Arvo Pärt: The Symphonies (ECM)

Arvo Pärt’s symphonies are something of an anomaly in his output. Traditionally the repository for a composer’s most significant, substantial statements, for Pärt the symphony has been a place of transition and uncertainty.

He has written four: in 1963, when he was a newly graduated 28-year-old; in 1966; in 1971 and in 2008. Hitherto, I’ve only been a particular admirer of the Second; and then as much because of its schmaltzy Tchaikovsky-quoting ending as anything else. But now all four can be heard together for the first time on this ECM recording, played by the NFM Wrocław Philharmonie and conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste. Has my view changed?

Let’s start with the First, subtitled ‘Polyphonic’ and dedicated to Pärt’s teacher at the State Conservatory in Tallinn, Heino Eller. By the time of its completion, Pärt had already achieved minor success for himself as the composer of Estonia’s first piece of serial music, the orchestral Nekrolog of 1960. He continued to experiment with systematic methods in the minimalistic 12-note astrolab Perpetuum mobile and the choral Solfeggio, its white-note counterpart. Both replace the fragmentarism typical of contemporary serial music with timbral continuities and resonant textures. The First Symphony is a continuation of these attempts to marry avant-garde techniques to older aesthetic or structural frameworks, its two movements setting out in Baroque style a dodecaphonic ‘Canon’ and ‘Prelude and Fugue’. Nevertheless, it has none of the premonitory quality of either Perpetuum mobile or Solfeggio. Instead, it does feel very much a product of its time. Kaljuste’s version is also very much cleaner – something like more respectful – than Neeme Järvi’s version with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra on BIS. As a result it sounds positively tame in comparison; Järvi definitely accentuates the work’s weirdness. There appears to be an attempt here to canonise the piece, flattening its bizarre contours and homogenising its symphonic argument (such as it is). I’m not sure this is to its advantage.

The Second is no less strange a work, but at least at this stage – the second half of the 1960s – Pärt was beginning to get a sense of what he was about as a composer. At least for now. The period from around 1964 to 1968 is often characterised as one in which Pärt was struggling to reconcile competing instincts within his work, yet it is also the time when – for me at least – he produced some of his most enduringly interesting (and, let’s be honest, peculiar) works, among them Collage sur BACH (1964), the cello concerto Pro et contra (1966) and his first authentic masterpiece, Credo (1968). In the midst of this profusion of oddities, each one as vivid a trace of compositional struggle as you could want, comes the Second Symphony. It begins with dry pizzicato and the squeaking of mouthpieces before moving through a series of aleatoric tableaux that Pärt’s Polish contemporary Lutosławski could never have dreamed of, and ending, apparently out of nowhere, with that quotation from Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young. Again, Kaljuste is more reserved than Järvi, but on this occasion I think the work has enough inherent drama to warrant the emphasis on long-range argument over local contrasts.

The Third was composed during the famous years of near-silence in which Pärt reconstructed his entire compositional method from scratch. It really is a transitional work, a preliminary essay in using medieval techniques and styles within a contemporary context. If Pärt hadn’t emerged successfully with his tinntinabuli style a few years later, at the end of his silence, I don’t know if we would be paying much attention to his Third Symphony at all. Much of its interest is historical; the music itself is pretty lightweight. That said, I like having Kaljuste’s version, which well balances its various different directions and makes a reasonably convincing case for it.

Then, 37 years later, we come to the Fourth – itself already recorded for ECM by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I don’t know that version, only the concert recording by Salonen and the LA Phil on DG.

By 2008, Pärt was long-established as one of the world’s most well-known and recognisable composers. His Fourth Symphony – dedicated to the then-imprisoned (now exiled) oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky – does little to shake that picture, its three movements dwelling on the contemplative, lamenting, side of Pärt’s style before a Deciso coda adds a concluding tone of urgency. It is, as one would expect from this composer, a very beautiful, very moving work. But it is also not all that distinctive. Pärt in 2008 has few surprises up his sleeve, and not enough to entirely account for his return to the symphony after such a long time. There is not, for example, the same sense you get with Beethoven 3 or Schubert 9 that here is a composer using the orchestra to arrive somewhere. Pärt has already been here or hereabouts for some time. It is, then, the fourth episode in a series that, while it contains some frequently startling and remarkable music, has only partially explained its existence.

