Reviews by Massimo Ricci

The A23H chronicle


ALFRED HARTH / BOB DEGEN - Melchior (Biber)

Not even your reviewer was aware of this release until a few months ago, and it felt compulsory to investigate a little bit with its originator. What came out easily stands out among the hidden treasures in the huge A23H discography, a crusty jewel that someone should deliver from the status of extremely rare limited edition (on vinyl, no less) by retrieving the master tape and refurbishing it, up to the condition of a proper reissue.
Melchior is the main character in Frank Wedekind's 1891 play "Spring Awakening", once banned in Germany as it dealt with themes such as masturbation, abortion, rape and suicide, which in a sexually repressed society - thus the author considered the place where he lived - were not acceptable. In 1984, director Harald Clemen asked Alfred Harth for a collaboration in a restaging of the play at the Nationaltheater in Mannheim. The couple divided it in 22 short episodes around which our man built 23 (!) miniatures as a sort of intermissions, in order for the scenes to be changed. The aim in terms of musical concept was, in the composer's words, "creating something that has to do with beauty and tenderness, and even dare to be romantic again after a period of rough student's protests and open trials of developing free sexuality in Germany from the 60s on". Impressed by Paul Bley's prowess during a previous session, the Frankfurter called American pianist Bob Degen to help him in the work; every other instrument is played by Mr. 23.
It must be instantly clarified that this isn't a typical album, in that it's missing that element of "sitting back on laurels" that defines records where a theme, an idea, a suite are the centre of the vinyl universe. The fragmentation of this music causes a repeated sense of amazement for the surprising efficacy of simple constituents, immediately followed by a kind of frustration due to the too early conclusion of the same. One can't get to enjoy the thrill of a fascinating melody, because the interruption comes - systematically - to cut to a new scene. Absurdly enough, it feels like this continuous motion is the record's veritable winning card, the whole resulting as a charming patchwork where romanticism, experimentation, commentary, ritualism, sheer description of a movement seem to delimit a spiritual coherence of sorts. Another component that characterizes "Melchior" as scarcely classifiable is Harth and Degen's apparent want of leaving everything in temporal suspension, in a way recalling different eras and habits in a series of past occurrences. There are memorable moments in which the instrumental voices tread parallel paths until their harmonic compatibility becomes a port for tired sailors, and one's vaguely reminded of certain instalments in Lindsay Cooper's career. There are also segments where we could openly talk about sweetness, Harth's most lyrical brilliance under the spotlight both on tenor and soprano, Degen's timbral clearness helping to describe picturesque vistas and sorrowful reflections. Striking as a sudden light in the obscurity, the immense evocative power of these brief pieces raises our awareness of diverse forms of grace, where the external appearance is totally forgotten in favour of pure meaningfulness. A highly significant yet rather obscure chapter that might force us to push for additional soundtrack work to be given to its author.

In Touching Extremes