Anna Maria Bacher recitation
Albert Streich recitation
Sylvia Nopper soprano
Kai Wessel countertenor
Olivier Darbellay horn
Matthias Würsch percussion
Swiss Chamber Soloists
Heinz Holliger conductor
Engineer: Andreas Werner
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Ever since the star-covered Scardanelli-Zyklus found its way into my life, Heinz Holliger’s increasingly fractal compositions have been a vital part of my personal development. As a teenager, I felt such an intense connection to the early ECM Holliger releases that I used an online message board (back when such things were novel) as a venue to proclaim Holliger as one of the most important composers of the century. I was immediately met with a smattering of criticism, of which one comment remains lodged in my mind: “Though Holliger is a talented musician and, I admit, an interesting composer, I don’t think his colleagues or family members would ever consider him ‘important.’” In my youthful naïveté, I accepted this contention and shied away from mine. And yet now, some fifteen years later, I find my initial reactions being confirmed by critics and friends, all of whom have long recognized the significance of his multifarious deeds. I relate this anecdote not to underscore my prophetic abilities, nonexistent as they are, but only to direct the listener’s attention to the depth of Holliger’s output and the uncanny ways it has of getting under our skin over time.
This is an album of many things: silence and half-language, shadow and movement, liminality and articulation. Through a technique that Holliger calls “vocal masking,” potentially straightforward motives are turned in on themselves, such that by the end our memories speak not in solos but in delicate aftershocks. Continuing the composer’s interest in marginal voices begun in such works as Beiseit is Puneigä. Reading like a well-compressed Scardanelli dissected under a microscope, it begins with the Walser-German poetry of Anna Maria Bacher (recited by Bacher herself) followed by Holliger’s spidery and biologically attuned settings thereof. In the absence of English translations, these pieces are left for the rest of us to emote on their own terms. And perhaps this is for the best, as Holliger has always seemed to approach a given text from the inside looking out, such that we need never concern ourselves with the arbitrary contours of its many surfaces. Either way, in them one can hear the cellular approach of his craft, an approach that seems as interested in unpacking language as it is in dismantling it. One hears this especially in the rattles and hums of the Zwischenspielen, each a wondrous division of spatial relationships that is incidental only to itself. Rotating through a series of watery reflections (“Wen mu plangät), earthly contacts (“Hêif!”), and reverberations (“Der Toot”), images stick out with the quiet interruption of a rock protruding from the glassy sheet of a waterfall. Within each rests the lock to a key.
Albert Streich’s poem “Induuchlen,” also prefaced from the author’s lips, provides a verbal runway into the soaring title piece for countertenor and natural horn. Holliger’s work gains facets the more its performers are reduced in number, and here one finds a wealth of such demands. Yet these are handled with such grace that one might think the results were entirely improvised. The countertenor is asked not only to plumb the depths of his baritone register, but even to step beyond them into some uncanny quotidian realm of, I daresay, Wagnerian anxiety, for indeed the music’s deepest secrets are, not unlike the sword in Die Walküre, fully visible yet can only be dislodged with the attendant promise of self-destruction. Here is a matrix of auditory gravel in which tremolos gasp, where overlays misalign, and from which arises a golem who seeks clouds more than land.
Embracing these throated reliefs is a frame of chamber works. Toronto-Exercises speaks in aphasic mumblings, which is to say in a vocabulary at once molecular, somnambulate, and exquisite. Scrapings, flaps, shivers, and overtones carve a broken chain of stone through this gorgeous little quatrain of forested sounds, while the fractured virtuosity of the percussive Ma’mounia deciphers its own fingerprints one vein at a time, releasing the screams and helical motives squirming therein.
Holliger’s is the music of a soul in search of those intricate gifts that enliven our bodies and minds. It is highly idiosyncratic and yet speaks of a wide-reaching science. For the sake of analogy, one might say he sits comfortably between Lachenmann and Kurtág, singing through the sometimes haunting immediacy of the former while holding close the latter’s appreciation for the miniature. In doing so, he gives us a medium of the anti-essence, wherein breathes only the potential for quiet rupture. He speaks more than any other composer I know, and yet never proselytizes.
Like an Italo Calvino novel, this music ladles over us a pathos we have long forgotten and through which we only now find a chance to embrace anew.