Music of Friedrich Cerha and Franz Schreker (ECM New Series 1887)



Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra
Peter Eötvös conductor
Recorded September 2003, MCO Studio 5, Hilversum
Engineers: Stephan Schellmann/Christian Starke (Cerha) and Ted A. Diehl/Laurent Watgen/George Luijten (Schreker)
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

This unusual release from Austrian cellist Heinrich Schiff somehow slipped under my radar for years, coming rather late into my ECM New Series explorations. Neither composer represented here had been familiar to me, and I imagine these two works are as solid an introduction as any.

Friedrich Cerha (b. 1926) and Franz Schreker (1878-1934), both Viennese composers at the height of their creative powers here, seem to speak to one another beyond the force of their juxtaposition. Cerha’s Cello Concerto (1989/1996) bears dedication to Schiff, and the friendship between the two is evident in the familiarity of the playing. The opening proclamation brings with it an almost Dvořákian sense of communication between soloist and orchestra. The former skitters through the latter’s own lumbering (il)lustrations and races through the string-heavy surface with the ferocity of an impassioned editor: crossing out, underlining, circling, injecting its personal voice into the margins along the way. Yet the exact relationship between forces is always difficult to characterize. There is unity, to be sure, but it is not always so readily apparent, and this is perhaps the greatest challenge of this piece: namely, to supply that connective tissue with our undivided ears. The first movement excels in its quieter moments, for such are the moments when the cello meshes most harmoniously with its surroundings. The addition of percussion (steel drums, marimba, wood blocks) and pipe organ makes for some fascinating interplay, each ingredient flavoring the sonic recipe differently: the more you chew it, more delicious it becomes. The second movement, which is the core around which the entire concerto took shape, is gorgeous. The cello floats above wavering flutes and strings, hovering like a bird against an air current so as to render it stationary. The atmosphere is diffuse, comprising a fine mesh through which only light can travel. As strings slither in, they build of these sticks a more erratic cacophony. Woodblocks tick in every audible gap, seeming to punch out a hole with every contact, and as this climax dissipates, seemingly hundreds of individual paths open up before our eyes. Some forceful pizzicato signals the final movement, the cello’s rhythm dance-like yet somehow never exuberant. This tail is filled with verve, with all manner of snaps and other clicks to get us to our destination with plenty of souvenirs to spare.

Schreker’s one-movement Chamber Symphony comes directly out of World War I with hard-won tenderness. Almost rhapsodic, the violins trace a rippling orchestra, cutting through the darkness with the precision of a knife and the softness of a kiss. There is an ebb and flow to the piece that brings it full circle back to its own promises, turning darker as idealism crumbles in the shadow of reality. Thunder bursts with pastoral charm, frolicking among a meeting of winds. Each instrumental gesture translates into a visual stroke, rendering every detail of this broadening scene with the bleed of watercolor. Smaller offshoots of strings come together like orchestras in reduced form, drowning at last in their own murk and gloom.

Don’t worry if this album hasn’t won you over by the end of the first track, for it is a long and harrowing journey of triumphs and heavy losses, but through its continual tipping of scales one hears a vivid story. In the sparseness of Cerha, one finds the antidote to the density of Schreker and vice versa, and in that neutralization process there is a remarkable sense of belonging.

Kim Kashkashian: Bartók/Eötvös/Kurtág (ECM New Series 1711)


Kim Kashkashian

Kim Kashkashian viola
Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra
Peter Eötvös conductor
Recorded January and July 1999, Musiekcentrum Vredenburg, Utrecht
Engineers: Stephan Schellmann and Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The viola has long been one of my most beloved instruments. I see it less as a “neglected” presence in the string world and more as a quiet supporter whose ubiquitous presence has simply been taken for granted. In all this time, it has never been compromised, and for that I adore it. Nearly all of my adoration can be attributed to one musician: Kim Kashkashian. For this all-Hungarian program, the instrument’s most committed proponent raises the bar on a standard work in the literature and sets another for two others.

Of the first, Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, I can say that in Kashkashian’s firm grasp it falls with the sweetness of rain onto drought-ridden land. The concerto was written between July and August of 1945 and never finished, due to the composer’s death just one month later. Here, the musicians use Tibor Serly’s standard completed score along with some adjustments of their own. After a robust introduction from the viola, the 14-minute Moderato comes to life like an afterthought that was always meant to be. The viola is such a profound presence in this piece that at points one almost forgets the orchestra is even there. Rather than see this dynamic as a distraction, I chalk it to the orchestra’s ability (both in the playing and the writing) to infuse the soloist’s every move. Pizzicati crumble off like debris as discernible themes come and go through a fractured lens that opens our eyes to the pastoral, openhearted exchange of the second movement. Though hardly a third in length of the first movement, it plies our scales of judgment with as much moral weight. The third movement, marked Allegro Vivace, bursts almost immediately into the final dance. Like the rest of the concerto, it is so melodically confident that it could easily hold its own as a solo piece. What the orchestra provides is a tonal palette upon which the viola’s many colors may rest.

Replica for Viola and Orchestra was written in 1998 for Kashkashian by this recording’s conductor, Peter Eötvös. Regardless of what its intended replication is, the viola and orchestra are always sketching one another: the former linearly like smudged charcoal and the latter in bold yet multifarious brushstrokes dripping with excess paint. The puddle that collects on the floor beneath the easel is its own replica, more than a mere remnant of the creative process. Throughout this single-movement piece, we are never sure of where we are, only that we are comfortable being there. It is music to which we may open our ears without fear of harm.

György Kurtág’s Movement for Viola and Orchestra (1953/54) is the lone survivor of an abandoned early concerto and a welcome change of pace from, if no less fragmentary than, the miniatures that dot much of his other label representations. Distant timpani and swells of brass throw wide the curtains of its keen melodic stage. Also in one movement, its terse balance is the result of astute composing adorned with virtuosic viola writing and not a few demanding moments. Through every spiral we hear the revelry of composer and performer alike, plucked like so much fruit in the orchestra’s final pizzicato.

While a handful of fine recordings of the Bartók certainly exist (of which Hong-Mei Xiao’s superb twofer on Naxos is a personal favorite for comparison), Kashkashian’s brings something untouchable to bear upon this masterwork. To the others she imparts a fresh and mounting vitality. She plays with fortitude yet also with such grace that we find ourselves stunned in the middle. The crisp recording and all-around pellucid musicianship only strengthen her case. Hers is neither the delicate chiseling of the fine woodworker nor the casual scraping of the whittler. Rather, it is the rough-hewn grace of the ice sculptor. And like our breaths that cloud in the air as we watch her at work, the music fades all too soon.

Alternate cover (?)