CD roundup (concertante)

Judging by the majority of CDs that have been sent to me recently, contemporary music is seeing a surge in recordings of works highlighting solo instruments. The collection i have received occupies different regions of the avant garde, from the most familiar and accessible to its forbidding outer fringes. Somewhere in between, yet the most impenetrable of them all, is James Erber‘s ‘Traces’ cycle for solo flute, released by Convivium Records. Erber has long struck me as a kind of non-mainstream Alexander Goehr, in that his music is always rigorously argued, its logic unassailable (a point Erber has always hammered home via his voluble essays and programme notes), yet never really opening itself up to allow the listener in. In short, its intellectual prowess crowds out its emotional potential, and in this respect the ‘Traces’ cycle is no different. There’s greatest interest to be found in the first of the three movements, where a low, increasingly rhythmic element makes incursions into the music’s ongoing melodic thrust (involving some nice fluttertongue writing and, after its fraught high point, some enigmatic ruminative finger tapping). But the second and third movements ramp up the intensity such that it becomes relentless, demonstrating an unstoppable, determined conviction that ends up nullifying both the effect and the interest. A curious extended stasis towards the end, involving soft high notes, is a welcome break, but the piece is no less inscrutable for it. In many ways, the trio of smaller works on the disc make a much stronger impact, but strongest of all is flautist Matteo Cesari‘s playing; it may be hard to decode Erber’s code, but Cesari does at least ensure its intricacies are presented with utmost clarity.

Another composer whose flute music is being explored is Bruno Maderna, in a thoroughly comprehensive survey called Music in Two Dimensions, released by Mode. Maderna’s music tends to be somewhat neglected in the wake of attention given to figures such as Berio and Nono, so this CD is a welcome and vital contribution to his legacy. Helpfully, the nine works featured are presented chronologically, allowing one to follow Maderna’s developing approach to the instrument. A recurring feature is a fascinating and sometimes tense relationship between modernity and lyricism. The original version of the title work (for flute and tape) dates back as far as 1952, and it’s deeply impressive to note, despite the space-age soundworld, how lyrically Maderna treats what was, then, a very new medium. However, the friction between acoustic and electronic worlds wouldn’t be convincingly overcome until Maderna’s expansive re-composition of the work in 1958. Lyricism also prevents serial technique used in the Divertimento from becoming dry and emotionally aloof, while the Flute Concerto (hampered here by a poor recording) establishes a fraught balance between rhapsody and bombast. Roberto Fabbriciani’s sensitive, virtuosic playing highlights the music’s inner complexities, nowhere more so than in Serenata per un satellite for five flutes, where the semi-improvised polyphony brings about some marvellous moments of collision and collusion.

Stockhausen stalwart Michele Marelli has brought out a new disc of the composer’s clarinet music (out on Wergo), concluding with the 25-minute work Wochenkreis, for basset horn and electronics. It feels like the focus of the disc, but it’s by no means the most striking; Wochenkreis suffers to some extent through its terribly dated electronic timbres, and while there’s something of the Synclavier sensibility of Zappa at times, the work seems more a curiosity than the kind of enveloping encounter that Stockhausen would no doubt have wished for. Much more interesting, and revealing, are the five pieces that make up the slightly longer Amour, for solo clarinet. Anyone acquainted only with Stockhausen’s more outlandish compositional ideals will perhaps find the sweetness and simplicity heard in Amour rather hard to believe. There’s a gentle, slightly kinked melody; a registral divide that gradually intermingles to produce homogeneity; extended periods of semi audible half-utterance, where breath and key sounds rival pitches for dominance; an exercise in birdsong, demonstrating what Messiaen could never contemplate, that imitation and allusion are more effective than rationalised reproduction (Stockhausen’s bird really sings); and an intense, focussed exploration of a quartet of small 4-note ‘formulas’, slowly altered into new forms. These five pieces form a wonderful testimony to Stockhausen’s innate compositional skill, as well as proof that he wasn’t dependant on helicopters or dancing camels to make a point.

