Fascinating and Wide-ranging Recital of Duos for Violin and Viola from Zehetmair and Killius

30/10/2016

Gideon Klein, Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Bartók, Mozart: Thomas Zehetmair (violin), Ruth Killius (viola), Wigmore Hall, London, 27,10.2016. (GD)

Gideon Klein – Duo for violin and viola
Bernd Alois Zimmermann – Sonata for solo violin; Sonata for solo viola ‘… an den Gesang eines Engels’
Bartók –  A selection from Forty Four Duos (arr. for violin and viola)
Mozart – Duo for violin and viola in Bb K424

This was a fascinating recital in many ways. It both revealed the amazing range and differences/affinities between the violin and viola, and, especially in the two works by Bernd Alois Zimmermann, it gave us a chance to re-visit the 1950s and 1960s when the avant-garde was breaking new ground in compositional techniques and ideas, the Donaueschingen festival in Germany (where Zimmermann’s Sonata for Viola was premiered) being a major location for the avant-garde in music and other art forms.

The recital opened with the Duo for violin and viola (1939-40) by the Czech born composer Gideon Klein. Klein is seen now as a tragic figure. His promising composing career was cut short by the Hitler’s annexation of Bohemia and Moravia, as Czechoslovakia was known as  then. Later in 1941 Hitler appointed Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich as ‘Reichsprotektor’ of Moravia and Bohemia. Even by Nazi standards Heydrich’s reign of terror was horribly brutal, he became known as the ‘Butcher of Prague’. It was under these terrible circumstances that Klein (as a Jew) was killed, after being moved to a slave-labour camp, from Auschwitz at the age of twenty-five

I had not previously heard any of Klein’s music, but the violin and viola duo marks him out as a potentially important composer, had he lived. After the opening andante – a quasi canonic structure takes on the semblance of a threnody. The second  movement march  deploys all manner of  ostinato sequences, with some jagged cross-rhythms, but affirming C major at the movement’s coda. After the song-like third movement, the finale plays like a study in movement, speed and chromatic intensity. The coda dissolves into silence – a magical touch!  Overall this duo has a wonderful economy of musical argument; from varying tonal/dynamic contrasts to the myriad invention of short but effective and integrated compositional ideas. Zehetmair and Killius played with an impressive and dialogic unity, always with a total empathy.

Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Sonata for solo violin was composed in 1951 and was his first fully worked out attempt at a twelve-note serial piece. Zimmermann learnt this ‘new’ compositional technique from composer/conductor Rene Leibowitz at the Darmstadt summer course of 1948. As tonight’s programme note tells us, the work is ‘highly controlled but at the same time highly unpredictable’. Although the sonata is cast in three sections, each section is skilfully intertwined or dislocated from and with the other. The second movement ‘Rhapsody’ begins with bi-tonal clusters, but  myriad prismatic tonal interventions disrupt the initial sense of a harmonic continuum. Although all this no doubt sounded quite radical in 1951 – and  still does – Zimmermann does not really go beyond Schoenberg, using the same tonal row throughout the sonata. Unlike composers like Stockhausen and Xenakis, Zimmermann does not totally depart from the past, using the Bach signature motif B-A-C-H in the ‘toccata’ finale. But the finale itself is still arresting with its rounds of rhythmic constellations all clashing with each other in dissonant harmonies.

Much the same can be said of the Sonata for solo viola composed in 1955. Zimmermann’s title for the work: ‘…an den Gesang eines Engels’ (to the singing of Angels), tell us that, as in the sonata for violin, Zimmermann is going to inscribe some chorale-like themes into the work. And indeed he does so towards the work’s conclusion, this time from ancient German chorales, including the chorale ‘Gelobet seist du Jesu Christ’, also used by Bach. Zimmermann’s subtitle follows a chorale celebrating the praise to Christ by angels. The viola’s last gesture incorporates a phrase from the ‘Dies Irae’ chant, which has been ‘hovering around in the background’ in ghost form – A moving gesture referring to the death of the composer’s daughter Barbara, soon after her birth. But it would be a mistake to view (or listen to) these works as religious in any sense. The viola sonata incorporates the prismatic twelve-tone aporias of the previous violin sonata intoned with discontinuity and disruption – again a kind of ‘controlled unpredictability’ – all rather similar to T.W. Adorno’s ‘Negative-Dialectic’. Zimmermann knew Adorno, who was an advocate of ‘atonality’ and was most definitely influenced by the ‘negative dialectic’ which releases a myriad constellations of thought and meaning which have been systematically excluded in traditional Western thought, all crossing over with Schoenberg’s ‘atonality’ which similarly releases constellations of harmony/tonality, excluded in Western traditional ‘tonal’ music. Not surprisingly Schoenberg was Adorno’s teacher and disciple.

