Tuesday 14 February 2017

Music among friends: Klangrede

Klangrede, Eres Holz, Johannes B Borowski, Stefan Keller; Zafraan Ensemble, Titus Engel; bastille musique
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 06 2017
Star rating: 4.5

Clarity of texture and rigour of thought in this disc of recent music by three Berlin-based composers

This disc is the fourth issue from a new Berlin-based label, bastille musique, whose recordings are carefully chosen both in terms of the content and the presentation. This disc Klangrede, is performed by the Berlin-based contemporary music ensemble, Zafraan Ensemble, conducted by Titus Engel. Engel is perhaps best known for his conducting the premiere of Charles Wuorinen's opera Brokeback Mountain in Madrid in 2014 (see the review in the Financial Times).

On this disc, Engel and the Zafraan Ensemble perform two works each by three contemporary composers, Quintett and Katakothes by Eres Holz, Klaviertrio and Dex by Johannes B Borowski and Hammer and Soma oder Die Lust am Falienlassen by Stefan Keller. All except Klaviertrio being premiere recordings.

A link between the composers and performers is the Hochschule fur Musik "Hanns Eisler" in Berlin, where they all studied, and so it is as a coming together as colleagues and friends that they have created the programme. The title Klangrede (sound-speech) is a rhetorical term first developed by Handel's colleague from Hamburg, Johann Mattheson. Whilst the three composers all seem to have been interested in Mattheson's rhetorical basis for constructing a piece of music, none follows Mattheson's strict six-part structure. Instead we get music which is rather freer, but still with a sense of rhetorical dialectic, a feeling we are listening to conversational argument in music.

The pieces have other elements in common, all are single-movement works, and all were created in the same six year span, so we have something of a snap-shot.

Eres Holz's Quintett (2009) for flute, clarinet, viola, piano and harp (conducted by Titus Engel) starts with an elegant sparsity of texture, a feeling of fragments linking into a whole. Not for the last time on the disc I thought of the influence of Pierre Boulez, with Messiaen perhaps in the background. Whilst there are some interestingly dense moments, a characteristic of the performance is the great clarity which the players bring to the music, clarity and elegance. And the piece finishes as mysteriously as it starts.

The title of Holz's Kataklothes (2015) is an Ancient Greek word meaning spinner, the three goddesses who spin the thread of life. So in the piece Holz uses a group of harmonic sequences as a thread through the piece. Written for flute, clarinet, saxophone, harp piano, percussion, violin, viola, cello and double bass (conducted by Titus Engel), it opens with a dramatic burst and then quietens though the harmonies are quite dense, and there are eruptions and disturbances. There is very much a sense of lines proceeding independently, each with its own logic, and like Quintett there is a use of sparseness and silence.

Johannes B. Borowski's Klaviertrio (2013), written for piano, violin and cello, is quite sparsely written, with fidgety flurries of notes which suggest a nervous and difficult conversation between three people. There are none of the balance problems often inherent in the piano trio form, instead we have three very definite individual voices, and again a real clarity of texture.

Borowski's Dex (2015) for flute, clarinet, saxophone, harp, piano, percussion, violin, viola cello and double bass (conducted by Titus Engel), starts of with a sparsity of instrumentation which is notable even compared to the other works on the disc, and the percussion section includes a cuckoo which is rather persistent. The programme notes refer to associations of forests and mountains, but I have to confess that when I first heard the piece I wondered whether the cuckoo was intended as a joke! Borowski's writing gets marginally denser, with flurries of notes for individual instruments, before things pare down and we are left just with a duck and a cuckoo.

Stefan Keller's Hammer (2015) is for saxophone, piano and percussion, and though the programme notes talk about Keller's use of rhythm as a result of studying Indian music, the influence which came to the fore was that of jazz. Rhythm does play a strong element in the piece but the feeling of free jazz seemed to predominate for me, with a lot of percussion (tuned and otherwise).

Soma oder Die Lust am Fallenlassen (2015) is another ensemble work for flute, clarinet, saxophone, harp, piano, percussion, viola, cello and double bass (conducted by Titus Engel). The title means 'Soma or the pleasure of letting go', where soma is the Ancient Greek word for body. Again there is quite a bit of percussion, and under the instrumental flurries and edgy free jazz inspired music, there were hints of pop rhythms. Rhythm undoubtedly plays an important role as towards the end of the piece there is a substantial solo for drum-kit.

There are three essays in the booklet, though I have to confess that I found the language in the English versions a trifle flowery and difficult to follow. The production values for these discs are high, with a lovely box and beautifully produced leaflets giving a very distinctive feel to the whole.  A definite sense of occasion when you open it.

None of the music on this disc is easy, and the players produce some really virtuosic playing at times, and no matter the difficulty they make each piece seem a natural and logical conversation. Titus Engel conducts the four larger scale works with great aplomb, and the whole has a great sense of clarity of texture and clarity of thought. This disc will not be to everyone's taste, but it is certainly worth seeking out if you want to find out what is happening in Berlin.

Zafraan Ensemble: Liam Mallett (flute), Miquel Peres Inesta (clarinet), Martin Posegga (saxophone), Aline Khouri (harp), Cemens Hund-Goschel (piano), Daniel Eichholz (percussion), Emmanuelle Bernard (violin), Jose Gerhard (viola), Martin Smith (cello), Beitane Ruiz Molina (double bass)

The disc is available directly from the label, email shop(at)bastillemusique.de and the cost is € 19,90 plus €3 for international orders, and you can pay via PayPal.

Eres Holz (born 1977) - Quintett
Eres Holz - Katakothes
Johannes B Borowski (born 1979) - Klaviertrio
Johannes B Borowski - Dex
Stefan Keller (born 1974) - Hammer
Stefan Keller - Soma oder Die Lust am Falienlassen
Titus Engel (conductor)
Recorded Hans Rosbaud Studio, Baden-Baden, 2016
bastille music 4 1 CD [69.34]
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