Variations - Anton Webern / Galina Ustvolskaya / Valentin Silvestrov / Pierre Boulez

Ingrid Karlen

The burnished intensity of Webern’s opus 27 provides the touchstone for this recital, the ECM debut of a gifted Swiss pianist resolutely committed to the music of the 20th century. In choosing her programme Ingrid Karlen selected pieces which, for all their surface differences, share a kindred striving for the highest possible concentration of musical expressiveness. In the music of Galina Ustvolskaya expressivity is compressed until it unleashes almost volcanic eruptions of energy, vividly conveyed by the pianist. The Elegy of Baltic composer Silvestrov is not without its echoes of the second Viennese school but Webern’s presence is unmistakable in the work that closes this album, Boulez’s Douze Notations, written in 1945.

Featured Artists Recorded

January 1996, Schlossbergsall, Südwestfunk Freiburg

Original Release Date


  • Variationen für Klavier op. 27
    (Anton Webern)
  • 1I Sehr mäßig02:13
  • 2II Sehr schnell00:41
  • 3III Ruhig fließend03:45
  • 4Sonata No. 3 for piano
    (Galina Ustvolskaya)
  • 5Elegy
    (Valentin Silvestrov)
  • 6Sonata No. 5 for piano
    (Galina Ustvolskaya)
  • Douze notations pour piano
    (Pierre Boulez)
  • 7I Fantasque – Modéré00:36
  • 8II Très vif00:23
  • 9III Assez lent01:05
  • 10IV Rythmique00:34
  • 11V Doux et improvisé00:38
  • 12VI Rapide00:30
  • 13VII Hiératique00:48
  • 14VIII Modéré jusqu'à très vif00:48
  • 15IX Lointain – Calme01:59
  • 16X Mécanique et très sec00:34
  • 17XI Scintillant00:41
  • 18XII Lent – Puissant et âpre00:50
"Wie weitreichend gerade Weberns Variationen für Klavier op. 27 Komponisten der nachfolgenden Generationen beeinflußten, denen Ausdruck und Konstruktion in eins geht und die fasziniert sind vom Moment der Variation, dokumentiert eine neue Einspielung der Schweizer Pianistin Ingrid Karlen. Die Spanne der versammelten Werke reicht von den Dreißigern bis in die achtziger Jahre. Weberns op. 27 spielt die Pianistin überlegen nach der Ausgabe, die Peter Stadlen 1979 besorgte. Er hatte zusammen mit Webern 1937 die Uraufführung erarbeitet, das Espressivo wieder an seinen richtigen Platz gerückt. Ingrid Karlen verifiziert es mit sensibel durchgehörten Phrasen und hochdifferenzierten Anschlagsvarianten. Weberns Anweisungen zum ersten Satz und seine sprachlich fundierte Espressivo-Vorstellung kommen zum Tragen. Die diskursiven Sinneinheiten erhalten ihre Kontur durch einen präzis anhebenden und nachlassenden Ton und ausgearbeitete Dynamik. Vor allem die Pendelbewegung des zweiten Satzes ­ sehr schwer vor dem Monochromen zu bewahren ­ profitiert von dieser Technik."
Annette Eckerle, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
"Ingrid Karlens interessante Zusammenstellung bekannter und weniger bekannter Klavierkompositionen des 20. Jahrhunderts kreist um Anton Weberns Variationen op. 27. Variation und Transformation als zentraler formaler Ansatz der Moderne, aber auch als traditionsmächtige Konzeption ist für alle hier zu hörenden Werke der Ausgangspunkt.
Die Künstlerin begnügt sich jedoch nicht damit, die Webern-Variationen ­ wie sonst häufig zu erleben ­ einzig aus der Struktur zu entwickeln, sie gleichsam historisch rückläufig aus der seriellen Schule Darmstadts der fünfziger Jahre zu verstehen; vielmehr scheint sie über den erstaunlich 'romantischen' Ansatz des Uraufführungspianisten Peter Stadlen nachgedacht zu haben und dann zu der Erkenntnis gelangt zu sein, dem Werk sei sehr wohl auch von der Seite der Klangkomposition beizukommen. So entsteht eine sehr intensive, aber aus großer Ruhe geborene Interpretation, die sogar Allusionen an vergangene, aber Webern geläufige Genre-Konnotationen weckt, also fast einen 'Hauch Schubert' atmet.
Dies ist ein schlüssiger Ansatz, um dann die frühen Seriellen Werke eines Pierre Boulez oder Valentin Silvestrov ins rechte Spannungsverhältnis zwischen Formkonzept und spezifischer Traditionslinie zu setzen. Demgegenüber wirken die beiden Sonaten von Galina Ustwolskaja wie erratische Blöcke. Ingrid Karlen bringt hier auch die Disziplin eines starren Rituals, was den Vorstellungen der russischen Komponistin durchaus entspricht."
Hartmut Lück, Fono Forum
"I'm writing something for piano," Anton Webern enthused in a letter to friends in1936. "The part I have finished is a movement in variation form; what'll turn outis a sort of suite. I hope I've succeeded in carrying out something in the variationsthat has been on my mind for years. Goethe once said to Eckermann, who was praising a newpoem of is: but I've actually been thinking about it for forty years!" If a "suite"did not materialize in a literal sense, Webern's opus 27 remains a work of the purestcrystalline beauty. Aside from a scattering of untypical early pieces published posthumously,it is Webern's only work for piano. Twelve-tone theorist (and composer-conductor)Rene Leibowitz saluted it as "the first piece of music in which a composer has approached the concept of pure variation...In this work everything is variation, or, to put it another way, everything is theme. This is especially striking in the last movement, where the lack of any recapitulationwhatsoever does away with any sense of hierarchy among the various sections of themovement." Webern likened the character of the first two movements to a Brahmsianintermezzo - for Webern as for Schoenberg Brahms was a master to be emulated - but aleap of the imagination may be required to hear the music in late romantic terms.

