Gerard Schurmann: Chamber and Instrumental Music and Songs, Vol 4. © 2019 Toccata Classics

CD Spotlight

A Series of Polished Gems

RODERIC DUNNETT listens to chamber, instrumental music and songs by Gerard Schurmann

'This is one of the most enchanting, fragile, flawless song cycles I have ever heard, anywhere.'


This is yet another remarkable disc from the endlessly enterprising and illuminating Toccata Classics, founded by Martin Anderson. By now, Toccata has enlarged into a vast collection: one which dares to concentrate on a valuable range of composers less familiar, or indeed virtually unknown; and as a result has brought countless hidden gems to light.

Gerard Schurmann is actually well known, and widely admired, as a spirited and often challenging composer for films, not least horror movies. He was also the brains behind shaping and orchestrating Maurice Jarre's memorable melodic line for Lawrence of Arabia, revealing an expertise second to none. But there's much more. Indeed it's a well-known fact that many great Hollywood film music composers - Korngold, Tiomkin, Waxman, Herrmann, and especially Miklós Rózsa, achieved a significant classical output also. Conversely, even Arnold Schoenberg glanced at the popular movie genre.

The 'serious' works of these film composers like Schurmann need absolutely no allowances or patronisation. They are almost invariably first-rate. Indeed large elements of this classical training fed into the vivid film music of all of them. Rózsa most obviously drew heavily on (and occasionally poached from) Debussy, Ravel and Honegger (whom he knew well), plus his Hungarian fellow-musicians Dohnányi, Kodály and Bartók.

Here on this disc - one of several issued by Toccata - we see Schurmann, who lived to ninety-six and died just two years ago, young as ever, and enticing, in mind and spirit. His musical connections also embrace his native Dutch East Indies: Java, Indonesia; (he is usually listed, and accurately by his publishers as of 'Dutch' nationality); Hungarian folk music (through his mother, a notable pianist); and the European mainstream. His deep knowledge of (especially) twentieth century classical music trends shines through his own very substantial output of 'serious' music. His musical argument is always compelling, and he is a contrapuntist of stature, with an astonishing range of dynamic and pacing. He is endowed with a rich, fertile imagination. He is a master of structure. His works, pretty much without exception, are of the very top rank.

Although I was already, when young, aware, and taken aback by, his dazzling, expressionist Six Studies of Francis Bacon (1968), I first encountered Gerard's music live when engaged to review his cantata Piers Plowman for the London Times.

From the first bars I knew I had encountered something extraordinary. The music, the sensitive handling of text, the emotive surface and underlay alike, struck me, as I said in my review, as something quite extraordinary and wonderful. Eager to find more, I sought out next the solo song cycle Chuench'i, a setting of seven incredibly atmospheric texts from the Chinese, in an English version by the celebrated oriental scholar Arthur Waley (1889-1966). 1966 is the year Schurmann wrote these songs: an astonishing coincidence, for the Wigmore Hall premiere on 28 June took place exactly a day after Waley's death.

Chinese poetry, or indeed sometimes Japanese Haiku, often invites incredibly delicate treatment. And that (in Chuen'chi and the Six Songs of William Blake) is what we find in the handful of songs here, sung with empathy and feeling, if perhaps a little forcefully, by Randall Bills - universally hailed as a magnificent Heldentenor, yet here as far from heroic as could be. Paul Conway's expertly researched, lucidly expressed and very extensive sleeve notes - nine whole pages of enriching insights - offer us the whole gamut of Schurmann's achievement: his chamber music, of which this is the fourth Toccata disc, his wider output, and his endless technical achievement.

But he treats with insight the texts of Chuench'i, as does the singer himself, as if an object lesson in tenderness and beauty. This could be a sheaf of Debussy's songs for his (later life) wife Emma Bardac: 'happiness evoked by a misty morning'; 'drifting idly in a boat, daydreaming'; 'friendship and fidelity affirmed'; 'a languorous spring evening'; 'the excitement of admiring a lover'; 'a melancholic ... mournful discovery'; 'a Chinese chandelier tinkling in the breeze'.

Weather, seasons, times of day, the charm of place, situation and context, all of these Schurmann captures, and captivates, exquisitely. 'Plucking the Rushes', 'Flowers and Moonlight' and 'At the end of Spring' are among the seven actual titles. Could a musical treatment of such intimate poems be outdone? Does it actually enhance what each poem depicts? The answer is 'yes': he has succeeded in bringing a charm, an untainted intricacy, a delicate subtlety and fragility one cannot imagine being bettered. The whole work is a masterpiece, supplied by a master craftsman.

