Classical Diaries: Bartok, Debussy, Ligeti


Tickling the Ivories: In a previous Bela Bartok essay, I only mentioned his piano concertos in passing, short shrift indeed for these heavyweights. On the whole, I donít find them as transcendent or intriguing as some of Bartokís other works, perhaps because piano was his primary instrument and they are thus rather ďshowyĒ (as are most concertos, I guess), but they are written with Bartokís usual sense of texture and form, and theyíre as strong as any other piano concertos Iíve heard.

The First concerto fits in with Bartokís taste for aggressive rhythms and tantalizing dissonance, offset by a menacing andante section. The overall effect is almost primitive in places, though the orchestration creates a grand scheme for the folk-like themes and pounding pulses. The Second is more virtuoso in a linear way, with the dazzling piano lines either picking up rapid-fire accompaniment from the orchestra or spinning off on their own. Much of the Secondís appeal stems from orchestral gestures - for example, the brass exclamations in the first and third movements, and the quiet, shimmering stringscape that opens the second movement. The Third has a reputation of being softer and less challenging than its predecessors, but its first movement does not hold back on angular maneuvering. It does however seem more conservative thematically, even a bit dainty, and in the second movement, Bartok falls into a placid area that is quite unlike most of his other music. This 11-minute adagio sounds like some of the later improvised ďhymnsĒ of Keith Jarrett (think Dark Intervals, for one), which is a nice way of hearing it, though in the sequence of Bartokís concertos, itís a bit of a bore to me. The third movement picks up steam again but stays within a relatively limited consonant area, pepped by a thrilling windup or two.

(If youíd like real analysis from an expert instead of my paltry descriptions, look for Halsey Stevensí excellent book The Life and Music of Bela Bartok.)

The only recording of the Piano Concertos that Iíve owned for years is a Phillips twofer featuring Colin Davis, Steven Kovacevich, and either the London or BBC Symphony Orchestras. (This same collection also contains my preferred version of Bartokís second Violin Concerto and a decent version of the Concerto for Orchestra.) Itís a magnificent recording; the brass and percussion are clear as can be, the piano resonates and cuts just right, and the whole mix is well balanced with enough surrounding ambience to give the music an appropriate size. In a recent bout of curiosity, though, I ordered a 2005 Deutsche Grammophon disc with the three concertos done by Pierre Boulez and three different soloists and orchestras - Krystian Zimerman/Chicago (No. 1), Leif Ove Andsnes/Berlin (No. 2), and Helene Grimaud/London (No. 3). The sound is again excellent, while the perspective differs from the Phillips set, almost as if the listener is ďinsideĒ the stereo positioning of some of the instruments. The piano has a darker, more intimate shade, the percussion not as sharp, and the horns are more spread out instead of in close formation. The string sections in the adagio of the Second concerto sound nice and full. The DG makes a good sonic companion to the Phillips, and the performances, far as I can judge, hit their marks. Though Boulez isnít always my first call for Bartok, his mechanical mind and attention to detail serve the Piano Concertos well. Davis and company do an equal job on the Phillips set. Iíd recommend either.

***

Chasing the Sea: Claude Debussyís stirring three-part symphonic poem La Mer is one of my very favorite pieces of music. Canít remember the first time I heard it (it may have snuck in on the backside of a Ravel compilation), but the first collection of Debussyís orchestral works that I intentionally bought was a two-disc London/Decca 1999 reissue featuring Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. As fine as this set is, I wondered after a while if I couldnít find a La Mer recording with more clarity and power. Thus began an on-again off-again chase that led to a number of different discs. I think the next one I tried was a Phillips twofer with Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and the feeling of the music was spot-on (indeed itís often held up as a touchstone La Mer) but it wasnít quite the sound I was looking for. Perhaps wanting something modern, I went to Pierre Boulezís award winning 1995 effort with the Cleveland Orchestra on Deutche Grammophon, though I found a less sensual La Mer than Iím used to. Formidable, to be sure, just not the spine-tingler Iíd hoped for. Then I stumbled upon Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra on the RCA Red Seal series. I told myself this was the one and stopped the hunt. But listening to it a couple of years later, the ending didnít hit me the right way, so it was back to the chase yet again.

Letís take it for granted that the Dutoit and Haitink are superior renditions with good sonics, and that they (along with the Boulez) have made satisfactory impressions on lots of listeners. Here then are brief descriptions of three Ďmidlineí Debussy excursions Iíve taken:

La Mer, Prelude a líapres midi díun faune, Nuages, Fetes, Images for Orchestra. Charles Munch, Boston Symphony Orchestra. RCA.

The full-bodied sound of La Mer won me over quickly on this 2004 reissue of any older recording. For once, Debussyís flutes and harps donít get lost in the background. My only musical complaint is with the final minute or so of La Mer, where Munch doesnít hold the climactic chords as long as Iíd like, and something about the strings in that segment doesnít feel right. It still works, but itís like the players saw that they were nearing the end of the score and were ready to wrap it up. On the other hand, lovely pacing makes Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun one of the best versions Iíve ever heard, and the two excerpts from Nocturnes and the lengthy Images suite are good as well. Overall, a great value with strong performances.

