July 23, 2015


Mahler: Symphony No. 5; Kindertotenlieder. Brigitte Fassbaender, mezzo-soprano; NDR Sinfonieorchester conducted by Klaus Tennstedt. Profil. $33.99 (2 CDs).

Sidney Corbett: Yaël for Violin and Orchestra; Christopher Adler: Violin Concerto. Sarah Plum, violin; Chamber Music Midwest Festival Orchestra conducted by Akira Mori (Corbett); San Diego New Music conducted by Nicholas Deyoe (Adler). Blue Griffin Recordings. $15.99.

Soundings: Improvisations and Composition for Horn and Electronica by James Naigus, John Manning, Jason Palamara, and Israel Neuman. Jeffrey Agrell, horn. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     Most music is, by definition, personal, being written in response to a particular set of circumstances at a particular time in a composer’s life. Even occasional music, written for a specific purpose, has ties to the composer’s individuality, albeit sometimes tenuous ones. But some music requires listeners to understand just why the composer created it, and that can be a barrier to a work’s acceptance: insisting that listeners comprehend what a work is “about” is tantamount to saying that the music does not speak for itself – it speaks for, or regarding, something extramusical, and those not familiar with and concerned by the non-musical topic are doomed to find the music of indifferent quality at best. Great music transcends the personal circumstances in which it was written; lesser works – including, unfortunately, a great many contemporary compositions – are intimately bound up with those circumstances and therefore, by definition, limited in their appeal. Thus, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and Kindertotenlieder have very strong associations with Mahler’s personal situation at the time they were written in the first years of the 20th century. Indeed, the famous Adagietto of the Fifth is generally acknowledged as a love song to Mahler’s wife, Alma, and Alma is known to have been angered by Kindertotenlieder and to have deemed it a foreshadowing of the death of the couple’s older daughter in 1907. But these personal circumstances are wholly irrelevant to listeners’ involvement in the music: someone who does not know Mahler at all might guess, for example, that there was a personal spur to the composer in writing Kindertotenlieder, whose approach to the death of children is fatalistic and rather oddly accepting, at least to a modern listener in countries where the death of young children is comparatively rare. Factually, this is incorrect: Mahler did not write these songs in response to personal circumstances.  But the texts from Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) certainly resonated deeply with him, or he would not have set them. They resonate with listeners, too, especially when sung with the clarity and barely restrained emotion that Brigitte Fassbaender brings to them in a new Profil release of a performance from 1980. Fassbaender’s mezzo-soprano is a strong and well-controlled one, and her performance makes it sound as if there are deep upwelling emotions in her that are barely kept in check by the necessity to stay in control long enough to hit the right notes. The underlying tension of the singing, which is very ably backed up by and intertwined with the playing of the NDR Sinfonieorchester under Klaus Tennstedt, makes for a highly involving version of these deeply affecting songs. Tennstedt’s reading of the Fifth Symphony, which also dates to 1980, is very attractive as well. Tennstedt was never afraid to take Mahler at slow tempos, and that is particularly apparent in the first movement here, which is decidedly funereal but retains its underlying forward pulse; and in the third movement, which Mahler worried would be played too quickly and would therefore lose its structural centrality. In this performance, the symphony does indeed revolve around the Scherzo, which was the first movement Mahler completed. The work as a whole hangs together unusually well in Tennstedt’s reading, which is very well played and is particularly strong in bringing forth the emotional depths through which the work climbs to its final positive assertiveness. What listeners will pick up clearly here is that, whatever the specific reasons Mahler had for writing the symphony, the work reaches out well beyond them and communicates directly and effectively even with people who have no knowledge of the specific circumstances under which it was created.

