GMCD 7284 – Instrumental Music & Songs by Max Kuhn
Jeanette Ager – Mezzo-Soprano, Sophia Rahman – Piano
Fanfare, November/December 2006
At the moment, the Guild label seems to have the market cornered when it comes to recordings-all four of them-of music by Max Kuhn. To be perfectly honest, Kuhn (1896-1994) is not a composer I’d met in my prior travels; this CD was a first encounter. I trust, therefore, that Guild will not object to my quoting Kuhn’s bio from its own Web site:
Max Kuhn was born in Zurich an 28 April 1896. He went to school there, and from 1916 to 1918 studied Organ with Fridolin Roth and piano with Peter Fassbänder. From 1920 to 1921, he studied at the Zurich Conservatory, taking lessons in conducting from Volkmar Andreae (the then conductor of the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra), in couterpoint from Busoni’s friend and pupil Philipp Jarnach, and in free composition from Reinhold Laquai (yet another Busoni pupil). From 1921 to 1926, Kuhn studied in Vienna with Richard Stöhr (counterpoint) and Joseph Hofmann (piano). In 1929, he also took conducting lessons from Felix Weingartner. Kuhn was organist and choir director at the Catholic church in Küsnacht near Zurich. In 1928, he founded the “Choir for Modern Music,” which later became known as the “Zurich Chamber Choir” under its subsequent conductor Johannes Fuchs. Kuhn was active in Zurich for many years as conductor, organist, and pianist, and as a private teacher for piano and music theory. From 1956 to 1972, he also taught piano and music theory at the Zurich Music Academy. In 1940, Kuhn was initiator and co-founder of the Mozart Society in Zurich. In 1991, he moved to Ascona, where he died an 7 February 1994.
In 1973, Kuhn wrote as following about his music: “Before 1921, my works were rooted in traditional influences (Bach, Schubert, Wolf). The confrontation with Impressionism and the Second Viennese School and my encounter with Hindemith broadened my means of expression in matters of harmony and formal technique, and enabled me to go my own way (the use of extended tonality, polyphony, and linear counterpoint that takes into account the extended harmonic context).”
This latest offering from Guild contains a mixed program of Kuhn’s instrumental and vocal works. The latter are mostly undated, but are believed to have been written over a considerable span of time, between the 1920s and the 1950s. The instrumental pieces, however, do bear dates of composition, the earliest being the 1959 Introduction and Allegro for Oboe and piano. Chronologically, the Three Piano Pieces come next (1963), followed by the Suite for Oboe Solo (1965), and the Three Piano Preludes (1976).
The Songs in particular are not easily described or categorized. Consider, for example, Die Einsame (“The Lonely One”), taken from the same collection of Chinese poems that Mahler drew upon for Das Lied von der Erde. Kuhn’s setting defies the obvious expectations received from the foregoing biographical sketch. It is impressionistic without invoking any of the clichés of Impressionism. Likewise, it is expressionistic, yet remains quite independent of the sound world we generally associate with the Second Viennese School. It is fundamentally amelodic, yet somehow strangely melodious; freely non-harmonic and non-tonal, yet somehow familiarly tonal and euphonious; vocally declamatory, yet somehow at heart a cantilena. A piano accompaniment of arpeggiated but not necessarily triadic chords adds to the haunting beauty of the song, and put me in mind of some of the eerie effects Schubert achieves in his Winterreise collection.
The instrumental pieces are a bit more easily placed. The two oboe works definitely share the quirky, perky personality of Hindemith. Listen, for example, to the first movement of the Suite for Solo Oboe, a neo-Baroquish affair that begins with what sounds like the incipit to a Bach fugue, and then in a clever game of counterpoint with itself works up to a cadence that mimics one of Hindemith’s signature major triad resolutions. It’s a delightful piece that made my ears grin.
If the oboe pieces owe a debt to Hindemith, the solo piano pieces are the closest Kuhn comes to the Second Viennese School. But Kuhn’s “atonality,” if that’s what it is, is a kinder, gentler version of it than what comes to mind when we think of Schoenberg. In the first place, there are none of the sudden flurries and flutters of notes separated by arroyos of rests. Not that Kuhn’s pieces are exactly foot tapping, mind you, but there is a clear and present danger of rhythmic regularity. Second, Kuhn does not adopt, at least not in the works presented here, Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique. The music is beyond highly chromatic, to be sure, dwelling somewhere in the region of pantonality, but it is not structured according to a rigid regime imposed by tone rows.
Much to my own surprise, I really enjoyed this disc. Kuhn’s music quite appeals to me in ways I’m not even sure I can quantify. Qualitatively, though, I find it expertly crafted and a fascinating listen, well worth the investment in time and money. Mezzo Jeanette Ager brings a wide range of technical and interpretive skills to the songs. Pianist Sophia Rahman is outstanding. And Oboist John Anderson is nothing less than brilliant. Strongly recommended.
International Record Review March 2006
The Swiss composer Max Kuhn (1896-1994) was a practical, working musician and the variety of forms his compositions take is a natural outcome of his activities as pianist, organist, choirmaster, conductor and teacher. After early studies in piano and organ, Kuhn attended the Zurich Conservatory, where he studied composition, counterpoint and con-ducting; he subsequently studied piano with Josef Hofmann and counterpoint with Richard Stöhr in Vienna. The works an this disc provide a survey of Kuhn’s more intimate compositional activities from the 1920s through to 1976. The styles range from the late-Romantic Lied of Wolf, Strauss and Mahler to the neo-Baroque of Hindemith (albeit less fastidious and more lyrical). The concept of tonality is merely expanded, never abandoned: of my recent listening, I was reminded of the chamber works of Lex van Delden or Hans Gál’s solo piano music.
Kuhn’s musical sensibility was a mixture of Northern seriousness and Mediterranean
playfulness, resulting in the kind of Bunny complexity you often hear in Bach’s music (and for much the Same reason). Just listen to the scampering lines and playful polyphonic textures darting in and out of dramatic shadows in the Introduction and Allegro for oboe and piano; or the superb illusion of multiple lines spiced with rhythmic sensuousness in the Bachian Suite for solo oboe; or the heady concoction of Impressionism and Pointillism in the Three Preludes for solo piano; or the gorgeous Baroque evocations in the Drei Klavierstücke.
The vocal works, all earlier than the instrumental pieces, seem to inhabit a different sound-
world, the delicate word-painting and yearning lyricism mostly redolent (at least to my ears) of Wolf. Albert Ehrismann’s ‘Sailors and Captains’ comprises six poems an nautical themes: here leave-taking and home-coming are stretched an a canvas of windswept waves and seemingly infinite evenings. The settings are both evocative and expansive, with voice and piano in an equal partnership. The same Gould be said of the remaining settings, which, like the poems themselves, are so eloquent of nature and of longing.
The performances are excellent. I was particularly taken with John Anderson’s expressive, flexible phrasing and attractive tone – though that’s not to downplay either Jeanette Ager’s poised characterizations or Sophia Rahman’s ability to bring out the cheekiness in much of the piano-writing. The recorded sound, too, is just right for this kind of intimate music-making. Tasteful presentation (the cover features a colourful painting, Configuration in Major and Minor by Rolf Cavael) and detailed booklet notes by Malcolm MacDonald only add to the already considerable pleasure this new release affords.