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Tuesday, May 17, 2005
Antheil, Lauridsen, Martinu et al
Music for String Quartet
George Antheil
Del Sol String Quartet
Other Minds

What is one to make of a composer who shocked the music world in 1924 with an avant garde piece called Ballet mécanique orchestrated for a percussion orchestra of three xylophones, four bass drums, and a tam-tam, two "live" pianists; seven electric bells, a siren, three airplane propellors and 16 synchronized player pianos and then--24 years later—wrote a third string quartet that sounds like it was discovered at the bottom of Dvorak’s American trunk? George Antheil was talented, for sure, but whether that talent was for writing music or for self-promotion has always been an open question.

This disk, produced by longtime Antheil champion Charles Amirkhanian and played with considerable passion by the Del Sol String Quartet, makes a generally persuasive case that Antheil could have been a contender. Perhaps, Antheil should have spent more time writing “serious” music and less time hacking out Hollywood scores and inventing torpedoes with Hedy Lamarr—not that the latter activity does not sound like fun.

Perhaps, he was what is called in horse racing terms “cheap speed,” a horse that runs great for the first half-mile and then fades. In any event, this is an entertaining disk. The first two string quartets are excellent and there is an extraordinary short piece called Lithuanian Night from the composer’s days afield in 1920s Paris that suggests what young Antheil might have become.

Lux aeterna
Morten Lauridsen
Stephen Layton
Polyphony, Britten Sinfonia

Morton Lauridsen is the American Arvo Part. Or maybe the thinking man’s John Rutter. Neither characterization is meant to disparage his relatively small body of accessible and hugely popular choral works but simply to acknowledge that he has achieved that rarest form of acclaim—both critical and commercial success. Lauridsen is among a select group of composers who write new music that sounds old and causes CD buyers to reach instinctively for their Visa cards.

Lux Aeterna, premiered in 1997, has become perhaps the most frequently performed modern American choral work. Composed for and dedicated to the Los Angeles Master Chorale (which recorded it first in 1998 and received a Grammy Award for its effort), the work is in five movements played without pause. Its texts are drawn from sacred Latin sources, each containing references to light. Although it sounds religious and opens and closes with the beginning and ending of the Requiem Mass, with the three central movements drawn, respectively, from the Te Deum (including a line from the Beatus Vir), O Nata Lux and Veni, Sancte Spiritus, it is not religious music. Lauridsen goes to some length in his notes to describe the work as non-liturgical although it is sometimes performed by church choirs.

The new Hyperion release contains other Lauridsen pieces--Madrigali, Ave Maria, Ubi Caritas Et Amor, and O Magnum Mysterium. The high point of the disk is Madrigali, a choral ode for a capella chorus composed in 1987 that uses techniques borrowed from Monteverdi and Gesualdo. This is dark territory; in fact, just about the mirror opposite of Lux Aeterna.

The singing group, Polyphony, conductor Stephen Layton and the Britten Sinfonia recorded this CD in 2003, with the composer present, at the Temple Church in London. The acoustics are superb. Polyphony is (or are, if you happen to be English) a much smaller group than the Los Angeles Master Chorale (where, Lauridsen is composer in residence) and that makes the sound clearer and more intimate than the LAMC recording but also lacking in some of the sheer power. It’s a toss up. Get them both.

Twentieth Century Oboe Concertos
Bohuslav Martinu, Pawel Sydor, Marco A. Yano
Alex Klein, oboe
Paul Freeman, Czech National Symphony Orchestra

When we were having a little discussion about the most underrated 20th century composers over on the front page, I somehow forgot to mention Bohuslav Martinu, who wrote so much music that many people assume that his prodigious output must be uneven but, in fact, maintained an impossibly high standard across the full spectrum of musical genres. I have never heard a piece by Martinu that I would give less than 9 on a scale of 10. Oboist Alex Klein opens this superb, bargain-priced 2-CD set with Martinu’s 1955 Concerto for Oboe and small Orchestra and you recognize immediately that you are in the world of genuis—a flat-out masterpiece by Martinu and a great player in Alex Klein.

The rest of CD 1 and CD 2 are world premiere recordings of two works written expressly for Klein. Fellow Brazilian native Marco Aurélio Yano's bright and exotic Oboe Concerto (1991) has a sad tale attached. Yano finished the manuscript for all three movements in 1991, and began working on the orchestration for the second movement but was stricken by brain cancer that took his life at 27. The orchestration was completed by his composition teacher, Edmundo Villani Cortes, and Klein himself. This is a major work, nearly 38 minutes in length, that draws from Brazilian influences, stretches the limits of the instrument and underlines Yano’s early death as an important musical loss.

Polish composer Pawel Sydor's dramatic Virtuti Militari (1992), a musical fable of individual heroism under social repression, explores the whole range of the oboe's technical and musical possibilities. The Czech National Symphony plays superbly; especially the Martinu.


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