- Hyperion, concerto for light & orchestra
- Zweites Labyrinth, for orchestral groups
The German town of Donaueschingen began hosting a new music festival in 1921, and that year, Schoenberg, Berg, Krenek, Webern, and Hindemith were among the composers represented. The performances were sporadic during the years of National Socialism, but the festival was reconstituted in 1951 as Donaueschinger Musiktage. Since then, it has been a central player in the commissioning of new, avant-garde, and experimental European music. (Featured American composers have been few and far between -- figures like John Cage, Elliot Carter, James Tenney, Frederic Rzewski, Conlon Nancarrow, Alvin Lucier, and Alvin Curran stand out -- but in some years, the annual roster of the two dozen or so composers includes no Americans.) Neos, a German label devoted to contemporary music, has released four volumes of pieces from the 2006 festival. Vol. 2 includes two substantial works by Georg Friedrich Haas (1953) and Jörg Widmann (1973). The use of light as a compositional component has been a recurring element in the festivals, beginning with Beat Furrer's "Fama" in 2005. Haas makes light determinative of the musical outcome in his "Concerto for light and orchestra." In ways that aren't fully explained in the program notes, a lighting installation by artist rosalie serves as conductor by providing the visual cues for the musicians. Far from being a jumble of improvisation, though, Hyperion is a rigorously structured, stunningly powerful work, swirling and seething with tumultuous energy. In spite of the obvious discipline of its construction, its development feels fully organic, and it never lets go of its visceral grip on the listener. Its passionate evocation of intensely complex, subliminally interconnected primordial impulses should be of strong appeal to fans of new music who aren't afraid of a wild sonic and emotional ride. Lasting over 40 minutes, it doesn't seem a second too long. Hyperion is a hard act to follow, and Jörg Widmann's "Zweites Labyrinth" is somewhat dwarfed by it. The Widmann is an intelligent, emotionally provocative, and beautifully orchestrated example of a liberated modernism, which on its own has plenty to offer, but it's best appreciated when heard separately, not directly in the wake of Haas' overwhelming powerhouse; the impact of the CD is enhanced if the listener takes an intermission between the two pieces. SWR Baden-Baden and Freiberg Sinfonieorchester, conducted by Hans Zender in the Widmann, plays with a wonderfully full sound and remarkable ensemble. The quality of Neos' SACD recording of live performances is excellent, clean, and resonant. Both pieces are written for ensembles encircling the audience, and while a stereo recording can't adequately reproduce that experience, the engineers have done a great job of highlighting the spatial complexity of the sound.