Del Tredici Syzygy; Vintage alice; Songs
David Del Tredici (b1937) is a composer whose unpredictable evolution, from dissonant high modernism to overt diatonicism via a series of increasingly tonal works based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, seems to have confined him to the margins. There are no plans to reissue the best-selling LP of his hyper-Straussian Final Alice with Barbara Hendricks, Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Decca, 8/81 – nla), although Leonard Bernstein’s New York version of the purely orchestral Tattoo (DG, 1/92) is set to return in the near future. Meanwhile, Oliver Knussen’s collection, itself long in the can, focuses on music composed between 1958 and 1972. The James Joyce settings with piano are very early works in which the vocal line is set relatively straight, with the big technical challenges confined to elaborate piano writing. Lucy Shelton’s more-than-capable accompanist is Del Tredici himself.
Syzygy (1966) has been available before (on CRI), but the extreme clarity Knussen obtains from the Asko Ensemble will probably reinforce its special allure for unreconstructed new music buffs. As text-setting per se, it might be thought to fall short, while, to the uninitiated, its music can sound like uglified Webern rescored by Copland. Even so, one can see why it continues to fascinate. Every aspect of the piece takes off from the title, using analogous devices in metrical structure to convey the astronomical notion of ‘syzygy’, the conjunction of opposite points in a planetary orbit. Alternative dictionary definitions suggest smaller symmetries within its larger ones. Some of this is designed to be easily grasped: the relatively brief setting of ‘Ecce Puer’ lays bare its own procedures by beginning with the piccolo’s highest note and the double-bassoon’s lowest, the gap gradually closing by further mirrored pairs of instruments, until the entry of the first trumpet throws the whole process into reverse.
For a mainstream audience the bigger attraction will be Vintage Alice (1972) – not consistently tonal maybe, but a very enjoyable staging post in the ‘march to tonality’, to quote one of Del Tredici’s own titles. It is the fourth of his compositions to be based on episodes from the Alice books, this one devoted to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. And manic is not too strong a word to describe its deployment of ‘God save the Queen’ and ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ as basic material. There is an incongruous part for the accordion; the sensibility, like the tonality, is fractured. In his astute, if at times unavoidably cerebral booklet-notes, Julian Anderson points out that ‘the multiple use of augmentation, diminution, and other speed distortions forms a brilliant musical analogue to the Queen of Hearts’ comment about the Hatter’s performance: “He’s murdering the time!”’.
How to sum up? Although possibly lacking the sheer beauty of voice of Phyllis Bryn-Julson, Lucy Shelton is the ideal protagonist in this repertoire, negotiating with relish those dizzying stratospheric swoops that find a home in Knussen’s own vocal writing. She can also deliver spoken passages with just the right amount of ironic detachment. Only the packaging may disappoint, strangely austere in muted grey-green. Something more flamboyant would not have gone amiss, given the composer’s penchant for post-modern collage, gay activism and hardcore whimsy. And ‘for reasons of copyright’ the Joyce texts are not reprinted.