Patented in 1928 by electrical pioneer Léon Theremin, the theremin is an early electronic musical instrument controlled without physical contact by the performer, who literally “conducts the air.” The concert included one of the first ensemble pieces to incorporate the theremin, Bohuslav Martinů’s Fantasia (1944) with oboe, string quartet and piano, works by Omar Daniel for theremin, string quartet and electronic organ, D. Andrew Stewart for string quartet and Karlax (a contemporary digital musical instrument), a transcription of Ravel’s Kaddish for theremin and piano and Eyck’s own recent Fantasias, structured movements for string quartet overlaid with theremin improvisations by the composer.
It is a recording of these Fantasias for Theremin and String Quartet featuring Carolina Eyck and members of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (Butterscotch Records BSR015) that has been in constant rotation on my sound system in recent weeks. While the eerie electronic sound of the theremin can be deceptively close to that of the human voice and is often used that way by composers writing for the instrument, the freshness of Eyck’s pieces for me is the breadth of range presented here. Of the six pieces, two use what I would call the traditional sound of the theremin – familiar from horror movie soundtracks and the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations – but the other four exploit other aspects of the instrument, from chirps and swooshes to rumbles and groans, bell sounds to joyous explosions of mirth. Meanwhile the quartet accompaniment varies from minimalist ostinati to Bartók-like night music, drones to rollicking clouds of harmony and in one instance sounds like a Renaissance consort of viols. For anyone unfamiliar with the theremin, or labouring under the misapprehension that it is a “one-trick pony,” these Fantasias will provide an exhilarating introduction to its true versatility.
Founded in the 1980s in Poland as the New Szymanowski Quartet, the Penderecki String Quartet earned its new name when it won a special prize at a 1986 competition in Lodz for its performance of Quartet No.2 by Krzysztof Penderecki and the composer invited the quartet to take his name. They later went to the USA and were affiliated with the University of Wisconsin before establishing a permanent residency at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo in 1991. There have been numerous personnel changes over the years, with violinist Jerzy Kaplanek the only Polish member remaining. Violist Christine Vlajk has been with them for two decades and Jeremy Bell has been sharing first chair duties with Kaplanek since 1999. Only American cellist Katie Schlaikjer, who joined in 2013, is a relative newcomer. In addition to teaching positions at WLU, the PSQ enjoys an active international career and has recorded more the 25 compact discs with repertoire ranging from Beethoven through Bartók – the first Canadian recording of the Bartók cycle – to commissions from many composers of the present day.
Their most recent release – De Profundis (Marquis Classics MAR 81473) – features two works by Polish-born Norbert Palej who now teaches at the University of Toronto, and their namesake Krzysztof Penderecki’s String Quartet No.3 “Leaves of an Unwritten Diary” (2008). The PSQ worked closely with the composer at Symphony Space in New York City on the occasion of Penderecki’s 80th birthday in 2013. In his liner notes Bell says they became aware on this encounter “that Penderecki’s ‘unwritten diary’ is key to understanding this quartet. While there seems to be an outpouring of autobiographical references in this work, it was clear upon meeting the composer that this diary is to remain private. This is a highly evocative and nostalgic quartet that Penderecki wishes to be his gift to music, to listeners, and to performers – a work of abstract art that we can approach with our own humanity and emotion.”
As mentioned, Palej, who is the coordinator of the U of T New Music Festival which runs January 29 through February 5 at the Faculty of Music, is represented by two pieces, both world premiere recordings. String Quartet No.1 “De Profundis” dates from 2011, a time when Palej was reading Oscar Wilde’s book of that name. Two years later he returned to the medium, this time adding soprano vocalise (Leslie Fagan) in the penultimate movement. String Quartet No.2 “Four Quartets” takes its context from T.S. Eliot. Although both these works have literary inspirations, or at least connotations, Palej says “I can’t explain exactly where the influence is revealed. The subtitles of my quartets merely point toward it, hoping this gentle gesture will not in any way delimit the listeners’ flights of imagination. Can the dark desolation of Reading Gaol be heard in the first quartet? Or can you hear the ‘deception of the thrush,’ the ‘association of man and woman in daunsinge,’ the flowing of the ‘brown strong god,’ or ‘the dove descending’ in the four movements of the second? Maybe, but maybe not. It is not important, at least not to me, the composer.” Be that as it may, he also says, “Without the influence of this poetry the music would have turned out completely differently: more than that: I would now be a different person, a poorer one spiritually.” At the risk of sounding bombastic I would dare to add that we would all be poorer without these dark and probing works so majestically performed.
