June 23, 2016
(++++) MUCH-VARIED MODERNS
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring; Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra. Park Avenue Chamber Symphony conducted by David Bernard. Recursive Classics. $20.99.
Samuel Adler: Symphony No. 6; Concerto for Cello and Orchestra; Drifting on Winds and Currents. Maximilian Hornung, cello; Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier. Linn Records. $20.
Keys to the City: The Great New York Pianists Perform the Great New York Songs. Roven. $19.99.
Ben Johnston: String Quartets Nos. 1, 5 and 10. Kepler Quartet (Sharan Leventhal and Eric Segnitz, violins; Brek Renzelman, viola; Karl Lavine, cello). New World Records. $15.99.
Ben Johnston: String Quartets Nos. 6, 7 and 8; Quietness. Kepler Quartet (Sharan Leventhal and Eric Segnitz, violins; Brek Renzelman, viola; Karl Lavine, cello). New World Records. $15.99.
The definition of “contemporary” changes over time – by definition. But the notion of “modern” is a bit different. In Western music, it has to do with the sound of a piece – not the specifics of its structure or its compositional method so much as the way the composer approaches the music and the way listeners perceive it. “Contemporary” is an objective adjective, “modern” a much more subjective one. This is why Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring still seems so modern, a century after it was composed. There is something in the strangeness of the orchestration, the irregularity of the rhythms, the pounding ostinato of some sections and the instrumental screeching of others, the willingness to entice the ear for a moment and then attack it with noise the next, the frequent alterations of dynamics, the unpredictability of tempo changes, that makes this work feel unfailingly “modern” no matter how often it is played. A tour de force for conductors and orchestras, The Rite of Spring is also a work that inexorably pulls audiences along even though very few people have seen it as a ballet. The best performances are cognizant of the remarkable modernity of the score and go out of their way to accentuate it – and the Recursive Classics release featuring the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony under David Bernard is an exceptional one. Using a newly edited and revised version of The Right of Spring to which Bernard himself contributed, this performance brings extraordinary clarity, instrumental balance and an unending series of elegant touches to what is still a very complex score. Percussion emphases are pointed and intense, timpani penetrate the ensemble with clarity, woodwinds vary in sound from lyrical to screechy, strings run the gamut from fleet to oppressively heavy – every section of the orchestra is highly soloistic as well as incorporated into an overall sound world that is every bit as evocative as Stravinsky intended it to be. The revisions in this new edition are technical ones that will largely be inaudible to casual listeners, but anyone hearing this outstanding performance will be captivated by the enormous skill of the musicians and by Bernard’s near-perfect handling of pacing, sectional contrast and overall sound. The pairing of The Rite of Spring with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is a particularly happy one in this case, since Bernard treats Stravinsky’s work itself as a concerto for orchestra – which, listeners to this recording will realize, it is. Bernard brings the same clarity of purpose and intensity of execution to the Bartók as to the Stravinsky. The seriousness of the opening movement emerges from the first quietly emerging notes and remains throughout, making the contrast with the second, Giuoco delle coppie (“Game of Couples” – for some reason, the CD gives the translation but not the original title), all the more apparent. The multiple duets are given with a lightness and bounce that make the following Elegia all the more effective, and Bernard does a first-rate job of showing the connections between this movement’s themes and those of the first movement. Then there is genuine hilarity, as well as a clear Lehár parody, in the Intermezzo interrotto (called “Interrupted intermezzo” on the CD); and the concluding perpetuum mobile, a litmus test of any orchestra’s ability to play together and stay together for 10 nonstop minutes, comes across brilliantly – a genuine capstone to a remarkably fine and highly recommended performance.
