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Joseph SCHWANTNER (b. 1943)
Sparrows (1979)a [16:31]
Soaring (1986)b [1:38]
Distant Runes and Incantations (1984, arr. 1987)c [14:54]
Two Poems of Aguedo Pizarro (1980)d [11:43]
Music of Amber (1981)e [20:16]
Britta Stallmeister (soprano)ad; Florian Hölscher (piano)c
Holst-Sinfonietta/Klaus Simon (director and pianobd)
Recorded: Theodor-Egel-Saal and Mozartsaal, Freiburg, May and July 2003
NAXOS 8.559206 [65:02]


American-born Joseph Schwantner, now in his early sixties, has a substantial and varied output to his credit. His music, always well-crafted and inventive, has been admittedly influenced by Crumb, Messiaen and Debussy. The latter’s influence may be most clearly heard in the subtle scoring of Sparrows, a setting of fifteen haiku by the 18th century Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa in English translation. The music echoes the various moods and feelings suggested by the often simple and direct words. It does so with a remarkable subtlety and inventiveness; and the scoring for chamber ensemble abounds with many felicitous touches without resorting to any “gimmicks”. The players’ soft humming at the beginning and in the coda of the piece adds to the instrumental colours in a simple but highly effective way. A marvellous piece by any count and, as far as I am concerned, the real gem in this selection from Schwantner’s chamber music. 

Soaring for flute and piano is a short, very short piece [1:38] that, true to its title, opens in a close, animated dialogue between both instruments before quickly fading away in the ethereal coda. 

The original version of Distant Runes and Incantations is a concerto-like piece for piano and orchestra composed in 1984. Three years later, the composer made the chamber version heard here and re-scored it for flute (doubling piccolo and alto flute), clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), percussion and string quartet. Though not overtly programmatic, the music is inspired by a text by the composer (printed in the insert notes) suggesting moods, feelings and images. The chamber version sounds entirely satisfying, as far as I can judge; but I would really like to hear the original orchestral version.  

The Two Poems of Aguedo Pizarro written for Lucy Shelton form a nicely contrasted diptych also characterised by some inventive writing. Although written for soprano and piano, the “scoring” also includes parts for crotales and pipe (I wonder what this may be, a whistle? A recorder?) played by both singer and pianist, which again add some mysterious atmosphere to parts of the settings, particularly in the first song. 

The diptych Music of Amber, that ends this very fine release, started with the first movement Wind Willow Whisper being written as a separate piece. It was however found too short, so that the second part Sanctuary was soon completed and the first part slightly revised with some more percussion. Again all of Schwantner’s hallmarks are there. The scoring for six players (flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin and cello) is as inventive as ever, and the whole diptych is a colourful and contrasted piece of atmospheric and evocative music. 

Schwantner’s music was new to me, although I had heard a far too short snippet from his Percussion Concerto to have any idea about it; and, judging by the attractive pieces heard here, I found it accessible, colourful, well-crafted and quite inventive in its own way. It is well served by excellent performances by the German-based Holst-Sinfonietta, whose director Klaus Simon also wrote the informative insert notes. There is definitely much to enjoy in this highly commendable release. 

Hubert Culot 



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