Music for orchestra (CDs »Jeu parti« and »Solo Concertos«)

Kurt Schwaen: »Jeu parti«. Four Decades of Music for String Orchestra

An Attempt To Introduce The Works

(Booklet text by the composer)

This CD contains compositions for string orchestra that were created over the span of four decades. Musical differences can be attributed solely to the lengthy period of time during which the pieces were conceived. The first composition we’ll hear is based on an idea originating in the age of the troubadours (13th century). The »fighting poems« with which two poets would challenge each other’s literary prowess were called »jeu parti«. It was a kind of chivalrous duel in which the word was truly mightier than the sword.

I was attracted to transfering the idea into music. In my Jeu parti, the participants in the duel don’t appear one after the other, but both at the same time. It is the violins and the cellos that perform their cadenzas together, sometimes complementing and sometimes trying to dominate one another. The orchestra functions either as a partner or an audience. This could also be understood as the underlying principle behind a concerto per se, if you will, as the soloist either unites with the orchestra or, as in a traditional cadenza, maintains an independent role.

On this CD, we can also find the same phenomenon in the Concert pour la jeunesse for piano as well as in the Divertimento for cello and string orchestra. The four movements of the Concert and the five found in the Divertimento surpass the traditional three movement scheme. One can hear that traditional academic form was not an object at all. It’s clear that a light and entertaining character should dominate the pieces.

The Tre danzi, each from a different year, were combined into an integrated whole. At the very beginning, the Danza ostinata confronts us with a musical paradigm that remains valid for each of the movements. As different as the movements are, the ostinato unites them right up to the incessant whirling of musical pirouettes.

The Variations on a Dutch Folk Song from the 16th century stand in sharp contrast to the three aforementioned works. It is the time of Spanish colonial rule over the small group of people that occupy the Netherlands. Those who revolted were called »Geusen« (beggars). The Spaniards meant it derisively; the people of the Netherlands sang the songs proudly in their fight for independence. The variations reflect both the loss and gain that was experienced during this time.

The fresh, joyous and carefree forward-raging opening and closing movements of the Concert pour la jeunesse enclose two middle movements of immense differing character. The extended, reflective Andantino, which places certain demands on young listeners, is followed by a virtually loutish Scherzo that abstains from using the entire orchestra. The left hand, almost purely an accompaniment, is limited to three ostinato tones during the entire movement. The right hand is left to its own devices to see how it can deal with such a »partner«.

There is also an ostinato to be found in the fourth movement of the Divertimento. Four hits (either on the body of the instrument or a drum) introduce the newest variation on the theme which one could compare to the likes of a country dance. The cello, the tenor amongst the strings, has ample opportunity to allow the cantilena with which the concerto begins to play a dominant role in each movement.

The Serenata and the Nocturne claire are quite different from the previous works. Both one-movement pieces are of short duration and illuminate the strings from a totally different perspective. The Serenata, a bravour piece for a solo violinist – I consciously avoid the informal word »fiddler« here -, is accompanied by three violinists of equal importance, who self-assuredly share the lyrical Intermezzo with the soloist.

One could imagine the Nocturne claire being performed in an almost toneless fashion. It seduces the listener into meditation through it’s shadowy, steady and constant wave-like motion in the high violins. The deeper instruments, contributing only few sustained tones at first, rise up to become a serious solo voice. The final note fades away.

Kurt Schwaen
Translation: Jon R. Welch

Kurt Schwaen: »Solokonzerte« / »Solo Concertos«

Kurt Schwaen: Solo Concertos

(Exerpt from CD booklet)

Kurt Schwaen’s work for this genre over a period of 25 years is impressively documented by the recordings of these three solo concertos. (...). Schwaen is certainly not a symphonic composer, and he never intended to be. This is not only evident in the brevity of his solo concertos, but also in their structural transparency, which, relying on the principles of chamber music, facilitates the listener’s access to these works. The composer does not deny tradition; neither does he want to be provocative, nor does he allow a new technique to become an end in itself. Modern structural techniques are skilfully blended with traditional ones. What matters is the result, not the awareness of how is has been achieved. What seems to be well-known is subjected to change, thrown new light upon, receiving a new musical structure.

So he remains comprehensible even in very demanding, complex pieces, activating and challenging musicians and listeners. Again and again, Schwaen surprises with new ideas; knowing their effects, he never overstretches them. His themes and motives often consist of few tones. Discplined conciseness and aphoristic brevity are typical features of his compositions. (...) This goes together with a distinct sense of rhythmic structuring and a predilection for free metres and changing time patterns. But, whatever new composition techniques and tone material he uses, is is particularly the slow movements that are often of a tender, moving simplicity and musical lyricism.

