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The Seasons in Zurich: Choral Music from the 18th Century.
Johannes SCHMIDLIN (1722-1772), Hymnus auf die Allmacht, Weissheit und Gúte Gottes.
Hans-Jacob OTT (1715-1769), Die Jahreszeiten.
Johann Caspar BACHOFEN (1695-1735), Irdisches Vernúgen in Gott.
Catherine May and Elizabeth Franklin-Kitchen (sops) and Stephen Wells (bass).
Robert Howarth (organ); Gareth Deats (cello), Fred Jacobs (theorbo)
The Purcell Singers/Mark Ford
Recorded in All Saints, Tooting, London, 3rd-4th May 2002.
GUILD GMCD 7255 [73.56]


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Switzerland is not a name that springs to mind in terms of a rich musical heritage or composers’ names …. At least not beyond the usual suspects (Bloch, Schoeck, Honegger … even Martinů at a pinch). This obscurity (at least from a non-Swiss perspective) exists despite the country bordering Austria, France and Italy and the fact that individual ‘Cantons’ (districts) are often significantly influenced, for example in language, by their adjacent neighbours. Both this disc and its companion (GMCD 7248 also reviewed here) owe the musical character of their contents to Zurich, the base from which most of these composers operated.

The Seasons in Zurich shares two composers, Schmidlin and Bachofen, with GMCD 7248. Together with the third composer, Ott, these three were very much Zurich based. The sleeve note (by Chris Walton, also of the University of Pretoria) stresses to the importance of Bachofen (cantor of Zurich’s main cathedral) as the dominant figure in the city’s musical life and a significant influence on those who followed. His settings of over three hundred songs, almost all for two sopranos and bass, were often concerned with assorted aspects of the seasons. It is a selection of these that is included here (tr 46-56).

Ott and Schmidlin were contemporaries. The former was an affluent member of the Zurich parliament. His setting of ‘The Seasons’ (tr 15-45) is one of only four musical settings by him to have survived. It deploys three solo voices (two sopranos and bass), three-part choir, bass continuo and solo cello. The sleeve note states ‘at 56 pages it was the most ambitious single piece of music hitherto composed in Zurich’. Indeed it could have been one of the earliest ever musical settings of the poem. Ott had a fondness for the ‘Italian style’, and was open in his opposition to the aesthetic favoured by Bachofen who, in turn, was opposed to the influence from the south.

The disc opens with Schmidlin’s settings of the cantata (tr1-14). Like Ott, he avoids recitative and divides the work using individual numbers with assorted solos, duets and trios. His melodic gift is greater than Ott’s and has a vibrancy that is most appealing. This appeal is strengthened by the contributions of full-toned soloists and a superbly articulated and expressive choir under their director, Mark Ford. His work with this group, formed in 1994, must, judging by the standards they bring to their performances, give great satisfaction to the participants. They, as much as Switzerland, are the unifying force of this CD, whether it be in the lighter more lyric work of Ott, the vibrancy of Schmidlin, or the greater harmonic complexity of Bachofen’s brief settings (tr 46-56), each lasting around a half minute. It is choral and solo singing of the highest order in music that will be new to all but a few. For those particularly interested in this field it will possibly make interesting comparison with the English choral genre from the same period. For all others interested in choral singing I commend this issue in the strongest terms.

The recording here is a little leaner than on Guild GMCD 7248, and appropriately so. The sleeve note is adequately informative and translations are given for the Schmidlin and Bachofen settings, whilst for the Ott the German words are given with the original poem (by Thomson) in English. Ott’s settings are in many instances free translations from the English.

Robert J Farr

But Kevin Sutton is not so enamoured

Having now come in contact with two discs of seventeenth and eighteenth century Swiss choral music from Guild, I am convinced that either more research needs to be done, or there simply was very little talent in Switzerland during the era in question. Perhaps this music has some merit as an historical document of the times, but I am at a loss to find any reason for these pieces to make it to a full priced compact disc. When this pedestrian music is further hampered by inadequate performances, one has to wonder what kind of return Guild expects from its investment.

Presented here are three works whose texts are derived from The Seasons a poem by Scottish poet James Thomson.

Johannes Schmidlin must not have had a creative bone in his body, if the example heard here is any indication. Choruses are basically syllable-by-syllable settings of the text, and have little if any melodic interest. Arias are contrived melodically and of the simplest harmonic construct. Mark Ford and his chorus provide no forward motion or elegance of phrasing in the choral numbers, and they sound at best like good congregational singing. The two soprano soloists seem out of tune and their vibrato laden singing is nearly unbearable. There is no evidence of a sense of ensemble in any of the duets and trios.

Hans-Jakob Ott fares little better with his lengthy and rather tedious rendering of The Seasons, a subject that would be handled so much better by one Franz Josef Haydn in his oratorio based on the same sources. This setting is universally forgettable with an abundance of one note per syllable, "let’s not use anything faster than a quarter note" underlay. The same complaints on the performance exist as above. The chorus lacks balance and line and the soloists have not improved from the previous work.

Mr. Bachofen sets text snippets in a choruses that all clock in at under a minute. Alas, there are no musical ideas here that merit longer treatment. The performance is adequate, given what little there is with which to work.

These performances come nowhere close to meeting any kind of standard of excellence. Sound quality is average and too reverberant, further hampering clarity of line. Program notes are adequate, but do nothing to make a case for the music. Not recommended.

Kevin Sutton

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