The Austin Chronicle

Record Reviews

Reviewed by David Lynch, August 3, 2001, Music

ECM New Series

ECM -- "Edition of Contemporary Music" -- holds a unique position in the helter-skelter record label world. Founded more than 30 years ago by German Manfred Eicher, the Teutonic indie has thrived thanks to Eicher's vision and producing talents; ECM is known for releasing quality improvised music, often based on jazz and/or international folk. The label recently signed a distribution agreement with entertainment behemoth Universal, and while the ink dries, albums keep coming, particularly the New Series, which features notated, often Western classical music. Eight new albums fit into three categories: solo piano, an opera, and string music. Herbert Henck 's simply titled Piano Music finds the German pianist interpreting the deco and industrial impressions of between-the-wars American composers Conlon Nancarrow and George Antheil, and with his melding of technique and adventurousness, to great effect. Henck's other release, Das Buch Der Klänge (The Book of Sounds) is likewise a triumph, with the notes of "No. X" cascading like refracted rainbow rays from a crystal chandelier. Klavierstücke (auf Deutsche "piano pieces") by Thomas Larcher is well-named: Compositions by unlikely bedmates Schönberg and Schubert appear as different as, and fit as well as, counterpart puzzle pieces, with Shubert's "Klavierstücke Es-Dur" distinguishing itself. András Schiff 's tribute to early-1900s Czech composer Leos Janácek, A Recollection, is an expert interpretation of a masterful piano work, simultaneously intimate and majestic. Swiss master musician Heinz Holliger 's opera Schneewittchen (Snow White) ambitiously interprets fellow Swiss writer Robert Walser's modernist take on the classic fairy tale. Holliger's music stands well on its own, although it probably doesn't come across here as well as onstage. It's a soaring soprano opera nonetheless, but contemporary and bold -- more like a millennial Wagner than Mozart, but also incorporating the ethereal glass harmonica. The en masse release is closed out by three, string-based albums. Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) finds the Camerata Bern concerto grosso quartet, led by violinist Thomas Zehetmair, interpreting pieces by Schönberg, Veress, and Bartók, all coming off with the scary beauty these composers evoke so well. Schönberg's title piece is nearly as iconoclastic now as it was in 1901, when its debut caused riots. On their ECM debut, the smaller and more intimate Zehetmair String Quartett, also led by Zehetmair, boldly and freshly performs works by Hartmann and Bartók, performing both pieces in the studio from heart. Perhaps the most moving of these releases is a recent interpretation of Hayden's famous The Seven Words. The Rosamunde Quartett mellifluously realize Hayden's stab at sonically representing the Last Temptation of Christ, composed in 1786 for a Good Friday service held in a Spanish carved-out cave cathedral. Spiritual. Together, these new releases reiterate ECM's position as one of the planet's preeminent labels.

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