Christian Gerhaher, Juliane Banse, Ivan Ludlow, Sarah Maria Sun, Annette Schönmüller; Basler Madrigalisten; Philharmonia Zurich/Heinz Holliger
ECM 485 6322 97:33 mins (2 discs)
Swiss composer and oboist Heinz Holliger (b1939) has long been fascinated by visionary artists who developed catastrophic mental disorders – among them, the Austrian Romantic poet Nikolaus Lenau (1802-50). In 2013 Holliger explored Lenau’s feeling of Weltschmerz in a song cycle for baritone and piano (later ensemble), Lunea, setting 23 vivid, despairing sentences with searing concision. Titled the same, the 2017 ‘dream opera’ incorporates these to shattering effect alongside further fragments from his personal papers, tautly assembled by librettist Händl Klaus into 23 ‘leaves’ from the pages of Lenau’s increasingly desperate life.
Conventional narrative is eschewed for a series of through-composed episodes which leap backwards and forwards in time, seen through the prism of Lenau’s breakdown after a stroke in 1844. Holliger’s intense and intricate score mirrors these processes down to small motivic details – and even words, as the leaves effectively burn to incomprehensibility through ‘feuer’ to ‘reuef’, and Lenau becomes ‘lunea’ or lunatic. Christian Gerhaher is astonishing in the virtuoso principal role, written (as was the song cycle) expressly for him, traversing the gamut of language and expression from song to speech. Yet this is an ensemble piece, in which past and present lovers and relations are wonderfully performed here, matched by an excellent Basler Madrigalisten and 34-piece Philharmonia Zürich conducted live by Holliger.