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Friedrich JAECKER (b. 1950) paradis for two pianos (2003) [6:26]
Harry’s Dream, for 33 glasses and voices (2012) [33:20] 12 Bagatellen (2000-2012)/12 Studien (2008-2012) for solo piano [34:34]
Jovita Zähl, Philipp Kronbichler (pianos)
Chamber Choir of the University of Cologne/Michael Ostrzyga
rec. 2015, Trinitatis -Kirche, and Chamber Music Hall, Hochschule für Musik und Tanz Cologne, Germany
Text included MODE 315 [74:20]
I applaud Mode’s dedication to contemporary music and have collected a fair few of their Feldman, Scelsi, Cage and Xenakis releases over the years. The name of Friedrich Jaecker is completely unfamiliar to me. German by birth, he studied at the renowned Hochschule für Musik in Cologne under Ligeti and has taught there since 1977. I was attracted to the disc by the promise of a half-hour plus piece for tuned glasses and choir, a homage to Harry Partch and his system of ‘just intonation’. Harry’s Dream is bookended by pieces for pianos; paradis is a brief work for two such instruments, while the sequences of 12 bagatelles and 12 studies are here intertwined - each set entrusted to one of the pianists involved in paradis.
The composer has contributed notes to introduce the three works. They are lucid and cannot be accused of pretentiousness. Much of the detailed content addresses the form and content of the 24 solo piano pieces – they certainly help the listener to navigate them. The other two pieces perhaps require less from the listener in terms of description or rationale.
paradis is a brief study for two pianos whose silences force the listener into real concentration. The residue of diffuse chords and notes in the top register and the sounds of piano keys being released is varied a couple of times when a sequence of notes and small phrases hints at development, only for them to be absorbed among the topmost octaves again. The note contends that the piece is about perception: is beauty actually present here, or merely implied? Having played paradis half a dozen times I can only report that this proposition is only relevant if the listener truly yields themselves to both sounds and silences – the work then seems more extended than its six-and-a-half minute duration. But the jury is out in terms of what might be lurking beyond what actually meets the ear.
The conceit of Harry’s Dream is thus: 33 musicians each stand behind a wine glass tuned to a precise single tone. The first thing one hears is a single note – a central tone around which everything else is built. Pitches from other glasses may replace it or be blended with it. Volume may increase or decrease. The musicians also vocalise, either humming, or chanting or declaiming syllables or sounds from a specific text – lines from Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, aptly chosen for its references to the ‘Harmony of the Spheres’. At first while the sounds of the glasses indeed seem attractive (and rather meditative), the piece builds tentatively – long silences have a fracturing effect. Complex harmonies become perceptible after about five minutes, and as the work develops the listener begins to sense a trade-off between dynamism and stasis. Harry’s Dream is arranged in three sections, but there is no explanation in the notes as to why this is so. At the outset of the second section the vocal activity begins with syllabic declamation of the text – the instruction in the score may well involve precision but the impact is rather more arbitrary, and as the work wore on I found the sound of the voices to be rather intrusive. When large numbers of the glasses are manipulated simultaneously at high volume the result is impressive and mysterious; the effect would certainly have been recognised by Jaecker’s teacher Ligeti but in the final analysis I found Harry’s Dream rather outstayed its welcome despite fleeting moments of wonder. In so far as one can make a judgement, the performance seems convincing and coherent – the sound is generally good but at the loudest moments it can seem a little stretched.
While the detailed explanations in the booklet certainly enable the curious listener to make some sense of the 12 Bagatellen and 12 Studien it’s an entirely different matter when it comes to measuring any intrinsic aesthetic quality in these mostly aphoristic pieces. The justification for presenting each numbered bagatelle (played by Jovita Zähl) alongside the corresponding study (played by Phillip Kronbichler) relates both to the difference in Jaecker’s conception of each form and to the parallel of the centuries-old convention of matching prelude with fugue. To quote the composer, “While a series of bagatelles suggest the musical traditions of other composers, or near the style of anecdotal narration, the studies are meant to address the border between structural ties and process-oriented development”. This is all very well and good in theory.
As a critic, one frequently resorts to euphemisms such as “challenging” or “confrontational” when referring to contemporary music, whether one finds it convincing or otherwise. The 24 miniatures presented here strike me as being neither, alas. As far as I’m concerned Webern and Kurtág remain the undisputed masters of the aphorism; their compositions yield more in terms of detail, depth and even soul the more time one spends with them. Webern’s music especially has been a benign companion for most of my adult life. In so many of Jaecker’s fragments, there is just a dearth of everything, a void. Despite the ‘user’s guide’ presented in the booklet, which really does do its job, beyond the words themselves I really can’t deduce what I am really listening out for, or even if I AM listening. I have played this sequence three times and I’ll not be revisiting it. I found this music to be quite devoid of interest or depth. The spareness projected by so many of these pieces is monotonous rather than mysterious, the title of each is many times more interesting than the music to which it alludes. On listening to each pair I’m afraid I have to admit total defeat in being able to differentiate between the bagatelle and study form as Jaecker conceives them. What can I say about the performances? As far as I can ascertain they are fine, but I rather suspect I could play some of these pieces and my piano technique is on a par with my cathedral-building skills or my abilities as a horse-whisperer. The recorded sound for both works involving pianos is excellent.
Ultimately then I found the first half of this disc to be infinitely more absorbing than the second, but in spite of the superficial attractions of an extended work for tuned glasses I still wasn’t completely convinced by Harry’s Dream. There may well be those who read this review who completely ‘get’ what Jaecker is seeking to do in each of these works; for my part I can only resort to waving the white flag as far as his Bagatellen and Studien are concerned.