Oboist. Composer. Conductor. Heinz Holliger is all of these things and more, and this week Britain has a chance to find out what makes this man such an enormous figure in contemporary music. Holliger and friends are at King’s Place all week, with Holliger featuring in all of his many roles.

© D Vass
© D Vass

The programme, “curated” by cellist Christoph Richter, was artfully constructed: pieces by Holliger, his teachers Veress and Boulez were interspersed with works by Schumann, Holliger’s great hero. At first it seemed as though we were hearing two groups of music as dissimilar to each other as Swan Lake is to urban street dance. But then something strange happened. The two became less distinct; the familiar harmonies of Schumann started to reveal their instability and the uncompromisingly atonal pieces began to revel in their lyricism. Juxtaposition is a well-worn programming device, but using it to reveal similarities rather than cast contrasts into sharp relief was a refreshing innovation.

Another similarity was also revealed: the best performances of the evening were where the performers approached the works of Holliger et al with the same expressive gusto as they treated the Schumann works. All too often we see half-hearted performances of contemporary music where the musicians display none of the passion and commitment they would grant Beethoven or Strauss. But these musicians, many of whom are composers themselves, are internationally renowned as champions of contemporary music as well as being in high demand as chamber musicians. For them, each pitch bend, each pluck of the piano’s strings, carried as much interpretative weight as a Brahms melody.

As a perfect demonstration of the parallels between the Schumann pieces and the others, Holliger himself appeared in the first two pieces. The first was Boulez’s ...explosante-fixe..., originally written as a pictogram which each performer would interpret differently. Last night we heard Holliger’s realisation of the work, notated conventionally to allow a group of five to perform it. In contrast to this avant-garde piece, the second was a set of six Schumann piano studies arranged by Kirchner for oboe d’amore, cello and piano. Holliger’s phenomenal control over the instrument was evident in both, as was his flamboyant musicianship. The Boulez was performed with flair and astonishing attention to detail, whilst the Schumann studies were expressive and just as detailed, with cellist Xenia Jankovic’s superb sound providing the perfect partner for the dark oboe d’amore.

Having heard the sensitive musicianship always evident in Holliger’s playing, it was particularly interesting to hear his compositions. The memories of his lyrical playing made one listen with different ears to the sometimes incomprehensible collection of sounds he has gathered together. Like the effect of the Schumann juxtaposition, the music started to take shape, to have clear climaxes and even moments of devastating beauty, despite the atonal framework. Xenia Jankovic’s performance of Veress’s Sonata for solo cello was a wonderful demonstration of the expressive qualities to be found within this challenging framework: her playing made it clear that we were listening to music with as much humanity as can be found in any Romantic favourite, albeit in the language of the avant-garde.

Holliger appears as a conductor later in the week, but this side of him was obvious even when wielding an oboe rather than a baton. Schumann’s Three Romances for Oboe and Piano are well-loved recital pieces which Holliger and pianist Alexander Lonquich obviously knew inside out. Holliger moulded phrases more than a non-conductor would dare, his bold tempo changes followed perfectly by Jonquich. In creating this chance to gain understanding of this huge figure through viewing his many facets, organiser Cristoph Richter has done us a great service, despite the very late finishing time that came of cramming so many illuminating works into one evening.