Bernhard SEKLES (1872-1934)
Chaconne on an eight-bar march-theme, Op.38, for viola and piano * (publ.1931)
Cello Sonata, Op.28 (1919) [27:20]
Capriccio in four movements for piano trio (publ.1932) [13:00]
Violin Sonata, Op.44 (date unknown) [18:20]
Solomia Soroka (viola; violin), Noreen Silver (cello), Phillip Silver
rec. 28, 29, 31 May 2012, Blue Griffin Studios, Lansing, Michigan, USA.
* first recording
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC0147 [67:55]
It may very well be true that the days of the CD are numbered what with the spread of downloading and all. That said, the recording industry is surely alive and in robust health if the number of discs released each month is anything to go by.
Along with each new crop up for grabs by we happy band of reviewers there are always new discoveries either of repertoire by well known composers or by relatively or completely unknown ones. As far as I’m concerned Bernhard Sekles is one of the latter. I’d never come upon his name before. If one were to judge by appearances from the photo on the booklet one would be forgiven for thinking he was a bank manager who was waiting to hear another hard luck story from a customer before a request for a loan. He has that world-weary look about him that says that he’s heard it all before and that nothing would surprise him. When you’ve read his story it comes as no surprise that he looks that way for he is another composer who had the misfortune to live in Germany at a time that encompassed the horrors of the First World War and the rise of Nazism. With teachers such as Joachim Raff and Engelbert Humperdinck his musical education was assured. In 1895 he went to work at the Hoch Conservatory only two years after leaving it as a student. He became its Director in 1923. Sekles only produced a relatively small number of compositions but was highly regarded as a teacher. Among his pupils were Paul Hindemith, Theodor Adorno, Hans Rosbaud, Cyril Scott and Rudi Stephan. He was one of the first Jewish academics to be fired from his job when Hitler came to power. He had already incurred the furious wrath of the ultra right by fighting for and establishing in 1928 the world’s first Jazz studies course at the Conservatory. This was a considerable achievement since it was only four years later that New York University established the first one in the USA.
His works are reminiscent of Brahms who was still alive for 25 years after Sekles was born and whose music must have been heard everywhere at the time. The first few notes of the Chaconne on an eight-bar march-theme, Op.38, for viola and piano, here receiving its first recording, have a kind of jazzy edge to them reminiscent of ‘Le Hot Club de France’ in which Stephane Grappelli made his name. At the same time there is a bittersweet nature to the piece whose main theme is a jaunty sounding march which Sekles subjected to no fewer than 21 variations. It’s quite remarkable for a work lasting less than nine minutes. At other moments an atmosphere of menace is injected and I wondered if the political events that were unfolding at the time exerted any influence. It is followed by an absolutely beautiful opening to his Cello Sonata, Op.28 that dates from 1919. Its late romantic nature is wholly satisfying with Sekles’ music placing considerable demands on the performers. The short second movement is an interesting combination of the mysterious and the bizarre. The third and final movement which lasts longer than the other two put together is a theme and variations with some lovely passages of great beauty. These are suffused at times with a feeling of sadness and regret when it’s not sounding martial or grotesque though it ends delightfully. There follows the only work on the disc for all three players, Sekles’ Capriccio in four movements for piano trio whose first movement is pretty austere while its second is full of brio and effervescence. The intermezzo is emotionally reflective not to say melancholy though hauntingly beautiful. The final movement is a set of variations on Yankee Doodle, that quintessentially American folk tune. As the pianist on the disc Phillip Silver writes in the excellent notes various composers have used this tune as a basis for variations though none have been as comprehensive and wide ranging as Sekles’. He treated it to everything from ‘late Romanticism via Impressionism to jazz and illustrate(s) the potential of the theme’.
Sekles regrettably wrote only two sonatas: both of them on this disc. I say regrettably since he was clearly a master of the genre in spite of there being only two as they will both demonstrate to any listener. The unpublished Violin Sonata, Op.44 works on every level with four contrasting movements each highly successful and perfectly constructed. The first uses a march theme shared by each instrument. Marches seem to be a feature of Sekles’ writing, appearing in three of the four works. The second movement is quite delicious with a gorgeous folk-like tune carried by the violin and mirrored by the piano. The third movement is as Phillip Silver says ‘mercurial’, darting around will-o’-the-wisp like, throughout its short 2:41 span. The final movement is very interesting with traces of the 13th century Latin hymn Dies Irae in its theme. This goes through a set of eleven variations which involve several different influences from atmospheric medieval chant to Moorish sounds and concludes with three variations. As Silver explains, these have ‘an aura of a dance of death’ about them. As he rightly points out this could be significant given the events that were occurring at the time it is thought this work was written (1933).
I am so pleased to have had the opportunity to have been introduced to this composer who I really hope will emerge from obscurity with the help of this disc. He thoroughly deserves to be heard by every chamber music lover. These three musicians have done the composer great service in projecting their obvious admiration for Sekles into their playing which is flawless and makes the disc a really valuable discovery.