Alexander Lonquich: Robert Schumann/Heinz Holliger (ECM New Series 2104)


Alexander Lonquich

Alexander Lonquich piano
Recorded November 2008 at Auditorio Radio Svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Alexander Lonquich follows up Plainte Calme, an all-French program that introduced ECM listeners to this erudite German pianist, with a pairing from which New Series aficionados are sure to derive much pleasure. Composers Robert Schumann and Heinz Holliger may have intersected more recently on Aschenmusik, but here’s where it all began.

Schumann’s 1838 Kreisleriana and Holliger’s 1999 Partita share much in common. Both bear dedications to pianists (Schumann’s to Frédéric Chopin and Holliger’s to András Schiff), both are overflowing with ideas, and both immerse themselves in narrative to the last measure. Lonquich traverses the original 1838 version of the Kreisleriana, which, according to the composer, was “heavily revised,” many of its intricacies elided or otherwise obscured in its now-standard 1850 print. Lonquich notes an ego shift from the pianistic Schumann to the symphonic Schumann, but argues for the psychic exactitude of the earlier version, less glossed by a man rightly concerned with his public image. Indeed, the later changes “sacrificed many subtleties to the need for simplicity and clarity,” making the Kreisleriana, in modern parlance, more user-friendly.

Schumann’s wildly popular performance piece presents to us, as Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich notes in the CD booklet, “the dark, nocturnal sides of romanticism: wild dreams, phantasms, obsession, insanity.” Taking E. T. A. Hoffmann’s The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr and its protagonist, Johannes Kreisler, as inspiration (the novel shares another ECM connection with György Kurtág, whose Hommage à R. Sch. also makes reference), the music reveals a growing dissatisfaction with what Schumann saw as the piano’s limitations. Not that we have reason to agree. The sweeping cascades that open the collection make for some invigorating listening. From cautious steps to headlong rush, we are led up spiral staircases and over archways, following Lonquich’s expert navigations of quietude interspersed with flushes of activity. With such a robust palette at our scrutiny, there’s plenty to pique the interest of repeat customers—whether in the reflective fourth movement (every bit as enchanting as Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata) or in the sportive seventh—all the way to the curlicue finish.

Schumann has long occupied the “true center” of Holliger’s music thoughts, and in the Partita it’s easy to see why. Jungheinrich argues for a romantic affinity in Holliger’s penchant for the “fractured and insecure,” a characterization that in this instance takes sometimes wistful, sometimes complex form. If the title seems to cast its net over Schumann into Bach, it’s only because it seeks a structural traction in the face of romanticism’s self-deprecating infrastructures. Shuffled into the usual Prelude, Fugue, and Chaconne—all of which reflect Holliger’s prodigious ability to twist templates into deeply personal effects—are a few brilliant additions. Most notable are two Intermezzi marked “Sphynxen für Sch.” These achieve the cavernous atmosphere of their namesake by strumming inside the piano, sometimes in the barest whisper of skin on string, amid a pollination of microscopic adjustments. Another clever insertion is the “Csárdás obstiné,” a strangely beguiling vignette of interlocking helixes that seems a nod to Franz Liszt: an intriguing choice, given the complicated nature of Liszt’s relationship with Schumann. Such strategies, however, are to be expected of Holliger, a composer who has always indulged in a wry sense of patterning.

In addition to being a unique recital performed by its ideal interpreter, this is one of the finest pianos ECM has ever recorded. The instrument simply shines at Lonquich’s fingertips, as if eager to feast on every note until only resonant midden remains.

Alexander Lonquich: Plainte calme (ECM New Series 1821)


Plainte calme

Alexander Lonquich piano
Recorded January 2002, Radio Studio DRS, Zurich
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

A year and a half after debuting with the label on Odradek, German pianist Alexander Lonquich stepped into the studio to record Plainte Calme, his first solo recital for ECM. Lonquich is a player of dialogues: between himself and the music, between himself and himself, between the music and itself. Balancing a remarkably delicate touch with a strong attack when needed, his playing throughout this all-French program bodes well in the session’s rounded engineering.

The Impromptusof Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) provide listeners with the most earthbound motifs on which to train their ears. Written between 1882 and 1909, these were never conceived of as a set, a fact underscored by their being scattered throughout the program. Although they incorporate influences from Chopin and from mentor Saint-Saëns, these pieces bear echoes in a chamber very much their own. Beyond the obligatory descriptor of “impressionistic” I am wont to attach to such music, there is an undeniably filmic energy therein. One can almost hear horse carriages and lovers’ talk, unaccompanied but for the whisper of their own song. Affection pours through every section with the temerity of a field mouse, while at the same time rolling itself down hills of youth into some of the composer’s most unadulterated expressions of joie de vivre on record—Lonquich’s performances thereof punctilious and perfect.

The 1929 Huit Préludes pour piano of Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was a discovery for me. This treasure was his first published work, written during his student days at the Paris Conservatoire. Already the synaesthetic composer was experimenting with color, which he splashes almost Pollock-like into a monochromatic world. One encounters a more weathered feel in comparison to the surrounding works, each a fresco in a monument which, though scarred by the passage of time, in its own way has become more beautiful, more like itself. Even at this early stage Messiaen folds every pleat with a reverence and sensitivity beyond his years. Yet there is far more than shadows and contemplation going on in this tapestry. There is also animation, the twisting and turning of life itself in all of its dramatic changes, though always ending as if to undermine that drama as but an illusory skin to stillness.

In light of these denouements, the formidable Gaspard de la Nuit of Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) feels like a bucket of dreams poured into the mind’s eye. This early work was written in 1908 after poems by Aloysius Bertrand and reflects the persistence of a composer who, as a student of Fauré at the Conservatoire in 1896, was famously expelled due to his inability to write an “adequate fugue.” Unfazed, he continued to sit in on Fauré’s class and honed what would become his hallmarks, which one notices to hardly greater effect than here. “Ondine” takes the most transcendent approach to the medium, seeming to stitch with an angel’s hair atmospheres of such rippling grace that one can only feel them below the skin, trembles of anticipation that are their own rewards. We find ourselves knee-deep in an inimitable sort of magic, growing into a quicksand of caresses in “Le Gibet,” while in “Scarbo” we are thrown into a new journey that leads us up the spiral staircase of the final Fauré Impromptu, at the top of which waits the destiny living inside all of this music: namely, the need to close eyes, spread wings, and jump.

Lonquich treats every note like its own voice in the grander unity of the choir, as it were, and brings an almost philosophical edge to his painterly renditions. He can sound like two musicians, one the light of the sun and the other its warmth. His sound bounces off the lockets of maidens in distant tower windows, their dreams of music suspended from the forests through which many a knight has traveled. Their voices come to us only now, at last requited in the body of an instrument that has never quite sung like this before.

One of the finest solo piano records on the New Series thus far.