Diethelm’s Fascinating Symphonic Works

Diethelm cover

DIETHELM: Saturnalia. Symphony No. 5, “Mandala.” Symphonischer Prolog. Symphonies Nos. 1, 3 & 4, “Homage to Joseph Haydn” / Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Rainer Held, cond / Guild GM3CD7808

The music of Swiss composer Caspar Diethelm (1926-1997) has a certain vogue in Europe, it seems, but is scarcely known in much of the world. To judge from this excellent 3-CD set, all of which are first recordings, this is surely a shame, for Diethelm’s music clearly occupied a unique position in the world of tonal classical music. Influenced in large part by Oriental and Middle Eastern music as well as astrology (he wrote a 14-part solo flute suite dedicated to the different signs of the zodiac) and mysticism, Diethelm carved his own niche in the musical world yet was largely bypassed by the selection of standard orchestral repertoire.

I was at a disadvantage in reviewing this set because I only had the front cover and album contents to go by. The booklet, which included liner notes by the composer’s daughter, Esther Diethelm, was unavailable to me, despite my emailing Guild Records and requesting a copy. I needed no guide to appreciate the fine qualities of the music, however, although I did have to go to Wikipedia to find out some information about him. Diethelm was born in Lucerne, studied at the Conservatory and School of Church Music there, later taking master classes in composition from Paul Hindemith and Arthur Honegger which had a strong influence on him. Later, he took summer courses with Karheinz Stockhausen and Luigi Nono. To quote from Wikipedia:

Diethelm’s sonic palette is highly distinctive… and generally pursues a broad melodic linearity. Harmonically, he uses free tonality; his rhythms are sometimes elementary, characterised by a strong impulse towards the dance and a preference for large, uneven cycles. He placed great importance on the use of predictable, completable forms, such as the sonata form with its basis in duality, the Lied, the rondo, arched and embedded structures; however, within these he always sought individual and variable solutions.

The seven-part orchestral suite Saturnalia opens up this program: attractive, accessible and yet intellectually interesting, it is music that makes its statements and does not overstay its welcome. Even more so than his flute suite Zodiak, Saturnalia is heavily influenced by Eastern music, so much so that the second movement, “Allegro vivace,” almost has the feel of belly-dance music about it, built around a quirky minor mode. Winds and high strings predominate the orchestration of this suite; brasses, low strings and percussion come and go but only to provide occasional “oomph” to the sound. The “slow drag” feel to the third movement (“Lento”) is fascinating, revealing a sure grasp of this style which in many cases has eluded most Western composers. In addition to his Eastern feeling, Diethelm was a traditionalist in terms of classical form and structure. His music develops well and interestingly, often using sound texture to make its points, in this movement using fluttering clarinets over a solo muted trombone among other such touches.

The “Allegro quasi scherzo” is amusing, using upward trombone swoops and bucolic oboe and bassoon interjections to make its points. A brief, syncopated passage for open trumpets is highly effective, as are the modal, repeated eighth-notes for strings behind it all. Brief solos and concertante passages for the winds come and go. The following “Allegro con spirito” is a continual whirlwind of activity for the orchestra in full and part, with an attractive, slower alternating theme for flutes and piccolos. The sixth movement, “Largo con espressione,” opens with an almost ominous-sounding gong, leading to low basses and trombones playing a mysterious theme, with French horns thrown in for color. It ends with muted tympani thuds. The last movement, “Allegro molto vivace,” is a sort of bacchanal for orchestra, with all the stops pulled out.

