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The Real Thing

The Goldbergs on a 9-foot concert grand at Disney; Hildegard von Bingen among the Presbyterians in Pasadena: What price authenticity now?

Actually, the term is a land mine, and has always been. I have lived through three kinds of Goldberg Variations performances. Wanda Landowska played on her giant, clangorous harpsichord — grossly mannered, rhythmically distorted, swaddled in an aura that suggested that nobody out front dare stir. Glenn Gould stopped halfway through his acrobatic romp, had a drink and asked that somebody shut a balcony door. András Schiff at Disney last week delivered the work in a spellbinding single breath. Rather than “authentic,” I would regard each of these, and the perhaps half a hundred other versions I have encountered of Bach’s sublime exploration of the inmost implications of his supple small saraband tune, as a ritual in the best sense.

There is one aspect of “authenticity” that must remain constant, however, which Schiff’s performance did honor, and that is the matter of overall proportion. Bach specifies that each section of each variation be repeated, and the high art of his complex working-out demands no less. Schiff’s performance ran almost exactly 80 minutes, as does his recent ECM recording. Recordings pre-CD, understandably, omit some or all repeats, leaving architecturally distorted versions. You may think this a trivial matter, but I invite you to figure out the incredible chromatic harmonies of Variation 25 on a single hearing. Bach knew what he was doing, and so did András Schiff; this was a vivid, exuberant performance. Its authenticity was in its recapturing of the creative impulse that set the music onto paper in the first place.

I don’t want to get into the was-there-or-wasn’t-there Hildegard business again; the music that Anonymous 4 sang for the Da Camera Society at Pasadena’s huge, handsome Westminster Presbyterian sounded like what we know about 11th- and 12th-century music, and the texts were like the writings of the mysterious Hildegard, who was resanctified as a crossover heroine a few years ago. The four women of Anonymous 4 (their name from an authentic and important medieval scribe) are about to disband and go their separate ways into various musical projects — films, children’s programs, research. They leave behind glowing pages. The group came together to explore old music that could be sung by more or less equal voices (rather than tenors, baritones and basses) and found a thrilling repertory. They invented a singing style not dusty-authentic but faithful to the spirit, which is different. Their latest disc (American Angels, on Harmonia Mundi) brings their wonderful energy to early American hymns, and it’s already high on the charts, as it should be.

 

Southwest Chamber Music, which had for some time offered a curious mix of enterprising programming and substandard performance, reconstituted itself a few months ago with a number of personnel changes, and a recent concert at Zipper Hall was an encouraging result. Morton Subtonick’s Release was the major new work — his last composition, he claims, which nobody is prepared to believe. It is, in any case, a big work, dense and at times appealingly romantic. It’s set in several sections, for quartet — the instrumentation of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time — and computer electronics, which send the sound into motion. The clarinet is particularly important — autobiographical, says Subotnick, who once played that instrument. The one thing it doesn’t sound like is a last work.

Luciano Berio’s marvelous Naturale began the program — viola (Jan Karlin) and percussion (Lynn Vartan) interwoven with tape of a Sicilian folksinger — one of those extraordinary demonstrations of that composer’s deep love of the infinite treasures of the human voice. Midway came an endearing curiosity: Samuel Beckett’s radio play Cascando, for which William Kraft had written some dabs of music, and with the play itself (also pretty much dabs) spoken by John Schneider and Martin Perlich. Say what you will, those Southwests do come up with things.

Two other chamber concerts offered brave repertory from the same years a continent apart. The imaginative Jacaranda series filled Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church with a nice pairing of early Ravel and Stravinsky, music wound around with tendrils of art nouveau. From both composers there were fragrant, willowy song cycles: Ravel’s to poems of Mallarmé, Stravinsky’s to bits of Japanoiserie composed later in the year of The Rite of Spring. Both called for ensembles of winds and strings, and so to start things off there could be Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro for harp and those instruments. Susan Kane was the singer, Maria Casale the harpist; the young, splendid ensemble included the Denali Quartet. Blessings on them all, and on the planners of this exceptionally tasteful, worthwhile series that has one more program this season, on June 20.

At Zipper, before far too small a crowd, the area’s single celebration of Charles Ives (50 years dead May 19) consisted of an offering by members of the Armadillo Quartet plus guest: a single well-packed program including both string quartets, five songs and a miscellany. Within the limitations of four players, the music proved adequately rambunctious to suggest its ornery composer: the First Quartet from the Yalie days that loses its manners now and then and sideslips into the middle of next week, an intermezzo from The Celestial Country that manages to thumb its nose at its own treacly ooze. Juliana Gondek was on hand to sing five songs, their piano parts arranged for strings by Barry Socher, ending with the rowdy patriotic send-up “He Is There!” After intermission came the Second Quartet, arguably one of the good works, and, at the end, the weird, polytonal convolutions of the “Washington’s Birthday” movement from the Holidays Symphony boiled down successfully for quartet but leaving unanswered the usual Ives question: Dabbler or genius?

To LACMA came MOSAIC, yet another

New York–based new-music group and, apparently, an adventurous one. Tania León’s Azulejos had its world premiere; I love her tense, flavorsome music (some of which Dawn Upshaw has recorded), but this piece was too short to judge. There was George Crumb to make amends: seven huge chunks from his 1973 Makrokosmos to bring me back to the excitement of first hearing this stupendous stuff for amplified piano-plus and to wonder why nobody plays him anymore. There was a manic touch in MOSAIC’s Emma Tahmizian’s performance, which was just right. Rand Steiger’s dark, eloquent 1989 In Memoriam began the program; Steve Mackey’s 2001 Heavy/Light ended it with Mackey on electric guitar: smart-ass New York stuff by a composer who once seemed to be going somewhere. I did like the tennis balls dropped on the bass drum, however; that’s real orchestration.


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