Meredith Monk: Songs of Ascension (ECM New Series 2154)

Songs of Ascension

Meredith Monk
Songs of Ascension

Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble
Ellen Fisher, Katie Geissinger, Ching Gonzalez, Meredith Monk, Bruce Rameker, Allison Sniffin voices
Bohdan Hilash woodwinds
John Hollenbeck percussion
Allison Sniffin violin
Todd Reynolds Quartet
Todd Reynolds violin
Courtney Orlando violin
Nadia Sirota viola
Ha-Yang Kim violoncello
The M6
Sasha Bogdanowitsch, Sidney Chen, Emily Eagan, Holly Nadal, Toby Newman, Peter Sciscioli voices
Montclair State University Singers
Heather J. Buchanan conductor
Recorded November 2009, Academy of Arts and Letters, New York
Engineers: James Farber and Paul Zinman
Assistants: Nelson Wong and Sean Mair
Editing engineer: Paul Zinman
Location Recording Service: SoundByte Productions Inc., New York
Mixed at Avatar Studios, New York by James Farber, Manfred Eicher, and Meredith Monk
Assistant: Akihiro Nishimura
Produced by Manfred Eicher

These pieces grew out of inspiration from poet Paul Celan, whose “Song of Ascents” suggested heavenly upward motion, and by extension a project to explore the sacrality of directions. Fortuitously, composer Meredith Monk was asked by artist Ann Hamilton to perform on site in Geyserville, California, where an eight-story tower with staircases in the shape of a double helix awaited Monk and her dedicated musicians. The beauty of the image, despite its live-giving implications, is that a helix has no up or down—or, rather, embodies both simultaneously—so that divinity comes to be expressed through suspension of the body.

As Monk’s subtlest assemblage, Songs of Ascension births a masterfully realized bioform. I use the adverb not lightly, because only mastery could stretch such a stable tightrope between being and non-being and walk between the two as easily as falling. To her vocal montage Monk adds string quartet, percussion, and woodwinds, for an amalgamated effect of such intimate proportions that the seemingly massive roster only serves to compress the music’s molecules into a galaxy of interpretation: it holds its shape by strength in numbers, an ethereal note inked in long before the earth dotted it on the then-blank score of outer space.

Indeed, one might trace an evolution of global life in the album’s embedded structures. Four seasonal “variations” and three so-called “clusters” are its spiritual campgrounds, from which sparks fling themselves into the night sky as the firewood settles. Songs are intoned and invoked, touched by percussion and overlapping strings, and moving in unison renderable only through total corporeal commitment. Gatherings and inner psalms blur into one another until the topography changes into air. Whether in the pointillism of “cloud code” or the ricocheting pings of “burn,” the topographic circles of “mapping” or the piercing meditation of “fathom,” a consistency of vision prevails. The instrumental passages are just as vocal, the vocal just as instrumental.

Songs of Ascension brings the atmosphere down to soil level. It speaks a continuity of earth and sky, the elemental composition of which draws notecraft from the farthest reaches of the universe, which happen to reside between our ears.

Thomas Zehetmair/Ruth Killius: Manto and Madrigals (ECM New Series 2150)

Manto and Madrigals

Manto and Madrigals

Thomas Zehetmair violin
Ruth Killius viola, voice
Recorded May 2009 at Radio Studio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Andreas Werner
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Violinist Thomas Zehetmair and his wife, violist Ruth Killius, break from their charter roles as one half of the widely acclaimed Zehetmair Quartet for a unique duo recital. In his album liner notes, Paul Griffiths says of the relationship between the two instruments, “What divides is also what binds,” and perhaps no summary could phrase it more accurately. The viola may often be mistaken as a mediator between the violin and the cello, a liminal instrument whose status in subordinate to either. In a setting like this, hearing music specifically written or arranged for the combination, it becomes an equal partner to the violin while retaining the edge of its voice: harmony through distinction.

