ZIMMERMANN: Violin Concerto.* Photoptosis. Die Soldaten Vocal Symphony+ / *Leila Josefowicz, vln; +Anu Komsi, sop; +Jeni Packalen, alto; +Hilary Summers, mezzo; +Peter Tantsits, ten; +Ville Rusanen, bar; +Juha Uusitalo, bass; Finnish Radio Symphony Orch.; Hannu Lintu, cond / Ondine ODE 1325-2
For a large number of classical listeners, Bernd Alois Zimmermann is forever identified by just one work, his complex atonal opera Die Soldaten—which they hate, and therefore write him off as a terrible composer. One friend of mine even had the audacity to claim that the failure of Die Soldaten was the reason he committed suicide in 1970 (it wasn’t). Yet much of his other music, although clearly modern and often atonal, was not as purposely abrasive as Die Soldaten, which, incidentally, I happen to think is a masterpiece.
As it turns out, the Violin Concerto is a work that lies somewhere between the astringent serialism of Die Soldaten and the modern but not serial content of some of his other works. There are, for instance, forward-moving motor rhythms, particularly in the first movement, and despite the timpani thumps and abrasive brass interjections, there is a discernible and developing (albeit atonal) melodic line. In some passages, Zimmermann even used what sounds to me like Eastern European folk music bordering on klezmer for one of his themes. Written in 1950, seven years before he started work on Die Soldaten, this concerto pushes old and new forms together. In the second-movement “Fantasia,” he recycles the recitative accompagnato form but recasts it in modern harmonies. The liner notes make the whimsical comment that “In its magical writing for celesta, it sounds as if the Prokofiev of Cinderella has taken a trip.” Perhaps an LSD trip but, with its generous amount of dodecaphony, a bad one. There is a decided feeling of despair and resignation in this music, although (as at the 4:40 mark in this movement) Zimmermann tries to lighten the mood with less dark melodic lines. In the last movement Zimmermann again uses driving rhythms, but here sounds much more like Berg or Schoenberg—and yet it has a traditional cadenza for the soloist just before the finish.
Photoptosis (1968) was commissioned to honor the 100th anniversary of the Gelsenkirchen town bank, inspired by Yves Klein’s painting of the of the town’s Musiktheater im Revier. It was premiered the following year, and is one of Zimmermann’s most complex scores, oscillating around the semitone of D-Eb. To my ears, it also has the drone of a didgeridoo in the bass line, and Zimmermann’s scoring creates a “metallic” sound that is very machine-age in texture. You might call this a musical paean to the banking-industrial complex. And a lot of fun it is (not!); it is a grim, in-your-face piece, but once again a sort of cosmic overload…at the seven-minute mark, we suddenly hear an snippet from the first movement of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, and there are other small quotes and allusions to other older music that follow.
But if Photoptosis wasn’t musically strange enough for you, we conclude our program with the 42-minute “Vocal Symphony” that Zimmermann created from his fascinating but strange masterpiece, Die Soldaten. It has all the menace and unease of the complete opera, but lasts much shorter. In this, conductor Hannu Lintu is joined by the remarkable soprano Anu Komsi, contralto Jeni Packalen, mezzo Hilary Summers, tenor Peter Tantsits (whose voice is, alas, tight and dry) and baritone Juha Uusitalo (who as an unsteady flutter). I tell you, though, you can’t beat those old songs from the ‘50s for fun, can you?
This is a good introduction to Zimmermann for listeners who don’t know much about his work. If you can at least come halfway towards him, you’ll appreciate the brilliance of what he did even if you still find the music abrasive.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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