Tonight’s Prom brought a first visit this season from the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by its principal guest conductor John Storgårds in a wide-ranging programme which began in ethereal near-silence and ended in a blaze of affirmation rarely equalled this past century.
The relative silence was to be found in Armonica, among the most distinctive pieces by Jörg Widmann in that it features a solo role for glass harmonica – partnered here by the more abrasive sound of accordion in music which emerges into then evanesces out of focus; heard against a backdrop where indebtedness to Ligeti’s earlier orchestral works does not preclude a wealth of imaginative textures, particularly in the opening minutes. Christa Schönfeldinger and Teodoro Anzellotti interacted seamlessly, not least in those overly gestural closing pages.
Christa Schönfeldinger performs Widmann’s Armonica with and Teodoro Anzellotti, John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic at the BBC Proms. (c) Chris Christodolou
Perhaps it was such ethereal sounds that the ailing Schumann heard over the troubled weeks prior to his final breakdown. If so, little of this otherworldliness found its way into the Violin Concerto which was his last major work. Its having been kept under wraps for eight decades, then miraculously relocated near the outset of the Nazi era, has passed into legend. Musically the piece can verge on the routine, not least a first movement whose progress is more than a little dogged due to insufficiently contrasted ideas, then a finale whose underlying polonaise rhythm abets the repetitiveness. Best is a slow movement that revisits Schumann’s ‘romanza’ idiom a last time; its enervated aura exquisitely judged by Thomas Zehetmair and Storgårds – musicians who have (uniquely?) encountered this unsettling work both as soloist and conductor.
The emotional temperature rose appreciably in the second half – first with the Prelude from the extensive incidental music Sibelius wrote for a Copenhagen production of The Tempest. Guardedly admired at first, it has latterly been hailed as a precursor of tonal innovations half a century on. While his account was not lacking for physical immediacy, Storgårds chose to emphasize those modal contours that spread across woodwind and brass as the piece moves beyond its climax towards as tenuous a resolution as any during the first half of last century.
How to wrest resolution from apparent chaos was the goal for Nielsen in his Fifth Symphony, a work that has rightly moved towards the centre of the repertoire over the past two decades. Consistency was the watchword of Storgårds’s interpretation – finding an unarguable ‘tempo giusto’ for the initial half of the first movement, its unfolding across shifting tonal planes as finely articulated as the intensifying ambivalence that suddenly clears going into the Adagio rejoinder. The climax had suitably majestic import, and it was hardly Paul Patrick’s fault if his side-drum ‘cadenza’ was outshone by John Bradbury’s plangent clarinet solo in the coda. The second movement’s propulsive opening Allegro was well judged and if Storgårds risked momentum in the curious bitonal transition, the ensuing Presto had the right headlong energy.
Nor was there any lack of focus in the fugal Andante which gradually works its way to where the earlier resolve can be regained, albeit now with a formal and expressive closure as makes possible a thrilling peroration that was superbly gauged at the end of this impressive reading.
J.S.Bach – Two part inventions (c1720-23) interspersed with Widmann – Duos for violin and cello (2008) (24 minutes)
Ravel – Sonata for violin and cello (1920-22) (23 minutes)
In case you cannot hear the broadcast, recordings of the music played can be found on the Spotify playlist below where available. Not all of the Widmann pieces have been recorded yet, but where possible good alternative versions have been used:
About the music
As the Wigmore Hall programme writer Gerald Larner notes, the combination of violin and cello is a surprisingly scarce one in classical music. There are hardly any recognised works for the pairing, the two most notable being duos by Ravel and Kodály, but just recently the German composer and clarinettist Jörg Widmann (b1973) has shown real creativity in his 24 duos.
They make an ideal contrast with the BachInventions, which transcribe seamlessly from keyboard to violin and cello, the violin taking the right hand part and the cello the left. In doing so they bring out the counterpoint behind the music. Widmann’s pieces are more about instrumental colour, but they have melody too – and he enjoys sending up particular dance forms and such, especially when he includes a James Bond theme in the final piece!
Even a composer as accomplished as Ravel did not find the combination of violin and cello an easy one. He began the Sonata in 1920 as a tribute to Debussy, but did not finish it for another year and a half, distracted by a house move and fuelled by the need to give his music a new austerity. Despite the use of only two lines the composer’s flair for harmonic movement still comes through, though the piece does still sound impressively modern.
A wholly enjoyable concert, thanks to the chemistry between two performers who clearly enjoy their craft. Pekka Kuusisto has always been a charismatic violinist but Nicolas Altstaedt more than matched him here, and because they were in close proximity on the Wigmore Hall stage it was easy to see them as one instrument rather than two.
