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Brant vol6 INNOVA413
Support us financially by purchasing from

Henry BRANT (1913-2008)
The Henry Brant Collection - Volume 6

Rainforest - An Environmental Spatial Oratorio (1989)
Henry Brant, Amy Snyder (conductors)
rec. live, July 1989, Aspen Music Festival, USA
INNOVA 413 [58:28]

Henry Brant was four years old when the Bolsheviks revolted; and, over 18 years before Brant shucked off his mortal coil, the Berlin Wall crumbled – which happy event occurred in the same year that Brant’s Rainforest appeared. That of course is a matter of pure coincidence, whereas the following is anything but. Not unreasonably, for a prolific composer of very unusual music who was active through the latter half of the Twentieth Century and beyond, there’s plenty of information available about Brant himself and the technicalities of his “spatial music”. Yet, oddly enough, documentation of his 100-plus spatial works themselves is not so easily found: coverage is rather patchy and, when there is any at all, it’s usually on the sparse side.

This almost certainly explains why Innova, who are generally fastidious about their booklet notes, in this particular series have not consistently provided anything usefully descriptive of the music itself. And yet, come to think of it, there’s one helpful thing that Innova could have included for every work: the spatial deployment of the performers, which must necessarily be part of the published score. No – make that two things: for this CD the “1-sheet” on the Innova webpage also should have been included. As regards description, it could of course be argued that the titles of both a work and its movements – and, where applicable, sung texts – are sufficient. However, in some cases, what you get doesn’t add up to anything particularly enlightening, so you have to figure it out for yourself – or read the reviews (if there are any) with crossed fingers.

Happily, Rainforest includes both explicit movement titles and a graphically poetic text by Abd al-Hayy Moore, a text which must be given its fair share of the credit for making Rainforest Brant’s most profound and explicitly convincing “environmental” work in this series thus far. By a chilling coincidence, as I started background work on this review (late July, 2021), it was announced in the news that some areas of the Amazon rainforest have now become net sources of CO2 – and, in the context of so-called climate change, that ought to be cause, not so much for concern as for panic in the streets! Climate change is a two-edged sword: we’re so focussed on “excess” CO2 that the other side of the coin, which is just as important, is rarely even mentioned: we (all eight billion of us, plus the very many more animals that we breed for food) have to breathe O2 to live, so, having already imposed a very considerable burden on the planet’s principal oxygen sources, isn’t systematically dismantling them, at the very least, ill-advised?

OK, sermon over – now what about this CD? Let’s start with the recording, and gradually work our way into the music. The booklet gives some recording credits, namely: mastering by Jody Elff; funded by grants from the Copland Fund for Music and the National Endowment for the Arts; and “recording program” administered by the American Music Center. What’s missing? Well, there’s no mention of any such presumed essentials as “recording engineer”, “balance engineer” or “producer”. I must admit, listening to this disc I did have to wonder what they had done with the money. Apparently it didn’t stretch to any of that (then) new-fangled digital recording apparatus, and moreover the analogue recording does betray some symptoms of the “guerrilla-style” microphone deployment that seems to characterise many recordings of Brant’s spatial works (see Volume 2 review). Nevertheless, as a whole the sound is generally very listenable, rather better than fair-to-middling, with a wide, stable and evenly-populated stereo sound-stage. In the detail, though, lurks the devil.

Firstly, the very loudest sounds – those passages where the tympani are raising merry hell – seem to suffer from the unwelcome interventions of an over-enthusiastic automatic limiter (in all probability, this would not have been a problem if the recording levels had been set with due care during rehearsals). The bad news is that this effect is quite disconcerting, momentarily depressing (or “sucking down”) the levels of other instruments; the good news, relatively speaking, is that the passages so-afflicted are few and far between!

