2016 Salzburg Festival Celebrates 90th Birthdays of Cerha and Kurtág

Salzburger-Festspiele_Logo_1373976878376931AustriaAustria Salzburg Festival (2) – Cerha, Kurtág, and Webern: Natalia Zagorinskaya (soprano), Klangforum Wien / Sylvain Cambreling (conductor). Kollegienkirche, Salzburg, 6.8.2016. (MB)

CerhaLes Adieux (Elegie) (2005, rev. 2007); Bruchstück, geträumt (2009)

KurtágMessages of the late Miss R.V. Troussova, op.17 (1981)

Webern – Six Orchestral Pieces, op.6 (1909, rev. for chamber ensemble, 1920)

The Salzburg Festival here paid tribute, in Fischer von Erlach’s Kollegienkirche, to Friedrich Cerha and György Kurtág in their ninetieth birthday years. We heard two relatively recent works by the Austrian composer, alongside acknowledged masterpieces by Kurtág and Anton Webern: the ‘threshold’, as Pierre Boulez once put it, for music of the second half of the twentieth century – and beyond.

Les Adieux (Elegie) was the first of the Cerha works. Its extremity might have sounded post-Webern, but the language owed at least as much, perhaps more, to Berg. At any rate, one was made to listen, in a compelling performance from Klangforum Wien and Sylvain Cambreling. It was a performance between as well as of the notes. Fragmentary melodies, sometimes melodies rather more than fragmentary, whether taking their ordering principles from pitch or from colour, insinuated themselves. Woodwind lines at times took on an arabesque quality. There were some extraordinary chords, ‘in themselves’: both their harmony, and their spacing: like Bruckner, perhaps, in a way, but in a – mercifully – more compact time-frame.

Kurtág’s Messages of the late Miss R.V. Troussova has been with us now for thirty-five years, since its 1981 premiere in Paris, conducted by Boulez. For all the obvious, indeed wondrous, influence of and reaction to Webern – perhaps ‘Webern precedent’ would be better – there was, I thought, also more than a hint of Berg again, especially Lulu, and especially in the vocal line, here delivered and interpreted with authority and imagination by Natalia Zagorinskaya. Perhaps the Schoenberg of Pierrot lunaire too? What a splendid pairing that would make for a concert! At any rate, there was on occasion a hint, never overdone, of cabaret to the proceedings. The dialectical relationship between these twenty-one miniatures, the three parts, and the whole (again, how could one not think of Pierrot?) manifested itself in performance through the surprise of the moment and concern, not least from Cambreling, for the longer line. The virtuosity of Kurtág’s writing was relished by all concerned, as, I thought, was the feminine-feminist standpoint almost forced upon the composer, which is not necessarily to say unwillingly, by Rimma Dalos’s verse. The opening of the second part, ‘Something erotic’, sounded as if it were bathed in ever-transforming moonlight. What a panoply of colours, all silver, yet never quite silver, we heard: it was luminous, angry, frenetic, calm, all with a well-nigh Mozartian profusion of melody.

It was fascinating to hear Webern’s op.6 Six Pieces in this context, and in their 1920 chamber ensemble arrangement: not least for what the arrangement told us about what Webern thought about his instrumental lines. The first piece was admirably long-breathed, with a splendidly post-Mahlerian violin solo. The second, ‘Bewegt’, perhaps sounded more similar to its predecessor than it would usually do – at least until it did not. I was put in mind of the ‘obligate Rezitativ’ from Schoenberg’s op.16 Pieces. Viola and harmonica offered a beguiling opening to the third. The Funeral March sounded more transformed than any of its companion pieces, and yet retained its character; it overwhelmed, if anything, even more than it would with full orchestra. Drum rolls, an exquisite, desperate clarinet solo, a harmonium whose sound, not unlike an 8 ft Choir organ stop, suggested something of the acoustic as a whole. Both the fifth and sixth pieces were properly imbued with aftershock. Reconstruction and lament in the latter, crowned by, or submerged, in bells, had me hear the entire work anew.

Finally, we heard Cerha’s Bruchstück, geträumt. Opening high violin and viola harmonics had me think of Mahler’s First Symphony, although with no tonality – at least yet – implied. As other instruments joined this dream-landscape, a fuller harmonic spectrum emerged: especially interesting to hear after Webern’s Pieces. Berg, too, once again came to mind, and not just, I think, because of Cerha’s Lulu completion. Indeed, I genuinely thought of Berg first and the completion second in this case. There was a persistent sense of unfolding, both for work and performance: development, if you like, and more Mahler than Bruckner. Climaxes were unerringly well-placed. The intriguing antiphonal counterpoint between harp and plucked piano strings made its point in – yes, dreamlike fashion. If I were less sure about the final resolution, I should happily give the work another hearing.

Mark Berry

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