Wednesday 31 July 2013

Symphonies for the iPhone generation

Sven Helbig is a German composer whose work has crossed a variety of boundaries, working as a producer of popular music with the likes of the Pet Shop Boys and Rammstein, writing a song cycle for opera singer Rene Pape, creating the Dresden Symphony Orchestra and creating large scale multi-media projects. He was recently appointed composer in residence at the National Theatre in Weimar. His latest disc, Pocket Symphonies, is essentially contemporary music for the iPhone generation, a disc of short symphonic songs each lasting no more than five minutes. The album was released in the UK on 22 July, but Helbig is taking his music to his audience. There is a live concert at the Apple Store on 31 July 2013, and Helbig has created a bespoke oyster card holder which allows the music to be downloaded to portable music players and these are being distributed this week.

The disc Pocket Symphonies, was recorded by the Faure Quartet and MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kristjan Jarvi and is released on the Deutsche Gramophon label.

There are twelve tracks, twelve mood pictures or mini tone poems. The style is modern contemporary, attractively and imaginatively scored with just a hint of film music. Each piece creates a particular mood, and Helbig has the knack of distilling a mood immediately the piece starts. These are what a 19th century composer would have called characteristic pieces, attractive and accessible but thoughtful also.

If you read the notes, they make it clear that Helbig both wrote the music and did the orchestrations. The results have an attractive depth and variety. Gone is all Latin American hints with a smidgen of Piazzolla. Frost is rather melodramatic (and the title, combined with the repeated chords made me wonder about Purcell's frost scene from King Arthur) with the definite feel of a film scene. Am abend introduces a highly romantic piano, which develops into a seriously Big Tune. Eisenhuttenstad starts gently but develops some drama, again reminiscent of a film scene. Helbig talks about how this movement was inspired by his return to his home town (in East Germany) after 20 years and finding it unrecognisable.

Autumn Song is edgier with an attractive and distinctive orchestration using tuned percussion. A Tear brings on the strings in some moments of drama. Urban Perfume is, as might be expect, a fast paced movement which features the string section heavily. Sing of the moment, which was composed by Helbig and Torsten Rasch and orchestrated by Rasch, starts with a melancholy cello tune before another Big Romantic Tune develops.   The intriguingly titled Bell sound falling like snow is an attractively lively piece. Zorn, which is based on chors by Bernd Eichinger that he had in mind when working on the film Zorn, starts with a romantic cello, which develops into another big tune. Rise is a fast impulsive and rhythmic piece with a seriously big build up. And finally Schlaflied is a richly textured, quiet romantic moment (orchestrated by Dietrich Zollner).

'Light Music' and accessible music are phrases which are still, to a certain extent, out of fashion. I'd hesitate to call this music cross-over, because it does not feel as if it is straining in one direction or another. Helbig's style is confidently his own, sitting securely on the lighter edge of classical music, but with a darkly dramatic edge which comes from the filmic influences. After all, a producer of the Pet Shop Boys is hardly likely to write music reminiscent of Eric Coates.

Performances from the Faure Quartet and the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra under Jarvi are excellent. The CD liner notes consists of a rather poetic essay by the composer which you may find inspiring, intriguing or annoying depending on your point of view.

Not everyone will appreciate this music, it is a matter of taste. But if the idea of Helbig's style of drama and accessibility, combined with the compressed time frame of each piece appeals, then do try the disc.

Elsewhere on this blog:


  1. I'd like to hear this.

    Although the two of them are on the same label, I have a hunch that Boulez and Hilberg aren't close buddies.

    As for other contemporary/modern music, I wish DG would release a slim box of all their Takemitsu recordings. It's probably a long shot.

    1. What a fascinating idea, a Boulez - Hilberg collaboration!

      The Takemitsu box sounds a great thought, we probably won't get it though.



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