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Musiques Suisse


Mischa KÄSER (b. 1959)
Musik zu Alexander for soprano and ensemble (1995-2004) [24.06]
Rosemary Hardy (soprano)
Collegium Novum Zurich
Funf Stucke for clarinet and cello (1985-91) [12.46]
Ernesto Molinari (clarinet); David Inniger (cello)
Dupuy Tren for three recorder players (1992) [5.18]
Christine Omlin; Bryony Crawford; Hans-Jurg Meier
Nebul for flute, clarinet, trombone and string trio (2000-04) [34.26]
Collegium Nivum Zurich
rec. 11-12 October 2004 (Musik); RadioStudio Bern 26 June 2004 (Stücke); RadioStudio Zurich 1992 (Dupuy); RadioStudio Zurich 13 October 2004 (Nebul).
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The helpful forty-two page booklet gives us, in brief, the composer’s biography and a very useful list of compositions. As Käser is probably a new name for you - as he was for me - then I will give a brief outline of his achievements.
Käser was born in Zurich in 1959 and his earliest recognized piece dates from 1985, a curious work for eight guitars and ten recorders. He has trained as guitarist and studied composition under Hans-Ulrich Lehmann and Roland Moser. From 1990 he started to work with theatre music, and later with improvisational groups. Since 1985 he has been professor of guitar in Zurich. In addition he has also won several prizes for his works including the high profile Swiss Authors’ Society SSA for trans-disciplinary composition for the project ‘Sounding Sculptures’. That should all give us at least an inkling of what to expect.
I think that the most impressive work on the disc is the first one listed. Indeed I have been thinking of it as a real masterpiece. I find myself reminded of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire except that Käser has a singer not a speaker. I thought of Henze’s Voices except that Käser has only one vocal part. The text is by a single author; he called himself ‘Alexander’ but his real name was Ernst Herbeck. The words are in the booklet in German but, very sadly for us monoglot English-speakers, not translated. Herbeck was, how I can put it, a madman and was undergoing psychiatric treatment in 1960 when his therapist put the idea to him that he should try to express his inner self in poetry. This he did. The only one of these surrealist effusions that is translated can be found in the notes. It is the first song Der Morgen. ‘In Autumn strings the fairy wind/Since in the snow the/ Manes meet/Blackbirds whistle/In the wind and eat.’  This, at least gives you a flavour of the other poems which have been vaguely translated for me by a friend but which he doesn’t want me to put into print.
There is no doubt that it helps enormously to have a wonderful performance. Rosemary Hardy is exemplary in this difficult score. Her melodic lines are not always as angular and awkward as in Schoenberg. In fact they can sometimes be tonal, or modal - a little like a folk melody. However it is the contrasting accompanimental background with its polyrhythms, semi-improvisation and atonality, which she has to compete with, that creates the challenge. Also there is an emotional challenge in this music directly from the words. Passages alternate between the hushed and expectant and the despairing, powerful and often very dramatic. I was especially taken by Song 9 ‘Sudliche Winde’ in which the clarinet and flute wind lithe and unpredictable strands in a haze of delight around a gentle vocal line, which jumps and plays in sheer pleasure. It’s followed by ‘Die Zigarette’ which for just 29 seconds has a simulated stutter on Zs and Ss mirrored by similar vocal buzzing and percussion hisses. After that comes another contrast: a sort of patter song, ‘Ross und Reiter’, mirrored by equally frantic instrumental passages. I mention these three just to show you how, in the space of two minutes or so there is so much contrast. I love also ‘Stich’ – just 16 seconds duration but all on one note like a startled rabbit caught in a headlight and unable to move off the pitch. Number 14 of the 25 songs is ‘B’; just a sad little folksong.
I can pass over quite quickly the two short pieces. ‘Dupuy Tren’ is for three recorders. It gets increasingly awkward and indeed painful to play as it completes its five minutes course. The ‘Five Pieces’ for cello and clarinet (doubling bass clarinet) are just chippings from the composer’s workshop. They include some element of improvisation.
However the last work should detain us a little as it is a thirty-five minute chamber piece of some significance. Called ‘Nebul’ meaning ‘Fog’ It was started in November 2000 at a time of great fog in the composer’s town. The month of November started to play a strong role in its formation so that each of its seven movements is entitled November I, November II, III etc. Is it a descriptive work? Well, no, the composer categorically maintains. But to quote Käser: “I was more interested in moving, misty forms, than in an unalterable grey.” How does he achieve this? He does this by: 1. Voices moving in independent tempi; 2. Integrating chaotic states with ordered structure; 3. The spatial nature of tone colours and 4. Slow-moving nuanced shadings of harmony.
Much in this music happens slowly. November IV was striking. We begin with simple basic material comprising high-pitched noises from piccolo and percussion. These gradually move apart in tempi, alla Ligeti, or as the booklet writer says “The pulses experience a stretto”. He uses microtones as the music swims around seemingly aimlessly. Gradually melodies on harmonics emerge over this background. November V (Fish of the Fog) begins with a clarinet and then flute. It’s all very effervescent. Bassoon joins in and a violin plays strained harmonies above. Piccolo adds rhythmic squeaks. This is a fascinating and original piece; certainly repaying the listening time spent on it.
As for the disc as a whole, if you enjoy contemporary music with something new and original to say then it is well worth searching out. The booklet essay is lengthy and mostly pretentious although with some interesting and thoughtful comments. The performances are superb and the recording vivid and clear.
Gary Higginson


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