Heinz Holliger: Violinkonzert "Hommage à Louis Soutter"

Thomas Zehetmair, SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, Heinz Holliger


Heinz Holliger’s Violin Concerto, subtitled “Hommage à Louis Soutter”, is a musical portrait of the innovative Swiss painter who began his artistic career as a violinist, studying with the great Eugène Ysaÿe . Arguing that his painterly activity was an extension of his playing, Holliger “translates” Soutter’s agitated brushstrokes into pitches. Soutter’s troubled relationship to Ysaÿe is one of the concerto’s conceptual themes, as is the militant pacifism that found expression in his canvasses. In all, a fascinating, highly-detailed work, played with fiery intensity by Thomas Zehetmair, whose account of Ysaÿe’s third sonata – astonishing in its own right – becomes here a highly effective ‘foreword’ to the Holliger composition, laying bare one of its inspirational sources.

Featured Artists Recorded

September & December 2002

Original Release Date


Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik, Bestenliste 3/2004
Gramophone, Editor’s Choice
The Strad, Selection
Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Empfehlung
Stereoplay, Klangtipp
Holliger’s kaleidoscopic creative imagination continually enchants the ear, while Zehetmair’s playing can only be described as incandescent. A stunning release, immaculately engineered.
Julian Haylock, The Strad
This new ECM release features a single immense work, the 1993-95 Violin Concerto, and it points to the emergence of a powerful individual voice in European music, more masterful and compelling than I’d hitherto imagined. … The work is in four movements, played without pause. The language is very much an offshoot of early 20th-century Germanic expressionism, but Holliger has thoroughly absorbed more contemporary influences, especially in the realm of orchestration. … While the Expressionist veneer of the music owes most to the fevered intensity of Berg, Holliger ups the ante in that he pushes the hysteria-envelope beyond almost anything I’ve ever heard. … It is overwhelming. Each time one thinks the music has reached its peak, it pulls back, retrenches, and sets off on a new course to an even more shattering climax. … The fourth movement comes as a relief, albeit one of collapse and suffocation, a sort of post-nuclear landscape over which the violin moans and keens. We’ve been through so much preceding it that it answers a need, even if the result is annihilation. …
The performances match the hyperventilated tone of the music note for note. Zehetmair is an extraordinary violinist, and ECM has recorded the piece in a way that, while it does not seem too artificial, emphasizes the surreal qualities of the score. The soloist is like a lost soul wandering confused (and often screaming) through an unimaginably ravaged landscape. The disc opens with a stunning performance of the Eugène Ysaÿe Sonata No. 3 for unaccompanied violin, which is used as a source for the opening of the concerto. …
I’m very enthusiastic about this release. Highly recommended
Robert Carl, Fanfare
Clearly, Holliger’s concerto is not a light-hearted piece, but nor is it emptily depressing or disheartening. Since Soutter studied with Ysaÿe, Holliger starts from Ysaÿe’s short Third Sonata … and the first three movements offer a dazzling portrait of virtuosity under strain. The Epilogue is much tougher, but Holliger does not totally renounce all suggestions of compassion for human victims of violence and fanaticism. This may be ageing, agonised music, but its effect, in context, is less of futility than of hushed awe in the face of a creative impulse that, however strongly attacked, refuses to lie down and die.
These positive impressions owe much to the artistry of Thomas Zehetmair. Few violinists today can equal his commitment to contemporary music… Zehetmair is no less commanding in the Ysaÿe…
As for the recording, it is affirmative in its own way, giving a needle-sharp aural image of the concerto’s progress from bright colours and brittle textures to dark evanescence.
Arnold Whittall, Gramophone
