50 Years: Music of Our Time Special Edition [TrackList follows] Var. performers – Wergo (5 CDs) – [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ***:
Let’s be honest, when you purchase a compilation CD, you run the risk of getting a musical grab bag. Such collections contain pieces that somebody else chose, thinking they might be “of interest.” In many cases, you find yourself skipping over 15% of the selections, never to give them another listen. The 50 Years, Music of our Time Special Edition is no exception. Its pieces by five composers vary greatly in repeat playability.
Each of the five composers gets one CD. I commend Wergo for sticking to one style or instrumental setup for each. John Cage’s seven pieces are all from his percussion works; Stravinsky’s CD features only piano music; Stockhausen’s CD contains instrumental chamber works without electronic compositions. And so on.
The labeling on the box cover is a bit misleading. It prominently reads “since 1962.” That promising phrase doesn’t mean all pieces are radically modernistic, particularly inventive, or even written after 1962. (None of the Stravinsky pieces were composed after 1944.) And of his are relatively tame, formally speaking. Wouldn’t Stravinsky’s quirky forays into serialism, like Canticum Sacrum (1956) and Threni (1958), have been more appropriate? The Concerto per due pianoforte soli is the most progressive of the lot, sounding least like the clever pastiches Stravinsky was so fond of.
Cage’s percussion pieces are among his most accessible and are always diverting, if not riveting. Sometimes he finds a theme that should be developed further, as in Amores, but he just lets it disappear like sand from a beach sculptor’s fingers. Sometimes a work is more musically satisfying than expected. The vocalise in She is Asleep is lyrical, even pretty, and certainly well sung by an uncredited soprano (probably Isabelle Berteletti, a percussionist in the Helios Quartet).
The true oddball in the lot is the minor composer Dieter Schnebel. His soundscapes include whooshing windy sounds, airplanes, high pitched squeals, rumbling organs, clattering trains, etc. in Choralvorspiele I/II and highly variegated breathing in Atemzüge. It’s hard to image these works getting much airplay today. Atemzüge traverses the reaction spectrum from amusing to mildly creepy, with some of the breathing sounding distinctly sexual. So how were they received in 1971? We’ll never know. The gushy program notes are unhelpful.
Stockhausen’s selections are sort of entertaining and worth a few listens, although not as many as I gave his bad boy electronica like Gesänge der Jugend and Kontakte in the sixties. I spent a great deal of time with my ear to my KLH Model 5 speakers, ingesting these two fascinating works. The current selections feature Stockhausen’s techniques of having his players suddenly shout nonsense syllables like “Hu-hu!”, which I find annoying, but then Luciano Berio and George Crumb did it too. It was cool back then, so in that sense these are historical performances.
The notable gems on this collection are by Luigi Nono. They are suggestive rather than declamatory pieces, often erupting in mysterious percussive agitation like Polifonica – Monodia – Ritmica, Some settle into uneasy and moody trances like Canti per 13. The 26-minute Hay que caminar for two violins is probably the one true masterpiece in the entire collection. Not just a pianissimo of aphoristic shreds, it is really compelling. Its edgy tones don’t grab us with cheap shock effects but though diaphanous sound clusters. Using Webern-like precision, it exposes dark impulses and fears lurking in all of us and, perversely perhaps, refuses to sooth us with the balm of resolution.
1. Kontra-Punkte by Karlheinz Stockhausen
2. Refrain – for piano, vibes, celesta (or synthesizer) & sound projector by Stockhausen
3. Zeitmasze by Karlheinz Stockhausen
4. Trio for Percussion (Schlagtrio), for piano and 2×3 timpani by Stockhausen
5. Polifonica – monodia – ritmica by Luigi Nono
6. Canti per 13 by Luigi Nono
7. Canciones a Guiomar by Luigi Nono
8. “Hay que caminar” soñando by Luigi Nono
9. Second Construction for 4 Percussionists by John Cage
10. Imaginary Landscape no 2 “March no 1” by John Cage
11. Amores by John Cage
12. Double Music by John Cage
13. Third Construction for 4 Percussionists by John Cage
14. She is Asleep by John Cage
15. First Construction (in Metal) for 6 Percussionists by John Cage
16. Choralvorspiele I/II by Dieter Schnebel
17. Atemzüge by Dieter Schnebel
18. Sonata for 2 Pianos by Igor Stravinsky
19. Easy Pieces (5) for Piano 4 hands by Stravinsky
20. Easy Pieces (3) for Piano 4 hands by Stravinsky
An extraordinary retrospective of an extraordinary artist