Secondly (and lastly), the commendably wide sound-stage lacks corresponding perspective (front-to-back) depth. In stereo recordings of “non-spatial” musical performances (i.e. the typical single assembly of performers on a platform that we all know and love), this is a desirable though not essential feature. But, for Brant’s “spatial” music it really is essential, because the sense of distance not only gives the listener significant clues as to the relative placements of the various performing groups, but also helps to convey the far-flung spacing of separated groups that the composer deems essential for the proper apprehension and comprehension of spatial music. Other recordings in this Brant series have conveyed perspective depth with considerable success (e.g. see reviews of Volume 1, Volume 3, Volume 4), but sadly, for the most part Rainforest’s recording doesn’t.

The forces, listed at the foot of this review, are basically those of a chamber orchestra (though sometimes it seems a lot bigger!), comprising woodwind, brass, strings, harp, piano and percussion, a total of just 19 players (and note the absence of any “way-out” instruments, such as steel drums or bagpipes); plus four vocal soloists. Listening through headphones, the apparent layout is thus: the string group occupies centre-stage; the brass group (horn, trumpet and trombone) is on the left; the percussion (one player) are arrayed from left towards centre; the woodwind group is on the right; the soprano is left and front; the mezzo-soprano is half-left and back (sometimes rather more centre than half-left); the tenor is half-right and back; the baritone is right and front. Thus we do have a perspective, but only as far as the four vocalists are concerned! My guess is that these were placed either at the four “corners” of the platform end of the auditorium or, perhaps, around the audience end. But, for all we can tell from what we can hear, it sounds as though the instrumentalists were all arrayed on the platform, just like any ordinary ensemble.

To put it bluntly, in a work specifically designated by Brant as “spatial” (see the full title above), this simply would not be the case: there’s audible evidence (notably from some reverberant “tails”) of a spacious acoustic, but – the vocalists apart – this isn’t reflected in either the overall recorded ambience or the sounds of the various groups. Again, my guess is that the brass group would have been nowhere near actually contingent with the percussion and neither would the woodwind have been on the platform close by the strings. “Which was really where” is anybody’s guess. Can we conjecture that the four widely-spaced vocalists must have been captured by a simple “crossed pair” of microphones, whilst the instrumental groups were (though perish the thought!) closely miked and “pan-potted” into the mix?

Whatever the truth of the matter, the upshot is that we lose the atmospheric tingle-factor of Brant’s carefully calculated spatial arrangement – as heard, the sound (to borrow Harry Partch’s famous phrase) “lacks half the take”. Possible utter disaster is averted by a stroke of sheer serendipity: in Rainforest Brant’s spatial polyphonies are relatively simple – as borne out by the presence of only two conductors. In fact, there are numerous passages where groups are evidently co-ordinated, and hence, albeit temporarily, not actually groups in the spatial sense. Consequently, you can still make out most of what’s going on.

The point about the relative simplicity of Brant’s spatial polyphonies needs some elaboration. A basic principle of Brant’s spatial music is that the simultaneous performance of several disparate musical strands is rendered intelligible by widely separating the performing groups and making the musical strands independent, i.e. unrelated to one another in both substance and tempo. Otherwise, the strands are simply parts of a harmonious (if sometimes violently dissonant) whole, and spatial separation is merely a pleasing antiphonal option. Strictly speaking, then, spatial strands are incompatible protagonists (or, perhaps more accurately, here, antagonists). Since in Rainforest there are but two specifically identified antagonists – the Rainforest and its would-be destroyers – there really need be no more than two conflicting threads. However, in saying this we need to be mindful that such things are not cut-and-dried, because firstly a given antagonist can involve more than one conflicting strand and secondly “conflicting” does not necessarily imply “noisy”.

