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CD: Crotchet


Clarence BARLOW (b. 1945)
Piano Works
Ludus ragalis (1974-2003) [20:25]
Stücke für Selbstspielklavier (Player Piano) (1989-1999) [22:07]
Coğluotobüsişletmesi (1978) [29:59]
Hermann Kretzschmar (piano, Ludus ragalis, Coğluotobüsişletmesi), composer (player piano), Irmela Roelcke, Jürgen Kruse, Benjamin Kobler (pianos, Coğluotobüsişletmesi)/James Avery.
rec. 11-17 March 2006, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal (Köln)
CYBELE 960.308 [71:31]
Experience Classicsonline

Klarenz Barlow uses the anglicised version of his name in an English language
context. It was as Clarence that I knew him at the Royal Conservatoire in The
Hague where he taught from 1994 to 2006. Commuting between Cologne and The Hague, his unassuming form would be a welcome presence in the building, and his resourceful and inventive teaching provided intense courses and sessions on remarkable themes and ideas in one of the studios built in one of the more obscure corners of the Conservatoire. As manager of the Composition Department at the time I remember printing out his newsletter to the students giving advance warning of international guests and fascinating lectures, and wishing that I was still a student. As it was I was able to help out with a few relatively trivial practical matters like hiring vans and booking hotels, and I still have a little note from him which says “Thanks for Aachen!”
The aforementioned note is attached to a CD-Rom which for me sums up part of Barlow’s character as a composer. Rigorous intellectual discipline and challenge are part of his make-up, but humour and surprise are also strong elements. For the 2001 175th anniversary of the Royal Conservatoire each of the composition professors made a piece for the celebration concert. Clarence’s was a very strange affair at one point, with quite a lot of shuddering harmonics, wind noises and hot air from the brass players. More than one audience member’s eyebrows were raised in confusion. Some while later and after some tinkering in the studio, the impish composer was handing out CDs to a select number of interested parties. It turned out that the bizarre passages, kept at pitch but sped to 16x, played note-perfect the ‘Wilhelmus’, or Dutch National Anthem – his own hidden wink towards Queen Beatrix, who had been sitting in the front row.
Turning to this new disc of piano works, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. You too are unlikely to expect the remarkable confluence of styles which is Ludus Ragalis, but I can almost guarantee you will be pleasantly surprised. Barlow writes in his own booklet notes on the similarities between Indian and Western music, and the 13 preludes and fugues of this piece are a fusion of European fugue and Indian raag. The initial impression is more fugue than raag, but this has no doubt something to do with my Western ears – an Indian-educated listener will also clearly be able to recognise the raag aspects in the music, something I have no reason to doubt, but alas cannot truly confirm. Some of the pieces have a refined poise and a deceptive quasi-naive simplicity of concept, and they are certainly in no way a hard nut to crack – on a superficial level at least. Each movement is listed with its accompanying raag scale, though I am ashamed to say my musical education isn’t up to commenting on this aspect of the work. Like Bach’s 48, these are works which are both entertaining and rewarding of intense study, and I make no apology for the comparison.
The four Pieces for player Piano are programmed together here, but are each individual pieces in their own right. The first two were written for the 50th birthdays of two pianists: ... or a cherish’d bard... for Deborah Richards, and Kuri Suti Bekar for Kristi Becker. There is a mind-mangling analysis of the content in the booklet notes for the first, and the second seems somehow to have included a photograph of the pianist woven into the punch holes of the player piano roll. As points of reference, the kind of musical experiments if Gyorgy Ligeti and Conlon Nancarrow spring to mind as an almost inevitable association with the player piano, but also in the tonal and rhythmic language which Barlow employs. There is some jazzy wit, some of those vertiginous scales, and plenty of that refined sense of every note having equal weight and importance – none of them being misplaced or excess to requirements. Estudio Siete, the third piece, was written for a 1930s film ‘Studie Nr.6’ by Oskar Fischinger. Both the title and the content of the film suggested Conlon Nancarrow to Barlow, and Nancarrow’s own Study No.6 became part of the structure for the work. The surrealist new-old tremolo effects and sense of organic shape in this miniature are truly magnificent, and I’ve been listening to it far more than is good for me over the last few days. The last of these, Pandora, was originally an orchestral movement. Despite a rather fearsome description in the booklet, this is another jewel of a piece – black-diamond this time however; the developing intense quantity of notes making this a player piano tour-de-force.
There is no in-depth explanation of the title Coğluotobüsişletmesi in the booklet, other than that the first sketches were written during a bus trip in eastern Anatolia. This is, in the words of the composer “a polyphonic [piece, in which] up to four sound layers run parallel to each other in time, most often at different speeds.” There are a number of theoretical references, including “an algebraic treatment of the phenomenon of tonality, one based on material from which intervals originate prime numbers (which are indivisible) and their products.” The music initially might seem as tough a nut to crack as the title, but if you can stand back a little and take the sounds in as a kind of “imposing sound picture”, or maybe as some kind of vast sound-sculpture, then you can come away with some sense of the works’ grandeur. This version, made in 2006 for four pianos, heightens the sense of exoticism with a deliberate re-tuning of some of the strings – on all four pianos, so that the breadth of the twisting quasi-alienation in the sounds you hear becomes quite breathtaking; something like the howling augmentations of a natural horn transferred to the keyboard. The re-tuning provides as sense of toy-piano gamelan-like sonority, but the inherently relentless nature of the writing means that the feel of cadence and release are hidden – the resultant writhing lines like a tightening coil of wet linen: recognisable, strong, with a kind of latent beauty, but filled with impenetrable folds and seemingly random rhythms and patterns. Of the pieces on this disc this is the least immediately appealing, but one has to remember that it is also partially a product of its time. The late 1970s was a vast melting-pot of avant-garde experimentation, but while then tangled skeins of Coğluotobüsişletmesi belong in such an environment, they also transcend it somehow.
This superbly performed SACD recording is also very well engineered, with the required sense of separation in the four instruments Coğluotobüsişletmesi being one of the most important reasons for wanting the extra spatial dimension. The sonorities of the player piano and soloist in the wonderful Ludus ragalis also richly deserve such treatment however, and even if the exotic Coğluotobüsişletmesi proves a bit much to stomach I would hate to think you might miss the other pieces as a result.
Dominy Clements


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