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Olga NEUWIRTH (b. 1968)
CoronAtion I: io son ferito ahimè, for percussion and sampler (2020) [6:06]
Weariness heals wounds I – in memoriam Michael Glawogger, for viola (2014) [13:08]
Torsion, for bassoon (2003) [14:10]
Magic flu-idity, for flute and Olivetti typewriter (2018) [14:45]
Fumbling and Tumbling, for trumpet (2018) [10:43]
Incendo/Fluido, for piano with CD (2000) [12:46]
Björn Wilker (percussion), Dimitrios Polisoidis (viola), Lorelei Dowling (bassoon), Vera Fischer (flute), Anders Nyqvist (trumpet), Florian Müller (piano)
Rec. August 2020, Mozart-Saal, Wiener Konzerthaus, Vienna, Austria
KAIROS 0015097KAI [71:42]

In the adapted version of Plato’s famous proverb, we are told that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. If this is so, it’s arguably an advantage in our current predicament to be a label specialising in contemporary art music. No need for Kairos to just record oodles of piano stuff. Their new ‘Solo’ series provides an opportunity for the individual members of the mighty Klangforum Wien to step into the spotlight and lay down works for any single instrument. It is Kairos’s good fortune that most of their enviable roster of living composers have been pretty prolific in their production of pieces for single instrumentalists of all kinds. In this way the catalogues of Rebecca Saunders, Salvatore Sciarrino, Georges Aperghis, Toshio Hosokawa and, in the case of the present disc, Olga Neuwirth have been selected for the first batch of releases in this new strand.

The half-dozen works featured on this release span two-decades; Neuwirth’s title for the opener, the percussion-with-sampler piece CoronAtion I: io son ferito ahimè, provides a playful clue as to its date of composition. A rough translation is offered in the booklet: “The culmination of humanity; Oh, I’m wounded!” Is this satire, sarcasm, serious? Neuwirth has a way with titles and I often wonder if I’m missing out, limited as I am to English, very basic French and German and the joys of Google Translate. Either way, Klangforum’s longstanding percussionist Björn Wilker treats us to six minutes of mildly apocalyptic aetherea, an appealing blend of cymbal, delicate glockenspiel, what seem like tuned drums and distant, cavernous quasi-vocalisations. There’s a drone buried somewhere in the texture. It’s hardly a showcase of jaw-dropping percussive energy, more a discomfiting collage of rhythm and rumble, clangour and calm, presented in a hazy, echo-drenched ambience. I loved it.

The other five offerings are each roughly double the duration of CoronAtion I. Weariness heals wounds I – another evocative title – is an elegy for solo viola in memory of the composer’s friend, the renowned Austrian documentary maker Michael Glaswogger. The name of the piece alludes to the peculiar social phenomenon known in Japan as hikkikomuri, whereby imagined or real pressure to succeed affects many young adults and forces them to effectively withdraw from society for months on end, in many cases isolating themselves exclusively in the family home. Although Neuwirth wrote it in 2014, the practical and spiritual overlaps with lockdown seem obvious enough. The violist Dimitrios Polisoidis is at one with its accessible extremes. Weariness heals wounds I doubles up as a formidable showpiece and an expressive, at times songful reflection of solitude. It contrasts episodes of intensive hyperactivity and still yearnings. The spectrum of colour and gesture Polisoidis manages to wring from his instrument is at once striking and impressive. Yet I found myself increasingly moved by an indefinable sadness that seems to hover between Neuwirth’s notes and rests. The recording is remarkably natural.

The solo bassoon work Torsion dates from 2003; it involves a degree of electronic accompaniment. Neuwirth conducts a detailed investigation of the instrument’s sonic potential, although in the first part of the work the sounds (with the exception of the odd stray multiphonic) seem to be produced by the bassoonist Lorelei Dowling pretty conventionally. One becomes aware of a change in ambience at around 3:45, though the intrusion surprises the listener more through its apparent independence from the bassoon sound per se. As the central part of the work becomes more challenging, the ambient intrusions offer more in the way of detail – as though the performer is being superimposed onto completely new settings; a roadside, a residential environment (complete with a radio playing a folk tune), some sort of factory (I’m guessing). Again Neuwirth’s demanding writing is unexpectedly accessible and appealing, the modernity of the idiom absolutely no barrier to the curious listener’s potential enjoyment. Torsion’s closing bars are oddly haunting.

Next up is Magic flu-idty for flute. Performed by Klangforum’s Vera Fischer, the intrusions here are provided by the familiar sounds (at least to those of us who spent large swathes of the early 1980s working in an insurance brokerage) of an Olivetti typewriter. It is not clear who (or what) is creating its percussive effusions, but they certainly seem aptly synched to the ebb and flow of the perky flute material. The bell to mark the end of a typed line uncannily corresponds to the phrasing of the flautist. There is an abrupt change in mood (and ambience) around the halfway mark, with a strange, sustained high drone somehow hanging on the ether for much of the remainder of the piece– it seems to be quite independent from the flute. Magic flu-idity is played with phenomenal dexterity and expressive variety by Fischer, although I did feel by the end that its fifteen minute duration was pushing things a little.

More interesting (and a little more succinct) is Neuwirth’s recent trumpet piece Fumbling and Tumbling. This ten minute compendium of effects, extended techniques, jazzy fanfares, exaggerated humour, multiphonics, scalar adventures and mute games could be interpreted as a primer for contemporary trumpet technique but in fact it holds together remarkably well. It’s entertaining and provocative yet Neuwirth’s writing for the instrument is effortlessly idiomatic. Fumbling and Tumbling is an exceedingly apt description. Anders Nyqvist’s reading is absolutely riveting.

This absorbing portrait concludes with the earliest piece on the disc, Incendo/Fluido (I burn, I flow) from 2000. Neuwirth wrote this for piano and a pre-set, pre-recorded CD of Ondes Martenot fragments which is placed within the body of the piano itself in order to create a parallel acoustic space. At once the sounds that ricochet forth from the speakers seem more confrontational than what has gone before, sounds concerned more with gesture and impact than line or flow. Repetition and competing rhythms seem to predominate in the opening pages. An eerie halo of electronica drone shimmers discreetly above the piano’s pointed prevarications. From about 4:40 this begins to oscillate – whilst one becomes increasingly aware of adaptations to the piano itself; strange exaggerated decay effects, Aeolian harp-like projections from the strings and punchy, Cagean preparations until at 7:06 these manipulations momentarily yield to the Ondes sounds in isolation which presages a passage of greater unpredictably. The piano isn’t absent for long though and re-engages for the remainder of the work with a more conventional soundworld to the accompaniment of the creepy and incessant Ondes. Florian Müller is a responsive, flexible and unfailingly imaginative interpreter.

As far as keeping contemporary buffs like myself engaged and occupied goes, Kairos’s ‘Solo’ project seems like a fine idea. It’s difficult to imagine that even the most ardent enthusiast will respond to each selection with equal fervour, but it’s a vehicle which offers the composer an outlet for the revisiting of little commissions and occasional pieces which otherwise might easily be overlooked. As far as the classical recording industry is concerned, it’s one of the few good things to have come out of this pandemic and as a listener I have found this Olga Neuwirth monograph a most auspicious experience. The recorded sound is excellent throughout, but the acoustic of the Mozart-Saal seems especially conducive to the viola and trumpet offerings on this disc. Although Sonia Wendrock’s booklet notes are somewhat cursory they are at least comprehensible; in any case each of the pieces here tells a completely different tale and it would not do to over-think them.

Richard Hanlon



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