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MGB Records (Migros-Genossenschafts-Bund)

Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Fireworks, Op. 4 (1908)
Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994)

Concerto for Orchestra (1954)
Basel Sinfonietta/Joel Smirnoff
Werner BÄRTSCHI (b. 1950)

The Grandeur of the Alps (1989)
Thomas KESSLER (b. 1937)

Aufbruch* (1990)
Basel Sinfonietta; * Electronic Studio of the Basel Music School/Jürg Wyttenbach
Rec. 3 September 2000 (Bärtschi, Kessler), 3 April 2001 (Stravinsky, Lutosławski), Stadtcasino, Basel



This enterprising disc from Switzerland features two 20th century classics alongside two uncompromisingly modernist contemporary works. Everything is well played and the recorded sound is exemplary, so too the accompanying documentation.

Since much of this music (and the Stravinsky and Lutosławski items too?) is little known, it is important that there should be sufficient supporting information. The booklet is well planned and the information is thorough, so full marks on that front.

The composers Thomas Kessler and Werner Bärtschi provide the introductions to their own scores, though what they don’t do is provide information about themselves. As far as the documentation is concerned, this is the weakest link.

Kessler’s Aufbruch (Break Out) is deliberately challenging and modernist, using five samplers in addition to an orchestra which requires players to exchange their traditional positions on the platform. In fact this insistence on positioning is what the title attempts to indicate: a new-found freedom for different instruments and instrumentalists. However, even with modern recording techniques, the opportunities of really communicating the significance of these subtleties within the sound perspective are somewhat limited, to say the least. Nor does the musical material itself convey the ideas clearly.

In addition to the orchestral provision, there are five musicians playing computers with linked loudspeakers at points located throughout the hall. These sounds have instrumental timbres as well as amplified associative noises, such as the breathing of the players and the physical sounds of the act of performing, such as bow on string. It’s all very clever and all closely related to the main idea. On CD, if not in the concert hall perhaps, it all adds up to rather less than the sum of the parts.

Werner Bärtschi’s The Grandeur of the Alps is preoccupied with the perspectives of time. He explains: ‘The title offers a circle of expectations, it is in itself a metaphor for the seemingly timeless, dormant duration of time. ... The work contains no tone painting as one might understand it from the Alpine Symphony of Richard Strauss.’

The sounds Bärtschi draws from his orchestra have abundant interest, to be sure, with carefully graded note values and dynamics, and his sensitivity to the issue of the passing of time and our perceptions of time have a certain affinity with John Cage. I am not so sure, however, that the line of development is strong enough to sustain a time-span (sic) of more than fifteen minutes.

In the more conventional fare of Stravinsky and Lutosławski, the Basel Sinfonietta can better be judged for their orchestral credentials. They emerge well from the scrutiny, as does their conductor, Joel Smirnoff. Stravinsky’s Fireworks bristles, really bristles, with rhythmic bite and detail; no wonder this piece so impressed itself upon the memory of the impresario Diaghilev.

Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra is a more weighty challenge, and one that is designed to give an orchestra the opportunity to show what it can do. The Basel orchestra emerges with the utmost credit, in a colourful and lively performance which is captured particularly well in the balancing of the recorded sound. More famous ensembles have recorded this music, but this performance can stand alongside the best of them.

Terry Barfoot

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