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Olga NEUWIRTH (b. 1968)
miramondo multiplo…for trumpet and orchestra (2006) [18:53]
Remnants of Songs…An Amphigory for viola and orchestra (2009) [23:31]
Masaot/Clocks without Hands for orchestra (2013) [24:37]
Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet), Antoine Tamestit (viola)
Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester/Ingo Metzmacher
ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien/Susanna Mälkki
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Daniel Harding
rec. 2009-15, Musikverein & Konzerthaus, Vienna
KAIROS 0015010KAI [65:04]

In the last twenty years Kairos Records has arguably turned out to be the most cutting-edge of all the European labels which have devoted themselves exclusively to contemporary art music. It is therefore apt that they have chosen to mark the anniversary with a disc dedicated to the orchestral music of Olga Neuwirth, an individual whose singular work they have supported throughout – her music features on no less than seven Kairos portrait discs (and one DVD). During this period Neuwirth has seen her star rise inexorably, advancing effortlessly from the status of left-field reactionary to one of the most respected and performed composers across the globe.

Neuwirth’s biography is revealing; her father is the respected jazz pianist Harald Neuwirth (he was in fact classically trained, moreover my research has unearthed the nugget that in 1988 he conducted the Austrian entry at that year’s Eurovision Song Contest – nul points, alas…) while his brother (Olga’s uncle) is Gösta Neuwirth, another important contemporary figure whose work has also featured on Kairos (he is also a renowned authority on the music of Franz Schreker). Her father’s leanings seem to have influenced Olga since her original ambition was to become a jazz trumpeter, an aspiration which was cruelly snuffed out when as a teenager she suffered a jaw injury after a road accident; that interest reveals itself most clearly on this disc in the trumpet concerto …miramondo multiplo… which is accorded its second outing on disc within four months (with the same revered soloist). Given that Olga Neuwirth has built her reputation upon an extraordinary series of works inspired by (and involving) film and theatre, the strong narrative flavour that permeates the other two pieces on the disc is also unsurprising. In each of these Neuwirth’s pioneer spirit emerges in orchestral music which is brash, demanding, eventful and often attractive, especially in performances and recordings as sympathetic as these.

…miramondo multiplo… (which according to the note broadly translates as “viewing the world from different perspectives”) is dedicated to the inimitable Håkan Hardenberger and has recently appeared on a splendid BIS anthology of contemporary trumpet concertos (review). It’s cast in five movements of similar length identified as ‘arias’, a term deliberately chosen by the composer in that it pertains both to the English ‘air’ (as in melody) and to her perception of the solo instrument “…as an instrument of the extension of human breath”. One is struck throughout by the incisive, idiomatic writing for the solo instrument which Hardenberger brings to three-dimensional life as well as Neuwirth’s fluent, colourful orchestration. The dissonant chord at its opening elicits a florid trumpet cantilena which alludes to Handel, one of the work’s presiding spirits and whose spectre recurs towards the end of the concluding aria del piacere. In between Neuwirth has produced an amazingly original and cogent collage which takes in Mahler, Miles Davis and a hint of what I think might be Send in the Clowns in the second movement. This is entitled aria della memoria which neatly suggests that Neuwirth is somehow playing with the listener’s unconscious experience by drawing upon her own. Throughout the span of …miramondo multiplo… there’s some audacious use of the orchestral trumpets (especially their duelling with the soloist in the closing bars), a telling detail in a work which imaginatively exploits the melodic nature of the solo instrument. This was my first encounter with this fine piece – it won’t be my last. Hardenberger plays it as though he owns it while the young players of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester revel in its dynamic and timbral contrasts.