Both Zehetmair and Killius incorporated all manner of string techniques; spiccato, double-stopping, cascading glissandi and pppp tremolandos, among many other techniques. Not surprisingly they played this music with complete empathy, tuning into the music as music, as self-referential, eschewing any ‘romantic’ kind of non musical programme, despite Zimmermann’s use of chorale themes etc, which can, in any case, be experienced in purely musical terms Zehetmair and Killius brilliantly and perceptively foregrounded this musical self-referentiality to expose all the quite fantastic, sounds, timbres and textures of their marvellous instruments.

Bartók composed these superb duos not so much for performance but as practice pieces for young students of the violin. After listening to several recordings of these ‘miraculous’ pieces, including virtuoso renditions from the superb sisters; Sarah and Deborah Nemanu, I was astonished by the range and diversity of these works. As for the pieces being meant for student practice, I can only say that Bartók’s expectations for students was of the highest order. Even world class violinists find them extraordinarily difficult – to say the least! It was a brilliant idea to arrange a selection of six of the duos for violin and viola extending the range, sonority and playing technique options, and again, as in the Zimmermann works, focusing on the wonderful contrasts and unity of the two instruments. As far as I know this arrangement has not been recorded or even performed prior to tonight’s recital. I don’t think Bartók would have objected. In 1936 he made a piano arrangement of six of the duos under the name of ‘Petite Suite’.

Bartók drew on a wide range of folk traditions – from Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, Ruthenia, Arabia and Ukraine. As tonight’s programme note writer points out ‘it was no accident that he created such a mix under the growing threat of fascist nationalism’ and domination. The composer gave each duo a kind of descriptive title, like the ‘Limping Dance’ where the two instruments play in contrary motion. But Bartók never descends to programme music. Although there is a touch of onomatopoeia, particularly in the ‘Mosquito Dance’ with its strange high ‘buzzing’ on tremolando pppp, but it develops to include a countervailing kind of mini-ostinato structure. The ‘Pizzicato’ dance is just that, but it fragments into a final silence. Zehetmair and Killius relished the ‘snap pizzicato’ (achieved by raising and ‘snapping’ the string back against the fingerboard) in the ‘Arabian Song, also featured in the Fourth String Quartet.

I very much hope that Zehetmair and Killius will record all 44 of Bartok’s duos in this ever fascinating arrangement.

Mozart composed his two superb Duos for Violin and Viola (K423 and K424) in 1783,whilst on a trip to his native Salzburg to visit his father. Whilst in Salzburg he agreed  to help out Michael Haydn (Joseph’s younger brother) who had been commissioned to compose six such duos. Haydn wrote four  duos, but then fell ill and could not produce the remaining two, so Mozart composed the remaining two duos as though they were by Michael. When they were played to the Archbishop, who had requested them, he failed to see through the deception and was delighted. This proves two things: that the Archbishop must have been tone deaf, or simply stupid in his sense of musical appreciation. Michael Haydn was at best a mediocre composer, and Mozart’s two duos are by any standards the work of a supreme musical genius.  The other thing it proves is that Mozart was a most generous and kind man – as we also see in his copious correspondence. I say this in response to Peter Shaffer’s shabby and enormously distorted play Amadeus where Mozart is portrayed as a brat, punk arrogant genius. Unfortunately it is currently being re-staged at the National Theatre in an even more distorted and inaccurate form.

Both K423 and K424 initially come over as light and exuberant in the brilliant divertimento style. But this conceals a consummate mastery which is evident in the abundance of brilliantly imaginative musical ideas, and the way these are interwoven with the greatest apparent ease. All this is similar to the later great String Trio in Eb K563, actually entitled ‘Divertimento’. Of the myriad superb qualities these works offer, the balance between the two instruments springs to mind, with frequent alternation between melodic and accompanying functions. And the elements of the ‘learned style’ such as imitation and contrapuntal answering figures help to create a texture which is of the highest artistry but which never sound superficial  or merely academic, always producing the feeling that the  music could exist only in this form and no other. A whole analytical book could be written about these works, but of particular note is the final Theme and Variations of K424, played tonight, as a tour de force of technical ingenuity and musical resourcefulness. Also the first movement development section in the same duo, with its constellation of tonalities, and the stark cross-rhythms cast in a quasi chromatic tone-scape, all prefiguring later innovations as in the Bartók  duos. Tonight’s programme-note writer even sees them as ‘looking forward to Zimmermann’! In the first movement Allegro of K424, I initially thought the tempo too slow, although, in the already mentioned development, the broader tempo allowed for greater clarity, particularly in the quasi contrapuntal parts and rapid rhythmic figurations for the viola. That clarity and insight continued  throughout, up to the brilliant and concise coda.

Geoff Diggines  

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