“Not only is ‘The Little Match Girl’ by far the biggest work of one of Europe’s most esteemed composers, but it magnifies the qualities of strangeness and intensity, of huge but frustrated power, that have given him his reputation” – Paul Griffiths, The New York Times
Helmut Lachenmann’s “Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern” defies almost all operatic conventions and counts nonetheless (or therefore) as one of the great achievements of contemporary opera – even if the composer himself prefers the term ‘music with images’.
“If opera is to remain a living art form”, wrote Larry Lash in Andante, “it must grow beyond the boundaries of what one commonly thinks of as ‘opera’. Lachenmann gave this particular envelope a major push with ‘Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern’ … There is only the barest framework of narrative… ‘Das Mädchen’ challenges our preconceptions of what constitutes opera.”
Relentless in its determination to reveal new colours to the listener, “Das Mädchen” is a great sustained work of invention that has an impact on many levels. As the New York Times, in citing Lachenmann as the most influential European composer, wrote: “The best of his work takes you by the hand, and will not let go until it has shown you things you could not have suspected.”
In the case of the opera, the unsuspected includes not only the sonic poetry of Lachenmann’s instrumental resources, but a landscape of text, from sources that at first appear disparate, in which the music is set.
Three textual components are interwoven. The first is Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale of the Little Match Girl who freezes to death on New Year’s Eve. Lachenmann: “It’s the perfect fairytale, such a sad and serene story – this little girl, just trying to live, who sees a vision in the light of her matches and then dies. It’s much more provocative than a story that starts out ‘to make a better world.’” The second text element is comprised of writings by Gudrun Ensslin, a childhood acquaintance of Lachenmann’s who grew up to be a Red Army Faction terrorist and died in prison at the age of 37 (opinions still differ on whether she was murdered or took her own life). The third text component is from Leonard Da Vinci’s treatise “The Desire for Knowledge”.
The opera is not a work that admits of a single “meaning”, its plotline is multiple and diffuse, but an undercurrent of social criticism is implied as Lachenmann views the pauper, the terrorist and the visionary artist all as outsiders, figures on the fringes of society, variously driven to the margins by circumstances and by society’s coldness, there to play with fire in highly individual ways. Coldness, figuratively and literally, is one of the opera’s conceptual themes. Burning desire, and extreme cold, as attitudes and conditions, counterpoint each other in the music. The action evolves through the suggestibility of the sounds which Lachenmann deploys like no one else.
Helmut Lachenmann: “My opera focuses on Andersen’s little girl. But the archetype of being made an outsider that merges with this fairytale figure, who by helping herself destroys herself, includes for me the ‘criminal, mad suicide’ evoked in Gudrun Ensslin’s letters. She was perhaps referring to herself in a visionary way. In a totally different light there is also the one driven by burning desire, referred to in another text, by Leonardo da Vinci, when he speaks of being fearful and desirous before the dark cave, wondering what might be inside. For me the Leonardo text and the Ensslin text complement each other and at the same time preserve the Andersen fairy tale from being merely harmless and noncommittal poetry.”
The ECM concertante recording of the opera is considered by Lachenmann to be authoritative. It features the so-called “Tokyo version” of the work, which tightened the section called “‘…zwei Gefühle…’, Musik mit Leonardo”, originally in response to a Japanese staging. Helmut Lachenmann: “I consider my surgical intervention – as documented on this CD – beneficial to the overall comprehensibility of the work and, dialectically speaking, to its complexity.” Recorded under studio conditions in Freiburg, the immense sensitivity with which Lachenmann works with his materials can be fully grasped in this recording.
“Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern” received its first performance in Hamburg in January 1997. This was followed by performances in Tokyo, Stuttgart, Paris, Salzburg, Berlin, Frankfurt and Vienna. In September 2004, the work returns to Stuttgart, the city of Lachenmann’s birth, for further performances.
Helmut Lachenmann was born in 1935. He studied at the Musikhochschule Stuttgart, and in Venice with Luigi Nono. His works were first performed in public in 1962. Since then his innovative stage, orchestral, chamber, choral and solo instrumental works have been featured at all major new music festivals around the world. Amongst the awards given for his work is the Musikpreis der Ernst von Siemens Foundation, regarded as the most important European music award, which the composer received in 1997.
“Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern” (“The Little Match Girl”) was very successfully produced in Paris and Stuttgart in 2001. The New Series' first documentation of Helmut Lachenmann's music was made with clarinettist Eduard Brunner who recorded “Dal Niente” (ECM New Series 1599) as the title track of his 1995 recital recording. This was followed by “Schwankungen am Rand” with the Ensemble Modern and the Ensemble Modern Orchestra under the direction of Peter Eötvös, issued by ECM in 2002.
