“Horizon 4 – Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra” = GUSTAV MAHLER/COLIN MATTHEWS: Nicht zu Schnell; GEERT VAN KEULEN: Fűnf tragisches Lieder; DETLEV GLANERT: Fluss ohne Ufer; WILLEM JETHS: Scale ‘le tombeau de Mahler’; JOEY ROUKENS: Out of Control; RODION SHCHEDRIN: Oboe Concerto; LUCIANO BERIO: Solo; MATTHEW HINDSON: Chrissietina’s Magic Fantasy – various conductors/soloists/Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra– RCO Live Recordings multichannel SACD RCO 11001 (two discs), 128:40 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:
Here is something I did not know: Established in 2004, RCO Live is the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s own in-house label, under which it produces CD, SACD and DVD releases of live concerts given at the Concertgebouw under the direction of Mariss Jansons and the leading guest conductors with whom it regularly works. One can listen to and order CDs by visiting the RCO Live Shop online. Additionally, “Horizon 4” is the most recent in a series of Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra recordings that, in this case, showcases lesser known contemporary works; a repertory that the RCO has always held a commitment to.
The packaging and label itself I found initially a bit busy visually, and just a little hard to figure out what this collection was. But once I put it on and read the very helpful booklet notes, I was amply impressed and clarified. Each one of these works is a very interesting piece, performed wonderfully and there is plenty of diversity of style at work.
The opening work, Nicht zu schnell, is an orchestration of the first movement of Mahler’s Piano Quartet, by British composer Colin Matthews. Matthews does a masterful job of setting this complex work by highlighting some important melodic lines, lightening the texture in places and giving us a compelling (and quite “Mahlerian” addition to the orchestral repertoire. It is really interesting programming to place Geert van Keulen’s Fűnf tragische Lieder right after the Mahler. The Four Tragic Songs bear some things in common with Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder as poet Anna Enquist wrote very intense words that have to do with the death of the composer’s daughter. Baritone Detlef Roth carries the emotion well in this gripping work. (I was wishing that the booklet notes would have provided translations for the poetry from German into English but one can do an online translation or search for the poet and certainly get the idea)
Fluss ohne Ufer (“River without Banks”) by Detlev Glanert presents a very different experience. The piece itself is actually based on the thematic elements of the same name by German writer Hans Henny Jahnn; which also served as the plot line to an opera by Glanert from which this tone poem (in a way) is derived. There is an atonal and serial base to the harmonies that works well in this context. This music works well in depicting violence on a ship and the tolling of bells as the sea claims all but two protagonists. I found this to be a very effective work.
Willem Jeths’ Scale tombeau de Mahler does, indeed channel Mahler and, specifically, his tortured, epigraphic Symphony #10. Jeths’ Scale refers to the Italian “stairs” and the composer’s experience of seeing a funeral from his New York hotel during which the procession stopped and a single jarring drumbeat was sounded; much as in the Mahler. Additionally, Jeths builds small motives that are “scalar” in their progression. This is a fairly mysterious and unsettling work that succeeds quite well even without knowing its Mahler origins.
Young Dutch composer Joey Roukens also acknowledges some connections to Mahler in his Out of Control. The intriguing title implies a certain amount of happenstance, but actually there is a frenetic, chaotic quality that exists in between some very somber “Mahlerian gestures,” as Roukens explains. This is a really captivating work, catching your attention with the dense sweeping beginning (in Roukens’ structure the first ‘A’ section – like a traditional rondo form) and grabbing hold through the intermittent ‘B’ sections; the first of which is almost a “circus waltz” (albeit a nightmarish one!) and the second with some pop elements. This is a very interesting work, that somewhat reminded me of John Adams in sections.
Outside of Mahler the two names in this collection with which most listeners will be familiar are Shchedrin and Berio. Rodion Shchedrin owes a lot of his musical style and harmonic vocabulary to his countryman Shostakovich. The RCO principal oboist, Alexei Ogrintchouk, asked Shchedrin for an Oboe Concerto (as it turns out the first for a reeded instrument that the composer had ever written) I was previously familiar only with the composer’s Concerto for Orchestra #3, “Old Russian Circus Music”. This concerto is a colorful showpiece for the soloist as well as the orchestra and illustrates that Shchedrin is a major twentieth century voice whose music deserves to be heard more. Luciano Berio is also a big name from the past eighty years. Berio had written a number of Sequenzas for solo instruments and Solo takes its cue from some of those. Much of Berio’s music sounds aleatoric but is, in fact, very carefully and precisely notated. Written in 1999 for the amazing Swedish trombone virtuoso Christian Lindberg, the RCO trombonist handles what Berio admitted was an “absurdly difficult” solo part with great aplomb. This is a dense and occasionally violent work but the trombone gymnastics are truly impressive.
Matthew Hindson is an Australian composer who writes a fascinating blend of pop- influenced, sometimes Australian aboriginal-influenced high energy works. (I recommend his Cello Concerto or Kalkadungu.) The present Chrissietina’s Magic Fantasy is another high energy work, structurally a work for two solo violins. Hindson wanted to evoked some “rockabilly” but there are elements of techno rock, country and “death metal” (all of which show the composer’s awareness of American pop culture, as well) The music vacillates wildly between the soothing and the wild and makes for very compelling listening.
All in all, this two-SACD set is very rewarding to listen to. Clearly, many of the works have the Mahler connection as a thematic mortar, but each piece is totally engaging in its own right. As I mentioned, I was not even aware that the RCO (in this collection under the very able batons of Lothar Zagrosek, Markus Stenz, Ed Spamjaard, David Robertson and Susanna Mälkki) had its own series of recordings. Based on this terrific set, I would love to track down “RCO Live” numbers 1-3. Certainly, this set will appeal most to people who like and appreciate contemporary music, but the pieces represented here might make a fan out of even the novice.
Pure Pleasure Records releases a re-mastered vinyl of a live duo performance by Archie Shepp.