Józef KOFFLER (1896-1944?)
String Trio Op.10 (1928) [16:01]
Die Liebe – Cantata Op.14 (1931) [12:54]
Konstanty REGAMEY (1907-1982)
Quintet for clarinet, bassoon, violin, cello and piano (1942-44) [31:01]
Barbara Hannigan (soprano) (Cantata)
Members of the Ebony Band/Werner Herbers
rec. 3 October 2009, Bachzaal, Amsterdam (Koffler), and live, 17 January 2007, Felix Meritis, Amsterdam (Regamy).

Let’s face it, there will always be vast quantities of composers you’ll never have heard of, and music you’ll probably never hear – which may never even be performed, ever. It takes the likes of Werner Herbers, artistic leader of the Ebony Band, to show us what we’re missing. His energetic search for unjustly neglected or forgotten composers and their work has been a feature of the music scene for many years now, bringing obscure but valuable pieces to vibrant life through the excellent Ebony Band. This disc is of chamber music, so Herbers is absent as conductor, but his foreword to the CD outlines his decision to perform these pieces and describes how Koffler and Regamey has been received by the players: “never have I seen my musicians react so enthusiastically and emotionally to music I have placed before them.” He also asks why these pieces are so rarely heard – are they too technically demanding, too subtle for our time?

Both of these composers are Polish. Koffler is noted as being the first and for a long time the only Polish composer to embrace Schoenbergian 12-note serialism, like Berg, integrating it into neo-classical and expressionist styles. Koffler was recognised in his own time, publishing articles and holding respectable posts, promoting contemporary Polish music and being involved in the ISCM – his work mostly being performed locally in his adopted home town of Lvov. Little is known about the fate of him and his family, and the question mark against his final year speaks untold volumes. They are thought to have been killed by the Nazis in 1944 while attempting to find somewhere to hide beyond Lvov.

The String Trio Op.10 brought the composer international recognition, and deservedly so. With a classical three movement structure and a clear sense of counterpoint and thematic development, much of the actual music reminded me a little of the Beethoven of the Grosse Fuge but without that particular piece’s gruff perversities. Like all good string trios, it gives the sense of wider perspectives than you would expect from just three instruments, with depth of texture and a good deal of dynamic layering and interchange. The atonal/serial nature of the music becomes forgotten in Koffler’s expressive melodic shapes and phrases – particularly in a beautiful central Andante (molto cantabile). The musicians here play with absolute control and intense sensitivity, bringing grace and poetry to a score which already possesses these qualities, but responds extremely well to this best of performances.

Die Liebe – Cantata Op.14 uses a biblical text, the 13th chapter of St. Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians. This is given in German in the booklet, but without further translation. The words are invested with the utmost expressive content, the serial techniques used with a great deal of flexibility, and the piece has a intensely romantic feel which takes numerous steps away from more objective feeling vocal scores of Schoenberg. By way of reference there is a faint whiff of Pierrot Lunaire here and there, but certainly no sprechstimme, and the vocal lines and instrumental material falls almost entirely within what almost could be described a delicate, gently expressive late romantic idiom. Barbara Hannigan’s singing is perfect, integrating with the instruments, retaining character without any kind of overblown histrionics. Words can’t really communicate the qualities of this music. It always sounds simple, accessible, moving. What more could you want?

In terms of chronology, Konstanty Ragamy followed Koffler into use of dodecaphony, with a starting point which aimed at showing atonality to be a technical device rather than a stylistic choice. He began composing in earnest during the war years, when concerts had to be given on a secretive underground basis. Born into a musical family which was disrupted dramatically but entirely clandestinely by the Stalinist purges, Regamy rose to prominence in Warsaw before WWII and became active within the resistance. After the war he settled in Switzerland, working as an indologist.

Regamey’s Quintet for clarinet, bassoon, violin, cello and piano has a more extrovert feel compared with Koffler’s pieces. The Quintet is quite a ‘concerto for soloists’ at times, with equality among the instruments, virtuoso interaction and plenty of juicy solos. The piece is shaped fairly classically, with the first movement at over 17 minutes longer than the other two put together. There are some remarkable effects in this movement, including some atmospheric trembling, and some remarkable juxtapositions. After some jocular bassoon-heavy fooling around the music enters a passage of some of the most expressive chamber music writing I’ve ever heard, from exactly 10 minutes in to be precise. This Tema con variazioni is followed by a slow Intermezzo romantic with long melodic lines and a dramatic sense of climax. The third movement is a Rondo (vivace giocoso), which has an exhilarating drive, combining a Tom and Jerry sense of fun with some serious compositional development and some weighty musical argument.

As with many ‘Ebony Band’ recordings, there is a live feel to the performances even where the recordings have been done without an audience. The Quintet was recorded in Amsterdam’s remarkable Felix Meritis concert hall, the location which served as the main venue before the Concertgebouw was built and a location dripping with a palpable sense of history. There are one or two very slight extraneous noises in this live recording, but nothing which takes away from a superlative performance. The Koffler pieces ooze quality at every level, easily filling the spacious acoustic of the Bachzaal. This entire programme is like a gem found amongst the burnt ravages of war and occupation, in Konstanty Regamy’s case standing as an inspirational landmark of creativity in times of extreme adversity, all done with no sense of nationalist fervour or jingoism. It is a tragedy that so few of Jósef Koffler’s works survive, but both of the pieces here are more than just a fine memorial. Are these works to demanding, too subtle? They demand attention certainly, and are a veritable kaleidoscope of subtle invention, soundly refuting any preconceived ideas of dodecaphonic unattractiveness. Laurels to all concerned here for providing us with fabulous new discoveries way outside the normal repertoire.

Dominy Clements

Step outside the usual repertoire and discover some rare gems.