A concert from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and François-Xavier Roth to lift the spirits

GermanyGermany Haydn, Martinů, and Ligeti: Holger Groschopp (piano), Stefan Dohr (horn), Mahler Chamber Orchestra / François-Xavier Roth (conductor). Kammermusiksaal, Berlin, 15.12.2019. (MB)

Stefan Dohr (c) Simon Pauly

Haydn – Symphony No.22 in E-flat major, ‘The Philosopher’; Symphony No.103 in E-flat major, ‘Drum-Roll’

Martinů – Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano, and timpani

Ligeti – Hamburg Concerto, for horn and chamber orchestra

If anything can offer light in dark, dark times, it is music: not only music, but music such as this, performed such as this. Goodness knows if, let alone when, an Englishman such as I will be able to live in Berlin again once this stay comes to an end. As things stand, it feels that the lamps are going out all over the world, if less in this part of continental Europe than elsewhere. Shall we see them lit again in our lifetime? Who knows? Amidst such gloomy, frankly despairing thoughts, this concert from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and François-Xavier Roth proved just the tonic, even if it rendered all the more glaring the gulf between the cosmopolitan civilisation of Haydn and the way so much of the world has turned.

What could be more singular than Haydn’s Symphony No.22? Has any other symphony in recorded history had the scoring of strings, two French horns, and two cor anglais (if one prefers, English horns)? That particular singularity one noticed — how could one not? — from the outset, perhaps enhanced, even amplified by having violins, violas, and wind standing. But the processional quality to the ‘Adagio’ first movement, here as well-judged and vivid as the pilgrims’ march in Harold en Italie, is ultimately the more unusual, the more fascinating; and so it was here. Horns, French and English, engaged in dialogue as if this were versicle and response. Suspensions told, ‘naturally’, quite without exaggeration. Above all, the music developed, meaningfully and movingly: so long as one listened. The second movement, marked ‘Presto’, burst forth in bright, vigorous necessity: hungry in the best way, nourishing too. Above all — and how sorely this was needed for this listener at this time — it made me smile: not in the condescending ‘Papa Haydn’ way most of us have now consigned to the rubbish bin, but inspired by the invention and humanity not only of Haydn but of these wonderful, international musicians. ‘Revelatory’ is a word overused, but I cannot resist it to describe the MCO and Roth in the minuet: taken one-to-a-bar and it felt just right. The balance between courtly and something more rustic, yet still cultivated, once again felt spot on. Slight relaxation for the trio seemed inherent rather than imposed. Then came the finale, ‘Presto’ as only Haydn can be. Roth took it fast, yes, yet never harried the music. Natural horns crackled; cor anglais echoed; strings provided the ultimate engine of development as rigorous as it was joyful. Truly this was music-making to lift the spirits.

Bohuslav Martinů’s Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano, and timpani — not ‘strong orchestras’, as my original typo had it, though on reflection… — comes from similarly dark times to ours, composed in Switzerland in 1938, the final page of the manuscript completed on the day the Munich Agreement was signed. It is difficult not to read the turbulence and tragedy of world events into the music; yesterday, for me at least, it proved impossible, although by the same token, it reminded me that such human flourishing should never be reduced to external influence and ultimately can never and will never be crushed. The first movement sounded urgent, incisive, troubled, controlled, its counterpart in Stravinsky’s subsequent Symphony in Three Movements very much Martinů’s offspring. Procedures and sounds evoked Bartók too: another salutary reminder of opposition to fascism. Anger was retained and transmuted in the second movement, accompanied now by the deepest of grief, whether voiced by piano (Holger Groschopp), strings, or both. How that grief told in present circumstances! The finale renewed the virtues of the opening movement, taking the forward in a jagged, mordant dance of death, culminating in grim apotheosis. Tragedy, then, in every sense of the word.

And yet, onward we must go, however bleak and dark our prospects may seem. What better way to make that attempt than with the twin inventions of Ligeti and Haydn? Stefan Dohr joined an ensemble of outstanding MCO players, four natural horns (José Cicente Castelló, Jonathan Wegloop, José Miguel Asensi Marti, and Lionel Pointet) among them, for Ligeti’s Hamburg Concerto, outstandingly led as ever by Roth. As Haydn laid before us an almost Newtonian tonal universe — not for nothing do many consider The Creation his supreme masterpiece of masterpieces — so Ligeti went beyond, to genuinely new discoveries, explaining: ‘In this piece I experimented with very unusual non-harmonic sound spectra. … By providing each horn or group of horns with different fundamentals I was able to construct novel sound spectra from the resulting overtones. These harmonies, which had never been used before, sound “weird” in relation to harmonic spectra. I developed both “weird” consonant and dissonant harmonies, with complex beats.’ The controlled mystery of the opening ‘Praeludium’ — perhaps in its way a late-twentieth-century ‘Representation of Chaos’ — seemed to tell us so much of what the work would be about. Moreover every note, ‘weird’ or not, told, as it might have done in Haydn, Webern, so many others from the great tradition with which Ligeti had far from entirely broken. The second of seven short movements, ‘Signale, Tanz, Choral,’ suggested an almost Benjaminian sense of play, first between horns, then between other instruments, not least the basset horns specifically chosen by the composer for enrichment and blend of sounds. A truly mesmerising solo duet from Dohr announced the three inner movements: ‘Aria, Askak, Hoketus’, ‘Solo, Intermezzo, Mixtur, Kanon’, and ‘Spectra’. An ensemble of untold yet controlled giddiness led us by the hand toward that fifth movement of near-Messiaensque sublimity. The closing ‘Capriccio’ and ‘Hymnus’ lived up fully to their names and yet equally expanded our understanding of them and their possibilities. For an encore, Dohr treated us to some of the finest playing and musicianship I have ever heard on any instrument, in a riveting Messiaen ‘Appel interstellaire’ from Des Canyons aux étoiles.

And so, we returned to Haydn and to E-flat major for the Drum-Roll Symphony, his penultimate, written more than thirty years later than the first symphony we had heard. Just as Ligeti’s work had, in context, picked up the importance of horns from Haydn, now Haydn picked up from Martinů a special role for timpani. Matthias Kelemen, beguilingly inventive without a hint of narcissism for his Intrada, was responded to in kind by cellos and others: a not dissimilar relationship of versicle and response from The Philosopher. Indeed, the first-movement introduction as a whole proved uncommonly dramatic, finding form in that drama as much as drama in that form. The exposition likewise presented Haydn both as single-minded and multi-voiced, an example for us all. Contrapuntal density and similar direction characterised a development section as full of surprises as the moment of return — whether one ‘knew’ or not. In the second movement — no sense whatsoever here of this being a slow movement — Roth’s swift tempo and lightness of texture did not in any sense preclude depth or exultancy. It was full of colour and delight, even — especially? — for someone such as me, who hears it so differently in his head. Matthew Truscott’s violin solo delighted equally; so too did a purpose that we only call Beethovenian because, quite frankly, it is, however much avant la lettre. I learned much from this and can say no better than that. The minuet witnessed a properly generative balance between the straightforward and sophisticated, echoed yet far from banally repeated in its trio. The controlled — that word again — helter-skelter of the finale offered kinship to Ligeti and a glint in the aural eye far from dissimilar, for both were surely the most European of composers. Haydn’s joy brought tears to my ears for a number of reasons. Catharsis, then, in humanism.

Mark Berry

Leave a Comment