. . .the essential remains: the musical essence

the pianoforte cycle Hebdomadaire op. 62 by Michael Denhoff




"The pianoforte is for me the instrument with the widest range of expression, ideal for resear­ching new ideas in form and structure or inventing new panoramas of musical har­mony and colour. A single musician with this instrument can attain uncompromised extremes with an infinite diversity of emotional expression und a broad spectrum of musical phrase otherwise hardly possible. A larger instrumental configuration invariably introduces colour­ful effects, musical camouflage: with the solo pianoforte these are eliminated; the essential remains: the musical essence." So writes Michael Denhoff in his introduction to the pianoforte cycle of 52 works: Hebdomadaire op.62. composed in 1990.


A survey of his complete works confirms the impression that together with the string quartet the pianoforte has become his principle medium for musical expression. Some noteworthy ex­amples are: Atemwende op.49, an extensive seven-part pianoforte cycle from the years 1984-86; Sotto voce op. 50, 1 for prepared piano, a half-hour solo for piano which opens the lengthy cycle Monologe I - V (1987 - 89); Cadenabbiaer Glockenbuch op. 78, consisting of nine Études for single piano together with four Études for two pianos; ...As when no words op. 77, an enigmatic solo with a distant Cello ad libitum; lastly work started in 1996 on a new cycle for pianoforte Skulptur I op. 76, 1.


The piano compositions of Michael Denhoff are characterised by widely varying forms, roa­ming extensively in different expressional environments and fully utilising the possibilities of the instrument. At the same time a personal musical language is constantly recogniseable. Hebdomadaire is practically a summary of Denhoffs work, rendering his diverse compositoral thoughts in condensed miniatures; at the same time it is a reverence to the great pianoforte tradition extending from Bach through Beethoven to Liszt and Ligeti.


Hebdomadaire is a "weekly diary" of which this is the first recording. It consists of four books, each with 13 pieces, in the chronological order of their creation; they are not just a suc­cession of unlinked musical ideas but rather represent four intrinsically complete elements of form. The four books are further interlinked through a network of submerged interreferen­ces, using inversion, variation, doubling with harmonic and formal correspondences. These pieces, at times fleetingly short, have a reve­rential quality as underlined by a series of dedications and hommages to personal friends, intellectual companions and musical predecessors. They re­semble György Kurtágs Játékok (games) but without assuming the latters playful and pedago­gic nature. This is recollective music, recognising but not copying its musical past, releasing energy for new deeds, discussions, disputations. In this, it bears an obligation to Beethoven's work for pianoforte.


Books I and II are closely connected by the dramatic sequence of their respective thirteen pieces; each book opens with a piece of which the central note - repectively D and A flat -ap­pears as an oblique reference in the written title: No. 1 intraDa, no. 14 AS-sonanzen (dischords) (AS = A flat); both pieces have a proclamatory, heraldic style. Each is followed by an Invention which appears to combine the imitatorial technique of Bach with the colourful language of Debussy and the floating metrics of Ligeti's Études. The third piece of each book repeatedly illustrates a musical element in new colours; in No. 3 Elegie the sequence of two chords with the falling chromatic step from F sharp to F natural; in No. 16 Berceuse the oscil­lating ninth D to E. The fourth pieces - No.4 Nachtstück (night-piece), and No. 17 Cabaret - are a contrast to the clarity of the preceding pieces, being grotesque and ghostly, exclusively employing the tritone for harmony; this also is a reference to the main interval used in the two opening pieces in D and A flat, furthermore to book three where in No.31 Capriccio II the tritone is used exclusively. No.5 akkorDISchES ('music with chords') and no. 18 Ohne Titel (without title) correspond to each other, as hinted at by the title of of No.5, by use of a basic note connecting chords with differing internal ten­sion; in No.5 it is a constant D sharp ('DIS') or the enharmonically corresponding E flat ('ES') and in No. 18 it starts with F sharp and slowly transfers to other notes.


Both books have two pieces each which use classical models as an allusion, not devoid of irony: No.6 Fast eine Sonate (nearly a sonata), No.7 Fast eine Passacaglia (nearly a passacag­lia), No. 21 Fast eine Chaconne (nearly a chaconne) and Np. 32 Fast eine Fuge (nearly a fu­gue). The ninth piece of each book, and also the ninth piece of book III, are entitled Canto I - III and are sub-titled: No 9. Erinnerungen (memories), No.22 Aulodie and No. 35 Mezza voce, each piece with its own special singing quality. Books I and II are both rounded off with a Klangszene ('sound-scene'), eruptive, gesticulating and full of emotional energy.


From these two books No. 19 Stele stands out strangely from the rest, if only due to its uncha­rachteristic length. Composed on the 10th. of may, 1990, it is a spontaneuos and thoroughly personal lamentation, a musical commemoration to the great italian composer Luigi Nono, who had died two days earlier on the 8th. of may. Here Denhoff uses the "scala enigmatica" from the Ave Maria in Pezzi sacri by Verdi, which became of central importance in the late work of Nono. No other piece of the cycle ventures into the remote and abysmal depth of mu­sical expression as here, with an almost tortuous slow tempo and harsh dynamic contrast, seeming to abruptly interrupt the cyclic line of the second book. It is the only piece which was not preconcieved in the formal planning of Hebdomadaire. And yet this piece together with No. 33 Étude, a hommage to György Ligeti, No. 34 Stille, Rufe (silence, cries) - im memoriam Bernd Alois Zimmermann and No. 36 FISsione ('fissions'; 'FIS' = f sharp) with a dedication to György Kurtág, is as an anticipation of the zentral idea of the final fourth book: the seizure and adoption of typical compositional peculiarities of the musical language of great "colleagues" of the past im the form of Klang­briefen ("musical messages"), which never lose Denhoffs own style despite the dedications to pre­decessors.


