Zelenka: Trio Sonatas (ECM New Series 1671/72)

 

Jan Dismas Zelenka
Trio Sonatas

Heinz Holliger oboe
Maurice Bourgue oboe
Thomas Zehetmair violin
Klaus Thunemann bassoon
Klaus Stoll double-bass
Jonathan Rubin lute
Christiane Jaccottet harpsichord
Recorded June 1997, La Chaux-de-Fonds
Engineer: Stephen Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

From the first measure to the last, the trio sonatas of Czech composer Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745) cast an enchanting spell. The combination of instruments—two oboes, bassoon, and basso continuo, with a violin replacing an oboe in the third sonata—is unique and colorful. Zelenka’s writing embodies the epitome of Baroque ensemble stylistics, drawing from such diverse influences as Bach and the folk music of his own homeland.

The first two sonatas I see as a linked pair. Sonata No. 1 is an awakening into sunrise, birds weaving and darting in a complex interplay of lilting motifs. Sonata No. 2 is the dusk to the first’s dawn. Its gorgeous introductory movement builds to Albinoni-like proportions. Meticulous development and smooth bassoon writing in the final Allegro make this one of the most consistent sonatas in the collection. Thomas Zehetmair takes charge in the sinuous opening Adagio of Sonata No. 3. A virtuosic second movement and ornamental minor shifts in the fourth lend this sonata an overall anticipatory character. The oboes return to the “fore” in Sonata No. 4, which features a heartrending bassoon line in the Adagio. And on that note, the trio sonatas are a goldmine for the bassoon. Though touted by Heinz Holliger as a highpoint of oboe literature that evolves with the performer through time, this collection brings out so much detail from the oboe’s throatier cousin that one cannot help but give it equal attention. Klaus Thunemann’s dramatic sense of diction is almost never supplementary, but rather flickers with its own inner fire. The bassoon is perhaps nowhere so present as in Sonata No. 5. After a thematic statement in tutti, Thunemann takes the reigns, leading us through an interludinal Adagio before enthralling yet again in the Allegro. The bassoon remains an integral presence in Sonata No. 6, threading the Andante that opens, bolstering the snake-like oboe solo of the Allegro, and carrying the full weight of another gorgeous Adagio. The concluding movement starts off daintily enough, but soon works its way into wild flights on oboe (the effect of which is not unlike the bursts of violin in the Adagio of Bach’s fourth Brandenburg Concerto), thus adding that much more emphatic punctuation to this ever-unfurling manuscript.

These pieces are like concerti grossi in miniature form, each its own massive universe compacted into a rather demanding form of chamber music. Holliger initiated a “Zelenka renaissance” when he first recorded these works for Archiv in 1972, and manages to outdo even himself here in ECM’s praiseworthy production. The acoustics manage to bring out the earthiness of the bassoon, the glitter of the continuo, and the complexity of the oboe with nuanced attention. The click of oboe keys is pleasantly audible and only serves to underline the rhythmic backbone of the music.

Not since Bach had a composer taken the raw material of counterpoint and fashioned it into something beyond its own means. We know very little of Zelenka. Not even a portrait remains to show us his face. And yet, when we don our musical lenses and peer into the gems he left behind, we know that in his creations we have something far greater than a few strokes of cracked paint on a time-worn canvas could ever convey. One can only hope that this revival of a revival, combined with the tireless efforts of such Zelenka proponents as Wolfgang Reich and Holliger himself, will continue to polish away the centuries of neglect from this nearly forgotten Baroque treasure.

