Heinz Holliger: Lieder ohne Worte (ECM New Series 1618)


Heinz Holliger
Lieder ohne Worte

Thomas Zehetmair violin
Thomas Larcher piano
Ursula Holliger harp
Recorded June 1996 at Radio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

After an already healthy representation of the compositional prowess of Heinz Holliger, ECM decided to put out this disc pairing some of his earliest work from the sixties with that of decades later, thereby providing an engaging survey of a musical mind that turns like a kaleidoscope: holding tight to symmetries so that it might fragment their interiors in ever-novel, I would say linguistic, combinations. For indeed, language is what Holliger is all about. From the poetry that inspired him as a youth to the poetry that he creates as an adult, the Swiss composer revels in every portion of his mental reserve to fish out some of the most heartfelt music of the twentieth century.

The tactility of Holliger’s instrumental renderings always seem to have something of the human voice about them. Every cell is marked by the potentially vulnerable transfiguration of form, a breaking down or “clearing of the throat” by which the musical moment is rendered chalk-like in the face of its own palimpsestial illusions. The two sets of Lieder ohne Worte that embrace this disc turn the standard violin/piano duo inward, ever refracted toward a conversation comprised entirely of afterthoughts. Although generally light, it sometimes dips into urgent proposals to which the only desired answer can be a heavy silence. Both instruments become frames. The two Intermezzi recall Holliger’s 1982 Duo for violin and cello, linking adverbial phrases with descriptive trails. Songs without words, yes, but aren’t they always, for once they escape the lips they have already transcended the limitations of their shaping toward more distant reverberations.

In the Sequenzen über Johannes I, 23 for harp (played to perfection by wife Ursula), Holliger’s trademark fractures are filled by the plasma of fingertips, while the Präludium, Arioso und Passacaglia for the sameblush with savory dexterity. With the restrained ferocity of a classical guitarist, Ursula evokes an elastic space in which the life of any single note is determined by its distance from the body.

Two solo pieces fill in the eye sockets of this sonic skull. On the left is the winking Trema in a version for violin. Anyone used to the original for cello is sure to be caught up in the stark new textures. Where the cello draws that trembling forth from deep within its bowels, here it issues from the nostrils of a head animated by vehement denial. Yet in that denial is an unspoken (and unspeakable) commitment to self-reformation, to the idea that within the brain there is enough room to squeeze in all life experience into a single synapsial firing. The expediency of the lie is betrayed by its brevity. On the right are the three drowsy piano miniatures that make up Elis. In these vibrant fits there are only dreams. Rather than try to smooth them into a unified narrative, Holliger allows their worth to come clambering into our attention at whatever pace it chooses. A few extended techniques, like the hitting of a dampened string, emit flashes of color in an otherwise monochromatic field.

Holliger is notable for being a composer duly aware of the importance of space: between notes, between pieces, between selves. The stillness thereof is so heavy that, rather than falling like a stone, every note floats like a particle of windblown pollen. And in the hands of such astute performers, we begin to feel windblown ourselves.

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