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Heinrich SUTERMEISTER (1910-1995)
Orchestral Works - Volume 1
Romeo and Juliet (1940): suite [20.51]
Die Alpen (1946-8) [26.17]
Aubade pour Morges (1978-9) [12.48]
Divertimento No 2 (1959-60) [27.15]
Bruno Cathomas (speaker)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Rainer Held
rec. 2018, Saint-Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead, London, 1-2 October 2018

Although I was aware of Sutermeister’s opera Raskolnikoff (based on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment) which enjoyed a minor reputation in the 1950s, before this CD arrived I had not I think ever heard an note of his music. Gerhart von Westerman in the 1964 edition of his Opera Guide (edited by Harold Rosenthal) devoted nearly four pages to the composer, including a full description of Raskolnikoff; but the brief snippets of music provided gave an impression of a style that combined elements of twelve-tone writing with Kurt Weill in a rather jerkily rhythmic manner. Not at all what comes across in this CD, described as “Volume One” of his orchestral works and containing pieces written over nearly forty years of his career.

The “symphonic suite for large orchestra” drawn from his 1940 opera Romeo and Juliet is certainly a long distance away from either Weill or Schoenberg. Indeed, the emphasis in the suite on dance music inevitably leads to comparisons with Prokofiev’s near-contemporary ballet on the same subject, also drawn from Shakespeare’s adapatation of the Italian story but apparently with greater emphasis on the love elements in the plot. And Sutermeister comes surprisingly well out of the comparison. His individual movements, which flow seamlessly one into the other, are generally shorter than Prokofiev’s, but the sense of atmosphere is palpable and so remarkably is Sutermeister’s ability to craft memorable melodic phrases. This is most notable in the sarabande (track 5), over seven minutes in length and encapsulating the doomed passion of the title characters in music which rises to heights of real passion. “The vocal melodies,” observes Westerman, “which are Sutermeister’s strong point, also represent a pitfall for him.” I am not quite sure in what sense the word “pitfall” is meant, but this suite provides a real appetiser for the opera as a whole; it was performed at Sadler’s Wells in London in 1953. A recording from the 1980s on the Musiques Suisses label (with quite an impressive-looking cast) was issued on CD in 2009, but seems to be no longer available; nor can I discover that it has ever been critically reviewed. It should be reissued.

The orchestra for Romeo may be “large” but that for the melodrama Die Alpen seems to be even larger. The work, described as a “fantasy on Swiss folksongs for orchestra and speaker”, suffers from the usual problems that arise when a speaking voice is combined with full orchestral forces; either the speaker has to shout to make himself or herself heard over the accompaniment, or some form of electronic amplification has to be employed. What we have here is something rather different; the quietly spoken Bruno Cathomas is recorded close to the microphone in an acoustic that sounds like a broadcasting studio, while the orchestra is ranged behind him in the warm resonance of a church. The result is of course totally artificial, but it does actually work. Sutermeister sets the declaimed poems over a generally subdued instrumental background, reserving the full orchestral outbursts for two interludes and an extended and glorious postlude. This allows Cathomas to reduce his voice almost to a whisper in the final lines before the orchestra blossoms into a positively Straussian richness, finally subsiding to the distant sounds of the horn which had launched the music after the spoken introduction. The German text is substantial, running with its English translation (unfortunately not always exactly aligned) to seven pages in the booklet; and although the quality of the poetic images are nothing special, they clearly struck a chord with the composer who responded with music of real passion and engagement.

The five short movements which make up the Aubade pour Morges written some thirty years later similarly speak for Sutermeister’s love and affection for the Swiss landscape and atmosphere. The longest of the five miniature tone-poems, Claire de lune sur le lac (track 17), has a particularly haunting beauty. The final and longest work on the disc, the Second Divertimento from 1959-60, is unfortunately also the weakest of the pieces here: four substantial movements in a style that can best be categorised as neo-classical, with the nervous toccata of the opening probably the most impressive. The slow Adagio espressivo is very finely judged, but the music does not attain the degree of passion that we find elsewhere in Sutermeister’s slow movements; and the final tarantella, marked Prestissimo, is given here with an understandable degree of caution in the playing and pacing, delivered with pinpoint accuracy but without the sheer abandon (and doubtless consequent imprecision) which I imagine the composer might have conceived.

The fact that this is advertised as the first volume of an ongoing series is cause for rejoicing. So too is the fact that the disc is so generously packed – the longest conventional CD that I have ever encountered. I found no difficulty in playing it, although others may find their machines reacting differently. But the recorded sound is magnificent, even when the balance is unconventional; the booklet, with notes and biographies in English and German, is substantial and informative; and the playing and conducting is generally of excellent quality. All the tracks are described as first recordings; Christian Heindl in his booklet note refers to a Vienna “studio recording” of the Romeo und Julia suite conducted by the composer in 1956, but this never appears to have surfaced internationally. Those for whom Sutermeister is just a name (if that) should certainly investigate further.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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