Bertha von Suttner was a Prague-born Austrian novelist and feminist, who had the distinction of being, back in 1905, the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Last year was the centenary of her death, and one way in which that was celebrated was a composition competition set up by Academia Allegro Vivo, in conjunction with various other cultural organisations. The winner was the work by the young composer Flora Marlene Geisselbrecht to be found on track 5 of this CD.
What Geisselbrecht has done is to select a number of well-known quotations from von Suttner’s works, and set them for baritone soloist and chamber orchestra. The singer here is the distinguished Austrian Wolfgang Holzmair, a versatile artist who has made many recordings of both core repertoire and contemporary works. The new piece is in a style that could perhaps be described as ‘modern expressionist’; it seems to owe much to composers such as Penderecki or Lutoslawski, with string textures that whisper, scratch and slide, and a declamatory vocal part.
At one point, multiple voices repeat quietly the words (in German) ‘… blood should always be washed away with blood’; it’s a pity that the CD notes do not make clear who these voices belong to, though I suspect it is the orchestral players themselves. The crucial words ‘Die Waffen nieder!’ – ‘Lay down your arms’ - are a turning point in the work, bringing about a greater stability towards its end. This is not an ‘easy’ piece, but it is impressive, and has a certain icy intensity.
The other tracks contain more familiar music, but don’t be tempted to see them as ‘sweeteners’ for the new work, because these are performances of very high quality. The Mozart Clarinet Concerto is played by the brilliant young instrumentalist Matthias Schorn, and this is a version of very great beauty, immaculately prepared and presented. Here and there, I found Schorn’s use of his exceptional quiet playing just a little
over the top – the danger being that one’s attention can be drawn to the technique rather than the music itself. Generally this is one of the finest versions of this much recorded work that I have heard for a very long time.
The contribution of the Academia in the Mozart is outstanding. I was intrigued to find what they would make of Strauss’s late great Metamorphosen
, written at the end of the war, when Strauss was in mourning for the tragedy of Germany, and in particular for the destruction of his home city of Munich. This work, written explicitly for ’23 solo strings’, is one of the ultimate challenges for a string orchestra. It consists of nearly half an hour of unbroken lyricism and unrelenting emotional intensity, requiring the kind of absolute control of ensemble usually needed for chamber music. These young players achieve all of that in what is a truly masterly and very moving performance. The great cascading climaxes have a kind of fateful ecstasy, and the emergence at the end of the Beethoven theme (from the Eroica
) is as clear as I’ve ever heard it, both in terms of balance
and of the inevitability with which it arises out of the work’s evolution. A stunning achievement, and a recording I personally shall cherish.