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Schurig Ens 0015113KAI
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Wolfram SCHURIG (b. 1967)
Works for Ensemble
Concerto for violin and 19 instruments (2014-16) [20:12]
Kokoi for oboe and eight instruments (2020) [15:42]
Battaglia for obligato trombone and chamber ensemble (1999) [11:55]
Gesänge von der Peripherie for soprano, flute, clarinet, percussion, viola and violoncello (2014-2016) [25:53]
Ivana Pristašová (violin); Markus Sepperer (oboe); Andrew Digby (trombone); Almut Panfilenko (soprano)
PHACE/Joseph Trafton, Nacho de Paz, Simeon Pironkoff, Lars Mlekusch
rec. 2011-2021
German text for Gesänge von der Peripherie included
KAIROS 0015113KAI [73:44]

Eike Fess informs us in a helpful (if oddly translated) booklet note that Wolfram Schurig has a background in early music performance as a recorder player, an experience which he confirms has impacted significantly on his approach as a composer. He is quoted thus: “You simply write music differently when you are on stage yourself. You owe it to the performer to deliver something that [is] playable, and in which he can find himself as a co-creator.” Those remarks seem especially pertinent to the four substantial concertante works which feature on this recent issue. Notwithstanding Schurig’s predilection for microtones and unusually languorous glissandi, each of them communicate with fluency and directness. The Violin Concerto recognisably does what it says on the tin, despite the composer’s somewhat abrasive vocabulary, whilst Kokoi and Battaglia (involving oboe and trombone respectively) both incorporate fascinating adaptations to the idea of the instrumental concerto. Although Gesänge von der Peripherie is notionally (and literally) a song-cycle, the texts which Schurig has chosen to set comprise a rich language which the soprano Almut Panfilenko skilfully conveys at times as if it were abstract musical sound rather than meaningful lyric. This seems to justifies its inclusion on this disc. Moreover, all of this music is not only eminently playable, it’s directly communicative notwithstanding Schurig’s frequently angular approach to melody and harmony.

Those listeners familiar with the key works of Arnold Schoenberg will I think quickly recognise his influence upon the shape and timbre of the first and last works on this disc. The brusque, scything gestures enacted by soloist Ivana Pristašová at the opening of the Concerto for violin and 19 instruments swiftly yield to a less abrasive jaggedness which sits well with the make up of Schurig’s ensemble and the restless momentum of the music. An ascending motif in the solo part circles around throughout the initial section, characterised as it is by eerie microtonal drones and spiky orchestration. Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony Op 9 is referred to as a structural model in Fess’s note, but for me Schurig’s lean, elastic orchestration recalls its actual sound. The ascending line is mirrored by an inebriated figure epitomised by disoriented glissandi. The dense hyperactivity of the writing increases exponentially during a scherzo section in which a prominent bassoon (a nod to the soloist’s dad, a former orchestral principal on the instrument) duets along in a characteristically jolly, if demented way. All bets are off however in the third segment, in which the soloist falls silent and the ensemble’s strings and winds combine to provide a uneasily serene backcloth for solo trumpet and trombone doodlings. The isolated wisps of melody that intermittently materialise coalesce atmospherically before Pristašová re-enters with the most lyrical material in the entire work and a curt, exciting closing section, illuminated with piercing flutes and washes of tuned percussion. She navigates her challenging part with both swagger and style. PHACE provide invigorating, in-your-face accompaniment. This tough, worthwhile score is conducted with understated precision by Joseph Trafton.

Kokoi, for oboe and eight instrumemnts is the most recent offering here, its title borrowed from the local tribal name of a poisonous Colombian frog whose habitat is threatened by encroaching urbanisation. The work thus reflects Schurig’s interest in ecological interdependence. Microtones abound in a strange and sinuous cantilena which elicits jagged single note prods from the octet, whose composition seems larger than it is due to the presence of colourful tuned percussion, including a busy vibraphone and piano. It’s less obviously a ‘concerto’ than the Violin Concerto although paradoxically the oboe is in action throughout. Its central span seems sparser and more languid than the outside sections, its creepy orchestral textures and flutes evoking-pan pipes which hover enigmatically around a primal, carboniferous environment. At 9:15 oboist Markus Sepperer’s multiphonics kick in, the tension increasing as textures assume an edgy unpredictability. The coda oscillates between playfulness and complexity and duly gravitates towards the compromised terrain suggested at Kokoi’s outset.

