno), but it provides a spanking alternative. Here the soloist is Ueli Wiget, who addresses his responsibilities nimbly and strongly, decisively helping to create the impression of a constantly open, constantly alive space, while an enlarged Ensemble Modern is conducted by Markus Stenz. Stenz also conducts an even more enlarged orchestra in Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, a coupling suggested by Lachenmann:
‘Strauss looks back with a “cold and clear gaze”!!! In the same way, my Ausklang is a (sound) journey, that, despite all of its “impassibility”, faces the challenge of our tradition of consonance again and again.’
So it does, in chords, in charging arpeggios, in an all too appropriately positioned cadenza. It is all as if waiting for something to happen – probably not the Strauss piece.
Hemut LACHENMANN: Nun
It is maybe unfortunate that an Ensemble Modern release on the group’s own label (EMCD 004) should duplicate a work already available in a stunning performance by the WDR Sinfonieorchester under Jonathan Nott (Kairos 0012142 KAI): Lachenmann’s Nun. Of course, no recording is definitive, and the newer version, conducted by Markus Stenz, has points in its favour – notably a sense of humour, even clowning, in some of the interplay between the soloists on flute (Dietmar Wiesner) and trombone (Uwe Dierksen), when they toss ideas back and forth, or when the flute seems to be trying out its trombone muscles or the trombone its flute delicacy.
Partly this is a question of balance. Nott’s soloists – Gaby Pas-Van Riet and Michael Svoboda – are more firmly embedded in the orchestral texture, of which they seem to form particular curlicues rising up. In a sense they are not soloists at all but representatives – representatives not only of the orchestra but also of the music, and even of what lies behind or, perhaps more accurately, within the music, for there is a real impression in this performance of what Lachenmann calls the ‘presence’ of Nun. (A further advantage of the Kairos release is that it comes with the composer’s own typically tentative, suggestive but also absolutely precise and concrete remarks, albeit only in German.) The work plays, certainly, as a compelling forty-minute succession of sound scenes: turbulent, expectant, interrogatory. Lachenmann disclaims any dramatic intention, but the piece is often graphic in its soundscapes, from the scuffling with which it gets going to the long, sometimes sliding unison towards the end, and the interventions of the small male chorus, especially when they break in with questions (‘Where?’, ‘What?’, ‘How?), have a real edge of drama. One might imagine Nun as a response to the third movement of Berio’s Sinfonia. At the same time, the work conveys itself not as a sequence of things but as one, unheard: a powerful source to which we gain access through what bubbles up in the music, much of which is breathtaking in its fresh beauty. Composed between 1997 and 1999, Nun sounds in both these recordings like a masterpiece.
Helmut LACHENMANN: Concertini (Ensemble Modern)
The milk is always pouring, but the jug will never empty. This is Vermeer’s portrait of a kitchenmaid intent on the task of pouring from a jug into a bowl. It is not that an instant has been frozen, as it would be in a photograph. The wonder of photographs of such things is in what can never be seen but – the image proves it – indisputably had a fleeting existence: those crowns splashed up after a drop has fallen. The wonder of the Vermeer, on the contrary, is that of the everyday raised to the eternal. It is also that of the eternal having been composed. We can stand very still and imitate a picture’s immobility. Only paint can make the milk stand still.
So to Lachenmann’s Concertini, with its generally abiding pianissimo skein of long-held sounds – the whispering or whirring or rasping sounds, gentle as can be, of breath through wind instruments, or of rubbings, scrapings and toneless bowings, or sometimes of sustained pitches. Here again is a composed changelessness that is also brimming with existence, that seems to be always in the present tense – always in the present, tense.
Over and around and under these eternal susurrations are other things, including substantial solos for harp, guitar and tuba – marginal instruments brought to the centre. The performance is by the Ensemble Modern, on a recording released under the ensemble’s own imprint (Ensemble Modern Medien EMSACD – 001), and it was made last summer at Darmstadt, with Brad Lubman conducting. By that stage the EM had spent a year with the music and had given several performances; they were also fortunate to have in Lubman a musician with a keen sense for how this music wants to go (and how it wants to stay).
