Tricks of memory

Music byDermot Clinch

Officium was a CD phenomenon of the 1990s. It was a collaboration between an English vocal quartet, specialising in a cappella music of the medieval and renaissance periods, and a Norwegian jazz saxophonist, specialising in, inter alia, jazz. The combination was novel and piquant and the CD sold in its hundreds of thousands. The same musicians have now collaborated on a second album, spread over two CDs. It is called Mnemosyne, after the Greek goddess of memory. If you have forgotten what the earlier disc sounded like, you need only turn to the later ones to be reminded.

There are differences. The cover of Officium was a photograph of a grey stone head covered in cobwebs. The cover of Mnemosyne is a grey sky with a hawk in it. Mnemosyne's packaging carries stills from Ingmar Bergman's grey film The Seventh Seal, and the mandatory acknowledgement of the copyright in this film is worded to seem an allegation of artistic fellowship rather than a legal duty: "Thanks to Ingmar Bergman for many things, including these images." The presiding genius of the album is the German poet Holderlin, and Holderlin's poem Mnemosyne tells us that, "though time be long, the truth will come to pass".

Time is long. Where Officium grafted Jan Garbarek's saxophone on to the European music of the middle ages and renaissance, Mnemosyne plants it among the music of 22 centuries from across the globe. Quechua folk songs from Peru, carols from 13th-century England, psalms from 16th-century Russia, eagle dances of the native American Iroquois: Garbarek swoops through them all with splendid indifference. The earliest item is dated 127BC: a "Delphic paean" of Athenaeus. The Athenaeus in Grove's Dictionary flourished in Egypt of the second century AD. Time is long, centuries are short.

Garbarek is icily characterful, sometimes witty. His gull's cry croaked out over the "Amen" of Thomas Tallis's "O Lord in Thee is All My Trust" places a welcome sting in the anthem's tail. His dispatch in the 13th-century song "Novus Novus" is wickedly exhilarating. When Garbarek decides he has had enough chirruping and descanting on the sidelines, and goes his own way, builds his own climaxes, makes his own melodies, he is great. The best track of all is a Christmas Alleluia from 13th-century England. Garbarek steals a motif from the voices and runs. He runs all the way to - where? Morocco? India? - and the Hilliard Ensemble can't catch him.

But Garbarek's stock of tropes - the valuable capital of any improviser - is exhausted by the end of Mnemosyne, as it was by the end of Officium. Garbarek's best trick - his pretence of being one of the Hilliard Ensemble's cathedral-trained English voices, while swooping unseen among them to muddy up their harmony with some modern inflection of his own - is also his most abused. The swell on a single note; the fantasy flight over a slow, sung ground; the trill and happy cadence on to the home note just as every one else is decamping to another: all are gambits with diminishing returns.

Stravinsky admired the saxophone's juvenile delinquent character. There is no reason why Garbarek or the Hilliard Ensemble should admire Stravinsky. But a little delinquency would be just fine. As it is, the moments of danger in Mnemosyne are few and the reverberant, forgiving acoustic of the Propstei St Gerold in Austria has little to forgive. Scandinavian asceticism and Anglo-Saxon good behaviour have produced a nice, rather grey CD.

"Mnemosyne" is released by ECM on 12 April

This article first appeared in the 09 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Judge the US by deeds, not words

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis