An Outstanding ORF Vienna RSO Concert of Schuller, Zimmermann, and Dvořák

13/04/2018

Schuller, Zimmermann, and Dvořák: Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet), ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra / John Storgårds (conductor). Musikverein, Vienna, 6.4.2018. (MB)

Gunther Schuller – Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee

Bernd Alois Zimmermann – Trumpet Concerto, ‘Nobody knows de trouble I see’

Dvořák – Symphony no.9 in E minor, op.95, ‘From the New World’

Much – not all, but much – of the United States’s Western art music tradition is (Austro-)German in origin. ‘You would say that, wouldn’t you?’ might come the reply to someone awaiting publication of his Schoenberg biography. And yes, I suppose I should – yet not only on that count. Consider the (new) worlds of performance, composition, musicology, musical institutions: less so, now, of course, and rightly so; their roots, however, will often be found embedded in Teutonic soil. To appreciate that, one only need consider the childish, often downright bizarre anti-German sentiment encountered today amongst certain anti-modernist composers and musicologists alike. ‘I’m so daring to write/analyse a tune; Wagner/Schoenberg/Adorno/Stockhausen would never have let me do that.’ ‘Yes, neoliberalism has no tunes; you truly cannot move for total serialism in the world of the Culture Industry…’

Not that the traffic has ever been one-way, of course; more complex interchanges have deep roots too. George Whitefield Chadwick, trained in Leipzig and subsequently director of the New England Conservatory, which he re-organised on European lines, for instance instituting an opera workshop, pre-empted Dvořák’s use in his ‘New World’ Symphony of ‘negro’ pentatonic melodies in the Scherzo to his Second (1883-5) Symphony. Interestingly, however, Boston audiences reacted far less favourably than New York to Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, the critic William Apthorp notoriously decrying its use of ‘barbaric’ plantation songs and native American melodies, resulting in a ‘mere apotheosis of ugliness, distorted forms, and barbarous expressions’, He might have been a typical Viennese critic ten years later, fulminating against Schoenberg; racism, after all, is common to both attacks.

Here in Vienna’s hallowed Musikverein, home to more than one such attack in the past, we had a splendid opportunity to hear some of that more complex interchange. Gunther Schuller, born in Queens, to German parents, has always struck me, albeit from a position of relative ignorance, as an especially interesting example of a musician, both performing and compositional, able to straddle ‘jazz’ and ‘classical’ divides; not, of course, that such a ‘divide’ has ever been so clear as many, for varying, even opposed, ideological reasons, might have claimed. In the work heard here, moreover, he turned to Paul Klee (a Swiss painter, of course, whom many of us are fond, sometimes all too fond, of comparing to Webern). Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee was heard for the first time at the Proms three years ago (almost), under Oliver Knussen. It was a joy to reacquaint myself with the music, and not only to find my admiration for it undimmed, in so fine a performance as this, from the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and John Storgårds, but also to observe it so warmly received in the hall which, just over a century earlier, had played host to the notorious Skandalkonzert, at which anti-modernist protests against the Second Viennese School had landed some of the participants in court. (Would that… No, I had better stop there.)

The first movement, ‘Antique Harmonies’, certainly had an air of the undefinable antique to it. That can cover a multitude of sins and virtues, ranging from Debussy to Birtwistle; there is little point in attempting definition of such a ‘mood’ or ‘air’. Fineness of orchestral balance surely helped, though. The following ‘Abstract Trio’ seemed almost to take us from Schoenberg to Stravinsky; I even fancied that I heard premonitions of the later work of Boulez in its motivic working. Coincidence, doubtless, if indeed that, but intriguing nevertheless, for this Old World listener. The cool jazz of ‘Little Blue Devil’ seemed almost as distilled as Mahler does in Webern; it was also just as recognisable. Muted trumpet set up a connection with the Bernd Alois Zimmermann work to come. Febrile, seething, yes, ‘The Twittering-machine’ indeed, came next, with perhaps a little touch of post-Webern Klangfarbenmelodie. A flute solo from above (rather than off-stage in the conventional, unseen sense) beguiled in ‘Arab Village’: simple, yet never predictable, with a true sense of narrative, almost as in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. ‘An Eerie Moment’ lived up to its name too, Webern perhaps distilling Stravinsky’s Rite, prior to the unsettling – did it or did it not unify what had gone before? – ‘Pastorale’, which again benefited from expert orchestral balancing by Storgårds and his players.

Zimmermann’s hundredth anniversary falls this year. (Click here for my feature on the composer in the New York Times.) There is jazz inspiration to his trumpet concerto too, of course, as well as that of the spiritual, ‘Nobody knows de trouble I see’. Zimmermann was adamant that the work, originally entitled ‘darkey’s darkness’ – thank goodness, from our twenty-first standpoint, that that was ditched – played with elements of progressive rather than ‘commercial’ jazz. I think that may be adjudged a perfectly reasonable claim. (We should always remain on our guard concerning what composers say their music may or may not ‘be’. Why might they be making such a claim?) So, at any rate, it sounded here, Håkan Hardenberger – who else? – joining the orchestra.

Varying ‘atmosphere’, almost as varying as that of the Schuller Studies, suffused this outstanding performance – played as the repertory work it almost is, and certainly should be. The long line, both for Hardenberger’s trumpet arabesques and for the orchestra, somewhere between ‘jazz’ and ‘symphonic’, was effortlessly maintained, or so it seemed – until, that is, it was no longer required. Controlled riot might then be the order of the day – or something else. Zimmermann’s later, more overt polystilism was almost there, already; perhaps it actually was instantiated, right there, right then. Rightly, neither score nor performance could be pinned down. And yet, there was ultimately, just as rightly, an almost Nono-like sense of bearing witness – even if one were never quite sure who, or what, the ‘subject’ might be. A hushed close did not comfort, nor should it have done.

And so, for the second half, we returned to the ‘New World’ Symphony, bastion of many a more conservative concert programme – despite its rocky initial reception in Boston. There was no routine comfort, however, to Storgårds’s performance. One really had the sense, as the cliché has it, that every note had been rethought – and it probably had. The introduction to the first movement sounded unusually dark, almost as if from Weber’s Freischütz Bohemian Woods. So did much of the rest of the movement, although the symphonic dialectic necessitating contrast, even at times negation, was not only observed but dramatised. Ultimately, a good deal of Brahms was revealed beneath the surface, although much that was not him, even opposed to him, too. Indeed, the contrast between first and second groups proved so great, especially in the exposition, as to sound almost Mahlerian. None of that was achieved at the expense of traditional lilt, which propelled rather than inhibited new worlds to come.

The second movement’s celebrated, all-too-celebrated cor anglais solo was taken beautifully, yet never just beautifully, likewise other solos. That Largo had all the time in the world to unfold, yet not a second more than necessary. It never forsook the quality of song, of Europeanised spiritual. Fast, insistent, almost brutally so, the Scherzo proved exhilarating, brought into still greater relief by (relative) woodland relaxation and charm. The finale proved a finale in the emphatic sense, as it must, with fury not only in the first but the second group too. Sometimes it can relax a little too much, but not here. Its dynamic telos was maintained until the end, as terse as the first movement, and yet, crucially, utterly different too. Brahms, again, remained, if never without ambiguity. This was a fine conclusion indeed, to an outstanding ORF concert. More soon, please!

Mark Berry

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