PNMR Archives, 1998-99

critiques by Dan WARBURTON, Derek BERMEL, Christopher ELSON, James BAIYE

So-Called Uptown

In general, uptown music refers to Establishment Contemporary Music, as composed by Boulez, Carter, and other classic (often serialist) composers of the twentieth century. John Cage and the Bang-on-a-Can Ensemble were both aggressive downtowners during their heyday, but by now their music is considered uptown, at least by New York concert programmers. Consequently, this genre is not at all useful. For instance, some of the composers covered below are very much insiders in the downtown scene, who just happened to be caught somewhere else by a recording engineer.

See the downtown section for more...

        Namaste Clarinet Quartet

        Sergio Calligari’s Quartet, which opens this brilliant disc, is fun and classically oriented and with engaging with driving rhythms in the tocatta. Playing is mellifluous and impeccable. Tzvi Avni's No Exit and Three Aspects of Janus is more contemplative, and perhaps thus less successful.
        [MPS CD 005, MPS Music and Video, Houghton-le-Spring, England]

        Oliver Knussen

        Philharmonia Orchestra / Michael Tilson Thomas, London Sinfonietta, Nash Ensemble / Knussen

        When the obituaries come to be written, Oliver Knussen's may well resemble that of Pierre Boulez, in that both men started out as composers but ended up, not without some regret on their part, being better known as conductors and champions of new music in general. This CD will serve to remind us of what we might have missed out on if Knussen had had more time to spend on writing: the earliest work included, the Second Symphony, was started when he was just 17, and the latest, "Coursing", was written in 1979 at the still tender age of twenty seven. But this is not mere juvenilia: already the symphony, for soprano and chamber orchestra, tackles the depths of poetry by Georg Trakl and Sylvia Plath with astonishing emotional and compositional maturity; the formal tightness and aural precision of "Coursing" and the "Ophelia Dances" are exemplary; and the bridge into the final movement of the Third Symphony must be one of the most stupendous moments in English music this century... If we have Knussen to thank for his tireless promotion of young composers (as much through his work at Tanglewood as back home in England), and for his excellent recordings of established modern masters (Carter and Takemitsu come to mind), it is perhaps however at the expense of his own composition. So don't be put off by the rather retro album cover: this music is as clear and fresh today as it was back in the 70s. As they say in Paris, indispensable. [-D.W.]


        Cage Classics now on CD

        George Avakian explains it best in his introduction to the CD: "The music in this album was recorded at Town Hall in New York on May 15, 1958, during the retrospective concert of twenty-five years of the music of John Cage. Few concerts of unusual music have provoked so much interest --before, during, and after. A large and distinguished audience attended, including many leaders in the visual, aural, and performing arts... During rehearsals and the concert itself, the stage presented an extraordinary aspect through most of the program. Percussion instruments and electronic equipment shared with the performers the attention of the audience. In the audience itself, there was a buzz of excitement between each piece on the program, and occasional violent disagreement as well." The program included the Sonatas and Interludes, The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, and the Concert for piano and orchestra, complete with audience participation and dissent (extremely audible on the recording!).
        Indeed, this disc, previously released on LP (but impossible to find) and now available from Wergo, is a gold-mine for any devotee of Cage. Many listeners will re-discover tempos and interpretations; the quality of performance and performers is formidable. [JB]
        [WER 6247-2 (mono, 3 disc set)] Cage Retrospective
        Catalog available from WERGO Schallplatten GmbH, Postfach 3640, D-55026, Mainz, Germany.

        Bang on a Can

        This New York group has migrated from their downtown, avant-garde origins, to an uptown, prestigious, serious position. The early CRI discs are well worth aquiring. The best track on their most recent disc is that of composer Anne Gosfield: The Manufacture of Tangled Ivory. [GL]

        Knitting Factory at the Whitney Museum

        On this disk: a sampler of first-rate groups from New York's young jazz-improv-alternative rock scene. Characteristics of these diverse musicians? Influences of Ornette Coleman, late-night TV, and John Zorn, with punk self-referential kitsch thrown in for good measure.
        For example, vintage B-movie science fiction dialogue tracks figure in Liminal's Proto Liminal: "Yes commander, we're /alive/, and there /is/ life on this planet!!" "Fantastic!! Doctor Mathias is on his way!!"
        "Lalo" by the band Peep is a particularly rollicking track, with Klezmer and classical influences: Good and slightly messy fun.
        More serious is the haunting ballad by Samm Bennett's History of the Last Five Minutes (sic). Samm plays percussion, samples, and sings with Hahn Rowe accompanying on guitar in this sinister track which sets the mournful tone for the whole disk. Overall, it's a fine assemblage of young professionals with attitude but also with just enough commercial savvy to be invited uptown to the Whitney museum. [-JB]
        Knitting Factory Works
        74 Leonard Street
        NY NY 10013

        Schulhoff and Hindemith

        (coming soon)

        Don't Forget George

        Romanian composer George Enescu is an oft-neglected figure of this century. Certainly never part of the vanguard, he would deserve only a footnote in musical history were it not for his post-Brahmsian violin and piano sonatas. Peter Csaba and Arto Satukangas have released a fluent performance of these elegant works (opus 6 and 25) on the Ondine label (Finland). The occasional cheesy uses of "orientalisms" do not so much mar the work as give it a feeling of 19th century exoticism. [JB] [Ondine-ODE 789-2] Sonatas for Violin and Piano


