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Caspar DIETHELM (1926-1997)
Symphony No.1, Op.35 [30:32]
Symphony No.3, Op.76 [21:49]
Symphony No.4 “Homage to Joseph Haydn”, Op.100 [24:57]
Symphony No.5 “Mandala”, Op.180 [48:24]
Symphonic Suite “Saturnalia”, op.200 [41:56]
Symphonic Prologue, Op.125 [7:32]
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Rainer Held
rec. 2016, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow
GUILD GM3CD7808 [3 CDs: 175:18]

Last year Guild Records changed hands for the third time in its 50 year existence. Begun in 1967 by Barry Rose initially as a means of promoting the musical excellence of his choir and organ at Guildford Cathedral (from which the label’s name partially derives), Guild Records became a byword for excellence in recordings of British cathedral organs and choirs. That speciality was initially continued by the Swiss entrepreneur, Kaikoo Lalkaka, who bought the label in the early 1990s. But Lalkaka gradually broadened its scope to move beyond the cloisters of British cathedrals and embrace a much wider repertory which included jazz, light music and historic reissues. In particular, Lalkaka was determined to mine the rich seam of Swiss music which had, in the main, been ignored by the mainstream labels, and among the very finest non-choral or organ Guild CDs over the past two decades have been recordings of works by Carl Rütti and Volkmar Andreae. Now Guild Records has returned to its roots in the UK county of Surrey, and whether or not its new owner, Nicholas Dicker, intends to continue in the long term the invaluable work Guild has done in promoting Swiss music (and I, for one, would urge him to do so), in the short term he has brought to fruition one of Lalkaka’s last Swiss music projects, this three CD set devoted to the symphonic output of Caspar Diethelm.

It seems that, while we usually look on the 18th and 19th centuries as the heyday of symphonic composition, in the late 20th century and on into our own time, the symphony has not just experienced a revival, but a resurgence which could well rival the earlier age in sheer volume of works produced. The most prolific symphonist of all time is very much alive (Leif Segerstam was working on his 320th symphony last year) and while only eight of Diethelm’s 343 completed compositions carry the title Symphony, these are substantial works in their own right – Symphony no.5 weighing in at the best part of 50 minutes – and are complemented by a number of other large-scale orchestral works which are symphonic in scope if not in design. Two of these are included in this set, which was recorded in September 2016 in the presence of the composer’s daughter, Esther, who has also written extensive movement-by-movement booklet notes on each of the works recorded here incorporating some personal recollections as well as information provided by her father.

There are minor cosmetic changes to the booklet design which are discernible in the post-Lalkaka Guild era, but whether the fault lies in Surrey or elsewhere, Robert Matthew-Walker’s essay on the composer’s life seems uncharacteristically chaotic and, packed full of detail as it is, misses out the rather crucial fact that Diethelm is no longer alive; he died 20 years ago last year. However, Michael Ponder’s sumptuous recording, the RSNO’s superlative playing and Rainer Held’s perceptive, compelling and tautly focused advocacy should be enough to convince anyone that Diethelm was both a remarkable symphonist and a major figure in late 20th century Swiss music.

Beyond the excellence of the recording and the performances, is this hitherto overlooked music really anything more than just another venture into the Cult of Comprehensivity which has long been the driving force behind the output of so many independent record labels? Certainly it is useful to have this music in the public arena to allow for re-assessment, but beyond that, is this music really worth listening to for pleasure and fulfilment rather than historical curiosity? The answer to that is yes, yes and thrice yes.

As ever with an overlooked composer of considerable profligacy, there is a tendency to look for comparisons and parallels. And they are certainly there to be found for those with an inventive imagination. The massive 5th Symphony introduces a theme (1st movement 4:27) which I know I have heard somewhere else, but can’t quite place, while I hear Sibelius and Hindemith in the 1st, Nielsen and Martinů in the 3rd, and Bartók in the Symphonic Suite. But beyond tiny moments which, perhaps, a greater composer would have sublimated within a more distinctive personal idiom, there is a huge amount of individuality here. And while we could also imaginatively identify distinctly Swiss characteristics in music which maintains a powerful, almost clock-like regularity of rhythmic momentum, as well as in a fastidious attention to the detail of orchestral writing and formal design, this music is hardly suppressed or even confined by these. Indeed, opulence of texture and generosity of scope are the hallmarks which are laid out on the first disc of the three, devoted to the vast seven-section Symphonic Suite “Saturnalia” of 1982. What the relevance of the title is (beyond its alliterative value) remains a mystery. Certainly much of the music has a bustling, possibly bacchanalian energy, and the opening has a notably folksy, dance-like thrust to it, although that takes a backseat as the 1st movement proceeds through a plethora of attractive, sinuous and orient ally-flavoured wind themes. But taken overall the work is neither festive nor celebratory, and one of its most powerful movements is a superbly crafted funeral march.

There is another arresting funeral march in the 4th Symphony, but while the title of this Symphony might lead some to expect something akin to the Prokofiev “Classical” Symphony, Diethelm was cast in a very different mould, and the homage to Haydn is not to be found in form, orchestration, tonality or musical language, but rather in the fact that here was a composer setting out optimistically on a symphonic journey of his own. The music is invigorating, busy and cleverly balancing moments of stress and relaxation, and is, as is all the music on these discs, a taxing work-out for the orchestra. In this, the RSNO achieve outstanding things, every section tremendously energised by Held’s grasp of scale and shape. Among the real highlights of orchestral playing is the exquisitely paced opening to the slow movement of the 3rd Symphony where solo clarinet and viola lead off in an intriguing exploration of instrumental and orchestral colour, all of which unfolds with tantalising clarity.

It would be good to think that Diethelm’s remaining four symphonies will not be long in appearing on disc; these four show that this is a composer of real distinction whose music is well worth exploring.

Marc Rochester



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