At least, that is, according to the terms of the classical symphony. Having all four of Pärt’s symphonies on one disc like this might give the impression of a collected body of work, a series of grand statements within a single genre, expressed with increasing force and coherence. But Pärt’s attitude to the symphony, it now seems to me, has held little truck with the classical view. He certainly wasn’t looking, Brahms-like, over his shoulder when he wrote his First; nor was he planning his legacy, Schubert-like, when he wrote his Second or Third. Only the Fourth fits a conventional mould, and then it is the prosaic one of ‘well-known composer commissioned by well-funded orchestra’. The first three, though – and particularly the Second, appear to dissolve the classical symphony orchestra, deconstruct it, put its entire being into question, in a way that would come to be echoed in symphonic works across the Soviet bloc, from Poland to Armenia.

So, there are recordings of at least two of these symphonies that I prefer. But the project of Arvo Pärt: The Symphonies is a revealing one. I’m glad ECM have done it.

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Quick and dirty CD reviews: Dunne, Fox/Roche, Kurka

Timothy Dunne: Metaphrase

St Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic; Jeffery Meyer, cond.; Artur Zobnin, vn; Irina Vassileva, sop.; Alexandra Shatalova, eng. hn; James Giles, pf

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Works of intricate construction and sometimes surprising turns of direction by New York-born composer Timothy Dunne, a former student of Sergei Slonimsky at the State Conservatory of St Petersburg. The playing by the St Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic (to which Dunne has been an artistic advisor) is exquisite, capturing the particular hovering, shadowy qualities of Dunne’s music.

Christopher Fox: Headlong

Heather Roche

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I can’t pretend to be objective on this one since I count performer, composer and even producer (Aaron Holloway-Nahum) among my friends and colleagues. Nevertheless, a new Fox disc is always to be welcomed; especially one such as this, devoted to what the composer calls in his sleevenote, ‘the most consistent instrumental preoccupation of my compositional life’, the clarinet. The versatile Roche is an ideal choice to cover the great range represented here, across 35 years of compositional activity. Sometimes the challenge with Fox’s music appears to be how such different things could stem from a coherent musical viewpoint; its satisfaction often lies in discovering that (and how) they do.

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Irene Kurka

Wandelweiser EWR 1710

Wandelweiser discs come thick and fast these days, and I’m sure I’m not alone in sensing a diminishing return as the exceptional examples struggle to stand out from what is now a very crowded field. Soprano Irene Kurka was responsible for one of these exceptions a couple of years ago with her disc beten . prayer, which justly earned rave reviews. Yet now that every other Wandelweiser recording seems to explore slow, simple monody, that stark nakedness is starting to sound like a mannerism. The music on chants (by Antoine Beuger, Christopher Fox, Eva-Maria Houben and Thomas Stiegler) is, again, sung with extraordinary control and delicacy, and there’s no doubting its attractions. Kurka is certainly one of the more arresting proponents of this style, and her repertory choices more interesting than some others’, but as production of music like this becomes a matter of sheer volume (EWR recently marked its 100th release) I find myself wondering what it is all for.

 

Late review: Ragnar Kjartansson, An die Musik @ LCMF

Five singer/pianist pairs play Schubert’s ‘An die Musik’, on a loop and at their own speed, together, in the same space, for seven hours. That’s the summary of Kjartansson’s piece. But it was one of those curious things that the more you watched and heard, the more you noticed and the more complex it became.

The sound was mostly generalised, but with a Schubertian profile – the curve of a line, the precisely grounded harmonic steps, the unique gift for registral balance. I’m curious to know how Kjartansson’s method manifests in his piece on Mozart’s ‘Contessa perdona’ aria, Bliss; are the two pieces characteristic of their source material in any meaningful way? Or am I imagining something in the Schubert installation here?

Moments in Schubert’s song – particularly going into the cadences – would rise and fall from the surface. Occasionally, and always unexpectedly, two duos would fall into step, throwing brief shafts of light across the scene.

For sustenance and to highlight the work’s physical demands of endurance the performers drank amply throughout – water mainly, but also coffee, tea, the odd glass of wine or beer. Within certain parameters they appeared able to take short comfort breaks (and longer ones when indicated by a roving curator, who would take up the piano part in their absence). The bar staff kept them supplied and there was something touching and human about their patterns of refilling water jugs and taking drinks orders. It reminded me of a hospital or a Mass. After five hours or so everyone was served fish and chips.

