Aureole etc.

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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett


Recent Contemporary Music on CD: Feldman, Finnissy, Pritchard, Usher. Maxwell Davies, Staebler and Zimmermann reviewed by John Warnaby


Morton Feldman: String Quartet 2; Flux Quartet; Feldman Edition 6; Mode, 112.

Morton Feldman: Violin and String Quartet; Peter Rundell - Violin, Pellegrini String quartet; Hat Art, 2 - 137.

Michael Finnissy: Lost Lands; Topologies; Metier, MSV CD 92050. see also review by Neil Horner

Michael Finnissy: This Church; Richard Jackson, Jane Money, Ixion ensemble, conducted by the composer; Metier, MSV CD 92069. see also review by Gary Higginson

Michael Finnissy: Etched Bright with Sunlight; Nicolas Hodges - piano; Metronome, MET CD 1058.

Multiplicities: Recent Music for Solo Flute; Nancy Rufer; Metier, MSV CD 92063. see also review by Neil Horner

Alwynne Pritchard: Invisible Cities; Topologies; Metier, MSV CD 92040 see also review by Chris Thomas

Julia Usher: Sacred Physic; Various Artists; Metier, MSV CD 92066. see also review by John Leeman

Peter Maxwell Davies: Chamber works, 1952 - 1987; Guy Cowley - Clarinet, Ian Pace - Piano, Kreutzer String Quartet; Metier, MSV CD 92055.

Gerhard Staebler: Complete Piano Music; Paulo Alvares - Piano; Metier, MSV CD 92075, a and b.

Walter Zimmermann: Beginner's mind: Works for Piano; Ian Pace - Piano; Metier, MSV CD 92057, a and b.

Walter Zimmermann: Schatten der Ideen, etc.; Ensemble Recherche; Mode,111.





Everything I wrote in my original review of Morton Feldman's Second String Quartet still applies (1- see below). In addition, it is testimony to the growing significance of the music of Morton Feldman that alternative recordings of his oeuvre are appearing with increasing frequency. This second recording of the Second String Quartet is a further vindication of his compositions in general, and this work in particular. It can hardly displace the historical importance of the Ives Ensemble's pioneering version, but it offers a fascinating alternative interpretation.

The most obvious difference is that the new version occupies five discs instead of four, lasting more than six, rather than five hours. This is because the Flux Quartet have chosen to adopt the slowest tempi sanctioned by the composer, and they place greater emphasis on matters of detail, with particular attention to phrasing and expression. As a result, their interpretation has greater variety than the Ives Ensemble, and this aspect encourages concentrated listening.

However, as Christian Wolff observes in his introduction, responses to such an extended score are predominantly subjective. Inevitably, much depends on whether one chooses to listen to all or part of the work at a single hearing. Nevertheless, although compact discs are well suited to chamber music, they cannot capture the epic character of Feldman's Quartet. In essence, it is a ritual, probably best appreciated at night, thereby minimising outside interference. Yet whether one listens individually, or in a group, it can hardly match a 'live' performance. The audience may not have achieved the mystical state described by the players in the liner notes, but they undoubtedly shared in a unique communal experience.

Still, concert performances are bound to be rare, so, despite their limitations, both recordings are immensely valuable. The Flux Quartet have benefited from the Ives Ensemble's original version, and they deliver their extended interpretation with unwavering conviction. Ideally, Feldman enthusiasts will probably want both recordings, but those who have already invested in the Ives Ensemble discs need not feel impelled to buy the new set. On the other hand, for those who have yet to add the work to their collection, the Flux Quartet can be recommended as slightly superior.

Finally, as US politicians persist in mindlessly bullying the rest of the world, it is gratifying to reflect for a few hours on a quieter, more intelligent and altogether more civilised aspect of American culture.

The same sentiment applies to Violin and String Quartet, written shortly before String Quartet II. It shares the same harmonic language, but is a much shorter work, lasting a little over two hours. However, it is much less varied, employing the same texture throughout, thereby demanding even greater concentration from players and listeners. Furthermore, the final pages are strangely inconclusive, even by Feldman's standards. Nevertheless, Peter Rundell and the Pellegrini Quartet ensure that it is a worthwhile addition to the Feldman discography. The recording was originally announced some years ago, and may even have appeared briefly. It is hoped it will remain longer in the catalogue on this occasion.

