Seither Lauschgut Works for (Inside) Piano Kairos

Charlotte Seither (b. 1965)
Lauschgut. Works for (Inside) Piano (1989-2022)
Clemens Hund-Göschel (piano)
rec. 2023, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Cologne, Germany
Kairos 0022010KAI [71]

Charlotte Seither has long been an influential presence on the German new music scene so it’s something of a surprise to find that this recent release represents her debut on Kairos. A couple of monographs dedicated to her can be found on Wergo whilst her riveting orchestral Essay on Shadow and Truth (2007) lends its name to an excellent portrait disc on Edition Zeitklang (ez-45043). The present issue is devoted exclusively to Seither’s piano output. As its title implies the composer explores the instrument’s potential for extended techniques in seven of the ten items.

One of these, Gran passo from 2006 seems to be something of a calling card for Seither; this is its third recording. It features on the Zeitlkang disc mentioned above (played by Susanne Achilles) but that reading seems a little pallid compared to the new one. As might be expected the Kairos sound has been tailored superbly (over-resonance is an issue with the Zeitklang recording) and effortlessly conveys Seither’s subtle adaptations whilst Clemens Hund-Göschel seems to be completely attuned to the distinctive nuances required by each of these pieces. In Gran Passo, repetition and pulse drive both the flow and the timbral variation projected by the piano’s internal mechanisms; these complex interactions are skilfully managed by Hund-Göschel. Witness the eerie string tendrils and glissandi which presage a repeated two chord melodic fragment. (It’s familiar – are these the two big chords that open John Barry’s theme from Goldfinger?) Seither tastefully embeds little melodic landmarks to help the listener navigate, but it’s her precise control of coloration which most impresses, achieved as it is entirely without electroacoustic support. Gran Passo constitutes an attractive primer of Seither’s piano methodology and concludes disarmingly in medias res.

Itinéraire emerged at a similar point in Seither’s career. Pulse is still important, but the ethereality of its shimmering string vibrations provides a consistently more exotic framework for her fragmented melodic interpolations. At the halfway point a sequence of four repeated, dampened bass notes heralds a silence which seems to tip the balance of the piece. Thereafter the material conveyed by unmediated piano keys is skilfully reflected (or commented upon) by the slitherings and flutings of the top strings. Seither also composed Sous mes yeux, another of the pieces here at around the same time as Itinéraire. This work of seven minutes duration requires conventional piano playing throughout and involves the presentation of diffuse content drawn from high, middle and low registers woven together by a stuttering bass line. It similarly ceases abruptly.

The ten pieces presented in this recital together encompass a span of more than three decades. The earliest (and at eleven minutes the most extended) of them is Klavierstück No 1: Signet from 1989; it’s a study in contrast and unpredictable juxtaposition again for a conventionally played piano. I found it decidedly gawky and cumbersome – although it’s clearly an apprentice piece (in her note Seither admits it hasn’t been performed since it was composed) listeners will still be able to spot staples of the composer’s later style in its obsessive repetitions and its gravitation toward loud bass stylings. There are certainly moments of interest in Klavierstück No. 1 and whilst it’s not particularly confrontational an apparent lack of direction in its narrative presented something of a barrier to my edification. Clemens Hund-Göschel really strives to make something of it, however.

The last of the three pieces intended for an unadapted piano in this recital is Echoes, edges from 2001. Seither here threads together a ten minute sequence of brief episodes and motifs in an arc which joyfully exploits the sounds at both extremes of the spectrum. A brisk, even virtuosic opening yields to a more reflective, tautly constructed central section broken up by elongated silences which allow the echoes of the work’s title to breathe and decay. This establishes a mood which somehow remains stable until the end of the piece, despite hints at disruption, one of which borders on the Scriabinesque.

The remaining five items all incorporate elements of what Seither describes as ‘inside piano’. Klang und Schwebung (Sound and Beat) from 1996 was the prototype of these, a colourful miniature in which silences, resonant strings (sustained and plucked textures) and pianistic doodlings are alternated. The string timbres are manipulated to produce a ghostly, other worldly kind of wailing. The mysteriously titled Ask him! Is from much later, a more markedly exploratory short piece characterised by quietude and isolated twangs, knockings and orthodox piano sounds. The significance of this is that these mild provocations are able to communicate with each other across the silence. A more direct concept underpins Left luggage. Nachklang für Ludwig van B. In this five minute whimsy, the opening chord of Beethoven’s E flat sonata Op 31 No 3 is surgically removed, placed in an exhibition case and deconstructed. It’s an intriguing idea but not really one which is likely survive repeated listening.

The album takes its name from Lauschgut (Listen Well), an apt title which is certainly good advice for those adventurous souls who are prepared to give Seither’s piano music a whirl. The focus here is on the single note and the resonances and silences within and between. Microscopic timbral adumbrations administered by the player achieve myriad variation and kaleidoscopic colour in each of five tiny fragments which comprise the whole. The third of these is unexpectedly brusque; the rest require (and merit) listening of Feldmanesque intensity.

Red Roots from 2022 is the most recent offering, a nine minute affair which provides a rather enigmatic conclusion to a compelling, unusual sequence. Once again Seither takes her cue from Beethoven, in this case a thirty second choral fragment, the unpublished canon Wir irren allesamt (WoO 198). This amounts to another deconstruction, although in this case the source (if one is familiar with it) is never too far from the surface. The first half of the piece amounts to an experiment on the shape of Beethoven’s melody. Repetitions of a single note and the gaps falling between them seem to be objects of interest but after an unexpectedly dissonant flurry Seither’s preoccupation turns to pulse, tempo and timbre. Red Roots makes for an odd, rather disconcerting closer.

Listening to the album again in a single span proved far more challenging for this reviewer than cherrypicking individual numbers, or even listening to the pieces in chronological order of composition. It does at least enable one to readily appreciate the increasing prevalence of the stylistic fingerprints to which Seither frequently turns. On the other hand to my ear the lack of variety proves problematic – and that’s certainly not a criticism I could level at the Edition Zeitklang album to which I alluded earlier. In any case, Clemens Hund-Göschel proves to be a reliable and convinced guide, and his various keyboard machinations have been captured with forensic fidelity by the Kairos engineers. The documentation is OK; the composer certainly aims at clarity rather than pretensiousness in a detailed note but rather clumsy translation doesn’t help. Ultimately then, this is really an issue for contemporary keyboard ‘warriors’ rather than general listeners.

Richard Hanlon

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  1. Gran passo (2006)
  2. Ask him! (2014)
  3. Klang und Schwebung (1996)
  4. Left luggage. Nachklang für Ludwig van B. (2015)
  5. Sous mes yeux (2005)
  6. Itinéraire (2005)
  7. Klavierstück No. 1: Signet (1989)
  8. Lauschgut (2018/19)
  9. Echoes, edges (2001)
  10. Red roots (2022)