October 02, 2008


Schnittke: Piano Concerto (1960); Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra (1979); Concerto for Piano Four Hands and Chamber Orchestra (1988). Ewa Kupiec, piano; Maria Lettberg, piano (Four Hands); Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Frank Strobel. Phoenix Edition. $16.99 (SACD).

Henze: Suite from “Die Bassariden”; Nachstücke und Arien; Symphony No. 8. Claudia Barainsky, soprano (Nachstücke); Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Markus Stenz. Phoenix Edition. $16.99.

Class of 1938: Music by William Bolcom, Gloria Coates, John Corigliano, John Harbison, Frederic Rzewski, José Serebrier, Joan Tower and Charles Wuorinen. Naxos. $8.99 (2 CDs).

     Here are three highly interesting recordings of music by important 20th-century composers – none of which is likely to attract listeners unfamiliar with the repertoire. The Schnittke and Henze discs present large doses of these composers’ music – a treat for fans, but a lot for non-fans to absorb. And the Class of 1938 set, which offers a wide variety of music by composers who happened to be born in the same year, is somewhat too diffuse to enthrall new listeners.

     The three piano concertos by Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) are very different from each other and date to very different times in his compositional life. The first, written in 1960, is the only one using a standard piano-and-orchestra approach and the only one in the traditional three movements – slow-fast-slow. Even at age 26, though, Schnittke was finding his own way in music; this was before he started writing film scores, the type of music for which he is best known. The 1960 concerto is well put together and fairly demanding of the pianist (Schnittke himself had studied piano); its middle movement is its heart, lasting as long as the first and third put together. Still, there is a strong whiff of Shostakovich in this concerto – a scent that had largely disappeared by the time of the concerto for piano and string orchestra. This is a one-movement work that somewhat uneasily mixes polyphony, parody, and such mid-20th-century favorite elements as pounding chords and tone clusters. Ewa Kupiec plays it (and the other concertos) very well, but whether this 1979 piece hangs together or seems disjointed will largely depend on the attitude the listener brings to it. Finally, there is the four-hands concerto, which Schnittke wrote for his wife, Irina, and for Viktoria Postnikova. This is a somewhat more introverted work than the earlier concertos, although not as bleak as many pieces Schnittke wrote later in life. The piano parts are cooperative rather than competitive, and the concerto as a whole is expressive and moving, abetted by Frank Strobel ‘s sensitive conducting and by excellent SACD sound.

     Hans Werner Henze’s music is perhaps less emotive and more intellectually stimulating than Schnittke’s. The three works conducted by Markus Stenz all have theatrical origins or associations. Suite from “Die Bassariden” is drawn from Henze’s 1966 opera (libretto by W.H. Auden) based on Euripides’ The Bacchae (the name Bassariden or Bassarids comes from the Roman God Bacchus, equivalent to the Greek Dionysus: Bacchus often wore a fox-skin or bassaris). This is a tragic opera in which the god takes revenge on mortals who have doubted his power, and Henze’s music is appropriately dark and, in the dance of Dionysus’ followers the Maenads, frenzied. Nachstücke und Arien dates to 1957 and is a five-movement work, with three orchestral pieces and two settings of poems by Ingeborg Bachmann, sung with feeling by lyric soprano Claudia Barainsky. The work is heavier and more portentous than Henze’s Symphony No. 8, whose genesis is Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The symphony’s first movement makes deliberate reference to Mendelssohn’s music for the play; the second represents instrumentally the dialogue between magic-addled Titania and the mortal Bottom; and it is only in the finale, inspired by Puck’s epilogue to the play, that the 12-note theme on which the prior movements are based is finally revealed. This symphony was completed in 1993, and Henze, who is now 82, has continued and is continuing to compose; in fact, he has already written two further symphonies. The Eighth has been unavailable in recorded form for some time. Henze’s fans will welcome its return in such a fine performance.

     But what is the fan base for Class of 1938? It is easy to imagine how this two-CD sampler came to be: “What a coincidence! Look at all the top-notch composers turning 70 this year. Hey – that means they were all born in 1938!” And the set is a genuine bargain for people interested in these composers: the second CD includes interviews with six of the eight (Bolcom, Corigliano, Harbison, Serebrier, Tower and Wuorinen). But those who already know Corigliano’s music, for instance, will not buy these CDs to hear his three-minute A Black November Turkey. Gloria Coates’ fans will not buy it for the six-minute excerpt from her Symphony No. 15. William Bolcom’s will not buy it for the second movement of his Cello Sonata. This is not to say that the works are uninteresting or even atypical (although not all of them really showcase the composers at their best). In fact, Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, Tower’s Tambor and Serebrier’s Fantasia for Strings are fine works and well worth owning. But a hodgepodge like this one adds up, like many other anthologies, to somewhat less than the sum of its parts. And the “1938” angle in itself, although clever, seems unlikely to attract buyers. There is worthy music here, and it is interesting to hear some of the composers discussing themselves and their works, but Class of 1938 comes off, all in all, as an offering in search of an elusive audience.

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