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Music for string instruments and piano
(CD »accelerando«)

Kurt Schwaen: accelerando. Piano Trios and Piano Duos

»... restless and curious as ever«

(Exerpt from CD booklet)

As these lines were written, the composer Kurt Schwaen was celebrating his 91st birthday! (...). Tirelessly writing, Schwaen is full of plans and ideas and continues to surprise with unorthodox solutions. His »material« reveals itself as unpolished – the best of conditions in order to – after the manner of Brecht – make »useful recommendations«, which up to now have taken the form of an output numbering well over 600 works. (...)

Schwaen’s compositional work was from the very beginning directed less toward »great art«, but rather toward music which »got to the point« without a lot of detours, which reacted to needs which required satisfaction and which combined all of this with a high degree of artistic command and practicability. Schwaen has composed songs, cantatas, choral works, a pedagogical work (after Brecht), radio operas, film music, incidental music for the stage, radio play music, ballet scores and operas, among these many works for children. Schwaen’s efforts and achievements in creating a music which is in the best sense useable are clearly evident. It is from here that the directness and precision, the gestural exactitude barring any superficiality which is also characteristic of many other of Schwaen’s compositions. His music is based on communication. It explicitly invites the co-creative interpreter and the active listener. It does not rely on any type of fashion, accepts no restrictions, carries no »message«, does however draw its essence from an ethically founded function of useablitiy in the broadest sense. And in the uninterrupted relationship between intellect and pronounced musicality, Schwaen’s music presents an unusual piece of luck in the world of contemporary music. Schwaen still sees himself as duty-bound:

»I am restless and curious as ever. I don’t want to forget the past, but I do want to leave it behind, so that I am ready for new challenges.« (1996)

In Kurt Schwaen’s continually expanding catalog there are quite a number of particularly important focal points, the dominant one among these however is chamber music. (...)

The specificity of Schwaen’s musical language, which is based on clarity, construction, distance, brevity and vitality in music making are signs of this predilection, as is his preference for strikingly selective instrumental combinations, coupled with a distaste for large forms and their traditional »contents«. (...)

»Fundamentally the setting of limits for onesself is the prerequistie for composing. One must choose from the sheerly limitless material concerning instruments, timbres, stylistic devices and forms and must bring them into concorde with the occasion for which the work was written.«

Compositions for string instruments – also paired with the piano – have been a part of Schwaen’s catalog of works since his early days. He himself played the violin and his first printed composition is for this instrument and was writen in 1932 (Small Suite for Violin solo).(...)

Schwaen’s ability to reach his goals in as concentrated and direct a anner as possible and to express the »results« in as concise a form as is convincingly possible is revealed in these works. Of the Trios, the first is perhaps the least so, in Trio No. 2, with its robust dancelike stance, reveals these characteristics a good deal more clearly and these qualities are no less evident in the Piano Trio No. 3. If one compares this trio to the previous two, the three-movement form does provide a point of connection. Also here, the fast and resolute outer movements frame a very short middle movement. (...). It is remarkable that this elementary, tempramental and forward-moving music characterises a work which was not written for a professional ensemble (University Chamber Trio, Greifswald).

With respect to the Piano Trio No. 4, the situation is different. Schwaen composed the piece for the (professional) Rostocker Trio and thus gave the work dimensions and also technical demands which are clearly farther reaching. The four-movement form lends the composition something of the traditional weight of the cyclical. (...) Remarkable is the quality of the experience of the elementary, the density of the musical structure and the intensity of the musical expression, especially when the extent of the musical material employed is reduced, virtues which also guide the »worker in music« (!) in the Piano Trio No. 5. (...) Schwaen presents here at the closest quarters a microcosmos of musical approaches and expressive stances which are as different and as concentrated as can be imagined. The meaningful aphorisms are here represented, just as are extended gestures, and the listener is spared neither bitterness nor (albeit restrained) melodic »sweetness«. Hardness stands next to the agreeable, the harmonic next to the alienated – the list could be extended. Short pieces full of spice...

In the Suite Classique (Classical Suite) for violin and piano, Schwaen employs consciously the model for traditional formal organisation. Of course he uses this model for his own unique purposes in the formation of different movement characters. The outer movements are determined and virtuostic, whereas the inner ring which frames the unrestrained third movement, are more »cantabile«. Whether calm or active, tense or relaxed, powerful or floating and light, complicated or simple – Schwaen writes with a compelling musicality.

These traits also apply in the case of the Capriccio for violin and piano. Written for the same instrumental combination, Schwaen here channels his intention toward the presentation of a particular genre, an »Hommage à Stravinsky«. The role model function of this master is well-known. Schwaen even spoke of influence. Thus this work is built on formula-like circular, short repetitive motions. It presents itself danceingly light, even playful. A melodic, at times improvisatory sounding middle section allows the »capriccioso« to come to the fore especially clearly.

In Schwaen’s considerable chamber music output from the past twenty years, only five works were written for violin and piano, some of which were inspired by the Rostock violinist Ulfert Thiemann. Not much different is the situation for the duo combination with violoncello. The pieces offer gratifying challenges for any cellist, particularly as regards the development of the various timbral possibilities on the instrument. In the Sequences in E-flat – the low E-flat is the determining factor in its various relations for the entire piece – these timbral possibilities seem to exhaust themselves in a »naive« and at the same time complicated way as concerns technical command, however upon closer inspection, in the framework of the four freely rhapsodical movements, much more is required. One needs feeling for the dynamic of the linear, for the individual musical weight and structural clarity required for the figural passagework, playful alienation – Gavotte (after J. S. Bach) – and the grand attitude of the concertante.

The ability to differentiate at closest quarters is also a prominent feature in the Four Slavic Dances for violoncello and piano. Here Schwaen »reactivated« piano pieces of the same name from 1963 for a new instrumentation. These are small delicacies which, in their unpretentious melodic and rhythmic references to Eastern European folklore are reminiscient of Schwaen’s homeland and reveal the master in every measure.

Ekkehard Ochs
Translation: Sidney Corbett

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