03 April 2016

LABEL TAKING THE LEAD: Nimrod Borenstein’s SUSPENDED OPUS 69 and Franz Liszt's THE FRANCISCAN WORKS on Solaire Records (Solaire Records SOL1001 and SOL1002)

IN REVIEW: Nimrod Borenstein's SUSPENDED OPUS 69 and Franz Liszt's THE FRANCISCAN WORKS (Solaire Records SOL1001 & SOL1002)[1] NIMROD BORENSTEIN (born 1969): Suspended opus 69das freie orchester Berlin; Laércio Diniz, conductor [Recorded in Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, Germany, 27 – 28 August 2015; Solaire Records SOL1001; 1 CD, 40:16; Available from Solaire Records and major music retailers]

[2] FRANZ LISZT (1811 – 1886): The Franciscan Works – Late Music for PianoSandro Ivo Bartoli, piano [Recorded in Reitstadel, Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz, Germany, 28 May 2015; Solaire Records SOL1002; 1 CD, 60:56; Available from Solaire Records and major music retailers]

A few years ago, a supporter of Voix des Arts resigned from his ‘stable’ job in global finance in order to launch a new career with a boutique record label dedicated to the preservation of vintage Classical recordings and the recording of contemporary Classical Music. This decision prompted a mutual friend to opine, ‘There is no future in that,’ a sentiment with which many casual observers and even some industry insiders would surely have been inclined to agree. In the intervening few years, that prophecy has proved inaccurate, however. The challenges faced by the recording industry in general are intensified in the Classical arena by the inherent specialization of the music itself: the audience for Classical recordings is smaller than that for releases from the latest sensations in popular music, is more discerning, and—in an Utopian environment, at least—has distinctly higher expectations. Likewise, the problems of digital media are both manifold and inherently ambiguous, with even the Classical industry increasingly falling victim to the shadowy download circuit that undermines the integrity and exclusivity of new releases. Gone, perhaps forever despite the resurgence of recordings on vinyl, are the days when enthusiasts queued up to purchase new recordings as soon as they become available, but the most frustrating aspect of the difficulties faced by Classical recording labels is that this enthusiasm is now more prevalent ever. It hardly seems possible in a world in which new technologies making music more accessible emerge almost on a daily basis that uniting interested listeners with interesting music could be a daunting task, but the decision makers at the helms of many labels large and small often fail to take advantage of the opportunities available to them. Indifferently-engineered recordings of tired repertory are no longer acceptable in an environment in which opinions are expressed in 140 or fewer characters and unsatisfactory recordings are deleted as easily as they are downloaded. The brainchild of visionary Tonmeister Dirk Fischer, Solaire Records is an enterprise that defies the currents of slickly-produced, artistically inert recordings. The label’s inaugural releases, masterfully-recorded and intelligently-presented recordings of works by composers who on the surface seem as dissimilar as Cavalli and Cage, usher in a long-overdue return by like-minded artists to the aesthetics espoused by legends of the recording studio like Walter Legge and John Culshaw. It is regrettable that labels like Solaire are so few, but platinum has ever been scarcer than lead.

Premièred at London’s Royal Opera House in conjunction with the 2015 International Mime Festival as the musical score for Gandini Juggling’s 4x4 Ephemeral Architectures, Nimrod Borenstein’s Suspended opus 69 is a work that deserved to be recorded. A singular talent with interests as broad as his education and experiences, Borenstein has here created music of enduring value that demands to be heard, and this Solaire release offers the listener an extraordinary opportunity to make the acquaintance of Suspended within a proper context, complementing the superbly-engineered recording with informative, insightful essays by Tobias Fischer and Gandini Juggling’s presiding genius, Sean Gandini. Borenstein’s music is the soul and raison d’être for this recording, however, and it is difficult to imagine a traversal of any score that would be more fulfilling for its composer. To hold in one’s hands a disc upon which one’s own music is played so affectionately must inspire indescribable sensations, but the impact of hearing this disc is no less astonishing for the listener with no personal involvement with the music. Of course, one cannot hear this recording without developing profoundly personal involvement with Suspended.

