Pushing the Right Buttons 

Seiji Ozawa: Sun-drenched colors

Wednesday, Mar 31 1999
Photo by Steve J. Sherman
THE ART FOR A RECENT ECM DISC SHOWS a solitary figure on a shadowy, fog-swept landscape, his worldly possessions, including a drum and a trumpet, beside him in loose bundles. The photograph -- as is usual with this exceptionally arts-aware record label -- is black-and-white, handsomely presented. In another photograph the performers -- the Argentinean bandoneónist/composer Dino Saluzzi and Germany's Rosamunde Quartett -- play in what looks like the corner of a small, cramped room. The disc has become an important, much-repeated part of my life since its release a couple of months ago; those foggy blacks and grays of the artwork, and the sense of cramped space about to burst from the intensity of what it contains, seem exactly right for the music. It's an extraordinary recording -- the more so since its composer was just a blank space in my book until it arrived.

Saluzzi was born in 1935 in the province of Salta, came to Buenos Aires, studied his instrument -- the 88-note, keyless button-accordion brought to Argentina by German immigrants -- with the legendary bandoneónistas, inevitably absorbed the heat and passion of Astor Piazzolla's Tango Nuevo, but moved beyond that to develop a style more beholden to Andean and Indio folk sources. In Europe he was heard by ECM's Manfred Eicher, who then produced a solo disc, the first in the series Saluzzi calls Kultrum; this new disc is the second.

The confluence of this remarkably gifted musician rooted in Argentinean folk art and a sophisticated, adventurous young German string quartet -- whose exploits I have praised before in this space -- is one of those meetings of mind beyond explanation. The hour of music that fills this disc moves -- hypnotically, slowly for the most part -- past many familiar mileposts. Some turns of phrase, harmonized with a rich, late-Romantic urgency, bring to mind moments on the better side of Brahms; there are outcries -- passionate, stretched-out flames of melody -- that recall the way the Kronos plays Piazzolla. There is no need to keep score of the occasional and obvious borrowings in this music; what inflames my own imagination, after many hearings, is the rhapsodic, original sense of flow. Anyone who complains that new music denies us the emotional closeness to the composer afforded by, say, Mozart and Schubert can learn much from this disc.

IN 1958 LUCIANO BERIO COMPOSED A six-minute piece for solo flute; he called it a Sequenza, having to do with the interaction between the melodic nature of the instrument and the harmonic sequences implied in that nature. Over the next 37 years, Berio followed this first Sequenza with 12 more solos for almost all major instruments, including voice, accordion, harp and guitar -- but not yet (dare one hope?) for cello or bass. (The formidable bassist Stefano Scodanibbio has, however, "kidnapped" one or two of the others for his own instrument.) Berio composed his Sequenza III in 1965 for his wife, the late, irreplaceable vocal stylist Cathy Berberian; her recording survives on a Wergo disc. In Sequenza X (composed for the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Thomas Stevens), a solo trumpet plays into the resonance of an otherwise silent piano with the pedal down. Now Deutsche Grammophon has gathered all 13 Sequenze into one three-disc, imperative album; its value is enhanced in the accompanying booklet by the composer's moving reflections on his music, and by Edoardo Sanguineti's elegant, short, poetic invocations to each of the works. The performances are by members of the Ensemble Intercontemporain (whose stint here at UCLA on April 11 you are hereby forbidden to miss) plus a few guests. Eliot Fisk is the guitarist; Teodoro Anzellotti, the accordionist; Luisa Castellani has come as close as mere mortal can to standing in for the absent Cathy.

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"Elegant, short, poetic invocations": My words for Sanguineti's lovely verses could also apply to Berio's extraordinary music. (Not all the works are that short, however; Sequenza XII, for bassoon, fills an adventure-packed 18 minutes and 31 seconds.) There is more here than merely a set of etudes; more than just a composer's explorations into the range of possibility, technical or expressive, within each of the chosen 13 instruments; more than an "Old Person's Guide to the Orchestra." Even as solos, the works embody a kind of counterpoint: the interplay among the various ways each instrument can be played, their intrinsic array of contrasting personalities. Each of the 13 works, in 13 different ways, seems to turn in on itself, to examine the full implications of "flute-ness" or "viola-ness." In so doing, the music also seems to escort Berio himself onto center stage. He has always enjoyed that position, from his love song to the joys of the folk song in his A-Ronne to his richly theatrical paean to theatricality in the opera Un Re in Ascolto. He turns 75 next year; I can only hope the world won't be too busy with the Bach year to give Berio his due.

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF THE OLD EMI recording of Francis Poulenc's Les Mamelles de Tirésias (André Cluytens conducting, with Denise Duval as the titillating Thérèse) no longer floods my brow with weeping; the new version on Philips is, in a word, merveilleuse. You couldn't want a bubblier cast: Barbara Bonney as the errant wife who donates her -- er -- bosom to the feminist cause; Jean-Paul Fouchécourt as the husband who compensates by making his own babies; and -- most remarkable, considering his prowess in serious German art songs -- Wolfgang Holzmair as the philandering Gendarme. The work -- if, by some imponderable twist of fate, you don't already know -- is pure, surrealist champagne. Even more wondrous is the notion that Seiji Ozawa's conducting (of the Saito Kinen Orchestra) -- against all the unhappy thoughts I've been harboring about his work in recent years -- is bouncy, shapely, thoroughly responsive to the work's sun-drenched colors. As makeweight the disc contains further delight: Poulenc's song cycle Le Bal Masqué, again with Holzmair, again led by Ozawa, again delicious.

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