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Wittener Tage für Neue Kammermusik 05–07.05 2006 reviewed by John Warnaby




The 2006 Wittener Tage followed the familiar format of six concerts and four performances of improvised music. Within this basic pattern, however, the six concerts covered a variety of styles, whereas the improvisations, although exemplifying different approaches, became curiously predictable. Despite a great deal of discussion concerning the potential of improvised music, there are few indications that its practitioners can match the degree of sophistication, or memorability usually associated with committed interpretations of fully notated scores.

This year’s programme of performances at Haus Witten featured the group Les Femmes Savantes – Wise Women: Ana-Maria Rodriguez, Andrea Neumann, Hanna Hartman, Sabine Ercklentz and Ute Wassermann. Their collective project covered composition, improvisation, instrumental and visual activities, as well as sound art. There were also ‘live’ electronics or tape, and considerable use was made of the vocal agility of Ute Wassermann. The individual items were generally quite short. They were usually entertaining, often amusing, sometimes involving a disparity between physical gestures and sonic events. On one occasion, the sound of a passing train was integrated into the performance.

However, despite much hard work, in conjunction with a great deal of ingenuity, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that their best efforts were ephemeral in comparison with the conventional concerts.

The latest manifestation of the Arditti String Quartet, with Lukas Fels replacing Rohan de Saram as cellist, maintained their usual high standard as regards both performance and repertoire. Their interpretation of Jonathan Harvey’s substantial Fourth String Quartet, with ‘live’ electronics, in the second half of the fourth concert, was easily the highlight of a programme shared with Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart and members of Ensemble Ascolta, on 6 May. The balance between the quartet and the electronics was particularly successful, and though some doubts were raised concerning the composer’s inclination towards late-romantic harmony, these were largely dispelled by the subtle transformation process, in which the spatial distribution of the basic material was integral. Harvey compared the precision with which sounds could be pin-pointed to certain aspects of higher meditation, and the Quartet represented a further stage in his preoccupation with the interplay between ‘live’ instruments and electronically manipulated sounds in real time.

The first half of the programme was far less interesting. Nadir Vassena’s Infidi luoghi dell’ anima, for counter-tenor and four voices made little impression, while Rolf Riehm’s aprikosenbäume gibt es, aprikosenbäume gibt es, for small ensemble and tapes, in which he attempted to create the musical equivalent of the recitation of a text by Inger Christensen, using the bass clarinet as soloist, was disappointing in view of his many fascinating scores.

The Arditti Quartet was also responsible for the final concert, in which they gave the German, or world premieres of three recent works. A sequence of barely audible fragments, interspersed with sharp outbursts, provided the starting-point for Peter Ruzicka’s String Quartet No. 5, entitled Sturz. A brief discourse ensued, after which the music lapsed into increasingly enigmatic silences. The work explored a characteristic Ruzicka preoccupation in that it was conceived in response to an altered perception of time during a long flight. It also contained the familiar tension arising from Ruzicka’s expressive gestures. Significantly, however, he no longer relied on Mahler as a point of reference.

Brian Ferneyhough’s Fifth String Quartet was a slighter work than its predecessors – certainly the first three quartets. Unlike Ruzicka, Ferneyhough generates tension through the velocity of musical activity – in this instance, an attempt to create a sequence of simultaneous variations. Yet, apart from a few brief episodes, the Quartet lacked the concentrated impact of Ferneyhough’s finest scores. It felt like a transition work between Shadowtime, and the projected orchestral work for Donaueschingen 2006.

Ultimately, Stefano Gervasoni’s Second String Quartet, entitled Six lettres à l’obscurité (und zwei Nachrichten) proved the most memorable item. Its eight sections, played without a break to form a single entity, covered a variety of styles – including an intriguing quotation from Girolamo Frescobaldi –- but without sacrificing overall cohesion. By returning to the music of the opening, the eighth section completed the cycle convincingly, and thus, the final piece of the weekend provided an object lesson for the opening work in the first concert.

This was given by the Asko Ensemble, conducted by Hans Leenders, and the work in question was Klas Torstensson’s large-scale Self-portrait with Percussion (Lantern Lectures V). There were nine movements, but the last of these was superfluous, not simply because it was the weakest. The preceding section, entitled Procession III, had brought the work full-circle, so the final movement effectively undermined a satisfactory overall structure.

Richard Rijnvos’ mappamondo, for speaker, tuba and ensemble, was hardly less ambitious. It began promisingly, with an atmospheric evocation of the Venetian Island of San Michele. However, Rijnvos did not supply additional music for the German version, even though James Cowan’s text was somewhat longer than the original English. Consequently, the text had to be read at considerable speed, and ultimately would have needed an actor to project it more convincingly.

