Reviews

GMCD 7241 – The Sunpainter’s Delight – Piano Music by Walter Baer

Andrew Zolinsky – Piano

To the CD in our Shop


Tages Anzeiger Thursday June 19 2003

Stille Sonnen

HEIMSPIEL

Eine stilistische Reise ist auf dieser CD zu erleben. Man könnte natürlich auch «Entwicklung» nennen, was sich in der Klaviermusik des Zürcher Komponisten Walter Baer zwischen den 6oer- und den späten 90er-Jahren vollzog. Doch damit würden die früheren Stücke in einen Anfängerstatus gedrängt, den sie nicht verdienten. Zumal Walter Baer in Werken wie «Sequenzen» oder «Zwei Klavierstücke», beide 1968 entstanden offensichtlich den avantgardistischen Zeitgeist jener Tage aufnahm.

An der musikalischen Front so zu- sagen beginnt also die Reise, und sie mündet in die geheimnisvollen

Pedalklänge der im Jahr 2000 entstandenen «Erscheinungen». Der englische Pianist Andrew Zolinsky horcht ihnen ebenso subtil nach wie den von diversen Stilanleihen geprägten «Passagen» 1 bis 111, in denen nicht nur Komponisten wie Ravel oder Debussy anklingen, sondern andere auch explizit zitiert werden Webern wird ein «Epitaph» gewidmet und das BACH- Motiv wird in impressionistischem Umfeld in ein «Prelude» eingeflochten. ‘

Doch ob auch auf Fugen oder die «Sonnenbilder» P. K Hoenichs zurückgegriffen wird- Wesentlicher Gesamteindruck dieser Musik bleibt eine still blühende, schöne und ernsthafte Nachdenklichkeit. (mez)


NEUE ZÜRCHER ZEITUNG – Thursday March 06 2003 – Issue No. 54

Kontemplative Kläng

Der Zürcher Komponist Walter Baer, Jahrgang 1928, hat, obwohl von Haus aus Pianist, erstaunlich wenig Werke für Klavier solo komponiert. In den Jahren 1996 bis 1998 jedoch schrieb er mit den „Passagen“ I bis III gleich neun kleinere Stücke für sein Instrument. Zusammen mit drei Kompositionen aus den sechziger Jahren sind sie krzlich beim Label Guild auf CD erschienen. Der englische Pianist Andrew Zolinsky, vertraut im Umgang mit zeitgenössischer Musik, ist Baers Klaviermusik ein beredter Anwalt,. Und dies paradoxerweise, indem er ihr leisen Töne und ihre verborgenen Werte in rechte Licht rückt.

Faszinierend etwa, wie er in „Erscheinungen“ durch eine spezielle Pedaltecknik aus raschen Figuren unerwartet Klänge wie aus dem Nichts erstehen lasst. Baer ließ sich hier wie auch in zwei weiteren Stücken von Bildern des Sonnenmalers P.K. Hoenich inspirieren. In „Sonnenbild“ aus den „Passagen I“ setzte er seine Eindrücke mit quirligeh Arpeggien in der rechten Hand und einer eingängigen schreitenden Melodie in der linken Hand um, woraus in der Interpretation des Pianisten ein  kontinuierliches Fließen entstehet. Ein weiteres Charakteristikum der „Passagen“ ist der spielerische Umgang mit historischem Material. Da gibt es eine Fuge in „Widmung“, iein Zitat aus der Gregorianischen Totenmesse in „Epitaph für Anton Webern“ oder die Kombination von B-A-C-H Motiv und impressionistischem Stil in „Prèlude bien tempérè“

Die drei Klavierwerke aus dem Jahr 1968 – sie stammen aus der Anfangszeit von Baers kompositorischem Schaffen – lehnen sich an die damaligen avantgardistischen Strömungen an, verbinden aber den Gestus der Aufbruchs mit Baers Neigung zum Kontemplativen und Abgerundeten „Sequenzen für Klavier“ beispielsweise beginnt, wie ein Stück von Ligeti, mit einer clusterartigen Klangauffächerung und ist in einer grafischen Notation aufgezeichnet, die dem Pianisten etliche Freiheiten einräumt. Die wirbeligen, dissonanten Teile müden dabei stets in langsames, besinnliches ja klangschönes Spiel.
Thomas Schacher


Musicweb January 29 03

The title of this disc of piano music by Swiss composer Baer and several of the pieces on it were inspired by the work of the “sunpainter” P.K. Hoenich. They are among the most impressionistic pieces on a selection which runs, in terms of influence, from Debussy and Ravel through Messiaen to the Second Viennese School and back. It is something of a stylistic melange and means that the individual pieces within supposedly related groups often seem anything but; however, the music is generally very listenable but, unfortunately, much less memorable. The earliest pieces, dating from the ’sixties, are the most “avant-garde” but hardly difficult to listen to, if requiring slightly more concentration.

