Heinz Holliger: Lunea (ECM New Series 2622)

Heinz Holliger
Lunea

Christian Gerhaher baritone
Julian Banse soprano
Ivan Ludlow baritone
Sarah Maria Sun soprano
Annette Schönmüller soprano
Philharmonia Zürich
Basler Madrigalisten

Heinz Holliger conductor
Recorded live March 2018
Opernhaus Zürich
Recording producer and editing: Andreas Werner
Recording engineer: Stefan Hächler
Assistant engineers: Alice Fischer and Philip Erdin
Cover sketches by Heinz Holliger / photo by Thomas Wunsch
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Co-production of ECM Records/Opera Zurich/SRF 2 Kultur
Release date: April 22, 2022

I am my own echo, but one eternally rigid and pinned down.
An echo nailed to the rock.

Heinz Holliger’s Lunea, described by the Swiss composer as his “dream opera,” grew out of a song cycle of the same name for baritone and piano. By 2017, Holliger had reworked it into its present form for the stage. Based on the demise of Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850), who scribbled down outbursts during his years in an asylum, Lunea anagrams his name as a way of illuminating his poetic psychosis, thus hinting at the linguistic fragmentations we will encounter. As noted by baritone Christian Gerhaher, who seems born to sing this role: “Holliger presents these attempts on the part of the stricken poet to record his indescribable yet exquisitely traversed suffering—frightful and vivid experiences incapable of being communicated to another being.” And yet, communicate he does through a characteristically exquisite ear for nuance.

Whether by instinct or design, all of the artists of Holliger’s incidental interest, from Friedrich Hölderlin to Robert Schumann, are bound by the tattered thread of mental illness. His willingness to give them a mouthpiece through the score, of which language is a key instrument, finds a willing accomplice in Händl Klaus, whose libretto contextualizes 23 “leaves” in a space without linear order. Holliger’s approach to the text is microscopic in spirit but grand in scope. And yet, as Roman Brotbeck observes, “[N]othing is blurred; everything is as clear as glass and laid out by Holliger with maximum lucidity.” 

Holliger and Klaus pieced the opera together through fragments written on paper slips, glued with phrases (both musical and oral-motor) into shape. In doing so, they sought to resolve each sentence (or even word within it) through interpretation. If any plot can be discerned in all of this, it is embodied in the character of Lenau himself, whose cogent coterie of family members and acquaintances populates a bare environment like projections of his many sides. Lenau’s alter ego is Anton Xaver Schurz (1794-1859), a constant companion throughout his illness who also married his sister and published a nearly 800-page biography of Lenau in 1855. The women in Lenau’s life, including Sophie von Löwenthal (a platonic lover), Marie Behrends (his fiancée), and sister Therese, lend worldliness (if not also wordiness) to his isolation.

Holliger’s love for speech abounds, as when he incorporates the character of Justinus Kerner, a physician and close friend who, in 1850 (the year of Lenau’s death) began making what he called “klecksographs”—inkblot pictures mirrored by folding pieces of paper into symmetrical images. Following this, the opera is symmetrically arranged around the stroke Lenau experienced in September 29, 1844. Long before that, the opening speaks is as if through a layer of rice paper. Low reeds and an intoning chorus give way to Lenau’s amorous deteriorations. This is the asylum, a space in which the mind has free reign even as the body is contained. Such is the contradiction of operatic space: a stage that delineates mise-en-scène while opening our hearts to its inner flames. Holliger understands this in both the most traditional and postmodern sense.

For Lenau, “Man is a beachcomber at the sea of eternity,” and so might we call the instruments, among which the violin, cimbalom (Hungarian dulcimer), and bassoon move as characters in their own right. Each slices mortality at a different angle, offering us unrepeatable cross-sections of emotional sediment. As waves of utterances and choral echoes navigate the scrapheap of a broken mind, we are privy to glimpses of recovery and tension in kind. Some of the most profound moments are shared between Lenau and Sophie. Their wordless breathing in the Fourth Leaf palpitates the ears. And it is Sophie who, in Leaf Nine, brings the most hopeful beauties into focus. Such respite is brief and occasional, as in the skyward harmonies of the Sixth Leaf, whereas the most powerful interruptions (such as that by Sophie again in the Eleventh Leaf) make the morbid grays and charcoals of the opera’s fulcrum that much more morose.

In one key scene, played out in the Fourteenth Leaf, Lenau leaps from the window in desperation before bowing the violin in a cathartic dance of healing. What follows from here to the end is a reversion into childhood (Fifteenth Leaf) before solitary madness sets in. Turning as a revolving door from one state of mind to another, the chorus voices the multiplicity of his demise. The final part is a gravelly expression of death borders that burrows into the reptilian brain.

