Heinz Holliger: Schneewittchen

Juliane Banse, Cornelia Kallisch, Steve Davislim, Oliver Widmer, Werner Göschel, Orchester der Oper Zürich, Heinz Holliger

2-CD29,90 out of print

Heinz Holliger’s first full length opera is a radical reworking of the Snow White story, with libretto based on the version by Swiss author Robert Walser. The opera opened in Zürich to rave reviews, applauded for its energy, invention, wit and psychological insight. Soprano singer Juliane Banse was singled out for her exceptionally inspired performance in the title role. This New Series recording features the original cast, under the direction of the composer.

Featured Artists Recorded

January 1999, Radio Studio DRS, Zürich

Original Release Date


  • CD 1
  • Schneewittchen
    (Heinz Holliger, Robert Walser)
  • 1Prolog05:47
  • 2Szene 114:31
  • 3Zwischenspiel 1-2 (Invention)01:06
  • 4Szene 2, 1.Teil26:34
  • 5Fughetta (in nomine fluminis)01:23
  • 6Szene 2, 2.Teil05:17
  • 7Zwischenspiel 2-300:37
  • 8Quasi Fuga02:34
  • CD 2
  • 1Szene 311:05
  • 2Zwischenspiel 3-400:28
  • 3Szene 411:13
  • 4Zwischenspiel 4-501:03
  • 5Szene 521:22
  • 6Epilog (Choral-Variationen)12:18
Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik (Vierteljahresliste 1/2001)
Stereo, CD des Monats
The Swiss musician Heinz Holliger is the greatest oboist of our time, but the fact that he is also one of the most intriguing and accomplished composers of his generation is only now beginning to gain ground, thanks at least in part to ECM, which over the last decade has steadily championed Holliger's cause. Now, in an exceptional set that is as immaculately performed and recorded as it is meticulously documented, they have released the biggest and most impressive of his recent scores: his first full-length opera, Schneewittchen, premiered in Zurich in 1998. ... The narrative is tortuos; there is no catharsis, no resolution, It is spare, intense and often raw-nerved, and Holliger matches ist intensity and teasing symmetries with a score of quite breathtaking imagination and crystalline control. ... It is an extraordinary achievement, and a stage work of rich allusiveness and strange, disquieting power. The performance, conducted by Holliger, is masterly, and Juliane Banse in the title role nothing short of superb.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian (Classical CD of the week)
The musical treatment is comparatively straightforward, with emphasis placed on the definition of vocal lines in conveying the surreal whimsy of the libretto. To say that the judiciously chosen chamber orchestra is predominantly an accoustic echo-chamber for the voices is not to play down its importance; indeed, this is the most fluid and intricate orchestration Holliger has yet attempted, with an aural coherence that sustains the drama through numerous discontinuities in narrative. A strong cast, fresh form the première staging in Zurich last year, is headed by the vibrant Snow White of Juliane Banse, and the many-shaded Queen of Cornelia Kallisch. Steve Davislim is a properly mock-heroic Prince, with Oliver Widmer a jejune Huntsman. Working with a surprisingly forward ECM sound balance, Holliger demonstrates his conducting prowess in maintaining dramatic flow at all times.
Graham Simpson, International Record Review
Ganz im Sinne eines Psychodramas belebt Heinz Holliger seine Figuren. Entstanden ist ein Theater des Unterbewusstseins. Es ist schon staunenswert, mit welcher identifikatorischen Kraft sich der Komponist musikalisch in den psychischen Schlagabtausch hineindenkt, wie er sich der gebrochenen Sprache Walsers bemächtigt und alles aus der dichterischen Vorlage ableitet. Entstanden ist so eine große, bis in feinste Verästelungen subtil durchgeformte Kammermusik. Farbenreich funkelt die orchestrale Palette. Entsprechend vielgestaltig erscheint das rhetorische Figurenmaterial. ... Das hochvirtuose, voller technischer Schwierigkeiten strotzende Werk lotst Heinz Holliger bravourös durch alle Schreckstellen. Diese Kunstfertigkeit springt den Hörer unmittelbar an - Musik zum Mitdenken, Mitfühlen und Erregen.
Egon Bezold, Stereo
Heinz Holligers 1998 uraufgeführte Kammeroper liefert zu dem rätselreichen Text einen Musikkommentar voller Brechungen. Da darf man vielem nicht trauen, denn in die Klangerzählung mischen sich auch ironische bis parodistische Farben und gerade die vermeintlichen Assoziationen führen oft in Sackgassen. Die Gesangspartien sind anspruchsvoll und doch dankbar. Allen voran Juliane Banse als Schneewittchen kann als Vexierbild einer Märchenfigur faszinieren. Die hoch konzentrierte Einspielung unter der Leitung des Komponisten ist ein starkes Plädoyer für diese manchmal unterkühlte, aber auch versponnene bis witzige Komposition.
Rainer Wagner, Klassik Heute
Heinz Holliger ist ein großartiger Oboist, ein immer noch unterschätzter Dirigent und nicht nur von Kollegen aufmerksam verfolgter Komponist. Dabei ist seine Musik keinesfalls anbiedernd neotonal. Ihre Basis ist der Atem und dessen ebenso zarte wie komplexe Schichtungen. Unterschiedliche Stilebenen tauchen hinter wechselnden Klangvorhängen auf und verschwinden wieder. Holliger ist ein Meister des Verwehenden. ... Holligers Märchenoper ist ein Spiel über das Sich-Ins-Märchen-Wünschen, in dem die Figuren sich selbst verstellen, um sich lügend über ihre Identität klar zu werden. ... Walser und Holliger zeigen: Jedes wirkliche Gefühl muss erst gebrochen und in Frage gestellt werden: "Nichts ist mir angenehmer, als Menschen, die ich in mein Herz geschlossen habe, ein ganz falsches Bild von mir zu geben." Kann es eine bessere Definition für die Oper geben.