The interpolation of Bach and Widmann was a clever one, because the music of the former was notable for clean lines and impeccably worked out counterpoint, while the latter concentrated on colours, feelings and dance forms. Moving between the two extremes was a constant source of musical stimulation, and was brilliantly performed – especially in the final Widmann piece, a real tour de force.
The Ravel was superb, helped by the ability of these performers to project while playing incredibly quietly. Because of this the slow movement was the most searching of the four emotionally, potentially a tribute to the departed Debussy. The faster movements were thrilling, showing Ravel’s close relationship with differing dance forms but also the many and varied ways in which he extracts instrumental colour.
The encore, Sibelius’ first published piece, was inspired in its simplicity.
What should I listen out for?
Bach / Widmann
1:38 Bach Invention no.1 in C – there is a beautiful simplicity about Bach’s writing as the violin takes what would have been the right hand of the keyboard, and the cello the left. The counterpoint (i.e. the intertwining of melodies between the instruments) is immaculate.
3:19 Widmann Duo no. XIV Capriccio – Widmann’s coloristic effects include snapped pizzicato (plucking) and sudden, jarring phrases, as though the instruments are having a bit of a bout.
5:06 Bach Invention no.4 in D minor – after the outbursts of the Widmann it is almost a surprise to return to the clean tonality of the Bach, but it works well – and again the cello part finds itself in exact imitation of the violin
6:10 Widmann Duo no. XVI Petit ballet mécanique (Pas de deux) – a short and shady duo this, with short phrases and implied moods that never fully establish themselves.
7:10 Bach Invention no.6 in E – again Bach’s simplicity is all that matters here. The key of E major makes for a nice, open sound as the strings play with little vibrato.
11:17 Widmann Duo no. XXII Lamento – here Widmann is casting his mind back to the Baroque period, and the strings play close together with no vibrato – a stark sound
13:48 Bach Invention no.8 in F – a much quicker invention that works well in its string arrangement, the rapid movement of Bach’s figures passed between the instruments
14:41 Widmann Duo no. XXI Valse bavaroise – an exaggerated form of pastiche from Widmann here, with scratchy discords and long notes flying between the instruments, not to mention some pretty outrageous glissando passages from the cello!
16:46 Bach Invention no.14 in B flat – a quieter, more reverential piece.
18:38 Widmann Duo no. XIII Vier Strophen vom Heimweh – another slow Widmann piece, using a lot of double stopping so that it sounds more like a string quartet. Again the sound is cold, due to the use of mutes and the almost complete lack of vibrato.
20:48 Bach Invention no.15 in B minor – a solemn mood hangs over this invention, which again is played with very little vibrato – though the players do allow themselves a few liberties with variations of speed and volume.
22:31 Widmann Duo no. XXIV Toccatina all’inglese – a tour de force of virtuosity, this is the first of the Widmann pieces to be an obvious display vehicle for the two players, who rush up and down the fingerboard. There is an extended passage of plucking that briefly gives the music a Far Eastern feel, and there is a tune – where can you spot On her Majesty’s Secret Service?
29:00 The first movement has shadowy beginnings, emerging as though from the mists – with the violin and cello very close together as they exchange musical thoughts. The clean timbres are a result of the players using harmonics – where the string is very lightly touched with the fingers on the left hand rather than pressed.
35:05 A faster movement that begins with both instruments plucking, and finds Ravel exploring a great many colours and combinations from this seemingly limited instrumental pairing. The sparse texture is a challenge for him, and sometimes he enhances it with scratched phrases and an almost complete lack of sustain, as in the passage from 36:10 onwards, with the cello’s furious chords.
39:08 The slow movement, a bleak utterance – and it is tempting to think it might owe its inspiration to the recently finished First World War. It takes a long time for the mood to rise above anything other than grim contemplation, but when it does there is a passionate piece of writing in the centre of the movement. Ravel, though is ultimately a positive composer, and this can be heard in the last phrases, which effectively shift the music from darkness to light.
46:04 The last movement reasserts a positive frame of mind with a vigorous jig, the two instruments playing with plenty of energy and rhythmic punch. The tune is catchy too! Ravel is the master of using instrumental effects for colour rather than for their own sake, and that is very much the case here, with harmonics, pizzicato, double stopping and different bowing techniques giving him a wide variety of shades. It is partly what makes this duo such compelling listening.
54:40 The fascinating encore is Water Droplets, the first published piece by the eight year old Jean Sibelius. It is incredibly simple – played entirely in pizzicato – but is all the more effective for that, as it paints such a vivid picture in its minute-long duration!