Following this is Battaglia, the earliest of the pieces on this conspectus (it dates from 1999). Scored for obligato trombone and ensemble, the omnipresence of the mute on the solo instrument and the titular allusion to a form made famous by Heinrich Biber both suggest a degree of irony in a piece designated as the first of Schurig’s cycle of works to inspired by a specific work of art. This is Tintoretto’s The Capture of Constantinople 1204, a battle painting which is as gravid in self-aggrandisement (it was commissioned by the Venetian government at the end of the 16th century) as it is rich in detail. Schurig score is a colourful, smoky, surprisingly restrained brouhaha flecked with muted trumpets straining to be heard in the wings, hints of half-hearted fanfares and lurid, jazzy saxophones. If anything, Battaglia embodies a less astringent, more approachable soundworld than the couplings on this disc; it’s as unexpectedly soft-hued as Tinitoretto’s original. Contemporary trombone specialist Andrew Digby is a deft and athletic protagonist; the 2011 recording is superbly clear.

In his first vocal cycle Gesänge von der Peripherie (Songs from the Periphery) Schurig set texts by the poet Daniela Danz; her words (which are untranslated in the booklet) convey a rather sensual quality in their very sound which the composer skilfully exploits. Scored for soprano and a Pierrot-like ensemble (Schurig exchanges piano for percussion which provides additional coloristic opportunity) the sequence is richly atmospheric. The voice traces the shapes of stratospheric flute lines in the opening himmel und hölle; the number is dense in string glissandi and jazzy vibes. Abendlied is more enigmatic, Almut Panfilenko’s voice taking on a haunting instrumental quality which suits the accompanying string timbres which dominate the texture. Whilst some of this music superficially resembles the work of those composers who embrace avowedly spectralist approaches, taking the sequence in toto I find it interesting how these songs never actually veer too far from their Schoenbergian roots, notwithstanding Schurig’s fondness for microtonal writing. (Indeed the spirit here gets close to Patricia Kopatchinska’s extraordinarily vivid recent reading of Pierrot Lunaire which turned up recently on Alpha - review.) Schurig’s own voice seems to prevail more obviously in the three slower numbers, abendlied, in der etappe, and Travertin. This is a fascinating cycle, mildly disorienting in its impact although the music is never less than approachable. It is brilliantly projected by Panfilenko, and the PHACE ensemble, as they are elsewhere on this disc, prove to be attentive, fully engaged accompanists. The recording seems to be slightly harsh especially when Schurig demands volume from a high voice, flute or clarinet.

This is the first Kairos issue I’ve received of late which eschews outright any synthetic, or electroacoustic component and it’s none the worse for that. Wolfgang Schurig is clearly most accomplished at creating convincing concertante structures for conventional instruments which are nonetheless challenging and unpredictable. This disc is certainly sufficiently provocative for me to seek out his debut Kairos monograph, Ultima Thule, which was released way back in 2006 (0012492KAI). It’s certainly reassuring to discover imaginative composers continuing to make hay with traditional forms and finding fresh modes of expression via traditional instrumental means.

Richard Hanlon

Recording details
1. Concerto for violin and 19 instruments : recorded 22 November 2016 at Wien Modern – Berio Saal, Wiener Konzerthaus, Austria. Ivana Pristašová (violin), PHACE conducted by joseph Trafton
2. Kokoi: recorded 28 November 2020 at Wien Modern – Berio Saal, Wiener Konzerthaus, Austria. Markus Sepperer (oboe), PHACE conducted by Nacho de Paz.
3. Battaglia: recorded 20 September 2011 at Spanischer Saal, Schloss Ambras Innsbruck, Austria. Andrew Digby (trombone), PHACE conducted by Simeon Pironkoff
4 - 10. Gesänge von der Peripherie: recorded 19 February 2021 at Dschungel Wien, Austria. Almut Panfilenko (soprano), PHACE conducted by Lars Mlekusch

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