During the heady early days of the avant-garde in Europe, the performing artist gained an unprecedented influence on the language and development of composition. Certainly works had been created for individual artists in other periods, but never was there such a deep relationship between the personality and techniques of a performer and the language of a composer. You can't contemplate the work of John Cage without noting the influence of David Tudor (who was often more of a collaborator, rather than an interpreter). And of course, Berio's vocal music is inconcievable without the influence of his wife, Cathy Berberian. (She became so well known she even got a line in a Steely Dan song.) Less well known, but no less influential is the cellist Siegfried Palm. He is the dedicatee or the commissioning party for many of the late 20th century masterworks for cello, including the Ligeti Cello Concerto and Feldman's Cello and Orchestra. This CD gives a marvelous introduction to this amazing performer and some of the composers with whom he worked.
Palm includes two works by Webern on the disc, the posthumously published Sonata for Cello and Piano and the Three Short Pieces for Cello and Piano. Both are from Webern's early atonal aphoristic period. The real surprise of this album is the Sonata, of who's existance I was unaware. It's a lovely little work, not particularly important in the composer's output, but welcome nonetheless.
Perhaps in terms of sheer sound, the Xenakis piece Nophos alpha is the tour de force of the recording. I am not generally a big fan of music for solo instruments outside of the piano or organ, as I find the tonal range fairly limited, or else the extended techniques employed self consciously. But this work floored me. Xenakis writes an amazing nearly fifteen minute work for solo cello in which you never are aware that only one instrument is playing. The richness of the sound that come out of Palm's instrument is truly amazing. The work is in a later style for Xenakis, less interested in stochastic mathmatical formalism and more interested in game theory and chance devices. But the sound produced is divorced from it's means of generation, just a truly powerful and emotionally devastating work.
Mauricio Kagel's piece, Unguis Incartatus Est is a parody piece based on one of Lizst's late works. I actually bought the CD for this work (and the Earle Brown later in the disc) as I was not familiar with the work of this influential composer. I was not disappointed with this piece. Using the first few notes of the Lizst piece and subjecting them to various manipulations, Kagel creates a work that is at once serious, playful, theatrical, moving and quite beautiful. The Brown piece is also relatively important, partly because Brown is woefully underrepresented on disc. Music for Cello and Piano is one of Brown's graphic scores, where much of the performance is left up to the instrumentalists. And yet, the work has all of Brown's hallmarks, a sort of illogical logic, and a serene yet unpredictable sense of rhythm.
The Perndercki piece is fun, but ultimately lightweight. More of an etude than a real piece, Likewise, the Zimmermann Four Short Studies is also cerebrally interesting, but not particularly important as a work of art. But the Zimmermann work Intercommicazione is marveous and very impressive, perhaps the second most solid work on the disc just behind the Xenakis. The cello takes the lead in the work initially, with violent chords and delicate fillagree in the piano. But as the work progresses the piano begins an equal partnership with the cello and leads to a shattering climax. Zimmermann here is wild, darkly serial, and yet with an arc and romantic sweep that many other serial composers lacked. I love this work.
Performances are astounding. During much of the Xenakis you find yourself trying to figure out how Palm does it. You hear one line on the cello in harmonics, scuttering about, while another holds a sustained whispy high note that doesn't ever seem to change bows. It's a real mystery without the score! And Palm's tonal variations are picked up beautifully on DG's excellent remastering. Also impressive is Aloys Kontarsky, another important Darmstadt performer (he and his brother are well known for premiering Stockhausen's Mantra.) Kontarsky knows this repertoire completely and makes an excellent foil for Palm.
Get this CD if you have any interest in music of the European avant-garde. It's an important document and a great way to here music by many composers of this style, played by a musician of talent and great sensibility.