Heinz HOLLIGER (b.1939)
Toronto-Exercises for flute, clarinet, violin, harp and marimbaphone [11:00]
Poems by Anna Maria Bacher [4:47]
Puneigä for soprano, flute, clarinet, french horn, cello and percussion [21:16]
Induuchlen von Albert Streich [0:28]
Induuchlen for countertenor and natural horn [18:25]
Ma'mounia for percussion and five instruments [12:12]
Anna Maria Bacher (recitation); Albert Streich (recitation); Sylvia Nopper (soprano); Kai Wessel (counter-tenor); Olivier Darbellay (horn); Matthias Würsch; Swiss Chamber Soloists/Heinz Holliger
rec. March 2008, Stadthaus Winterthur, Switzerland; December 2007, Stadthaus Winterthur, Switzerland; June 2010, auditorium of Radiotelevisione Svizzera, Lugano, Switzerland; 1958? Radiostudio, Bern, Switzerland; June 2006, Radiostudio, Zürich, Switzerland
ECM NEW SERIES 2201 476 3977 [68:08]

Although best known for his oboe playing, Swiss Heinz Holliger is also an accomplished composer, as well as conductor. Here from new music specialist label, ECM, is a selection of his chamber music; it's one of only two or three CDs devoted entirely to Holliger's work. Well-performed and well-recorded this is nicely produced, and should be snapped up by lovers of contemporary music. It contains four main works supplemented by readings of the words that inspired two of them. Holliger's music is distinctive and full of character and beauty. This CD does him proud.

At just over 20 minutes Puneigä for soprano, flute, clarinet, french horn, cello and percussion is the most substantial. Written in 2000/2002 it is based on the Poems by Anna Maria Bacher - which are first spoken without musical accompaniment by their author [tr.s 5-14]. It's complex with perhaps more variety in pitch, tempo and instrumentation than Bacher's gentle voice would lead you to expect. Puneigä is a good introduction to Holliger: there's a strange lyricism here with its roots in nature amid his clusters, barriers and aural forays. Somehow it's also a very visual work. The performers seem as much to be acting it - miming almost - as gently yet purposefully walking its novel vocal and instrumental paths.

Given the small forces for which this and the other pieces on this CD were written, the instrumentalists are very exposed. They square up to that challenge well. The same is true for Sylvia Nopper, who sings forcefully yet with the right feeling as the short poems fold one into the other. Nopper's delivery, too, has just enough detachment for her to communicate in turn pathos, elation, pain and sadness as each is required by the short, pointed texts.

It might at first seem as though Holliger acts either from patriotism or a desire to save a near-extinct language; Walser-German is spoken only in the Pomatter valley. But No, it's the intrinsic rush, force and power of Bacher's poetry that inspired this, the latest in his series of vocal cycles. It began in 1969 with Erde und Himmel which is currently unavailable.

Repeated listening reveals just how well the players and singer match Holliger's intensity, sensitivity and achievement in unity. This is in the face of what at first comes across as very 'torn', in the way that some of Stockhausen's work does on first hearing. This may be due in part to the composer's love of canon - he uses the same technique in the next piece.

Toronto-Exercises was written in 2005 for flute, clarinet, violin, harp and marimbaphone. It thrives on fragmentation, micro-sounds and tightly-focused interplaying among this unusual combination. Written for the University of Toronto's music department, it's a series of four shortish pieces which are as much about themselves and the instruments that are employed as the result of any external inspiration. They require a high level of concentration and sensitivity to the need for expression with which Holliger conceived them. On this recording - the only one available, as is the case with everything on this CD - they get just such attention and interpretative expertise. Momentum doesn't drop once, for all the halting pace and structure of the music.

Induuchlen for counter-tenor and natural horn is introduced by a reading of the text from a recording apparently over fifty years old, which will seem redolent of Old English in its guttural rising-falling enunciation. Indeed, the work's original dedicatee, Klaus Huber, had a connection to regional folksong. There is a kind of welcome and appropriate naïveté to Kai Wessel's delivery: it's relaxed - it doesn't seem to be taking itself too seriously - yet it's full of character and bathos if not pathos. Again, the piece has the feeling of gently drawing a soft scarf across potentially jagged jewels. They never snag it. Olivier Darbellay's horn is a tight yet flexible foil to the near-declamation of nature poetry. It's for the most part slow music; the two do an admirable job of keeping the momentum, interest and melodic pace just where they need to be; this despite or perhaps because of frequent long pauses and very quiet episodes. It's a wonderfully gentle and impressive cycle gently and impressively performed.

Ma'mounia is for percussion and five instruments; it was composed in 2002 and can be seen as a companion piece to Toronto-Exercises. It too was written as an exercise for virtuosic soloists. It shares the same attention to academic institutions - this time the competition, the Concours de Genève. A single-movement work, it's a striking way to end an atmospheric and highly memorable CD if for no other reason than the effective battle that goes on between soloist and ensemble. That puts the idea of soloist in a new light. Matthias Würsch is to be credited for blending a variety of percussion sounds directly with those of the ensemble, often in quick succession to make that illumination.

These four substantive works, then, are ones which have connections, have aspects in common and reference one another, albeit in oblique ways and ways about which you have to be informed to appreciate. At the same time, each is its own work; each answers chiefly to itself. The achievement of Holliger as conductor and the Swiss Chamber Soloists is to have struck the balance between these two extremes very successfully: they obviously know the body of Holliger's work well enough to make the necessary links … the ways in which wind instruments are used for example. At the same time they enter into the very particular sound-world of each piece sufficiently deeply and well as to provide convincing and highly satisfying performances.

The acoustics are close and clean; they work well in focusing our attention on the singer(s) and players. The booklet has useful notes and contains the text in Swiss dialect and translation into German. This music of Holliger's won't be to everyone's taste - especially if they're expecting a liquid, lyrical reedy ride without diversions, bumps and dips. But it's a ride worth taking and we're in the hands of truly expert drivers.

Mark Sealey

If you're new to Holliger's extraordinary and challenging sound world these recent works for voices and small ensemble make a creditable and compelling introduction.