Label Report: Wulf Weinmann’s col legno

Mike Silverton

[August 1998. Originally appeared in La Folia 1:3.]

When I reported in La Folia 1:2 on Hat Hut Records, I mentioned that label’s helmsman, Werner Uehlinger, as someone with whom I’ve spoken a number of times. Wulf Weinmann I know only as a name appearing as producer on every col legno release I’ve seen. The label takes its own name, always in the lower case, from the Italian “with wood,” a musical instruction to strike the strings with the bow’s obverse side.

The other label report in this issue, its subject NMC, makes clear that the London-based, non-profit specializes in British, mostly new music, an exception being the reconstruction of an unfinished Elgar symphony. col legno, taking the global view, concentrates on art music’s avant garde, European primarily, American, Asian. The German label’s list has always been for me a source of fascination and considerable gratification; availability, to the contrary, a source of frustration. But that’s a loooooong and borrrring story. Enough now to say, cheerfully, that Qualiton Imports of Long Island City, NY has taken over American distributorship, as it has with NCM. On, then, to several of those col legnos the importer has sent me for comment.

Size matters. Not to be confused with two earlier sets of two and three discs, Donaueschinger Musiktage 1990 [AU 31819] and Donaueschinger Musiktage 1996 [WWE 3CD 20008], col legno’s recent 12-disc compilation (priced as ten), 75 Jahre Donaueschinger Musiktage [WWE 12CD 31899], features historic, in situ recordings of this important new music festival’s activities. The earliest of these, Lindberghflug, a music-theater collaboration between Paul Hindemith and Kurt Weill, dates from 1929/30. A 1996 performance commemorates the 1923 Donaueschingen premiere Alois Hába’s second string quartet, op.12, “im Vierteltonsystem,” i.e., in quarter-tones.

From here we jump to recordings from the 50’s as the platform, so to speak, from which the avant garde began its ascendancy: John Cage’s 12:55.6078, for two pianists (prepared piano), 1954; Henri Pousseur’s Quintette à la mémoire d’Anton Webern, Hans Rosbaud conducting, 1955; Pierre Boulez’s Tombeau à la mémoire du Prince Max Egon zu Fürstenberg, Boulez conducting, 1959; Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry’s Orphée 53, Spectacle lyrique, 1953; the Adagio from Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s second symphony, Rosbaud conducting, 1950, the year of its completion; Luigi Nono’s Due espressioni, Rosbaud conducting, 1953, and so on. Throughout this collection, the large scale works are performed by SWF (South-West Radio), Baden-Baden’s Symphony Orchestra, conducted as well, though less frequently, by the important new-music advocates Ernst Bour and Michael Gielen.

We find the 60’s through the 90’s celebrated by a fascinating assortment of music and names, not all of the latter familiar to other than students of the scene: Hans Haas, for example (1994), with a work for player piano; Roman Haubenstock-Ramati (1961); Paul-Heinz Dittrich (1973); Rolf Riehm (1984); Hanspeter Kyburz (1993); Jörg Herchet (1980); etc., etc. Big guns like Stravinsky and Boulez make multiple appearances, and we’ve a good representation by significant figures on equal-to-lesser plateaux: Ernst Krenek, Dieter Schnebel, Friedrich Cerha, Luciano Berio, Cristóbal Halffter, Henri Pousseur, Mauricio Kagel, Brian Ferneyhough, Mathias Spahlinger, Hans Zender, Iannis Xenakis, Vinko Globokar, György Ligeti, Luigi Nono, Karkheinz Stockhausen, Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Heinz Holliger (a superb composer better known as virtuoso instrumentalist), Helmut Lachenmann, Olivier Messiaen, Elliott Carter, Wolfgang Rihm, Johannes Kalitzke, some of these in several appearances. And, of course, that force-majeure trinity, Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern.

The German-English booklet does a quite good job of background and performance details. (Notes are not always col legno’s strength.) The recordings are what they are, poor to excellent. Ensemble playing sometimes sounds scrappy, microphone placement sometimes make-do, and, as mentioned, some of this is in dreary mono. However, nobody with a serious interest in the music of our time can do without this unique set, ad hoc production shortfalls and all. Once more, the 12-disc souvenir does not repeat col legno’s 1990 and 1996 Donaueschinger Musiktage sets, which I heartily recommend when they become available. (I ask foreign readers to excuse one’s Americentric references. All three of you.)