Rainforest is cast in a logical progression of eight movements: Prologue (N.B. not the American spelling!), Vegetation, Rain, Chatter (i.e. of the fauna), Indigenous Peoples, Destruction, Wasteland, Epilogue (N.B. ditto!). The first acts as an “introductory overview”; the second to fourth are in effect the Rainforest’s description of itself; in the fifth the indigenous peoples give voice to their heritage and fears; in the sixth and seventh the Rainforest relates “civilised” mankind’s relentless, wanton pillage and its ultimate outcome; the eighth is an uneasy question-mark. I should add that, in the course of several hearings, the remarkable aptness of Brant’s treatment of his subject starts to emerge with considerable force. I have to say, though, that the extended, rowdy “Big Finish”, more or less tacked onto a finale that has already delivered its message and is set fair to expire in meaningfully muted anguish, strikes me as a curiously inapt gesture (on the lines of, say, the end of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet).

However, it was an inspired idea (presumably on the part of the poet) to have the Rainforest “speak for itself”, coaxing us firstly to imagine it as a vast, complex and sentient organism, rightly proud of its finely-balanced ecology and its inestimable contribution to the wellbeing of the planet, and secondly to empathise with the dire predicament of the Rainforest itself and (by direct implication) the planet as a whole. I reckon that the vocalists’ varied and often extraordinary modes of delivery are meant to reinforce this feeling of “non-human” speech.

The music’s idiom is essentially tonal and melodic. However, a “melody”, other than the swinging “jazz” in Indigenous Peoples, never approaches anywhere near a “tune”. Typically, each melody falls into one of three classes: [1] continuously evolving or cycling, [2] fragmentary, [3] declamatory (vocalists only). This last covers a multitude of, not “sins” but “sings”, at one extreme hovering in the vicinity of sprechtgesang, at the other something more harmoniously fluid than plain recitative. We could arguably include in “fragmentary” those passages which are predominantly rhythmic (such as the savage tympani at the climax of Prologue, or the furious fusillade of percussion in Destruction).

Brant’s writing, both instrumental and vocal, is colourful and penetratingly imaginative. The Prologue, by its nature, exemplifies more or less all aspects of the work and its performance. The very start weaves an idyllic spell, the strings establishing an evolving “chant”, a hymn of timeless stability against which the Rainforest (acted by the baritone) introduces itself. Woodwind, piano, harp and percussion gradually emerge, giving an impression of members of the arboreal fauna joining the discourse. Subsequently, the hymn’s character varies, reflecting the decaying demeanour of the Rainforest. As the baritone describes the appalling scale of the destruction (“Vanishing, at a crazy rate”), the hymn becomes anxiously agitated, soon engulfed by the increasingly savage clamour of harsh percussion and (solo!) brass.

In the aftermath, the hymn optimistically reappears on high, transformed into ethereal gossamer, all four vocalists singing with achingly beauteous Baroque floridity (“Dome of Green Light”). But, after a pause punctuated by accordion-like woodwind chords and xylophone glissandi, the hymn weakens, beset by brass “squawks” and deep grunts from piano and string bass, while vocalists (“Rain forest lung”) struggle in vain to remain optimistic. Bass woodwind grunts link to horn, declamatory baritone (“Trees with giant root, toppled and burned”) and the strings’ hymn – now shudderingly, seriously troubled; the other three vocalists reappear, beleaguered by strenuous brass and percussion. Finally the music dissipates, leaving only ominous bass woodwind grunts.

Those words can do no more than hint at the fascinating instrumental effects – indeed, the same would apply if I similarly described any other movement. What it does not hint at is Brant’s even more astonishing vocal palette. Although I’ve not gone so far as to draw a precise map for myself, I’m fairly confident that Brant’s specific vocal effects are meant to emphasise particular expressive moods or modes. There is so much going on that mentioning it all would take forever (or something close to that); so, I’ll more or less limit myself to summarising those remarkable vocals.

