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Caspar DIETHELM (1926-1997)
Symphony No.1, Op.35 (1962-64;rev.1978-83) [30:32]
Symphony No.3, Op.76 (1969-70;rev.1995) [21:49]
Symphony No.4 “Homage to Joseph Haydn”, Op.100 (1971;rev.1986 & 1993) [24:57]
Symphony No.5 “Mandala”, Op.180 (1980-81;rev.1985) [48:24]
Symphonic Suite “Saturnalia”, op.200 (1982;rev.1994) [41:56]
Symphonic Prologue, Op.125 (1974;rev.1985 & 1993) [7:32]
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Rainer Held
rec. 2016, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow
World Premiere Recordings
GUILD GM3CD7808 [3 CDs: 175:18]

Outside of its home country, 20th century Swiss symphonic music has been underrated and underappreciated, this despite some significant names who’ve made notable contributions. I'm thinking of such composers as Fritz Brun, Volkmar Andreae, Ernest Bloch, Frank Martin and the composer featured in this recent release from the Guild label - Caspar Diethelm. Browsing Amazon I noted a marked absence of recordings of his music. Though Guild paired him up with music by his compatriot Carl Rütti in 2014 (review), this set seems to be the first devoted exclusively to his music.

Diethelm was born in Lucerne in 1926 and studied at the Conservatory there. This was followed up with tuition from Honegger and Hindemith. Post-war, Stockhausen and Nono had some input. He then embarked on a multifaceted career as a composer, conductor, pianist and teacher, occupying a thirty-year teaching post at his old alma mater. He was also a politician, who took a keen interest in conservation matters. He died in 1997. His prolific output consisted of around 350 works, over a third of which were for orchestra; these include 8 symphonies and several significant symphonic opuses. His oeuvre was bolstered by choral music, 6 string quartets, wind and brass works and piano music. He amassed a total of 22 piano sonatas. Though influenced by the twelve-tone technique of Arnold Schoenberg, he never turned his back on tonality, striving instead for accessibility and communication in his music. All of the works included here are approachable and tonally pleasing. 

The composer adhered to the tried and tested method of structuring his symphonies in the four-movement ‘classical’ mould. What strikes me when I listen to them is the plethora of ingenuity and invention contained within. He was a gifted orchestrator with a sensitive ear for colour and sonority. His first attempt came in 1962-64 with his Op. 35, subjected to later revisions. The well-established pattern is there. An energetic opener is followed by an expansive, beguiling Adagio. The Scherzo has verve and vigour, with the finale rhythmically driven. Fast-forward to 1969, and the Third Symphony dates from a period when the composer was grappling with a ‘new simplicity’.  I find the less-heavy orchestration and the ‘floating tonalities’, no doubt gleaned from Frank Martin, an attractive feature. The slow movement has an inward quality of luminous warmth, whilst the finale is woven into a vibrant, richly soused tapestry of sound.

In the Symphony No.4 “Homage to Joseph Haydn”, Op.100, Diethelm captures some of the endearing qualities of his distinguished symphonic predecessor, mischief, wit and humour. Some of that waggish charm can be found writ large in the scherzo-like second movement. The diaphanous slow movement places the woodwind in the spotlight, whilst the finale returns to the mood of playfulness. At 48 minutes, the Symphony No.5 “Mandala”, Op.180 is conceived on a grander scale. Large orchestral forces are called for and, from all accounts, took an emotional toll on the composer who felt “physically and mentally drained” on its completion. The first movement surfs a gamut of emotions from dolefulness and conflict to sustained calm. The slow Larghetto sits third – an elegy of profound devotional intensity. The rhythmic intensity of the fourth movement is guaranteed to pummel you into submission.

The 1982 Symphonic Suite “Saturnalia”, Op. 200 specifies a ‘large’ orchestra. A seven-movement score of mighty proportions, it takes up an entire CD. Dance and folk music seem to be underlying principles, and the result is a melodically bountiful score, colourful in its instrumentation. Diethelm provides some contrast in mood, with five of the movements more animated and upbeat. Movements 3 and 6 are funereal and solemn by turn. The composer packs plenty of energy and drama into the seven-minute Symphonic Prologue, Op 125 which, despite its brevity, certainly packs a punch.

This set is a deserving tribute to Caspar Diehelm and plugs a substantial gap in the Swiss symphonic discography. His music merits a hearing, as he’s a composer with much to say. I sense a wonderful rapport between the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and conductor Rainer Held, and this readily emerges from these compelling readings. The acoustic of the Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow renders a full-bodied sound with plenty of detail. The annotations in English and German supply useful background and context, especially the detailed discussion of the music by the composer’s daughter Esther. I hope we won’t have to wait too long for Diethelm’s remaining four symphonies.

Stephen Greenbank
Previous review: Marc Rochester (Recording of the Month)



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