The challenge for the contemporary interpreter is to gauge correctly "the expressivequality and degree of tension of each single interval and the way in which it relatesto other intervals and the surrounding silence" (to quote Susan Bradshaw). The work's concentrated intensity is the attribute that most forcefully strikes Swiss pianistIngrid Karlen and forms a bridge to the other pieces on this disc. In her choiceof repertoire the term "variations" is made to apply not only to the reexaminationof motivic-thematic thinking inherent in each work but also to the levels and degrees of intensityapplied. For Karlen, as Felix Meyer notes, "the decisive factor was that all of theworks included here, for all their surface differences, arose from a kindred striving for the highest possible concentration of musical expressiveness." Webern's musicalintegrity has also been a touchstone for the other composers on this disc.

In the music of the uncompromising Galina Ustvolskaya expressivity is compressed untilit unleashes almost volcanic eruptions of energy, the reiterated clusters of Piano Sonata no. 5in particular attaining a extraordinary power. Ustvolskaya, born 1919 in Petrograd,is noted as the only student of Shostakovich not overwhelmed by the composer's musicalpersonality; in fact, the reverse seems to have been the case. "It is not you whoare influenced by me," Shostakovich wrote to her, "rather it is I who am influencedby you." He declared his admiration publicly: "I am convinced that the music of G.I.Ustvolskaya will achieve worldwide renown, to be valued by all who perceive truthin music to be of paramount importance". The accuracy of the prediction is only beginningto be recognised as Ustvolskaya's 80th birthday approaches. Until the Soviet Unioncollapsed she made her music in near-total artistic isolation, apparently withouta trace of self-pity, fending off infrequent requests for interviews, refusing to have hermusic played at modish Festivals of Women Composers, even asking that musicologistsnot discuss it at all ("all who really love my music should refrain from theoreticalanalysis of it"). Ustvolskaya's stubbornness and self-sufficiency are strongly felt throughoutthe two sonatas that Karlen plays. There is more than a hint, too, of the religiousfeeling that fuels the composer's courage; hers is a stern God, one feels, whosedemands are daunting.

Set like a peaceful valley between the twin summits of the Ustvolskaya sonatas thetender Elegyof Valentin Silvestrov (born 1937 in Kiev) offers a few moments respite and balm.The trajectory of Silvestrov's musical direction has paralleled that of his Balticcontemporary, Arvo Pärt. Initially counted amongst the angry young composers of hisgeneration, he was active in the Kiev avant-garde whose "radicalism" distressed the authoritieswith an admixture (no longer shocking to western ears) of atonality, free serialismand indeterminacy. Silvestrov wiped his slate clean in 1970 and effectively beganagain, stripping his music of superfluity, reclaiming the importance of lyricism andthe value of silence in his work.

If there are echoes of the second Viennese school in Silvestrov's Elegy, Webern's presence is unmistakable in the work that closes Karlen's recital, theDouze notations pour pianoof Pierre Boulez. Originally student studies in 12-tone technique, written in 1945when Boulez was beginning to discover Webern via Rene Leibowitz's classes, the Notationshave proven their durability - indeed, the composer has continued to revise themfor orchestra. Ingrid Karlen manages to convey some of the sense of wonder Boulezmust have felt on making his first, enthusiastic and impetuous steps into the worldof dodecaphony: she illuminates, we might say, the pages of his diary.