BY A COINCIDENCE of trifling importance, the Los Angeles Opera’s two music directors – Kent Nagano present and James Conlon future – turn up on disc releases this month. By further coincidence, both works are musical turkeys: clumsy, noisy choral works by major composers that add nothing and detract considerably from their creators’ otherwise lustrous reputations. Both, of course, will gladden the hearts of those peculiar fanatics among the world’s galaxy of collectors, the ones who must have everything, who would regard a collection lacking, say, an unfinished deathbed composition of Franz Liszt, however flawed, the way you or I might regard a pebble in a shoe.
In a whole shelf of tomes on the life and works of Beethoven, I find no writing kindly disposed toward the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, yet Nagano’s new Harmonia Mundi recording is actually the fifth of the work to appear since the dawn of the CD era. Worse yet, Franz Liszt’s St. Stanislaus rates no more than a footnote in my three or four biographies of that worthy composer, yet here on Telarc is an hour’s worth of music from this unfinished work from Liszt’s dying years, a performance Conlon put together at last year’s Cincinnati May Festival, an annual event he has shepherded since 1973.
The ardent collector would have us believe, of course, that the less renowned a work’s position in its composer’s pantheon of masterworks, the more exalted its stature as a masterpiece. These two works from, respectively, the dawning and the sunset years in the era of the overstuffed romantic choral escapade – an era illuminated along its way with such flickering lights as Mendelssohn’s Elijah and the Brahms Requiem – hold a certain fascination. Terrible as they are, they serve as paradigms: the Beethoven as the perfect specimen of the bloodless academic counterpoint he so brilliantly surpassed in the fugues of his last string quartets, the Liszt as a blind alley where Wagner-inspired chromatic harmonies seem to strangle themselves in their own complexity.
Beethoven’s 48-minute oratorio tells of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas and the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane; there are important roles for Jesus, Peter and a Seraph, and a chorus of soldiers and disciples gets to whoop things up at the end. But nothing ever moves; arias and recitatives fall into blocky forms, and even the choral movements lack impulse. Everything goes by formula – it’s difficult to realize that this stodgy music was conceived earlier in the same year (1803) that produced the “Eroica.” Plácido Domingo sings the Jesus; his recent success as Wagner’s Parsifal would, you’d think, endow his voice with the intensity to countenance the pathos in this kind of music, but Beethoven gives him little. Nagano and his Berlin Deutsches Symphonie provide a fine resonance; Luba Orgonasova and Andreas Schmidt take the subsidiary roles.
An oratorio on Poland’s Saint Stanislaus, who in 1079 had the sass to confront the tyrannical King Boleslaw and get him to recant his evil ways, occupied the aging Franz Liszt in his last days, until failing eyesight forced him to put the project aside with two of the four scenes completed. Since those scenes already add up to an hour’s music, there was plenty for Conlon, his May Festival Chorus, seven vocal soloists and the Cincinnati Symphony to sink their teeth into for their world premiere last year; this, after all, is the kind of event that brings the Lisztomaniacs, the media and the recording engineers on the run (or would have, in my day).
There is only one problem, and it reveals itself about 30 seconds into the tortured, slithering, aimless chromaticism of the opening orchestral introduction and never shakes itself loose thereafter: This music is dull, as if nothing in the world had ever been dull before. It is dull like a parody of dullness; it is dull as if the Brahms Requiem had turned into a klezmer convention; it is dull as if the AMA had defined a new level of physical pain. In a wretched sequence, chorus passes into aria; aria passes into orchestral fantasy on some obscure Polish hymn, then to another. One excellent soloist is Kristine Jepson, who sang the role of Sister Helen in Opera Pacific’s Dead Man Walking and, therefore, knows her way around lost causes – which do, after all, count as collectibles.
IT IS TIME — long past time, in fact – for me to write about Valentin Silvestrov, one of that remarkable group of Eastern European composers whose cause in the West has been most forcefully undertaken by the noble record producer Manfred Eicher of ECM. Born in Ukraine in 1937, Silvestrov followed a more or less standard evolution – some 12-tone, some Cage, some Shostakovich and Schnittke – toward the unique stylistic mix his music presents as a challenge to latter-day description.
His Requiem for Larissa, released on ECM this past spring and composed in memory of his late wife, explodes out of darkness. Deep-toned percussion (“a black lake,” writes Paul Griffiths in his notes) floods our ears; a horn and the chorus can’t quite get the words out: “Requiem.” The music pounds, then stops, then pounds once again. Of all the settings of the words of the Mass for the Dead, the “Dies Irae” here, in its jagged savagery, strikes the deepest terror. Later a solo mezzo-soprano sings the “Lacrimosa” in a tortured, fearful melody, and the men of the chorus fling it back at her. “Eternal rest” lies far out of reach in these harmonies that pierce the eardrums. Near the end solo, winds and brass hurl fragments of troubled melody over what sounds like an empty vastness, yet this soon melts into a kinder vision, as soft bells, harp and celesta offer the comfort long awaited and a soft wind seems to caress the troubled landscape.
Silvestrov writes strong music that hurtles across many styles. On another ECM disc from a year ago, there’s his Postludium, a massive work for piano (Alexei Lubimov) and orchestra (Dennis Russell Davies, conducting), astonishing in its brutality at times but no less astonishing for its angelic apotheosis at the end. His music comes to us this coming March, when UCLA and ECM join in an extended festival they’re calling “Elective Affinities,” with a number of ECM notables on hand that I’ve written about in awe over the years – the Hilliard Ensemble, Jan Garbarek, Dino Saluzzi and the Keith Jarrett Trio. One event, listed for March 17, has music by Valentin Silvestrov and Arvo Pärt played by the Munich Chamber Orchestra. Both composers will be in attendance, and you should be, too.