Heinz Holliger/Clara Schumann: Romancendres (ECM New Series 2055)

 

Heinz Holliger
Clara Schumann
Romancendres

Christoph Richter violoncello
Dénes Várjon piano
SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart
SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Heinz Holliger conductor
Recorded February 2008, Auditorio Radio Svizzera, Lugano (Romanzen, Romancendres), and July 2007, Stadhalle Sindelfingen (Gesänge der Frühe)

Romance and ashes: not only do these two words comprise the portmanteau that is this album’s title, but they also describe the makeup of the music therein. We may easily praise Romancendres for the ingenious and fascinating concept that lies behind it, and would certainly be far from wrong in doing so. Yet we do well to recognize the passivity of its subjects who, having themselves returned to ashes, continue to inspire “romance” in countless listeners as the unwitting inspiration for new explorations in sound. Much of the album’s genesis stems from a fortuitous confluence of personages and events surrounding the year 1853, when a young Johannes Brahms first visited the Schumanns in Düsseldorf and the symptoms of Robert’s mental breakdown would soon become too obvious to ignore. The latter was, of course, the source of much dismay for his wife Clara, who even took to burning some of his final compositions for fear of tainting his legacy. From these biographical anecdotes Heinz Holliger has pieced together an audio scrapbook of cold facts and suppositions, culminating in a sort of verbal and instrumental detection that defies category.

Clara Schumann was perhaps the most underrated composer of the nineteenth century, albeit one of its most hailed performers. Her 1853 Drei Romanzen—originally for violin (swapped here for cello) and piano—are as enchanting as can be. Richter and Varjón achieve a remarkable separation between their instruments, coming together and separating with the practiced skill of longtime dance partners. The music flows in turns like a bubbling stream or a strong river current, never losing its pastoral edge in the face of more urbane resolutions.

Heinz Holliger’s identically scored Romancendres (2003) gives us a more cryptic, though no less emotive, look back in time. This work seeks to do more than recreate Robert Schumann’s Five Romances, among the handful of pieces silenced by his wife’s hands, and which exist only as they are described in a letter from violinist Joseph Joachim. Rather, they become a meticulous and bipartisan slog through the pathologies of both spouses. As if to make this duality clearer, the piano is played as much on its inner strings as it is topically, making for a subtle effect that is soon vanquished when the music snaps and looses its hidden energies. The playing, like the music, harbors a finely nuanced amalgam of sanity and infirmity. Having listened to this album numerous times, I’ve come to notice that the transition from Schumann and Holliger is hardly apparent anymore. In spite of the surface-level differences between the two, a like-minded connectivity remains evident throughout, at some moments interlocking while at others hanging only by a tendon.

In 1853, Robert Schumann composed five piano miniatures under the title Gesänge der Frühe (Songs of Dawn). Though written just weeks before the Romances, thankfully they survived. The original title for Schumann’s pieces was Diotima, the name given to Susette Gontard, with whom the poet Friedrich Hölderlin was in love and who inspired his magnum opus Hyperion. Incidentally, Schumann would write just one more work for piano: the Theme with Variations in E-flat, the central motif of which Schumann believed to have been dictated to him by a ghost, but which was actually one of his own, having made its most recent appearance in the slow movement of his Violin Concerto not one year earlier. A specter would also seem to haunt Holliger’s monumental piece for choir, orchestra, and tape, which takes more than its title from Schumann’s penultimate pieces. A consonant, almost parochial choral riff sits uneasily on a tenebrous drone before bleeding into a veritable gallery of echoes, voluminous peaks, whispered asides, distorted instruments, and percussive threads, making for a Scardanelli-Zyklus in miniature (in fact, this piece dates from 1987, placing it in the latter half of the cycle’s fruition). The orchestra functions as a repository of emotion, releasing its torrential conclusions in the final two movements.

The lack of English translations in the liner notes is somewhat frustrating—as when, for example, voices read off autopsy reports of Schumann and Hölderlin—even if the intent comes through all the same. Either way, this is no mere concept album but an album about concept, one concerned with the vestiges of insanity, destruction, and of the boundless creativity to be found in both.

