Weber Put in the Shade by Schoenberg and Bartók

GermanyGermany Schoenberg, Weber, and Bartók: Carolin Widmann (violin), Jörg Widmann (clarinet), Denis Kozhukhin (piano). Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin, 5.5.2017. (MB)

Schoenberg – Fantasie, for violin with piano accompaniment, op.47

Weber – Grand Duo concertant, in E-flat major, op.48;Piano Sonata no.3 in D minor, op.49

Bartók – Contrasts, Sz.111

One ends up saying that almost every Schoenberg work is ‘extraordinary’ – or at least I do. Such enthusiasm is perhaps not entirely a bad thing for one who is at work writing not just one but two books concerning the composer and his music, but it needs to be kept in check, lest one end up sounding a bit too much like a contemporary Radio 3 presenter. Nevertheless, the Fantasie for ‘violin with piano accompaniment’ – Schoenberg actually wrote the violin part in its entirety before the piano part – continues at the very least to surprise, on those few occasions when musicians bother to perform it. For that alone, thanks would be due to Carolin Widmann and Denis Kozhukhin, but these were scrupulous performances indeed, taking on board both Schoenberg’s somewhat strange description and the work’s nature as a fantasia, not least its inspiration in Mozart’s essays in the genre, tonal and formal implications there to be heard without pedantic exaggeration. At first, I wondered whether Kozhukhin was proving a little reticent, but it was who I was in the wrong; his ‘accompanying’ role, neither over- nor understated, brought Schoenberg’s constructivism to the fore, Widmann’s greater fantasy very much the other side to the coin. One heard, moreover, the passing of motifs between instruments, without that suggesting a misleading equivalence: a very difficult balance, or rather ordering, to maintain, especially in music so febrile, so ever-transformative as this. (Whatever I might say about it will over-simplify.) Echoes of the old and their transformation sounded very much at the heart of the music and its progress. So too as an overflowing lyricism such as one often hears in Schoenberg: the problem for many, it seems, is not so much a lack of ‘tunes’ as far too many, a twentieth-century reinstatement of Mozart’s own ‘problem’ (with apologies to an apocryphal Joseph II). The ending surprised as much as ever, whether one ‘knew’ or not.

I try with Weber’s instrumental music; I really do. Alas, odd points of contact notwithstanding, I find it difficult to credit that a piece such as the Grand Duo concertant for clarinet and piano is by the composer of Euryanthe. Yes, it is earlier, yes I know we are fashionably supposed to take an interest in virtuosity for its own sake (or have we now gone beyond that in ‘nineteenth-century studies’?); but really… Carolin Widmann was replaced by her brother, Jörg. There was no doubting his virtuosity, nor indeed that of Kozhukhin. This, however, is a piece in which a very different form of inequality between instruments makes for much less satisfying, much less interesting listening. Ironically, or perhaps not, the occasional sighing phrases in the first movement’s piano part registered far more sympathetically than all the passagework in the world, whichever part it were in. (The piano part often sounds oddly as if it were an orchestral reduction.) There are lovely moments, but nothing more than that, and a degree of note-spinning, above all in the finale, which makes the likes of Hummel sound profound. That the slow movement was a little darker offered some relief.

Weber’s Third Piano Sonata followed the interval, offering Koshukhin, at least in the first and second movements, something more to get his musical teeth into. Allegro feroce is the marking for the first movement, and feroce the first group certainly was, the advent of the second as melting as anyone could hope for. There was perhaps even the odd hint of a soprano aria from one of the operas, within a general ‘early Romantic’, non-Beethovenian framework. If there is a bit too much ‘more of the same’, Kozhukhin did what he could. He charmed, moreover, in the Andante con moto second movement, even in its more turbulent passages – which is probably as it should be. The range of colours drawn from the instrument in the finale was quite something, even if its musical substance were more dubious. I was soon longing for Beethoven. An oddity I noted only at the end: was the ordering of an op.47, an op.48, and an op.49 a coincidence?

With Bartók’s Contrasts, involving all three musicians, we turned to a masterpiece of the highest order. The first movement’s performance caught to perfection its fantastical gawkiness (perhaps a hint of Schoenberg’s opening piece, perhaps not) and equally its slinky eroticism. Not for nothing was this written for Benny Goodman. Contours were well traced, with equally keen projection of metre. Kozshukhin’s (at times) almost Schubertian way with the piano part of the first movement intrigued; it made me wonder what he might do with the piano concertos. Jörg Widmann’s virtuosity was put to still more startling and certainly much better use. The second movement was very much the heart of the performance, rich clarity offering a truly tripartite partnership. Line was just as clear, as goal-directed, as in Beethoven. The opening to the third movement suggested the Devil himself (or herself, in this case) tuning up, proving contagious both to clarinet and piano in turn. Once again, virtuosity was attuned throughout to properly musical ends, in performances as impressive for their flexibility as for their respect once again for metre. There was longing too, perhaps suggestive of the beginning of American exile for the composer – although is that to sentimentalise? At any rate, this was an awe-inspiring performance, as exciting as it was thoughtful: perhaps the best I have ever heard. A movement from The Soldier’s Tale made for an encore as enjoyable and, again, as exciting as it was apt.

Mark Berry

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