Moreover, the music became increasingly austere, notwithstanding the inclusion of a Ballata by the Flemish Ars Nova composer, Johannes Ciconia. Nevertheless, Rijnvos’ imaginative programme gave the work a definite sense of direction, so that despite a tendency towards repetition, it can be regarded as one of his most successful scores.

Iris ter-Schiphorst’s Zerstören, for ensemble and CD player was less convincing. Conceived in response to the distortions and dangers of religious fundamentalism, its monochrome character only occasionally generated sufficient interest to register a warning, still less a protest against the growing threat of irrationalism.

The second concert featuring Swiss music, given by Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart and Ensemble Ascolta, conducted by Michael Alber, was disappointing, with only one of the three works compelling serious attention. This was the six-part cycle, Die auf dich zurückgreifende Zeit, for vocal soloists and ensemble, by Michel Roth. Manipulating texts from a novel, by the Swiss writer, Peter Weber, to create different strands of musical discourse, Roth’s cycle developed a stylistic consistency within the modernist tradition that bodes well for the future. His work made a stronger impression than either Annette Schmucki’s arbeiten / verlieren, die stimmen, for five voices and seven instruments, or Mischa Käser’s Praeludien 1 – 8, for vocal ensemble.

The third concert featured the pianists, Helena Bugallo and Amy Williams, together with Ensemble Resonanz, conducted by Sian Edwards, who is establishing links with an increasing number of specialist ensembles, and gaining an enviable reputation as an interpreter of new music. Sebastian Stier’s Strahlensatz, and Elliott Sharp’s Proof of Erdös, both for twelve strings, were the main items. Stier has written more arresting scores for mixed ensembles, but this was a challenging, if rather austere experiment, based on the fact that string instruments cannot be tuned exactly, to introduce microtonal elements.

Elliott Sharp’s piece was more immediately appealing, it represented a radical departure from the abrasive manner of much of his earlier output, with its roots in pop music, and may prove a fruitful line of development. Moreover, it probably registered the main surprise of the weekend.

The works for piano four hands were less successful, though in Lokaler Widerstand, for piano four hands and twelve strings, Erik Oña set himself a formidable challenge. It was the third of a cycle of interconnected pieces, building on, and in some respects, amplifying its predecessors. The strings were restricted to complementing the piano, and Oña composed with a limited repertoire of pitch material. In order to reveal the piano’s subtlest sonorities he devised a principle whereby the pitches would determine the rhythms, phrases, etc. However, he also recognised a fine line between a method that was too rigid, or too free, and on the austere evidence of Lokaler Widerstand, it is not clear whether Oña’s scheme can be developed further.

Maria Cecilia Villanueva’s Cuatro esquinas – Four Corners – for piano four hands, was based on a variety of literary, musical and geographical references, ultimately derived from a poem of Borges describing the mythical founding of Buenos Aires. There was no programmatic element, though besides influencing the rows of pitches on which the work was based, the network of inter-relationships gave rise to a quotation from Wagner’s Parsifal. Unfortunately, the cross-references of the programme were more stimulating than the rather sombre piece itself.

The penultimate concert, given by Ensemble Recherche, was the most varied, aesthetically, in that each of the three pieces was composed from a significantly different standpoint. Wolfgang Rihm’s Blick auf Kolchis was one of the latest products of compositional developments dating back to the early 1990s, when he encountered the paintings of Kurt Kocherscheidt. Besides adapting Kocherscheidt’s principle of over-painting to music, Rihm began re-composing earlier pieces in new ways.

Thus, Kolchis, for five players, was expanded into In Frage, by the addition of cor anglais, bass clarinet and viola, while Blick auf Kolchis represents a further development of In Frage, with an additional bass flute and violin. The result is characteristic of Rihm’s expressive ambience, with the slowly evolving melody giving the music a timeless dimension, while the assertive gestures of the accompanying instruments generate considerable intensity.

The starting-point for Mathias Spahlinger’s fugitive beauté, for oboe, alto flute, bass clarinet and string trio was a poem from Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal, but the piece was primarily concerned with creating a purely musical discourse, based on the interplay of different tempi, rather than reflecting expressive, or programmatic elements.

The two canons of Hans Abrahamsen’s Schnee, for nine instruments, were also concerned with strictly musical issues, but whereas Spahlinger’s network of different pulses produced textures that sometimes sounded improvisatory, Abrahamsen’s precise counterpoint yielded the simplest score of the weekend.

Ultimately, the final two concerts became the principal focus of this Year’s Wittener Tage. Despite the favourable impression made by other groups, and changes to their personnel, Ensemble Recherche and the Arditti String Quartet confirmed their status as the mainstays of Witten weekends by virtue of their outstanding performances, and their ability to adapt to different styles of new music.



John Warnaby

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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)