Reto Bieri and Meta4: Quasi morendo (ECM New Series 2557)

Quasi morendo.jpg

Reto Bieri and Meta4
Quasi morendo

Reto Bieri clarinet
Antti Tikkanen violin
Minna Pensola violin
Atte Kilpeläinen viola
Tomas Djupsjöbacka violoncello
Recorded November 2016, RSI Studio Zürich
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 10, 2019

When clarinetist Reto Bieri made his solo ECM debut with Contrechant, Salvatore Sciarrino’s Let Me Die Before I Wake (1982) was the most memorable piece of that program. Here, its unaccompanied wonders make a welcome reappearance, inciting an altogether different journey through works of Johannes Brahms and Gérard Pesson. Sciarrino’s sense of color is downright prismatic, separating the white light of breath into its constituent spectrum through deft use of multiphonic and overtone techniques. There is a tenderness to this music’s unfolding, the occasional outburst from which feels somehow delicate, as if the materiality of it all were but a blip on the listener’s dreaming radar. Bieri himself would be the first to agree on the enigma of it all: “How the sounds come about in this piece,” he says, “is a mystery even to me.” That air of separation between knowledge and production, catalyst and effect, is at once tangible and immaterial. For while Bieri has total control over the sounds emitted by his clarinet, there’s that same daunting sense of physics found in Heinz Holliger’s 1971 Studie über Mehrklänge for oboe (documented by the composer himself on ECM 1340).

Brahms’s Quintet in b minor, Op. 115, finds Bieri in the dynamic company of the Meta4 String Quartet, themselves making an ECM debut. Written in 1891, after Brahms had already decided to retire from composing yet opened that door again when clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld came knocking, this masterwork is what Roman Brotbeck in this album’s liner essay calls “a swan song.” It is, he goes on to write, “freer, more idyllic, less ‘controlled’ than Brahms’s earlier chamber music, but is in fact one of his most strictly constructed compositions.” The opening Allegro is an exercise in dark exuberance, clarinet playing the role of voice among the voiceless. There is lyricism, robust anatomy, and fortitude of reasoning at work in every thematic shift. The following Adagio sees itself reflected in the opening mirror, tracing memories of younger days with fingers dipped in sunlight, but always returning to a baseline of melancholy resignation. The Andantino seems to cradle the most happiness in these shadows, and somewhat recalls the third movement of Brahms’s First Symphony with its subdued pastoralism. The final movement takes all the self-regard that preceded it and turns it into moving images. Like a cinema that predates its own technology, it flows across the screen of the mind in glorious performance.

Pesson’s Nebenstück (1988), what Brotbeck calls “an estranged instrumentation, or rather arrangement, for clarinet and string quartet of the ballade for piano, Op. 10 No. 4, that Brahms composed in 1854,” takes a decidedly internal approach to homage. With a frailty that rivals even the Sciarrino, it speaks in a shaded and subliminal language while peeling back layers of awareness graspable only behind closed eyes, as if the very sight of things would interrupt its grammar with unnecessary punctuation. A brilliant gesture of continuity in summary of a wonderous recital.

Reto Bieri: Contrechant (ECM New Series 2209)


Reto Bieri
Music for clarinet solo

Reto Bieri clarinet
Recorded September 2010, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Within the ECM New Series sub-catalogue of solo recordings, the label debut of Reto Bieri stands out for impeccable selection and technical prowess. The Swiss clarinetist studied at Basel’s Academy of Music and at the Juilliard School before embarking on a solo career in collaboration with new and established composers alike, and the fruits of those efforts are bursting from their skins on Contrechant. Luciano Berio is the only featured composer with whom Bieri did not work in preparing for this album, and his 1983 Lied opens the program with its cantabile, legato phrasings. Aside from establishing something of a theme (in his liner text, Paul Griffiths notes among these pieces an affinity for song), the meticulousness of Bieri’s approach to the instrument sets a precedent for mood and timing. At his fingertips—each a hand unto itself—the deceptive simplicity of Berio’s spatial grammar feels omnipresent.

Likewise omnipresent are the grammars of Salvatore Sciarrino and Heinz Holliger. Both composers make illustrative use of multiphonics and formidable extended playing. The former’s 1982 Let me die before I wake reveals a matrix of overtones so rich that the addition of any other instrument would be an intrusion. Its artisan quality seems to plane away its own surface until underlying patterns are revealed. The album’s title piece comes from Holliger. Composed in 2007, it strikes a characteristic balance between darkness and whimsy. Each vignette therein is a window both into itself and into the whole. Across a range of transcendent voicings, it steps through a spectral door in the five-minute epilogue. Holliger’s Rechant (2008) bears dedication to the late Swiss clarinetist Thomas Friedli, with whom Bieri briefly studied. Despite its kindred telemetry of action and reaction, of interpretation and extrapolation, a lighter footprint makes it a song of more internal measures.


The title of Elliott Carter’s Gra means “to play” in Polish and was written in 1993 to commemorate Witold Lutosławski’s 80th birthday. With its leaping figures and exacting breath control, it is a virtuosic feast, to be sure. Beyond that, its youthful pilot light flickers with verve. Péter Eötvös’s Derwischtanz (1993/2001), on the other hand, travels upward rather than inward, shuffling staircases before falling like an autumn leaf with no purpose but to decay. The latter piece pairs well with Lightshadow-trembling (1993) by Gergely Vajda, a student of Eötvös whose embodiment of title feels like a narrative too restless to contain.

This is, in the end, what connects all of the above: an uncontainable feeling to be experienced.

(To hear samples of Contrechant, click here.)