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Dark Elegies

When People Die . . .

Back in 1992, the host of KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic — what’s-’is-name? — let himself be hypnotized by the Third Symphony of the Polish composer Henryk Górecki, and passed it on to the rest of us. For several weeks, it seemed as if that was all you could hear, morning after eclectic morning, on the station. The recording, a Nonesuch number conducted by David Zinman with Dawn Upshaw singing the doom-haunted lyrics, some of them taken from walls in Nazi prison camps, seemed to stretch out this quality of vaporous melancholy compared to sturdier versions on Polish discs, but it certainly established Górecki’s reputation in the U.S. When he came here a year or two later to conduct a performance of the work at USC, the performance was even slower, more melancholy. Whatever his compositional inclinations may have been before the Third Symphony’s rebirth as a minimalist anthem — there are a few perky chamber works around on import labels, and a lively harpsichord concerto has had a few performances — his name exists tied principally to that one slow, quiet work...

Until now. Here at hand is one more work, also bearing the number 3, lasting nearly an hour, and bearing the subtitle “... songs are sung,” slow and quiet, purely instrumental this time, and of a dark, elegiac, penetrating beauty almost painful to hear but so demanding to be heard that you pray it will just keep going. It is the Third Quartet, played by the Kronos Quartet (who commissioned it, as they had Nos. 1 and 2) on a new Nonesuch disc. Górecki finished the quartet in 1995, but held it back from the world (“I don’t know why,” says the eccentric, reclusive composer) until the Kronos performed it late last year.

It is music to sit quietly to, and give yourself to, in undisturbed solitude. Four of its five movements are very, very slow; you might think of Shostakovich, perhaps of his 15th Quartet, but there isn’t the tragic undertone of that Soviet work here, rather a deep, heartfelt meditation. The one fast movement is the third (of five), and what surprises there isn’t the change of pace but of harmony. The music becomes very sweet, folkish. At the end, the music reverts back to its earlier mood, completing a cycle and, perhaps, inviting a second hearing. “When horses die, they breathe,” runs a poem by Velimir Khlebnikov that the composer cites. “When grasses die, they wither; When suns die, they go out; When people die, songs are sung.”

When Record Labels Live . . .New Albion was a San Francisco label that specialized in interesting new music, and did so very well, first with Bay Area composers — Terry Riley, Ingram Marshall, the Wind Chants of David Hykes, Lou Harrison — later with world composers. Foster Reed and his small company exemplified what record companies are supposed to be doing to fill in the blanks that the big guys always leave unfilled. Now the company has relocated to New York’s Taconic Hills, but a recent package of releases indicates that its pace of good work continues.

A disc (Incantations) of the music of Giacinto Scelsi strokes some of the same nerve centers as does the Górecki, but with a different rod. First off, you have to know that Scelsi’s English wife, Dorothy, was distantly related to the Royal Family, and their wedding reception was held in Buckingham Palace. (She later left him for good, and he lived his last years in a palazzo of his own, in Rome.) He was the Italian who chose to compose between the notes, exploring the microtonal areas reachable by the voice or by strings and brass instruments whose tone might be “bent.” An hour’s worth of solo “song” on this new disc — unaccompanied, or joined by mirror images on tape — starts off unsettling but not for long. The singer, Marianne Schuppe, has such remarkable control that you begin to hear her vocal lines, and her incredible range, as a musical language all its own, haunting, powerful and, in its own way, very beautiful.

So is the sound of one grand piano on another disc, surrounded by 10 musicians armed with long strings fashioned out of the stuff of musical bows, which are threaded under the piano strings and played by being pulled up and down. The sound is that of an idealized ensemble of supercellos, intensely resonant and richly harmonized; other players attack the strings with piano hammers and guitar picks — anything but fingers on the keys. This is the Bowed Piano Ensemble, based at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, whose inventor, composer and leader is Stephen Scott. Their fourth New Albion disc, The Deep Spaces, is an utterly charming selection of songs to poems of Wordsworth, Byron, Mary Shelley and the like, sung by Victoria Hansen.

Schubert UnfinishedOnce in a while, something splendid falls through from one of the big companies too. Such a windfall landed last week from EMI, the latest in its sporadic Schubert series combining Ian Bostridge singing lieder and Leif Ove Andsnes accompanying and performing some major piano work on his own. This one is full of storm and frustration. The storm is in the crash and clangor of the C-minor Piano Sonata, the first of three imponderable, huge piano works from Schubert’s last year, with its final movement like a nocturnal journey through a demon-infested dark forest with an Erlking behind every tree. It is also in a violent, ironic long song, “Grave-Digger’s Homesickness,” which Bostridge hurls forth, over lightning bolts from Andsnes’ piano, in a manner to remind us that he is also the author of an excellent book on witchcraft.

Just as fascinating is a small collection to end the disc, of songs and piano pieces that Schubert left off without finishing. There are dozens more of these in the Schubert catalog; the six that were chosen are especially frustrating. They all build up a head of steam, they all modulate interestingly into some other region before Schubert leaves off. Most fascinating is “Johanna Sebus,” a song to a Goethe text about a bursting dam and a child faced with the task of carrying her mother and her goat to safety. Will they make it? Alas, we’ll never know, at least not from Schubert.


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