Thomas Demenga plays Bach/Holliger (ECM New Series 1340)

 

Thomas Demenga
plays works of J. S. Bach and Heinz Holliger

Thomas Demenga cello
Heinz Holliger oboe
Catrin Demenga violin
Recorded September 1986, Kirche Blumenstein, Switzerland
Engineer: Jakob Stämpfli
Produced by Manfred Eicher

With this disc Swiss cellist Thomas Demenga inaugurated a five-album series, each of which pairs a different Bach cello suite (the last contains two) with more contemporary material. While one might easily see the Bach as “filler” in an otherwise intriguing series of modern selections (or vice versa), there is something refreshing about Thomas Demenga’s project that pushes it far beyond the realm of gimmickry.

First is a tripartite selection of works by the inimitable Heinz Holliger, who along with the likes of Kaija Saariaho is, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, one of the more important composers of our time. From its opening bars the Duo für Violine und Violoncello exhibits Thomas and sister Catrin Demenga’s superb dexterity and dynamic control. The music jump-starts immediately with a forceful pizzicato from the cello as the violin swells from silence like an automaton whose siren is slow and sure. After this intro the duo begins a subtle interplay of trembling leaps, foreshadowing the timid Trema soon to come. The regularity of the opening is buried here, the execution more melodic. The instruments remain relatively stationary, looking up through a canopy of notes at a vast sky. But then the violin circles above, the cello arising with it before both descend into silence, at which point they are resuscitated by the same linear melody in slightly different scales, like a transparency bumped ever so slightly out of alignment. This process is quiet at first, but suddenly accelerates, as if drawn to an invisible source of inspiration. The journey grows ever higher before reaching its plateau: an aerie of vultures whose scavenged collection lies heaped on the forest floor. The piece ends with a brief series of false starts, ending on the third escape.

Studie über Mehrklänge für Oboe solo is a classic for the instrument, and one of those rare pieces that is firmly rooted in the conceptual yet which is also “musical” and a joy to listen to (I have seen apparently conservative audiences mesmerized by its effects). The piece requires of the oboist—in this case Holliger himself—to engage not only in circular breathing almost throughout, but also to overblow the instrument, creating an array of multiphonics, which Holliger shapes into a highly compositional palette. The highlight comes with Holliger’s fluttering technique toward the end and the series of weaving tonal lines that follow, gathering speed as they are jostled from one side to the other in a wilting exploration of the woodwind’s demise. The piece fades in a single high tone, briefly exposing its constituent harmonics.

Trema für Violoncello solo is, as its title implies, a traumatic piece. Demenga handles it studiously, bringing an intensity to the playing that seems to grow from the notes themselves. The piece shivers, running even as it stumbles, hoping and waiting for that moment when all else has expired, leaving the moonlit night to carry its secrets into the dawn, when nothing but art is alive. Demenga has managed to pull off an extraordinary feat here, implying through sound and technique the entire narrative of which the music is composed. There is nothing wasted in Trema, as every note seems to connect to the last and to the one forthcoming, collapsing as a figure who can no longer face the world.

After such a draining piece we arrive at Bach’s Suite No. 4 in Es-Dur für Violoncello, and hear its counterpoint as if for the first time. Regardless of one’s familiarity with the suites, in the context of such pairings they take on a host of new colors. Demenga plays competently and without flourish, interested only in drawing out the music’s inner darkness. His playing of the Sarabande is particularly beautiful and speaks of a musician not lost, but found therein.

Of course, it is only when human involvement and intervention brings such music to our ears that we feel inclined to see it as a part of us. The trajectory of performance is determined by many choices on the part of composers, musicians, and listeners. Nothing is achievable for the solo artist without some awareness of these gaps. What distinguishes performers are the ways in which they seek to fill them. Thus, with every nuance, Demenga gives a great gift not only to us but to the composers, whose work multiplies with every listening experience.

The recording is top-notch overall, but particularly crystal clear in the Bach. We hear every finger tap and sympathetic effect, every rustle of movement that goes into its steady sound. This is a New Series classic in my book and a prime example of ECM’s often bold programming choices.