I stayed for about 90 minutes, around the middle. Everything was in full swing and the rhythms of the work had bedded in. But at the same time – about three hours in and with about three hours to go – things were also starting to fray. For the performers this was probably the toughest stretch, the grinding middle third. Not that it showed: the beginnings of fatigue, perhaps – and built in to the structure of the piece – but no drop in commitment. I caught one wonderful passage when the tenor Tom Kelly turned to sing directly (and with full ardour) to a clutch of three people sat just a couple of meters away to his side.

It’s a very calming environment. Order becomes chaos becomes a higher harmony. Like trees into a forest into a canopy. There’s a surprising amount to this piece and I doubt I discovered it all. Themes of superabundance, and the body, and ruin, obviously. Not history though, I think: the Schubert was there because of the sound he made and not for what his music signified, except for a general expression of refinement, tastefulness and order.

I thought this was an extraordinary event, and I wish I could have caught more of it. Such is my life these days I dropped in after having seen the new Paddington film with the family, and for the second time in one afternoon I was moved to tears. Damn you, Aunt Lucy; damn you, Ragnar Kjartansson.

Some recent CDs

726708696122-front-coverSelf Portrait by Brooklyn composer and multimedia artist Grant Cutler (innova 961) is composed of artists improvising to recordings of themselves, the results heavy with loops, delays and textures. innova’s press release dresses this up as ‘an act of memoir, an active reimagining of the self’. I think that’s stretching a point: if that’s what these tracks are, they’re cosy, untroubled imaginings that rarely stray far from their original path. (Not what I see in my mirror, certainly.) Nevertheless, set that aside and Cutler and his musicians have made an attractive, not always predictable work of instrumental/electronic ambiance. Requires a sweet tooth, but I have one.

726708697327-front-coverIf you like this, you might also like Listening Beam Five by Crystal Mooncone (Stephen Rush, Chris Peck and Jon Moniaci; innova 973). More of a 60s, West Coast psychedelia vibe here, although washed out, exhausted, like the fade-outs to a Bitches Brew session at full scale. The instrumentarium includes Phase Maracas, Foil-o-tron, Distant Echo Flute, Float Tank Rhodes and Cistern Singing, so that should give some idea (or not).

ewr1601-03Manfred Werder’s 2003/1–3 arrive on a triple-disc set from Edition Wandelweiser Records (EWR 1601-03). 70 minutes per disc, two (performed) sounds per disc. (I emphasise performed: these seem to be studio recordings, so the huge silences in between aren’t completely silent; they’re live, not digital.) It’s a colossal, utopian extravagance, of the sort I’d rather started to miss from EWR. There is undoubtedly something ridiculous about firing up the CD player for more than hour of almost nothing (in three different versions, no less), but at the same time, there’s nothing else quite like doing so. Which is one underlying message of Werder’s work, at least: that experience trumps thought. I doubt I’ll be returning to these discs very often, but I’m absolutely certain that I will, so unique is that feeling – not something one can always say.

ewr1607-08Eva-Maria Houben’s livres d’heures, a two-disc set this time from EWR (1607/08), goes into the less abstract territory that I feel has characterised many Wandelweiser recordings of the last year or two. In particular, it foregrounds the Christian/spiritual dimension that appears to underlie the aesthetic of several Wandelweiser composers. A book of hours is an obvious choice for a style preoccupied with periodicity and the articulation of very large spans of time – see Werder, above. The difference in his case is that the periodicity is intuitive and unpredictable: thus it holds its time in a state of heightened tension; whereas Houben’s meticulously steady bell chimes and violin drones mark out a structured, and hence contemplative time. It reminds me of other large-scale religious settings, most notably Knaifel’s Agnus Dei, or even (although its language is much less bombastic) Radulescu’s Cinerum.

51zbr3xyy8l-_ss500Pick of the listening at the moment, though, is EXAUDI’s recording of Mala punica composed by their director James Weeks (Winter & Winter 910 239-2). I’ve said this a few times recently about other composers’ works, and I find myself saying it again, but this may be the best thing I’ve heard from Weeks so far. Making use of the little canonic and fan-like games that populate a lot of his music, Mala punica – interleaved on this recording with the three-part Walled Garden for instrumental ensemble – is a stunningly subtle, disarmingly simple achievement; a crystallisation of basic ideas down to the point that they transform into something else entirely. Combining the metaphor of the hortus conclusus with a setting of Song of Songs, Weeks’s piece models an exquisite tension between chaste procedure and order, and over-tumbling sensuality.

