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MGB Records (Migros-Genossenschafts-Bund)

Resonanzen: Paul Sacher – Conductor and Advocate in Music
CD 1: Monumentum pro Igor Strawinsky
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Monumentum pro Gesualdo di Venosa (1960) [6:57]
Abraham and Isaac (1962-63) [12:27]
A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer (1961) [16:00]
Symphony in 3 Moments (1942-45) [21:52]
CD 2: Klassik und Klassizistische Moderne
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphonie in G minor Hob.I:39 (ca.1768) [18:35]
Bohuslav MARTINU (1890-1959)
Mahnmal für Lidice (1943) [7:52]
Frank MARTIN (1890-1974)
Ballade für Cello und kleines Orchester (1949) [18:05]
Bela BARTOK (1881-1945)
Musik für Saiteninstrumente, Schlagzeug und Celesta (1936) [28:58]
CD 3: Jubiläum und Abschied
Luciano BERIO (1925-2003)
Ritorno degli Snovidenia (1967) [19:57]
Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
Les Malheurs d'Orphée op.85 (1924) [36:31]
CD 4: An der Seite von Paul Sacher: Heinz Holliger
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Oboenkonzert C-Dur K314/285d (1777) [20:17]
Wolfgang FORTNER (1907-1987)
Aulodie (1966) [20:31]
Heinz HOLLIGER (b.1939)
Zwei Liszt-Transkriptionen für grosses Orchester (1986) [12:30]
Turm-Musik für Flöte, kleines Orchester und Tonband (1984) [25:34]
rec. CD 1 live, 19 November 1965, Herkulessaal der Residenz, Munchen; Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks; CD 2 8 December 1961 (Haydn), 2-3 April 1964 (Martinu), 16 January 1985 (Martin, Bartok). SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg; CD 3 live, 20 January 1977 (Berio), 7 May 1987 (Milhaud) Musiksaal, Basel.
Basler Kammerchor (Milhaud); Basler Kammerorchester; CD 4 live, 26 May 1966 Baden-Baden (Mozart, Fortner), SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg. 12 February 1987 BKO-konzert (Holliger), Basler Sinfonie-Orchester (locations not given). 
Paul Sacher (conductor)
Derrik Olsen (baritone – Abraham and Isaac)
Heinrich Schiff (cello) – (Martin)
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello) - (Berio)
Heinz Holliger (oboe) – (Mozart, Fortner). Conductor: Liszt Transcriptionen, Turm-Musik
Aurèle Nicolet (flute) (Turm-Musik)
MUSIQUES SUISSES MGB CD 6240 [4 CDs: 57:20 + 73:36 + 56:38 + 78:56]

One of the most powerful names in music in the last century, Paul Sacher (1906-1999) became one of the richest men in the world having married the heiress of the pharmaceutical company, Hoffmann-La Roche. He used his wealth to commission over 300 pieces from composers and conduct many of the premieres - including Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Sacher’s passion for new music led him to found an orchestra in his native Basle and transform musical life there so that it became a magnet for leading musicians and composers.  This useful and entertaining issue marks the 100th year of Sacher’s birth. It has been produced in association with the Paul Sacher Foundation based in Basle, who are also responsible for the vast archive of composer autograph scores which Sacher bought, including the Webern and Stravinsky archives. The substantial booklet notes cover each work in detail, including dates of premieres, composer’s notes and Sacher’s association with each piece down to the number of times he conducted them. This background, amply illustrated by composers’ sketches and photographic portraits, is a valuable resource, bringing together all kinds of quotes and anecdotes from a remarkable variety of sources. I do not propose going over the historical points in any significant way here, but rest assured – this is a substantial document which would be a boost to any library.

