Of Time and the River: B.A. Zimmermann, Mario Pagliarani

M.J. Walker

[February 2003.]

Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s discography is in a pretty good state, even if a classic recording like Palm and Kontarsky’s Intercomunicazione and the excellent CD in DG’s defunct 20th Century Classics series that last enshrined it has vanished (but not from our shelves). As far as I can see, the greatest desideratum now is that uproarious Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu that once graced an LP with its savagely derisive presence. I (alas) failed to acquire it and have been waiting ever since, occasionally just missing a radio transmission that I could have taped at three a.m. or some other ungodly hour. There is an eight-CD set of miscellaneous modern music (col legno 20041) containing this work, but 97.2 Euros is a high outlay if one wants only that one piece. Other major works like the Requiem für einen jungen Dichter or Photoptosis are available in more than one recording, and there is a DVD of the Stuttgart Die Soldaten, actually cheaper than the CDs containing the same performance. (There is a useful Japanese site with a discography at

We are still discovering his work, however, as becomes clear from a new disc from Wergo’s Edition Bernd Alois Zimmermann (WER 6656 2) containing four works, of which two were completely unknown to me. The first, Märchensuite, was written for a local radio orchestra in 1950 and never performed, perhaps because it was too symphonic for a “light” classical work, as the writer of the liner notes suggests. It combines quasi- Ravelian fairytale impressionism with Stravinskyan neo-classical rhythmic implacability and a certain Respighiesque slàncio or oomph, being not only entertaining but thought-provoking: Parts of it were based upon a very earnest work, the Sinfonia prosodica, composed during the war as a memorial to the “squandered sacrificial courage” of his fellow students, which though still bearing the unmistakable signs of martial violence and muted mourning (ironically?) mutated into a sort of Ma mère de psaumes di Roma, to put it in a nutshell.

The last work and the second first recording on the disc is Alagoana, Caprichos Brasileiros, completed in 1954 for the ballet in Essen, though Günter Wand premiered the overture in 1951, when Zimmermann was inspired by his brother’s expedition to the Alagoas region of Brazil. This is a veritable orgy of seductive coloration and stylistic references, including popular music, immediately joining an élite number of exotically tinged ballet scores (such as Villa-Lobos’ Gênesis and Milhaud’s La Création du monde). The saudade has a particularly haunting sound texture, including a guitar and what sounds like bongos at a couple of points. Sandwiched between these are two completely different works: the tachistic and louring Impromptu (1958) and the riveting Canto di speranza (1954, rev. 1957), large parts of both making use of the identical serial rhythmic structure.

The former piece also contains music used slightly later in Die Soldaten; the performance and recording are superior to Zender’s on his cpo Zimmermann CD. The excellent performance of Canto is the high point of the disc. (I cannot compare this with the performance by Schiff and Gielen on Philips, coupled with the Concerto, and that CD seems to have vanished from the catalogue, at least here in Germany.) It was the first time Zimmermann applied serial principles, but this is not an intrusive factor in listening. From the hypnotic mood set by a complex ostinato figure on the percussion and a raptly questing cello cantilena, the music cranks up the tension by means of increasingly mordant or eruptive contributions by the orchestra and more agitated figuration by the soloist, moving through episodes and textures of varying intensity until the ostinato returns, the final section being marked by a brief climax subsiding into silence. It comes on like some slightly sinister ritual progression in which revelation is tantalizingly never quite forthcoming, while the hope announced in the title seems to be wistful but etiolated by the end.

The highly expressive yet multi-perspectival writing for cello, Zimmermann’s favorite instrument, was to be developed even more radically in his Concerto for Cello, Intercomunicazione and the Cello Sonata (a quick recommendation of Thomas Demenga’s ECM CD containing this latter with the other solo sonatas for violin and viola is in order here, I feel). Anyway, this counts as one of my top discs of 2002.

