S&H Festivals Review

The Contemporary Music Scene in Germany (2000) John Warnaby, who lives and teaches in Wales, reports from Donaueschingen, Munich and Cologne

The most obvious feature of Donaueschingen, at least to the non-musician, is that it is at the source of the Danube, which begins its trundle in the local park, suitably marked, of course. The initial idea for a contemporary music festival dates back to the early 1920s, in fact, at the same time as the ISCM was getting under way. However, it was rather intermittent, and in some years the event went to Baden-Baden, which achieved a bit more notice as a result of the participation of Hindemith, etc.

In the 1930s, the Nazis tried to revive the whole thing in their own terms, but, naturally, their terms had little to do with significant new music, so it failed miserably. However, after the War, when a good deal of money was invested in West Germany's cultural revival, not least through the establishment of various radio networks, it was possible to get things going again, and the first of the modern music days took place in 1950. With its policy of concentrating on first performances, Donaueschingen, which was, of course, run by Sudwestfunk, became the focus of international attention, and despite a suggestion a few years ago that it should only be held every other year - an idea which provoked the cultural equivalent of uproar - it has maintained its reputation to the present day. A British visitor, experiencing the Donaueschinger MUSIKTAGE for the first time, suggested that it was like entering a time-warp and being transported back to the 1960s and 1970s. He also implied that an element of indulgence was involved, and that composers failed to make imaginative use of the spatial possibilities offered by the adjoining halls of the main venue.

However, he failed perhaps to appreciate the determination of South-West German Radio to uphold the standards which established Donaueschingen's reputation as the centre of   modernism in music, not least by avoiding commercial trends.

Modernism is alive and well in Central Europe. It is nurtured by a steady stream of composers who show, at the very least, impressive competence in handling large scale projects involving extensive orchestral forces. They may not have the impact of some pseudo-cultural events associated with certain fashionable, commercially-driven British composers, but they contribute to a cultural climate in which innovation and intellectual substance are still acknowledged as the main criteria.

Moreover, in the major event of this year's programme, Part I, entitled Zerfall, of Der Engel Der Geschichte, Vinko Globokar explored similar issues to those confronted in Standpunkte, of 1977. Standpunkte was successfully performed, but one of its texts raised political objections and the 'live' broadcast was inexplicably cancelled 'for technical reasons'.

The new work encountered less controversy, but was no less powerful, and certainly no less characteristic. In fact, it has clearly gained from Globokar's previous orchestral scores - hence his ambition to create a vast trilogy, the last part of which will deal with unanswerable questions. This was already overshadowed by the inconclusive ending of the first part, which also functions as a preparation for its successors. Two orchestral groups, placed as far apart as possible, battled it out, across a barbed wire installation which was lowered just before the performance.

Their confrontation was left unresolved, but extracts of   Slovenian folk music, heard sporadically over loudspeakers, achieved a measure of prominence in the final pages. Perhaps this indicates Globokar's belief that the culture of the Balkans will survive, despite the political and economic interference of major powers, which would be in keeping with his distaste of rampant nationalism and nation states.

Other items were far less significant, but the orchestral concerts, both involving the Symphony Orchestra of South-West German Radio, revealed new, or little-known composers. In the final concert, conducted by Sylvain Cambreling, plus Roland Cluttig in Der Engel Der Geschichte, Globokar's offering was preceded by pieces contrasting in both scale and value. Juerg Mainka, born 1962, a Professor of Theory and Analysis in Berlin, was represented by Tutti, for large orchestra, with eleven trumpets, distributed around the audience. The forty-minute score developed spatial and rhythmic ideas from his teacher, Spahlinger, especially his Passage-Paysage, but it also demonstrated a degree of originality. On the other hand, the Austrian, Peter Ablinger's much shorter Quadraturen V quickly ran out of ideas.

Consequently, the opening concert was slightly more successful in terms of overall quality. The starting-point for Musik fuer Gerhard Richter, by Andreas Dohmen, born 1962, was a sequence of paintings, based on photographs, in which Richter subjected the original image to varying degrees of distortion and deconstruction. Dohmen's interpretation involved a good deal of interplay between foreground and background, with elements of the material constantly moving in and out of focus.

Another factor was a wide range of orchestral sonorities. In this respect, as well as in its overall form, Peter Ruzicka's Erinnerung, for clarinet and orchestra, written for Sharon Kam, was far more conventional. It was very well written, but its full significance may not be recognised until its relationship to Ruzicka's forthcoming opera, Celan, is understood. At around forty minutes, Mark Andre's Modell, for large orchestra, was too long for its material, though there were some arresting moments, particularly towards the end. It also differed from the Globokar and Mainka pieces in the way it utilised the spatial dimension.

The electroacoustic and chamber events were uniformly disappointing. Caroline Wilkins' Mecanica Natura, winner of the Karl-Sczuka Prize, did not achieve the standard of the finest winners of this event, while the three pieces in the recital by Trio Accanto - of which the best was probably Stefano Gervasoni's regirio - did not match their most memorable commissions.

The Ensemble Recherche programme was only marginally more convincing. It began badly with Chris Newman's The State Paintings with Anti-Abstract - an example of the new banality which, presumably, is intended to assume the controversial role formerly associated with the avant-garde. Pierluigi Billone's Mani. Giacometti belonged unequivocally to the modernist camp, but the most rewarding item was Walter Zimmermann's Shadows of Cold Mountain III - another piece with a painterly background - foreshadowing the ensemble's performance of the complete cycle later in the season.