Zehetmair and Killius

The program casts a long shadow from 2006, when Heinz Holliger composed his Drei Skizzen (Three Sketches) for the duo, back to the undateable Icelandic folk song Ó min flaskan friða (A love song to a bottle), given a fresh coat of paint in an arrangement by Rainer Kilius. The latter’s pulsing, stone-textured polyphony opens the album, flinted until it sparks. Holliger’s pieces, by not so large a contrast, chart the passage of fire into darkness. The glassy spindles of “Pirouettes harmoniques” are, like so many of the composer’s works, genuine agents of atmosphere, and culminate in a rich, if breath-held, conclusion. Moments of self-reference also abound. The swirling gestures of “Danse dense” recall his Duo for violin and cello, while the “Cantique à six voix” resurrects the more ethereal moments of his Scardanelli-Zyklus. This last movement requires the violist to sing, thus bringing out an antique spirit behind the meticulous abstractions. Holliger’s music follows that of 20th-century individualist Giacinto Scelsi, whose 1957 Manto gives up half of the album’s title. This piece, in which the musicians employ scordatura tuning (as they do in the Holliger), is also in three parts. It makes slow, archeological work of its motifs. Killius sings here, too, only in a trembling incantation, a ritual on the verge of dissolution. Bohuslav Martinů’s Three Madrigals of 1947 is yet another tripartite composition. Its lines are toned and strong, moving from sharp to supple in a single movement. From muted strings and flowering trills come the exuberant dialogues of the final Allegro, which unspools a tower of Baroque stairs into flourish.

The last of the threes comes by way of Nikos Skalkottas. A student of Arnold Schoenberg whose stark, individual qualities as a composer are nakedly audible in the 1938 Duo recorded here. The first movement opens with scraping bows and interlocking lines, all coming together with a certain thickness of description. This foils the central Andante’s blurry sheen and frames the final movement, which percolates through a network of forgotten folk fragments. Occupying a different band of the folk spectrum is Midhouse Air. This 1996 composition by Peter Maxwell Davies references folk music from the Orkney Islands and reaps a field of exuberant dreams.

Two outliers in the program nevertheless blend seamlessly into their surroundings. Béla Bartók’s Duo, composed in 1902, captures the spirit of a faraway dance with presence of mind. In this compact, Neo-Classical gem, the musicians play the same melody, only one of them inverted and backward. Johannes Nied’s Zugabe (2004), on the other hand, is a jagged yet cohesive piece. It bears further dedication to the duo, and from the performance it’s clear as to why. Like two pieces of clay scratched before kilning, they bond through the heat of creation, brushing the recital’s scope with a love and professionalism that perhaps only a married couple can bring to the studio.

Georg Friedrich Händel: Die Acht Grossen Suiten – Smirnova (ECM New Series 2213/14)

Die Acht Grossen Suiten

Georg Friedrich Händel
Die Acht Grossen Suiten

Lisa Smirnova piano
Recorded May 2007, May-June 2008, and Feburary 2009 at Schloss Goldegg, Austria
Engineer: Jens Jamin
An ECM Production

This is not the first time that music from Georg Friedrich Händel’s Suites de Pieces pour le Clavecin (a.k.a. the “Eight Great Suites”) of 1720 has appeared on ECM. Pianist Keith Jarrett recorded for the label’s New Series imprint a selection of suites by Bach’s near contemporary in 1993, and with it endorsed an affirmative reassessment of these exceptional works. Several complete recordings have since been issued, and many more predate it on vinyl, so the press release’s claim that these pieces are “too rarely brought together on disc” is, in fact, moot. Paul Nicholson’s cycle for Hyperion, recorded on harpsichord a year after Jarrett and distinguished by its highly embellished repeats, was a notable companion. Two further accounts have been issued this year (2014) alone. The first, by Richard Egarr for Harmonia Mundi, also opts for harpsichord, while the second, by Danny Driver for Hyperion, joins this 2012 release from Vienna-based Russian pianist Lisa Smirnova as a formidable contender for piano renditions. Smirnova would seem to marry the best of those recent followers, combining Egarr’s charm and Driver’s vibrancy with idiosyncratic success.

