Sunday, 24 May 2009

Requiem for a young poet

Currently available for listening (4 euros for 48 hours) on the Berliner Philharmoniker website is Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Requiem für einen jungen Dichter, Requiem for a young Poet.

It's worth watching because the video is very sensitively filmed. The camera work is remarkably prescient about what's happening in the music. Zimmermann wrote figures that seem to be something quite different from what they are: the camera focuses on objects in the auditorium from odd angles, so at first you think it's abstract art. The camera also understand the visual aspects of this panoramic piece of music. It pans to the roof of the Philharmonie, where small lights are scattered. In the darkness, they shine like stars in the firmament. The score itself is dramatic, about a metre long, with complex diagrams and markings, so we get close-ups of the particular passage being played as it looks on paper – this is well informed filming par excellence! Even if you don't like the music, this video is worth watching as an example of how good film can enhance the musical experience.

The downside is that there's no text but again that's no bad thing, because you're forced to listen more carefully. The whole concept is music as an aural world, with snatches of sounds half heard, sometimes live and close, sometimes recorded and from a distance, multi-dimensional. So much fuss is made of how Stockhausen does this in Hymnen, but Zimmermann was doing this at the same time, with infinitely more human input and sophistication. Zimmerman's collages are carefully chosen to represent key sound images of the 20th century. Hitler, Pope John XXIII, Ezra Pound and Mao Zedong, Stalin and a jazz quintet and a snatch from the Beatles (this was 1968 after all, it was obligatory, though it sounds naff today). It's like a documentary in sound, historically well informed, structurally planned rather than haphazard porridge. Leagues sharper than Stockhausen! The nearest comparison is Luigi Nono's Prometeo, written nearly 20 years later.

The soloists, vocal and instrumental, are very good, though
Eötvös as conductor is a little soft focused. This music is a painful scream by a very literate composer who cared about what was happening in the world around him – Vietnam, the Greek junta, Dubcek. Soon after, Zimmermann committed suicide in despair. This past is still relevant, if anything even more now that protest is neutralized. Get hold of the recording by the Holland Synfonia, conducted by Bernhard Kontarsky, issued by Cybele late in 2008 (pictured above). It's good and comes with a 76-page booklet with facsimiles of the score, which are useful for decoding the layers of sound. You don't need to "get" it all. Make the effort to listen and put it together, says Zimmermann. That's how we experience history, we process what we hear. in many ways and hear things differently in different contexts. For me this is a deeply rewarding work, inspiring feelings about the last century and how history comes to be written/processed. Stockhausen doesn't provide repeat musings in quite the same way.

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