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Piet SWERTS (b. 1960)
Clarinet Quintet (2001)a [32:30]
String Quartet No.2 (1998)b [30:06]
Roeland Hendrikx (clarinet)a; Tempera String Quarteta; Spiegel String Quartetb
rec. Casino, Beringen, February 2003 (Clarinet Quintet) and Academiezaal, Sint Truiden, May 2005 (String Quartet No.2)
PHAEDRA 92045 [62:36]

Now in his mid-forties, Piet Swerts is a versatile musician and prolific composer with a considerable output to his credit. This includes many piano pieces, several concertos (five for piano, two for violin, one for guitar, one for saxophone, one for clarinet and one for cello), two symphonies (1990 and 1997), two string quartets (1991 and 1998), a large-scale St. Mark Passion (1988/9) and an opera Les liaisons dangereuses (1994/6). His second piano concerto Rotations was the test piece for the finals of the Queen Elizabeth Competition in 1986 whereas his violin concerto Zodiac, awarded the first prize of the QEC for composition, was the test piece for the finals of the QEC in 1992.

As amply demonstrated by the two chamber works recorded in this recent Phaedra release, his music is characterised by a remarkable formal and instrumental mastery as well as by a great expressive strength. Here is a composer who has things to say and who knows how to say them, regardless of any current trends and fashions.

The String Quartet No.2 is one of the first works written after the hard work on the opera Les liaisons dangereuses, the troubled production of which "had left its traces" (the composer’s words). The Second String Quartet is a substantial work in four movements; and its emotional weight lies in the long slow movement. The piece opens with a short prelude in two parts, i.e. a slow intense introduction (Grave) leading into an Allegro con sarcasmo somewhat redolent of Shostakovich. This is followed by a lively Scherzo (Canzone di gioia) with a slower, more lyrical trio. The slow movement (Canto funebre) depicts a bleak and desolate ‘landscape of the mind’ ending with an abrupt fit of anger leading straight into the furious Finale (La violenza) in which the heavily hammered chords heard at the end of the preceding movement help sustain the rough energy displayed in the concluding movement. The Second String Quartet is probably one of Swerts’ most intensely personal works, and contains some of the finest music he has penned so far. The composer admits that "(the Second String Quartet) reflects the inner life of the composer at the time of its composition" (which may of course be said of many pieces of music). The composer does not offer any further clue but the music speaks for itself in abstract, universal terms. We can easily imagine the composer reflecting on our troubled world with some bitterness and disillusion.

In writing his Clarinet Quintet, Swerts wanted to compose a more lyrical work than his somewhat earlier Clarinet Concerto (1997). The quintet is thus devised as a suite in five contrasted movements of which the fifth (Rondo) was written first. The fourth (Elegia) is more substantial and, again, the emotional core of the piece. The Clarinet Quintet is lighter in mood than the Second String Quartet and does not exclude humour, as in the Scherzo that clearly alludes to Johann Strauss. The opening Serenata is "cinematic, sometimes desolate, sometimes acrimonious like Shostakovich". The music often has bittersweet overtones. The following Notturno is a beautiful, tranquil reverie. As already mentioned, the whimsical Scherzo alludes to waltz rhythms and briefly quotes Johann Strauss; echoes here of grotesque scherzos à la Shostakovich. The Elegia is in complete contrast; and, like the earlier Notturno, is another fine example of Swerts’ natural lyricism, although the Elegia is tenser and more desolate. The accumulated tension is finally released in the high spirits of the concluding, virtuosic and brilliant Rondo.

Both pieces receive polished and dedicated performances. The young ladies of the Tempera Quartet support Roeland Hendrikx’s immaculate playing with aplomb and conviction, whereas the Spiegel Quartet obviously have the full measure of the emotionally complex Second String Quartet. Wholeheartedly recommended.

Hubert Culot



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