The Contemporary Lute
Karlheinz STOCKHAUSEN (1928-2007)
Tierkreis (1976) [21:13]
Ingvar KARKOFF (b. 1958)
Four Duets for Lute (1985) [8:02]
John CAGE (1912-1992)
Dream (1948) [8:39]
Steve REICH (b. 1936)
Piano Phase (1967) transposed for lute [26:29]
Peter Söderberg and Sven Åberg (lute, theorbo)
rec. 1990-91 Boo Church, Nacka and Fylkingen, Stockholm (Piano Phase)
ALICE ALCD004 [64:35]
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 Stockhausen’s Tierkreis was originally made for music boxes by the remarkable Reuge company, and was indeed recorded in this form, appearing first on a 1977 Deutsche Grammophon LP 2530 913, an album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 logic.
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.
Still an attractive disc, though more diaphanous than daring.