March 25, 2021


Mahler: Das Klagende Lied. Brigitte Poschner-Klebel, soprano; Marjana Lipovšek, mezzo-soprano; David Rendall, tenor; Manfred Hemm, baritone; Wiener Singakademie and ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Gielen. Orfeo. $18.99.

Respighi: Concerto all’antica; Antiche danze e arie per liuto, Suites 1-3. Davide Alogna, violin; Chamber Orchestra of New York conducted by Salvatore Di Vittorio. Naxos. $11.99.

Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 1; Rachmaninoff: Piano Sonata No. 1; Prelude in F. Zixiang Wang, piano. Blue Griffin Recording. $15.99.

Density 2036: Parts I-V. Claire Chase, flute. Corbett vs. Dempsey Records. $30 (4 CDs).

     Amazingly, by the time Gustav Mahler was 18 years old, he had already internalized a great deal of the musical thinking and planning – and grandiosity – that would mark his later and far more mature work. That is the remarkable conclusion from every opportunity to hear Das Klagende Lied, a huge cantata/symphony (similar in that blended sense, to a degree, to the much later “Symphony of a Thousand”) that in its original version called for multiple orchestras and no fewer than 11 solo voices in addition to a chorus. No one performs that original version nowadays, which is understandable but something of a shame, since hearing the exact way Mahler wanted Das Klagende Lied to sound when he wrote it from 1878 to 1880 would be a remarkable musical experience, and one through which listeners would gain considerable insight into the composer’s later work. But at least Das Klagende Lied gets some performances from time to time, generally in the form in which it is heard on a new Orfeo recording featuring four fine soloists, an equally fine chorus, and a top orchestra, all conducted by the late Michael Gielen. Seeking at least partial performances early in his career, Mahler abandoned the first of the work’s three parts and made significant changes – that is, simplifications – in the second and third. Gielen, like most conductors willing to try to surmount what is still an extremely complex and difficult work, offers the first part in its original form and the other two in their revised versions. This is a new release, but not a new performance: it dates to 1990, but in no respect feels or sounds dated – Gielen, who died in 2019, was clearly in his prime when he conducted this material. Soloists, chorus and orchestra are all excellent, and Gielen does an absolutely first-rate job of building musical tension during the progress of the rather lurid fairy-tale story that Mahler set (using words that he wrote himself: one of many ways in which Das Klagende Lied shows that Mahler was already, well, Mahler). The material, drawn from two separate fairy-tale collections, is of a type common in such stories: two brothers vie for the hand of the same noble woman, the evil older one kills the good younger one, and eventually a flute made from a bone of the victim reveals the truth of the fratricide. In Mahler’s hands, though, this is not a crime-and-punishment story, and while the tale is sad enough (Klagende is “lamentation”), Mahler does not imbue it with the sort of over-the-top emotionalism of which he was surely already capable. Instead, he turns it into a vast canvas exploring themes of natural beauty vs. human depravity, woodland purity vs. courtly arrogance. The musical themes are spun out at length, and there is some narrative repetition (which is why the first and longest part of the work could be omitted in early performances: what happens in it is clear from what happens in the other two sections). The vast canvas on which Mahler paints his musical pictures – not the story the words tell – is the main point and primary attraction of Das Klagende Lied, and Gielen explores the scene-setting thoroughly, knowledgeably and to very fine effect. The sprawling work is most notable for the ways in which it points to Mahler’s later music (he even quoted from it directly in subsequent pieces), but under Gielen’s hands, it is also a worthy piece in its own right, and one that Mahler aficionados will very much enjoy hearing.

     Like Mahler’s early work, a Respighi concerto that has not been recorded before turns out to point the way clearly to directions in which the composer would later go. Concerto all’antica, for violin and orchestra, dates to 1908, when the composer was not yet 30, and it shows him already absorbing the themes and stylistic niceties of much earlier music and making them his own through clever combinations and skillful orchestration. Indeed, the concerto is so tuneful that it is genuinely surprising that the Naxos CD featuring Davide Alogna and the Chamber Orchestra of New York under Salvatore Di Vittorio is its world-première recording. The work proceeds with elegance in a smooth and well-balanced three-movement structure whose finale, in particular, pays direct homage to the pre-Classical era. And this disc shows quite plainly how pervasive the “old music” elements of the concerto pervaded Respighi’s later work, since the CD also includes the three suites of Antiche danze e arie per liuto (“Ancient dances and airs for lute”) that Respighi wrote between 1917 and 1931. These highly effective suites, based on music from the 16th and 17th centuries, sound well-balanced and thoroughly convincing in the performances here, their dancelike elements brought forth effectively and the niceties of Respighi’s very-well-thought-out orchestration giving the suites considerable character. The CD places the third suite (1931) between the first (1917) and second (1923), which may be chronologically inaccurate but which produces a very welcome contrast in sound, since the first and second suites are for full orchestra and the third is only for a string ensemble (and was originally just for string quartet). The third suite is also the most introspective of the three, so placing it between the first and second results in a mood change after the first suite, into greater seriousness, and then another change after the third, to a brighter conclusion. The orchestral playing in all the suites is top-notch, with the attentiveness to the suites’ dance forms and strong rhythms very impressive and the works’ melding of “ancient” and 20th-century elements conveyed with strength, solidity and conviction.