Prelude, Nocturnes, La Mer, Rapsodie espagnole (Ravel). Vladimir Ashkenazy, Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. Decca (reissued in the Eloquence series).

Askenazy does much justice to Debussy in these 1980s recordings; the main attraction is patient and passionate in all the right places. Sonically, some of the minor scenery is a bit indistinct. Same goes for the Prelude, where the flute (the featured instrument) hides behind everything else, and a few of the gestures in Nocturnes are lost in ambience. On the other hand, the strings sound absolutely gorgeous, particularly when they wind their way through the middle of the Prelude. Itís not uncommon to see Ravel invade a Debussy CD, or vice versa, but Ravelís Spanish Rhapsody is a little too perky an inclusion here. Regardless, another worthwhile disc.

Prelude, La Mer, Jeux, Childrenís Corner. Jun Markl, Orchestre National du Lyon. Naxos.

I bought this because it was a 2007 recording, assuming more details would shine through, and because Naxos sometimes captures a gem of a performance from not-so famous names. On the first count, the instruments are generally clear and the weight of the full orchestra is impressive, even if it took a couple listens to orient myself in this mix. (Case study: in Askenazyís Prelude, the strings lushly fill the spectrum, while in Marklís Prelude, theyíre relegated to one side and donít have nearly the same effect.) On the second count, this is a decent La Mer rendering, but not a gem. Some of the parts sound perfunctory, technically correct but shy of the glorious payoff you get when the orchestra breathes as one through the multi-layered passages. I donít know whatís missing, some intensity or different timing maybe. Itís good, just not a contender for the most authoritative performance ever. Jeux is a nice surprise, though the Dutoit/Montreal version comes off better to me. Ditto the faunís umpteenth Prelude. Even though this Naxos sits in the shadow of other Debussy collections, it sounds fine and I do enjoy it.

In the end, no matter whoís holding the baton or positioning the microphones, La Mer sweeps away daily concerns for a larger view - not necessarily of the sea as a literal image, although thatís an ideal symbol for the beautiful, natural, and awe-inspiring.

***

Warping Tradition: The Ligeti Project boxset on Teldec collects five volumes of Gyorgy Ligetiís music recorded mostly between 2000 and 2002. These volumes are also available as individual CDs, though the box is a more economical way to get everything at once. The project picked up where Sonyís Ligeti Editions left off, and youíll have to go back to those Sonys for such items as the string quartets and solo piano pieces. Though not a complete collection of his work, the Teldec box covers a lot of ground and is pretty definitive in sound and performance.

Most appealing to me are the spacy, droning pieces like Atmospheres, Lontano, or Melodien, where unsettled clusters slowly unfold and intersect one panel at a time. If not exactly relaxing, these pieces have a transcendent, sensual nature. (And Lontano, once several of its notes have stacked up on each other, strongly resembles Robert Frippís mid-90s soundscapes.) In a more schizoid vein are the concertos, which in the case of violin and piano feature accompaniment thatís eerie, diabolical, and humorous all at once - hairpin rhythms, glittering instrumentation, thorny dissonances, and quick turns in and out of thematic areas. Obviously a lot of thought went into these scores, which involve much precision and a creative ear. The Hamburg Concerto pits naturally tuned horns against the equal tempered pitches of other instruments, making for peculiar dissonances but being a likeable work nonetheless. The sparse Cello Concerto, on the other hand, is not much to my liking.

The Requiem is a stunner, particularly in the second movement. The dark aura and rude shocks of this Ďholyí piece would be fit for a rather sadistic church, but for me, itís of another world altogether, and Iím not just saying that because Stanley Kubrick used part of it in his movie 2001. (Speaking of, the alien vocal piece Aventures is here as well, as are Eight Pieces from ĎMusica Ricercataí, only done on accordion instead of piano.) Two of my other favorites, San Francisco Polyphony and Clocks and Clouds, layer percussive elements and somewhat tangible harmonies into the soundscape format. Most of the above pieces are where Ligeti makes his strongest contribution as an artist, to my mind, acknowledging tradition yet twisting the elements into a new language.

Odds and ends include the avant garde tape piece Artikulation, the Cello Sonata, Mysteries of the Macabre for trumpet and chamber orchestra, and Concert Romanesc, which sounds startlingly traditional in these surroundings. I wonít namecheck any more - itís 24 works in all, quite a range of the curious and curiouser. The audio quality of these recordings really shines. Ligetiís music can occasionally fall to such a quiet level that it escapes hearing, only to slam back in at full force. In fact, I think Ligeti overdoes the dynamics at times; I abandoned some of his Deutsche Grammophon recordings because I hated cranking up the volume and still hearing nothing but silence. But Teldec preserves the clarity of the instruments even at their softest, and when they do rise in volume, they are exquisitely detailed.

I wouldnít recommend Ligeti to just anybody, but if youíve ever been interested in his music, this collection is worth considering. (And if not the whole box, then at least Volume 2 of the individual discs, which includes Lontano, Atmospheres, and San Francisco Polyphony.)


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