August 29, 2013
Cantus: Music of Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich and Hywel Davies. Kuniko Kato, percussion. Linn Records. $22.99.
Possessed: Music of Santiago de Murcia, Hildegard von Bingen, Guillaume Dufay, Vincent Youmans, Caitriona O’Leary and others. EX. Heresy. $16.99.
Yarlung Records: The First Seven Years—Music of Beethoven, Mahler, Adams, Bach, Lutoslawski, Harrison, des Prez and others. Yarlung. $9.99.
Almost by definition, classical-music anthologies are limited-interest items. There may be considerable enjoyment at a concert from seeing and hearing performers handle the works of multiple composers, but with the visual element missing, recordings that hopscotch from one composer to the next and showcase the performer more than the music are likely to be satisfying primarily to those interested in hearing a considerable amount of music played on instruments that tend to get short shrift in sol roles in the concert hall – such as the classical accordion or, more to the point with the disc called Cantus, percussion. Kuniko Kato, who generally uses only the name Kuniko, is a very fine percussionist who is strongly dedicated to the music of contemporary composers – so strongly that she not only gives world premières of their music but also arranges some of their works for percussion so she can perform them as well. Given the fact that some of these pieces, in any form, are a bit of an acquired taste, it is hard to say to whom Kuniko’s percussion versions will appeal – listeners must first be interested in the works of Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich and Hywel Davies, then in percussion, to find this CD appealing. The disc will be of most interest to fans of Pärt, since four of the six works here are by him: Für Alina (1976/2012) for vibraphone and crotales; Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten (1977/2012) for marimba; Fratres (1977/2012) for marimba and vibraphone; and Spiegel im Spiegel (1978/2012) for marimba and bells. Kuniko’s arrangements are attractive, and she certainly plays them well, although there is something of a surfeit of percussion sounds after a while: this CD is better heard over several listening sessions than all at once. The works by Pärt are interspersed with Reich’s New York Counterpoint (1985/2012) for marimba and Davies’ Purl Ground (2003), resulting in a CD whose total length of about 52 minutes seems longer if the disc is heard straight through. This is partly because of the sonic environment, which tends to blur a bit no matter how skillfully Kuniko plays, and partly because many of the composers’ techniques are sufficiently similar so that their music sometimes borders on the interchangeable.
There is nothing interchangeable about the works of the composers whose music is performed by the early-music ensemble EX (sometimes spelled “eX”). And there is certainly something unusual in the exceptionally lurid packaging of this CD, which looks like a cross between a bad horror movie and a strip show – scarcely what classical CDs usually look like, which of course is the point. Possessed is the name of a show that EX has created around a variety of Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and traditional musical works – the underlying idea being to explore ecstatic trance in the Christian tradition (although it is a bit hard to see what the picture of a woman being carried in the jaws of a giant spider has to do with that tradition). The idea here is to explore trances from Hildegard von Bingen to Joan of Arc, demonic possession as in the Salem witch trials, plus Afro-Brazilian initiation rites and a “musical exorcism” from Puglia. The result is a genuine mishmash of everything from Psalm 121 to a vibrant and enthusiastic tarantella, in 17 tracks with names in English, Spanish, Latin, Italian and so forth. The mixture of Dufay (1397-1474) with modern composers and some traditional Italian and American works is odd and more dislocating than revelatory, although it must be said that the singing and instrumental playing are very fine and the whole of Possessed has a certain infectiously endearing quality. It is not really a musical quality, however – the CD is more of a souvenir for people who have seen Possessed as a show than it is a compelling production, musical or dramatic, in its own right.
The composers and compositions are far more mainstream on the CD called Yarlung Records: The First Seven Years, but the audience for this disc is even harder to fathom. The CD celebrates a recording company dedicated to “real sound and real music” and intending to reproduce, not literally but in feeling, the great sonic environment of top-notch firms’ recordings of the past (RCA Living Stereo, Mercury Records Living Presence, etc.). This is all well and good, and the endeavor would have been particularly welcome in the 1980s, when digital recording was new and no match whatsoever for the analog recordings that it was in the process of replacing because of CDs’ smaller size and greater convenience (decidedly not because of any superior sound quality). By this time in the 21st century, though, when companies such as PentaTone routinely produce sonically outstanding discs that are different from but in every way comparable to the highest-quality vinyl recordings, Yarlung’s quest seems a trifle quixotic – the label does offer both excellent performances and top-notch sound, but it does not stand alone in doing so, as it would have 30 years ago. Yarlung Records: The First Seven Years joins a growing list of self-congratulatory productions in which recording firms point to their successes and crow a bit. These productions can become somewhat grandiose: in 2009, Chandos notably released a 30-CD set commemorating its 30th anniversary. But the Chandos set included reissues of complete CDs, while most other offerings of this type – including Yarlung’s – simply proffer excerpts that the company considers to be unusually high-quality and/or particularly representative of what it is striving for musically and technically. There is nothing wrong with this, and indeed nothing wrong with patting oneself on the back from time to time. Yes, Yarlung has delivered some fine performances in excellent sound, and yes, that is evident from the excerpts on this CD. But at whom is the CD directed? It is a sampler – the sort of thing one would expect to be included as a bonus with other CDs, not purchased on its own. It may be a fine sampler; in fact, it is. But there is nothing on it so distinctive that it is clear why a music lover would want to pay to own it.