Over the last decade, the husband and wife team of Thomas Zehetmair and Ruth Killius have been heard together on ECM New Series as members of the Zehetmair Quartet, in outstanding – and prize-winning – recordings of Schumann, Bartók, Hindemith and Hartmann. “Manto and Madrigal”, however, is the first documentation of a duo recital programme which the violinist and violist have been developing in concert for several years.
Recorded at Zurich’s radio studio DRS in May 2009, the album “Manto and Madrigal” is a stunning tour of modern music. As Paul Grifiths writes in the liner notes, “The instruments dazzle, dance and declaim, play games with one another”. Relationships between the pieces and between the instruments are explored in compositions that range from Scelsi’s dissonant and microtonal journey toward the mystic core of music making – with Killius as singer as well as viola soloist – to duo pieces that incorporate elements, archaic or playful, from regional music. There is very early Bartók here, and music of Schoenberg’s sole Greek pupil Skalkottas. There are three sketches by Heinz Holliger, written especially for Zehetmair and Killius, playful madrigals by Martinů, a piece by Maxwell Davies refracting folk music of the Orkney islands, and an encore provided by the performers’ friend Johannes Nied (last heard on ECM as bass player on Holliger’s “Beiseit” album).
Griffiths: “They arrive as if from out of a distant past: two instruments playing together in fifths, and thereby producing an austere consonance reminiscent of ancient ways of harmonizing a melody, as found in some of the earliest notated music and also in surviving Icelandic folk practices, which Rainer Killius follows at the opening of his arrangement of ‘Ó mín flaskan friða (…) More than a historical aura makes the fifth an appropriate centre of gravity in this context—between the parts and soon within each one (...) The fifth defines and separates; it is by this interval that one string or one instrument is higher or lower. But the fifth also connects and relates, two notes a fifth apart being consonant together and close in harmonic meaning. What divides is also what binds.”
Thomas Zehetmair has collaborated with almost all of the major orchestras and leading conductors and plays most of the violin repertoire from the Baroque (in historically informed interpretations) to contemporary composition. He has premiered violin concerti by James Dillon and Hans-Jürgen von Bose and, for ECM New Series, recorded the concerto by Heinz Holliger which was dedicated to him. Zehetmair’s account of the complete solo sonatas by Eugène Ysaye and of Paginini’s 24 Caprici each won him great critical acclaim. “Zehetmair’s achievement is to unite all conflicting creative currents into a single, surging flood of invention. The playing is so assured, so instinctively musical, that you take everything he plays on trust, believing with him that it is genuinely great music” – The Guardian on the Ysaye disc.
Alongside the standard repertoire, Ruth Killius has taken part in many first performances, including Elliott Carter's Oboe Quartet with Heinz Holliger and in Brian Ferneyhough's String Trio with members of the Ensemble Contrechamps, Geneva. From 1993 to 1996 she was principal viola player of the Camerata Bern. Subsequent concert engagements as soloist have led Killius to orchestras including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Residentie Orkest Den Haag, Basler Sinfonie Orchester, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Vienna Chamber Orchestra, MDR Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestra Ensemble Kanazawa as well as to the Australian Chamber Orchestra.
Thomas Zehetmair and Ruth Killius cofounded the Zehetmair Quartet in 1994 which meanwhile belongs to the most important string quartets. Their recording of Schumann's 1st and 3rd string quartets received among other awards the Gramophone Award (Record of the Year). Also the quartet's recent disc with the string quartets no. 4 by Hindemith and no. 5 by Bartók is prize-winning: in France it was awarded the Diapason d'Or de l'Année.
Thomas Zehetmair is currently musical director of England’s Northern Sinfonia; he and Killius frequently perform as soloists with the orchestra. The Zehetmair Quartet is also on the road in 2011 and the Zehetmair/Killius duo is playing selected concerts including a date at London’s Wigmore Hall on April 5 where the programme includes the Skalkottas, Holliger and Martinu pieces incorporated into “Manto and Madrigal”.