Heinz Holliger: Lieder Ohne Worte

Thomas Zehetmair, Thomas Larcher, Ursula Holliger

CD18,90 out of print

In the last decade the uniqueness of Holliger’s compositions – for many years overshadowed by his reputation as a virtuoso oboist – has received overdue recognition with the awarding of many important international prizes (including Copenhegen’s Léonie Sonning Music Award, the Frankfurt Music Award, the Art Award of the City of Basle, the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize etc). On Lieder ohne Worte the extreme demands of Holliger’s music are well served by his harpist wife Ursula (for whom numerous composers, from Elliott Carter to Lutoslawski have also written pieces), pianist Thomas Larcher and violinist Thomas Zehetmair. Larcher and Zehetmair have worked extensively with Holliger, the latter recently premiering his Violin Concerto.

Featured Artists Recorded

June 1996, Radio Studio DRS, Zürich

Original Release Date


  • Lieder ohne Worte II
    (Heinz Holliger)
  • 1Frühlingslied (in memoriam Sándor Veress)06:44
  • 2Intermezzo I01:34
  • 3(...fern...)02:10
  • 4Intermezzo II01:15
  • 5(Flammen...Schnee)02:39
  • 6(...sam)01:39
  • 7Berceuse matinale (in memoriam Gertrud Demenga)06:10
  • 8Sequenzen über Johannes I, 32 für Harfe
    (Heinz Holliger)
  • 9Trema (Version für Violine solo)
    (Heinz Holliger)
  • Präludium, Arioso und Passacaglia für Harfe
    (Heinz Holliger)
  • 10Präludium06:34
  • 11Arioso02:01
  • 12Passacaglia04:49
  • Elis - Drei Nachtstücke für Klavier
    (Heinz Holliger)
  • 13I. Elis, wenn die Amsel02:04
  • 14II. Blaue Tauben02:27
  • 15III. Ein goldener Kahn02:46
  • Lieder ohne Worte I
    (Heinz Holliger)
  • 16I02:44
  • 17II05:42
  • 18III03:50
  • 19IV04:38
Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik (Neue Musik) Vierteljahresliste IV/1997
Heinz Holliger (1939) n'est pas seulement le hautboïste superlatif que l'on sait, et sans doute le soliste le plus recherché sur cet instrument difficile, il est également, et depuis toujours, un compositeur qui a imposé sa marque dans le panorama contemporain. Elève de deux maîtres prestigieux ­ Boulez mais aussi Sandor Veress ­ il s'est dirigé, après des débuts plus nettement expérimentaux, vers une expression sensiblement introvertie, vouée au monde intime. Dès le debut, le musicien Holliger a cheminé en compagnie d'un panthéon de poètes affinitaires. Trakl ou Celan, Hölderlin-Scardanelli ou Walser. Sur des poèmes de jeunesse de ce dernier, on a publié voici peu un cycle bouleversant de lieder, Beiseit.
Le disque aujourd'hui proposé comporte lui aussi deux cycles de lieder, mais « sans paroles », le premier datant du début des années 80, et le second lui succédant dix ans plus tard). Il y revient à un violon de tenir le rôle de la voix humaine. Pourquoi alors ne pas avoir dénommé ces séries d'un terme neutre ­ par exemple Six pièces pour violon et piano ' Pas seulement pour indiquer une certaine prédominance de l'instrument à archer accompagné par celui à marteaux placé peu ou prou dans un rôle de faire-valoir. Il s'agit surtout d'une méditation sur la forme-lied, la musique qui vient normalement au secours du poème semblant ici moins se substituer à lui que l'appeler ou moduler son défaut. En complément, deux morceaux pour harpe écrits à vingt ans de distance et qui marquent assez bien la pente suivie par le compositeur. Mais aussi un morceau de bravoure, Trema, violence tremblante qui s'eteint lentement. Le compositeur a beau revendiquer de travailler « dans une tour », la simplicité élégiaque qui le tente ne laisse pas d'être, à l'image de son panthéon poétique, hantée par quelque bien réelle catastrophe.
Gérard Dupuy, Libération
"Heinz Holliger's fame as the world's greatest oboist does not eclipse his formidable skills as a composer, but we hear his music all too seldom. ECM has championed his works on disc, and its new album of Songs Without Words focuses on Holliger's penchant for making textless interpretations of poetry. Two sets of Lieder Ohne Worte for violin and piano frame this exciting recital. The first group (1981-83) are fugitive, melancholy songs shaped by the finest nuances and shadings. Titles like Frühllingslied and Flammen...Schnee focus the expression of the concentrated yet emotionally luxuriant second group (1988-94). The violinist Thomas Zehetmair is ideally cast to bring them to life. Zehetmair makes Holliger's Trema (1981-3) into a terrifying endgame of skin-splitting tremolandi in a shimmering web of sound. The spare harp writing of the Sequenzen über Johannes 1.32, played by Ursula Holliger, could not be in greater contrast."
Hilary Finch, The Times
Heinz Holliger's sense of commitment links his activities as composer, virtuoso instrumentalist, conductor, scholar, teacher, and champion of new music. The antithesis of those composers who arbitrarily cut and shuffle styles in the interests of a riskless postmodernism, he has described music-making as "a physical necessity": "Those who can obtain peace of mind without this compulsion," he cautions, "should leave music to others." Holliger's compositions, in the words of Philippe Albèra, can "cross the internal frontiers which separate the reassuring world of good taste from the world governed by the violence of truth ... [Listening], we are shaken by a great force."

