It is axiomatic about new, serious music that it is far from accessible on first acquaintance-indeed, that it may remain opaque, if not downright hostile, to our ears even after a second or third hearing. Addressing this problem in one of his Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University, the American composer Roger Sessions, whose music is renowned for its knottiness, offered a useful suggestion:
“If we keep our ears open and willing, and listen attentively, we may easily discern, here and there, moments or passages of which we feel the impact immediately, however fleeting this sensation of contact or recognition may be. One may even tell oneself: ‘This at least is “striking,” or “graceful,” or “amusing,” even “moving,” “beautiful,” or simply “interesting.”‘ This means that we have begun to recognize features in the work and to sense its character; and if we are interested or patient enough to pursue the matter further, we will find that these moments will grow longer.”
This makes very good sense. Mr. Sessions does not plead for “understanding” or even a degree of musical knowledge on the part of first listeners; he merely suggests that we relax our resistance to the strange and unfamiliar to allow for the possibility that we might find ourselves stimulated in ways we expect from a new novel or film, a new painting or play.
Chamber music, because of its intimacy of expression and its clarity of interplay among modest forces, is often the best invitation into the world of an unfamiliar or “difficult” composer. A number of recent CDs featuring 20th-century music bear this out and offer marvelous proof of the soundness of Mr. Sessions’ advice.
In these raucous times, refinement in any of the arts has become virtually extinct, which is one reason why an eloquent album of small-scaled instrumental music and songs by the Swiss composer Frank Martin falls like invigorating rain on the ears (ASV 1010). Martin, who died in 1974, is, at least in this country, perhaps the most unjustly neglected of the European modernists who are generally ranked just below Schönberg, Webern, Berg, Stravinsky, Hindemith and Bartók. The Britten-Pears Ensemble, a young British group of elastic size, here joined by pianist Iain Burnside, plays Martin’s Quintet for Piano and Strings (1919), two Ballades (one for flute and piano from 1932, the other for cello and piano from 1949), his Sonata for Violin and Piano (1932), and Quatre Sonnets à Cassandre , for mezzo-soprano and ensemble-all with the palpable zest of people who have stumbled on pure gold. Whether elegiac or almost aggressively cheerful, this is music that speaks with tremendous lucidity, subtlety and daredevil balance-Martin’s guiding spirit was Bach-without ever becoming facile. And, as he demonstrated in the particularly appealing Quintet, Martin was one of the few modernists who could sound immaculately up-to-date in his use of jerky rhythms and bittersweet dissonances while writing honest-to-God melodies that stay in your head. The Cassandra songs, to poems by Pierre de Ronsard, trace love’s fine line between ecstasy and despair with the rigorous, transparent delicacy of a Paul Klee drawing.
One of the most revealing stories about an artist’s wellspring of inspiration was told by the Hungarian composer György Ligeti to an interviewer, about a childhood dream he’d had of being unable to reach the safety of bed because of a web that filled his room. Caught in the threads were insects whose movements only increased the complexity of the weave. Hallucinatory yet insistently tangible, nimble yet endangered, Mr. Ligeti’s fantastically imagined, finely wrought musical “webs” are being given a hearing fit for one of the last living grand masters of 20th-century composition in Sony Classical’s ongoing Ligeti Edition. No. 7 in the series has just been issued, and, to my ears, it’s the most rewarding one so far (Sony 62309).
Mr. Ligeti’s Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano (1982) or, as he calls it, an “homage to Brahms,” echoes the earlier composer’s massive, flowing utterances as if rehearing them in a vast, empty landscape whose terrain is forever shifting. In Ten Pieces for Wind Quintet (1968), Mr. Ligeti takes the measure of the individual quirks of timbre in the clarinet, flute, oboe, horn and bassoon, and their mutual friendliness (or lack thereof) to nightcrawly extremes. His Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet (1953) are, by turns, playfully swinging and sweetly doleful “jokes” on their folkloristic, Bartókian antecedents. For me, the disk’s great discovery is the Sonata for Solo Viola (1991-94), a series of six pieces that exploits every virtuosic possibility of this undervalued instrument, from broadly flowing lyricism to punchy bravado to ghostly whistling. Here, Ligeti the experimenter in “microtonality” is perfectly joined by Ligeti the dramatic pictorialist. The sensational violist is Tabea Zimmermann. Like the members of the London Winds and the other players on the album, she seems fiercely-sometimes ecstatically-at home in these wondrous landscapes.
In the album notes for a program of six trios for various combinations by Charles Wuorinen, the American composer addresses one of the most intractable charges against the Schönbergian modernists-that they foolishly abandoned (or, as some have maintained, were incapable of writing) melody. “If melody means a step-wise diatonic progress, then of course people who don’t write diatonic music can’t write melody,” Mr. Wuorinen says. “But if melody means ‘tune’ in the larger sense, then of course you find it everywhere … I would even venture to say that you find it occasionally in my music.”
It might be more accurate to say that one of the things I find so attractive about this album (Koch International Classics 3-7617-2) is not so much the occasional presence of a “tune” in any sense, but the constant intimations of tunes-an atmosphere, if you will, of melody. It’s hard to pin down exactly how this is achieved. Mr. Wuorinen is a Stravinskyan, which is to say that his haute-chromatic music has the Russian’s motoric danceability and its clipped angularity, in which skitterings and blips and the more “relaxed,” keening, sometimes bombastic utterances are presented with strobe-lit meticulousness.
This is highly articulated music in which everything is just so. Yet if it sometimes borders on the finicky, there is an unmistakable exuberance behind Mr. Wuorinen’s fluency-one often feels present at some sort of ecstatic rite. The New Yorker ‘s Andrew Porter, reviewing the first New York performance of the Horn Trio (1981), which kicks off the album, called the music “Haydnish.” Listen to this work and the other ingenious trios enough, and you’re likely to agree. “Difficult”? Superficially. “Infectious”? Absolutely.
And while I’m throwing around adjectives, I’ll try “slippery” for the chamber music of Allen Shawn. As befits someone whose teachers included Nadia Boulanger, Earl Kim and Leon Kirchner, his music has that knowing sheen of the highly, broadly schooled. And yet there is far more than the merely clever at work in the four pieces that comprise an all-Shawn chamber program, featuring, among other superb musicians, the pianist Ursula Oppens and the members of the Aspen Wind Quintet (Northeastern Contemporary Series 258).
Mr. Shawn’s father was the New Yorker editor and jazz aficionado William Shawn, which may account in part for both the strongly narrative quality of his music, and the way that low jazz and lazy popular song idioms occasionally bubble up, as if to remind the tricky, sophisticated surfaces not to get too uppity. The magical “Song of the Tango Bird” (1993) for flute and piano works both as an ornithological pastiche and an evocation of a lush tropical clime where the flute’s call of the wild is in constant gentle competition with the piano’s call of the tango. The great, dense piano chords that open the wide-ranging Sextet for Piano and Winds might seem to promise a brooding post-Brahmsian wallow, but they soon give way to an almost Earl Hines stride, built around the horn’s bluesy, four-note figure. The elegant Piano Trio (1993) manages to conjure up, without forcing the issue, Chopin, Fauré, Ravel and Charles Mingus-an extended piece of wistfulness for a time when “high” and “low” poached happily from each other with easy urbanity. In “Blues and Boogie” for cello and piano (1991), Mr. Shawn first pays grave, sonorous homage to America’s greatest master of cultural fusion, George Gershwin, then lets fly with all his beautifully integrated contradictions in a high-modernist boogie-woogie-a little masterpiece of scintillating goofiness.