Frederic Rzewski

New releases: NEOS box sets – Donaueschinger Musiktage 2014, Darmstadt Aural Documents Box 3: Ensembles

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What with the increase in listeners turning away from physical releases in favour of digital downloads, and in light of yet another (admittedly somewhat spurious) article this week offhandedly proclaiming the imminent death of the album, the efforts of German label NEOS to put out large, lavish box sets are both absurd and marvellous in their optimistic enthusiasm. No other label does contemporary music like NEOS; in terms of quality and quantity, they are leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else, with an immense breadth of scope that’s doggedly committed to some of the most risk-taking, experimental music-making going on anywhere.

It’s NEOS who are responsible for issuing annual accounts of the goings-on at the Donaueschinger Musiktage (this year’s begins in a little over a week). The 2014 festival is represented, as usual, with a box set of four discs, though on this occasion the fourth disc is a DVD. The set features twelve large-scale compositions (many of them world premières), running to nearly seven hours of music, affording one the rare opportunity really to immerse oneself in a festival; for once, the cliché that it’s the next best thing to actually being there is entirely true. It would take a dissertation to discuss them all, but there are several that stand out more than the rest, such as Friedrich Cerha‘s Nacht for orchestra, seemingly split down the middle with its first half occupied with complex textures moving from high to low registers. The second half is sparer and more melodic, and has something of the searching freedom that typified the free atonal period; it’s really very lovely, with a later sense of poised tension released in a last-minute burst. For the first 90 seconds of Hanspeter Kyburz‘s Ibant obscuri, barely anything happens; but then, suddenly, it lurches out of the shadows, and the sheer size of his large orchestra makes itself intimidatingly felt in loud shrieks and thrusting accents (i’m not doing justice to it, it sounds literally massive). A bit like Cerha, its latter half has a melodic urge, seeking expression amidst a chaos of wonderfully unpredictable turbulence (including something akin to a wobble-board duet). The final few minutes are thrilling, ending in dazed repetitions of a single low note. Read more

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Proms 2013: the premières – how you voted

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Now that a fortnight has passed since the deafening broohaha of the Last Night, it’s time to look at how you, esteemed readers, have voted in the 5:4 Proms polls. 545 votes were cast this year, & having crunched the results in a variety of ways, here’s a summary of what you thought.

Worst New Work

Nishat Khan/Pete Stacey – The Gate of the Moon (Sitar Concerto No. 1)

The Proms première quality control took a real nosedive this year, & no-one can blame you for voting this hackrag as the worst of them. As i mentioned at the time, fingers need to pointed as much at Pete Stacey (who appears to have done most of the actual ‘hard’ work) as Nishat Khan, for creating one of the most ghastly examples of culturally confused, ingratiating sonic ghee you’ll ever have the misfortune to hear. Perhaps there’s a place in society for music that actually makes you feel more stupid while you listen to it (e.g.), but that place really shouldn’t be the Proms.

Runners Up

Diana Burrell – Blaze
Anna Clyne – Masquerade
Gerald Barry – No other people.

i know, right? So it seems when composers aren’t interested in either shocking or flattering us, they’ll opt simply to bore us with half-baked banalities. Not, it has to be said, terribly unpredictable in the case of a couple of these composers, but that doesn’t stop it becoming rather cuttingly irritating as the minutes slowly tick past. It would be pushing it to call Anna Clyne’s Last Night barnstormer “banal”, but it certainly lacked anything approximating originality, so it’s hardly surprising you voted so strongly against it.

Best New Work

Colin Matthews – Turning Point

86% of you gave a positive response to Colin Matthews’ new work, & even though it wasn’t my favourite of the premières, i can see where you’re coming from. Surprise & no little relief accompanied my experience of listening to the piece, particularly due to its refreshing (if rare) determination to avoid Faberian blandaties. “There’s a kind of majesty to it” i opined at the time, & that view hasn’t changed; the kind of dramatic rug-pulling Matthews comes up with, coupled with his nicely effective problem-cum-solution structure, go a long way to making this his most imaginative new work in a long time.

Runners Up

Frederic Rzewski – Piano Concerto
Helmut Lachenmann – Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied
Thomas Adès – Totentanz

No arguments here; i enjoyed all three of these works immensely, & they each seem to yield more & more on further listenings. It’s shameful that it took until Helmut Lachenmann’s 78th year before he was featured at the Proms (& 33 years since the Tanzsuite was first heard), but perhaps one should just celebrate the happening rather than picking fights about the wait. i still can’t quite get my head around what Rzewski’s up to in his Concerto; time will tell. As for Totentanz, maybe some of the backroom sneering that’s been a perennial accompaniment to Adès’ career might shut up for a bit in the face of what is a breathtaking addition to the repertoire. i don’t trot out words like ‘masterpiece’ very often, but i cleave firmly to my initial view of the piece, it really does seem to have that written all over it.

As to my own peeves & faves, the ‘new’ works by Philip Glass & David Matthews left me, literally, shouting at the speakers. i’ve wasted enough words on those twin monstrosities, so no need for anything more here, except to say i’m bewildered at the amount of support Glass’ music continues to ‘enjoy’; a little over half the votes for that piece were positive. Go figure. Turning to the triumphs, in addition to the Adès & Lachenmann scores, another favourite of my own this year was a piece that seems to have been skirted over by most of you who voted: Edward Cowie’s Earth Music I – The Great Barrier Reef. Perhaps that was due to a lack of listeners—the title, implying it can be filed under ‘eco-message’ possibly doesn’t help—but if so, that’s a shame, as Cowie’s music manages to get his point across purely through a sense of celebration & wonderment, & his sonic language is disarmingly but invitingly complex. If you haven’t checked it out yet, be sure to do so, as it’s a rather rarefied delight.

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Proms 2013: Frederic Rzewski – Piano Concerto (World Première) & Gerald Barry – No other people. (UK Première)

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Prophets, visionaries, seers, they’re an acquired taste, are they not? Often they get relegated to an idealistic niche characterised as “head in the clouds”—yet a more careful survey reveals that most luminaries are among the most earthly-wise & practical of people. This difficult-to-digest paradox coloured much of the music at yesterday’s late night Prom, which, alongside Feldman’s timeless Coptic Light, featured the UK première of Gerald Barry‘s 2009 work No other people. & the first performance of Frederic Rzewski‘s new Piano Concerto, performed by the composer with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ivan Volkov. Read more

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