Friday 24 June 2022

Closeness & distance: Friedrich Cerha's evocation of Viennese traditional music in a new version for Viennese Schrammel quartet

Friedrich Cerha:  Keintate I, II (parts); Holger Falk, Attensam Quartett (Annette Bik & Gunde Jäch-Micko, violins, Ingrid Eder, button accordion, Michael Öttl, contra-guitar); Kairos
Friedrich Cerha:  Keintate I, II (parts); Holger FalkAttensam Quartett (Annette Bik & Gunde Jäch-Micko, violins, Ingrid Eder, button accordion, Michael Öttl, contra-guitar); Kairos
Reviewed 24 June 2022 (★★★★)

An amazing discovery, Cerha's 1980s work evoking the Viennese traditional music of his youth, reworked for a traditional ensemble, displaying great affection yet also a certain distance and in superb performances

When I first came across this recording I wondered what kind of instrument a Schrammel was! Luckily, the booklet explains, "a Viennese Schrammel Quartet owes its name to its name to the brothers Johann and Josef Schrammel, who became Vienna's musical calling card at the end of the 19th century alongside Johann Strauss and his waltzes. In memory of the legendary 'Schrammeln', their name became synonymous with exactly this line-up, in which polkas, marches, dances and waltzes were played in Vienna – and are still played". So we have two violins, Viennese button accordion and Viennese contra guitar, and the Attensam Quartett was founded to play both old and new Viennese music.

On this disc from Kairos, the Attensam Quartett (Annette Bik & Gunde Jäch-Micko, violins, Ingrid Eder, button accordion, Michael Öttl, contra-guitar) play Friedrich Cerha's Keintate I, II (parts) with baritone Holger Falk.

The whole project requires some explanation, particularly for a non-Viennese audience. The Attensam Quartett has an interest in more modern repertoire to exist alongside the tradition. A request to Friedrich Cerha to write for them took some years to come to fruition before he started arranging movements from his Keintate I & II for the quartet. In a booklet note Cerha explains that one of the attractions was the challenge of written for the particular type of accordion used in the Schrammel Quartet, different from a usual one. What we hear on this disc is a selection of movements from Cerha's original Keintate I & II (originally written in the 1980s) chosen simply according to their suitability for arrangement for Schrammel Quartet.

Holger Falk and the Attensam Quartett recording Friedrich Cerha's Keintate I, II
Holger Falk and the Attensam Quartett recording Friedrich Cerha's Keintate I, II

Cerha wrote Keintate I in 1983 as a deliberate way of acknowledging his heritage. Whilst known as a modernist composer, Cerha comments "As a young person I used to perform Viennese folk music as second violinist in suburban establishments of Hernals in pre-war Vienna; among them were academies, balls, weddings and banquets. In the 80s I started to engage myself with non-European folk music;" So, Keintate was a way of interacting with this heritage, centred on the writings of his friend Erich Kein. The original is for chansonnier and instrumental ensemble - 2 clarinets, 2 horns, percussion, accordion (a normal one this time), string quartet and double bass.

The text is in Viennese dialect and Kein's poems depict Viennese types; the disc comes with translations, so the text is given in the original, modern German (High German) and English, and throughout the disc Holger Falk really sounds like he comes from Vienna (think of Mariandel in Act Three of a classic recording of Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier).

There is popular music here, strains of waltzes and polkas, but seen through a mirror and the work seems to evoke both the Vienna of Strauss and of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, but also gives hints of the Berlin of the Weimar Republic. All the movements are short and Holger Falk performs on 19 of the 27 movements, the others are delightful instrumental interludes - the disc begins and ends with a march. Some songs are aphoristically tiny, yet in each Cerha gives us a very particular sound. This is not pastiche, but an affectionate evocation seen through the lens of more recent 20th and 21st century musics.

World premiere of Cerha's Keintate I at the Metropol, Vienna - 19 June 1983
World premiere of Cerha's Keintate I at the Metropol, Vienna - 19 June 1983
Friedrich Cerha is 2nd from left, photo courtesy of Cerha-online

Cerha explains his approach in the introduction to the work on Universal Edition's website, "I did not want to make fun of the folk music models. I did not want to improve them or use them as a joke. They simply provided a basis. I have taken them up in order to return to a distance, often an ironic distance, by stylising and defamiliarizing them. Furthermore, I wanted to investigate the models. One should not confuse this fundamental attitude with the kind of naivety that does not know what cliché means".

There are popular melodies, which Cerha often treats allusively, but he is as much interested in the sound-world, the traditional inflection of the Viennese folk music. The work is part of a modern tradition of Viennese dialect works, the best known exponent of which is HK Gruber, who not only wrote music in the style but developed a reputation as a chansonnier. The original Keintate I was premiered in 1983 by an ensemble that included Cerha, Gruber and friends, including Ernst Kovacic on violin.

There is something intensely Viennese about the seriousness with which these contemporary musicians take tradition and rework it. We don't really have anything quite like it in the UK (when Simon Rattle performed HK Gruber's Frankenstein! (1976) in Liverpool (in 1978) it caused a sensation. What Cerha does is demonstrate his closeness and affection for the music, yet treat it in a way that provides a certain distance. The result is not cool, it is highly engaging even for those that require a translation for the texts. The work it most evokes is Pierrot Lunaire, yet Cerha feels far less need to demonstrate his cleverness and his distance from his material, there is a lot more affection here.

The performances are completely admirable, the four players of quartet make Cerha's weaving of traditional melody and rhythms with modern evocations and textures feel entirely natural, they sound as if they have been playing this music all their lives. And Holger Falk makes a wonderful chansonnier. Rarely fully singing, his performance varies between spoken, half-singing and full, but always in a way that keeps the text at the forefront, on the edge of the voice.

Friedrich Cerha (born 1926) - Keintate I, II (parts), version for baritone and Viennese Schrammel quartet (2018-19) [41.45]
Holger Falk (baritone/chansonnier)
Attensam Quartett (Annette Bik & Gunde Jäch-Micko, violins, Ingrid Eder, button accordion, Michael Öttl, contra-guitar)
Recorded 28/29 March, 8/9 April, 7 July 2021, 2021, 7 July 2021 Musik Manufaktur, Vienna/Austria
KAIROS 0015107KAI 1CD [41.45]

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