Barbara HELLER (b. 1936)
Patchwork String Quartet No. 3 (2008) [6:12]
La Caleta String Quartet No. 2 (2008) [8:43]
String Quartet 1958 (1958) [18:35]
Eins für Zwei (One for Two) duo for violin and cello (1985) [13:04]
Herbstmusik (Autumn Music) duo for cello and piano (2012) [5:24]
Arriba! (Upward! Onward!) trio for violin, cello and piano (2014) [3:18]
Zwiegespräche (Dialogues) duos for violin and cello (2014) [5:05]
Minutentrios (Minute Trio) for violin, cello and piano (2008) [2:02]
Lalai – Schlaflied zum Wachwerden? (Lalai – Lullaby for an Awakening?) for cello and piano (1989) [7:27]
Verdi Quartett
Susanne Stoodt (violin); Katharina Deserno (cello); Gesa Lücker (piano)
rec. 19-20 December 2015, 23 May 2016, hr-Sendesaal, Frankfurt, Germany
WERGO WER51232 [70:54]

I am a firm believer in taking a chance and delving into new music. Over the years I have tried many composers whose music I had never heard and there have only been a couple of occasions when I have regretted it. I am happy to say that I do not in any way regret my decision to give this disc a listen.

The German composer and pianist, Barbara Heller, was largely self-taught, her first compositions dating from 1949, before she entered into studies at Mannheim and Munich. There she studied with Hans Vogt and Harald Genzmer. The booklet talks about her being as influenced by ambient sound as by other composer’s music, and that she often sits in her home with the windows and doors open and just listens to the sounds of nature.

One of the main reasons that I was drawn to this disc was the opportunity to hear Heller's three string quartets. It's the medium I find myself most attracted to and each of the three is different in character and scope. The disc opens with her third, Patchwork String Quartet No. 3, a work I found instantly appealing. Its combination of pizzicato and bowed sections is quite attractive. The booklet discusses its minimalist qualities and I must say that there is a short phrase that does remind me of a section in Philip Glass’ La Belle et la Bête; it's the bit where Belle’s father enters the Beast's castle for the first time. This is in contrast to La Caleta String Quartet No. 2, which although composed in the same year is quite different in character, meditative and quiet. The work brings to mind Henryk Górecki’s Three Pieces in an Olden Style. This is followed by the String Quartet 1958, Heller’s first quartet and the most traditional in construction. Its four movements last longer than the other two quartets combined. This was a student work and occupies a totally different sound-world to that of her other two quartets heard on this disc. The first movement is in sonata form, something her teacher had demanded. The result is reminiscent of Paul Hindemith, especially his own E flat Major String Quartet, No. 6, or even Bartók. Despite the diverse nature of these three quartets they all have something to offer. Yes they are all modern in outlook, but this is a modernity that does not go out of its way to shock; rather, it is one that is based upon more traditional concepts of rhythm and melody.

The longest single track on this disc is the Eins für Zwei for violin and cello. it begins with a slow mournful section where the cello takes centre-stage, its lower register giving the work a sense of gravitas. This is followed by a lighter section where the roles are reversed and the violin takes the lead. The piece is said to recall summer days in the garden and the sounds of buzzing insects, and here we come to the concept of ambient sound. This is a more modern sounding string duo but still eminently listenable and enjoyable. The Zwiegespräche offers four contrasting pieces for the same instrumentation. These are taken from a series of nine pieces, originally for violin and viola, composed for teaching purposes. They are charming little works and suit the combination of instruments well. The idea of discussion between the two instruments comes across well.

The track that gives the disc its title is the duo for cello and piano, Herbstmusik. It is here performed by Katharina Deserno, the cellist who gave the premiere in 2013. It is a journey through the differing aspects of autumn and has a strong melodic character. This is in some ways reminiscent of Lalai – Schlaflied zum Wachwerden?, one of Heller’s best known and oft performed works. This too has a strong melodic folksong-like melody played by the cello in the first section with the piano giving a repetitive staccato accompaniment. The second section begins with a lovely piano melody which is soon joined by the cello and gradually dies away at the conclusion of the piece.

There are two works on the disc for the medium of piano trio. The first, Arriba!, is the latest work on this disc. It opens quite agitatedly with the three instruments playing in unison before separating, with each playing different thematic music. This short powerful and striking piece concludes with a further section in unison. The other work for piano trio is, Minutentrios, which as the name suggests is a pair of very short pieces each lasting about a minute. The first is stormy in character with the swirling strings over the piano bass. The second is a more muted version of the first; a coda if you like, in which the theme is repeated.

This is a very interesting and attractive disc, one which could be said to have been a fitting celebration of Barbara Heller’s eightieth birthday. The music is wonderful, so much so that I have gone ahead and ordered a disc of her piano music. A friend and fellow MusicWeb International reviewer recently said that, apart from Clara Schumann, there were no real women composers of note, none that are performed in the concert hall. This is a real shame. It is perhaps indicative of the concert-going public and their clinging to what they know. It also reflects the views of many concert planners sticking to the tried and tested and unprepared or unwilling to be adventurous with their programming. I say this because here is a woman composer of note, one who on this evidence should be listened to and enjoyed by a wider audience.

Throughout this disc the performances are first rate, whether the quartet or the smaller ensemble. There is a tangible sense of togetherness, as well as a feeling that all the performers are enjoying the music. Wergo should be applauded for releasing this disc. Yes, they are a division of Schott who publish Heller’s music, but still they should be thanked for bringing this fine and striking music to the listening public’s attention.

Stuart Sillitoe

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