Bart—k, Berg, Boulez, Cage, Carter, Glass, Ives, Kurt‡g, Schnittke, Varse, Zimmermann, etc

COMPOSERS: Bartok,Berg,Boulez,Cage,Carter,etc,Glass,Ives,Kurtag,Schnittke,Varese,Zimmermann
LABELS: Col legno
ALBUM TITLE: Collection: Ráckblick Moderne
WORKS: 20th-century orchestral music
PERFORMER: Various orchestras and conductors
CATALOGUE NO: WWE 8CD 20041
With the dawning of a new century, it was inevitable that retrospectives of the old century, and millennium, would be prevalent. While many such projects are just excuses for recycling existing recordings or concert programmes, there have also been thought-provoking attempts to understand the multifarious artistic developments of the 20th century.

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The eight discs of Rückblick Moderne fall into the latter category. These live recordings are taken from a remarkable festival of eight concerts celebrating 20th-century orchestral music which was held in Stuttgart in November 1998. Each disc explores a particular facet of expression, finding discerning links between often disparate composers. For instance, the second disc, titled ‘Explosion/Implosion’, begins with Varèse’s Ionisation. The leap to Webern’s Five Orchestral Pieces, Op. 10, may not be huge, but it is illuminating, especially when Ionisation is subsequently repeated. These extreme examples of innovation pave the way for the ear to appreciate the more progressive elements of the concert’s three remaining items; Mahler’s Totenfeier, Kurtág’s …quasi una fantasia… and the suite from Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin. The juxtaposition of Schnittke, Ligeti, Glass and Shostakovich on the final disc, entitled ‘Minimal Postludien’, is similarly revealing, as is the combination of Ravel, Beat Furrer, Maderna and Debussy on disc three (‘Images’).

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Both the performances and the sound are, for the most part, exemplary, with barely a splutter from the audience. Highpoints include a sublime account of Morton Feldman’s Coptic Light and wonderfully bold readings of Messiaen’s Chronochromie and Lachenmann’s Air from Lothar Zagrosek and the Stuttgart State Orchestra. Problems of balance occur in some of the larger pieces, notably The Rite of Spring, in which a strangely lethargic approach is compounded by the recording over-emphasising the strings. Another drawback is that the luxurious booklet, containing substantial essays relating to the music, is available only in German. Inevitably there are going to be omissions in this musical Aladdin’s cave, Sibelius, Stockhausen and Berio being particularly glaring examples. It is important also not to think of these pieces necessarily as being representative of their composers. Nevertheless, this veritable feast of delights can be heartily recommended for anyone wishing either to broaden their musical horizons or to give some coherence to their understanding of the last century.