June 28, 2012


Messiaen: Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (1964); Le tombeau resplendissant (1931); Hymne (1932). Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Jun Märkl. Naxos. $9.99.

Penderecki: Fonogrammi (1961); The Awakening of Jacob (1974); Anaklasis (1960); De natura sonoris I (1966); Partita (1971/1991); Horn Concerto, “Winterreise” (2008/2009). Urszula Janik, flute; Jennifer Montone, horn; Elżbieta Stefańska, harpsichord; Michał Pindakiewicz, electric guitar; Konrad Kubicki, bass guitar; Barbara Witkowska, harp; Jerzy Cembrzyński, double bass; Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit. Naxos. $9.99.

Jonathan Leshnoff: String Quartet No. 2, “Edelman” (2008); Seven Glances at a Mirage (2003); Cosmic Variations on a Haunted Theme (2003); …without a chance (2002). Carpe Diem String Quartet; Jerome Simas, clarinet; Stephen Miahky, violin; Joshua Nemith, piano; Opus 3 Trio; Barry Dove, vibraphone; Svet Stoyanov, marimba; Dave DePeters, percussion. Naxos. $9.99.

      It was not only in the 17th through early 20th centuries that composers born later found new ways to handle material previously used by others – as Beethoven remade ideas from Haydn and Mozart, Wagner ones from Weber, Brahms ones from Schumann, and so on.  Composers of the later 20th and 21st centuries sometimes seem to lack connection with each other because their motivations are so different and the forces driving their music are so unlike each other.  But beneath the surface, and often not very far beneath it, there are intriguing similarities and contrasts between composers of one generation and those of the next.  The musical influences upon Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) are quite well known, ranging from birdsong to non-Western sounds to traditional Catholicism.  They were bearing fruit even in works as early as Le tombeau resplendissant and Hymne, both of which are permeated by religious symbolism and Christian mystery.  At the time of these works, Messiaen was particularly intrigued by Stravinsky’s use of evocative rhythms and by the sound of Debussy’s music.  He modified those composers’ approach to try to express important tenets of Christianty (the full title of Hymne is Hymne au Saint Sacrement) while attempting to impart to listeners some of the colors that Messiaen said he saw when hearing certain musical chords (like Scriabin, he experienced synesthesia).  Decades later, having absorbed birdsong and other influences – especially non-Western ones – into his music, Messiaen created Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum for winds and percussion, to commemorate the dead of World Wars I and II and place the conflicts and their victims in the context of Christ’s resurrection.  Although not especially long, lasting just over half an hour, Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum feels broad, calling up gigantic spaces and hinting at eternity through Messiaen’s use of the modes he developed and his absorption of a wide variety of influences from nature as well as from prior composers.  Orchestra National de Lyon plays all three works with sureness and skill, and Jun Märkl conducts them with care and a sense of their coloristic elements.

      Krzysztof Penderecki (born 1933) was also influenced by natural forces, but he interpreted and refined them in different ways: De natura sonoris I has an improvisational feel to it and shows considerable influence from jazz, itself a medium built largely upon improvised elements.  Religious influences are present in Penderecki’s music as well, but again, they are used differently from the way Messiaen used them: The Awakening of Jacob stems from the Old Testament story in which Jacob, after a dream, realizes that God is present even though Jacob had been unaware of the fact.  Interestingly, both these Penderecki works for orchestra were used to considerable effect in the Stanley Kubrick film The Shining, although neither was employed there as the composer originally intended.  The new, very well-performed Naxos CD of Penderecki’s music also includes pieces showing the composer’s compositional skill in areas other than the strictly orchestral.  Fonogrammi is for flute and orchestra, and it allows the soloist both the intimacy and delicacy of which the flute is capable – plus some passages of considerable intensity that almost seem to go against the instrument’s basic nature.  Anaklasis, for string orchestra and percussion, is a work with a highly modernistic sound, filled with sonic patterns superimposed on each other.  Horn Concerto, “Winterreise,” does not directly echo Schubert, but like the earlier composer’s famous song cycle, it too deals with a winter journey, as Penderecki has the soloist and orchestra evoke a frigid landscape with elements of glaciation that parallel those experienced by the human heart.  And Penderecki did not hesitate to employ unusual instrumental combinations in some of his works, as in his Partita for harpsichord, electric and bass guitars, harp, double bass and orchestra – a fascinating piece in which the sonorities of the past, of jazz and even of rock-and-roll appear in juxtaposition within a loosely construed version of a very old musical form indeed, paying tribute not only to composers of earlier generations but also to ones of earlier centuries.

      If Penderecki in effect sets a Baroque-style concerto of instruments against a ripieno of full orchestra (albeit with use of instruments that Baroque composers would not recognize), Jonathan Leshnoff (born 1973) uses both familiar and less-traditional instruments to create chamber music of highly varied mood and color.  His String Quartet No. 2, “Edelman,” uses the traditional four instruments, but it is a compressed work – its three movements last only 13 minutes – and one with a strong flavor of klezmer music, which has a long history but is scarcely common in traditional classical forms.  Seven Glances at a Mirage tries, as its title suggests, to create shifting perspectives through innovative use of clarinet, violin and piano sonorities, which sometimes merge and sometimes diverge into different and even apparently contradictory realms.  Cosmic Variations on a Haunted Theme is similar in some ways, although its sound is quite different.  But here too Leshnoff tries to evoke different ways of viewing thematic and sonic material, in this case looking directly back toward some major composers of the 20th century (Bartók) as well as much earlier times (Bach).  On the other hand, the oddly titled …without a chance (with ellipsis and without capital letters) employs, as Penderecki did, an unusual instrumental combination, in this case for a specific purpose: to remember the terrorist murders of September 11, 2001.  Leshnoff chooses only percussive instruments here – vibraphone, marimba and a percussion complement – and while it would be reasonable to expect them to evoke the fear and intensity of the 9/11 attacks, the composer calls on them to do more: to resolve, or attempt to resolve, the mass murder in a moving and emotionally satisfactory way.  Not all listeners will find the work to their liking or deem it an appropriate response to the event it commemorates, but it is an effective piece on its own terms and, like the other chamber works on this Naxos CD, is performed with skill, heartfelt intensity and greater delicacy than might be expected.  Like Messiaen with his own commemoration of mass death and his forays into unusual sound worlds, and like Penderecki with his use of nontraditional instrumental combinations, Leshnoff builds upon and adds to elements of the past while accepting formal structures and sonorities to the extent that they contribute to his personal vision – and rejecting or expanding them when they do not.

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