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MGB Records (Migros-Genossenschafts-Bund)

Max KELLER (b. 1947)
Mondlandschaft for 23 winds and 3 percussion (1998/99) [10.17]
Dialogfelder for double bass and percussion (2000) [10.57]
Progressionen for flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano (1981) [8.08]
agieren und reagieren for piano and live electronics (1998/99) [14.27]
Deformationen for soprano, flute and guitar (1998) [14.21]
String Quartet no 2 (1995) [12.22]
Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich; David Zinman – Gruppo Musica Insieme di Cremona – Schlesisches Streichquartett – Johannes Nied (double bass) – Victoria Ifrim (percussion) – Susanne Stelzenbach (piano) – Eiko Morikawa (Soprano) – Sarah Hornsby (flute) – Daniel Göritz (guitar) – Ralf Hoyer (live electronics)
rec 1986-2002, Swiss Radio DRS2


National radio institutions have for some years been amongst the most prominent promoters of new music; often with a highly nationalistic bias, but nonetheless the number of recordings of contemporary music made available through radio broadcast recordings, and which would never have been possible in a purely commercial environment, is a constant credit to such corporations. With the current popularity of ‘in house’ record labels there is an additional outlet for this material, creating an easily accessible way for the listener to become familiar with composers whose reputation does not yet necessarily extend far beyond national borders.

The Swiss composer Max Keller benefits in just this way from this compilation of recordings largely made by Swiss Radio DRS2 over the last 15 years. A product of the German compositional teaching process of the 1960s and 1970s, including study at the famous Darmstadt summer courses in the early 1970s and at the electronic music studio of the conservatorium in Basel from 1976-7, Keller’s music resounds with the rigorous structural elements so characteristic of the period. This is not to say that Keller is stuck in a time warp, however; merely that he brings to his own compositions a background of theoretical and compositional strictness that gives his works, although often quite long, a strong sense of organic growth and direction. How often one laments contemporary composers’ wealth of ideas left to wander in an uncoordinated muddle. The irony behind this, in Keller’s case, is that for some years he was a prominent exponent of free jazz, that most unstructured of musical activities. It is this breadth of experience that seems to imbue most of Keller’s music.

The opening Mondlandschaft (Moon landscape) is an atmospheric work in which the winds of the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra are excellently marshalled by David Zinman. Bold, block chordal gestures contrast with a variety of subtle quiet noises, sometimes unpitched, sometimes more melodic. The three movements are based on the same pattern of durations, although employing different tempi. The juxtaposition of contrasts makes for a strongly ordered composition, and yet the overall feel is almost impressionistic.

The sense of dialogue that comes in Dialoguefelder (Dialogue fields) is generated more by the similarities and differences of the two instruments – double bass and percussion. Frequently the percussion is used in the subtlest ways, gentle brushes stroking a surface, while the double bass is treated almost aggressively in a percussionistic manner. This area of similarity and difference "shows that a dialogue starting from a point of contrast can become just as intensive an ensemble-passage as a dialogue using homogenous means" (Keller).

Progressionen for three winds, three strings and piano is the oldest work on the disc and has an aspect of almost classical balance about it. Dating from 1981 it largely eschews extended techniques and makes greater use of traditional melodic structures. The cleanliness of the performance by the Gruppo Musica Insieme di Cremona is admirable, especially in the balance of wind, string and piano textures. As the piece forms contrasts of smooth melodic material and short spiky gestures there is a constant issue of background and foreground presentation, which is clearly resolved in this performance.

Far more modern in impact is agieren und reagieren (action and reaction) [the lack of capitals is an unexplained oddity] although the compositional processes are strikingly similar. A juxtaposition of two contrasting tonal elements forms a synthesis of electronic and acoustic sounds that Keller then manipulates in varied ways. The electronics involved are a readily accessible (although powerful) synthesiser of a kind used by jazz and rock guitarists. Unfortunately the otherwise comprehensive booklet notes do not actually say what the instrument is. The idea behind the synthesiser is that the electronics are not a passive reaction to the piano sound, but an active duo partner. Once again structure is a driving and unifying force in the work. Six sections correspond to six types of electronic transformation and use a particular selection from six piano figures. Thus, although this work is nearly 15 minutes long, it does not, as so often, appear to ramble. Susanne Stelzenbach plays with controlled panache throughout and the recording, which can be a real challenge with both acoustic and amplified sounds present in a live situation, is clean and warm.

Another recent work is Deformationen from 1998. Using texts by the composer and the subtle instrumentation of soprano, flute and guitar, this work is a relatively conservative song cycle in something approaching the traditional manner, put also showing elements of being a miniature opera. Functional harmony is employed, the flute is largely melodic and the vocal writing wisely avoids the "leap-randomly-about-and-add-screeching" school of text setting. The result is a work showing less of Keller’s interest in contrast, but more in a sense of unity of intention to powerfully convey meaning. From the idea of Deformation, Keller’s texts focus on the perversions of contemporary global ideas. As Keller puts it "freedom becomes boundless consumerism … schooling becomes an economised education market; Olympic Games become a means to hide social problems." The strongly theatrical aspect of the songs works particularly well in pointing out these uncomfortable features of our modern, somewhat smug, comfort.

The Second String Quartet is almost entirely an exercise in rigorously structured composition. Five very different ideas form the material and these are subjected to a (not always apparent) process of variation. Each of the variations has a different ‘topic’; the first being essentially a deception, the second having to do with incompleteness, the third distortion, and the forth the fragmentary. The impression given to the listener is not necessarily one of apparent structural rigour, but of ensemble virtuosity. Although the four players act more independently that in a classical quartet, there are still areas of ensemble uniformity, but these remain essentially islands within a disparate musical seascape. The Schlesisches Streichquartett give a performance of considerable conviction and confidence and the recording (a live performance from 1996 recorded in the Studios Aga-Ton in Krakau, and the only recording on this disc not from DSR2) is admirable, even to the extremes of dynamic without distortion of the recording levels.

Altogether this disc is varied and interesting. Not the usual run of burbling noises that lasts for too long doing the same thing, but intelligent and highly crafted music. Certainly this music demands something of the listener; it is not dinnertime background music – but the careful listener will certainly find something to think about on this disc.

Peter Wells



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