Various Artists – Naxos, The Sonic Rebellion Collection

John Schaefer

By John Schaefer

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

Philip Glass and John Adams are arguably the most visible and successful composers of our time, so you could quibble with this compilation's subtitle — “Alternative Classical Collection.” But it's hardly worth the effort; this album offers a fine overview of the state of contemporary composition, and ignores the ridiculous “uptown vs. downtown” divide that would normally keep Glass and Adams well away from their more astringent, academic colleagues, like Charles Wuorinen.

A sterling collection of contemporary classical music.

The album begins with a movement from Glass's “Heroes” Symphony — based on the mid-'70s album of that name by David Bowie and Brian Eno — staking a claim to a musical territory that is still classical but might be welcoming to disaffected rock fans. The conclusion of Adams'early piece “Shaker Loops” remains one of his most exciting, even ecstatic works, and is also eminently likeable. But the story here is the variety and the connections drawn: Wuorinen's Horn Trio is well-muscled and so sure of itself that it might sway those Glass/Adams fans who only know this composer by his ferocious reputation. And hearing Edgard Varèse's landmark forays into modernism and electronics on the same album as the grand, post-Romantic work of Finland's Einojuhani Rautavaara (winner, “Composer Most in Need of a Nickname”) is pretty impressive.

Two of the classical concert hall's greatest hits are here: Poland's Krzysztof Penderecki (maybe I was too quick with that Rautavaara crack) is represented by one of the most searing, emotional works in the 20th century repertoire, the “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.” And Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is represented by the gazillionth version of his meditative, graceful “Fratres.” For those looking for genuinely alternative sounds, there's one of John Cage's groundbreaking Sonatas & Interludes for Prepared Piano and a detour into the dimly-lit netherworld of George Crumb. Individually, the tracks are all excellent introductions to their respective composers. Collectively, Sonic Rebellion does a good job of capturing the stylistic diversity of today's classical music.