SCHURMANN:  Concerto for Orchestra.  Violin Concerto.
Olivier Charlier, violinist; BBC Philharmonic Orch/Gerard Schurmann, cond.
CHANDOS 9915 (F) (DDD) TT:  65:03
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Weak tea with cream in a Sevres cup. Gerard Schurmann has a fine reputation, thoroughly deserved, as a conductor specializing in Modern and Contemporary music. However, he also studied composition with Alan Rawsthorne, yet another great British composer known by all too few. I must admit that I brought several prejudices to this CD, one of which is that I'm not fond of the compositions of the current crop of professional conductors. Bernstein, Knussen, and Surinach were the last conductors whose original music I thought worth my time. Maazel, Sinopoli, and Segerstam, connect with me not at all. The music never comes together with convincing rhetoric and sounds, at any rate (as opposed to any pattern coherencies in the score discoverable by eye), like so much marking time or stuff rehashed.

I admit I have misgivings lumping Schurmann in with the others. A little voice inside my head keeps noodging me that I've mistaken the music. Ordinarily, I'm quite willing to live with people thinking me a second-rate, insensitive jerk, but this is different. The music is just interesting enough to lift it out of the "Conductors' Music" category, which means that if I listened to it more, it might get even better. After all, it took me decades to regard Brahms as anything other than an overstuffed Victorian horsehair sofa or Ralph Richardson's pedantic Finsbury brother in the movie The Wrong Box. I could, of course, parrot my betters, but what's the point? In the end, it's more helpful simply to say what I think now and why I think it.

Of the two "concerti" on the program, I prefer the one for orchestra over the one for violin. Of course, the title Concerto for Orchestra immediately brings to mind Bartók's example, and Schurmann admits that he plays off the earlier piece. Schurmann's has five movements, all marvelously scored. Many of the sounds come from the Bartók, but Schurmann creates his own very effective and even beautiful sounds himself. Just by listening, one becomes aware of a very tight motific development throughout. If I didn't find the ideas particularly memorable, that may well have more to do with my memory rather than with Schurmann's invention. Against the implication of my faint praise, I did encounter wonderful moments.

The first movement alternates a driving allegro with dream-like passages. The allegro sections seem to me like an accompaniment to a movie -- just at the far side of consciousness -- but, of course and unfortunately, there is no movie. More compelling are the dream-like sections, which hint at gamelan music (Schurmann was born in the Dutch East Indies). Yet even here I think more of Britten's Prince of the Pagodas than of something original to Schurmann. The second movement, a night piece titled "Moonbird," begins with the usual atmospheric stuff, but before you're quite sure how you got there, you find yourself in the middle of a quirky grotesquerie, again with more than a hint of Britten, and then (in Schurmann's own words) a passage "majestic" and "ecstatic." This is for me the most successful movement in the concerto. The third movement, an angry scherzo, mutters and threatens and finally explodes. It takes its share of risks, particularly in long near-static passages for low brass and bass drum. However, more than once, Britten and Bartók yet again peek through. I'm really not sure why they have to, other than Schurmann couldn't think of anything of his own as convincing. The fourth-movement allegretto began as a musical birthday card for wind quintet to Loren Maazel (Maazel's Pittsburgh Symphony commissioned the concerto). Rather bald references to the "Giuoco delle coppie" movement of Bartók's concerto appear, again for no good rhetorical reason. The model for the finale seems Bartók's finale -- propulsion by a moto perpetuo engine of strings. Schurmann attempts, among other things, to sum up the work thus far. Transformations of ideas previously heard are riffed on, but since most of the ideas simply weren't that memorable in the first place, a great deal of the movement's point dwindles. I grant its rhythmic excitement and the exciting sounds emanating from the orchestra, but John Williams's score for E. T. has as much and operates at a higher level of thematic invention.

Most important, in my opinion, the concerto lacks rhetorical cohesion among movements. It doesn't quite come off as a unified piece, as opposed to a collection of separate movements. It doesn't really progress, as does the Bartók, from one movement to the next. Given the thematic cohesion, I'm not really sure why this should be so. A matter of key progression? The lack of "fit" between previous end and new beginning?

The violin concerto, on the other hand, natters. It natters in a gorgeous suit, but it natters nevertheless. The motific cohesion is, if anything, higher than in the Concerto for Orchestra. But it that's all it took to write a masterpiece, then we would rate Raff over Liszt. Some do, I admit. Nevertheless, Schurmann does take chances. For one thing, the violin almost never shuts up. This is almost as stressful a part as the Pettersson second. In the Pettersson, however, the relentlessness of the violin screws up the tension. In the Schurmann, the violinist merely goes on and on and on. Again, very little of it sticks. Very little of it compels you to listen. Schurmann also plays his little quotation games, this time in the second (and last) movement, a set of variations. We hear the opening bass figure to Britten's violin concerto. I have no idea why, and it's the most intriguing idea in Schurmann's entire concerto. At more than a half hour, this piece becomes a mere duty, rather than a pleasure.

The performances, as far as I can tell, are splendid. Schurmann has given himself every break. Charlier gets through his part with grace and even panache. Chandos furnishes wonderful sound, with a very "natural" balance between soloist and orchestra.

S.G.S. (July 2002)