Phantasy of Spring
Morton FELDMAN (1926-1987)
Spring of Chosroes (1978) [14:05]
Bernd Alois ZIMMERMANN (1918-1970)
Sonate für Violine und Klavier (1950) [14:47]
Arnold SCHÖNBERG (1874-1951)
Phantasy for Violin with Piano accompaniment Op.47 (1949) [10:01]
Iannis XENAKIS (1922-2001)
Dikhthas (1979) [12:50]
Carolin Widmann (violin)
Simon Lepper (piano)
rec. October and December 2006, Kölner Funkhaus
ECM NEW SERIES 2113 [52:25]

This is a fascinating recital of 20th century music. Morton Feldman’s obsession with ancient Oriental carpets is something which suffused a wide variety of his works, and the title Spring of Chosroes refers to a lost legendary Persian carpet made for royalty which depicted a garden known as ‘Spring of Khosrau’. Feldman’s involvement with these artefacts include their designs and colours, and it is the restriction of the composer’s means of expression, the ‘uneven’ quality of the slow rhythmic patterns and narrow melodic shapes which emerge. This is a piece which suspends time, creating an atmosphere of abstract beauty which is as close a parallel to the visions of those ancient creative weavers as one can imagine. Relatively compact in Feldman’s oeuvre, the work is an endlessly fascinating asymmetrical jewel, reflective in every sense, and restlessly unsettling at the same time.

Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Sonate is a relatively early work, experimenting with atonal techniques and an expressionistic language revelling in the post-war cultural freedoms which allowed for the influence of composers such as Milhaud and Stravinsky. Yes, this is serious stuff and a technical tour de force for the players, but Zimmermann’s language is not without lightness and wit in some of the variations he gives to his themes. In his booklet notes, Rainer Peters mentions that Zimmermann had been an arranger of light music for West German Radio, composing film scores and music for radio plays, and discovering a love for jazz in the process. This is not to say that the Sonate is fluff, but throughout the serious intent there are plenty of inflections which the alert ear can relate to the atmospheric tensions in a horror flic, or the rumba dance scene of a festive interlude destined for disaster. By no means entirely atonal, this is a powerfully expressive piece which can bear close scrutiny at any level, and comparison to numerous far more well-known works.

Arnold Schoenberg’s Phantasy was his last piece of chamber music. Having revolutionised the music world with his twelve-note serial technique, Schoenberg seemed almost to revel in the obscure incomprehension and controversy his music generated amongst typical audiences, and even now such a piece as this will sound ‘modern’ and impossibly abstract to many casual listeners. Angular and widely spaced intervals and the lack of a tonal centre create a sense of disorientation, but Schoenberg’s musical arguments are concise and clear: once one can push aside expectations of Mozartean cadence this piece is filled with rich worlds of sonority and drama. The composer’s choice of title, intended to allude to a piece “whose unimpeded flow cannot be derived from formal theories of any type”, had the opposite effect of making analysts an commentators come up with all kinds of ideas about what the great man might have been hiding. You can search for structure in such a piece, but for me the sense of pure atonal freedom and tight control of dramatic gesture conjure a period, place and creative vibe which sounds simultaneously familiar and yet impossibly new.

Iannis Xenakis wrote Dikhthas for the 1980 Beethoven Festival in Bonn, the title referring to a duality of nature – something which both players have to deal with as individuals as well as duo partners. The engineers have either given this piece greater acoustic space or added a not unpleasant bath of extra reverberation, which means that the confrontation with massive pianistic textures and a violinist sliding madly over the range of the instrument in close-knit double-stops. The booklet notes refer to how the composer “spans this ambitus [of unanimity and contrariness] with the aid of probability calculations, uncertainty theory and stochastic shifts of sonic quanta.” With Xenakis I’m always torn between a negative reaction to this kind of rarefied intellectualism and a ‘wow’ factor in the sheer impressiveness of many of his pieces. This isn’t the kind of music you put on every day, or even for putting on while knotting your tie just before hitting the road for a night of heavy clubbing, but having heard it your attitude to the ‘nice’ combination of violin and piano will never be the same again.

The duo of Carolin Widmann and Simon Lepper is a magnificent one at every level, and this is an impressively produced recording to ECM’s usual impeccable standards. This is the kind of disc which should go a long way towards rehabilitating atonality in the 21st century. Much maligned and misunderstood, this kind of music has been blamed for much of the malaise which has mired modern music. The evidence in reality can prove the opposite. To paraphrase Oliver Sacks, the word Atonality refers to everything about what such music is not, but nothing about what it is. There is a great deal to get your teeth stuck into here, and like a well executed dish in a posh restaurant, the proportions, textures and flavours are balanced perfectly – the results eminently satisfying and surprisingly memorable.

Dominy Clements