September 04, 2008


Mahler: Symphony No. 5. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jaap van Zweden. LPO. $16.99.

Joseph Marx: Six Pieces for Piano; Herbst-Legende; Carneval (Nachtstück); Canzone; Die Flur der Engel. Tonya Lemoh, piano. Chandos. $18.99.

Messiaen: Quatuor pour la fin du Temps; Les Offrandes oubliées; Thème et variations. Robert Plane, clarinet; Gould Piano Trio (Lucy Gould, violin; Alice Neary, cello; Benjamin Frith, piano). Chandos. $18.99.

Jørgen Plaetner: Episodes and Collisions; Sonata for Clarinet and Piano; Three Songs to Texts by Stig Dagerman; Selected Songs—Myggesang; Din stemme hvisker natten frem; I en klit…; Lille menneske. LINensemble with Helene Gjerris. Open Space/Dacapo. $9.99.

Michael Nyman: Eight Lust Songs (I Sonetti Lussuriosi). Marie Angel and the Michael Nyman Band conducted by Michael Nyman. MN Records. $16.99.

Adrian Johnston: Brideshead Revisited. BBC Philharmonic conducted by Terry Davies. Chandos. $18.99.

     What a century it was. Although no collection of recordings can fully encompass the musical tastes and trends that marked the 20th century and progressed into the 21st, these CDs give a taste – indeed, more than a taste – of the many directions in which composers, from the well-known to the little-known, took music in the 1900s and early 2000s.

     Mahler’s Fifth Symphony did not exactly start it all – any starting point is arbitrary – but it does date to 1901-2 and mark considerable progress beyond traditional symphonic form, without the use of the vocal elements that Mahler included in his three previous symphonies. Mahler famously said, “My time will yet come,” and it did, 50 years after his death, largely through the advocacy of Leonard Bernstein in the 1960s (although Bruno Walter had championed the symphonies since Mahler wrote them). Now Mahler is firmly established in the standard repertoire – so firmly that his work can be heard in quite a straightforward performance, like that of the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Jaap van Zweden, and sound absolutely right. There are no excesses of tempo or accentuation in this recent live recording, no attempt to overdo Mahler’s grandiosity or occasional overreaching; instead, the symphony grows organically, movement by movement, like a 19th-century work – but one that clearly reaches beyond its predecessors in formal structure and tonality. This is a fine performance, very well played, and a strong indication of just how mainstream Mahler’s music has become.

     There is nothing mainstream, in the sense of frequently heard, about Joseph Marx, although he was writing not long after Mahler (Six Pieces for Piano, for example, dates to 1916) and in an idiom more Romantic than Mahler’s own. Marx (1882-1964) was best known as a composer of songs, and his piano works are so unfamiliar that everything on Tonya Lemoh’s new CD except the Six Pieces is a world premiere recording. This is music in the style of Richard Strauss and Max Reger, impressionistic and interesting rather than challenging. Seekers of the little-known will give the CD (++++); certainly Lemoh’s playing merits that rating. For a wider audience, the CD rates (+++) – Marx does not show an especially individualistic voice in these pieces, although they are certainly well crafted.

     Olivier Messiaen’s musical voice, thoroughly informed by his Catholicism and by numerous occurrences in his life, is deeply individual, and the new CD of his music certainly rates (++++). The chief work here is the justly famous Quatuor pour la fin du Temps, written when Messiaen was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp and given its premiere before 5,000 fellow prisoners. Messiaen wrote for the four instruments he had available – hence this quartet’s unusual scoring for clarinet, violin, cello and piano. The work remains extraordinarily affecting, even for those who know nothing of the circumstances of its composition, and this performance is beautifully crafted and emotionally true. Thème et variations for violin and piano, composed by Messiaen as a wedding gift for his violinist wife, requires both virtuosity and spiritual understanding, and gets both in this recording. The premiere recording of Messiaen’s piano transcription of Les Offrandes oubliées, a meditative work composed in 1930, nicely rounds out an exceptionally well-played CD.

     Messiaen lived until 1992 but never partook of such mid-20th-century trends as electronic music, in which Jørgen Plaetner (1930-2002) was a Scandinavian pioneer. The new Plaetner CD, though, shows him as a skilled composer for voice and traditional instruments. Episodes and Collisions (1996) is for clarinet, cello and piano – three-fourths of the quartet used by Messiaen in his concentration-camp masterpiece – and was written for the LINensemble, which performs it with understanding and sensitivity. The Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (2000-1) is an even larger-scale work, in five movements, and is one of Plaetner’s last. This recording is the piece’s world premiere and shows Plaetner as a distinctive musical voice using more-or-less classical form for his own purposes. The Three Songs to Texts by Stig Dagerman are political in orientation, using Dagerman’s antiwar sentiments to reflect Plaetner’s own. The four other songs here, to words by four different Danish poets, have a wider emotional range: they are more expressive and less aphoristic. Plaetner’s acoustic music has many intriguing elements, but probably not enough to appeal to a wide audience; the CD gets a (+++) rating.

     So does Michael Nyman’s latest self-produced CD, although this one is likely to appeal to anyone looking for far more licentiousness than one usually encounters in classical (or “post-classical” or “neoclassical”) music. Nyman’s Eight Lust Songs may be 21st-century works, but their source is from the 16th century: they are settings of texts by Pietro Aretino, an outspoken critic of church and state authority and the creator of a set of sonnets called I Sonetti Lussuriosi. The Italian of the songs is quite forthright and apparently designed to shock – indeed, the CD carries a parental content advisory – but Nyman’s settings of these paeans to physical love and the body parts that produce it (from the tongue to more intimate areas) are in no sense exploitative. Nyman, a fine film composer, manages to bring out the sensuality of the lyrics without making the songs seem overdone – or, in truth, as erotic as the sonnets surely were in 16th-century Rome. Eight Lust Songs is ultimately a rather odd but often effective mixture of the explicit and the moving.

     And so we come all the way to 2008 and the recent release of a big-screen adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, with music by another fine modern film composer, Adrian Johnston. Like Nyman’s songs, Johnston’s music looks back, as it should for a historical tale; but unlike Nyman, Johnston scores his music for the same sort of large orchestra used by Mahler more than 100 years ago. This is not a matter of music coming full circle or returning to some arbitrary set of roots – the music for Brideshead Revisited, which gets a (+++) rating, in fact has less substance than Mahler’s symphony, which is not surprising for pieces designed to support a visual experience rather than provide a strictly aural one. The two dozen well-played tracks here, only one of which lasts longer than three minutes, are scene setters, action enablers and fine tone paintings of characters and circumstances. They are effective at what they do, and never pretend to be anything other than miniatures – their scope being as great a contrast as possible to that of Mahler, who famously insisted more than 100 years ago that a symphony must contain the entire world.

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