Two Types of Jürg Frey

Friday 26 May 2023

Jürg Frey just turned seventy, which might mark a time to take stock of his work so far. It seems to describe a process of steady development, gradually transforming without any sudden turns. Two new releases focusing on recent ensemble works confirm this view: Borderland Melodies on Another Timbre collects works from 2019, 2021 and a 2020 revision of a work from 2014 which display definite but subtle changes in compositional approach. The Apartment House ensemble turn out for Frey again, featuring Heather Roche on clarinet and Raymond Brien on bass clarinet. The opening title work augments them with violin and cello, each sadly tiptoeing back and forth from one pairing to another until halfway through when a piano interlude appears, then withdraws, without ceremony. From there, the second half seems to proceed slower than the first, as any sense of development or momentum no longer matters. It’s a solemn adagio that that firmly engenders a pensive mood out of its two-note patterns, even as Frey doesn’t seem to be pushing the sounds around too much.

The clarinets are joined by string trio for L’état de simplicité, a work parcelled into four movements. The titles here are all descriptive of the music: À la Limite de sens plays with extremes of range, starting low then staying high, most breath provided by the rasp of strings; Toucher l’air is as faint as possible without dissolving into the imperceptible. La discrète plénitude allows the grouped sonorities of the instruments to play chords that sound quiet but full, then concludes with bare melody of plucked strings with punctuating chords in Les zones neutres. The ideas are the essence of simplicity, even poverty, but in his maturity Frey seeks to flesh out the basic concepts into music that pleases the senses at least as much as the mind. The concluding piece Movement, Ground, Fragility is a half-hour work which unites all the above instruments with unpitched percussion that fills Frey’s silences with a crosshatched background for seemingly selfcontained pitched sonorities. Once again, things change halfway through when the previously inert, unmatched shapes start to fit together in a way that accumulates momentum almost despite itself. Having reached a certain point of development, it quickly fades out instead of seeking a summation.

If you’re familiar with Frey then it all starts to sound a little too familiar, until you start to think about the instruments and realise you’re hearing them as a composite, neither in a functionally expressive role nor as pure “sound in and of itself”. Frey has reached a point where he employs techniques from previous generations of forward-thinking composers in ways that still sound fresh without reducing the instrument’s role to that of a vehicle for transmitting either pitch at one theoretical extreme, or timbre at the other. Elsewhere’s latest disc of Frey’s music is the 51-minute chamber ensemble work Continuit​é​, fragilit​é​, r​é​sonance. Completed in 2021, the piece reunites tow of his repeat collaborators, Quatuor Bozzini on strings and Konus Quartett on (don’t panic) saxophones. Frey has composed quartets for each before, and now he has meshed the two together in this expansive work, with no compunction about letting the full ensemble flow, nor with restrictions on the instruments’ inherent sonorities. In Frey’s own intimate way, it maintains the heft and sweep of a chamber symphony, laying on phrase after phrase of ensemble playing and steadily building things up to an inverted climax where the music suddenly stops. An extended, slightly muted coda follows, which simply ends without a resolution. Does it sound too full? It’s not correct to say that Frey is getting indulgent, for he has been so before, only in his earlier work it was with silences and repetitions. These pieces aren’t breakthoughs or revelations like I Listened to the Wind Again is, but they serve as a consolidation of his art.