KAGEL, M.: Das Konzert/ Phantasiestuck / Pan (M. Faust, Alvares, Ensemble Contrasts, R. HP Platz, Sinfonia Finlandia Jyvaskyla, P. Gallois). Naxos 8.572635
The more I read contemporary music reviews and CD notes, the more I realise that many of them say next to nothing of interest on the topic they are supposed to be illuminating. The classic method of writing about a piece of contemporary music is to start with a long piece of biography that adds nicely to the word count. It is then followed by a flowery description of the general nature of the music, or a bar-by-bar description that actually exhibits little understanding of the actual shape of a piece.
Sometimes the poor writer has good reasons for doing this. He or she may be writing about a well-respected grandee of contemporary music and so doesn’t want to rock the boat. And the biggest fear one has when writing about contemporary music is displaying one’s own ignorance. What do you mean you can’t hear that repeating serially transformed motive? Didn’t you realise that it wasn’t out of tune but written in eighth tones? Rather than try to say anything too firm we resort to generalisations.
After some good background notes, including excellent observations that place the music of Kagel in the context of postmodernism, we get the following description of Das Konzert in the sleeve notes to this new disk on Naxos:
Over pizzicato rhythms and gentle harmonic clusters, the flute unfolds a capricious yet evocative melodic line that weaves its way in and out of the strings’ translucent backdrop. The on-going contribution from the tom-toms and woodblock adds to the variety of the overall texture, while the strings form ghostly ostinato patterns which gradually assume a more openly expressive manner as the soloist has recourse to flutter-tonguing among other playing techniques.
And so it goes on. Descriptive writing, that in its lack of even any Toveyesque analytical value tells an interesting story. The fact is that, despite the endlessly fascinating textures and use of extended techniques, the attractive mixture of new and old harmonic and melodic patterning, I, I suspect like the CD note writer, was often left scratching my head as to the wider shape of this often episodic music. Das Konzert, described as ‘Kagel’s typically oblique response to writing a flute concerto’ in particular, feels like a series of highly felicitous but unconnected ‘moments’. Phatasiestuck, which is presented twice on this disk, one version for flute and piano, the other with the addition of a string quartet and clarinet, starts with a jaunty rhythmic exchange between soloist and pianist (I write here of the piano/flute version). There follows a little section for flute multiphonics and then a brilliantly witty martial exchange with the flute blowing though the instrument (not producing a note and sounding rather like a snare drum) and the pianist tapping the body of the instrument. There follows sections of folksy music that evoke Petrushka. It is all great fun, but, frustratingly, I couldn’t always connect each idea into a wider narrative. Pan, on the other hand, perhaps because of its brevity, made much more purely musical sense to me, its opening major and minor five-note scale on piccolo forming the basis of a continuous variation, with much of the quartet writing making reference to familiar chamber music gestures. Perhaps, with more time, I might have reached a similar conclusion for the other works on this disk but, as I write, and unless you are a Kagel aficionado (in which case don’t hesitate), I’d Spotify rather than buy.
The rest of the month’s releases
Other than the Kagel release, on Naxos there are four other recordings of interest this month: Weinberg’s Symphony No.6 and Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes with the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande; Khachaturian’s Gayane Suite No. 2 and Spartacus Suite no. 2 and Prokofiev’s Cinderella Suite No. 1 with the St. Petersburg and Ukranian State Symphony Orchestras; Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen and Debussy’s En blanc et noir featuring pianists Ralph van Raat and Austbi Hakon; and a selection of Stravinsky works for Violin and Piano featuring Carolyn Huebl and Mark Wait. Nimbus has released a new disk of twentieth-century works for cello and strings featuring the music of Lutoslawski, Maconchy, Hindemith, Patterson and Kopytman played by cellist Raphael Wallfisch. On Hyperion there is a new recording of Bob Chilcott’s Requiem and other works given by Wells Cathedral Choir under Matthew Owens. DG has released two excellent compendiums of what, I presume, are previous recordings by Boulez (unless he’s been very busy recently). The first features the music of Messiaen over ten CDs. The second the music of Debussy and Ravel over six. At £35.99 and £26.99 respectively they look to be excellent value. Follow my links for more information. There are, finally, two interesting recording on NMC to check out: Alexander Goehr’s Colossos or Panic and other works with Claire Booth, Hilary Summers, BCMG, BBCSO, ASKO and Schönberg ensembles conducted by Oliver Knussen (currently available for pre-order); and a new disk of chamber music by Rob Keeley featuring nine performers including the composer on piano.