Classical CD Reviews

Clara Rockmore’s Lost Theremin Album – Bridge Touch! Don’t Touch! Music for Theremin – Wergo

Theremin repertory both old and new - woo woo

Published on January 12, 2007

Clara Rockmore’s Lost Theremin Album – Bridge
Touch! Don’t Touch! Music for Theremin – Wergo
Clara Rockmore’s Lost Theremin Album – Bridge
Touch! Don’t Touch! Music for Theremin – Wergo
Clara Rockmore’s Lost Theremin Album – Selections by KREISLER, DVORAK, SCHUBERT, CHOPIN, CASSADO, BACH, VILLA-LOBOS, RAVEL, GERSHWIN, PONCE & others – Clara Rockmore, theremin/Nadia Reisenberg, piano – Bridge 9208 (Distr. Albany), 61:03 ****:

“Touch! Don’t Touch!” Music for Theremin by BOCHIHINA, WALTER, DE VROE, HIRSCH, KLEIN, NIKOLAEV, EGGERT, YUSUPOVA – Lydia Kavina & Barbara Buckholz, theremins/soloists/Chamber Ensemble New Music Berlin – Wergo WER 6679 2 (Distr. Harmonia mundi), 59:40 ****:

Ah, the unfortunate stricture of our categories – I just had to put this obvious reissue together with the brand new release since one doesn’t get in two theremin CDs every week! Clara Rockmore, who lived until 1998, was for decades the world’s leading exponent of the theremin – the first real electronic instrument of the 20th century. She was called “The Queen of the Theremin.” The note booklet has some great photos of her and her sister Nadia as children in Russia in 1918; also a photo of her and Leon Theremin – the non-touchable instrument’s inventor – in l930, and finally a photo of the two of them in l991. That was when Steve Martin, the producer of the documentary “Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey” brought Theremin to the U.S. and the computer music department at Stanford University held an outdoor concert at which he spoke – which I attended and recorded.

 
In the 1930s Rockmore’s rather primitive early RCA theremin was repaired and modified by Theremin himself, who expanded its range from three to five octaves (at the suggestion of pianist and fellow inventor Joseph Hoffman), made it easier to control, and lowered the instrument’s profile so that her hands moving thru the air would be more visible to the audience.  Robert Moog – who was a great fan of Rockmore and the instrument, repaired and rebuilt her theremin in the 1990s. He had originally started in business offering his own basic theremin kit – and in 1975 financed a recording session with the two women. A dozen of those selections have been available since then on a Delos CD, but the other 16 had to wait until this Bridge Records reissue of them. Some are the expected encore fare such as Estrellita, Ave Maria and Fritz Kreisler’s Liebesleid, but Rockmore plays with such lovely vocal-like phrasing that all of them are pure gems. (That is unless you’re one of those who can’t stand the electronic sound of the theremin…) Two of the tracks – including the lovely Aria from the Bachianas Brasileiras – are accompanied by an ensemble of eight cellos in new arrangements, which make a glorious backing for the touchless instrument’s soaring melodies. The Ponce favorite is accompanied by guitar.

The theremin is being used in a number of different rock and pop bands today, but it is not common knowledge that classical composers have been writing music for the instrument ever since Leon Theremin emigrated to the U.S. in the late 1920s. Among those who wrote for it have been Henry Cowell, Edgard Varese, Percy Grainger and Bohuslav Martinu.  Of course it later got major solo parts in the scores of movies such as Spellbound, The Red House and a host of sci-fi films.

The Wergo album is the result of its two performers bringing their unusual electronic instrument to the attention of contemporary composers and getting them to create new works for it.  The eight compositions on this CD are the result of their commissions. They point out that playing the instrument is like singing, and the different interpretations of various performers are as different as different singers’ voices. The works are mostly in a serialized atonal style, though some just revel in the many odd sounds that the theremin can conjure up.  One example of this is Moritz Eggert’s “The Son of the Daughter of Dracula versus the Incredible Frankenstein Monster from Outer Space” – for two theremins, violin, cello, piano and drumset. It would probably be superfluous to try to describe that one. Eggert reports that his concept was: What if the clich├ęs of film music became the models for contemporary chamber music? That ensemble is generally the norm here, except the final selection is for one theremin and tape. If the Rockmore CD is a bit too corny for you, the Wergo will certainly serve as an antidote.

- John Sunier




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