The eight movements of Suspended reveal a deep comprehension of compositional techniques extending from Renaissance polyphony to trends in Twenty-First-Century music. There are occasional accents that recall other composers, but Borenstein’s musical language is engagingly original, stimulating the listener to seek meaning in the context of the score rather than relying upon preconceptions and much-abused formulae. In the Mysterious opening of ‘The world of yesterday,’ sound aptly emerges from primordial silence with much the same effect that Wagner achieved in the opening bars of Das Rheingold. The implications of the drama that simmers in Suspended are stingingly intimate rather than coldly heroic, however: as the Mysterious introduction evolves into the Moderato conclusion of ‘The world of yesterday,’ Borenstein’s ingenious manipulation of motivic writing undermines the tranquility of the aural landscape, suggesting that the reflection of himself that the listener is asked to contemplate is unnervingly unpleasant. This is representative of the tremendous power of Suspended. Propelled by sparsely-textured but beautiful, often almost Baroque string writing, Borenstein’s music lures the listener into charmed recesses that gradually shed their finery to reveal the ugly foundations, all too readily ignored, upon which beauty is built. Mahler was the great master of this elusive ambiguity, but Borenstein rivals Mahler’s expressive complexity with far greater economy of means. The purposes of every note are multifarious.

The subsequent movements, ‘Suspended’ and ‘Stillness,’ are starkly appealing, Borenstein’s writing for strings again cloaking uncomfortable sentiments in plush tonal velvet. Brazilian conductor Laércio Diniz and the musicians of das freie orchester berlin scale their performance to the natural dimensions of the music, unleashing avalanches of sound in extroverted passages that ideally complement the score’s prevailing if deceptive serenity. The spirited but subdued ‘Tango’ is as much a dance of the soul as of the body, its rhythms tightly-wound but strangely uninhibiting, an impression enhanced by Diniz’s energetic negotiations of the composer’s tempi and dynamic markings. The genuine spirit of the tango is here more present than in many composers’ more literal uses of the dance.

The ethos that permeates ‘Annoyed’ perpetuates the ambivalence that Borenstein cultivates so tellingly in Suspended. Perhaps the anxiety that gurgles like a spring beneath the surface of the music is reassuring because Borenstein’s score presents it as a wholly normal, omnipresent element of humanity. To doubt, Suspended seems to say, is to feel. What is felt in ‘Annoyed’ is not so much an obvious perturbation as a mounting exasperation at calling out without being heard. Carefully managing the orchestral sound, Diniz heightens the emotional impact of the composer’s depiction of isolation even in the midst of a vibrant community.

The dichotomy at the heart of ‘Boys and girls’ is not a conventional gender paradigm but a far simpler evocation of the divisions that occur in society: female and male, gay and straight, rich and poor, educated and uneducated. In the dangerous soil of these fields, Borenstein cultivates a delicate, lusciously erotic pas de deux that at once sweetly cajoles and insinuates more sinister meanings. Diniz and the Berlin musicians shape their performance of ‘Boys and girls’ with great eloquence, creating an atmosphere in which it is apparent to the listener that Borenstein is no less successful than Tchaikovsky at conceiving music for dance in which far more of the drama’s psychology is heard in the orchestra than is seen upon the stage. The title of ‘Pizzicato serenade’ says much about the message and construction of the movement, and the Berlin musicians play it marvelously, the strings’ pizzicato playing as full-bodied and resonant as their bowing. Suspended’s final movememt, ‘Tomorrow’s waltz,’ is both a wistful farewell to the past and a profoundly optimistic anticipation of the future, both within the context of the score and in the broader sense of Borenstein’s path as an artist. Like all of the score’s movements, the striking waltz is played with compelling immediacy by das freie orchester berlin and conducted with skill and emotional involvement by Laércio Diniz. Musically, emotionally, and technologically, this is a disc of perception-altering, genre-redefining significance.

