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
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.