Each CD is given its own title, and the first is ‘Monument to Igor Stravinsky’. All of the recordings come from one concert, and were intended by Sacher as a portrait of what he saw as a ‘man of the century.’ Three late works, one of which, A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer being dedicated to Sacher, make this something of a tough nut to crack even today. The Monumentum pro Gesualdo are ‘Three madrigals recomposed for instruments’ intended for Gesualdo’s 400th anniversary and are a subtle meeting of the old and the new. They were much admired and frequently programmed by Sacher, who gets a decent performance despite one or two moments of itchy tuning in the winds. Abraham and Isaac, Stravinsky’s ‘sacred ballad’ had been given its premiere in 1964 and so was still very new in 1965. Sung in Hebrew and very much in a serial idiom, the work has an undoubtedly powerful intensity, though I have never really been convinced by the presentation of Biblical dialogue by one singer – all too often it becomes more of a ‘recitation’ monologue, and while Derrik Olsen is a strong soloist the dynamic contrasts which are supposed to provide individual characterizations don’t really come through.

Another ‘hard’ work, A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer at least has the gentler edge of a choir to soften the serial pill. Like many of these performances, there is a sense of exploration in the way the work unfolds. No doubt the work was well rehearsed, but you can’t help sensing a feeling of tentativeness here and there. The Symphony in Three Movements, despite being a more established ‘middle period’ work also shows its technical demands here. Powerful in conception and execution, you can hear the strings struggling a little here and there, especially in the last movement, where there is more than one moment of rhythmic uncertainty. One or two players seem hell-bent on anticipating disastrously, something which happens even in the relatively straightforward opening of the Andante. These live concert recordings are very good despite the very ‘live’ nature of some aspects of the performances. As early concert registrations of late Stravinsky they are invaluable as historic documents.

CD 2 is ‘Classic and Classical modern.’ Haydn’s Symphony No.39 might seem a strange choice, but Sacher was a great fan of the old master, and this combined with SWR chief Heinrich Strobel’s predilection for including lesser-known Haydn symphonies alongside 20th century repertoire provides the answer. Sacher proves a responsive and elegant advocate of Haydn, making even some of the repeats sound exciting. Despite the mono sound, you can hear authentic harpsichord continuo in the background.

Martinu’s Memorial for Lidice was written as a musical response to the Nazi ‘act of reprisal’ upon the village of Lidice near Prague, in which all of the men were killed and the women and children abducted. Martinu’s strong association with Sacher was already well established, having received the commission for the ‘Double Concerto’ in 1938, the point at which, while staying at Sacher’s house, Martinu and his wife were obliged to return to France and thence to the USA by the German invasion of his home country. The performance here is genuinely impassioned, the elegiac nature of the composer’s lamentation safe in the hands of the friend in whose arms he had died only five years before.

Frank Martin’s Ballad for cello and small orchestra brings us fully up-to-date as regards recording standards, and Heinrich Schiff’s cello sounds full-blooded and resonant. Martin’s own notes ascribe to the piece a ‘lyrical and epic’ character, and the slow, sustained nature of much of the music reflect this well. This was to be Sacher’s last Radio concert, and the Swiss-born conductor was keen to revive the fortunes of his fellow countryman, interest in whose music had declined considerably in the years after his death.

Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was written at the request of Paul Sacher, and the booklet includes the composer’s letter to Sacher describing his intentions for the piece. It is one of the most important of Sacher’s commissions, and has of course become a classic of the 20th century repertoire. The conductor is at one with the score, and it shows. The slow music is moving in its intensity and drama, although once again it is the strings that are a little ragged here and there. The rhythmic movements equally assured and refined, and the poise of the Allegro molto finale is unbeatable. The two slow movements from the piece were used at Paul Sacher’s funeral conducted by Pierre Boulez, and are an entirely appropriate memorial.

CD 3, ‘Jubiläum und Abschied’, covers the 50th anniversary concert of the Basler Kammerorchester with Berio’s Ritorno degli Snovidenia (The return of the Dreams), and Sacher’s farewell concert with the same orchestra with Milhaud’s three act opera, Les Malheurs d’Orphée (The Misfortunes of Orpheus). Written for Sacher and Mstislav Rostropovich, the cello part of Berio’s work is marked ‘sempre parlando’, and it does indeed seem as if the cello is conversing with the orchestra, suggesting themes and figures which are taken up, to be revisited and developed later. Some classic Berio textures emerge: long, sustained orchestral lines, interspersed with light, filigree comments from the piano. The textures and harmonies develop inexorably, climbing and tightening virtually without respite over two-thirds of the piece, after which an opening into sparer lines allows the soloist to return from within the previously overpowering orchestra, which ultimately climbs all over the solo part like insects.