Listen — Gerard Schurmann: Flowers and Moonlight on the Spring River (Chuench'i)
(track 4, 1:54-2:53) ℗ 2019 Toccata Classics :

How best to characterise this miraculously beautiful music? Does Schurmann's Dutch-Indonesian background play a role in beguiling works like Chuench'i? In others, where the gamelan is clearly an influence yes, but here maybe not: 'Caparisons are odorous' as Mrs Malaprop observes (in Sheridan's play The Rivals). Different works by Schurmann suggest different comparisons, influences possibly, but they are not gratuitous ones.

What moves me so strongly in Chuench'i is a perfect fusion (as mentioned above) of Satie, Milhaud, Roussel and Dallapiccola with the ultra-purity and sensitivity to individual line of Boulez, of early Webern Lieder. Let us add, not as influence, but for comparison and good measure, the superlative Soviet/Russian purist Edison Denisov (1929-96) and his equal, Sofia Gubaidulina (born 1931), welcomed by Shostakovich, both courageous teachers-enablers of the modernistic Soviet-Russian school; or of the Greek-French naturalised Iannis Xenakis, the individualist model of purist 1960s modernism.

Listen — Gerard Schurmann: Self-Abandonment (Chuench'i)
(track 6, 1:16-2:08) ℗ 2019 Toccata Classics :

They are, one notes, the rough contemporaries of Gerard Schurmann. Yet he can be as refined, compacted and even elusive as a Morton Feldman. Schurmann - to his credit, some might say - wears a coat of many colours, and he can certainly do bombast both in his classical music - the Bacon portraits - and his grisly film scores. But not here. This is one of the most enchanting, fragile, flawless song cycles I have ever heard, anywhere.

It doesn't take much to mention Debussy again - Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune - compared with Schurmann's Moonbird for solo flute, composed, three decades later, in 1998. Schurmann, remember, spent a large part of his life in Britain, before Hollywood and California summoned in 1981 - the time when he composed the charming Two Ballades for Piano.

But earlier Schurmann's acknowledged classical music was also a child of the sixties and beyond - when European modernism fired onto the English musical scene. Moonbird (seven minutes) is one of three works for unaccompanied solo instrument acknowledged in his list of works published by Chester-Novello (Music Sales). The other two predate it: Ariel, again a seven minute miniature, for solo oboe (qv Britten's Six Metamorphoses after Ovid); and in the earliest mentioned, Serenade for solo violin, some sixteen minutes long, from that fruitful year, 1969. Maxim Rubtsov's playing - gracile, chaste and unblemished - is to be cherished: the beauty of both piece and performance stand out a mile.

Did Schurmann reject such a stampede of post-Second Viennese School influence? No. Like others even today, he absorbed from it. He can match the tightness of Schoenberg's Suite for piano or Variations for Orchestra, or produce music as lush as Verklärte Nacht or the Second F sharp minor Quartet 'The Book of the Hanging Gardens', or the virgin purism of Webern's shivering non-serial vocal output, capturing the luscious temptation of Berg's Seven Early Songs, digest them, so as to evolve his own distinct voice which took what it wanted from them: insight and truth. Schurmann's output is a wonder, both to hear and even to behold, in his gorgeous handwritten or printed scores.

So you can often capture what sounds like a note row, perhaps not strict, but aspects or sections for which the composer has elected: consider for instance the first of his Four Pastoral Preludes for piano (2012), which wander off, each on its own contemplative - not quite moody - path.

Even here we have dreamlike titles: 'Grotto'; 'Rivulets'; and the more common, Schumannesque 'Solitude'. You'd expect the cave (No 2) to be either sombre and silent; or else echoey; but instead, after a tentative, as it were, inquisitive start, we find a kind of waterfall running through it, and then tentative padding feet, engulfed in a second bout of sploshing and tumbling. There's only one boom or bong to suggest cavernousness. Rather, the daring intruder steps very lightly, as if exploring.

'Rivulets' (No 3) features catapulting cascades, loud and soft in turn, especially intriguing when Schurmann shifts the scampering torrents, like a shift from stalagmites to stalactites, momentarily down to the alto or tenor part.

Listen — Gerard Schurmann: Rivulets (Four Pastoral Preludes)
(track 11, 0:00-0:35) ℗ 2019 Toccata Classics :

'Solitude', as its name suggests, is virtually a monologue (though occasionally double-stopped), querying like Schumann, but structurally (at times adagissimo) and harmonically more a case of Bach (The Art of Fugue) meets Tristan (which of course obsessed the young Debussy). The originality of Chuench'i is perhaps not quite matched here, perhaps surprising, as this is more recent Schurmann, dating from a good four decades later.

