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Heather O'Donnell - Piano recital broadcast from Cologne 23:00, 8 December 2006

Charles Ives- The Celestial Railroad
Arnulf Herrmann- Privatsammlung (world premiere)
Bernhard Lang- DW12 "cellular automata"

This recital interested us from several points of view. We had kept in touch with the American pianist Heather O'Donnell since her inexplicable failure to make the finals of the International Gaudeamus Interpreters Competition, Rotterdam in 2001. It is good to be reassured once again that competitions aren't everything!

Heather has contributed to Musical Pointers on Charles Ives and reviewed Philip Mead's CDs of his piano music, and has established herself in Germany as a contemporary music specialist.

She brought to the attention of friends and colleagues abroad her late night live broadcast from Cologne, given before a small intrepid audience. Ives "The celestial railroad" (an independent piece related to the Concord Sonata and the 4th Symphony) preceded music by significant German composers of today.

The recital featured the world premiere of Privatsammlung, commissioned by Heather O'Donnell and WDR Köln from Arnulf Herrmann, and finished with Differenz/Wiederholung 12" from a set of over 20 pieces for various instrumentation by the Austrian composer, Bernhard Lang - a leading figure in the "repetition-perpetrator" movement. His tantalising and finally engrossing half hour piece brought to mind the repetitions which begin Stockhausen's Klavierstucke IX, which signalled the end of the "ban on repetition".

Reception on line from WDR 3 was excellent, and I arranged to copy the broadcast with the free-download editing programme Audacity, and am listening to it again as I write. All three works have Beethoven connections, and I reproduce below translations of the introductory announcements.

The playing sounds authoritative (confirmed by reviews of the Lang from Stuttgart) and the quality of transmission from Cologne is excellent (better than BBC R3's streaming of piano music which tends to be slightly distorted).

MP's readers may be recommended to explore WD3's schedules for music which may rarely or never reach our concerts or broadcasts in UK.

Peter Grahame Woolf

Introductory notes for the broadcast:
Ives wrote "the celestial railroad" after the fantastic-philosophical short-story of Nathaniel Hawthorne.  It is, at the same time, a transcription of one of the movements of the Concord Sonata, and was a starting-point for the 2nd movement of the 4th Symphony.  As always, Ives plays heavily with quotations, from Beethoven's 5th Symphony, puritan church songs, american patriotic songs, and also from his own works (the Country band march).

Beethoven's late-works (the piano sonatas and string quartets) are also a connection-point for the new piano work of Arnulf Herrmann, Privatsammlung.  As the title suggests, the piece is similar to the work of a collector who is not only searching for perfection or value of the works, but also an intrinsic connection to his own preferences and feelings.  In this case, forms of articulation and phrasing that "remind" Herrmann of Beethoven are translated into his own musical language. 

Herrmann's Privatsammlung has 2 movements, the first is called "Erscheinungen im Durchgang" (occurrences in passage-ways).  It is a set of variations over a decaying theme, that goes through the movement like a baroque passacaglia.
The second movement- "Empfindungen von Leichtigkeit und Schwere" (Discoveries of lightness and gravity) begins without a pause.  Through processing of certain modular material (no element is repeated exactly twice), the ephemerial material at the beginning of the movement gains substance and heaviness, before it further decays into a mist at the end, a faint recollection of Beethoven's op. 111. Privatsammlung was commissioned by WDR radio for Heather O'Donnell, tonight is the world-premiere of this piece.

For Pierre Boulez's strict music-thinking of the 50s and 60s, "repetition" was considered a horror.  Since then, the concept of endless looping (from video-art and the DJ scene) has arrived in the concert hall, perhaps as a descendant of "musique concrete". A leading figure in the "repetition-perpetrator" movement is certainly the Austrian composer, Bernhard Lang. His cycle "Differenz/Wiederholung" (difference/repetition) was begun in 1997 and consists of over 20 pieces for various instrumentation that are all inspired by the writings of the philosopher Gilles Deleuze. 

Tonight we'll hear DW12 for piano.  Many of the listeners will still have several of the Beethoven references in their head from today's and yesterday's concerts.  the Hammerklavier Sonata is an important reference in this piece, not only as a quotation, but with the insistence on "hammering" the piano.  Other quotations can be found in the half-hour work, as Bernhard Lang himself calls it, "a horror-trip through piano literature".

*** Links - Reviews from Stuttgart: http://www.press.heatherodonnell.info/#eclat

Links for the composers -


Bernhard Lang Theatre of Repetitions
Kairos 0012532KAI [106 mins]

As a 'spin off' from Heather O'Donnell's broadcast, I have been pleased to receive from KAIROS a double-CD of Bernhard Lang's: Theatre of Repetitions, a tri-lingual music theatre piece after texts by Sade, Burroughs and extracts from the minutes of the Nuremberg trials, in content about ‘a possible history of atrocity’...

Our leading British cellist recently took part in a chamber music festival in Norway; he told Radio 3 listeners that he found himself at a disadvantage because everyone else there was trilingual...

As a typical Englishman of a much earlier generation, I could get little from the French and German sections of Theatre of Repetitions, which are not translated for readers of the Kairos booklet. But my multi-lingual Swiss wife, despite being intrigued by the music, especially those parts with instruments, was troubled to find a total disjunction between meaning and sound in the German and French sections, with consequent disinterest in the philosophical basis of the whole.

Paraphrasing a few excerpts from Wolfgang Reiter's commentary: The shifting of difference to the mind, or the perception of the observer, is really a strategy of minimalism, which sought a reduction of difference in the repeated object in order to allow more room for subjective differentiation. For Bernhard Lang's compositional work since 1995, repetition can be the carrier of a highly complex internal differentiation within the object - - repetition in music can lead to self-forgetting, to states of trance. At the same time, it is precisely repetition that serves as our primary mnemonic tool. Difference, on the other hand, is what enables us to proceed from the identity of the same to the perception and memory of a particular element in the first place. Subtly differentiated music demands an analytical consciousness, a constant intellectual detachment from the immediacy of primary sonic experience.

How new that is is questionable? All music builds upon repetition and differentiation. Leaving aside philosophical questions and verbal meaning content, the important thing for me was to discover in Lang's music a new way to assemble motives in speech and instrumental discourse. I found it irresistibly compelling, and disturbing too - I have played the CDs twice. Lang averts incipient boredom (as can lead to Glass's mimimalism becoming tedious) by introducing change at just the right moment.

The performance by Klangforum Wien/Johannes Kalitzke with the Ensemble les jeunes solistes is impressive, and the musical treatment original - at the opposite pole to other 'minimalist' musics which rely on repetition. The sounds are to my ears (which others may think 'put on wrong' - Ives) beautiful and riveting.

If there is no "word setting", that is so also for renaissance polyphony, and the seeming perversity of Lang's reminds me that in bygone decades of my youth the same was said of Stravinsky's treatment of his texts.

This is definitely a gifted composer worth trying to understand and to come to terms with his position, and I thank Heather O'Donnell and WDR 3 for pointing the way. I look forward to hearing more of Bernhard Lang's music, for which opportunities in England are rare.

Peter Grahame Woolf