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Grischuns dal cor
Raffaele D’ALESSANDRO (1911–1959)
Symphony No 2, Op 72 (1952) [25:28]
Paul JUON (1872-1940)
Burletta for violin and orchestra, Op 97 (1939) [12:31]
Gion Antoni DERUNGS (1935-2012)
Tre poeme for orchestra, Op 173 (Symphony No 9) (2005/2007) [24:58]
Oliver WAESPI (b. 1971)
La Partenza (2011/2012) [16:21]
Sebastian Bohren (violin)
Kammerphilharmonie Graubünden/Philippe Bach
rec. January 2021, Saal am Lindaplatz, Schaan, Liechtenstein
CLAVES RECORDS 50-3031 [79:22]

For those readers like myself who are only vaguely familiar with the geography of Switzerland in general and the layout (and names) of its mysterious cantons in particular, Graubünden is the largest of these, found in the easternmost area of the country. (A word about nomenclature - Graubünden is its German name; the local, Romansh equivalnt is Grischuns, which for our purposes is anglicised as The Grisons) It contains towns familiar to winter sports fans (St Moritz) and the movers and shakers of the international business community (Davos) although Chur, its largest city and capital, is arguably less renowned. On this evidence the canton is also the home of a fine orchestra, the Kammerphilharmonie Graubünden; despite the relative recency of its foundation, we are assured in the note that the orchestra “….is as diverse as the canton itself. The Kammerphilharmonie has been heard in the city and countryside for over 30 years - in village squares, churches and dance halls…… paying special attention to local composers of the past and present.”

It is this latter feature which forms the basis of this intriguing anthology, the first disc the orchestra has recorded for Claves. Each of these four substantial pieces was produced during the last 80 years or so by composers with strong local links. The earliest is an attractive concertante work with solo violin by Paul Juon, the one name here which is likely to be recognised by MusicWeb regulars; his work has enjoyed the enthusiastic advocacy from the CPO label in recent years. Although Juon was born in Moscow, his connection to The Grisons is that his grandfather was a local confectioner who emigrated to Russia in 1830, whilst Juon himself, having lived and worked in central Europe for much of his life elected to settle in Switzerland (in Vevey) in 1934. He remained there until his death; his Burletta was amongst his final works. It had been commissioned by the German violinist Max Strub who premiered the work in Dresden in 1940, the year of Juon’s passing. It packs a lot of incident into its twelve and a half minutes: an agreeably folksy theme, a subsidiary idea presented initially on horn and subsequently varied by soloist and orchestra, a winsomely nostalgic central slow section, an effortless transition to the upbeat and tuneful mood which suffused its opening and dominates its conclusion. Unsurprisingly it conveys a markedly Russian flavour, pitched somewhere between Glazunov and Myaskovsky. Juon’s judicious deployment of metallic percussion lends the piece a mildly contemporary sheen. Sebastian Bohren’s solo contribution is eloquent and refined whilst the orchestra acquits itself splendidly.

Just thirteen years separates Juon’s nostalgic creation from the Symphony No 2 by Raffaele d’Alessandro, a composer whose name has completely passed me by. It is my loss: this is a substantial work whose bracing, rather angular language seems to inhabit a completely different era. D’Alessandro was born to a Grisonaise mother in nearby St Gallen and was sufficiently attached to the canton to embark upon Jürg Jenatsch, an opera about a locally born 17th century political leader who became a national hero. The four movements which comprise this symphony each derive from the preludes to the four acts of the opera. The slow tread of the Lento opening is menacing and percussive, coloured by snatches of nocturnal woodwind, simmering low piano, tam-tam and timpani. It springs into Allegro life after 90 seconds, a whirlwind of hyperactivity whose personality veers neatly between Honeggerian seriousness and the gracefulness of Frank Martin, to name D’Alessandro’s two most celebrated Swiss contemporaries. Nor are these lazy comparisons; whilst this music seems stylistically and emotionally touched by both figures, it simultaneously seems to offer something powerful and individual. The clarinet writing at the outset of the Andante unfailingly brings Honegger to mind again (the central panels of his first and fourth symphonies) but D’Alessandro leads the listener into a more consistently tenebroso landscape. A Presto scherzo follows which veers between puckishness and the more rugged mood which dominated the first movement. D’Alessandro’s volatile and elusive music certainly sustains the listener’s interest until it fades into a martial percussion tattoo. The meandering and haunting cor anglais melody which opens the finale is summarised by a distant clarinet; this suddenly explodes into a terse Allegro giusto which oscillates between syncopated woodwind melody and stomping neo-classicism. On this evidence I would certainly be interested in hearing more of d’Alessandro’s work; his Symphony No 2 is colourful, virile and concise. Readers acquainted with the composers to whom I referred earlier will have little problem identifying its Swiss DNA.

Gian Antoni Derungs is the one composer featured in this collection who was actually born in The Grisons. His work seems to be little known beyond his homeland. His Symphony No 9 (subtitled Tre poeme) is of relatively recent provenance and requires a small orchestra of double winds, harp, strings, and timpani. Its three movements are sober, accessible and neatly contrasted; the first projects a mood of serenity with soft textures and pastel shades which only infrequently yield to acerbity. A central panel marked con moto is livelier but similarly repressed. Derungs was clearly a competent orchestrator but this music seems rather aimless and lacks personality. I’ve played the symphony a few times now – it stubbornly refuses to get under my skin. Its espressivo finale mirrors the restraint of the opening movement. Despite admirable playing from the Kammerphilharmonie Graubünden (and fine solo contributions from their woodwind principals and harpist) I struggled to escape from my initial impression; that whilst it superficially resembles the early orchestral music of Henri Dutilleux, it seems devoid of that French master’s unlimited reserves of inspiration and detail.

Zurich-born Oliver Waespi is only living composer represented on the disc. His 2011 work La Partenza (The Parting) might be described as a symphonic poem in the sense that it derives from an ancient Grisonais folk song (the oldest in the Romansh tongue, apparently) which describes the story of St Margriata, who according to local legend worked on the mountains for seven years dressed as a man until her secret was discovered by a young shepherd (we are not told how); despite her pleas and offers of gifts to the boy he still spilled the beans to the authorities and she was forced to leave the mountain. The booklet note, perhaps wisely, spares us the detail and meaning of the legend, and instead focuses on Waespi’s deployment of the original melody. Ominous tremolando strings. distant fanfares and bracing flute interjections immediately suggest a rugged open-air setting and Waespi builds the tension most skilfully as the work proceeds. The main presentation of the folk theme is obvious even to a listener who has never heard the tune in their life (I am one); it is beautifully managed. The piece is colourful, structurally convincing and the presence of the folk melody renders it readily memorable. Whilst it is mildly cinematic, Waespi succeeds in avoiding cliché. La Partenza inevitably concludes on a note of melancholy, even tragedy, the composer recycling the piece’s earlier ideas with considerable imagination. It’s a strange, rather lovely piece. It’s perhaps not the kind of music one might expect from a composer born in 1971.

Grischuns dal cor certainly constitutes a striking calling card for a relatively young provincial orchestra. The three Swiss composers represented are completely unfamiliar to me; at least two are worthy of further investigation. The Kammerphilharmonie Graubünden has been conducted by Philippe Bach since 2016; on this evidence they are in excellent hands. The recording is perfectly agreeable, although I found the sound in Derungs’ Tre poeme to be a little dry. Listeners seeking something unfamiliar and approachable could do worse than give this well-planned Grisonais odyssey a whirl.

Richard Hanlon

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