Lachenmann is also very highly regarded as a writer on music. Many of his essays were collected in the book “Musik als existentielle Erfahrung. Schriften 1966–1995”, published in Germany in 1996. He has been described as “a musical thinker of astonishing verbal virtuosity ... his proclamations have left a lasting mark on the reception of his music.” A teacher of note, too, Professor Lachenmann has been an instructor at Darmstadt since 1978, and has given seminars, lectures and courses in many countries.
As the Principal Conductor of the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg and Principal Guest Conductor of Klangforum Wien, Sylvain Cambreling is renowned for his imaginative programme planning and as a leading exponent of contemporary music. His creative side has been amply demonstrated in his opera conducting.
Notable past productions have included “Pelleas” and “The Trojans” for the Salzburg Festival, “Wozzeck”, “Fidelio” and a “Ring Cycle” in Frankfurt, where he was Music Director in the 1990s, and “The Rake’s Progress” at the Glyndebourne Festival. In all of these Cambreling has made his mark by introducing a new and often revolutionary idea at some point within the production.
In the 2001/2 season he conducted “Katya” at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona and at “La Monnaie”, where he held the position of Music Director for 10 years from 1981 before moving to Frankfurt. This season’s productions include “Don Giovanni” at the Metropolitan Opera, “Jenufa” at the Chatelet and the world premiere of on opera by Georg Friedrich Haas at the Bregenz Festival. In the 2003/4 season he conducted “The Makropoulos Case” in Stuttgart and “St. Francois d’Assise” at the Ruhrgebiet Triennale.
Starting in the 2004-2005 season Cambreling will be conducting the Opéra National de Paris in productions including “St. Francois d’Assise”, “Pelléas et Mélisande”, “Katya Kabanova” and “La Clemenza di Tito”.
Founded in 1946 the SWR Stuttgart Vocal Ensemble has devoted itself to the propagation of new, less familiar or virtuoso choir music for more than fifty years in concerts and radio productions, setting new standards in the process. The list of works premiered by the SWR Stuttgart Vocal Ensemble is long, and includes compositions of such contemporary masters including Wolfgang Rihm, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Helmut Lachenmann, Isang Yun, Mauricio Kagel, Milko Kelemen and Hans Zender, as well as numerous works of composers of the younger generation, such as Toshio Hosokawa, Hanspeter Kyburz and Manuel Hidalgo.
Similarly, the stated goal of the SWR Symphony Orchestra, also founded in 1946, has from the outset been to reach beyond standard repertoire to serve the needs of contemporary composition.
Four conductors, each responding in his own way to the interplay between past and present, have shaped the orchestra's style and given it its universal dimension: Hans Rosbaud (1948-62), Ernest Bour (1964-79), Kazimierz Kord (1980-86) and Michael Gielen (1986-99). They were seconded by guest conductors from the most diverse horizons, such as Ernest Ansermet, Ferenc Fricsay, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Christopher Hogwood, Leopold Stokowski, Paul Hindemith, Bruno Maderna and Pierre Boulez. The orchestra performs regularly in the main European cities and at the most important international festivals, such as Salzburg Festival, Berliner Festwochen, Edinburgh International Festival, Festival d’Automne à Paris, Lucerne Festival, “Warschauer Herbst”, “Musica” at Strasbourg and others. Concert tours have led the orchestra to important places like Vienna, Brussels, London, and the Carnegie Hall New York.
Since the beginning of the 1999/2000 season Sylvain Cambreling has been chief conductor of the SWR Baden-Baden and Freiburg Symphony Orchestra, with Michael Gielen and Hans Zender as regular visiting conductors.
Press reaction to Lachenmann’s “Schwankungen am Rand”:
“A splendid achievement, and a must for anyone with an interest in contemporary music.” – Frabrice Fitch, Gramophone
“The rhythmic excitement of Mouvement is absolutely electrifying. The playing of the Ensemble Modern is beyond praise for its identification with Lachenmann's painfully beautiful world.” – Martin Cotton, BBC Music Magazine
“For listeners who thought the revolution was over... ECM deserves great credit for bringing this music to a wide audience. It is a superb introduction to a series of major pieces of orchestral scope” – Robert Carl, Fanfare
“Helmut Lachenmann music is some of the most challenging of that our time, and perhaps some of the most important. Over three decades, he has scrutinised and tested all the basic precepts of Western art music and created the language that rids music of its political and historical baggage... It is a difficult world to get into, but this wonderfully authoritative collection is certainly the best place to start.” -- Andrew Clements, The Guardian
CD package include 44 page German-English booklet with liner notes by Helmut Lachenmann, Paul Griffiths and Reinhard Ermen.