The Fifth Symphony which opens the second CD, titled “Mandala,” inhabits a similar sound-world but has a more muscular first movement. The strings and lower, darker winds substitute for the high wind sounds in Saturnalia. The music also progresses in a lumpier, less smooth fashion, surprising the listener with its sudden lurches both forwards and sideways. There’s a startling, full-blooded outburst in the middle by trumpets and tympani. The second movement, “Vivace,” opens with a tympani whack and a solo oboe before moving into a fast but quirky rhythmic theme that, again, moves around quite a bit. The tempo also fluctuates, moving away from the stated Vivace to slower and, at times, more rhythmically irregular passages. Little motifs and unexpected outbursts come and go, yet somehow it all makes sense in the listener’s mind. It’s almost a “Vivace – Larghetto – Vivace – Adagio – Vivace” sort of movement, coming to a dead stop at the 7:13 mark before continuing. By contrast, the movement marked “Larghetto” is more serious, moving at a stately pace and remaining fairly constant in its tempos and evolving themes, though the tempo temporarily increases at the 4:40 mark, the first of several louder outbursts (the loudest coming at around 8:15). Surprisingly, the last movement is in a quite different style, almost sounding like a German or British symphony. Despite the unusual use of winds, the forward momentum is insistent and powerful, rather like a pile driver in full force. Muscular brass and lower strings power the momentum, and the rhythm is more regular in both meter and tempo. The only real moment of relaxation comes at 12:11, two and a half minutes before the symphony’s conclusion (which is also slower and quieter). You could almost get whiplash listening to this music!

The Symphonischer Prolog is a fairly objective piece, opening with high winds swirling around and moving into a different world. The opening theme is bitonal and the secondary theme less settled in tonality than usual for Diethelm. Odd little solos by horn, flute and oboe intrude themselves on the primarily ensemble statements. There’s a whimsical concertante passage that almost sounds like a chamber group, slowing the tempo down and affecting the mood until 4:15, when the power suddenly ramps up again.

The third CD is comprised of three symphonies, the first, third and fourth. The earliest symphony is his Op. 35, considerably earlier than Saturnalia or the Fifth Symphony, with opus numbers between 180 and 200. This, like the last movement of the Fifth, inhabits a more neoclassic, less neo-romantic sound world, influenced to some degree by the musical trends of the late 1940s-early ‘50s. There is still power and emotion in the music, however; it is by no means solely objective in the manner of Stravinsky. It is, however, a bit more elusive for the untrained musical mind, its themes consisting of what seem like fragments. Diethelm keeps a firm grasp on what he is doing, but its more objective quality is simply less appealing to the neophyte. Your local classical radio station would never play this. The “Adagio” is a perfect case in point: the music is not unattractive but it’s not “lovely” or “pretty,” either. Oddly, the “Vivace” is not all that vivacious, being more of an Allegretto, but the music is again punchy, with tympani and brass having fun propelling it forward. In the last movement, “Allegro con slancio,” Diethelm drives the point home with a steady pace and more elusive themes bouncing around.

The Third Symphony seems to inhabit a sound-world halfway between his earlier and later styles. The tonality is less edgy and the themes more fleshed out, but it’s not as echt-Romantic as he later became in his mystical-Oriental period. The second movement, too, occupies a midpoint style, sounding curiously Stravinskian in its melodic contour and coolness of feeling. The third movement, “Allegro con spirito,” sounds a little more like the later Diethelm, more playful and attractive, less objective, while the fourth, “Presto ilare,” bounces along in a style that somewhat bridges the gap between both styles.

The fourth symphony is a bit unusual in that it was intended as a “Homage to Joseph Haydn.” Diethelm modernizes the Haydn approach in terms of the harmonic base but is true to the classic style in form. It is, however, less classical overall than Prokofiev’s First Symphony, thus it, too, might put off the average listener while delighting more experienced ears. By and large, I liked Rainer Held’s conducting very much, yet even though I was unfamiliar with these works I sometimes felt he was a bit too relaxed in the fast movements, particularly the finales of the First and Third Symphonies. In the first movement of the Fourth, however, I felt he was just about right, finding a pace that still defined “Allegro assai” while imparting elasticity and charm. The second movement, “Molto allegro e con fuoco,” was yet another one of those I instinctively felt was a bit too slow, but it certainly has variety in it, and some quite fiery moments too, with slashing brass and a great deal of percussion punctuation. By the time you reach the third movement (“Lento”) you begin to feel that this symphony is, like its predecessor, more a tribute to Stravinsky than to Haydn, although the music is quite good. In the finale, “Allegro energico,” Diethelm again pursues a Stravinskian aesthetic, this time using a strong beat and fairly rapid tempi to make his point.

This is an excellent introduction to a very fine and underrated composer, one who I think you will find bears repeated listening.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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