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Gerard SCHURMANN (b. 1924)
Chamber and Instrumental Music - Volume 4
Chuench’i: Song-Cycle from the Chinese (1966)* [17.27]
Moonbird for solo flute (1998)* [4.12]
Four Pastoral Preludes for Piano (2012)* [10.43]
Sonatina for Flute and Piano (1968)* [10.30]
Two Ballads for Piano: Homage to Janáček (1981-83) [17.09]
Six Songs of William Blake (1956. rev. 1997 and 2018) [17.01]
Randall Bills (tenor)
Maxim Rubtsov (flute)
Mark Robson, Mikhail Korzhev (piano)
rec. 2018, Allegro Recordings, Burbank, USA
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC0520 [77.16]

Evidence of implacable determination comes through in this, the fourth, Toccata Classics (Vol. 1 ~ Vol. 2 ~ Vol. 3) album of the chamber music of Gerard Schurmann. Schurmann was born in the former Dutch East Indies in 1924, is a naturalised Briton, close friend of Alan Rawsthorne and now a resident of Los Angeles. Here are two major song-cycles (one of them written for Britten and Pears) and works for flute and piano alone and in combination. It comes hot on the heels of the latest Chandos film music disc.

Schurmann's Chuench'i is an old friend but not in this form - rather in its version with orchestra as broadcast by Nan Christie and the BBCSO conducted by the composer in 1992. Toccata’s version for piano is inevitably bound to place more on the shoulders of the singer and pianist. However the singer's, specifically Randall Bills’, mood and enunciation is relieved of struggling to cut through the sound of a large ensemble. That said, the more luxuriant score boasts a carefully calibrated orchestral tissue. This song-cycle joins a fecund genre in English music with Carey Blyton's Lyrics from the Chinese and Girl from Nogami, Constant Lambert's Eight Poems of Li Tai Po, Arthur Bliss's Women of Yu'Eh, Arthur Oldham’s Chinese Lyrics and Granville Bantock's many Chinese settings. I do hope that at some time we will get to hear some of the oriental songs by Reginald Redman (1892-1972) including his settings for voice and orchestra of translations by Arthur Waley and L. Cranmer-Byng. He is in danger of being utterly forgotten. The songs here do at times have a protesting wild-eyed gaze rather like those by Alan Bush and Bernard Stevens. Songs such as Shang Ya and Look at that little bay make a wild-eyed contribution. The composer accents the dissenting tone by having the tenor speak some of the lines. The harmony runs wild and awkward and atonality is carefully coloured in or sprayed wide in abundance.

In the first of two works for flute Moonbird for solo flute is from 22 years later than Chuench'i. The bird in question is seemingly caught in slow motion in a thicket of trees. If there is flight it is just sufficient to move from tree to contiguous tree. It's a dreamy work as the title suggests with small flurries alongside the dove-like cooing and billing.

Then we come to the first of two scores for solo piano. The Four Pastoral Preludes (Bellac, Grotto, Rivulets, Solitude). These four works from 2012 stray only modestly from tonality. The results are more impressionistic and make a good audio-psychological fit for their titles.

The ten minute Flute Sonatina is from the same era, the 1960s, as Chuench'i. It too plays subtly fast and loose with conventional tonality. To avoid any misunderstandings, including mine, it defies any light music expectations that go with "sonatina".

From 1981-83 come the Two Ballades - Hommage to Janáček. The terse Hukvaldy is stern with a cold twinkle. The much longer Brno is touched with something more tender and humane. Like its predecessor it also accommodates some harmonic material sprawled tough and furious.

The Blake Songs set famous words and does so ten years before Chuench'i but revised twice and much more recently. These songs, written in the year of Finzi's death, rather resemble the late songs of that composer. Augury is firm but Ah sun flower is given a cantabile Finzian treatment; the latter ends with an impressively hypnotic tolling. This, in turn, takes a muscular hold on the sung line and on the piano accompaniment. Again these have some of the protesting qualities of Alan Bush in Voices of the Prophets - a song-cycle recorded for Decca by Britten and Pears for whom Schurmann wrote these Blake songs. The Sick Rose vies in its subdued ‘weeds’ with a much more ecstatic setting by Geoffrey Bush in his Summer Serenade for tenor, piano and orchestra (Chandos CHAN8864). These Schurmann songs are at times troubadour-singable as in Ah Sun Flower and also To The Evening Star. They also veer into contrasting and often danker and darker lands.

In summary, this disc is topped and tailed by two estimable song-cycles. The words (all English) from the Chinese and from William Blake are set out in the booklet.

The CD is accompanied by the usual booklet. This one is distinguished by a composer-and-music essay by an authoritative yet accessible author in the field of twentieth century music, Paul Conway. Everything is in place across an 8-page English only essay. All the fact-specifics about each work are sedulously in place alongside musical descriptions. It’s all done with a deft and not overly technical hand.

Rob Barnett



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