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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 13
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Worth by NorthWest
by Bob Neill

 

A few months ago, Steven of the 'High Res' asylum of Audio Asylum (http://www.audioasylum.com) alerted me to the first SACD reviewed below. Little did I know that as good as it is, it was just the tip of a small but fascinating iceberg. NorthWest Classics is a very young (1998) recording company in the Netherlands (northwest Europe, I guess), which, based on the selection of SACDs they sent me for review, has achieved a compelling balance of fresh approaches to traditional classical repertoire and strikingly new music from their own country. They are perhaps a version of Britain's Black Box, with a strong and express interest in audio technology. I am grateful to Steven for the introduction and to NorthWest for their generous contribution of discs for review. For more information than I offer here, go to http://www.northwestrecords.com.

Hans Ruckers, 'The Musical Legacy,' Jos van Immerseel

This is the recording that brought me to NorthWest, and it is a stunner. Clearly, it is as much about the harpsichord (and virginal and clavichord) as it is about the music, though I enjoy sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth century keyboard music, and van Immerseel is always worth hearing. His complete set of Mozart piano concertos on Channel Classics with Animal Aeterna has been one of my favorites since it came out in the early 1990's. The recording here makes use of three different instruments built by Ruckers and his descendents.

Recording a harpsichord in digital has proven a major challenge to recording engineers. One of my all-time favorite vinyl harpsichord recordings, Kenneth Gilbert's complete keyboard music of Francois Couperin on Harmonia Mundi, was not really listenable to me in digital until I heard it through an Audio Note DAC. This NorthWest CD is the best digital harpsichord recording I've ever heard. Believe it or not, the harpsichord, once its transients are brought under control by the recording engineer and DAC designer, can be a warm sounding instrument. All three instruments used here sound good, but the 1650 virginal sounds extraordinary. If NorthWest can make a harpsichord sound this natural and unfatiguing, clearly other companies can do likewise, and I recommend that recording engineers around the world consult with NorthWest's Oscar Meijer and Fir Suidema.

The recording, as all of the NorthWest issues making up this review, is a CD/SACD hybrid. Clearly NorthWest is strongly committed to the new medium. The SACD layer struck me as a bit more ambient (on an Audience 'High Resolution' modified Sony NV-999ES)―and that is helpful in taming a harpsichord. But that quality alone was not enough for me. There was a straightforwardness and purity to the CD layer played through my Audio Note DAC that I preferred, and so I spent most of my time listening to the CD layer of this recording―and all of the others as well. That said, if you are a fan of SACD and hear more from its technical innovations than I have been able to hear so far, NorthWest will be a small dream come true for you. I'll say more about CD/SACD differences below.

 

Three Concertos for a New Century: van Keulen, Loevendie, and Jeths. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

A characteristic of much contemporary classical music is its conscious interest in its medium, sound―a strong focus on instrumental timbres and sonic textures as expressive forces of…well, emotional and intellectual timbres and textures―rather than on melodic or thematically developed material. We tend to call this music 'post-modernist' because it abstracts one major aspect of 'modernist' music, its anti-traditional aesthetic, to create what amounts to a whole new musical world. I am used to this in literature:  seeing modernism's disciplined use of radically new forms to re-present thematically traditional ideas abandoned by many of the next generation (who considered it old nineteenth century wine in new bottles) to produce a literature informed entirely by the new aesthetic, by a focus on the aesthetic itself. The result, both cheered and lamented, is a literature and music consonant with a relativist sense of the world, full of  contingency―sometimes absurd or inane, sometimes nightmarishly surreal, but also sometimes exhilarating. It is also comforting to many who find traditional music, even early formal modernism, consonant with a view of the world they can longer hold. It is familiar to many of us in abstract expressionist painting. I am less used to it in music, though it has been with us for quite a while. Eliot Carter, now in his mid-nineties, was talking about a music composed of sonic textures in relation to his own work a generation ago!

