Sweden Vattnäs Chamber Music Festival 2023  – From Here to Eternity – Music That Survives Everything: Anna Sjögren (recitation), Lovisa Huledal (mezzo-soprano), Karin Mobacke (soprano), Amelia Jakobsson (soprano), Anna Larsson (contralto), Göran Eliasson (tenor), Kristoffer Töyrä (bass-baritone), Johannes Marmén (violin), Amalie Stalheim (cello), Eelis Malmivirta (French horn), Octavian Leyva Dragomir (piano), Martin Sturfält (piano), Michael Engström (piano), Marmén Quartet, Vattnäs Strings, Earendel Quintet / Fredrik Burstedt (conductor). Vattnäs Concert Barn, 15.7.2023. (GF)
Vocal music dominated the first two days of the festival, and initially the third and last day continued in the same vein. Early and fairly late twentieth-century music was the common denominator, with Alban Berg and Alma Mahler representing the early years, actually the years immediately after the turn of the century. Alban Berg is of course associated with the Second Viennese School and the development of the twelve-tone technique, but when he composed Sieben Frühe Lieder between 1905 and 1908 he was still influenced by the late Romantic school, and in later years they have become very popular and generated several recordings. Karin Mobacke sang them excellently with beautiful tone and expressivity and her enunciation was beyond reproach. Moreover she introduced the songs charmingly. Lovisa Huledal also introduced Alma Mahler’s Fünf Lieder and told the depressing story of how her husband forbade her to continue composing when they had married. Towards the end of his life he still changed his mind and helped Alma to publish the some of the songs, which now have begun to get a foothold in the standard repertoire. Lovisa Huledal was also expressive and nuanced and sang with great warmth. As a charming encore Karin and Lovisa sang Brahms’s Vier Duetten, Op.61 about the sisters who loved the same man. A light-hearted conclusion. Octavian Leyva Dragomir was, as usual, a lenient accompanist.
With Shostakovich’s Seven Romances on Poems by Aleksander Blok (Op.127) we were transported to a quite different world, where ‘Gloom Enwraps the Sleeping City’ as the title of the fourth poem says. The cycle was composed in 1967 for Galina Vishnevskaya and her husband Mstislav Rostropovich. It is set for soprano and piano trio, but all four parts come together only in the last song. It is a dark and frightening work and with the involved and intense singing of Amelia Jakobsson and the perceptive playing of Johannes Marmén, Amalie Stalheim and Martin Sturfält this was a deeply moving experience. The atmosphere was breathless in the concert barn.
What to play after this? The only possible answer is: Something just as gripping. Schubert’s Winterreise certainly qualifies, and Winterreise was the choice – not the whole cycle but a selection of nine songs. They were sung by the young bass-baritone Kristoffer Töyrä, who made great impact with a Rangström song on the first day. Here, accompanied by the excellent Octavian Leyva Dragomir, he could blossom out to the full. His imposing but also softly sensitive voice made the most of folk song like gems like Der Lindenbaum and Frühlingsglaube, but he impressed even more in the more tragical songs in the second part of the cycle. In Die Krähe and the two final songs, Die Nebensonnen and Der Leiermann he stood out as a fully-fledged lieder singer with a rich array of vocal colours and nuances. Now I look forward to hearing him in the complete cycle. He certainly has the measure for it.
After a well-deserved interval the audience returned to a full-size instrumental work, Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata in G minor, Op.19, composed immediately after his most popular work, the piano concerto in C minor. Martin Sturfält maintained in his spoken introduction that Rachmaninov borrowed material from the concerto and recycled them in the sonata. I can’t say that I could identify any particular borrowings, other than general likenesses, but the sonata, which I have known for many years, is an admirable work in its own right. Rachmaninov explicitly claimed that the piano and the cello are equals in this work, and one of the great pleasures of listening to the sonata was to savour the interplay between Sturfält and Amalie Stalheim, not least visually with intense eye-contact and very telling body-language. The meltingly romantic tone in Stalheim’s Ruggieri cello from 1687 garnered laurels in the third movement Andante but was equally efficient in the tremendous finale, and the response from the audience was formidable.
A rarity is Benjamin Britten’s Three Songs From the Matter of the Heart, composed in 1956 to texts by Edith Sitwell. It is scored for narrator, tenor, horn and piano and I would need to hear it again, preferably with text in hand. It was a gripping experience even so. Anna Sjögren was an expressive and well-modulated narrator, Göran Eliasson, who has a penchant for Britten, handled the far from easy tenor part with strong identification and young Eelis Malmivirta played the tricky horn part with aplomb, while Michael Engström kept things together from the piano stool.
It took some time to refurnish the stage before the eagerly awaited Marmén Quartet could enter the stage. The founder and leader Johannes Marmén had already introduced himself in the Shostakovich cycle before the interval. Now it was time to meet the other three members of the quartet, which is based in London. They opened with Haydn, ‘the father of the string quartet’, and the second of the so called ‘Prussian’ quartets, Op.50 No.2. It is not one of the most frequently played, but Haydn is always Haydn, always full of ideas and humour. This specimen was a bit sprawling, but the vivace assai finale was a mercurial adventure played with stunning precision. And precision was also the keyword in Béla Bartók’s five-movement fourth quartet, written in 1928. It is composed in arch-form with the first movement related to the last and the second related to the fourth, while the third movement is standalone. There are also some interesting technical features. In the murmuring second movement all the instruments are played with mutes and the entire fourth movement is played pizzicato. The almost barbaric outer movements were played with tremendous force and intensity and pin-point precision, that left this listener breathless – and obviously the rest of the audience as well, to judge from the ovations. In the short break after the Bartók for refurnishing, I heard several admiring comments concerning the precision.
When the curtain opened again the stage was filled to the brim with all available instrumentalists, constituting the chamber orchestra needed to perform Arnold Schoenberg’s arrangement of Gustav Mahler’s Abschied from Das Lied von der Erde, his last completed work. Beautifully attired in blue and having sung this music all over the world Anna Larsson wanted to perform the song as the manifestation of the eternity perspective of the motto for the evening, and she began by reading her own translation of the German text. The pick-up orchestra then played with admirable precision and with exquisite solos from the woodwind under the secure direction of Fredrik Burstedt, and Larsson sang with memorable simplicity and deep involvement the achingly beautiful solo part, ending in the repeated word Ewig! It was a deeply moving experience for musicians and audience alike, and the crowning glory of the whole festival. May there be a continuation next summer!