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Lisa Streich - Lisa Streich: Pietà. Lucerne Festival Orchestra, ensemble recherche, hand werk, Volkalensemble Kölner Dom, insieme vocale-consonante. Wergo WER64252

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 December 2018

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018 

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The first sounds of Lisa Streich's portrait disc in Wergo's ‘edition zeitgenössische musik’ series are striking. In the opening pages of the orchestral work SEGEL, five percussionists arrayed in a wide semicircle around the stage take turns producing loud whipcracks, synchronized with brief, ethereal microtonal chords in the strings: both composed resonance and the profoundly muffled screams of some unfortunate victim.

Striking images are Streich's stock in trade. Not ‘striking’ as in aggressive or assertive – much of her work is quiet, timbrally fragile and temperamentally reticent – but as in singular, wonderfully imaginative, tightly bounded and strongly characterized, immediately compelling to the ear and more or less immediately graspable, with a musical significance that lies less in development or elaboration than in inherent properties and eventual juxtapositions. Streich makes beautiful small worlds, with their own small, violent rhetorics. The 14-minute SEGEL is a paradigmatic example: the first of its six tableaux, KREUZ (‘Cross’), is the whip/resonance-scream opening, eventually supplemented by high wind sonorities and increasingly sustained string clusters before abruptly yielding; it is followed by SONNEN-TAU-NETZ (‘Sun-Rope-Net’), an intensely quiet and concentrated world where a small collection of whispered string timbres, possessed of a crackling, frail corporeality, breathe near-silently under fragmentary wind clusters like the ones that end KREUZ. FLÜGELGESTALTEN, GEBET, GLEICHZEITIG, and TRINITAS (or: Wing Shapes, Prayer, Simultaneous, Trinity) follow, each by means of abrupt juxtaposition, each immediately asserting their novel (and consistently compelling) sounding properties. They are not all so fragile – GLEICHZEITIG is comprised in large part of fortissimo near-tutti passages marching in relentless scalar quavers – but they all revolve around a very tiny, tightly curated set of ideas. The result is a work that refuses orchestrality: not only because of the generally low volume or sparse scoring, but also because this formal language resists the rhetorical authority, the sweeping confidence, the taste for the grand statement, that is as much a part of the idiom of the orchestra as the massed string timbres or stirring brass chorales that are also very absent here.

SEGEL, then, is a showcase for Streich's imagination precisely because of its anti-orchestral properties. Indeed, the work's restrained violence gets much of its power from the reduction of the orchestral palette to these delimited fragilities. ASCHE, for clarinet and cello, naturally deals with a smaller field of potential, and a good deal less baggage: and – likely not coincidentally – its treatment of its constituent archetypes is closer to a traditional developmental rhetoric. The two instruments outline a handful of states (the slowly monophonic, the hocketing, the chorale in cello double-stop harmonics and gentle clarinet multiphonics), which are alternated between and sometimes tentatively overlaid. The result is a 14-minute form that is painfully intimate in its transparency, at least until it reaches a tremendously effective crisis point: the monophonic material blossoms into a hysterically aggressive fortissimo, an implacable, narrow diatonic melody of pitches held for almost eight seconds each, the clarinet's intonation slipping to create beating patterns, while the cello's frantic bowing generates a regular percussive accompaniment that brings to mind SEGEL’s whipcracks. The piece ends in its quiet chorale mode, but if the atmosphere of SEGEL is one of withdrawal punctuated by crisis, here it is the opposite: a long-range crisis underpinning a series of subliminally tense withdrawals. This is a work of pinpoint balances and ecstatic unanimities, which Shiyuzo Oka and Åsa Åkerberg of ensemble recherche execute with flawless grace.

The eight-minute PIETÀ, for ensemble (here the estimable Cologne-based group hand werk), is in essence a cello solo. A piano contributes only the occasional soft plucked string, and the rest of the ensemble has nothing to do at all save one short passage of shrieking tutti stabs and a little echoing chorale in multiphonics and harmonics. The cello itself presents a string of simple gestures: sustained tones, small arpeggiations, percussive events, loud ornamented trills. But the centre of gravity here – in terms of the sheer inherent interest of their novelty, of the gently foreign timbral and rhetorical carpeting they provide, and, inevitably, of their visual presence – is held by the four motors attached to the cello. These devices, which also appear in various guises in other works of Streich's, provide a subtle iterative colour – a language of soft scrapings, revealing a hieratic regularity when left to run – behind the cello's long, simple solo passages.

There is of course more than a hint here, as in most of Streich's music, of ritual: scourging, the gentlest sort of self-flagellation, private and personal mourning rites; by these means PIETÀ’s unbearably weighty title becomes concrete. This little piece, essentially a lightly augmented solo, is also the disc's most affecting. Its vulnerabilities are exposed to us, its surface is cracked. The thrums and soft thwacks of the cello's motors undermine, relentlessly and automatically, whatever instrumental mastery the cello soloist may bring to the task of covering those cracks up, and the abortive and futile interjections of the ensemble make clear where the power lies. As in SEGEL, externalized energies and violences are proposed and rejected: we are left with the implacably private.

The two larger choral works included on this album, AGNEL and STABAT, are paler, more homogeneous, and more anonymous. The high, softly piercing electronic tones lurking behind the large vocal ensemble in AGNEL provide a glimpse of the interest in cracks and vulnerabilities that dominates the rhetoric of SEGEL, ASCHE and PIETÀ, but the vocal writing in both works is conventional, and the exciting particularities of Streich's sonic universes are absent. Soft, misty chords predominate, without the tension of potential failure or of unstably sublimated violence. There is no scourging thrum here, and there are no crises: even the added percussion in AGNEL is of a gently welcoming, smoothly generous sort. These pieces are beautiful, and well crafted, and they are likely strongly effective in the liturgical spaces for which they were commissioned. But music for large vocal ensembles is inherently impersonal, cloudy, cold, and this circumstance seems to deny Streich the pointed vocabulary of physical tensions that she clearly loves and that give her work its communicative force. On this album, AGNEL and STABAT have the effect of retroactively highlighting what makes Streich's best work so poetically compelling: those precisions, those cracks.