Musiques-Suisses has been issuing a clutch of rather interesting
recordings, of which a couple have been reviewed on this site.
Of the most recent releases, we here have the two volumes of Swiss
horn quartets, with works dating from pre-World War 1 to 2004.
None of these composers were familiar to me, and the liner notes,
which were greatly helpful, include various insights into the
The opening Légende of Templeton
Strong is the earliest piece, the longest single movement on
Disc 1, and is the most typical in sound that one would expect
a horn quartet to have. The overall effect of the piece is Late
Romantic, the tonality Wagnerian. The opening theme gives way
to an energetic march second section, which progresses to a
quiet, lyrical interlude before revisiting the theme that begins
the piece. The composer indicates sections where the instrumentalists
are to play with the bell up to “make use of the raw, dark,
threatening sound of the horn” and, though the sonority of the
piece upstages any overtones of threat, the horns here are certainly
proclamatory. An enjoyable work.
Immediately following we have a very different
sound, that of Erik Szekely, who taught at the Neuchatel Cantonal
Grammar School, as well as at Neuenberg, has various other works
for ensemble, including two works for horn and piano. The Aubade
opens with faint held notes in the background as a recurring
motif of a descending minor third is recited by various members
of the ensemble, with both mutes and stops. The following Sequence
is highly syncopated and dance-like, with quick changes
to stopped notes and back. The influence on the music here is
Hungarian rather than that of Germany or Austria.
The Panorama of 1974 by Ernst Widmer
begins with a movement entitled Horizontal — a constant
held E, as flat and uninflected as the horizon itself, combined
with valve noise to evoke wing noise, occasional elephant-like
outbursts and then pianissimo sung notes. Vertical,
the second movement, uses a motif of arpeggiated notes descending
from an initial held note by one of the quartet, giving an atmosphere
much like that found in Brian Eno’s Music for Airports
of 1978. Obliquo and Canone, the following movements,
are fanfare-like and short, both under a minute long, with noise
from mouthpieces removed from the instruments adding some spice.
Tangente, the final movement of Panorama, opens up in
almost liturgical fashion. The liner-notes mention that this
could be seen as an “adagio of Brucknerian seriousness”, but
the sound-world here is, to these ears, most evocative of Pärt,
with a recurring motif of an ascending minor third.
Partikel, by Daniel Lienhard, is based, as the composer mentions,
on mosaic tiles, each section “making sense as part of a greater
whole.” A note series, which varies in timings, unifies the
piece. Again, we have some sort of similarity in method, if
not in sound, to Brian Eno, whose Discreet Music uses
Pachelbel’s Canon in somewhat the same manner, slowing down
or speeding up the note values until the piece becomes a wash
of color, as Partikel certainly does in its last two
minutes before it fades out.
Andreas Pfluger, who has worked recently
with the Prague State Opera in productions of his operas The
Physicists and Grand, is included on this release
with Resonances of 1987. The piece, according to the
composer stems from “the idea of time that dissipates that belonged
to the future and in a moment will already belong to the past.”
Of the seven movements here, which are numbered, but without
titles, the fifth is particularly striking, opening with the
quiet drone of airplanes, which builds to a fortissimo
section that ends suddenly. The unsettling section that comes
immediately after has one of the instruments briefly sounding
almost like, and I’m not kidding, a cello.
Closing Disc 1 is Roland Moser, who studied
with Sandor Veress and is a member of the New Horizons Ensemble
of Berne. Ton in Ton pulls material from an earlier work,
Bilderflucht of 1990, which was performed by different
orchestral groups, one of which was a horn quartet. This material
for horn quartet was pulled, with introductory and closing material
added. The new material is generally - aside from the initial
dying chord - fanfarish in nature, surrounding the quiet and
more pensive central section.
All but one of the pieces on Disc 2 were
composed in the 1950s. This volume starts off with the Op. 20
Three Pieces for Four Horns by Juliusz-François Zbinden,
composed in 1953. The prelude that opens the work fits into
typical sonata ABA form. The Aria, as one would expect,
focuses in one melodic line, performed while the other horns
provide rhythmic and chordal support. The melody is repeated,
with muted soloist — the movement sounding like an occasionally
wry look back — a slightly sarcastic nostalgia. The following
finale tosses the melodic line from horn to horn, which the
Hornquartett Zurich do faultlessly.
The following piece by Richard Flury,
by its very name, implies a certain sense of the established
sound of what horns “should” sound like, and indeed we have
a far more conventional tone established at the outset of the
first movement. The writing here calls up the sound of over
a generation before, not far removed from the Légende
by Templeton Strong on Disc 1.
Equally, one can tell by the name that
we have a different approach with the following work, the Divertimento
preistorico of Carlo Florindo Semini, who studied in Italy
during the ’Thirties. Upon his return to Switzerland, be worked
for Swiss-Italian Radio, becoming its Head from 1966 to 1980.
Regarding the Divertimento, this is program music, tracing
the early development of Mankind, beginning with a sort of curtain-raiser
introduction that evokes the wilderness of the earliest of days
on Earth. The piece has humour, too, with its second movement,
in which cavemen make their first appearance in a sort of awkward
march. By the third movement, which serves as a sort of adagio
to this divertimento, Mankind builds houses, and in the
final triumphant movement, they celebrate the harvest. The piece
holds interest, but to these ears doesn’t make as substantial
a statement as the Zbinden or the Pfluger works do.
Alphonse Roy’s Horn Quartet follows. Roy
studied with Volkmar Andreae, of Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra fame.
He also enjoyed a long career playing flute, first in the Lugano
Orchestra and then the Geneva-based Orchestre de la Suisse Romande.
Roy’s creative output centres on chamber/small ensemble music.
A bit of a surprise in the centre of the somewhat pensive middle
Andante is, before a pause, the familiar DSCH name motto
of Shostakovich, only here it is transposed down a fourth. This
motto isn’t developed in the movement to any degree, and the
composition dates of Shostakovich’s DSCH-centred works make
it unlikely that this is a specific reference, but its centralised
location is certainly curious. The atmosphere is not so bleak
or obsessive as that in Shostakovich’s Op. 110, but instead
has a warmth about it. The final Allegro deciso is an
energetic fugue, tossing the thematic material back and forth
amongst the members of the ensemble. An interesting work and
one which I have returned to often.
Closing the disc is 2001’s Azur
by Jean-Luc Darbellay. Darbellay, who graduated in clarinet
from the Berne Conservatory, was commissioned to write a piece
for the fiftieth anniversary of the Leipzig Horn Quartet. The
piece, as the composer mentions in the notes, is a sort of “small
scale requiem,” and indeed, the sub-title gives us a good sense
of this: Tuesday, 11 September 2001…NYC under an azure sky.
The work begins peacefully, if rather expectantly, suggesting
the cloudless clarity of the blue sky on that day, then building
in tension that subsides back to the sparse line of the held
notes found at the beginning of the piece before making a more
gradual build-up in tension toward the very end, which ends
abruptly, suggesting perhaps the impact of the planes, though
in the notes Darbellay mentions that the piece shows that “life
goes on, despite everything”. The piece for me wasn’t particularly
compelling, but I’ll leave the decision up to other listeners.
Overall these two discs offer a consistent
and interesting series of works. The performances of both the
Dauprat and the Zurich Horn Quartets are top-notch, as is the
recording quality, which matches the ease and clarity the instrumentalists
display. Recommended, especially for fans of brass music.