Thomas Fortmann was born in Switzerland and at one time was better known as a songwriter having achieved a first ‘hit’ when only sixteen. Popular music seemed to be his way forward for the next decade after which he suddenly abandoned it and started to study classical composition is depth. Instrumental music was his starting point, as represented here. He has achieved a distinctively personal style.
By any standards the six movement Piano Trio is a big work. To get into his language it would be good to begin with the more approachable Violin Sonata . Its four movements have the names: ‘Houston University’, ‘New Orleans at Fritzel’s’, ‘Biloxi Motel’ and ‘Alabama Breeze’. These are places visited on a tour the composer made in Florida. The work, which is a diary, is therefore autobiographical. Fortmann tells us at the end of his notes “I much enjoyed writing this piece … as I could indulge my love for Jazz and Modern Classical Music”. What that effectively means is that twelve tone music, which is clear in its harshness in movement one rubs shoulders with Scott Joplin and cranky rag-time rhythms in the second and fourth movements. These opposites are combined quite strongly in the third movement of this succinct and curious but fun composition.
The Four Pieces for Two Violins is subtitled ‘Con Pepe e Zucchero’, which is translated as ‘Peppery and full of Surprises’, apparently it was what the two performers especially wanted from Fortmann. These again combine jazziness with the “twelve tone process”. You can hear this especially in the fourth piece ‘Dodecafollia’. The second piece ‘Ripa Verde’ quotes the second movement of Rimsky’s Scheherazade – Natasha Korsakova is the great-great granddaughter of the Russian master. Also quoted and cleverly inter-mixed is Paganini’s famous Caprice No. 24. Later there is a theme from ‘La Traviata’ and also some serial technique, all thrown together! The first movement is entitled ‘Cattolico’ meaning ‘all embracing’ and the last ‘Alinghi’, is the composer says “a type of wind and water- fantasy”. The performance is impeccable and captures the entire flavour as you might expect.
Now you may be ready to tackle the six movements that make up the Piano Trio subtitled Prolitheus . It is inspired in part by the work of the composer’s friend, the artist O.F. Pfenninger, who is making a vast canvas entitle ‘PROmeTHEUS’ (art-Gods). The composer goes into great detail about the technical compositional aspects of the piece which may puzzle readers and listeners. I will keep it brief. The first movement ‘Overture sacrale’ is dramatic and atonal. The second ‘Estatico’ is a wild scherzo which uses Scriabin’s ‘Prometheus’ chord. It is built largely on tritones and fourths. The significance of this lies in the work’s title which may give you some understanding of how this has come about. The third is a ‘Blues’, a homage by the composer to the deep American South. The fourth, ‘Rondo finto’ mixes fast music with a dark and brooding Adagio and is very much atonal; the emotional centre of the composition. The fifth ‘Romantico’ apparently relates to Vaudeville. I don’t quite comprehend how but never mind. The sixth is a sort of ‘perpetuum mobile’ which seems to have just stepped out of a deep-South Rodeo.
This is a very eclectic work and quite a forceful and emotional one. Fortmann never says anything softly if it can be said powerfully and loudly. That said, it does seem a little odd that he should feel the need to write, probably in defence of his close textural analysis, that “Music that is purely mathematical is non-sensual. But Music without Mathematics is nonsense”. I don’t agree.
I can’t say that I really like Fortmann’s music as represented here, but I greatly admire the energy, both musical and intellectual, that he has put into it; even more so the commitment and panache of the performers involved.
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