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Steffen SCHLEIERMACHER (b. 1960)
Das Tosen des staunenden Echos, for ensemble (2009) [14:25]
Kaija SAARIAHO (b. 1952)
The Tempest Songbook, for mezzo-soprano, baritone and ensemble (1993-2004) [15:45]
Michael WERTMÜLLER (b. 1966)
antagonisme contrôlé for saxophone, percussion, e-bass and ensemble (2013/14) [30:57]
Olivia Vermeulen (mezzo-soprano), Peter Schöne (baritone)
Peter Brötzmann (saxophone)
Dirk Rothbrust (percussion)
Marino Pliakas (e-bass)
Ensemble Musikfabrik/Jean Deroyer, Emilio Pomarico, Christian Eggen
rec. 2009-14, Klaus-von-Bismarck-Saal, WDR Funkhaus am Wallrafplatz, Köln, Germany
Texts not included
Edition Musikfabrik 15
WERGO WER6868-2 [61:07]

Over recent years Wergo have been compiling a series devoted to Cologne new music scions Ensemble Musikfabrik, and the present disc Sturm is its fifteenth instalment. The title is a contrivance designed to connect three extremely diverse works – “Stormy sounds of varying ‘wind quality’ blow through these pieces….” - to quote the first half-sentence of the accompanying notes. While I suppose this title creates a little more intrigue than simply leaving it at Edition Musikfabrik Volume 15 it’s almost impossible to find a sufficiently robust thread to link a big ensemble piece inspired by a specific, chance experience of Buddhist chant in Laos, a shimmering, gentle song-cycle for voices and five instruments based on Shakespeare and a rambling fusion of free jazz and new music composition which will inevitably divide the audience. It is difficult to imagine these three works sharing a concert programme, and the recording dates confirm that they were recorded at three different live shows over a period five years.

Steffen Schleiermacher is one of the world’s foremost performers of contemporary piano music. His formidable back catalogue on the MDG and hat-ART labels encompasses Satie, Stockhausen, Cage and Scelsi and seems to investigate every highway and byway between and beyond them. On the evidence of Das Tosen des staunenden Echos (The Roar of the Amazed Echo) he is also a fine composer who is somewhat under-represented in the lists – one rare example is a 1995 portrait disc of ensemble and solo piano works also on Wergo (WER 6530-2). The present work dates from 2009 and is scored for an ensemble of 17 instruments – extremes of register are made possible by the inclusion of both piccolo and tuba. Schleiermacher was visiting the Laotian city of Luang Prabang where on one particular evening he seemingly couldn’t avoid hearing Buddhist novices ritually intoning their prayers; not in unison, nor in a formal, measured manner but at individual speeds and in idiosyncratic styles. Schleiermacher speculates many were speeding through the full texts in order to see an important football match on TV. The hubbub in the city before the game provided a sufficiently interesting atmospheric backdrop to inspire this fifteen minute work. It’s based on a cantus firmus type figure (representing the chant) which seems to crop up with great ubiquity, played by the most unlikely instruments (trombone, percussion, double-bass). It has a kind of insistent, jabbing, dancing quality which renders the piece dynamic and rhythmical, not too far in fact from Schleiermacher’s self-avowed fascination with techno music. It’s loud and brash in the main, but never harsh or inaccessible. Piano is central to the propulsive pulse of the work, often in tandem with vibraphone. There’s a brief central section which borders on quietness, but the beat is still discernible. There are prominent cracks of what sounds like a whip, which might evoke the idea of ritual for some listeners, while the siren-like sounds that hover over the orchestral textures suggest urban life. Schleiermacher’s stated expressive aim in Das Tosen des staunenden Echos was to project the impression of the ‘roaring stillness’ of the ancient royal city of Luang Prabang on one particular evening; in my view he has succeeded in capturing this somewhat oxymoronic quality.

