Lachenmann in Frankfurt and Elsewhere

M.J. Walker

[September 2006.]

On the occasion of his 70th birthday, a celebration of Helmut Lachenmann took place last October in Frankfurt am Main. I attended two concerts and another in January 2006, all at the city’s Alte Oper, a majestic edifice gutted during WW2 air raids and restored and reopened in 1981.

Strikingly, words above a row of neo-classical arches read DEM WAHREN SCHOENEN GUTEN — To the True the Beautiful the Good. No doubt some number of Frankfurt’s burghers do not find anything true, beautiful or good in the music of Lachenmann, whose work has in the past provoked an orchestral insurrection under the conductorship of no less a mentor of modern music than Michael Gielen. Perhaps the majority of today’s classical music audience would think less of the Good than of the Bad and the Ugly if they chanced to overhear some of his music.

But storms subside, and in the new millennium the composer has reached a position of undisputed eminence in Germany. Many fewer concert-goers walk out slamming doors behind them. Indeed, the birthday celebrations refuse to die down: A series of concerts in Paris this year combine — and confront — Lachenmann’s music with Mozart’s. In the words of the venerable journal nmz, Is the New Music Aspiring to the Charts? When I first heard Lachenmann’s music on the radio and on record in the ’90s, I failed to register more than abused instruments issuing scratchings, bubbles and squeaks in arrhythmic and unharmonious succession. Then I heard and reheard Hans Zender’s fine recordings of Harmonica (cpo 999 484-2) and Notturno (RCA 74321 73512 2, from the indispensable series Musik in Deutschland 1950-2000) and my attitude began to shift.

And then there are the enthusiastic reports of the Hans Christian Andersen “opera,” Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern. Revisiting Frankfurt where I lived for so many years, I took the opportunity of attending a mixed concert by the Ensemble Modern crowned by Lachenmann’s Concertini, a work for ensemble and electronic console that had been premiered shortly before in Switzerland. I was sitting close to the orchestra, not far from the manipulator of orchestral enhancement by way of electronics. I departed the hall lifted and transported. Lachenmann seems to have achieved a new freedom, a rhythmically balanced effervescence that draws one up and on, the well-known unconventional instrumental effects having become an aspect of a vision quite beyond all considerations of the “avant-garde” and “traditional.” The space between the sounds is as intoxicating as the sounds themselves. This music has a powerful, sensuous appeal that goes beyond the “Resistance” model implied by, say, Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied.

A few days later I attended an Ensemble Modern Orchestra concert in which they played (at Lachenmann’s request!) Strauss’s Alpine Symphony no less, with tremendous drive and transparency, without however neglecting the work’s considerable pathos. This was followed after the intermission by Lachenmann’s own Ausklang from the mid-’80s, a complex work for piano and orchestra which turns out to be a reaction to the ending of the Strauss piece, its title referring to the dying away of sounds — or passion, though its almost skeletal sound-image, despite a similarly obsessional range of effects, contrasts strongly with the Strauss. We would have understood this connection between the two works had we been present at the pre-concert talk between the very capable conductor Markus Stenz and Lachenmann himself, in whose tweedy, genial persona it would be difficult to suspect the scourge of the bourgeoisie.

I managed to hear more Lachenmann in January: Accanto for clarinet and orchestra, from the ’70s, a lively work more in the expected “avant-garde” mode than the supreme Concertini, but well worth hearing. I believe this composer is reaching a new level of compositional richness and daring and I look forward to more great things in the near future. But only surround sound recordings of superior quality would, I expect, adequately render the transformative quality of his recent work on disc. Readers in North America can only hope for more concerts featuring Lachenmann’s music.