Having mentioned the KodályDuo for violin and cello it makes sense to include that as the extra listening here – on the same album as a substantial work for the combination by Erwin Schulhoff:
Meanwhile the video clip below gives an introduction to Jörg Widmann’s music for string quartet:
The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and Lahti Symphony Orchestra in concert, April 2015
The Sibelius Hall, Lahti
This year the Association of Finnish Symphony Orchestras celebrates its fiftieth anniversary. In a country of five and a half million people that might not seem like a big deal, but the association currently has thirty member orchestras – a sign that classical music in the country is in rude health.
They are helped considerably by the stunning venues in which their music making takes place. The Helsinki Music Centre, for instance, is a miracle of sliding partitions and glass panels allowing shafts of sunlight to stream in up to 30 seconds before a performance begins – as if reminding us that classical music need not be dim and fusty.
The main concert hall, Helsinki Music Hall
Lahti’s Sibelius Hall, situated on the edge of a lake, also enjoys a rarefied light, this time piercing the huge glass panels that frame the concourse, from which the audience are led to the spectacular wood panelled hall.
The resurgence of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in the last 25 years has seen it draw level with – and arguably pass – its compatriots in Helsinki, due largely to the remarkable leadership of Osmo Vänskä.
It was here, in the Sibelius Hall, that the Association officially blew out the 50 candles on the cake on 24 April. To do so they were aided by Lahti’s composers in residence present (Kalevi Aho) and past (Jonas Kokkonen), and Okko Kamu, now the orchestra’s chief conductor. He conducted Aho’s short 1982 piece Hiljaisuus (Silence), an atmospheric piece of mood music that swells into an angry climax before subsiding. Aho himself was visible in the interval, drinking a Sibelius beer in a wonderful demonstration of unity!
We then heard only the orchestra’s second performance of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, which was the relative disappointment of the evening. In the best performances this piece can be a frothy extravagance but here it sounded short on rehearsal time and humour. Soloists Réka Szilvay (violin), Marko Ylönen (cello) and Heini Kärkkäinen (piano) seemed disjointed, tending to look at their music rather than each other, while the elegant orchestral accompaniment, nicely shaped by Kamu, often disappeared behind the bluster of the front three.
This disappointment was quickly removed by some wonderful Sibelius to start the second half, a joyous Festivo from the suite Scènes Historiques Scene I. Then we heard a new commission, Arctic Light, from the orchestra’s principal bassoonist Harri Ahmas. This bold and descriptive piece effectively transferred the listener back outside to the lake, the shadows moving and the light dancing on the cold water. Perhaps unusually for a new piece of orchestral music the most effective music came at the end, a powerful resolution of quiet harmonic tension. Not a sound could be heard in the hall at the end.
Finally the Kokkonen; an elusive but attractive piece with lovely orchestral colours, a tight structure and an elegiac mood putting it close to late Vaughan Williams. The elegant melodies were beautifully teased out from the texture by Kamu, while the clarity of the orchestral sound was consistently impressive.
The Lahti Symphony Orchestra play the end of the Lemminkainen Suite under Okko Kamu at the Sibelius Festival 2013.
The previous night Helsinki’s Music Centre played host to the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and Eivind Gullberg Jansen, in a concert whose first half featured clarinettist and composer Jörg Widmann in both his disciplines. Firstly Con brio took its lead from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, with fragmented motifs fired between sections of the orchestra like light sabres. This was a clever piece, but not for cleverness’ sake, Widmann communicating by striking orchestration, powerful dynamic variations and a number of quirks from the timpani.
The contrast between this and Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto could hardly have been greater, though Widmann – now with clarinet in hand – negotiated the switch with ease. In the slow movement he was especially sensitive, and although he did not appear to be playing with a basset clarinet – which reaches lower notes in the concerto – the elegance and grace of the performance were really attractive.
Finally a Russian powerhouse, Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, showed the versatility of the Helsinki Philharmonic. There was a little in reserve here compared to Russian interpretations, but Jansen clearly loves the piece and knew what he wanted to do with it. A lovely clarinet solo enabled the famous Adagio to hit the emotional heights, but the second and fourth movements didn’t fully harness the power at Rachmaninov’s disposal.
From both these concerts, however, it was abundantly clear classical music is in very good health in Finland. Contemporary music is encouraged, orchestral players clearly enjoy their work and venues are – quite literally – blossoming. Go and visit if you can! And if you need any further convincing, watch this video to see just how good the Helsinki Philharmonic are at contemporary music…