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Seen and Heard International Festival Review
Wittener Tage für Neue Kammermusik, 23.-25. April 2004 by John Warnaby
The Wittener Tage für Neue Kammermusik 2004 consisted of six concerts, held in two venues, plus four performance events and various installations, presented at Haus Witten. Despite efforts to promote the latter, the reputations of Witten or Donaueschingen continue to be judged by the concert events, and Witten 2004 provided additional confirmation.
A notable feature of the concerts was the absence of digital enhancements, apart from the brief use of a CD player in the final item of the concluding piece. Equally significant was the consistency of the overall standard. Whereas recent Donaueschingen Music Days have tended to favour the stylistic variety of post-modernism Witten has generally retained its allegiance to a modernist sensibility.
The composers assembled for Witten 2004 generally ensured that a modernist outlook prevailed. The exceptions appeared mainly in the first concert, with the West German Radio Choir, conducted by Rupert Huber, and the Percussion Quartet Cologne. It was the least rewarding of the six concert programmes. The choral items were more successful than the instrumental counterparts insofar as both composers fulfilled their objectives without producing works of startling originality.
Toshio Hosokawa’s Mein Herzensgrund, unendlich tief, for marimba and voices, arose from a text by the Zen philosopher Nishida, comparing the depth of the sea with the depth of the human mind. It opened with collective breathing to create an effective impression of an aural "seascape" as perceived from a distance, beside which the writing for marimba and choir was more conventional. Ultimately, the significance of the text was conveyed through the ritual character of the music, rather than the words themselves.
A similar approach was evident in Claus Lang’s berge.träume, for cello and choir, including a preoccupation with natural sounds. The instrumental writing was slightly more experimental, yet the choral writing, while somewhat hypnotic, was ultimately less original.
The percussion items were less substantial. Guo Wenjing’s Drama op. 23 provoked some remarkable interplay between three members of the ensemble, playing different species of Chinese cymbals. In comparison, Natalia Gaviola’s contribution "suelo incierto" was rather tame.
The late evening concert by Collegium Novum Zürich, with the soprano Sylvia Nopper, had much greater vitality. In keeping with techniques recently adopted by several composers, Georg Friedrich Haas has derived a number of pieces from …Einklang freier Wesen …, including …aus freier Lust…verbunden…, for bass flute, bass clarinet and two percussion. As such, the score, conducted by Peter Rundel, was a gentle reminder of Haas’ style of the mid 1990s, rather than an indication of his current concerns.
Heinz Holliger also reverted to an earlier style in Puneigä, for soprano and ensemble, which he directed. In response to the poetry of Anna Maria Bacher, written in the German-Swiss dialect of Pumatter Titch, Holliger adopted an essentially modernist approach, reflected in the power, even abrasive character of the score. In comparison with previous settings of similar texts, such as Alb-Chehr, Puneigä was more experimental, drawing on speech inflections, together with ethereal sounds as perceived in the Alps. Thus, the influence of folk material was extended into the realm of microtonality.
Each of the remaining concerts included at least one work by a Swiss composer, beginning with Klaus Huber’s …à l’âme de marcher sur ses pieds de soie…, chamber concerto for solo cello, baryton, counter-tenor and nine instruments, again featuring Collegium Novum Zürich, conducted by Peter Rundel. This was the premiere of the chamber version of Die Seele muss vom Reittier steigen, for the same soloists, plus chamber orchestra, which had such a major success at Donaueschingen in 2002.
As Max Nyffeler observed in the Witten Programme Book, since 1990, Klaus Huber has produced alternative versions of some of his compositions, while also deriving new works from elements of previous creations. The Chamber Concerto belonged to the former category. Apart from dispensing with two fortissimo tutti passages, the basic material was retained, but by re-scoring, even re-composing the work for nine instruments, including accordion, harp, guitar and mandolin, Huber emphasised the use of quarter, third and sixth tones. Accordingly the influence of early music, and especially Huber’s involvement with Arabic modes was more apparent, thereby enhancing his response to the poetry of Mahmoud Darwisch. In fact, the titles of both versions contain echoes of Die Erde bewegt sich auf den Hoernern eines Ochsen, for vocalist, ensemble and tape, which virtually inaugurated Huber’s Arabian phase in Witten, in 1994. Likewise, the poetry of the Iranian, Mahmoud Doulatabadi, is comparable with Darwisch in that both can be related to the philosophy of Avicenna – one of Huber’s principal sources of inspiration.
Darwisch’s text was conceived as a protest against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and, inspired by elements of Sufi philosophy and mysticism, Huber, in his Chamber Concerto, extended the indictment to include "the totalitarian market, … the process of turning man into an object…" The soloists were Walter Grimmer, Max Engel and Kai Wessel, as in the original, and the resulting work was certainly as convincing.
