An Intriguing New Work by Peter Eötvös is Unveiled

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Eötvös and Debussy: Piia Komsi (soprano), Calder Quartet [Benjamin Jacobson, Andrew Bulbrook (violins), Jonathan Moerschel (viola), Eric Byers (cello)]. Wigmore Hall, London, 1.10.2016. (MB)

EötvösKorrespondenz (String Quartet No.1); The Sirens Circle (world premiere)

Debussy – String Quartet in G minor Op.10

The world premiere of Peter Eötvös’s The Sirens Cycle was preceded by the composer’s first string quartet, Korrespondenz (1992) and Debussy’s early-ish work, from almost a century earlier (1893). The fascinating dramatic concept of Eötvös’s work lies in the correspondence of Mozart with his father, Leopold, from Wolfgang’s time in Paris: it is, the composer writes, ‘a mini opera for string quartet’. Does the concept offer more than it delivers? Perhaps. Once beyond the first of three short movements – scenes, perhaps? – I did not pay much attention to the ‘programme’, nor really to the viola as son and the cello as father, the two violins watching over ‘as two protective spirits or observers’. But is that not what we generally say, rightly or wrongly, makes for good programme music? At any rate, the characterisation, whether tied to that initial conception or no, endured as the instruments’ lines progressed. The excellent Calder Quartet offered confident performances, ‘language’ of whichever nature internalised – and then externalised. If they were gestural performances, they remained musico-gestural. And if the musical language spoke of the Expressionist past at times, there was also something of Stockhausen and Ligeti, at least to these ears.

Debussy’s Quartet benefited from a warm, Romantic, yet far from un-Gallic opening. The nature of the string sound, and its possibilities, became increasingly variegated as the first movement progressed. Hearing it after Korrespondenz, certain figures emerged as having something in common. There was also a continuing sense of drama to be heard, to be felt, arguably more so, or rather more conventionally so, than in Pelléas et Mélisande, the opera shortly to come. Climaxes were very well shaped indeed. Characterful playing, with a fine sense of rhythm, marked the scherzo, although certainly not to the detriment of other parameters. Indeed, dynamic gradations proved splendidly expressive of the movement’s contours, both directly and indirectly. The opening of the slow movement seemed to speak of a ‘vieille France’ not entirely different from that of the Schola Cantorum, but the response, sweetly yet far from sentimentally post-Romantic, brought Pelléas to mind. Those tendencies and others intertwined productively, until the finale emerged, at least initially, as perhaps the most modern, even modernist, of the movements. Bartók occasionally came within aural view. At other times, the work’s cyclical nature reasserted itself with a glance to the recent past, but never as ‘mere’ return.

The Sirens Cycle was co-commissioned by the Zurich Tonhalle Society, the Frankfurt Alte Oper, Madrid’s Centro Nacional de Difusion Musical, IRCAM, the Paris ProQuartet-Centre européen de musique de chambere, the Südwestrundfunk, and the Wigmore Hall, with the support of André Hoffmann: just the sort of thing, then, to gladden the hearts of our blessed government. To quote the composer, it is again ‘the outcome of an operatic idea, that of putting forward a solo soprano accompanied by a string quartet as if by a choir’. His starting point was Kafka’s Das Schweigen der Siren. ‘This subject so engaged me that I drew in also, and thematically connected to the Kafka, siren motifs from Homer and Joyce.’ Here, I felt the ambition more fully, consistently realised than in Korrespondenz.

I could not help but feel the shadow, far from exhausted yet, of Pierrot lunaire, not oppressively so, but perhaps more as a guardian angel. Some of the characteristics, comparisons, I observed in Korrespondenz, announced themselves in the first part, that drawn from Joyce, but in the context of an extraordinary coloratura performance from Piia Komsi, and, of course, of Joyce’s words, they did not detain me. The string-only opening to the third short movement (in this first part), ‘O Rose!’, sounded almost as if a response to Debussy, although, of course, Simon Dedalus – and, it seems, Eötvös too – brought us also, or instead, the light opera of Balfe (The Rose of Castille) and Flotow (Martha). Then, ‘O Rose!’: for me, a brush with Mahler’s ‘Röslein’, although what followed, turned out differently indeed. Words, their resonances, the new use to which they may be put: such, after all are part of the business of Ulysses. The éclat of ‘Snack la cloche!’ and the downward vocal glissando on ‘Jingle bloo’ spoke of a different, yet connected, and yes, sirenic world. ‘Liszt’s rhapsodies’ in no.6 briefly, tantalisingly, evoked all manner of personal correspondences, without ever standing out unduly. Komsi’s ecstasy in the final of these seven movements, upon ‘Pray for him!’ offered a truly operatic climax.

With Homer, of course, the language switched to Greek. Retuning too, was necessary, for an interlude in which the first violin, now briefly the vocalist, is ‘accompanied’ by music on three instruments, but six staves (so, at any rate, I learned, from Paul Griffiths’ programme note). Double-stopped trills led us to Homer himself, to soprano recitative (with chimes). Scherzo-like writing – something almost neo-Schoenbergian, which I could not quite put my finger on – gave way to a more overtly sirenic close. The string opening to the final, Kafka part, sounded as if a fusion of quartet and operatic interlude. Kafka’s absence of sirenic song made its point just as powerfully as had its presence. Eötvös shaped a highly convincing musico-dramatic trajectory here, even upon a first hearing. The instrumental close spoke, at least to me, of a post-Romantic melancholy which yet again brought Schoenberg to mind: in this case, with quasi-concertante writing for the first violin, superbly realised by Benjamin Jacobson, the Phantasy for violin and piano, op.47.

Mark Berry

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