In Europe, the idea of the "pièce du concours," a work written by a prominent composer for the special purpose of interpretation by contestants in a competition, is a time-honored tradition. The ARD International Competition in Munich, headed by Christoph Poppen, commissions several such works per annum, and 11 from the years 2002-2004 appear collected on Oehms Classics' 21st Century Instrumental Solos. The disc features the talents of contestants who have received the prize for "Best Interpretation of a Commissioned Work." Although not intended for such a purpose, for those across the pond, 21st Century Instrumental Solos serves as a useful survey of contemporary composers active in Europe in the early part of the twenty first century.
The most rewarding among the new works found here are those by Heinz Holliger and Peteris Vasks. The Holliger works, for solo bassoon and harp, respectively, embody everything a competition piece should be -- difficult but rewarding to play, interesting musically, and gracious enough to assist a competitor in showing off his/her "chops" to the best advantage. While Peteris Vasks' Bass Trip is not as virtuosic as the Holliger pieces, it is an emotionally moving work that Slovak string bassist Roman Patkoló delivers with a sense of panache and style. Hans-Jürgen von Bose's Trio Musik for K. evokes early modernism in its rough dissonances, motor rhythms, and parody elements, and while a little uneven in developing, it still makes for fairly captivating listening.
However, the foregoing accounts for only 30 minutes of music on a set that runs for two hours, and the other works here are not nearly as ingratiating. Wolfgang Rihm's string quartet movement, entitled Quartettstudie, sounds like an outtake from Berg's Lyric Suite. Mauricio Kagel's Der Turm zu Babel for solo voices is alternately amusing and annoying and does not constitute one of Kagel's best outings. The remainder isn't much fun for either listener or performer; one gets the impression that the great bearded tradition of Western music in Europe seems to have run into a wall, burrowing into perceived "traditions" of the avant-garde.
While the overall message may not be positive, that is no reason to kill the messenger. All of the artists on 21st Century Instrumental Solos well deserved their prizes, even playing in works, such as Jörg Wildmann's Toccata für Klavier, that are rather thankless in demonstrating their instrumental prowess. Hopefully 21st Century Instrumental Solos will not be the last we hear of these players, and perhaps the next three years will witness better quality compositions unveiled at the ARD International.