While Lunea is a chain of intimate fascinations as only Holliger can link, it is best appreciated with the booklet in hand, ready to absorb the fragments at hand and assemble them into your own whole. Its brilliance comes to life through the heartbeat of its concepts. Then again, the disorientation of not knowing where our ears might land next is appropriate enough when scrutinizing a mind that might never have demanded more. Hence the significance of Gerhaher being the only singer who doesn’t perform multiple rolls, at once emphasizing Lenau’s splintered cognizance and his insistence on maintaining an identity through it all. For a man who saw the moon as “a luminous, drifting tomb,” death was, perhaps, the only certainty.

Gianluigi Trovesi All’opera: Profumo di Violetta (ECM 2068)

Profumo

Gianluigi Trovesi All’opera
Profumo di Violetta

Gianluigi Trovesi piccolo and alto clarinets, alto saxophone
Marco Remondini violoncello, electronics
Stefano Bertoli drums, percussion
Filarmonica Mousiké Orchestra winds and percussion
Savino Acquaviva conductor
Recorded September 2006, Teatro Serassi, Villa d’Almè, Bergamo
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Assistant: Giulio Gallo
Edited and mixed by Gianluigi Trovesi, Manfred Eicher, Savino Acquaviva, Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The mind of multi-reedist Gianluigi Trovesi is a storehouse of refraction, the lens of a human kaleidoscope in whose turning we can see many zeitgeists, each gushing with its own color. For Profumo di Violetta, Trovesi dives headlong into a sea of operatic favorites, treading waters at once romantic and troubled. With sources ranging from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo to Puccini’s Tosca, his meta-commentary manages to draw fresh catch from an overfished pond. Buoyed by a wind and percussion orchestra in the grand “banda” tradition of his native Italy, Trovesi taps his memories as a boy growing up around these ad hoc configurations and from them coaxes shoots of ingenious contrast.

It’s easy to appreciate the boldness of this project, which spreads the melodramatic jam of tragedy across hunks of improvisatory bread. In the latter vein, Trovesi is very much the Mad Hatter, altering familiar motifs as might a furniture restorer strip a bench to expose long-neglected grain. In the process, however, one comes to realize that his penchant for humor is not without its serious edge. Take, for instance, his rendition of the famous “Largo al factotum,” which turns a tongue-tying chain of Figaros into a field of dots connected by the fuzz of a heavily distorted electric guitar. A far cry from the tuxedo-and-evening-gown aria, it nevertheless boils over with intuition. Such brilliant grandiosity is part and parcel of the album’s sweep.

Bookended by a Prologue and Epilogue, Profumo unfolds across wild stretches of the imagination. The program proper is broken into six sub-suites, of which “Il Mito” (The myth) drops us into the path of Orpheus. Here Trovesi binds a Toccata and Ritornello of Monteverdi with his own compositional veining, so that the sonority of the old touchstones and the whimsy of the new may interlock in flight. In this regard, the butterfly kisses of “Musa” massage away the fatigue of interpretation, allowing Trovesi’s taunting clarinet in “Euridice” to work its way like sugar through the nervous system. His height of range on the instrument is piercing, tickling the clouds until they loose jazzier droplets.

From the underworld to the overdressed, Trovesi and his cohorts escort us to “Il Ballo,” for a dance that is as grand as it is brief. This leads further into “Il Gioco Delle Seduzioni” (The game of seduction), a triptych of early Baroque and contemporary transparencies. From the convivial to the parodic, Trovesi navigates its burrows with eyes closed and whiskers extended, playing with feet aflame while maintaining control of his dance at every bend.

“L’innamoramento” houses the two-part title piece. Trovesi’s homage to Verdi’s doomed La Traviata heroine belies its love through melodic time travel. Here the emotional overload of opera is compressed to diamond clarity. “Il Saltellar Gioioso” features album highlight “Salterellando.” Anchored by snare and cymbal, and threaded by Trovesi’s grungy altoism, it sets off a ripple effect that lingers long into the spiraling “La Gelosia” (Jealousy).

The performance ends with “Così, Tosca,” which for all its eclecticism breathes with consistency. Trovesi’s soulful pitch-bending traces every contour of an underlying drone with care. A subtle harrumph in the brass only serves to brighten the felicitous interweaving of breath and sonority that is his reverie, diving headlong into an incendiary finish that grovels with profound favor. Indeed, the album might just as well be called “Profondità di Violetta,” for all its depth of thought, arrangement, and execution.

Bravissimo.

(To hear samples of Profumo di Violetta, click here.)