A documentary film, which must have been made around the same time as this record, has Lubman indicating at one point, with his voice and hands, how a concatenation of sounds shapes itself into a gesture. It’s quite easy to hear, in the recording, the moment he was talking about, even among a multitude of zooming, spurting events that confront eternity with different sorts of time. Some of these events are funny, as when the music suddenly leapfrogs up through the registers or rattles into a presto. Others are visionary, even benedictional: the call of the sho from out of the composer’s opera. Altogether the coexistence of mystery and cheerfulness is remarkable. So is the ending, with a joyous, golden consonance, after which a bowed antique cymbal tips into the future.
Concertini, composed in 2005, plays continuously for over forty minutes. In performance it requires some of the players to be stationed behind the audience, but nothing is lost in being able to concentrate just on these extraordinary sounds and the music they make. The record also includes Kontrakadenz (1970-71), as performed by the Ensemble Modern Orchestra under Markus Stenz in October 2005, at the festival the Konzerthaus in Berlin gave to mark the composer’s seventieth birthday.
Helmut LACHENMANN: Concertini (Klangforum)
Moving ever on towards a Lachenmann complete recorded edition, Kairos add a double album (0012652 KAI) that offers the first appearance on disc of Les Consolations (the extended and orchestrally accompanied version of the choral Consolations), a return to Salut für Caudwell after almost thirty years by the guitarists for whom it was made, Wilhelm Bruck and Theodor Ross, and, already, a second approach to the composer’s most recent large-scale piece, Concertini, from this label’s house ensemble, Klangforum Wien, conducted by Johannes Kalitzke, who is also responsible for Les Consolations.
Concertini is already available from the team that introduced it, the Ensemble Modern, on their own label, where it plays for 41' 44", close to the score’s estimate of 43 minutes (unless, of course, that estimate was based on the Modern’s performance). Klangforum Wien get through the piece in 37' 06", largely, it seems, by underextending the slower music. Where the pace is faster the Frankfurt performance, though so much longer overall, has more zip, thanks to the clear articulation these crack players achieve under Brad Lubman. With them the piece has more spike, more humour; and the extra spaciousness of the desert music also contributes character. The Vienna account – recorded at a Konzerthaus performance in 2006 and suffering from some audience noise – has its points, especially in the more forward recording of the strings, but the chief value of this release lies on the first disc of the set.
The Bruck-Ross performance of Salut für Caudwell has not changed so much over the years, the two players negotiating a wavering but strong line between contest and dance – the contest or dance of two iridescent moths, their gestures full of colour (especially in the glissading resonances) and comedy. This version will do very well while their original recording, on col legno, remains available only at a high price.
What makes the new set indispensable is Les Consolations, which turns out to be a run-up from the late seventies to The Little Match-Girl: a telling of the story by voices speaking in snatches from within the small chorus, nipping in and out, hurtling by in characteristic Lachenmann fashion, with the two earlier choral pieces placed as stations along the way. The piece is scored for quite a large orchestra, though the continuity is carried almost throughout by the voices and percussion (plus other instruments used as noise-makers). Balance must be hard to achieve in an orchestral hall, given how slight and sudden the vocal sounds often are, and the project is probably to be understood as a radio conception, which is how it is presented here, in a 2005 WDR production by that authority’s symphony orchestra with the Schola Heidelberg (who have also recorded the separate choral items for Kairos). As in the opera, we seem to be hearing spasmodic but none the less urgent signals from a tragedy we cannot see, because it is all around us.
Helmut LACHENMANN: Accanto
A re-release to celebrate Lachenmann’s seventy-fifth birthday (Wergo WER 6738 2) brings back an album that first appeared for his fiftieth, and that even then was a historical document, offering recordings of three works from his thirties made when the music was almost wet on the page. If the booklet information is correct, Accanto was recorded a year after its première and by the same people (Eduard Brunner and the Saarbrücken radio orchestra under Hans Zender), Kontrakadenz is documented from its first performance (by the Stuttgart orchestra under Michael Gielen), and the recording of Consolation I, featuring Clytus Gottwald’s Schola Cantorum Stuttgart, dates from a few months before the concert première.
