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Sound and Silence

One Class Act

Of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Stimmung, Andrew Porter wrote, “[It] is a piece that sounds ridiculous when described and yet proves enthralling in performance,” and I agree. The work, composed in 1968, consists of a B-flat chord sustained for about 75 minutes by six singers seated on pillows in semidarkness. The single harmony is “enhanced” by the recitation of magic names, short poems and rhythmic motifs that pass from member to member — all at a low volume that trails off now and then toward near silence. Some variation of vocal color is achieved by the singers’ improvising with vowel color.

On the new Harmonia Mundi disc, the members of Paul Hillier’s Theater of Voices take a few liberties with vocal shadings and other tricks. The “New Cologne Vocal Soloists,” heirs apparent to the group for whom Stockhausen composed his piece, performed the work here at LACMA, much more straightforwardly, and thus more dully. Ideally, the work belongs in a small church, and we will hear it thus next April 12 in, you might guess, one of Santa Monica’s “Jacaranda” concerts.

The Hillier version makes for a wonderful disc. The music is quiet; it sometimes dips below the level of silence, but you must let it envelop you; don’t wander off. Hillier himself has wandered off. When I last lunched him, he was at the University of Indiana. Now he’s in Copenhagen and conducts a chorus in Estonia, from which he sends back marvelous recordings, contributing to one of the sadly few truly class-act classical labels in this parched world of ours.

Harmonia Mundi’s new Don Giovanni keeps alive one corner of that desert, however. It is now possible to marvel at all three of Mozart’s Da Ponte operas in these remarkable performances under René Jacobs, each of them an achievement in ensemble, vocal interaction and impetus that redefines the nature of this miraculous repertory for our time. That Jacobs has been able to bring this off in all three operas — Figaro and Così Fan Tutte no less than this new three-disc Don Giovanni — adds to his achievement. His singers make up no all-star casts; it is their brainpower that enchants here first, their tonsils later.

That said, this is an emphatically good Don Giovanni, superbly put together and intelligently packaged, with some cogent notations by Jacobs himself. Johannes Weisser is the splendid, insinuating Don, Lorenzo Regazzo his all-too-wise manservant, Leporello. Two Russian sopranos, Olga Pasichnyk and Alexandrina Pendatchanska, are the hysterics in Giovanni’s life, Nikolay Borchev and Sunhae Im the rustic lovers Masetto and Zerlina — a tidy and nicely balanced cast. One small problem easily resolved: The arrangement on discs follows the opera as given in Vienna, with a couple of arias from the Prague performance (including Ottavio’s “Il mio tesoro”) moved out of place to tracks at the end of the same disc where they would ordinarily occur earlier. Just push a couple of buttons and you’re back in Prague.

Another

I sit here with a book on my lap so heavy as almost to stop circulation, yet so beautiful that I have to hold it close. It is Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM (Granta Books), which could be just another record-company blurb, but isn’t. For one thing, it comes boxed and sells for 95 bucks; for another, unlike any other record-company blurb you’ve ever seen, it’s worth its selling price.

As I flip the pages, I listen to music: Valentin Silvestrov’s Symphony No. 6, played by Andrey Boreyko and an orchestra in Stuttgart, a huge and powerful work running over an hour. Silvestrov is a composer I know only because of several discs I’ve heard on ECM. I notice that an orchestra from St. Petersburg (Russia, not Florida) is coming here soon, and the program consists of Schubert, Schumann and Prokofiev. Why are they traveling 6,000 miles to show they can play music we already know? Why aren’t they playing Silvestrov or Schnittke, or perhaps some Russian composer we don’t yet know here at all? They would knock us out of our seats with the slow movement of the Silvestrov Sixth (get the disc and hear for yourself). But no, we get the Schumann Piano Concerto, with a burnt-out soloist who hasn’t been around for years.

Manfred Eicher started ECM in 1969, with far horizons in his line of sight. From these many pages, I see him as a serendipiter from the date of birth, with impulses that sooner or later had to find their way to disc. From our one meeting so far, at an Oregon Bach Festial in, say, 1984, I remember his all-seeing eyes most of all. (Arvo Pärt was also there, and I mostly watched him.) From Eicher more than any other one person, I have learned the breadth of the musical field — how, to cite one small example, you could fuse the very hot saxophone of Jan Garbarek to the medieval singing of the Hilliard Ensemble and forge a whole new art. (Mnemosyne, one of their several albums, is on my desert-island shelf.)

Anyhow, this gorgeous, fat, heavy book, with the same photography that makes every ECM disc a treasure even if you’re deaf, and with editing and profound essays by the superb British critic Paul Griffiths (whom I wish we had more of, or even one of), stands at once as a tribute to the visions of Manfred Eicher and a panorama of the contemporary, creative musical mind. The music that Manfred has brought to my attention — with a little help, by the way, from his New York right arm Tina Pelikan, one of the few press people whose calls I return — makes for an impressive list: Pärt, Garbarek, Holliger, Saluzzi, Tuür, Zehetmaier, Mansouri, and on and on. Getting their act between hard covers is only their next logical step. Trouble is, nobody in the record biz these days can afford their damn book.