Carolin Widmann/Simon Lepper: Phantasy of Spring (ECM New Series 2113)


Phantasy of Spring

Carolin Widmann violin
Simon Lepper piano
Recorded October and December 2006 at Kölner Funkhaus
Engineer: Stefan Hahn
Executive Producer: Harry Vogt
Co-production ECM/WDR

In order to approach this album, we might ask ourselves: What is spring? While it is popularly associated with rebirth, if not a certain rise in sexual energy and interest, spring is also a prime season of mischief, one in which creatures great and small awaken from their slumber and do their best to placate their raging hunger. And just what does this have to do with this album’s diverse program? Precisely this: the above interpretations are the result of socially bound, and therefore limited, understandings of nature. The four composers represented in this program, I think, understood this in each his own way. And so, while these pieces may seem on the surface to be at most tangentially connected, they are in fact bound by a fearless approach to fallacy.

Morton Feldman’s Spring of Chosroes (1977) is an ideal opener in this regard. While it is the sparest, it suffers no lack of density. The aired spaces are gravid, deeply informed by Feldman’s idiosyncratic sense of time and the performances of our two musicians. Composer Bunita Marcus offers the following insight into the title of Feldman’s enigmatic piece:

The Spring of Chosroes was a sumptuous carpet reputed to have been made for the Sassanian King Chosroes I (sixth-century A.D.). Woven with silk, gold, silver and rare stones, the carpet depicted a garden akin to Paradise. The image of this legendary rug remained with Feldman throughout the composition, inspiring the isolated “gems” of sound, the translucent, interwoven harmonic timbres, and suggesting the form of the work.

This knowledge provides us with a fertile avenue through which to approach its sounds. While Feldman’s chamber pieces have often been laced with a charming sort of regularity, in Spring we find this regularity thwarted in favor of a highly stylized form of variation. By “variation” I mean not to imply the presence of any central theme, but use it in the sense of a degree of change: we are simply pointing our microphones to the winds and capturing the first fourteen minutes of melody that come along. Recording engineer Stefan Hahn is delicately attuned to the instruments in his first ECM endeavor. He gives Carolin Widmann a wide spread, placing her pizzicatos into markedly different spaces than their surrounding notes, thereby leaving a trail of musical breadcrumbs for the patient listener to follow. Widmann herself draws out some of the purest high notes I have ever heard from the instrument as she navigates Feldman’s vast array of meter changes (270 in a score of 388 bars) with apparent ease. At certain points Simon Lepper hits the uppermost keys to produce a hollow percussive sound, as if in foil to the violin’s subtle clarity. Clearly, however, this is no conversation in the way that most violin sonatas are. Marcus again:

Even when one instrument plays alone, we do not get the customary impression that the other is waiting to reply. Rather, Feldman is choosing to turn an ear to one instrument, then to the other; and at times we hear both together. It is through this selective listening that Feldman paces the unfolding dialogue.

Thus, what appears dialogic is really just a trick of shifting perspectives. Feldman’s music, while always provocative in its subtle ways, feels more tongue-in-cheek and blatantly contradictory here. Feldman was always adept at peeling away the skin of “academic” music and trying to see what may be lurking behind it, cowering in a corner of its own making. The music puts me in mind of a large, gangly, and awkward creature that has forgotten its way home, but which at the same time possesses such intoxicating beauty as to befuddle anyone it asks for directions.

The opening bars of the 1950 Sonate für Violine und Klavier by Bernd Alois Zimmermann act as a launching pad for an invigorating first movement of Bartókian dimensions. The second movement, though filled with fluttering high notes, is a rather brooding affair and lays its patchwork carefully. The final movement is an exercise in urgent virtuosity, ending with a most unforgettable trill and flourish, as if signing an enormous document with a quill of sound. Lepper works the piano through considerable changes, each of which is traceable back to its originary big bang, while Widmann breathes life into every dance of this spectacular sonata.

Even more erratic, and seemingly uninterested in resolution, is Arnold Schönberg’s opus 47, the Phantasy for violin with piano accompaniment of 1949, which began as a piece for solo violin to which he later added piano accompaniment. As one of his last compositions, the narrative trajectory of Phantasy veers into as many turns as the violin can allow. Tones seem to pull at one another, wrenching a tortured sort of melody from the realm of possibility. The piece works in clusters, an amalgam of “micro-compositions” that achieve unity only by virtue of existing on a printed score, of having a beginning and an end.

With Iannis Xenakis’s Dikhthas (1979), we immediately know we are in uncomfortable territory. The violin dances in circles, skirting the piano’s turgid interior like a mad prisoner. Moments of agreement are few and far between; moments of disagreement do no justice to the darkness; and separations are a given. Yet the piece isn’t as fatalistic as one would think. Like an overt camera zoom in a melodramatic film, the overuse of glissandi demonstrates the instability of note values and draws a jagged line under the piece’s contrived dual identity. Xenakis was one of the twentieth century music’s greatest game theorists. This impassioned performance allows us to experience one of his most intimate strategies as if for the first time.

Even if you have heard any or all of these pieces before, I guarantee these interpretations will give you much food for thought. Widmann’s incredibly fluid approach partners well with Lepper’s more pointillist one, and together they forge as vast a sound palette as one could imagine from a duo. By turns opaque and resplendent, this is a demanding album that should reap great benefits for the repeat listener.

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