Jörg Widmann: Elegie (ECM New Series 2110)

Jörg Widmann

Jörg Widmann clarinet
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie
Christoph Poppen conductor
Messe and Elegie
Recorded June and July 2008, Congresshalle (Messe) and SR Studio 1 (Elegie), Saarbrücken
Engineers: Thomas Raisig and Thomas Becher
Fünf Bruchstücke
Recorded May 2009, Klaus-von-Bismarck-Saal, WDR Funkhaus, Köln
Engineer: Günther Wollersheim
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

At 39, German composer and clarinetist Jörg Widmann has already established himself as a formidable talent. If his studies under Hans Werner Henze, Heiner Goebbels, and Wolfgang Rihm have left any noticeable influence in his work as composer, it’s the cellular approach at which he is so skillful. His experience as a performer with such ECM regulars as András Schiff, Kim Kashkashian, and Heinz Holliger, not to mention his sister, violinist Carolin Widmann, make him a natural fit for the label in both capacities. Though Widmann has been widely praised for his chamber works, on this survey we get only the Fünf Bruchstücke (1997) for clarinet and piano, and for which he is joined by none other than Mr. Holliger at the keyboard as he explores the extended capabilities of his instrument. His subtle clicks and arcing gestures provide the hum to the piano’s rattle at every turn. We feel these things and more scuttling just beneath the surface, holding on to sounds as idols of whimsy, each blown and deflated like a balloon that refuses to expand and will never know the catharsis of the pop. Among his first published pieces, they give us direct insight into his eclectic flourish…

(Photo by Felix Broede)

…and all the more so for nesting between two leviathan orchestral pieces. Played to astonishing effect by the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie under the baton of Christoph Poppen, his 2006 Messe buries us with immediate and bone-stressing volume, yet somehow retaining, not unlike the Dies irae from Arvo Pärt’s Miserere, the softness of a petal. This is the first of a handful of references, which would seem to include also Górecki’s Third Symphony (note the Contrapunctus I). These allusions are as robust as they are transient, rising as they do from an ocean of great depth and color. Even in the absence of words, the piece abounds with voices. Widmann’s string writing is patient and awakens by a lone violin, as quiet as the opening was loud. Pastoral cries from winds exhale in watery strains. Bows flicker through consciousness like dragonflies. Each step becomes a window of spiritual reflection, a string of dawns, ferocious as lions jumping from the sun. Swollen joints in the Trinitarian body find unconditional love in the crucifixion, sacrifice rendered divine and tipped by fingers of humility and faith. Shadow masquerades as light, and light blinds itself. Reaching the resurrection at last, a promise of life wraps itself in autumn before unfurling a banner of exodus beneath an all-seeing eye, within and without, everywhere and nowhere, in the glitter of the lachrymose.

The 2005 title composition stretches those tearful remainders into lenses of contact. Peering through contorted sighs and unspoken things, reeds, bellows, and high strings dance across a bridge of burning meteorites, each a needle without thread. An operatic current prevails. One can feel characters ambulating about the stage, hiding behind curtains and whispering erratic secrets into the spotlight, which stays lit even after the music ends.

If Widmann’s landscapes seem not so well defined, it is because his intentions (or so I imagine) forego the platitudes of anticipation in favor of an organic, distilled approach. Poppen brings precisely that feel of ebb and flow, drawing out from these performances a viscous and dynamic energy. Holliger’s involvement, too, is fortuitous, for here is a voice that, given time, might very well prove to be his equivalent.

Bach/Webern: Ricercar (ECM New Series 1774)


Johann Sebastian Bach
Anton Webern

The Hilliard Ensemble
Monika Mauch
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Münchener Kammerorchester
Christoph Poppen
Recorded January 2001, Himmelfahrtskirche, Sendling, München
Engineer: Andreas Neubronner
Produced by Manfred Eicher

With Ricercar Christoph Poppen continues where he left off on Morimur. While the goal of the latter project was to reveal what was hidden, here it is to direct our ears to what is already there. To achieve this Poppen bridges the J. S. Bach divide now to Anton Webern, highlighting an early Bach cantata—“Christ lag in Todesbanden” (Christ lay in the bonds of death)—as a genetic link to Webern’s op. 5 and the String Quartet of 1905, and ultimately to Webern’s own rendering of the six-part ricercar from Das musikalische Opfer (The Musical Offering). Herbert Glossner, in his liner notes, analogizes the relationship between the cantata and the ricercar in architectural terms, with the former standing at the center and the latter providing the cornerstones. The structural comparisons are far from arbitrary. They provide key insight into the potential for both composers to interlock in fresh and enlivening (more on this below) ways.