Further to these short pocket reviews, I’ve recently written a much longer consideration of Richard Barrett’s album Music for cello and electronics, with Arne Deforce and recorded for aeon. You can read that here at Music & Literature.

Review: Chaya Czernowin: Infinite Now, Ghent

Chaya Czernowin: Infinite Now

Opera Vlaanderen, Ghent, 18 April 2017

Full cast and production team

The first thing you know going into the theatre for a performance of Chaya Czernowin’s third and newest opera, Infinite Now, is that it lasts two and a half hours, without a break. There are sound practical reasons for giving this information, but it remains a somewhat alarmist way to frame a piece. Yet in the event it proved useful for appreciation too. Infinite Now is a long work, and it is a slow one, adjectives now so negatively valorised these days in relation to music that I must immediately add: but not in a bad way. Big is just how it is.

Feldman’s line about the difference between form and scale comes to mind, but where Feldman’s art was still based on an essentially linear movement through time, an endless chain of extensions, Czernowin’s opera dwells. It inhabits its big box of time-space, all the way to its edges. It penetrates. It overwhelms.

Infinite Now is about entrapment, and about finding life (perhaps hope not hope, as such, but at least a compulsion to go on) in such situations. It is about a woman at home and men at war, about going away and coming back, and about them being the same. In an attempt to capture this, I doodled this image in my notes on the journey home:

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The libretto combines Luk Perceval’s play FRONT (based on Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and texts and letters from World War I) and Can Xue’s novel Homecoming (in which a woman returns to a house she once knew as her home, only to find that it is now perched, in unending darkness, on the edge of an abyss), at first holding the two scenarios quite distinct then, in the opera’s second half, gradually overlapping them until they occupy the same psychological space.

The music is unexpected. In contrast to her hyper-detailed scores of the 2000s Czernowin has been adding more and more space to her music recently, but even so Infinite Now comes as a shock, so pared down is it. This suits its slowness: ‘moments’ in the piece may last several minutes, giving them unavoidable mass. (The staging is even more stripped back, but in keeping with the work’s overall aesthetic also contains some of its most memorable moments.) The orchestra is large, and is supplemented by a concertante quartet of two guitars and two cellos (played by Nico Couck, Yaron Deutsch, Christina Meissner and Séverine Ballon), but it is the electronics that dominate. Composed in collaboration with IRCAM’s Carlo Laurenzi, the soundtrack is based on a number of concrete sounds – metal gates, trains, birds’ wings, breathing, rolling balls, pops of static and so on. These set out the work’s sonic template, around the sounds of air, either moving or being moved through. (Later the sounds of water are added, notably the splintered noise of ice stacking on Lake Superior.) The orchestral writing is related, and centres around sheets of sound and noise – waves of string glissandi, spatters of dots, an especially memorable three-minute quadruple fortissimo G for brass in Act VI. What moments of lyricism there are (and they are but moments, tightly and precisely rationed) are given to the voices and instrumental quartet. One passage at the end of Act IV took my breath away for sheer beauty; looking at the score the following morning I was amazed that it amounted to just two bars of guitar and voices, a fleeting vocal arabesque and perhaps ten seconds of electronics. Such is Infinite Now‘s power to shape and communicate the passage of time. Such is Czernowin’s authority as a composer. I cannot think of anyone else who could have written this opera: she is an artist at the height of her powers.

The next day I visited Ghent’s contemporary art museum, SMAK. Inside was an exhibition of three of Anna Oppermann’s ‘ensembles’, Myth and Enlightenment (1985–92), Paradoxical Intentions – To lie the Blue down from the Sky (1988–92) and, below, On the one hand – on the other hand; both … and (M+M) (1988).aop_smak-gent_nw_img_3631

Assemblages of elements, often surrealistically juxtaposed or extrapolated, originating in a small number of found objects brought into fortuitous conjunction, Oppermann’s works are halls of mirrors reflecting out in every physical and metaphysical dimension. No longer paintings or sculptures, although resembling both, they are piles of stuff, retracing, reworking, reimagining, repositioning their objects of attention in ways that penetrate and overwhelm you. More infinite nows, I thought, as I stood before them.

 

CD review: Seth Parker Woods: asinglewordisnotenough (Confront)

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Seth Parker Woods: asinglewordisnotenough

Seth Parker Woods

Confront Collectors Series ccs69

These are good times for contemporary cello playing and, by extension, contemporary music for the cello. Recent albums by Séverine Ballon and Arne DeForce might stake out the heavyweights’ territory, but don’t overlook work by emerging artists like Seth Parker Woods.