Lost Lands and This Church are Metier's latest Michael Finnissy offerings. They are very different in character, and the latter might be regarded as a surprising project for an avant-garde composer to undertake except that Finnissy has always, and rightly, regarded himself as an all-round musician. The title, Lost Lands, is taken from the longest, and most convincing of the seven items on the disc. Otherwise, at least the first five items tend to confirm Michael Finnissy's comment that "these pieces are recycled waste". They are all virtuoso pieces, but they are either duos for oboe, oboe d'amour or soprano saxophone with percussion, or short studies for solo oboe. Moreover, much of the material is rather similar, so it is a distinct relief when the oboe is joined by bassoon and pi for Keroiylu.

Lost Lands, for small ensemble, is more ambitious in scale and content. It is not one of Finnissy's finest achievements, but it merits close attention, not least in view of its Feldmanesque qualities. It certainly goes some way to justifying this disc.

This Church was recorded at St. Mary de Haura, New Shoreham, in February 2003, as part of the celebrations marking the 900th anniversary of the church. It was designed as a community event, and as such, illustrates Finnissy's versatility as a composer: his willingness to write as enthusiastically for amateurs as professionals, and his ability to combine ideas from the avant-garde with simpler music in a more familiar style. The hour-long work, scored for soprano, baritone, two narrators, chorus, organ and ensemble, is divided into four sections, outlining the history of the church and its neighbourhood through extracts from surviving documents. The music is arranged in four cycles associated with the various vocal forces. They are interspersed in accordance with the functions of the different groups, but only the second cycle, for solo baritone, appears in all four sections. Various styles are adopted, reflecting the different traditions of Western European sacred music, so there are allusions to the music that might have been heard in the church throughout its history. Many composers have aspired to write for their local community, but few have reached the level of conviction achieved by Finnissy in This Church.

Michael Finnissy's piano music is more consistent in quality than his contributions to other genres. In addition to his own advocacy, it has attracted many pianists, and has been well served by recordings. His own performances have been matched by those of Ian Pace, and now they have been joined by Nicolas Hodges' recent disc. Finnissy's compositions draw on a variety of styles, and the fact that Pace and Hodges play a wide range of new music makes them ideal interpreters. Their approaches differ to some extent, but it will probably need their combined efforts to encompass Finnissy's complete output for the piano.

Hodges' new disc has been thoughtfully planned. Featuring items from different phases of Finnissy's career, it illustrates different compositional methods, including original pieces, sometimes using pre-existing material, as well as a variety of arrangements and transcriptions. Above all, two substantial items from A History of Photography in Sound are presented. These are not simply a foretaste of Ian Pace's complete recording, but hopefully foreshadow an alternative version.

Instrumental virtuosity has always been a close ally of radical composition, so Nancy Rufer's solo flute recital surveys not only her contribution to the contemporary repertoire, but to new music in general. She has concentrated on British and American composers, most of whom are well known, though one or two may already be fading from the scene. All the items are demanding, calling for a variety of flutes, but such advanced playing techniques as multiphonics, or the use of vocalisation, are comparatively rare.

Inevitably, there are suggestions of birdsong and non-Western traditions. The exception is Brian Ferneyhough's highly original Superscriptio, which may explain why it is the most arresting of the nine pieces on offer. Still, the others are worthy of attention, and listeners preferring challenging late-evening chamber music to the ragbag that is Radio 3's Late Junction could well start with this disc.

Alwynne Pritchard began her career primarily as an exponent of small-scale music-theatre, but in recent years, her range has expanded considerably. However, her modernist background still provides the foundation of her creative imagination, so there is an element of tension in works where she has attempted to broaden her style.

The Piano Quintet: Barbara Allen, is possibly the most arresting item. The not particularly dissonant piano chords are contrasted with, even complemented by, modernist writing for strings, whose context avoids any suggestion of functionality. Likewise, the somewhat histrionic vocal expressionism of Kit is heard against a rather ethereal instrumental background. The shorter items, such as Spring, for piano, or the two versions of Nostos ou Topos, for guitar, are rather anonymous. The more extended pieces generally lack the individuality of the Piano Quintet, though the experimental character of Matrix, for violin, is worth noting. The disc concludes with the ambitious Invisible Cities, for piano, echoing the initial Spring, and giving the programme a measure of symmetry. It also confirms Alwynne Pritchard's preoccupation with the piano.