The bookending ricercar does, in fact, support the program like the columns of some aged temple, letting the language therein build from the afterlife of a single oboe line. This weave seems to pull the orchestra from a profound slumber, also drawing from within it deeper threads that unfold rather than obscure their source. This is no mere interpretation, but a bodily dip into Baroque waters. The same can be said of Poppen’s project on the whole: Ricercar is neither trying to modernize Bach nor even to accentuate the timelessness of his music, but rather taking an informed look into the prism of its inception. Paired with the conductor’s variegated arrangement of the 1905 quartet, it pours like the sun through an open curtain. On this side of the spectrum the music has a similarly fugal structure and sits comfortably in its shell, yet also bleeds into the cup of Bach’s fourth cantata. The soaring organ and heavy foliage of strings and voices in the opening movement accentuate the kaleidoscopic effects of all that have fed into it thus far. The assembled forces accelerate into a beautifully syncopated passage that almost rings of Steve Reich’s Tehillim in the allelujas. The cantata’s only duet, here between soprano Monika Mauch and countertenor David James, is a crystal of fine diction (especially in the words, “Das macht…”), as are the respective tenor and baritone solos from Rogers Covey-Crump and Gordon Jones. The performances are carefully striated and blossom in the glory of their full inclusion (whereas in Morimur only selections were decidedly offered out of their immediate contexts).

All of this gives us a profound feel for the concept and for the awakening stirrings of Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet, performed here in the composer’s own expanded version. Not unlike the preceding cantata, it awakens in plush contours into a duet of sorts before regaling us with tutti and solo passages in turn. This constant negotiation between speaker and spoken heightens the music’s physicality and thus its mortal vitality, so that in its throes we think not of death but rather of the life-giving soil in a landscape now heavily traveled. For while it is tempting, of course, to read these works as if they were written on the brittle paper of death, one cannot help but feel the affirmation of survival thrumming through their veins. Each is a universe in fragments waiting to be painted, and the exigencies of our fragile existence its subjects.

Valentin Silvestrov: Bagatellen und Serenaden (ECM New Series 1988)


Valentin Silvestrov
Bagatellen und Serenaden

Valentin Silvestrov piano
Alexei Lubimov piano
Münchener Kammerorchester
Christoph Poppen conductor
Recorded February 2006, Himmelfahrtskirche, München
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

All too often, contemporary classical music is framed as a forward-looking genre, falling under the rubric of “new music,” as if it somehow grew of its own accord in lieu of outdated motives. But then we encounter a figure like Valentin Silvestrov, whose music always seems to look into a watery mirror and tells us that the more this art form progresses, the more it mines the depths of that which has passed. Such is the realization that brings purity his Bagatellen (2005), a set of simple piano pieces that practically weep at the composer’s fingers. Airy at first glance yet overwhelming in their melodic weight, they record rather than create, though they more than diaristic. These are images in constant motion, a far cry from family photos with timeworn edges. Some speak with the clarity of a digital home video, while others drown in the timelessness of grief. Their cyclical structures lend a delicate urgency, one that speaks to the validation of reminiscence as a primary mode of expression. After such quiet, inexpressible splendor, to be confronted with the extroverted qualities of the Elegie for string orchestra (2002) is to experience the trembling heart of something ancient. And as the strings continue their serenade in Stille Musik (2002), we feel an acute suspension. Not of winged flight but of the marionetted body that knows its limits in the grand scheme of falling, never quite sustaining its foothold once found.

A stilling rendition of Der Bote for strings and piano (1996) is the album’s centerpiece, and one of Silvestrov’s most masterful forays into harmony. This distorted Mozartean wind tunnel of cloud and afterlife lies also at the heart of his Requiem for Larissa. And it is into afterlife that we continue with Zwei Dialog mit Nachwort for string orchestra and piano (2001/02). Dripping honey from a ruptured hive, this is music that luxuriates in the full spread of its pathos. As might a drop of ink into water, it opens its tendrils slowly, well aware that without the invisibility of its surroundings its mapping would mean nothing.

It bears noting that the Bagatellen were recorded by chance when, before and after this album’s orchestral sessions, Silvestrov played alone at the piano while the tape (such as it is in the digital age) was running. Although he never intended to contribute to this recording in such a physical way, we can only bow in gratitude that he did. One gets the sense that each fragment is a portrait of his life in miniature. In a world of tiresome postmodern gestures, sometimes we need to wrap ourselves in something so mysterious that it can be nothing but a comfort. Let this be your blanket.

