In the Kollegienkirche, the church of the University of Salzburg, Heinz Holliger conducted his magnum opus, Scardanelli-Zyklus, or the Scardanelli Cycle. Holliger, a septuagenarian Swiss, is best known as an oboist — indeed, he’s the best-known player of that instrument in the world. But he has devoted much of his career to conducting and composing. And he devoted many years — some 20 — to his Scardanelli Cycle. It is a kind of oratorio or cantata, for flute, chamber orchestra, and chorus. Texts are by Friedrich Hölderlin, the German Romantic poet who lived from 1770 to 1843. In the last several decades of his life, he was mad, a schizophrenic. The Scardanelli texts come from his very last years. Some claim that he was really lucid and far-seeing, more “sane” than the rest of us. You are familiar with this line of argument.
In Holliger’s opus, the madness comes through, and this can be unsettling. I imagine the composer intends it to be so. Yet there are also moments, or stretches, of calm, beauty, and order. The work, overall, has a music-of-the-spheres feeling. Holliger uses many of the tricks and tics of modernism. For example, musicians are made to whisper — to whisper words. They’re also supposed to feel their own pulses, or something. The piece lasts two and a half hours, requiring patience on the part of the listener. Maybe more patience than most have, or wish, to give. But Holliger has composed his piece with intelligence and care. It is a formidable achievement. Generations from now, when the carcasses of post–World War II modernism are exhumed for inspection, this will be one of the better ones.