Saturday, 28 June 2014

Knussen Aldeburgh - Carter, Webern - and Mendelssohn ?

Mendelssohn Symphony No 1, with Elliott Carter's Instances for chamber orchestra (2012), written shortly before his death aged 103. Trust Oliver Knussen to come up with a programme that blends Mendelssohn, Dallapiccola, Carter, Webern and Ligeti, conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe at the Maltings, Snape, Aldeburgh, part of this year's Aldeburgh Music Festival. Knussen's programmes are intriguing, always planned with musical nous and intelligence.

At first, I was shocked. Mendelssohn played with exuberance that veered close to wildness? Definitely not the kind of over-processed, over-manicured performance that puts too many  people off Mendelssohn. Instead Knussen made us think of Mendelssohn as audacious and free-spirited. Our perceptions are shaped by received wisdom, tainted by Wagnerian prejudice asnd boring, safe performasnce practice. Knussen might shock, but boring he never is.

Mendelssohn and Elliott Carter have a lot more in common than one might expect. Geniality and good humoured wit, for example, and an appreciation for stylish bon mot. Carter's Instances for chamber orchestra is an eight-minute piece for a medium-sized orchestra. In the first six minutes "a seemingly random sequence of sonorities and figures are are playfully flung at the listener", to quote Bayan Northcott, who writes serious programme notes, the kind that deserve to be quoted and remembered, infinitely more rewarding than the superficial pap that programme notes have beome (other than at Aldeburgh),  ".... culminating in a surging tutti, suddenly broken off. At this point a slower chorale-like texture previously adumbrated by  the brass, is taken up mainly by the strings in a more sustained and touchingly valedictory coda".  Then a deliberate pause, and a two minute "second movement" asserts itself, reiterating the ideas in the first movement with joyous, epigramatic concision.  As so often with Carter's later work, the piece seems intimate, as if the players were conversing, delighting in exchange.

Hearing Anton Webern's Symphony Op 21 (1928) after Elliott Carter made me realize how much Carter and Webern have in common, too. Two distinct movements within ten minutes, and an orchestra pared down to basics. The first movement "Ruhig, schreitend" employs an "Exposition comprising an intricate double canon, But the lines are so fragmented and criss-crossed " that they seem processional.  The double canon repeats  "but with the note values so altered, and the dynamics intensified, it sounds quite different", adds Northcott. The second movement "Variationen" develops the theme yet again, in even more distilled purity, ending elusively, as if the symphony, such as it is, will play out in the imagination.

A listener request, phoned in by another composer! Knussen has a thing for repeating shorter works in a concert. This time, he repeated the second movement of Webern's Symphony, so we could further savour its elusive, tantalizing promise.

Ligeti's Melodien for orchestra (1971) concluded the programme. Spastic pizzicato suggesting kinetic, oddly organic flickerings, glimpses of half-hidden images barely grasped in the undergrowth.  Carter, Webern and Ligeti forming a trinity  in which the idea of a symphony take new fiorm.  Earlier in the programme, Knussen followed Mendelssohn  with Luigi Dallapiccola's An Mathilde, a cantata based on three Heine poems, Den Strauss, den mir Mathilde band,  Gedächtnisfeier, and An die Engel. The soloist was Katrien Baerts. An interesting piece, which should be heard more, but this concert favoured the orchestra rather than voice and orchestra.

Tonight, Klangforum Wien presents two equally fascinating concerts under Ilan Volkov, the late night concert featuring Tristan Murail's Winter Fragments (2000) and Gérard Grisey's Vortex Temporum I, II and iii (1994-6) Alas, I can't be there but you can read about the pieces HERE and HERE. Klangforum Wien is one of the finest new music ensembles of its kind, so I hope the concert is recorded.

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