Álvarez “Reframes” Hölderlin

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AwardHÖLDERLINFENSTER / ÁLVAREZ: Vorspiel. Der Nekar. Wie Meeresküsten. Ihr Sichergebaueten Alpen. Der Spaziergang. Die Asyle. In Liebliche Blaue. Der Ister. Lebenslauf. An Zimmern. Die Wanderung. An die Parzen. Vom Delphin. Das fröhliche Leben. Die Heimath. Burg Tübingen / April Frederick, sop; Alessandro Viale, pno / Sheva Contemporary SH250

“And now, for something completely different,” as John Cleese used to say: a modern British composer of Latin heritage writing modern music to the words of one of Germany’s most revered 19th-century poets, Friedrich Hölderlin. As the composer put it in the notes, the title of this cycle of 15 poems and an introductory letter “refers to the window of a picturesque tower overlooking the Neckar River in which Hölderlin lived from May 3, 1807 until his death on June 7, 1843.” He then continues:

This period, known as the “Turmzeit” (“Tower Period”), resulted in a style of rhymed verses that for some is particularly attractive – the composer Heinz Holliger, for instance, set words of Scardanelli, Hölderlin’s persona of this period. Many others have been drawn to the poet’s work after 1800 and the fragmented writings in the Homburger Folioheft (1802-07), seeing in their disjunctive procedures a foreshadowing of the angst-ridden uncertainties of the 20th century. Conversely, Hölderlin’s output seems to me a coherent whole: the earlier, less “fashionable” works such as Burg Tübingen as vivid as the superficially “modern” later fragments such as the odes and Ihr sichergebaueten AlpenAccording to noted English translator, Michael Hamburger, his desire was not to be modern, but to “return to the source” (“Quelle”, “Ursprung”) – a principle which resonated with my own ambitions and seems to permeate his entire oeuvre.

Geoffrey Álvarez’ musical language is bitonal but not forbidding; the soprano’s lines are gracious and lyrical. It is primarily in the piano accompaniment that he uses bitonal harmonies, and they complement rather than clash with the vocal line. We are very fortunate that the soprano used here, April Frederick, has a fine voice…no wobble, no strain, and crystal-clear diction, all of which make her a pleasure to listen to throughout. The composer was an award-winning finalist and soloist at the 2006 Tansman Composers’ Competition where Krauze, Holliger, Penderecki and Nyman played a chamber version of his piano concerto. Despite his British roots and Hispanic surname, this score by Álvarez fits comfortably into the more lyrical side of the modern German school of composition. I’m also thinking that at least some of his inspiration for this cycle stems from the fact, as he puts it in the liner notes, that “Significant to Hölderlin is the projection of a German poetic sensibility through ancient Greek windows, specifically Pindar.”

At times, such as the third piece on the first CD, Álvarez’ music explodes into powerful, edgy waves of sound. In this piece (“Wie Meeresküsten,” or “As on the seacoasts”), the vocal line is also more atonal and less graceful than usual, but these are occasional excursions and not the norm. Were he to have written more conventional tonal accompaniments to most of these songs, they would fit neatly, but not as interestingly, into the standard song literature.

Interestingly, most of the harmonic writing in this cycle struck me as often using a whole-tone scale to move up and down in addition to the unusual chord positions, but Álvarez does not get “locked into” this as a constantly recurring device. After two stormy numbers, “Der Asyle” again returns the soprano’s lines to more melodic, less strophic territory, and here the piano part also sounds closer to tonality and less abrasive on the ear. The one common trait to each of the songs presented here is rhythmic impetus. Unlike so many modern composers, Álvarez seems to understand that rhythm is the basis of all music, even music in which the rhythm is extremely subtle and/or constantly shifting, and this anchors the cycle throughout, even within the sometimes varied styles of the individual pieces. Also, although the piano accompaniment is challenging, it is not so much so that its complexity overwhelms the lyric line, and only rarely does he bring the accompaniment into such a range that it interferes with the voice. This allows both parts of his pieces to be heard in a good balance. Once in a while, as in “Der Ister,” he occasionally has the piano line follow the soprano line, but for the most part the two pieces are discrete. Later in this same song, Álvarez has the piano play solo for an extended period of time, music that connects the music and continues its progression while the vocalist is silent. And a bit later in the same piece, he has the rhythm run “backwards” in the piano part for a period of time.

“Lebenslauf” uses a galloping rhythm and “a rising and falling musical arc mirroring life’s trajectory as described by the poet.” This is immediately followed by a slow, moody piece, with an extended piano introduction, linking the “river journeys of Lebenslauf with the numinous powers of Der Ister,” darkened by “a Bb minor brooding on lost love whilst gazing at the beloved’s image.” “Die Wanderung,” or “The Journey,” is by far the longest piece in this cycle, running over 21 minutes. It depicts “the meeting of East and West and the consequently engendering of a race of beautiful people, but “might also be understood as the beautiful synthesis of thesis and antithesis, a process developed by his friend Hegel.” Though somewhat bitonal, this piece alternates between B and Db major and an underlying harmonic base. At the 15:42 mark, the vocal line also rises and falls in a scalar fashion. The first piece on CD 2, “To the Fates,” is an almost violent piece in a strong 4/4 with the singer opening up proceedings by shouting her lines in a Sprechstimme manner. Álvarez sure knows how to write peppy tunes!

Although “Der Wanderung” is the longest piece, most of the songs on CD 2 average greater lengths than their counterparts on CD 1. After the first two, the remaining three songs clock in at 11:17, 11:38 and 18:23, and as a result the musical structures are more developed and complex. And, curiously, the first of these long songs, “Das fröhliche Leben,” opens up sounding entirely Schubert-like, though Álvarez assures us that his model here was the end of Mahler’s “Der Abschied” from Das Lied von der Erde, and a bit into the piece we do indeed hear chord sequences that come closer to Mahler than to Schubert. But the point is the same: the music is more tonal here than anywhere else in the cycle, and the piano accompaniment, consisting mostly of successive major chords, is the simplest as well. “Die Heimath,” or “Homeland,” is also quite tonal, and in this case the composer it reminded me of most was Hugo Wolf. The piano accompaniment, however, is busier than in “Das fröhliche Leben,” using rapid eighth note runs in the right hand over chime chords in the left. Sometimes the left hand stops entirely to put the spotlight on the busy right hand, and again the soprano line is lyrical and gracious.

In the last song, “Burg Tübingen,” Álvarez admits to being inspired by Schubert’s “Die Taubenpost,” but here the Schubertian influence is mingled more with his own proclivities. The harmony leans towards tonality but is not always dead-center in it, the rumbling left-hand piano runs sometimes moving a bit away from the home key. The vocal line is initially very simple, primarily sticking to the note D, sometimes an octave up, and even when it changes somewhat D remains the “home note.” By 8:24 the harmony becomes a bit strange, leaning towards whole tones and, later, towards diminished chords. Then, at 15:13, the tonality magically changes from D minor to B major as we end in a sunny mood.

Both Álvarez and Frederick are fortunate to have Alessandro Viale as accompanist. I have praised Viale several times in the past, both as soloist and chamber music player, most recently in the Rest Ensemble’s new recording of the chamber music of Riccardo Malipiero. Having such highly skilled and enthusiastic performers helps any music, but particularly new music with which most listeners are unfamiliar, as in this case. This is a truly great modern song cycle, and I commend it to your attention.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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