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Johannes KALITZKE (b. 1959)
Story Teller, for cello and orchestra (2015/2016) [27:29]
Figuren am Horizont, for violin and six instrumentalists (2011) [26:51]
Johannes Moser (cello)
Ivana Pristašová (violin)
Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin
œnm . österreichisches ensemble für neue music/Johannes Kalitzke
rec 2012/17, Large Broadcasting Hall, House of Broadcasting Berlin; Solitär, Mozarteum Salzburg
KAIROS 0015038KAI [54:20]

Johannes Kalitzke will almost certainly be best known to readers of these pages as an eminent conductor of 20th and 21st century repertoire; indeed he features as such on many Kairos releases. But he is also a composer – other examples of his music can be found on CPO and Neos. This is the second Kairos issue devoted to his work – the first coupled Six Covered Settings for string quartet with the strange, intermittently beautiful Vier Toteninseln, described as a “musical overpainting” of Brahms’ Four Serious Songs, op 121 which retains the low voice and piano of the originals and encloses fragments of the Brahms songs within an orchestral veil.

The present disc pairs two string concertante pieces; Story Teller, a cello concerto with large orchestra and Figuren am Horizont (Figures on the Horizon) for solo violin and sextet. The two pieces are connected by intriguing links to visual media. In the first, the music is inspired by imagined narratives the composer has applied to images created by the British fashion photographer Tim Walker. The violin work, on the other hand comprises five memorials to deceased collaborators of the composer – the visual inspiration here is the idea of absence and distance – how our visual memories of a familiar individual change and fade over time.

The narrative element involved in Tim Walker’s fashion portraiture is undeniable – it is immediately obvious during even a cursory flick through the contents of the photographer's website. While his arresting images certainly provide food for thought for the casual observer, they would seem even more likely to trigger ideas among those involved in other creative milieux. The conceit in Story Teller is that the cellist effectively ‘narrates’ a monologue which connects the elements of a ‘story’ acted out by the collective, in this case the orchestra, to reflect the real or imagined implications of the images selected. The orchestra is extended by the addition of a layer of sampled material which may elicit unconscious associations in acoustic or concrete terms on the part of the listener.

From the outset Story Teller grabbed my attention and kept it throughout. Picturesque titles like ‘Iron Doll’, ‘Manhattan Butterfly’ and ‘Panic Room’ are applied to its six brief sections which are played without a break. The cellist’s opening gesture cries out over knocking percussive sounds; at once this suggests the piece will be confrontational and eventful. The sampled interjections tease – one tries to make out what they are, or to what they might allude. Kalitzke is most fortunate to have rising cello star Johannes Moser as his principal here – throughout the work he is not simply projecting the narrative, whatever that might be; in fact Moser turns in a theatrical tour-de-force. His cello hectors and whimpers, it declaims, sighs and screams. Yet his instrument projects a warm, ripe tone throughout which somehow softens the uncompromising edges of a really challenging piece. Kalitzke conjures some fascinating textures, notably in the second section, ‘Iron Doll’, which becomes a kind of fractured march before disintegrating into a synthesised, glassy aura of sound. ‘Manhattan Butterfly’ encourages gentler thoughts, even diffusing a faint whiff of downtown night-life before strange, claustrophobic samplings intervene to further cloud the pleasantly smoky atmosphere. Moser’s material covers the whole emotional gamut between psychotic derangement and hallucinogenically inspired calm. ‘Bed in the Light’ is rich with allusion and full of the sounds of cinematic dreams and nightmares, while its second half is given over to a superbly played and paced cadenza. The final movement, ‘Panic Room’, is as ominous and uncomfortable as it sounds. Story Teller ends with an abrupt clunk.

If Story Teller’s collage-like allusions occasionally hint at the music of Bernd Alois Zimmermann, I actually found its material, if anything, a little friendlier. Advances in technology lend a warmer ambience to Kalitzke’s amplified additions compared to the harsher overlays of Zimmermann in works like Requiem für einen jungen Dichter. Moreover, the fluency of Kalitzke’s writing is more inviting to the listener. Moser’s playing is spellbinding, while the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester under the composer’s direction plays with fervent conviction. Story Teller is a deeply impressive achievement.

Ultimately the violin concerto Figuren am Horizont is a study of subtraction and metamorphosis. Cast in five movements, Kalitzke again proves a master of the evocative title. In the opening ‘Sketch for an Uninhabitable House’ the violin emerges over a sequence of grave piano chords and claustrophobic percussion. The composer apparently makes use of the (perfect) Fibonacci sequence to underline the architectural implausibility of the dwelling. There is a real coolness and elegance in the solo violin part and both of these qualities are vividly conveyed in Ivana Pristašová’s haunting account. Tornado-like cascades of notes tumble and disappear as the following ‘Burning Clock’ proceeds; according to the booklet this alludes directly to the ‘burning down and burning out of life’s energy, which consumes itself’. Strange, disembodied vocal sounds hover around and outside of the texture in this panel. In ‘Prayer on a Slippery Slope’ the quiet statement of the initial chorale tune is blurred and obscured by microtonal shifts which represent its ultimate futility in the face of death. By now the listener becomes ever more aware of the vast array of sounds Kalitzke draws from his small ensemble. The violin writing is at times so spare it dances on the very edge of nothingness. The fourth movement, ‘Travestia de Tristano’, is a drunken tarantella which provides sardonic and short-lived light relief prior to its sad, weightless coda. The solemn finale, ‘Sketch for a House in the Light’ draws the work together by citing strands from previous movements in a piece which seems to exude nostalgia and grief.

Where Story Teller is larger-than-life and technicolour, Figuren am Horizont is an infinitely softer, more subtle work. Its affecting restraint constitutes its greatest strength. Compared to Johannes Moser, the Slovakian violinist Ivana Pristašová may be little known to collectors in recording terms, but on this showing she is a real force to be reckoned with. Her playing throughout radiates profound empathy both with Kalitzke’s writing and with the spirit of the piece. It is as tactful as Moser’s performance of Story Teller is effusive. As the disc ends, some listeners will feel she steals the show. The members of œnm [sic] provide delicate and thoughtful support.

The two works here were recorded five years apart, but there is a pleasing consistency in the detailed and immediate sound provided for both. I am pleased to report further that Stefan Drees’ notes are both clear and insightful to match; they certainly helped me make sense of the music – something that’s not always a given for a Kairos disc. Ultimately Kalitzke’s music may prove to be an acquired taste for some but I really enjoyed both of these pieces and hope that those unfamiliar with Kalitzke the composer will be encouraged to hear them.

Richard Hanlon


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