Heinz Holliger’s unassuming generic title disguises a remarkable and substantial work in four linked movements, spun out of a web of extra-musical connections. … A distorted quotation from a solo violin sonata by Soutter’s teacher, Ysaÿe, is the starting point of the concerto, and the violin plays almost continuously, while groups of orchestral instruments cluster around it, providing a rapidly changing context for the solo lines. The music is often breathless and always compelling, before it congeals in the epilogue, inspired by Soutter’s presentiments of the second world war, in which the sense of impending catastrophe is unmistakable.
This recording, conducted by the composer, seems fabulously detailed and impassioned. Thomas Zehetmair is as persuasive and instinctively musical an advocate of contemporary works as he is of the standard concerto repertory, and he adds to the disc a performance of the original sonata with an outstanding concerto. That is totally compelling, too.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian
The Swiss oboist, conductor and composer Heinz Holliger has long been fascinated by the “troubled genius” or “the thin line separating creativity from mental disturbance”. Commissioned to write a piece for the 75th birthday of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, he came up with a musical portrait of the violinist, painter and pacifist Louis Soutter, whose collaboration with the virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe is audibly reflected in this haunting work, beautifully played by Thomas Zehetmair with the composer conducting. Written in just a week, it is aptly prefaced by vivid reading of Ysaÿe’s third Sonata in D minor.
Anthony Holden, The Observer
It’s not comfortable music, with Holliger’s usual atonal style made more cutting and astringent by the scoring, which includes a prominent cimbalom part, and tends to use instruments in their higher registers, giving the music a dangerously unsupported feel. The long third movement, “Ombres”, becomes a runaway nightmare, with screams from piccolos and driving percussion, and though the tempo is slow, almost static, in the final “Epilog”, there’s no sense of repose, as the soloist worries away at small fragments of material and finally disappears. Disturbing music, but the real thing.
Martin Cotton, BBC Music Magazine
An uncompromising anti-concerto which calls for a wide-ranging virtuosity something dedicatee Thomas Zehetmair has in full measure. He is given unstinting support by the SWR forces and the composer, and the spacious ECM sound captures the translucency of the orchestral writing. Holliger contributes an informative note, and a selection of Soutter paintings rounds out the context of a violin concerto unlike any other.
Graham Simpson, International Record Review
Die Musik des Violinkonzerts beschreibt in den ersten drei Sätzen eine stetige Entwicklung von der filigranen Klanglichkeit des Beginns über die tänzerische Gestik des zweiten Satzes „Obsession“ hin zu den in immer gleißendere und grellere Gefilde geratenden Höllenvisionen des dritten Satzes „Ombres“. Es entsteht der Eindruck, die Musik könne jeden Moment im Licht explodieren, als schließlich ein Absturz in tiefste Schwärze stattfindet. Nun beginnt der vierte Satz, den Holliger erst sieben Jahre später komponierte, „Avant le massacre“ betitelt, nach einem Bild, das Soutter am ersten Tag des Zweiten Weltkriegs malte und das eine bestürzende Vorahnung des Weltenbrands darstellt. ...
Thomas Zehetmair liefert sich der gnadenlosen Intensität dieser Partitur, die er selbst aus der Taufe hob, mit Leib und Seele aus – wie es sich für ein Werk gehört, das zu den substanzreichsten Beiträgen der Konzertliteratur der Gegenwart gezählt werden muss. Sinnreich ist die Kopplung – eine fulminante Interpretation von Ysaÿes Dritter Sonate, die am Beginn von Holligers Konzert als kurzes Zitat aufscheint.
Thomas Schulz, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik
Heinz Holligers Violinkonzert entstand als Auftragswerk zum 75-jährigen Bestehen des Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Inspiriert wurde Holliger von den Gemälden Louis Soutters, der einst selbst diesem Orchester angehörte und Schüler von Eugène Ysaÿe war. Charakteristisch sind die überaus transparente Kompositionsweise, die flirrenden Klänge, vertrackten Rhythmen und das reichlich beschäftigte Schlagwerk. Atemnehmende Virtuosität und beispielhafte interpretatorische Spannkraft prägen Thomas Zehetmairs Spiel.
