The writing of Robert Walser (1878-1956) has long been a source of fascination for Heinz Holliger, and the Swiss composer previously set his countryman's poems on 'Beiseit' (ECM New Series 1540). Now, with the opera 'Schneewittchen', based on the expressionist play of the same name (and which in turn was based on the 'Snow White' fairytale), Holliger returns to Walser's complex art and thought.'There's not one thing but thousands of things that make Walser fascinating,' Holliger told journalist Thomas Meyer recently. 'He's a labyrinth, his work eludes exploration; it can't be talked to death and it can't be explained. The sound of Walser's language has a completely different sensuality, possibly because he grew up on the border between French- and German-speaking Switzerland. This sensuality and the physical quality of his work is manifest in the dancing rhythm of his words, a totally weightless floating. It's so different from the usual, often ponderous weightiness of German literature. Walser has mastered the precarious balance between the conscious and the unconscious. It is as if his apparent spontaneity were a direct product of improvisation. But if you dare to enter Walser's labyrinth, you soon discover that each of his words has several exits and entrances. They function forwards and backwards, every which way ' through palindrome treatment of sound, through assonance, rhythm and multi-meaning. 'Such sense in this nonsense', he once said. That's what 'Snow White' is about ' so many senses and nonsenses. The more I study Walser, the greater he becomes. He has lifted me ' me with my reputation for lamentoso music ' into a sphere of incredible lightness and ease. Certain things have become clear to me through his writings that I may have touched on before but never really dealt with in depth.'Walser's 'Schneewittchen' takes the fairytale 'Snow White' and reads new levels of meaning into it. Essentially, Holliger says, 'the whole thing is Walser's investigation of himself; he is mirrored in these five characters. He also incorporated his background, his brothers and sisters, his parents, and especially his relationship to his mother. So the prologue in my piece begins in unison. Slowly this one voice unravels into five heads as if Walser's person were being divided. Only then does the piece begin: a searchlight 'like the ones used by the police ' casts a harsh light on the Queen and Snow White...'The critic Roman Brotbeck has described Holliger's 'Schneewittchen' as a 'translation' of Walser's text. 'Holliger takes Walser's words literally and assiduously sets each of them to music, employing a rich repertoire of aural signals and figures that correspond to the respective passages or roles.' The composer confirms this: 'Walser had this incredible sense of language rhythm, of assonance and vowel sequences 'almost like Hölderlin: pure musical or even painterly qualities that he used like the colours on an artist's palette. There are looser sections in the text that could be a recitativo accompagnato, then passages that are like arias where everything is at rest, static, where the words are placed like pictures.' In brief, Holliger works from the words outwards; he transcribed the vocal part before beginning work on the orchestral score. The words are the heart of the matter: 'a quality they share with Mozart's but also with Berg's and Schoenberg's operas.'Exceptional responsibilities are placed upon the singers in 'Schneewittchen', and the international press was united in its praise for the cast headed by Juliane Banse ('a dream soprano') in the title role, when the work was premiered in Zürich in October 1998.Banse, born in the South of Germany and raised in Zürich, has been awarded numerous prizes for her work as both opera and concert singer. Multi-talented, she began playing violin at five and trained as a ballerina at the Zürich Opera. In 1989 she won First Prize in the singing competition of the Kulturforum, Munich, and in 1993 the International Franz Schubert Institute awarded her its Grand Prix Franz Schubert for her interpretation of that composer's work. She has performed with orchestras including the Vienna Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado (singing Berg's 'Lulu Suite') and André Previn, the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle, the St Louis Symphony under Leonard Slatkin, among others. In recitals she has appeared with András Schiff. As an operatic singer she has appeared at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Leipzig, Salzburg, Glyndebourne etc.Australian tenor Steve Davislim began musical life as a horn player and subsequently studied voice at Melbourne's Victorian College of the Arts. Since 1994 Davislim has been a member of the ensemble of the Zürich Opera, appearing in numerous productions of Mozart. As concert singer he has appeared under conductors such as Richard Chailly, Roger Norrington, Franz Welser-Möst and Philippe Herreweghe. His recordings include Bach's Cantatas with John Eliot Gardiner for DG.Oliver Widmer has won international prizes including the ARD Competition Munich, the International Hugo Wolf Competition Stuttgart and the Othmar Schoeck Competition Lucerne, and is a regular guest at international festivals including Salzburg, the Festival de Musique de Strasbourg and the Wiener Festwochen. He has been a full member of the Zürich Opera House since the early 1990s.Cornelia Kallisch's repertoire extends from Monteverdi and Bach to Krenek, Berio and beyond. She has appeared with the Bamberger Symphony Orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Lorin Maazel, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Sir Neville Marriner, Georges Prêtre, Helmut Rilling, Nicolaus Harnoncourt, Christoph von Dohnanyi and Roger Norrington.
Werner Gröschel has recently appeared in performances of 'Lulu' and 'The Magic Flute' at the Zürich Opera House.
'Schneewittchen' (Snow White) is the first full-length opera by Heinz Holliger, recognised around the world as one of the most important musicians of our time, and highly regarded as composer, conductor and virtuoso instrumental soloist.
As Alexander Pereira, Director of the Zürich Opera House says, 'Heinz Holliger is one of the few universal geniuses of today's musical scene. He's an excellent conductor both of his own works and the classical repertoire. As an oboist he has been one of the outstanding performers of the century, and finally, as a composer he belongs to a small group of really new creators and thinkers whose ideas will endure.'
Born in Langenthal, Switzerland, in 1939, Heinz Holliger studied oboe and composition at the conservatories of Berne, Basle, and Paris. His composition teachers were Sándor Veress and Pierre Boulez. His mastery of the oboe brought him his first professional breakthrough, first prizes at international competitions in Geneva (1959) and Munich (1961) propelling him toward the concert and festival stages. He has averaged a hundred concerts a year since the mid-1960s. His extraordinary prowess as an instrumentalist has prompted numerous composers to write pieces for him, including Elliott Carter, Stockhausen, Berio, Ernst Krenek, Frank Martin, Penderecki, Pousseur and Henze. Holliger's repertoire includes several hundred works from the baroque to the avant-garde: he has been an innovator in both domains, playing improvised cadenzas in Baroque and classical concerts, and greatly expanding the vocabulary of the oboe in new music by the introduction of unorthodox playing techniques.
ECM recordings of Heinz Holliger's music include the albums "Lieder ohne Worte", "Beiseit/Alb-Cher", and "Scardanelli-Zyklus". ECM has also recorded his compositions "Chaconne" (12 Hommages à Paul Sacher), "Duo", "Studie über Mehrklänge" and "Trema" (JS Bach/Heinz Holliger). He appears as oboe soloist and conductor of the Camerata Bern on a New Series album dedicated to the music of Sándor Veress, and conducts the Kammerorchester der Jungen Deutschen Philharmonie in ECM's Edition Lockenhaus series.
Holliger will again be conducting the Orchestra of the Zürich Opera House in performances of Schneewittchen in Spring 2001.
Double-CD set includes a 140 page, three-language booklet in slipcase. The booklet, with texts in English, German and French, includes an interview with Heinz Holliger, an introduction to the opera by Roman Brotbeck, and the full libretto of 'Schneewittchen'.