JEAN-LUC DARBELLAY, “A Portrait” = JEAN-LUC DARBELLAY: Oyama for large orchestra; Azur for horn quartet; Shadows for five percussionists; Sozusagen for oboe, viola, bassoon & guitar; Chant d’Adieux for violin & viola; a Quattro for horn quartet & orchestra; Requiem for soloists, choir & orchestra – MDN Sinfonieorchester/ MDR Rundfunkchor/ soloists/Michael Glaser, choir master/ Fabio Luisi, conductor – Claves 2702/03 (two CDs), 135:33 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
The music of Jean-Luc Darbellay was not known to me until discovering this new and intriguing collection. As discovered on his website, Jean-Luc Darbellay graduated from clarinet studies at the Konservatorium Bern and had composition studies with Cristobal Halffter and Dimitri Terzakis. His activities are based essentially in Switzerland, though his music receives worldwide play, especially his “Oyama” for orchestra (2000), included herein.
His music is both quite representative of what has become the European new music scene, going back to Messiaen, Dutillieux and Reimann, as well as quite hard to categorize in its own right. Each piece on this fairly comprehensive collection provides its own different listening experience and, while each piece holds substantial merit, the “sound” is still disparate. Darbellay sounds like several different composers and is not instantly definable in voice (not a bad thing, necessarily). “Oyama” for large orchestra is played here by the MDR (Central German Radio) orchestra and Fabio Luisi, for whom it was written. The piece employs several rapid runs in close succession, creating what the composer calls a “micro canon technique”. There is terrific woodwind writing here (the composer being a clarinetist) as well as tight ensemble structure featuring the percussion. The title refers to a volcano in Japan (the term for ‘mountain’ in fact) and the very “bright” ending sounds almost like sunlight bursting through an ashen haze. I admit that this piece reminded me just a bit of some of the music of Jacob Druckman.
“Azur” for horn quartet, from 2001, relies on tone and timbre. The horns begin with mutes and build on intervals of the 2nd and 3rd to create an overall arch, almost “A-B-A” in its layout. The Leipzig Horn Quartet plays superbly and with mystery here. The title refers, almost literally, to the very blue skies over New York on the morning of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Another chamber work, “Shadows” (1999) for five percussionists, has a very expansive and mysterious feel to it as well. This work also shows the composers the mastery of the percussion section and has some very nice timbral effects, including gongs, tam-tams, bowed vibraphones and a marimbaphone played with the fingers only.
More of the composer’s smaller works are featured and performed quite well in this collection. “Sozusagen”, also from 1999, for oboe, viola, bassoon and guitar is a most unusual work. Written as a series of reflections on paintings by fellow homme de Suisse, Paul Klee, it is actually seventeen miniatures in various combinations of the indicated instrumentation. Darbellay indicates that the music seeks to take the imagery in the paintings and, like Klee’s intent on canvas, to “destabil(ize) and search for the essential”. The result is almost like the tiny cerebral studies of Webern. In contrast, “Chant d’Adieux” (2001) for violin and viola is actually very soft, sad, introspective; written for a friend of the composer’s who had to stop playing due to budget cuts and personal reasons.
The other big work on the first disc is Darbellay’s “a Quattro” (2001) for four horns and orchestra. Patterned after the Schumann “Konzertstuck”, this is an interesting work wherein tones and figures emanate from the horn quartet and are reflected by the orchestra, embellished in by various sections and built upon. The Leipzeig Horn Quartet plays wonderfully here as does the MDR, in this work originally written for the Berne Symphony Orchestra. This work also sounded somewhat like Druckman to me and a little bit of Henri Dutillieux.
The second disc in this expansive collection is taken up with Darbellay’s “Requiem” from 2001. The composer admits that his approach to the imposing text, unaltered from the original Latin mass for the dead, was patterned after Mozart; especially in his choice of woodwind tone. Darbellay does leave out parts of the traditional Dies irae, Tuba mirum, Recordare and Domine Jesu Christe, but the overall structure and order is traditional. The sound is, of course, not that of Mozart. Whispers and cries and bits of text are bandied about the choir and texture builds in each section. Woodwind, strings and vocal soloists are each given some important and eerie lines to perform. (Hear the almost “grave like” timbres created by glissing strings and trombones in the Rex tremendae.) Darbellay’s depiction of hell, symbolically, in the Confutatis is, indeed, chilling and the closing Agnus Dei provides an ebbing peaceful fading sense of peace at the end. I have always liked comparing works in this form and Darbellay’s is a solid all-together unique addition. In places it is reminiscent of Schnittke; Penderecki in others. The overall effect is very compelling.
Jean-Luc Darbellay is a clearly talented composer. I do think that there may not be a “signature” to his voice and moments in each opus are reminiscent of other writers. Ultimately, the works either work or they do not. I liked these pieces and suggest you listen and discover for yourself.
— Daniel Coombs