Heinz Holliger’s work has been gaining a respectable amount of attention on records in recent years, including his Romancendres on the ECM label which I was fortunate enough to be able to review back in 2009. This fine collection of choral works takes us into different aspects and periods of his work, from the relatively early Psalm into recent decades in which the language of ‘discourse’ as mentioned in the booklet notes, is explored in fascinating ways.
Shor Shavur sets twelve poems by David Rokeah. Alas, we don’t have the sung texts printed in the booklet, but as listeners we can allow our imaginations free rein in settings that generate mood and atmosphere through close-knit clusters of sustained notes, contrasting with solo voices set against massed mixed-voice walls of sound, extremes of range and rhetorical techniques both verbal and musical: choral antiphony and counterpoint playing games with abstraction and some genuinely striking effects. This is an avant-garde musical language, but one that communicates in ways that go beyond text, stretching and fragmenting words while retaining semantic connections, disorienting and drawing us in at the same time.
This kind of writing can of course be traced back to contemporary music of the 1960s and 70s, a world in which Psalm no doubt fitted in very neatly indeed. Sibilance, breath sounds and other edgy vocal effects seem to take us closer to the world of nature rather than “the horrors of the Shoah” as suggested in the booklet. This contributes to what amounts to an ‘anti-religious’ setting which is at the same time ‘anti-vocal’ in the sense that there is hardly any conventional singing at all.
hölle himmel is subtitled ‘Motet after Poems by Kurt Marti’. These texts deal with questions of religion in ways controversial enough to see the St. Thomas Choir, who commissioned the work and to which it is dedicated, allowing a different choir to perform its première. Marti apparently pulls no punches, but the music is relatively benign to my ears. There are moments of tonal confluence and homophony, and though the idiom remains largely atonal there is a clarity that allows the texts to be followed with comparative ease, provided your German is sufficiently up to scratch. The final movement, existenzgrad null opens with what sounds almost like a playground roundelay, before closing in on itself, a penultimate statement emphasised with a bang on a drum before fading into nothing. Kurt Marti’s poems are also employed in Rosa Loui, four choral songs in ten variations. These have a spare feel, with short phrases breaking up flows of material that work on open-sounding intervals, unisons and excursions into sequence and polyphony. Surprise is built-in however, with a marvellous track 31, rosa loui (2. Version) that opens with a major chord that descends in steps, and over which a strange melody unfolds.
The final work, Utopie Chorklang sets the composer’s own words for vocal forces of three 12-part choral groups in a work composed for the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart. This is a brief but impressive piece that manages to cover a lot of ground, from moments that lean on striking articulation to a gathering together of the voices into sections that proffer beauty and withdraw it as quickly.
With excellent performances by the SWR Vokalensemble, this has been an exploration of choral music that has intrigued as well as, at times, inspired. There are some glorious moments and Holliger has a keen ear for some fabulous close-cluster writing, but you will have to be a hard-core contemporary choral enthusiast to relish this programme from start to finish. Holliger knows how to deliver a sucker-punch of textural or harmonic gorgeousness, but you have to live with swathes of atonality to feel the full impact of the contrasts thrown up by these sections. Listen carefully on your best equipment to hear the myriad subtleties in all of these pieces.
As far as presentation goes I once again hunger for the day that designers no longer consider abandoning capital letters to be cool and trendy, especially in German. Publishing a booklet without texts for a choral programme is also no fun at all, though copyright may have been the issue here. Clytus Gottwald’s booklet notes are interesting but rather diffuse if you are looking for hard information on the works presented.
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