Heinz Holliger: Beiseit/Alb-Chehr (ECM New Series 1540)

 

Heinz Holliger
Beiseit/Alb-Chehr

David James countertenor
Elmar Schmid clarinet
Teodoro Anzellotti accordion
Johannes Nied double bass
Klaus Schmid clarinet
Paul Locher violin
Marcel Volken Schwyzerörgeli
Markus Tenisch Schwyzerörgeli
Oswald Bumann bass
Recorded 1992/1993, Schweizer Radio DRS, Studio Zürich (Alb-Chehr)
March 1994, Psychiatrische Klinik, Münsterlingen (Beiseit)
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This earthly offering from Heinz Holliger finds the inimitable composer comfortably at home. As with in the more recent Schneewittchen, Holliger has chosen to set the words of Robert Walser in the whimsical collection of vignettes that is Beiseit (Apart), scored for countertenor, clarinet, accordion, and double bass. Focused, fecund, and delightful, these are highly perceptive pieces delineated in small brushstrokes that are few and far between. While certain sections—most notably “Und ging” (“And Went”)—are gorgeously lyrical, for the most part these pieces allow the texts at hand to dictate their own arrhythmias, thereby allowing an open intimacy to shine through. The performances are uniquely suited to the work (David James’s recitation is wonderful to hear for its stark contrast) and are impeccably recorded—in a psychiatric institute, no less. The epilogue “Im Mondschein” (“In Moonlight”) is particularly evocative, both in word and in feeling:

I thought when the night was deep
that the stars must be singing,
for, roused from my sleep,
I heard a gentle ringing.

But it was a little harp
that pierced the walls of my room,
and through the cold, the sharp
night it rang out like doom.

I thought of vain struggles, vain clinging,
the prayer, the curse breathed away,
and long I still heard the singing,
long awake I lay.

It is an introspective and unabashedly nocturnal coda, leading us out with a wolf’s distant cry.

Alb-Chehr recounts the Valaisan tale of a cowherd’s ghostly encounter and the boorish village cheese-maker whose jealousy and prying ways lead him to a tragic end. The title means “return of the ghosts but also music of the Alps and music of ghosts,” and clearly outlines the divergent personalities of the music to follow. This piece plays like a Holligerian Peter and the Wolf and must have been a joy to compose. I say this not because Holliger is such a modernist that this was just a pleasurable one-off for him, but precisely because such music lies at the core of his process in its directness and unmitigated commitment to feeling.

Holliger is not one to impose his compositional will upon a text, but to become its willing ally. He composes from the heart and it is into the heart that his music directly falls.

(Incidentally, this is one of my all-time favorite ECM covers.)

Heinz Holliger: Scardanelli-Zyklus (ECM New Series 1472/73)

Heinz Holliger
Scardanelli-Zyklus

Aurèle Nicolet flute
London Voices
Ensemble Modern
Terry Edwards
Heinz Holliger
Recorded September 1991, Inselhalle Lindau, Germany
Engineers: Andreas Neubronner, Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The rivers are, like plains, the shapes of wildness
Are scattered also, more revealed the mildness
Of life continues, and our cities’ traces
Appear most clearly in unmeasured spaces.
–F. Hölderlin

Scardanelli-Zyklus (Scardanelli Cycle) is Heinz Holliger’s crowning compositional achievement. It is so lovingly crafted that I cannot help but bask in its atmospheres anew with each listen. This was my inaugural Holliger encounter—as either musician or composer—and will always hold a special place in my life for that among other reasons. I first heard Scardanelli-Zyklus when I was sixteen (as many years as it took to compose), and the experience was nothing short of a revelation. To compare it to anything else would be an injustice.

The cycle is a composite work and is comprised of:

The Seasons, three sets of four songs for a cappella choir
Exercises for Scardanelli for small orchestra
comments, mirrors, responses, marginalia to The Seasons
(t)air(e) for solo flute
Excerpts from:
Tower Music for solo flute, small orchestra and tape
Ostinato Funebre for small orchestra

These are squared and shuffled like a deck of cards. Holliger sets vocal passages to the words of famed German poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843), and for this has selected poetry from the latter years of Hölderlin’s life, a period of mental instability and obsessive writing and revision. Much in contrast to the free verse at his peak, Hölderlin eventually took to penning rhymed quatrains on rather innocuous subjects, many of which he signed with the nom de plume “Scardanelli” and which he dated with absurd imprecision, sometimes years into the future. In many ways, this is exactly what the music feels like: caught in time against the blatancy of its own transcription.

