Zwiegespräche – “Dialogues” – begins with the intensely moving sound of Heinz Holliger’s oboe calling out into the wild, in a piece written for him by his longstanding friend György Kurtág. Then comes a response composed by him, played on cor anglais by his pupil Marie-Lise Schüpbach. From here the conversation develops, of two composers who, from their solitary positions, strive to make contact with one another – and with us.
The pieces are, as is typical for both composers, short. Six and a half minutes here is an epic, and many of the messages are over in under a minute. Such dimensions invite us to listen closely, to every turning nuance, and our attention is rewarded, by music-making that is at once emphatic and fine-grained.
Holliger himself is the principal artist, joined by Schüpbach and by the clarinettist Ernesto Molinari. The soprano Sarah Wegener gives her pure, strong voice to piercing settings by both composers of a compact poem by the 17th-century writer Angelus Silesius. The rose, Silesius says, knows no “why”; it just blooms, and does not ask if it is seen or not. This music, however, emphatically does demand to be heard.
A central Kurtág sequence has Holliger alternating with, or joining with, Molinari on bass or contrabass clarinet, the two of them speaking the music with equal veracity.
There are other dialogues going on along the way. Holliger offers instrumental responses to poems by the Swiss French poet Philippe Jaccottet, heard reading them in the voice of a 93-year-old. And the programme ends with Holliger looking into the mirror at his teenage self, playing a solo sonata that, from so long ago, is already characteristic of him in its precise definition, expressivity and vim.
Released to mark Holliger’s 80th birthday, this recording is the perfect embodiment of his dual artistry as performer and composer.
Heinz Holliger has long been recognized as the world’s leading oboist, with countless works written for him, by composers including Luciano Berio, Elliott Carter, Olivier Messiaen and Karlheinz Stockhausen, as well as György Kurtág. His legacy of recordings is also prodigious, and includes a number of previous ECM albums, in which he ranges from Bach to music of the present day. ECM has also been at the forefront in presenting his work as a composer, notably with award-winning recordings of his extraordinary opera on Robert Walser’s Schneewittchen and of his Scardanelli-Zyklus, after Hölderlin.
Holliger was born in the small town of Langenthal, in the Swiss canton of Bern. He studied at the conservatory in Bern and also had composition lessons from Sándor Veress and Pierre Boulez. Called upon around the world for his virtuosity as an oboist, he has remained clear in his wider definition of himself, as also a conductor (having, again, some remarkable recordings to his name) and, most importantly, a composer. It is his complete and intense musical personality that has gained him the highest honours, including last year the German order “Pour le mérite”.
In celebrating Holliger at a milestone birthday, these “Dialogues” also continue ECM’s extensive series devoted to the work of György Kurtág, widely acknowledged one of the great creative artists of our time.