SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
Recorded September and December 2002 at Propstei St. Gerold
Depending on one's tolerance for puzzles, Heinz Holliger's Violin Concerto is either a meaningful tribute to an obscure artist or an indecipherable jumble hidden behind layers of extraneous associations. Commissioned for the 75th anniversary of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the work is an homage to the erstwhile last chair of the OSR's second violins, Louis Soutter; and, perhaps secondarily, to his teacher, Eugene Ysaye. No matter that Soutter was fired by Ernest Ansermet, and afterwards lived in poverty as an outcast. He was, more importantly, a visionary painter, a prophet of doom on the eve of World War II, and quite likely the most fascinating figure Heinz Holliger never met. Yet the tangled connections Holliger draws for his inspiration barely explain his concerto, which is best regarded as an abstract piece without all the fussy background. Granted, it plays off Ysaye's Sonata, Op. 27, and violinist Thomas Zehetmair helpfully provides that solo work as a prologue. But the concerto itself, performed astringently by Zehetmair and the SWR Sinfonieorchester, led by Holliger, is a confusing pileup of extra musical references, avant-garde histrionics, and doom-laden dirges, and Holliger's breathless liner notes do little to clarify his severe and uninviting music. ECM's recording covers a wide dynamic range, so a medium volume level is advised.
All Music Guide
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 Holderlin, 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 Eugene Ysaye (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-siecle 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 Ysaye, 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 Ysaye, 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 Ysaye wrote in 1923, and the concerto begins with a distorted quotation from Ysaye'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 Ysaye 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 Ysaye 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 Ysaye sonatas, played by Zehetmair, scheduled for fall 2004 release.
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Heinz Holliger - Voices of the Sirens
The origin of my Violin Concerto "Hommage a Louis Soutter" goes back to a commission to write a piece for the 75th birthday of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (OSR). I was already familiar with Soutter as a painter and knew something about his biography as well. And suddenly the penny dropped: Louis Soutter was the most brilliant member this orchestra had ever had! Soutter was a trained violinist: he had studied in Brussels with Eugene Ysaye, the greatest violinist of his time. Next to that he had also studied architecture and become a highly skilled draughtsman. He met a great many painters through Ysaye. Returning to Switzerland after the disaster in Colorado Springs - where he had moved with his wife, Magde, also a student of Ysaye's - he had to play the violin to earn a living. For a time he played with the Orchestre du Theatre de Geneve, precursor of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. When Ernest Ansermet came to Geneva from Montreux, where he had directed the spa concerts, and founded the OSR, he relegated the rebellious Soutter from the first violins to the last desk of the second violins and ultimately sacked him. Much later Ansermet would explain:"lt wasn't until long after that I heard people talk of the kind of genius that was expressed in his painting."1
So many elements came together in my Violin Concerto: first of all, like Friedrich Holderlin, alias Scardanelli, and Robert Walser, Louis Soutter was an outcast. And like Holderlin or Walser, Soutter was not a representative of "art brut", but a highly trained artist with a classical education and incredible painterly metier. And he achieved professional standards as a musician besides. He was not like Adolf Wolfli, who only began creating art in the "asylum". For Soutter it was not a question of self-therapy, but of the natural continuation of his earlier activity. Quite apart from all this, Sout-ter's painting holds infinitely many impulses for a composer without having to be illustrated musically. His extremely nervous brushstrokes can be translated into pitches on an almost one-to-one basis. Likewise his shadow shapes: he painted pictures that can be inverted, turned upside-down. Once we see a view of New York and then an Egyptian temple.2 These negative perspectives are exceedingly relevant to me! I perforate sounds by placing rests instead of notes. I can fill these holes in the sound in diverse ways, with music or speech. Soutter's palindromic pictures are important, too: I can turn the music round and read it backwards. That automatically yields a host of parallels. After his dismissal, Soutter spent a number of years playing in various resort orchestras, in St. Moritz, Lucerne and Gstaad. Later on he accompanied silent movies. And there he naturally had a great deal to do with shadows. He accompanied mobile shadows on the violin. And that is what I imagined as I composed the Violin Concerto. He captured these shadows in his later finger paintings, many of which were produced at the post office of Ballaigues, where black ink was available free of charge. That is how he assimilated the cinematic visions he had probably been confronted with as a violinist. That, too, holds infinite appeal for me as a musician.
