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...Of Things Past

Read a chapter or two of Remembrance of Things Past, or watch the wonderful movie (Time Regained). Nibble on a plate of madeleines dipped in lime-leaf tea; now you’re ready to listen to the singing of Maggie Teyte.

Her dates are 1888–1976; she was already singing, and recording, long before Proust began his mighty roman-fleuve. Born Margaret Tate in Wolverhampton, she settled in France as a self-willed teenager and, in 1907, studied the role of Debussy’s Mélisande under Debussy himself. From him she not only gleaned the essence of that role, but also insight into the prosody and indigenousness of its language. She sang Mélisande in Paris, in London and in New York (at age 60, perhaps unwisely). She recorded extensively, starting in 1908 — that old parlor number, “Because” — but the cream of her recording activity came in the 1930s, when she and the great French pianist Alfred Cortot produced the discs of Debussy songs that will forever remain the standard for the way those songs must be performed. Those old 78s are now the nucleus of a two-disc Naxos “Vocal Portrait,” which I urge upon anyone who needs convincing that sung French — what they call la musique de la langue — belongs among the world’s most beautiful sounds.

Teyte was unique, her voice the sound of an idealized oboe, her sense of phrase like a loving whisper into an attentive ear. Debussy, at work with the poets of his time — Baudelaire and Verlaine, above all — was able to create in his songs lines of beauty seemingly fragile but actually of enormous tensile strength. I have heard them sung in more lustrous tones by singers of today — Susan Graham, for example. But listening to Teyte — the irresistible seduction of her voice and the fine resonance of Cortot’s piano splendidly restored by Naxos’ Ward Marston — is to sense a unique bond rare in the annals of recorded performance. These are songs to be heard in a room otherwise quiet, because what they really do is transfigure the very nature of silence.

There are other treasures on this extraordinary Naxos set: a moment from Offenbach’s La Périchole, Ravel’s Shéhérazade, two songs from Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’Été (abridged, alas, to accord with the original 78-rpm issue), several songs by Reynaldo Hahn, whose friendship Teyte enjoyed, and even a duet with the great Irish tenor John McCormack. Blessings again upon Naxos for keeping alive the sense that once prevailed, that records were important.

Alfred Cortot shows up on other Naxos discs, as a participant in chamber performances — Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn — with equally legendary companions: the violinist Jacques Thibaud and the cellist Pablo Casals. The three had started playing together in 1905, mostly just for fun; by 1925 they were a touring ensemble, selling out concert halls throughout Europe. Their repertory was small — only one Haydn trio out of dozens, three of Beethoven’s seven trios — but their artistry was apparently enough to sell tickets whenever they showed up. Their last performance was in 1934; soon after, the old friends split apart, separated among the political currents that had swept the European landscape. On three Naxos discs, you’ll find their entire recorded repertory.

Nobody plays like this anymore, and maybe someone should. On a Beethoven disc, listen to the hot insistence of Thibaud’s violin near the start of the “Archduke” Trio: the controlled but blatant romanticism of his portamento (sliding) to instill a dimension of urgency to his phrasing. Listen to the rich rubato as Cortot shapes the opening of that work, and to the Casals pizzicato like rushes of blood, later in that movement. By contemporary attitudes toward “historically informed” practice, these performances are all wrong; yet what I hear in their work — in the trio and also in the rush of passion in the Thibaud/Cortot “Kreutzer” Sonata on the same disc — is the playing of musicians so in love with their music that scholarly matters of correctitude seem beside the point.

 

Meanwhile, back in the 21st century: The enterprising label known as ECM, Munich-based, continues to broaden our awareness of the contemporary world with music unknown, indefinable and unforgettable. All three epithets certainly apply to a new disc of music by Valentin Silvestrov, handsomely played by the pianist Alexei Lubimov and an orchestra under Dennis Russell Davis, and — as is usual with ECM — gorgeously packaged. Silvestrov, born in Kiev in 1937, began his career as the chains had loosened around Soviet composers; already in the 1960s, his music had reached Pierre Boulez in Paris. Two big works fill the new disc: Postludium (a “symphonic poem”) from 1984 and Metamusik (a “symphony”) from 1992; both involve piano and large orchestra.

This is powerful, thrilling music, for reasons that require some hard listening. Musically, the two works, which are thematically related, are all over the place: Huge, thick orchestral orations and perorations give way to robust, intensely romantic melodic outpourings. The piano tone swirls through the dense orchestra, seldom proposing any important material on its own, but serving as a chill, commenting wind, perhaps from another world. The program notes are full of pictorial suggestions, and they are quite right: “a breathing tonal web,” “a giant trajectory, like the rising and setting of the sun.” Perhaps Scriabin, if he were alive today, might be writing this kind of music.

Cantaloupe is the house label of Bang on a Can, the New York–based composers’ cooperative that has for several years now made some of the most adventurous music in that benighted city. The new disc offers three string quartets by Julia Wolfe, one of BOAC’s founding spirits, performed by three different ensembles. The quartets have names: Dig Deep, Four Marys and Early That Summer, and I am not qualified to tell you what they mean. The performing groups also have names: Ethel, the Cassatt String Quartet and the Lark Quartet.

Steve Reich is one of BOAC’s guiding lights; his music appears frequently at their famous “marathon” concerts — especially his early minimalist pieces. They provide much of the motive power for these short works of Wolfe, all three of which add up to a skimpy 36 minutes and 44 seconds. The quartets are outwardly alike: big, gritty blocks of still, repeated sonority. Perhaps I have erred in not listening with my amplifier turned up to 11, as the rubrics demand at live BOAC events; prolonged exposure to BOAC’s kick-ass music making can breed discomfort, as Alex Ross noted in a recent New Yorker piece. Still, I found (or think I found) a sense in the last work of moving toward a release, and not a moment too soon.


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