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Clara SCHUMANN (1819-1896)
Drei Romanzen Op.22 (1853) [10:02]
Heinz HOLLIGER (b. 1939)
Romancendres (2003) [21:38]
Gesänge der Frühe (1987) [28:19]
Christoph Richter (cello), Dénes Várjon (piano) (Romanzen, Romancendres); SWR Vokalenensemble Stuttgart; Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR/Heinz Holliger
rec. February 2008, Auditorio Radio Svizzera, Lugano (Romanzen, Romancendres), and July 2007, Stadhalle Sindelfingen (Gesänge der Frühe)
ECM NEW SERIES 2055 (476 3225) [59:59]
Experience Classicsonline

This recording owes its existence to Heinz Holliger's fascination with the world of Robert and Clara Schumann, as well as that of Brahms whose life was so deeply affected by the both of them, initiated by Robert's 'Neue Bahnen' article praising his work, and his subsequent love for Clara. Clara Schumann was of course a noted pianist and composer in her own right, and while her Drei Romanzen at first seem to have been parachuted in here to substitute for the Romances for cello and piano which Robert Schumann wrote, also in 1853, but which were burnt by Clara in 1893. It is the year 1853 which however unites this collection of works into a 'concept album'. It was the year that Brahms first met Clara, and is also the date for Robert Schumann's last piano work on which Gesänge der Frühe is based. The booklet notes tell us little about Clara's Drei Romanzen Op.22, but they are each little gems. Originally for violin and piano, they are inevitably in that high romantic idiom of the time, but manage to be melodically expansive and open - charming and intense at the same time, and most certainly not without harmonic interest.

Potential purchasers of this disc may wonder at the disparate combination of the two composers represented here, but it is the inspiration of Robert Schumann which is the driving force behind both works by Heinz Holliger. Romancendres took the vivid description by violinist Joseph Joachim of the destroyed Romances by Robert Schumann as a starting point, mixing them with the remains of Clara's fire and meditating on love and death, music and silence, madness and genius, romances and cinders. The result is a poetic statement of considerable force, the sonorities of the piano being extended with bags of 'alternative' techniques - damped and plucked strings, as well as the angular atonalities of conventional but remote and enigmatic conventional notes. One can imagine the 'lost' music struggling through, with momentary triads in the piano and 'romantic' melodic gestures in the cello signalling the living composer's passionate but inevitably fragmented relationship with the dead composer's lost manuscript.

Even more impressive, Gesänge der Frühe was first performed in 1987, and is scored for choir, orchestra and tape. As previously mentioned, Schumann's last set of piano pieces with the same title from 1853 is one of the most important factors in this fascinating piece. The piano music has in the opening of the work been superimposed with texts which include a poem from the late period of Friedrich Hölderlin - another romantic genius who, like Robert Schumann, fell prey to mental illness. These texts are given in the booklet only in the original German, and all are taken from sources from the period of Schumann's death. Roman Brotbeck's notes sums the potent combination of text and music up as a 'ghastly, ever-changing world of spirits', and indeed you can allow yourself to be dragged down into a kind of darkly morbid, Dante-esque pit of nightmares. The combination of the antique and the new is however richly fascinating, and in places remarkably, tear-jerkingly beautiful - it has been haunting me for days. The musical quotations drift at times out of a shadowy background, played diffusely in low woodwinds, sometimes emerging from within the choir, later on with a deliberately manipulated piano sound - the music drowning in de-tuned instability. The texts, pre-recorded, can leap out unexpectedly with startling and clinical clarity or commentate with a chilling 'sotto voce', but unlike Zimmerman's Requiem the spoken word doesn't have an ever-present role. Holliger shows us how, with relatively simple means, one can be brought into the mysterious realms of mental suffering without turning the whole thing into a circus act. This is one of those pieces which you just have to experience, rather than describe. I haven't always been such a fan of Holliger's compositional work in the past, but I find myself deeply moved and impressed by this piece, which clearly comes from the most heartfelt of the artist's expressive resources. Gesänge der Frühe will take you to a very dark place, after which you can emerge ever more appreciative of simple life and sacred sanity. It almost goes without saying that the performances of all these works is at the highest standard, as is the quality of the recording.

Dominy Clements


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