On record: Zimmermann: Symphony in One Movement (Wergo)


Zimmermann: Symphony in One Movement (1951), Giostra Genovese (1962), Concerto for Strings (1948), Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu (1966)

WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne / Peter Hirsch


Wergo continues its long-term edition devoted to Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-70) with this collection of orchestral pieces spanning the greater part of his composing. This is the third such release under the direction of Peter Hirsch – who, as with Zimmermann, hails from Cologne.

What’s the music like?

As varied as Zimmermann’s output when taken overall. Earliest is the Concerto for Strings, derived from a string trio of four years before and whose trenchant ‘Introduction’, plangent ‘Aria’ and incisive ‘Finale’ evince the expected influences of Bartók and Hindemith but also Karl Amadeus Hartmann – conscience of German music during the Third Reich and mentor to numerous post-war composers.

Among the most striking of Zimmermann’s earlier works, the Symphony in One Movement is heard in the 1951 original which, less cohesive than the 1953 revision (transitions tend to be overly rhetorical), impresses with its emotional intensity and visceral organ writing. Coldly received at its premiere, the music’s expressionist manner can now be heard as ahead of rather than behind its time – any formal imperfections arising from recklessness rather than uncertainty of purpose (as in the original version of Varèse’s Amériques when compared to its revision). The composer’s observation that this work ends at the point where symphonic evolution might usually commence never felt more apposite.

The remaining two pieces are closely intertwined conceptually. Zimmermann had previously arranged selections of ‘early’ music for radio broadcast, but with Giostra Genovese he took dances by Susato, Byrd and Gibbons then transformed them to ironic, alienated and even threatening effect. A portent to similar, more self-conscious, stylistic practices by Schnittke and Maxwell Davies, it was later withdrawn and reworked as Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu – the ‘Ballet noir’ such as marks the climax of the composer’s ever more fraught relationship to music from the past.

Here those initial dances are overlaid with quotations of other composers and given a serrated edge in scoring for wind and percussion. The blackly humorous scenario sees the personnel of a liberal arts academy humiliated then executed at the hands of Alfred Jarry’s loutish ruler; a back-handed response to Berlin’s Akademie der Künste that had recently elected him a member, not least the final ‘Marche du décervellage’ with its collision of Wagner, Berlioz and Stockhausen in an apotheosis of unsparing violence.

Does it all work?

Yes, with the proviso Zimmermann’s music is increasingly not about stylistic integration or expressive poise. His concept of the ‘spherical plurality of time’, much in evidence here, may be difficult to explain yet is easy to comprehend through the visceral medium of his music.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Those who respond to these works might consider widening their listening context with the String Trio (as recorded by Trio Berlin on Wergo) and revised version of Symphony in One Movement (an incendiary live account by Witold Lutosławski on Berlin Classics, or no less authoritative one by Günter Wand on Hänssler Profil). The present disc finds Hirsch securing a committed response from the forces of Cologne Radio Symphony, vividly recorded, as well as penning an informative booklet note. Those new to Zimmermann should start here.

Richard Whitehouse

Further information at https://en.schott-music.com/shop/autoren/bernd-alois-zimmermann

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