The Seasons are the glue that holds Scardanelli-Zyklus together. Each is divided into three sections and sprinkled liberally throughout. While Hölderlin tends to opt for traditional seasonal imagery, he occasionally surfaces with rather insightful readings of nature. In Scardanelli’s world, Spring is less about new life than the reinvention of its vocabulary. Peaks graze the sky in order to emphasize the darkness between them, looming over the explicit deference to perfection and valorization of the lowly-wise agrarian. Summer is fittingly presaged by Holliger’s Summer Canon IV, in which precision is no longer mathematical, but emotive. Here, the season is about life, the body in all its fragile stages. It is a landscape of rippling water rife with intimations of unity. Holliger makes sure to leave its surface tension unbroken. Sunlight is reduced to a whisper, no longer a blinding presence. We see the wonders of production and learn to appreciate the harvest all over again. These are hymns of heat waves, hair-thin rays of light woven into audible dimensions. Summer is uneasy, unpredictable, more causal than caustic. Glittering streams feed the valley, made known more by light than sound. Autumn is the brittle leaf transformed into a promissory spirit underfoot. We are treated to a stunning confluence of voices and instruments in Holliger’s arrangements thereof. Each word is given equal weight, gilded by an underlying drone. It is supremely unsettling and undeniably gorgeous. A glass harmonica ushers in Winter, lending an icy repose to deadening voices. Some tremolo is introduced, as if of a thrashing possibility yearning for the distant thaw. It is one incarnation of Winter that ends the cycle, growling and scraping the bottom of each singer’s vocal range.

The more instrumentally focused works are cue cards signaling new turns in the cycle’s narrative flow: Fragments is a flute-driven explication of the incomplete; Bell-Alphabet features Japanese bells cradling flute and orchestra on a tonal journey through speech unspoken; Paddlewheel revolves until it is the rasping of strings and air; Ice Flowers burgeons slowly into a frosty cornucopia of sound; Ostinato Funebre is a sketched crease in time overlaid with a warped deconstruction of a Mozart motif; The Distant Sound is a stunning instrumental reworking of an earlier Winter section; (t)air(e) is to the solo flute what Holliger’s Studie über Mehrklänge is to the oboe, and then some (taire = keep secret, not to talk; air = air, song, aria, breath; te = you)…a masterful exposition piece for the non-exhibitionist; Ad Marginem, based on a Paul Klee painting of the same name, utilizes taped frequencies thinner than a molecule’s breath to elicit an inescapable effect.

For all of its complexity and ambition, Scardanelli-Zyklus is a refreshingly straightforward work. Voices sing with little trickery (the most adventurous of which merely requires singers to follow the beat of their own pulses) and instruments faithfully follow the mechanics of their titular signposts. This music carries itself neither programmatically nor incidentally. Scardanelli-Zyklus is not only Holliger’s magnum opus, but is also undoubtedly one of the most compelling masterpieces of twentieth-century music. What a joy to have this recording to preserve its existence.

Heinz Holliger: Schneewittchen (ECM New Series 1715/16)

 

Heinz Holliger
Schneewittchen

Juliane Banse soprano
Cornelia Kallisch contralto
Steve Davislim tenor
Oliver Widmer baritone
Werner Gröschel bass
Orchester der Oper Zürich
Heinz Holliger conductor
Recorded January 1999, Radio Studio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Charles Suter
Produced by Manfred Eicher

As a self-proclaimed “musician whose medium begins where words end,” Heinz Holliger may seem an unlikely candidate to attempt a full-length opera. Yet looking at his source text, the idiosyncratic and delightfully schizoid Schneewittchen (Snow White) by Swiss writer Robert Walser (1878-1956), one senses a kindred spirit in the latter’s semantic approach. In light of this, Holliger’s adaptation is perhaps best described as a “subtextual” opera. As such, it begins in harmonic suspension before dropping into a confused milieu of verbal emotions. For Holliger, the job of the music here is to mask the characters on stage, thereby providing them with extension cords to fasten to their utterances.

