Heinz Holliger: Scardanelli-Zyklus (ECM New Series 1472/73)

Heinz Holliger

Aurèle Nicolet flute
London Voices
Ensemble Modern
Terry Edwards
Heinz Holliger
Recorded September 1991, Inselhalle Lindau, Germany
Engineers: Andreas Neubronner, Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The rivers are, like plains, the shapes of wildness
Are scattered also, more revealed the mildness
Of life continues, and our cities’ traces
Appear most clearly in unmeasured spaces.
–F. Hölderlin

Scardanelli-Zyklus (Scardanelli Cycle) is Heinz Holliger’s crowning compositional achievement. It is so lovingly crafted that I cannot help but bask in its atmospheres anew with each listen. This was my inaugural Holliger encounter—as either musician or composer—and will always hold a special place in my life for that among other reasons. I first heard Scardanelli-Zyklus when I was sixteen (as many years as it took to compose), and the experience was nothing short of a revelation. To compare it to anything else would be an injustice.

The cycle is a composite work and is comprised of:

The Seasons, three sets of four songs for a cappella choir
Exercises for Scardanelli for small orchestra
comments, mirrors, responses, marginalia to The Seasons
(t)air(e) for solo flute
Excerpts from:
Tower Music for solo flute, small orchestra and tape
Ostinato Funebre for small orchestra

These are squared and shuffled like a deck of cards. Holliger sets vocal passages to the words of famed German poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843), and for this has selected poetry from the latter years of Hölderlin’s life, a period of mental instability and obsessive writing and revision. Much in contrast to the free verse at his peak, Hölderlin eventually took to penning rhymed quatrains on rather innocuous subjects, many of which he signed with the nom de plume “Scardanelli” and which he dated with absurd imprecision, sometimes years into the future. In many ways, this is exactly what the music feels like: caught in time against the blatancy of its own transcription.

The Seasons are the glue that holds Scardanelli-Zyklus together. Each is divided into three sections and sprinkled liberally throughout. While Hölderlin tends to opt for traditional seasonal imagery, he occasionally surfaces with rather insightful readings of nature. In Scardanelli’s world, Spring is less about new life than the reinvention of its vocabulary. Peaks graze the sky in order to emphasize the darkness between them, looming over the explicit deference to perfection and valorization of the lowly-wise agrarian. Summer is fittingly presaged by Holliger’s Summer Canon IV, in which precision is no longer mathematical, but emotive. Here, the season is about life, the body in all its fragile stages. It is a landscape of rippling water rife with intimations of unity. Holliger makes sure to leave its surface tension unbroken. Sunlight is reduced to a whisper, no longer a blinding presence. We see the wonders of production and learn to appreciate the harvest all over again. These are hymns of heat waves, hair-thin rays of light woven into audible dimensions. Summer is uneasy, unpredictable, more causal than caustic. Glittering streams feed the valley, made known more by light than sound. Autumn is the brittle leaf transformed into a promissory spirit underfoot. We are treated to a stunning confluence of voices and instruments in Holliger’s arrangements thereof. Each word is given equal weight, gilded by an underlying drone. It is supremely unsettling and undeniably gorgeous. A glass harmonica ushers in Winter, lending an icy repose to deadening voices. Some tremolo is introduced, as if of a thrashing possibility yearning for the distant thaw. It is one incarnation of Winter that ends the cycle, growling and scraping the bottom of each singer’s vocal range.

The more instrumentally focused works are cue cards signaling new turns in the cycle’s narrative flow: Fragments is a flute-driven explication of the incomplete; Bell-Alphabet features Japanese bells cradling flute and orchestra on a tonal journey through speech unspoken; Paddlewheel revolves until it is the rasping of strings and air; Ice Flowers burgeons slowly into a frosty cornucopia of sound; Ostinato Funebre is a sketched crease in time overlaid with a warped deconstruction of a Mozart motif; The Distant Sound is a stunning instrumental reworking of an earlier Winter section; (t)air(e) is to the solo flute what Holliger’s Studie über Mehrklänge is to the oboe, and then some (taire = keep secret, not to talk; air = air, song, aria, breath; te = you)…a masterful exposition piece for the non-exhibitionist; Ad Marginem, based on a Paul Klee painting of the same name, utilizes taped frequencies thinner than a molecule’s breath to elicit an inescapable effect.

For all of its complexity and ambition, Scardanelli-Zyklus is a refreshingly straightforward work. Voices sing with little trickery (the most adventurous of which merely requires singers to follow the beat of their own pulses) and instruments faithfully follow the mechanics of their titular signposts. This music carries itself neither programmatically nor incidentally. Scardanelli-Zyklus is not only Holliger’s magnum opus, but is also undoubtedly one of the most compelling masterpieces of twentieth-century music. What a joy to have this recording to preserve its existence.

<< Kancheli/Schnittke: Vom Winde beweint (ECM 1471 NS)
>> Terje Rypdal: Q.E.D. (ECM 1474)

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