ZIMMERMANN: Requiem für einen jungen Dichter / Isolde Siebert, Renate Behle, sop; Richard Salter, bar; Michael Rotschopf, Bernhard Schir, spkrs; SWR Vokalensemble; Rundfunkchor Berlin; SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg / LIGETI: Requiem / Liliana Poli, sop; Barbro Ericson, mezzo; SWR Vokalensemble, Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks München, Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR / CRUMB: Star-Child / Irene Gubrud, sop; Armin Rosin, tb; Christophorus-Kantorei Altensteig, SWR Vokalensemble & Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR; Clytus Gottwald, Manfred Schreier, Marinus Voorberg, co-cond / J. LÓPEZ: Breath – Hammer – Lightning. NONO: Variazioni canoniche. A Carlo Scarpa, architetto, al suoi infiniti possibili. No hay caminos, hay que caminar…Andrej Tarkowskij. FELDMAN: Coptic Light. KURTÁG: Stele. BOULEZ: Rituel – In Memoriam Bruno Maderna. Notations I-IV & VII / SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg / GIELEN: Vier Gedichte von Stefan George. Pflicht und Neigung / SWR Vokalensemble & Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg / KAGEL: Ein Brief / Klára Csordás, sop; SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg / CAGE: Piano Concerto / Claude Heiffer, pno; Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR / SWR Music 19111CD
Vol. 10 of the Michael Gielen Edition features him in his real element, conducting contemporary music: the Zimmermann and Ligeti Requiems, George Crumb’s Star-Child, Feldman’s Coptic Light plus works by Jorge E. Lopéz, Luigi Nono, Pierre Boulez, György Kurtág, John Cage, and himself. In short, this is the kind of music I couldn’t wait to dig into. The Zimmermann and Ligeti Requiems are first releases of these specific live performances, even though recordings of these works by Gielen have been available for years (the first on Sony Classical, the second on Wergo).
The Zimmermann Requiem is one of his later, edgier pieces, using microtones and close chords to create an ominous atmosphere. The problem is that there’s a lot of cross-talk in German throughout the opening section, and SWR failed to include the text for this. But since I’m such a little sweetheart, I’m going to give you a link to a webpage where you can find the English translation: http://audiolabo.free.fr/revue1999/content/libretto.pdf. To be honest, however, I can’t quite decide whether or not Zimmermann was on drugs when he wrote this piece; it certainly sounds like a bad LSD trip, with spliced-in recordings of Hitler and Neville Chamberlain speaking as well as a soprano (Behle?) singing parts of the “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde. Later on, there’s a snippet of the Beatles singing Hey Jude, and later still a jazz combo. Some of it is a screed against capitalism. Despite all this, Gielen conducts a gripping performance that certainly makes an impression. This first section lasts 40 minutes; none of the following five sections lasts more than 8:49, and most shorter than that, and in the second section we finally get some actual vocalizing by our three singers, at cross-purposes to one another. The last section begins with a pre-taped recording of the opening section of the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, quickly followed by yet another snippet of Hey Jude, then more of Hitler screaming into a microphone. After that, the chorus really begins screaming and the percussion ramps up. Really a jolly piece, great for weddings and bar mitzvahs.
Gielen’s performance of the Ligeti Requiem is a classic. Listeners unfamiliar with his version are really missing something. So too is this performance of Crumb’s Star-Child; in fact, the wonderful ambience of this live performance adds a nice dimension to the work, making it sound even more surreal than it normally does. Soprano Irene Gubrud is also excellent, which also helps.
Before listening to this recording, I was completely unaware of the music of Jorge E. López (b. 1955), but it clearly fits into the Zimmermann-Ligeti-Crumb axis. It is atonal, edgy, almost violent in its emotions. (As David Hurwitz of Classics Today put it, Gielen was a master of “doom and gloom” music.) In addition to its complex harmonic structure, López exacerbated the “doom and gloom” by using mostly low, dark orchestral sonorities, focusing on low brass and strings as well as heavy percussion. In fact, one hears the trombones and basses in this music far more than the upper strings and winds (are the latter even present in his orchestration? I had a hard time hearing them). Dome Peak, of which this performance was the world premiere, is in much the same vein except that you hear a lot more of the trumpets and violins in this one. I’m not giving too much technical description of this music because, to my ears, the music is not linear but amorphic; it doesn’t really have a “shape” although there is form buried beneath its outré effects. It’s much more in line with the symphonies and tone poems of Leif Segerstam, except more percussive. To be honest, I really didn’t much like them.
