June 27, 2019
(+++) WELL OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
Gade: Erlkönigs Tochter; Fünf Gesänge. Sophie Junker, soprano; Ivonne Fuchs, mezzo-soprano; Johannes Weisser, baritone; Danish National Vocal Ensemble and Concerto Copenhagen conducted by Lars Ulrik Mortensen. Dacapo. $16.99.
Harry Partch: Ulysses at the Edge of the World; Twelve Intrusions; Windsong; Sonata Dementia. Ensemble PARTCH. Bridge Records. $14.99.
Strictly for those seeking something unusual from the 19th century, the world première recording of the1864 version of Danish composer Niels W. Gade’s Erlkönigs Tochter (“The Elf-King’s Daughter”) is now available on the Danish label Dacapo with a Danish chorus and instrumental ensemble – sung in German. This may seem odd from a repertoire standpoint, but it is not from a historical one, since Gade was quite well thought of in Germany during his lifetime. Indeed, Elverskud (the work’s Danish title), completed and originally performed in 1854, was translated into German the next year and performed in Germany three times in 1855 alone. The dramatic cantata remained popular, gaining more international attention in German than in the original Danish; Gade made a number of changes in the instrumentation in 1864. The work, in any language, is not well-known today, and its performance by the original-instrument ensemble Concerto Copenhagen is a welcome and quite idiomatic one. It is also quite international: soprano Sophie Junker, who sings the title role, is Belgian; mezzo-soprano/alto Ivonne Fuchs, in the role of the ill-fated knight’s mother, is German/Swedish; baritone Johannes Weisser, as the knight, is Norwegian; and the Danish National Vocal Ensemble is, of course, Danish. The story is a typical warning-against-the-fey folktale, based on medieval ballads, in which a knight, on the eve of his wedding, rides off – supposedly to invite additional guests, but in reality to calm a heart already torn between his earthly bride and the elf-king’s daughter. Sure enough, he encounters elven enchantment that leads, when he returns home on what is supposed to be his wedding morning, to his death. Structured by Gade as a series of nine songs (three each in three parts of the story), with a prologue and epilogue that both use the same music and contain the same “beware” message, Erlkönigs Tochter is particularly intriguing for showing that Gade, like Grieg and Sibelius, was interested in the nationalistic and folkloric elements of Scandinavia in addition to being heavily influenced throughout his compositional life by German musical traditions and, in particular, by Mendelssohn. The music at the end of the prologue, for example, sounds very distinctly Mendelssohnian, while the orchestral section that opens the second part of Gade’s work is especially notable for its harmonic and instrumental evocation of night in the realm of the fairy folk. Erlkönigs Tochter is paired on this very interesting CD with an earlier, a cappella choral work with an even stronger German connection, Fünf Gesänge of 1846 – using German texts and first published in Leipzig. Gade was a church-choir conductor, among other things, and quite skilled in writing for massed voices in ways that allow vocal lines to come through clearly in appealing melodies. These five songs, four to texts by Emanuel Geibel and one to words by the better-known Ludwig Tieck, are about various aspects of nature: spring, the water lily, walking in the woods, autumn, and the joy of sunshine in the forest. The Romanticism of the words is palpable, and the settings have a clarity and fine vocal balance that make these two-to-three-minute songs into enjoyable pleasantries. Gade’s music remains relatively infrequently heard outside Denmark, and these specific works will be of particular interest to listeners who know him mainly through his symphonies, which are his best-known pieces today.
Listeners interested in highly unusual music from the 20th century rather than the 19th can hear a considerable amount of it on a new Bridge Records release featuring some of the outré creations of Harry Partch (1901-1974). Partch wrote music that sounds different from anything else of his time or, for that matter, any time. A theorist who subdivided the octave into as many as 43 tones and then created instruments that could play the resulting music, Partch was one of the earliest users of microtonality – and a musical experimenter as far from the norm in one direction as John Cage was in another. Because Partch’s musical notation gives no indication of what his works should actually sound like, his pieces have yet another layer of performance difficulty associated with them. The ensemble PARTCH, however, has made it a habit to unlock the mysteries and sounds of its namesake composer, and the group’s new CD shows, as so often happens with Partch’s creations, that the material is more “listenable” than its highly abstruse and genuinely odd conceptualization would lead listeners to expect. There are three world première recordings here: Sonata Dementia, Windsong (the score to an art-house film), and – as a bonus track – a live 1942 recording of Partch himself performing Barstow: Eight Hitchhikers’ Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California (1941), which is one of Partch’s best-known works, to the extent that any of them are known to audiences at large. What is noteworthy (and yes, that is a pun) about Partch is that whatever the peculiarities of his structure and notation may be – and they are many – the music he created, when coaxed out of its labyrinth of complexity, is genuinely interesting to hear and has a sound all its own. It is almost tonal, but the word “tonal” has little meaning when it comes to Partch – his creations really require a new vocabulary. The members of PARTCH certainly speak it, whatever “it” may be. Thus, Ulysses at the Edge of the World (1962), subtitled “A Minor Adventure in Rhythm,” mixes percussive and other rhythmic sounds effectively. Twelve Intrusions (1950) is filled with vocalizations, some of them discernible words and some more like groans and sighs – and here Partch proves himself quite capable of Impressionism of a sort, in pieces such as “The Waterfall” and “The Wind,” and also of deliberately overstated scholarly or pseudo-scholarly endeavors (“Study #1 on Olympus' Pentatonic” and “Study #2 on Archytas' Enharmonic”). Windsong (1958) opens with straightforward narration and proceeds into a sonic agglutination that sounds, in the main, like percussion gone wild. Sonata Dementia (1950) is in three movements labeled “Abstraction & Delusion,” “Scherzo Schizophrenia,” and “Allegro Paranoia,” and the second and third, in particular, reflect their titles so well that it can be hard to determine whether some sections are vocal or instrumental (this is actually a characteristic of much Partch music, a consequence of the way he subdivides octaves). The Barstow bonus track, recorded at the Eastman School, starts with an introduction to the piece (and to the town of Barstow) by the composer and is narrated by him with considerable attentiveness to the emotions of the unknown hitchhikers whose words the piece memorializes. There is also one other bonus track on this CD: a short Native American chant taken from a 1904 Edison cylinder and giving some intriguing insight into one of the sources from which Partch’s mini-micro-tonal explorations emerged. Partch was an outlier among outliers in music, and his works are unlikely ever to garner widespread acceptance, much less enthusiasm. But for listeners seeking the highly unusual or ones already aware of Partch’s existence, if not the extent of his explorations, the ensemble PARTCH here offers an excellent selection of material that is as well-if-strangely-performed as it is well-if-strangely-constructed.