'50 Shades' of 20th century music
A classical CD review coming up in print:
Debussy, "La Mer"
Montreal Symphony, Charles Dutoit, conductor
Decca, 1 CD, $12.95 (Amazon)
This remastered edition of the shimmering recording made by Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony more than 20 years ago is one of many released by Decca and Deutsche Grammophon as part of a massive set called "20C," the goal being to release and re-release "50 essential works by 50 composers" that represent the classics of the century. It's a great concept, long overdue and only achievable by Decca/DG and a few other labels whose archives are deep enough for a representative discography.
I haven't seen much press on the set, and in fact have only heard 10 of the 50 albums. Of those, the list is so eccentric and uneven, it doesn't really do justice to the concept. The Debussy recording is as magnificent as ever, now much-improved in DDD, and no one would argue with its place in the 20th century canon, especially with "Prelude a L'Apres-Midi," "Nocturnes" and the heroic "Jeux" on the disk as well. Shostakovich, Stravinksky, Bartok and Mahler are represented among the giants.
But among the others are a 2 CD set of Steve Reich's "Drumming," an 85-minute percussion piece (1971) that's interesting as far as it goes; John Cage's "Sonatas & Interludes" (1949) for prepared piano, again interesting as a novelty; more ambitious orchestral pieces by Harrison Birtwistle ("The Triumph of Time," from 1975, with pieces from later in the British composer's career as well) and Edgard Varese ("Ameriques," a fascinating work from the mid-1920s), and Osvaldo Golijov's attempted fusion choral work, "La Pasion Segun San Marcos," which is along the lines of Bernstein's "Mass" in both concept and quality.
In other words, it's hit and miss. Not many of the works just mentioned would be on the top 50 list of 20th century collections, or even among the composers' best work. Still, it's vital for the future of classical music to get people to hear and appreciate the truly timeless music of the past century. Projects like this can help.
-- Jay Furst, Post-Bulletin