This recording has been around for a while and was briefly
appraised by Peter Grahame Woolf (see review).
This is a re-release with a redesigned cover and ‘2nd
Edition’ printed on the spine, but otherwise I assume it is
identical to the slightly more ornately designed original.
This is an interesting programme, and a refreshingly inventive
concept for these antique instruments. Linking contemporary
music to instruments more usually associated with the baroque
or renaissance periods is not uncommon these days, but was less
so when this release first appeared. Stockhausen’s Tierkreis
was originally made for music boxes by the remarkable Reuge
company, and was indeed recorded in this form, appearing first
on a 1977 Deutsche Grammophon LP 2530 913, an album which I
lent to one of my sixth-form teachers. He subsequently ‘cleaned’
it on some professional contraption which rendered it unplayable.
The 12 pieces represent signs of the Zodiac, and the characteristics
of people known to Stockhausen influenced the nature of the
music he wrote. The pieces are fairly dispassionate in essence,
but often with recognisable tonality and clear melodic shapes.
The lutes give the music a greater depth of expression than
music boxes in some ways, in others the objective clarity of
chiming machines was more of a window into something enigmatic
and mysterious. With living musicians interposed and added dynamics
and a certain amount of technical wrestling with the material
these pieces take on a different life – still fascinating, but
not necessarily improved. The legitimacy of such an arrangement
is however authorised by the composer, who in a typically commercial
move made versions “for any melody instrument and/or chordal
instrument.” In this recording there is a rather redundant repetition
of the first piece Aquarius at the end, like the Aria
of Bach’s Goldberg Variations but without the cyclical
Ingvar Karkoff’s Four Duets were written for Peter
Söderberg and Sven Åberg, and is the only work here which was
written expressly for these instruments. Karkoff’s exploration
of the lute’s resonances and subtle colours creates a “mysterious
tone world”, ranging widely in expression but linked in terms
of atmosphere. These are compact pieces, the first of which
goes furthest towards taking us into timeless and abstract spaces.
Each of the movements share a common ground, but they all have
a distinct character; from dance rhythms to the comical via
a slow movement influenced by Stockhausen’s Tierkreis.
John Cage’s Dream was originally written for piano,
and is heard here with archlute and bass viol, the extended
notes of which develop a subtle but remarkably distinctive contrast
with the other works. The way these notes appear out of nothing
reminds me of the later ‘number’ pieces, in which silence plays
a greater role. Composed as a dance piece for Merce Cunningham,
this is a contemplative work which shares more with Erik Satie
than it does with any real kind of avant-gardism. In his booklet
notes, Peter Söderberg relates it to “an early manifestation
of the influence of Cage’s study of Zen Buddhism and Indian
philosophy”, and in many ways it has the most antique feel of
any of the works on this CD.
Also an arrangement, the original of Steve Reich’s Piano
Phase was one of his seminal minimal works which used phase-shifting
as one of its principal effects. Here it is played on two theorbos,
the colours of which inevitably create a different sound world
to pianos, but in musical terms are in fact surprisingly similar
in ultimate effect. In many ways I would be more interested
in hearing this idea taken further. The resonant sustaining
quality of the theorbo creates legato lines much as do pianos,
but what if we were to try this on, say, banjos? Bluegrass Reich?
Now that would be different. This is a ‘nice’ version
and perhaps a bit too softie to impress either way. It doesn’t
immediately grab one’s attention and generate the kind of overwhelming
physical effect you have from the original. Nonetheless, hats
off to these musicians in making it sound as good as it does.
As the work moves though its variations the rhythmic groove
of the playing takes you over, the ‘music box’ becoming larger
and more potent as time progresses.
The Contemporary Lute still sounds fresh and fascinating,
and I’m very happy to recommend this disc. It’s not perhaps
quite as daring and stimulating as the title would seem to promise,
but with a superbly produced recording and an unusual enough
programme still has a justifiable place even 20 years after
the original recording.