"I'm writing something for piano," Anton Webern enthused in a letter to friends in1936. "The part I have finished is a movement in variation form; what'll turn outis a sort of suite. I hope I've succeeded in carrying out something in the variationsthat has been on my mind for years. Goethe once said to Eckermann, who was praising a newpoem of is: but I've actually been thinking about it for forty years!" If a "suite"did not materialize in a literal sense, Webern's opus 27 remains a work of the purestcrystalline beauty. Aside from a scattering of untypical early pieces published posthumously,it is Webern's only work for piano. Twelve-tone theorist (and composer-conductor)Rene Leibowitz saluted it as "the first piece of music in which a composer has approached the concept of pure variation...In this work everything is variation, or, to put it another way, everything is theme. This is especially striking in the last movement, where the lack of any recapitulationwhatsoever does away with any sense of hierarchy among the various sections of themovement." Webern likened the character of the first two movements to a Brahmsianintermezzo - for Webern as for Schoenberg Brahms was a master to be emulated - but aleap of the imagination may be required to hear the music in late romantic terms.
The challenge for the contemporary interpreter is to gauge correctly "the expressivequality and degree of tension of each single interval and the way in which it relatesto other intervals and the surrounding silence" (to quote Susan Bradshaw). The work's concentrated intensity is the attribute that most forcefully strikes Swiss pianistIngrid Karlen and forms a bridge to the other pieces on this disc. In her choiceof repertoire the term "variations" is made to apply not only to the reexaminationof motivic-thematic thinking inherent in each work but also to the levels and degrees of intensityapplied. For Karlen, as Felix Meyer notes, "the decisive factor was that all of theworks included here, for all their surface differences, arose from a kindred striving for the highest possible concentration of musical expressiveness." Webern's musicalintegrity has also been a touchstone for the other composers on this disc.
In the music of the uncompromising Galina Ustvolskaya expressivity is compressed untilit unleashes almost volcanic eruptions of energy, the reiterated clusters of Piano Sonata no. 5in particular attaining a extraordinary power. Ustvolskaya, born 1919 in Petrograd,is noted as the only student of Shostakovich not overwhelmed by the composer's musicalpersonality; in fact, the reverse seems to have been the case. "It is not you whoare influenced by me," Shostakovich wrote to her, "rather it is I who am influencedby you." He declared his admiration publicly: "I am convinced that the music of G.I.Ustvolskaya will achieve worldwide renown, to be valued by all who perceive truthin music to be of paramount importance". The accuracy of the prediction is only beginningto be recognised as Ustvolskaya's 80th birthday approaches. Until the Soviet Unioncollapsed she made her music in near-total artistic isolation, apparently withouta trace of self-pity, fending off infrequent requests for interviews, refusing to have hermusic played at modish Festivals of Women Composers, even asking that musicologistsnot discuss it at all ("all who really love my music should refrain from theoreticalanalysis of it"). Ustvolskaya's stubbornness and self-sufficiency are strongly felt throughoutthe two sonatas that Karlen plays. There is more than a hint, too, of the religiousfeeling that fuels the composer's courage; hers is a stern God, one feels, whosedemands are daunting.
Set like a peaceful valley between the twin summits of the Ustvolskaya sonatas thetender Elegyof Valentin Silvestrov (born 1937 in Kiev) offers a few moments respite and balm.The trajectory of Silvestrov's musical direction has paralleled that of his Balticcontemporary, Arvo Pärt. Initially counted amongst the angry young composers of hisgeneration, he was active in the Kiev avant-garde whose "radicalism" distressed the authoritieswith an admixture (no longer shocking to western ears) of atonality, free serialismand indeterminacy. Silvestrov wiped his slate clean in 1970 and effectively beganagain, stripping his music of superfluity, reclaiming the importance of lyricism andthe value of silence in his work.
If there are echoes of the second Viennese school in Silvestrov's Elegy, Webern's presence is unmistakable in the work that closes Karlen's recital, theDouze notations pour pianoof Pierre Boulez. Originally student studies in 12-tone technique, written in 1945when Boulez was beginning to discover Webern via Rene Leibowitz's classes, the Notationshave proven their durability - indeed, the composer has continued to revise themfor orchestra. Ingrid Karlen manages to convey some of the sense of wonder Boulezmust have felt on making his first, enthusiastic and impetuous steps into the worldof dodecaphony: she illuminates, we might say, the pages of his diary.
Ingrid Karlen was born in Zug, Switzerland in 1961. She studied at the Zurich Conservatory- where she now has a teaching post - with Jürg von Vintschger, at the Basel MusicAcademy with Jürg Wyttenbach, and made additional studies in Paris with Claude Helffer. From the beginning of her performing career Karlen has focused all but exclusivelyon the music of our century, from Debussy and Satie to the Minimalists and beyond;in recent years her performance activities have emphasised the music of Ustvolskaya, Webern, Boulez, the New York School of Cage, Feldman, and Wolff, and contemporarySwiss music. In 1996, Karlen spent six months in China, giving solo recitals andmaster classes in Nanjing, Shanghai and Beijing, and making contact with contemporaryChinese composers. 1997 engagements include the premiere performances of works by threeof those composers - Zhan Dalong, Ye Xiaogang and Xao Li - in Bern, as well as atour of China with Beijing's Ensemble Eclipse. Also scheduled in 1997: the premiereperformance of Beat Furrer's Piano Quintetby Karlen with the Schoenberg Quartet, and performances of Silvestrov in the Ukraine.
CD package, in slipcase, includes 28-page, three-language booklet with liner notesby Felix Meyer