GYÖRGY LIGETI: Sonata for solo viola; Lux aeterna; Three Fantasies after Friedrich Hölderlin; ROBERT HEPPENER: Im Gestein – Susanne van Els, viola/Capella Amsterdam/musikFabrik/ Daniel Reuss – HM/Gold

by | Oct 24, 2016 | Classical CD Reviews

A very eclectic but interesting collection of modern works.

GYÖRGY LIGETI: Sonata for solo viola; Lux aeterna; Three Fantasies after Friedrich Hölderlin; ROBERT HEPPENER: Im Gestein – Susanne van Els, viola/Capella Amsterdam/musikFabrik/Daniel Reuss – Harmonia mundi Gold HMG 501985, 64:31, (8/19/16) [Distr. by PIAS] ***1/2:

Hungarian “modernist” composer György Ligeti was one of the more prominent voices of the post-war avant-garde movement in eastern Europe. He was never a proponent of serialism and developed a style that was bold and unsettling, yet never very comfortably fit with any of the trends that academic Europe was so adherent to. So, he found himself needing to emigrate to Germany in 1966 and spent the rest of his life trying to forge a reputation for himself. To this day, Ligeti is known mostly for a few key and revolutionary works; such as Atmospheres, Requiem and the present Lux aeterna. (All three of which were used to great effect by filmmaker Stanley Kubrick in his revolutionary 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

Lux aeterna has always been one of my favorite of Ligeti’s works and, together with the Requiem, created whole new approaches to choral writing. It is simultaneously a beautiful yet very creepy work that uses very odd and conflicting rhythmic cells and harmonies and specific vocal timbres to create a choral work that sounds nearly ‘artificial’ and yet very atmospheric. I feel the same way of his Requiem as well as the Three Fantasies after Friedrich Hölderlin, heard here and new to me. Hölderlin was a mid-nineteenth century German poet whose work was nearly transcendental in tone. The net effect here in Ligeti’s treatment of three of Hölderlin texts is another example of very creative and strange separation of words and syllables within a line to create what are sometimes blocks of text against more of Ligeti’s odd harmonies and voicing. His harmonies are quite a unique system that use dissonance that somehow never really sounds discordant.

Ligeti’s Sonata for solo viola is based on native Hungarian folk material and even has the violist tune their instrument in “natural scale” degrees (the presence of what in traditional Western music would be quarter-tones.) This is actually a very late work from Ligeti (1991) and shows us a lot about his evolution as a composer. Violaist Susanne van Els does this piece a fine service with her dedicated performance. My one gripe with this program is the three movements of the Viola Sonata are split in the recording to be just before Lux aeterna; just before the Hölderlin Fantasies and, lastly, right after the Three Fantasies. I have seen this done before and I’ve never liked it. I get the varying of timbre and color on an album for programming purposes but I’m a purist regarding such things.

Im Gestein (“In the Rock”) by Dutch composer Robert Heppener was a very interesting find for me. I had never heard of Heppener before but I found this work really involving. Im Gestein is scored for chorus, string quintet and percussion. The texts are by the Romanian poet Paul Celan and the words juxtapose imagery of rocks, boulders, et cetera with imagery of night, eyesight, eternity and the like. The sound of this work bears something in common with Ligeti except there is a noticeable inclusion of more traditional chords and the text is not treated as pointillistically as Ligeti may have done.
While Harmonia mundi’s booklet is very nicely constructed and the program notes by John Fallas are very informative, why don’t we get the actual texts to either the Ligeti Three Fantasies or Heppener’s Im Gestein? I understand the textures are thick and the words are not delivered continuously linearly but I would have liked to read the source material
All performances here are quite good and I do think the biggest “find” in this set is Heppener’s work.

—Daniel Coombs