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Max KUHN (1896-1994)
Instrumental Music and Songs

Introduktion und Allegro für Oboe und Klavier (1959) [8:28]
Schiffern und Kapitänen von Albert Ehrismann – 6 Lieder für Alto (oder Bariton) und Klavier [13:58]
Gedicht aus der Chinesischen Flöte von Hans Bethge [4:33]
Die Macht der Schönheit (text Hans Bethge) [2:20]
Bild der Freundin (text R.G. Binding) [2:16]
Lied der Drehorgelfrau (text A. Ehrismann) [2:25]
Suite für Oboe Solo (1965) [8:25]
3 Préludes für Klavier (1976) [5:53]
Drei Klavierstücke (1963) [7:42]
John Anderson (oboe)
Jeanette Ager (mezzo)
Sophia Rahman (piano)
Rec. St Paul’s Boy’s School, Hammersmith, London, 12-13 June 2004
GUILD GMCD 7284 [57:42]

Max Kuhn was an entirely new name to me, before having a brief encounter with his music on Guild’s 20th Century organ programme (GMCD 7285). Confronted with an unapologetically tonal, dare I say academically conventional sound-world, one refers to the booklet notes to read the composer’s own description of his musical evolution: ‘Before 1921, my works were rooted in traditional influences (Bach, Schubert, Wolf). The confrontation with Impressionism and the Second Viennese School and my encounter with Hindemith broadened my means of expression ... and enabled me to go my own way.’

The results make this something of a conundrum, and one I initially had problems attempting to assess. Here we have a composer, working through the most turbulent parts of the 20th century, apparently unaffected by, untroubled by, or isolated from the effects of fascism and war, writing songs which inhabit the worlds of Schubert and Wolf. Adjusting my expectations I dipped into the instrumental works which, while superficially giving the impression of learned and studious effort, hold the key.

Kuhn studied at the Zurich Conservatoire, at a time in which the influence of Ferruccio Busoni was all pervasive. Having received his grounding in counterpoint, conducting and composition from a circle of Busoni’s pupils and friends, he reinforced and deepened this disciplined education in Vienna, finally becoming an organist and choral director back in Küsnacht. He later taught piano and music theory at the Zurich Music Academy. Unsurprising then, that such a figure’s approach to song writing should be in some way a homage to some of the greatest lyricists who ever lived, and whose chamber music should be studded with neo-baroque or neo-classical movements, given added colour from the palettes of Busoni and Scriabin. This is however not to dismiss the work on this disc as derivatively worthless.

The Introduktion und Allegro for oboe and piano is a tautly argued dialogue between the two instruments. Kuhn likes free lyrical lines over closer intervals in rising or descending figures in the accompaniment, and employs such devices to create logical and effective development and structure. Turning to the other instrumental works, the Suite for Oboe solo is quite technically demanding, with contrapuntal variations which reminded me of the Telemann flute Fantasias or even William Alwyn’s Divertimento. The Three Preludes for piano are quite searching, probing works. The first Con anima has the kind of ostinato which Simeon ten Holt might have used to fill three CDs rather than a two minute movement. The second Adagio descends relentlessly into a gloomy place, from which we are plucked by a sprightly Allegro. With these pieces, I can only say I began to warm to Kuhn’s honest and expressive musical language. The Three Piano Pieces further contrapuntally explore a limited collection of notes, and while working these out in a slow-fast-slow sequence Kuhn brings us close to Busoni’s late piano works, at the same time not quite achieving quite the intensity of (for instance) Shostakovich’s 24 preludes and fugues.

The songs, listened to properly, are gems – portraying the texts in completely sympathetic accompaniments, resourceful and effective in their reflection of light and shade. In extending the tradition of Wolf, Schubert and Mahler, Kuhn provides respectful vehicles for these texts in a romantic ‘Lied’ style with both expressive elegance and technical flair. There is no difficult confrontation or interpretative challenge here, and if time seems to have stood still, then at least it hasn’t lost in quality what it has lost by steadfastly refusing to advance.

These recordings are excellent in quality, and the performances, if not entirely flawless, are persuasive and creditable. As an issue this is certainly something ‘different’, even if I can’t find myself able to call it ‘new’; in the sense of it adding hugely to the sum of musical greats. If you are looking for well crafted, often beautifully expressive tonal music from the last century then you need look no further. If you seek the thrills and roller-coaster rides of the tumultuous and revolutionary, this is unlikely to float your boat.

Dominy Clements

 



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