Woods is another graduate of Huddersfield University’s doctoral performance programme, and if this is reflected in any particular way it is in the language of space and force – trajectories, smears, intersections – that spatter his album’s sleevenotes. The four pieces recorded here are plenty varied, however. They range in length from roughly 4 to 24 minutes, and in style from the loose, street art-inspired sonic tags of Edward Hamel’s Gray Neon Life, to the electronic swarms of Michael Clarke’s Enmeshed 3 and George Lewis’s Not Alone, to the glitchy bleeps of Pierre Alexandre Tremblay’s asinglewordisnotenough3 (invariant). This is the cello at its most raw, least lyrical, a rethinking that in this album’s best moments is thrilling.

Lewis’s piece – one of three here written for Woods – is the biggest contribution in all respects, but it’s the pieces by Hamel and Tremblay that have most caught my ears. Hamel deploys a fragmentary, post-Lachenmannish mode of fragile harmonics and spoken interjections, but does so in an almost casual, improvisatory mode – no doubt due in part to his score’s graphic component and delegation of many decisions to its player. It has a disarmingly unfussy vibe that I really like. Tremblay’s piece is simply the most fun: a pan-dimensional, post-techno romp through electronic tones and cello grinds. It’s not a combination I’d heard before (at least, not quite like this), and although there are points where cello and electronics dance each other into related sonic territory, more of the time it’s the distance between them that gives the music its poetic effect, the electronics providing an austere digital architecture within which the resolutely analogue cello can find its voice.

asinglewordisnotenough is available in hard copy in a metal tin via Confront, or digitally via Bandcamp.

Julius Eastman’s Soft Power

Holland Park tube was closing early, and for fear of being stranded I left early, just as Apartment House were beginning to crank up Eastman’s joyous, riff-infused Stay on it. (I read on Twitter that this was a cracker.) So my last piece of live music for the year is his comparatively modest Hail Mary. Only recent surfaced from a letter to Eastman’s fellow composer Rocco di Pietro, it was receiving its premiere tonight from Elaine Mitchener and Philip Thomas.

If I’ve learnt anything about Eastman in the two concerts I’ve heard this weekend, it is that he exploited minimalism – with its language of loops and repeats – to wholly different expressive ends than his better-known peers. Hail Mary turns to faith, and specifically the Catholic Rosary: Europe’s great ancient loop. Mitchener reprises the half-spoken, half-sung function of Thursday’s Coming Together, but this time in a voice seemingly on the edge of breath. Thomas’s piano part outlines sparse arpeggios, a musical setting that simultaneously envelopes, gently colours and fully respects the vocal line it sits behind. Written six years before Eastman’s death, it nevertheless carries a chill of biography. A fitting end to 2016.

The middle third of the concert was dominated by excerpts from Arthur Russell’s Tower of Meaning, originally written for a Robert Wilson production of Euripedes’ Medea. Russell’s score, I understand, consists of little more than two chords, which had been arranged into something more promising by Apartment House keyboardist Kerry Yong. Yong’s arrangements, which played subtly with the tone palette available to him (keyboard, piano, vibes, cello, flute, violin), were charming enough, but over time Russell’s restricted materials accumulated some serious longeurs, especially for those of us watching in standing room only.

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Nothing like that could be said about Gay Guerrilla. Scored for an unspecified number of pianos, it was given here in a version for two pianos, eight hands, by Zubin Kanga, Rolf Hind, Eliza McCarthy and Siwan Rhys. Over the course of 30 minutes it builds from single pulsing notes to great overlapping sweeps of sound that crash across the keyboard, before ending where it began, no longer an anonymous pulse, but a piercing beam of tone. More than Coming Together on Thursday, this floored me. To voice a comparison that occurred to me while listening, it contained all the emotional beats of the best Reich – the chord changes, the textures – but without the uncomfortable feeling that affects the worst: that you’re being had. Everything about this felt felt. It had a real grain to it. ‘Like Tony Conrad’ someone suggested afterwards, and yes, but while Conrad found roughness in his sound, in cheap violins and overdriven amps, Eastman’s is one of of form, of imagination, a kind of caprice. Gay Guerrilla speaks of a soft kind of power, of touches and songs and dancing feet, but also of determination, a proof that if you stick with something you will reach somewhere unexpected and special. One of my best musical experiences of the year.