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Michael PELZEL (b. 1978)
Mysterious Anjuna Bell, for ensemble and chamber orchestra (2016) [18:45]
Carnaticaphobia, for percussion, piano and cello (2017) [16:18]
Gravity’s Rainbow, for extended contrabass clarinet and orchestra (2016) [21:00]
'Alf'-Sonata, for violin and horn (2014) [8:25]
Danse diabolique, for winds, harp, organ, piano and percussion (2014) [11:53]
rec. 2016-18
KAIROS 0018001KAI [76:26]

Michael Pelzel is a Swiss composer and organist in his early forties. This is the second portrait disc devoted to his art – the first was released a couple of years ago on the Musiques Suisses label (MGB-CTS-M149). Pelzel’s music seems both communicative and open-hearted on first hearing. This is perhaps not so surprising given that he is clearly much taken by sounds and influences that go well beyond the European mainstream; he has taught and worked in both South Africa and India, where he studied Carnatic music, an experience which has clearly left its mark on at least two of the five creations on this packed disc. There is an expansive, labyrinthine quality to Pelzel’s orchestral scores – looking at the manuscript pages reproduced in Kairos’s extremely detailed booklet I wondered if they might intimidate in terms of their complexity (the note mildly implies as much) but it really isn’t the case; while there is certainly a lot going on Pelzel conjures beguiling, rather hypnotic sounds within surprisingly graspable structures from his various ensembles. To my ears though some of these pieces work better than others.

Mysterious Anjuna Bell references the Goan resort beloved of hippies and more recently adherents of electronic trance music. It is scored for a string orchestra alongside an unconventional group which includes trumpet, trombone, piano, percussion and cello as well as outsiders such as electric guitar and organ pipes. The note alludes to the idea of a concerto grosso and although the two groups work independently as well as in tutti passages the comparison isn’t really reflected in the sound itself. Exotic chimes and bell like patterns act as waymarks within which discrete spans play out; initially these include simultaneous string glissandi, shrill yet warm, or lower strings in chugging ostinati. The work seems initially to incorporate rapid content such as weird portamenti, exaggerated wide vibrato, zither-like twangings and regular chiming gestures, and a ripe melody which certainly seems to derive from Indian music and which eventually comes to dominate the piece. This busy content fades and slows very gradually to a point on about 8:00 where the music becomes almost static. It is still extremely rich in quivering detail but notwithstanding a resonant, thudding bass coloured by piano the work’s second half projects ritual and reflection. Instrumental gestures seem to mimic human voices which straddle the discomfiting border between laughter and weeping. The textures themselves are most unusual and inviting, and there is tangible sense of flow to Pelzel’s music, although ultimately it fades gently to nought. Peter Rundel draws an account of real refinement and purpose; the two ensembles seem to revel in Pelzel’s peculiar sonic universe.

As its title suggests, Carnaticaphobia is even more explicitly touched by Pelzel’s deep engaegement with Carnatic music. This is a trio for piano, cello and percussion which often seems like a larger ensemble. Bell sounds are again to the fore, but clearly the instrumentation involves several different varieties of them. The initial drive seems to emerge from another favourite Pelzel texture, the bass thud of piano, but this reoccurs with varying degrees of duration, attack and decay. A creepy cello descent triggers a series of outbursts and contributions from that instrument. As the work proceeds, one gets the impression that the cello is striving to escape from the pull of piano and bell sounds which veer between oppressive and seductive. An extended descent leads to a clash at 10:00 between cello chords and chimes. An agitated passage involving the whole trio yields a more defined thudding pulse which ratchets up the tension until a big, angular rather Messiaenic shape materialises which in turn is inundated by a resonant bass crash. Carnaticophobia works towards its abrupt conclusion via gestures which are by turn ghoulish and mechanistic. It is a colourful, intriguing score rendered with precision and relish by ensemble recherche.

