Intriguing Music by Two Female Composers at Wien Modern

AustriaAustria Wien Modern (5) – Mundry, Andre, and SaundWien Modern (5) – Mundry, Andre, and Sauers: Nicolas Hodges (piano), Carolin Widmann (violin), ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Sylvain Cambreling (conductor). Grosser Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna, 19.11.2015 (MB)

Isabel MundryNon-Places, a Piano Concerto (2012, Austrian premiere)
Mark Andre… hij … 1 (2010, Austrian premiere)
Rebecca SaundersStill (2011)


Another Wien Modern concert in which women composers outnumbered men. We are getting there, it seems – I hesitate to say that we are ‘there’, wherever that might be – with respect to New Music, although there is a long way to go in honouring female composers of the past. (Barbara Strozzi is a current cause of mine; I am sure most of you will have others. And there are, of course, real problems in other respects.) Part of the answer, to many problems, is of course to have a far healthier balance between contemporary musical production and outings from the museum. Festivals such as Wien Modern help enormously, and the turn out for this concert was very encouraging; but every orchestra, every hall, every musician, every audience member should think about the bizarrely narrow ‘repertoire’ that suffocates us.

Isabel Mundry’s Non-Places, a Piano Concerto, drew me in, although I really felt that I needed at least another hearing to grasp where it had taken me. (That is a criticism of me, rather than of the work, I hasten to add; I should certainly like to have another opportunity.) Untuned percussion leads us to orchestral chatter – passages, I learned later, from Oswald Egger – and laughter. Such unexpected sounds, alternating, combining, mutually transforming, certainly made me sit up and listen (and watch!) Various orchestral instruments sound amongst the chatter. It is actually quite a while until the piano enters, almost as if we were hearing a conventional opening ritornello. When the piano does enter, it is not in obviously soloistic fashion; indeed, the work progresses more as a chamber or ensemble piece than what we might have learned to expect from a piano concerto. It is clearly a challenging work for all concerned, but Nicolas Hodges, the ORF SO, and Sylvain Cambreling all did an excellent job. The pianist’s despatch of, for instance, repeated notes, a repeated device in different yet clearly related guises, was everything one might hope for. Moods vary, as do textures. I was especially captivated by duetting between plucked piano strings and cimbalom: a visual as well as an aural spectacle. Other instruments, whether percussion or strings, act as the changing orchestra alongside the two apparent soloists. There was in work and performance very much a sense of a varied yet single span.

I am afraid I could not make much of Mark Andre’s  … hij … 1. I admit that I am becoming a little impatient with works in which instrumentalists ‘play’ but make no sound; it certainly has an element of theatre to it, and here, at least, sounds occasionally emerge from the silence, but it is a device that has quickly become clichéd. Alas, most of what I heard fell under the heading of cliché. Although doubtless very well performed – there is no doubting the prowess of this orchestra, nor its commitment – ultimately, it sounded a bit like a minimalist attempting to ape Lachenmann (and not getting very far). There are some nice touches, for instance percussion emerging out of what I suppose we must call the ‘extended techniques’ of not playing or barely playing. Likewise, I felt that rhythm emerged from that opening too. I could not discern, though, why the orchestra – or rather piano and wind – suddenly start playing ‘normally’, nor why they stop. Sudden shifts, whether of tempo or instrumentation, do not seem to signify anything in particular. It felt, I am sad to say, interminable.

That could certainly not be said of Rebecca Saunders’s Still, for which the ever-outstanding Carolin Widmann joined the orchestra. I learned afterwards that the piece is dedicated to her, and that it was premiered by Widmann and Cambreling, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. (Click here for a review of the UK premiere in 2012.) Still came as a relief, from the very opening violin solo, which somehow imparted a sense of a work and performance that knew exactly where they were going, even if we did not (yet). In many ways, it sounded more like a traditional concertante piece than Mundry’s work. The orchestra engages with the soloist, and vice versa, such interaction continuing, echoing, contrasting; that held for the performance as well as the work. One aspect of the writing that especially caught my ear was the timbral transformation of particular pitches, inevitably bringing, even so many years hence, Webern to mind. Widmann’s rendition of the solo part had me wondering what it would be to hear her in Bach or Schoenberg; indeed, there is something pre- or (slightly) post-Romantic to a role one might call obbligato. (I thought at times of Schoenberg’s op.47 Phantasy for violin and piano.) There was true emotional as well as intellectual depth here. Despite the increasing value – if indeed in such post-modern times we are permitted to speak of æsthetic worth – awarded performance art, installations, and the like, this seemed triumphantly to underline the ongoing importance of the musical work, whether as concept or, perhaps more importantly, as experience.

Mark Berry

Leave a Comment