Friday 18 April 2008

Scharoun Ensemble/Boulez, 18 April 2008

Philharmonie, Kammermusiksaal

Bach-Webern – Ricercare a 6, from The Musical Offering, BWV 1079
Webern – Five Movements, for string quartet, Op.5
Webern – Three Songs, for voice, E flat clarinet, and guitar, Op.18
Webern – Concerto for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, trumpet, trombone, violin, viola, and piano, Op.24
Berg – Seven Early Songs, arr. for ensemble by Reinbert de Leeuw
Schoenberg – Chamber Symphony no.1 in E major, Op.9

Scharoun Ensemble and guests

Barbara Hannigan (soprano)
Pierre Boulez (conductor)

This concert marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Scharoun Ensemble, the new music ensemble – albeit with a repertoire extending back to the Baroque – founded by six members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and two other musicians. Two of the original members remain: Peter Riegelbauer on the double bass and horn-player Stefan de Leval Jezierski. Today’s ensemble of eight was joined by a number of other instrumentalists, including other members of the Berlin Philharmonic and, most laudably, its orchestral academy. So high was the quality of solo and ensemble playing that I think it would have been impossible for anyone successfully to distinguish between members and guests, although doubtless the absolute security of the core players was crucial to the integration of the others. Indeed, such is the ensemble’s calibre that it was able to secure none other than Pierre Boulez to conduct. It was good to see Sir Simon Rattle in the audience too.

I do not think that I had previously heard Webern’s celebrated Bach transcription performed by an ensemble of soloists rather than by full orchestra. The good news is that it works extremely well. (There is no bad news.) This performance struck a finely-judged note between chamber and orchestral music. It was notable that the instrumentalists were listening to each other as chamber musicians, whilst also taking their cue from Boulez. This in fact was a characteristic of the rest of the programme too (bar Webern’s Op.5, which was not conducted). Boulez did not resort to the generous, some might say exaggerated, rubato that a conductor such as Esa-Pekka Salonen has employed in this work. Instead, the music unfolded with supremely natural inevitability. It was perhaps more beautiful than I had ever heard before; this was not, however, a surface beauty, but representative of an extraordinary polyphonic and timbral richness. The linear transitions between instruments registered Webern’s Klangfarbenmelodie with a well-nigh perfect balance between similarity and difference.

Webern’s Five movements for string quartet received a performance at least as good as any I have heard. It was more rich in string tone than the Arditti Quartet performance I heard last year: not necessarily better, but certainly different. The viola opening to the second movement, matchlessly performed by Micha Aufkham, sounded as ripe as late Brahms, and put me quite appropriately in mind of Brahms’s sonatas for viola and piano. This did not preclude violence where necessary, as in the eruption of the Sehr bewegt third movement. The full-blooded delicacy – the contradiction is deliberate – of those achingly rare wisps of sound in the fifth movement displayed another extreme of Webern’s and the ensemble’s soundworld. One was made to listen, not with the ultra-extremity of Nono’s music, but with an appreciation that this music lay somewhere between Brahms and Nono. In fact, I have never heard the work, or at least parts of it, sound so close to Verklärte Nacht.

Soprano Barbara Hannigan and guitarist Wilhelm Bruck joined the ensemble for Webern’s Op.18 songs. This is not one of Webern’s most ingratiating works but it is difficult to imagine a better performance. The strange dissocation between words and text in ‘expressive’ terms registered but, more importantly, so did the sense that the words suggest, indeed almost determine, the musical form. Each player’s – the third was Walter Seyfarth – ability not only to sound but also to express the intervals in his or her line ensured that the result was never clinical. As, of course, did Boulez. I was a little surprised, but also delighted, by the late-Romantic rubato he employed during the second song, Erlösung. There seemed to me little doubt that Boulez’s approach to Webern has now been influenced by his recent work on Mahler and no doubt whatsoever that Webern benefited. Seyfarth ensured that the high pitch of the E flat clarinet never became shrill, and the lengthy – at least in Webern’s terms! – instrumental postlude to the third song evinced a perfect match between timbral beauty and pin-point precision.

The first half came to an end with the masterpiece that is Webern’s Op.24 Concerto. A defining characteristic of this performance was that it truly was a concerto for (small) orchestra. Each instrument had and took its opportunity to shine, whilst never forgetting its place within the whole. Whilst it is invidious to single out any performer, I especially appreciated Wolfram Brandl’s sweet-toned violin and the splendidly neo-Brahmsian piano part as presented by Holger Groschopp. Rhythmic definition, just as important here as in Stravinsky or Bartók, was superb throughout, imparting a real sense of a concerto finale to the third movement, Sehr rasch.

Hannigan returned for Reinbert de Leeuw’s arrangement of Berg’s Sieben frühe Lieder. I had not heard the arrangement before, but thought it worked very well, cleverly incorporating aspects of Second Viennese practice in transcription of other music, not least the use of the harmonium, but also the scoring in general. The songs lay relatively low for Hannigan’s voice, allowing her to exhibit a richness that one might not have expected. This was not the richness of a Jessye Norman, of course, but it was certainly enough for an ensemble of this size. Indeed, there was a real sense of the singer being part of the ensemble, first among equals, rather than simply a ‘soloist’. Hannigan imparted a considerable erotic charge to much of the music, for instance in the final line, ‘O gib acht! Gib acht!’ of Nacht, or the Treibhaus-atmosphere of Die Nachtigall. She really worked with the words, almost all of them perfectly discernible, to produce music that appeared to emanate from them. The solo strings were almost unbelievably rich in tone, violist Micha Aufkham once again forming the expressive heart of the ensemble, visibly – and audibly – attentive to his colleagues and to the conductor. The instrumental postlude to Traumgekrönt was simply exquisite. Clarinettist Alexander Bader beautifully sounded the summer wind in Liebesode, followed by a telling recognition of the harmonic shift on ‘Und aus dem Garten…’ from soprano, conductor, and the entire ensemble. Boulez imparted a true sense of progression and unity to the songs, ensuring that there was no sense of miscellany.

Crowning this wonderful evening was, quite simply, the best performance of Schoenberg’s first chamber symphony I have heard, whether live or recorded. I have never experienced the work as quite so symphonic before, which is testament to the prowess of the players and to Boulez’s guiding hand. Inner parts sounded and told as if they were lines in a Brahms symphony – and, of course, one is not very far at all from Brahms, motivically or even harmonically. Every single line told from every member of the ensemble, and yet the whole was far greater, far richer than the considerable sum of the parts. Problems of balance never even seemed to be an issue, which in this of all works is a staggering achievement. The characterisation of each of the four movements within the single-movement overall plan was sharper than I can recall in any other performance, but their integration was just as remarkable. Rarely if ever can the sense of Schoenberg not only synthesising but also extending the paths of Brahms and Wagner have been so readily yet un-self-consciously apparent. Speeds were far from slow but the music relaxed when necessary, never sounding hard-driven, as can often been the case, and even used to be the case with this conductor. Boulez must re-record this work – and with these players. Better still, the entire concert should be released as a live recording. It was a perfect celebration of a great ensemble.