LERDAHL Spirals.1 Three Diatonic Studies2. Imbrications.3 Wake.4 Fantasy Etudes5 • 1Scott Yoo, cond; 1Odense SO; 2Mirka Vitala (pn); 3Read more class="ARIAL12">Michel Galante, cond; 3Argento CO; 4Bethany Beardslee (sop); 4David Epstein, cond; 4Boston SO Chamber Players; 5eighth blackbird • BRIDGE 9391 (58:24 Text and Translation)
Fred Lerdahl (b. 1943) is the Fritz Reiner Professor of Composition at Columbia University. Happily, he looks a lot nicer than Fritz Reiner and his music is a lot more modern than most of Reiner’s repertoire. This disc is summarily titled Vol. 4 of his music, with three previous issues on Bridge (Vol. 1, 9191; Vol. 2, 9269; and Vol. 3, 9352).
Spirals uses what I would call “bouncing tremolos” in eighths, played by the violas, to set up its initial rhythm. Eventually commentary is given by other strings, winds, and brass, generally in an opposing rhythm, while the violas continually return to their tremolos. To a certain extent, I felt that this piece was a cousin to Franklyn Marks’s Trajectories, an early “third stream” piece written for Stan Kenton’s Innovations in Modern Music orchestra around 1950. In Trajectories, however, the musical shards spring outward, while in Spirals they tend to stay or at least return to the center. Lerdahl indicates that although the two movements are of equal length, the first is fast and brilliant and the second slow and lyrical; yet the pattern he uses is the same, in which the “spirals” expand (i.e., become slower) exponentially, but then slowly but surely contract back to their “point of origin.” One might think that the imposed form would restrict musical invention, but Lerdahl manages to keep interest up via his quite varied development section that plays itself “against” the spirals. Moreover, in the second movement the spirals begin slowly, almost at a snail’s pace, while the commentary remains at virtually the same tempo as in the first movement. It’s a brilliant piece, brilliantly played by the Odense Symphony under the direction of Mirka Vitala. I was also quite impressed by the clarity of the recording: Everything is crystal clear, even to the inner voices.
The Three Diatonic Studies are titled “Chasing Goldbergs,” “Cyclic Descent,” and “Scalar Rhythms.” The first, obviously, is based on Bach’s Goldberg Variations, specifically the Aria, and is played in a “pointillistic” fashion. The second piece is described by Lerdahl as juxtaposing “the diatonic set with its pentatonic complement,” but the ear hears it as slow-moving chords played by the left hand in the middle of the keyboard while the right plays occasional sprinkles above it. The third fulfills its title by using scales in rhythmically varied and complex ways, at times coming close to the kind of complex cross-rhythms used in West African drumming.
Imbrications, composed for Andrew Imbrie’s 80th birthday, is a quick-moving piece for a chamber ensemble consisting of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion. There is a certain relationship here to the rhythmic setup of Spirals, but it is even more contrapuntal. I thought I heard a snippet of the familiar “Happy Birthday” tune, and indeed that was woven into the music (as per the composer’s notes), as is a bit of Auld Lang Syne.
Next we get a real treat, a rare recording by the immensely talented (and legendary) soprano Bethany Beardslee, in a 1970 performance of Wake, a piece based on excerpts from the text of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. This music struck me as rather more contrived than the later music on this set, but by saying this I mean only that Lerdahl’s later style is a bit less obsessed with effect. Taken on its own merits, and if you had not heard a note of his later music, it is a wonderfully creative piece, eventually hurling itself into strange and complex contrapuntal variants at a fast tempo. Beardslee’s voice is not necessarily set off as “soloist” with the string trio, harp, and another trio of percussionists accompanying her; rather, she is more often than not another instrument in the ever-evolving contrapuntal web woven around her, although by its very nature the voice often sings a sustained line, only occasionally throwing itself into fast, complex passages. And I must say that the reissue engineers have done wonders with this nearly 45-year-old recording—you’d swear it was recorded no earlier than the 1980s. I should also mention that the string trio includes the venerable violinist Joseph Silverstein. And happily, the text being sung is included in the booklet, a major plus, because even though Beardslee has superb diction you simply cannot catch all the words sung at this speed so high in the soprano range.
The 1985 Fantasy Etudes, originally premiered by the chamber group Musical Elements, is described by Lerdahl as having evolved “from 12 interlocking etudes.” This was also the first of his pieces to use the idea of the spiral form in an overlapping style, though in this case the music and its scoring were to some extent influenced by Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Lerdahl, however, loosens up the strictness of form as well as departing from serialism for a surprisingly lyrical section in which the winds play quite low in their registers and are joined by the cello. Even moreso than in Spirals, nothing here sounds the least bit formulated or predictable. The moods (and music) change with mercurial swiftness; every minute brings new surprises. Even the swirling of the winds and strings emerges in a surprising way, and spins out from the center towards the outer wall of one’s musical expectations. Counterpoint eventually pulls the various threads together as if by centrifugal force, sounding as if Lerdahl were trying to force the flitting winds and percussion into some semblance of order when they were striving to do the opposite!
This is most decidedly modern music in the classic (post-Schoenbergian) sense of the term, yet it is highly original and contains a great deal of wit. Recommended.
Spiralsby Fred Lerdahl Conductor:
Odense Symphony Orchestra
Diatonic Studiesby Fred Lerdahl Performer:
Mirka Viitala (Piano)
Imbricationsby Fred Lerdahl Conductor:
Argento Chamber Ensemble
Wakeby Fred Lerdahl Performer:
Bethany Beardslee (Soprano)
Boston Symphony Chamber Players
Period: 20th Century Written: 1967-1968; USA
Fantasy Etudesby Fred Lerdahl Orchestra/Ensemble:
Period: 20th Century Written: 1985; USA
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Spirals in FormAugust 13, 2013By Ralph Graves (Hood, VA)See All My Reviews"Volume Four in Bridge Records' ongoing Fred Lerdahl series features works from different stages of the composer's career. And what an interesting career its been! <br />
Wake, a setting of Finnagin's Wake, was Lerdahl's first major composition. Finished in 1968, it's Lerdahl at his most atonal. Written (and performed here) by Bethany Beardslee, Wake is a jagged, spikey work that moves along like an wobbly wheel, threatening to spin out of control at any moment. <br />
Fantasy Studies, a 1985 work commissioned and performed by eighth blackbird shows how much Lerdahl's own compositional voice developed. Rather than academic serialism, Lerdahl uses his concept of spiral development, continually revisiting motives that fold back on themselves. <br />
The third major work included is Spirals, a 2006 orchestral composition. Here the linear nature of Fantasy Studies is replaced by sound clouds -- further developing his idea of spiral forms. The music wavers and flows, groups of instruments interweaving with each other in fascinating ways. <br />