Smirnova

Although Händel humbly called these pieces “lessons,” their exact purpose is unclear. Their difficulty is, however, anything but and comprises an earthly counterpart to J. S. Bach’s heavenward considerations at the keyboard. For Smirnova, it is timeless music all the same, as attested by the five years of preparation and careful study she poured into it before a single studio microphone was switched on. Just as intriguing and well considered as her performance of the suites is the order in which she plays them, beginning as she does with the Suite No. 2 F Major HWV 427. A subtle yet bold choice of introduction, it lowers us into Händel’s pond so that we might see the ripples for what they are: as beautiful disturbances brought to life by a human touch. In the latter vein, the suite highlights Smirnova’s technical prowess: her syllogistic approach to the binary Adagios, balance of fluttering trills and steady pacing in the Allegros, and exquisite pedaling throughout.

The suites are full of idiomatic variety and avoid formal suite structure altogether. Consequently, Smirnova’s immediate jump to the Suite No. 8 F Minor HWV 433 makes as much sense as the composer’s elision of a Sarabande in the same (this peculiarity also marks the set’s most Baroque Suite No. 1 A Major HWV 426, which Smirnova places second to last). Thus foregrounded, this final suite elegantly flaunts its darker, more mature wardrobe. The extraordinarily lovely Allemande exemplifies both Händel’s sensitivity as a composer and Smirnova’s as a performer, legato phrasings and all. The concluding Gigue, too, shows us her grace and her ability to be fortuitous without tripping over prosody.

The Suite No. 4 E Minor HWV 429 and Suite No. 5 E Major HWV 430 are the only consecutive pairing. The echoing beginnings and sportive finish of the one sit comfortably alongside the dreamy core of the other. Next, the Suite No. 3 D Minor HWV 428 proceeds with gusto. The fantastic keyboard coverage of its Prelude recalls the grandeur of Bach’s organ works and opens a multivalent interface toward the gargantuan Courante. Simple in design yet expansive in effect, its octave voicings in the left hand and spurring trills in the right keep the final Presto in its sights, inspiring some of the set’s most virtuosic control of dynamics. By contrast, the Suite No. 6 F Sharp Minor HWV 431 portions itself more conservatively, keeping its inner fire audible but in constant check.

Händel mixes things up yet again in the Suite No. 7 G Minor HWV 432, for which he adapts the Overture of his cantata Clori, Tirsi e Fileno HWV 96. Here Smirnova puts on the air of a harpsichordist, her style brisé lending bite to every tantalizing swerve. This fullest of the suites is a veritable summation of the whole. From the salon-like Andante to the affirmative Passacaglia, it draws on many autobiographical roots until a new tree is born. Smirnova may be just one of many leaves on its ever-growing branches, but among them holds the sun in frame, her heart glowing green against cloudless sky.

(To hear samples of Die Acht Grossen Suiten, click here.)

Dario Castello/Giovanni Battista Fontana: Sonate concertate in stil moderno (ECM New Series 2106)

Sonate concertate in stil moderno

Dario Castello
Giovanni Battista Fontana
Sonate concertate in stil moderno

John Holloway violin
Lars Ulrik Mortensen harpsichord
Jane Gower dulcian
Recorded June 2008 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

John Holloway has charted a veritable history of the Baroque violin across the waters of ECM’s New Series, but perhaps none so tantalizing as the selections he has assembled for this benchmark recording. Holloway notes a special affinity for Dario Castello (1590-1658) and Giovanni Battista Fontana (1571-1630), composers whose works he played as interludes in vocal music concerts early on in his career. Now, nearly four decades later, he allows them the full force of center stage.

This program’s featured sonatas denote a time when the violin was coming into its own as a melodic lead (where before it was merely a consort instrument) and the portability and projection of the fagotto, an early incarnation of the bassoon known also as the dulcian, replaced the viola da gamba as the bass line in chamber ensembles. Historical bassoon specialist Jane Gower plays the dulcian alongside Holloway—with whom, as always, is harpsichordist Lars Ulrik Mortensen. It’s a formidable trio playing formidable music, but with a graciousness born of knowledge and experience.

