> Maurice Ohana - Tombeau de Claude Debussy [DB]: Classical Reviews- July 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Maurice OHANA (1914 - 1992)
Tombeau de Claude Debussy: for soprano, zither and chamber orchestra (1961-2) (Premiere recording)
Silenciaire: for six percussionists and strings (1969)
Chiffres de Clavecin: for harpsichord and chamber orchestra (1968)
Sylvie Sullé (soprano)
Christian Ivaldi (piano)
Laure Morabito (zither)
Elisabeth Chojnacka (harpsichord)
Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Arturo Tamayo
Recorded in Luxemburg Conservatoire 1998 DDD Stereo
TIMPANI 1C1044 [61:31]
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I hope our editor will permit me to reference the brief background note on Maurice Ohana which prefaced my review of the other disc in this pair [Timpani 1C1039]. That done I want to concentrate on this CD which contains three still more radical pieces by this member of the French avant-garde.

The notes on the Tombeau de Debussy comment that zither players are rare. Even rarer must be zither players who can so skilfully play totally out of tune with what is going on around them and still sound part of the composition. Ohana uses his zither, wordless soprano and piano as solo sound effects against a small orchestra of strings and wind and lots of percussion. The seven strongly contrasted movements are all examples of the essential avant-garde of Boulez and his school: fascinating sounds which keep the ear engaged all the time but which lack sufficient signposts and repetition to allow familiarity and thus disallow any grasp of musical argument. Harry Halbreich, the Belgian musicologist who contributes the extensive liner notes, is convinced that Ohana is a great unrecognised genius of 20th Century music. On this showing I am tempted to classify him as another member of the "interesting avant-garde" whilst reserving the term "great composer of the 20th Century" for the composers who allow us listeners to remember, and thus contextualise, their ideas; Martinů, Nielsen, Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams, Sallinen, Berg and so on. All these allow the listener to hear, though sometimes only with repetition and patience, how their music hangs together. Ohana is good to hear, and this piece sounds really excellent, a great hi-fi demo, but little of the music gels, at least for me. I do have much respect for all the interesting noises Ohana conjures from his players, so he earns his place in the collection alongside, for example, Varèse, Webern, Nancarrow and Gorecki because of this. I just cannot get emotionally involved. It all sounds so calculated.

Silenciaire is described as a "breviary of silence". Ohana has produced here a really radical piece even by his standards, yet not one to make me question his seriousness, as do some of the more extreme experiments of say Stockhausen. I am at a loss for words to describe the progress of the music, so suffice it to say that a large and varied percussion battery needing six players, plus a small string group, make strange but fascinating sounds for 15 minutes. It sounds composed, or as I described it above, calculated. The recording is utterly spectacular with a very wide dynamic range. Ohana is not setting out to shock because much of Silenciaire is quiet, though of course the loud bits do make one jump if they happen suddenly.

The last work, the Chiffres de Clavecin, represents a valuable contribution to a small repertoire. There is a shortage of modern harpsichord concertos of real quality; Falla, Martinů and Frank Martin have all produced significant contributions; all three of those are to be treasured. Ohana is more extreme than any of them, and to judge by the other works on the two CDs I have to hand, this is a typical example of his art with large contributions from the percussion and a detailed needlepoint montage of sounds from wind and strings. Ones ears do eventually adjust to this strange and often wild music. Listening to this as my final piece on the two CDs, I was beginning to enjoy it, slightly to my own surprise. The harpsichord produces an obviously metallic sound and it fits into Ohanas metallic aural universe rather better than does the more rounded sound of the piano in the concerto on the other disc.

I remain teased by Ohanas suggested place in the pantheon of "great 20th Century composers". Given the avant-garde viewpoint he is as interesting as any of the more famous names, Boulez, Varèse, early Penderecki, and I am not irritated by his sounds as I often am by those of Stockhausen. But in the century of Nielsen, Martinů, Stravinsky and the others mentioned above, I just cannot see Ohana as anything other than an intriguing blind alley in musical history.

Superb recording, bewildering but extensive notes, and as far as I can tell, very skilled performances.

Dave Billinge

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