     Composers’ earlier works can sometimes be as interesting in showing the directions in which they did not go as in providing youthful examples of how their creators later developed. Thus, Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 1 (actually the third he composed, but the first one that survives as a full-scale multi-movement piece) is built around a deeply sad Adagio and concluding Funèbre, in both of which the composer laments the loss of his performance ability because of what doctors had told him was permanent damage to his right hand (caused by overuse in practicing). The faster first and third movements do little to relieve the sense of despair, the first being melancholy and turbulent, the third harsh, angry and unresolved at its conclusion. The intensity of the work comes through quite poignantly in a new performance by Zixiang Wang on the Blue Griffin Recording label. Wang not only has technique to spare but also possesses an unerring sense of how to bring out the music’s anger and anguish without making it sound so over-the-top as to be melodramatic. Yet the passion and bleakness of this sonata did not portend future works of the same type from Scriabin: he actually recovered the use of his right hand, although he did not return to the virtuoso-performance circuit, and his later sonatas explore territory that is quite different from that in his first. Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No. 1 is also tied at most loosely to his later work. Its sprawl and large scope – its three movements last significantly longer than the four used by Scriabin – do look ahead to Rachmaninoff’s later music, as does the frequent use of the Dies irae motif; and the conclusion of the sonata is replete with pounding chords that are recognizable as a kind of Rachmaninoff compositional signature. But the work is otherwise something of a dead end in the composer’s oeuvre. Its three movements were going to represent the three main characters from Goethe’s Faust: the title character, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles. The sonata retains some elements of that original program, which closely parallels that of Liszt’s Faust Symphony, but Rachmaninoff abandoned the structure in favor of something non-programmatic. The first and third movements, both in D minor, are drawn-out and very close to the same length, while the central Lento in F is filled with extended melodic lines that contrast strongly with a finale that, unlike later Rachmaninoff, is almost devoid of significant themes. The sonata as a whole is somewhat diffuse and even self-indulgent in its exploitation of the extremes of pianistic capability – in terms of the instrument itself, not just the performer. Here as in the Scriabin, Wang handles the virtuosic elements with aplomb, but he is less successful in trying to wrest some coherence and overall sensibility from the Rachmaninoff than from the Scriabin. The Rachmaninoff is a difficult piece both to play and to hear, and certainly Wang’s handling of it shows considerable skill and a thoughtful approach to the music. But as a whole, his reading is less convincing than is his handling of Scriabin’s sonata. As an encore, Wang offers an even earlier Rachmaninoff work, and a much rarer one to hear: the solo-piano version of the Prelude in F, which is much better known in its cello-and-piano version (Op. 2, No. 1). Calm and borderline sweet, this 1891 version of the prelude, written when the composer was 18, sounds little like mature Rachmaninoff. But it makes an effective contrast with the huge Sonata No. 1, while also letting listeners hear the road not traveled in the composer’s later work.

     It is possible to admire early works, even respect them, without necessarily liking them very much, and that will likely be the situation in which many listeners find themselves if they happen upon the Density 2036 project being created under the auspices of flautist Claire Chase. It is hard to imagine a more ambitious musical project than this one: it is intended as a 23-year series of commissions of flute music of all types, started in 2013 and intended to be completed on the 100th anniversary of the first version of Edgard Varèse’s Density 21.5. On the basis of the music created in the early years of the project, it is all very self-referential and quite contemporary in its use of electronics, tuned “found objects” such as bottles and glasses, instruments such as the contrabass flute and ondes Martenot, vocal elements (both intelligible and electronically altered), and much more. Corbett vs. Dempsey Records, whose name is also right in tune with the self-conscious modernity and “off-beatness” of Density 2036, has now released a four-CD set of the first five parts of Chase’s project (2013-2017). The seminal (or at least inspirational) Varèse work appears on the first disc, although at the end rather than the beginning. Other composers with works on the CD are Marcos Balter, Mario Diaz de Leon, Felipe Lara, George Lewis, and Du Yun. The second CD includes material by Dai Fujikura, Francesca Verunelli, Nathan Davis, Jason Eckhardt, and Pauline Oliveros. The third disc has works by Suzanne Farrin, Tyshawn Sorey, Vijay Iyer, Pauchi Sasaki, and Richard Beaudoin. The fourth is entirely devoted to a multi-part Balter piece called “Pan, for speaking/singing flutist and large ensemble.” With the exception of Varèse (born in 1883), Lewis (1952), and Oliveros (1932), all the composers were born in the 1970s or 1980s, and all the music partakes of the interests, expectations and quirks common to works created by musicians of their era. The flute, although pervasively present, is something of an afterthought for many of the composers, who have little interest in the instrument’s sound on its own but are determined to expand it (if not necessarily enhance it) through electronics, percussion, vocals and more. Indeed, the standard Varèse-style flute is not particularly common in these works, whose creators favor the amplified flute, bass flute (in one piece, six of them), contrabass flute, glissando flute and other variations; and who in several cases use flute players as speakers or vocalists as well. The proudly experimental nature of the music is more self-proclaimed than readily apparent: in truth, there is not much in these pieces that listeners interested in contemporary works will have failed to encounter elsewhere. What gives Density 2036 a (+++) rating – for those whose tastes run strongly to the avant-garde – is the ambitious nature of the project and Chase’s determination to see it through to the end. She will be 58 at the project’s end, so she has a strong likelihood of making it through the whole thing and not even needing to deem it her life’s work – she can go on to other forms of creativity if she so desires. Whether Density 2036 will end up as a musical legacy of which Chase can be proud, or just an over-extended compilation of works whose value lies in their inclusion in the project rather than in any form of musical or artistic communication with an audience, is at this point an unanswerable question. It is simply too early to say.

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