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Albert SCHNELZER (b. 1972)
Crazy Diamond - Cello concerto (2011) [27:44]
Tales from Suburbia (2012) [16:22]
Brain Damage – Concerto for Orchestra (2014) [26:46]
Claes Gunnarsson (cello)
Gothenburg Symphony/Benjamin Shwartz
rec. 2017, Gothernburg Concert Hall, Sweden.
Reviewed in SACD stereo.
BIS BIS-2313 SACD [71:53]

Swedish composer Albert Schnelzer is a new name to me, though he has recently been making an international name for his “idiomatic, but at the same time highly original” music. In his own booklet notes, Schnelzer opens his description with the statement, “composing consists of painting oneself in sounds”, and the opening movement of the Cello Concerto – Crazy Diamond is very much a colour image – any colour you like in fact: atmospheric and slow-moving, but with a great deal of subtle orchestral detail going on over the cello’s lyrical lines. The second movement opens with stormy violence and has an irrepressible forward momentum, ostinato rhythm in the orchestra delivering cinematic drama and urgency. The title ‘Crazy Diamond’ alludes to the band Pink Floyd, songs from which give each of the movements their title. Schnelzer doesn’t quote Pink Floyd musically, referring in his note instead to memories of how their tracks affected him in his teenage years. The stresses and drama arise from the figure of Syd Barrett, who had to leave the band due to drugs and increasing mental health problems. I doubt many listeners would extract this as a central element in this work if hearing it ‘blind’, but with its many powerful moments and sense of restless turmoil it is clear that anguish is never far away. The emotional centre finds expression in the final movement entitled Trade your heroes for ghosts? This slow movement balances the motion of the first, but with a great deal of extra baggage – the cello taking a leading role over a gorgeous bed of string harmonies in an apotheosis that follows a climax that has something of a John Williams film score about it, but also something inevitable: ‘es muss so sein…’

Tales from Suburbia is connected with Schnelzer’s ‘love-hate relationship’ with the suburbs in which he has always lived: the “sharp contrasts where the countryside meets urbanity… beauty with ugliness, an environment in which the stillness is challenged by the pulse of the city.” This results in another work in which there is great depth of sound and huge grandeur of scale. Mysterious percussion sounds early on intrigue the ear, and the ‘ugliness’ and ‘pulse of the city’ are unmistakable, again with a kind of cinematic descriptiveness that gives plenty of clues and keeps the imagination on the run. With its skilled use of the orchestral sections this has the feel of a concerto for orchestra as well as something that could make a grand contribution to a large-budget horror movie.

As if we’ve been working up to this point then, Brain Damage actually is a Concerto for Orchestra. The title brings us back to Pink Floyd, and “a continuation of the search I began in Crazy Diamond”. The piece “can be seen in terms of wandering through a series of different moods: anger, frustration, grief and perhaps even a glimpse of hope.” Schnelzer’s concerto for orchestra has some fine solo and sectional moments but doesn’t act like a ‘guide to’ sort of piece. The virtuosity here is as much in the blending of sonorities and the use of the orchestra as an instrument in its own right. The dramas and subtleties found here are now familiar from the previous works but no less effective for all that. The underlying preoccupations are the springboard from which the music has been generated, rather than being a programme which should necessarily be heard or felt while listening, though there is the ever-present message of the orchestral tension between that “musicians need to assume an individual responsibility, but also, at the same time, adjust to being part of a larger group. A bit like life in general.” Schnelzer expands on the difficulties of taking responsibility and asks about “what happens to the people who don’t make it?... My concerto for orchestra is both a song of praise to those who assume responsibility and a lamentation over the people who are never going to make it.”

Superbly performed and recorded to BIS’s usual superlative standards, this is a powerful trio of works which has the hands of a master craftsmen behind them – both in their creation and performance. In recognising certain shared tropes – Schnelzer’s ‘money’ moments – it seems both appropriate that these works are programmed together, and perhaps a bit of a shame that they are chips from more or less the same block. This is however a block which speaks to me as I’m sure it will to many others, and which has plenty of carving material left in it. With this as a calling card I’m sure Albert Schnelzer’s star will breathe on, avoid being eclipsed and continue to shine on for a long time to come.

Dominy Clements


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