Four Composers, Three Books

Recent reading:

Thomas Adès: Full of Noises. In this book of conversations with Tom Service, Adès offers plenty of iconoclastic opinions. Britten, Mahler, Brahms, Wagner, Verdi, and more all come in for some pungent criticism. The finale of the Brahms 4th is “a terrible waste of space.” On Simon Boccanegra: “Artistically it’s disastrous, but for some reason this music won’t lie down and die.” But there are interesting insights into his own creative process: “I was looking and looking at a particular C sharp, and as I put it under the microscope I saw or heard a writhing that turned into the piece” – that’s a marvelous image. He is given to aphorism, even of a Wildean sort: “Ethics are a distraction an artist cannot afford.” Snarky though some of this sounds, I came to understand Adès’s side of the conversation in a more playful light after seeing this video in which he gently offers terrific insights on Ravel’s La Valse in a piano master class, as well as displaying some impressive piano playing.

Eagle Minds: Selected Correspondence of Istvan Anhalt and George Rochberg (1961-2005).
Allan M. Gilmor, editor. I picked up this hoping to glean some biographical info about Rochberg, with whom I took two classes at Penn, and whose music I have performed on several occasions. I was not familiar with the music of Canadian composer Anhalt – you can hear Glenn Gould play his striking Fantasy here – and I must admit to focusing more on Rochberg’s side of the correspondence. However, there are only bits of biography here that provide a very modest supplement to Rochberg’s memoir Five Lines, Four Spaces, with a few letters mentioning such events as the ordeal of his son’s death, his rejoicing at being finished with administrative duties at Penn, and performances of new pieces, including the premiere of The Confidence Man at the Santa Fe Opera. Many of the letters are given over to bemoaning the state of culture, and railing against organized religion, musical modernism, and the murderous 20th century in general, with the tone becoming increasingly dark over time.

Leon Kirchner: Composer, Performer and Teacher, by Robert Riggs. Leon Kirchner (1919-2009) is yet another under-appreciated American composer (though perhaps the recent program of all four of his string quartets, given by the Orion Quartet, might signal a shift in his prominence). He was an considered an important name during my undergrad days, but I don’t think I ever heard his music live until I attended one of the first performances of his Music for Cello and Orchestra with Yo-Yo Ma and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1992. The book is respectful and thorough, tracing Kirchner’s studies with Schoenberg and Sessions, his activities as pianist and conductor, (including a number of years at the Marlboro Festival) and as a teacher, most notably his extended stint at Harvard. I like what I have heard of his music, written in a dissonant idiom in which influences from modernist masters like Schoenberg, Bartok and Stravinsky are put at the service of a passionate, vivid, and personal idiom. Here is the opening of Kirchner’s early Piano Sonata No. 1, in a performance by Leon Fleisher:


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