Discovering Albert Moeschinger

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MOESCHINGER: String Quartets Nos. 3 & 5. Trauermusik für Hanny Bürgi / Rasumovsky Quartet / Musiques Suisses NXMS 7006-1

In a world where classical CD companies churn out endless rehashings of the standard repertoire, over and over and over and over again, it’s nice to get a CD like this, featuring the music of a composer somewhat known in his native country but generally unknown internationally.

Albert Moeschinger (1897-1985) was forced by his father to study law, not music, thus he was only able to start taking lessons in classical music at age 20 even though it had been his interest when young. After studying piano in Bern and gaining a position as repetiteur at the Civic Theater in that city, he received a scholarship which allowed him to study in Leipzig starting in 1920, after World War I, where his composition teacher was Paul Graener (whose Die Flöte von Sansouci was a favorite concert piece of famous conductors in the 1930s), and later in Munich with Walter Courvoisier. Back in his native country, he made his living as a salon musician, all the while writing chamber and orchestral works. At age 40 he was finally recognized enough to be hired as a piano and theory teacher at the Bern Conservatory, but had to relinquish this post a few years later due to health problems. Yet despite these “health problems,” whatever they were, he was an avid mountaineer and live to the age of 88.

The three works on this disc, all premiere recordings, cover the period from 1923 (String Quartet No. 3) to the String Quartet No. 5, originally written in 1940 but extensively revised in 1954. The language of the third quartet is a cross between late romanticism and the then-current trend towards chromaticism and the occasional use of whole tone scales, yet one gets the impression that Moeschinger was so easily conversant with this style that he was able to create a unified piece that said something and had a recognizable structure. There are a number of passages in the first movement especially where the Rasumovsky Quartet employs a fairly broad rubato, and this, too, was still part of classical music at that time. Despite the difference in harmonic language, it has a certain affinity to Beethoven’s late quartets, particularly in the development section near the end of the first movement. The second-movement “Andante” is a charming but harmonically quirky little waltz tune with a few little, odd outbursts, yet this plays beautifully into the more agitated middle section of the movement which is thus tied in both theme and mood to these prior outbursts. In the final section, Moeschinger has some fun with a series of descending chromatic chords, though he ends (kind of) in tonality. The odd feeling of bitonality continues into the otherwise lilting third-movement “Menuetto,” Oddly, however, I found the last movement to be relatively uninteresting and formulaic, a bit of a let-down after all the creativity in the first three movements. It is merely “pretty” whereas the first three were really interesting, although the very last section has some nice things in it.

Personally, I don’t hear much growth in Moeschinger as a composer between 1923 and 1954, but the String Quartet No. 5 is also an interesting piece that uses stepwise chromatic movement in both its opening theme and development. It sure beats the umpteenth recording of Mozart, Schubert or Beethoven quartets. Surprisingly, the music suddenly becomes very creative at the very end of the first movement; the second is closely related in style to the slow movement of the Third Quartet, except that it’s in 4/4 instead of in 3. The third movement, a very nicely syncopated “Festoso,” is related to dance music and a great deal of fun to listen to, whereas the final movement is a real surprise, the most modern and interesting of the four with its initial driving rhythms and bitonal theme, although it does settle into tonality for the contrasting slower “B” theme. The very involved, rather slow development section in the middle is also interesting, using the cello rather than one of the violins to play the bracing, rhythmic figures that interrupt the softer, slower music of the upper strings—at least until the whole quartet comes together once again and starts interacting with sharply-etched figures that play in counterpoint against one another. This quartet has six movements, and although the fifth also begins slowly and includes a few microtonal slides, to my ears it sounds more like an appendage to the other movements rather than a culmination of the whole quartet. The fast-paced finale, on the other hand, is quite imaginative in both its thematic and rhythmic ideas, keeping the listener on his or her toes as it moves along.

The notes suggest that the undated funeral music for Johanna “Hanny” Bürgi, a wealthy art collector who supported Moeschinger both financially and with performance gigs in Bern, was probably written in 1938, the year of her death. It is quite good music, somewhat more conservative in harmony but still rather interesting, and uses a lot of counterpoint. It has been suggested that Bürgi herself commissioned this piece as funeral music. I was particularly impressed by the third movement, “Sehr lamgsam – Allegretto” which, although fairly short (only two minutes long), seemed to me the most modern piece in the suite with the tightest construction, saying a great deal in its brevity, but some of the other movements also have some very nice moments, although I felt that the peculiarly jaunty fifth section seemed a bit out of place for funeral music.

For his time, then, Moeschinger was an interesting but somewhat conservative composer…good, but just missing greatness. Still, it’s always nice to hear something new and different. Well worth investigating.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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