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10.1.07

ECM New Series, September 2006

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Music by Honegger, Martinů, Bach, Pintscher, Ravel, by Frank Peter Zimmermann, violin, and Heinrich Schiff, cello (released on September 26, 2006)
The discs in ECM's New Series are regular pleasures, recitals of modern works often paired with older music, concerts (occasionally of great interest) one is glad to have caught through the medium of recording. This release from violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann and cellist Heinrich Schiff reminded me of a concert by Renaud and Gautier Capuçon that I enjoyed a year ago at Shriver Hall. Violin-cello duo is an unusual combination of instruments, but modern composers seem more drawn to it than those in previous eras. The Capuçons played Bohuslav Martinů's second duo, and so it was a pleasure to hear the first duo (H. 157) on this disc, a work composed 30 years earlier when the composer was living in Paris. As explained in the excellent liner notes by Paul Griffiths (whose new book, A Concise History of Western Music, Scott Spiegelberg and I are both reading), the common theme here is counterpoint. We even have the work of the master, J. S. Bach, an adaptation of two canons from The Art of Fugue.

As is usually the case, Bach shames those who followed and imitated him, including the strange, atmospheric Study I for "Treatise on the Veil", by Matthias Pintscher (composed in 2004 for this duo), which is sandwiched by the two Bach canons. At 11:26, the piece outlasts the interest of its thematic ideas. If the heart of the recording is a little hollow, the two works that bookend it are both rich. Arthur Honegger's sixth sonatine in E minor (1932) and Maurice Ravel's sonata for violin and cello (1922) are cut from similar cloth, informed by the rationalistic love of counterpoint. This contrapuntal severity in the era between the world wars is the musical counterpart of the intellectual rappel à l'ordre advocated by artists like Piet Mondrian, all grids and solid colors. The Ravel sonata, the only piece also played by the Capuçons on their Shriver Hall concert, looks forward to minimalism, too, in its reduction to motivic principles. A worthy disc.

ECM New Series 1912

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Misterioso (music by Silvestrov, Pärt, Ustvolskaya), Alexei Lubimov, Alexander Trostiansky, Kyrill Rybakov (released on September 26, 2006)
This disc of music by three composers born in the former Soviet Union (or places under its control) received an honorable mention in Alex Ross's Best of 2006 list. The first piece on this disc, Valentin Silvestrov's Post Scriptum, a sonata for violin and piano from 1990, is an unabashedly lovely, almost teary-eyed look backward to Romantic tonality. I spent the first several listenings to this disc trying to identify some of the melodies, thinking that Silvestrov must be quoting them from older compositions. Is it really so surprising that a living composer could write a pretty tune? Other composers can be the hardest critics about this: when David Salvage heard the piece in a live performance at Issue Project Room, he said it "crosses the line as far as tonal indulgence goes." The other Silvestrov piece, Misterioso (for clarinet solo with piano, from 1996), has only the glacial pace and atmospheric effects in common with the first piece. The score calls for the clarinetist also to play the piano part, including holding down the sustaining pedal, playing the keys, and even strumming the strings directly. The effect is somewhat gimmicky.

Post Scriptum goes well with another modernist fugitive to the land of tonal beauty, Arvo Pärt, in his Spiegel im Spiegel, here in the 2003 arrangement for clarinet and piano. It's a dreamy, trance-like spiral, a waltz remembered through a prism that slows down time. The remaining pair of works come from a notorious student of Shostakovich, Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006), whose death was recently noted by Alex Ross. The Trio for clarinet, violin, and piano from 1949 is a sphinxian piece, monstrously understated at times and a near-satire of musical intellectualism in its faux-contrapuntal third movement. I was less immediately charmed by the Sonata for violin and piano (1952), which the fine liner notes by Jürg Stenzl (translated by J. Bradford Robinson) calls an "endgame of two prisoners shut in a wasteland that conditions their very existence." That may not sound like much of an endorsement for listening, but the monotonous main theme of this work, an anxiety-ridden perfect fourth idée fixe ticking back and forth like a pitiless clock, captures something sinister, perhaps the tension of walking on the razor's edge of compositional creativity in the Soviet era.

All three performers -- pianist Alexei Lubimov, violinist Alexander Trostiansky, and especially clarinetist Kyrill Rybakov -- do superb work. Once again, the vision of Manfred Eicher, the founder of ECM and the producer of both of these discs, has realized something very much worth the time to hear.

ECM New Series 1959

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