CAGE: Sculptures Musicales; Twenty-Six with Twenty-Nine; Twenty-Six with Twenty-Eight & Twenty-Nine; Eighty. Christina Fong, violins, violas; Karen Krummel, cellos; Michael Crawford, basses; Glenn Freeman, percussion and bowed piano; Prague Winds; Chance Operations Collective of Kalamazoo. OgreOgress DVD 634479962141. 121 minutes.
The current disc is another in a remarkable series of first recordings of late works of John Cage on the OgreOgress label. For an introduction to the composer’s late style, see this review of an earlier disc in the series.
This disc is not going to win over anyone who is predisposed to disliking Cage’s music. The pieces (and their committed, perceptive realizations/performances) are uncompromising and direct expressions of the composer’s aesthetic. There’s a hushed tension in these pieces, manifest in noisy, quiet sounds (as in Sculptures Musicales) or in the fugitive unisons and pregnant silences of Eighty.
The combination of repertoire, performances, and great 96kHz|24bit sound make this release indispensable for Cage students and admirers, and highly recommended for the adventurous listener.
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CARTER: Selected Works. Various Artists. Nonesuch 510893-2 [4 cd]. 269 minutes.
This four disc set, titled “A Nonesuch Retrospective”, was released in honor of Elliott Carter’s 100th birthday. It is an outstanding (and bargain-priced!) introduction to the composer, covering the majority of his work between the Piano Sonata (1945) to the Robert Lowell song cycle In Sleep, In Thunder (1983).
The music is arranged in chronological order on the four discs, so Carter’s development in these crucial years is audible. We almost never listen to concert music this way””in the order in which it was composed. We usually listen to groups of pieces by genre and/or instrumentation, and the unusual order is quite telling. At times, it feels like one large piece with different sections having different instrumentations.
An important and welcome addition is the inclusion of a titanic reading of the Variations for Orchestra (1955) by the Chicago Symphony, led by Carter champion James Levine, previously released by DG. Less welcome is the omission of the Paul Zukovsky/Gilbert Kalish premiere recording of the Duo for Violin and Piano (1974), which is one of Carter’s most personal compositions. (Does anyone know if that performance is available on CD?)
Most enthusiastic Carter fans will have most, if not all, of these recordings; highly recommended if you don’t.
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CARTER: Quartets 2, 3 and 4. Pacifica Quartet. Naxos 8.559363. 74 minutes.
The first disc (Naxos 8.559362) of the Pacifica Quartet’s traversal of Elliott Carter’s string quartets consisted of compelling performances of the First (1951) and Fifth (1996) Quartets, the bookends of the composer’s essays in the medium (so far). The current disc completes the cycle in fine form, and the two discs together document Carter’s development both as a quartet composer and as a composer in general.
These “middle” quartets track the composer’s journey through the explorations of the 1950s, the extremities of complexity of the 70s, to the cusp of his late late style at the end of the 80s. The Second Quartet (1959) marks a big step in the development of Carter’s musical discourse, in which the instruments embody individual expressive characters, delineated by unique musical vocabularies. The result is, to my ear, a kind of music that leans heavily on gesture rather than on theme. In this strong and expansive performance, the players of the Pacifica give the gestures of this piece the weight they need for the work to communicate its expressive content.
The Third Quartet (1971) remains one of Carter’s most complex structures, so much so that even some fans of the composer find it merely “complicated”. I like the piece quite a bit, and the performance here is a revelation””the players bring out the lines in each duo more clearly than I’ve ever heard before. I think this reading of the Quartet will cause some to take a new listen to it.
The Fourth Quartet (1986) is the most traditional piece in the cycle, at least in terms of its structure. The by-now-standard-for-Carter partitioning of musical materials between instruments is at the service of a Beethoven four movement structure. At first hearing, this is a far less vital work than the other quartets, but it grows on you, and there is much of value in it. The reading it is given by the Pacifica is strong and expressive.
There is so much for interpreters of these works to explore that I would be hardpressed to call any reading them definitive, but you could do worse than start with the Pacifica Quartet recordings of Carter’s string quartets.
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CARTER: Mosaic; Scrivo in Vento; Gra; Enchanted Preludes; Steep Steps; Figments I & II; Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi; Rhapsodic Musings; Dialogues. New Music Concerts Ensemble/Robert Aitken. NAXOS 8.559614. CD 65 minutes; DVD 50 minutes.