The meat of the disc is, I suppose, the three sets of Passagen, each group of three pieces dating from the 1990s, although they are not represented in either forward or reverse chronological order. Interspersed with these works are the previously mentioned 1960s efforts and the most recent work, 2000s Erscheinungen (Visions), the longest single track on the CD which reminds me in places of a more energised but less disciplined Mompou; whatever, at fourteen minutes plus it comes across as a more substantial piece than most of the works here.

The composer’s own notes are informative, in terms of the generation of each piece, but there is a slight hint of name dropping – admittedly, one piece is actually called Epitaph for Anton Webern (why not Le Tombeau de?) but Bach and Wagner are also name-checked, as well as the aforementioned Hoenich and Swiss religious hero Zwingli. Taken in isolation, there is no single piece here that I minded hearing. However, comparing for example with two artist programmes of mixed repertoire (Thomas Adès on EMI and Elena Riu on Linn), I found the latter just as stylistically consistent as this single composer disc, i.e. to these ears, as intimated above, I could have been listening to Webern one minute, Debussy the next. As with Adès I was juxtaposing Grieg and Nancarrow, and with Riu, Pärt and Sculthorpe. My favourite sequence here was, by far, the Passagen II, where despite the relative disparity of styles, the music appears far more urgent and communicative than elsewhere. I have been listening to a lot of piano music recently (Rzewski, Nielsen, Casella etc.) and, although I have enjoyed listening to this disc more than once, Baer can hardly be described as being among the front rank in this idiom.
Neil Horner

International Record Review 12.02

There seem to be certain qualities common to the music of many composers who work in relative isolation. That’s not necessarily meant in the geographical sense, of course, otherwise we’d be knee-deep in theses that strove to relate the work of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies to that of Conlon Nancarrow. Rather, it’s the elements of self-determination that make the resulting music notable and frequently noteworthy, and there’s no shortage of diversity within these parameters. Walter Baer’s isolation is simply that of thousands of composers the world over who produce worthwhile music which rarely if ever seems to travel very far. Typically of this contingent, the Swiss-born Baer has held a variety of academic positions both at home and abroad, while also garnering a few composition prizes (in this case from the Lucerne Festival and the European Choral Society). And now, here’s a CD of some of his piano music, bravely launched onto the unpredictable tides of the international market. How might it fare?

Well, as it happens, listeners worldwide whose knowledge of Swiss music is perhaps confined to Heinz Holliger and Klaus Huber may well care to acquire this disc. Piano music has convenient economics when it comes to releases of this kind and Baer’s compositions are in no sense demanding, but the pieces have a certain unpretentious charm. These works span a long period (1968-2000) and Baer is something of a stylistic magpie (possibly a luxury which his particular form of isolation allows him), deploying everything from lush, Debussian textures to Cage-like rapping (in the percussive rather than the vocal sense!) on the instrument’s casework. This music abhors the absolute and is frequently inspired by visual and typographical ideas, an approach that can easily backfire and lead to charges of superficiality. In all honesty, despite Baer’s senior status in overall career terms, these do not feel like ‘mature’ works in the usual sense but they are diverting enough, and Andrew Zolinsky interprets them meticulously. The recorded sound has a slightly front-roomy feel which in fact suits the music rather well.
Roger Thomas


MUSICWEB 17 September 02

The earliest works here, both dating from 1968, obviously belong to Baer’s modern or experimental period, and are stylistically redolent of Boulez or Stockhausen. Angular phrases, complex rhythms and sharp contrasts characterise both Sequenzen and Zwei Klavierstücke, though the latter already points towards a freer expression, particularly so in the first piece Threnos.

