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CD: Crotchet AmazonUK

Alfred ZIMMERLIN (b. 1955)
String Quartet No. 2(2003) [10:58]
Euridice singt (2004-05) [35:28]
String Quartet No. 1 (2001/02) [12:23]
Carmina Quartett (Quartet 2), Æquatour (Euridice singt), Aria Quartett (Quartet 1)
rec. October 2007, Kultur-& Kongresshaus Aarau (Euridice singt), and August 2006, Radio Studio DRS, Zurich (Streichquartette)
ECM NEW SERIES 2045 (476 3261) [58:54]
Experience Classicsonline

Not having heard of Swiss composer Alfred Zimmerlin before encountering this recording, I was intrigued to read of his reputation as an improvising cellist, being an active mover in the “Werkstatt für improvisierte Musik” (WIM, Workshop for Improvised Music) Zurich since 1980. His current catalogue consists of more than 70 compositions, including solo pieces and music with live electronics as well as works for radio and film.

With the String Quartet No.2, Zimmerlin points towards an association with Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Duino Elegies”, with its rebellion against the limitations of the “space of human existence.” This is musically expressed in relative understatement rather than grand emotive gestures, concentrating on ‘the little things.’ Pizzicati, sustained notes and textures and an initially soft dynamic move towards rising stress and tension with microtone scales which push the tonality higher, finishing in a mound which closes in on itself; the pig’s tail of a single vibrato laden sotto voce note being the only thing which really escapes in the end.

Euridice singt is a 35-minute “Szene” for soprano, oboe, cello, piano and tape, and is based on a libretto by Swiss poet, rapper and free improviser Raphael Urweider. Euridice substitutes the more frequently represented Orpheus as the central character in this version of a familiar operatic subject from Greek mythology. Euridice’s death in the opening scene is taken as the catalyst for Orpheus’ artistic awakening, represented on the oboe. Euridice’s musings are taken over by a short ‘rap’ from an electronic chorus, her fans. She reflects on the state of being dead, concluding that she actually quite enjoys it. The works continues with an interaction between these three active participants: the chorus, a kind of mixed gender Kraftwerk-style vocal ensemble, Orpheus in the oboe, who is capable of passionate singing as well as some stunning multiphonic effects, and the quietly deceased Euridice, whose flashbacks and reminiscences vary from conventional singing, through representation in Morse code, to the application of a tuning fork to the skin of a bass drum. Electronic sounds enrich the general palette of sound, giving it a pictorial feel, and the effect of the piano, percussion and strings is arranged such that you almost forget their presence. This is very much ‘modern idiom’ music as you might imagine, but fascinates more often through gentle musical caressing rather than confrontation. Even the little ‘rap chorus’ moments come more from the soft-toy rather than the bad-boy department. This is the kind of piece which I suspect would have more of a life-pulse when seen performed on stage, but the recording does have a quality which haunts the memory, and the final gorgeous moments are only spoiled for me by being closed with the same symbolically significant but rather tacky electronic noises which open the piece.

The String Quartet No.1 opens with more intensity in the opening minute or so than in almost the entirety of the rest of the disc put together. This is more abstract as a musical piece, but does use what Zimmerlin calls “one of the most beautiful Swiss folk songs of the eighteenth century: the Guggisberglied.” This is apparently to be heard in augmented or stretched form in the cello, but if this and the other references to Biber’s Rosenkranz Sonatas wasn’t mentioned in your concert programme notes I doubt if many in the audience would ‘get it.’ Never mind, this is suitably intriguing contemporary music, with plenty of variety in sonorities from the strings, and some fascinating effects using tuning forks.

I may sound a bit sceptical, but in fact I’m quite pleased to have made the acquaintance of Alfred Zimmerlin’s music. The pieces can initially give a ‘contemporary music festival’ impression - the kind where the bar is more attractive than the concert hall, but in fact there is more to this music than meets the ear. This is the product of a gently insistent and intensely creative intellectual world which transcends the superficial and the pretentious, and I would commend it to all those seeking to broaden their horizons, incrementally.

Dominy Clements 


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