Heinz Holliger

Grammont Portrait: Heinz Holliger

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"Name a world-class oboist," says a character -- incidentally an oboe player -- to Detective Lennie Briscoe on the television show Law & Order. Indeed, it would be difficult for most folks to answer such a question; it is not quite like being asked who your favorite band or guitarist is. However, if some were put to this test, their first answer would most likely be Heinz Holliger, as for decades he has reigned as number one among oboists worldwide. Not many of those lucky enough to produce Holliger's name would likely be aware of his work as a composer, which is extensive, stretching back into the late '50s. Holliger was a composition student of Pierre Boulez from 1961 to 1963, and his work has been recorded with some frequency, though not in any measure comparable to that which Holliger enjoys as an oboist. Musiques Suisses assembles a number of radio recordings of Holliger's work, all but one conducted by the composer, in this two-disc collection simply titled Heinz Holliger, a survey of five Holliger compositions dating from 1974 to 2001.

Holliger's best-known work is the massive choral cycle Scardanelli-Zyklus (1975-1985) and theater works based on texts by Samuel Beckett, such as "Not I and What Where." While Holliger's music is its own brand, it is nonetheless superficially similar to that of Boulez, Ligeti, and Stockhausen and more highly regarded in Europe than in the United States. In his original work, Holliger maintains a strong emphasis on atmosphere, dramatic gestures, flittery textures, and extreme contrasts of dynamics; it seems to take a long time for Atembogen to get off the ground, and yet when it does it is with a great, loud yawp. Recicanto, a concerted work for viola and orchestra written as a memorial to harpsichordist Christiane Jaccottet, has scored a number of performances in Europe since its premiere in 2001; this recording is from 2004 and features violist Tabea Zimmermann. COncErto...? Certo! -- cOn coli pEr tutti was written to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and consists of 40 short pieces written, in some cases, for individual members of the ensemble and in others for the ensemble as a whole. The arrangement of the material can be somewhat arbitrary, and while this performance lasts 45 minutes, some interpretations of COncErto...? Certo! -- cOn coli pEr tutti have run as short as 20 minutes and as long as an hour. In a way, the most interesting work on the disc is the Five Pieces for organ and tape (1980); the organ registration combines with the tape in a psychedelic, Doppler effect-like whorl of sound.

Amid Holliger's skittery, scattered micro-minutiae of pitch material once in awhile one can hear little references to tonal music drifting in and out of the texture, suggesting a wry sense of humor at work behind the scenes. Notwithstanding, this is anything but "easy" listening and will be liked best by those with a taste for advanced contemporary styles. Unlike some music in this vein where listeners might wonder what is supposed to be going on, Holliger is clearly in control and he always knows what he is doing; his music is highly charged, challenging, and dynamic, and for some that will make up for its lack of lyricism and other, more ingratiating qualities.

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