DISCS / DOUBLE PLAY: Hearing voices from the other side: Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson compare notes on new-minted Holloway and revamped Gershwin
Saturday 26 February 1994
(NMC D015M, CD single)
AN incurable romantic, an inquisitive modernist - Robin Holloway is caught somewhere between the two. Like a medium, his music would seem to be in constant touch with voices 'from the other side'; a succession of allusions or even direct quotations prompting one to ask: is Holloway really feeling himself today? Yet the musical personality is a strong one: he's a skilled operator with his own emotional and intellectual agenda and, ultimately, he takes us places only he knows. You get a return ticket on this particular trip, just in case you missed things on the way out. Easily done: scherzando figures flash by (wasn't that a snatch of Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra?), lyric ideas appear and disappear like whisps of smoke, richer statements (wonderful string and horn alliances suggestive of a collusion between Strauss and Berg) promise to grow but never do, and all the while the clash of unpitched wood and metallic percussion powers the engine. Holloway's destination is a never-never-land that Charles Ives might have imagined, a disembodied solo piano drifting in from a drawing-room somewhere deep in the subconscious. And it's here, in dreams, that the music finds form to achieve a fabulous climax. Though quite where 'Arrivederci Roma' fits in, only Holloway knows. The piece is dedicated to Oliver Knussen - maybe that's a clue. Anyway, he and the BBC Symphony do it proud. ES
VIVID impressions of North Africa, its vibrant polyphony of noises, colours, designs, and its extremes of contrast, set Robin Holloway thinking in terms of a big, multi-layered orchestral canvas. The result, the Second Concerto for Orchestra, isn't quite like anything else I know. One moment the texture is as dense and dissonant as Elliott Carter, the next it's dripping with fin de siecle romanticism. The hammering of anvils and pounding of drums sound like fairly literal African recollections, but along this astonishingly eventful half-hour journey one also finds echoes of Tristan, Chopin's F sharp major Barcarolle, Jerusalem and 'Arrivederci Roma', all ingeniously woven into the musical fabric.
The last thing you could say of it, though, is that it's diffuse. Even when the pulse divides and two conductors become momentarily necessary, there's still recognisably one current, however much the surface teems with detail. Oliver Knussen's contribution in shaping, shading and focusing it all is, as Holloway says in his note, marvellous. If the members of the BBCSO don't believe in this work as passionately as he obviously does, they put up a convincing show. On top of this, the NMC production team has achieved the near-impossible and made BBC Maida Vale Studio 1 sound like a good, atmospheric recording space. The result is a gripping, and completely unclassifiable musical experience. SJ
GERSHWIN PLAYS GERSHWIN: The Piano Rolls
Realised by Artis Wodehouse
(Elektra Nonesuch 7559-79287-2)
I AM open-mouthed at the technology that brings George Gershwin right into my living-room to toss off a few of his old favourites - just as he might have done for friends at those endless Manhattan parties. To hear him dressing up 'Sweet and Lowdown' or 'That Certain Feeling', the casual, dapper manner, the up-tempo, in-tempo Roaring Twenties swing of those fascinating rhythms and their quirky harmonic sidesteps (you can see the glint in his eye), to hear the irregular, halting rubatos of 'Novelette in Fourths' and 'So Am I' - and in sound that puts you right there leaning on the piano - is just uncanny. And, of course, the magic 'rolls' allowed for a few added pyrotechnics - extra hands to make lighter work of flashier textures. If you thought An American in Paris only ever came alive in the orchestra, Frank Milne (Gershwin's roll editor) had his many fingers right on the pulse of it with this stunning two-piano edition. Hearing is believing. ES
GERSHWIN plays Gershwin? Not all these piano rolls were even touched by the master. Aeolian's roll editor, Frank Milne, cut this 'performance' of An American in Paris straight on to the roll after working it out on graph-paper. It's a tour de force full of impossible - or perhaps the word is inhuman - brilliance. I'm sure Stravinsky would have been fascinated. To me, it sounds like what it is - a machine.
For the rest, the question of what we're hearing is harder to answer. Extra notes were sometimes added to what Gershwin played - in some places you can tell; in others the sleight of hand is harder to spot. But there's no doubt this does sound like a real pianist, a good, lively, but on the whole fairly 'straight' one, not much inclined to pull the music about. So how seriously did Gershwin take the roll-making process? In the early days at least - the time when he cut 'When you want 'em you can't get 'em' - he was probably thinking more of the returns. But at the height of his career, did he trust it to reproduce the subtler nuances of dynamic, colour and tempo, or was he just hoping for a tolerable, literal reproduction? My guess is that he thought performance was performance, and this . . . Well, it's certainly great fun, and that American in Paris is definitely worth hearing, though I'm not sure I'll be coming back to it too often. SJ
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