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Enno POPPE (b. 1969)
Filz, for viola and chamber orchestra (2013-14) [25:30]
Stoff, for nine string players (2015-18) [19:10]
Wald, for four string quartets (2009-10) [26:26]
Tabea Zimmermann (viola)
Ensemble Resonanz/Enno Poppe
rec June 2020, Friedrich-Ebert-Halle, Hamburg, Germany
WERGO WER73992 [71:22]

Poppe’s quasi-scientific approach to composition at times verges on the parodic; the results inevitably divide the audience. I have derived a lot of enjoyment from his orchestral and ensemble music over the years but unfortunately for me, the only disc of his music that has come my way for review thus far proved to be rather hard work; this was Rundfunk, a rather overblown experiment for synthesisers which also appeared on Wergo back in 2020 - review; let’s just say I was ultimately defeated by what I viewed as unnecessary prolixity. Happily, this new Wergo issue is far more successful; the allusions to laboratories and microscopes may persist in the booklet notes, but there is something more disciplined and authentic in this trio of works and the listener may be more willing to turn a blind eye to any white coat posturing on Poppe’s part. In much of this composer’s previous work I have detected at least a hint of mischief and playfulness, yet each of the pieces on this new issue seem more serious and rigorous in both intent and impact. In each case Poppe is remarkably successful in conjuring sounds of singular imagination and unusual beauty from the extended string ensembles at his disposal.

I do like Poppe’s attachment to one-word (frequently monosyllabic) titles – there’s something agreeably post-punk about this practice. In any case the words he selects are evidently considered carefully and often prove inspired; one often wonders if the titles have determined the way the music happens or vice-versa. Filz (Felt) is a viola concerto in all but name and given that it was written for Tabea Zimmermann, arguably the doyenne of contemporary violists (only last week she was presented with the coveted Ernst von Siemens Musikpreis for 2020) one would be remiss not to take it seriously. Its three movements are appealingly soft and immersive in the main, although infrequently brittle, even astringent gestures make brief intrusions. Zimmermann dominates the opening eleven minutes, but Poppe’s orchestration, tailored for the talented players of Ensemble Resonanz is most imaginatively blended. There are meaty bars for the clarinets (and an especially fruity sounding bass clarinet) to play – the only moments involving non-stringed instruments on the disc - they prove to be ideal partners-in-crime for the gymnastic solo viola. The central panel veers between stasis and hyperactivity; most of the time the solo viola seems either to be thoroughly absorbed into the orchestral fabric or to completely dissociate from it during those episodes which make the most of Zimmermann’s tactful virtuosity. At one point (from 3:58) coagulating glissandi in the ensemble threaten to overwhelm the soloist; clarinets merge in creepy harmonium-like sounds. The disorienting glassy textures towards the end of the movement are more electro than acoustic, until the clarinets intertwine thrillingly on a note of piercing harshness. The soloist plays a rather disconnected, microtonally inflected solo at the outset of the finale, with accented silences and oscillating strings in the foreground. Entomologically informed rustlings peek through the undergrowth. There is an aching vocal melancholy to these sounds – and this movement stands out for the lyricism of the solo viola, which seems to inhabit a parallel universe, and the ensemble’s bizarre harmonies of the spheres, whereby muted sirens create Doppler-like illusions. Filz is both peculiar and bewitching.

Stoff is another piece that lives up to its name and to Poppe’s flexible yet focused approach to the construction of his work. Apologies for over-egging the stereotype but Stoff means ‘material’ and its very sound defies the listener not to picture a guy in boffin spectacles and lab-coat producing something unprecedented and potentially important with the most basic of raw materials. Thus the single pitch which is produced at the start is articulated in so many various ways that the compounds Poppe creates combining it with adjacent notes or similar timbres, and adopting various styles of attack renders it crucial to the entire arc of the piece. No wonder Rainer Ninnenmann (in a booklet note that is both readable and comprehensible) likens this opening pitch gesture to Hydrogen, number 1 in the periodic table and the substance which bonds most commonly with other elements to form the stuff that makes the universe. Stoff embodies a sonic version of organic growth and multiplication, one which is perhaps easier to grasp in the timbral homogeneity of its incarnation here for trios of violins, violas and cellos than in its original form for three trios of wind, brass and strings. This is akin to viewing music spawn and multiply under a microscope, and despite its multiplicity of tempi, tuning systems, effects (notably glissandi and the use of mutes), modes of attack et al, the reference to the opening gesture at 12:03 renders it extraordinarily familiar – as if it was there all the time. Stoff trips the light fantastic on an especially narrow tightrope, yet the variety of colour and mood Poppe generates from his strange experiments with basic building blocks is frequently a source of wonder. The complexity and density of the piece’s big closing climax (and its subsequent evaporation) is as exquisite as it is exhilarating.

Wald (Wood) is another apt title; in this case the concept involves computing the four strings each on violin, viola and cello; multiplying this by the four instruments in a string quartet and multiplying this again by the four separate quartets required for a performance of the piece. So listeners may not be able to see the ‘Wood’ for the trees, or more literally perceive the ensemble for the singularity of the 64 individual strings involved. The Wergo engineers have certainly played their part in conveying the grand sweep of Wald; presumably this was in Poppe’s mind when he organised the structure of the piece as the spatial effect of the ensemble’s layout emerges with almost cinematic vividness.
Individual strings (and instruments) in turn seem to soliloquize and sing, sigh (there’s a lot of that) and cry, chatter, argue. and guffaw. In these sounds resides the unexpected humanity which lies at the core of Poppe’s art; the vocal and conversational nature of long spans of this remarkably concentrated piece seems to derive more from social interaction than mathematical calculation. Glissandi once more predominate and vary in scale between the minute and the grandiose. Like many of the string pieces of Georg Friedrich Haas, there is no shortage of psychedelia in Wald, intentional or otherwise. In this piece especially, Poppe succeeds in playing a wild, disconcerting trick on one’s aural perception. The enormous ascending glissando that completes the work dissipates into nothingness and delivers the listener back to some sort of reality. Or not, given the state of the world. Either way, Wald is spellbinding.

Much as I enjoy contemporary music it is fair to say that I am wrong-footed or completely shocked by it only too infrequently. It is a rare thing indeed to be simultaneously surprised, impressed and most importantly moved by new work. None of this music is remotely ugly; much of it is beautiful, all of it is invigorating. I can’t say hand on heart I love everything that he does but the thing about Enno Poppe is that one really doesn’t know where each piece is going to take you, nor how it’s going to get you there. Tabea Zimmermann gets it. Judging by the spirit and engagement of the players of Ensemble Resonanz from the first note to the last of this absorbing disc, so do they.

As the song so nearly went: “New York, London, Paris, Munich; everybody’s talkin’ ‘bout…..Poppe’s music”

I’ll get my coat….

Richard Hanlon

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