Kurt SCHWERTSIK (b.1935)
Nachtmusiken Op.104 (2010) [23:30]
Herr Kentdeckt 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
CHANDOS CHAN10687 [59:52]
One of less heralded release policies of Chandos is the support of contemporary music. This is carried through in performances that are is hard to define as anything less than definitive. If any piece of contemporary music is going to enter the collective consciousness at all it has to be heard and often. Yet a high profile premiere followed by concert-hall oblivion is all too common a fate for many fine works. All praise then to Chandos for producing discs as fine as this. Aside from the music itself this is a release that absolutely encapsulates the finest traditions of the label: stunning engineering and the BBC PO on absolutely top form.
The music will be unfamiliar to you - how could it be otherwise - two of the three works receive premiere recordings and Austrian composer Kurt Schwertsik is hardly a household name. The disc opens with the most recent work - a BBC PO commission premiered in 2010; Nachtmusiken. Calum MacDonald provides a typically lucid and insightful liner-note and he describes this as a series of “memories and philosophisings under the cloak of darkness”. So this is not the night as evoked by a Bartók or a Ginastera; instead it might be termed thoughts that emerge in the still of night. This makes it both a highly personal work and one with a rather wonderful hallucinatory, disjointed feel - just how the half asleep mind jumps randomly from thought to thought. There are five movements; the first titled Janáček ist mir im Traum erschienen [Janáček appeared to me in a dream]. And that is exactly how it sounds: out of fragmentary motifs jagged repeated ostinati - most notably on the timps - that sound just like the earlier composer without being direct quotes appear and then slip from your grasp. As with dreams themselves, trying to impose a concrete meaning on this is a fruitless task. Likewise with the second movement, a slurring tipsy Viennese waltz right down to an accordion that wanders aimlessly through. This is film-music like in its deliberately saccharin sentimentality - the sophistication comes in the subtlety of the orchestration executed with typically understated skill by the BBC players. Worth mentioning at this point that the conductor is the long-time colleague and friend of H K Gruber. Gruber is a famously quirky composer in his own right so he is just the person to understand the hidden depths of this superficially laconic music. Depths are immediately revealed in the third movement … for David Drew. Drew was the Publications Director for Boosey and Hawkes who masterminded Schwertsik’s international career as well as becoming a close personal friend. He died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2009 and this movement serves as an epitaph. A quartet of cellos flecked with single glockenspiel notes sing a requiem before the orchestra plays a passage that has echoes of Bachian chorale over what sounds like a passacaglia-like bass line. This is the heart of the work and is instantly approachable yet profound. Out of the sorrow of the third movement springs a Shostakovich-like furious scherzo - Geschwindmarsch in rasender Wut [Quick march - with furious rage]. The closing Flucht starts with a strange etiolated undernourished fugue that had me in mind of a tiptoeing Nielsen. It gradually becomes more assertive though remaining essentially quiet - there is something ghostly and unnerving in these night visitors. This does build into a passage more earnestly fugal but even as it arrives it spirals off and away like a released balloon and the work ends. Aside from the central movement this is music that seems to have its eyebrow raised in quizzical humour for much of the time. The second work is elusively called Herr K entdeckt Amerika [Mr K discovers America]. This was written as part of a continuing project to create contemporary repertoire for youth orchestras. The title comes from the unfinished Kafka novel Amerika. The Herr K is the hero Karl who finds himself at the centre of a series of ever more awkward and ridiculous situations. Again Schwertsik uses multi-movement form although as MacDonald points out there is nothing here that is particularly programmatic or ‘American’. I do get a little frustrated by the use of ‘signpost’ movement titles that then seemingly have nothing to do with that title. That being the case here I’d rather put those titles to one side and enjoy the music in its own right. Herr K made less of an initial impact on me than the Nachtmusiken - there are many arresting moments and instrumental combinations but for some reason I was less able to follow the work’s logic. The final section Das Naturtheater von Oklahoma which is named after the final chapter of Kafka’s book depicting a circus builds to a syncopating climax and then rather abruptly is left hanging on a quiet chord. Clearly Schwertsik likes to create expectations that are then unfulfilled; it’s an anti-climactic approach that catches the listener out the first couple of times.
The final work on the disc is also the earliest - Baumgesänge [Tree Songs] dating from 1992. Again a multi movement form is used. The orchestration here is consciously heavier with blocks of sonority or busily active instrumental groups set against each other. There’s something of Messiaen’s sound-world here and generally the mood is more sombre and serious than that of the other two works. Another element used here is big sonorous unisons played against other hammering blocks of sound. I was passingly reminded of some of Arnold’s symphonic writing - MacDonald likens it to blows of an axe. The contrast to the fourth movement is striking although the similarity to Arnold remains with a deliberately banal jazzy tune alternating with high string chordal writing and creating a sense of sunlight and dappled shade. The fifth movement juxtaposes still nature music with aggressively active machine music - an uncharacteristic slip in the Chandos booklet - this track and the final one are both numbered 15 - but interestingly the ‘weaker’ nature music outstays the passing violence. Curiously the final music has an uneven ostinato feel to it that has Latin American echoes quite unlike anything else on the disc to this point. It makes for an exciting end to the disc and gives the orchestra one last chance to show off - check out the virtuosic timpani writing. Schwertsik seems to be playing with elements of minimalism here very much in the style of John Adams with repeating groups of notes shifting accents within those groups. Obviously he is not a minimalist composer but here he apes the style although the reason for that is not clear.
This is a beautifully produced disc containing much music of interest in lovingly committed performances. Gruber contributes a personal note elaborating on his friendship with Schwertsik which serves to underline the care and dedication of all involved in the project. With music new to me I try and shy away from the “sounds like” school of descriptive writing. However, what I find curious here is that it seems that the composer is deliberately trying to ‘sound-like’…. Blatantly so in the dream about Janáček but then elsewhere be it Adams or Shostakovich or Mahler or Messiaen copying the context as well as the aural world. I have no idea why this might be or the meaning contained in such gestures but I cannot believe for a second it is accidental.
A fascinating disc for the inveterately curious and great credit to Chandos and the BBC for their ongoing support of new music.
Nick Barnard 
A fascinating disc for the inveterately curious.