July 10, 2008


Varèse: Amériques (original version, 1921); Écuatorial (1932-4); Nocturnal (1961); Dance for Burgess (1949); Tuning Up (1947); Hyperprism (1922-3); Un grand Sommeil noir (1906); Density 21.5 (1936); Ionisation (1929-31). Elizabeth Watts, soprano; Maria Grochowska, flute; Thomas Bloch, ondes martenot; Men’s Voices of Camerata Silesia and Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Christopher Lyndon-Gee. Naxos. $8.99.

Telemann: Concertos in G Major and A Major for Oboe d’amore; Bach: Concertos in A Major and D Major for Oboe d’amore. Thomas Stacy, oboe d’amore; Toronto Chamber Orchestra conducted by Kevin Mallon. Naxos. $8.99.

Hildegard von Bingen: Responsories and Antiphons from “Symphoniae armonie celestium revelationum.” Oxford Camerata conducted by Jeremy Summerly. Naxos. $8.99.

      It is not only the mists of time that make authentic performances difficult. Composers themselves have a hand in the situation through their propensity for modifying works for various purposes and sometimes rewriting them altogether. And when they leave works unfinished, or try to withdraw or destroy them after they have been performed, the authenticity issue gets even more complicated. Edgard Varèse was guilty (if that is the word) of all these confusions, with the result that his music, already so different sonically from what came before or after, can be notoriously difficult to perform “correctly.” Indeed, correctness is a slippery concept with Varèse, as is especially evident in the case of Amériques, whose original version (for a truly huge orchestra) has been performed in public only twice since the 1920s – with the new recording on Naxos being made after the second such performance, in 2005. Christopher Lyndon-Gee is an outstanding exponent of Varèse, able to communicate the composer’s distinctive and often odd visions by assuming the roles of a conductor, a pianist (in Tuning Up, which was supposed to be lighthearted but turned out to be a serious work containing fragments of other Varèse compositions), and a commentator (Lyndon-Gee’s booklet notes are an excellent mixture of erudition and explication). This Naxos CD, the second of the composer’s orchestral music under Lyndon-Gee’s direction, is first-class on all fronts, from the solo flute playing in Density 21.5 to the sole surviving early Varèse work (Un grand Sommeil noir) to the still-strange-sounding evocations of an earlier age in Écuatorial. Varèse was constantly straining for effects that only became fully possible after his death, in electronic music. Hearing his works played as well as they are here shows his pioneering spirit especially clearly – even though the authenticity question remains open, since several of these pieces were assembled or edited by Chou Wen-Chung, who was Varèse’s assistant for the last 17 years of the older composer’s life.

      The authenticity of the Telemann and Bach concertos for oboe d’amore, as played by Thomas Stacy, is of another order. This 18th-century midrange woodwind (which later fell into disfavor until rediscovered by Richard Strauss, Debussy and others) needs to fit comfortably into an instrumental ensemble so its serene, mellow tone does not disappear – and its player does not feel the need to perform too loudly on an instrument that excels in softer, more tranquil passagework. Stacy, best known as an English horn player, handles the oboe d’amore with consummate skill as well; and Kevin Mallon, a specialist in 18th-century music, conducts the Toronto Chamber Orchestra with verve and understanding, showcasing the solo instrument without pulling the orchestra too far into the background. However, neither the orchestra nor Stacy uses a period instrument. And in truth, the Telemann and Bach concertos on this CD are pleasant but not especially noteworthy works – more curiosities than great music. One of the Bach works is better known as a harpsichord concerto, and the other is assembled from parts of three separate pieces. Still, all the music is very well put together (no surprise there), and Stacy’s playing, which is beautiful even when the faster movements require considerable agility, makes a strong case for at least occasional hearings of works for this neglected woodwind.

      Move still further back in time, to the 12th century, and the question of authentic performance becomes, essentially, unanswerable. Despite a variety of scholarly studies, we simply do not know with any certainty what performance practices prevailed in the era of Hildegard von Bingen, although it is quite clear from this abbess’s music that she had high expectations of anyone who would sing her songs to the Creator, the Blessed Virgin, the Martyrs and other seminal religious figures. Von Bingen’s Catholicism-saturated world – there was no other significant Western religion at the time – cannot be recaptured today. But, amazingly, it matters little when performances are as finely attuned as are those of the Oxford Camerata under Jeremy Summerly. Summerly paces these eight excerpts from the 77 songs of von Bingen’s Symphoniae armonie celestium revelationum (“Symphony of the Harmony of Heavenly Revelations”) expertly, and the choral forces blend in beauty and passion. Von Bingen’s mysticism and her sometimes odd choices of religious figures to whom to address her songs are of little moment today. What does come through authentically in performances as well structured as these is that the music itself communicates strongly across nearly nine centuries. Its specifics may be dim in time, but its power and beauty remain authentically unalloyed.

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