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.