I seldom mix music and politics, although as Socrates pointed out, they are related through music’s influence on the order of the soul. However, I begin this month’s survey with a release that is explicitly political.
I recently had an uncanny experience that stretches the meaning of coincidence. I was in the Czech Republic speaking about Iraq. Like any rhetorician, I wanted to take my audience from something they knew to something they didn’t. So I began with Czech music, particularly that of Bohuslav Martinet. (1890-1959). I mentioned that I had recently been listening to an ancient recording of his Memorial to Lidice on a mono LP. Martinet wrote this orchestral piece after he had fled the Nazis and was living in America. The composition commemorates the Nazi reprisal for the assassination of Hitler’s Bohemian proconsul, Reinhard Heydrich, in 1942. The Nazis rounded up all 340 men in the village of Lidice, about an hour from Prague, and executed them. Then they razed the town. Every Czech knows about this atrocity.
Now, I said to my audiences in Prague and Brno, try to imagine hundreds of Lidices, and you will begin to approach what happened in the 1980s in Iraqi Kurdistan during the Anfal campaign in which Saddam Hussein wiped out 1,200 villages—killing, in one infamous case, some 5,000 people with chemical and nerve agents in the town of Halabja. I continued: For a broader perspective of what happened during Saddam’s entire reign throughout all of Iraq, try to imagine 3,000 Lidices, with some one million victims. Then you will approach a near complete picture of that evil. No one has yet composed a Memorial to Halabja, though someday they may, perhaps through auspices of the Iraq Memory Foundation (www.iraqmemory.org). My audiences were shocked, particularly the graduate students at Masaryk University, who wondered why they had not heard this before.
When I returned from my trip, I went straight to the mail table in the hallway of my home. There, on top of the pile, was an unsolicited package from Koch International. I opened it and found a new CD recording of Memorial to Lidice. I nearly fell over. The Ondine label issued this live recording of a performance with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, under Christoph Eschenbach. As I mentioned at the beginning, this release has a political theme. The accompanying works are by Bela Bartok, who also fled the Nazis to America, where he wrote his brilliant Concerto for Orchestra, and by Gideon Klein, who was not so fortunate as to have escaped. He composed his Partita for Strings in the Terezin concentration camp near Prague before being deported to Auschwitz, where he was killed at the age of 25. This promising work is a measure of the loss. Eschenbach conceived of this release not only as a memorial for the three composers whose lives were affected by the Nazis, but in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. The performances and recording are excellent. As one might imagine, I shall remember this CD (ODE 1072-5) for another reason, as well.
There are no politics in Profil’s release of one of the greatest Bruckner performances that I have heard. If I had not already known that Gunter Wand was a superb Bruckner conductor, most especially from his performances of the Eighth Symphony, I would know it now from this exhilarating, titanic, visionary interpretation of the Ninth. The surprisingly good recording comes from a live performance of a concert in the Basilica of Ottobeuren in Austria on June 24, 1979; this is its first release (PH 04058), part of Profil’s posthumous Gunter Wand-Edition. Apparently, there were some 3,000 people in attendance, but one would not know it because the silence of the audience was close to complete. In fact, newspaper reports of the event said that the audience neither spoke nor moved for ten minutes after the end of the performance. When you listen to this, you will know why. A profound spiritual communion has taken place soli Deo gloria, as Bruckner wrote on the score’s manuscript. This is art serving its highest hieratic purpose—to make the transcendent perceptible.
The Profil booklet notes tell of a young female rocker who wrote to Wand about her first terrifying experience of Bruckner. The emotions it aroused made her fear falling into a bottomless abyss. Wand wrote back: Just let yourself fall—with Bruckner, you always fall upwards.” That sensation is exactly what Wand captures with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra in this performance, which Wand called “one of the most memorable in my life.” You will be gripped and shaken to the roots of your being by it. It is in many ways a shattering experience. Few things I have heard or experienced in my life have brought me closer to the awesome sense that God in all His majesty and power is near than has this music in this performance. After it is over, you will not be able to move for ten minutes—or longer.
It may seem anti-climactic to mention briefly a composer who was clearly influenced by Bruckner, but I was so intrigued by Fritz Brun’s Third Symphony that I have to. Brun (1878-1959) composed ten symphonies in his native Switzerland. If they are anything like this mammoth work from 1919, they cry out for one of the world’s great orchestras to perform and record them. If Bruckner’s influence forms the basis of this music, it also contains strong allusions to the works of Brun’s contemporary, Franz Schmidt; occasional hints of Carl Nielsen’s music, especially in the wind writing; and several overt salutes to Beethoven. I love the way this work reaches moments of breath-catching suspension before undergoing some surprising gearshifts. The problem here is with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Adriano, which is clearly not up to the challenges of this complex music in several places. Still, I am grateful to the Sterling label for giving us at least a rough idea of what sounds to be a great work (CDS-1059-2).
I usually abhor Romanticism and the sloppy path it took music down in the 19th century. However, I cannot resist genius, drama, and beauty at the level of inspiration at which the Russian composer Sergey Taneyev (1856-1915) worked. I have written about him before and am happy to report that the new DG recording (477 5419) of his Piano Quintet, Op. 30, and his Piano Trio, Op. 22, played by a group of all-stars led by pianist Mikhail Pletnev, is one of the most enjoyable releases that I have listened to this winter.
Because of his learned counterpoint and meticulous craftsmanship, Taneyev got the reputation of being a dry-as-dust academic. This passionate music shows that nothing could be farther from the truth. The music seems so much the product of white-hot inspiration that you will find it hard to believe that Taneyev labored as he did in an almost excruciating way when he composed. These large-scale works (44 minutes for the Quintet and 38 for the Trio) are the music of a great-souled man. If you have a musical bone in your body, you will move to and be moved by this music.
Pletnev et al. may seem a bit indulgent as they luxuriate in this music, but if they are lost in the moment, what moments to be lost in. If they were not digging in so deeply, one might be tempted to call this style of playing self-conscious. But one cannot. There is no affectation here, only affection. I compared the performance of the Trio to another new release of the same work on Dutton Digital (CDSA 6882), played by the Barbican Piano Trio. In the allegro, Pletnev’s group takes an extra four minutes—one-third longer. What do they do with additional time? They melt the music with their warmth and emotion. I have known this music for several years. I cannot get it out of my mind. That is all right; I don’t want it to leave.