Live review: Cattral, Zurich, 13 July 2007

While I was in Zürich I wanted to take the opportunity to hear some new music (as well as buy up a raft of Swiss CDs on the cheap, perhaps more on which later). As they often do, the conference organised a series of concerts throughout the week, and I ended up catching the sax and guitar duo Cattral (Mats Scheidegger, guitar, Rico Gubler, sax), playing five newish Swiss pieces by Nadir Vassena, Franz Furrer-Münch, Hans Ulrich Lehmann and Mischa Käser.

The pieces by the first and last of these I will come to in a minute. Furrer-Münch (born 1924) and Lehmann (born 1937) are two of the more senior figures on the Swiss scene. The former’s andante, tranquillo, rubato, in its first performance, was a slow exploration of harmonics and breath tones for tenor sax. It was an interesting, and often beautiful sound, but it sounded to me more a presentation of materials than a particularly strong musical argument, although there may have been things going on beneath the surface that were hard to pick up on in a first hearing.

Lehmann had two pieces – Um-risse for baritone sax and guitar, and Etwas Klang von meiner Oberfläche for solo guitar. Both were of that old-school, spikey discursive serial world, with nicely shaped phrases and clear gestures, and actually very easy to find your way through. The problem was that after a while, the continual pattern of gesture–silence–gesture got a little wearing, to the extent that in a long continuous central section in Etwas Klang of repeated notes, you didn’t believe it could possibly last.

The best two pieces were the top and tail. Vassena’s Primo discorso eretico sulla leggerezzia dei chiodi worked from a close relationship of the two parts of the duo, each emerging sonically from the other. It was a lovely sound, a sort of mellow, softened Richard Barrett I guess. Funnily, though, if I had a criticism of the playing (and on the whole it was really excellent, especially Gubler’s sax), it was exactly this – that they were quite happy to soften the rough edges of the music that they were playing. Pieces like Lehmann’s remained fairly in your face because of their style, but I couldn’t be certain that Vassena was best served by such gloss.

No complaints at all about Käser’s Juturna, which finished the concert. Beginning with manic strumming on an obscenely detuned guitar, it switched between this and slapstick interludes with sax, to good comic effect. Slowly the scordatura was brought closer to true tuning between sections, and the playing became more bizarre. After a few repetitions of this, the mind did begin to wonder whether the piece was simply a move towards a properly tuned guitar (or how they would even get to that point), and if so, would that actually be terribly interesting in the end. And then it took one completely by surprise by presenting an entirely new second half. This was much slower, and compared to the comic mania that preceded it, quite dark too. Still detuned, the guitar worked out a long lament of bell tones with the sax. The remarkable thing with the sudden switch between moods wasn’t that one thing evolved into the other, rather that one became the other, and the metamorphosis happened mentally, over time, through the continuance of that sonically strange detuned guitar. Quite a remarkable piece, and I would recommend Käser’s music to anyone who comes across it.

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