Notes and Editorial Reviews
Matthias Bamert, cond; Kenneth Jean, co-cond; Burkard Rempe, co-cond; Arturo Tamayo, co-cond; Anne Haenen (mez); Theophil Maier (ten); Paul Yoder (bbar); Schola Cantorum Stuttgart; Baden-Baden and Freiburg Southwest German RSO & Vocal Ens
NEOS 10809 (67:58
Text, no Translation)
I’ve come to realize that there is a specific musical genre that emerged in the second half of the 20th century in Europe, the
politico-metaphysical oratorio. These are sprawling modernist works, usually based on secular subjects, but laced with meditations on the spiritual or philosophic (even if in the end they are discredited or abandoned). These pieces tend to involve theatrical elements, and the vocal delivery spans a range from atonal
to full-throated screaming/barking. I’ve encountered and reviewed several of these by Nono, Lachenmann, and B. A. Zimmerman over the past few years. It’s a form that I have some trouble with, which I’ll detail below. The arrival of the massive work by Klaus Huber (b. 1924),
(“Abased—Fettered—Abandoned—Despised”), composed in 1975–83, alerted my radar that this might not be a particularly pleasant experience (the title alone promises a rigorous evening’s entertainment).
I have heard very little of Huber’s music, but his reputation in Europe is extremely high, and above all, he’s renowned as the teacher of several generations of major composers, mostly at his post in Freiburg, Germany (from which he’s now retired). The work under review is in seven sections with an introduction, and is a compendium of texts primarily from the “liberation theologist” Ernesto Cardenal, but there are many others woven in, including that of Black Panther George Jackson. The overall tone of the work is that of outrage at political oppression and injustice, motivated by a Protestant religious fervor.
I can say at the beginning what deflates me about the music, but stay with me; a more rounded picture is going to emerge by the end. There is a lot of angst throughout, and the tone is entirely humorless. (The one inadvertently funny thing is the
-German delivery of the letters of George Jackson, albeit in English.) One can’t help but feel that high German Expressionism, when mated with a Calvinistic view of man, indeed a rather omniscient judgment of human inhumanity, leads to a wrenching, indeed abrasive product. It can also seem condescending, preaching on high to the rest of us fools. This music is never fun, but then Huber is absolutely determined it should not be, as the subject is so serious and depressing. So in a sense it is exactly what it intends to be, and it’s up to us as listeners to decide how to react to it.
Having said that, I need to pull back and add a little perspective. I came to this piece with an admittedly skeptical perspective, and certainly much of it did not disappoint my expectations. But Huber actually has a number of things going for him, and, in fact, this piece strikes me as one of the best I’ve heard in the aforementioned genre. The opening, with the distant voices of choristers sounding like muffled torture victims screaming from their cells (the work uses pre-recorded parts effectively) is chilling. And over its course, the music frankly gets better, asserts more personality, and transcends at least somewhat the clichés of its medium. The fourth section, with its outbursts of quasi-chaotic Ivesian band music, alternating with what sounds like thousands of marching boots, gathers real force. The fifth section, a deconstruction and then reassembly of a Bach aria, has a haunting fragility. And the conclusion, with its huge waves of voices and instruments, which transform into a taped version that slowly echoes into silence over several minutes, makes a deep impression.
The upshot is that Huber actually makes something of worth here, and his subject is well served. (I’ll also say that while as an American I’m not fond of being lectured by Europeans on our failings as a culture, I share many of his opinions and concerns.) Nor is the piece nihilistic or totally despairing, as much of it suggests the enormous force of the people’s will, and by such representation creates some hope of it being activated for positive results.
So this is a recommendation, almost despite myself. The recording is clear and the performance strong. While all the texts are printed, they are multilingual, and without translation, so non-readers of German, Spanish, and Portuguese will be out of luck.
FANFARE: Robert Carl
Works on This Recording
Erniedrigt-Geknechtet-Verlassen-Verachtet by Klaus Huber
Paul Yoder (Bass Baritone),
Anne Haenen (),
Tölzer Knabenchor (Treble)
Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra,
Schola Cantorum Stuttgart,
Southwest German Radio Vocal Ensemble
Period: 20th Century
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