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American Ultramodernists: 1920-1950
Dane Rudhyar (1895-1985)

Tetragram No.8 Primavera (1928) [9:42]
Ruth Crawford (1901-1953)

Preludes [9] (1924-1928) [28:59]
Carl Ruggles (1876-1971)

Angels (1922) [3:04]
Evocations (1937-1943) [12:03]
Organum (1944-1947) [6:43]
Henry Cowell (1897-1965)

Piece for Piano (1924) [5:20]
The Snows of Fujiyama (1924) [3:31]
Hommage à Rudhyar (1922) [0:42]
The Harp of Life (1924) [6:13]
Steffen Schleiermacher, piano
Recorded December 2003 (location not stated)
MUSIKPRODUKTION DABRINGHAUS UND GRIMM MDG 613 1265-2 [78:48]

 

If Chopin is your musical god then this CD is probably not for you. To many people the very word 'ultramodernist' is liable to make them reach for the 'off' switch even assuming that the CD was ever put in the machine in the first place.

However, if we assume that this disc has nothing to offer, then we would be depriving ourselves of an interesting insight into music written ‘stateside’ in the mid-twentieth century.

It is hard to equate the aesthetic of this music with parallel developments in jazz and popular music. Yet with a little good will we can enter into an alternative but exceptionally beautiful sound-world.

We have alluded to the Jazz age - the age of Scott Fitzgerald. Everything was in your face. It was the 'moment' that seemed to count. However at that time there was a group of American composers that were conscious of their musical dependence on the emerging modernist Western European tradition and on a consequent desire to forge a unique voice of their own.

Four composers were at the forefront of this mid-century avant-garde movement - Carl Ruggles, Henry Cowell, Ruth Crawford and Dane Rudhyar. They were all influenced by the expansion of tonality and the acceptance of greater dissonance that had been exported from Europe. But they wished to apply this new musical language to express 'a deeper, richer, more cosmic form of creative expression.'

It is not the place to give a detailed exposition of the philosophies and theories of the Ultramodernists. But perhaps a few brief words from the thoughts of Dane Rudhyar may help put this music into context. During the 1920s Rudyhar, a French emigrant, wrote a series of articles expressing his views on the spiritual dimension of dissonance. His theories were based on a study of eastern religions and theosophy. Theosophy effectively states that truth is to be found in the wisdom of the ancients. He imagined that dissonance was the ideal musical constructional technique to express the diversity of the American scene. To quote him precisely about ‘tone’: ‘an elusive concept celebrating the dissonance imbedded in pulsating sound and its intensification into the surrounding space.’

I do not claim to understand any of this high falutin’ language - verbal gymnastics is not my ‘bag’. However what I will say is that the music offered on this disc is more attractive, beautiful and appealing than the seemingly contrived theoretical explanation. The Tetragram No.8 dates from 1928 and is one of those works that seems timeless. The actual sounds of the music are quite attractive and the piece is extremely relaxing to listen to. It is a long way removed from Gershwin’s American in Paris which was written in the same year. The Gershwin expresses the vibrancy and excitement of the Jazz Age; the Rudhyar the timelessness of inner space.

Ruth Crawford was the only lady in the Ultramodernist group of composers. She lived a bit of a divided life with interests in this very cerebral avant-garde music and also as a folksong arranger. The Nine Preludes recorded here were composed at the height of her creative career in the mid nineteen-twenties. I have no doubt that the Preludes are extremely effective. She is able to use the piano to its best effect and being a piano teacher gave her considerable understanding of the instrument’s possibilities. The programme notes state that these preludes nod to the theories of Rudhyar, however their musical content and interest is never in doubt. They are extremely moving and often achingly beautiful.

Carl Ruggles (1876-1971) has always been one of my favourite American composers. He is best known for one work - Sun-treader. He used a style of composition called ‘dissonant counterpoint.’ Ruggles actually crossed the boundary between different generations of composers - he was friends with Ives and Edgard Varèse as well as Henry Cowell and Ruth Crawford. He was the oldest of the Ultramodernists yet it was not until he was in his late forties that he became totally confident as a composer. In fact one of Ruggles’ perennial problems was his fastidious approach to his art. Most of his few works were written over a number of years. His entire opus fits onto two long playing CBS discs which are long out of print and have not been reissued on CD.

Many words have been written about Ruggles - some of which are pretentious. For example Lou Harrison wrote that ‘Ruggles professes as his desideratum sublimity in the sense of the elevated, individuated new explorative, serious adventure on the edge of faith’. Not words even a grammar school boy like myself can get my head around. However if what he means is that Ruggles’ music is a bit good - then OK.

The three works presented on this disc are all written with the dissonant aesthetic in mind. Ruggles tends to build up piles of dissonances based on relatively simple material. Angels was originally scored for brass ensemble and Organum was an orchestral piece. Both have been effectively transcribed for piano by John Kirkpatrick. The Evocations or Four Chants for Piano is an intense work that needs a bit of working at by the listener.

Henry Cowell is perhaps the most ‘far out’ of the four composers represented on this CD. His pianoforte technique utilises the whole range of modernist innovations including tone clusters and the playing of the strings inside the piano with fingers or plectrum. Cowell was also party to the Ultramodernist aesthetic - he believed ‘in music, in the force of its spirit, in its exaltation and its nobility’. Cowell was heavily influence by things oriental. He was a member of the Temple of the People where a group of like-minded artists, poets and composers underpinned their works with theosophy and Eastern religion. Perhaps the work that epitomises these explorations is the Piece for Piano from 1924. All the modernist effects are put to good use here - from pounding fists to scraped strings. Yet somehow it all seems natural and even normal. Cowell has extended the palette of sounds without appearing trite or sensationalist or pretentious.

However the next piece, The Snows of Fujiyama presents Cowell’s art at its most suave. It could be argued that this work sounds remarkably like ‘souped up’ Debussy but whatever the case it is extremely beautiful. In my opinion it is a minor masterpiece; it is on my (long) list of Desert Island Discs and well deserves a place in the repertoire.

Cowell pays tribute to the inspiration provide by Dane Rudhyar and his ‘spiritual theory of dissonance’. The Hommage à Rudhyar is the shortest item on this CD and probably one of the shortest piano pieces ever at a cool 42 seconds. And it is certainly dissonant - even if these dissonances are not too unpleasant and harsh on the ears.

Once again the presence of Debussy is felt in The Harp of Life. Yet it is Cowell’s original work that counts. This quite wonderful piece has impressed me tremendously. I suppose I always imagined that Cowell’s music would be well beyond me. However this is approachable music - and quite beautiful as well.

I have not heard Steffen Schleiermacher playing before; and I must confess that all of these piano works are new to me. However all my instincts tell me that we are listening to a true virtuoso here. The programme notes tell us that Schleiermacher specialises in 20th century music and is the recipient of a vast array of prizes and fellowship awards. I am surprised that we do no hear more of him. However a brief look at his discography reveals that he has recorded works by Stockhausen, Antheil, Boulez and Reich to name but four. Furthermore he is a composer in his own right.

The sound quality on this disc is perfect and the programme notes are good. In fact the whole feel of the CD is one absolute quality.

This is a fine introduction to an extremely specialised area of interest. However those who love piano music should not be afraid to explore some of these truly beautiful if somewhat rarefied works.

John France



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