Aside from Christian Lindberg, there is probably no one as active in commissioning and performing new works for the trombone today as Barrie Webb. Certainly none is as active in maintaining a commitment to the contemporary music scene in Romania. MPS have published a CD (MPSCD007) devoted to Doina Rotaru’s compositions, featuring Webb as conductor.
Romanian Concertos sees Webb as the soloist throughout, in four works that were written for him by leading compositional names in Romania. Webbs useful booklet note does much to offer short biographical sketches of the composers, his own connections with them, and some analysis of the works themselves.
All four composers graduated from the Bucharest University of Music, and all display the distinct influence of attending the Darmstadt Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik, not in the 1950s when Boulez, Cage and co. were there, but the late 1980s and early 1990s. The dominant influences then were Brian Ferneyhough and Morton Feldman, along with figures like the spectral composer Tristan Murail. The issues that these composers raised are still the stuff of musical currency in Romania, whereas the West has moved on somewhat. Intended only as a comment on composition in Romania, it is perhaps a little refreshing that issues are deliberated at a slower pace, though the avant-garde is catching up fast.
There is no doubt that the disc benefits from the involvement of two of the featured composers, Lerescu appears as a conductor and Ioachimescu acted as sound engineer, in which role he has been active for Romanian Radio since 1980.
Ioachimescu captures the sound of each ensemble with something of an edge. In itself this does something to emphasize any problems in the ensemble or quality of playing. Over recent years Romanian orchestras have raised in overall standard becoming more homogenized in sound and losing a lot of their hard, ungiving tone, with the strings retaining their famed edge and mercurial fluency. If the brass and woodwinds have become more characterful, the results are not yet what a western audience might be used to. But still the sound is distinctive, which is more than can be said for most western orchestras.
Ioachimescu’s concerto is finely paced by Ovidiu Bălan, although for the most part the two soloists develop their own line against a minimal orchestral background. The opening monolithic tutti however does set a rather dour scene, if not entirely majestic as Webb suggests it could be. The work is largely spectrally-based and proceeds through superimposition and paring down of material until middle C and D remain along with a handful of harmonics.
Sorin Lerescu’s work, Side Show, is in the tradition of the trombone as theatre performance; being comic, yet sad and hiding a deeply felt seriousness. You might think, as I did, of Berio’s Sequenza V. Movement and interaction come through as you hear soloist move from left to right audio channels, and seemingly leading the development of the music in a quasi-improvisatory nature. In the end a drum theme, present almost throughout, is given to the soloist the trombonist turns percussionist. Dissatisfaction with the instrument, the material? Who knows, and frankly what does it matter?
Fred Popovici’s work uses the ensemble to amplify and distort the solo line, or as the composer says to produce permanent feedback (dialogue) of sounding information. The first movement also provides the material for the latter two that elongate and fractalise the sound line. The imposition of mathematical and geometrical concepts upon sound have long dominated Popovici’s output.
Liviu Danceanu’s concerto Şapte Zile (Seven Days) takes the form of a suite, and outwardly is classical in structure. The first five days / movements build upon one another, exploring different techniques and timbres in the solo part often influenced by synthesizer produced effects present throughout the work. The sixth day / movement is a cadenza, and the seventh a kind of summation, though not to my ears a resolution.
Given my little previous involvement with the sound world of these composers (Popovici and Lerescu’s chamber works featured in a single chamber music concert I attended in Bucharest last spring), I do to a large extent have to take these performances on trust that they achieve something close to the composers wishes. In terms of commitment they want for nothing, and are to be recommended to those in search of distinctive if sometimes unremitting voices that can reward attentive listening.