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Sillescu sy1 GEN22788
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Tilman Sillescu (b. 1969)
Symphony no. 1 Nachtlichter (2020)
Staatskapelle Weimar/Christian K. Frank
rec. 2019/21, Weimarhalle, Weimar, Germany
GENUIN GEN22788 [41]

I have never played a video game. When, however, I’ve seen them being played by other people, they have invariably been characterised by lots of noise. There’s gunfire – whether from revolvers, shotguns, howitzers or tanks - as well as revving car engines, skidding motorbikes and an endless series of explosions all competing to batter the participants’ and spectators’ eardrums. It had never actually occurred to me that there was much of a living to be made out of composing music for such games, let alone that there were awards for doing so. Now, however, I stand corrected, for the website of Dynamedion, the “international game audio” business of which composer Tilman Sillescu is creative director, alerts me to the fact that he has won prizes for his music both for Age of empires 4 and what it calls “the great ANNO series” (feel free to look them up, as I did, but, unless you’re already a video game enthusiast, I fear that, like me, you’ll be little the wiser).

Mr Sillescu has now, however, branched out in a new direction – or, to be accurate, an old one, for he originally studied classical music at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz. He writes a few paragraphs in the booklet notes to this new release and, as they are rather informative, I will quote from them at somewhat greater than usual length. We learn that after a career “coming up with listener-friendly game music… I was highly motivated to use my classical training and love of symphonies for something greater”. What that meant in practice, he goes on to explain, was finding “a simple and accessible musical language, which allows the listener to feel emotions and see images without having these imposed on him. Music that comprises beauty, mysticism, irony and drama, and at the same time is able to stimulate the mind with its formal structure and harmonies”. And, as the vehicle to deliver those principles, he chose to compose Nachtlichter (Night lights), “a symphonic narration of the night with all of its fathomless beauty and wondrous, exhilarating lights and its, in part, terrifying secrets”.

Interestingly enough, the Dynamedion website to which I referred earlier describes Nachtlichter as a “tonal painting”. While that’s not as entirely precise or helpful a characterisation as it might be, it certainly and correctly hints at Sillescu’s generally impressionistic approach. Indeed, he writes elsewhere in the booklet notes that his symphony “is not based on predefined stories, but can create its own images in the listener’s mind [my own emphasis]”. While, as my MusicWeb colleague Christopher Little has previously observed and explained, the work is clearly recognisable as following a symphonic blueprint, it also incorporates several of the characteristics – albeit over a four-movement structure – of a musical tone poem.

The symphony’s first movement is somewhat deceptive for, after a dreamily discursive andante moderato opening that, one might imagine, depicts the night’s “fathomless beauty and wondrous, exhilarating lights”, it segues, in a musical style that brings Shostakovich to mind, into a more convulsive central section (4:59 – 7:49) that presumably represents its “terrifying secrets”. The short (6:07) second movement, marked presto, suggests that some forceful and distinctly sinister activity is under way, sufficient to make one want to be tucked up safely in bed at home behind securely locked doors while whatever-it-is is taking place. At 10:49 in length, the third movement is more substantial. Marked adagio non troppo, it reintroduces a less randomly frenetic tone, although its more contemplative moments are overshadowed by passages where more resolutely propulsive music predominates. Like Christopher, I found this to be the most impressively constructed and developed part of the whole score. A lively (allegro con moto) finale emphasises once again that the hours of darkness can be a time when, unknown to the sleeping majority, plenty of activity is actually under way – though this time it’s depicted not so much as sinister than as simply busy. Once again, Shostakovich appears to be an influence.

The lively, skittish nature of much of Nachtlichter’s material means that it needs skilful performers. Thankfully, on this occasion the music is well served by the Staatskapelle Weimar. Reviewing a disc of pieces by Richard Strauss just a few years ago, my colleague Nick Barnard observed that “the Weimar orchestra are ideally suited to the rich Romantic style… They make a fabulously rich and warmly integrated sound”. While it is obvious that Tilman Sillescu’s 21st century musical fingerprints will not be “rich[ly] Romantic” in precisely the same way as that of Strauss’s fin de siècle scores, they self-evidently share enough characteristics to make Nick’s assessment equally applicable. The composer himself appears to regard this particular world premiere recording as definitive, for he writes in the booklet notes that conductor Christian K. Frank “perhaps understood the symphony in its complexity better than anyone else to date. He was able to really get inside my work and conduct the music just as I wanted…” The performance has been captured, moreover, in excellent quality sound that reveals plenty of detail that’s going on under Nachtlichter’s sometimes cloudy and often turbulent surface.

A CD release that comes in at 41 minutes – just about half the disc’s maximum capacity – can justifiably be seen as short-measure and that has to be taken into account in any decision as to whether to acquire it. I suspect, however, that many potential purchasers will overlook any value-for-money considerations for the chance of familiarising themselves with such an ambitious, accomplished and, indeed, listener-friendly work.

Rob Maynard

Previous review: Christopher Little

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