New releases, of works old and new, that explore the expanse of human consciousness.
Floating Points, Pharaoh Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra album / 2021 / Luaka Bop
Traversing jazz, electronica, and western classical music with transcendent grace, Promises well deserves the critical acclaim it received last year. The music is less easily defined by genre than by mood and feeling: spiritual, pensive, and expansive. Regardless, this album is certainly one of the most beautiful of 2021.
Sam Shepherd (Floating Points) composed Promises as a single, continuous work, spanning nine movements and forty-six minutes. It is the fruit of a collaboration with Pharaoh Sanders, the avant-garde jazz saxophonist, whose performance takes centre-stage of this record (at least in the first half). The string section of the London Symphony Orchestra is put to varying use here, both as musical elements and in full orchestration. These three, seemingly disparate strands are both balanced and enhanced by the others – and never fall foul of gimmickry – thanks to Shepherd’s care and judiciousness.
The piece begins with a glimmering sequence of chords played on acoustic and synthetic keyboards. This motif repeats throughout the piece, serving as both theme and anchor, over which melodies overlay and intersect. The minimalist scoring of Promises creates a sense of vast, unexplored space: a plane of silence upon which float melodies and susurrations .
A wide array of sounds are explored in this work, without ever outstaying their welcome. The electronic instruments are clear and crystalline in recording: not quite cold, but there is a notable contrast with the roughened timbre of the saxophone. Movements 1 through 5 showcase Sanders’s talent for invoking a deeply spiritualist mood with his instrument. The saxophonist improvises melodies amongst the sparse synthesisers – a soaring voice here, an oscillating wave there – figuring as a cosmic guide or herald.
What arrives next is a trio of lengthier movements, where a sense of intent replaces the seemingly inchoate sounds that came before. ‘Movement 6’ is where Promises crescendos, and serves as the centre-piece for the LSO. As Sanders fades out, a solitary violin fades in as the strings aurally assemble in a sombre composition. The chorus of swelling, soaring vibrato invokes an intensity of feeling, with only the motif as a subtle connection to what came before.
Sanders returns for ‘Movement 7’ where, at least initially, we seem to return to familiar ground. Vintage synthesisers begin an outpouring of chiming, pulsing, and quavering tones, which coalesce into a retro-futuristic soundscape. The effect is alien and spacey, in a way that feels at once nostalgic and yet entirely prescient. I hadn’t even noticed that the motif disappeared, until it returned in a flurry of shimmering synthesisers and wailing saxophone.
This apotheosis might seem a natural concluding point, but – as evinced from the false ending both here and in ‘Movement 8’ – Shepherd doesn’t want to let the listener off easily. This movement begins with the ghostly echoes of jazz-funk, as if we are suddenly hurtling earthwards, only to veer back to the ethereal with an organ solo. ‘Movement 9’ is a brief and perplexing coda, as the LSO strings return in a flare of disquietude.
Is this an end, or a new beginning? Is there something, as implied by the pluralised title, that remains unfulfilled? Promises portrays mysteries without easy answers; but what is clear is that Shepherd and Sanders have achieved something wonderful. The measured pacing and minimalist abstraction may not be to everyone’s taste; but this is a must-listen (ideally with a set of good headphones) for anyone who is curious about the state of contemporary music.
Schoenberg: Pierrot lunaire
Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Camerata Bern / 2021 / Alpha Classics
‘Den Wein, den man, mit Augen trinkt / Gießt Nachts der Mond in Wogen nieder’ Pierrot murmurs, rising to a caressing moan. This whispered, almost conspiratorial invitation belies what is to follow. It has been more than a century since the debut of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire at the Berlin Choralion-Saal. This rendition by violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja – performing the title role – and accompaniment from musicians of Camerata Bern, challenges the listener to experience the piece anew.
Pierrot Lunaire, commissioned and performed in 1912, is set to twenty-one poems from a cycle of poems (also under the same title) published in 1884. Both the text and music are products of that fractious period, its tumults and revolutions, as Europe faced an uncertain future. Kopatchinskaja has described her personal, almost revelatory connection with the piece which she discovered after emigrating from post-Soviet Moldova. The violinist has since performed as part of the ensemble, although one gets the impression that she always envisaged herself as Pierrot.
Kopatchinskaja inhabits the character through her emotive and imaginative vocal delivery. Her sprechstimme (speech-song) remains animated and unpredictable throughout, never lingering in song for more than a brief moment. The calmer passages are suitably plaintive, but this Pierrot comes to life through bouts of emotional mania. ‘Der Dandy’ exhibits this well, as her voice wafts and wavers in pitch and timbre: shrill high notes, sultry patter, and guttural growling are all given great panache.
There is even literal clowning, with the text acted out upon the music, as in ‘Gebet an Pierrot’, where the narrator breaks into paroxysmal laughter. Such embellishments might seem cartoonish, on a first hearing, but they are effective in teasing out particularly comedic vignettes. The cackling on ‘Gemeinheit!’, as Pierrot trepands poor Cassander, is infectious. The absurd melodrama ‘Der Mondfleck’, without any visual aid, fully transports one into the world of cabaret.
These moments provide a necessary contrast with those such as in ‘Rose Messe’. The profane sacrament, rising from feverish incantation to a malevolent roar, is awesome in the biblical sense. Followed by ‘Galgenlied’ and ‘Enthauptung’, in which Kopatchinskaja practically spits out the words, and the shrieking ‘Die Kruze’, these four poems are almost numbing in their intensity.
This is a strangely compelling experience. It is a testament to the ensemble musicians that they are able not only to elevate an idiosyncratic performance, but to find their own voices too. It is apparent in earlier poems like ‘Madonna’, and they ably carry the work to a close as Pierrot sinks into reverie.
The remainder of the album places ‘Pierrot Lunaire’ within its historical context, each piece connected more or less to its composer. It is an inspired choice to follow the wistful poem ‘O alter Duft’ with a lovely rendition of the Kaiser-Walzer by Johann Strauss II. The arrangement is Schoenberg’s, its sparser instrumentation that imbues it with romance. Webern’s Four Pieces for Violin and Piano and Schoenberg’s Phantasy for Violin and Piano, performed by Kopatchinskaja and Ahoonen, are given their due as contemporaneous pieces.
Fritz Kreisler’s Little Viennese March seems a funny diversion, played with a level of gusto bordering on irony, yet it is also an echo of Pierrot Lunaire’s relationship to music like the Kaiser-Walzer. Ahoonen entertains with a well-deserved solo turn for Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces, revealing the playfulness that hides in its laconic notes and pregnant pauses.
This album contains an unorthodox performance of an already unorthodox piece of music. It is particularly challenging of one’s musical sensibilities and requires some patience on the part of the listener: even then Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire will not be for everyone. For the moonstruck remainder, the performances are entrancing enough for repeated experiences. If the goal was to breathe life into the old clown – to re-contextualise Pierrot, through Kopatchinskaja’s personal connection, for a contemporary audience with its new uncertainties – it has succeeded in this regard.