Fernández Plays Zimmermann

cover - BIS-2495

ZIMMERMANN: 3 Early Piano Pieces. Extemporale. Capriccio. Enchiridon I. Enchiridon Anhang. Enchiridon II. Konfiguration (Stücke für clavier) / Eduardo Fernández, pno / Bis SACD-2495

Bit by little bit, the music of Bernd Alois Zimmermann is getting recorded. Some of the recordings, alas, are limited-edition issues that are difficult to find, but here we have his complete output for piano on a Bis disc. And happily, the pianist is Eduardo Fernández, whose recording of Albéniz’ Ibéria I consider the best ever made and whose Scriabin Preludes I have also praised on this blog.

Interestingly, Zimmermann’s piano pieces begin very far back in his composing history, the first set of three small pieces dating from 1939 (when he was only 21 years old) and 1946. They are surprisingly late-romantic works with modernist overtones, much like some of the early-to-mid-period piano pieces of Scriabin (but not in a Chopinesque style). The composer used some modal harmony here and an occasional whole-tone series in short passages, but the music could pass for any number of 1920s German composers, although Fernández plays them with spirit. My cat Fluffy liked them! The third piece is the liveliest as well as the most adventurous, using a quirky minor scale.

The five pieces that make up Extemporale, the notes tell us, were also student pieces; Zimmermann’s studied were interrupted twice by his being forced to fight in the Nazi German Army during the war, which he detested. These, too, are essentially tonal, and in fact the opening Praeludium is a slow-moving piece somewhat related to some of Satie’s music. It is in the short (1:16) Invention (Allegro) that we first encounter the odd juxtaposition of clashing harmonies that was to characterize some of Zimmermann’s later music; it almost sounds like Alkan on acid. The Siciliano, though also slow, has a more interesting harmonic underpinning and is less predictable than the Praeludium. The chromatic movement in this piece seems to be continually falling. The Bolero is also a bit quirky, but not too much, but the Finale is the most interesting piece since it rises upwards in an unusual manner before coming to a brilliant finish.

The 1946 Capriccio is the first extended piece Zimmermann wrote for piano, running almost 11 ½ minutes, and although it is also quite tonal it is also more interesting rhythmically as he throws contrasting rhythms between the two hands. It is also more interesting harmonically as it continually shifts between tonality, bitonality and modal chords. This, for me, makes it more original than most of the preceding works. At the 5:06 mark, he indulges in some very strange harmonic movement indeed, and this continues for some time. A bit later, he as the right hand play very high bitonal chime chords over almost a lullaby melody played by the left. But then, the piece becomes much more episodic. and not in a good way.

The Enchiridon pieces of 1949-1952 are, at long last, more mature and interesting works. Here Zimmermann was exploring very close chords, what I refer to as “crushed” chords, using parallel harmonies that never quite mesh or resolve, while still maintaining a lyric line in the right hand. And yet some of these pieces, such as the Larghetto in the first set, essentially no nowhere.

With the Konfigurationen of 1956 we finally reach music of Zimmermann’s maturity, although ironically he had worked on this little collection for 17 years. This was clearly where he was headed, but apparently in 1939, when he started it, he wasn’t sure if this was a direction he wanted to go in.

As much as I like Zimmermann’s later music, I found most of the works in this set tedious to listen to. They are valuable only to researchers as early examples of where the young composer was headed, but he clearly couldn’t set a style for himself until he discovered the “musical pluralism” of the mid-to-late 1950s. He was a late bloomer as a composer, and these early growths are not even flowers; they’re just underdeveloped, partially open buds. The performances and the recorded sound are very good, but too much of this music sounds static. I compared Fernández’ versions of these works to the recordings by Andreas Skouras on the Neos label, and although Skouras is a bit livelier in tempo and phrasing, the music really doesn’t sound that much more interesting.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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