The music of Samuel Adler (born 1928) partakes of both modernity and contemporaneity: the works on a new Linn Records CD are no more than 30 years old. Interestingly, although these pieces are in no way beholden to Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, they include, to some degree, some of the same tension between traditional form and distinctly modern harmony and orchestration. Adler’s Symphony No. 6 here gets its first performance as well as its first recording, and it proves to be a substantial, energy-packed three-movement work with a fine sense of instrumental balance. José Serebrier and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra make sure the first movement has plenty of headlong motion and excitement, with the result that the mysterious and rather dark second movement provides very strong contrast, its interjections of lyricism bringing a brief sense of naïveté to what is otherwise a sophisticated-sounding piece. The final movement’s mood resembles that of the first, but here a primary impression – as in The Rite of Spring – is of constant rhythmic changes that sweep the listener along. The symphony as a whole is energetic and intense, if not particularly deep from an emotional standpoint; perhaps this makes it especially reflective of much of contemporary life. It is coupled here with Adler’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, played with fine tone and musical understanding by Maximilian Hornung. This four-movement work effectively highlights the tonal beauty and virtuosic capabilities of the solo instrument, the first movement offering considerable lyricism while the second has a pleasantly jazzy and perky feel to it, notably in the use of pizzicato double basses and a drum set. The meditative, fantasia-like third movement is followed by a final rondo that well reflects its marking, Fast and playful. This fascinating CD concludes with a piece poetically titled Drifting on Winds and Currents, commissioned as an in memoriam work and offering a mixture of soothing textures with some underlying feelings of uncertainty and even anxiety. It is a short, effective tone poem whose dramatic central section only briefly disturbs the comparative calm of the opening and closing. All the works are played with skill and understanding: Serebrier seems quite comfortable with Adler’s music, and the orchestra plays very well throughout.
The modernity of a new Roven release called Keys to the City is as much in concept as in music. This is a disc for lovers of fine piano performances and of classical musicians “letting their hair down” by playing popular standards and show tunes rather than the “long-hair” pieces that classical works are sometimes described as being. The disc includes 14 piano players: Robbie Kondor, Axel Tosca, Dick Hyman, Bette Sussman (co-producer of the recording), George Whitty, Billy Stritch, Mike Renzi, Frank Owens, Paul Shaffer, Glen Roven (the CD’s other co-producer), Lee Musiker, John Kander and Fred Ebb (as duo pianists), and Leon Fleisher. The music is uniformly pleasant and generally quite well known, all of it focused portrayals of or reactions to elements of New York City. There is nothing particularly challenging here for the pianists or for listeners’ ears, and in truth, there is little distinctive about some of the performers’ stylistic handling of these short pieces. But there are several high points: Tosca’s Latin-tinged approach to Take the “A” Train; Whitty’s funky and interestingly updated New York, New York; Stritch’s unusual instrumental and vocal handling of Gershwin’s There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York; and Fleisher’s evocative way with The Man I Love, offered as a bonus track since it is not overtly New Yorkish. This is easy-listening music, to be sure, a contemporary (and in some cases distinctly modern-sounding) version of the salon recitals of the 19th century, and its overall milieu is that of jazz and nightclubs rather than recital venues or concert halls. It is, simply, fun, and a chance to hear numerous skilled pianists tackling some well-known works and, at least in some cases, putting their personal stamp on the material.
“Fun” is not the word for the string quartets of Ben Johnston, which are very serious indeed as well as very contemporary and very modern – except insofar as they reach all the way back to Bach in a significant way. Johnston (born 1926) is a fascinating composer who uses the microtonality of Harry Partch in further-developed and intriguing ways. His quartets are created through an extremely complex methodology that – unlike the methods used by many other composers of recent times – is not necessary for listeners to know about or understand for them to find the music involving and highly effective. This in itself would make Johnston’s quartets more-frequent concert items were it not for the fact that they are fiendishly difficult to play, thanks to his technical innovations and notational system. Johnston’s quartets are essentially an argument for just intonation in the same way that Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier was a demonstration of how best to produce music in well temperament rather than meantone temperament. Although modern listeners often think “well” refers in Bach’s work to “properly” or “correctly,” it does not: Bach’s music constituted an auditory exploration, explanation and advocacy of a particular type of tuning system (which, by the way, is not the same as the equal temperament generally in use today, which became dominant after Bach’s time).
