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Recent Recordings by Contemporary Composers

Oliver Knussen

George Crumb - Complete Crumb Edition, Volume Eight (Bridge)
Bridge Records' series chronicling the music of American composer George Crumb (b. 1929) continues apace. Volume Eight features piano music, including the composer's pivotal work Makrokosmos, Volumes I and II (1972-3) for amplified solo piano, as well as a new work, Otherworldly Resonances, for two amplified pianos.

Makrokosmos's name is a trope on the title of Mikrokosmos (1926-1939), a set of piano works by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945). These six books of short pieces have become an important pedagogic component of Twentieth century piano repertoire. Within them, Bartók explores many elements of modern music: modality, folk music references, primitivism, polytonality, quartal harmony and odd meters. The works are graded in difficulty, allowing a student to progress from the most basic pieces to technically formidable works, along the way becoming acquainted with many of the materials and demands of early Twentieth century music.

Crumb's Makrokosmos bears some similarity in construction to Mikrokosmos, in that it is a collection of short pieces filled with a host of stylistic and technical devices -- these hallmarks of the mid-to-late Twentieth century avant-garde. Crumb has said that Debussy's Preludes were also an inspirational touchstone for this piece, and the shimmering textures and characteristic features found in some of Makrokosmos lend credence to evaluating it as an homage to both Bartók and Debussy. But that's only half of the story; its departures from the sound world of these two composers, and indeed the standard concert repertory, are notable.

Unlike Mikrokosmos, Crumb's composition seems to be conceived more as a concert work than as a collection of teaching pieces; all of its movements demand an experienced performer. Robert Shannon, the interpreter on the Bridge recording, ably fits the bill. A professor at Oberlin College and a contemporary music specialist, he is an eloquent and powerful pianist. The amplified piano makes a panoply of sounds over the course of the disc, some derived from playing within the instrument and others from playing the keys in a more traditional manner. Great gong-like sonorities and noise elements bring out the piano's percussive capabilities, while the occasional appearance of moaning vocals, clusters of pitches, strummed strings and haunting post-tonal melodies evoke associations with the American experimentalists Harrison, Ives, Cage and Cowell. Throughout, Crumb marshals these various resources -- a virtual compendium of sounds that can be made with the piano -- into a singular and haunting musical landscape.

Otherworldly Resonances is sort of a "super Makrokosmos". On the Bridge CD, piano duo Quattro Mani thrives in this densely complex environment. In soft passages, they negotiate a subtle balance between the two parts, while louder sections are filled with thundering tutti. All in all, this is a very important addition to the catalogue of Crumb recordings.

Helmut Lachenmann - Das Mãdchen mit den Schwefelhõlzern (The Little Match Girl; ECM)
German composer Helmut Lachenmann (b. 1935) takes Hans Christian Andersen's tale of a little girl freezing to death in the cold, comforted only by an ever-dwindling supply of matches, and turns it inside out and upside down, crafting an intriguing quasi-operatic interpretation of the tale. The match girl can be seen as an archetype of the impoverished and downtrodden, shamefully neglected in a society filled with wealth, and it is this postmodern interpretation which serves as Lachenmann's starting point. The Andersen story is juxtaposed with other texts by disparate sources: Leonardo da Vinci and Gudrun Ensslin (1940-77), a terrorist/activist convicted in the 1970s of attempting to burn down two department stores to protest the evils of consumerism. While there's plenty of singing, spoken word recitation also plays a part, with the composer serving as narrator on the recording.

The music is a melange of styles, incorporating elements of the post-War European avant-garde as well as references to the past: Berg, Beethoven, Stravinsky and Mahler. There are even allusions to Japanese traditional music (enhanced by shô performer Mayumi Miyata's beautiful playing). Lachenmann is able to implement and incorporate elements of the classical tradition while simultaneously departing from and even radically deconstructing traditional features elsewhere in the same composition. In Das Mãdchen mit den Schwefelhõlzern, the resultant work makes for demanding listening. By avoiding the easy linear narrative of the Andersen story with a multidimensional and non-chronological presentation, Lachenmann may have constructed a sort of "anti-opera" that eludes conservative opera goers. My advice: stick with it. Attentive and adventurous souls will find many affecting and engaging musical passages within the piece.

