A musical modernist's newly polished, smiling guise
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A musical modernist's newly polished, smiling guise
A three-CD set of music by Bernd Alois Zimmermann, released by the Wergo label, backs up a more expansive view of the artist and is among the standouts of 2022.

by Seth Colter Walls

NEW YORK, NY.- For devotees of fiendish musical modernism, Bernd Alois Zimmermann was one of the 20th century’s most notorious — and at times elusive — composers.

Born in Germany in 1918, he was among the generation of musical prodigies whose early studies were waylaid and then fully interrupted by the rise of the Nazi party, which drafted Zimmermann into service on both the eastern and western fronts of World War II. Yet after his discharge in 1942, the composer quickly resumed the kind of polymathic, globally curious aesthetic that the Third Reich had sought to stamp out of German music academies.

By the 1950s, when he had become a part of the postwar German avant-garde, Zimmermann also declared his interest in Brazilian moods of saudade, American boogie-woogie, as well as the similarly eclectic music of French composers such as Darius Milhaud. Such catholic tastes put the composer at odds with self-appointed priests of the avant-garde such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez.

Yet just as Zimmermann was coming into his full aesthetic maturity — with towering, forbidding works such as “Die Soldaten” (the opera that seemed to dramatize his lingering wartime agonies) and “Requiem for a Young Poet” — he succumbed to depression and died by suicide in 1970, at age 52.

But was that the entire story? This familiar capsule biography is supported by plenty of facts: “Die Soldaten,” long reputed to be “un-performable,” does require a fantastically large orchestra playing dense, 12-tone music. And it also needs a staging that can accommodate near-simultaneous narrative flashbacks and flash-forwards. In 2008, a traveling production landed at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. (There, director David Pountney dragged seated audiences to and fro, among all of Zimmermann’s discrete scenic zones, thanks to makeshift risers hoisted on rails.)

It was an unforgettable scene — and a critical success. Subsequent productions of “Soldaten,” at the Salzburg Festival and Zurich Opera, seemed to ratify this official understanding of the composer as a gnarly and tragic visionary, full stop. Writing for The New York Times on the occasion of Zimmermann’s centennial in 2018, musicologist and critic Mark Berry said of this final act in his life: “Family notwithstanding, his life had been lonely, and became lonelier; his work dark, and became darker.”

But what about earlier decades? Berry also noted that Zimmermann’s broader musical story was “more complicated, contested and interesting” than partisans of various musical debates preferred to acknowledge. And yet polished musical documentation of that complex history has remained hard to access, until now.

A new three-CD set titled “Zimmermann: Recomposed,” on the German Wergo label, is among the standout releases of 2022, precisely because it backs up this more expansive view of the artist. Thanks to vivacious performances from conductor (and oboist) Heinz Holliger and the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne, we can now appreciate something we’ve rarely seen — namely, a Zimmermann who smiles.

The venue for his good humor was the radio. Before Zimmermann could make a living with his own works, he brought his orchestrator’s skill to various groups — including light orchestras and pops ensembles — that populated West Germany’s airwaves in the late 1940s and early ’50s. This work has scarcely been heard since Zimmermann completed it. But what work it was (and remains)! Across the three CDs you can find witty, sparkling transcriptions of Villa-Lobos and Milhaud, and of Rachmaninoff and Mussorgsky — and much else, too.

Best of all, this material is often recognizably Zimmermann-like in nature. Very little of it gives the impression of grudging work for hire. Instead, the same orchestrator’s intelligence that is apparent in the densest moments of “Die Soldaten” shows up for duty here. And its owner is often clearly having a ball.

To take one example, the French chanson “Maman, dites-moi,” a staple of midcentury Met Opera stars such as soprano Bidu Sayao. On the first CD of Wergo’s set, you can listen to what Zimmermann did with it back in 1950: By including the surprising, brittle sound of the harpsichord inside his orchestra, the composer lends a new edge to the tune’s nervy questioning of the mother figure. Yet it’s still plenty sumptuous, thanks to Zimmermann’s work with harp, celesta and winds. (Soprano Sarah Wegener also excels in this take.)

Later, in the 1960s, when Zimmermann was working with a jazz quintet on improvisations based on his theatrical music, he would again employ similarly wiry keyboard attacks. (That material ought to get a reissue from Wergo down the line.)

But in this earlier era of his radio work, the density of Zimmermann’s orchestral textures pushes the envelope, yet never goes so far that a lay listener might be moved to pull the plug out of the wall. When the composer allows himself volleys of brash percussive playing — say, near the middle of a three-minute orchestration of Milhaud — the explosion is truly brief, yet no less powerful for that focused expression.

Time and again across these new CDs, that balance makes for ravishing listening. Also in 1950, Zimmermann took Rachmaninoff’s “Romanze,” from the youthful Morceaux de salon, and reenvisioned it as a suave saxophone-and-orchestra miniature. (Find it on the second of Wergo’s new CDs.) Even more impressive is his translation of Rachmaninoff’s “Humoresque” (from the same series) into a Concertino for piano and orchestra; Wergo bills it as a Zimmermann original, modeled “after” the Russian composer’s example.

In the liner notes, Holliger, speaking of Zimmermann, makes the claim that “everything he did for the radio laid the foundation for his later work.” Along with the current WDR orchestra, Holliger proves this by taking on a few of Zimmerman’s original pieces as well, demonstrating for us how these radio transcriptions were more than mere outliers.

Each disc in the set opens and closes with the composer’s own material, before sliding in and out of the adaptations. These performances are equally revealing. The “Caboclo” movement of Zimmermann’s Brazil-influenced “Alagoana” — with its three superimposed dances — has never more closely recalled the music of “Die Soldaten” than it does here. But it still retains the direct, singing quality that once made it attractive to conductor Ferenc Fricsay.

And Zimmermann’s other theatrical and balletic music — including “Un petit rien” and “Souvenir d’ancien balet” — has rarely sounded as light on its feet as it does on these discs. Holliger and the WDR players have real affection for the material, and for the fuller portrait it affords us of an artist too often described as unremittingly bleak in his outlook. But by the third CD, when Zimmermann has left day-to-day orchestration work behind, you can clearly hear how the once-parallel paths in Zimmermann’s creative life have diverged for good.

“Apparently it was impossible for him to work in isolation. He needed to be surrounded by people he trusted,” Holliger says in the interview included in Wergo’s CD set. The conductor then goes on to describe the profusion of music (and musicians) that passed through the radio offices while the composer worked there. When reading between the conductor’s lines here, it’s easy to imagine an alternate reality — one in which Zimmermann stayed on longer at the radio gig with its social environment, while perhaps managing to steer away from the depressive isolation of his final years.

Yet the music Zimmermann actually managed to make during these decades can, in all its voluptuous weirdness, prove even more inspiring than well-intentioned speculation. Liberated from the West German radio archives, this material is the best kind of music history corrective — the kind that’s a blast to hear.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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