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.

Thomas Demenga plays J. S. Bach/B. A. Zimmermann (ECM New Series 1571)

Thomas Demenga
J. S. Bach/B. A. Zimmerman

Thomas Demenga cello
Thomas Zehetmair violin
Christoph Schiller viola
Recorded February/July 1995
Engineer: Terje van Geest
Produced by Manfred Eicher

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under heaven.

Cellist Thomas Demenga continues his Bach project by juxtaposing the Baroque master’s d-minor Suite No. 2 with the work of Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970), one of the most important non-Darmstadters after World War II. As ever, Demenga makes a convincing argument for the pairing (interestingly enough, most of the criticism of Demenga’s project sees the Bach as filler). In this case, Zimmermann is something of an effortless choice, for his fondness of quotation and respect for tradition were at the heart of his artistry. His approach to time in this regard was particularly significant, drawing on intersections of influence through a wide range of trends and idioms.

Thus do we find ourselves in the comforting waters of Bach’s generative whispers from the moment we dive in. For this performance Demenga adopts the approach of a viola da gamba player (to greatest effect in his raspily inflected Courante). This sound draws out the music’s inherent gaseousness, in which one feels something dark and cosmic taking shape. Demenga’s notecraft ensures that every molecule feels connected through a legato of silence. He digs as deep as he can for those distinct Bach lows, plows double stops as if they were fertile fields, and maintains subtle independence of line in the Sarabande. He bows the Menuets as if with shadows, then elicits one of the finer renderings of the Gigue I’ve yet heard, striking a fine balance between jubilation and regret.

The boldness of this architecture may seem an ill fit to Zimmermann’s sonatas, which despite their meticulous scoring also call for an improvisatory approach. This puts the musician in a potentially compromising space, though if anyone is up to the challenge, it’s Demenga. Many of Zimmermann’s works were considered unplayable when first written, the Cello Sonata of 1960 not least of all. Drawing from his usual pool of spatial and temporal concerns, the piece moves beyond the Romantic notion of cello as vox humana and into the realm of speech, action, and embodiment. In his liners, Demenga notes a particularly difficult passage in the first movement, which encompasses three distinct time-layers: “while the upper voice, played on the bridge, produces a continuous ritardando, the middle one is the most striking, because of its very large range and numbers of notes played pizzicato, and then the lowest, played on the nut of the bow, sounds like a scarcely perceptible accelerando.” Despite its brevity, unpacking the finer implications thereof took Demenga weeks to perfect.

That said, like all walls it can be, and is, overcome in such a way as to render those difficulties invisible and meaningless. It is a testament to his playing that the potentially distracting technicalities of this music become vital mechanisms to their own forgetting. In addition, the more the music progresses, the more one realizes that its virtuosity stems not only from the obvious difficulties, but more importantly from the way the performer must treat every cell as its own motivic entity while maintaining a sense of continuity (as in the “Fase” movement). Between the boldly intoned opening and the ethereal resolutions of “Versetto” we feel the cellist walking the edge of our Umwelt, stitching a morpheme for every step like a bead into patchwork.

Before this we are treated to two nearly intriguing sonatas. The Violin Sonata of 1951 was written after the composer’s concerto for the same. Demenga’s conceit is strengthened by a B-A-C-H cipher and likeminded spirit (notably in the Toccata). From the Paganini-esque heartbeat to the dramatic pizzicato slap that closes it, this is a tapestry of musical lines that is sure to delight. Christoph Schiller makes delicate work of the 1955 Viola Sonata thereafter and undoes a few of the frays left dangling. Subtitled “To the song of an angel,” the one-movement sonata was written in memory of the composer’s daughter Barbara, who died soon after her birth. This self-characterized “chorale prelude” is based on Gelobet seist Du Jesu Christ and tracks a pseudo-scientific journey of private inquiries. At times the instrument duets with its own implications, while at others it shatters itself into a hundred pieces.

This program is about nothing if not intimacy. Not only by virtue of the solo repertoire—Zimmermann himself believes the solo to be the only way by which one may access an instrument’s “almost inexhaustible power”—but also because of the way in which that repertoire speaks through the hands of such capable musicians. This is no-frills playing of music that, while at times distorted, rings forever crystalline in our memory of it.

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Carolin Widmann/Simon Lepper: Phantasy of Spring (ECM New Series 2113)


Phantasy of Spring

Carolin Widmann violin
Simon Lepper piano
Recorded October and December 2006 at Kölner Funkhaus
Engineer: Stefan Hahn
Executive Producer: Harry Vogt
Co-production ECM/WDR

In order to approach this album, we might ask ourselves: What is spring? While it is popularly associated with rebirth, if not a certain rise in sexual energy and interest, spring is also a prime season of mischief, one in which creatures great and small awaken from their slumber and do their best to placate their raging hunger. And just what does this have to do with this album’s diverse program? Precisely this: the above interpretations are the result of socially bound, and therefore limited, understandings of nature. The four composers represented in this program, I think, understood this in each his own way. And so, while these pieces may seem on the surface to be at most tangentially connected, they are in fact bound by a fearless approach to fallacy.

