Neos' 15th installment in its Musica Viva series includes three pieces by twentieth and twenty-first century Middle European composers that are significant for different reasons. Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Concerto for violin and large orchestra (1950) is an established masterpiece by one of the most significant (but little known) postwar German composers. Hungarian Peter Eötvös has emerged as a strong and original voice of the late twentieth century, and his Cap-Ko (2005), a concerto for acoustic piano, keyboard, and orchestra, deserves a place beside Zimmermann's concerto. Czech composer Martin Smolka's Walden, the distiller of celestial dews (2000), for chorus and percussion may not prove to have the durability of the other pieces, but it exposes a creative imagination with the potential for more substantial work.
Eötvös' Cap-Ko is an immensely attractive piece, in which a single soloist moves between an acoustic piano and an electronic keyboard. Its style is somewhat reminiscent of late Ligeti (a composer, who, like Eötvös, was influenced by Bartók), but it sounds nothing like his Piano Concerto. Eötvös is a gifted theatrical composer, and the concerto demonstrates a strong control of dramatic contours, with a clear sense of purposefulness, the lack of which can make some pieces with comparably advanced tonal languages seem meandering and directionless. Eötvös' brilliant and colorful orchestration complements his consistently high level of inventiveness and inspiration. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a passionate advocate for new music, plays the piano and keyboard parts with high style and energy.
Zimmermann's concerto is an expressionistic tour-de-force, a worthy successor to the much gentler Berg concerto. It's an emotionally volatile piece, with sections of driving, propulsive energy juxtaposed with moments of great delicacy and melodically memorable lyricism. The concerto's vitality, passion, and variety make it a work that should be far better known in the West. Violinist Martin Mumelter negotiates its extravagant demands and mercurial mood shifts with beautiful tone and passionate conviction. Smolka uses a microtonal harmonic language, which is especially hard for singers to pull off persuasively, but the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks manages his demands with remarkable skill. His setting of the English isn't consistent; sometimes the words are clear and sometimes incomprehensible without having the texts (which the CD doesn't provide) in front of you. The choral writing is always musically interesting, and some movements are genuinely moving. "Blackberries," with its many iterations of a simple melody, is pure and lovely. Eötvös conducts all the works with full control of their complexities and gives them nuanced, exciting performances. The Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks is fully responsive to his leadership and plays with exemplary precision and spirit.