Swiss roles

Naxos has travelled far since its founding in 1987 as a budget label with a compelling business model, a chairman of great foresight and a DNA oozing innovation. It has developed into a web of avenues that link art music with music lovers. The Naxos label is now just one of the constituents of the Naxos Music Group; a host of other independent labels have joined the group over the years, benefitting from the Naxos global infrastructure, but each retaining its individual label identity and strengths.

The Naxos 2020 catalogue will soon be published. As in previous years, it will include the catalogues of all those affiliated labels and, this year, there is a new one: Musiques Suisses, a label that focuses on Swiss composers and performers, as well as promoting the diversity of Swiss musical life. What better time, then, to take a quick dip into a selection of Swiss music … which is possibly a bit of a blank page for some.

It would be rather naff to start with cuckoo clocks, alpine horns, folk songs and yodelling. But I’m going to do it anyway, both to set the scene and provide a foil to what then follows. Let’s start with a cameo cuckoo that has taken up residence in Leopold Godowsky’s (1870-1938) piano. It’s from his Triakontameron (1920), a set of thirty genre pieces, each in waltz time, that present a procession of contrasting moods and scenes.

The Cuckoo Clock (8.223898)


The alphorn, or alpine horn, had long been buried beneath an avalanche of modish developments when it was revived in 1805. Originally used as a means of sending signals, it has since become a symbol of the kind of Switzerland favoured by marketing-oriented directors of tourism. The unweildy instrument has no valves or finger-holes for manipulating the pitch; all is produced by natural harmonics/overtones and sensitive lips. Here’s a quartet of them playing a piece titled Purup.

Purup (MGB-6195)


Next, a modern take on an old Swiss folksong, O du liäbs Ängeli (Oh, Dear Angel), which seems to be a kind of comforting song. A mother wants to leave her child alone for a few hours, and is calming it down. It shouldn’t make a fuss, for the house isn’t going to collapse today!

O du liäbs Ängeli (MGB-6204)


The Gnomes of Zurich is a slang term for Swiss bankers. The Dwarves of Naxos, however, are a highly approachable lot, who can also yodel.

Dwarf’s Yodel Song (8.120613)


A quick about-turn now from the amusing to the memerising with an extract from a collaboration between Swiss musicians Christian Zehnder and Fortunat Frölich. Overtone singing has slowly been attempting to break out of its image as an exclusively ethnic vocal art from from Central Asia. Its ‘occidentalisation’ arguably began in the 1960s , helped by the experimentations of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Zehnder’s idea of integrating overtone singing and yodelling with a classical ensemble rumbled within him for quite a while. Music such as the following extract — Frölich’s Ruf from his Suite Alpine — brought it to fruition. If you’re new to overtone singing, listen out for the unearthly, electronic sounds and maybe ask ‘who needs synthesisers?’

Ruf (MGB-NV23)


I’ll follow with a small selection of other entries in the Musiques Suisses catalogue that feature different genres and periods. If it whets your appetite for more, you can browse through the full list of entries by following this link.

It wasn’t until around the turn of the 20th century that composers such as Friedrich Hegar, Hans Huber and Hermann Suter attracted international recognition for Swiss music. Huber’s Wind Sextet in B flat major was first performed in 1900 at a concert held in the Music Hall of the Basel Casino. The subsequent review in the Schweizerische Musikzeitung reported on the sextet as follows: “The second movement, marked Allegro molto vivace, is a little miracle possessed of the quickest, most graceful agility and that wins its whole charm through cleverly introduced contrasts; it really went off splendidly and had to be repeated.” Here it is.

Wind Sextet in B flat major (MGB-6271)


Frank Martin was born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1890 and died in the Netherlands in 1974. I’ve chosen the last movement from his Poems of Death for my next pick. While looking for a suitable text to set to music following a commission from the Chamber Music Society of New York’s Lincoln Center, Martin followed a suggestion from his son Jan and chose three poems by François Villon, a runaway priest who reflected on his adventurous life as a vagabond and outlaw in a series of poems and ballads that are considered among the highpoints of late-mediaeval poetry. The pleasure-loving Villon, who happily broke the bounds of societal conventions of his day, even became an icon of pop music culture when he was celebrated by the ‘alternative set’ of that era as being one of their own. It’s in this context that we should understand Martin’s decision to accompany three male voices (tenor, baritone and bass) by three electric guitars – instruments whose sound was well-known to him through the pop music which his children listened to at home.

The Ballad of the Hanged Men portrays the executed men dangling on the gallows, speaking to posterity to ask their (living) fellow human beings to beg God’s forgiveness for them.

The Ballad of the Hanged Men (MGB-6264)


Arthur Honegger was born in 1892 in the French coastal town of Le Havre, the son of Swiss parents. He kept his Swiss passport throughout his life, though his artistic career was centred wholly on Paris. He belonged to the generation that experienced both the First World War, then – after a brief, bright respite – the subsequent economic collapse and the indescribable horrors of the Second World War that resulted from that chaos. Honegger wrote his ‘Liturgical Symphony’ following a commission from the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia immediately after the end of the War in 1945. The first movement is titled Dies irae (Day of Wrath). “I wanted to depict human existence confronted by the wrath of God” is how Honegger summed up the movement.

Dies irae (MGB-6287)


We sign off today with music by Fabian Müller (b. 1964), one of the leading Swiss composers of his generation, whose music is created wholly out of an intuitive freedom, encompassing modernistic and traditional elements.

“I usually don’t compose in my hometown of Zurich,” he says, “but withdraw to work in some quiet place or other. Quietness, to be away from everything, a state of being free from all duties — these are fundamental prerequisites in order for me to bring a work to fruition. I have over the years always had different ‘places of refuge’. A while back, I discovered the Abbey of St Gerold in the Great Walser Valley in the Vorarlberg. It’s in Austria, to be sure, but it is still not far from Zurich, where I live, and it became an ideal place for my work. In the last two years, most of my works have been written there.”

One of those works is his Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra, first performed in 2008. The third and final movement is a kind of scherzo that demands considerable virtuosity from the pianist. Müller writes: “I have dedicated the work jointly to Adrian Oetiker [the soloist on our recording], who during its composition repeatedly gave me valuable suggestions as to the piano part, and to Ruth Faesi, my first teacher of cello and piano, who was responsible for laying the foundations of my musical career.”

Allegro scherzo (MGB-6249)


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