A Reinvigorating Lunchtime Concert from Members of the Britten Sinfonia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Webern, Uduman, and Schoenberg: Members of the Britten Sinfonia [Thomas Gould (violin), Caroline Dearnley (cello), Diana Ketler (piano)]. Wigmore Hall, London, 14.12.2016. (MB)

Webern – Four Pieces for violin and piano, op.7
Sohrab Uduman“Dann klingt es auf…” (London premiere)
Schoenberg, arr. SteuermannVerklärte Nacht, op.4

Lunchtime concerts present an attendance problem. Had my teaching (though certainly not my university!) term not come to an end, I should most likely not have been able to hear this Wigmore Hall concert. That would have been a great pity, since it offered just the right sort of reinvigoration I needed for the afternoon. Whatever the reasons, it was sad to see so small an audience, but no matter: the box office has nothing to do with artistic concerns. Schoenberg, of all composers, knew that very well, when founding his Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen. I shall draw a veil over his prohibition on critics; or rather, I shall deflect it, trusting that I qualify as a Schoenberg scholar too…

It was with Eduard Steuermann’s arrangement of what, sadly, remains perhaps the composer’s most popular work, Verklärte Nacht, that the concert closed. Here, the opening was given to piano (Diana Ketler), cello (Caroline Dearnley) responding as if that were how we always heard it, violin (Thomas Gould) likewise. D minor sounded all the more obsessive, somehow, in this re-scoring, as if a Brahmsian pedal-point were being further underlined. (Maybe it is the strength of the piano bass?) Richly Romantic tone was offered from all, especially the strings. The narrative form of Richard Dehmel’s poem seemed especially to the fore, structurally determinative, not just pictorial, in a reading that was highly dramatic, highly rhetorical. Gurrelieder, quite rightly, did not seem so very far away. Too sectional? No, I do not think so; there is more than one way to perform the work, and motivic integrity was never in doubt. Moreover, Schoenberg’s harmonies always seemed, again rightly, on the verge of vertical and horizontal disintegration: Tristan and late Brahms working together as well as in conflict. Occasionally, the arrangement brought, perhaps paradoxically, congestion at climaxes. On the whole, though, I was struck by how little I missed the original. The new instrumentation sometimes brought, to my ears, an almost Gallic (or perhaps Flemish!) air. The piano could suggest shimmering strings surprisingly well; in the bass, it offered something new, but no less welcome. I was especially intrigued by the ability of both Gould and Dearnley to give what were, originally, first violin/first cello and second violin/second cello parts different ‘voices’. The closing section, save for a few bars which probably defy transcription, sounded duly fulfilled, even transfigured.

Another of Schoenberg’s pupils opened the concert. Gould and Ketler gave a spellbinding performance of Webern’s Op.7 Pieces. Violin harmonic, answered by piano chord, somehow incited a melody somewhere between languor and sadness, yet ever-changing. In reality, especially in this first piece, any description of either work or performance would pertain at best for one note or one interval. A passionate, late Romantic response came in the second: Brahms ultra-distilled. Such an array of colour was to be heard. Later playfulness eventually – ‘eventually’ is relative, in Webern! – returned us, sonata-like, to the ardent quality of that earlier material, although it was not, of course, a ‘mere’ return. The violin opening to the third seemed to point us towards Nono, the piano clearly joining up the notes; however much Stockhausen may have learned from Webern, there was a great deal he did not learn, or did not want to. A nineteenth-century inheritance sounded stronger still in the fourth and final piece, suggestive of a sonata finale. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say, that at its close, I felt as though I had heard a work far longer, at least equivalent to a sonata by Brahms.

In between Webern and Schoenberg-Steuermann came not quite the premiere of Sohrab Uduman’s “Dann klingt es auf…”, for that had taken place in Norwich on 9 December, but its first London performance. The title comes from a Hildegard Jone poem, used in Webern’s exquisite Second Cantata. (Now when shall we hear a performance of that in London, or indeed anywhere else?) ‘Shimmering colours’, suggested by the title, looked both forwards and backwards. In context, at least, the opening had something of a sense of a much ‘busier’ version of the opening of Webern’s set of pieces. There was, throughout, a true sense of three voices, interacting in all manner of ways; indeed, the transformation of such interaction – Uduman refers to ‘fusion and disentangling of the contrasting timbres of the piano and strings’ – seemed to lie at its heart. So too, however, did some sense of narrative, even if it could not be put into words (and why should it be?) Sections within its ten-minute span seemed not unlike those we should hear in the Schoenberg. A sudden slowing, without letting up of tension, suggested something akin to a slow movement, in a Liszt-Schoenberg tradition (movement within a movement); or perhaps that was just my idiosyncratic way of making sense of a new work. Material was still being developed, it seemed, from what had gone before, and would continue to be; transformation, another Lisztian concept, seemed a not entirely inappropriate way of considering what may well have been quite a Romantic journey from darkness to light. The piece was played with all the confidence, none of the staleness, of a repertory stalwart. Three cheers, once again, to the ever-enterprising Britten Sinfonia!

Mark Berry

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