Academic discussion of tuning methods aside, Johnston clearly shows a firm grasp of musical history in his quartets: he writes fugues and variations as well as serial movements, and even dips into folksong from time to time. The accretive catholicity of his style is presented in a system using an exceptionally large number of pitches – potentially hundreds per octave. Again, though, the enormous complexity of the system belies the surprising communicative power of the music, which comes through especially clearly in the Kepler Quartet’s recordings of six of the quartets. These date from as early as 1959 and as late as 1995, and show definite progress, or at least variation, in Johnston’s use of compositional techniques: from a start in fairly straightforward serialism, his music moves into more and more refined and difficult-to-pin-down methods that produce often very surprising sonic beauty despite the difficulty of bringing that beauty forth. Thus, his quartets by and large are the opposite of other ones by recent composers that may seem to have been written more for performers and fellow composers and less for audiences. The difficulties inherent in the performance of Johnston’s quartets bring to mind Joseph Joachim’s initial epigrammatic reaction to Brahms’ Violin Concerto, to the effect that Brahms had written a concerto “not for the violin, but against it.” It requires tremendous skill and dedication, as well as virtuosity, to cut through the performance complexities of Johnston’s quartets to the consonance and beauty that lie at their heart and that microtonality and just intonation make possible in ways that standard equal temperament does not.
The New World Records releases of these quartets are recorded warmly – in a way that fits the music quite well – and with plenty of clarity, so details of the performances shine through. The performances themselves, which Johnston supervised, appear to deserve to be called definitive for that reason alone. They are also, to put it plainly, exceptionally well done. Different listeners will find different elements of the quartets appealing. No. 1, called “Nine Variations,” is the closest to traditional in tuning and also the most derivative in use of a pre-existing style, in this case serialism. It is clear in the Webern manner and also rather hard-edged. The single-movement No. 5 is an extended transformation of an Appalachian gospel song called “Lonesome Valley,” and here Johnston’s approach may put listeners in mind of some of the works of Charles Ives. No. 10 delves into folksong territory as well, in a finale in which the tune of “Danny Boy” repeatedly appears. On the other Kepler Quartet disc, No. 6, whose creation Johnston says gave him considerable trouble, is a piece that tries to do multiple things, including merging just intonation with twelve-tone composition and exploring ways of producing melody without being either dramatic or programmatic. In this quartet, the techniques do tend to subsume the music – Johnston used the Fibonacci series as a primary tool – and so the work feels rather distanced and distancing in its elaborate permutations. Nos. 7 and 8 have not been recorded before, and their prodigious difficulties of performance, especially in No. 7, are certainly part of the reason. Yet the fluidity with which the Kepler Quartet handles these works at least makes them approachable for listeners, if scarcely forthright or easy to absorb and understand. Actually, the most readily accessible piece here is a brief Rumi setting called Quietness that stands as an epilogue or afterword to the quartets: Johnston is himself the vocalist in this work, whose communicative simplicity belies the extremely complex and innovative mind that produced this piece as well as the quartet sequence. The most surprising thing about Johnston’s quartets is not their complexity, not their adherence to a variety of modern compositional tenets, not the centrality to them of a tuning system different from the one to which most performers and listeners are accustomed; rather, it is the way that Johnston overcomes the challenges he has set for himself in expanding Partch’s microtonality and applying twelve-tone and other techniques while at the same time not eschewing melody or even, from time to time, lyricism. The Johnston quartets may be easier to listen to than they are to perform, but that does not mean they are easy to listen to – by and large, they are not. But unlike many modern and/or contemporary compositions, these quartets repay the attention and attentiveness they require of listeners by producing a set of sounds, and through those sounds a set of feelings, different from anything to which most listeners will be accustomed. They are not really an argument for just intonation instead of equal temperament, any more than Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier was an argument for well temperament instead of meantone temperament. Rather, they are an assertion that by using just intonation, it is possible to communicate thoughts and feelings and emotions effectively, in ways that will be new to listeners in general but recognizable at an almost subliminal level. Just intonation may never take its place beside equal temperament in terms of its frequency of use, but Johnston shows how it could be the foundation of a different set of music-making and music absorption that is just as valid as the much-more-common tuning almost always now used in Western musical works. Johnston’s is music filled with possibilities, and the Kepler Quartet deserves enormous credit for bringing so many of those possibilities to the fore.