Holloway Mortensen Gower

In her book Desire and Pleasure in Seventeenth-Century Music, musicologist Susan McClary brilliantly describes Dario Castello’s instrumental pieces as latching onto “a succession of impulses—some ordered with respect to goals, to be sure, but others producing extended passages of hovering.” Such a characterization might easily carry over into the concerto, to which this music represents a transitional link. Castello’s distinctly Venetian ornaments and flair for ecstatic denouements make of the listening—and, one can only imagine, the performing—a rewarding experience. The album is bookended by six sonatas from his two massive books of the same. All but two, the Sonata Prima à Sopran Solo and the Sonata Seconda à Sopran Solo, feature the dulcian. Those without boast a staggering variety of speeds, dynamics, and textures. Holloway and friends negotiate transitions between slow, reflective stretches of beauty and their cathartic outbursts with ease, and by those changes underscore a grand (but never grandiose) sense of development. Sonatas with the dulcian outweigh the potential complexities of the combination with awareness of line and form. Like masterful Celtic knotters, composer and musicians attend to every curve. Gower’s contributions (note especially the Sonata Ottava à due. Sopran e Fagotto) add depth of character to Mortensen’s sparkling frame, while Holloway enlivens the music’s cyclicity with meticulous intonation. The concluding Sonata Ottava à due. Sopran e Fagotto indeed brims with dramatic finality and, for its quick-witted arpeggios and filigreed structure, is the most virtuosic of them all.

It’s only natural that the music of Giovanni Battista Fontana, closest in style to Castello’s, should occupy the program’s center. Here we are treated to seven of his concerto sonatas, of which four do without the dulcian. To these Holloway brings a rustic energy by means of his bow, yielding and dancing in a veritable profusion of flora and fauna. Fontana, it might be said, was even more of an expository composer than Castello, as evidenced by tactile Sonata Terza Violino Solo and flowing tempi of the Sonata Sesta Violino Solo. Even more so with the dulcian in tow, as in the charged interactions of the Sonata Decima Fagotto e Violino. If these pieces seem more temperate, however, it’s only because the transitions between subdivisions are less explicit, marking as they do a time of great invention in the Italian sonata, so dutifully preserved for our own desire and pleasure for countless years to come.

Duo Gazzana: Poulenc, etc. (ECM New Series 2356)

2356 X

Duo Gazzana
Poulenc / Walton / Dallapiccola / Schnittke / Silvestrov

Natascia Gazzana violin
Raffaella Gazzana piano
Recorded June 2013, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In 2011, pianist Raffaella Gazzana and violinist Natascia Gazzana, better known as Duo Gazzana, made a quiet, if colorful, splash with Five Pieces, their first record for ECM’s New Series imprint. Navigating a recital comprised of works by Takemitsu, Hindemith, Janáček, and Silvestrov, the Gazzana sisters, in close collaboration with producer Manfred Eicher, demonstrated an acute sense of programming, technique, and integrity. Despite the title of their debut (named for the Silvestrov composition of the same name), which contained only four pieces, Silvestrov’s Hommage à J.S.B. (2009) comprises the heart of this truly pentagonal sequel. The Ukrainian composer offers three short movements: two Andantinos and one Andante, each the band of a deeper and more nuanced spectrum. The end effect is one of suspension. Although originally written for Gidon Kremer, the Hommage is uniquely informed here by the Gazzanas’ attention to detail. “The music of Silvestrov is not difficult in terms of notes,” Raffaella tells me in a recent interview, “but it’s so particular. In a way, you have to isolate yourself from the noise of life. He’s a composer who belongs to another time, bringing these beautiful melodies, as if from the past.” Indeed, as Wolfgang Schreiber observes in his album notes, the Gazzanas share in the spirit of the music they have selected, which like them finds newness in the old. Their unwavering commitment to urtexts only serves to emphasize what is unwritten in them, thus coaxing out hidden messages and spirits.