In addition to an increase in performances marking Elliott Carter’s 100th birthday last December, there were a few new recordings of a substantial amount of the peripatetic centenarian’s recent music.
This Naxos set (already ably reviewed by Jay Batzner) is a valuable addition to the Carter discography, for at least a couple of reasons. It provides high-quality second (and in some cases more) recordings of several works, it’s a very good introduction to Carter’s music of the last 20 years or so, and not least, it includes the first recording of Mosaic (2005, harp and mixed ensemble), one of Carter’s most colorful and directly approachable scores.
The composer’s late style is characterized by a stronger emphasis on instrumental color for its own expressive value and relative textural clarity (which in many pieces goes hand-in-hand with the emphasis on color). These traits are presented in a new (for Carter) structural looseness that is often manifest in collage-like forms made up of short, overlapping episodes of contrasting music.
“Gorgeous” is not a word one often associates with Carter, but it applies to Mosaic. The solo harp part, played here with great style and flair by Erica Goodman, swoops and dances voluptuously over the range of the instrument. The accompanying ensemble sings and rasps its support and commentary.
The bulk of the program consists of new performances of a handful of the character pieces that are a staple of Carter’s recent career. These are the second (and sometimes third or fourth) recordings of these pieces, which are becoming standard repertoire for their instruments, at least amongst a certain type of performer.
The disc closes with a bright and lively reading of Dialogues (2004, piano and chamber orchestra) another exemplar of the composer’s late approach. David Swan gives a deft and expressive performance of the daunting solo part, and Robert Aitken leads a strong reading by the New Music Concerts Ensemble.
The bonus DVD includes film versions of the performances of Mosaic and Dialogues, as well as a post-concert interview of the composer conducted by Mr. Aitken. The films included some very amateurish effects shots and are unimaginatively shot, but they are valuable in that they show the under-commented-on physicality of Carter performance. The interview includes some of Carter’s more familiar ideas, and is valuable for the newbie in that respect.
Jay also reviewed
Ursula Oppens’ recent traversal of Carter’s then-complete piano music, and we pretty much had the same reaction to it.
 Or is it “late late” by now?
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CAGE: Three; Twenty-Eight; Twenty-Six with Twenty-Eight; Twenty-Eight with Twenty-Nine. Prague Winds; Christina Fong, violin; Susanna Borsch, recorders; Karen Krummel, cello; Michael Crawford, bass; Glenn Freeman, percussion. OgreOgress DVD 634479754012. 122 minutes.
Most Sequenza21 readers have at least a passing familiarity with some of the “number pieces” of John Cage’s late period. With his fame at its height and the commissions coming in at an astonishing rate, the composer developed a new means of notation (the “time frame”) and a not-completely-unrelated titling system (the pieces are titled after the number of performers required to play them, with superscript numbers to designate works requiring an already-used number of players) to respond to the stream of commissions.
With these pieces, the master became the student. The soundworld of Cage’s number pieces bears the unmistakable stamp of Morton Feldman’s influence. They are quiet and slow, with lots of white space (silence). Unlike Feldman, Cage is not interested in patterns and their repetition””Cage’s quiet is in that way very different from Feldman’s.
This OgreOgress audio-DVD (96kHz|24bit) of several of Cage’s number pieces for winds stands as a great introduction to this important body of music and a wonderful musical experience.
Three is scored for three recorder players, playing a large number of recorders. Susanna Borsch plays all three parts in this recording. All of these pieces require a steady tone and rigorous intonation, and Ms. Borsch has both to spare, as do all of the performers on the program. Three is cast in sections: a first and last section required, and any (or none) of eight three-minute segments that may be played between them. In this recording the listener is invited to make that decision, potentially resulting a different piece every time one listens to it.
The other three pieces on the program, Twenty-Eight, Twenty-Six with Twenty-Eight, and Twenty-Eight with Twenty-Nine illustrate another aspect of Cage’s musical world-view, one that is seen throughout his career””the combining of different pieces to make a new musical experience. (He also occasionally sanctioned the separate performance of parts of larger pieces, such as the orchestral parts of the Concert for Piano and Orchestra.) These larger pieces are still quiet and built of long tones, but the result is a teeming, democratic quietude that is as compelling as the more empty spaces of the smaller ensemble and solo number pieces.
The performances here are all that you could ask for. The intonation and even tones are mesmerizing, and the subtly changing chords and textures that result when players enter and exit make for a novel kind of musical narrative. The high-resolution sound puts you in the middle of the music, which seems especially apt given Cage’s aesthetic. This is a must-have DVD.
