Here's a new name for you: Emil Frantisek Burian, Czech composer (1904-59), imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp but survived, journalist, socialist activist and experimental stage director. A recording on ECM of Burian's Fourth Quartet, composed in 1947, marks his first appearance in the Schwann catalog: a work of exceptional beauty in a powerful performance by the Munich-based Rosamunde Quartett. The disc also includes the Eighth Quartet of Shostakovich and Anton Webern's early Langsamer Satz, making it virtually a steambath of intense emotion. I don't advise hearing it all at once, but I do advise hearing it.
The facts of Burian's life – detailed in a single column in The New Grove Dictionary – rouse great curiosity about his other music. In Prague in the 1920s, he worked in a Dada theater, co-organized new-music concerts (with his mother!), led a jazz band and founded his own political cabaret. One of his operas is called The Quack. His musical influences included Janacek and Stravinsky, especially the latter's Les Noces. There is quite a lot of Janacek in this Fourth Quartet: lush, densely concentrated melodic lines, sudden dramatic shifts that suggest a violent if undefined emotional concern. This is all nicely underlined in the Rosamunde's larger-than-life performance, a style that also fits the deep, tragic draughts and the sardonic grotesquery in the Shostakovich Quartet, one of this century's genuinely harrowing masterpieces.
Like Shostakovich (and, for that matter, like Beethoven in the distant past), Alfred Schnittke seems to have used the string-quartet medium as confidant for his most intimate thoughts. On a two-disc Nonesuch release, the Kronos Quartet plays all four of Schnittke's quartets, covering nearly a quarter-century of his creative span (1966-89) and, by implication, a quarter-century in the emergence of today's
Schnittke as an original and forthright
expressive artist, from a former artistically shackled existence under communism. It's not a straightforward path; it looks in on interesting byways – from the bits of Bartok that color much of the First Quartet (at 16 minutes, shortest of the four) to the cheeky eclecticism of No. 3, with its sideswipes at certain earlier milestone works – Beethoven's Grosse Fuge most prominently.
The Fourth Quartet dates from 1989; Schnittke by then had been canonized both in the Soviet Union and worldwide. He was desperately ill after a series of strokes, and desperately productive as well. This quartet, at 34 minutes the longest of the four, is a tense, irritating masterpiece. The program note by the famously untrustworthy Solomon Volkov (author of Testimony, the Shostakovich “memoir,” most likely fabricated) does make a valid point in comparing this music to the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, their momentum grindingly yet hypnotically slow, their emotional impact unshakable.
The Kronos set also includes two short works by Schnittke: his 1971 Canon in Memory of I. Stravinsky and an arrangement of a heart-rending piece (originally for chorus and orchestra) with the accurate title of Collected Songs Where Every Verse Is Filled With Grief, which was first released in a 1997 collection – fascinating and thus essential – called, simply, Early Music.
I am no closer to success in my struggle to scale the wall between Elliott Carter's music and my own soul, but I haven't stopped trying. Britain's Arditti String Quartet, spectacularly gifted in their ability to pass off as music the most abstruse patterns, played Carter's Fifth String Quartet (of 1994-95) twice in Southern California this past season, and I was there both times. The Fifth Quartet runs 20 minutes; it breaks down, I learn from the program notes but not from my ears, into 12 connected sections, alternating between concisely structured movements and freeform “interludes.” The piece gives off an aura of tremendous skill and meticulous craftsmanship; am I wrong, then, in believing that there needs to be more in music than just those elements?
The Arditti performance – awesome, I need not add – comes on an Auvidis/ Montaigne Carter disc filled out with two earlier and already-known works – the 1948 Cello Sonata and the 1974 Duo for Violin and Piano with excellent support from pianist Ursula Oppens – and a four-minute “Fragment” that, surprisingly enough, the Kronos had first played, in 1994. Even more surprisingly, I find the work rather attractive in an ethereal sort of way.
Nobody who heard Gloria Cheng-Cochran's performance of John Adams' Phrygian Gates at one of last season's “Piano Spheres” concerts can put it out of memory; now her mastery of the work is enshrined on a Telarc release that also includes the companion China Gates and a garland of short piano conceits by Terry Riley. The two Adams works dating from 1977-78 could, he says, be considered his “Opus One.” The 26-minute Phrygian, in particular, stands as a major step in rendering the essence of the newfangled “minimalism” into a huge and gripping time structure. Nothing moves in the music, yet everything moves; over its surging, billowing surface your mind imagines its own melodic shapes, and by its astounding final cadence you may find you've forgotten to breathe. The Riley works, which include the Beatles-inspired The Walrus in Memorium and the disarming Fandango on the Heavenly Ladder, enhance the value of this utterly treasurable disc.
And, would you believe . . . There are treasures as well in a new disc on Denon, music by John Cage performed by the German accordionist Stefan Hussong. Cage, it seems, became enamored of the Japanese court instrument sho, which produces sounds from flexible reeds and is thus an ancestor of both the accordion and the mouth organ. From this implied license Hussong has transcribed other Cage works – several of the “harmonies” from the bicentennial piece Apartment House 1776, and the 1948 Dream and In a Landscape – for accordion, and also performs Cage's Two” No. 5, composed for sho and struck water-filled conch shells. If this all sounds somewhat insubstantial, it is; it is also exceptionally beautiful. Honest!