It certainly helps to have such a well-prepared and finely executed performance. Sopranos Eiko Morikawa and Nicole Tibbels, pianists Yukiko Sugawara and Tomoko Hemmi, the SWR Vokalensemble and Sinfonieorchester and conductor Sylvain Cambreling are excellent advocates for Lachenmann's music. The performers take to this daunting score with enthusiasm and formidable skill, presenting a stalwart interpretation of a challenging and captivating work.

Various Composers -- Snapshots: Fiftieth Birthday Tributes for Oliver Knussen (London Sinfonietta)
Extraordinary English composer and conductor Oliver Knussen turned fifty in 2002. The London Sinfonietta, an ensemble that he directed from 1998-2002, delivered a wonderful and substantial birthday gift to Knussen: a concert of thirteen short pieces, commissioned from some of his composer friends, serving as musical birthday greetings. If you didn't happen to catch the concerts or the BBC broadcasts in 2002, this present is now available for the enjoyment of new music listeners everywhere as a recording on London Sinfonietta's own record label (available for order here).

The variety of styles represented by the recording's compositional contributions is a testament to the catholicity with which Knussen approaches being a conductor and music director, as well as his omnivorous musical appetite (the author and critic Paul Griffiths once said that, if Knussen's home were the only one left standing after an apocalyptic disaster, a vast number of the important recordings and scores of Western music would still survive). Given the prominence of the composers involved, this is a "new music sampler" of very high quality.

Many of the pieces are pithy, but by no means incomplete, musical essays. Case in point: Louis Andriessen's Very Sharp Trumpet Sonata, a sprightly work which fits an exposition of two themes, development, and a recapitulation into one minute and eleven seconds! Hans Werner Henze turns in Olly by the Shore, a two minute picturesque piano piece filled with cascading arpeggios masquerading as rolling waves that imagines Knussen outside his home, looking at the ocean. Robert Zuidam even fits a learned-sounding example of fugal counterpoint into two minutes, in his piano piece I Suppose a Fugue is out of the Question?

The modernist wing of American composers is well represented here; Knussen has been a staunch supporter of modernists' work, conducting their music both in the United States and abroad. Elliott Carter contributes Au Quai, a duo for viola and bassoon. Despite its limited forces, this piece is a flurry of activity, angularly gestural and rhythmically complex. Charles Wuorinen's two-piano piece Fifty-fifty is, according to the composer, an attempt to convey "admiration for his imaginative and energetic music". In his program note, Wuorinen goes on to describe the work as "a three-to-four minute patch of counterpoint that begins without preamble and ends with a smash". This is a highly accurate summary, but it is worth adding that pianists Rolf Hind and Nicolas Hodges play the piece superlatively, delivering its considerably demanding passages with incisive brilliance; the "smash" at the end is rendered with mischievous glee. Augusta Read Thomas' "Light, the First Light of Evening" is a magically coloristic prelude for orchestra, combining punctilious jabs with lush harmonies.

English composers, as might be expected, also contribute several works, reflecting a diversity of stylistic approaches. Julian Anderson's Quasi Una Passacaglia is an effective solo piano piece that seems to share an affinity with the works of the Second Viennese School of composition (Schoenberg, Berg and Webern). Mark-Anthony Turnage's Snapshots is more postmodern (even a bit post-minimal) in conception, evoking elements of the pop and jazz world. George Benjamin's Olicantus is a mysterious, elusive piece for chamber orchestra, filled with melancholy celli and gentle low-register harmonies in the winds. The result is an enigmatic tribute to Knussen, far less ebullient and far more reflective than most of his colleagues' birthday greetings. Colin Matthews's Flourish, with fireflies is splashier -- a delightful and dazzling orchestra work that recalls various moments from Knussen's own compositions, especially the Third Symphony and, of course, Flourish with fireworks. Alexander Goehr references the birthday boy too; his Only Two Notes for Olly (the other Five for Later) is a trope on Knussen's ...Upon one note. Goehr restricts himself to two pitches, F and B (plus their chromatic inflections), but this limited vocabulary still yields a surprisingly engaging and harmonically diverse piece.

Snapshots is a terrific collection -- a must-have for fans of contemporary composition. You might only wish that a short Knussen response -- a musical "blowing out the candles", if you will -- could have been included. In a future File Under?, I plan to discuss Knussen's own works and recordings.

Questions, comments, or suggestions of music that you'd like to see covered in File Under ? Click on my name to send an email.

-- Christian Carey



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