Oliver Ford, Stereo
In komplexere und zerrissenere seelische Gegenden führt Heinz Holligers Violinkonzert. Als „Hommage à Louis Soutter“ ist es inspiriert von den nervös belebten Gemälden des Genfer Malers und von der Tatsache, dass dieser ursprünglich professioneller Geiger und Schüler von Eugène Ysaie war. Beides, Gemälde wie Ysaies d-Moll-Sonate, sind der Aufnahme zur Illustration beigegeben, sodass Holligers viersätzig konstruierter Rausch – oder seine rauschhafte Konstruktion – mit der für Holliger so ungewöhnlichen rhythmischen Impulsivität unter den Fingern des Solisten Thomas Zehetmair seine Hypervitalität in aller Sinnhaftigkeit entfalten kann.
Michael Eidenbenz, Tages-Anzeiger
Man könne manche seiner Malweisen fast eins zu eins in Töne überführen, sagt Komponist Heinz Holliger über den Schweizer Maler Louis Soutter, seinen Landsmann. ... Nicht Bilder einer Ausstellung – Bilder und Leben eines Malers unter Klangstrom gesetzt bis zum makabren Verlöschen, in vier Sätze eines Violinkonzerts gegossen, dessen irisierende Bruchlinien zwischen Reibung und Verdichtung, Löchrigkeit und Abbruch verlaufen. ... Das für Thomas Zehetmair komponierte Geigenkonzert bedeutet die Entdeckung einer Düsternis, die vom hellhörigen Solisten und dem SWR Sinfonieorchester unter Holliger genial inszeniert wird.
Wolfgang Schreiber, Süddeutsche Zeitung
Ein moralisches Projekt will Holligers Violinkonzert ... nicht sein. Es ist absolute Musik, energiegeladen und packend. Eine Musik zu Ehren Soutters, aber keine anekdotische oder gar illustrative Musik über ihn. Holliger lässt den Assoziationshorizont beleuchtet, vor dem das Stück in seinem Kopf entstanden ist, aber gleichzeitig komponiert er ein autonomes Werk. Ein Violinkonzert eben. Oder besser gesagt, das, was ein Komponist unter einem Violinkonzert versteht, bei dem die musikalischen Dekonstruktionsprozesse hin zum körperlich-geräuschhaften, zum expressiv fragmentarischen und zum Beinahe-Verstummen des Klingenden stets eine wichtige Rolle gespielt haben. ... Mit einem selbstbewusst auftrumpfenden Geigenton und Anklängen an Ysaÿes Virtuosentum eröffnet das Konzert. Mit einem pessimistischen Epilog endet es...
Das SWR-Symphonieorchester gestaltet das Violinkonzert mit großer Verve, und der Solist Thomas Zehetmair geigt den technisch schweren Solopart mit einer Selbstverständlichkeit, als sei er nur Zugabenfutter aus der Geigenromantik.
Claus Spahn, Die Zeit / Suppl. Literatur & Musik
Selten hat man von Holliger, dem Tontüftler und Klangzerleger, so turbulente und lebendige Töne gehört wie hier – wenigstens drei Sätze lang, am Ende steht auch hier das Verstummen. Dennoch, die Hommage an die Virtuosität Ysaÿes bleibt haften, auch deshalb, weil Thomas Zehetmair äußerst beeindruckend beweist, wie sinnvoll sich geigerische Brillanz und Aussage verbinden lassen, auch dort, wo die Geige nicht im Zentrum steht. Gerade in seiner Orchestersprache zeigt sich Holliger hier so farbig, elektrisierend und ausdruckskräftig wie selten.
Reinmar Wagner, Musik & Theater
Heinz Holliger est un compositeur à la sensibilité exacerbée, alliée à un don indéniable de peintre des sons. Il réalise une synthèse inattendue de l’héritage musical du XXe siècle, d’autant plus significative qu’elle pourrait représenter, au côté de l’œuvre de quelques autres de ses contemporains, la charnière sur laquelle pourra s’appuyer la musique du XXIe siècle. Son idiome, sans dépayser radicalement, n’accepte aucun compromis, ouvrant la voie à une création plus libre, sans renier les génies passés.
Dans ce Concerto pour violon … Holliger retrace le destin insolite et tragique du peintre Louis Soutter. … La musique, nerveuse et compulsive, merveilleusement servie par les interprètes, n’est ni un récit ni une description d’une œuvre picturale. Elle exprime la lutte implacable qui met aux prises le peintre et la société qui l’a banni en l’internant dès 1923. L’oreille, oublieuse des considérations prosaϊques, se concentre sur cette mélodie absolue du violon, élargie ou perdue au sein d’une mer de timbres figurant l’humanité interdite.
Jérémie Szpirglas, Le monde de la musique
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…