In compositional terms at least Kaija Saariaho is much more of a known quantity. Her Tempest Songbook had an unusually slow gestation as a discrete entity and has ended up being a cycle somewhat accidentally. Given that Caliban’s Dream (placed second here- the sequence is not intended to be fixed) was written in 1993 some eleven years before Ferdinand’s Comfort (placed last in this account) the consistency in the sound of the songs is palpable and ensures the coherence of the cycle as a whole. (Another number, Bosun’s Cheer, was added in 2014, four years after this performance). The individual songs are delivered alternately by the mezzo Olivia Vermeulen and the baritone Peter Schöne; they combine in the final number. The honeyed lightness of Vermeulen’s voice is perfect for these fragile, nuanced pieces. She interacts beautifully with the whispered, breathy flute and harp textures which pervade the opening Ariel’s Hail and seamlessly blends the spoken and sung material of the central number Miranda’s Lament. Schöne’s more robust voice is equally attuned to the singular demands of Saariaho’s idiom; his duet with Vermeulen in the concluding Ferdinand’s Comfort, where Shakespeare describes Ferdinand’s grief at the apparent demise of his father and his quest for music to sooth him is deeply touching. Saariaho’s writing for voice is as usual superbly paced - in this work she prescribes no textural distinction between breath, speech and singing. The Tempest Songbook thus requires singers of considerable sensitivity to carry it off and Vermeulen and Schöne have it in spades. The cycle requires a small instrumental ensemble of flute, clarinet, harp, guitar, mandolin and single strings. Ensemble Musikfabrik’s accompaniments are appropriately tactful, while Wergo’s sound is immaculate.
If the first two works are keepers, I honestly cannot say the same about the Swiss composer/ percussionist Michael Wertmüller’s half-hour composition antagonisme contrôlé. A good friend of mine (and free jazz buff) heard this at Huddersfield a few years ago – he went because it represented an almost unprecedented opportunity to hear sax legend Peter Brötzmann locally. He hated the piece with a passion and considered it an utter waste of Brötzmann’s talent and his own time. On the other hand, while rooting around the web to find out a bit more about the work I found a review by Richard Morrison of The Times – he absolutely loved it. I’m firmly with my mate on this one, however, although I readily admit that free jazz is hardly one of my default enthusiasms. The conceit of the work (a rather banal one in my view) lies in Wertmüller’s attempt to create a cogent narrative of opposites, by juxtaposing apparently notated material for Ensemble Musikfabrik alongside the seemingly random chaos produced by a trio of free jazz stalwarts.

It was broadly impossible for this listener at least to reliably disentangle the sounds produced by one of these groups from the other, which may well have been Wertmüller’s goal all along. The point is that so much of the music rushes by so quickly that any formal logic flies out of the window and eludes both focused and more relaxed, spontaneous kinds of listening. Brötzmann’s sax inevitably dominates proceedings and his grand entrances trigger much of what happens. When he stops the listener might get some sense of the rhythmic patterns that enable the ensemble to focus upon (and play!) their ‘material’. Ghosts of conventional ‘art’ music hovers in the background (as in an elfin wind and brass episode at 5:00) though Brötzmann seems indifferent to these contributions rather than deliberately trying to up-end them. The other main controlling force is the percussion, whether it’s Dirk Rothbrust’s drum-kit, or the instruments from the ensemble, including the piano, whose part sporadically brought to mind the second movement of Charles Ives’ Fourth Symphony, In fact, Ives on amphetamines is not a bad characterisation of the bits of the work that don’t involve confrontational solo sax wailing – the chamber textures at 10:24 for example could almost project an off-stage transcendental quality. The e-bass finally makes its presence felt in a muffled, rather underwhelming passage from 14:11, while Brötzmann plays a more restrained, faintly noirish melody (yep, melody) a minute later over some of the deepest bass sounds I’ve ever heard.. A brief section at 21:00 momentarily triggered thoughts of the minimal ECM jazz of Wertmüller’s compatriot Nik Bartsch. Ultimately, if the open-eared listener can get through the first ten minutes and maintain some level of concentration, there’s a great deal of colour and activity to take in, but I’m afraid I found antagonisme contrôlé went way over my head; in my view it consisted of little more than a wayward, unpleasant din that far outstayed its welcome, albeit one that’s heroically performed and truthfully recorded. There’s already enough antagonisme in this world, and far too little that’s contrôlé in this piece. I felt it was completely at odds with the essence of the first half of the disc which was certainly well worth hearing.

I must conclude by mentioning Wergo’s rather quirky packaging, which may constitute further aesthetic black pudding (the Lancastrian equivalent of Marmite) for our adventurous MWI readership. The insert folds out into a glossy poster; one side contains the notes, the other a reproduction of one of the great German abstract painter Gerhard Richter’s Rot-Blau-Gelb series of oils. This inclusion of an art-work seems to be the standard format for this Wergo series, and while I rather liked the novelty I suspect some will find it an irritation.

Richard Hanlon

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