Elisabeth Kufferath’s “Two”

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ZIMMERMANN: Violin Sonata. Viola Sonata.* ENCKE: Outline. Inner Voice.* SCHACHTNER: Epitaph. Patheia. EÖTVÖS: Para Paloma. Déssacord for 2 Violas* / Elisabeth Kufferath, vln/*vla / Avi 8553965D

Elisabeth Kufferath is a German musician whose gimmick is to constantly switch between the violin and viola. Although this is not as uncommon a feat as it once was, and certainly not as astonishing as Elena Gaponenko’s ability to play concerts on both the cello and the piano, she has one advantage over many such musicians in that she plays a great deal of modern music. This recital consists entirely of modern works; in fact, Johannes X. Schachtner, the only one represented here by two violin pieces, was only 24 years old when he wrote Epitaph and 33 when he wrote Patheia.

Zimmermann, famous for his edgy atonal works of the 1960s, particularly the notoriously difficult opera Die Soldaten, wrote these two string sonatas in the 1950s. Although the violin sonata is atonal, it also relies on a lyrical touch, as Berg did when he composed his famous Violin Concerto. Nonetheless, the lyric line is often interrupted by strong downbow attacks and some playing on the edge of the strings, sometimes in close seconds, to produce some less-than-lyrical sounds. Of course, it is a given that Kufferath has a great technique; nearly every instrumental soloist who makes records nowadays has a dazzling technique. Where Kufferath excels is in her powers of communication. She is a very expressive performer, very much in that respect like Gaponenko, but she applies her skills to some incredibly complex and interesting music far removed from the Dead Old Guy contingent. The Viola Sonata has been previously recorded by Christophe Desjardins on Aeon and John Graham on CRI, while the Violin Sonata has been recorded by Augustin Hadelich on Avie, Wibert Aerts on Fuga Libera and Rebekkah Hartmann on Farao, but this is the only CD to include both the violin and viola sonatas.

The Viola Sonata, dating from four years later than the Violin (1955), is in Zimmermann’s later, more angular and less lyrical vernacular. The music literally explodes from the instrument in sharp bursts of sound, alternated with equally edgy-sounding sustained notes, and the thematic material, which jumps around in a very strange manner, can scarcely be called a “theme” because, literally, there is nothing the listener can hang on to aurally as a guidepost. And yet, Kufferath assures us that the Bach chorale Gelobet seise du, Jesus Christ “is the central unifying element of the sonata,” though I was very hard-pressed to hear it myself. Some of my friends who do not understand my passion for modern music will undoubtedly be put off by this work and not comprehend why I like it, but as I’ve said many times, if the composer makes musical sense to me while still being daring and innovative, I’m in. The modern music I dislike generally falls into two categories, the really noisy, nasty crap that has no form or substance and the drippy, depressing, muddle-along kind of music which I call “Schlumph.” Zimmermann was neither. His musical mind was always trying to work the most daring and edgy phrases into a coherent whole and somehow make it work, and this is what separates him from a third school of modern composers, those who imitate Thomas Adès by writing musical shocks and explosions and calling it music when it isn’t. Interestingly the Viola Sonata, though in one movement which has several different themes or episodes but is essentially a continuous train of thought, is only one minute shorter than the composer’s three-movement Violin Sonata. Kufferath holds one spellbound with her thorough command of both technique and emotional effusion.

Thorsten Encke’s Outline for violin and Inner Voice for viola exhibit his penchant for using edgy but brief themes in juxtaposition to create an eventual whole. As the composer himself puts it, “Like an architect, you roll out a blueprint, jot down a series of notes, and establish a basic framework of interval relations,” and that describes the music heard here. One is startled to hear, at the four-minute mark in Outline, a brief lyrical theme amidst the edgy effects that precede and follow it. Encke also uses a lot of “space” in his music which gives one the impression that a work is going on a bit longer than the noted duration. In Inner Voice, however, Encke employs a more standard approach to the instrument, at least at first, with a series of soaring, lyrical notes before introducing pauses, pizzicato and spiccato effects and note-bending to edge the tonality towards microtonalism. Further, Encke continues to alternate between these effects and more lyrical passages which come and go throughout the piece.

Schachtner’s Epitaph falls into that category of modern-edgy music written to shock the listener, but surprisingly enough it also contains elements in common with Zimmermann, and Kufferath’s strong emotional commitment puts the music over despite its atonal edginess. If one listens to the notes being played and not to the way they are played, alternating between bowed and plucked, tonally centered and a quarter-tone off, an interesting musical pattern does indeed emerge. Patheia emerges in an even more fragmented state, with a great deal of space between notes, but personally I didn’t care much for it.

Peter Eötvös’ Para Paloma is another interesting piece, a parable told in small bits that the listener must work to pull together. The same composer’s Déssacord, written as a portrait of Zimmermann, is given here as a bit of a techno-trick, a viola duet in which Kufferath plays both parts. Eötvös asked her to send him the first recorded track for comment, which happened to be the second viola part which is tuned a half-step down, and “His comments were very detailed and extremely helpful.” This is a three-movement work that nonetheless only lasts 7 ½ minutes, and Kufferath plays it with great tension and insight. Interestingly, although Zimmermann died in 1970, Kufferath states in the published interview that she studied composition with him, but in a private message to me she corrected this: “it was Peter Eötvös who studied with Bernd Alois Zimmermann in Cologne, not me!” In the third movement, Eötvös suddenly throws in a quote from Frescobaldi, a composer who Zimmermann particularly loved.

This is clearly one of the best and most interesting violin recitals I’ve heard in a very long time. Highly recommended.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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