Robert Suter was born in St. Gall in 1919, studying piano, theory and composition at the Basle Conservatory to which city he returned after the war to teach at the Music Academy. He had attended Darmstadt summer courses - Fortner and Krenek had taught there - but the seismic revelation in his life came via his discovery of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire
. He also loved Jazz and indeed played in a jazz band called The Darktown Strutters, as well as working as a cinema and bar pianist.
He wrote in a wide range of forms but this disc concentrates on his piano scores. The Suite of 1943 is clearly versed in Schoenbergian lore, its first movement’s obsessive use of trills giving it the air of a study. But Suter offers droll imitation too, a kind of staccato polyphony, in the central movement – they are all very brief movements, the longest being two and a half minutes in length. The fourth movement is an exacting example of compact breadth, a free atonal line held under strong control, whilst the final movement’s motoric rhythms - forget Martinu’s motor rhythms – this is a different kettle of fish entirely - just about qualifies as a Gigue.
The second suite followed two years later. This one sets up steep contrasts, both powerfully chordal and more intimately reflective. Uneasiness reigns. The calm-seeming lines of the fourth movement (of six), which is by far the longest at four minutes, end unresolved, as it’s the sixth movement that’s the one to provide geniality in a clever and successful resolution. There is less evidence of his Schoenbergian allegiances in this later suite.
The German Songs were written much later between 1978 and 1987. They are in strophic ballad form, veering toward Weimar grotesque from time to time. There are funereal marches, Schubertian allusions and, in the last, a lilting song of love. It’s quite hard to square the composer of the 1943 suite with the composer of these songs, though the slightly hysterical edge in one does suggest quite shrill emotions. Claudia Sutter sings and accompanies herself, sounding very like Lotte Lenya in the nasty aunt-killing song Der Tanttenmörder
Sutter has composed her own song cycle, unfassbar
a suite for mezzo and sprechgesang, one of those words which never fits comfortably into an English translation. The work hearkens back to Schoenberg in its abstractions, its abruptness and in its twelve tone feel. But the Schoenberg influence softens and mutates, and the two voices provide an interesting point of contrast. We end with Robert Suter’s sad little waltz, wan, and delicate.
Is it coincidence that Claudia Sutter’s name is one consonant away from that of Robert Suter? The notes are silent. In any case, this is a deft homage to Suter, whose voice is a strong, salient one.