Barry Guy: Folio (ECM New Series 1931)


Barry Guy

Maya Homburger baroque violin
Muriel Cantoreggi violin
Barry Guy double-bass
Münchener Kammerorchester
Christoph Poppen conductor
Recorded February 2005, Himmelfahrtskirche, München
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Over the years, ECM New Series listeners will have variously encountered Barry Guy as composer, performer, and improviser. In Folio, we get to experience all three. I have always found his improvisatory role to be the most compelling, for it stirs my heart with communicative possibilities. And so, in the spirit of living in the moment, I share this review verbatim, as I dictated it while listening:

“Barry Guy is very much concerned with the internal, the biological nature of music. The seemingly sourceless energy it evokes through human contact enables us to question our own energy: whether it is divinely given or naturally ordained. While his epic explorations of thematic material by Diego Ortiz betray a more honed compositional reach, Guy still inhales the oxygen of indeterminacy. This music functions very much like memory: when one focuses on one memory, others try to creep in, sometimes courting unwanted associations, secrets we would rather not acknowledge…. Even at its most dynamic moments, this music is all about gentility and caution—not as a sign of fear…but as a way of life, a philosophy. The improvised ‘commentaries’ peppered throughout add a rich sense of bulk to the album’s presence…but one shouldn’t think they are any less substantial, for they wouldn’t be what they are without their source texts. They give the musicians a crisp field in which to ponder the emotional implications of what they have just played…to share those feelings with the listener rather than covet them unceremoniously. The ‘Folio’ pieces are richer in orchestral texture. They tap into a broader sensibility of the music’s own potential while also burying the possible egotism of the solo artist…in a lush balance of restraint and emotional surrender. Guy uses gimmicks briefly and wisely, and is never afraid to stutter. This is music that never edits itself. The commentaries are immediate responses. They do not simply act as arbitrary filler material, but rather speak to the lingering effects…grasping on to those effects before they fade out of sight and out of mind. And so, I think this is why Track 13 is called ‘Memory,’ for what is commentary but solidified memory shared with others…? And similarly, what is a review but a memory…a conscious chronicling of an experience that can never be recaptured, but only inadequately preserved in one person’s thought. For rather than a simple memory, I should like to share a record of my experience. This track also speaks to me in the same way we often search through our memories for an originating thought. Oftentimes, especially as we are going to sleep, we let our minds wander, only to backtrack, looking for that one sound or image or word or impression that launched our mental exploration…and this is perhaps what we stumble into in ‘Ortiz II,’ which in some way charts the frustration of our psychological imperfections, while also exploiting those imperfections to audible effect. This is an altogether intriguing album, which is always greater than the some of its parts, as it allows for the listener’s own reflection and for the compositional nature of personality to run amok, or slumber as it may, in pockets of empty space.”

Christoph Poppen: Morimur (ECM New Series 1765)



Christoph Poppen baroque violin
The Hilliard Ensemble
Monika Mauch soprano
David James countertenor
John Potter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Recorded September 2000, Monastery of St. Gerold, Austria
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Drawing on the research of musicologist Helga Thoene of the University of Düsseldorf, Christoph Poppen and the Hilliard Ensemble take great care in juxtaposing the monumental “Ciaccona” from J. S. Bach’s Partita in D Minor BMV 1004 alongside (and against) various Bach chorales, through which cryptic synchronicities are brought audibly to light. These “chorale quotations”—believed by Thoene to comprise a “tombeau” (i.e., epitaph) for Bach’s deceased wife Maria Barbara in the larger context of Christ’s death and resurrection—are transformed here into an entirely new experience that traces the intangible borders between life and death. And indeed, the title of the album, Morimur, connotes “death as a passage to life” and reflects the numerology therein as an equation for transubstantiation. Chorale passages are interspersed between movements of the refracted Partita, thus allowing us insight not only into the hidden connections of violin and voice (insofar as the Ciaccona is concerned), but also into the nearly tangible sinews that hold together the Partita as a whole. Poppen’s violining digs ever deeper into its source, as if overwriting the original manuscript with heavier ink.

This is a very challenging album to encapsulate in one review, for it is a listening experience like no other. With each new turn it offers hitherto unexplored avenues of creation. As a mere listener, it may be easy for me to dismiss the intense scholarship that has gone into this recording and simply enjoy it for the contemplative music it contains. After all, much of what lies hidden between the Ciaccona and its companion chorales is perhaps more obvious to the trained eye on paper than it is to the casual, if not enraptured, ear on disc. At the same time, I cannot help but think that the connections drawn out through its attendant scholarship are vastly important for the sole reason that this program would not exist in its present form without them. That being said, I feel that Bach’s ciphers stimulate the heart without the need for a direct correlation in numbers. In other words, we don’t necessarily require those connections to be spelled out for us as a guidebook to what remains fundamentally communicative.

Music never ceases to amaze and entice with its potential for infinite variation. The intersections drawn in Morimur are omnipresent and need not always be so contrived. Bach’s music, especially as it is rendered here, reminds us that sometimes those transparent bridges between our intellect and the environments around us are also the most fleeting and unexpected. Contrary to what we might expect from a project so described, this is not about solving some age-old code left for only the most astute of posterities. It is, rather, about uncovering those mysteries that never go away and make us who we are: mysteries of faith, of love and absolution, of desire, and of death. Therefore, I see this album not so much as a reflection of Bach’s often-touted genius, but of his humility.