A Stimulating Programme by Members of the Ensemble Intercontemporain  at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schumann, Kurtág, Berg, Robin Members of the Ensemble Intercontemporain (Odile Auboin, viola; Alain Billard, clarinet/bass clarinet; Dimitri Vassilakis (piano) Wigmore Hall, London, 27.04.2014 (CC)

Schumann                   Märchenerzählerungen, Op. 132
Kurtág                         Korál
Berg                            Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 5
Kurtág                         Doloroso
Schumann                   Märchenbilder, Op. 113
Kurtág                         Hommage à R. Sch …, Op. 15d. Message-consolation à Christian Sutter
Yann Robin                 Pterà

These three members of the Ensemble Intercontemporain gave a thought-provoking, beautifully-programmed evening all in one breath, as it were. There was no interval, so that the listeners got the full depth of the order in which the pieces were played, which was as set out above. 

The pure, flowing Romanticism of Schumann’s 1853 Märchenerzählerungen (Fairy-Tale Stories) for viola, clarinet and piano represents late Schumann at his finest. Odile Auboin projected the viola lines well but her sound was not the warmest I have heard from that instrument. Alain Billard is a magnificent clarinettist, perfectly assured and yet the perfect chamber musician. In fact the aura of chamber music performed at the highest standard exuded from this performance. The gentle strains of the third piece (Ruhiges Tempo) probably impressed the most. 

The brief Korál for piano by Kurtág, from Jatekók, was dark, low, like late Liszt in a distorting fairground mirror, and beautifully shaded by Vassilakis. It was the perfect foil for the shadows and the restrained pulsings of Berg’s Four Pieces for clarinet and piano. The performance found Billard on absolutely top form, his playing a model of the utmost control, his slurs perfect, his phrasing a model of liquid legato, his flutter tonguing superbly managed. The sudden jump into the yearning and aching melodic shapes of the SecondVienneseSchool provided just the right contrast without presenting a jarring juxtaposition. Vassilakis’ subtle accompaniment was the perfect partnering. Beauty was at its height here. 

Kurtág and Schumann followed: the former’s Doloroso for viola of 1992, a piece that speaks a thousand words in just a few moments. The music includes amazingly expressive single harmonics – this is a place where simple gestures gain great emotional significance. The arrival of more Schumann – the deliciously flowing Märchenbilder for viola and piano – was more than welcome, a sequence of brief movements where passion met folkish lullaby. 

Kurtág’s Hommage à R. Sch … (1990) for clarinet, viola and piano is in six movements of Webernian concentration and was effectively extended by the ensuing Message-consolation à Christian Sutter. It was a shame the concert didn’t either end there. Yann Robin (born 1974) is an unashamedly modernist composer. Another of his pieces has been reviewed by Seen & Heard – the 2012 Backdraft. My colleague Bruce Hodges referred to it as “filled with explosive, violent, scratchy effects—a state of constant upheaval”. The piece Pterà (2014), which was here receiving its UK premiere, is a joint commission between the Wigmore Hall, the Auditorium du Louvre and the Ensemble Intercontemporain. It is a response to the restoration of The Victory of Samothrace, a Hellenistic period sculpture that is perfectly placed in the Louvre at the intersection of two staircases. Taking the idea of the beating of wings (Pterà) and of breath itself, Robin’s piece is one of virtuoso extremes. Billard, on bass clarinet, in particular was technically awe-inspiring. But the piece was all gesture and little actual substance, Xenakis-like poundings lying at the heart of its essence. Essentially it outlived its welcome considerably. A pity it was not either Kurtág or Schumann who led us out into the night … nevertheless this remains a stimulating concert that contained much music of beauty.

Colin Clarke

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