Friedrich Cerha: Spiegel | Unsuk Chin: Fantaisie mécanique

SWR-Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg/Cambreling et al (0013002KAI) | Komsi, Favre, Vassilikas, Ensemble Intercontemporain/Ashbury, Davin, Ono, Robertson (0013062KAI)

24 July 2012 3.5 stars3.5 stars

SpiegelLast week Friedrich Cerha, who is now in his late eighties, was announced as the 2012 winner of the Ernst von Siemens music prize. Worth €200,000, the prize was awarded in recognition of the contribution Cerha has made to the world of music over the course of his career.

It's a thoroughly deserved award. Best known to the concert-going public as the man who in the 1970s produced a working copy of Act III of Berg's Lulu, allowing a complete version of the opera to be heard for the first time, Cerha is a formidable and important composer in his own right. Over the course of his career he has also played a major role in Viennese musical life, for example founding the ensemble die reihe in the 1950s and serving latterly as president of Klangforum Wien.

Perhaps Cerha's most famous work, though it's still not well known outside new music circles, is the Spiegel orchestral cycle. Lasting an hour and a half in total, and composed over ten years from the late 50s onwards, Spiegel could roughly be lumped in with the so-called 'sound mass' works of Ligeti and Penderecki from around the same time. But it stands out beyond these comparisons as a singular work in its own right.

Kairos recently released a live recording of Spiegel performed by the SWR-Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg conducted by Sylvain Cambreling, and it's certainly worth picking up. As well as presenting Spiegel in an excellent sweeping performance along with two other works, Monumentum and Momente, the CD booklet has several fascinating pictures reproducing parts of the score for Spiegel as well as its sketches; traditional scoring often eschewed in favour of graphs and lines directing the musicians to form sound vectors in constant movement.

Several pages in the booklet are given over to reflections on the cycle by many different composers, including Brian Ferneyhough, Pierre Boulez, Helmut Lachenmann, Györgi Kurtág and others. What is interesting, as well as the autobiographical reflections and personal impressions related by the composers, is the range of different interpretations offered of the work and its significance: it shines through that when it comes to artworks and especially musical ones, there's little consensus on meaning, and beyond the unquestionable brilliance of the scoring and compositional craft here, it's hard to put one's finger on exactly why the work is so moving.

In Spiegel Cerha drew on ideas he had been developing at the time of music as a sonic substance undergoing constant change and embodying certain abstract dynamic principles – in Varèse's terms, organised sound. Influential in this was Cerha's reading of Norbert Wiener's theory of cybernetics, from which Cerha came to think of his musical works as systems comprising diverse processes which come into contact with each other or exist simultaneously.

Spiegel I begins with low dull impacts on horn and percussion, which gradually ripple out into denser more extended flourishes across the orchestra, before the entire sound world is liquidated in a massive unison, which in turn splits out into separate trajectories. Spiegel II glistens like a dark jewel, its extended duration allowing the sound world to envelope the listener, angular string glissandi weaving around a non-existent centre. Spiegel IV is a cauldron bubbling with brass outbursts, calmly at first, then with more and more violence. And so on.

ChinAt times the music touches on the process music of Grisey and Murail, but Spiegel is differentiated from these by its propensity all the while to be shot through with a current of dread. In Cerha's own view this reflects his wartime experience: as a deserter from the Wehrmacht on the eastern front, he experienced in escaping a limitless joy, spending the remainder of the war hiding in a hut in the Tirolean mountains.

Another recent release on Kairos is a first release on that label of music by Unsuk Chin.

Born in South Korea and based in Germany since the 1980s, Chin is a major name in contemporary composition, having won the Grawemeyer Award in 2004 for her Violin Concerto and having recently succeeded Julian Anderson as artistic director of the Philharmonia Orchestra's Music of Today Series in London. She is also famously an ex-student of Györgi Ligeti, who was reportedly for her a very difficult taskmaster.

Some of Chin's best-known works to date are collected on this CD. Akrostichon-Wortspiel, a song-cycle for solo soprano and ensemble, was a breakthrough in her early career, and Fantaisie mécanique for five instrumentalists, was composed for Ensemble Intercontemporain, who perform all the works on this disc. The latter work sets texts taken from The Neverending Story and Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, though the words are drawn out to such an extent that they’re unintelligible, an exhuberent levity here as elsewhere making the ensemble voices jump and skip alongside each other.

If her Lewis Carroll settings brings Chin in some respect close to Ligeti – her first opera was Alice in Wonderland, a book Ligeti had projected to set as an opera before his late illness and death – musically Chin is quite distinct. This is plain in the variety of music on this disc, which at times takes in influences such as bebop, and which for me highlights in Xi, a twenty-two minute work for ensemble and electronics which beautifully melds together instrumental and electronic sound sources in a continuously evolving organism.

By Liam Cagney