Monday 30 November 2015

A highly recommendable release from ECM New Series of Heinz Holliger’s Machaut-Transkriptionen with the Hilliard Ensemble and violists, Geneviève Strosser, Jürg Dähler and Muriel Cantoreggi

Swiss oboist, conductor, and composer Heinz Holliger (b.1939) began his musical education at the conservatories of Bern and Basel. He studied composition with Sándor Veress and Pierre Boulez and was awarded first prize for oboe in the International Competition in Geneva in 1959. Many composers, including Olivier Messiaen, Luciano Berio, Elliott Carter, Frank Martin, Hans Werner Henze, Witold Lutosławski, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Isang Yun, have written works for him.

As a conductor, Heinz Holliger has worked for many years with leading orchestras and ensembles worldwide including the Berlin Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra, the London Philharmonia Orchestra, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the SWR Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden/Freiburg and Stuttgart, the WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne, the Frankfurt Symphony Orchestra, the Zürich Tonhalle Orchestra, L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the Chamber Orchestra of Lausanne, the Budapest Festival Orchestra, the National Orchestra of Lyon, and the Strasbourg Philharmonic, as well as his long standing collaboration with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

Holliger is in high demand as a composer with his opera on Robert Walser’s Schneewittchen at the Zürich Opera House receiving great international attention. Other major works are his Scardanelli-Zyklus, a 150-minute cycle for mixed forces and his Violin Concerto. On the occasion of Paul Sacher's 70th birthday, Holliger was one of twelve composer-friends of his who were asked by Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich to write compositions for cello solo.  

ECM Records have recently released a recording of Heinz Holliger’s Machaut-Transcriptions, performed by The Hilliard Ensemble and the violists, Geneviève Strosser , Jürg Dähler and Muriel Cantoreggi


As well as his Messe de Nostre Dame, the French composer and poet Guillaume de Machaut (c.1300-1377) composed many motets, ballades, rondeaux, virelais and lais. Over a ten year period beginning in 2001Heinz Holliger has written a cycle of pieces, scored for four voices and three violas, entitled Machaut-Transkriptionen, an imaginative re-investigation of the work of the Guillaume de Machaut. Note-for-note transcriptions of Machaut give way to Holliger’s increasingly creative refractions of the music.  Holliger has stated that his in-depth study of Machaud opened up new vistas for his compositional activity.

The Hilliard Ensemble find many little nuances in the opening note for note transcription in natural harmonics of Machaut’s Ballade IV Biaute qui toutes autre pere finding a strangely modern flavour as though stretching Machaut’s harmonic language.  

Violists Geneviève Strosser, Jürg Dähler and Muriel Cantoreggi bring natural harmonics in the opening of Ballade IV für drei Violen. For all its strange sounds there is a definable link to the harmonies of Machaut. It is quite incredible how these players weave the delicate harmonies demonstrating just how much Holliger has absorbed Machaut’s harmonic world.

The Hilliards return for the original setting by Machaut’s Ballade XXVI Donnez, Seigneur bringing a lovely gentle sway, with fine harmonisation and a high level of accuracy.

In Holliger’s transcription of Ballade XXVI für drei Violen for three violas the music slowly emerges, overlaying the original with harmonics, a true blending of ideas separated by over 600 years. The music has a mournful sound as the original appears to glimmer and reflect through the strange harmonies drawing the ear in an unexpectedly intense way.

The Hilliards bring Machaut’s original Double Hoquet (Hoquetus David) with its constantly shifting rhythms and harmonies, these fine singers providing a terrific flexibility, negotiating every little turn beautifully.

With Holliger’s transcription of Triple Hoquet (nach Hoquetus David) he dissects Machaut’s original to an extent that the particles seem to reform in an entirely new way. Holliger speaks of ‘quasi atomising’ the motivic units. Yet oddly one can still sense an affinity with Machaut without necessarily being able to define why. The music becomes increasingly more complex with pizzicato phrases, harmonics and edgy motifs. But equally as it progresses, there are some intensely fine dissonant harmonies before clearing towards the coda for a settled conclusion. This is a terrific performance from these three violists.  

The Hilliard Ensemble bring a quite spectacularly fine Lay VII für vier Stimmen (for four voices) where Machaut’s music is spread out into a wider or, in Holliger’s terms spacialisated array of harmonics. There are some fiendishly difficult parts to sing with these fine voices bringing some stunningly controlled singing. Here the 14th c. refracts through a more advanced prism with some lovely subtle little dissonances, a quite wonderful transcription of Machaut’s original. Holliger weaves and blends the musical lines, finding some wonderful textures and sonorities and some quite lovely moments before arriving at a particularly mellifluous coda but concluding on a dissonance. The performance is a triumph.

In(ter)ventio a 3 für drei Violen brings the return of the three violists in this thematically related improvisation on Machaut’s Complainte (Tels rit au main qui au soir). Here there are constantly shifting harmonies and moments of complex agitation with spectacularly accomplished playing from these violists. Later there is a mysterious, slow, hushed section where the violas slowly rise and fall around each other in a quite mesmerising passage before slowly moving forward through harmonies that often shimmer to slowly sink into a hushed coda.

The Hilliard Ensemble come together with the violists Geneviève Strosser, Jürg Dähler and Muriel Cantoreggi for Complainte (aus: Remede de Fortune) und Epilog für vier Singstimmen und drei Violen. Here Machaut’s original Complainte is reworked as a four part canon over which a ¼ tone three part invention is laid, weaving strange harmonies out of which little motifs for strings and voices emerge. Often there are little dynamic surges for voices as the music moves through some wonderfully unusual harmonies and dissonance. The music falls to a hush before the voices take the music forward alone, rising to some very fine passages. A viola quietly joins using harmonics high in its register before the other violas join to spread out around the voices before sinking to a quiet coda.

This is a terrific achievement by all these performers.

These are strikingly impressive transcriptions, occasionally challenging but more often quite beautiful.

The performances could not be bettered. The recording is excellent and there are useful booklet notes by Andreas Krause and Heinz Hollliger. There are no texts provided.

I cannot recommend this disc too highly. There are so many wonderful moments throughout.

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