CD 3 mostly features the music of Luigi Nono, modern but not ear-splitting. His Variazioni canoniche were based on Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon, and is both more lyrical and a bit less strictly dodecaphonic than his model. Gielen’s reading of the score is delicate and sensitively phrased, even though the second half of the piece has a louder and more aggressive sound. Indeed, all of the Nono pieces presented here are not only very well constructed but give one a reprieve from the aggressive, explosive quality of the music on the first two discs. Yet as much as I liked the Nono pieces, I enjoyed Morton Feldman’s Coptic Light even more, an outstanding piece somewhat in the George Crumb vein.
Next up are two pieces written by Gielen himself. I had always heard that he was a composer, but never heard any of his own music (he never performed it when he was music director of the Cincinnati Symphony). Vier Gedichten von Stefan George for chorus and orchestra is clearly a modern work with advanced harmony, but only about as far out as Stravinsky and not a 12-tone piece. The orchestration in the opening piece consists of the clarinets, and mostly in their low or chalumeau register. By the third piece, low trumpets and rumbling basses, also playing softly, are added to the mixture. One thing I found interesting is that it is the vocal part, written for chorus and not a solo singer (although there is a brief but telling soprano solo in song No. 4), which is more atonal than the accompanying orchestra. His second piece on this set, Pflicht und Neigung, is also written for clarinets, but in their upper range, along with brass and percussion (celesta as well as drums). This is more of an atonal romp in syncopated rhythms; if you can get over the atonal part of it, it’s a rather lively piece albeit with strange, slow interludes that frequently interrupt the flow. Eventually, it’s the other way around as the general tempo of the music becomes more of a largo with fast, syncopated interruptions, and later still one hears a fugue for percussion and another for saxophones. It’s a very interesting piece.
Stele by György Kurtág – still alive as of this writing at age 95 – is another excellent piece, beginning in a “moody” vein and incorporating a bit of microtonal writing, yet with explosive moments as well. This, too, reminded me strongly of Segerstam, this time in a much more positive way. Mauricio Kagel’s Ein Brief is a much darker work, right up Gielen’s alley of “doom and gloom” music, but extremely interesting and featuring a mostly wordless vocal by a superb soprano, Klára Czordás. It put me in mind of some of the horror movie background music I used to hear as a child (Daughter of Horror or Carnival of Souls), only much more sophisticated in its construction.)
The last CD opens with the music of Pierre Boulez. Most of his scores were pretty forbidding for most classical listeners, but although Rituel – in Memoriam Bruno Maderna is somewhat grim, it opens quietly and is quite fascinating in the way he creates polyphonic textures for the orchestra. Boulez preferred bright sonorities and clear, uncluttered textures, here focusing on the oboe and other winds mixed with soft brass and percussion, but only a few string passages, mostly the violins. (Let’s put it this way: I’d rather listen to Boulez than to Elliott Carter or most of Milton Babbitt any day of the week.) By the 12-minute mark, however, the music has become quite congested and remains so for roughly a half-minute before a pause clears the air and returns us to the edgy wind/brass mixtures. The only problem with this piece is that it goes on far too long and gets repetitive in the second half. Gielen’s recording of Boulez’ Notations is a famous one and has been available previously; this is tauter, less ruminating music, brilliantly written and played.
The set ends with John Cage’s Piano Concerto, a work I’ve never heard before because I generally consider Cage to be a fraud as a composer. He was constantly putting the musical establishment on with very sophisticated musical jokes, yet the musical establishment embraced him as a serious composer which ticked his funny bone to no end. This concerto is no exception, only that for the life of me I can’t figure out how anyone with half a brain could take this for anything but a musical joke. But at least it’s a really amusing piece, so funny that I almost couldn’t stop laughing. (Anyone who has ever seen that clip from Caesar’s Hour where Sid Caesar, dressed up as a concert pianist, comes out and plays one of the goofiest piano concertos you’ve ever heard in your life will completely understand what I mean.) In fact, Cage even throws in a few actual laughs from one of the musicians in case you didn’t realize from the outset that he was putting you on—not to mention a bit of “laughing” trombone and other novelty effects. (As a matter of fact, I even think the title Concerto for Piano and Orchestra was a gag since you only hear the piano once in a while, playing a few isolated low notes; most of this piece is for laughing trombone and clarinet as well as percussion.) It’s a wonderfully funny way to end this otherwise very serious set.
So, to recap: CDs 1 and 3 are ones I will never willingly listen to again because I didn’t like the music, but you may disagree with me. CD 2 is a gem but if you, like me, already have Gielen’s recordings of these pieces in your collection you won’t necessarily need it. The last three CDs are all interesting and mostly very good modern music. By and large, a good set that certainly gives one a different perspective on Gielen’s considerable talents as a conductor.
—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley
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