SALZEDO:  Partita, Op. 112.  Sonatina for Tuned Gongs and PianoFour Antiphones, Op. 121. Giuocco Dei Colpi, Op. 105.  Epifanía, Op. 131.
UW-M Music-With-Percussion Ensemble/Milwaukee 20th Century Ensemble; Paval Burda, cond.;  UW-M Concert Chorale; Robert Porter and Sharon Hansen, cond.;  Lou Cucunato, piano; Wayne Cook, trumpet.
ALBANY TROY 511  (F) (DDD) TT:  62:39

High-class gong show. I got this disc under the mistaken notion that I would hear the music of Impressionist Spanish harpist-composer Carlos Salzedo. The Londoner Leonard Salzedo (1921-2000) turned up, in one of those fortunate accidents. Like most people, my first reaction to an unfamiliar name is to ignore it. But, what the heck, I had the CD staring up at me reproachfully in my own home, so why not give it a listen?

Most new music, for me, is a mixed bag, but let me report mainly good news. The program features tuned gongs—not just any tuned gongs, but a full chromatic set of over two dozen—with various other forces. Pavel Burda first heard them while recording for North German Radio and decided to commission a series of works from Salzedo, all exploiting different combinations of instruments with the gongs: tuned percussion and string quartet, gongs and piano, gongs and choir, and so on. Salzedo created a varied set of works and, in at least one case, something very beautiful. Of course, composers have used gongs before but, as far as I know, more for a very occasional dab of color (I think especially of Gershwin's dramatic stroke in his Concerto in F or Ravel's orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition). What happens when one features these instruments or makes them shoulder a musical argument? A composer must consider the chief sonic characteristics of a gong—notably, a lot of prominent overtones as well as the fundamental pitch and the dogged lingering of the sound—characteristics pretty similar to those of a bell. It's very difficult to tell which note the player has actually struck, and hitting more notes, even at a moderate pulse, can muddy the sound even more as new pitches and overtones jostle against the old ones still hanging about. The low gongs cause more problems than the high ones. So the composer must solve a non-trivial problem.

Overall, Salzedo does very well. In the Partita, the most outwardly conventional of the series, the gongs play sparingly, with their pitches reinforced by xylophone (an instrument with little reverb), what sounds like high, clear glockenspiel, and the strings. The gongs are there mostly for atmosphere, judiciously applied. This mercurial work consists of a series of character pieces, whose moods usually show up in the titles. Salzedo is particularly good at changing the color of the ensemble, or stretching the ensemble's emotional range. In the first movement, "Introduzione," we hear a procession to some ritual. Again, the gongs sound for color, as they do in the Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky's "Great Gate of Kiev." The "Toccata" follows, and it's a marvel—fast, rhythmically-precise music featuring gongs. In this case, Salzedo uses the higher-pitched gongs (less reverb) at a low dynamic, so one hears the strokes without the Schmutz. The "Notturno" is another slow piece, evoking for me a very clear night, with each star twinkling like a diamond in the huge black bowl of the sky. The "Capriccio" continues the night mood, an uneasy scherzo of unseen, flying things. In "Aria," the strings sing a beautiful lament. Even the gongs get a brief moment in the spotlight, a nice change from their usual merely "background wash" role. The final "Moto Perpetuo" worries several quick ideas obsessively, with even the gongs getting in the act. Overall, a lovely piece, cannily written.

I consider the Sonatina for Tuned Gongs and Piano the fly in the soup. For my money, the work has too little contrast between the gongs and the piano. The piece sounds like a piano in the Holland Tunnel, with the constant, undifferentiated hum of traffic. The piano part alone, however, is quite fine and, alone, would probably make a bigger effect. Salzedo has, for once, failed to imagine the sound well enough.

With the Four Antiphones (sic), we're back on track. Salzedo sets the four Marian antiphons—"Alma Redemptoris," "Ave regina coelorum," "Regina caeli laetare," and "Salve regina"—for gongs and piano, just as he did with the Sonatina, but adds a choir, which makes all the difference. You know Salzedo has thought through the sonic problem of tuned gongs. He conceived the work originally for choir and gongs alone but came to recognize the difficulty of picking out the gongs' exact pitches for most choirs, even most good choirs. For one thing, it's very easy to mistake an overtone for the fundamental pitch, particularly with the lower gongs. The choral writing strikes me as similar to that of the Russian Orthodox Church—block chords changing with slow regularity—so a lot of it reminds me of the death scene in Boris Godunov (this isn't a bad thing). The piano not only provides pitch, but also taps out the rhythmic pulse, so one gets the image of a religious procession with swinging censer. The gongs add a mysterious color to the sound. Here and there, with the help of piano and choir, you can also make out pitches from the gongs. Somehow, despite the same musical character over the first three antiphons, Salzedo dodges monotony. He also changes the tone in the final "Salve regina." The music becomes increasingly agitated, a prayer in extremis, something like the "Agnus Dei" from Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, but without the final consolation.

The Giuocco dei Colpi (interplay of strokes or plucks) uses the gongs plus a whole mess of tuned percussion, plus pizzicato bass. It's an extravaganza of cross-rhythms over a wide dynamic range and a couple of idÈes fixes, with the bass injecting a "jamming," jazzy element. If you know the final movement of Holst's Beni Mora, you have some idea of what to expect. I find the piece hypnotic.

All most all of these works have been quite fine, but the gorgeous Epifanía raises an already high bar. Salzedo creates an unusual ensemble of chorus, trumpet, tuba, timpani, marimba, tuned gongs, and piano. The trumpet assumes a starring role. Salzedo sets a text by the late sixteenth-, early seventeenth-century Spanish poet JosÈ de Valdivieso, "Romance, Día de la Epifanía, descubierto el Santísimo Sacramento" (ballad of the Epiphany, on the exposure of the Holy Sacrament). I have no idea what the poem says, since nobody thought to print the text in the accompanying booklet and the choir's diction just doesn't cut sufficiently through the ensemble texture. But, boy! the music is a rouser, with fanfares and rhythms that may derive from Spanish gitano (gypsy) music. By the way, it's Epiphany as I write this. How's that for coincidence?

The performances are all good, without that extra that would push them to great. For example, there are some rather spongy attacks in the Giuocco dei Colpi, not what you want in a piece whose point is rhythm. On the other hand, Burda has the interpretive measure of all these not-easy works, and the recording team has avoided the many minefields surrounding a series of pieces featuring gongs. Most of the time, the musical material is clear, rather than drowned in gong decay. None of this music is clichÈ. Kudos to Burda, to the late Leonard Salzedo, and to the performers.

S.G.S. (January 2003)