Finally, this disc is one of several that should put to rest the argument about Cage””he is a profound philosopher and an “inventor of genius”, but he was also a great composer.
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SZABí“/KASTNING: Parallel Crossings. Sí¡ndor Szabí³, Kevin Kastning, baritone guitars. Greydisc 3504. 56 minutes.
This new disc of improvised duets by guitarists Sí¡ndor Szabí³ and Kevin Kastning picks up where last year’s Resonance left off. Everything I said in that review applies equally well to Parallel Crossings. These guys can really play, and the recording sounds very good, indeed.
If you liked/loved Resonance, you’ll feel the same way about Parallel Crossings.
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JAFFE: Cut-Time; Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra; Poetry of the Piedmont; Homage to the Breath. North Carolina Symphony/Grant Llewellyn; David Hardy, cello; Odense Symphony Orchestra/Paul Mann; Milagro Vargas, mezzo-soprano; 21st Century Consort/Christopher Kendall. BRIDGE 9255. 64 minutes.
Stephen Jaffe provides a tour of the music that has influenced him in a brief and engaging introductory essay to this Bridge release. Jaffe was born in 1954, and the list of influences will be familiar to anyone who has followed the careers of composers of that generation, which is, by the way, my generation. The Beatles, Miles Davis, Stravinsky, Tin Pan Alley, “˜60s avant-garde””this music (the list is by no means comprehensive) has found its way into the DNA of the composers and other musicians of the generation in question in ways both obvious and subtle.
Jaffe (on the evidence of the music on this disc) wears his influences clearly but lightly. The orchestral piece Cut-Time includes direct references to a number of older pop styles, including gospel and rag, but it comes off neither as a nostalgia trip nor as musical anthropology. And at a running time of about two minutes, it is very efficient.
In the Cello Concerto (2003) the influences are buried in the music and Mr. Jaffe’s own voice carries the day. His vision of the cello soloist as an individual voice is sympathetic and expressive. Jaffe solves the acoustic problem of making the cello sound well against the orchestra with a solution out of Elliott Carter’s toolbox””the cello is aided and abetted by changing groups supporting instruments. Cellist David Hardy gives a strong and expressive performance of the demanding solo part, and Paul Mann and the Odense Symphony provide eloquent accompaniment.
The last two pieces on the disc, Poetry of the Piedmont and Homage to the Breath don’t work quite as well for me as the Cello Concerto. They are both more concrete in their eclecticism than the Concerto and their expressive content seems more on and of the surface. That said they are both very attractive pieces and the performers (the North Carolina Symphony under Grant Llewellyn in Poetry and Milagro Argas and the 21st Century Consort under Christopher Kendall in Homage) give them dedicated readings
Jaffe’s music is made from a flexible vocabulary””references to tonal centers are frequent and freely deployed, and the composer is not afraid to let his atonal side show itself when the expressive occasion demands it. The result is a style that is both new and familiar. His music deserves a wide hearing. This release should help.
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WUORINEN: Ashberyana; Praegustatum; Fenton Songs I and II; Ave Christe (Josquin); Josquiniana. Sarah Rothenberg, Alan Feinberg, piano; Leon Williams, baritone; James Pugh, trb; Mark Steinberg, David Fulmer, vln; Misha Amory, vla; Nina Maria Lee, vcl; Lucy Shelton, soprano; Brentano String Quartet; Charles Wuorinen, conductor. Naxos 8.559377. 61 minutes.
Charles Wuorinen’s rhetorical bark has always been sharper, edgier, than his musical bark. Many of his verbal excesses about the primacy of 12-tone technique and the death of tonality have proven less than prophetic.
In fact, Wuorinen’s own musical development has belied his bellicose statements. Much of his music expresses a direct, modern lyrical impulse. He has a good ear for instrumental color and line. The biggest problem I’ve had with Wuorinen’s music in the past is that I’ve often found his rhythmic style in conflict with his pitch vocabulary””the rhythms feel much more tonal than the harmonies and melodies would seem to suggest.
The accompanied trombone solo that begins the first piece on this Naxos disc, Ashberyana, (written in 2004 for baritone, trombone, string quartet, and piano, on poems of John Ashbery) reveals a composer whose style has resolved the tensions within his musical personality. Or a critic who is hearing better. At any rate, the trombone’s lyrical line (played with style and power by James Pugh), with its fleeting but unmistakable tonal references, is accompanied by sharp, dissonant chords on the piano.
