For Swedish composer Albert Schnelzer, composition is about
looking for ‘true personal expression’ rather than
striving to be ‘modernistically correct’, but the
relationship in his music between expressivity and modernist
austerity is more complicated than this suggests. The craftsmanship
of his writing comes through in its remarkable clarity of texture,
even in the densest passages. A mastery of rhythm is the secret
to the success of his faster music, and as the title of the
disc suggests, dance is an important inspiration. Klezmer rhythms
are stated as a source of his rhythmic ideas, but their modernist
heritage is also apparent.
Predatory Dances, the work
from which the disc’s title is taken, is written for
piano trio, but owes much to Stravinsky’s ballets, both
Russian period and neo-classical. Off-beats and cross rhythms
drive otherwise dense textures, the strings playing repeated
note figures with irregular downbeats created by regular metre
changes. As the work progresses, the strings overlay long,
arching melodies over frenetic piano accompaniment, the expressive
and the modernistic played out here in counterpoint.
Dance with the Devil is a solo piano work based on a
similar combination of rhythmic complexity and textural clarity.
Stravinsky again lurks in the background, although his influence
is a few stages removed, reaching Schnelzer via Bartok and
especially Ligeti, whose L’escalier du diable is
strongly evoked, both in the music’s textures and its
Textural contrast is clearly of central importance to Schnelzer’s
work, and the music of this disc can be divided roughly in
half between this fast rhythmic music and its slower, often
almost arrhythmic, counterpart. The three ‘dance’ works
- Predatory Dances, Dance with the Devil and Wolfgang
is Dancing! - use both textures, while the other works
on the disc are restricted to the quieter, slower style. If
the four quieter works seem more consummate, it is because
of the crude ternary form with which the dance works are structured.
Each of these has related, though not identical, outer dance
sections separated by a quieter interlude. It is a stark contrast,
and the two textures interact powerfully, but this only goes
to increase the frustrating predictability of the basic three-part
Frozen Landscapes for cello and piano is music of a
Northern European cast. Bleak landscapes are powerfully evoked,
with isolated notes and chords appearing from sustained textures.
The music calls to mind recent Russian minimalism, especially
that of Alexander Knaifel. It is really music for a cathedral
acoustic rather than a recording studio, but generous digital
reverb makes up the difference without undue intrusion.
Requiem is a song cycle for soprano and piano, written
as a memorial to Fadime Sahindal, a Kurdish woman who was the
victim of an honour killing in Sweden in 2002. The solo piano
opening suggests Messiaen at his more laid back, while the
vocal writing is more straightforwardly lyrical. The soprano,
Susanna Andersson, sings with an unaffected simplicity, although
more vibrato than the music warrants, and copes admirably with
the occasional ascent to the top register at the ends of phrases.
Solitude for solo cello takes us back to frozen landscapes,
and this time double stopping creates the simple duet textures
that were achieved by cello and piano in the earlier work.
Most of the textures are at the quiet end of the spectrum,
and while the music is linear, you would be hard-pushed to
describe it as melodic. Instead it strives for a sense of bleak
expanse, achieved through the contrast in scale of the overall
work with its minimal resources.
Lamento is another work based on attenuated textures,
with pinpoint notes and chords appearing over sustained pedals.
The work is for violin, clarinet, cello and (modestly) prepared
piano, and is based on a Hans Christian Andersen story about
the sandman. Sleep and snoring are therefore the imperatives
for these various sounds, with swells into notes and glissando
slides off. Atmosphere is again the order of the day, and is
achieved without even a hint of pedantry.
No prizes for guessing who the title character of Wolfgang
is dancing! The idea behind this piece was apparently to
apply klezmer rhythms to Mozart’s music, but thankfully
all that is buried deep, and the music gives no suggestion
of pastiche. If this is a joke, it is a sophisticated one.
The work is another of Schnelzer’s ‘dances’ with
the instruments (violin, clarinet and cello) distributed between
a spiky melodic contour and a cross-accented repeated note
accompaniment. Then comes a sharply contrasting calm interlude
before the return of the main material. It would be a highly
accomplished work, were it not for the pedantic and unimaginative
The young Swedish performers are all on the music’s wavelength,
and the works are given sympathetic and energetic readings.
While many of the pieces contain obvious technical challenges,
Schnelzer is a composer who thinks of his performers. He creates
rhythmic complexity out of easily performed repeated note patterns,
structures melodies around breath durations, and fashions ornaments
from scale runs. It is clearly satisfying music to play, and
this a recording made by players who are committed to every
note of it.