Clara Rockmore Lost Theremin Album Bridge

Clara Rockmore’s Lost Theremin Album
Clara Rockmore (theremin)
Nadia Reisenberg (piano)
Jorge Morel (guitar)
Cello ensemble
rec. 1975
Bridge 9208 [61]

There must be a word to denote the activity of creating new instruments. While I blunder about for a word, I remark that, over the centuries, much activity has been seen and heard on this front. There’s the saxophone, saxhorn, Wagner tuba, heckelphone, shofar (Elgar Apostles), horns (in conjunction with the aerophor) and sarrusophone. Of various innovative keyboard ‘contraptions’ some were associated with electronics (Grainger’s ‘free music’ machine and Hindemith and Genzmer’s trautonium). Others were, I think, physical: the player-piano, much bound up with Conlon Nancarrow, and Emanuel Moór’s Duplex-Coupler piano. Add to these a whole host of other insurgents: whistle, harmonica, electric guitar, accordion and so on. That just scratches the surface.

The theremin, the invention of Léon Theremin (1896-1993), has been rather forced into the shade by the Ondes Martenot. The Theremin involves the supernatural experience of the player’s hand motions in relation to a charged coil. By contrast, the Ondes works with a keyboard. Both arose in the ’twenties in the wake of the Great War. There must have been other champions of the instrument at that time between the World Wars but Clara Rockmore (1911-1998) – pictured on the cover as rapt and self-mesmerised – came to considerable prominence as a player of the theremin.

I confess that although I began by being intrigued by the theremin, the reality, as yielded up here, is a not-unmixed blessing. Some of this recital, with its Campoli/Kreisler orientation, sounds decidedly queasy: like the effect of nausea welled up from a long deep sea-swell. I remain a resolute captive of hope for great things if only from a number of works not recorded here. In this category I include works such as Martinů’s Fantasia for theremin, oboe, string quartet and piano (1944), Kalevi Aho’s Eight Seasons (concerto for theremin and chamber orchestra) and the Theremin Concerto by Anis Fuleihan (Rockmore was the soloist at the premiere). Fuleihan was a composer who attracted the attention of Eugene Goossens and Leopold Stokowski. His concerto was premiered by the New York Philharmonic under Stokowski in 1945.

This CD is the Bridge label’s completion (I think) of the Rockmore theremin discography. It affords us the experience of hearing theremin arrangements and originals recorded in 1975 but never issued. If you need further to fill out the experience then there are two Romeo Records discs (review review) to be run to ground.

As I have already reported, not everything in the garden is fragrant. The tone of the theremin, at least as heard here, comes across as hybrid. It’s somewhere between stylophone, swanee whistle, buzzing bee and violin or (viola). If you must, then try Rockmore’s Mattheson Air and the Ave Maria. The little Fuleihan piece (in this case not the concerto) leaves that fault behind. The Ravel Kaddish and Gershwin’s Summertime are lovely and most sensitively done. The Cassado Requiebros is nicely articulated. The Kreisler, however, pushes its luck and the Chopin, calling up unwelcome memories of “comb and paper” sounds, caused me to go seriously green at the gills.

On the plus side, there is a probingly illuminating article by Robert Sherman, an odyssey of an interview between Rockmore, Reisenberg and Robert Moog, plus full recording details. A panel in the booklet makes clear that this CD is “in loving memory” of Rockmore, Reisenberg and the “electronic pioneer”, Robert Moog. This recording – a historical bookmark with some fine moments – comes with six photographs of the performers.

This is ultimately an affectionate tribute and, for the most part, it’s a pleasure that these tracks have been liberated for public appreciation.
Rob Barnett

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Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962)
Johann Mattheson (1681-1764)
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Anis Fuleihan (1901-1970)
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Ave Maria
Frederic Chopin (1810-1849)
Nocturne in C-sharp minor (Op. Posthumous)
Gaspar Cassado (1897-1966)
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Adagio, Celebrated Air
Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959)
Aria from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5
Richard Heuberger (1850-1914)
Midnight Bells (arr. Kreisler)
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
George Gershwin (1898-1937)
Avery Robinson (1878-1965)
Water Boy
Manuel Ponce (1882-1948)
Louis Louiguy (1916-1991)
La Vie en Rose