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Time Traveling

Happily adrift in the enchanting pseudo-Renaissance fakery of UCLA’s Powell Library, my ears coddled and cajoled by the authentic Renaissance harmonies of Francesco Landini‘s music interspersed with the raptures of Dante’s poetry, I beheld my own kind of vision. It revealed to me the golden message that some things very old in years are actually very new in spirit. The next day, in the humdrum realism of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center, that same vision showed itself in reverse, as the very new music of Henryk Gorecki proffered the message that some things never change.

Landini and Dante, the musician-poet and the poet-musician: The one reached beyond the agony of blindness to shape musical forms exactly the color of their poetry; the other translated the agony of love‘s rejection into words as close to music as words ever get. Anonymous 4, in one of the Da Camera Society’s bewitching “Historic Sites” events, filled the evening with the high art of their time: 15 of Landini‘s ballate -- songs mostly about love’s joys, love‘s torments -- alternating with short readings from La Vita Nuova, Dante’s account of his early love for the fragile and unattainable Beatrice. Perhaps neither composer nor poet envisioned his words and his music sung by four women to large audiences, in rhythms and pitches exactly fixed by serious musicology and with a vibrance that accomplished a blend of the antiquarian and the high-spirited contemporary; their times didn‘t always call for optimism. The best early-music ensembles of today, to which Anonymous 4 definitely belongs, make of their chosen fields an entertainment so joyous, so contemporary -- and yet so “honest” in the best sense -- that years and dates and footnotes in dusty tomes no longer matter.

A great wave swept through the music of the 14th century. Composers in the cathedrals had found ways to enhance the chants of the liturgy with all kinds of interesting harmonic devices: two or three lines sung simultaneously but with different texts, or the almost dancelike virtuosity of the counterpoints composed at Notre-Dame in Paris. Then the pope had stamped his papal foot, church music was ordered back to its pristine one-line-at-a-time chastity, and even the most devout composers went over to the secular side. The 150 or so surviving love songs of Landini (c. 1335--1397) detail the shape of that wave, from the austere expanse of the first works to what we begin to recognize as the early stirrings of classical harmonies in the mature songs. Dante instilled the human heart into his poetry; Van Eyck’s Adoration revealed the way to create human perspective on a flat painted surface; Landini‘s harmonies brought passion into music. Early or late, for a single voice or four voices intertwined, what still amazes us in Landini’s wonderful repertory is the closeness in mood between the tunes and the poetry they enhance -- most of it by authors whose names no longer exist. Half a millennium before the flowering of art song in the hands of Schubert, that same sensitivity had guided another pen to other kinds of music. Anonymous 4, by the way, has recorded this Landini garland on a Harmonia Mundi disc called The Second Circle.

Even more years separate this music from Gorecki‘s Miserere, the amazing work for unaccompanied chorus that began the Master Chorale concert a day later. Here also, however, was music put together with ages-old techniques. As the composers around Notre-Dame created their massive musical designs out of melodic lines piled atop one another and sung simultaneously, Gorecki carries the process to a gut-busting climax. The lowest men’s choral voices begin the chant, in solemn, measured tones, outlining a sense of some deep, grievous minor key. At the point where their chant seems wrung out of passion, the next-higher voices enter, their chant paralleling the first but in some other key. One by one, section by section, the chorus takes up the chant, and their simultaneity becomes less a line and more an aura. Out in the audience -- in the ears of this audience member, at least -- the effect is of a huge screw implacably tightened. Twenty minutes later, when the full chorus has been engaged, the full text of the Miserere prayer bursts forth; the screw, which, you‘d have thought, had been given its final wrench, continues to turn.

The work dates from 1981. Its inspiration was the oppression by the Polish Communist government of the Solidarity labor movement; it was suppressed in Poland until 1987. Its performance here, on a program that also included Mozart’s Requiem, as noted last week, is further reason to rejoice in the Master Chorale‘s new lease on life under Grant Gershon’s leadership. Every major city has some kind of resident chorus, good for an occasional Messiah or a Ninth. It seems as though the Master Chorale now aims higher, with a repertory old and new comparable to the breadth the Philharmonic‘s programming attains (or should). Esa-Pekka Salonen has written a piece for the group’s next concert (March 16), which will also be recorded on its own label. The age of enlightenment may not be so far off.

Last week‘s piano music came in kibbles: 60 -- count ’em, 60 -- piano works by that many composers, none more than 60 seconds long, played by Guy Livingston at LACMA in a concert more agreeable than my description suggests; and small pieces by Hungarian composers played by Mark Robson at a “Piano Spheres” concert in Pasadena titled, alas, “Ligeti Split.”

Livingston also has his “serious” side as a pianist; Chopin‘s “Minute” Waltz, as the sole encore, suggested as much. Most of these short pieces, each commissioned and paid for by a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, subsided into a pleasant haze. A couple of parody pieces -- Bill Bolcom of Tchaikovsky, Anders Jallen of Webern -- rose above the horizon; so did Moritz Eggert‘s Hammerklavier XI, a collage of 60 pieces one second long; so did Pierre Boulez’s letter of rejection, which Livingston set to his own music. What made the concert more than bearable, however, was Livingston‘s own welcoming manner, including brief chats from an easy chair after every 10 pieces. You can’t run down a concert in which the performer is so adept at projecting his own pleasure at what he‘s doing.

Robson’s offerings were sterner stuff but equally fragmentary: sets of tiny pieces by Gyorgy Kurtag and Bela Bartok; three of Gyorgy Ligeti‘s fantastic Etudes and the tiny, whimsical movements of his Musica Ricercata; Zoltan Kodaly’s 1918 Piano Pieces (more interesting than anything else I know by this Hungarian also-ran); and, of course, some Liszt. Robson earns his daily bread as rehearsal coach for the L.A. Opera and his ticket to heaven in his uncommonly interesting recital programming; his performance last season of Messiaen‘s Vingt Regards merits a worthy place in local annals. So, of course, does the entire “Piano Spheres” series, the brainchild of the venerable Leonard Stein, the father of us all.


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