Heinz Holliger: Beiseit/Alb-Chehr (ECM New Series 1540)

 

Heinz Holliger
Beiseit/Alb-Chehr

David James countertenor
Elmar Schmid clarinet
Teodoro Anzellotti accordion
Johannes Nied double bass
Klaus Schmid clarinet
Paul Locher violin
Marcel Volken Schwyzerörgeli
Markus Tenisch Schwyzerörgeli
Oswald Bumann bass
Recorded 1992/1993, Schweizer Radio DRS, Studio Zürich (Alb-Chehr)
March 1994, Psychiatrische Klinik, Münsterlingen (Beiseit)
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This earthly offering from Heinz Holliger finds the inimitable composer comfortably at home. As with in the more recent Schneewittchen, Holliger has chosen to set the words of Robert Walser in the whimsical collection of vignettes that is Beiseit (Apart), scored for countertenor, clarinet, accordion, and double bass. Focused, fecund, and delightful, these are highly perceptive pieces delineated in small brushstrokes that are few and far between. While certain sections—most notably “Und ging” (“And Went”)—are gorgeously lyrical, for the most part these pieces allow the texts at hand to dictate their own arrhythmias, thereby allowing an open intimacy to shine through. The performances are uniquely suited to the work (David James’s recitation is wonderful to hear for its stark contrast) and are impeccably recorded—in a psychiatric institute, no less. The epilogue “Im Mondschein” (“In Moonlight”) is particularly evocative, both in word and in feeling:

I thought when the night was deep
that the stars must be singing,
for, roused from my sleep,
I heard a gentle ringing.

But it was a little harp
that pierced the walls of my room,
and through the cold, the sharp
night it rang out like doom.

I thought of vain struggles, vain clinging,
the prayer, the curse breathed away,
and long I still heard the singing,
long awake I lay.

It is an introspective and unabashedly nocturnal coda, leading us out with a wolf’s distant cry.

Alb-Chehr recounts the Valaisan tale of a cowherd’s ghostly encounter and the boorish village cheese-maker whose jealousy and prying ways lead him to a tragic end. The title means “return of the ghosts but also music of the Alps and music of ghosts,” and clearly outlines the divergent personalities of the music to follow. This piece plays like a Holligerian Peter and the Wolf and must have been a joy to compose. I say this not because Holliger is such a modernist that this was just a pleasurable one-off for him, but precisely because such music lies at the core of his process in its directness and unmitigated commitment to feeling.

Holliger is not one to impose his compositional will upon a text, but to become its willing ally. He composes from the heart and it is into the heart that his music directly falls.

(Incidentally, this is one of my all-time favorite ECM covers.)

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