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Work of the Week – Bernd Alois Zimmermann: Sinfonie in einem Satz

March 2018 marks the centenary of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s birth. Among the performances in celebration of this occasion are two concerts on 29 October featuring Sinfonie in einem Satz in its two versions, one with the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern and Peter Hirsch, and the other with the Gürzenich Orchester Köln conducted by Harmut Haenchen.

When approached by the Nordwestdeutcher Rundfunk Köln to compose a symphony, Zimmermann extensively deliberated on the form. He settled for a continuous 18 minute-long movement scored for large orchestra with extra woodwind, harp, organ, and a solo string septet.

Sinfonie in einem Satz was premiered in 1952 by the Kölner Rundfunk Sinfonie Orchester and Hans Rosbaud. Unfortunately the piece was slammed by critics who cited the inclusion of the organ as old fashioned. Unfazed, Zimmermann reworked the piece with Rosbaud’s assistance, removing the organ and rewriting the long and complex bars. This revised version was premiered a year later in Belgium. 

Bernd Alois Zimmermann – Sinfonie in einem Satz: a reworking of the symphonic form

The innovation in Zimmermann’s symphony lies in the protracted growth of its single movement, which ensnares the audience from the opening. Sinfonie in einem Satz maintains a nervous tension punctuated by unexpected accents, culminating in an explosive finale.

The thematic material develops by linking various musical germ cells to create an organic structure of the whole…with each cell passing through all stages of musical development via heavy dynamic evolution. – Bernd Alois Zimmermann

More performances of the revised version of Sinfonie in einem Satz by the Gürzenich Orchester will take place on 30 and 31 October. The original version can be heard again on 2 March 2018 at the Staatstheater in Mainz and on 5 May 2018 at the Köln Philharmonie. An award winning 2016 recording of the original version with conductor Peter Hirsch is available on the WERGO label.