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Michael GORDON (b. 1956)
XY (1998) [15:09]
Iannis XENAKIS (1922-2001)
Psappha (1975) [13:32]
Brian FERNEYHOUGH (b. 1943)
Bone Alphabet (1992) [11:24]
Stuart Saunders SMITH (b. 1948)
They Looked Like Strangers (2009) [24:18]
Justin DeHart (percussion)
rec. Warren Music Studio, La Jolla, CA, date not given
INNOVA 849 [64:26]


 
There is something about specialist percussion pieces which, while spectacular in live concerts, often leave me cold on record, much in the same way as I would prefer to see an opera staged rather than hear it on CD. These kinds of works have extra theatrical value, and all of those remarkable instruments demand the movement of real air rather than that of speaker cones. Im afraid the constant tapping of Michael Gordons XY is not something for which I am likely to put on my HiFi, either for pleasure or stimulation. The compositional technique is intriguing and the technically refined subtlety of the performance is a tour de force, but even after just a few minutes it jangles on the nerves and just aint fun to sit through.
 
Xenakis is a composer whose work for percussion can have a strong wow factor. Psappha has re-appeared with electronics since its original 1975 composition, and is one of the better known pieces on this programme. The fairly early BIS recording with the Kroumata Percussion Ensemble, BIS-CD-482, has more vitality than Justin DeHarts performance, which is also a bit roomier at over two minutes longer. DeHart mentions its massive sound in his CD notes, but the recording has difficulty communicating great resonance from the bass drum, and the whole thing seems a bit dry. The Kroumata performance gives a real sense of urgent and immutable ritual, where DeHart expertly performs the score.
 
Brian Ferneyhoughs work is notoriously complex, and I have massive respect for anyone capable of delivering effective performances of his music. Justin DeHart is well up to the task, and the close recording is more suited to the little nuances and wide dynamic variety and colours of each instrument, from tiny wood blocks to the deeper drums. The only other recording I could find was from Christian Dierstein on the WDR3 Ensemble Recherche series. Once again it emerges by comparison that DeHarts instruments sound a bit dull and lifeless, and Im sure the studio environment doesnt help in this regard. The sound of the instruments needs at least some chance to develop and blend in space, and Im afraid the results here, while excellent for analytical study, dont really add up to a truly satisfying musical experience.
 
The final piece, They Looked Like Strangers by Stuart Saunders Smith, brings the contrast of tuned percussion if not of tonality. There are no programme notes for this piece, but there are some poetic lines about a fraught and alienating childhood memory. If the composer seeks to express this alienation then he does a good job, unfortunately alienating the rest of us in the process. This kind of strangulated meandering is the sort of thing which, in my humble opinion, does serious contemporary music no good at all. Its fine for a brief Webernesque miniature, there are one or two serendipitous moments of atmospheric niceness and Im sure the compositional techniques used are clever beyond measure and all deeply considered and based on expressive conviction and honest toil. If however after nearly 25 minutes of grinding teeth Im missing the point by this much then I fear the point is not being made well. This music puts me in a bad mood, and no, I wasnt in a bad mood before listening or starting to write.
 
If you like percussion discs then there is always interest to be found in hearing new voices in this medium, and Justin DeHart is an expert guide. I think however that what this recording needed was a more realistic concert hall perspective, rather than the feeling that the player is performing for you in your own bedroom.
 
Dominy Clements