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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS

Tilo MEDEK (1940-2006)
Cello Concerto No.1 (1978 rev.1982)) [42:24]
Eine Stele für Bernd Alois Zimmerman (1976) [9:08]
Schattenspiele (1973) [8:08]
Guido Schiefen (cello)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Israel Yinon
rec. live, 3 February 2009, Cadogan Hall, London (Concerto), 5-6 May 2006 WDR Studios Cologne
CPO 777 520-2 [60:10]

Experience Classicsonline

It snowed in London on 2 February 2009. I wasn’t there, but heard reports of how it had affected audience numbers and reviewer attendance at the concert from which this recording of Tilo Medek’s Cello Concerto No.1 was taken. By chance, I had only recently written in glowing terms of Medek’s organ works on the Cybele label (see review), and the family had been in contact to thank me for my positive response. So it was Tilo’s daughter Clara, the artist responsible for the cover art of this release, who pointed me in the direction of Bob Brigg’s review of the piece - the only one written apparently, and one which was damning in the extreme.

Admitting to an understandable bias, Clara’s opinion differed from that of Bob Briggs in her perception of the concert. To be fair his criticisms were almost solely on the quality of the music and not in doubt as to the commitment of the players, soloist or orchestra. I won’t go much further into this almost inevitable divergence of opinion, but have to admit the whole affair did stimulate my interest, and I’ve been looking forward to hearing this recording and making up my own mind ever since.

I had said I wouldn’t go further on the subject, but I do have the feeling the difference between fighting one’s way to a concert through “adverse weather conditions” and finding the music falling short of one’s expectations may have had a different effect to receiving a CD like an unexpected gift and listening to it in the comfort of one’s home, especially when the first breath of spring has already turned the chill sky into a potential ally, and the first shoots and flowers are reluctantly showing that winter will have been beaten once again. Recordings have a way of flattering a performance as well, and should by their very nature provide an ideal sonic picture which will almost certainly be better than that of even the most expensive seats in the auditorium. Once can reflect on a recording and re-play it, allowing the music to take a more intimate hold on one’s memory, rather than keeping it pegged to the associations of a single experience, positive or negative - and this is a piece I would feel the need to hear more than once before being able to pass considered comment. All I really want to say is that the subjective variables between Bob’s experience and mine are immeasurable. Nothing I will say need discount his comments, and as far as I am concerned there is no conflict.

The literary titles for each of the four movements of the Cello Concerto No.1, far from providing a source of mystification, in many ways hold the secret to approaching this piece. As Andreas Dorschel says in his booklet notes to this release, “Medek liked to keep his music poised between absolute music and programme music .... one could speak of ‘poetic music.’” Without hammering out an absolute programmatic plan, Medek’s idea is to allow the imagination to play with literary images as well as the more abstract content of pure music. Once you have the idea of a narrative, the cellist and orchestral soloists in story-telling or conversational mode, then we’re away, and this rather vast canvas can take on the qualities of an opera as well as those of a cello concerto. Yes, there are numerous moments where the music of other composers is brought to mind: Hindemith, Stravinsky ... my favourite moment is the quasi-Mahler slow opening to the final movement, but I am a sentimental old softie at heart. No doubt other ears would hear more or different composers, but this is not particularly derivative music. It teases, asking us of what we are aware, or whether we believe the composer is conscious of the associations with which he is playing. This can be an irritating element in a piece, but I can’t help feeling Medek is completely in control: inflaming our senses with a similar kind of sardonic wit to that which both Shostakovich and Malcolm Arnold used to poke pomposity with a sharp stick.

After years of censorship and hindrance from the East German state, Tilo Medek was finally forced into exile in West Germany in 1977, and there is a sense in which this 1978 concerto seems to be finding its feet, as if the composer was still settling into a new life, and still on a search for a sense of stability. There are some moments in the piece where we seem in a permanent state of transition, or where the sense of drama sails close to a kind of dangerously unsettling banality, but each time I go back and listen I can’t quite put my finger on ways one might change things. Yes, you could probably cut the piece by a good 15 minutes or so, but where - what are you going to lose, and what would you be left with after your Brucknerian tinkering? No, take it or leave it, this is a piece which will take you on a journey, and not one I find particularly over-long or tedious. The road on which you travel might not always appear equally interesting, but each time you stop off and get out of your Trabant to look closer there is always something rustling away in the hedgerows, elusive and sometimes infuriating, but always on its way somewhere.

The other two pieces on this disc are for cello solo, and are far more than mere ‘fillers’. Stele, an ancient Greek word meaning ‘column’ or ‘pillar’, is a kind of memorial for Bernd Alois Zimmermann, who had committed suicide in 1970. Rather than a straight elegy, the piece is a kind of struggle, ‘difficult’ in a technical sense, but also in the resistance one feels, the material emerging, flowing, sometimes flying, but always with a sense of a dragging weight and an undercurrent of solemnity and desperation. Schattenspiele or ‘Shadow Plays’ is another nod towards pictorial imagery without specific references, and the title has us noticing echo effects and theatrical gestures, and perhaps calling to mind the wistful and sometimes violent narratives of the silhouetted figures which form the tradition of shadow theatre from China and beyond. There are five of these short and fascinating Schattenspiele, each exploring different aspects of the cello and different dramatic and musical effects.

In conclusion, this, in my opinion, is a very worthwhile disc indeed. The live circumstances of the Cello Concerto No.1 add to the energy and edge-of-the-seat feel to the performance, while also revealing a few places where the ensemble of the orchestra only just hangs together. The rewards in this music are those which probably yield more over time rather than hitting one between the eyes with promiscuous precocity, but this is true of much contemporary music and not necessarily a reason for ejection. What brave members of the audience made it to the concert were clearly hardy folk, and there is hardly any extraneous noise in the auditorium, the acoustic of which is a bit boomy, but the well engineered recording transcends any minor quibbles. The WDR solo cello recordings are exemplary, and Guido Schiefen is a characterful performer: perhaps more on the lighter and lyrical side of music which might yield a shade more to some extra passion and weight, but one senses he feels a unity with the music which is hard to criticise.

Dominy Clements 



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