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York HÖLLER (b. 1944)
String Quartets (and More)
Drei Fragmente for String Quartet (1966) [7:36]
Zwiegestalt for String Quartet and Piano (2007/2008) [24:52]
2.Streichquartett (1997) [19:25]
Antiphon (1. Streichquartett) for String Quartet and Electronically Transformed String Quartet (1976, rev. 1984) [17:35]
Minguet Quartett (Ulrich Isfort, Annette Reisinger (violins); Aroa Sorin (viola); Matthias Diener (cello))
Markus Bellheim (piano) (Zwiegestalt)
premiere recordings
rec. February and November 2011, WDR Funkhaus, Klaus-von-Bismarck-Saal, Köln
NEOS 11518 [70:12]

York Höller was born in Leverkusen, Germany on 11 January 1944. Among his teachers he studied composition with Bernd Alois Zimmermann at the Cologne Musikhochschule. This was from 1963 until 1970 when Zimmermann committed suicide. Of significant importance were his further musical studies at the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt with Pierre Boulez. Karlheinz Stockhausen was also an encouraging influence and was Höller's teacher in the seventies. In 1990 he succeeded Stockhausen as artistic director of the WDR Studio for Electronic Music, a position he held until 1999. This helped form the direction his compositions were to take, towards electronic and serial music. In 1989 Höller composed an opera in two acts Der Meister und Margarita, which was premiered at the Opéra de Paris the same year, receiving its German premiere in Cologne in 1991.

The earliest work here, and indeed the shortest, is the Drei Fragmente for String Quartet, penned by Höller in 1966 when he was almost midway through his studies with Zimmermann. The previous year he had participated in the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt where he had attended various seminars and lectures from the likes of Pierre Boulez and the German philosopher/composer Theodor W. Adorno. It was the latter’s famous 1961 Darmstadt lecture: Vers une musique informelle – a "post-serial ‘style of freedom’" that provided the inspiration for the work. From the vivid, atmospheric opening, Höller depicts a climate of threat and portent. Double stops, pizzicato, glissandi and harmonics are all harnessed to paint a sinister and shadowy backdrop. At one point, tremolo played on the bridge brings to mind what sounds like the buzzing of insects.

Zwiegestalt for String Quartet and Piano (2007/2008) is the composer’s most recent work, and is certainly my favourite. It was given its first performance in Essen by the Minguet Quartett and pianist Anthony Spiri in 2008. At the piano in the present premiere recording is the German pianist Markus Bellheim. Set in five movements it traverses a gamut of emotions, ranging from rage and anger to tender lyricism. As Rainer Nonnenmann states in his notes, the music draws "... creative energy from mourning as well as from renewed hope". With concision of form, Höller explores different timbres utilising, amongst other things, the wood of the bows on strings in the second movement, and mystery and suspense evoked by the piano’s glacially translucent chords in the third. To add a personal touch, the composer has incorporated into the score the letters of his late first wife’s name as well as those of his present life-partner.

The Gregorian hymn Veni creator spiritus upon which the Second String Quartet is based, can be immediately recognized in the opening measures, and it goes on to permeate the remainder of the score. The sombre, pensive second movement Ciacona-Lento provides a soothing contrast to the spiky and aggressive first movement, offering balm to the senses. Again glissandos, this time against a drone bass provide some startling and colourful effects. A capricious pizzicato movement follows, topped off with a scurrying finale, where myriad string effects and percussive accents are thrown into the mix. Again this is a premiere recording.

Antiphon for string quartet and electronically transformed string quartet [4-channel tape] (1st String Quartet, 1976; revised 1984) was premiered in 1977 during the festivities to celebrate the opening of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. For me, it has certainly been a harder nut to crack, but I’ve been won over after a little extra perseverance. Again Gregorian chant, recalled by the composer having heard it emanating from Notre Dame, provides a starting point. Coming to the awareness that this early music provides the basis for the entire European musical tradition, Höller’s inventive and innovative compositional stance opens up the possibility that this music not only has relevance today but can continue along the same lines. Thus, the chant is a lingering presence throughout.

The Minguet Quartett prove worthy advocates of these imaginative scores, and their thrilling performances are compelling in every respect. Not only do they bring freshness, spontaneity and intelligence to this complex music, but also they invest it with logical structure, excitement and personality. Markus Bellheim obviously shares their vision, providing stylish and idiomatic playing in the Zwiegestalt. The Minguet Quartett were founded in 1988, and are well sought after. In 2010 they won the coveted ECHO Klassik for their acclaimed recording of Peter Ruzicka's String Quartets (NEOS 10822-3CD). Markus Bellheim won the International Messiaen Competition in 2000 in Paris.

Handsomely produced, the CD is housed in a sturdy gatefold digipak. Booklet notes, in English, German and French, give helpful analysis and background to each of the quartets, and provide informative background of the participating artists. The recordings are superbly engineered, with clarity and instrumental balance ideal.

Stephen Greenbank



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