Listening to Zimmermann, I am often reminded of John Berryman’s description of Schubert’s music: “Like a man / dragged by his balls, singing aloud ‘Oh yes’ / while to his anguisht glance / the architecture differs.” Here, however, there is also a large portion of euphonious fantasy to be indulged in, which will no doubt be disapproved of by some. I mentioned “stylistic references” above, and fans of the composer’s work will know of his so-called “pluralistic composition” (long before Schnittke’s “polystylistics”) and “sphericity of time,” philosophical working concepts which allowed him to integrate other musics and quotations without slipping into a kind of knowing post-modern, anything-goes referentiality. There’s always an edge, plus a sense of transformative involvement in the “unity of the musical stream of time and experience” (from B.A. Zimmermann: Intervall und Zeit).

This is not to undervalue an element of ludic snook-cocking (as in that Musique I referred to initially), something that is even primary in the extremely brief pieces that act as intro and outro (could almost be by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band) of a disc introducing the composer Mario Pagliarani (b.1963) on the Scena Musicale Svizzera / Grammont label (MGB CTS-M 75). They are very diverting — translated their titles read: Domenico Scarlatti plays videogames and Johann Sebastian writes to Anna Magdalena — and cast a wry look at the interface between our reception of “Baroque” music and technology. In his notes, the composer insists on “feeling like a branch on a great, endlessly growing tree trunk (thus not a trace of post-modern nostalgia!) … from which invention can be made to blossom.” An analogy with the river of time might be even more apt in the context of music. In any case, this is certainly true of two more protracted pieces here, Pierrot lunatique and Inverno (…der Weg gehüllt in Schnee).

Both demonstrate a very fine ear for nuances of timbre and possess considerable aplomb in the timing of striking gestures, knowing when silence is appropriate. The former is based on the French song “Au clair de la lune” (which some claim to have been composed by Lully — very doubtful, I would say, from its faux-naïf ditty character), a setting for voice and instrumental group like Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, to which it briefly alludes, though its fragmented, repetitive style is neither expressionist nor constructivist in the Viennese master’s atonal manner. It manages to be charming, childlike, teasing and distraught at the same time, a distant relative of Crumb’s Apparition and other pieces.

Equally beautifully played, an elusively allusive study in stasis and contemplation welling up from profound solitude, Inverno makes use of a speaker as well as a tenor voice, flute, cello, accordion, piano and percussion, and is the plum of this collection to my ears. Think a more pellucid relative of Zender’s Winterreise instrumentation, with which it (less obviously) shares its musical source, plus a cinematically suggestive voiceover à la Leopardi, and you get the (snow)drift. The disc also includes a brief piece for violin and piano based on the series of Berg’s Violin Concerto, an Omaggio a Paul McCartney based (again, elusively) on “Yesterday,” an Omaggio a Ludwig e a Johannes and an orchestral work, Rarefatto Cantabile, that was apparently almost “sabotaged” (Pagliarani) by the conductor, Andrew Litton. This is not evident to my ears during the performance but the two minutes of applause are capped by a wave of energetic booing, it being unclear at whom it is directed.

It’s the second longest work here (around 18 minutes after you subtract the applause) and holds my attention consistently, with its long-held notes, sparsely instrumented gestures, glissandi, nervously scurrying scratchy string figurations, frequent pauses and brief explosions of force. An odd feature (also present on the last-mentioned Omaggio) is the sounds of water being poured; faint seraphic choral voices are mixed in from time to time, gongs and bells are used to striking effect, as is wah-wah technique on the brass instruments. This composer is definitely cool, without being flip. And as with Zimmermann, you have the feeling of never stepping into the same river twice when you replay his best pieces. The time they ludically modulate may be distorted, fragmented, even assaulted, but never wasted. You don’t listen to this music to kill time. Recommended.

[Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu is one of B.A. Zimmermann’s best. It shares a disc with a kicking performance of Xenakis’ Jonchaies on the now out of print multi-CD set 20 Ans de Musique Contemporaine à Metz (col legno AU 31830). Search for it. — G.C.C.]