Who is afraid of 20th Century music?

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Volume 1 – LIVE – 31/12/99 & 01/01/00, Musikhalle, Hamburg
EMI CDC 5 56970 2 [76’52”]

Overture to Candide
Mänadentanz (Die Bassariden)
Rag Time (wohltemperiert)
Marches Nos.4 & 10 (10 Märsche um den Sieg zu verfehlen)
Central Park in the Dark
Waltz (Maskerade)
Sabre Dance (Gayaneh)
You must finish your journey alone (world première)
March (The love of three oranges)
La valse
Polka (The Golden Age)
Circus Polka
Overture to Der Silbersee
Stille und Umkehr
Volume 2 – LIVE – 31/12/00, Musikhalle, Hamburg
EMI CDC 5 57129 2 [78’35”]
Short Ride in a Fast Machine
Mambo (Symphonic Dances, West Side Story)
Hoe-Down (Rodeo)
Ritual Fire Dance (El amor brujo)
Cuban Overture
Pacific 231
Military March
The Iron Foundry
Gavotte (Cinderella)
Pavane pour une infante défunte
Journey Through Moscow (Moscow Cheremushki)
Green (November Steps)

Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra conducted by Ingo Metzmacher

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: October 2001
CD No: EMI CDC 5 56970 2 & EMI CDC 5 57129 2

In amongst the dispiriting reliance of major classical labels in re-churning back (and even quite recent) catalogue in ever-more witless and vacuous compilations (’Great Adagios’, ’The World’s Best Classical Music Ever’, even ’Mozart for Dummies’), these two EMI CDs valiantly try to dam the unseemly (and surely unwarranted) flood.

I doubt either will top the dubiously titled ’Classical Chart’, which is a great shame. En passant, couldn’t we split this sales tool into two – serious releases have their own chart, while the others could be accommodated by ’Classical Retard Advertising Promotion’ statistics (that’s CRAP for short).

Although the notes don’t explain the background to these CDs, Ingo Metzmacher’s idea was to greet the new Millennium (CD1) not with a traditional Vienna Philharmonic Johann Strauss concert, or a Berlin Philharmonic glittering gala (Abbado has dragged that institution into modern times by including Nono on one occasion); instead, with his regular orchestra, the Hamburg Philharmonic (from Hamburg Opera), he wanted to ask a simple question.

As documented on this EMI recording, there were plenty of people in Hamburg who wanted to make it clear that they were not afraid, or at least not of Metzmacher’s selection; overnight, a tradition was born, and EMI recorded the next concert, on the last evening of ’year 2000’.

There is a distinct sense of occasion here, with applause following every piece. Each concert is accommodated on one disc with no indication that any repertoire has been lost (you can imagine that on New Year’s eve the good Hamburgers – let alone the orchestra – would be itching to get to the nearest bier-kellar). The performances are all good, and very enjoyable. Doubts that the orchestra might be a little staid in the transatlantic scores are dissipated in the overtures opening each disc: Bernstein’s Candide on the first, Gershwin’s Cuban on the second, where there is a tangible feeling of relaxation.

The discs follow the same pattern. Each has fifteen items; the majority of the composers are either American or Russian. Intriguingly, on the Millennium disc, four of the thirteen composers died in New York and three died in Moscow. The second disc is a little more varied – Takemitsu and Falla adding Japan and Spain – and new continents to the death tally!

Before you think I’ve gone mad on mortality statistics, I have detailed this facet to illustrate the rather narrow choice of music on offer here. Don’t get me wrong, the repertoire is nicely contrasted to offer 75 minutes plus of great music, but there are some glaring omissions. Do we really need another Ravel La valse or Pavane? Are not the Broadway snippets and Russian ballet and opera excerpts so popular as to negate their inclusion in such a project? The only really challenging (but agreeable) works are from Henze, Kagel (Marches to Miss the Victory), Anton Plate, Bernd Alois Zimmermann (Silence and Return) and Takemitsu. The latter is joined, on CD2, by two contemporary Americans, John Adams and Michael Daugherty (Desi is after Desi Arnaz, a Cuban singer), but the play-list on ’volume two’ is much less combative even than the first.

There is nothing from the red, white and blue corner – Britain. You could choose from Elgar via Britten to Birtwistle or, from the more rhythmically insistent composers (some may argue harmonically simpler) such as Nyman, Martland or – a particular favourite – Graham Fitkin. What about our Antipodean friends, Australian Carl Vine or, more unusually, New Zealander Gareth Farr? All these are in (roughly) the Adams and Daugherty mode, not frightened to be exciting, fast and modal (and, perhaps most importantly, joyous).

There is a more serious point. Surely this would have been an ideal point to lead an audience into serialism and its post-war developments at Darmstadt, or the Russian avant-garde (Schnittke, Gubaidulina), Polish individualists (Lutoslawski, Penderecki) and the ’spiritual renewalists’ (Pärt, Kancheli, Tavener, Gorecki). It seems particularly sad that, especially in the concert heralding 2001, fifty years after his death that Schoenberg is not represented – by, say, the late, extraordinary Prelude to Genesis.

Admittedly, Metzmacher has proved his credentials in this area, with the fill-ups to the original EMI releases of his Hartmann symphony cycle – Berg, Martinu, Messiaen, Nono and Webern. He may have felt little need to repeat works already ’in the can’, but there is so much more from which to choose. Ligeti (father and/or son), Boulez (any of the Notations would work really well), Feldman and Cage; Peter Maxwell Davies’s An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise would be the ideal closing work – and how appropriate for Hogmanay.

Doubts over repertoire aside, these are engaging releases on their own terms. Anton Plate (born 1950) wrote his piece especially for the Millennium concert; the composer says it could work equally well backward as forward (although the building climax about two minutes in would sound rather odd played the other way round, starting as a massive chord and descending in pitch). In a nostalgic sort of way it is quite compelling, although its veering between extremes of loud and soft plays havoc in finding the right volume setting.

The notes are rather perfunctory, collecting in their brief sentences some odd statements; in reference to Stravinsky, “it is rather astonishing that one of the most dazzling and influential composers studied law before embarking on his musical career”. Schumann, amongst others, did the same. Less care and attention was lavished on the second CD’s booklet – no track timings – which is a shame.

This looks like becoming an annual recording event. Hopefully the discs will be a success and Metzmacher will be encouraged to be a little more challenging in future. Perhaps I can offer a challenge in return: to produce a “Who Is Afraid Of 20th Century Music?” concert and CD which only plays works by living composers.

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