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Christian WOLFF (b.1934)
Two Orchestra Pieces
John, David, for orchestra and solo percussion (1998) [23:11]
Rhapsody, for three orchestras (2009) [28:46]
Robyn Schulkowsky (percussion)
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg/Lothar Zagrosek (John, David)
Ostravská banda/Roland Kluttig, Peter Rundel, Petr Kotík (Rhapsody)
rec. 2009, Czech Radio, Ostrava, Czech Republic (Rhapsody); 2012, Philharmonie, Berlin (John, David)
NEW WORLD RECORDS 80796 [51:57]

Christian Wolff was born in Nice in 1934, the son of two German Jewish literary publishers who fled to America in the early 1940s. They helped to establish the publishing house Pantheon there. In his late teens Wolff became a student of John Cage, and at some point presented him with a copy of the I Ching, in an edition published by his parents; this was to have a colossal impact on Cage’s future aesthetic direction. Trained as a classicist (indeed he taught classics at Harvard and Dartmouth College for most of his academic career and is an expert on Euripides) Wolff was largely self-taught as a composer. Inevitably he tends to be associated with the Cage/Cunningham/Feldman/Tudor circle, though he has outlived them all and continues to compose. This is the first commercial release to focus on his orchestral music.

Wolff’s English contemporary and colleague Michael Parsons has provided a lucid and detailed description of the two works that feature on this disc. The first, John,David is in two parts, the second of which involves a demanding solo part for percussionist. The first part was planned as an 80th birthday tribute to John Cage, who sadly passed away before its completion. On the demise of Cage’s collaborator David Tudor fourteen years later in 1996 Wolff returned to the piece, which thus became a memorial to both of his illustrious colleagues. Rhapsody is a piece from 2009 written for the Ostrava Days New Music Festival in the Czech Republic, an event with which Wolff has been involved on a regular basis. Despite the considerable detail Parsons has provided in his accounts of the compositional procedures Wolff adopted for these two pieces, it is unusually difficult for the reader to imagine how the music might sound until he/she actually hears it. Consequently your reviewer took great care in approaching both works with a completely open mind.

John, David begins with a series of sixteen slowly presented string chords with widely differentiated dynamics and irregular rests between them .This emerges like a broken chorale, oddly mellifluous, even sounding to these ears rather ‘American’. The mood is immediately broken by a tiny jaunty tune in the woodwind and then by a fragment that seems to imply jazz but ceases almost as soon as it has begun. I suppose much of Wolff’s skill lies in his juxtaposition of contrasted sonic events, and his adroit use of silence, which as Parsons’ note implies, aims to increase tension in the music. Each event (or ‘song’, in Wolff’s description) can either be clearly differentiated as an individual entity or is superimposed atop another ‘song’. Whatever the complexities involved in Wolff’s procedures, the music that emerges is certainly not forbidding and is often attractive, as this composer’s take on Webernian compression consciously or otherwise seems to revolve around accessible harmonic and melodic ideas. Moreover, much of this music relies on exposed solo lines and chamber-like textures – tuttis are virtually non-existent. The comprehensibility of the work is reinforced by the regular repetition of phrases and motifs. Towards the end of the first part Robyn Schulkowsky makes her initial contribution, with some troubadour-like tabor accompaniment of piano and harp before loud, austere brass chords presage the final ‘song’ which evokes the virile sound-world of Carl Ruggles.

Schulkowsky’s role in the second half of the piece is far more substantial. She ostensibly provides a percussion continuo for the orchestra, improvised in the sense that the choice of instruments she uses, both tuned and untuned, is down to her. Wolff seems to be harking back to Charles Ives’ experiments with vernacular music here as the second part makes liberal use of three recognisable tunes; the medieval English song Western Wynde, immortalised in the John Taverner mass, the American hymn-tune ‘Sutton’ and the hobo song ‘Hallelujah, I’m a Bum’. These three sources are recognisable in this context up to a point, although the shape and melody of ‘Sutton’ certainly dominates the middle of this second part and its conclusion. Shulkowsky’s contributions are virtuosic, ear-tickling and only sporadically aggressive. The coda of the work consists of a dissonant eight-part arrangement of ‘Sutton’ for the whole orchestra which, as far as I can make out involves the sole tutti in the whole piece, although this dissolves unexpectedly before John, David concludes on a high, sustained and almost disembodied piano chord. This is an intense and concentrated performance of an impressive and unusual piece. I found the recording lacked a bit of presence – at times it emerged as rather dry, but that ultimately didn’t obscure the attractions of Wolff’s music.

The performing forces required for Wolff’s later (2009) work Rhapsody are identified as ‘three orchestras’, each with an independent conductor. Lest the reader has a mental image of an overcrowded performance space, in fact each orchestra is a ‘decet’, consisting of eight strings plus two other instrumentalists. There is no percussion. Moreover this is no ‘Rhapsody’ in the Delian sense of the word; Wolff is using the word as the ancient Greeks would have done, whereby the Greek infinitive ‘rhaptein’ (ῥάπτειν) means ‘to stitch together’. Thus in Wolff’s pithy summary the diffuse materials contained in the piece “…somehow hang together without losing their individual identities….”, enabling the whole work to somehow achieve “….a precarious continuity.” There is a more obvious incorporation of ‘chance’ procedures in this piece, where the members of each small orchestra can make executive decisions independently of their individual conductor. The first four minutes of Rhapsody exclusively involve the three groups of string players, sometimes in tutti, sometimes solo or in chamber configurations. This is dynamic, colourful music, and this time the recording is immediate and vivid. Following this the other six instruments (three wind, two brass and harp) intervene, playing similar material to the larger string groups. The first indeterminate passage at [6:04] is easily identifiable, but while the music is obviously freer there are signposts in the form of repeated motifs, notably little fanfares in horn, trumpet and trombone, that help the potentially bemused listener navigate the piece. After a pause the piece Wolff builds on these beginnings by sewing together swatches of melody, colour and pulse, highlighting similarities rather than differences. The strings spend much of the work playing in a kind of flexible unison. The recording is managed so effectively that even through two speakers it’s pretty straightforward to perceive the three differentiated groups. There’s some heroic playing from the brass players here – they are more exposed than most and their individual contributions are confident, virile and exciting. I have to say that I found much of this fascinating piece brought to mind a milder version of Xenakis’ sound world; the dissonances seem kinder and the odd rhythms less jagged, but the sonorities themselves are oddly familiar. The Ostrava players respond to their three conductors with terrific commitment.

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of these two compositions. Given the technical descriptions in the notes it would be easy to surmise that much of the music here would sound almost random and fragmented. That it doesn’t remotely come across that way is a real tribute to Christian Wolff’s skill as a composer, and to the advocacy of these performers. Moreover, the four conductors involved in these two big works manage to make seemingly diffuse particles cohere into something more elegant and tangible than might seem possible. Both performances were recorded live and are greeted by enthusiastic applause. Readers with a healthy interest in the post-Cagean American landscape should not hesitate; many others who may recognise Wolff’s name but have never heard a note will surely be impressed. I certainly was.

Richard Hanlon


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