According to one online dictionary, an ‘amphigory’ is “a piece of nonsense writing or verse with apparent but non-existent meaning.” The composer evidently employs it to describe her viola concerto as a nod to the archdeacon of nonsense verse Edward Lear – Therese Muxenender’s note identifies Neuwirth as a keen fan. Muxenender also explains the ‘Remnants of Songs’ part of the subtitle as another link to memory, referring to the ability of lines of poetry (or fragments of music?) to trigger repressed traumatic experiences. The concerto was written for Antonie Tamestit, that most theatrical of instrumentalists. If melody is at the core of the trumpet concerto, texture, not least the grainy sound of the solo instrument is at least as important here. Neuwirth again deploys a five movement design. In the Praeludium Tamestit’s scrabbling emerges as if from a distance. Variegated fibres of melody are at odds with loud dissonances. An orchestral gesture hints at ripe neo-romanticism but leaves the viola behind. The movement combines fairground mischief with a mix-tape of clips from half-remembered tunes – it’s like a brief cinematic trailer. The second movement Sadko alludes to the same Russian folk character who appealed to Rimsky-Korsakov, and Tamestit’s pizzicati imitate the gusli, the zither-type instrument that’s at the centre of that legend. I was astonished to find that the ethereal sounds which recur in this panel are produced by a quintet of harmonicas. In the central …im Meer versank… there is palpable tension between the viola’s fragile half-formed melody and the febrile, almost chaotic orchestral sound. Sils Maria follows and features the work’s most lyrical writing for the soloist, pitted against an often glassy, ethereal orchestral backdrop. The finale is untitled – a whirligig of tune fragments, village-band gestures and broken waltzes which ends with the viola emerging from a sequence of brassy beats and wandering alone. Neuwirth’s Amphigory is full of extraordinary sounds and moods – but of the three pieces here it’s perhaps the one whose rewards only emerge through patience and perseverance on the part of the listener. Antoine Tamestit is a compelling guide. The ORF orchestra have Neuwirth’s music in their blood, while the vivid recording encompasses a huge dynamic range and leaves nothing to chance.

The concluding item is Masaot/Clock without Hands, a substantial orchestral essay from 2013. Neuwirth conceived it for the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra – Daniel Harding leads them in a thrilling performance also enhanced by de-luxe sound. It is my routine to play new pieces without reading the blurb first, and Masaot struck me as something of a processional, as if the listener is encountering a series of brief tableaux or episodes which emerge from afar and then fade into the distance. I was reassured to discover that I was not entirely mistaken. In this piece Neuwirth explores notions of nationhood, ethnicity and background; the note refers to her grandfather’s mixed ethnicity and specifically to a dream she had about him describing uncomfortable feelings toward his Austrian identity (or lack of it). Masaot also alludes to memory, to real or invented pasts; acting as its metaphorical centre is the River Danube, a connecting thread between the cultural and experiential waymarks of her grandfather’s life. The note refers (in what I suspect is a rather cumbersome translation) to Neuwirth “…composing music simultaneously as homeland and a foreign country, between familiar and strange sounds, beyond nostalgia, as the impossible attempt to stop time through composing”. Regardless of the rationale, Masaot is a riveting orchestral tour-de-force. From its outset grandiose chords and glassy auras perched at the edges of audibility encompass distant alpine bands, gipsy fiddling, ticking motifs and pinging pizzicati; the river’s current drives the listener headlong past fragments of Mahler, summery cicada sounds, hints of ländler and clashing marching bands (of oompah rather than Ivesian lineage). The metronome tickings frequently creep in and out of the texture (the Clock without Hands of the work’s unusual title). After 25 minutes the work concludes with ethereal swirls and one last gipsy brass outburst over increasingly hypnotic textures which ultimately consume the whole edifice in one gulp. Masaot/Clocks without Hands defies any attempt at narrative description; my dismal attempts to it little justice. Every sound and gesture seems to count though - as a ‘philosophical travelogue’ it is every bit as colourful and moving as the late Norwegian composer Alfred Janson’s masterpiece Nasjonalsang, a piece with which Neuwirth’s work has many parallels (although it involves a journey by rail rather than river). Daniel Harding leads an outstanding performance of a piece which has ‘instant classic’ written all over it.

In sum, this stunning new issue represents a triumphant celebration of Kairos Records’ two decades. All three pieces are trailblazing, challenging and surprisingly accessible. The three different Austrian orchestras (and two esteemed soloists) play their hearts out for Neuwirth. There is a remarkable consistency of sonic excellence between the three recordings given their different performers and provenances. If ever a disc justified this listener’s continued and unwavering passion for exciting new music, this one ticks the box with a flourish.

Richard Hanlon
 



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