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Bernd Alois ZIMMERMANN (1918-1970)
Violin Concerto (1950) [17.30]
Photoptosis (1968) [14.04]
Die Soldaten, Vocal Symphony (1957-63) [41.49]
Leila Josefowicz (violin)
Anu Komsi (soprano), Jeni Packelen (alto), Hilary Summers (contralto), Peter Tantsits (tenor), Ville Rusanen (baritone), Juhu Uusitalo (bass)
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu
rec. 2016/18, Helsinki Music Centre
ONDINE ODE1325-2 [73.45]

By a strange coincidence, at the moment that this CD plopped through my letter box I was listening to Charles Ives’s Fourth Symphony, in fact the crucially top volume moment at the end of movement two when several tunes, marching songs, hymns etc., all topple onto each other into a collage. The postman looked perplexed as he handed me the packet. Zimmermann and Ives share a stylistic need for quotation, bringing the past into the present.

When we listen to music we listen in three dimensions. Aware of what has just passed, then listening to the very moment and finally projecting into what might happen; hence music can then bring surprise and make our pulses race in what we expect to be a gradual Rossini-like crescendo. With Zimmermann we have music not only of our time but also of all time; music which we might call modern but which is now fifty years old, and music which blatantly quotes old masters.

Taking Photoptosis (‘Incidence of Light’), we can hear Jazz rhythms, then what Dr. Mark Berry’s thought-provoking booklet notes describe as “chaotic horrors from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony”, bits of Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy leading us to Parsifal, the Nutcracker and possibly La Mer. Also, iconic music of the past including a Bach chorale linking us back even to Berg’s Violin Concerto.

In the Die Soldaten Symphony, notably in the wild Prelude to Act II, we hear Bach again, via a German Chorale used by him in the Passions, acting as an undercurrent in the final scenes. Did I also hear the Dies Irae chant? In a stagng I have seen, several scenes were run concurrently.

The antecedents of Die Soldaten can be found in Berg’s Wozzeck, which is also about the military and its treatment of women and of men of lesser rank, and in the main character is also Marie; here, though, she is a fifteen-year-old promised to a much older man, Stolzius, but attracted, against her father’s wishes, to Baron Desportes who writes her flattering letters. The composer and Erich Bormann adapted the libretto from a play by Reinhold Lenz (d.1792). Berg took his plot from a nineteenth century play by George Büchner. You can think of Zimmermann’s music, which, after all was written only thirty years after the Berg, as an extension of that harmonic language or even more precisely the language of Lulu (1934). It has been suggested that it is a cross between Richard Strauss and Webern. It is dodecaphonic but more violent. There are, though, many moments of quiet reflection and very delicate orchestration and not surprisingly the composition of the work took Zimmermann six painstaking years.

I have known this work since a complete recording emerged in 1992 under Bernhard Kontarsky on Teldec (9031-72775-2). This was an impressive achievement and superbly recorded live, as is this. I prefer Anu Komsi to Nancy Shade but am less keen on the male singers in this recording.

The opera itself lasts for about ninety-five minutes, the symphony for forty, so Zimmermann decided to concentrate on the love-fight, as it were, between Marie, her father Wesener, Stolzius and the Baron with cameo roles for the two elderly mothers. The soldierly characters like the Captain, Army chaplain and various officers are removed.

Photoptosis, called a ‘Prelude for large orchestra’ is a late work and can be almost pointillistic at times; Zimmermann’s own music is slowly subsumed by quotation and a neurosis of noise, perhaps falling into a sort of nihilism, which ultimately resulted in his own suicide on 10 August, 1970. Another recording of this work that is less well recorded but wonderfully perceptive is on CPO, conducted by Hans Zender (999 482-2).

The Violin Concerto is less well known, and although from early in Zimmermann’s career is still a tough nut to crack for the listener and certainly for the performers. Indeed, almost all of Zimmermann's music needs virtuosi. Its three movements betray some allegiance to neo-classicism, that is ‘Sonata’, ‘Fantasia’ and then a ‘Rondo’ but that is (arguably) where it ends. Zimmermann uses a huge orchestra but whereas in Phototopsis it is used delicately, here it is used with power and passion. The Dies Irae plainchant is embedded in the ‘Fantasia’ movement, which starts in a quasi-recitativic manner with an improvisatory quality; perhaps the baroque isn’t so far away after all. Prokofev or Stravinsky may have informed the ‘Rondo’, which is often savagely rhythmic. The performance is superb; Leila Josefowicz is an outstanding champion of contemporary music. I was in the Albert Hall at the Proms in 2017 to hear her spectacular performance of the Stravinsky concerto. And she is marvellously supported by the Finnish Radio Orchestra under the immaculate direction of Hannu Lintu their chief conductor.

This is an outstanding release, not just the extraordinary music but also the performances. This music is hard and needs work and talent to bring it alive as well as courage and imagination. The recording is clear and powerful and all texts are supplied as well as the essay mentioned above.
Gary Higginson


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