Julia Usher is somewhat older than Alwynne Pritchard. Her compositions are less radical in outlook, though possessing a certain originality. She is not as well known, at least partly because of her involvement in diverse activities: projects linking all the arts; music-therapy; even music publishing. She also has a long-standing obsession with Shakespeare: hence half the disc is devoted to Sacred Physic, her "mini opera" in the form of a "dramatic madrigal", for soprano and ensemble. It is based on Shakespeare's drama, in which King Pericles is finally re-united with his daughter, Marina, whom he believed was drowned at sea. The work is essentially cast as a sequence of variations, with the cello representing Pericles.

A Reed in the Wind, for solo oboe, doubling cor anglais, is even more specifically in variation form. It is ultimately based on Western Wynde: a theme favoured by John Taverner and other English renaissance composers, and the work was inspired by various prevailing winds that influence different areas of the earth's surface.

The remainder of the disc comprises a piano piece in memoriam Robert Sherlaw Johnson; some pieces for recorder and piano; plus further vocal settings to texts by Blake and Shakespeare.

Many composers have cause to be extremely grateful to metier sound and vision, but their latest disc, featuring the music of Peter Maxwell Davies is probably their finest achievement to date. It appears at a time when there is a dearth of Maxwell Davies recordings, and presents some of his instrumental and chamber music from the 1950's and 1960's.

The disc contrasts the four Quartets Maxwell Davies wrote before embarking on the Naxos cycle, with three pieces for clarinet two with piano. There are also the Five Pieces for Piano, opus 2,which, together with the Clarinet Sonata and the 1961 String Quartet, illustrate how closely Maxwell Davies identified with the principles of post-war serialism during the first phase of his career. The Quartet is one of the composer's finest scores, and if any of the Naxos Quartets achieve a similar standard, the cycle will be entirely justified. The Kreutzer's interpretation is exemplary, and this recording can stand as a memorial to Goffredo Petrassi - Maxwell Davies' main teacher - who died recently without quite reaching a century.

Guy Cowley and Ian Pace provide an eruptive performance of Hymnos, which is equally impressive. They almost elevate the piece to the status of a major work, not least in view of Cowley's extraordinary dynamic range even when employing 'advanced' instrumental techniques. On the other hand, the two Little Quartets, from the 1980's, are precisely what they claim to be. The style is also more predictable than in Maxwell Davies' earlier output. Thus the radical transformation his music underwent between the 1961 Quartet and Hymnos has not been repeated subsequently. By any standards, this is an outstanding disc and obviously highly recommended. Its importance can hardly be exaggerated.

Another significant development has been the start of a series featuring German composers who have been somewhat neglected in this country. Gerhard Staebler and Walter Zimmermann were born in 1949. They have been influenced by a variety of styles across the new music spectrum, including the American experimental tradition; but their responses have been very different. Nowhere is this more apparent than in their piano music.

The piano was once the quintessential bourgeois instrument, but as its domestic association has dwindled, it has regained some of the potential for innovation which appealed to such pioneering spirits as Beethoven and his immediate successors. Staebler and Zimmermann are each represented by two-disc sets: the former played by Paulo Alvares, a Brazilian resident in Cologne; the latter by the redoubtable Ian Pace.

Gerhard Staebler's piano music is probably not as central to his output as that of Zimmermann. Most of it dates from the 1990s, including the half-hour piece, Dali, which occupies disc 1, and offers a good introduction to Staebler's style. The second disc contains shorter items, but collectively, they can be regarded as forming a single entity. Windows comprises five short pieces, while three equally brief items are drawn from the series entitled Internet.

Many of Staebler's piano pieces also exist in alternative versions. Some involve interpreting graphic notation, and frequently include an element of improvisation. Extraneous sounds are another important feature, emanating from radios, tape, or percussion. In some instances, the pianist is also required to vocalise. Hence, the range of sonorities is far greater than might be anticipated from two discs of piano music.

