Revelatory and uncompromising, probing and difficult: Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s music was the starting point for this year’s Ultraschall Festival, marking what would have been his 100th birthday. To some he was the greatest German composer of the post-war period, a unique voice in the lineage of Schumann and Berg. His life was blighted by depression: in 1970, at the age of 52, he took his own life.

Heinz Holliger
© Daniel Vass

Zimmermann’s music contains a variety of styles and poses – often within a single piece. His late orchestral work Photoptsis, which started the opening concert, finds him in monolithic mode. Inspired by Yves Klein’s monumental blue sculptures for the Gelsenkirchen opera house, Zimmermann creates a huge canvas of sound with a large Romantic orchestra. Monochrome on the surface, in close-up the piece reveals a wealth of fine instrumental detail.

Out of the shimmering gloom emerge the ghosts of music past – in this case quotations from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, Wagner’s Parsifal and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – which feed a sense of artistic resignation. This bleakness and despair was brought to a fearsome powerful climax by the swollen forces of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under conductor Heinz Holliger, supremely confident in detailed, technical repertoire.

Jacques Wildberger was a close friend of Zimmermann, and something of his avant-garde edge and cut-and-paste style finds its way into the Swiss composer’s music, as well as the left-wing politics Wildberger picked up during his time in Berlin in 1967. His mission statement was to be always “against” – mostly as a left-wing agitator. Whilst much of his work achieves this with political texts, in Canto he tried to bring his radicalism into pure instrumental music.

Those expecting a tub-thumping call to arms were to be disappointed: this was a delicate and faltering work of muted textures that coaxes itself from silence before ushering itself out again. Heinz Holliger is an enthusiastic advocate for Wildberger and this piece, and he coaxed a persuasive performance from the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester.

Holliger’s own music has long eclipsed that of his compatriot Wildberger. At Ultraschall he conducted his own Violin Concerto, subtitled Hommage à Louis Soutter, the Swiss artist well known for the black and white paintings of haunting figures he painted in a care home during the last 20 years of his life. After his death in 1942 Louis Soutter became recognised as an important Art Brut artist.

The concerto takes the form of an intellectual biography, starting with the solo violin, a reference to Soutter’s career as a violinist and studies with Eugène Ysaÿe, whose third sonata is quoted in the first movement of the piece. Like Zimmermann, Holliger is adept at composing in a variety of different styles: through its four movements, the concerto mirrors the progression of Soutter’s mental illness, and the flourishing of his artistic talent.

The evocation of the post-Romanticism of Ysaÿe and Debussy at the beginning of the concerto has a curious and cold delicacy. Soutter’s increasing isolation is invoked with studied and feverish introspection reminiscent of Berg. It is when the work moves into its last section that Holliger creates something unique, with haunting disjointed wind chorales and expressionistic violin figures that have a novel simplicity, inspired by Soutter’s painting “Avant le massacre”.

This homage is more of an ensemble piece than a concerto, with a percussive trio of harp, marimba and cimbalom stalking the solo violin, performed by Thomas Zehetmair, to whom the piece is dedicated. The solo part itself is often introspective and tangled up in tricksy techniques, and mostly subsumed by the orchestra. A minor percussion disaster aside, the DSO had a firm grasp on Holliger’s complex, interwoven and constantly evolving instrumental writing.