Several releases from Qualiton’s current col legno list require particular commendation. As a masterpiece of programming, take WWE 1CD 31872, a “Live!” Salzburg Festspiel Dokument, subtitled Zeitfluss (Timestream) 93. The instrumental ensemble, Klangforum Wien, Beat Furer conducting, performs two modernist milestones, Edgard Varèse’s Integrales of 1924 and Octandre of 1923 (and how fresh they sound!) as mixed-metaphor bookends to Morton Feldman’s The Rothko Chapel of 1971. Good news, with better to come: at the head of the disc stands one of the most intriguing tonal abstractions it’s been my great pleasure to hear: Gerhard E. Winkler’s Uraufführung (Emergent). It’s an aggressively yet serenely abstract work, its self-referential lucidity transpiring, as I hear it, as a texturally airy arch. Yet something close to drama stands mere steps away: in the event an understated piece, Emergent portends an outburst that never quite occurs. This anticipatory set-up counts among the music’s great attractions. In its blithely insouciant freedoms, the piece reminds me of the work of a living American I much admire, Lucia Dlugoszewski, who, in serendipity, studied with Varèse, whose Integrales and Octandre, here well presented, have had their share of recordings. For Feldman’s The Rothko Chapel, we’ve only one other, a good performance on New Albion, presumably still in print. All of this said, were I you with your doubtless extensive and therefore unavoidably redundant collection, I’d still go for this excellent release if only for the Winkler.

Surely among the most significant of col legno’s releases are the so-far three devoted to the music of Helmut Lachenmann. He is without question among Europe’s foremost living composers. I can think of no more convenient way to place him in art music’s long line (no easy chore!) than as one of several top-shelf heirs to Anton Webern’s esthetic of jewel-precise, condensed abstraction. (It’s no accident that abstraction gets such a workout in these remarks. I’ve already mentioned col legno’s focus.) If Lachenmann has written a big, splashy, emotional piece, I’ve not heard it. Especially do I not hear it on these three beautifully performed and recorded programs. One notes again with envy in two of these three discs the participation of Germany’s electronic media-culture apparats, e.g., South-West German Radio, for which no equivalent in the US exists.

Among the severest departures from what the ear has been schooled to accept as emotionally and/or structurally coherent discourse is Gran Torso of 1971, which Lachenmann calls, ever off center, Musik für Streichquartett. From the sound of it, Gran Torso’s progress occurs mostly by means of “extended technique,” amply illustrated to (alas) a German-only text in the generous booklet accompanying this slip-encased release. A personal favorite, Salut für Caudwell, Musik für 2 Gitarristen (1977), likewise fully illustrated with regard to fingering and the like, involves some rather delightful chanted recitation. The words (in German) are those, presumably, of Christopher Caudwell, about whose work I know nothing. I extracted the name from the notes. The Berner String Quartet sounds to me as at home on this extra-galactic turf as the great and hugely recorded Arditti. Likewise guitarist-chanters Wilhelm Bruck and Theodor Ross. A honey of a disc [AU 31804 CD], but easy? Not!

One of the most engaging things about Lachenmann’s music is the longterm courage of its convictions. One does not detect the composer mincing about among isms. From the evidence on recording, this is the real, in-your-face, take-it-or-leave-it McCoy, and I, for one, adore the stuff. The piano disc [AU 31831 CD], also issued in ’91, opens with a set of putatively innocent Schubert paraphrases (1956), but even here, the young composer (b. 1935) changes course to an atonality he later elevates to irrelevance. In the pointillistic, swamp-fire milieu in which Lachenmann prefers to operate, one does not linger sufficiently long to fret over tonality’s ill fate. It isn’t so much a question of what he’s done to art music’s worldly course as to where on earth he’s taken us. Anyone who accomplishes that on his terms and in his voice (in the sense of poetic distinctions) has achieved something remarkable. Meanwhile, the piano disc, performed to what sounds like perfection by Roland Keller, progresses chronologically (’56, ’61, ’63, ’69, ’80) in lockstep with my space-travel conceit. By the time we get to Guero of 1969, Keller’s within the piano, playing it in snippets and clusters, as if an unresonant harp.

