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York HÖLLER (born 1944)
Piano Works: Five Piecesa (1964) [9’31]. Diaphonie for Two Pianos (1965) [10’48]. Piano Sonatas – No. 1, ‘Sonate informellea (1968) [12’37]; No. 2, ‘Hommage à Franz Lisztb (1986) [17’09]. Partita for Two Pianos Hommage à Bernd Alois Zimmermann’ (1996) [16’15].
aKristi Becker, bPi-hsiaen Chen (pianos).
WDR recordings from Köln Funkhaus, Wallraffplatz, Klaus-von-Bismarck-Saal, on December 5th-6th and 12th-13th, 2000. DDD
CPO 999 954-2 [66’49]


Here is a major release. Acting as a reminder of the stature of the music of York Höller, this is a remarkable product.

Höller was born in Leverkusen in 1944. Having attended Boulez’s analysis courses at Darmstadt in 1965 and undergoing a spell as répétiteur at the Bonn Opera (under Hans Zender), Höller worked at the Cologne WDR Electronic Music Studio at the invitation of Karlheinz Stockhausen. In 1978 he received his first invitation to IRCAM. His opera, Der Meister und Margarita (after Bulgakov: to be reviewed on this site) was premièred at the Paris Opéra in 1989 after a 5-year gestation. From 1990-2000, Höller was Artistic Director of the Cologne WDR Studio; in 1995, he succeeded Hans Werner Henze as Professor of Composition at the Cologne Academy. One of his most recent compositions, Der Ewige Tag (2001) has been recorded on the Avie label.

Kirsti Becker is pianist of Ensemble Köln and as such is modern music-saturated. Challenging music such as found on this disc is her bread and butter, and she sounds totally at home here. Taiwanese pianist Pi-hsien Chen premiered Höller’s Pensées (Piano Concerto No. 2 with live electronic music) in 1993. Competition prize winner several times over, she has collaborated with Boulez, Stockhausen and Kurtag; she has recorded Boulez’s Notations and Structures II for CBS, and Schoenberg’s complete piano music (hat(now)ART). Chien has been professor of piano at the Cologne Academy since 1983.

CPO has therefore chosen two of the most apt players imaginable for this disc. The first work (and the earliest: the pieces are presented chronologically) is the Five Pieces of 1964. Höller sees this as his ‘Op. 1’ (he destroyed many earlier works on the grounds they were not ‘progressive’ enough), although he states that he was, ‘still too strongly oriented toward Hindemith, Bartók and Stravinsky, toward composers who from the perspective of the so-called Second Viennese School were not regarded as ‘progressive’ enough’. The Five Pieces is a result of Höller’s immersion in the music of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, a fascination that began in 1963. All five pieces derive from one twelve-note row. There is an intense concentration to the second piece, ‘Sehr zart, poco rubato’ that is entirely indicative of this composer’s seriousness of intent. The ‘Pesante’ fourth piece organically grows in front of one’s very ears; the finale is very much the ‘Toccata’ of its title. Rhythmically vital à la Bartók, Becker’s playing exudes confidence and belief.

Diaphonie (1965, for two pianos) was written on the 20th anniversary of Bartók’s death, although Höller candidly admits that, ‘in its style and compositional technique this work no longer has anything to do with Bartók’. Instead, the serialism Höller met in Darmstadt is manifest (although this is not integral serialism), the Bartók link coming in the shape of a filling-out of the introductory motif of the earlier composer’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion to form a twelve-note row. Diaphonie speaks with Boulezian asceticism and a positively Webernian use of silence as an integral part of the ongoing musical argument. Bartók’s influence can perhaps be heard in the percussive use of the piano (the pianists here reveal tremendous finger strength). Aurally, the delicate tapestries of sound towards the close of the work (around 9’30) are most appealing, circling around fanfare-like repeated notes.

The two piano sonatas are separated by 18 years. The first carries the subtitle, ‘Sonate informelle’, derived from Adorno’s essay, ‘Vers une musique informelle’, an essay that embraced free atonality with open arms. So, indeed, Höller’s work is freely atonal. From the arresting cluster of the very beginning, tremendous energy is in evidence. Yet there is delicacy here, too. The second movement is a ‘meditation on the core interval of the major seventh’ (listen also for the beautiful right-hand filigree at around 2’50 in); the fast finale is not only fleet of finger but also fleeting of impressions. As soon gets a hold on the shifting expressive world, it has moved to another space. Becker is a stalwart interpreter.

However, the Second Sonata is an even finer piece, and correspondingly Chen seems to play even better. This work is in homage of Liszt (Höller’s own notes explain the derivations of pitch material from ‘Feux follets’, and there is also a reference to the late piano piece, Unstern). There is a gritty determination to both the writing and the playing, although Chen finds dancing elements along the way, too. This is a performance of great conviction and is without doubt the highlight of the disc.

Finally, Partita (1996), a homage to Bernd Alois Zimmermann but inspired by the spirits of J. S. Bach and Debussy (‘Général Lavine’ is quoted in the final movement), is a tour-de-force. Each of its six movements has an archaic title: Preludio, Fuga, Fantasia I, Conductus, Fantasia II and Gigue. The Fuga is exciting, but the most visceral movement is the almost orchestral fourth movement (Conductus), in which ostinati underpin an ongoing aggregation of textures. An infectious Gigue, not without a sense of humour, rounds the work off.

This is eminently rewarding music. This disc should be investigated without delay.

Colin Clarke



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