Sutermeister’s Orchestral Songs

TOCC_0608 Cover

SUTERMEISTER: Consolatio philosophiae, Dramatic Scene for High Voice & Orch. Romeo und Julia: Ich reise weit. 7 Liebesbriefe for Tenor & Orch.* 6 Liebesfriefe for Soprano & Orch. / Juliane Banse, sop except *Benjamin Bruns, ten; Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz; Rainer Held, cond / Toccata Classics TOCC0608

Heinrich Sutermeister (1910-1995) occupies a somewhat uneasy position in musical history. Although his music clearly used some modern devices borrowed from the modern French school, Stravinsky and even (at times) Carl Orff, he is often considered to have been too tonal and therefore too “retro” to be considered a “great” composer, but when his opera Romeo und Julia was premiered in 1940, conductor Karl Böhm hailed him as a genius.

But there are plenty of things to be said in C major or any other tonal key you wish to name, and Sutermeister was clearly an original and imaginative composer. Here we have several extended works for voice and orchestra, the only problem of which are that Juliane Banse, once one of the finest sopranos of our modern era, seems to have had some significant vocal deterioration. Her once-luscious tone is now hard and shrill, particularly in the upper register, and she has an almost continuous flutter in the voice that bespeaks poor breath support. To her credit, however, she is still an intense interpreter, though you’ll surely be wincing at the actual sound of her voice. And since these are first recordings of these works, we don’t have anyone else to plug in to replace her.

And the music is clearly interesting, particularly in such late works as the Consolatio philosophiae (1977) and the Sechs Liebesbriefe (1979) where Sutermeister updated his musical style somewhat though not subscribing to the atonal school that had pretty much taken over classical music by that time. The text for the former comes from the poetry of Jean-Claude Piguet (1924-2000) which is fairly stern stuff. One example:

  1. The Path of Truth

If any man makes search for truth with all his penetration, and would be led astray by no deceiving paths, let him turn upon himself the light of an inward gaze, let him bend by force the long-drawn wanderings of his thoughts into one circle; let him tell surely to his soul, that he has, thrust away within the treasures of his mind, all that he labours to acquire without. Then shall that truth, which now was hid in error’s darkening cloud, shine forth more clear than Phoebus’ self. The seed of truth does surely cling within, and can be roused as a spark by the fanning of philosophy.

This certainly doesn’t look like the kind of text that could be set to music, but Sutermeister did indeed succeed in doing so, using a combination of strophic lines and lyric ones, creating a sung narrative that lies somewhere between Schoenberg’s Erwärtung and Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. The orchestration has an equally stern sound, almost metallic in the way he used the winds and basses, at times pulling against each other to create a sonic landscape of polar opposites. Despite the relatively light scoring, however, the sung text clearly calls for a powerful and not a lyric soprano voice. Perhaps Banse, whose earlier singing leaned much more towards lyricism, simply pushed the voice too hard, creating the shrill sounds one hears in this performance.

I’m not sure why Banse and conductor Rainer Held felt the need to include the aria from Romeo und Julia on this disc. It is not different from the version used in the opera and adds nothing to one’s perception of Sutermeister. I guess that Banse just liked it and wanted to record it.

We get a break from Banse’s overdriven soprano in the 7 Liebesbriefe for Tenor and Orchestra from 1935. At age 25, the young Sutermeister was clearly on his way to being able to create interesting music that skirted tonality without abandoning it, and tenor Benjamin Bruns has a high, light voice which he uses to great effect. The second half of the first song in particular clearly shows Sutermeister’s Orff influence while the second (“Der Naturphilosoph”) channels the very personal lyrical style he used to such great effect in Romeo und Julia. But every song in this set has a different musical style; Sutermeister was clearly not a composer who was locked into just one “voice,” but knew how to vary his approach. Both of these song “collections” for tenor and soprano are based on poems by a number of writers, including Goethe, von Humboldt, Burger, Lessing, Margaretha Kuffner and Maria Theresia. The fourth tenor song, “Der Bürger als Brautigam,” sounds the most conventionally melodic and tuneful, but it suits the text, and even so, Sutermeister uses unorthodox rhythmic displacement to break up the meter in certain bars. In the following song, Sutermeister creates an orchestral texture that sounds like an organ, playing two clashing chords at the same time in the lower register. Everything he did was unusual and varied; he was completely unpredictable.

Listening to this recording of the tenor songs, however, I think I have a clue as to why Banse’s voice sounds so hard and shrill. Both she and Bruns are recorded with very close miking. I think that if they had placed them back a foot or so from the microphone, the results wouldn’t sound so abrasive. Just a thought on my part, nothing else.

Wonder of wonders, the 6 Liebesbriefe for Soprano are in not only a different style from the early set for tenor but also quite different from the Consolatio philosophiae of two years earlier. There’s a certain Middle Eastern sound to the harmonies, and the orchestration is much lighter and quite different. It occurred to me while listening to this CD that perhaps the reason music critics, performers and academics abandoned Sutermeister in the mid-1950s was because his early fame had overshadowed another Swiss musical genius, Frank Martin, whose music was somewhat edgier and more modern and thus in line with the times.

Except for the extreme shrillness and “spread” in Banse’s voice, which I sincerely hope is only a temporary thing, this disc is clearly recommended. Except for the familiar Romeo und Julia aria, the music is fresh, surprising and arresting. There’s not much more you could ask for.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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One thought on “Sutermeister’s Orchestral Songs

  1. Pingback: Sutermeister’s Orchestral Songs – MobsterTiger

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