Running like a leitmotif through the ECM recordings of Heinz Holliger, and through many of his more recent compositions, is the theme of the troubled genius. The Swiss composer is fascinated by the border zone that separates creativity from disturbance, and much of his recent work, offering “biographical” insights into idiosyncratic artistic personalities, illustrates how tenuous the dividing line can be. On previous releases, he has reflected on the life and work of Hölderlin, especially his later years (in the Scardanelli-Zyklus), and also Robert Walser (Beiseit, Schneewittchen), and has conveyed a sense of their torment, and their inspiration, in music of great power and psychological complexity.
Now, responding to a commission to write a piece for the 75th birthday of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Holliger turns his attention to Louis Soutter (1871 to 1942). Innovative painter and militant pacifist – he foresaw the horrors of the Second World War, and used his canvases as a medium of protest, until his visions of disaster brought him to the asylum – Louis Soutter was firstly a musician, and perhaps the most brilliant violinist to have graced the ranks of the Swiss Orchestra.
Soutter had studied in Brussels, with the dazzlingly virtuosic Eugène Ysaÿe (1858 to 1931), but was ultimately thrown out of the OSR for increasingly rebellious behaviour. His painting, Holliger feels, was a natural continuation of his musical activity, and holds many inspiring impulses for a composer: “His extremely nervous brushstrokes can be translated into pitches.”
Holliger uses aspects of Soutter’s biography to bring order and shape to his violin concerto:
“Soutter began as a representational painter in the style of Manet. The musical journey leads from the fin-de-siècle aura of the first movement to the very controlled music of the quasi chorale variations of the second movement and onto the third, portraying grotesqueries and Dantesque visions. The journey ends in “Avant le massacre”, title of a picture Soutter painted in the remotest corner of Switzerland in September 1939... Going out from his painting, I try to realise a ritual of annihilation. I want to show that music can age, can be sapped of vital energy and end in agony. Soutter has been very important to me, not only because of his biography, but also as witness to his time. He, who would not survive the war, foresaw the doom of humankind.”
Fascinated by the story of the painter's life, Holliger wrote his concerto, “in a delirium”, in just over a week. “The encounter with Soutter, forced me – with my inclination to write slow, static music – to compose exceedingly energetic, rhythmically complex music. A physical, dancelike, motoric music. At some point, I simply had to turn rapid movement, which means a speeding standstill, into sound.”
Central to Holliger's brilliantly conceived composition is the relationship between Soutter and Ysaÿe, conveyed especially in the writing for violins. “Soutter is always the smaller shadow, panting to keep up with the violin giant. That is how he once saw himself in a dream: as a tiny man, scratching away at the strings, while next to him stands a giant Ysaÿe, his hair flooding the concert hall…”
The whole violin concerto, furthermore, is developed out of the revolutionary playing techniques embodied in the Six Sonatas for Violin Solo op. 27, which Ysaÿe wrote in 1923, and the concerto begins with a distorted quotation from Ysaÿe’s Third Sonata in D minor. From the outset the concerto is loaded with detailed reference and musical-historical analogy.
The craftsmanship that brought Holliger world-renown as an instrumentalist is also reflected in his compositional activity, which is finally getting its due. If Heinz Holliger's phenomenal abilities as an oboist and his reputation as a conductor long overshadowed his compositional capacity, this has decisively changed. In a career summary in London's Musical Times, writer Arnold Whittall argued that Holliger is extending the modernist spirit of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern into the present day. Certainly his work reveals a lyric expressionism that links him to those masters.
On this recording, the Holliger Violin Concerto is prefaced by Thomas Zehetmair’s extraordinary interpretation of the Ysaÿe D minor sonata, which the violinist had recorded some two months earlier in the monastery of St Gerold, site of so many ECM recordings. Gripping in its own right, the Ysaÿe composition sets the scene for the Holliger, and illuminates the contemporary composer’s source materials. It is also provides a tantalizing foretaste of a full New Series recording of the Ysaÿe sonatas, played by Zehetmair, scheduled for fall 2004 release.
Austrian violinist Zehetmair must count as one of the most widely praised instrumentalists of the moment, and he recently swept the board with his recording, with the Zehetmair Quartet, of string quartets of Schumann. This disc won a dozen classical music prizes – Edison Award, Gramophone Award, the Prix Caecilia, Diapason d’Or de l’Année and more. Holliger’s Violin Concerto is dedicated to Zehetmair and is, amongst its other attributes, set up to showcase his temperamental virtuosity and his extraordinary expressiveness. Here, Zehetmair’s performance, as so often, “crackles with excitement” (to quote Gramophone).
The strong bond between composer and soloist is rooted in many years of collaborative work. They have played together on ECM recordings of Zelenka, Elliott Carter and Isang Yun, and Zehetmair was also a crucial contributor to Holliger’s “Lieder ohne Worte” recording of 1996. Outside ECM, Zehetmair has very often played under Holliger’s baton and they made, for instance, acclaimed recordings of the Berg and Janáček concertos for Teldec…
Born in Salzburg, Thomas Zehetmair studied at the Mozarteum with his father and later took master classes with Franz Samokyl, Max Rostal and Nathan Milstein. He is now a regular guest of the world’s finest orchestras, working with distinguished conductors including Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Simon Rattle, and Christoph von Dohnányi, as well as Heinz Holliger. Among his chamber music partners are Alfred Brendel, Heinrich Schiff and Gidon Kremer. He founded the Zehetmair Quartet in 1997; their accounts of Hartmann/Bartók and Schumann have received the very highest acclaim. On the album “Verklärte Nacht” (with music of Schönberg/Veress/Bartók), Zehetmair directs the Camerata Bern. He also plays music of, B.A. Zimmermann (with Thomas Demenga), and appears on Volumes 2 and 5 of Gidon Kremer’s Edition Lockenhaus series, playing Shostakovich.
Heinz Holliger was born in Langenthal, Switzerland, and studied oboe and composition at the conservatories of Berne, Basel, and Paris. His composition teachers were Sándor Veress and Pierre Boulez. His mastery of the oboe brought him his first professional breakthrough, first prizes at international competitions in Geneva (1959) and Munich (1961) propelling him toward the concert and festival stages. He has averaged a hundred concerts a year since the mid-1960s. His extraordinary prowess as an instrumentalist has prompted numerous composers to write pieces for him, including Elliott Carter, Stockhausen, Berio, Ernst Krenek, Frank Martin, Penderecki, Pousseur and Henze. Holliger's repertoire includes several hundred works from the baroque to the avant-garde: he has been an innovator in both domains, playing improvised cadenzas in Baroque and classical concerts, and greatly expanding the vocabulary of the oboe in new music by the introduction of unorthodox playing techniques.
ECM recordings of Heinz Holliger's music include the albums “Schneewittchen”, “Lieder ohne Worte”, “Beiseit/Alb-Cher”, and “Scardanelli-Zyklus”. ECM has also recorded his compositions “Chaconne” (12 Hommages à Paul Sacher), “Duo”, “Studie über Mehrklänge” and “Trema” (on a Bach/Holliger album initiated by Thomas Demenga). He appears as oboe soloist and conductor of the Camerata Bern on a New Series album dedicated to the music of Sándor Veress, conducts the Kammerorchester der Jungen Deutschen Philharmonie in ECM's Edition Lockenhaus series, and, again with Zehetmair as musical associate, delivers superlative performances of Zelenka’s Trio Sonatas.
CD package includes 32 page booklet containing liner notes by Heinz Holliger and Philippe Albèra, a biographical note on Thomas Zehetmair, colour reproductions of Soutter’s paintings, and photographs.