Bernd Alois Zimmermann: Canto di speranza (ECM New Series 2074)

Canto di speranza

Bernd Alois Zimmermann
Canto di speranza

Thomas Zehetmair violin
Thomas Demenga cello
Gerd Böckmann voice
Robert Hunger-Bühler voice
Andreas Schmidt bass
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln
Heinz Holliger conductor
Recorded May 2005, Kölner Philharmonie
Engineers: Brigitte Angerhausen and Günther Wollersheim
Edited and mastered by Renate Reuter
Produced by Harry Vogt

In his 2003 monograph, Quotation and Cultural Meaning in Twentieth-Century Music, musicologist David Metzer describes West German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970) as having “exposed the delusion behind the modernist renunciation of the past and offered a vision of time in which [past, present, and future] were interconnected.” Zimmermann, he goes on to say, “saw time as a broad sphere in which all periods were equally within reach.” Such philosophy was at the heart of a self-styled pluralistic approach to composition, taking comfort in a Joycean spirit of drift and adaptation.

One might say that ECM’s New Series imprint has followed suit, pulling lesser-heard composers like Zimmermann into an orbit equidistant from the massive planets he references. In line with this spirit, the label has brought together a meticulous team of interpreters—at the core of which Heinz Holliger conducts the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln—to paint the portrait of a composer whose personal demons eventually won out: the final piece of this disc was, in fact, completed just five days before his suicide. Such biographical details, however, render the Violin Concerto that opens this disc all the more effective for its unabashedly serial touches. Completed in 1950 and cited as a model for the postwar concerto, it spans three richly contrasting movements, opening in a cacophony of details at once whimsical and shadowy.

The soloist’s relationship to the orchestra is very much in the Romantic mode, as emphasized by violinist Thomas Zehetmair’s gorgeous traversal of the second movement. As in the work of Erkki-Sven Tüür, the piano figures mysteriously, a distant echo of the violin’s central presence, a simulacrum of the internal. It finds entry points in the periphery and parasitizes the orchestral body therein. Despite some beauteous, even transcendent moments, this portion of the concerto is no fantasy, but rather an intense reality of its own making that transitions into the final movement, which dances circles around a joyful center: a rite of spring, if you will. Some magnificent brass writing spurs a solo violin passage into explosive yet contained finale.

Zimmermann’s sound walks the line between capriciousness and foreboding. Despite the composer’s fatalist (?) trajectory, the concerto exudes panache, presenting the soloist with no small technical task. His neoclassicism suggests Stravinsky and Bartók, but influences from Bach to jazz are equally discernible. His plurivocity is clearest in the cadenzas. The almost bacchanal exuberance and rhythmic color of the concerto is every bit as intense as the program’s relatively brooding title composition, which at the fingertips of cellist Thomas Demenga delineates an even thinner line between nostalgia and forgetting. Originally composed in 1952 and revised in 1957, the title of this “cantata” for cello and small orchestra means “Song of Hope,” although its distinctly internal dialogue would seem to shelter very little at first glance.

The sparse instrumentation yields a world of ideas, which Demenga handles with remarkable sensitivity. Tension is so smooth that it no longer feels like tension, but rather like the metaphorical harmony of lock and key: the yin of security and the yang of trespass. The chamber aesthetic, especially in Zimmermann’s pointillist writing for percussion, is solemn and melds beautifully with the cello’s forthright porosity. Demenga brings to these energies a feeling of such effortlessness that the music seems to unfold of its own need to be heard.

Yet, no solemnity can match that of the final piece on the program: Ich wandte mich und sah an alles Unrecht, das geschah unter der Sonne (“And turning then, I saw there great injustice is done under the heavens”). Designated as “an ecclesiastical action for two speakers, bass soloist, and orchestra,” this 1970 oratorio sets biblical verse and Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor” parable from The Brothers Karamazov. Andreas Schmidt is the singer, a pathos-ridden reflection of actors Gerd Böckmann and Robert Hunger-Bühler, who provide the spoken voices.

Despite the large instrumental forces at his command, Zimmermann makes spare use of textural overlap, with brass and percussion adding particular and occasional resonance to the immediate voices. One can almost hear the theatrical gestures built into the score, the very comportment of which forms a language unto itself that is subtext to the piece’s articulated surface. Even with knowledge of German or a translation of the texts in hand, this is morose going. Sitting with it is a nevertheless dark fascination. Some moments recall the drama of Shostakovich’s The Execution of Stepan Razin, while others are their own brand of interlocking parable. It ends with a brass iteration of the Bach chorale “Est is genug” and an orchestral afterthought thereof, the latter an indication of a mind at play to the very end.

Concerning the level of musicianship required bringing this music to life, it is only appropriate that Holliger should hold the baton. This is clearly music after his own heart. Even the most dedicated listeners aren’t likely to pop Ich wandte mich… into their car stereo, but its rewards come earlier in the program, felt only as a retroactive lean toward infinity. In accordance to Zimmermann’s “sphericality of time,” the aftereffects are just as musical as the performances they follow, and sow their traces into our mental fields until, some time later, they sprout anew.

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