All of the music on this CD is of this 'school' and is presumably representative of an influential portion of its generation of contemporary Dutch classical music. It is a music that needs to be heard in its own terms if it is to be 'understood'―if that is what we do with this music. It will not do to go looking for familiar objects (in this case motifs, etc.) in this abstract painting. If you are a traditional listener, you must suspend your traditional expectations and let this music have its way with you, to make its aesthetic-emotional case for itself and its sense of the world, without your traditional preconceptions (and hopes) in the way. It is meditative and exploratory rather than narrative art. It moves in space, not time, seemingly from within itself rather than according to external forms. It belongs to a (view of the) world that to some degree has replaced the one some of us knew. Sometimes it seems both an exploration and commentary on this new world.

Probably the most useful thing I can do here is describe what these three pieces sound like to a man who grew up in the earlier world, danced to the music and literature of the high modernists.

Geert van Keulen, Horn Concerto (2001)

A restless, brooding piece, this concerto wanders about, giving the French horn a chance to explore sonic and mental territory that is fairly typical of much post-modernist music. The first movement, tranquilo, is atmospheric, tempering our expectations. It then moves into a vivace second movement where the brass dart about playfully interrupted by the solo horn which resists the play, 'causing' the brass and rest of the orchestra to become increasingly frenetic. The horn could almost be from a Richard Straus concerto but it is in a very un-Strausian place. As we begin the third and final movement, adagio, the storm and conflict seem over. There is a plaintive, mournful orchestral sound―and the horn is very much a part of the mood. Then a few minutes in, the horn makes a bit of a statement but can't sustain it, almost seems at a loss for notes. Next, there is a restless section, beginning in the low woodwinds―percussion rattling in the background. The music grows bolder, moving from plaintive to overt complaint. This soon subsides into the mournful sound of the movement's beginning, but then, as the strings grow more prominent, the horn in their midst, the music swells. Low brass and percussion kick in, producing more conflict and drama once again―almost hints of a Shostakovich symphony. But soon we are back to the plaintive mood, which trails off into the silence at the movement's and piece's end. We do not really have a sense of the horn as some sort of metaphoric mission here―as we do say with the viola in Gubaidulina's more modernist Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. Rather we feel we have been through some sort of mental and emotional meditation or exploration, with the wonderfully dark sound of the horn as our guide.

Theo Loevendie, Clarinet Concerto (2002)

This piece opens its first of two sections with a clarinet solo, wonderfully recorded by the way. It all has a similar feel to the van Keulen piece. Restless and brooding, the orchestra accompanies a clarinet that wanders about with no particular song to sing, but rather a meditative, self-absorbed sort of musical indolence to indulge. A few minutes into this section, things get a little more rambunctious in the orchestra, the percussion contributing a good deal to this, but the clarinet continues to wander up and down and about, making intriguing clarinet sounds. The section ends quietly.

The second section begins more energetically. There is more urgency; a lot of different instrumental textures are evident. The recording is very good at getting them clearly, sometimes brilliantly. The music settles down about halfway through the section, but the clarinet cries and sings more forcefully, dropping hints of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. The orchestra resists the mood, but then joins into a two-step. Everything then scurries into a more furious and frenetic mood. Finally the clarinet gets a solo but really has nothing to say. The orchestra returns and then they whirl and collapse. 

William Jeths, Flugal Horn Concerto (2002)

This piece is written in a single movement for an instrument that is a large, earthier sounding version of the trumpet. It is a highly atmospheric work, the solo instrument wandering about in the spirit of Loevendre's clarinet, erratically, while the orchestra storms and beats on itself alongside, sometimes suggestively beneath. What goes on brooding and growling in the low bass is a large factor in how we respond to this work. I found it moving and suggestive. About halfway through, for a few minutes the orchestra begins to beat out a regular minimalist riff and the flugal horn goes with it. Hints of American composer John Adams. The horn then gives it up and become broadly reflective. It does a solo that feels like a recitation and is then joined by the low brass, first grumbling then growling alongside it. The strings come in like anxious insects. The flugal horn holds the foreground―accompanied by percussion, including what sounds like piano strings struck by a hammer. Actually percussion plays an ongoing role in the piece, keeping the surface ruffled and interesting, while rumblings of various kinds in the deep bass complement it. It would be fair to say that percussion and the low brass play something like a cosmological role, framing what goes on in the 'world' between them. Toward the end of the piece there are some wonderfully animal-like contributions from the low bass. Percussion and low bass, with the flugal horn playing almost in the background, bring the work to a quiet close. 