Solo keyboard, Schurmann's own virtuoso instrument as a young performer, although he also achieved distinction as a conductor, first for Dutch Radio and thereafter on both sides of the Atlantic, again features in Two Ballades for Piano. Schurmann describes these, affectionately as 'Homage to Janáček' (also part of the title). It is not too easy to divine the connection in the first, 'Hukvaldy' - the composer's birthplace in his native Moravia, where looms the third largest castle after Prague and Česky Krumlov, in the modern Czech Republic. Unless, that is, the observant can discern links to Janáček's own piano works, such as On an Overgrown Path, In the Mists (or numerous others). The vivid atmosphere of this charming, compact village near Ostrava (and the Polish border) must surely have made a delightful impression on the young Janáček (who grew up in Hukvaldy, until departing, at the age of eleven, to join an Augustinian monastery choir in Brno).

Paul Conway's note is worth quoting here:

Near the end (of No 1, 'Hukvaldy') there is a brief, ghost-like quotation from part of the theme from the first movement ('Presentiment') of Janáček's piano sonata entitled '1.X.1905', the latter's title clarified as 'Zulice' - 'A Street Scene', and describing in its two movements (Janáček disposed of the others he'd drafted) a rather horrendous origin: Janáček wrote it in memory of a twenty-year-old student bayoneted to death by a soldier while demonstrating for establishing a Czech university in Brno. The composer espoused the cause of the young victim, a carpenter, and himself later inscribed on the two-movement sonata (1. 'Foreboding - 2. Death') these words: 'Behold the white marble steps of the Besední dům (the cultural centre and music hall in Brno) a humble labourer falls, bloodstained. He came but to champion higher learning, and has been slain by cruel murderers.

Perhaps we may need to scrutinise Schurmann's works for other equally instructive allusions: he is, after all, as a film composer, a master of just such telling references. His own versing in, insight into, the music of five or perhaps six centuries is profound; his wide grasp of earlier material, and ability at back-referring or transforming it into something new, is one of the many most satisfying aspects of Schurmann's compositions; one thinks of the other great 'quoters': Schoenberg (of Brahms), Brahms (of Beethoven), Handel (of Purcell), Britten (of Berg), Maxwell Davies (of every kind of precedent) to see how Schurmann marches, quite naturally and unaffectedly, among composers of the highest order.

Still on the Ballades, the more atmospheric - indeed utterly beguiling - of the two is the second, 'Brno' (at eleven and a half minutes). The opening muses, a bit like a child feeling its way round a five finger exercise; thereafter it alternates: here reflective; intermittently assertive, certainly animated, but usually in a laid-back, leisurely way. More than Brahms (presumably something of a launch-off point), Sphinxes from Schumann's Carnaval comes to mind: Schurmann is playing with certain tiny cells, mostly (even when skittering and highly excitable) leaning to the diatonic; there is clear restraint, a deliberate economy, even again intimacy, to the piece.

Listen — Gerard Schurmann: Brno (Two Ballades for Piano)
(track 15, 9:48-10:47) ℗ 2019 Toccata Classics :

Some might find its fixation on a falling minor second vexatious; yet it is essential to generating the mood of the whole. What (apart from what Conway describes as a 'wintry scene' at the outset) it has to do with Brno, or even Moravia, I have no idea - but there may be other hidden allusions of which I am not cognizant, and of which the listener need not be. But it's a delightful eleven minutes, and it - perhaps these Two Ballades as a whole - might be a very good, rewarding task to set promising younger, indeed teenage, players in their private piano lessons.

Moonbird reveals Schurmann's finesse in crafting hypnotising pieces for solo instrument unaccompanied. (Think of Bartók's Sonata for solo violin.)

Listen — Gerard Schurmann: Moonbird
(track 8, 0:42-1:42) ℗ 2019 Toccata Classics :

Schurmann's Sonatina for Flute and Piano, composed thirty years earlier (1968) also gained wide credit, admired and performed worldwide by (Sir) James Galway and many others.) It's written with a fine feeling of fluency, changing in mood at significant cruxes but essentially driving forward with admirable momentum, the accelerando to a scherzo-like passage near the end especially catching the ear. If the Ballades might suit schoolchildren advanced on keyboard, this is definitely one for students, at colleges anywhere - the London colleges, Juilliard and so on - to pick up. Mikhail Korzhev is the accompanist here - or one might say equal partner: Schurmann's ability shrewdly to create resplendent individual and independent parts - stemming from the same material - for the keyboard player in many of his works has been commented on, indeed highly commended, elsewhere : it enhances the discussion, one might almost dare to say 'dialectic', underlying (or overlaying) his music in chamber pieces, and he applies that gift to his orchestral concerto works, equally.

