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Leo SAMAMA (b. 1951)
En Hollande, Opus 56 (2000) [14:02]
Clarinet Quintet, Opus 51 (1998) [25:44]
Sextet, Opus 55 (2000) [40:04]
La Grand Quatour, Opus 79 [36:12]
I fear not wave nor wind!, Opus 86 (2015) [12:24]
Trois Bagatelles , Opus 85 (2014) [11:06]
Treurmuziek II, Opus 69 (2001) [9:00]
Daniel Quartet
Nienke Oostenrijk (soprano, En Hollande)
Valerius Ensemble
Arcadia Quartet (Le Grand Quatour)
Dudok Quartet
Jasper Schweppe (baritone, I fear not wave nor wind!)
Nairi Quartet (Trois Bagatelles)
Matangi Quartet
Noor Kamerbeek (flute, Treurmuziek II)
rec. CD 1 November 2000 & October 2001, Koepelkerk, Renswoude, the Netherlands; CD 2, various locations, 2007-2016.
ETCETERA KTC1561 [79:49 + 68:48]

In recent years I’ve come to know Leo Samama fairly well, with musical connections including making a translation of his book The Meaning of Music, a review of which will no doubt appear on these pages sooner or later. The release of this double CD has made me realise I know far less about his own music than I know about his thoughts on the music of others or on music in general, so this has been something of a voyage of discovery despite the coincidence of our various spheres.

The first CD of the pair was originally released in 2001 and was well received by critics at the time, but one of those twists of fate to which us composers must needs become accustomed saw the dissolution of Muziekgroep Nederland, and the CDs pressed in its name vanished into storage somewhere in Belgium in a scene no doubt reminiscent of the final shot in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Etcetera label now includes it in their Dutch Composers series, alongside new recordings of more recent work on the second disc.

Samama’s music is demanding for both performers and listeners, but its presence, technical assurance and depth of substance also makes it reassuringly rewarding. En Hollande for soprano and string quartet is a fine introduction, its gritty opening perhaps recalling Bartók, its densely tumbling lines soon moving in a distinctively individual direction. The text is from Verlaine’s Quinze jours en Hollande, and the expressively set words are beautifully sung by Nienke Oostenrijk. The Clarinet Quintet was commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the State of Israel, and some of its material is derived from a sacred chant from the Chazzanut, a synagogical songbook, the sound of the clarinet also being something strongly associated with Jewish music. Its four movements alternate slow and fast, with an atmospheric first movement giving way to more dance-like music which retains a sense of melancholy even in its major key. The third movement is a potent Molto tranquillo e misterioso, the strings setting up an undulating slipstream in high register against which the clarinet appears in a low chalumeau – a haunting effect. This intense experience is again almost dissipated in a swifter finale, the clarinet “heard alluringly above the dancing triplets of the strings”, the whole brought to a moving close in an expansive coda capped by rousingly celebratory final bars.

The Sextet for strings – double violins, viola and cello – takes on the models of Brahms and others in a four movement work that would superficially seem to welcome this challenge from a rich classical past. Samama’s work is structurally very sound indeed, but there is a flexibility and sense of creative freedom which also allows the material to breathe and develop with an inner organic energy that takes us beyond the confines of established tradition, such as may be said to exist in such a setting. The opening has a yearning, expressive and exploratory quality, but as the booklet notes mention there are also Brubeck-like winks to be heard, the first arch concluding with a little parallel slide downwards which is a very Dutch sort of modulation, perhaps promising elements of witty inflection to come. This richly filled first movement has an intensely Romantic quality in phrases that climb like creepers up a wall – replete with life and beauty but also quite relentless and indestructible. This cabinet of beauties is followed by a Scherzo that lightens the texture with pizzicato ensemble work: shifting ostinatos from the cellos over which the upper strings provide rhythmic counterweight. The muted strings of the central section explore open parallel intervals to create something mysterious and timeless with a strange feel of deathly dissolution without releasing that ever-present Romantic idiom which delivers logical development and emotional shape. The penultimate Molto Adagio is very special, its tender opening drawing us into a cool and calm spiritual place which invites reflection on vast questions. The last movement is an Allegro Spiritoso with both refinement and physical drive, its triplet rhythms inviting comparison with Beethoven, but in recalling and transforming material from the previous movements neatly and impressively resolving and unifying the work while by no means answering all its questions.

CD 2 brings us a collection of more recent work and a new recording, the opening of Le grand quatour also sustaining that sense of drama in Samama’s music that was encountered in the opening of En Hollande. In his own booklet note, the composer describes keeping himself “to the rhetoric-dialectic structural form that also defines the quartets by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms.” These structural ideas are a coat-hanger over which deeply personal ideas can of course be draped, and once again we’re not faced by a musical transition that imposes form without content. After the passionato of the first movement there is swift and secretive whispering in the Scherzo, from which dynamic surprises and melodic gifts are allowed to emerge. A sotto-voce close-harmony chorale temporarily puts the brakes on this action, but not for long. This energising ride is followed by a Molto Lento referred to as a “compound song form,” developing an eloquent but unpredictable lyricism which also engages spiritual realms. The finale “has to sound especially lyrical and cheerful,” and the skilful Arcadia Quartet delivers these qualities with élan.

I’m impressed by the way I fear not wave nor wind! conjures winds and stormy weather in ways which don’t require that you read a programme in advance. The text comes from Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. This is superbly sung by Jasper Schweppe, the combination of voice and string quartet working sublimely and creating a strong match for the earlier En Hollande. The Trois bagatelles fall under what Samama calls “amuses” or occasional pieces for specific moments, in this case the farewell ceremony of Arie Westlaken as chairman of the Netherlands String Quartet Academy, an institution with which Leo Samama has had a close association, and which partly explains the wealth of string quartet writing and the quality of performance on these CDs. As “amuses” these are far more than mere musical bon-bons, the second being an especially searching exploration of a quiet but sincerely felt mood, the last being a playful showpiece, eaten in one fell swoop by the Nairi Quartet. The programme concludes with Treurmuziek II, funeral music prepared in this case for a princess, formerly Queen Juliana. Like Purcell’s famous aria ‘When I am laid in earth’ this uses a descending ground or repeating bass over which harmonies are allowed to develop, and upon which an elegant melodic flute solo sings.

Despite coming from a variety of recording sessions and ensembles these CDs contain a consistently high standard on all fronts, both in terms of sound quality and performance. There are some little editorial irritations with the booklet which have us hunting in the booklet text for what the soloists actually do, but presentation is generally of a high standard and all vocal texts are included. Recordings of Leo Samama’s music are as rare as hen’s teeth, so if you are seeking ‘real’ contemporary music in the way that composers such as Frank Martin are ‘real’ in terms of standing for tradition, rock-solid technique and a challenging but highly rewarding personal idiom grounded in tonality, then this will be one for you.

Dominy Clements



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