The work of Darius Milhaud featured relatively rarely in Sacher’s programmest, but, having conducted this opera before in the 1950s and 1970s, the conductor paired it with Purcell’s ‘Dido and Aeneas’ as a parallel story set in antiquity, and carrying similar tragic themes. Milhaud’s setting of a text by his philosopher friend Armand Lunel is typically pungent and lively, shot through with dance rhythms and some appealing melodic lines. The cast is strong, and the singing affecting where required, and Milhaud without doubt has the musical character and personality to provide genuinely tragic scenes. The ‘Chorus of the animals’ has a suitably funereal feel – reinforced when they return at the funeral of Eurydice, and the descending lines associated with Eurydice’s demise make for suitably ‘sad’ theatre. You have to say – Purcell did it better, but for a modern ‘pocket opera’ Milhaud had great fun with his theme.

CD 4, titled ‘An der Seite von Paul Sacher: Heinz Holliger’ emphasizes the relationship between two musicians whose 33 year age gap seemed to mean nothing. Holliger is soloist in Mozart’s Oboe Concerto in C major K314/285d, which the composer later re-used when he was obliged to come up with another reluctant flute concerto. The 1966 recording is a little grainy, but the performance is good, and a suitable vehicle for Holliger’s flawless technique. Wolfgang Fortner’s Aulody, from the same concert, is defiant in its atonal serialism. To me, this is a far more interesting example of Holliger’s ability to play chameleon, with his oboe tracing lines which are shadowed by vibraphone, strings, percussion, brass – the solo instrument always clearly defined while absorbing the qualities of the accompanying orchestra. Fortner and Sacher’s relationship had its ups and downs, with Sacher’s initial enthusiasm faltering a little as Fortner turned to 12-tone serialism after 1945. Fortner succeeded Karl Amadeus Hartmann as artistic director of the Munich Musica Viva concert series, and it was one of his first programming decisions which saw Sacher conducting Stravinsky in the Hercules Hall, the concert recorded on CD 1 of this set.

Fortner’s work is not ‘easy’, but is certainly impressive in its orchestral colour – the spectrum including harpsichord, harp, tuned percussion – the solo oboe is sometimes merely the icing on a very rich cake. Heinz Holliger’s own compositional work is introduced with Two Liszt Transcriptions, which are most emphatically not literal transcriptions but works based around ‘Nuages gris’ and ‘Unstern!’ The first of these becomes a dark, almost subterranean work, with low winds heaving gently under sustained but fragmented melodic lines. The themes of the second are more overtly stated, but become a strange and enigmatic mix, somewhere between Mahler and Wagner with a touch of H.K. Gruber thrown in. Turm-Musik derives much of its material from Holliger’s own ‘Scardanelli Cycle’; a series of pieces which began in 1975. Turm-Musik is the last in the series, in which the flautist inhabits the imaginary world of a central character, Hölderlin, “that ‘mad’ ageing poet in the asylum tower … who listens to the virtuoso flute playing of his younger doppelganger …” This world of memory and association brings up some surrealist moments, in which apparent musical quotes drift in and out of perspective like paintings behind a smokescreen. Aurèle Nicolet’s flute playing is of course marvellously juicy – haunting with the lower flutes, spectacular on C flute – this is a piece which is rewarding on many levels.

This set is one of those fascinating objects which offer more than a glimpse, but less than the whole view on the career of one of the most influential figures in 20th century music. There is more to Paul Sacher, and if you revisit those boxes of LPs in the attic you will in all probability discover more for yourself. This segment of his work does however offer some of the more significant aspects of his musical legacy, and Musiques Suisses are to be complimented on a well conceived, produced and thoroughly enjoyable programme. Anyone interested in the foundations of a major portion of European music from the last century will find great treasures here, and while performances and recordings are frequently ‘historic’ this is entirely their value – they come straight from the horse’s source, and as such their intrinsic value is irrefutable.

Dominy Clements


MGB Records (Migros-Genossenschafts-Bund)




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