On the other hand, the piano has always been central to Walter Zimmermann's output, and his compositions for the instrument usually reflect his most fundamental preoccupations: folk music; medieval theology, particularly the writings of Meister Eckhart; ancient and medieval philosophy; Zen Buddhism. Indeed, Zen Buddhism is central to Beginner's Mind, which occupies disc 1. Moreover, Zimmermann was drawn to Cage's output of the late 1940s, together with Satie, while the prologue was inspired by Schubert, thereby establishing a link with Staebler's Dali, whose composition involved filtering Schubert's piano sonatas through a magic square.

Thus, Zimmermann filters his music through Zen principles to clear the mind. The 45 pieces are divided into three groups in accordance with Buddhist precepts, and the work is unified by recurring motifs and simple melodies which have an hypnotic power. This is enhanced by Ian Pace's curiously haunting vocal contributions during the latter stages of the work.

The second disc comprises shorter items, though Wistenwanderung and Abgeschiedenheit are substantial scores. They are based on similar material, and similar compositional procedures, yet are very different in character. Abgeschiedenheit, - the fourth work in the cycle, Vom Nussen des Lassens, inspired by Meister Eckhart - is contemplative, in accordance with Eckhart's injunction, "begin by freeing yourself from yourself". Wistenwanderung, partly modelled on Plato's concept of the seven stages in the evolution of the world's soul, is altogether more dramatic.

Finally, Wanda Landowska's Lost Instruments, for midi harpsichord and piano, is one of Zimmermann's more recent pieces. It uses a technique originally developed in Lokale Musik, whereby pre-existing material is systematically transformed. All the music was associated with Landowska, and at the premiere, was heard alongside the projection of images documenting the loss of instruments, manuscripts, etc. to the Nazis during the occupation of France. In short, these two discs reveal not only the compositional range of Zimmermann's piano music, but also the wide variety of sources from which he has drawn inspiration.

The same applies to Zimmermann's extensive output of chamber music, from which Ensemble Recherche have selected four works, dating from the mid 1990s. As a result, this is not simply a 'portrait disc', but a detailed study of a specific phase in his career. Morton Feldman is frequently cited as an obvious influence, but whereas Feldman's compositional procedures and his preoccupation with metaphysical issues stemmed partly from his involvement with the visual arts, notably abstract expressionism, Zimmermann has remained steadfastly Central European in outlook. Accordingly, none of the pieces is very long; goal orientation is avoided; and there is a definite impression that the music could continue for a long time.

Distentio, for string trio, from the cycle, About Time, is the longest, but also the most concentrated item on the disc, and probably the best. In keeping with the Confessions of St. Augustine, it is meditative in character. Likewise, Schatten der Ideen 2, for piano quartet, had its origins in the philosophical writings of Giordano Bruno, whose speculations gave rise to a constantly changing interplay between piano and strings.

The remaining pieces are hardly less rewarding. Taken together with the recording of Zimmermann's piano music, this disc offers a good opportunity to re-evaluate a composer whose achievement has not been adequately recognised.


  1. John Warnaby: Extended Feldman; Tempo No. 220, April 2002, pages 53 - 54.

© John Warnaby, 2003

Divine Art are issuing two new CD's one of which is contemporary piano music, including one piece each from Finnissy and Feldman (to be reviewed later) . We believe the Finnissy has not been recorded previously. In October they issued Murray McLachlan's version of Stevenson's Passacaglia (which the composer is delighted with) and there is a forthcoming disc by Goldstone & Clemmow of 20th and 21st century piano music by Holst, Stevenson, Leighton and Hedges - all world premieres, even the Holst.

Title: "Decoding Skin"
Artist: Philip Howard (piano)
The disc contains:

Paul Whitty (b.1970): De-coding Skin
Max Wilson (b.1973): Zeitlin [on]
Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001): Evryali
Paul Newland (b.1966): “…butterfly dreaming…”
Michael Finnissy (b.1946): Eadweard Muybridge - Edvard Munch
Morton Feldman (1926-1987): Palais de Mari

ALL WORLD PREMIÈRE RECORDINGS (except “Evryali” and “Palais de Mari”)

cd duration 69:28 direct sales price £12.99.


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