The album Lieder ohne Worte contrasts some of Heinz Holliger's earliest compositions with music from the 1980s and 90s. Of the earlier works, Elis was written in 1961 and the Sequenzen über Johannes I, 32 in 1962: in the period that is, when Holliger was still studying composition, with Pierre Boulez in Basle. Trema is from 1981(by which time Holliger's compositional mastery was an acknowledged fact in new music circles), the Präludium, Arioso und Passacaglia was written in 1987 and the two collections of Lieder ohne Worte are dated 1982-83 and 1985-94. In his liner notes to this disc, Jürg Stenzl observes that "the works written in the 80s present their own highly personal worlds, much more emphatically than the early chamber music. Frequently, too, they are connected to the performers for whom they were written in a highly intimate way; they reveal diary-like features. Like the text-based works since the Scardinelli cycle, these instrumental pieces are highly concrete, almost plastic music, music that has mastered a language as precise and clear as it is highly differentiated." Its precison does not mute its expressivity.

The sheer range of Holliger's endeavours – and the variety of instrumental forces employed in his compositions – has led to occasional critical misperceptions. "The variety involves the risk of being considered a Jack-of-all-trades," he admitted to writer Peter Fuhrmann in the period when he was working on the second set of Lieder ohne Worte. "While I was studying with Boulez I still felt quite overawed, even restricted, until I began drawing my own little aesthetic and stylistic circles and broadening them systematically – until they disappeared . (...) I am in the processof building up a musical cosmos of my own. Interconnections and strands help me there: for example, in my oboe etude Mehrklänge [see ECM New Series 1340] I had the idea of assigning multiple layers and different time levels to a single player. I carried this further in the String Quartet (1973) and returned to the technique eight years later in Trema. At the moment I'm intensely occupied with some of my earliest musical ideas."

Born in Langenthal, Switzerland, in 1939, Heinz Holliger studied both oboe and composition at the conservatories of Berne, Basle, and Paris. His first composition teacher was Sándor Veress, who had taught both Kurtág and Ligeti, and words Holliger has used in praise of Veress's music might be applied, with no loss of pertinence, to his own: "The precarious balance between complex, formally perfected composition and spontaneous forcefulness of expression has been achieved with seemingly effortless elegance". Recordings of Holliger performing and conducting Veress's composition were issued by ECM in 1995, and Lieder ohne Worte II begins with a dedication to Veress.

It was Holliger's mastery of the oboe that brought him his first professional breakthrough. First prizes at the international competitions at Geneva (1959) and Munich (1961) propelled him toward the concert and festival circuit; he has averaged a hundred concerts a year since the mid-1960s. His extraordinary prowess as an instrumentalist has prompted numerous composers, from Frank Martin to Stockhausen, from Ernst Krenek to Elliott Carter, to write pieces for him. 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 concertos, and greatly expanding the vocabulary of the oboe in new music by the introduction of unorthodox playing techniques. For a long time, his stature as a virtuoso unjustly overshadowed his creative output as composer.

In the 1980s, however, the perspective began to shift as Holliger's music was performed beyond the specialist circles of Donaueschingen and Darmstadt and the like, and showered with international awards. (Holliger, in a typical move, passed on all monies from the Frankfurt Music Prize and the Danish Sonning Music Award to Greenpeace and the then-struggling Ensemble Modern, causes he considered more deserving. It was embarassing, he protested, to receive honours and large financial rewards for the privilege of being allowed to make music.) In 1991 Holliger received the Ernst von Siemens Music Award.

