The Compact Collection  

This week's best CD releases

Rob Cowan
Friday 26 October 2001 00:00
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Imagine the situation. You're an established composer and a musician friend's teenage son suddenly dies. You want to write a musical memorial. Where do you start? What level of creative consciousness could even begin to honour that sort of loss? An impossible challenge, I'd say. Which puts Terry Riley's humbling but ultimately life-affirming Requiem for Adam into some sort of realistic perspective.

Adam was the son of David Harrington, leader of the Kronos Quartet. His heart gave out on a family walk in the mountains. Riley knew Adam, knew the rock music he loved, and worked elements of it into the second movement of his 42-minute memorial quartet. It's ritual music, garishly sampled with brass and percussion, a weighty march full of anger and sorrow. A little way in to this, exotic sonorities prompt a faint recollection of Javanese gamelan orchestras, musical symbols of peace and karma. The tenderest moment falls in the first movement when, after a gentle ascent and some quasi-fugal "reasoning", Riley cues silvery harmonics, quiet yet flowing and as unsentimental as late Beethoven. The long finale opens with inconsolable glissandos set to a solid beat then alternates contrasting episodes in rondo form.

Reconciliation of sorts comes only towards the end of the work, where the cellist bids Adam a loving farewell – part bowed, part plucked – while the higher strings weep gently above her. But that's not the end of the disc. Riley adds The Philosopher's Hand, a reflective piano meditation on the memory of the Indian musician Pandit Pran Nath who had attended Adam's memorial service and who, according to Riley, had the softest hand he had ever held. If you're at all interested in new chamber music then this Nonesuch CD is a must-have.

Thomas Larcher's Vier Seiten for solo cello marks a second, colder memorial, one that commemorates a fatal accident that claimed the life of racing driver Ayrton Senna. You're made to sense the impact, the dismemberment of the vehicle – slowed down as in an action replay – and then a paralysing quietness. The musical upshot of this eerie narrative, where tragedy becomes the subject of aesthetic meditation, is oddly disengaging.

The "cover title" of this all-Larcher album is the solo-piano Naunz, which opens with a "double-octave organ point", shudders from loud blows to the bass then, at about the half-way point, suddenly swings into Bartokian allegro mode. Imagine Beethoven, Bartok, Schoenberg and Arvo Pärt in dialogue, aided by Larcher's immaculate timing and extraordinary pianism. Although not yet 40, Larcher already lays claim to a distinct musical voice, quiet but insistent and with fundamental simplicity as its most abiding virtue.

Other works on the disc include the mercurial drama of the piano trio Kraken and the closing Antennen-Requiem für H, which turns the piano into a sort of wind harp, a rustling across the graveyard recalling Chopin, in gesture if not in musical style.

Terry Riley: 'Requiem for Adam'/'The Philosopher's Hand' – Kronos, Terry Riley (piano) (Nonesuch 7559-79639-2)

Thomas Larcher: 'Naunz' – Thomas Larcher (piano), Erich Höbarth (violin), Thomas Demenga (cello) (ECM New Series 1747)

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