Thomas Zehetmair violin
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
Heinz Holliger conductor
Recorded September 2002, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Recorded December 2002, Konzerthaus Freiburg
Engineers: Helmut Hanusch and Ute Hesse
Co-production of ECM Records/Südwestrundfunk
The work of Swiss painter Louis Soutter (1871-1942) might have been forgotten were it for the efforts of such artists as Julian Schnabel and Arnulf Rainer, who cite him as a vital influence not only in their own creative lives, but also in the development of modern art at large. With this captivating ECM recording, composer Heinz Holliger pulls that thread just a little farther into the realm of the orchestra. His homage to the artist comes in the form of a Violin Concerto, which bears additional dedication to its performer here, Thomas Zehetmair. The concerto came to being when the composer was commissioned to write a commemorative piece for the 75th birthday of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Once he discovered that Soutter had once been a violinist of the same entity, he needed no further impetus to evoke the artist’s already musical visuality. Holliger penned the concerto in three parts between 1993 and 1995, but later added a 17-minute “Epilogue” based on Soutter’s painting Before the Massacre. In this, Holliger swallows the soloist whole in favor of selfless anti-climax.
Holliger develops, as he is wont to, this sprawling work as if from a single droplet. With its ripple now audible, he combines reflections through which the exigencies of a single art are recast in the color schemes of private exhibition. The soloist, then, becomes a tattered traveler, a weary guide whose footsteps might very well continue to lead us on the right path even in the absence of a body to give them weight and signal. As the instrumentation becomes more self-aware, it conforms to the forces of language. Like a piece of silk surrendered to the wind it takes on the shapes of those forces. It is a sidelong glance, a skewed haunt in dissonant twilight, a ray of light in the trees where there is nothing else to see. The forest folds in on its heart, gnarled and rotting from the inside like a termite-infested house. Yet a certain peace also flows in those veins, something that captures and holds on to the light as nothing else can. Even at the densest moments the instruments sound vitally present as they fractal around the violin’s profoundly internal tracings. Starlight seems to glow from its F holes while in dialogue with hammered dulcimer and a bevy of percussion. It falls at the edge of dawn, spitting fire even as it speaks in ice, dotting the sky with flashes of supernovae, each the size of a pin’s head poked through the backcloth of a swooning catharsis (should the patient reader need a less uncertain comparison, think Berio’s Voci). It is a looming and gravid entity, one furiously alive even as it drains itself backwards into a high-pitched flight, joining a flock of microscopic kin into a universe where the wind rules in silence.
Following Holliger, who says of his Soutter variations, “I make no attempt to translate his painting into music: going out from it, I try to realize a ritual of annihilation,” we cannot simply open the concerto like a music box whose only melody is the cover painting. His is an ode to and of shadows, a gallery of emotional perforations, voices, and obsessions drawn in slow-motion charcoal, then burned to make more. The moment we avert our eyes and ears is when the music begins speaking to us…
Reflecting on Soutter’s life, the last 20 years of which were spent in a mental hospital, we may find ourselves wondering what moved him as a youth before his mind splashed its discoveries of erosion across the page. In the “Ballade” from Eugène Ysaÿe’s op. 27 Sonata for solo violin, which begins the album, we hear that youth epitomized. Its scintillating energy is made all the more visceral for Zehetmair’s flawless diction (a preview of things soon to come), by which he renders a virtuosic bumblebee’s flight (Rimsky-Korsakov need not apply) toward a fury of an ending. Again, the choice is calculated, for Soutter studied with Ysaÿe before replacing bow with brush, music with pigment and sweat. And though the sweat has long evaporated into overcast skies, the pigment remains, an open wound that smells of sound.