     Not so when it comes to the contemporary violin concertos by Sidney Corbett and Christopher Adler, performed by Sarah Plum on a new disc from Blue Griffin Recordings. Here it is absolutely necessary to know the genesis and intentions of the works in order to understand what is going on and have a framework within which to react to them – a self-limiting if scarcely unusual circumstance that results in a (+++) rating for this very well-played CD. Sidney Corbett’s Yaël is based on the writings of Edmond Jabès (1912-1991), an Egyptian-born Jewish writer who lived in France from the 1950s until his death and is considered an important poet with mystical leanings and a profound sense of melancholy deepened by the Holocaust. The work’s title comes from Jabès’ The Book of Questions and is the name of a woman who personifies one of Jabès’ major themes, words, while her unborn anagrammatic child, Elya, personifies silence. The philosophy is heavy in the literary material, and its translation to music, although it can be by no means literal, is strongly reflective of the inward-looking world of Jabès’ work – notably in the very extended violin solos in the first movement, breath, and the fourth and last, archipelago. The middle movements, the dark and shira yaël, offer greater interplay between soloist and orchestra, but the fact remains that without understanding the basis of this 2005 work by Corbett (born 1960), it is hard to make sense of the music as music rather than as a sequence of sounds that, in and of themselves, go nowhere in particular. The 2013 Violin Concerto by Christopher Adler (born 1972), commissioned by Plum, offers more-interesting interplay between solo instrument and ensemble; but here, too, the work serves very distinct and specific purposes without whose knowledge a listener is left floundering. Designed as a homage to Russian futurism and the avant-garde of the early 20th century – in other words, Mahler’s time – Adler’s work starts with Shift (The Knife Grinder), inspired by a painting by Kazimir Malevich; continues with Vèrelloe, an invented word from a poem by Konstantin Bolshakov; and concludes with Tektonika, whose title refers to one of the three disciplines that Alexei Gan said represented a unification of aesthetics and Marxist politics. As in Corbett’s work, this is heady material with strong philosophical leanings, and without an understanding of its generative impulses, it dissolves into reasonably well-made but ultimately unconvincing sound. Many composers from the 20th century on have, of course, argued that sound is as valid a concert element as what is traditionally called music, and indeed that sound in fact is music – Varèse, Cage and many others rattled what they perceived as the prison bars of the traditional separation between music and non-music. Again, there is considerable philosophy at work, or at play, here. But the ultimate question is whether these works by Corbett and Adler mean what the composers want them to mean. The answer is no: music does not mean anything (as Leonard Bernstein famously said). These works reflect philosophical concerns and an attitude toward underlying reality that is important to these particular composers and will be congenial to at least some people who hear the pieces after being properly versed in their reasons for being. But these are not works that one goes into a concert hall or to one’s own sound system to hear without prior study and edification. It is fine for composers to insist on the importance of their personal rationales for creating particular works in particular ways – and it is equally fine for listeners to say “no, thank you” when invited to study, understand and absorb the material that led composers to create particular pieces as a prerequisite to being able to find those pieces meaningful.

     There is much less of an attempt to communicate deep meaning in the compositions for horn and various other instruments and media on a new (+++) MSR Classics release. The main purpose of the works by James Naigus (born 1987), John Manning, (born 1965), Jason Palamara (born 1977), and Israel Neuman (born 1966) seems to be simply to explore ways in which the full, rich and warm sound of the horn can be matched with other sounds in ways that sometimes complement the horn’s inherent characteristics but more often go against them by trying to make the horn into something it is not. Jeffrey Agrell is clearly game for all of this: he plays everything with care, enthusiasm and whatever level of intensity each construction seems to call for. But it is something of a shame to hear such a fine horn player reduced – clearly by intent – to an accompanist of mixed media (Naigus’ Soundings and Improv Sonata, Manning’s Dark, Neuman’s Turnarounds) or a participant with so-called “interactive electronics” in Palamara’s Ragnorok, Baby. The oddity of the non-instrumental sounds in all these works – non-instrumental unless listeners have already accepted the notion that all sound is a form of music – repeatedly obscures the sound of the horn, which becomes a kind of audio also-ran even when it takes the lead. Naigus, Manning and Neuman are credited on the CD as mixed-media performers, and Palamara as being in charge of interactive electronics, so the composers clearly know what effects they want and where they want the horn to be placed within them. Its place seems primarily to be as just one sound generator among many – a valid approach intellectually but a disappointing one sonically, with the horn’s tremendous emotional capabilities and extraordinary beauty of sound relegated to comparative unimportance in order to give the electronics their front-and-center position. The improvisational works here that involve a greater degree of non-electronic collaboration with the horn are of somewhat higher interest. Two by Manning rather uneasily mix the horn, which is an inherently legato instrument, with percussive ones: Kyma Divertimento for horn, percussion and kyma, with Rich O’Donnell on percussion and kyma, which is an elaborate workstation that “designs” sound; and Conversation II for horn and mandala drums (played by Aaron Wells). This Manning work actually contrasts interestingly with Conversations I for the same combination of horn and mandala drums by Naigus: mandala drums are electric instruments with special pads and expanded sound capability, retaining the “struck” notion underlying all drums but expanding it in a variety of ways. What is probably the least “electronic” work here is in many ways the most successful: Naigus’ Night Suite, improvisations for horn and percussion in which Jim Dreier and Nathan Yoder handle the percussion elements skillfully. In a sense, saying that these are works for “horn and electronica” gets things backwards: the pieces are primarily for electronic sounds, generated in a variety of ways, with the horn usually something of a hanger-on. These works not only avoid the sometimes-misguided attempts of contemporary compositions to convey deep meaning through sound, but also seem largely unconcerned with meaning of any sort: they are comparatively pure sonic explorations, as interesting – or uninteresting – as self-generated electronic music created by computer programmers.

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