Zimmermann’s Playful Yet Dark Symphonic Works


ZIMMERMANN: Concerto for Cello & Orchestra in the form of a pas de trois.1,2 Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu (Ballet noir). Stille und Umkehr – Orchestral Sketches. HEIDENREICH: Steady on the Musical Tightrope Above the Existential Abyss.3 Conversations with B.A. Zimmermann and York Höller / 1Jan-Filip Ťupa, cello; 2Sinfonia di vetro, glass harmonicas; 3Elke Heidenreich, Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Mirjam Wiesemann, York Höller, speakers; Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR; Bernhard Kontarsky, cond. / Cybele Records 3SACD KiG 008

Bernd Alois Zimmermann, atonal composer par excellence, is probably best known to American and British audiences via his dark and difficult opera Die Soldaten, built along the same lines as Berg’s Wozzeck but so extraordinarily complex that even professional singers and conductors have difficulty with it. This is ironic because the very difficulty of Die Soldaten kept it from being performed much in Zimmermann’s lifetime beyond its premiere at Cologne in 1965. This is not, however, what led to his suicide in 1970, but rather the encroaching darkness of glaucoma. Zimmermann lived to compose, and he felt that without the ability to write down his music his life was forfeit.

This album of his orchestral works is part of Cybele Records’ Artists in Conversation series, focuses as much if not more on the spoke recordings contained therein. These fill up most of CDs two and three: a half-hour of Zimmermann himself speaking in 1968 and an interview conducted by Mirja, Wiesemann with York Höller, Zimmermann’s last composition pupil. The wet blanket here is that the 86-page booklet contains not one word of English transpation of these conversations, and since I don’t speak or understand German, nearly two CDs’ worth of material here is worthless to me. Thus I can only comment on the music herein, which is typically dense and knotty, yet strongly emotional.

The Concerto for Cello & Orchestra in the form of a pas de trois is a surprisingly delicate work, built around spectral pluckings from the percussion and strings. I found myself unable to definitely identify the instruments being used, since they were so daintily played and recorded; fortunately, the booklet identified them for me. They are a mandolin, guitar, electric guitar (since this was written in 1965-66, Zimmermann may have been the very first Legitimate” composer to use an electric guitar), cimbalom, glass harmonica, harp, piano, hi-hat cymbals and harpsichord. When the solo cello enters, it grumbles atonally all by itself for a while, eventually joined by some light percussion and interrupted by crashing orchestral chords. Eventually the orchestra rises up and takes over the proceedings at the end of the first movement. The orchestra is also instructed to simulate a jazz rhythm in the third movement, which it does to a surprising degree, though of course the textural, harmonic and developmental complexity go far beyond anything a jazz orchestra was, or is, capable of. The cimbalom also has a prominent role in the orchestral mix, something quite foreign to most Western classical music. What sounds like a soprano sax also has a brief but memorable solo—again, jazz texture without true jazz feeling. The same holds true for a pizzicato cello passage that resembles a jazz bass, although our soloist here, Jan-Filip Ťupa, doesn’t seem to have a clue what a jazz bassist sounds like, his playing being extremely light-fingered, not getting into the “guts” of the instrument. Eventually, several of the strings get into the spirit of a jazz band, at least for one chorus, before having the brakes put on.

In Mudique pour les soupers di Ubu Roi, Zimmermann uses more conventional orchestration as well as numerous little quotes from other works (including the “Promenade” from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition,the opening phrases of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” and the “March to the scaffold” of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique), none of which stay around very long and yet somehow he makes them sound an organic part of the ongoing musical development, not stand-out moments. He also throws in drunken-sounding trombone smears that sound like one of those old ragtime or early jazz players (think of Kid Ory or Honore Dutrey) on the old records. The interesting thing about this piece is, because of the continuous string of allusions to older classical music, Zimmermann is forced to keep it mostly tonal—until he repeats the central chord of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke IX 631 times, underscored by bashing timpani and cymbal crashes. Even some of his students found it hard to bear, but Zimmermann defended it as a “brainwashing march” (just think of it as the theme song of the fascist, pro-Socialist group Antifa). Actually, it goes by quicker than one might expect.

Steady on the Musical Tightrope Above the Existential Abyss is a very long and very boring monologue in German by narrator Elke Heidenreich, conceived as a “modern fairy tale” to complement the Pere Ubu piece. I was neither amused nor enlightened by it, and again, there is no translation in the booklet. So who cares? Not moi. Fortunately, there is some music at the beginning of CD 2, Stille und Umkehr – Orchestral Sketches. This was Zimmermann’s last instrumental work that he wrote before his suicide; ironically, the title translates as Stillness and Turning Back. Here he almost seems to be flirting with minimalism, concentrating on a drone in D, and if you think this musical concept came about after his death I need remind you that Terry Riley was writing such pieces in the late 1960s. When the music finally does move along, it does so in strange and unusual ways, still keeping an air of mystery in its unusual texture and, for lack of a better term, the use of instruments in a recessed space, including a trombone and tuba, which gives the music an eerie quality. The music fades out into nothingness.

As I said earlier, I couldn’t make anything of the interview with Zimmermann, but it sounds as if he’s in a completely different space from his interviewer. Perhaps done on television, or over the phone.

It’s difficult for me to assess the set as a whole because of the inclusion of two and a half hours’ of talking in German as opposed to 51 minutes of music, but since the 3-CD set is only selling for $22.25 and this music is not available elsewhere, I recommend it. It’s just too good to pass up.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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2 thoughts on “Zimmermann’s Playful Yet Dark Symphonic Works

  1. I am not familiar with Zimmermann’s work (although I think I would like to after reading your post) but wonder if a contender for first “classical” use of electric guitar, particularly from a “major” composer, would be the 3 “Poems de la mort” by Frank Martin for 3 tenors, 2 regular and one bass electric guitars (apparently partly inspired by his grandchildren’s love of the Beatles!). A wonderful work, and one much affected by the approach and sound of the guitarists involved in any particular performance. Who played at the premier, one wonders?


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