Kurt Schwertsik: Collected Piano Works

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When Austrian composer Kurt Schwertsik’s Albumblätter: collected piano works landed on my desk in 2018, I was intrigued, but like too many books it ended up buried in my review backlog.

Fast forward to Summer 2020, and the newly released recording of this music by pianist Aya Klebahn caught my attention on Apple Music. Second time lucky, I was quickly hooked…

Publishers Boosey & Hawkes tell us:

“Kurt Schwertsik’s music is characterised by ever-changing moods and is idiosyncratic with a refreshing lightness of touch. Though a pupil of Stockhausen, the composer rejected serialism in favour of new forms of tonality. His search for an ‘alternative’ modern culture draws inspiration from Satie and the Dada movement.”

Intrigued? A little belatedly, here is the Pianodao review…

Collected Piano Works

Composed across six decades of activity, the works that make up Klebahn’s CD and feature in the Boosey & Hawkes publication amount to around 75 minutes of music.

Here’s the listing, in the order that the works appear in the publication:

  • Albumblätter (a suite of 14 pieces composed between 1969-2015)
  • Cinque Nocturnes Op.10b (1964)
  • Fantasia & Fuga Op.105 (2010)
  • Am morgen vor der Reise Op.119 (2017)
  • Eden-Bar Seefeld Op.6 (1961)

To my ears, there is a compelling personality throughout this music, but in terms of the composer’s artistic progression the earlier pieces tend more towards the experimental and atonal, while the newer pieces are more overtly infused with an accessibility that embraces tonality, minimalism and occasional jazz harmonic touches.

In all cases, Schwertsik’s musical ideas are concise, developed with consummate craftsmanship and stylistic panache.

The Albumblätter were mostly composed for specific friends of the composer, as he notes:

“In the 19th century it became fashionable to write Albumblätter, originally as gifts for friends and to impress charming girls, or as a convenient title for simple lyrical piano pieces.”

With equal candour he goes on to say of his own collection of 14 pieces,

“Since I always experienced difficulties writing for the piano, the odd pieces that I managed to compose over the years for various friends and acquaintances are very important to me; hence this chronological collection. All pieces have been refurbished to various degrees!”

These pieces are uniformly exquisite!

Here’s Aya Klebahn’s recording and, I recommend you start by checking the third track, For Rose Simpson, which is quite simply ravishing:

These pieces are not only musically but also technically accessible, and would be ideal for players at advanced level (around UK Grades 6-8) who wish to explore a more contemporary musical language while playing works of genuine and undiluted quality.

Of the Cinque Nocturnes the composer tells us,

“At New Year’s Eve in 1961 the musician in me somehow convinced my Fluxus nature to try to find a sort of warped tonal idiom. The Nocturnes are one of the results of that endeavor. My intention with these pieces was to effect in the listener a certain mental amusement (Gemüthsergötzung).”

These pieces are more obviously experimental, the first piece Simple repeated in more elaborate fashion as the last, Double, with three melancholic fantasies at the centre of the work.

The Fantasia & Fuga is every bit as neo-baroque as its title suggests, an attention-grabbing toccata leading to a double fugue with two memorable motifs. A more virtuosic work, the piece would suit first diploma level players and make a stunning concert piece.

Am Morgen vor der Reise (The Morning Before the Voyage) is a book of short philosophical essays by Austrian poet Julian Schutting, which Schwertsik tells us are replete with “childlike humour and intimate love”. The 6 miniatures which make up this short set are easier in tone, and were written as interludes to be played between readings of Schutting’s prose.

Completing the collection, Eden-Bar, Seefeld is an early work, and more obviously indebted to Stockhausen’s aesthetic. The austere atonal language here seems at odds with Schwertsik’s later music, but is a welcome addition both to the published volume and to Klebahn’s album, where it contributes something of an abstract postlude.

The Publication

As one would expect of a new publication from esteemed publishers Boosey & Hawkes, the book is as stunning as the music within.

They eye-catching cover is printed on high-quality card with a gloss finish, and within the music is printed on off-white paper. The 76-page book benefits from staple binding, so is highly practical.

Preceding the music itself, the composer has contributed an in depth introduction to the origins and artistic aims of the pieces, providing valuable context.

The notation is cleanly and spaciously presented, and is very easy on the eye. Schwertsik is detailed but not over-prescriptive in his directions. Fingering suggestions are not given. With the exception of Eden-Bar Seefeld, all the pieces obey the standard rules of music notation.

Concluding Thoughts

Kurt Schwertsik is clearly a composer whose music is going to require further exploration! His piano pieces are uniformly superb, and having played through several over the last few months I am truly enamoured.

This is music which I intend to spend much longer with, and having also purchased the CD it has become the piano soundtrack to my year.

For advanced players, the published collection fills a gap for accessible contemporary pieces that will be playable by most pianists, and which embody artistic integrity, emotional honesty, mercurial humour and lyrical sincerity.

Of the piano music composed in my lifetime, I really would say Schwertsik’s works are firmly of the highest rank.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.