In Prologue’s opening solo, the phrase endings of the baritone’s sprechtsgesang (generally used for narrative passages) more or less swoop (or flick) up or down. At first this seems mannered, but only until you’ve made the connection mentioned earlier. In “Dome of Green Light”, he sings falsetto, blending smoothly with the tessitura of the other three singers, significantly enhancing the passage’s unspoilt purity. In “Trees with giant root toppled and burned” the two ladies positively “bark” their syllables, lending an appropriately alarming edge to the proceedings. In Vegetation, a plaintive cor anglais sets the tone; the baritone sings/speaks similarly, but with curiously stressed words and numerous wide slides. Later, as strings play in slides, the soprano floridly names numerous plants, copied by the mezzo-soprano in the manner of an echo (or “separated” canon). At the start of Rain, the baritone’s sprechtsgesang is modified by short portamenti from one syllable to another and sometimes glides at phrase ends. Later in this movement, we hear words sung as glides, both male singers falsetto, with the ladies delivering some spectacular swooping descents from way up high.

I’m pretty certain that, at the start of Chatter, the offstage infant’s voice is only accidentally part of the performance (indeed, no performer is credited!). Otherwise, Chatter is a veritable tour de force, the most eyebrow-raising aspect of which is the ladies enlivening the imagery by reeling off a list of animals’ names using vocal effects imitating divers animal sounds (but not on a one-to-one basis), using many effects such as stabbing staccati, various slides – even flutter-tonguing! Indigenous Peoples is almost as impressive. The baritone’s recitative is nervy and clipped, compounding with the brassy “popular” jazz to characterise the human natives. There follow three episodes. Firstly, the singers whisper confidentially [“Our whistling note”], the baritone’s phrase being echoed by (in turn) tenor, mezzo-soprano, soprano, each echo slightly briefer than its precedent. Secondly the four vocalists, both males falsetto, sing in a quasi-baroque style with complex overlapping [“My mother gave me being”], over a curious, accordion-like chorale of woodwind and strings. Finally, against a “stalking” jazz background the four vocalists (no falsetto), sing in cascades (descending broken chords) of extended slides which end up oscillating, siren-like [“As jungle forests die”].

Destruction is a far more elaborate affair than Prologue’s brief outburst. Initially, the baritone adopts a sprechtgesang style, but later he and the tenor are heard speaking in jerkily detached, strained words, soon joined by the ladies in panicky swoops, followed by all four soli in the latter manner. Epilogue also starts with a sprechtgesang baritone, joined by other three echoing his words. Later, the tenor, falsetto, leads, followed by the other three (baritone also falsetto).

Yes, I have missed out the sixth movement, but with good reason: amongst movements that are merely extraordinary, Wasteland is utterly inspired. Piano, harp and percussion (notably glockenspiel) play detached, isolated – not chords, exactly, but more what Stravinsky described as “aggregates of notes”. Woodwind proceed similarly, locked in their own remote cell. Coarse strings grind out throbbing, pulsing, surging phrases, veering between dissonant and even less consonant. Vocalists enunciate the words (“Cloud crossing murky sky; raw wound glaring below; sun setting on rubble.”) as isolated individuals, in long-held notes, often ending crescendo, at pitches utterly alien both to one another and to their already dissonant surroundings. The brass take turns in sounding a forlorn “last post”. They also are doomed to fail utterly: their notes, relating only to each other, are unable to engage with a fellow mourner. Voices start to overlap but, having no perceptible harmonic relation, can only clash, blindly and painfully, one with another.

This is immobile, agonised music, the very antithesis of harmony; nothing fits together any more – all is smouldering ruin, wrecked beyond recovery. By comparison, Holst’s Neptune simply oozes warm, homespun melody. Yet Wasteland is music as intensely moving as it is deeply disturbing. I can’t help feeling that Rainforest should have ended right here, rendering redundant what I said earlier about the inaptness of the Epilogue’s “Big Finish”. In any event, Wasteland is the bleak, black heart of the work – a depiction of desolation that is without parallel (believe me, I’ve wracked my brain for ages, trying to come up with even one), and a grim warning that, over 30 years down the line, has proved to be horrifyingly prophetic.