The Huber was preceded by Atanasia Tzanou’s moving shapes of a wonderous spell, for six instruments and Giorgio Netti’s note all’empedocle, also for ensemble. The former reflected the influence of impressionism, at least partly through its scoring, including flute and harp; the latter, in a revised version, was one of the composer’s more satisfying pieces, though not as arresting as his string quartet, heard in Huddersfield in 2002.
The fourth concert, featuring the Arditti String quartet and members of Ensemble Recherche, comprised mainly relatively familiar items, such as the two versions of Brian Ferneyhough’s Funérailles, for seven strings and harp, or Giacinto Scelsi’s Okanagon, for harp, tam-tam and double-bass, which received an outstanding interpretation. One of the exceptions was the first performance of the complete version of Klaus Huber’s In Nomine – Ricercare il nome…, a brief piece composed in honour of Harry Vogt, Witten’s longstanding organiser, and scored for alto flute, bass clarinet, trombone and string trio. This was not a major work, on the scale of the Chamber Concerto, yet it demonstrated Huber’s ability to establish his individual sound-world in less than ten minutes.
The other premiere was a more extended piece by Stefano Gervasoni, Dir – commento a "In Dir", for two stereophonically placed string trios. The starting-point was an eleven-part cycle for vocal sextet, based on 17th-century theological texts. The instrumental pieces were designed as a "commentary", while also functioning as prologue and epilogue; yet they proved more substantial. Dir – commento a "In Dir" was the ‘abstract’ equivalent of the vocal work and demonstrated Gervasoni’s strong inclination towards a closely-argued discourse.
A similar tendency was evident in the fifth concert, which achieved a remarkable level of consistency. The Arditti String Quartet presented three works, each of which could be classified as ‘modernist’, by virtue of their compositional rigour. Yet they also encompassed considerable diversity.
Philipp Maintz’ Inner Circle was conceived as a technical challenge for the Arditti Quartet. At the same time, the concision with which it revolved around a single tonal centre created a powerful impression, suggesting that Maintz, born 1977, is one of the most promising composers of his generation.
By contrast, Wolfgang Rihm’s Fetzen, for accordion and string quartet, comprised a varied sequence of eight short pieces lasting about 25 minutes. Each piece was self-contained, illustrating the mercurial aspect of Rihm’s personality. They were varied not only in terms of tempo, including pieces whose impact stemmed from their extraordinary velocity, but equally as regards the relationship between the accordion and the quartet. The effect was cumulative, and could even be extended with the addition of further items.
Beat Furrer’s Third String Quartet was remarkable for its economy of gesture, and the way the music’s nervous energy was sustained for 40 minutes. The basic material was arranged as a series of cycles, and there were times when the element of repetition threatened to become intrusive, but ultimately, the work compelled close attention.
In comparison with the high standard of the fifth concert, the three main works in the final programme, with Heinz Holliger conducting Ensemble Modern, were rather mixed. They were linked by two sequences of György Kurtag’s instrumental Signs, Games and Messages, which functioned as interludes. Least memorable was Roland Moser’s Oszillation und Figur, (Aus den Ritterfragmenten). It stemmed from an extended project dating back to 1970, but while presenting a slightly unusual sound-world, it lacked any degree of contrast. Jacques Wildberger’s Kammerkonzert (Erkundungen im Sechsteltonbereich) deserved comparison with his close contemporary, Klaus Huber’s Chamber Concerto, on account of its microtonal language. However, their approach to composition using sixth-tones is distinctly different. Ultimately Wildberger’s method, relying primarily on harpsichord, piano and synthesisers proved less individual.
On the other hand, Nicolaus A. Huber’s Werden Fische je das Wasser leid? Musik mit Neglect –Syndrom, for soprano and ensemble, introduced a degree of subtlety that has not always been evident in his output. Thus, the element of protest against the Iraq war was not given undue prominence, and there was less emphasis on the obsessive aspect of his creative personality. Most of the piece, especially the vocal writing, was predominantly quiet, and the only unusual effect was the sound of rushing water which gradually built up at the climax of the score.
There were four performance events in Haus Witten, but the only one to achieve real substance was Luigi Nono’s Musica-manifesto n.1, comprising Un volto, del mare and Non consumiamo Marx. Un volto, del mare was particularly successful in view of the ‘live’ element, featuring the soprano Petra Hoffmann. At least Eric Oña’s Andere Stimmen, for six hands at one piano, stood out from the rest on account of its imaginative quirkiness, involving as much activity on the strings as on the keys.
The installations were the familiar mixture of fun and games, frequently incorporating an element of interaction with the spectator. However, the creative aspect was ingenious, rather than profound. Still, Haus Witten is a valuable asset, and will eventually yield artistic value.