Helmut Lachenmann: String Quartets | Donaueschinger Musiktage 2009 Vol. 1

stadler quartett (Neos 10806) | SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg et al (Neos 11051)

27 July 20115 stars3 stars


The past few years have witnessed a rise in Helmut Lachenmann's reputation in the UK. At the Transcendent festival of Lachenmann's music organised by the Royal College of Music a few years back, for example, the festival booklet likened the German composer to a musical Leonardo da Vinci.

While such hyperbole inevitably gives rise to suspicion, listening to the three string quartets on this Neos release confirms Lachenmann as one of the most striking musical imaginations of the last fifty years, and these quartets as one of the most significant contributions to the genre in the late twentieth and early twentieth centuries.

This is not the first collected release of Lachenmann's three string quartets – the Arditti Quartet have a reading on Kairos – but there is much to recommend it: not least the SACD 5.0 Channel Surround Sound, which gives a translucent listening experience (featuring outstanding performances from the stadler quartet).

Part of the compulsiveness of Lachenmann's three quartets, as Peter Becker mentions in his sleeve notes, is the sense of mystery that emerges from Lachenmann's virginal presentation of musical sound. As you become immersed in the sound world of Gran Torso, Lachenmann's first quartet (dated 1971/76/88), and the quotidian sound world recedes, you really get the sense of being in uncharted territory, catching surface-scratch glimmers of an abysmal depth.

The quartet closest to bearing traces of familiarity is Grido, the third quartet (2001). Even then, though, these reminiscences only feature tenuously, in the shrill drawn-out drone that begins and ends the piece, and a beaming major triad that suddenly crops up midway through, like the wreck of a ship momentarily emerging from under the sea.

It has been said that Lachenmann's immensely sophisticated technique can create a quasi-symphonic grandeur. That is borne out by this disc. The way Lachenmann achieves so much with such an economy of means rears up offstage also, dare I say it, the spectre of Beethoven's late quartets.

Lachenmann is closely associated with the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music. Alongside Darmstadt, the Donaueschingen Festival is one of the most famous European festivals for new music. Recently Neos has been putting out releases of recordings from Donaueschingen; this latest release has works from the 2009 festival by Salvatore Sciarrino, Beat Furrer, and Jimmy Lopez.

DonaueschingerEstablished in 1921, the festival during the 1950s saw premieres of major works by Messiaen, Boulez, and Xenakis; and the festival continues to see premieres by the most illustrious avant-garde composers of the day: this year's festival, to be held in October, will see new or recent works by Rebecca Saunders, Jennifer Walshe, Jonathan Harvey, and Wolfgang Rihm.

Although the recordings on this release are live, the sound throughout is lucid and full-bodied, and the performances – by the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg among others – are excellent.

Sciarrino’s Libro notturno delle voci is a flute concerto written for soloist Mario Caroli. In his programme note Sciarrino talks about different conceptions of the concerto: political metaphors of the individual and the crowd, or the artist and the masses; natural metaphors of coalescing and dispersing constellations; cycles of moments; or a single gradually-plotted curve. Sciarrino's guiding intention throughout his concerto-writing career, he says, has been an opposition to the academic, 'be it old or new' – a commendable aim.

The soundworld here will be familiar to anyone acquainted with Sciarrino's music: whispers from the strings, clarinet multiphonics, the orchestra most of the time sounding barely as big as a chamber ensemble, extended techniques from the soloist, the flute not always sounding like a flute. It's tense stuff; but you do feel at times that Sciarrino has a tendency to slip into autopilot: it's not as thrilling as his early violin concerto Allegria della Notte, for example.

Beat Furrer's Apon deals with that favourite subject of avant-garde composers, language, and more specifically language's proximity to – and distinction from – the vocal apparatus. Written in two movements and scored for orchestra and speaking voice, Apon sees Furrer use spectral techniques to model the orchestra's harmony-timbre on the voice's harmonic structure.

In the first movement each line of the speaker triggers a faux-resonance in the orchestra, in the background as it were. This resonance gradually grows, with increasingly lush results. In the second movement the speaker is absent, the orchestra metaphorically ventriloquising the absent voice.

Jimmy Lopez's Incubus III, for clarinet, percussion, and live electronics, is a setting of a poem by Paul Williams on the theme of the eponymous sex-hungry beast. Through screams, foot-stamping, and manic whispers – and playing their instruments – the two soloists convey a disquiet more Hammer horror than Japanese horror.

By Liam Cagney