Bernd Alois Zimmermann: Requiem for a Young Poet

Czech Philharmonic & Slovak Philharmonic Choirs, Holland Symfonia/Kontarsky (Cybele CYB860501)

11 January 20094 stars

cdConsiderations on the violence of history are pretty unavoidable if you're watching the news at the moment. This new release on Cybele highlights a composition of huge ambition and forces that broods under the shadow of that violence, considering its significance in light of the possibility, or otherwise, of there being escape from it.

Bernd Alois Zimmermann took his own life in 1970, not long after composing Requiem for a young poet. As with much of Zimmermann's oeuvre, this composition is one preoccupied with the role of history in time. It explores art's place in our recollections and in the splintering of time's course. The composer's theory of time is quoted in the sleeve-notes: 'Music is essentially understood through the arrangement or ordering of progressions of time … as an experience which occurs both in time while also embodying time within itself.' Music, then, is both allegory and thing allegorised, the instrument as well as the medium.

Thinking of this concept of Zimmermann's of Kugelgestalt der Zeit (the 'spherical' time that occurs in the musical work), I am reminded of that episode of cult comedy Brass Eye where Chris Morris in piss-taking mode asks pop star Jas Mann if he has ever written 'a spherical song'. This brings to mind a remark by Marx (citing fellow German thinker Hegel) to the effect that the events of history always occur twice – first as tragedy, second as farce. I suppose this second recollection completes the circuit and brings us back to where we were at the outset, talking about the form of history.

Requiem starts with low rumblings like thunder in the distance, on low double bass, organ, and electronically generated tape. Spoken text recordings enter soon after with a selection from Wittgenstein on St. Augustine's theory of language. Recorded entry follows recorded entry until after a while the voices are stacked in a towering schizophrenic babble, while harsh brass cut in and ominous choirs moan in the background. This builds up throughout the first section of the work's four, until at the end there is a more optimistic note with the closing words of Molly Bloom's monologue (though on this recording they are enunciated by the speaker in something of a sinister fashion). A mass clustered outcry from the choir marks the end of this first section. TThe cluttered quotations that figure largely in the work bump off each other in counterpoint to make an abstract music out of the unexpected congruence and incongruence of their respective tones, words and languages. An orchestral burst from Milhaud ebbs into Joyce's Anna Livia Plurabelle, which proceeds into the cries of a Hungarian crowd, which in turn begets Messiaen's L'Ascension, which leads into the voice of Hitler by way of Isolde's Liebestod, and a passage from Aeschylus – this dizzying spell having the desired awakening influence on the senses.

It may sound encyclopaedic and cultured but as each smears against the other the effect is rather barbaric and wild. Zimmermann referred to this piece as a 'lingual' and the human voice is used in it powerfully throughout. Its aura crashes down before the listener in the saturation of quotations from recorded speeches, along with electronically processed voice, two live speakers, two soloists and three choirs. The voice is fully materialized rather than treated simply as a vehicle which facilitates the silent exchange of information and power: it is resplendent in all its potential violence, speaking for the dead as well as the living. In the second half of the work, live performance takes precedence over recorded sound, with a massive set-up of orchestra, organ, jazz ensemble, three choirs, soprano and bass. The result creates a dramatic contrast with the first half, although the tone of nightmarish oppressiveness continues unabated. By the end the listener is wearied; sometimes too the effect is slightly nauseating, both of which are of course likely intended. It's not meant to be easy listening; the issues confronted demanding serious treatment (perhaps). Nono's works for tape and ensemble come to mind here as having a similarity in tone. They were also being written during the sixties and may have had an influence on Zimmermann at this time (one then repaid by Nono in his Prometeo, which has a similar set-up to Requiem). Other references are Stockhausen's Carré and that more famous, similarly harrowing requiem of Ligeti composed around the same time.

The performances on this recording are exceptional, all performers rising to the challenge posed by the titanic work and the presumable ethical responsibility it carries. Claudia Barainsky in particular stands out in a difficult soprano part. The CD is more than handsomely packaged, with seventy four pages of excellent notes presented bilingually alongside photographs, a complete transcript of the audio texts laid out chronologically in terms of the appearance of each in the work, some of Zimmerman's sketches and graphs for the composition (as well as a schema of the work), and a plan of the stage and concert hall as it should be arranged for a performance.

The recording was made in the Concertgebouw Haarlem in the first performance to take place there after a lengthy period of restoration work. This performance is also the first to use a restored version of Zimmermann's original two-track tapes. The recording is on SACD and as good as it could conceivably be. Those with a surround sound speaker set up in their home (or their car) can therefore get something of an impression of the work as it would be in performance, assailed by sound sources seeping into their consciousness from all directions. It is to the credit of Cybele to have gone to so much effort to produce a definitive release of this work, containing everything a listener needs to enjoy it, if enjoy is the right word.

By Liam Cagney