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Hansheinz Schneeberger - The Legendary Swiss Violinist
rec. 1965-2001
TELOS MUSIC TLS235 [72:46 + 71:42]

This newly released 2 CD set celebrates the 90th birthday of the Swiss violinist Hansheinz Schneeberger, which occurred back in 2016. It's a fascinating survey in that it incorporates much music that is unfamiliar. Indeed, all of the works featured, with the exception of Othmar Schoeck's Violin Concerto, are first encounters for me. Even the composers themselves are hardly household names, discounting, of course, Arthur Honegger. Yet, this is what Schneeberger was all about, an adventurous spirit always eager to explore less trodden paths, promoting home-grown talent, especially, and premiering their works.

He was born in Bern in 1926 and was a student, at the city's Conservatory, of Walter Kägi, prior to further studies with Carl Flesch and Boris Kamensky. At one time he formed a string quartet and also performed the role of principal concertmaster with the prestigious NDR Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg. He is credited with the world première of Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 1, and gave the first performance of Frank Martin's Violin Concerto in Basel in 1952 under the baton of Paul Sacher. He’s subsequently played a central role in post-war classical music, participating in festivals in Europe and Asia.

Adolf Busch was the dedicatee of Hermann Suter's Violin Concerto, and premièred it on January 28 1922 in Basel. Suter had studied with Hans Huber and Carl Reinecke, and from 1918 to 1921 was the director of the Basel Conservatory, where one of his pupils was none other than Richard Tauber. The Violin Concerto is an immensely appealing work, shunning modern trends and cast in a Late Romantic tonal idiom. The expansive opening movement oozes lyricism and warmth, and Schneeberger, kept occupied for most of the time, weaves a magical spell, fully savouring the melodic opulence. Marked Tempestuoso, the central movement proffers some dramatic and turbulent contrast. The finale opens with an improvisatory cadenza-like soliloquy which, once it finds its feet, soon develops into a sprightly romp, where the sun shines brightly.

Hansheinz Schneeberger took some composition lessons from, and formed a close friendship with, Willy Burkhard. The composer developed tuberculosis in the 1930s and spent time in various sanitoria. His lingering ill health resulted in an early death in his mid-fifties. His Violin Concerto No.2, Op.69 dates from 1943. Its three movements are linked together. The solo part in the opener begins in an improvisatory fashion, and the movement becomes more animated as it progresses. It has a slightly neoclassical complexion. The slow movement is a sombre affair, and Schneeberger sculpts the long melodic line with wistful nostalgia. The third is high-spirited and exuberant. A cadenza ushers in a plaintive Adagio, which brings the Concerto to a mournful conclusion.

I'm so pleased that Othmar Schoeck's Violin Concerto "quasi una fantasia" in B-Flat Major, Op. 21 is included in this retrospective. I've never quite fathomed why it's not performed more often. If you have an appetite for music imbued with lyrical effusiveness, then you need look no further. Heartfelt longing and unfulfilled love seems to run its course. The first movement is suffused with melancholy and passion, whilst the second is elegiac in tone. Cheerful and playful is how I would describe the finale, with the occasional wistful glance backwards. Schneeberger has full measure of the work's fleeting moods, and his performance stands shoulder to shoulder with my favorite versions - the 1947 recording by the Hungarian Stefi Geyer, the Concerto's dedicatee, and that of Ursula Bagdasarjanz, another Swiss violinist.

Penned during the years of the First World War, Honegger's Sonata for Violin and Piano No.1, unlike his second numbered sonata, has late-Romantic leanings. It's also shot through with impressionistic shafts of light, and one can discern echoes of Debussy and Fauré. With an opulent first movement, it's the central Presto that grabbed my attention, a whirlpool of excitement and vigour. There's a tranquil section where the violin is muted, only for the exhilarating intensity to return. Dark and ominous bass notes usher in the finale, which gradually becomes more fervid, only to end in menacing starkness. Schneeberger and Hirt capture the highs and lows in this idiomatic and strikingly potent reading.

Hirt also partners Schneeberger in Hans Huber's Violin Sonata, Op.132, "Quasi fantasia" of 1913. Huber's prolific output includes eleven sonatas, of which this is No.9. The first movement charms the ear with an abundance of lyricism. The outer sections of the Allegro quasi presto are fleet of foot, which the performers negotiate with mischievous lightness. A more melodious section intervenes midway. The finale is ebullient and demands virtuosity of the highest order.

Walther Geiser's Sonata for Violin and Piano in C sharp minor, written at the dawn of World War 11, is another delightful rarity. Geiser had studied the violin, which would explain the fluency of the instrumental writing with, once again, high-end technique called for. It harnesses harmonic complexity, dissonances and bitonality, organically blended to perfection. It conforms to the three-movement fast-slow-fast mould. I'm particularly drawn to the slow movement which, for me, depicts a lonely voice crying in the wilderness. Schneeberger and Lessing throw everything at the finale, ending this wonderful Sonata with gusto and élan.

The live performances derive from a variety of sources, yet they all sound excellent, with the soloist, in the concertos, profiled perfectly in the sound picture. As I said at the beginning, I've made several discoveries along the way. My aim is now to explore more of this artist's recordings. I must single out for special mention the well-produced accompanying annotations. There's a thirty-one page booklet in German and English, which contains an absorbing interview the violinist made with Christoph-Mathias Mueller in 2016. In it the nonagenarian looks back on a life steeped in music. He recounts his relationships to the featured composers and shares his personal thoughts on the music performed. What also fascinates me are his reminiscences of musicians that influenced and made an impact on his life. There are some big names there, including Jacques Thibaud, Adolf Busch, Bronisław Huberman, Pablo Casals and David Oistrakh.

Stephen Greenbank

Hermann SUTER (1870-1926)
Violin Concerto in A Major, Op.23 (1921) [30:46]
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Basel/Richard Müller-Lampertz
rec. 18 May 1971, Radio DRS Basel
Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955)
Sonata for Violin and Piano No.1 (1918) [24:06]
Franz Josef Hirt (piano)
rec. 1980, Radio Genf
Walther GEISER (1897-1993)
Sonata for Violin and Piano in C sharp minor (1939) [17:49]
Kolja Lessing (piano)
rec. 25 March 1988,
Radio DRS Basel
Willy BURKHARD (1900-1955)
Violin Concerto No.2, Op.69 (1943) [19:44]
Orchestre de Clambre de Lausanne/Victor Desarzens
rec. 22 Septmber 1965
Hans HUBER (1852-1921)
Violin Sonata No. 9 in G Minor, Op.132, "Quasi fantasia" (1913)[18:13]
Franz Josef Hirk (piano)
rec. date unknown
Othmar SCHOECK (1886-1957)
Concerto quasi una fantasia in B-Flat Major, Op.21 (1910-11) [33:41]
Sinfonietta Wetzikon/Christoph/Mathias Mueller
rec. live, 16 March 2001

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