In book III the sound of the pianoforte is augmented by additional sounds: various percussion instruments (Tamtam, 3 Crotales, 3 Tempelblocks, Bongos, a korean whip), a mechanical me­tronome and a human voice; the non.pianistic sounds gradually grow stronger. The two outer pieces, No. 27 Prolog (Klangszene III) (prologue, 'sound-scene') and No. 39 Epilog (Klangszene IV), are as mirror images: towards the end of No. 27, preceding a final acoustic disintegration, there is an insistent repeating rhythm played on a single tam-tam; No. 39, with the exception of  the introduction, is scored exclusively for drums. Exactly in the centre of this book we have the afore-mentioned Étude in which the pianist plays only the white keys of the piano with the right hand and black keys with the left hand, as in the early studies of Ligeti. With an ironic touch Denhoff adds a metronome (an allusion to Ligetis Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes), set at 1 quaver (eighth) equal 160, beating an unrelenting pattern, at ti­mes on the beat, at times in syncopation to the semi-quaver rythms of the piano. It is notewor­thy and exciting how in all the pieces of this book these aural extensions compulsively integrate and correspond with the accompanying piano sound; here are no alien elements, but integrated com­ponents of the musical structure. In No. 35 Mezza voce the pianist plays quiet chorale-like phra­ses, with scarcely perceivable accentuations of individual notes, as if quietly accompanying the music - in this recording this section has been transposed a fourth higher, expressly for this pianist - creating the impression of  an intimate and profound fusion of musician and instru­ment.

In book IV Denhoff uses his own personal form of "Anknüpfen und Fortsetzen" (connecting and continuing), as he has called it in his essay Tradition und Fortschritt (Tradition and Pro­gress), describing his compositorial technique. The zwölf Klangbriefe (twelve musical messa­ges)  and the opening ENIGMA use musical gestures or motifs to evoke the sound of a compo­ser of the past; these are then develloped into autonomous character-pieces which still contain the historical reference in their texture, nevertheless undeniably also contain Denhoffs personal world of sound and structure. This may be remotely related to the classic form of variations on a theme by another person, however it is in fact a new method of preoccupation with the past.

In ENIGMA, a homage to Morton Feldmann, the final chord from his Intermission 5 and a further twelve related chords are repeatedly rearranged in their sequence to create new constel­lations, as if being observed through a slowly turning prism; the dynamics and durations are subject to semi-serial principles.

Klangbrief über ein Tremolo (musical message with a tremolo) reminds us of the mysterious beginning  of Schuberts Fantasy in G major for violin and piano. In Klangbrief über ein Se­quenz (musical message with a sequence) we catch a glimpse fo the first piece of Schumanns Gesänge der Frühe and in Klangbrief an Liszt (musical message to Liszt) we hear a strangely floating harmonic accompaniment from the late piano piece Nuages gris. In Klangbrief über eine Wiederholung (musical message with a repeat) Saties Vexations are gradually reduced to their basic rythm by means of a harmonic "fade over"; the dedication of this piece to John Cage is suggestive, it being Cage who was the first to give a performance of  Vexations, repeated 840 times. Klangbrief über eiben Namen (musical message with a name) employs adjacent chords using the notes B-A-C-H and thus becomes a miniature among the numerous composi­tions of  the past based on B-A-C-H.

The trumpet signal at the opening of the Fifth Symphony is the starting point of a highly emo­tional and complex piano movement in Klangbrief an Mahler (musical message to Mahler). In Klangbrief über einen Akkord (musical message with a chord) the mystic and ecstatic qualities of  Skrjabins "Prometheus Chord" are illuminated using a sequence of modu­lations on the in­dividual notes of the chord. Klangbrief über ein Motiv (musical message with a motif) mirrors Janáceks predilection for insistant small-scale motoric with pressing character, proceeding from a brief piano motiv from his Concertino. And in Klangbrief über ein In­tervall (musical message with an interval) Weberns principles of construction of 12-tone rows are echoed in harmonic, metric and formally complementary formations of chrystalline transparency.

As already done in No. 19, Stele für Luigi Nono, Denhoff again uses the "scala enigmatica" from Pezzi sacri in Klangbrief an Verdi (musical message to Verdi); here it runs like an ima­gi­nary thread through a calm cantabile background of triads. Klangbrief über ein Rhythmus (musical message with a rhythm) makes use of the principle theme of the second movement of Beethovens piano sonata op. 101. The closing Klangbrief über ein Echo (musical message with an echo) uses the technique of silently pressed piano keys, producing sympathetically re­sonating  harmonics, this being a reflection of an earlier piano composition by Denhoff, Sotto voce. As if it were a musical signature this piece ends the cycle.


© 1997 Robert Schön / Translation: Martin Packham