Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence (1), ‘L’Alto à l’honneur’ – Loeffler, Bray, Liszt, Kodály, and Brahms, 13 July 2018


Conservatoire Darius Milhaud

Charles Martin Loeffler: Quatre poèmes, op.5
Charlotte Bray: In Black Light (world premiere)
Liszt: Romance oubliée, S 132
Kodály: Adagio for viola and piano
Brahms: Zwei Gesänge, op.91

Tabea Zimmermann (viola)
Andrea Hill (soprano)
Edwige Herchenroder (piano)


An oddly patchy concert, this: alongside the most unidiomatic professional Liszt performance I can recall and only intermittently successful Brahms, we heard a highly convincing world premiere and fine performances of two other works hitherto unknown to me: one indeed written by a composer of whom I had not previously heard. That composer was Charles Martin Loeffler, one of the works his Quatre poèmes, op.5 of 1893. Or should that have been Karl Martin Loeffler? So consumed with hatred, it seems, had the young Karl been for Germany that, even following his emigration to the USA, he would claim to have been born not Prussian but Alsatian and changed his name accordingly. Quatre poèmes was doubtless chosen because it would involve all three musicians performing in this concert, but it seemed to me on a single hearing fully to justify inclusion on merit. One heard, aptly enough, what seemed to be a largely yet not exclusively German sense of harmony with a more French taste in verse, melody, and sometimes texture too. The first song, a setting of Baudelaire’s La Cloche fêlée, seemed to mediate both as work and performance between Duparc and Brahms, Tabea Zimmermann’s viola-playing – Loeffler was an early enthusiast for the viola d’amore – becoming more Romantically ardent as the piece demanded or suggested. It offered development in a more conventionally instrumental sense, yet seemed also to have something of a Franco-Flemish (Franck, perhaps soon Debussy too) taste for the cyclical. It certainly convinced, moreover, as a response to the poem. The Verlaine ‘Dansons la gigue’ was gypsy-like – at least in a nineteenth-century sense – whilst also seemingly responding to Carmen in its more reflective moments. Verlaine was the poet for the remaining two pieces too. An atmosphere of general sadness, relieved somewhat by finely spun piano arabesques from Edwige Herchenrode, characterised ‘Le Son du cor s’afflige vers les bois’. The vocal line in the closing ‘Sérénade’, and Andrea Hill’s delivery of it, hinted at la vieille France, but this was no pastiche, instead a dramatic evocation of another time, ‘mandoline’ and all. I even fancied there were suggestions of the darker Ravel: presentiments, though, given the date. Fascinating: I shall be keen to hear more Loeffler.


I have always been keen to hear more Charlotte Bray too. The world premiere of In Black Light, for solo viola, furthered that keenness. It struck me as having some aspects of variational form – developing variation if you will, but also something more ‘traditional’ than that – within an overarching framework that has something of what would once have called a tone poem to it. Rhythms and intervals help generate style and idea. Following a grave opening of (relative) pitch extremes, a broad canvas emerges, upon which composer and performer alike offer a commanding variety of musical strokes: one section ‘jagged and fiery’ (Bray), another ‘a kind of broken waltz’, another ‘a mysterious pizzicato miniature’, and so on: related yet contrasting. The rhythmic profile is certainly sharp – and was certainly sharp in Zimmermann’s commanding performance, clearly highly attuned to the work’s contours and expressive requirements. The opening theme’s return did indeed sound, to quote the composer again, ‘urgently present and expressively charged’.


Liszt’s Romance oubliée has always seemed to me – perhaps unsurprisingly – superior in its piano solo version. That, however, is no reason to shun any of its others, especially when ‘actual’ Liszt chamber music is so thin on the ground, the composer’s tendency being, not unlike Wagner’s, to write chamber music within works for larger forces. The opening solo line certainly suits the viola, yet this proved for violist and pianist alike a strangely constricted performance, tentative to the point of incoherence. Kodály’s Adagio, first written for violin, then arranged for viola, proved much more Zimmermann and Herchenroder’s thing. Its darkly Romantic opening sounded almost Elgarian – at least to this Englishman. Zimmermann spun a rich, yet far from indulgent line, which enabled the material to develop in far from predictable fashion. If her pianist seemed very much the ‘accompanist’, she performed well in that role. As she did in the two closing Brahms songs; to begin with, indeed, we might have been about to hear a newly discovered sonata for viola and piano. Taken as a whole, though, those performances might have been more attuned to the songs’ form. Lack of direction, even meandering, married to a reticent way with the words (Rückert’s) from Hill sometimes made for heavy Brahmsian weather. If only they had been performed as if written by Loeffler.

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