SWOBODA: Overture of the Season, Op. 89. Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra, Op. 148. Symphony No. 1, Op. 20 (Of Nature).
Niel DePonte, marimba; Oregon Symphony/James DePriest, cond.
ALBANY TROY 604 (F) (DDD) TT: 70:56


HAMMERETH: Concerto for Percussion. MÁSSON: Frum. Prime. FELDMAN: The King of Denmark. XANAKIS: Psappha. RUDERS: Alarm. KOPETZKI: Topf-tanz. ISHII: Thirteen Drums for Percussion.
Markus Leoson, percussion; Swedish Radio Symphony Orch/Heinrich Schiff, cond.
NOSAG 71 (F) (DDD) TT: 74 min.

Markus Leoson is a Swedish percussion soloist and ensemble player of tender (but undocumented) years who also plays the cymbalom and has been winning major prizes since 1995. He has already appeared on four CDs (including Christmas songs with Anne Sophie von Otter on DG), but “Markussion” is his first eponymous release on the Swedish label Nosag. He plays seven solo pieces, among them Morton Feldman’s The King of Denmark honoring the monarch who refused to kowtow to Nazi occupants of his nation during WW2. There’s a twelve- and-a-half minute mathematical piece (if that’s not being redundant) by the late Iannis Xenakis, Psyppha, that I never did get through, but an amusing solo work called Alarm – a thriller for percussion (“a kind of film music without pictures”) by the Dutch composer Poul Ruders, plus some briefer Scandinavian pieces. Maki Ishii’s Thirteen Drums echoes koto music (although he studied in Germany 50 years ago and has remained a dedicated serialist). But the prize on this disc turns out to be a 1995 concerto by Johan Hammerth (b. 1953)—the finest concerted work for solo percussionist and orchestra I’ve heard since Takemitsu’s Cassiopeia 33 years ago.

Hammerth’s ear is as refined as his sense of structure—in this case a single-movement with three implicit sections. It begins with drum tattoos but soon turns to delicate metal percussion on a soft orchestral cushion. This builds, however, to a powerful climax before a bravura cadenza in which the soloist plays on vibraphone and bells with a bow. A slow section follows with seven soft, tolling gongs that return near the end with startling impact as the music builds to an even more powerful climax before subsiding into silence. Percussion soloists are basically audio-visual phenomena (the first such of international caliber was a young Japanese, Stomu Yamash’ta, whose public career lasted just a decade, 1969-79).Evelyn Glennie knows this, and so does Markus Leoson, who is marvelously partnered in the Hammerth concerto by Heinrich Schiff (yes, the cellist, another who could not resist the siren-lure of the podium) leading the Swedish Radio Symphony. The recording of solo tracks 1 plus 4-7 were produced by Orvig Hellebro in 2002, but the Feldman dates from 1994, the Xennakis and the Concerto from 1997. The latter was produced by the Swedish Radio’s Jan-Lennart Höglund with Rune Andreásson as engineer and their achievement is wildly colorful.The solo pieces I may never listen to again, but the concerto is a major work that exerts an ever-stronger pull each time I hear it. Welcome Markus Leoson, welcome Johan Hammerth, and by all means let us have more releases of this caliber from Nosag.

As for Albany Troy’s release of music by the self-described Czech-American composer Tomas Svoboda (b. 1939), it has packaged the contents with characteristic polish although these were licensed from the Oregon Symphony, which recorded them during Y2K in Portland. Svoboda, a child prodigy who composed his first symphony at age 15 before he had any conservatory instruction, fled communist Czechoslovakia in 1964. He enrolled as a graduate student at USC in Los Angeles in 1966 where he studied with Ingolf Dahl and Halsey Stevens before accepting a teaching post at Portland State U in 1969. There he taught for 27 years, and wrote the bulk of some 180 works to date. That said, I need to report that the music on this disc strikes me as either expressively sterile or, in the case of Svoboda’s juvenile symphony (retouched 25 years later), derivative. The Oregon Symphony under its recently retired music director, James de Priest, serves the composer dutifully, but not as enliveningly as one might have expected, while the recording lacks the panache of John Eargle’s productions in Portland for Delos. The Marimba Concerto, commissioned in 1992 and finished the following year, is no more engaging than any other marimba concerto I’ve heard—but ought to qualify this by saying, as a listener, the marimba ranks alongside bagpipes and tenor saxophones among my least favorite solo instruments, not to neglect the biwa or the pipa.

R.D. (September 2003)