2013 was my year to fine-tune my contemporary classical music collection. I bought probably around three dozen CDs or CD-sets during the course of the year. As I see it, I have caught up to the point where I am only buying new releases by contemporary composers that I admire and want to follow. This post is a brief overview of much of that CD collecting.
Kaija Saariaho is a rare female composer in my collection. In general, classical composition is a white male world. Although there are many woman composers through the centuries (Clara Schumann being one of the most noteworthy), there is perhaps no more one-sided art form that is so specifically (but non-intentionally) racist and sexist. White men are the greatest classical composers in history. That is just a simple fact. Given all that, I rate the music of Saariaho highly and her orchestral works are rewarding.
In this century, Saariaho's compositional style has evolved into a specific sound. I would call it haunting, at times screeching, but not in a nerve-racking way. Indeed, her music is often soothing, ethereal, and richly complex. Her Clarinet Concerto (2010) is an enjoyable 31-minute orchestration, sometimes contemplative and sometimes panicked. Graal theatre (1997, 29-minutes) is bold and rich featuring the violin, which seems to be Saariaho's preferred solo instrument. The cello is heavily and deftly pronounced in Notes on Light, a 27-minute work for orchestra in five movements composed in 2006. When you listen to any of these pieces it is obvious you are hearing a unique artistic voice. But, for whatever reason, nothing she has composed really grips me to the marrow the way, say, Salonen's Violin Concerto does.
I already owned a lot of Magnus Lindberg before this year. Unlike his colleague, Salonen, he is a prolific composer dating from the mid-1980's with great music like Kraft (1985) and Aura (1994, composed in memory of Witold Lutoslawski). Really powerful and significant music. I recommend both compositions as wonderful modern classical works. His own Clarinet Concerto (2002) is interesting though not as effective as that of his fellow countrywoman, Saariaho. Sculpture for Orchestra (2005, 23-minutes) and 2003's 30-minute Concerto for Orchestra are both really superior works, both showing uniqueness while blending many influences (including Lutoslawski).
I have great respect for Lindberg. But his most recent compositions have not struck me with particular interest. I purchased a CD featuring three orchestral compositions by Lindberg for the New York Philharmonic: EXPO (2009), Piano Concerto No. 2 (2011-12), and Al Largo (2009-10). So we are on the cusp of contemporary composition by a world-renown composer here. Of the three the first is the strongest. The Piano Concerto entertains at times but is generally disappointing to me, it offers nothing exceptional.
Steven Stucky is a composer who I have admired yet owned nothing in my collection until this year. He is not a prolific composer. He is a bit more in the classical news these days because an opera by him premiered recently. I am not an opera lover (I have a handful by Wagner and Mozart among others in my collection) so I do not plan to purchase that. I have listened to all the samples on amazon, and I sort of get the gist of it. What can I say? It sounds like just another opera.
But, my Stucky CD purchases this year have afforded me a treasure trove of good modern composition. He is more of an academic type composer, teaching music at Cornell until 2006. Most of the works I have listened to by him are ensemble pieces for wind instruments or for piano quartet with clarinet and flute accompaniment. These are wonderful short works and I really enjoy them. Of greater length (33 minutes) and, indeed, greater quality is Stucky's Second Concerto for Orchestra (2003), which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005.
This concerto is a real gem. Textured, layered, boisterous yet also quiet, sometimes adrift, the wonderful influence of Lutoslawski is strongly felt thoughout the piece yet it retains a distinctive and American voice. This ranks up there with Salonen's Violin Concerto and John Adams' The Dharma at Big Sur as a truly great orchestral work for this century. The third movement is the longest of the four in this concerto. It is especially noteworthy for its delicate development, setting up spaces initially for solo wind instruments. In fact it features the entire wind and brass sections prominently all the way to the tubas. The string section here provides only an atmospheric, supporting element. The strings rarely take the lead throughout the course of this movement. The finale builds to a terrific and powerful crescendo with full orchestration.
Like Salonen, Stucky has retired from his former career to devote himself fully to composition. Perhaps this is one reason that he has now expanded beyond the ensemble realm into full orchestral pieces. He has just finished his first symphony which was premiered by Gustav Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic in 2012. This new music is not yet available in CD form but can only be heard on the Internet at this link.
I did not acquire the John Adams String Quartet (2008) until in a post-Christmas cash purchase of several classical CDs earlier this year. It is on a 2011 Nonesuch release. It is wonderfully prefaced on the disk with Son of Chamber Symphony (2007). The chamber symphony is in Adams' minimalist style, which has evolved with into great maturity. The middle movement of the piece is really a pleasure to listen to. But the string quartet is truly brilliant, the finest new music in this form of this century.
It too begins in rather traditional minimalist style. But soon it is transformed into a unique complexity that I have always appreciated in John Adams. The result is a spectacular 21-minute first movement that keeps driving yet takes frequent interesting side roads of string sonics. At times the pace is frenzied yet it only fascinates more, never tedious or tiring to hear. About one-third of the way in the music pauses and down-shifts a bit. Some slower themes are introduced. This is wonderful late-romantic sounding music. The quartet is highly accessible, anyone could get into this music.
The second half of the first movement is brilliant. It cannot be reduced to any definable style, it is uniquely and powerfully Adams. There are so many layers to what is happening, all four instruments in harmony yet each doing something completely different from any other instrument. This is what Elliot Carter and Bela Bartok did so well on their great string quartet cycles. You can detect shades of this influence here. Each instrument shines in a solo part somewhere during this section of the composition. The last portion of this movement contains the same underlying minimalist theme that started everything. But it is now an echo as other themes and elements of composition overwhelm it. This is truly unique easy to listen to yet modern classical music.
The second movement is comparably short (a bit under 9 minutes) and serves as the finale of this fine string quartet. There is very little minimalism here. This is highly stylized late-romanticism fused with an Adams technical sophistication. Again each instrument is featured in strong sections. Again the pace is quick and this time there is no breaking for slow stuff. There is an harmonic urgency here. At times this is rather anxious but mostly it is exciting, even thrilling, music. The last two and a half minutes of the piece are simply extraordinary and powerful, not introverted nor dissonant nor romantic nor pensive at all. Repeat listenings do not lessen the effect. This string quartet is the best music in this form I know of in the last several decades, an instant classic.
Adams premiered a Concerto for Saxophone (2012) just a few weeks ago. It is not available online or elsewhere at the moment. Other recent works include City Noir (2009) which appeared on the Dudamel premiere DVD. This is outstanding, slightly jazzy, urbane, modern, and sophisticated stuff that richly rewards attentiveness.
So this, then, is mostly what I have been listening to this year; along with Salonen and one other composer. That composer is Wolfgang Rihm and I will devote a future post to him.
Late Note: I read this piece on sexism in classical music penned by composer Kaija Sarriaho the day after I wrote the above post.
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