Reflections on the ones that got away

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From the CD cover.

Great music rarely goes unheard, but it can go unnoticed - in the larger sense.

Concerts and recordings arrive during prime slots, like Sunday afternoons for concerts, and even the more promising ones can be knocked off a critic's schedule - not just by other music, but by other arts that have a stronger claim on limited newspaper space. Sifting through all that can make you a bit crazy unless you concede at the outset that even a Ouija board isn't going to assure that your choices are the best ones. (Besides, think how long it would take a Ouija board to spell out "Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia.")

The end of this calendar year is particularly festering with second thoughts: Great stuff that was heard but never reviewed (like the Beethoven concerts at Temple University with Lambert Orkis), or things that were heard and not fully understood (such as the Philip Glass/Leonard Cohen collaboration titled The Book of Longing).

The circumstances allowing such neglect go something like this: You feel a duty to touch base with the status quo because that status quo wouldn't exist without strong sociological reasons. At the other extreme, the more impossible something looks, the more I want to be there - like when a recording executive phoned me to say that the Pottstown Symphony Orchestra was sounding so wonderful that he was thinking of doing business there. Or when a recording of English Renaissance songs transcribed for saxophone quartet comes along.

The problem is with the semi-possible stuff. That gets lost for looking merely quixotic.

Consider, for example, Russian Orthodox choral music written by Alexander Tikhonovich Grechaninov for Passion Week - very ethnic-specific, but sung by the combined Phoenix Bach Choir and the Kansas City Chorale, without a single Russian name among singers or conductor (one Charles Bruffy, a Robert Shaw disciple). Yet that disc emerged from its obscurity a few weeks ago with a bundle of Grammy Award nominations. Huh?

At it turns out, this Chandos-label disc delivers a warm blanket of vocal sound establishing the music's meditative qualities but projecting the subtle divergence from its basic doctrine in ways that might be less audible with Russian singers who grew up with this kind of thing and are likely to be "preaching to the choir." Even the Kansas City basses have that Russian buzz. I never would have guessed. . . .

Less dramatic but equally distinguished was my encounter with Beethoven cello/piano works played over two concerts at Temple this fall. There's no good reason to skip an Orkis concert. The Philadelphia-born pianist, who teaches at Temple and records with Anne-Sophie Mutter, is a marvelously probing musician who insists on putting time and thought into an interpretation that you don't often hear in musicians with more visible careers.

The surprise was his recital partner, David Hardy, principal cellist with the National Symphony Orchestra. The second of their two concerts was a paragon of meticulous preparation, cultivated musical sensibilities, and emotional spontaneity.

French pianist Cedric Tiberghien is a major figure at home, but his U.S. debut at New York's Frick Collection, a launching pad for many careers, went mostly unnoticed - a victim of an October Sunday-afternoon slot and perhaps the quixotism of a young French pianist daring to play late-period Beethoven. But the first half was Chopin, and having discovered Tiberghien's recordings in a Paris secondhand store, I wasn't going to miss it.

The experience was enjoyably bait-and-switch: The Chopin was oddly unfocused, but the Beethoven (Sonatas Nos. 27 and 32) was some of the best I'd heard all year - structurally sound, with each phrase hitting the bull's-eye. In January, Tiberghien comes out with his first concerto recording on the Harmonia Mundi label - the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, repertoire even less likely for a French pianist. I've heard an advance copy; it's wonderful - and won't have to withstand Sunday afternoon competition.

Now for the stuff I didn't "get": Such events can leave a journalist cowering in critical vagueness or deciding that writing anything at all would be irresponsible. That last option should have been my route with The Book of Longing, but the news value behind a collaboration between poet Cohen and composer Glass - both 1970s counterculture heroes to many - meant that attention must be paid at the Lincoln Center Festival. Both being Buddhists, they'd surely find lots of common ground in the piece's loose-limbed scenario about Cohen's emergence from a Zen monastery and rediscovery of the hedonistic world, as told in a series of songs and scrawly, slide-projected drawings.

You looked for rough-hewn eloquence in the art but found only casual doodling. Glass' brooding minimalist seriousness and Cohen's playfully simple girl-chasing lyrics - sung by the cast with bizarre sanctimoniousness - seemed to come from different planets. Thinking that I must be missing something - was my brain fried by the July heat or too much Wagner from the Kirov Opera's Ring cycle? - my review registered only provisional unhappiness.

Then The Book of Longing compact disc arrived a few weeks back. There are moments when Glass lightens up and Cohen gets down to real business, but they're few. Though Cohen's tales of sexual exploits seemed cool in more repressed decades of the past, they now feel unhealthy, lecherous and creepy. There. I've said it.

Performances can similarly defy comprehension. You hear something go awry, but you're not 100 percent sure what happened or who's to blame. Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 seemed particularly cursed this year. During a Mann Center performance, the winds failed to make two significant entrances, leaving gaping holes in the music. Several orchestra personnel claimed that nothing went wrong - but they're busy worrying about making their own entrances. In print, I guessed that microphone failure was the problem. Only later did someone 'fess up: The winds just didn't make it that night.

Then a few weeks ago at the Kimmel Center, Beethoven momentarily "turned Japanese" in the first movement when there were suddenly bizarre, clashing harmonies that left as quickly as they came. Was it the piano? The winds? Later, it was confirmed that the brain freeze belonged to the beloved piano soloist Helene Grimaud. It happens to the best. But now you know.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.