Various Artists

Rudolf Escher: Chamber Music, Vol. 1

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Dutch composer Rudolf Escher made his name as the composer of the orchestral piece Musique pour l'esprit en deuil, which upon its premiere in 1947 with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw established him in the forefront among contemporary Dutch composers. Hanging on to that advantage, however, proved a challenge almost immediately, as within a decade stylistic developments within continental European music began to reshape everything rather drastically. The Ottavo release Rudolf Escher: Chamber Music 1 is part of a recorded edition of all the works of Rudolf Escher, and much of this selection comes from this period of self-renewal and struggle.

Rudolf Escher: Chamber Music 1 contains six works dating from 1939 through 1969. It opens with the Trio à Cordes of 1959. It gets off to a great start, with a pulsing rhythmic idea that is reminiscent of the third of Anton Webern's Five Movements for string quartet, but after awhile falls flat. It gets more interesting once Escher abandons his original row and writes in a freely dissonant style, but he is unable to resist the gravitational pull of leading tones. The earlier Sonata per due flauti is mostly in the high register, very dissonant, and is recorded so loud and dry by Ottavo it is frankly irritating, wearing out its welcome well before the first movement (of three!) has elapsed. The Air pour charmer un lizard ("Air for Charming a Lizard"), inspired by Ravel's habit of playing the flute to reptiles, is interesting at first, but the flute floats around the same locus of pitches for a long time -- it gets tired. Also, Escher has a tendency to fan upward when he gets lost in a piece, a prefab solution much as breaking into parallel octaves was a favored device for Hindemith when his polymorphously polyphonic writing backed him into a corner.

The Violin Sonata that follows doesn't break any new ground for the first two movements, but in the third Escher allows himself to write in a straightforwardly diatonic style, and it's like someone opened the kitchen window in apartment full of cigarette smoke. The next work, Monologue for flute, seems to be a successful realization of Escher's quest to reinvent Varèse's Density 21.5 in his own image. Finally the early Trio d'Anches scored for the uncommon (and probably rightly never used) combination of oboe, clarinet and bassoon plays out in a kind of bitter sounding version of neo-classicism. It is very top heavy and doesn't leave much of an impression. Overall, the recording is too loud, instruments are miked too closely, and when it comes to the flutes, it's completely over the top. Rudolf Escher: Chamber Music 1 is certainly only for those who have developed a taste for this composer, and even with that in mind it is very hard to enjoy.

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