SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

FRIEDRICH CERHA: Spiegel; Momentum; Momente – SWR-Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden /Sylvain Cambreling /ORF Radio-Symphonie Wien / Dennis Russell Davies /Friedrich Cerha – Kairos (2 SACDs)

A convenient overview of an important avant-garde composer.

Published on February 16, 2011

FRIEDRICH CERHA: Spiegel; Momentum; Momente – SWR-Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden /Sylvain Cambreling /ORF Radio-Symphonie Wien / Dennis Russell Davies /Friedrich Cerha – Kairos (2 SACDs)

FRIEDRICH CERHA: Spiegel; Momentum; Momente – SWR-Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg /Sylvain Cambreling /ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien / Dennis Russell Davies /Friedrich Cerha – Kairos multichannel SACD 0013002KAI (2 discs), 65:13, 67:17 [Distr. by Allegro] ***1/2:

For students and fans of 50s and 60s avant-garde music, Austrian composer Friedrich Cerha (born 1926) will be a familiar name. In Europe at least, he’s also respected as a conductor of twentieth-century masters of the twelve-tone school and founder of the contemporary ensemble Der Reihe, which helped put that music before the public.

In seven long movements, the vast musical tapestry Spiegel (“Mirror”) is probably his most important composition. Begun in 1960, it occupied him throughout the decade and was debuted only in 1972. As Cerha modestly and accurately comments in the recording notes, Spiegel is an artifact of the age that produced the “sound-mass compositions” of Ligeti and Penderecki, and these composers, especially Penderecki, come to mind as you listen to Spiegel. More debatable is Cerha’s contention that what distinguishes his work from that of other composers of the period is “Immediately perceptible and emotionally accessible developmental processes. . . .” I confess that not being a student or special devotee of the 60s avant-garde, I don’t immediately (or emotionally) perceive the developmental processes that Cerha explains at some length in his notes. The notes, while necessarily self-serving, are interesting to read and may be helpful to those who have the dedication to listen closely and repeatedly to Spiegel. I confess I don’t have that kind of patience, though I found the experience of listening to Spiegel pleasurable and at times stimulating. Cerha’s musical language has entered the mainstream, thanks in part to pop-culture exploitations of the idiom, and so doesn’t sound daunting or even daring anymore.

Cerha further states, “I love sound, but did not search for it primarily because of its aural appeal. I much rather did so as a way of exploring fundamental phenomena of musical composition.” But as with Penderecki and Ligeti, the most obvious take-away for most listeners of this music will be the intriguing sonorities that Cerha explores, often in that great-wall-of-sound fashion that suggested the moniker “sound-mass compositions.”

The obvious question comes to mind: why isn’t Cerha as well known as his aforementioned contemporaries? It’s probably a combination of luck and good management on the part of Penderecki and Ligeti. Ligeti certainly got a famous leg-up from filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (2001, a Space Odyssey), while Penderecki had the very good sense to give his most famous piece from the 60s, Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, an immediately graspable objective correlative. His sacred music, such as the Saint Luke Passion, gave his work a further real-world, as well as other-worldly, foundation that helped popularize it. Cerha’s big piece, Spiegel, meantime may rightly claim to be a mirror of the frustratingly complex world the composer saw and heard around him, but that vision lacks the kind of specificity that listeners could latch onto in Penderecki’s music.

Cerha’s later compositions Momentum (1988) and Momente (2005) suggest that he didn’t stay put as a composer, but unlike Penderecki, whose musical idiom became increasingly more traditionalist, Cerha has progressed along the lines of Boulez, Stockhausen, and other post-serialists. Momentum, written as a sort of latter-day Pictures at an Exhibition and dedicated to the sculptor Karl Prantl, purports to be about specific Prantl sculptures and is apparently carefully designed, a musical wheel with nine “spokes” arranged around a central axis. According to Cerha, it’s constructed on mathematical principals: “In Prantl’s works there is a conspicuous frequency of certain numerical units: 1 (disc), circle hole); 3, 5, 8 (5 plus 3). . ., 14 (2 times 7). . . , etc. These are numbers which hold a magical significance for more than just Christianity. From these I formed proportional rows which are present throughout the piece, albeit varied and modulated. Fibonacci rows in which each section is the sum of the two preceding ones, rows which can be found in our lives in all sorts of places, play a significant role.” Again, these comments may be of value to serious students of the music. To a more casual listener, Momentum is standard-issue post-serialism, earnest but kind of dull, lacking the constantly shifting sonorities of the earlier Spiegel.

Momente strikes me as more varied and thus more engaging. In his notes, Cerha hints that he was seeking new directions in the work, balking at what he calls his own “good craftsmanship” and wanting to capture “the spontaneity of inspiration, the ‘lightning bolt’ of intuition and its briefest, most concise possible formulation. . . . So I made a concerted effort to break out of the cage of my well-worn premises, to charge headlong at the walls formed by those preferences that had become ingrained in my subconscious.” For me, he’s succeeded. Momente is a fresher-sounding work than Momentum; whether it’s better or worse than Cerha’s other music, I leave to those more knowledgeable than I.

The live performances, by two different orchestras and three different conductors (including the composer himself) seem respectful, well-drilled, very well-executed. Spiegel emerges with more color—though this is largely a matter of Cerha’s orchestration—and a better sense of the performance space. Both Momentum and Momente seem slightly opaque by comparison, and in fact none of the recordings gives the sense of depth and spaciousness that the SACD medium is capable of (though the low bass notes in Spiegel VII will give your subwoofer(s) a workout). Still, for admirers of the musical avant-garde and for those curious about Austria’s most important successor to the Second Viennese School, these discs provide a convenient overview of Cerha’s contribution to orchestral music.

– Lee Passarella




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