I was especially looking forward to hearing Gravity’s Rainbow which lends its name to the album – on paper it looks like a concertante work for a most unconventional solo instrument, an adapted contrabass clarinet. The booklet provides some technical detail about the intricate modifications but I rather suspect one needs to be a practitioner on the CLEX (as its abbreviated) to really make sense of them. I was somewhat underwhelmed by the piece, alas. It opens with a monumental tune which promises more than it delivers. Soloist Ernesto Molinari is required to show off a wide variety of extended techniques which ultimately leave one wondering what the default timbre of this strange instrument is. Breathy sounds compete with multiphonics which duel in turn with percussive effects. A solo passage early on incorporates all of these, projecting half melodies and baying tropical animal sounds; it ultimately goes around the houses before a warmer orchestral passage emerges, bathed by harp textures. Gravity’s Rainbow features a fitful dance element and plentiful timbral variety in both the solo and orchestral parts although it’s the sound of the tuned glasses in its closing pages which lingers in the mind. Perhaps it requires a few more listens than the couple for which I found time, although compared to the first couple of works on the album I found it diffuse and arguably a little too clever.

Notwithstanding some remarkable instrumental playing (and strangled vocalising) from the horn and violin duo who call themselves Jetpack Bellerive I’m afraid I found the Alf-Sonata rather irritating. This is neither a tribute to England’s sole World Cup winning football manager nor to the anti-hero of Johnny Speight’s Till Death Us Do Part although it is a homage of sorts to a US TV programme called Alf which was apparently wholesome family TV fare during the 1980s (It completely passed me by, alas). The eviscerating instrumental pyrotechnics of Samuel Stoll (horn) and NoŽlle-Anne Darbellay (violin) are to the fore throughout the sonata’s eight minute duration; unfortunately the work seems fatally undermined by two samples which clumsily and repeatedly intrude on the piece – a ghastly pre-recorded snippet of the programme’s smug theme tune and what appears to be a five note electronic jingle are for some reason knitted into the sonata’s fabric. They seem out of place in a concept which flies completely over my weary head although I’m certain there are many listeners who will get (and possibly even appreciate) the joke.

The portrait concludes with Danse diabolique, another confection which has an implied dance at its heart. The brief introduction is far from dance-like, an exotic dream sequence incorporating a water-glass halo of synthetic electronica, the serene howl of sirens, a metallic crash and weird disconnected chords which dissolve to reveal zephyr swirls of flute and organ. So far, so creepy; the dance that partly materialises is darker, its sporadic tread marked out by zither-like twangs and rumbling bass. Mouth pieces yield percussive fragments; a strangled descending figure in the brass is repeated, an infernal dance which is certainly diabolique. It’s awkward yet riveting and peters out in mildly glowering bass noise.

Pelzel’s music is most carefully crafted – it conveys enchantments both prettified and harsh. The four big works here each command one’s attention while the interpolations in the Alf-Sonata jar and distract. I found the first, second and last pieces most beguiling in terms of their unusual colours and Pelzel’s fastidious, inventive design. I was less convinced by Gravity’s Rainbow although I certainly feel minded to revisit it. Performances want for nothing, while the Kairos engineers have managed to realise a consistently inviting and detailed sound picture despite the different ensembles, locations and dates involved. The packaging and documentation is first-rate, too.

Richard Hanlon

Performance details
1. Mysterious Anjuna Bell
Ensemble ascolta and Stuttgart CO/Peter Rundel
rec December 2017 at Funkstudio des SWR, Stuttgart, Germany
2. Carnaticaphobia
ensemble recherche
rec February 2018 at Ensemblehaus, Freiburg, Germany
3. Gravity’s Rainbow
Ernesto Molinari (extended contrabass clarinet)
Basel Sinfonietta/Peter Rundel
rec December 2017 at Studio 1 SRF, ZŁrich, Switzerland
4.”Alf”- Sonata
Jetpack Bellerive: Samuel Stoll (horn); NoŽlle-Anne Darbellay (violin)
rec March 2018 at Ensemblehaus, Freiburg, Germany
5-6. Danse Diabolique
WDR SO/Bas Wiegers
rec November 2016 at Klaus-von-Bismarck-Saal, Cologne, Germany

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