All the other pieces are fairly recent and clearly reflect Baer’s stylistic journey towards a more colourful and more expressive palette. The music of Passagen, composed between 1996 and 1998, is more overtly impressionistic. This is quite evident in Passagen III, and still more so in its third movement Souvenir. “It is up to the listener to draw his own reminiscences from the character of the piece” (pace the composer). This seems to me a homage to Debussy. (It may also be useful to know that the titles of the three movements are in French and that the second movement is inspired by a walk in a park in Paris known as La promenade plantée.) Other movements in Passagen also betray their inspirational origin in painting, e.g. Sonnenbild (in Passagen I) or The Painter’s Delight (in Passagen II), both inspired by paintings by Hoenich. Instrumental colour is paramount in these works and it is sometimes achieved by some extra-musical devices, such as in the third piece Epitaph for Anton Webern (in Passagen I) in which the outer, chorale-like sections have an eerie tint obtained by laying a stick over the strings. This is actually the only “gimmick” used by the composer, and quite discretely so.

The most recent work, Erscheinungen from 2000, is a substantial piece of music, and incidentally the longest single item. Its title (i.e. Visions) has no religious or mystical overtones, but rather refers to the mysterious chorales emerging on several occasions in the course of the piece between the other, livelier and more animated sections. Again, the listener’s fancy may imagine his/her own visions; but the inspiration for the music draws again on Hoenich’s paintings.

Walter Baer’s name and music were, I confess, completely new to me. Eminently idiomatic, though often rather taxing piano writing that calls for much colour, imagination and tonal variety on the performer’s part. Andrew Zolinsky obviously possesses all the qualities required to get the best of these fine and attractive pieces that generously repay repeated hearings. Now, I really look forward to hearing more of Walter Baer’s music.
Hubert Culot

But Gary Higginson asks
Question. What kind of music would a man born in Zurich in 1928 compose? Time up. I shall reveal the answer in due course.
Stockhausen was born then, Henze in 1926, Berio in 1925. It’s useful to think of Baer, who is a well known figure in German musical life in this context because his music is mostly not at all what you might expect. The biographical notes in the booklet comment “The various compositional techniques and systems only make sense to me if they convey a message the listener can participate in”. He ends up being one of the most eclectic composers I have ever encountered. I’ll talk you through a few pieces to give you an idea.
‘Passagen’, probably best translated not as passages, which conveys little, but as possibly, pathways, and like all paths they lead to somewhere else. Each path though is enjoyable in itself, but there is no attempt by the composer to connect them, at least not in a way that I could discover. So ‘Passagen I’ begins with ‘Widmung’ meaning ‘Dedication’, here to the musical pedagogue Wolfgang Roscher whose name is spelt out in the music. The style or soundworld of this piece reminds me of Bartók in places, and a brief fugue develops based on these letters, perhaps another Bartókian idea. It winds chromatically in a rather learned way in four parts. At its climax unison figure announces the end of the fugue and the movement winds up quickly. The second movement ‘Sunpainting’ is impressionistic; it is inspired by the work of the painter P.K. Hoenich and obviously is partly responsible for giving the CD its title. A wash of right hand semi-quavers and/or tremolandi accompany a left-hand melody not unlike the chimes of Big Ben. Debussy might be brought to mind, but a watered-down Debussy.
Movement 3 ‘Epitaph for Anton Webern’ starts off with a gamelan noise. Some of the strings of the piano have been laid over with a stick, and both of these things remind me more of John Cage. The stick is then removed and the composition becomes pointillistic, not completely atonal, but more Webern. It is the longest of the three in the set. The opening returns for the last minute or so.
Other pieces on the disc include another impressionist interpretation of the work of Hoenich, – movement 3 of ‘Passagen II’ entitled the ‘Sunpainter’s Delight’; Movement 2 is an evocative re-enactment of the bells of the composer’s hometown, Zurich, with its myriad bells ringing out.
Passagen III opens with a wash of French type sound, which is in fact in homage to J.S. Bach with the B.A.C.H motif used throughout. For me though, Ravel was brought to mind.
I hope that I have conveyed some impression of the music and its background. I’m sorry to say that for me it lacks structural integrity and a real character of its own. Although the music is rarely unattractive it can often be dull and repetitive.
The booklet notes written by the composer are too succinct to be really useful. The playing of Andrew Zolinsky is exemplary and he seems really to believe in the music and is, anyway, a regular performer of contemporary music. The recording is perfectly good and only enhances the music. But there is little here I feel to retain much interest.
Gary Higginson