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Claus-Steffen MAHNKOPF (b. 1962)
Hommage à Daniel Libeskind, Volumes I-III (2002-12)
Ensemble SurPlus (Martina Roth, flutes; Christian Kemper, oboe/cor anglais; Nicola Mioranda, clarinet/bass clarinet; Stefan Häussler, violin; Bodo Friedrich, viola; Beverley Ellis, cello)/Peter Veale
rec. February 2016, Hans-Rosbaud Studio, SWR Baden-Baden
NEOS 11616 [54:57]

Although this is the first disc of music by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf I have reviewed for this site, it is far from my first acquaintance. A NEOS disc of piano music played by Ermis Threodorakis (11207) and a disc of chamber and electronic music (11306, containing the wonderful Pynchon Cycle performed by the present performers, Ensemble SurPlus), have both impressed me in the past. Mahnkopf’s music is uncompromising. His teachers include Klaus Huber and Brian Ferneyhough, which should give some sort of indication of what to expect.

The three volumes of his Hommage à Daniel Libeskind presented here are all World Premiere recordings. This cycle pays homage to Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind, whose Jewish Museum in Berlin was visited by the composer before it housed any exhibits and so could be experienced purely as architecture. The building’s asymmetricality, its contradiction of both classicist ideals and utility principlesn was all part of its appeal to Mahnkopf. As the composer puts it, “the building had enough complexity of its own to stand as a work on its own substance.” There is a “sister” piece to the present Hommage, void – mal d’archive, which processes concrete sounds from the museum. While Libeskind deconstructs architecture, Mahnkopf writes his Hommage with a deconstructivist agenda, a 63-part fragmentation split into three volumes. Melodic shapes in Mahnkopf’s score seem to have a habit of collapsing into silence, or as Mahnkopf puts it, “freezing like architecture”.

The Hommage à Daniel Libeskind was commissioned in 2001 by the Ensemble Recherché. Intriguingly, the composer states that his plan of 63 miniatures “cannot be conducted,” and yet the present issue does indeed list a conductor (Peter Veale). Each of the 63 pieces has its own sonic character. Mahnkopf has never shied away from using noise as a component of his sonic palette, and so it is that some pieces concentrate on pure noise while others are more symphonic; registers may be extremely high to extremely low, and solo instruments may be highlighted. Each miniature is constructed as a variation on the others.

Volume One, commissioned by the WDR, comprises 17 miniatures. One of its prime concepts of the cycle is that of sustained notes deprived of expression (what the composer calls “dinamica static”). Even these expressionless notes can be “devalued” by taking them towards noise, or they can be enhanced through expressive means. The music sometimes veers towards inaudibility, exhibiting a Webernian sense of micro-gesture and concentration.

Volume Two was composed in 2010/11 and commissioned by Ensemble SurPlus, supported by the Ernst Siemens Music Foundation. There are 25 miniatures, with the central, extended cello solo (superbly given by Beverley Ellis) bucking the trend towards brevity. One miniature comprises a single static chord heard eight times, thus throwing the expanse (and tranquillity) of that central plateau into relief.

The final volume, commissioned by the Ensemble Adventure and written in 2010/12, holds 21 miniatures. In this set, Mahnkopf opts for an incremental strategy, while the viola acts as a constant in the last part of the piece (from the 55th miniature onwards). The music skirts around silence, until it disappears into that very silence.

Performances are of a stunning standard. The recording quality is of the very highest, as are production values (as one has come to expect from this company). Mahnkopf is a clearly important composer and certainly deserves investigation.

Colin Clarke



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