Heinz Holliger in Profile: Souvenirs and Fairytales

06/04/2011

Heinz Holliger in Profile: Souvenirs and Fairytales (curator: Christoph Richter): Heinz Holliger (oboe); Christoph Richter (cello); Ursula Holliger (harp); Muriel Cantoreggi (violin); Florence Cooke (violin); Hariolf Schlichtig (viola); Xenia Jankovic (cello); Alasdair Beatson (piano); Alexander Lonquich (piano) Daniel Tong (piano). King’s Place, London. 23.3.2011 (KC)

Boulez: Explosante-fixe ‘in memoriam Stravinsky’ (1971) arr. Holliger (1972)
Schumann: Six Canonic Studies for Pedal Piano Op 56 (arr. for oboe d’amore, cello & piano by Theodor Kitchner)
Holliger: Songs without words for violin & piano (selection)
Schumann: Romances for oboe & piano Op 94 (1849)
Sándor Veress: Sonata for solo cello (1967)
Schumann: Märchenbilder for viola & piano Op 113 (1851)
Holliger: Duo for violin & cello (1982)
Schumann: Five Pieces in Folk Style Op 102 (1849)

Here, in the first of two concerts, was Heinz Holliger, oboist of highest international reputation – utterly deserved, as our own ears gave witness. We heard him play Boulez and Schumann. We also heard two of his compositions, neither of them requiring an oboist. A further feature was that we heard three pianists – Beatson in two Schumann works; Lonquich in pieces by Holliger and Schumann and, last of all, Tong in Schumann.

Boulez’ commemoration of Stravinsky originally appeared without conventional notation, as a circular-pictogram score, offering each performer freedom to interpret. Holliger’s realisation set down his particular vision/version of the work. We heard a ‘pointilliste’ account in which multifarious fragments of sound broke ceaselessly into brief surrounding silences. There was diversity and grave beauty in the varying combinations of instruments, and delicacy from the harp. The sonic quality changed according to which instruments were in combination at any one time. The volume changed hardly at all. This gave an egalitarianism of sound to each fragment. Being circular in construction, the work was intentionally repetitive and without advancement. In this sense, there was no ‘reason’ why the piece should ever end. On the other hand, the end, when it came, was moving. These fragments, tiny and vulnerable, were ceasing to be – mirroring Stravinsky’s gradual ceasing to be part of this world any longer.

Holliger’s Songs Without Words, from which we heard a selection, had, cumulatively, a strange poetry. Several were brief ‘in memoriam’ pieces, recalling, though by no means imitating, Stravinsky’s farewells to T. S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas. Holliger writes with a lyrical, earnest, spare, experimental Puritanism. He is very much concerned to give a noticeably different character to each of his brief pieces. In one of them – ‘Flammen … Schnee’ – the pianist alternately struck the notes on the piano’s keyboard and then reached over into the piano’s interior to pluck the strings. The concluding Berceuse was grateful and soothing. Holliger’s earlier Duo for violin and cello (1982) played perceptively with the sonic possibilities of two members of the same family of instruments.

The Sonata for solo cello by Veress made strenuous technical demands on the performer. The work is clearly a product of several musical cultures and devices – such as nationalism and dodecaphony. They do not quite sit together comfortably. I recognised, too, recollections of the robust rough presence of Kodàly, one of Veress’ distinguished teachers. Xenia Jankovic handled these stumbling blocks with measured certainty.

Holliger admires Schumann greatly, seeing in him the arresting paradox of a genius living with his personal, troubled darkness, yet nevertheless capable of writing music that is simultaneously subjective and sublime. He played Schumann’s music in exquisite, long phrases, appearing hardly to breathe – out of respect for the soaring breadth of the composer’s character and inspiration. This was sublime artistry.

We heard four much-favoured works. The six Canonic Studies for Pedal Piano, the Romances for oboe & piano and the Märchenbilder for viola & piano all sounded rather cool and distant, as though we were listening to an intensity of personal expression coming from the open window of a house at the other end of the street. In contrast, the five Pieces in Folk Style were played in the same room as oneself, as it were. The difference was thrilling and warming. Daniel Tong’s piano was a presence by one’s side. The sounds were immediate; the playing was robust; the phrasing was marked. In the right sense, the playing was dramatic. Suddenly, into the room came the striking presence(s) of Florestan and Eusebius. The emotional contrast, rightly, constituted the shape of each piece: its emotion was its form. Reciprocally, Christoph Richter’s cello played in partnership with the mellow passion and rich hints of depth that characterise his instrument. This was the culmination as well as, as it happened, the end of the evening.

Ken Carter

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