Wuorinen’s text setting is clear, though the vocal line is often more angular than the trombone line, but this is appropriate for Ashbery’s poetry, with its ellipitical imagery and complex structure. Baritone Leon Williams gives a strong performance of the difficult vocal part, and the composer leads Da Camera of Houston in a solid, authoritative performance.
The rest of the program, consisting of a solo piano work (very well played by Sarah Rothenberg), two brief song cycles on poetry by James Fenton (sung with intense conviction by Lucy Shelton), and some Josquin arrangements, is solid and musical. Naxos’ sound is very good, and Sarah Rothenberg’s notes are informative.
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HEGGIE: For a Look or a Touch; SCHWARZ: In Memoriam; LAITMAN: The Seed of Dream. Morgan Smith, Erich Parce, baritone; Julian Patrick, actor; Julian Schwarz, cello, Mina Miller, piano; Music of Remembrance. Naxos 8.559379. 61 minutes.
Music of Remembrance is a Seattle-based ensemble/organization dedication to the creation (through commissions), performance, and dissemination of music whose subject is the Holocaust, especially victims of the Holocaust who were musicians.
This Naxos disc includes first recordings of three memorial pieces, two of which (are Lori Laitman’s The Seed of Dream and Jake Heggie’s For a Look or a Touch) are Music of Remembrance commissions. The Seed of Dream, for baritone, cello, and piano, is a setting of poems by Vilna Ghetto survivor Abraham Sutzkever. The mood is, naturally, dark, but there are often rays of light and hope in Laitman’s direct and lyrical music. Erich Parce sings the vocal line in a rich baritone voice. Cellist Julian Schwarz and Music of Remembrance Artistic Director Mina Miller (piano) provide solid and poetic accompaniment.
Gerard Schwarz’ In Memoriam is a very straight-forward lament. His experience as a conductor (he is currently Music Director of the Seattle Symphony) shows in how well he writes for string instruments. The piece is in three clearly laid out sections, and is ably played by Julian Schwarz and member of Music of Remembrance.
The revelation of the disc, for me anyway, is Jake Heggie’s For a Look or a Touch. Heggie is best known as a composer of opera (Dead Man Walking) and this piece, though not an opera, shows its composer as an artist who knows his way around narrative and drama. For a Look or a Touch (libretto by Gene Scheer) is a story of a Holocaust survivor and his struggle to remember his lover, who died at Auschwitz. It is a romantic and harrowing work, one of the first to deal directly with the persecution of homosexuals by the Nazis. Heggie’s music is eclectic, with touches of romantic jazz along side passages that explore the darker aspects of the story without ever wallowing in bathos. Morgan Smith ably sings the role of survivor Gad, while the role of his doomed lover, Manfred is read by Julian Patrick. The device works, and the piece is very moving. Members of the Music of Remembrance ensemble play Heggie’s music with skill and conviction.
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McCARTNEY: Ecce Cor Meum. Kate Royal, soprano. Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields/Gavin Greenaway. EMI DVD 5099950073399. 67 minutes.
It probably counts as a truism to say that Paul McCartney is one of the finest melodists popular music has produced. Popular music is often largely about melody, with the other parameters of the art usually playing a secondary rí´le.
The melodies in McCartney’s hour-long Ecce Cor Meum (“Behold My Heart”, for soprano solo, chorus, and orchestra; text by the composer) are not nearly as memorable as those in his best songs. It seems as though he had a preconceived notion about what “classical” melodies should sound like and how they should be shaped. He wrote accordingly, and the result is somewhat forced and artificial.
As to the other niceties of “classical” composition, McCartney falls back on the standard tools of the inexperienced composer””pedals, sequences, and ostinatos. In this way his melodies are given the means to play out into a lengthy composition. The harmony, rhythm, and orchestration of the piece are pretty standard late 20th-century neo-tonal, with a hint of English pastoralism.
At the beginning of the film, before the performance begins, the composer enters the Royal Albert Hall and is greeted like, well, a rock star. (I wonder if he gets as tired of that happening at his concerts as I do at mine.)
Soprano Kate Royal has a fine, full voice and a winning stage presence. The Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Orchestra, led by Gavin Greenaway, does its usual bang up job, as do the massed choruses involved. A brief documentary on the creation of Ecce Cor Meum, in which the composer discusses his limitations as a composer (as opposed to a songwriter), dramatically illustrates just how well one can get by with a little help from their friends.
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