Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Top 10 Pieces of Classical Music in the 00's (part 2 of 5)

- The Daniel Variations by Steve Reich (2006, London)

(My Name Is Daniel Pearl)

I have to say, I've never been a knee-jerk Steve Reich fan the way so many other classical musicians are. But then I'm a hard person to please. It's never been enough for me that Reich showed the way for classical composers back to engagement with popular audiences in a way that brooked no compromise with intellectual content. My problem was that Reich's music always seemed like ingeniously designed toys. Behind the incredibly sophisticated designs was something that sounded to me like emotional vapidity.

(BBC interview with Steve Reich about the piece)

Then I discovered his later music, or to be perfectly frank, his Jewish music. As a young man, Reich (seemingly like every other great musician of his generation) did his time in ashrams and drum circles. But sometime in the 80's he found a way back into Judaism (sometimes a deathknell for creativity, as a lot of Dylan fans contend), and eventually to Orthodox Judaism. And suddenly his music was transformed. A musician content for so long with shimmering beautiful surfaces plunged headfirst into music full of anguish and contrast. The Daniel Variations is his darkest music yet. Commissioned to commemorate the death of Daniel Pearl by his father, Judah, it is music that seems to have a hotline to our volatile times just as special as Doctor Atomic. In the first movement of the piece, singers endlessly repeat the famous quote from the book of Daniel "I saw a dream. Images upon my bed and visions in my head frightened me." Anyone captivated by the story of Daniel Pearl will find that the music captures its essence all too painfully.

- Jatekok by Gyorgy Kurtag (ongoing)

(Quarrel. Played by the composer and his wife.)

In some ways, this is cheating. Jatekok was a project started by Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag in 1970, and it continues to the present day and now numbers 7 volumes. Kurtag is like the Siamese twin of his conservatory friend, Gyorgy Ligeti. Ligeti managed to escape after the '56 revolution, Kurtag was not so lucky. A man of ill-health, Ligeti experienced his great years in middle age and made avant-garde music of awesomely theatrical power. Kurtag, now a spry-looking 83, is enjoying his golden period in old age. His music is every bit as intellectually demanding as Ligeti's, but far more intimate and at times, far more personal.

(Perpetuum Mobile, played by the composer)

Jatekok (or "Games" in English) is in so many ways as seminal a work as our time has. It plays like the intimate diary written of an infinite musical mind. Every work was written with Kurtag having either himself or his wife, Marta, in mind as a pianist. Sometimes with them both in mind for 4-hand piano. Almost every piece has a subjective title, and none is more than a few minutes. Often with just a few notes, Kurtag is able to suggest all the different facets of a life as it is lived. It just might be the greatest collection of piano music in our time.

(The beginning of an hour's worth of selections posted to youtube. The entirety of Jatekok so far still remains to be recorded.)

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