The third Lachenmann disc [WWE 1CD 31863] features in every respect an ambitious trio of 1986/88 for clarinet, cello and piano, entitled Allegro Sostenuto. At 32:42, “sustained” says it well, and so too does the music in Lachenmann’s spare yet utterly affecting terms. The trio moves into and away from a sense, on the listener’s part, of purposeful, structured discourse, as against the seeming boundlessness of, say, Gran Torso. I’ve listened to the work (as I write) about a half dozen times, with impact accruing with each play. 1969 was for the composer and the Zeitgeist a revolutionary period. Pression, for solo cello, participates, like the guitar duo, in extended technique as an expression of angst, or as close to as Lachenmann gets. The composer subtitles Dal niente of 1970 (“From Nothing”), a work of remarkable delicacy for solo clarinet, as Intérieur III. A morsel for solo (and busy) percussionist of 1966 which Lachenmann calls, simply, Intérieur I is perhaps the one work by this challenging composer I can recommend to the timid as thoroughly endearing. As I’ve heard perhaps 275,000 works for percussion from about as many composers, I can further report in all confidence that, as with everything to which Lachenmann sets his hand, it radiates its distinctions even here in so populous a forum.

A 1998 release [WWE 1CD 20004] features the music of Vinko Globokar, born in France of Yugoslav parents in 1934. While sharing in Lachenmann’s outbound esthetic, Globokar’s sensibility lies closer to that of the avant garde’s great showmen, Ligeti and Berio. The disc’s middle work, Airs de voyages vers l’intérieur (“Songs for Journeys to the Interior,” 1972), for eight singers, clarinet and trombone (Globokar, a trombonist, performs), I liken to Berio’s extravagant vocal exercises not to minimize Globokar’s authenticity but rather as a reviewer’s convenience. The notes mention the instrumentalists’ sound-production achieved while both inhaling and exhaling, as well as circular breathing on the vocalists’ part. This kind of thing is never obvious on recording. However, the listener does indeed hear a great deal of high-spirited rumbustiousness, as he does, Latino riffs and all, in Eisenberg (1990), “for 16 musicians,” in point of well done fact members of the University of Illinois New Music Ensemble, Globokar conducting. (I’d have liked to see the title explained.) Labour (“Tillage,” 1992) comes as close to a good, old-fashioned tone poem as we’re likely to get in this parish. The opulently scored orchestra indeed turns up bright wonders as the RTV Slovenija Symphony Orchestra plows its course through figurative earth, Globokar again conducting, harness firmly in hand.

A statement by the composer from the insert to Toshio Hosokawa’s WWE 1CD 20016, issued in 1988: speaking of Vertical Time Study I, he tells us that he wrote the work “during the summer and autumn of 1992, with the piano trio of Armand Angster (clarinet), Michael Bach (cello), and Bernhard Wambach (piano) in mind. These three performed the Allegro Sostenuto of Helmut Lachenmann during the Summer Course in Darmstadt ’92.” How’s that for a small world? Hosokawa (b 1955) resembles Lachenmann only in a shared preference preference for calm over stampede. In contrast with Lachenmann’s generally kaleidoscopic perspectives, Hosokawa’s sound-world plays out more often than not as a serene, long-stranded statement. The program includes Vertical Time Studies I and III, the latter for violin and piano; Sen V (1991/2) and Melodia (1979), both for solo accordion, and a work for cello, accordion and string orchestra, In die Tiefe der Zeit (“In the Depths of Time,” 1994).

We conclude in brevity with a couple of discs atypical for col legno in that their programs are elsewhere available. Both are, nonetheless, well played and recorded, and deserve consideration (even at this label’s high import price). WWE 1CD 20015, issued in 1998, is identified in small print as “mhpp, marcus hauke percussion projects,” and rather more grandly John Cage / Music for Percussion Quartet (Credo in Us, Quartet, Second Construction, She’s Asleep, and Third Construction). I am perhaps being glib about availability. While I have multiple performances of some of these pieces, one never does know what dwells on the shelves of his neighborhood record shop and therefore longs for the day of universal availability via the Web, along the lines, perhaps, of Amazon.com. These remain, meanwhile, solid performances. The George Crumb disc, WWE 1CD 31876, issued in 1994, offers Gnomic Variations, for piano solo; Processional, for piano solo, with Fuat Kent, piano; and surely Crumb’s best known work, Ancient Voices of Children, for mezzo, boy soprano, oboe, mandolin, harp, amplified piano, toy piano, and three percussionists. Mezzo Marie-Louise Borbeau is especially effective at interpreting the music’s exotic-shamanic character. The “boy soprano,” by the way, is Veronika Schaaf. I don’t envy this young fellow, going through life with the name Veronika. What could his parents have been thinking?

I shall doubtless be reporting on future col legno releases (or re-releases in the US) as they occur. If not I, then Mad Scadranelli in his Motley. If you’ve questions about col legno, email Ron Mannarino at Qualiton Imports, ron@qualiton.com. As a favor, you might also mention that you read about the label here.