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Sillescu sy1 GEN22788
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Tilman SILLESCU (b. 1969)
Symphony No. 1 “Nachtlichter” (2020) [41:58]
Staatskapelle Weimar/Christian K. Frank
rec. 17-19 December, 2019 and 25-26 May, 2021, Weimarhalle, Weimar, Germany
Reviewed as 16-bit download from press preview
GENUIN GEN22788 [41:58]

In some ways, a blind listening session would serve this album best. Mention beforehand that it is contemporary music or that its composer is best known for film and video game soundtracks and you will have potentially alienated two overlapping swathes of listeners before a note has been played. This would be a shame, as curious listening reveals an accessible and intelligent tonal symphony in traditional form. Composer Tilman Sillescu shares in the liner notes he had long wished for an opportunity to put his classical training and “love of symphonies” to use in a composition for the concert hall. His work in more commercial fields left him little time for such ambitions, however, until now.

Sillescu writes that his goal was “a simple and accessible musical language, which allows the listener to feel emotions and see images without having these imposed on him.” Accessible it is but not simple in the pejorative sense. Nachtlichter or “Nocturnal Lights” is an abstract symphony in four movements whose forms correspond to common practice symphonic procedure. That is, there is a first movement in sonata form, a scherzo in ABA ternary form, a third movement utilizing the repetitive elements of a passacaglia, and a rondo-like finale. The programmatic title is evocative, rather than illustrative. Sillescu explains he was inspired to write “a symphonic narration of the night with all its fathomless beauty and wondrous, exhilarating lights and its, in part, terrifying secrets.”

I hear “fathomless beauty” in the first movement, marked Andante moderato, compared by the composer to an “inscrutable forest at night,” while the exhilaration comes in the second and fourth movements, marked Presto and Allegro con moto, respectively. The Adagio non troppo third movement is starkly concentrated, in contrast, and stalks its way to a harrowing climax. Another “terrifying secret” might lurk at the climax of the first movement’s development section. An element of cyclic form occurs when the “nocturnal” atmosphere of the opening movement returns near the end of the finale, before the excitement picks up again at the end. Sillescu further unifies the symphony by using two recurring musical motifs. The first features two high long tones separated by an up-and-down turn or twist of brief grace notes while the second stretches this gesture into a wider expressive leap upwards, often repeatedly straining higher. Some passages do have a film-score “sound,” usually the result of melodic exuberance, sudden harmonic juxtapositions, unrestrained scoring, or repetitive rhythmic phrases but it struck me how much this work sounded like a symphony, not a soundtrack crammed into an abstract mold. The third movement is particularly impressive in this regard. Stylistic pointers include, in the first movement, similarities in tempo, mood, and orchestration – particularly percussion – with Mahler’s first Nachtmusik from his seventh symphony and, in the finale’s manically scurrying strings and brass, with Shostakovich.

The playing and recording are top notch. The Staatskapelle Weimar players feel energized and alert to the score’s subtleties as well as its cinematic qualities. This is not just a run-through performance. The principal flute, clarinet, and horn execute numerous solos with spirit and the composer praised conductor Christian Frank for understanding the symphony’s complexity “better than anyone else to date.” Sillescu also notes he has worked with the Genuin Recording Group throughout his career in recording soundtracks. That experience has paid off in a recording that is very vibrant, with immediate impact, clear balances and no lost details.

Take a chance on this one – you will be pleasantly surprised.

Christopher Little

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