Continuing with the Polish theme, I would note that my introduction to the music of Paweł Szymański (b.1954) was the result of New Music Concerts back in 1988, long before my association with that organization began. On that occasion, one of the works featured was for solo piccolo and an unusually low ensemble of horn, trombone, two percussion, two violas and two cellos. A recent disc by harpsichordist Małgorzata Sarbak – Dissociative Counterpoint Disorder (Bolt Records BR1035) – features another concertante work from that year, Partita III, but in this instance the accompaniment is provided by traditional orchestra (Janáček Philharmonic; Zsolt Nagy). It starts at full speed with continuous harpsichord lines juxtaposed with busy, flamboyant orchestral textures. All this activity stops suddenly after two minutes for an abrupt and disconcerting silence of almost 20 seconds after which the frenetic activity begins again. This happens a number times with increasing frequency during the one-movement work, with subsequent silences of shorter duration giving way to nearly inaudible string chords before the busyness returns. The quiet passages ultimately overcome the frenzied sections and the piece fades into an otherworldly quiet with a single high repeated note on the harpsichord as if a beacon flashing into outer space.
The title work is the most recent and was written in 2014 for Sarbak, unlike Partita III and Through the Looking Glass (1994) which were composed for the iconic Polish harpsichordist Elżbieta Chojnacka who had championed the works of Ligeti, Xenakis and other post-war composers. Dissociative Counterpoint Disorder as its title suggests, is somewhat bipolar, once again alternating between frantic activity and more stately passages, but this time for harpsichord alone. The “Alice”-inspired solo work begins with more frenetic stops and starts with the harpsichord sounding almost like a calliope, and once again fades to black, this time with a series of sustained yet isolated notes in the lowest register.
In music the term “parody” does not imply ridicule, but simply means “in the style of” as with Palestrina’s parody masses and parody madrigals based on works of Cipriano de Rore and others. Szymański is a masterful parodist in this sense, as witnessed by Les poiriers en pologne ou une suite de pièces sentimentales de clavecin faite par Mr. Szymański. Critic Alex Ross wrote of another of Szymański’s pseudo Baroque suites in the New Yorker that it “not only sounds like Bach but could be mistaken for Bach – the latter being rather more difficult than the former.” Sarbak, who is herself a specialist in Baroque performance, says “…Szymański is actually composing in the idiom of the Baroque…using the words – melodical and rhythmical formulas, the expressions, rhetorical figures that were very important then – in the language of the period. […]Szymański wouldn’t put in any score markings, which were also absent at that time…He leaves the freedom to the performer…[which is] what’s great and vivid about playing Baroque music.” One of Szymański’s earliest works from his student days was for violin and harpsichord. It is obviously an interest that has stuck with him throughout his career and the result is really something to behold.
I first heard Leonard Bernstein’s symphonies in my formative years, in his recordings with the New York Philharmonic. They impressed me then and they still do. There are three and none of them follow the traditional symphonic mould. Each has a subtitle and they all employ a soloist: Symphony No.1 “Jeremiah” features a mezzo soprano; Symphony No.2 “The Age of Anxiety” a pianist and Symphony No.3 “Kaddish” a narrator (Bernstein’s wife Felicia Montealegre in the version I grew up with), plus soprano and choir.
Marin Alsop has now completed her recording of the cycle with Bernstein – Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Naxos 8.559790). Jeremiah is a three-movement work: Prophecy, Profanation and Lamentation. Bernstein said “The work I have been writing all my life is the struggle that is born of the crisis of our century, a crisis of faith. Even way back, when I wrote Jeremiah [1939-1942] I was wrestling with that problem.” The first movement is contemplative and the second is dance-like, presaging some of the composer’s later stage music. It is in the third movement that the mezzo – Jennifer Johnson Cano here – enters, singing Hebrew texts selected by Bernstein from the Lamentations of Jeremiah which are expectedly heart-wrenching and dramatic before an extended quiet orchestral coda.
Inspired by W.H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety which Bernstein discovered in 1947 and called “one of the most shattering examples of pure virtuosity in the English language […] almost immediately the music started to sing.” Jean-Yves Thibaudet is the soloist in this extended work in 18 movements divided into two main sections. Part 1 begins with a quiet orchestral Prologue followed by two sets of variations, The Seven Ages and The Seven Stages, where the piano is prominent. Although lasting half of the work’s 35 minutes, Part 2 has only three sections, The Dirge, The Masque and The Epilogue, which continues the flamboyance of the preceding movement in its opening stages but then features an extended introspective piano cadenza and a swelling, triumphant orchestral finale. As Frank K. DeWald’s program notes suggest however, in the Second Symphony the crisis of faith is “discussed, probed [but only] superficially resolved…” Bernstein will take up the theme again in his final symphony.
Somehow I overlooked Alsop’s recording of Symphony No.3 ”Kaddish” with Claire Bloom narrating when it was released last year (Naxos 8.559742). With the powerful performances of the first two symphonies presented here as evidence, I will definitely be rectifying that shortly.
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David Olds, DISCoveries Editor