Birtwistle and Dowland with Klangforum Wien

Birtwistle and Dowland – ‘Sterben werd’ ich, um zu leben’: Marisol Montalvo (soprano), Klangforum Wien, Peter Rundel (conductor). Werner-Otto-Saal, Konzerthaus, Berlin, 18.4.2011 (MB)

BirtwistleNine settings of Celan, for soprano and chamber ensemble

interspersed with:

Dowland Lachrimae, arranged by Andreas Lindenbaum for violin, two violas, cello, and double bass

Yes, you did read that correctly: ‘Sterben werd’ ich, um zu leben,’ as in the final movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony. The Berlin Konzerthaus is organising something rather more interesting, indeed original, than many halls for the Mahler anniversary, namely a cycle of concerts in three parts of ‘Musik mit Mahler’. If the anniversary must be marked, then to use Mahler’s symphonies as a way of exploring other repertoire seems just the ticket.

Here resurrection took on a decidedly darker hue, with Birtwistle’s settings of Paul Celan, as translated by Michael Hamburger, scored for soprano, two clarinets, viola, cello, and double bass. Klangforum Wien gave the first performance of the complete work in 1996 and clearly has the music in its collective bones. The present performance was inspired and inspiring, not least on account of Peter Rundel’s intelligent direction. Marisol Montalvo made a generally good impression as the soprano soloist, though sometimes her American accent sounded a little out of place – at least to an Englishman. At the heart of Birtwistle’s music is a melancholy that Montalvo’s more showy delivery did not always quite capture, though the final sound of her unaccompanied voice, deserted by instruments, was chilling, likewise the iridescence of her voice in combination with instruments during ‘Mit Brief und Uhr’ . Clarinets are a typical vessel of Birtwistle’s expression, (here Reinhold Brunner and Bernhard Zachhuber) harking back on occasion to the hieratic timelessness of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments as well as to the violence of Birtwistle’s own Punch and Judy, later arabesques ably echoed by soprano, and vice versa. ‘Tenebrae’ seemed to acquire further meaning when heard at the beginning of Holy Week – even when, perhaps particularly when, performed in one of the most atheistic cities in the world.

Every bit as inspired was the decision to perform the Celan settings interspersed with John Dowland’s Lachrymae, here arranged for strings by cellist Andreas Lindenbaum,who was on hand to perform, alongside Gunde Jäck-Micko on violin, violists Andrew Jezek and Dimitrios Polisoidis, and double bassist Uli Fussenegger. Vibrato was avoided, though I thought I heard a little more as time went on. Perhaps it was; perhaps my ears had adjusted. The motivation in recreating the world of the viol consort was clear, though I could not help but wish for a little more variation in tone quality on occasion. That said, the excellent players afforded ample opportunity to luxuriate in the plangent melancholy of Dowland’s harmonies. This was not quite Haydn’s Seven Last Words: for one thing, there is greater variety of tempo. However, the effect was not entirely dissimilar, suggesting another possible companion piece for Birtwistle’s settings. Dowland, however, remains closer in spirit to his great English successor than Haydn will ever be, with Purcell’s Fantasias another ghost at the feast.

Mark Berry