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as if the mesh of words were broken: Lieder in the late 20th century and beyond
Heinz HOLLIGER (b.1939)
Dörfliche Motive: Vier Bagatellen (1960-61) [4:01]
Wolfgang RIHM (b.1952)
Drei Hölderlin-Gedichte (2004) [12:01]
Michael FINNISSY (b.1946)
Hier ist mein Garten (2015) [12:44]
Fünf Mileva-Lieder (1994-95) [11:06]
David LESSER (b.1966)
Dritte Trakl-Musik (2013-16) [10:45]
Sechs Lieder nach Gedichten von Christian Morgenstern (1956-7) [12:33]
Clare Lesser (soprano)
David Lesser (piano)
Gerhard Gall (speaker, Dritte Trakl-Musik)
rec. 2016/17, St John the Evangelist Church, Oxford
MÉTIER MSV28567 [63:13]

The greater part of this disc is dedicated to the music of Heinz Holliger, probably better known to many listeners for his innovative oboe playing. Other composers featured are Michael Finnissy, Wolfgang Rihm and the present pianist David Lesser.

A few words about Heinz Holliger. He was born in Langenthal, Switzerland on 21 May 1939. After study with several eminent musicians, including composition with Sándor Veress and Pierre Boulez, he became one of the most celebrated instrumentalists of his era. Works have been written for him by a galaxy of composers including Olivier Messiaen, Luciano Berio, Elliott Carter, Frank Martin, Hans Werner Henze, Witold Lutosławski, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Krzysztof Penderecki. His repertoire as an oboist includes music ranging from the baroque to the ultra-Avant Garde. There are unexpected byways too – for example the Quintet for Oboe and Strings by Arnold Bax on Chandos (CHAN8392). His compositions include two operas, chamber works and vocal music. Musically, Holliger is clearly influenced by Schoenberg, Webern and Luigi Nono. He has used electronic medium as well as strict serialism. As even the briefest hearing of this CD will disclose Holliger’s compositions demand considerable engagement from performer and listener.

The earliest work on this CD is Holliger’s Sechs Lieder nach Gedichten von Christian Morgenstern which were written during 1956-7 when the composer was about 18 years old. Christian Morgenstern was a Munich-born author, journalist and poet who was also adept at writing nonsense verse. The songs that Holliger selected featured imagery of ‘Early Spring’, ‘Evening’, a ‘Butterfly’, a ‘Little Lugubrious Bird’, ‘Before Sunrise’ and ‘Autumn.’ These lieder have an unexpectedly romantic air to them, especially in the piano accompaniment although there are certainly moments of Schoenbergian ‘expressionism’ and even a touch of ‘impressionism’ in these pages. Holliger paints a strong, emotional interpretation of these texts, despite the relative simplicity of the actual words. The composer has acknowledged that the “influences of Fauré, Busoni, Bartόk and Swiss/French neo-classicism are [also] clearly apparent”. In is interesting that Holliger considered that this was “the only work from this period which I really consider to be personal”.

The second song-cycle from Heinz Holliger is Dörfliche Motive: Vier Bagatellen (1960-61). These are short ‘gestures’ that seem to be conjured up from the musical world of Webern. The liner notes explain that the “harmonic aesthetic” has been filtered through the influence of Pierre Boulez creating a “sensuous impact”. The gnomic texts, describing village life were derived from poems by Swiss poet Alexander Gwerder. I enjoyed these miniature ‘bagatelles’ and despite the ‘modernistic’ musical language it makes a splendid introduction to this particular style of lieder. They are sung beautifully by Clare Lesser.

The final work (chronologically) by Heinz Holliger on this CD is Fünf Mileva-Lieder which were completed in 1995. The poems were written by Mileva Demenga, then aged between six and ten. She was the daughter of Holliger’s friend and collaborator, the cellist Thomas Demenga. In summary, Holliger has created an ever more complex setting. The opening number, which is in praise of the seasons, is almost a ‘literal’ folk tune. The work progresses towards a “highly expressive art song” and concludes with a clever inverted cancrizans canon [crab canon] so popular with post-Webern composers. (It works backward and forwards, musically). All this said, there is a genuine innocence about these five songs which, despite the ‘technics’ of the musical language is wholly refreshing.

Wolfgang Rihm is a composer who is off my radar. Looking at the online biographical details reveals that he has written a vast quantity of music in many genres. His style has changed over the years, travelling from an interest in Mahler and Schoenberg seen through an avant-garde perspective, towards an association with the ‘New Simplicity’ movement which backed away from the avant-garde of the 1970s and began to explore possible renovations of older musical tropes. Drei Hölderlin-Gedichte (2004) is certainly not simplistic in either sound or construction. There are many ‘expressionist’ vocal lines in these songs, despite a nod to lieder composers of an earlier generation such as Brahms and Strauss. Each song is slow and displays a wide-range of emotional and musical responses. These are stunningly attractive songs that explore Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin’s highly-romantic poetry.

Michael Finnissy’s Hier ist mein garten sets texts by Goethe. Despite the composer’s penchant for using very wide intervals, which are beautifully realised by Clare Lesser, there is much that is traditional in these two songs. Often the piano part seems to be obsessed with the romantic sounding choral patterns of romantic composers. The use of a device as old-fashioned as minor thirds in the second song, ‘Hinten im Winkel des Gartens’ is a remarkable piece of musical ‘archaeology’.

David Lesser’s Dritte Trakl-Musik is a notable fusion of words, music and ‘sounds off.’ Georg Trakl’s words are an ideal selection. He was an Austrian expressionist poet, who has been set by many composers including Anton Webern, Paul Hindemith and Peter Maxwell Davies. In his poem “‘Helian’ the gods are silenced, condemned to an eternity of stone, the garden is bleak and threatening and the living and the dead are blind to reality, trapped in a labyrinth of their own making.” The liner notes explain that it is not really the composer who has selected the texts from Trakl’s (1887-1914) poem but the singer who chooses what words she wishes to sing. But not only the words but which language to sing them in. Lesser has created the rhythmic and melodic framework but every performance is unique in “terms of text material and arrangements”. In additions, two layers of spoken text have been added, in German and English “to echo the sung material”. The speaker is Gerhard Gall. I found this work to be both haunting and surprisingly lovely.

The liner notes are in two parts: one each by Clare and David Lesser. The texts of the lieder are given in German and English. Short biographies of the performers are included.

The bottom line is that this is a great CD. Despite having some doubts about the repertoire when the CD landed on the doorstep, I insist that this album of modern(istic) lieder is irresistible. A large part of its success must fall to the remarkable vocal talent of soprano Clare Lesser. Goodly credit must also go to David Lesser for his remarkable piano playing in these involved songs. This all complements an ideal recording.

John France



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