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.