Two ECM Beauties: Holliger and Lachenmann

Mike Silverton

[July 2004.]

Time was, adolescence wasn’t. And in certain distant societies isn’t. One went to bed a child and awoke an adult. Teens as a market force where you and I dwell are of course a much-remarked fact. The popular culture’s hunters and hounds have sniffed out and savored a fat slice of pie. And it’s not without its amusements: When old rockers gather for yet another concert or tour, they resemble wizened kids under an evil spell. (Suggestion for an opera or movie plot: a seminal rock group, the Roiling Stews, say, caught up in some Flying Dutchman curse.)

Tastes, they be a-bouncin’ about. Where once Bing Crosby crooned, barbaric yawp holds forth. Early in Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign, we heard the quip “Jimmy who?” Substitute Perry Como, as in Perry who? Like Crosby, a polished crooner, easy of manner, a TV star. The balladeers, the brassy bands, the jazz ensembles: grown-ups were their audience. That’s where the interest lay. And nothing frightened the horses, most of which were already dead.

I’m not penetrating a topic with some irresistible point so much as sloshing liquid about. The post-pubescent, middlebrow component featured (and features) a much-diminished art-music aspect. The old hierarchies of quality — celluloid to ivory — lie in ruins. The kids have their thing, and — well, it rules. Everyone else casts about for something — anything! — to love, including the raucous-to-felonious. In the matter of culture and worth (as we once understood these terms), my fart and your four-part fugue are on an equal footing. For those who yearn for kinder, gentler stuff, we’ve the simplisticators and neo-this, post-that cobblers; specialists, if you like, at delivering boring, stillborn art.

No surprise, then, that a few highbrow composers whose methods derive in large measure from Europe’s postwar avant-garde strike an aesthetic posture of one-against-the-middlebrow-many. It’s either reach out by dumbing down or carry on in good, dialectical fashion (read: striding ahead in loneliness). Nobody better describes this kitsch-take-the-hindmost model than Heinz Holliger and Helmut Lachenmann.

Cover of ECM 1890

Holliger isn’t the least ambiguous about where his sympathies lie. His elegantly complex and psychologically insightful music so far celebrates a mad poet, Friedrich Hölderlin (Scardanelli-Zyklus, ECM 1472/73), a mad playwright, Robert Walser (the opera Schneewittchen, ECM 1715/16) and now, a refractory and quite probably mad violinist-artist, Louis Soutter (Violin Concerto, ECM 1890).

These are not your boring, run-of-the-mill loons. Hölderlin is recognized as one of Germany’s great Romantic poets, Walser (I learn from the notes) as a writer of labyrinthine complexity, and Soutter (I also learn from the notes) as a brilliant instrumentalist and painter whose disturbing, violent visions earned him a madhouse bed.

I played Holliger’s Scardanelli Cycle, again, in preparation for these remarks. The collage-like work’s becalmed and eerie beauties find their exquisite counterpart in the Violin Concerto’s last of four movements. There, at the end, the violin line, Soutter’s quietly despairing monologue, runs its gloomy course, having sparkled through the preceding movements as fittingly unhinged tours de force. Had I no information about the music’s inspiration — its story — I’d of course admire it, but not perhaps so appreciatively, for its craftsmanship’s brilliance. The reader as yet uncomfortable with modernist music — at so late a date! — could do worse to break the ice. Productionwise, this is a really nice recording: beautifully proportioned, dazzling where it needs to be and attentive to the quiet moments, which, for me, are among the music’s great strengths. Repeated plays suggest a masterpiece. Holliger as conductor of an ensemble apparently at ease with difficult new music is about as authoritative as it gets. And a good thing! I bet this is the only recording of this concerto we’re ever likely to hear, never mind live performance. I hear Zehetmair’s mastery conveying as much poetry as the music demands. I cannot imagine Holliger being unhappy with any aspect of this release. The filler, Eugène Ysaÿe’s third violin sonata, to which I paid scant mind, relates via Soutter to the concerto.

Cover of ECM 1858/59

Helmut Lachenmann has fashioned an opera out of Hans Christian Andersen’s bathetic tale, The Little Match Girl. Well, yes and no. This is not great-granddad’s Humperdinck. Hänsel and Gretel were in imminent danger to lovely music of being baked in a witch’s oven. Andersen’s freezing waif would gladly have settled for a moment or two in that kind of warmth, of which The Little Match Girl is pointedly short. Indeed, Lachenmann makes brilliant, significantly uncozy music as an accompaniment to those staged instances when she strikes her small cache of matches as a defense against a Nordic New Year’s Eve’s cold. (In a fit of affectless impropriety, I recall an old popular number’s line, “But baby, it’s cold outside.”)

The reader familiar with Lachenmann’s “voice” will perhaps understand my characterization of it as a systematized disjunction, or more imagistically, zephyr-tossed confetti, mirrors in sunlight, multi-hued vapors, geysers of varying heights and heat, fireworks and meteor showers — and silences. Even at its most shattered, his music lays its claim upon our time as a fascination to the ear, and the opera’s no different. All the more curious — and perhaps mischievously ironic — that the composer takes for his subject so sentimental a tale. Then again, not. Can we think of a clearer, crueler example of chilling isolation? Further, the potential for sentimentality is pretty thoroughly vitiated by a German terrorist’s statement and Leonardo Da Vinci’s musings at the mouth of a dark and mysterious cave. Even had Humperdinck known Gudrun Ensslin, it’s unlikely he’d have thought to incorporate the words of a Baader-Meinhof Gang member into his libretto. Also, with regard to Leonardo, this Tokyo 2000 version differs from another recording in that Lachenmann rewrote “…zwei Gefühle…,” Musik mit Leonardo. At half the length of the Stuttgart version (Kairos 0012282KAI, two CDs), this much simplified, yet highly stylized narration to an ominous rumble plays, dramatically, as the more effective.

The notes include a valuable essay by Paul Griffiths, one of new music’s more ardent exponents, and another by the composer in which he discusses his Musik mit Leonardo rewrite. As a further recommendation, the ECM release is a composer-supervised studio recording in which the barely audible is paid the kind of attention Lachenmann’s evanescent moments deserve. It’s entirely possible to ignore the libretto and enjoy oneself. Perhaps, as a visual analog, cubism and its lengthy aftermath come close. One needn’t create the putative subject in one’s mind’s eye to savor the painter’s sleights-of-hand. From what I know of Lachenmann’s music, The Little Match Girl is probably his most ambitious undertaking. Most impressive.

Heinz HOLLIGER: Violin Concerto. Eugène YSAŸE: Sonata No. 3 in D minor. Thomas Zehetmair, violin; SWR Symphony Orchestra, Heinz Holliger (cond.). Helmut Hanusch, Tonmeister; Ute Hesse, Recording Engineer (Holliger). Stephan Schellmann, Tonmeister (Ysaÿe). Co-produced by ECM Records and South-West Radio, SWR (Holliger); produced by Manfred Eicher (Ysaÿe). ECM 1890 (http://www.ecmrecords.com/).

Helmut LACHENMANN: Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern (The Little Match Girl). SWR Symphony Orchestra and SWR Vocal Ensemble, Sylvain Cambreling (cond.). Helmut Hanusch, Tonmeister; Ute Hesse, Klaus-Dieter Hesse, Recording Engineers. Co-produced by ECM Records and South-West Radio, SWR. ECM 1858/59, two CDs (http://www.ecmrecords.com/).