It seems to be the general case with the recordings in this Henry Brant Collection that the performers, regardless of whether they be amateurs or professionals, are swept up by a sense of occasion and palpably “give it their all”. Given that these are mostly the only recordings of the works, that’s perhaps just as well – so you’ll be pleased to know that this performance of Rainforest conforms to the trend, being gratifyingly committed and technically excellent. It says much that in this unedited live recording, there is but one obvious slip – and that is the slightest garbling of just one note by the horn. I dare say that there are numerous slips that are not obvious, but these are therefore of no consequence whatever. In addition, audience and other “noises off”, whilst by no means absent, are entirely tolerable.

Having admitted the corporate excellence of the playing, it might seem contrary of me to sing any individual praises. Well, I can’t help that, but the following did particularly tickle my ear: the three brasses played their laid-back jazz as to the manner born, i.e. “real cool, man”; I often found myself aurally gawping in amazement at the sole (and uncredited!) percussionist – managing fully seven diverse instruments (including a drum-set) fearlessly, faultlessly and fatigue-lessly, his playing was positively prodigious; and finally, who else but those four environmentally evangelical vocalists? They were, quite simply, a pleasure to hear and a wonder to behold, negotiating the entire range of vocal gymnastics – a range, let it be said, that included passages of the most ravishing beauty – to the entire satisfaction of the composer (who happened to be the principal conductor) along with, I should think, anyone who listens with open ears.

There are a couple of minor cautionary notes regarding the text. Firstly, the text of Rain, as printed in the booklet, includes the word “stems”, which the vocalists consistently pronounce as “steams”. Given the context, both are plausible but the latter seems more likely to be the right one. Secondly, in Indigenous Peoples, although the text “We hear their long, green cry / As jungle forests die” as printed appears about two-thirds of the way through, it is actually used at the end of the movement,. Finally, in Epilogue, I have no idea what the first line’s third word is; it could be any of several different words – the vocalists all pronounce it differently (and indistinctly) – but the word is definitely not “room”, as printed!

I get the feeling that Rainforest is one of those works that (if you’ll excuse the pun) grows on you – over the course of some six or twelve hearings (it was a fair few, anyway) I went from bemused to impressed, and thence to conceding that here was yet another CD that I intend to return to often. The corollary is that there is a risk that some will give up on it at first hearing. So, if you do decide to invest your hard-earned cash, be sure to give it a fair chance – and if you’re wary of parting with hard cash up front, well, you can sample it at your leisure on YouTube. If my experience is anything to go by, those who persist will be richly rewarded.

Paul Serotsky

Vocal Soloists
Michele Eaton (soprano)
Mary Nessinger (mezzo-soprano)
Mark Conley (tenor)
William Riley (baritone – principal voice part)

Instruments (and players, where known)
Flute doubling piccolo (Sarah Pflueger).
Oboe doubling English horn (Denise Kamradt).
B-flat clarinet doubling E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet with extension.
Bassoon (Eric Dirckson).
Horn (Jennifer Harrison).
Trumpet (John Dent).
Trombone.
Drum-set, 3 tympani, glockenspiel, vibraphone, xylophone, 4-octave marimba, chimes (one player).
Harp (Gillian Benet).
Piano (Elizabeth del Felice).
4 Violins (Nick Eanet, Marlissa Regni, Gabrielle Shek, Ayako Yonetani).
2 Violas (Nancy Obern, Anna Rogers).
2 Cellos (Arpad Muranyl, Jonas Tauber).
Bass (Stuart Sankey).

MWI Reviews of Other Issues in “The Henry Brant Collection”:
Volume 1
Volume 2
Volume 3
Volume 4
Volume 5
Volume 7 (Kirk McElhearn)
Volume 8 (Dominy Clements)

Other MWI Brant Reviews:
PHOENIX USA PHCD174
SFS MEDIA SFS 82193600382




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