Kurt SCHWERTSIK (b.1935)
Nachtmusiken, op.104 (2010) [23:30]
Herr K. Entdeckt Amerika, op.101 (2008) [14:38]
Baumgesänge, op.65 (1992) [21:26]
BBC Philharmonic/H K Gruber
rec. Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, England, 4-6 August 2010. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN10687 [59:52]
To read that, as a young man, Austrian composer Kurt Schwertsik attended the same classes as Stockhausen, Nono, Cage and Kagel, and was a close friend of Cornelius Cardew, might set alarm bells ringing in some people. These are hardly stayed by the fact that the conductor on this disc is H K Gruber, another colleague and good friend - to judge by the photos, the two could almost be brothers! Yet Schwertsik turned his back on the trendy avant-garde almost right away, and for most music-lovers, acquiring a taste for his music should be as straightforward as acquiring this CD.
The composition dates can be put aside as immaterial: this is a disc of elegantly orchestrated, witty, generally melodic, almost film-suite-style music, written for audience enjoyment rather than maven approbation. It is hard not to hear other composers in Schwertsik's writing. Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Copland, Arnold, Prokofiev and especially, and repeatedly, Mahler are all brought to mind here, where not directly paraphrased - and perhaps therein lies his certain appeal to a wider public. So much is obvious from the seductive Nachtmusiken op.104 that opens the programme, an atmospheric five-movement sequence "of urban nocturnes, elegies, memories and philosophisings under the cloak of darkness."
On the other hand, Schwertsik is probably not going to win many prizes for originality. Gruber writes that Schwertsik's music is "not for superficial listeners". Truthfully it lends itself well to a typically 21st century listening environment, in that its ideas combine to create a warm quilt of agreeable sounds, light drama, gentle irony and limpid structure requiring no concentrated effort to appreciate.
The Kafka-inspired Herr K Entdeckt Amerika, according to the notes, has little obviously programmatic or even overtly American content, despite the fact that movement headings - 'Crossing' - 'At the Hotel' - 'Travelling' - 'The Nature Theater of Oklahoma' - appear to indicate otherwise. As an off-the-peg four part suite-cum-ballet, subtitled a 'Sonatina for orchestra', it is just as easy to enjoy - an innocuous work, not a great one, but again with wide appeal. For a composer still massively under-recorded, it is a pity in a way that, following these two premiere recordings, Gruber and Chandos chose to add Baumgesänge, op.65, which appeared in 2004 on ABC Classics - see review. On balance, it is probably a good thing for posterity to have two recordings of it, but this is already a shortish disc, and prospective purchasers are entitled to wonder why one of Schwertsik's several concertos, for example, was not recorded instead - or as well. At any rate, in Baumgesänge Schwertsik writes that he has "tried to give trees a voice" - a novel idea, to say the least. Whether or not said objective is achieved, this is another attractive, cinematographic work that builds to an exciting finale.
The BBC Philharmonic under their latest "Composer/Conductor" H K Gruber sound in typically fine form. Recording quality is very good. The trilingual booklet notes are written by Gruber and Calum MacDonald, intelligent and informative. It should be said, however, that Chandos do waste a shocking amount of paper with their absurdly compacted paragraphs - the 36 sides are only about a third of that in real money. Nor will their small faint font appeal to those whose eyesight is not what it once was. The track-listing spells the German 'aggressiv' wrong twice, and there are two track 15s. Another report on this disc can be had here.
Collected reviews and contact at reviews.gramma.co.uk
Elegantly orchestrated, witty, generally melodic music, written for audience enjoyment rather than maven approbation.