Gazzana Portrait

Radiating outward from the Silvestrovian center are two richer, denser works: Poulenc’s Sonate pour violon et piano (1942/43, rev. 1949) and William Walton’s Toccata for violin and piano (1922/23). Dedicated to the memory of Federico García Lorca, the Poulenc sonata is, in Raffaella’s estimation, a product of its time, as is clear in the first in third movements, designated “Allegro con fuoco” and “Presto tragico,” respectively. These are extroverted, almost flailing. Stravinsky looms large in the final, especially, but there are also—unwitting, perhaps—nods to the late Romantics and Ravel as the piece nears its enigmatic coda. “After expressing the suffering of the war,” Raffaella observes, “Poulenc wanted to finish with this dreamy catharsis. This was his character, shy but also enjoying life. He was, I think, a very elegant man, and in this sonata you can hear that.” Poulenc purists take note: the Gazzanas’ interpretation corrects mistakes left in the original French edition prepared by Max Eschig, which elides key signatures in the last page. After careful study of the facsimile, they believe to have arrived at the definitive version.

Although more obscure, Walton’s Toccata was the subject of Raffaella’s dissertation and is no less possessed of elegance. Nataschia’s opening proclamation stirs the piano’s waters with relish and fortitude, giving way to a virtuosic and starkly exuberant foray, pocked by haunting, probing depressions. Although written in the composer’s 20s, it smacks of maturity and daring-do. Raffaella: “I am always impressed by the piece’s improvisational elements. At the time he was working on it, Walton was planning a jazz suite for two pianos and orchestra. Although it never panned out, you can hear this influence throughout the Toccata. The beginning contains no tempo or bar divisions. You just have to go with it.”

Two further works draw the album’s outer circle. First is Schnittke’s Suite in the Old Style. Originally composed for two 1965 films (Adventures of a Dentist and Sport, Sport, Sport) by director Elem Klimov, Schnittke arranged these five selections for violin and piano in 1972. Its moods are crisp and compelling. Especially moving are the Minuet and the spirited Fugue. Only the final movement, marked “Pantomime,” has the surreal touches one might expect of the composer. Still, it is playful and fragile, ending with a mystery.

Tartiniana seconda (1956), by the 20th-century Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola, concludes. Referencing Tartini, this divertimento spreads a beautiful carpet across its four Baroque-inspired movements. “This piece enjoys great popularity in Europe,” Raffaella explains, “especially in Italy. It makes exclusive use of canons, pastorale, and variations: all forms that belong to the past.” At times ponderous and lyrical, at others swirling with ornament and invention, it culminates with a set of emphatic statements from both musicians. Of all the pieces on the album, it is the most architectural. This is no coincidence: “It helps to have the score in hand when listening, because it’s as much for the ears as it is for the eyes. In the opening Pastorale, for instance the piano plays the violin’s lines exactly, but staggered and in reverse, while in the second Variation, it plays the exact reverse, bar for bar.” The Tartiniana also gives contrast to the freer forms of Walton, lending finality and flourish to this exquisite sophomore program.

Coinciding with the release of this disc was the Duo Gazzana’s North American concert premiere when, on May 2, they performed as part of 2014’s Look & Listen Festival in New York City. For this performance, they chose the Silvestrov and Poulenc pieces from the new album, and enchanted the audience with their grace, sensitivity, and mutual resonance. Hearing this music live brought home a vital point in relation to the album’s core philosophy. Because the nature of past and future is immaterial, the only true reality of this music can be the here and now of performance and listening. On this point, Raffaella has the final word: “Chamber music has ever been one of the most beautiful expressions of liberation, one that tests the ability of performers to listen to one another in dialogue. These peculiarities attract us and in our interpretations we try to emphasize them. All the study we put into these pieces is just the grammar. But grammar must be spoken to come to life. Nowadays, it’s easy to speak without caring what other people think. Chamber music ensures we never fall into that trap. Sure, there are good performers, but it’s obvious when they’re performing only for themselves. Chamber music is, quite simply, enjoyable. It’s so beautiful to share it with such a caring musical partner, and with the listener in turn. When you do something out of love, you transmit this love to others. And people can hear this.”

(See this article as it originally appeared for Sequenza 21. To hear samples of this album, click here.)

Robert Schumann: Geistervariationen – Schiff (ECM New Series 2122/23)

Geistervariationen

Robert Schumann
Geistervariationen

András Schiff piano
Recorded June 2010, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Pianist András Schiff, best known for his surveys of Bach and Beethoven, combines the former’s austerity and the latter’s dynamism in this, his second ECM reckoning with Robert Schumann. More so than the first, the present program tracks a composer stepping out from Beethoven’s shadow and into a light very much his own. As any Schumann interpreter perhaps must, Schiff brings awareness of attendant shadows as well. These he evokes through a balance of restraint and transparency.