Another aspect is that I developed the whole Violin Concerto out of the then revolutionary playing technique embodied in Ysaye's Six Sonatas for Violin Solo op. 27 (1923). The concerto begins with a distorted quotation from the Third Sonata in D minor. I named this prologue "Deuil" after an early picture by Soutter (1904), which was destroyed and survives only as a photograph. It depicts Soutter's grieving sister. When the picture was shown at the national art exhibition in Lausanne, Soutter's sister-in-law was so embarrassed that she tore it up. I tried to capture the fin-de-siecle mood of this early painting in the music at the beginning of the concerto. Debussy's Nocturnes (1897-1899), which were originally intended as a violin concerto for Ysaye, are my stylistic point of departure. The Sirens, the singing seductresses at the end of Debussy's composition, occur with obsessive regularity in Soutter's work - and I had, in fact, initially considered starting the concerto with women's voices, but ultimately decided against interfering outwardly with the instrumental framework. I translate the slashes visible in the photograph into music. The rest of the work is devoid of direct quotations, except for the Dies Irae sequence - which has been cited by so many composers, including Ysaye, Liszt and Mahler - in the second movement, "Obsession". The third and longest movement, "Ombres", is my way of dealing with musical shadows. There is a monomaniac violin line ceaselessly casting sonic shadows in all directions. The orchestral groups, for their part, are mirrored and refracted, expand and contract. This means the monomaniac violin is omnipresent, and the orchestra never plays tutti, as is otherwise customary in violin concertos. The violin gradually gravitates into glaring, shadowless jumbles of sound. Not until the slow epilogue, "Avant le massacre", which I am only writing now, seven years later, does total blackness-become-sound occur. This movement is not simply a coda; it is music that swallows up, immobilizes and eclipses all the brilliance and virtuosity that have gone before. For a violin concerto, that is, of course, an anti-conclusion par excellence.
By and large, I have composed a violin concerto inspired by Soutter's life and painting. He began as a representational painter in the style of Manet. The musical journey leads from the fin-de-siecle aura of the first movement to the very controlled music of the quasi chorale variations of the second movement and on to the third, portraying grotesqueries and Dantesque visions transcending the finger paintings. The journey ends in "Avant le massacre". That is the title of one of three pictures Soutter painted in the remotest corner of Switzerland, Ballaigues, on 1 September 1939. On the day war broke out, he was painting the horrors of war, while the Federal Councillors contented themselves with gloomy deliberations. Soutter's contemporaries had good reason to describe him as politically acute and a militant pacifist and anti-fascist. I make no attempt to translate this painting into music: going out from it, I try to realise a ritual of annihilation.
I want to show that music can age, 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 a witness to his time. He, who would not survive the war, foresaw the doom of humankind.
When I composed "concertos" like Siebengesang (1966-1967), Turm-Musik (1984) or Recicanto (2001), it was usually in a similarly biographical or individual context. But if the Violin Concerto genuinely addresses the figure of Soutter, then less through the soloist than through the violins in the orchestra: Soutter is always the smaller shadow panting to keep up with the violin giant Ysaye. 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 Ysaye, his hair flooding the concert hall.3 Soutter is not directly there in the playing of the solo violin. But this absence makes his presence all the stronger. As marginal "Beiseit" existences, all my instrumental "protagonists" are inclined to vanish. And in the Violin Concerto, too, there will be no trace of the violin at the end.
My encounter with Louis Soutter led to a new recognition. Everything you come across as you compose, even a poem, is actually a bolt from the blue! You don't peruse a book, think things over and then judiciously conclude: Right, this is the poem I'm going to use. Suddenly something is there! That's how it was with Louis Soutter, with Scardanelli, with Robert Walser. I didn't think up a special technique for approaching Soutter. I wrote the Violin Concerto in eight or nine days, as if in a delirium. As "Hommage a Soutter", it is absolute music, not a description of his pictures or his life. At the same time, the encounter with Soutter forced me - with my inclination to write slow, static music - to compose exceedingly energetic, rhythmically complex music. A physical, dance-like, motoric music that in places even takes up, in totally different form, the rhythms used by my teacher Sandor Veress. Something I had never dared to do before! At some point I simply had to turn rapid movement, which may be a speeding standstill, into sound.
1 Ernest Ansermet, Letter to Michel Thevoz on 10 November 1966, quoted in Michel Thevoz, Louis Soutter ou I'ecriture du desir (Catalogues raisonnes d'artistes suisses 4/1), Lausanne/Zurich 1974, p. 27.
2 Michel Thevoz, Louis Soutter. Catalogue de i'ceuvre (Catalogues raisonnes d'artistes suisses 4/2), Lausanne/Zurich 1976, No. 310.
3 Text on the reverse of a drawing (Thevoz, as Note 2, No. 1196, quoted ibid., p.370):"l saw Ysaye again in a dream. Oh, what a lesson he gave me. I could write down the notes he indicated to me. I played like a stable boy, and he like a god. When I heard his brilliant playing, the whole edifice of my training collapsed. My sounds were hard, insecure, presumptuous, his balanced, pure, secure. I hear him, I hear him. The long sequence of notes that I, as a supposed virtuoso, scratched my way through: he allowed them to vibrate, to flow, with the roundness, the security that only his incredible training could achieve. He had a massive black mane of hair, fantastic, and while we were watching actresses in a comedy, we were sitting in front, he threw himself, always good for a joke, in front of the first actress, covering the stage with his tousled hair, and I next to him hardly dared to do the same, because my head was bald. He was in the company of a master of ceremonies with dazzling teeth as long as white almonds and a frizzy beard; after that he went outside, and as he was well-acquainted with the sea, he stopped at the lakeshore, where he and his daughters had tied up their boat.- In the same dream I saw my father in a garden full of beautiful flowers, a table was laid, and guests all round it. [...]"
(translation: Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart)