LINDBERG:  Cantigas.  Cello Concerto.  Parada.  Fresco.
Christopher O'Neal, oboe (Cantigas); Anssi Karttunen, cellist; Philharmonia Orch; Esa-Pekka Salonen, cond.
SONY CLASSICAL SK 89810 (F) (DDD) TT:  79:37

You win some, you lose some. I enjoy listening to contemporary music from all over the spectrum: tonal, various degrees of serial, atonal, minimal, post-Expressionist, neo-Romantic, post-Modern, and so on and so forth. Many of my musically-inclined friends ask me how I can stand listening to this stuff when the chances are so low of finding another Mahler. I figured out that I listen to music differently from my friends. I'm not necessarily interested in finding another undoubted masterpiece, although I certainly won't sniff at one if I find it. I spend a lot more time trying to "get" what the composer has to tell me. I don't appreciate musical puzzles for their own sake or particularly care about how a composer generates a piece, although, again, I won't pooh-pooh the technical information that comes my way or that I can glean for myself. The result ultimately counts. For example, for many years I knew exactly what was going on technically in Brahms's symphonies. However, I couldn't answer the most important question: why it should matter to me or why Brahms thought his music would interest a listener. However, I really didn't have the ego to blame Brahms for his music's failure to win me over. Most important, I kept listening for a few decades until eventually the music began to grip me. It had nothing to do with the "difficulty" of Brahms's music. I was an immediate fan of Stravinsky, Bartók, Hindemith, VarËse, Carter, and Schoenberg. I hope it had little to do with my intelligence. Most likely, I simply wasn't ready for the emotional poetry of Brahms.

I indulge myself in the above bit of musical autobiography to explain my reaction to some of the music of Magnus Lindberg. The technical stuff I get. Cantigas, for example, is "about" tempo and intervallic relationships. But this is like saying a sonnet is "about" fourteen iambic pentameter lines with a certain rhyme scheme. If the piece can offer only technique, who, other than technicians, should care? I have no idea why Lindberg or anyone else thinks the music effective. For me, all temporal art -- music, literature, dance -- deals ultimately in transformation of perception through a progress of events. Certainly, Cantigas has the raw materials for such a transformation. A section based strongly on open fifths also includes an idea of arpeggios of thirds upward and downward. This leads to a section of superimposed minor thirds. Two superimposed minor thirds become an augmented fourth (or diminished fifth), the material of the next section. An augmented fourth implies a whole-tone scale (three whole steps = an augmented fourth), the material of what Lindberg describes as a transitional section, and so on. The music bristles with strong, dramatic gestures, but they seem isolated. It's like watching a bubbling pot of oatmeal -- frenetic, undifferentiated activity. I should admit that the quieter sections work best for me, especially Chris O'Neal's extended oboe solos -- I finally get the sense of a progression rather than "one damn thing after another." And there's a killer coda. It may be that Lindberg's scoring is just too thick in the louder passages and events move too quickly for me. If so, it's probably just a matter of more listening before stuff falls into place.

The same kinds of ideas and gestures as in Cantigas permeate Lindberg's cello concerto, but (for me) to quite different effect. The only way I can put it is that I experience the music as less cramped and feel a long progression. The piece begins nervously and ends in great calm. It's even a noble work. The relation between soloist and ensemble is fairly interesting and reminds me a bit of the Toch cello concerto: essentially chamber music on a large scale. This isn't the usual soloist-against-the-mass, but an interaction of equals, with the cello first among equals. Lindberg deals with the usual cello-concerto problem (the orchestra covering up the solo) in an unusual way, in that, unlike Dvořák, for example, he's not afraid to occasionally sink the cello in the orchestral sound. He also does not, like Dvořák's breathtakingly simple solution, maintain a strict separation between orchestra and soloist through assigning different dynamics to tutti and accompanied sections. Lindberg remarks, in an interview with Martin Anderson, that the cello has quite a strong voice. Its problem is its range. The higher instruments can mask its line. Accordingly, many of the louder passages for the soloist occur among the lower instruments or instruments in the low part of their range. Again, however, this is all technique, and one's interest in technique really comes after the experiencing the considerable emotional impact of the work. Kudos here to the soloist, Anssi Karttunen, who never allows the quicker passages to degenerate into mere fingerwork and who sings gorgeously when called on.

Parada lays out two different sets of thematic materials -- one busy, the other granitic, massive, and almost glacially slow -- and develops each separately. In saying "develop," one implies that necessary transformation of temporal art. The unusual feature here is that the two parts never seem to converge. The composer must have deliberately made this a part of his design. We're so used to "sonata unity" -- the uniting of seemingly disparate, contrasting elements -- that we may miss the curve Lindberg has thrown, but really this is no more necessary than identically-dressed best friends. Lindberg provides some really interesting moments along the way, including a somewhat jazzy passage for the faster material. My only adverse criticism is that Lindberg gives very little relief. The scoring tends to over-thickness. Nevertheless, the piece carries you along.

Fresco works pretty much the same way as Parada -- contrast of parallel, non-intersecting sets of material -- but it's longer and one apprehends large sections of the work. The more compact Parada tends to go in one long breath. Again, however, I don't feel much progression, perhaps because the basic material strikes me as rather unmemorable. Lindberg gives you jolts along the way in the form of dramatic gesture, but how these gestures connect with anything I have no idea. I experienced it as a kind of musical Turette's.

Maybe this is Salonen's fault. I've never fallen under his spell. I consider him very often slapdash and undifferentiating in performance. He's one of those conductors, like Solti, who's so busy digging his elbows into your ribs he loses the coherence of the "story." The Philharmonia plays difficult contemporary music as well as they can under the circumstances. Sony's sound seems excessively "bass-y" and closely miked, which doesn't help the feeling of relentless hammering at your head in Fresco. I need an aspirin.

S.G.S.(November 2002)