Music for piano (CDs »Movimenti« and »Miniatures«)

Kurt Schwaen: CD »Movimenti«. Five Decades of Piano Music

Confessions from an Eventful Life

(Exerpts from CD booklet)

The Piano was not only the starting point for Kurt Schwaen’s compositions. Whether as solo, chamber or accompanying instrument, it continues to occupy a dominat position in his work. (...) Almost entirely self-taught, Schwaen tried out lengthy improvisations on the piano from a tender age.These led to his first tentative attempts at composition. His artistic standards grew with his mastery of the piano technique and the means of expression the instrument offers. What the composer wrote in Stufen und Intervalle, the title of his memoirs which appeared in 1976, was as true at that age as it was decades later:

»The piano is the instrument in which I place all my confidence. I trust it implicitly with my confessions, often only a few bars not designet to be played, tiny pieces which form a never-ending diary.«

Hardly anything has survived of his early attempts in the twenties. And the composer desttroyed everything from his student days which did not match up to his rigorous self- criticism.The breakthrough came in 1939 when, after his release from prison, he encountered free dance. His Tanzbilder originate from those years. (...) More than a musical accompaniment, they take on an autonomous appearance and obey their own laws beyond the impetus of dance. The Aufruf is powerfully engaging, deliberately idiosyncratic, and incorporates changes of rhythm in five-four time. The persistent knocking of the Ostinato is raised to passionate excitement, while the Beschwörung, succinctly rendered, is restrained and penetrating at the same time. (...)

In the dance studios, hi found himself confronted with the music of Hindemth, Orff, Egk and other contemporaries. He had been captivadet by Weill and Eisler back in the early thirties. Bartók, Prokofiev and Satie also interested him, so that he addressed their works too. This left a mark on the Tanzbilder, as is did on later works. For a long time he was fascinated by Stravinsky, and paid a spirited tribute to him as late as 1966 with the distinctive bitonality (A minor in the right hand, F sharp major in the left) of the Spieldose from the Movimenti cycle.

The Intermezzo tenero from the same seven movements for piano is a world apart. (...) It is reminicent of Debussy, but no less a Schwaen orginal than the Waldvögel from the early seventies, which conjures up assiciations with Messiaens ...(...)

We encounter another characteristic feature of the composer’s work in Bulgarian Rhythms. Here and in other works of various genres and scorings, hi articulates his devotion to folklore, particulary of the Slav variety. (...)

One of the most distinctive, almost enigmatic, pieces by Kurt Schwaen is Nocturne lugubre, written in 1992. The composer dismisses all rumours that he penned it in a state of depression, but the fact remains that the work is permeated with mournful resignation. It ist a mature work which rises to the ultimate dimension. Its size alone breaches the limits of Schwaen’s habitually self-imposed epigrammatic brevity.Though extremely restrained, it takes on an unusually broad scope and attains an almost breathtaking tension whenever the composer’s intension is captured so faithfully as it is on the present recording.

Wolfgang Hanke (1994)
Translation: Stephen Smith

Kurt Schwaen: Miniatures. Late Works for Piano

The works and their composer

(Exerpts from CD booklet)

From the start piano compositions have been an integral part of Kurt Schwaen’s creative output, which in the meantime encompasses almost a third of a century. These pieces have grown more numerous and important in the last few decades especially since the political turn of 1989/90 after which larger works for orchestra, chorus, dance or music theater became growingly difficult to produce compared with earlier decades. (...)

Kurt Schwaen generally lets his compositions speak for themselves. He sees little value in commenting them loquaciously, just as he is wary of any kind of exaggerated talkativeness in his music. Yet more often than not the titles of his pieces or cycles reveal much in just one or two words. This also holds true for the Preludio patetico, which the composer wrote for Falko Steinbach and dedicated to him after meeting him personally near Cologne in 1996 and becoming an admirer of his interpretation of contemporary piano music. (...)

As tersely as it is written, in keeping with the composer’s style, and as fragmentary as the brief, contrasting individual segments that follow one after the other may appear to sound on first hearing, the work reveals a profound content and meaning when we allow it to go deeper. One of its special characteristics is the comprehensive use of the chromatic scale. In fact, at one point a twelve tone complex is consolidated without, however, being developed stringently. (...)

The (17) Intermezzi were written a good quarter of a century before the Preludio patetico and basically do not belong to the late, much less the most recent works. Kurt Schwaen had just turned 62 when he wrote them down in the course of a few weeks as a result of a new creative surge. (...) These miniatures open up worlds in the most succint and condensed dimensions. Their composer has set his deepest personal and intimate thoughts and feelings into notes and sounds in them: the joy of a newly awakened love, desires, hopes, but also fears. The piece that originally closed the cycle, which almost seems to cease and fall completely silent, carries an aura of desperation. But this is not the last word. The return to the hope-filled beginning tones break the mood. The forms and stylistic elements of these 17 pieces are as manifold as the spontaneous changes in mood and feeling that they convey. (...)

Kurt Schwaen wrote his to date youngest piano creations at the age of 91 and 92, chronologically surprisingly close to one another although they move on such seemingly different levels. The Little Dance Book’s twelve pieces, (...) reflect lasting experiences and impressions of his youth and his earliest creative years. The Slavic Dances were written in June and July of 2000, just after the return from a trip into his past to Katowice and the Beskides, where a number of passages for a documentary about his life and work were filmed. On this deeply moving, memory-filled journey, he encountered the Goral dances once again, which had previously wrested his attention on the hikes of his youth and which inspired him to write a whole selection of compositions that lead back to Bartók and Polish contemporaries such as Karol Szymanowski. (...)

Other selections from the cycle, especially the deliciously ironic miniature Oh, the pretty ballerina is reminiscent of Schwaen’s work as a pianist and composer in 1939/42 for a studio for expressionistic dance in Berlin his release from a three-year prison sentence because of illegally working against the Nazi regime. (...) Entrée, as much as the title implies, has purposely not been placed at the beginning but forms a resting place among these whirling dances that bring Eastern and Western Europe closer to one another.

The Lyric pieces are utterly different. They give expression to the dichotomy of the composer’s personality and harbor surprising contrasts and changing emotions in themselves. The only connection to Edvard Grieg’s once so frequently played collection is the title, not the signature even less so their style. Already in his young years Schwaen took a distanced stance towards the Norwegian Grieg and in fact to the late Romantic period as such, which was not to change.(...)

The Nocturne lugubre, created nine years prior to the Lyric pieces, shows a close relation to them, almost a late echo, certainly a highly unusual part of Schwaen’s oeuvre. Here we hear it recorded on CD for the fourth time, already the second time by Falko Steinbach, reliable evidence of its singular place among Schwaen’s piano compositions which encompass more than 450 pieces. The choice of title, which contains bodings of sorrow and ill, is unusual in itself for the usually so vivid, optimistic composer regardless of the many travails and conflicts that have made up his moved life. Unusual too, the long breath which this »lugubrious nocturnal piece« demonstrates, compared with the mostly epigrammatic brevity of Schwaen’s other piano pieces. Regardless of how many questions this piece gives rise to, one thing is sure: It takes the nocturnes of John Field and Chopin a step further, leading to a totally new dimension in the composer’s work, and that it will not cease to affect its listeners for a long time to come.

Wolfgang Hanke (2001)
Translation: Eva Lipton