Audiophile Audition, July 2012

July 5, 2012, Daniel Coombs about the CD “Summer Circle”

MARTIN SCHLUMPF, “Summer Circle”

I was somewhat familiar with Swiss Martin Schlumpf as a composer-performer of some fairly cutting edge “art house” stuff, especially the work done by him with his own new music ensemble Bermuda Viereck. His music and his realizations of other composers’ works, such as Conlon Nancarrow, were always interesting and heady but best appreciated by the contemporary music cognoscenti.

This new collection of some of Schlumpf’s chamber music is also a good view of his more recent, more eclectic and approachable style. In each of these new works, one can certainly hear the influences of a more improvised and free wheeling style but there are also clear connections to what many composers might view as the new “post modern” approach.
For example, the fairly brief piano work December Rains opens with some 11/8 somewhat “minimalist” figures that serve as a motivic germ for the rest of the work. There are glimmers of a melody and some interesting harmonic meanderings that eventually lead to the contrasting “December Song”, which the composer correctly describes as “subdued (and) despondent.” This is a very pleasant and somewhat soulful piece and pianist Karolina Rojahn performs quite well.

I was particularly taken with Schlumpf’s Clarinet Trio, for clarinet, cello and piano. The entire multi-movement work is based on proportions from the mathematical Fibonacci series (0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13… and no more attempt at explanation – or understanding – on my part). Each instrument is set apart by assigning some sharply-contrasting tempos concurrently (rhythmic and temporal counterpoint). This truly fascinating work features a central sudden peaceful and somewhat ghostly allusion to the Brahms Trio (in many ways, the best-known work in this genre). Schlumpf himself was, first, a clarinetist. The work reenters some sharply contrasting juxtapositions of tempo and cadenza like passages for each instrument and the Trio comes to a brilliant and colorful conclusion. (It is interesting to see, too, that Schlumpf does not use movements or section titles in a traditional sense. They exist to define shift and transition and do not require Italian style terms or programmatic subtitles. Hence, the very clear and basic “Part A, Part B, Part C, etc” seen in each of these works.) This is a dense and emotional work that deserves to be a part of the regular repertory for this genre. All three performers: Moore, Popper-Kaiser and Smythe, are highly skilled players up to the challenge.

Schlumpf composed Summer Circle for string quartet in 2007 as an arrangement of the 1991 Winter Circle for saxophone quartet. The title change reflects what the composer feels is the brighter more “summer”-like sound of strings. Schlumpf uses a small motive and its development in a somewhat minimalist fashion to cause the work to grow and expand much like a small creek or rivulet into a raging river (in the composer’s analogy) and, eventually, shrink down to its very small beginnings. There is, indeed, a circular structure to the work and the overall effect is quite nice. What is interesting is to try to envision the original – or this work being played by saxophones – and it is somewhat difficult to envision. I certainly like this work and can see why Schlumpf felt why the same material played by a string quartet is more open and “sunny” than what might be more correctly heard as a Winter Circle. Regardless, it is a very interesting work and the Krypton Quartet (who may be capable of anything?) play very well.

There is a very catchy and attractive quality to these works and I enjoyed getting to know this new side of Martin Schlumpf’s output. I personally think that the most complex and dense work here, the Clarinet Trio, is also the strongest. It is a nearly-monumental work filled with jazzy pseudo-minimalist touches and an overall complexity that make it a very serious addition to the repertory.  I did enjoy all three works and I suspect that anyone wishing to discover something quite different and very worthwhile will enjoy this as well. Congratulations to Navona again for creating an interactive enhanced CD with more notes, scores and additional information.
—Daniel Coombs