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Bernd Alois Zimmermann: Violin Concerto – Canto di speranza – Ich wandte mich und sah an alles Unrecht, das geschah unter der Sonne

Thomas Zehetmair (violin), Thomas Demenga (violoncello), Gerd Böckmann (speaker), Robert Hunger-Bühler (speaker), Andreas Schmidt (bass), WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, Heinz Holliger (conductor)
Recorded in the Kölner Philharmonie (May 2005) – 73’27
ECM 2074 – Booklet in German and English

This is 73 minutes of solemn, heavy mid-century Germanic modernism. If that interests you, this disc is a paradigm of how the music should be performed, recorded and annotated. It makes for fascinating listening, but becomes more and more difficult to digest as the program proceeds.

The 1950 Violin Concerto, conceived first as a sonata for violin and piano, is at turns jazzy fun and gritty post-Expressionism. It is traditionally structured in three movements, and, though incorporating some twelve-tone writing in the second movement, is not far removed from the harmonic and melodic language of Bartók, Hindemith and Stravinsky.

The opening movement, “Sonata” opens with a powerful introduction, proceeds through a first theme accompanied by motor rhythms à la Hindemith, and features a naïve second theme. The development section shifts tempos often, moving through many different moods. All of this is punctuated by fanciful piano solos from the orchestra and aggressive brass and percussion outbursts. It’s essentially nonstop and makes for very engaging listening. The second movement “Fantasia” contains even more extreme contrasts of mood, from its edgy, hyper-virtuosic opening to the celesta-laden central episode, with the violin floating and trilling away high above, reminding one a bit of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. The movement provides excellent opportunities for the soloist to display various playing styles and techniques. The final “Rondo” is dominated by a jazzy, syncopated main theme that alternates with a colorfully orchestrated “Tempo di Rumba” section. It becomes more and more energetic as it goes along, propelling itself towards crashing brass chords that kick off the soloist’s cadenza very near the end.

Zehetmair plays the demanding score fearlessly. He is very naturally balanced with the orchestra, which means his sound gets overwhelmed in several of the thicker passages in the first and last movements. The extreme technical demands seem second-nature to him, and he moves effortlessly from aggressive perpetual motion figures to beautifully-phrased melodic lines embellished with gorgeous, shimmering trills. Holliger holds the entire work together well, negotiating the many tempo changes expertly. The Cologne orchestra seems to be having a ball, the brass and percussion punchy and playful, the piano appropriately forward in the overall sound-picture and the entire ensemble playing with rhythmic precision and propulsion that keep the work from sounding overly episodic.

Canto di speranza, described by the composer as a “cantata” for cello and small orchestra is a more foreboding work. The nearly 20-minute work abounds in contrast and is dominated by jagged rhythms and extended techniques from both soloist and orchestra. The work is gruff and gritty, inhabiting an extremely dark sound-world for a piece titled “Song of Hope”. That said, there are some beautiful moments sprinkled through the score, such as at the work’s midpoint, where the soloist floats high above harmonic glissandos in the strings and extremely soft, rocketing woodwind gestures.

The solo and orchestral parts are extremely virtuosic, and the demands are brilliantly met in this performance. As in the Violin Concerto, there is an incredible amount of confidence in the playing, and those familiar with Thomas Demenga’s other fine recordings for ECM will not be disappointed with his contribution here. His rendering of the densely contrapuntal and dissonant solo cadenza is stunning. More than anything, the performance’s conviction draws you in and convinces you to stay in a challenging listening situation.

The disc ends with Zimmermann’s final work, Ich wandte mich und sah an alles Unrecht, das geschah unter der Sonne, again carrying an enigmatic subtitle from the composer, this time “Ecclesiastical Action” for two speakers, bass soloist and orchestra. Commissioned for the 1972 Olympic Games, one has to wonder what the premiere was like. It is an extremely abstruse work in concept and sheer sound. Zimmermann intermingles text from Ecclesiastes with Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, providing nearly 40 minutes of mostly static, pessimistic music. Indeed, the work functions largely as an extended, accompanied recitative. After the arresting initial gestures, the work becomes somewhat monochromatic until near the end where, after a massive climax over which the two speakers shout at random, there is a lengthy, aleatoric final section. Here the singer improvises freely, there is extensive contribution from electric guitar, and the speakers continue to comment on the goings-on. The work is capped off by a fragment of Bach’s “Es ist genug” and a final, menacing climax from the orchestra.

Overall, it’s a tough nut to crack, both in terms of concept and in terms of the sounds being generated by the performers. Much is clearly lost by not experiencing the visual and spatial aspects of the piece. There are off-stage trombones, and the conductor, singer and speakers are often instructed to mime their words, dance, stand still, sit and meditate, and so on. As an example of a Fluxus event, it is an intriguing curiosity but, to my ears, sounds like the most dated work on the disc. It is clearly a product of its time, lacking the timelessness that the Violin Concerto approaches.

Again, the performance can’t be faulted. Bass Andreas Schmidt negotiates the abundance of trills, large dissonant leaps, quarter tones, shouting and Sprechstimme with complete command and the two speakers are precise in executing Zimmermann’s plentiful indications for characterization of their lines. Aside from the excellent technical execution of the piece, it’s difficult to comment on other aspects of the performance. It’s a work where the quality of “interpretation” is hard to gauge.

ECM’s production standards are at their expected high quality. The recording is transparent and affords the listener the opportunity to hear the entire of spectrum of colors conjured by Zimmermann. The two instrumental works feature natural balance between soloist and orchestra. In the vocal work, the speakers and singer are very present in the mix. Historical accounts of the works’ origins and full texts, including all of Zimmermann’s theatrical indications, are given.

Marcus Karl Maroney




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