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Work of the Week: Heinz Holliger – Concerto “Hommage à Louis Soutter”

On 5 November Heinz Holliger will conduct the Orquestra Sinfónica do Porto Casa da Música for the Portuguese premiere of his violin concerto “Hommage à Louis Soutter” with the work’s dedicatee, violinist Thomas Zehetmair, as soloist.

Like other concertos by Holliger, such as Siebengesang and Turm-Musik, Hommage à Louis Soutter is inspired by the life of an artist. As a painter, Louis Soutter’s art was shaped by mental illness and an obsessive creative urge. He spent the last 20 years of his life in a care home where he produced most of his artworks, often painting with his fingers and sometimes with his whole body. In his youth, Soutter was also a gifted violinist and performed with the Orchestra de la Suisse Romande, and Holliger composed the concerto in honour of the orchestra’s 75th anniversary.

Holliger’s Hommage a Louis Soutter – ‘Paint Truth. The Truth is terrifying.’ (Hermann Hesse)

The concerto is divided into four movements – Mourning, Obsession, Shadows, and Epilogue – which are played continuously without breaks. The first movement contains musical quotations from the third violin sonata of composer/violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, who was Soutter’s violin teacher for many years. The elegiac and sombre tone of the first movement gradually descends into madness for the second movement (‘Obsession’) as stirring rhythms are developed in the music. In ‘Shadows’, Holliger evokes a sense of alienation, a dislocation from one’s former experience of life in an eerie third movement that builds to a climax before the music collapses in on itself.

The concerto’s final movement ‘Epilogue’ was added much later and captures the resigned atmosphere of Soutter’s painting ‘Before the Massacre’. Like Soutter’s black and crooked figures, the music is in agony. The violin plays tormented chords over gloomy sonorities from the orchestra to create an overwhelming sense of despair.

For me, being different is something natural in life. I don’t look for sickness in a person; I am looking for people who do not have limits to their imagination, who can break through, into either the world of insanity or a hereafter. Such people have finer antennas than others; they have a more direct access to their subconscious minds. – Heinz Holliger

On 1 November, Casa da Música will also present Holliger’s large scale work Scardanelli-Zyklus based on texts of Friedrich Hölderlin, a poet who was also affected by mental illness in the last years of his life. Prior to the national premiere of Hommage à Louis Soutter on 5 November, Holliger’s solo works will be performed in different locations throughout the venue in preparation for the evening’s performance.