One might want to say that these recordings capture the music in its original freshness, and though that is true (there is electricity in Kontrakadenz not only in the radio interruptions but also in the gathering storm clouds of the latter half), though it is true also that later performances run up against the danger that the virtuoso sound-making will appear breezy rather than hardwon, this is music that still has not settled, and perhaps never will. Lachenmann’s orchestral works have not begun to infiltrate the repertory. Their challenge goes on unmet.
Their challenge to the listener, though, is certainly eased by these outstanding performances. The more one listens to Accanto, the more one comes to understand how the bursts from a recording of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto are not transitory shocks but glimpses of what is casting its shadow throughout the piece. How the raining pulses change from humour and gaiety to threat and obsession is also a lesson in musical-emotional transformation as much Mozartian as Lachenmannesque. The two composers come close again in how, with them, the same thing can be at once highly sophsiticated and thoroughly naive, learned and comic.
Clytus Gottwald, in his note reproduced from 1985, makes the point that Lachenmann’s search is for a new beauty – a point that perhaps now needs less emphasizing, but that is wonderfully borne out by these recordings, and not least by Gottwald’s own bringing out of the radiant harmonies in Consolation I.
Bernhard LANG: Die Sterne des Hungers
Several features conspire to make Bernhard Lang’s 2007 composition Die Sterne des Hungers (Kairos 0013092 KAI) so strangely beguiling, beguilingly strange. One is certainly the luminous clarity and calm of the vocal line, as it is written and as it is delivered by Sabine Lutzenberger. Lang finds his words in poems by Christine Lavant, which he chops up for his own purposes, but there is none of the angst that has lingered in German text setting throughout the century since Pierrot lunaire, which is to say there is no suffering persona striving to express itself. The short phrases – moments of modality as they often are, in a labyrinth with no sure forces or directions – have an effortless self-projection and sometimes, even though we may seem to be hearing a fragment of an old tune, an untouched beauty. Lutzenberger’s singing, pure yet comely, fits the music perfectly. This is a voice-centred piece, after the prelude for the ensemble of twelve players, and Lutzenberger knows how to stand out without force, and also how to embrace the woodwinds’ timbres within her own.
What also compels attention here is Lang’s ‘difference/repetition’ technique, whereby elements a few seconds long are repeated two, three or four times before shading or shuddering into something else or being just let go. Split into bite-sized chunks, the music gives one the impression of listening to something that has already been heard, pre-digested, but that in this form has never been heard before. Here again freshness is achieved within a context that seems to be all memory, across a gamut from folksong to Claude Vivier (for spectral harmonies topped by non-vibrato violins).
There is a particular memory threading through the composition: that of Machaut’s ‘Ma Fin est mon commencement’, two sections of which arrive in arrangements as the middle and last of the seven movements, whose overall duration is three quarters of an hour. Once one has heard the piece right through – and accepted its pressing invitation to listen again, to repeat the whole ‘difference/repetition’ process over the largest ambit – flickers of the Machaut begin to be recognizable in many corners of this remarkable score. The record also includes Monadologie VII (2009), from a series taking particles from a particular source, in this case Schoenberg’s Second Chamber Symphony. Klangforum are conducted by Sylvain Cambreling in both works.
Thomas LARCHER: Böse Zellen
The big piece on the latest Thomas Larcher album (ECM 2111) is the piano concerto Böse Zellen, thrillingly projected by Till Fellner and the Munich Chamber Orchestra under Dennis Russell Davies. This extraordinary piece takes us through a timescape where every discovery may be a trap – a fall through a hole into scary-movie-music cliché, bald reiteration or a state of events from earlier in the piece – and every trap a discovery. For three movements – short, bigger, big – the piano is largely hamstrung, with rubber wedges placed between strings or tape placed over them. It becomes a ghost of itself, or a skeleton, while retaining, in Fellner’s hands, precision of sound and dazzling virtuosity.
The title comes from a recent Austrian film, and is perhaps unfortunate in terms of selling the piece (‘böse Zellen’ are malignant cells), but it fits the insidiousness and unease in the music, if not the startling sonic imagination that is present right from the start, where the piano becomes a glissando instrument, thanks to a steel ball being rolled across the strings. Also, the cells are small musical figments, which reappear in the course of the elaborate but also compelling cross-cut form. The brief finale – in which, after the harplike sounds of its unwrapping have been heard, the piano is released from bondage – brings back in particular a four-note motif of Beethovenian interrogatory force and authority and a spacious skim across the keyboard in three bouncing notes. Triumph is in the air here, but not in the ground, and only briefly before the movingly melancholy close.
In such company the other pieces are bound to sound a little pale. Still is a viola concerto, with strings and obbligato piano, a study in immobilities: tones sustained so long they become at once a horizon and a menace, incantations circling around a small group of notes, slow pulsations. As so often in the piano concerto, the ideas are at once ancient and fresh; another comparison evoked is with a repertory dear to this label, of the music drenched in folk lament that has come from composers on Europe’s eastern fringes. Kim Kashkashian, who knows this repertory, is a strong presence.
Folk affiliations feature again in the composer’s third quartet, Madhares, tightly and cleanly performed here by the Diotima. According to the excellent booklet essay by Anselm Cybinski, Madhares is a mountainous region that Larcher heard of on a visit to Crete but did not visit: ‘an object of desire and vanishing point in one’.
György LIGETI: Requiem
An all-Ligeti compilation from Budapest Music Center (BMC CD 166) perpetuates performances Péter Eötvös led in Cologne in November-December 2008: a thrilling and powerful account of the Requiem, framed by Apparitions and San Francisco Polyphony. Like the extremities of register out to which Ligeti filters his music at points in various works (including the Cello Concerto and the Requiem), the categories of wild humour and cold solemnity in many of his pieces reinforce one another, as this account of the Requiem marvelously shows. Comedy is incipient, for instance, in the Kyrie, beneath, below and maybe even within the more prominent awesomeness, which is vividly communicated by the choir and also by the orchestra, in fused tones that sound like metallic resonances held in time. Conversely, strangeness and loss haunt the following movement, along with the musical slapstick with which the Dies Irae text is delivered. Barbara Hannigan’s floating high notes here, whether pianissimo or forceful, are extraordinary, like beams of light suspended in the air with no source visible. Altogether the movement has the drama and colour of an opera collapsed into nine minutes, after which the glowing ashes of the final Lacrimosa are all the more poignant.
The two accompanying orchestral works are Ligeti’s most neglected, and fine, characterful new recordings of them (only the third in nearly four decades in the case of San Francisco Polyphony) are welcome. In this context, and in these performances, connections with the Requiem come to the fore, whether incidental, as with the bundling of the brass out through the door in Apparitions and the luminous stacked tritones in San Francisco Polyphony, or general, a matter of dramatic, even operatic punch.
David LUMSDAINE: Big Meeting
David Lumsdaine’s hour-long Big Meeting (NMC D171), created from recordings he and his students made at the 1971 Durham Miners Gala (or ‘Big Meeting’, as it is apparently known locally), is at once celebration and memorial, documentary and drama, homage paid and opportunity grasped. Listening to it we feel ourselves to be sharing a day out in the city with crowds of people and also a day in (or surely many days in), inside the studio with tapes and transformations. As the composer explains in his note, a concert version, with quadraphonic sound supplied from several tape recorders, was completed by 1978, but the difficulties in squeezing the material on to two tracks were overcome only recently, which is why this extraordinary, life-filled creation is arriving four decades after the event it commemorates.
Big Meeting nevertheless belongs to its time – to a time of strong working-class traditions and of aspirations for which the Labour Party provided a channel, and to a time, too, when electronic music had a wide embrace. In the latter respect, this Lumdaine work could be fruitfully compared and contrasted with Stockhausen’s Hymnen. As a recreation of actuality – and for its hymntunes, played by colliery bands – it has connections with Bryars’s The Sinking of the Titanic. And it speaks, too, of a time when the music of Charles Ives was being widely discovered.
Heard forty years later, it is not without melancholy, in terms of the change that has overcome both subject and treatment. The Durham mines have all long been closed, and no Labour Party leader has spoken at the gala since 1989. Handmade electronic music is now a thing of history, and music’s ambition to seize the world – an ambition surely voiced in Lumsdaine’s title – is muted. Nevertheless, the overwhelming experience of Big Meeting is one of expansiveness and generosity. It is a wonderful vision of holiday, in which the listener is invited to participate, and a challenging image of cooperation, despite – or even by way of – all the ironies involved in this meeting between technologies of different eras, between proletarian and intellectual, between life and art, between exuberance and (in one unforgettable passage) dread.
Elena MENDOZA: chamber music
An album of chamber pieces by Elena Mendoza (Kairos 0012882 KAI), born in Seville in 1973 and now based in Berlin, introduces a composer whose music conveys at once playfulness and mystery, like a ghost who smiles. Often the lightness comes from quick repeated notes, or from pitches bouncing rapidly from one instrument to another, whereas the strangeness derives from exploratory spectral harmonies that will sometimes, though created entirely by instruments, suggest the emergence of a voice. The two modes receive prominence in turn in Díptico (2004), scored for clarinet, saxophone, cello, piano and percussion, and beautifully presented by ensemble recherche. Even here, though, the expressive categories flow into one another and out again, all the time with an engaging directness of utterance.
Mendoza seems concerned with other borderlands, notably between instrumental sound and vocal, not only in her instrumental synthesis of voice-like timbres but also in her use of vocal sound in an instrumental context. Akt Zeichnung (Nude Drawing, or Act Drawing), a piece for baritone and mixed sextet that apparently looks forward to her full-length music-theatre score Niebla (Fog), has the players whispering, and Lo que nunca dijo nadie (I never said no) joyously has its duo of violinist and guitarist hurling words as well as notes and figures at one another. Another, earlier duo, Contra-dicción for violas (2001), has some characteristic features – the immediacy, the echoing between parts – but not the humour; rather the piece suggests two figures huddling together as they falter in the darkness.
Jürgen Ruck, formerly guitarist of the Ensemble Modern, gives a strong account of a solo written for him, Breviario de espejismos (Breviary of Mirages), whose comic eeriness and internal conversation relate to a Goya engraving, Nadie se concoce, in which a cavalier bows to a masked lady, not seeing the shadowy, sinister figures behind him. The most recent piece – also the longest – is a piano quartet whose title, Nebelsplitter (Fog Splinters), indicates again a connection with the composer’s biggest endeavour so far. One might think that fog had wisps or smudges rather than splinters, but the precision and incisiveness of Mendoza’s ideas makes the oxymoron appropriate.
Ensemble MODERRN: solo music
The Ensemble Modern has been giving its members the chance to show off not only their performing skills, universally exceptional, but also their dreams and desires as programme builders, over the hour or so span of a cd. Ueli Wiget invites some of his colleagues to join him in chamber pieces by Skalkottas (EMCD 007), while Michael M. Kasper offers a concept album (EMCD 006), in which the cello is progressively defamiliarized along the route from the sonatas of Ligeti and Zimmermann to Lachenmann’s Pression and Michael Gordon’s Industry, then lost altogether, leaving the cellist just with his own body, itself disappearing as the naked, present hands of Reich’s Clapping Music give way to the merely implied foot of Lucier’s RPMs for car engine and acceletator pedal. The trumpeter Sava Stoianov covers a wide field in a sequence mostly of duets (EMCD 008), including a haunting exchange with a Bulgarian folksinger, Neli Andreeva, in Georgi Andreev’s Rodopi and a converse exercise in blending (with a soprano) and joint acrobatics in Vykintas Baltakas’s RiRo. Different again, the bassoonist Johannes Schwarz prefers to be alone, with or without electronic set-ups, on a record (EMCD 002) that offers the most startling instrumental reinvention here outside Pression: Pierluigi Billone’s Legno. Edre II. Edre of 2003, a piece from early in this composer’s lengthy absorption with the bassoon. Schwarz shows throughout his recital a wonderful combination of straightforwardness, just getting the job done, with abundant character, and the result is a flexible naturalness even when the sound world is estranged by electronic treatment or, in the Billone, new techniques. Playing around the axis of an intemperate tremolo, which returns several times through this fourteen-minute piece, Legno. Edre II. Edre is music largely of slow sliding multiphonics, with occasional stationary sounds in which harmonic spectra come to life, and it has the severe new beauty that seems to characterize Billone’s work.