Heinz Holliger has published over sixty compositions since 1960 and although instrumental works predominate over his radical settings of, for example, Hölderlin (the monumental Scardinelli-Zyklus), Robert Walser (Beiseit) and Samuel Beckett (Come And Go), literature is often a vital impulse behind even the non-vocal pieces. Jürg Stenzl notes that Holliger "went to Boulez because he wanted to raise his musical language to the heights of the literature that fascinated him," and Ellis, subtitled "Three Night Pieces" sets out to transform poetry by Georg Trakl, whose verse was as important to the young Holliger as Hölderlin's late work would be from 1975 onwards. Similarly, the Sequenzen über Johannes I, 32 attempts to illuminate, by instrumental means only, the visionary power of the bible verse "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him", testing thereby the resourcefulness of harpist Ursula Holliger.

Intensive experiments, between 1968 and 1973, with "sound-effects music" which abandoned "the aesthetics of pitch control" burned the need for an "absolute music" out of Holliger's system. Albèra: "If Holliger has not adopted the 'zero degree' aesthetic of Stockhasen and Cage in the 50s, it is because he intends to take full account of that historical consciousness which causes one to cross the frozen surface layer of musical compositon and expression to reach the fire that feeds them." He works also with historical material, then, but in new ways. "Holliger is as far from historicism as he is from Postmodernism's self-service counter of musical history," says Stenzl. "He does not view 'old forms' with the distanced perspective of the historian, nor does he use the 'old' for its own sake, but rather as a means for a particular piece to speak in a certain way." The first set of Lieder ohne Worte alludes to Mendelssohn Bartholdy's "songs without texts or voice" of 1833 and in its first two songs "conceals distant, irretrievable memories of Romantic music." The second set makes references – few of them immediately evident to the casual listener – to Veress, Busoni, Purcell and Baroque laments. Baroque forms also determined the title of Holliger's second work for his wife Ursula's harp, the Präludium, Arioso und Passacaglia, written 25 years after the Sequenzen über Johannes.


Ursula Holliger studied in Basel and Brussels and won the International Harp Competition in Israel before embarking on her career as a soloist with orchestras including the Berlin, Vienna and Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestras, the English Chamber Orchestra, I Musici di Roma, l'Orchestre de Paris and others under the direction of, for example, Michael Gielen, Pierre Boulez, Simon Rattle and Neville Marriner. She has made numerous recordings for labels including Philips, DGG, Archiv, Claves, Novalis, often with chamber partners Aurèle Nicolet, Peter-Lukas Graf, Heinz Holliger. Alongside the standard repertoire for the harp she has emphasized the music of Louis Spohr (making premiere recordings of both his concertos for violin, harp and orchestra) and new music: Elliott Carter, Hans Werner Henze, Witold Lutoslawski, Ernst Krenek, Frank Martin, Isang Yun, Toru Takemitsu and Heinz Holliger are some of the composers who have written music for her. Ursula Holliger can also be heard playing André Caplet's Conte fantastique d'après une des histoires extraordinaires d'Edgar Allan Poe: Le masque de la mort rouge on Volume One of ECM's Edition Lockenhaus series.

Thomas Zehetmair was born into a musical family in Salzburg, studied violin with his father at the Mozarteum and made his debut, at the age of 16, at the 1977 Salzburg Festival. Now a soloist of international standing, he is a regular guest with orchestras inclusing the Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston Symphony Orchestras, the Berlin, Munich and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Concertgebouw Orkest Amsterdam, and the Gewandhaus Orchester Lepizig. Conductors with whom he has worked include Daniel Barenboim, Herbert Blomstedt, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Heinz Holliger, Roger Norrington, Simon Rattle, and Esa Pekka Salonen. An ardent advocate of contemporary music, Zehetmair gave the first performance of Holliger's Lieder ohne Worte II and in 1997 premiered also his Violin Concerto at the Salzburg Festival. Zehetmair has recorded the violin concertos of Berg, Hartmann, Janacek, Brahms, Dvorak, Schumann and Mozart – as well as Paganini's 24 Caprices – for Teldec, and recently released recordings of the Bach and Bartók violin concertos with Berlin Classics. For ECM New Series, Zehetmair previously recorded B.A. Zimmermann's solo violin sonata, and plays alongside the Hagen Quartet, Daniel Phillips, Hatto Beyerle, and Markus Stocker in a 1984 realization of Shostakovich's Two pieces for string octet, op. 11 on Volume Two of Edition Lockenhaus.

Born in Innsbruck, Thomas Larcher studied piano and composition in Vienna. He has worked with conductors including Claudio Abbado, Michael Boder, Michael Gielen and Heinz Holliger, plays regularly with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, the Mozarteum Orchester, Salzburg, and the Wiener Kammerorchester, and is a member of the Artis and Carmina Quartets. His chamber music partners include Thomas Demenga, Christian Altenberger, Christine Whittlesey, Ernst Kovacic and Thomas Zehetmair.