Complementary Octets by Schubert and Widmann

GermanyGermany Schubert and Widmann: Boulez Ensemble, Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin, 28.5.2017 (MB)

Schubert – Octet in F major D 803
Widmann – Octet

Jörg Widmann (clarinet)
Mor Biron (bassoon)
Radek Baborák (horn)
Carolin Widmann, Krzysztof Specjal (violins)
Amihai Grosz (viola)
Claudius Popp (cello)
Nabil Shehata (double bass)

For a work so frequently lauded, Schubert’s Octet is not performed so very often. Perhaps it is the length, the forces required (although they are surely not that unusual), or the difficulty in finding a companion piece: probably a combination of those factors. At any rate, this was an excellent opportunity not only to hear Schubert’s masterwork, but to hear it fundamentally rethought, and followed by Jörg Widmann’s 2004 five-movement Octet, specifically written as a companion, at about half its length, to its great six-movement predecessor.

The attack and diminuendo on the opening F – no tonality as such, yet – offered, like the wondrous hall in which the performance took place, a near ideal blend of precision and warmth. But warmth, at least not in a traditional sense, was not to be a hallmark of this probing, often brazenly modernistic performance, in which oscillation between major and minor, and the forward looking tendencies of those long Schubert lines proved more suggestive of subsequent figures in his tradition, not least Schoenberg, but perhaps beyond him too (Widmann included). The first movement’s harmonies continually surprised, even if one ‘knew’ what was coming. Nothing was taken for granted. And there was very little in the way of Gemütlichkeit. To start with, I rather missed that aspect of ‘tradition’, but I have no doubt that I was wrong to have done so. If relative consolation came with Widmann’s opening clarinet solo in the second movement, agitation in the string ‘accompaniment’ duly warned against simplification. It was soon to blossom into something more, quite unsettling, which was in large part, I think, the doing of Widmann’s sister, Carolin, on first violin. She emerged very much as the questioning voice of modernism, intense, febrile, sometimes withdrawing vibrato, sometimes applying it in unnervingly neurotic, never comfortable fashion: neither ‘traditional’, nor ‘authentic’, but instead dragging the work into the twenty-first century. This, she and her colleagues told us, was not easy music; it should never, ever be considered as such. Other solos displayed their own instrumental character; there was never mere repetition. I loved the way in which, towards the close, as if echoing Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, Nabil Shehata’s double bass suggested distant timpani rolls.

Beethoven was again suggested in the ghostly tension of the scherzo’s opening, although its developmental path was of course more ‘Austrian’, more – well, Schubertian, almost as if a Bruckner score had at last proved itself amenable to good editing. There was something mysteriously verging upon the chaste, yet not quite, with apologies to St Augustine, to the trio. Always, we were made to listen. It was Carolin once again who added grit to the oyster in the fourth movement theme and variations. Phrasing and articulation were always well pointed, whilst never different for the sake of it. Schubert’s harmonies, of course, continued to underlie everything we heard, cello (Claudius Popp), double bass, and bassoon (Mor Biron), as fresh and faithful as anyone could hope for. And how gorgeous those horn (Radek Baborák), bassoon, and clarinet solos sounded above: never just gorgeous, though, ever generative, and surprisingly so. Midway between Mozart and Brahms, and yet close also to Schoenberg, Schubert’s ghosts of Viennese past and future invaded our consciousness – whether we liked it or no

If the Minuet relaxed somewhat in tempo, it was no more relaxed in mood than the scherzo had been. Even the wienerisch lilt unsettled – was this not taking us to meet Pierrot? – rather than comforted. Once again, major-minor oscillation was the thing, or at least one of the most important things. Restful it was not, for every note demanded to be heard, to be considered. The introduction to the finale, taken attacca, offered the suspense of the opening to a great symphonic finale, which essentially it is. And then, as if by magic, there came something of the spirit of Haydn: a benediction that did not eclipse what had gone before, but in part made sense of it. A divertimento is no easy option; Beethoven’s is not the only way, however tempting it may be for us all to think so. One could smile, at last. And yet … the return of that opening material rightly had us resume our guard. I should not always want to hear the Octet played like this, but I have little doubt that this performance will have changed my idea of the work forever.

The Intrada to Jörg’s Octet seemed deliberately to evoke Schubert’s opening, as if it had grown legs and extended itself into a movement of its own, a movement which yet could not conclude, being an ‘intrada’. Darkness and harmonic tension seemed to recall, to refract, but never to repeat Schubert. Interestingly, the playing style from all concerned registered as more ‘Romantic’, or at least post-Romantic. Those lines again, as if carried over from Schubert, yet distorted, deconstructed both attested to and questioned the composer’s claim, quoted in the programme, concerning Schubert: ‘The line is something so valuable, it must always be carried forth when playing. Once you drop it, it is destroyed.’ Baborák’s post-Mozartian hunting horn solo, announcing the second movement ‘Menuetto’ was similarly taken up, developed, and deconstructed.

The third movement is marked as a Lied ohne Worte. And yes, it is a song that sings, but it never sings, or is sung, quite as one thinks it ‘should’ be, suggesting a relationship to an ‘original’ predecessor that we have never heard, has never actually existed. Harmonies as much as melodic lines proved suggestive in that respect, tension heightened by a high Romantic, even expressionistic style of performance. Modernist interventions – both in work and performance – question everything we have told ourselves. Who are we now, then? Do we even want to know? A ghostly (again that word) passage for pizzicato double bass and horn could be heard ‘as if’ it were a passacaglia; maybe it had been, in its previous imaginary life. Double bass, now bowed, announced a chaotic free for all at the opening of the Intermezzo, which yet soon found its transformative way to return (or was it?) to material and mood from the Intrada. Transition and revisiting, though never quite, were clearly the thing. It was again the double bass, growling, discomfiting, that led us into the finale, its motifs emerging from the previous movement, so it appeared, in a strange passage of liminal suspense. Classical and Romantic misrememberings offered a non-transfigured night, Schubert both present and absent. And then, nothing.

Mark Berry



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