Listen — Gerard Schurmann: Sonatina for Flute and Piano
(track 13, 6:59-7:59) ℗ 2019 Toccata Classics :

The disc's contents are handsomely designed: song cycle, solo flute, piano - flute accompanied, piano, song cycle. So that leaves his Six Songs of William Blake to round off. This, although revised in the 1990s, comes from early in Schurmann's composing career - the 1950s. The first song ('Augury'): ('To see a World in a Grain of Sand') reverts to the gossamer-like piano filigree of Chuench'i (although comes far from matching the magical sensitivity of the later cycle). 'Ah! Sunflower' comes nearer, in vocal line, to the last song (Keats) of the tenor Serenade. (Britten and Peter Pears). Two songs are longer, between four and five minutes). No 3, 'I Laid Me Down Upon a Bank' (The Garden of Love, from Songs of Experience, 1794), also lasts approximately four. It's a lament, and does have that feel, except the poem is ambiguous and the gloomy adagio of the piece, while it intriguingly recalls, if in softer tone, Pears' Quint in The Turn of the Screw only two years earlier. The poem is universal - it could be by Verlaine - and the music does not, to my ears, match 'the sweet golden clime / Where the traveller's journey is done' (Tennyson, or Thomas Hardy); nor do I sense 'The Youth pining away with desire' or 'the pale Virgin shrouded with snow'; although the paired musical lines could possibly be described as 'snow-like'.

The fourth Blake song (track 19) is 'Eternity' (not to be confused with 'Auguries of Innocence', Blake's plea against the maltreatment of animals). 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand ... / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour.' The shifting piano, a kind of ostinato or fast-driven ground bass, works rather well: the vocal line, more moderato, takes the poem line by line a little slavishly, but gains in invention by a mixture of spacing out and rubato in the third stanza - the lapwing, or peewit - and a similar word-setting device enhances the last line, Blake's repeat of 'Lives in eternity's sunrise'.

It's in No 5: 'O Rose thou art sick!' that Schurmann seems to find his true self. Mesmerising, exquisitely conceived, a miniature in every sense, just as Chuench'i is a series of polished gems. This belongs in the same category, paced, the piano part restricted to the very minimum. It was bold of Schurmannn - Britten's haunting Blake setting ('Elegy') had equally surfaced (Movement 4, song 3) in his Serenade written for Pears over a decade ago (1943), and might easily have been daunting to any other young composer who dared consider setting it. But Schurmann has produced something - can one say? - every bit as good. All the more fascinating as Britten, capitalising on Pears' (later Robert Tear's) dramatic gifts, takes four and a half minutes to garnish the two stanzas; Schurmann polishes it all off in one and a half.

And so the last item, which starts like Schumann or equally Chopin, before the keys begin to shift and adjust. A young man's mistake, I think, to take this at the same coasting, slow-rolling pace as (for example) No 1. A tenor floating a bit aimlessly in the air can be frankly tedious, and the piano seems to be coasting along, equally directionless. The disc may be wonderfully well arranged, but this is not the right song to end either the cycle or the recording with. Other composers of Schurmann's generation - I have John Joubert especially in mind - have made a not dissimilar mistake (if mistake it be). Furthermore Randall Bills, who proves such a wonderful champion of Chuench'i, seems to lack here the enchantment he brings to the whole of that oriental cycle. The song freewheels, but 'the fair-haired angel of the evening', 'Thy bright torch of love, thy radiant crown' 'the Blue curtains of the sky' 'wash the dusk to silver': this not what Finzi would have made of Blake's text, and it is a disappointment - with a little of the piano output, possibly - on this otherwise simply gorgeous disc, otherwise untainted by the second rate but evidencing for us the unblemished genius that populates Gerard Schurmann's happily substantial output.

Listen — Gerard Schurmann: To the Evening Star (Six Songs of William Blake)
(track 21, 0:30-1:28) ℗ 2019 Toccata Classics :

Anyone attracted by Chuench'i or Moonbird should make straight for Toccata's other recordings of Schurmann Chamber Music - all of which, incidentally, feature the distinctive pianist here, Mikhail Korzhev.

Copyright © 14 February 2022 Roderic Dunnett,
Coventry UK







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