Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Albert Schnelzer: Predatory Dances

Predatory Dances (2003) [12:52]
Dance with the Devil (2000) [7:32]
Frozen Landscape (2002) [8:14]
Requiem (2004) [14:28]
Solitude (1999) [6:47]
Lamento (2004) [7:11]
Wolfgang is Dancing! (2002) [8:33]
Tobias Ringborg – violin
Claes Gunnarsson – cello
Per Lundberg – piano
Staffan Mårtensson – clarinet
Susanna Andersson – soprano
Francisca Skoogh – piano
Recorded in the Rosenbergsalen, Malmö 4-5 April 2007 (Dance with the Devil and Requiem) and Swedish Radio, Stockholm Studio 2 10-12 September 2008 STEREO DDD

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For Swedish composer Albert Schnelzer, composition is about looking for ‘true personal expression’ rather than striving to be ‘modernistically correct’, but the relationship in his music between expressivity and modernist austerity is more complicated than this suggests. The craftsmanship of his writing comes through in its remarkable clarity of texture, even in the densest passages. A mastery of rhythm is the secret to the success of his faster music, and as the title of the disc suggests, dance is an important inspiration. Klezmer rhythms are stated as a source of his rhythmic ideas, but their modernist heritage is also apparent. Predatory Dances, the work from which the disc’s title is taken, is written for piano trio, but owes much to Stravinsky’s ballets, both Russian period and neo-classical. Off-beats and cross rhythms drive otherwise dense textures, the strings playing repeated note figures with irregular downbeats created by regular metre changes. As the work progresses, the strings overlay long, arching melodies over frenetic piano accompaniment, the expressive and the modernistic played out here in counterpoint.

Dance with the Devil is a solo piano work based on a similar combination of rhythmic complexity and textural clarity. Stravinsky again lurks in the background, although his influence is a few stages removed, reaching Schnelzer via Bartok and especially Ligeti, whose L’escalier du diable is strongly evoked, both in the music’s textures and its title.

Textural contrast is clearly of central importance to Schnelzer’s work, and the music of this disc can be divided roughly in half between this fast rhythmic music and its slower, often almost arrhythmic, counterpart. The three ‘dance’ works -Predatory Dances, Dance with the Devil and Wolfgang is Dancing! – use both textures, while the other works on the disc are restricted to the quieter, slower style. If the four quieter works seem more consummate, it is because of the crude ternary form with which the dance works are structured. Each of these has related, though not identical, outer dance sections separated by a quieter interlude. It is a stark contrast, and the two textures interact powerfully, but this only goes to increase the frustrating predictability of the basic three-part form.

Frozen Landscapes for cello and piano is music of a Northern European cast. Bleak landscapes are powerfully evoked, with isolated notes and chords appearing from sustained textures. The music calls to mind recent Russian minimalism, especially that of Alexander Knaifel. It is really music for a cathedral acoustic rather than a recording studio, but generous digital reverb makes up the difference without undue intrusion.

Requiem is a song cycle for soprano and piano, written as a memorial to Fadime Sahindal, a Kurdish woman who was the victim of an honour killing in Sweden in 2002. The solo piano opening suggests Messiaen at his more laid back, while the vocal writing is more straightforwardly lyrical. The soprano, Susanna Andersson, sings with an unaffected simplicity, although more vibrato than the music warrants, and copes admirably with the occasional ascent to the top register at the ends of phrases.

Solitude for solo cello takes us back to frozen landscapes, and this time double stopping creates the simple duet textures that were achieved by cello and piano in the earlier work. Most of the textures are at the quiet end of the spectrum, and while the music is linear, you would be hard-pushed to describe it as melodic. Instead it strives for a sense of bleak expanse, achieved through the contrast in scale of the overall work with its minimal resources.

Lamento is another work based on attenuated textures, with pinpoint notes and chords appearing over sustained pedals. The work is for violin, clarinet, cello and (modestly) prepared piano, and is based on a Hans Christian Andersen story about the sandman. Sleep and snoring are therefore the imperatives for these various sounds, with swells into notes and glissando slides off. Atmosphere is again the order of the day, and is achieved without even a hint of pedantry.

No prizes for guessing who the title character of Wolfgang is dancing! The idea behind this piece was apparently to apply klezmer rhythms to Mozart’s music, but thankfully all that is buried deep, and the music gives no suggestion of pastiche. If this is a joke, it is a sophisticated one. The work is another of Schnelzer’s ‘dances’ with the instruments (violin, clarinet and cello) distributed between a spiky melodic contour and a cross-accented repeated note accompaniment. Then comes a sharply contrasting calm interlude before the return of the main material. It would be a highly accomplished work, were it not for the pedantic and unimaginative structure.

The young Swedish performers are all on the music’s wavelength, and the works are given sympathetic and energetic readings. While many of the pieces contain obvious technical challenges, Schnelzer is a composer who thinks of his performers. He creates rhythmic complexity out of easily performed repeated note patterns, structures melodies around breath durations, and fashions ornaments from scale runs. It is clearly satisfying music to play, and this a recording made by players who are committed to every note of it.

Gavin Dixon

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