Also out on Wergo is a fascinating selection of solo trumpet works performed by the tirelessly innovative Marco Blaauw, creator of the double bell trumpet. Titled Angels, many of the pieces have angelic themes, including Liza Lim’s Wild Winged-One, Carl Ruggles’ Angels, Agata Zubel’s Wounded Angel and Blaauw’s own Deathangel. As compilations go, it’s extremely diverse (Richard Ayres, Rebecca Saunders and Georg Friedrich Haas are also among those represented) yet the disc works as a very effective ad hoc cycle, despite the considerable differences in compositional approach and manner. There are episodes of quiet profundity—Ruggles’ lovely complex tonality seems to foretell the music Messiaen would years later create to begin Éclairs sur l’au-delà…— but much of the music looks into less travelled territory. Liza Lim presents a challenging emotional bifurcation, a soaring melodic tendency answered by aggressive, bull-like snorting. Martijn Padding’s 23 sentences and autograph lives up to that title, sounding like a speech, by turns vicious, vivacious, withdrawn and weird. Blaauw’s Deathangel is deeply immersive, a gorgeous slice of heady nocturnalism that’s even just a hint nostalgic. Most impressive, though, is Rebecca Saunders’s neither; scored for two double-bell trumpets, the music is barely recognisable as being played by brass at all, buzzing, jarring otherworldly sounds emanating, as ever, out of dark, distant depths. Marco Blaauw’s playing throughout is as astonishing as the pieces; all told, this has to be the best survey of contemporary trumpet music currently available.

Way out in leftfield is the latest CD from flautist Richard Craig, whose reputation as a fearless interpreter of contemporary music is long- and well-established. This remarkable disc—a self-release, featuring bespoke artwork—presents Craig the improviser, in a trio of works that are about as far from the conventions of the concert hall as it’s possible to be. And all the better for it, if this music is anything to go by. There is, it must be said, grit and grind aplenty in these pieces; the textures created by Craig with the aid of nothing more than an amplifier and volume pedal are harsh, bewildering and frequently defy one’s attempts to imagine exactly how the sounds are being made. This seamless integration of the acoustic and electronically-processed is one of the album’s chief triumphs—even more so in Rodrigo Constanzo’s piece ialreadyforgotyourpussy.com, where the flute is combined with treated sounds emanating from (yet at no point sounding like) a snare drum. But it’s the five-part title work that makes the boldest and deepest impression, Craig’s flute, like a rogue explorer, passing through episodes of ferocious confidence and unexpected reticence. This is flute music at its most radical and bracing, a rarified delight for listeners who share Craig’s open-minded commitment to new sonic proving grounds.

If all this wasn’t enough, music’s most forward-looking, technically mind-blowing oboist Christopher Redgate has recently released a double album titled Electrifying Oboe, released on Metier. There’s a brace of works from both David Gorton and Christopher Fox; Fox is typically enigmatic, particularly in the curious and unsettling shifting regularity that underpins his work Headlong (for musette and square wave pulses), while Gorton’s Errinerungsspiel is really splendid, establishing a fascinating interplay between the soloist and live electronics; the drama in this latter piece is palpable, and its twists and turns yields more on repeated listenings. Edwin Roxburgh’s “…at the still point of the turning world…”, a piece i first encountered five years ago, continues to resist my attempts to get inside it, although its massive final tutti is as breathtaking as ever; Matthew Wright’s English Landscape Painting, on the other hand, is a superficial but rip-roaringly effective assault on the senses. Two works are performed twice on the album; in the case of Roger Redgate’s Concerto for Improvising Soloist and Two Ensembles, the differences are minimal—but the work is so amazingly exciting that it more than bears repeating—while Michael Young’s oboe_prosthesis, a piece heavily rooted in improvisation, positively benefits from dual interpretations. The first version features rapid figurations that are used to form a texture so dense that it feels impenetrable, and makes for a somewhat defeating listening experience; the second version couldn’t be more different: meditative, searching and rather beautiful. Anyone who’s ever heard Redgate’s playing knows how unbelievable it is, and throughout Electrifying Oboe he demonstrates again and again why he’s the most celebrated oboist of our age.

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