The Prologue opens with an evocative and programmatic arrangement of wind gusts and tinkling icicles giving way to an eerie congregation of glassy voices and drones. Reminiscent of quieter moments in his equally ambitious Scardanelli-Zyklus, Holliger’s sound palette immediately draws us into an evocatively unstable environment. This plaintive mood is quickly undermined, however, by the appearance of words. “Child, are you ill?” the Queen asks, as if the tremulous unease of the preceding sounds were the inner turmoil in Snow White’s powdery gut. Thus begins a brief exchange between mother and daughter on the nature of disease and sin. A Huntsman, lackey to the Queen, appears. He is an easy target for Snow White’s pessimism: surely, the Queen has enchanted him, she wonders. Although the seduction is questionable, he admits to taking part in her assassination. In his compassion, however, he has killed a deer in lieu of her undamaged body, sucking its blood with reckless abandon. Fed up with this foolish talk, the Queen proclaims her maternal love, even as the Prince indulges Snow White’s fantasies of deception. He escorts Snow White to the castle that she might have the mental room to work through her grief.

The Prince’s proclamations to Show White in Scene II seem to echo the opera’s own methodology: “How merry is your word alone. Enraptured by its wealth, my ear hangs in a hammock, as it were, of hearkening, dreams of violins, of lispings, nightingales’ sweet sobs, love twitterings.” What follows is a profound, if tongue-in-cheek, parry-and-thrust discussion of sensuality and silence. The music ruptures as the Prince perversely describes the Queen’s sinful coupling with the Huntsman, made all the more ominous by keening voices in the background. Snow White proclaims, “Oh, I want nothing more, you see, than to be dead and smiling,” and sends the Prince on his way for lack of resolve.

Scene III finds Snow White and the Queen in a metatextual argument: the Queen touts her wicked past as laid out in fairy tales, while Snow White seeks to problematize her mother’s ill deeds for the sake of empowerment. In Scene IV the Prince returns, only to profess his love for the Queen over her daughter. The Huntsman joins in the fray, whereupon he is ordered by the Queen to reenact Snow White’s death. Before long the scene devolves into laughter, exposing the farce within. The opera’s resolution reflects the dangers of relying upon narrative to dictate the flow of one’s life. The ambiguity of Snow White’s past remains paramount, even if recast in the familiar mold of resolution, cracked as it is at the edges, like the metallic sheet of strings that brings the opera to a close.

Whereas Holliger is normally used to composing from the inside out, in writing this opera he felt required to do the opposite: that is, to open himself to spirited ideas flickering beyond the immediacy of his own embodied self. Schneewittchen represents a rare fusion of what Roman Brotbeck calls “mono-perspectival” and “poly-perspectival” opera. By this he means to say that both Holliger and Walser shine through the weave of the opera as a whole, while at the same time the authors’ voices and collective presence are destroyed, torn into self-sufficient shreds of identity untraceable to their hosts. Holliger’s aural façades serve to heighten this sense of disguise. The Walser text is mediated through, to borrow again from Brotbeck, “negative translations”: the opera is vocally driven while also dependent on the hints of implosion wrought into its language. The instrumentation reacts to these voices in kind. It bobs and sinks across a floe-laden ocean, multiplying like cell cultures in time-lapse film. Needless to say, the musicianship is as meticulous as the opera it brings to life and matched by weighty yet effervescent singing.

Unlike some operas, I find it difficult to listen to Schneewittchen without the libretto in front of me. It is so closely bound to its text that the two feel one and the same. Holliger has produced a rare achievement. Not unlike Walser in his postcriptorial treatment of a canonic tale, he has laid his source to rest in order to air it from the rafters of his own distinctive vocabulary.