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Joseph SCHWANTNER (b.1943)
Sparrows (1980) [16:31]
Soaring * (1987) [1:38]
Distant Runes and Incantations (1987) [14:54]
Two Poems of Aguedo Pizarro (1980) [11:43]
Music of Amber (1981) [20:16]
Britta Stallmeister (soprano), Florian Hölscher (piano)
Holst-Sinfonietta/Klaus Simon (Director and piano)
* denotes world première recording
Recorded at the Theodor-Egel-Saal and Mozartsaal, Freiburg, Germany, from 9-11 May, 21 July 2003

Persist beyond the clanging, echoing opening discords of ‘Sparrows’ and you will find a composer who, if you didn’t already know his music, has a real creative individuality, and a fine ear for the texture of sound. This first work, which sets the fifteen stanzas of a translated Japanese poem, is scored for solo soprano, with an instrumental ensemble of flute, clarinet, harp, percussion, piano and string trio. The music has a luminosity which recalls the Britten of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A curious Neo-Classicism steals into the music at the words ‘And, when I die,/ Be thou guardian of my tomb,/ Grasshopper’, leading the piece to its gentle conclusion. A satisfying piece, and Schwantner has the ideal soloist in Britta Stallmeister who moulds the demanding and very high soprano part wonderfully well. One of the most impressive things is that her words are so good, a quality rarely possessed by very high voices like hers.

‘Soaring’ that follows is a tiny piece for flute and piano, and, as these two instruments feature prominently in ‘Sparrows’, it feels like a postlude to that longer work. ‘Distant Runes and Incantations’ is more extended, and was originally written in 1984 as a concerted piece for amplified piano and orchestra. It appears here in a chamber arrangement the composer made in 1987, and would be immediately recognisable as originating from the same composer as ‘Sparrows’, though, as the title suggests, it is darker and more hieratic.

‘Two Poems of Aguedo Pizarro’ consist of the jagged ‘Shadowinnower’, receiving its première recording, and the lullaby-like ‘Black Anemones’, with a warmly expansive vocal line. The accompaniment is for piano solo, but Schwantner shows his love for the subtly exotic in the little touches from the crotales (small tuned cymbals).

The disc is completed by ‘Music of Amber’, which won first prize in the chamber music category in the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award in the year of its composition, 1981. (‘Bernstein’, by the way, is the German word for ‘Amber’ – just thought I’d mention that!). This is a two-movement work for an ensemble of flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin and ‘cello, and, as with ‘Distant Runes and Incantations’, the composer provides a poem as a kind of lyrical programme-note, which is a nice idea. ‘Wind Willow Whisper’ is, as its alliterative title suggests, full of atmospheric sounds, such as air blown through wind instruments. ‘Sanctuary’, on the other hand, is a restless piece, driven hither and thither by its jagged percussion rhythms. Evocative though this music is, it is tightly bound together by a short motif, whose notes are present in the first chiming discord of ‘Wind Willow Whisper’. Additional unusual colouring is provided by wordless vocalisation by the instrumentalists.

This is attractive, finely crafted music, not difficult to listen to for someone whose tastes are at all attuned to post-WW2 music, and it has received excellent performances from all the musicians involved here. As so often with Naxos, the recording is outstandingly good, capturing to perfection the distinctive sound-world of Schwantner’s compositions.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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