        From José Evangelista, a Spanish-born composer living in Montréal, Canada, we hear open sounds dominated by fifths and continual, incessant, overlapping, never-halting phrases. He attributes his beautiful sense of instrumentation to his study of the complicated orchestral textures of Ives, Lutoslawski. [JB]
        [Salabert Actuels SCD 9102]

        John Tavener

        James Bowman, Timothy Wilson, Westminster Abbey Choir, BBC Singers, BBC SO / Martin Neary

        "I truly believe that when I compose, I am touched by the hand of God." When we heard John Tavener intone these words on a memorable November afternoon ten years ago at a Composers' Seminar at the Eastman School of Music (yes, it was snowing), we knew he meant business. Since then he's become more widely known, thanks to increased demand (real or engineered by record companies?) for "the spiritual" in new music (no, not gospel). "Akathist of Thanksgiving" is heavy stuff: we're talking Greek Orthodox here, far from the Estonian chill of Arvo Pärt and that grey Warsaw Pact angst of Gorecki, but even so the sun is elsewhere-- we're inside a shrine, surrounded by dimly-lit icons and reeking of incense. Grandiose without being bombastic, rigorous but not ascetic (the model is Stravinsky, especially the "Canticum Sacrum"), Tavener's music nonetheless leaves you wanting to rush outside afterwards into the fresh air. Just like a church service really. One postscript: he told me he enjoys listening to Tom Waits. Now, have a look at the album cover and tell me if you can imagine him "drinking Chivas Regal in a four dollar room..."[-D.W.]

        SONY SK 64446

        Sir Harrison Birtwistle:

        BBC SO / Peter Eötvös
        COLLINS CLASSICS 20012

        Watch out! It looks like a CD single, but it most definitely isn't... At thirty seven and a half minutes, "Earth Dances" is Birtwistle's longest purely orchestral work since "The Triumph of Time" (long since unavailable... anyone got a copy?), and, unlike the earlier work, hyped out of orbit even before it appeared. But any comparisons with "Le Sacre" (and there have been many) can land you in trouble: even virulent opponents of twentieth century music can admit to tapping their feet to Stravinsky; with "Earth Dances" you have six large-scale rhythmic strata to tackle, and never anything so obliging as a regular beat. It's typically thorny stuff: bleak, but impressive (ultimately magnificent), like the millstone grit moors around Birtwistle's native Accrington in the north of England. Hard and complex, yes, but not this is not Ferneyhough: Birtwistle doesn't, or maybe can't, wrap up his work in literary or philosophical concepts; nor are his scores "unplayable", but they are deceptively difficult, most of all for the listener (Carter is perhaps a better comparison). This music makes no concessions, seems forbidding at its first hearing, but little by little yields its secrets, eventually becoming a firm and dependable friend. Very English, I suppose. [DW]

        The Charmer

        A disc of new oboe music performed by Lawrence Cherney.
        Two particularly mellow tracks caught our attention off a new Canadian CD: The first is "The Charmer," by Chan Ka Nin, for oboe d'amore and chamber ensemble, conducted by Gary Kulesha. This work uses both classical European and Asian motifs, without the kitsch-iness that is all-too-frequently part and parcel of such multicultural baggage. Instead, we hear skilled instrumentation and a sophisticated use of sound, a bit like the music of French composer Pascal Dusapin. Fluid and melodious.
        Our other favorite track is "San Rocco" by Melissa Hui for oboe d'amore, percussionist Russell Hartenberger, and the Elora Festival Singers, with Noel Edison conducting. This beautiful and nostalgic piece portrays of San Rocco, an Italian village on the Mediterranean coast. From the notes: Hui considers herself a proponent of "Totalism," which she describes as "music of inclusion.... which seeks to reconcile the many stylistic idioms and compositional techniques of the twentieth century into a contextual whole, and to recontextualize not only the musical styles of centuries ago, but also that of the recent past." Well, it sounds like Arvo Part to us. Gorgeous tone from Mr. Cherney. The chorus sings with power and Hilliard-style clarity. [-JB]
        CMC-CD 5395
        Centrediscs/Centredisques, 20 St. Joseph Street, Toronto, Ontario, M4Y1J9, Canada

        Really Good French Music

        Another intriguing Salabert disk comes from composer Costin Miereanu. Volume One of his orchestral works includes the first Symphony, Winter Voyage II, Celestial Mirrors and Rosenzeit.
        This is substantially more aggressive than most French music, and full of life and vitality. [JB]
        [Salabert Actuels SCD 9101]
        Distributed by Harmonia Mundi

        Ann Arbor composers

        Late 1994 saw the release of several new discs featuring music by local Ann Arbor composers Ross Lee Finney, Leslie Bassett, and William Albright. Chamber Music, released by MMC, presents a complete catalog of Finney's thirty-six settings of Joyce's poetry, recorded by soprano Jeanette Lombard and pianist Mary Norris. Finney, an important pedagogue – he taught several generations of American composers including George Crumb, Roger Reynolds, Bassett and Albright – turns 89 this year. His works, however, are sorely underrepresented on disc; the only other available recording features two piano sonatas, played by Martha Braden. Let's hope that this newly released disc represents a trend to catalog his music! Better late than never...[DB]