“Shiraz – œuvres de vivier et brégent”. Claude Vivier: Shiraz (1977), Michel-Georges Brégent: Les Variations parallèles (1986). Louis-Philippe Pelletier, piano. Disques Pelleas CD-0111 (2002), no barcode
Recorded May 1999 at McGill University, Salle Pollack
To access the small diamond you’ll need to drill through thick layers of kimberlite
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 22 January 2013
Claude Vivier’s Shiraz for piano is obviously going to be the main attraction and tantalizer of this disc, and Disques Pelleas thought so too, since they give it the generic title “Shiraz”, although Vivier’s piece is only 13:44 in duration. And, I am afraid, to get to the Vivier you’ll have to wade your way through 44 minutes of what is possibly the greatest junk I’ve ever heard in contemporary music – it beats Babbitt by far, and Rolf Yttrehus had a few moments that were so outlandishly grotesque that it made it fun (see my review of The Music of Rolv Yttrehus, CRI CD 843): Michel-Georges Brégent’s Variations parallèles (1986).
Lest you think an antagonist of contemporary music is speaking, on the contrary: I’m a true believer.
Apparently the processes are highly elaborate – although the liner notes, by pianist Louis-Philippe Pelletier himself, aren’t entirely clear about what they are. It starts with a choral treated as if by a sub-par Rachmaninoff – so much so that I first thought Brégent, whom I’d never heard about, was some obscure early 20th century Canadian composer, an inferior equivalent of MacDowell, but not so: then start the variations. “Parallel” because they are written for both piano and Ondes Marenot – the latter’s part is so unplayable that it was MIDI-computerized for the recording, and Pelletier over-dubbed his part. What follows are a series of variations in which are heard, simultaneously or not, “the original version of the melody, its variation and its inversion [and I’m not sure if this last “its” refers to the melody or the variation; grammatically the former, logically the latter] in predetermined and superimposed ranges, speeds and lengths“. Well, OK, that tells (more or less) you what goes on in the kitchen, not what’s in your plate, and even less in your mouth. It sounds like a caricature of “contemporary music” as its foes would try and ridicule it – or just you or me pounding at random on the keyboard just to mock “contemporary music”. And add an ondes part that sounds like the corniest tape music of the early pioneers. And not that it perceptibly changes or evolves in the course of its 44 minutes, on the contrary. You hear the first three minutes and you’ve heard it all, more or less. No, I’m unfair. Somewhere near the end the ondes produces a sound or two that it hadn’t produced before. And I listened to this thing a second time just to write this review. Ugh. Brégent seems to me a good illustration of the notion that composing is not just about ideas and processes: it is putting these ideas and processes at the service of a musical and expressive purpose. I’m sorry, but I don’t hear it in Variations parallèles.
Vivier certainly pounds in Shiraz (1977), violently so at the beginning, but you get a sense that it is organized with a musical and expressive purpose. Shiraz is the city in Iran which inspired Vivier his composition. According to the composer, Shiraz follows one idea: “hand movements on the piano”. Unlike most Vivier’s pieces it is not based on melody but on a single chord “that gives way to a constant, four part, melodic line”. It is also shaped around two gestures, one violently pounding – a Bartòk gone berserk, an Ives more violently pounding still but more organized as well – and the other, more delicate and ornamented, vaguely sounding at times like Messiaen’s bird-imitating piano music but more angular.
The two pieces were commissioned by Pelletier and Shiraz is dedicated to him. He had first-hand interpretive tuition with both composers and his readings can be considered authoritative. His version of Shiraz includes a cut that Vivier pencilled in Pelletier’s score and does not appear in the official Salabert edition. Pelletier sounds here fuller and more present than in his previous recording of the same piece, included on Montreal Postmoderne. Compared to him, Kristi Becker, who plays Shiraz on a hard-to-find Vivier CD published by the small French label Pianovox, although technically cleaner, sounds tentative and guarded. I haven’t yet heard Jenny Lin’s version on her appealing album The Eleventh Finger on BIS. Finally and “hors-concours” but indispensable for the Vivier admirer, there is the double-DVD of the Schoenberg Ensemble, in which Marc Couroux is as impresive to watch in Shiraz as the music is to hear, Claude Vivier – Reves d’Un Marco Polo / Claron McFadden, Susan Narucki, Tomoko Makuuchi, James Ottaway, Harry van der Kamp, Reinbert de Leeuw, Schonberg Ensemble or Reves D’Un Marco Polo – Claude Vivier, Asko Ensemble.
Vivier called the city of Shiraz “a pearl of a city, a rough-cut diamond”. To bad you need to drill through so much of Brégent’s kimberlite to reach it.