The Franciscan Works, Italian pianist Sandro Ivo Bartoli’s disc featuring under-appreciated music by Franz Liszt, is no less potent and revitalizing than Solaire’s recording of Suspended. Recorded in a single day in the kind of marathon, artistically taxing takes that are now virtually extinct in the realm of commercial recording, The Franciscan Works deviates from pianists’ usual paths through the barn-burning pieces upon which Liszt’s fame in the Twenty-First Century largely relies. Playing a clear-toned Steinway D #595313 prepared by Christian Niedermeyer, little troubled by the tinny sound at the extreme top of the compass that afflicts many Steinway instruments, Bartoli traverses Liszt’s music with a singularity of purpose that yields a reading of extraordinary cumulative impact. Like Suspended, The Franciscan Works benefits from liner notes by Tobias Fischer that instruct the listener on what to listen for but not what to hear in the music, as it were. Bartoli, too, focuses on providing the listener with a full realization of Liszt’s scores. His playing is stirringly alert, every dynamic marking observed to the utmost degree of its musical and expressive spirits, but even at its extremes his individual approach to the music is never excessive or distractingly idiosyncratic. This is music making as inspiring as it is inspired, the pianist inviting the listener into a very personal segment of the composer’s fascinating musical world.

The final two decades of Liszt’s life were marked by puzzling, poignant contrasts. One of the great piano virtuosi of the Nineteenth Century, the composer was as skilled a master of beguiling ladies’ hearts as he was of taming the piano’s keys, but a series of personal tragedies gradually turned his thoughts from the secular to the ecclesiastical. It would be inaccurate to suggest that the influence of religious faith on Liszt’s life is overlooked by modern observers, but the products of his piety among his works for piano are undoubtedly overshadowed by the well-known display pieces. This is unfortunate, particularly as Bartoli reminds with his performances on this disc that these musical acts of religious fervor make technical demands no less monumental than works like the operatic and symphonic transcriptions and the widely-appreciated Hungarian Rhapsodies. The Deux Légends (S.163) are exquisite works of soulful invention, and Bartoli plays them with unapologetic Romantic fervor. The first of the pair, Saint François d’Assise: La prédication aux oiseaux, receives from Bartoli a performance of gossamer beauty maintained by unbroken concentration. This persists in his playing of Saint François d’Assise: Marchant sur les flots, which is characterized by rhythmic vitality that enhances the rhapsodic nature of the music. The Preludio per il Cantico del Sol di San Francesco d’Assisi (S.498c) and Cantico di San Francesco (S.499) are as tightly constructed as any of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues, and Bartoli draws out the harmonies among the inner voices rather than over-emphasizing the obvious links between the pieces.

Bartoli possesses an unique ability to use music to create an atmosphere in which the sounds that he coaxes from the piano no longer seem to come from speakers or headphones: as he plays, his visceral connection with the music seems to arise from nature itself with the communicative power that Saint Francis discerned. Playing Liszt’s Alleluia et Ave Maria d’Arcadelt (S.183), the pianist summons the grandeur of a cathedral organ within the appropriate scale of the music, phrasing with the ambulatory lilt of a religious procession. The character of Les Jeux d’eaux à la Ville d’Este (S.163/4) could hardly be more different, but the vigor with which Bartoli plays the piece perpetuates the keen sensitivity that makes this disc so uplifting. Miserere d’après Palestrina is not only one of the finest pieces on The Franciscan Works but also a pinnacle in Liszt’s creative career. The sheer grace of Bartoli’s performance of the Miserere is arresting. Ave Maria: Die Glocken von Rom (S.182) wields the force of a sermon by Jonathan Edwards or Cotton Mather, but Liszt channeled this electricity into music of hypnotic brilliance. If there are two adjectives that more perceptively describe Bartoli’s pianism throughout the numbers on The Franciscan Works than any others, they are hypnotic and brilliant, but this artist does not hypnotize by blinding the listener with flashes of his technical brilliance: rather, he serves as a conduit via which the composer’s genius captivates the hearer.

Walter Legge once wrote that ‘democracy is fatal for the arts; it leads only to chaos or the achievement of new and lower common denominators of quality.’ Perhaps this was primarily a quip offered in justification of his tyranny in the control room, but Legge’s sentiment illuminates a critical truth of Art in general. An exchange of ideas benefits any enterprise, but the efficacious recording of Classical Music requires a firm integration of resolve among artists and technicians. With both of these discs, Dirk Fischer and Solaire Records strip away the artifice that has compromised the quality of many record labels’ output in recent years. These discs are precious examples of music played as it deserves to be played and recorded as the performances merit.