Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Monday, 31 May 2010

Klaus Huber: Erniedrigt – Geknechtet – Verlassen – Verachtet ... (1975/1978–83)

Klaus Huber: Erniedrigt – Geknechtet – Verlassen – Verachtet ... (1975/1978–83)
for solo voices, chorus, orchestra and tape
Texts by Ernesto Cardenal, Florian Knobloch, Carolina María de Jesús, George Jackson
Anne Haenen, mezzo-soprano
Theophil Maier, tenor and speaker
Paul Yoder, bass-baritone
Treble solo from the Tölzer Knabenchor
Schola Cantorum Stuttgart, Clytus Gottwald, rehearsals
SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart, Helmut Franz, rehearsals
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
Matthias Bamert, conductor, Kenneth Jean/ Burkhard Rempe/ Arturo Tamayo, co-conductors
Recorded: 14th October 1983 at the Donaueschinger Musktage STEREO DDD
NEOS 10809 [67:58]
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‘In memoriam Luigi Dallapiccola’ – the dedication of the fifth movement of Klaus Huber’s oratorio speaks volumes. For, like his Italian predecessor, Huber is an avant-gardist with a political agenda. This is a work which employs an uncompromising serial and electro-acoustic aesthetic to deliver an equally uncompromising Communist message. The title, which translates as ‘Abased-Fettered-Abandoned-Despised’, is taken from one of the more poetic passages of the Communist Manifesto, and the trajectory of the work is from various representations of human suffering towards a call to arms and some (relatively) optimistic depictions of possible Utopian futures.

The seven movements of the oratorio where written in stages between 1975 and 1982. Each has a different instrumentation and a different text source. The result strikes a good balance between diversity and coherence. Indeed, the serialism upon which much of the music is based never leads to aesthetic monotony. Huber is from Switzerland, and this work fits squarely in the tradition of central European post-war Modernism. Various cultural bearings are evoked, most of which link to the history of the Austro-German tradition. This adds to the aesthetic variety, but also inadvertently attests to the cultural insularity of the avant-garde, the Germanness of the music contrasting the cosmopolitan texts, which include passages in German, American English, Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese. 

The opening of the work fades in from silence, with a musique concrète tape track made up of overlaid voices gradually increasing in volume and complexity. There are a number of other very quiet taped effects throughout the work, and the recording levels of the disc are set very low to allow these passages definition. (Don’t be afraid to turn the amplifier volume up though, there is nothing monumentally loud enough to blow your cones.) Huber is apparently using electronic manipulation of the human voice as a representation of the dehumanising effect of industrialisation. 

This leads into the first main part ‘On the will of the oppressed’, a setting of words by Florian Knobloch, a foundry worker describing his experiences of industrial manufacture. This is the first of three disparate movements exploring the condition of human oppression, the second sets texts from the diary of Carolina María de Jesús describing her experiences as a resident of a Brazilian favela and the third takes as its source the prison letters of George Jackson. Erratic vocal effects in the first movement are often reminiscent of Ligeti, his Aventures or the third movement of his Requiem. The second movement mixes spoken and sung texts, and the result recalls the operas of Berg. The solo bass-baritone in the third movement (Paul Yoder) intones the text as recitative, its pitch content erratic, but its rhythm faithful to the agogics of the English language.

The fourth movement is the call to arms, with militaristic oppression graphically depicted through brief march episodes (for which Mahler’s Third Symphony is clearly the model) and even through the use of chains in the percussion section. The will of the people is represented by the voices of the choir, who gradually gain the foreground. The sixth movement gives much needed respite in the form of a calm interlude. Here a boy treble sings over representations of birdsong from the woodwind. Shades here of the calm before the storm in Strauss’ Alpensinfonie a reminder that the peace will soon be shattered. The conclusion, when it comes, offers what the composer describes as a ‘profane version of the resurrection’. What Marx might have made of this version of his Utopian ideals is anybody’s guess, but for Huber it is an opportunity to conclude in pseudo-religious mode with a serial reworking of Bach’s chorale setting Christ lag in Todesbanden, although the complexity of the result all but obscures its source.

The musical parallels highlighted in this brief précis demonstrate both the variety and approachability of Huber’s oratorio, and anybody who enjoys the operas of Berg, the vocal music of Ligeti or the lyrical serialism of Dallapiccola while find much of interest here. Both the performance and the recording do the work proud, and the brass and percussion sections of the SWR Sinfonieorchester deserve a special mention for their handling of the music’s considerable demands.

One question hangs over this release, however, and that is its timing. The work was completed in 1982 and the recording made in 1983 – so why wait 25 years before the CD release? The high production standards have stood the test of time admirably, but the aesthetics of the work are now very much history. For those like me with an interest in 20th century musical modernism, this is not necessarily a problem, and the music more than holds its own, even by comparison with the biggest names in the field. The only problem is that the aesthetics and the ideology are so closely intertwined, and while the music retains artistic value, even as a historical artefact, the anachronism of the underlying politics makes the whole project seem redundant, advocating as it does an already long-lost cause.

Gavin Dixon 2010

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