Audiophile Audition, Sept 2013

September 5, 2013, Daniel Coombs from Audiophile Audition about the CD “Streams”

I first heard the music of Martin Schlumpf with his earlier Navona release, “Summer Circle.” I am even more convinced now that this Swiss composer has a unique vision that I think anyone would find instantly fascinating.

The three works heard here are, basically, concertos. Schlumpf’s style and organizational system is wholly unique and unlike a classical “concerto” though. For example, he eschews the typical Italian movement names or style indicators in favor of simple part designations, such as “Part A, Part B..” etc. His harmonic vocabulary is varied and seemingly ‘best fit’ not a strict formal design, per se. His melodies and phrasing are stunning and borrow form a vast palate of cultural or stylistic templates including jazz, Asian, African, minimalism and so forth.

Mouvements for piano and orchestra is a guaranteed attention-getter to open this collection. This four-part piano concerto opens with a misty, nearly cinematic string passage that leads gradually to the piano. The bulk of the first part if propulsive, percussion laden and does sound a lot like a blend of jazz and some African influences. The second, B, part is a highlight of this work with its improvisatory-sounding piano line against some odd, “lost in the jungle”, percussion effects and a very drifting harmonic center. This leads directly to the brass and tympani-punctuated part C, characterized by some ragtime- influenced wind parts and a much-accented piano part. The work closes similarly to how it opened: with a strange, rambling, patterned wind and percussion cell that gives way to a broad, vista-like melody and a piano line that, for much of the movement, is a part of the central texture not really “the show.” The ending is smoky, ethereal and a bit subdued. This is a very atypical but compelling piano work that I enjoyed tremendously!

Waves is a very different but equally interesting work for solo cello, trumpet obligato, strings and computer. As in Mouvements, the work is divided into “parts” not treated as typical movements. The cello line is a showpiece for the soloist with extended techniques including harmonics, glissandi and all manner of flashy bowings; all of which are blended into or emanate out from “waves” of the electronics. Compliments to Martin for creating electronic sounds that feel like the textures at hand; string-like, brass-like, percussion-like. At times it is genuinely difficult to tell just from listening what is creating the sounds at hand. The oddest feature of the work is, for me, the “trumpet obligato”. Treated as a sort of a quirky commentary on the environment of the work, the trumpet comes in when least expected to play jazzy lines that setup the cello or “riff” on the cello’s lines. It is certainly an unusual addition to what would otherwise be a still very fine work for cello and orchestra but, most peculiarly, it sounds not like an intrusion but “essential” to the flow. The sort of “thunder roll” that closes the work is bizarre but intriguing. Schlumpf has, in Waves, created another extremely unusual but most interesting work, indeed!

The third work, here, is Streams—for another very unusual combination: solo clarinet, solo bass trombone and 17 instruments (winds, percussion, piano). The language here is a kind of seven-part “jazz nightmare” as I would describe it. The clarinet and trombone play some very mid-thirties jazz rips that reminded me just a little of Elie Siegmeister, against some very random, ethereal and moody ensemble parts. The mood of the work shifts through the parts to be more straight improv-sounding and, later, in Part E, to some moments that are very abstract progressive jazz with solo places that are part improvised, it seems. The work closes in a particularly moody, exotic way with some slow drags from the bass trombone in particular. The work places considerable demands on the soloists and this piece, too, creates a nearly indescribable atmosphere throughout.

All three of these solo works make for some very fascinating, quite unexpected listening. Martin Schlumpf is a very unique and talented composer whose “style” is nothing that can be categorized and is totally his own. I have not seen nor heard of any of his music on any American orchestras or university ensembles but it really ought to be. Kudos to Navona for bringing this music to American audiences where, maybe, his works will get some live performances. All the soloists; all the performances on this disc are topnotch and I really believe that most listeners would find Schlumpf’s work to be intriguing at least and, for me, highly engaging.
—Daniel Coombs