Top Ear

Alfred Scholz’s 20th Century Album on DG

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Jeremy Lee writes

Having bashed Max Richter’s abominable Recomposition series on DG, we offer how it really should be done here, in a long-forgotten album of 20th century music conducted by Alfred Scholz on the same label.  Here Alfred Scholz offers us his very own reconstruction of Debussy’s popular La Mer, alongside works by composers as diverse as Xenakis, Ferneyhough, Finnissy, Cage, and Boulez.  Obviously none of you know that this album exists, simply because, during the major-label-deletion-marathon of the 1990s, DG didn’t let this album stand a chance–released in 1991, it went out of print the same year.  Well, I hope DG considers re-releasing this invaluable album, because there are quite a few gems included here.

Let’s start with the Scholz recomposition of La Mer, irrevently (but wittily) named Decomposition “La Merde”, but unlike what the title would lead us to believe, this reconstruction is surprisingly satisfying musically.  For one, Scholz does not, unlike Richter, subject the piece to vulgar electronic distortions or senseless repetition; instead, Scholz combines Debussy’s popular work with Paul Gilson’s obscure work of the same name (and description of “symphonic sketches”) composed 10 years prior to Debussy’s masterpiece, making it sound more like a mix of Messiaen and Ravel than Debussy.  And the cherry on top:   Charles Trenet’s ubiquitous La Mer (familiar to American listeners as “Somewhere Beyond the Sea”), whose (gorgeous) main melody is transposed, transformed and retrogaded into various other forms as if it were a tone row, and appearing in these strange though mostly recognizable guises throughout the work, sometimes replacing Debussy’s own melodies (observe the first brass chorale, transformed into a glorious apotheosis of Trenet’s popular romantic song).  Scholz’s beloved London Festival Orchestra handles the piece very well, and apparently the first trumpet really loves his big “Somewhere…waiting for me…” solo in the middle of what used to be Jeux de vagues.  This recomposition really is something special, and joins the third movement of Berio’s Sinfonia as one of the supreme examples of musical quotation and parody in contemporary classical music.

Xenakis’ Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis (P-45 for short) was written shortly after Sputum and Chlamydia, its title apparently inspired by a simple internet search of “longest word in the dictionary”.  Xenakis apparently planned to divide this work into all its prefixes, one section for Pneumono-, one section for -ultra-, one section for -microscopic-, the next for -silico- and so on, to create a suite that would last for 45 minutes, but he eventually discarded the idea and truncated all the planned musical elements into one bite-sized 45-second bonbon.  The result is one of the most discomforting 45-seconds of music one could ever dream of hearing.  The woodwinds take the lead in the work, and players are instructed to cough into their instruments irregularly to produce “a vast net of bronchial percussiveness that grows more and more intense until one induces metaphysical bronchitis in himself”, whatever that means.  In fact, the most remarkable element of the piece concerns the “lead cougher”–actually a soprano sprechstimme that has to read the title of the work 22.5 times (yes, you read that correctly) in the work’s duration (that is, 2 seconds for one word), finally stopping in the middle of the word when the piece ends.  Florence Jenkins (not to be confused with the soprano featured in “The Glory (???) of the Human Voice”) masters her part exceedingly well, although my ears simply cannot detect that she has read it exactly 22.5 times–more like 20.5.  Never mind.

Ferneyhough’s Amplitudes is a large orchestral suite of 58 movements, but here Scholz only performs the 15th to 18th movements.  Amplitudes, as the booklet notes suggest, is a work designed to explore the dynamic range of a large orchestra while keeping absolute clarity of rhythm, line and pitch.  To manage the feat of X-raying the thick textures so that every strand is clearly audible no matter how loud it gets or who dominates the texture, DG’s engineers have resorted to more multi-miking than usual, at one point deploying 32 microphones.  And do they succeed?  Well–mostly.  As I flipped through the score through the movements’ combined duration of 16 minutes, I realised that the ffff climax (mostly trombones and tam-tam) drowned out the bassoon’s ppp solo line, nor could I discern with absolute confidence that the oboes’ 9:5 polyrhythmic mesh in bar 125 of No. 17 were perfectly out of sync with the 7:18 rhythm of the trumpet’s solo-line.  But for a work of such spectacular difficulty, trying to pick faults with the performance is simply futile, and as dynamic range goes, DG captures that of the Warsaw Symphony very comfortably.

Turning to Scholz’s arrangement of Finnissy’s piano suite English Country Tunes for orchestra, I have to regretfully report that it is by and large a failure.  While Scholz attempts to transcribe all the clusters and pitches faithfully and assign them to various instruments, it seems that he has largely forgotten about the importance of instrumental range.  As a result many instruments simply stop playing mid-phrase because their melody has flown out of their range–you can’t expect that an alto saxophone can play those bass notes!  Thankfully this small let-down is redeemed by the magnificence of Boulez’s new work Syntagme.  In this work, Boulez explores the possibilities of phrasing an idée-fixee, in this case a tone row played unison by the full orchestra at a low dynamic level, differently each time, slicing their phrases according to the number of notes played, represented by the geometric sequence T(n) = 200(0.5)^(n-1) from 0<n<13–which means, of course, that some instruments have to phrase in the middle of the note as the piece reaches its end.  Scholz’s London Festival Orchestra masters this elusive mid-note-phrasing very well (by staggered breathing, I presume?), and the result is a cushion of relaxing and slowly shifting sounds that to me seems like a lava lamp.  A much-needed respite, after the generally loud music that has passed.

The disc closes with a series of works by John Cage, whose titles correspond to their duration, from 0:00 to 0:30.  Here, DG transcends the Red Book CD Audio Standard by giving us 8 tracks that last less than 4 seconds.  That is required because, of the work’s 61 tracks, the works that bear the title of 0:00, 0:01, 0:02 and 0:03 are that many seconds long, and have to be divided as such.  As for what content they actually contain, Cage has used a portion of the tape hiss that came with Oskar Fried’s 1924 Mahler 2 recording to fill in the tracks, and the shorter the track, the louder the tape hiss.  The result, as Cage wants us to believe, shows that the dynamic level of a piece (or a note) can actually be manipulated by its duration.  It’s written for large orchestra (8 horns, 5 trombones, quadruple woodwind, 12 percussion players) and double choir, none of which actually play during the piece, and electronic tape solo (the tape hiss).  Alfred Scholz directs the large forces very effectively–indeed, as regular concert-goers will appreciate, it is often very difficult for a large group of people to keep absolute silence for any period of time longer than 3 minutes.

Whatever way you look at it, there’s no denying that Alfred Scholz and his forces have achieved something very special here:  playing of absolute precision, finesse and conviction; that they would record these unknown works at all is already something very laudable.  Hopefully, after Scholz’s dreary releases on various unknown labels conducting Beethoven, Mozart and so on, people will turn their attention to this beautifully recorded and presented DG release, Scholz’s only appearance with a major label.  For fans of great contemporary classical music, this is a release not to be missed.


  • Album name:  Alfred Scholz:  The 20th Century Album
  • Works included:
    • Scholz:  Decomposition “La Merde”
    • Xenakis:  Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis
    • Ferneyhough:  Amplitudes XV–XVII
    • Finnissy:  English Country Tunes (arr. Scholz for orchestra)
    • Boulez:  Syntagme
    • Cage:  0:00;  0:01;  0:02;…00:29; 00:30; 00:29;…0:00
  • Performers:  Florence Jenkins (soprano);  Alfred Scholz (conductor);  London Festival Orchestra;  Warsaw Symphony Orchestra and Choir
  • Label:  DG 414 0104
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  79:41

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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