In concert – ORF Vienna Radio SO / Marin Alsop: Musikprotokoll 2020 – Hidden Sounds

Joonas Ahonen (piano), ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra / Marin Alsop

Saariaho Chimera (2019) Austrian premiere
Maintz Piano Concerto (2014) Austrian premiere
López Disparates (2004-06) Austrian premiere

Helmut List Halle, Graz
Friday 9 October (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Now into its 53rd season, the Musikprotokoll festival in Graz has long been synonymous with some of Austria’s most innovative music-making, with this evening’s concert from the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and its current chief conductor Marin Alsop being no exception. Notable too was the sizable audience – notwithstanding the needs of social distancing – and its enthusiasm for a programme, as concise as it was uncompromising, which contained music by a younger Austrian composer and one who has been resident in that country over the past three decades.

First, though, a curtain-raiser by Kaija Saariaho – the Finnish composer who has long resided in Paris, whose output features harmonic subtlety and timbral finesse as its hallmarks. Both of these were present in Chimera – an oblique homage to Beethoven in the 250th anniversary of his birth, in which material from her earlier orchestral piece Orion was (almost) book-ended by the beginning and ending of that composer’s Second Symphony. The result was diverting if insubstantial, redolent of Berio’s re-imaginings while assuredly not outstaying its welcome.

Among the leading Austrian composers of his generation, Philipp Maintz (b1977) evidently wrote or at least began several piano concertos prior to completing the one heard tonight. He has spoken of admiration for the Ligeti and Lutosławski concertos, as well as his nonplussed regard for the Schoenberg; yet this latter soon came to mind in a piece whose four continuous movements take in a gradual accumulation of energy, followed by two contrasting intermezzi then a further and more rapid gathering of momentum toward the emphatic close. Connecting the whole are brief recitative-like passages as cede the foreground to a soloist whose dextrous pianism is otherwise embedded into the overall texture. Joonas Ahonen was an alert and agile soloist in music that requires, and received, acute coordination with orchestra and conductor.

Championed by such conductors as Michael Gielen, Peter Eötvös and Ilan Volkov, Jorge E. López (above) eschews both the gnomic intricacies of new-complexity and ironic self-regard of post-modernism in drawing resourcefully on the past for a provocative challenge to the future; not least those symphonic works as dominate his recent output. Leading into them is Disparates, described as a ‘Goya / Beethoven homage’ that draws parallels between the artist’s desolate late sketches with the composer’s equally gnomic Six Bagatelles from much the same time.

The sequence is no mere orchestration or paraphrase of piano originals. Its sepulchral textures thrown into relief by glassy asides from Stroh violin, the first piece merges reluctantly into the militaristic march-past of its successor, then on to those stark pathos and disjunctive contrasts of the two that follow. Fusing aspects of the final two bagatelles, the fifth piece veers between fraught eloquence and glowering recessional as it lurches on to an ending bereft of meaningful closure: Goya’s ominous imagery and Beethoven’s flights of fancy united in unwitting accord.

An engrossing and disquieting sequence, which yet offers a direct way into López’s singular musical ethos. The VRSO responded with verve and no little virtuosity to Alsop’s animated prompting, so rounding off what was an intriguing fixture in this always enterprising festival.

This concert can be seen and heard at the Musikprotokoll website

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