Jeths' concerto has the most positive 'life energy' of the three concertos. It seems more comfortable with itself and the post-modernist idiom than the other works on the disc. It is the most truly exploratory, and Jeths uses this word himself in describing what he is about. His music has less of van Keulen's and Loevendie's sense of equivocation. He seems in an accompanying photo (no dates are given) considerably younger than they are and so presumably grew up in a world less elegiac (about the past) than they did. He is the composer of the three that I most wanted to hear more of―and as soon as I mentioned this, by return mail came an entire disc of his music, Bella Figura. I won't take you through it as this point, but I will urge you to pursue it if I have managed to rouse your interest. It is every bit as interesting and rewarding as Jeths' concerto on the Three Concertos disc. 

All of this music, to return to my general take on it, feels like a musical version of stream of consciousness: mental experience presented as music. Again, there is no narrative flow toward or away from anything. It is not about formal progression. It is about being. 'Teach us to sit still.' (T.S. Eliot) And it is very hard on itself.  By its very nature, it refuses to become major musical statement. This is the price it pays for what its composers doubtless feel is its radical honesty about what finally can be said, or musically suggested, about our 'condition.' It aspires to be notes or reflections, perhaps at best, fragments. Eliot's Wasteland is also fragments but they are arranged (and fortified with mythic materials) to create a major statement about the condition this contemporary Dutch music is willing to represent but not willing to judge or frame. That is what makes this music post-modern. 

The SACD layer of these discs seems to emphasize sonic atmosphere, instrumental colors and contrasts. I was initially curious to see if the music would change in CD mode, whether it would become less sonic and more something else. The music on SACD was a little hard to warm up to―and I like contemporary classical music a lot. On CD, I liked the music better. Distinctions among instruments were not cut so sharply. I was more aware of emotional drama than sonic contrast. Instrumental colors were more deeply saturated. Defining edges were still clear but less stark. There was no diminishment in the sense of space but more flow―and this music doesn't flow much! Everything seemed a bit more coherent. 

I have expended most of my 'allotted' time on this disc, so I'll cut back on what I have to say about the last two.

Mozart, Sonatas for Violin and Piano, Cipriani (violin) & Ciomei (piano). 

The violin is the point in this recording and it is an extremely colorful, characterful instrument with which soloist Cipriani straddles the music with authority. He is recorded up close (with great tact, as in close to the instrument and not to his breathing nose!) and this contributes greatly to the overall effect. We have grown accustomed to strong, vigorous Italian views of Italian (and German) baroque music from some of the new Italian ensembles; and this is a lusty modern Italian view of Mozart. It is anti-Fabio Biondi, if that helps you to hear what I'm talking about. The pianist, Ciomei, we are told, is Cecelia Bartoli's accompanist, and he plays like someone used to accompanying (not accommodating) a powerful diva and clearly holds his own. 

I came to like this recording a great deal the more I heard of it. It makes a compelling case for its approach to Mozart and will doubtless come to make all of the insipid Mozart around seem more so. It does not strive for elegance and so achieves a version of it that I expect will wear well. It is, to be glib, “Amadeus” Mozart, referring to the popular film, and would have been considerably more effective on the soundtrack than the fairly bland band I remember. 

Haydn, Harp Concerti, Godelieve Schrama 

This is the disc I have found myself playing most often for pleasure over the past few weeks. Ms. Schrama has made harp transcriptions of three Hadyn concertos for other instruments, and the best thing that I can say for them is that they work, wonderfully. The Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra under Anthony Halstead clearly loves Haydn and helps to make it all a great musical success. This is a long way from the world of William Jeths, and that it is as fine an all-round production as his discs says a great deal for NorthWest. 

The music system used for this audition included an Audio Note digital transport and digital-analogue converter, Audio Note single-ended, tubed electronics, Audio Note interconnects and speaker cabling, JM Reynaud loudspeakers, and Elrod Power Systems AC cords.

 

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