Sunday, 26 June 2011

Graffin, Kovacevich, Mørk, et al. - Beethoven, Brahms, Schoenberg, and Debussy, 25 June 2011

Wigmore Hall

Beethoven – Cello Sonata in D major, op.102 no.2
Brahms – Piano Trio no.3 in C minor, op.101
Schoenberg – Phantasy, for violin and piano, op.47
Schoenberg (arr. Webern) – Chamber Symphony no.1, op.9
Debussy (arr. David Matthews) – Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

Philippe Graffin (violin)
Truls Mørk (violoncello)
Juliette Hurel (flute)
Chen Halevi (clarinet)
Stephen Kovacevich (piano, crotales)
Claire Désert, Marisa Gupta (piano)

This was a delightful programme of music from the Consonances Festival at Saint-Nazaire, whose twentieth anniversary was also celebrated here in London. Though Philippe Graffin is founder and director, his collegiality was immediately demonstrated in the opening piece: Beethoven’s D major Cello Sonata, op.102 no.2, performed by Truls Mørk and Stephen Kovacevich. Kovacevich’s Beethovenian credentials need no introduction; he was on fine form, announcing his depth of tone from the opening bars. Both players presented a first movement full of vigour, without the slightest hint of ‘period’ restraint or preciousness: Beethoven for today, as he must be, not for an imaginary museum. There was beautifully hushed playing where necessary; the scope and gradation of the final crescendo had to be heard to be believed. Motivic working was very much to the fore, preparing the way for Brahms. The slow movement proved both soulful and weighty, for Kovacevich and Mørk – not to forget Beethoven – were speaking of serious things. It passed in a long breath, conceived and executed as a whole. The finale took us back to Bach, of course, though forward to Bach always seems a more apt way of thinking; equally notable, however, was the scherzo-like, or rather scherzo-plus character imparted. Strong, indeed overwhelming, rhythmic impetus was the order of the day, balanced or rather questioned by the ‘late’ almost-but-not-quite-fragmentary quality of the writing. Form, likewise, was externalised and attacked, as if in preparation for the truly late Missa solemnis. There were occasions here and in the following piece where Kovacevich did not always hit all of the right notes, but the spirit was present, just as in the best of Daniel Barenboim’s Beethoven.

Graffin joined the musicians for Brahms’s C minor Piano Trio, which received a turbulently Romantic, not necessarily ‘late’ performance, especially in its opening Allegro energico. The full-blooded sound was a wonder in itself, but there was nothing narcissistic about this urgent, probing account. Ghostly strangeness announced an immediate transformation of mood in the scherzo. Now we truly heard Brahms the Schoenbergian Progressive, the intensity of motivic working we had already experienced in Beethoven given a further turn or two of the screw. Most noteworthy of all was the passing and development of material between parts, not only a splendid indication of true chamber-playing, but clearly prophetic of Webern. One could say much the same about the sense of concision: it is there in the music, never a note wasted, of course, but the players really made it sound. The final two movements presented a dialectic between near-imploding difficulty and Beethovenian, plain-spoken gruffness. (What excellent sense the programming made!) Yet there was a guiding thread through the Brahmsian labyrinth, that of harmonic rhythm. Intensity always came from within and was all the greater for that.

If the first-half performances were excellent, the Schoenberg Phantasy, op.47, which opened the second half, received as fine a performance as I have ever heard, arguably better. Quite why violin-and-piano duos are not queuing around the corner to perform this masterly work, I genuinely do not understand, but then I have never understood the aversion to Schoenberg’s music in certain quarters. One needs excellent, preferably great, performances, and one needs to listen. Graffin and Claire Désert presented a panorama of Schoenberg within the piece’s relatively brief span. Haunted by Brahms, and by old Vienna – those waltz rhythms that will not die – this was equally a forthright, forward-looking, declamatory Schoenberg. Graffin offered superlatively centred playing, revealing the work’s kinship with the meaningful, indeed hyper-meaningful virtuosity of the scandalously neglected Violin Concerto. Both players proved unfailingly alert to rhythm and harmony. Most importantly, their performance sang, as Schoenberg’s music must (even when it is spoken!) The Phantasy emerged as an Erwartung-like monodrama with violin as soloist, now heard through the emotional prism of the slightly earlier String Trio, and a worthy successor to that unqualified masterpiece. This was a truly outstanding performance.

Webern’s arrangement of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony welcomed Mørk back to the stage, with newcomers, flautist Juliette Hurel and clarinettist Chen Halevi also joining Graffin and Désert. I am in two minds about this reduction, which it really is, for one hears little or nothing of Webern’s compositional personality. Schoenberg would doubtless never have allowed such free rein. It is peculiar to hear the first note from violin, though flute, cello, and clarinet soon reminded us of the ‘correct’ timbres for much of their material. What we hear is really the chamber symphony edged back into chamber music, more Brahms than Strauss. One can only pity the poor pianist, having to negotiate both super-Brahmsian textures and an excess, even by Schoenberg’s standards, of melodic profusion. Désert accomplished that as well as could be reasonably expected, arguably better. The tempi adopted were often breakneck, though not in the relaxed tension – a typical Schoenbergian dialectic – of the slow movement, yet even when they recalled, perhaps even exceeded, the young Boulez with his Domaine musical players, the performance was so full of life that it never felt unduly driven. Indeed, one appreciated anew, despite the imperfect instrumentation, what a life-affirming piece of music this is, every bit as much as a symphony by Haydn. There are occasions where, I think, the arrangement does not really work, not least the strangely Ivesian textures at the end of the scherzo, yet there could be no faulting the performance, whose fullness of sound made one wonder what on earth a full performance of the chamber symphony as composed would sound like.

After that, David Matthews’s new arrangement of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune allowed some paradoxical cooling in its languid warmth. Marisa Gupta joined the band as second pianist – Matthews writes for piano duet – and Kovacevich returned to play the peculiar part for crotales (antique cymbals). I am not sure that the latter added anything very much; they had something of a drowning effect when employed. Nor am I convinced that the arrangement itself is of particular interest, though it does its job well enough. Again, it seems more of a reduction than a reimagining. Benno Sachs’s transcription has obvious Second Viennese School lineage in such a context. The performance was good, though, Hurel’s flute whetting the appetite for a rendition of Debussy’s original.

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