RUGGLES Toys. Vox Clamans in Deserto. Men. Angels (original trumpet version). Men and Mountains. Angels (trumpet/trombone version). Sun-Treader. Portals. Evocations (original piano version). Evocations (orchestral version). Organum. Exaltation • Michael Tilson Thomas (pn, cond); Buffalo PO; Judith Blegen (s); Beverly Morgan (ms); Speculum Musicae; Gerard SchwartzRead more Brass Ens; John Kirkpatrick (pn); Gregg Smith Singers; Leonard Raver (org) • OTHER MINDS 1020/21-2 (2 CDs: 84:26 Text and Translation)
Hallelujah. This is cause for rejoicing. This collection has been inexplicably out of print since the dawn of the digital age, Columbia’s landmark two-LP set never having been transferred to CD. At last Other Minds, under the pioneering guidance of Charles Amirkhanian and Adam Fong, has rectified this glaring omission, and we can all breathe a little easier.
OK, many of you may be wondering why I am so thrilled and relieved. Carl Ruggles (1876–1971) is one of the great originals of American music. A close contemporary (and good friend) of Charles Ives, he is one of the defining “ulatramodernists” of the early 20th century, a musical school whose sense of invention and uncompromising quest is at the heart of what’s now (paradoxically) called the “maverick tradition.” Ruggles shared Ives’s love of New England Transcendentalism, its idealism and nature-oriented romanticism. Both wrote music of at times nearly unbearably intense dissonance. But where Ives clasped the whole messy world in a Joycean embrace (hymn tunes, ragtime, Civil War songs all wrapped into a sort of cosmic supratonality), Ruggles was far more of a purist. He wrote extremely slowly, making sure that every note counted on every level, and creating a sort of consistent dissonant counterpoint that was quasi-serial without ever using tone rows or hewing to an abstract system. This is both a strength and weakness. On the plus side, the pieces have enormous integrity and substance. They grab you from the first attack and refuse to release your attention. And despite the much-discussed dissonant surface, their obvious passion and bedrock technical consistency give them an increasingly classical feel. Many younger listeners probably will wonder what all the fuss was about. On the minus side, Ruggles’s practice was so strict that it seems to have made composition terribly demanding for him, and his output is one of the smallest of any major composer in the canon. In one sense everything he wrote was an ascent to, and then a descent from, one work, the magnificent Sun-Treader (1931). I suspect he wanted to grow and not repeat himself, but the constraints of his language may have boxed him in.
But that’s a composer speaking now. It doesn’t take away from the splendor of what Ruggles was able to create, and his ambition to create something for the ages has been fulfilled.
At this point, I don’t really feel we need an exegesis of all the works on this collection. They’re all essential music (though I’ll admit that Ruggles’s early vocal music, though striking, is not his most compelling work, and may be at least tangentially related to his lost opera The Sunken Bell). Other Minds has done the sonic transfer excellently. They’ve included the original notes by Michael Tilson Thomas (which features a poignant and even hilarious recounting of visiting Ruggles in his last years in a Bennington, Vermont, nursing home, and playing him a recent recording of Sun-Treader—more on that in a moment). Then it caps it off by adding an exceptional essay by Lou Harrison, one of the great inheritors of this outsider tradition. In short, the whole thing is a cornucopia.
I mentioned an earlier recording of Sun-Treader. Tilson Thomas and the Boston Symphony Orchestra made a 1971 LP for DG, and it was reissued as a CD with Ives’s Three Places in New England and Piston’s Symphony No. 2 in 2001 (you can read my Classical Hall of Fame review in Fanfare 26:1). It’s a magnificent rendition, and still, in its combination of sound and performance, the defining interpretation. But I must say that throughout the Other Minds collection, the Buffalo Philharmonic plays lustily and with absolute commitment. In fact, they had years of experience prior to the Ruggles sessions with new music of all sorts under Lukas Foss in the 1960s. And Tilson Thomas gets a concluding climax from them in Sun-Treader that’s second to none.
Also, though basically, this is the “complete Ruggles,” the pioneering musicology of the American pianist John Kirkpatrick and his student Donald Berman (who in turn completed the work and performs it) has shown that there is a host of other music that’s been brought out of the drawer. It’s mostly for piano, and piano and violin, some of it quite finished, and is presented in the New World CD The Uncovered Ruggles (80629-2; you can read my review in 29:1).
So my recommendation is simple. Run to your computer this moment and order the Other Minds set. Then, take a breath and buy Tilson Thomas’s DG Sun-Treader and the New World collection of arcana, and you’ll have covered Ruggles for probably your remaining life. And you’ll be a better human for it.
In case you haven’t already figured it out, this is an unquestioned Want List item.
Organumby Carl Ruggles Conductor:
Michael Tilson Thomas
Period: 20th Century Written: 1944-1947; USA Length: 6 Minutes 22 Secs.
Exaltationby Carl Ruggles Performer:
Leonard Raver (Organ)
Michael Tilson Thomas
Period: 20th Century Written: 1958; USA Length: 6 Minutes 16 Secs.
Sun-treaderby Carl Ruggles Conductor:
Michael Tilson Thomas
Period: 20th Century Written: 1926-1931; USA Length: 16 Minutes 32 Secs.
Vox clamans in deserto: I. Parting at Morning
Vox clamans in deserto: II. Son of Mine
Vox clamans in deserto: III. A Clear Midnight
Angels (version for 6 trumpets)
Men and Mountains: I. Men
Men and Mountains: II. Lilacs
Men and Mountains: III. Marching Mountains
Angels (version for trumpets and trombones)
Portals (version for string orchestra)
Evocations (original version for piano): I. Largo
Evocations (original version for piano): II. Andante con Fantasia
Evocations (original version for piano): III. Moderato appassionato
Evocations (original version for piano): IV. Adagio sostenuto
Evocations (version for orchestra): I. Largo
Evocations (version for orchestra): II. Andante con fantasia
Evocations (version for orchestra): III. Moderato appassionato
Evocations (version for orchestra): IV. Adagio sostenuto
Average Customer Review: ( 2 Customer Reviews )
Diffferent musicOctober 3, 2012By Roger Pratt (Scottsdale, AZ)See All My Reviews"This is different music to strimulate your ears accustoned to the German classics. The performances are uniformly excellent with some really interesting short pieces and songs orchestral pieces and tidbits. The performance of Sun Treader is excellent alhtough not up to par with Tison thomas's effort with the Boston Symphony. All in all it is worth the money s"Report Abuse
Finally!May 27, 2012By Ryan G. (Jackson, TN)See All My Reviews"Waiting for this CD release must be like waiting around for old Carl to finish one of his compositions -- over forty years, he completed less than 90 minutes' worth of music (twelve pieces including one revision, one orchestral transcription, and one uncharacteristic late afterthought), but here it all is: rich, strange, terse, compelling, and surprisingly varied. There are songs, a hymn tune, a piano suite, a piece for brass (2 versions), one for strings, and five for full orchestra. For me, the last category is where Ruggles is at his best. "Organum," from 1947, might just edge out "Sun-Treader" as his masterpiece. I'm not sure yet, but I'm going to enjoy figuring it out. Performances and recording quality are just fine -- nothing gets in the way of the music."Report Abuse
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