To be sure, the Papillons (1829-31) one of Schumann’s earliest piano works (it is his Opus 2), benefits from just such a well-rounded approach. This collection of 12 innovative vignettes linked in brazen montage is as colorful as it is compact. Indeed, each section would feel like the beginning of a longer excursion were it not already so elaborate. The C-sharp Waltz and Waltz in D are notably filigreed in this manner, while the playful chromatism of the Polonaise in D leaves a tannin-rich aftertaste.

The first sonata, his Opus 11, follows. Written in 1835 and dedicated to his future wife, Clara, it is an effusive and utterly heartfelt work, one from which Clara would draw themes for her own compositions. From the introduction alone, it’s clear that Schiff has hit upon the right formula. The modest Aria that follows is, at just over three minutes, a lovely foil to its 13-minute predecessor, and all the more enchanting for it. Even in his propriety, Schiff teases out an epic flow from its underlying fortitude. The final two movements pulse with theatricality. The last is engaging from the first, not least for Schiff’s handling of its quieter passages, the sonata’s most delicate. Through both jagged stitching and smoother threadings of the needle, a brocade of melody and atmosphere emerges that works lyrically, but with a certain sense of muscle that is distinctly Schumann.

The Kinderszenen or “Scenes from Childhood” (1838) are his most widely performed pieces and represent another innovation: children’s music for adults. Among the first of their kind, they have inspired many imitations but none quite so charming and musically direct. Moments of quietude and solitude increase among those of play as they drift onto darker, more dreamlike avenues, culminating in the grimly apportioned “Der Dichter spricht” (The Poet Speaks). Whether opaque or translucent, all 13 are suffused with a spirit that in Schiff’s hands feels as fresh as the ink drying on the original score.

On the subject of original scores, the Fantasy in C of 1836 will be either the decisive or divisive hinge, depending on your taste. Schiff works vitally through the first two movements, his left hand working overtime in support of the flowering right. Furthermore, he brings out that special stream of consciousness that pervades even the softest moments of Schumann’s writing at its most mature. In a brief liner note, Schiff delights in his possession of a first-version manuscript of the third and final movement. In this iteration, Schumann revives the final theme of the first movement—a strategy later scrapped for its pedantry. For the tried-and-true, Schiff tacks on the final, published version at the album’s end, leaving those used to the latter searching for it there. Perhaps a more useful strategy would have been to switch the two, but this is one pianist’s vision, and to it we are invited to abide. Whatever your preference, an inherent boldness perseveres.

The Waldszenen (1848-49) or “Forest Scenes” are similar in title to the Kinderszenen, but reflect a starkly different spirit. Schiff seems to draw energy directly from nature and experiences of observation for a reading that is understated yet lyrical. He brings enough insight to inspire but not to overwhelm, allowing the solace of each to occupy its respective niche with plenty of room to slumber.

Last on the program proper is Geistervariationen, or “Ghost Variations.” These pieces of 1854 are rarely performed, much less with such veracity, and comprise Schumann’s final piano work. Brokering some urgency here and there, the main theme and its five variations bespeak a tender privacy that is self-assured and wise, despite being written in the wake of a failed suicide attempt and soon before admission into an asylum. And yet, here it stands, calm and collected, in need of a wider circle of interpreters to make its visions known.

On the whole, this has the makings of a benchmark record, although some listeners will want to pair it with other classics in the field. These Kinderszenen, for instance, may not replace Horowitz’s beloved traversal of the same for CBS, but are a close second and well worth as much consideration as Schiff has put into them. Neither will Richter’s take on the C-Major Fantasy likely forfeit its place at the top for some (or any) time to come. Nevertheless, what we have here is another example of a profound relationship between artist and label, triangulating with a composer whose piano music glistens anew, as if of its own desire to be heard.

(To hear samples of Geistervariationen, click here.)

