USTWOLSKAJA:  Symphony Nr. 3 - "Jesus Messias, Errette Uns!"  RIHM:  Music for Clarinet and Orchestra.  ZIMMERMANN:  Photoptosis - PrČlude for Large Orchestra.
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra; Sylvain Cambreling, cond. (Rihm); Markus Stenz, cond. (Ustwolskaja/Zimmermann); Jorg Widmann, clarinet; Valeri Scherstanoi, narrator

COL LEGNO WWE 20083 (F) (DDD) TT:  65:07

Exhibits from the "hard" wing of the 20th-century music museum. I'm singing with an amateur chorus, which two days from now will perform a concert. The chorus splits in two: a community chorus and a chamber chorus of the better musicians. The chamber chorus will sing rather easy, but lovely, pieces by one Michael Horvit. They are tonal, even somewhat modal in "feel," eschewing messy counterpoint. A significant part of the chamber choir - the better musicians, remember - is having fits trying to learn this music. A fellow bass confided to me he hated atonal music and that twentieth-century music in general scared him (this Horvit is eminently tonal; it merely changes keys quickly -- about as quickly as Wagner's Tristan). The music, he felt, was just too difficult, too "intellectual" (in a bad way). Actually, the Beethoven Missa Solemnis (which we will perform later this year) is far more difficult and "intellectual" than the little Horvit chorales we were trying. The fellow knows the Beethoven is incredibly difficult, but he's nevertheless willing to put in the effort to jump the hurdles. For the life of me, I can't tell you why. TheTwentieth Century is over. That train has long left the station. Beefing about Bartók makes as much sense as moaning over Mendelssohn. Classical composers, who can't make a decent living from their music, are going to write the way they want to write, since there's no percentage at all trying to cater to an ignorant audience, unless you don't mind selling out to the New Age. And the audience is, to a great extent, grossly ignorant. This means, of course, that the gap between composer and public widens, rather than narrows, and I'm by no means convinced that this is mainly the composer's fault.

Forget the Horvit for a moment: I listen to the works on this CD and feel as though I'm watching the Saurians become extinct or the highest learning of the civilization retreat to hermit caves. I don't mean by this that we have here three masterpieces doomed to neglect. There are good reasons for not liking any of them, but I doubt most people have the frame of reference in which those reasons can be found. In short, one reason for the feeling of drift in music of the postwar era is that we can no longer distinguish not only such gross things as one style from another, but the more elusive one voice from another or even good from bad. The lack of refinement in critical judgment gives the game away. The tar brush has become way too broad because too many haven't the knowledge and skill to use a smaller one.

Is this elitist? You bet. I think knowing better than not knowing. I admit the possibility of great instincts arriving at a reasonable critical point, but I don't admit many have them. Besides, knowledge helps articulate instinct. Enough rant. If this CD sells 1,000 copies, the silver screw in my belly button will loosen and my rear end will drop off, from sheer surprise.

One distinguishing feature of new music is, in many cases, a sense of drama different than the 19th and classic 20th Centuries. Charles Rosen, I believe, cites an illuminating Haydn quote about how the composer learned to write symphonies from writing opera buffa. With Beethoven and Brahms (or even Hindemith, Schoenberg, Bartók, and Stravinsky, for that matter), one gets the sense of movement of a story or a play. However, with Ustvolskaya, Rihm, and Zimmermann, the movement of the music resembles more a painting or the singularity of mood in a lyric poem. The spatial "movement" of the music is "deep" rather than "wide." That is, we don't get a tale well-told or a journey from here to there, but (to swipe a Boulez metaphor) the complex swirl of particles in Brownian motion inside a beaker. We've had this before in Western music, in the masterpieces of the Renaissance, say pre-1620, and it's really only been 250 or so years of the other. Rather than tell a story, the music paints a picture. It's as if composers ignored the temporal aspect of the art.

Ustvolskaya, who in her early work showed the influence of Shostakovich, remains in many ways the most traditional composer here, but she's not all that traditional. She calls her piece a symphony, but it's certainly not a symphony as Shostakovich or even Brahms would have understood it. Musically, it insists on its materials almost to the point of monomania, with very little (but just enough) contrast to distinguish an exposition, a middle of some sort, and a recapitulation. The subtitle of the symphony, "Jesus Messias, errette uns!" (Jesus, Messiah, save us!), is, as far as I can tell (liner notes give no help, and the language is Russian), also the text, twice declaimed by the narrator. The music is unrelentingly deliberate and bleak -- the soundtrack to hell, or at least dystopia. Ustvolskaya clearly thinks we all need saving. The intensity of it might wear some people down -- I plan a good long rest before I tackle it again -- but it does keep interest for its more than eighteen minutes.

One of Europe's hottest composers, Wolfgang Rihm has begun to carve a career in the United States as well. I first heard of him only a couple of years ago, and I managed later to attend the premiere of his Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra in Cleveland with the Emerson String Quartet conducted by Dohnányi. The work did little for me, other than lull me into an uneasy hypnogogic state. It just went on and on and on. Like the man who'd been beating his head against the wall, I felt so good when it stopped. You can understand that I approached the Music for Clarinet a bit gingerly. On the other hand, I'm glad the opportunity came my way. The work grabbed me immediately with a wonderful, lyrically poetic opening and kept its hold -- one more reason to pay attention to individual works rather than to artistic movements or even to composers. Ultimately, it doesn't matter which technique a composer chooses or whose signature appears on the title page of the score.

Rihm subtitles his piece "Über die Linie II" (about the line, II). Apparently, there was an "Über die Linie I." My ear doesn't find a necessary connection between the subtitle and the music, but it might have been something to get Rihm going. Certainly, the clarinet can spin out long, seamless lines of music, and that's much of the opening. But other things happen as well, including almost-jazzy fast sections (with bongos, yet), an extended passage that reminds one of such traditional structures as sarabande and chaconne. The work runs over half an hour, and it not only kept my interest, it actually moved me.

Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Photoptosis, from 1968, is by far the oldest piece on the CD, and it shows its age. It typifies the main compositional trends of the Sixties and Seventies -- rhythmically static, gestures rather than themes, an emphasis on changing sonorities, somewhat like watching a lava lamp -- without giving anything new or individual. It's all very expert and very uninvolving. At 14 minutes, it seems to last twice as long as the Rihm.

Everything receives at least a decent, professional performance. Widmann, Rihm's clarinet soloist, is outstanding, and the orchestra plays with greater assurance under Cambreling than under Stenz. If I can imagine better performances of the Ustvolskaya and the Rihm, it doesn't detract from the commitment of these. It's hard to sustain the illusion of unremitting intensity in the Ustvolskaya (the music has to relax somewhere for the intensity to keep its effect), and finding those places is the job of the conductor. The Rihm switches moods subtly and the performers never leave the track of the composer's thought.

One final carp: The liner notes are unhelpful, even bloody awful -- infested with the obfuscatory, pretentious prose that plagues social science, certain schools of European philosophy, deconstructionist criticism, as well as writing about new music. Rihm doesn't help his own cause with his remarks about the piece. He comes across as artistically muddled and empty, an impression which the music itself emphatically contradicts. But he's not alone. The other writers -- Viktor Suslin and J–rn Pieter Hiekel -- have caught the same disease and do the same little dance. It's a way to show that they've got something Serious and Important to say. One word won't do when you can circumlocute with five. It's a thicket of words around the work. It keeps listeners out, rather than lets them in, and it fosters the impression not only that these folks hide their lack of perception in cow pies, but that they hide an essential emptiness in the music. This does not serve the music or, frankly, the writers themselves.

S.G.S. (July 2002)