Even the jazz event, featuring the Claudio Puntin Quintet, plus the Steffen Schorn Ensemble, failed to live up to expectations, but the concert on the third morning by the SWR Vokalensemble, Stuttgart, and Klangforum Wien was altogether more successful. Martin Smolka's Walden, the Distiller of Celestial Dews, setting texts by Thoreau for choir with discreet percussion, must be counted among his finest achievements; and while Michael Kreihsl's film version of Ray Bradbury's science fiction story, The Long Rain was not to everyone's taste, it inspired a powerful score from Olga Neuwirth. Technical problems meant that it could not be performed with 'live' electronics, yet the combination of spatially distributed soloists and instrumental groups, plus tape, ensured they were not missed. As with parts of Mark Andre's Modell, some passages of Olga Neuwirth's score were reminiscent of Boulez' Repons, but some sections were also illustrative of Kreihsl's interpretation of the narrative.

As usual, the concerts were supplemented by various installations located at venues throughout the town. This is certainly one way of engaging with the local community, except that this year's exhibits were not all that interesting. The one possible exception was Renate Hoffleit's Leben ist Laut, which added an intriguing ambience to the ChristusKirche.

Musica Viva in Munich

Elsewhere, the new season of Musica Viva concerts in Munich began rather tamely on 6 October with three works, none of which lasted more than 20 minutes. Martin Smolka's Remix, Reflight, for orchestra, was a bland affair, failing to catch the ear to the same extent as his choral piece at Donaueschingen. Michael Svoboda was the soloist in Xenakis' Troorkh, for trombone and orchestra, but rarely achieved the intensity demanded by the score. Tristan Murail's Le Par tage des Eaux was undoubtedly the highlight of the evening, but it provided a rather brief second half.

Zeitlos in Cologne

In Cologne, West German Radio packed in six concerts in their series Zeitlos, between 27 and 29 October. These included a recital of Indian music, a detailed look at Gerard Grisey's last work, and a performance of Feldman's For Samuel Beckett by Klangforum Wien. Rihm's latest opus, Frage, was due to be performed by Ensemble Recherche, but mysteriously failed to appear. Nevertheless, two events were devoted to significant premieres.

Toshio Hosokawa's Percussion Concerto, entitled Tabi-Bito - The Wanderer - is one of the best examples of its kind, which compares very well with Peter Eotvoes' Triangel, for percussion and chamber orchestra. Above all, it shows the extent to which Hosokawa has absorbed elements of traditional Japanese music into his style.

In some respects, Salvatore Sciarrino's Il Giornale della Necropoli, for accordion and orchestra, was more atmospheric, but ultimately, it made less of an impact. Nevertheless, Sciarrino possesses Feldman's ability to recognise precisely how many repetitions a phrase or gesture can withstand. Isao Nakamura and Teordoro Anzellotti were the respective soloists, while in the second half, Mayumi Miyata was the soloist in a simultaneous performance of I 9, for sho, plus 108 for orchestra. This was, indeed, timeless, in accordance with the overall title of the series. As with the other two works, the orchestra of West German Radio was conducted by Ken Takaseki.

Klangforum Wien, conducted by Cambreling, were responsible for the other premiere: In Vain, for 24 instruments by Georg Friedrich Haas . In recent years, Haas has been moving towards his own brand of minimalism, presumably in order that his exploration of microtonal harmony can achieve maximum impact. He has also been preoccupied with certain aspects of Schubertian harmony, and these features are prominent in the new work. Stylistically, it falls somewhere between Scelsi, Schnebel and recent Stockhausen, and its hour's duration is intrinsic to the somewhat mystical atmosphere it generates. However, conventional wisdom suggests that it is far too long for its material.

Wolfgang Rihm rarely refuses a commission. He is such a prolific composer that this is well justified, but recently, several pieces have either failed to materialise, or have been rather different from the pieces anticipated. Nevertheless, there have been three major premieres in the past two months. Labyrinth: Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra is particularly interesting, because it is scored for virtually the same forces as Morphonie Sektor IV, with which Rihm made his first decisive impact at Donaueschingen, in 1974. Indeed, the comparison is strengthened by the fact that a piano plays a prominent role in both. The new work is more subtle than its counterpart, but only occasionally achieves the same expressive power. However, as it is a genuine concerto, the string quartet has a more active role, even if the writing for the soloists is relatively conventional.

One area of Rihm's output which has not been adequately covered is his contribution to sacred music, in the broadest sense. Titles indicating a degree of religious content can be traced back to his earliest works, and Deus Passus appears to build on an earlier choral score, Maximum Est Unum, which had its premiere a few years ago. In view of the nature of the commission, it also pays homage to Bach insofar as Rihm has applied aspects of Bach's style to a contemporary context.

Fleuve V: Omnia Tempus Habent, also concludes with a brief vocal section, setting an extract from the Song of Songs for mezzo and baritone soloists, but otherwise, this 65-minute score is in Rihm's more familiar 'symphonic' mode. It incorporates aspects of Vers une Symphonie Fleuve IV, and Spiegel und Fluss, but this is only occasionally noticeable, and then only with prior knowledge. Rather more obvious is the extent to which the powerful central section is based on the scherzo from Mahler's Ninth Symphony. The work is in a single movement, and represents one of the longest spans of continuous music to have been written in recent years.

John Warnaby

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