And the Answer Is . . . Music

GermanyGermany Ives, Schubert, Brahms: Radu Lupu (piano), Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Jonathan Nott (conductor), Laeiszhalle, Hamburg, 26.4.2012 (TKT)

Ives: The Unanswered Question
Schubert: Symphony no. 7 in B minor, D 759 (“Unfinished Symphony”)
Brahms: Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor, op. 15

It started with a disappointment before the conductor had even come on stage. Charles Ives, ahead of his time, experimented with collages, polyrhythms, and bitonality early on. He wrote his Unanswered Question in 1906, for three distinct instrumental parts: a string quartet, a solo trumpet, and a woodwind quartet, each with its own tempo and key. The strings, in Ives’s words, represent the “silence of the Druids” in a tonal melody nothing less than mesmerizing. They should preferably be backstage, invisible, to provide the perfect acoustic setting for the drama on stage. The trumpet poses the “eternal question of existence,” an atonal phrase consisting of five notes, seven times. The woodwinds keep seeking the answer, with increasing intensity (though not increasing success) in passages that are also atonal.

Some 25 years later, Ives wrote an orchestra version of The Unanswered Question. So when the members of the orchestra took their seats, it was obvious that we were not going to be treated to the original. But my disappointment dissipated instantly. The very first notes opened up a space, playing music of the spheres. The solitude of the trumpet, the confusion and despair of the woodwinds against the backdrop of the utter beauty and overwhelming indifference of the strings – surely the answer that was sought was one we don’t want to hear. Except that we do want to hear it, because it is in the question itself, as long as it is posed through, and as, music. Spellbinding.

Choosing the orchestra version turned out to be a clever stratagem: without pausing to acknowledge applause, Jonathan Nott launched right into the Unfinished Symphony, to which the Ives had attuned us, as it were – a way of recalibrating our perception of one of the most-played works of classical music. Under Nott’s sensitive direction, the orchestra produced an organic whole: the focus was on balance rather than a contest between different themes. Individual instruments did not try to assert themselves, it was rather as if they were unveiled by others “falling off” like clothes, in a process that advanced to the core of this music: no frills, no vibrato, a restrained tempo, an often subdued tone – as if we were to be given the opportunity to really listen. This is what redemption must feel like.

The sense of an organic unity was also distinctly conveyed in the performance of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto. The work itself is a product of the composer’s effort to write a symphony. As if composing were a competition, he felt unable to crawl out of Beethoven’s shadow. The first movement of the concerto is based on his failed attempt to turn a sonata for two pianos into the beginning of his first symphony, which ultimately took him another 20 or so years to write.

Radu Lupu is a wise pianist. His approach to the concerto could not have been less competitive, as the piano was an integral part of the orchestra sound from the start. Lupu and Nott formed a perfection union. Never attention-seeking, with a certain detachment and sometimes almost matter-of-fact, avoiding, like Nott, the overly dramatic, Lupu never focused on the virtuoso aspects of the concerto but always on the essence of the music. Especially in the second movement, I heard inner lines which I had never noticed before, and the work sounded more modern to me than I had realized it was. As in the Schubert, every note counted. And that polyphonic richness! The result was sheer poetry.

Thomas K Thornton