Heinz Holliger

Bernd Alois Zimmermann: Canto di speranza

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Bernd Alois Zimmermann's powerful "ecclesiastical action" Ich wandte mich und sah an alles Unrecht, das geschah unter der Sonne (And turning then, I saw there great injustice that is done under the heavens), completed just days before his suicide, is a bleak depiction of life without hope or meaning. Using dire texts from the book of Ecclesiastes and Dostoevsky's The Grand Inquisitor, it ends with the soloist's desolate repetitions of the phrase "Woe to him who stands alone" and an iteration of the Bach chorale "Es ist genug." The piece is scored for two speakers, bass soloist, and a huge orchestra that's used so sparely that the textures most often resemble chamber music. It's a grim evocation of the loss and emptiness that had overtaken the composer, but also testament to the fertility of his imagination even in his darkest hour. Its tone of desolation is in stark contrast with his Violin Concerto, Zimmermann's first large success, written 20 years earlier in 1950. It has a strong melodic profile, formal clarity, orchestrational brilliance, and rhythmic punchiness that firmly place it in the tradition European virtuoso concertos, and it's easy to see why it was an immediate hit at its premiere. Zimmermann's Canto di speranza (Song of Hope), "a cantata for cello," long considered virtually unplayable, is similar in style and energy to the Violin Concerto, but its tone is more jagged and brittle. The hope it offers isn't facile, but hard-won in the midst of struggle and conflict. Heinz Holliger leads WDR Sinfonie Orchester Köln in passionate, assured performances of these difficult works, and violinist Thomas Zehetmair and cellist Thomas Demenga negotiate the solo parts with expressive eloquence and apparent ease. The vocal soloists in Ich wandte mich tend to underplay the work's visceral dramatic elements, an approach that might succeed when seen as part of a live performance, but as a purely aural experience, it undercuts the impact of the tremendous angst Zimmermann clearly intended to convey. ECM's sound is clean and transparent.

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