The final version of the First Piano Concerto was composed in 1964. Unlike many of his other works it was not written at one go and caused quite a few problems. The orchestra is confined to wind instruments, drums, percussion and double basses. Although the composer dislikes programm music (»Who needs titles does not know what music is«), extra musical influencec can be recognised. They are obvious in the first movement (Moderato, Allegretto), in which he used music he had written for the film The Gleiwitz Case (1961). (...)

The film is about the fascist raid of the Gleiwitz radio station, which served as a pretext for triggering off the Second World War. (...). To achieve this, the music – with heroic sounds, which are rarely found in other works by Schwaen – was of a special importance.

While the two corner movements allow the pianist to extensively demonstrate his virtuosity, in the second movement the soloist has a dialogue with the orchestra, which is in a contemplative, serene mood, with lyrical inclusions.

The fast and vigorous third movement is marked by rhythmic impulses. It starts in a virtuoso manner with pounding quaver triplets from the piano accentuated by the orchestra. At this tempo the octave chord passages require extraordinary precision and brilliance.

Only at the end, after the great cadenza in a charging 3/2 and 2/2 time the tension is relaxed and a liberating solution – something like a symbolic victory of the good – is reached. (...)

The First Piano Concerto was followed by works for larger orchestra, such as the Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann (1964/65), Promenades (1971), but also several works for the stage (the ballet The Ballad of Happiness, 1966, Pinocchio’s Adventures, an opera for children, 1969/70). This manifold experiences with how orchestra instruments can be employed are clearly reflected in the excellent orchestration of his later works. Here, he does not just arrange material as he did in the past, but thinks in timbres, deriving striking sound mixtures from knowing the specific potential of each individual instrument. More and more he comes to enjoy working with the given sound material, trying to subject it to his needs.

The Violin Concerto was written in 1979 on request of the Rostock violinist Ulfert Thiemann, who performed it for the first time in Stralsund (1981). Centering on D, the central tone of the whole concerto, the first movement (Poco Allegro) is based on a theme of nine tones. The missing notes C, F and A do not appear at all, but the listener never perceives the piece as »conctructed«, as the composer does not treat these serial themes in a dodecaphonic, but in a traditional manner.(...)

The emotionally very touching slow second movement (Moderato) is arranged in the way of a lyrical scene. In a rocking Siciliano the violin ascends and descends over the organ point D. The orchestra adopts the theme, and after a transitional passage the violin »sings« a song of austere beauty (Adagio) in an extensive melody consisting of small intervals. A short orchestral interlude leads back to the – now varied – initial theme.

The third movement (Andante, ad. lib.) starts with the orchestra playing in unison, rushing forward in an al-fresco manner. A rest on C sharp, after which a cadenza should be expected, is followed by a new orchestral section with a march-like, slightly grotesque theme joined by the violin playing quick semiquaver movements. A duet between violin and flute – again using the initial theme – opens the ending. (...)

23 years were to pass before the composer presented his second work for piano and orchestra, the Vietnamese Concerto (1987). Schwaen is in many ways connected with this heroic Far East country, which had so much to suffer and which he visited several times. (...)

The headings of the individual movements refer to the material used. The first movement, Le ton La (Andante molto) begins with an orchestral introduction revolving around the tone A. The latter is also the basis for the ensuing delicate four-tone motive A-H-D-E, which is, as it seems, reluctantly introduced by the strings, only to be played by all instruments later. With the entry of the piano it all of a sudden assumes a harsh, almost brutal character reinforced by the »comments« of the orchestra. A new theme, this time involving 12 tones, announces itself. Following a calm Lento, in which the right hand again and again returns to the tone A, remaining there in the end, it is presented by the bassoon accompanied by harsh quaver beats of the drum on A. The theme then spreads, and is varied until the movement finally dies away on A.

The composer calls the second movement Les deux tons (very calm) the heart of the concerto, which is meant in an ambiguous way. Two tones in a whole-tone interval – F sharp and G sharp – are continuously repeated like an ostinato. Neighbouring tones join in, giving rise to floating sounds, which, lightened up by marimbaphone and flute, create a very exotic, even meditative effect. Vietnamese listeners have assured the composer that in ist contemplative quietness the movement is reminiscent of their native country.

The third movement, Deux-trois-trois (Vivo) is most of all characterised by the rhythmically irregular ostinato motive 2+3+3. Here, Schwaen’s vigorous rhythm culminates in sparkling ecstasy, rushing forward without restraint (...).

Ina Iske
Translation: Dr. Gerhard Hartmann

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