Alban Berg/Karl Amadeus Hartmann: Tief in der Nacht (ECM New Series 2153)

Tief in der Nacht

Alban Berg
Karl Amadeus Hartmann
Tief in der Nacht

Juliane Banse soprano
Aleksandar Madžar piano
Recorded March 2009, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

A grey man goes through the silent wood
singing a dismal song.
The birds at once fall silent.
The spruces tower so mute and sultry
with the heavy turmoil of their branches.
A sound rumbles in distant depths.
–Johannes Schlaf, “Rain”

When discussing Alban Berg, it’s almost impossible not to include Arnold Schoenberg, a mentor of whom he was the brightest protégé. While Berg grew into his own as a defining composer of the early 20th century, in scholarship and on record his early songs were relatively ignored at the time of this release. More than a transition stage, these songs embody key qualities of the composer’s output to come. The hand of Schoenberg is felt less in the music, which still has a foot in the waning Romantic era, and more in the assembly, as the Sieben frühe Lieder (1905–1908) that open the program were extracted from a set of thirty written under his teacher’s careful scrutiny. Setting the poetry of Carl Hauptmann, Nikolaus Lenau, Theodor Storm, Rainer Maria Rilke, Johannes Schlaf, Otto Erich Hartleben, and Paul Hohenberg, these seven songs are stippled with shadows and patches of forest, and the apparent ease with which soprano Juliane Banse and pianist Aleksandar Madžar weave through them enriches the listening experience. With titles like “Nacht” (Night) and “Traumgekrönt” (Crowned in Dreams), one can already sense the nocturnal imagery before a single word is sung. “You came,” goes a verse of the latter, “and softly as in a fairy tale the night resounded.” Thus the lyrics lead us into a world of fantasy. Whether carried on the back of “Die Nachtigall” (The Nightingale) or brightened in the final clip of “Sommertage” (Summer Days), each word turns charcoal to ash and ash to flame.

Rilke, Schlaf, and Storm further populate the Jugendlieder (1904-08) of the same period, along with poetry by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Carl Busse, and Peter Altenberg. Now the verses as well as the music are more colorful and, in light of Berg’s compact developments, genuinely impressionistic. From melancholic lullabies—“I mourn lost happiness,” sings Banse in “Erster Verlust” (First Loss)—to the Mozartian patterning of “Hoffnung” (Hope), composer and musicians draw from a nuanced palette of evocative pigments. Schlaf’s “Regen” (Rain) makes for a beautiful highlight, finding in the music a life only implied in the text. All of this culminates in “Mignon,” which expresses a longing for some idyllic land that, while beyond the reach of flesh, blooms across the landscape of art.

Two settings of the same poem—“Schließe mir die Augen beide” (Close Both My Eyes) by Storm—complete the Berg selections. The first, written in 1907, is already a masterful explosion and re-piecing of utterance, while the 1925 version works almost scientifically to balance freedom and precision. What was once a telescope now becomes a microscope.

Banse is extraordinary, not only for her diction but also for the steadiness of her footing as she journeys across Madžar’s constantly shifting topography. Berg is always felt, and Schoenberg over his shoulder, assuring that every change happens in mutual understanding, so that densities and clarities alike always share a strand.

One of those strands surely leads to Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Lamento (1955), a work that in its original 1936/37 form bore dedication to Berg. Like Hartmann, it survived the war—during which time he studied with another Schoenberg protégé, Anton Webern, in Vienna—with not a few dark clouds in its memory. For this, Hartmann sets three poems of 17th-century Silesian dramatist Andreas Gryphius. One may not feel this as a trilogy, but as a continuous gradation of dusk to dawn. “Elend” (Misery) compares earthly and heavenly troops, and engages the wonder of God’s non-action. Although the light flowers in Banse’s delivery, the geometric diffusion that follows casts a pessimistic shadow to be obliterated in the central song, “An Meine Mutter” (To My Mother). This eulogistic prayer acknowledges the potency of the divine in the realm beyond, a realm in which grace leaks out through Banse’s powerful highs. In the final “Friede” (Peace), she emphasizes the core message: “We once were dead; now peace a life is giving.” The pianism throughout is exquisitely written and executed, and leaves us, like the album as a whole, to reckon with the authority of silence.