STEFAN LITWIN Program IV, “The Bells” = DEBUSSY: La Cathédral engloutie from “Préludes”; MICHAEL GIELEN: Klavierstück in sieben Sätzen, “Recycling der Glocken”; RAVEL: La vallée des cloches from “Miroirs”; STEFAN LITWIN: The Bells: Melodram und Totentanz (after Edgar Allan Poe); LISZT: Carillon from “L’arbre de Noël” – David Moss, Sprechstimme / Stefan Litwin, piano – Telos Music Records TLS 075, 66:47 [Distr. by Naxos] ***1/2:
This album is one in a series wherein pianist-composer Stefan Litwin (born 1960) explores some concept or other that informs piano music—transcriptions, for example. Program IV crystallizes around the idea of capturing the sound of bells in music. Fair enough: without too much effort I can come up with a number of compositions that springboard off this idea. In execution, however, Litwin’s disc is such an oddly sorted piece of programming that I’m still of two minds about it. So I’ll let you in on the thinking of both those minds.
First off, two of the likely suspects hinted at above show up on our program. La Cathédral engloutie and La vallée des cloches are two of the most mysteriously atmospheric pieces from Debussy’s Préludes and Ravel’s Miroirs respectively. The tones of distant, constantly tolling bells resound through both works. The last piece on the program, while hardly known at all, is an obvious choice as well. It’s a charming, even naïve evocation of bells announcing Christmas morning—Liszt at his least bombastic. So far so good.
Then there are the two contemporary pieces, which actually represent Litwin’s principal interest as a pianist. He’s worked with Michael Gielen on the podium as well as on paper before, and it’s actually good to have a sampling of original music by this widely respected Austrian conductor. (Gielen’s performances and recordings of Mahler and Bruckner are especially admired.) Gielen came to musical maturity just as the Second Viennese School was starting to dominate compositional thinking in the West. In 1949 in Buenos Aires, he performed Schoenberg’s piano music complete, quite a feat. Michael Gielen has always favored serial technique in his compositions, and his Klavierstück in sieben Sätzen (“Piano Piece in Seven Movements”) of 2001 is no exception. Subtitled “Recycling der Glocken” (“Recycling of the Bells”), it gives us an inkling of what to expect before we even hear it. The piano soloist plays bell-like passages on both a regular grand and an upright prepared piano. Metal screws placed between the piano strings create the sound (more or less) of a gong, which is echoed by five Buddhist temple bells. In addition, Gielen employs a tape recorder. Of this, Gielen remarks, “In the beginning one hears. . .the tape music from the end of the piece, and at the end music from the beginning. This dialogue of the pianist with himself had—in addition to the enrichment and stimulation through an added element of sound—the goal of veiling the recapitulation.”
The piece has its interesting moments, and it doesn’t seem ruthlessly monolithic as some serial compositions do. There’s actually a good deal of rhythmic and dynamic variety along with the obvious timbral variety. But for me it really goes on too long. I’m hard pressed to say in a piece like this how long it should last, how many minutes before all the different timbral combinations and permutations have been sufficiently explored. Without a score at my disposal (and even then I’d probably need the composer to point out the architectonics of his piece), I can only say I’ve heard all that I need to hear well before the piece ends. I feel its thirty-one minutes could be compressed—quite a bit, in fact—without my missing anything, although the composer would probably feel cheated to no end. Maybe fans of serial music will have more sympathetic reactions, but to me it all sounds like a throwback to the 50s and 60s.
After Gielen’s fiercely modernist exercise, Stefan Litwin’s loopy brand of postmodernism is both refreshing and jarring—not to mention that both composers jar with Debussy, Ravel, and Liszt, but that’s another story. Litwin chose to set as sprechstimme the text of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Bells.” Talk about being of two minds: most educated readers today are probably that way about Poe, including “The Bells.” While it’s a tour de force of onomatopoetic writing, the poem’s Gothic evocation of the ghouls in the bell tower and repetition ad nauseum of “the bells, bells, bells, bells, / Bells, bells, bells” is hard to take seriously (though Rachmaninoff took it deadly seriously in his famous cantata of the same name). Ergo, I suppose, the involvement of sprechstimmet in Litwin’s treatment: speaker David Moss is encouraged to emote grotesquely and exaggerate to no end the emotionally charged words such as “merriment,” “delight,” “shriek,” and “groan.” (Is Litwin’s The Bells also a send-up of sprechstimme as employed in overheated Expressionist works such as Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire? Seems like it to me.) The fun that both Moss and Litwin have with the lines
Keeping time, time, time,
As he knells, knells, knells,
In a happy Runic rhyme,
To the rolling of the bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells. . .
is nearly criminal! This comes in the section referred to in Litwin’s subtitle as Totentanz. In the notes to the recording, Litwin quietly states, “I composed it as ragtime,” but folks, this ain’t Scott Joplin. The syncopations are so outlandishly off-kilter that nobody’s going to dance to this ragtime!
While Moss slaughters Poe’s poetry at this point and Litwin is hardly more respectful, heard in isolation Litwin’s music is for the most part cleverly evocative of the bell sounds that Poe portrays. As in Gielen’s piece, Litwin asks for the kinds of sounds a performer gets out of a prepared piano à la John Cage. Litwin also produces those creepy, slithery tones that Henry Cowell introduced to the world in Banchee, where the performer plays glissandi on the piano strings. (If you haven’t heard Banchee, you need to.)
The Bells is one absolutely wild and crazy piece, though it must be said that because Litwin has a different agenda than Poe does, he really doesn’t respect the carefully variegated sounds that Poe creates in the different sections of his work. The short vowel sounds that the poet uses in the first section (“Hear the sledges with the bells”) produces a much different sound picture than the long vowel sounds in the last (“Hear the tolling of the bells / Iron bells!”). As you read the poem, the section about the silver sleigh bells seems to fly along, while you naturally take at a more solemn pace the section about the iron bells tolling for a funeral. Not so in Litwin’s The Bells, and this is for me a shortcoming. The first two sections seem to drag and just don’t work for me as well as the last two, funny as David Moss’s delivery is throughout.
As far as Litwin’s playing of the other works on the program is concerned, I have no complaints. The pianist treats the older composers with the deep seriousness they should be accorded and catches the mood and tenor of the works perfectly, whether it’s hazy Impressionism or wide-eyed Romanticism. Do these works jell in any meaningful way with the Gielen and Litwin pieces? That’s down to personal taste, I guess.
I hope I’ve been able to convey both my enjoyment of and reservations about this strange enterprise. Ultimately, it has to be heard; there’s no fully describing the experience. Whether you want to take a flyer on this disc I leave up to you, gentle reader. I enjoyed parts of it a lot, though I doubt I’ll return to most of it terribly often.
— Lee Passarella