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Whether Friedrich Hölderlin, Robert Walser or the artist-musician Louis Soutter, ECM's recordings of the Swiss composer Heinz Holliger, launched in the early 1990s, reflect his fondness for artists poised between creativity and madness, life and death, volubility and mute solitude. Only last autumn he conducted stunning performances of three works by another soul-mate, Bernd Alois Zimmermann (ECM 2074). Now, with “Romancendres”, he comes to grips with the fractured late music of Robert Schumann, producing fascinating syntheses of his own creative obsessions. The recording was made in Sindelfingen and Lugano in 2007-08 and will be released to mark the 70th birthday of this composer, oboist and conductor on 21 May.

Two years ago, in an interviews with the Zurich Tages-Anzeiger, Holliger confessed that his enthusiasm for Schumann had became “worse and worse”. Even as a teenager he had been moved by the difficult and still partly controversial late works. Later he was enthralled by their structure, their “labyrinthine” quality, which unfolds, he maintained, not in lines but in “spirals”. In his album “Romancendres” (the title combines the French words for 'romance' and 'ashes') the spirals receive a number of aesthetic and biographical twists. It all began in the year 1853, when the 20-year-old Brahms paid his first visit to the Schumanns in Düsseldorf and Robert Schumann was dismissed from his post as director of the city's musical society. As the symptoms of his encroaching madness became increasingly obvious, he finally stopped composing altogether.

Clara Schumann, toward the end of her life, is known to have burnt several of her husband's last works – with the express approval of Brahms. Believing that they were of inferior quality, she feared that they might damage her husband's posthumous reputation. One victim of the flames was the Five Romances for cello and piano, whose existence only became known in greater detail in 1971. Holliger has written a fascinating meditation on these pieces and their fate – an 'interpretative composition' based on revealing descriptions of them left behind in a letter from Joseph Joachim. Holliger's music harbours a variety of hidden allusions and references. The opening dirge, for example, presents Clara Schumann's initials C and S (E-flat in German letter notation). The final figure in the concluding section is formed of notes representing Schumann's place of death, EnDEniCH (E-D-E-C-B).

The “Romancendres” are preceded by Clara's own Three Romances of 1853, performed with diaphanous tone, pliant rhythm and voluptuous abandon by the German cellist Christoph Richter and the Hungarian pianist Dénes Várjon, whose performance of Schumann's late violin sonatas with Carolin Widmann attracted great attention last autumn.

The “Gesänge der Frühe” ('Songs of Dawn'), for chorus, orchestra and pre-recorded tape, was completed in 1987 and alludes in complex ways to Schumann's final piano pieces of the same title. The recording's intellectual radius is further enlarged by the fact that Schumann's pieces were inspired by Hölderlin, a poet much on Holliger's mind at a time when he was deeply engrossed in his Scardanelli Cycle (ECM 1472-73). Holliger described his Gesänge in the aforementioned Tages-Anzeiger interview with Susanne Kübler: “The piece has what might be called a documentary level in that letters from its dedicatee, Bettina von Arnim, are included on the tape along with the autopsy reports on Schumann and Hölderlin. To this I've added an almost hallucinatory music. After all, I don't want to imitate Schumann as a composer; I seek inspiration from his compositional technique, even his cryptograms.” At the end, to the scratching of his quill, Bruno Ganz speaks the portentous words from Schumann's letter to Joseph Joachim: "... I will stop now, it is getting dark."

Heinz Holliger, one of the greatest oboists of the 20th century, was born in Langenthal in the Swiss canton of Berne in 1939. He has made authoritative recordings of the standard repertoire (some with ECM, including a benchmark album of Zelenka's trio sonatas) and considerably enlarged the technical range of his instrument. Many leading composers from Luciano Berio to Isang Yun have written works for him. His conducting career began in 1977 with the Basle Chamber Orchestra. Since then he has stood at the head of all the great orchestras, including the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics. He studied composition with Sándor Veress and Pierre Boulez. His recordings for ECM include Scardanelli Cycle, his Robert Walser cycle Beiseit, Lieder ohne Worte, an opera Schneewittchen and the Violin Concerto.

Christoph Richter was born in 1958 and studied with André Navarra and Pierre Fournier. From 1981 to 1988 he was the solo cellist of the North German RSO in Hamburg. After winning prizes at major cello competitions in Geneva and Paris he advanced on a solo career and took up a professorship at the Folkwang Academy in Essen (1988). He also became a member of the Cherubini Quartet and devoted himself intensively to chamber music. He has worked with composers such as Penderecki, Kurtág, Henze and Widmann and recorded for a number of labels.

Dénes Várjon studied with Ferenc Rados and György Kurtág at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest and took part in master classes with András Schiff while still a teenager. In 1997 he was awarded the Liszt Prize by the Hungarian government. After winning the Concours Géza Anda in Zurich (1991) he gave his début with the Salzburg Camerata at the Salzburg Festival under the baton of Sándor Végh. In addition to his extensive commitments as a soloist he also plays chamber music with other leading musicians and works closely with the composer-performers Heinz Holliger and Jörg Widmann. His recording of the Schumann violin sonatas with Carolin Widmann (ECM 2047) received rave reviews.