AVAILABILITY Musiques Suisses

Æquatour — Im Zwielicht
Caspar Johannes WALTER (b. 1964)
Drei Ansichten [13:48]
Heinz HOLLIGER (b. 1939)
Schwarzgewobene Trauer [6:24]
Rico GUBLER (b. 1972)
KAL [7:50]
Robert SCHUMANN  (1810-1856)
Zwielicht, from Op. 39 [2:48]
Nicolas A. HUBER (b. 1939)
Demijour [17:19]
Valentin MARTI (b. 1965)

Fernruf J12 [14:13]
Hans Ulrich LEHMANN (b. 1937)

Canticum II [10:14]
Ensemble Æquatour (Sylvia Nopper (soprano); Ingrid Karlen (piano); Matthias Arter (oboe/English horn); Tobias Moster (cello)
rec. 18-20 June 2006, Zurich Radio Studio

For some time now, there has been talk in the artistic community that there is little new under the sun.  Shakespeare mentions it too.  Writing classes discuss in depth the premise that there aren’t new situations, but only new ways to describe them, new outfits to hang on the same old set of bones.  What we have here is an interesting disc of attempts to find ways to sharpen the saw in the hope it will find purchase in new wood.
This release is part of a series of “portrait” discs from Musiques-Suisses, a series that Ensemble Æquatour are no strangers to, appearing also as performers for a recently-reviewed disc surveying the works of Mela Meierhans.  In this release, the ensemble themselves are the subject of this audible portrait. Æquatour - the group’s name is a multilingual pun, meaning both “equator” and “a quartet” - focus primarily on contemporary composers here, with a titular nod to Schumann, whose short song from Op. 39 forms the centrepiece.  The modern pieces are challenging and uncompromising, and those who have low tolerance for atonal music with soprano might find this a tough listen, but one has to give Musiques Suisses credit for once again looking for music that pushes the envelope.
Regarding the standouts, the disc starts with Drei Ansichten, or “Three Views,” by Cologne-based Caspar Johannes Walter, is based on the poem “Scherzo” by Giacomo Leopardi; the Italian text appears with a German translation in the booklet.  The future of Music and Art themselves are the focus of the piece, and here, the text and music work toward the centre of the issue from different angles.  The text, sung sensitively by Sylvia Nopper, seems to cover possibilities that all end up being tried-and-true tropes — imitation, talk of falling leaves, even the main conversation in the poem, that of a poet in discussion with a muse.  The music, wedded to such conventionalities, is challenging and quietly disturbing.  It may be its intent to portray the frustration of the Artist to find something new to say.  The accompaniment is sparse, filled with bent pitches and glissandi, much like the following piece by Heinz Hollinger, a student of Veress and Boulez, with text by Heinz Weder.
Weder’s much more darkly-shaded text more forthrightly fits the “twilight” theme of the disc, the piece opening with “Night, the borderless continent,” and ending with the words that form the title:  Mourning Woven in Black. Given such a text, the vocal line is more laden with emotion, with very expansive leaps in terms of range and tone, all of which are handled admirably by Nopper.  Aside from this, the work bears definite similarities to the Walter piece, with stark instrumental arrangements.  Overall the piece reminds one of Webern or, to some extent, Boulez, and it turns out that this piece was composed based on the tone row of Boulez’s Third Piano Sonata.
KAL, written by the young Rico Gubler, who has studied with Balz Trümpy - who also has had pieces represented on a recently-reviewed Musique Suisses release - has no text in the usual sense of the word, though it is scored for soprano; the vocal line is a collection of wordless syllables and vowels.   The booklet mentions a line (I don’t know who I am/ I don’t know what I can--/ I don’t know any more/ I can’t leave you) that appears in the piece. It could almost be a continuation of the conversation that the poet has with his muse in the Walter piece that opens the disc. It is this sort of eye to detail in sequencing a disc programme that I find greatly enjoyable in the Musiques Suisses releases I’ve heard thus far, challenging though some of the listening has been.
Following this third in a row of difficult, uncompromising pieces, we have the Schumann, serviceably performed by Nopper with Ingrid Karlen on piano. It almost seems as a brief reward of tonality and solace for listeners who have stuck with the programme this far, but in actuality it forms the springboard for the following piece by Nono and Stockhausen student Nicolas A. Huber.  This piece, like that the many metal roosters that appear on church roofs in much of the Western world, gives repeated, pointed reminders to be wakeful. The instrumentation is far less sparse — here we have far more interaction between the members of the ensemble than heard previously — ranging from quiet intimate moments that invite closer listening, to tense and loud discourses between Matthias Arter and Tobias Moster, on oboe and cello respectively.  All this said, regarding listening, it is up for debate how enjoyable such an aim of wakefulness is, which could be a question that some might ask in reference to all of the contemporary works on this release.  For those who find that some contemporary music has gotten a bit unchallenging and staid of late, look no further than this disc; there are works that strive to find new things under this old sun.
Musiques Suisses has kept its interest in presenting Swiss artists in a high-quality format.  As with the recently-reviewed companion disc of works by Mela Meierhans, this music isn’t for everybody, and even for those who have interest in avant-garde music, this might not be everyday listening.  This disc, as well as other discs in this series, certainly will be worth looking into for those who are interested in new music compellingly performed.
David Blomenberg


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