I’ve been working very hard for quite some time on my latest CD featuring the Swiss music of Werner Wehrli, Peter Mieg and Emil Frey. These interesting pieces, ranging from the charming pieces Von einer Wanderung from Werner Wehrli, which depict a hike through the Swiss Alps, to the incredibly virtuosic sonatas of Mieg and Frey, are very hard to find on CD. To the best of my knowledge my recording of Peter Mieg’s Sonate IV is the only one in existence. It can now be purchased as a physical copy or downloaded here. Below you’ll find some information regarding the works and composers.
Von einer Wanderung, Op. 17
Werner Wehrli (1892-1944)
Werner Wehrli was among the best-known Swiss composers during the period between the two World Wars. Born in Aarau, his substantial compositional output includes large-scale symphonic, operatic and chamber works as well as music for organ, piano solo and piano four hands. Ranging in style from Late Romantic to Modern, his works are characterized by harmonic inventiveness, lyricism and an individuality which led Othmar Schoeck to comment, “Each time a new work from Werner Wehrli is announced, one knew: something individual has arrived, introverted yet never tedious, and one was never disappointed.”
Von einer Wanderung, composed in 1921, displays just this sort of inventiveness and originality. These rather simple pieces, probably intended as pedagogical material, evoke episodes one might encounter on a typical Swiss trek through the Alps. Although they present few technical challenges, Wehrli’s innovativeness is often striking- for example, the alternating loud and soft chords of “In the Steam Locomotive,” the repetitive glissandi of “The Mysterious Fish,” or the ethereal shimmering chords of “Sun on the Glacier,” to mention but a few.
Zweite Sonate für Klavier
Emil Frey (1889-1946)
Born in Baden, Emil Frey was admitted to the Geneva Conservatory at age thirteen. At fifteen he entered the Paris Conservatory, where he studied piano with Louis Diémer and composition with Gabriel Fauré and Charles-Marie Widor. In 1906 he was awarded the Premier Prix de Piano, and four years later his Piano Trio won the composition prize of the Anton Rubinstein Competition in Moscow. This victory led to an appointment as Professor of Piano at the Moscow Conservatory, which he held from 1912-1917. After the Russian Revolution he returned to Switzerland and taught piano at the Zürcher Hochschule der Künste from 1922 until his death in 1946. He concertized extensively throughout his career in Europe and South America, and was much admired by fellow musicians and composers- in fact, the great Rumanian composer Gyorgy Enescu dedicated his Piano Sonata Op. 24 no. 1 to Frey.
Composed in 1917 and dedicated to his brother Walter, also a noted pianist, Frey’s Zweite Sonate must certainly rank among the most difficult piano works of the period. Its incredibly thick texture, full of interweaving melodies, adventurous harmonies and virtuoso fingerwork, requires the utmost in physical and mental concentration from the performer. The first movement pairs a gentle, flowing first theme with an ominous, brooding second theme. The second movement begins with an aggressive, resolute subject which is treated fugally, and during the course of the piece this subject undergoes extensive transformations in character. Later, both themes from the first movement reappear and are brilliantly combined with themes from the second.
Fantasie über den Choral “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden”
Keyboard fantasies can be traced back to the early 1500’s, and as they were often improvised, it is likely that the genre played a much more conspicuous role in music history than a survey of the written repertoire would suggest. In the Romantic Era, fantasies became a vehicle for showcasing the virtuosity and creativity of famed composer/performers, and these quasi-improvisatory pieces, such as Liszt’s Réminiscences de Don Juan or Thalberg’s Moses Fantasy, were often based upon well-known themes. But whereas Liszt’s and Thalberg’s themes were drawn from opera, Frey chose the sacred melody “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden,” best known from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Given that Frey composed the work in 1914, this would seem to be a rather overt comment on the state of worldly affairs.
The fantasy is brilliantly constructed, beginning with an ominous, misterioso introduction, after which the chorale melody appears juxtaposed against a rhythmic, almost march-like bass (once again, certain political overtones seem to be implied). As the work unfolds, the chorale develops from its solemn, almost lugubrious beginnings to stunning virtuosic climaxes of great power and passion. Eventually the climax subsides and the chorale reappears, ostensibly in major, but the unsettling reappearance of the ominous bass leaves the listener with a sense that fate still hangs in the balance.
Peter Mieg (1906-1990)
Peter Mieg was surrounded by art and music during his childhood in Lenzburg, Switzerland, and began composing around age twelve. His background and output is remarkably multifaceted, and he is known today not only for his compositional output, which focuses heavily on concertos, chamber and piano music, but also for his accomplishments as a painter and his work as an art critic for various newspapers and magazines. He studied art history, music history, archaeology, and German and French literature in Zurich, Basel and Paris and was a piano student of Emil Frey and Hans Münch. After completing a dissertation on modern Swiss watercolor painting in 1933 he turned to journalism, but when his compositions began to gain considerable attention in the early 1950’s he devoted himself primarily to artistic endeavors.
Composed in 1975, Sonate IV displays Mieg’s personal variety of Neoclassicism. The harmonic language, while inventive and expressive, remains consistently tonal and is quite conservative for a work of the late twentieth century. In fact, the structure of this work is substantially more conservative than Frey’s sonata composed nearly sixty years earlier. As one would expect from a Classical sonata, the opening movement features two themes in two contrasting yet closely related keys. Furthermore, the sonata features a traditional four-movement form including a slow second movement, scherzo-like (and fiendishly difficult) third movement and march-like fourth movement. Granted, there’s much about Mieg’s music that’s thoroughly unusual, including bizarre harmonic relationships, unusual developments and, not least of all, Mieg’s strange habits regarding note spelling- but the clear sense of structure and connection to the Classical tradition in this sonata only serve to heighten and legitimize its quirkiness.