Morton Feldman’s Spring of Chosroes (1977) is an ideal opener in this regard. While it is the sparest, it suffers no lack of density. The aired spaces are gravid, deeply informed by Feldman’s idiosyncratic sense of time and the performances of our two musicians. Composer Bunita Marcus offers the following insight into the title of Feldman’s enigmatic piece:

The Spring of Chosroes was a sumptuous carpet reputed to have been made for the Sassanian King Chosroes I (sixth-century A.D.). Woven with silk, gold, silver and rare stones, the carpet depicted a garden akin to Paradise. The image of this legendary rug remained with Feldman throughout the composition, inspiring the isolated “gems” of sound, the translucent, interwoven harmonic timbres, and suggesting the form of the work.

This knowledge provides us with a fertile avenue through which to approach its sounds. While Feldman’s chamber pieces have often been laced with a charming sort of regularity, in Spring we find this regularity thwarted in favor of a highly stylized form of variation. By “variation” I mean not to imply the presence of any central theme, but use it in the sense of a degree of change: we are simply pointing our microphones to the winds and capturing the first fourteen minutes of melody that come along. Recording engineer Stefan Hahn is delicately attuned to the instruments in his first ECM endeavor. He gives Carolin Widmann a wide spread, placing her pizzicatos into markedly different spaces than their surrounding notes, thereby leaving a trail of musical breadcrumbs for the patient listener to follow. Widmann herself draws out some of the purest high notes I have ever heard from the instrument as she navigates Feldman’s vast array of meter changes (270 in a score of 388 bars) with apparent ease. At certain points Simon Lepper hits the uppermost keys to produce a hollow percussive sound, as if in foil to the violin’s subtle clarity. Clearly, however, this is no conversation in the way that most violin sonatas are. Marcus again:

Even when one instrument plays alone, we do not get the customary impression that the other is waiting to reply. Rather, Feldman is choosing to turn an ear to one instrument, then to the other; and at times we hear both together. It is through this selective listening that Feldman paces the unfolding dialogue.

Thus, what appears dialogic is really just a trick of shifting perspectives. Feldman’s music, while always provocative in its subtle ways, feels more tongue-in-cheek and blatantly contradictory here. Feldman was always adept at peeling away the skin of “academic” music and trying to see what may be lurking behind it, cowering in a corner of its own making. The music puts me in mind of a large, gangly, and awkward creature that has forgotten its way home, but which at the same time possesses such intoxicating beauty as to befuddle anyone it asks for directions.

The opening bars of the 1950 Sonate für Violine und Klavier by Bernd Alois Zimmermann act as a launching pad for an invigorating first movement of Bartókian dimensions. The second movement, though filled with fluttering high notes, is a rather brooding affair and lays its patchwork carefully. The final movement is an exercise in urgent virtuosity, ending with a most unforgettable trill and flourish, as if signing an enormous document with a quill of sound. Lepper works the piano through considerable changes, each of which is traceable back to its originary big bang, while Widmann breathes life into every dance of this spectacular sonata.

Even more erratic, and seemingly uninterested in resolution, is Arnold Schönberg’s opus 47, the Phantasy for violin with piano accompaniment of 1949, which began as a piece for solo violin to which he later added piano accompaniment. As one of his last compositions, the narrative trajectory of Phantasy veers into as many turns as the violin can allow. Tones seem to pull at one another, wrenching a tortured sort of melody from the realm of possibility. The piece works in clusters, an amalgam of “micro-compositions” that achieve unity only by virtue of existing on a printed score, of having a beginning and an end.

With Iannis Xenakis’s Dikhthas (1979), we immediately know we are in uncomfortable territory. The violin dances in circles, skirting the piano’s turgid interior like a mad prisoner. Moments of agreement are few and far between; moments of disagreement do no justice to the darkness; and separations are a given. Yet the piece isn’t as fatalistic as one would think. Like an overt camera zoom in a melodramatic film, the overuse of glissandi demonstrates the instability of note values and draws a jagged line under the piece’s contrived dual identity. Xenakis was one of the twentieth century music’s greatest game theorists. This impassioned performance allows us to experience one of his most intimate strategies as if for the first time.

Even if you have heard any or all of these pieces before, I guarantee these interpretations will give you much food for thought. Widmann’s incredibly fluid approach partners well with Lepper’s more pointillist one, and together they forge as vast a sound palette as one could imagine from a duo. By turns opaque and resplendent, this is a demanding album that should reap great benefits for the repeat listener.