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Carl Ruggles: Toys – Vox Clamans in Deserto – Men – Angels (two versions) – Men and Mountains – Sun-Treader – Portals – Evocations (piano and orchestral versions) – Organum – Exaltation
Judith Blegen (soprano), Beverly Morgan (mezzo-soprano), John Kirkpatrick (piano), Speculum Musicae, Gregg Smith Singers, Buffalo Philharmonic, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor)
Recorded in 1980 – 84'38"
Other Minds OM 1020/21-2 – Booklet in English

The granitic, highly evocative music of Carl Ruggles has always hovered the fringe of the repertoire. Championed both during and after his lifetime by an esteemed but small number of musicians, Ruggles epitomized American modernism. In a small but spectacularly consistent body of work, he developed and mastered a unique musical voice that challenges and rewards. This set is comprehensive and expertly played through and through. It belongs in any serious collector's library.

Initially released on LP in 1980 (by CBS Masterworks), the stalwart Other Minds label has done an admirable job with this production. The original liner notes, consisting of a biographical essay by John Kirkpatrick and commentary by Michael Tilson Thomas, are complemented by the inclusion of the extensive, authoritative essay "About Carl Ruggles" by another underrated American composer, Lou Harrison. All speak to the originality of Ruggles' rhetoric, but also to his epitomization of the American aesthetic of the 1930s, both edgy and inclusive, adventurous yet communicative. These are threads that run throughout all pieces included.

The music is smartly arranged across the two discs. Each ends with a 'grand' statement for Ruggles, the first with the most familiar and oft-recorded work, the tone poem Sun-Treader. This is a crunchy American masterpiece and nothing describes its mood better than Kirkpatrick's phrase: "…the melody is so free, the dissonance so burning, that it seems to be on the sun itself, in a world of flame." The entirety of the work's 16 minutes requires utmost intensity and virtuosity from the orchestra. Brass is especially called upon to create broad strokes of mammoth sounds. The Buffalo Philharmonic sounds excellent, if not quite as powerful and imposing as the Cleveland Orchestra under Christoph von Dohnányi or Tilson Thomas' Boston Symphony recording. That said, there is an extra edge to this performance. In Boston, MTT seems intent to smooth out some of the rough edges. Here they are allowed to shine in all their glory.

The Buffalo Philharmonic is splendid in the other orchestral music. It is a wonderful experience to hear John Kirkpatrick's solo piano rendition of Evocations immediately followed by the composer's orchestration. Kirkpatrick seems to highlight inner voices that Ruggles highlights in the orchestra, a smart move showing how closely studied the work has been. Likewise, the two versions of Angels, one for high brass alone and one amplified by the addition of trombones, shows a subtlety of shading on Ruggles' part. These aren't simply revisions of a piece, but outgrowths that show different facets.

Jagged melodic figures dominate the textures of all the works, and this would lead one to believe that this music wouldn't be well-suited to the voice. Fortunately, the vocalists on this project are fully committed and technically adept at realizing even the most dissonant phrases. Judith Blegen sings Toys, Ruggles' first 'atonal' work set to his own text, with Michael Tilson Thomas at the piano. Beverly Morgan is equally thrilling in the three short spouts that make up Vox Clamans in Deserto. And the Gregg Smith singers provide exquisite blend and diction in the final work on the collection, Exaltation, an extraordinarily, almost other-worldly hymn written to the memory of the composer's wife.

Listeners should not be afraid of this music, even with its tremendous bite. It is unusual, but it also has the familiarity of America as a pioneering and unknown nation to it. This is dissonant Copland taken several steps further, and it is essential listening for anyone interested in great, undervalued American music performed by top-notch American performers. The feat, logistic and aesthetic, of compiling such a comprehensive set is likely never to be matched.

Marcus Karl Maroney




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