Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, Jay Batzner, minimalism, Piano, tags: CD Review, Charlemagne Palestine, instrumental, Jay Batzner, Piano, strings, Sub Rosa
(piano, harpsichord, and string ensemble versions)
Upon first cracking open this 3-CD collection of Strumming by Charlemagne Palestine, I saw the brief newspaper article by John Rockwell who tells the tale of a Palestine performance cut short because the composer was playing a Steinway and not a Bösendorfer (“cut short” is relative since the piece lasted 2.5 hours instead of 4). The article presents the situation as an acute case of “diva-itis” but when I heard the original version of Strumming (even listed as “for Bösendorfer piano”) and heard the massive clouds of overtones and sympathetic vibrations, I could see why Palestine would not be pleased with a Steinway instrument. So much of the piano version of Strumming doesn’t happen at the keyboard but in the air around it. The incessant keyboard hammerings melts into waves of sound much like dots in a Seurat painting. Around the 17 minute mark of this 52 minute performance from 1974 my brain couldn’t hear the keyboard anymore – just the spectra of the harmonies pushing against each other. The cresting wave around 30 minutes is an absolutely transcendent ride as is the surrender to the “power chords” 7 minutes later. I trust Charlemagne Palestine to deliver what he wants me to hear and this recording is one you can trust. As much as I would love to hear a more recent, higher-resolution, and longer version of the work, I think it is hard to call this performance anything other than definitive. It makes the 12 minute version of Strumming on the Godbear album feel like a 5 Second Film.
In addition to Palestine performing on Bösendorfer, the Sub Rosa collection has two other versions: one for harpsichord performed by Betsy Freeman in 1977 and one for a string ensemble organized at the SF Conservatory by John Adams in that same year. The harpsichord version weighs in at 35 minutes and is probably the closest to providing an actual “strum” aesthetic although without the pronounced melting of sustained sonic spectra. Freeman’s technique and treatment of the material is compelling and well paced. Some folks might approach a harpsichord version of Strumming with extreme distaste but there is no reason to avoid this wonderful performance.
I found the string ensemble version (about 25 minutes long) to be surprisingly sustained whereas the keyboards furiously chug away. There is nary a tremolo to be heard nor any other picturesque technical tricks that one would expect from string ensemble writing. The harmonic journey is laid bare and exposed in a frail and naked manner. It is this string version that I really hope gets taken up and revisited in a longer and higher quality recording (at least one without coughing). As a minor quibble, I’m not sure why this is sold as a 3 disc set since the harpsichord and string versions could comfortably fit on a single disc. True, there are few of us who will spin all versions back-to-back-to-back, but I always bristle when I have a disc with so much dead space by a composer known for extended compositions.
While these recordings are supposedly of the same piece of music, each of these versions contains a different element of “truth” to them. Each stands squarely on its own as a performance of a hypnotic and unique compositional voice instead of sounding as mere arrangements of the original piano version. These three recordings are interconnected the same way that good film/book pairings (2001, Blade Runner) contain the core of the work while still showcasing different distinct artistic visions.
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Tre Canti Popolari
Due Componimenti Impetuosi
Sub Rosa record
- Tre Canti Popolari: Marianne Pousseur – soprano, Lucy Grauman – alto, Vincent Bouchot – baritone, Paul Gérimon – bass
- Duo: Georg-Alexander Van Dam – violin, Jean-Paul Dessy – cello
- Wo Ma: Paul Gérimon – bass
- Sauh: Marianne Pousseur – soprano, Lucy Grauman – alto
- Aitsi: Jean-Luc Fafchamps – piano
- Sonate #4: Johan Bossers – piano
- Suite #11: Johan Bossers – piano
Vocal chamber music and solo piano works form the bulk of this two disc assortment of Scelsi’s music on Sub Rosa. Being mostly familiar with Scelsi’s instrumental chamber music, I was anxious to hear how he wrote for unaccompanied voices. Tre Canti Popolari does not disappoint at all. All of the focus and dramatic tension from Scelsi’s string quartets is transfered beautifully into the vocal medium. The four performers sound tremendously good. The blend is sublime but there is never a sense of monochromaticism. The vocalists’ sensitivity and balance between independence and ensemble elevate this already stunning composition. I am also a big fan of the male voice selections, specifically the choice of baritone and bass instead of tenor/bass or tenor/baritone. Sclesi’s natural darkness gets accentuated by the darker vocal colors. As enamored as I am with the quartet’s performance, I am equally enamored with Paul Gérimon’s interpretation of Wo Ma and Marianne Pousseur’s and Lucy Grauman’s performance of Sauh. These soulful performances wring every note for its full amount of nuance and emotion. The only thing better would be hearing it live.
The Duo for violin and cello is a bit of an outlier on this disc being the only work that involves strings. The piece is well executed and serves as a great sonic break for the vocal pieces. The composition is lithe and intense, disquieting and expressive. The first disc closes with the solo piano work Aitsi and Scelsi’s piano music, once again, has the ability to captivate with extremely little surface activity. The opening punctuations of Aitsi are sudden and harsh, at first obscuring the delicious amplified distortion. After several thwacks, though, the vibrant electronic sounds nourish the chords into longer and richer lifespans.
Disc two of this set is comprised of solo piano works composed about a decade before anything on the first CD (with the exception of the short 2 years between Suite #11 and Tre Canti Popolari). In Piano Sonata #4, from 1942, I can hear the aural conflict between the musical language of the time and the language Scelsi would later develop. The first movement is thorny and jagged but the low register melody meanders in an unusually drunken-yet-focused way. Movement two, with its open harmonies and tenderly dark melody, hints at the expressive power of his later compositions while the final movement is spastic and rough with a singular trajectory.
Suite #11 is a real trip. To my ears, I hear Scelsi experimenting with alternate ways of organizing and expressing his musical nature. Each of the nine movements contains a stream-of-consciousness feel that keeps the piece, however loosely, from breaking apart into musical atoms. The energies present in the piece reminds me of the rugged atonal expressionist American composers from the early 20th century such as Ruggles and Ornstein – the time when free atonality was brash and expansive instead of smug and superior (but maybe I’m romanticizing that a bit). Suite #11 is wild, unhinged, and Johan Bossers plays it with the right amount of control and furor.
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