Anton Sergl, Süddeutsche Zeitung
Un nouveau miracle de l'opéra contemporain, après les oeuvres de Ruders et Boesmans. C'est évidemment l'un de nos événements du mois.
HEINZ HOLLIGER is probably still better known as an exceptional oboist than as a composer. But ECM's imminent release of a recording of his opera "Schneewittchen" ("Snow White") - his biggest work of recent years, completed in 1998 - should help shift that imbalance.
Forget Disney. This "Snow White" is based on a deeply unsettling play by Robert Walser, a writer with whom Mr. Holliger has had a special relationship, across the gap of 60 years that separates them. (Mr. Holliger was born in 1939; Walser died in 1956 at 78.) What they share is not just Swiss nationality but, much more important, a quality of searching, a pushing at boundaries, a distrust of what everybody knows, and a sense of humor. ...
Full of passionate expression and cast in unrhymed ballad meter, Walser's play makes a wonderful libretto, and Mr. Holliger honors it with a setting in which its words are clear. This is opera as song, in an intense lyrical style recalling its composer's admiration for Webern. The lyricism and the intensity extend also into the orchestra, where lines, colors and textures flick past almost before they can be recognized, producing a constantly renewed stream of expression and character. It is this perpetual renewal, this vivid pulse of life and thought, that counteracts and contradicts the bleak vision of pathological fantasts, even while it creates that vision. There is something childlike in the eagerness of Mr. Holliger's music, as there is in Walser's text, an adolescent delight and disquiet.
This recording of "Schneewittchen" was made with the cast and orchestra responsible for the Zurich Opera premiere. Juliane Banse is formidable in the title role, winging effortlessly and musically into the high register, ice-cold but burning with pent-up emotions and questions. The contralto Cornelia Kallisch majestically embodies the Queen's tired abandonment of morality in favor of sex and lies (black ones in her case). These two characters dominate, but there are also excellent performances from the tenor Steve Davislim, the baritone Oliver Widmer and the bass Werner Gröschel. The composer conducts.
The album is beautifully produced and presented, with a booklet that includes an outstanding English translation of the libretto by Walter Arndt. In every respect, this is a superb achievement.
It should draw attention to Mr. Holliger's extraordinary creative output. His biggest previous achievement was the"Scardanelli Cycle" (1975-91), a concert-length collection of choral settings and interludes and meditations for small orchestra based on the work of another writer of unsound mind, Hölderlin. "Scardanelli" was the pseudonym the poet adopted for poems written during the long years of his confinement: poems that are finely touched and felt in their remoteness by Mr. Holliger's music. ECM has also recorded this work as well as two anthologies including smaller pieces dating from the period of the Hölderlin project. One of these takes its title, "Lieder Ohne Worte" ("Songs Without Words"; ECM 1618; CD), from two sets of pieces for violin and piano, played by Thomas Zehetmair with ferocious skill and address, to Thomas Larcher's accompaniment. The pieces are songs in two senses: poetically, for they are lyrical miniatures, and in terms of sound, because they often make the action of bow on string sound like breath. That quality, perhaps, comes from their being the work of an oboist.
The other ECM album devoted to Mr. Holliger features vocal pieces from a decade ago: "Beiseit" ("Aside") and "Alb-Chehr," whose Swiss-German title has various meanings revolving around the ideas of ghosts, returning, the Alps and music. "Beiseit" - a set of songs for countertenor (David James in the excellent recording) with a wheezy trio of clarinet, double bass and accordion - was Mr. Holliger's first point of contact with Walser, and it makes some first steps out of the "Scardanelli" world toward the opera's livelier imagery and sense of productive friction between voice and instrumental ensemble. ... "Schneewittchen" is also foreshadowed in some tangy, slightly drunken folk dances, both here and in "Alb- Chehr," a folk tale with musical episodes that will appeal most to those who are in touch with their inner Swiss.
Others will probably want to go from "Schneewittchen" first to the "Scardanelli Cycle" and the "Lieder Ohne Worte." All three of these albums contain music of spectacular beauty, intense and quizzical, music whose nakedness of expression may call to mind the work of György Kurtág, and whose manic artifice that of György Ligeti: two composers with whom Mr. Holliger shared a teacher in Sándor Veress.
"Schneewittchen" comes out of a long process of growth and suggests, in its abundant invention, growth continuing. It also has a sure place in the magnificent sunset the 20th century gave us.
Paul Griffiths, New York Times
The writing of Robert Walser (1878-1956) has long been a source of fascination for Heinz Holliger, and the Swiss composer previously set his countryman's poems on 'Beiseit' (ECM New Series 1540). Now, with the opera 'Schneewittchen', based on the expressionist play of the same name (and which in turn was based on the 'Snow White' fairytale), Holliger returns to Walser's complex art and thought.'There's not one thing but thousands of things that make Walser fascinating,' Holliger told journalist Thomas Meyer recently. 'He's a labyrinth, his work eludes exploration; it can't be talked to death and it can't be explained. The sound of Walser's language has a completely different sensuality, possibly because he grew up on the border between French- and German-speaking Switzerland. This sensuality and the physical quality of his work is manifest in the dancing rhythm of his words, a totally weightless floating. It's so different from the usual, often ponderous weightiness of German literature. Walser has mastered the precarious balance between the conscious and the unconscious. It is as if his apparent spontaneity were a direct product of improvisation. But if you dare to enter Walser's labyrinth, you soon discover that each of his words has several exits and entrances. They function forwards and backwards, every which way ' through palindrome treatment of sound, through assonance, rhythm and multi-meaning. 'Such sense in this nonsense', he once said. That's what 'Snow White' is about ' so many senses and nonsenses. The more I study Walser, the greater he becomes. He has lifted me ' me with my reputation for lamentoso music ' into a sphere of incredible lightness and ease. Certain things have become clear to me through his writings that I may have touched on before but never really dealt with in depth.'Walser's 'Schneewittchen' takes the fairytale 'Snow White' and reads new levels of meaning into it. Essentially, Holliger says, 'the whole thing is Walser's investigation of himself; he is mirrored in these five characters. He also incorporated his background, his brothers and sisters, his parents, and especially his relationship to his mother. So the prologue in my piece begins in unison. Slowly this one voice unravels into five heads as if Walser's person were being divided. Only then does the piece begin: a searchlight 'like the ones used by the police ' casts a harsh light on the Queen and Snow White...'The critic Roman Brotbeck has described Holliger's 'Schneewittchen' as a 'translation' of Walser's text. 'Holliger takes Walser's words literally and assiduously sets each of them to music, employing a rich repertoire of aural signals and figures that correspond to the respective passages or roles.' The composer confirms this: 'Walser had this incredible sense of language rhythm, of assonance and vowel sequences 'almost like Hölderlin: pure musical or even painterly qualities that he used like the colours on an artist's palette. There are looser sections in the text that could be a recitativo accompagnato, then passages that are like arias where everything is at rest, static, where the words are placed like pictures.' In brief, Holliger works from the words outwards; he transcribed the vocal part before beginning work on the orchestral score. The words are the heart of the matter: 'a quality they share with Mozart's but also with Berg's and Schoenberg's operas.'Exceptional responsibilities are placed upon the singers in 'Schneewittchen', and the international press was united in its praise for the cast headed by Juliane Banse ('a dream soprano') in the title role, when the work was premiered in Zürich in October 1998.Banse, born in the South of Germany and raised in Zürich, has been awarded numerous prizes for her work as both opera and concert singer. Multi-talented, she began playing violin at five and trained as a ballerina at the Zürich Opera. In 1989 she won First Prize in the singing competition of the Kulturforum, Munich, and in 1993 the International Franz Schubert Institute awarded her its Grand Prix Franz Schubert for her interpretation of that composer's work. She has performed with orchestras including the Vienna Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado (singing Berg's 'Lulu Suite') and André Previn, the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle, the St Louis Symphony under Leonard Slatkin, among others. In recitals she has appeared with András Schiff. As an operatic singer she has appeared at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Leipzig, Salzburg, Glyndebourne etc.Australian tenor Steve Davislim began musical life as a horn player and subsequently studied voice at Melbourne's Victorian College of the Arts. Since 1994 Davislim has been a member of the ensemble of the Zürich Opera, appearing in numerous productions of Mozart. As concert singer he has appeared under conductors such as Richard Chailly, Roger Norrington, Franz Welser-Möst and Philippe Herreweghe. His recordings include Bach's Cantatas with John Eliot Gardiner for DG.Oliver Widmer has won international prizes including the ARD Competition Munich, the International Hugo Wolf Competition Stuttgart and the Othmar Schoeck Competition Lucerne, and is a regular guest at international festivals including Salzburg, the Festival de Musique de Strasbourg and the Wiener Festwochen. He has been a full member of the Zürich Opera House since the early 1990s.Cornelia Kallisch's repertoire extends from Monteverdi and Bach to Krenek, Berio and beyond. She has appeared with the Bamberger Symphony Orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Lorin Maazel, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Sir Neville Marriner, Georges Prêtre, Helmut Rilling, Nicolaus Harnoncourt, Christoph von Dohnanyi and Roger Norrington.