Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Salzburg Festival (7) – Scharoun Ensemble/Pintscher: ‘Beyond Recall: Kunstprojekt Salzburg’, 24 August 2013

 Grosser Saal, Mozarteum

Vykintas Baltakas – Eselbrücke
Mark Andre – E2
Dai Fujikura – silence seeking solace
Jay Schwartz – M
Olga Neuwirth – Piazza dei numeri
Bruno Mantovani – Spirit of Alberti
Matthias Pintscher – Beyond (A System of Passing)
Nina Šenk – In the Absence
Michael Jarrell – Adtende, ubi albescit veritas
Johannes Maria Staud – Caldera (for Tony Cragg): Szene im antilopischen Stil
David Fulmer – Faces of Awilda
Vito Žuraj – Insideout

Mojca Erdmann (soprano)
Dietrich Henschel (baritone)
Scharoun Ensemble and other members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Matthias Pintscher (conductor)

Anthony Cragg: Caldera

It seemed such a splendid idea: twelve new commissions, all to receive their first performances, each inspired by a different new(-ish) piece of public art in the city of Salzburg, especially since the quality of the latter works is far higher than what we must often endure in the United Kingdom. One expects something of a mixed bag in such situations, and that was certainly the case here; however, even had that not been the case, there was, at least for me, a distinct, indeed insuperable, problem with respect to the presentation. I like to think of myself as capable of enduring the odd musical marathon; as a Wagner scholar, my stamina has perhaps become greater than that of those whose musical experiences focus entirely upon the traditional concert. Moreover, I am very much in favour of experiments with concert form and length, though not necessarily just for the sake of it. Here, however, I simply found the experience too much. A concert of new works, not all of which are likely to become acclaimed as masterpieces, lasting from 7 p.m. until almost 11 p.m., with but one short interval, really did not show off any of the works to good advantage, a difficulty exacerbated by blinding lighting from the stage. (There was more than one instance I spied of a player wincing.) Half-way, or perhaps not even that, through the first half – actually comprised of seven pieces – I struggled to regain the will to live, and cannot imagine that I was entirely alone in that respect.

For that reason, I do not intend to go into any great detail concerning the pieces performed; I do not feel in a position to do so, and should rather say little or nothing than be unfairly damning. The first four pieces I could readily have done without. Vykintas Baltakas’s Eselbrücke is inspired by Brigitte Kowanz’s Beyond Recall, a commemoration of the prisoners of war who built Salzburg’s Staatsbrücke between 1941 and 1945. Eselbrücke was brighter than one might have expected, but that was partly the point, I think; however, its post-Stravinskian fanfare quality – presumably intended to portray the hustle and bustle of the modern city, motion without progress? – outstayed its welcome somewhat. Mark Andre’s E2, for double bass and cello, was merely dull: grey and well-nigh interminable. Mojca Erdmann made the first of a number of scintillating appearances in Dai Fujikura’s silence seeking solace, joining a string quartet in a piece that was pretty enough, but which did not evade suspicions of note-spinning. In a way, it was a relief to hear the pop-like repetitions of Mozart phrases in Jay Schwartz’s M, but, despite Dietrich Henschel’s committed performance – he generally seems in his element in new music – it was difficult to think that such post-minimalism (?) amounted to much more than shop-soiled rhythms and silly noises.

The other pieces in the first half seemed more substantial, though fatigue did not help their reception. Olga Neuwirth offered a typically finely-wrought ensemble piece (with high soprano, Erdmann), Piazza dei numeri, responding to Mario Merz’s Ziffern im Wald. Despite Neuwirth’s concern that she risked becoming obsessed with numbers – are not most composers, in one way or another? – she bases her score on Fibonacci rows from Merz’s igloo, formed of stainless steel struts, their neon-lit numbers most readily visible in the Mönchsberg evening. (The programme booklet for the concert is invaluable in its provision of such information.) As we heard numbers sung from the igloo, there was a definite sense that music and the image projected on a screen behind the stage – such was the case for all performances – now properly interacted, perhaps even merged. Bruno Mantovani’s Spirit of Alberti played with the Mozartian Alberti bass to iridescent ensemble effect. Matthias Pintscher’s Beyond (A System of Passing) for solo flute benefited enormously from the virtuosity and musicianship of Emmanel Pahud, but it was clearly a major addition to the solo flute repertoire in any case. Reacting to Anselm Kiefer’s Salzburg installation, A.E.I.O.U., the piece, in Pintscher’s own words, ‘enforces a quite different sound [from his preceding work, the orchestral Chute d’étoiles], one of great lightness. It is far more about air, paths, and perspectives – which are also a major topic in Kiefer’s work.’ Paths opened up and closed, likewise the perspectives of which Pintscher spoke; one could well imagine oneself engaging in a Salzburg miniature version (or vision) of Strauss’s Alpine journey.

The second half was more consistent in quality, though a certain sameness announced itself in hearing work after work for similar ensemble, even given the variables of vocal contribution. David Fulmer’s Faces of Alwida, the penultimate work to be performed, seemed at first to offer something quite different, and in a sense it did. However, its more ‘Eastern’ soundworld – the usual percussion suspects in particular – soon palled in a piece that sounded stretched to four or five times its optimum length. Nina Šenk and Vito Žuraj proved attentive vocal composers, the former’s In the Absence playful yet touching in its soprano setting of words by Graz artist, Erwin Wurm: ‘bi di bi di bi di bi di/bi di bi di ja zum bi dig e winn.’ Žuraj’s  Insideout was the only piece in which Erdmann and Henschel both participated, its struggle between the sexes evocative of the world of music-theatre. Michael Jarrell and Johannes Maria Staud both justified the regard in which they are held. The former’s Adtende, ubi albescit veritas is inspired by Christian Boltanski’s ghostly sculpture in the crypt of Salzburg Cathedral, death and hope confronting each other in a vocal work (Henschel again) whose piano-led ensemble seemed both to mirror and contest Alfred Hofmann’s translation from Augustine. Staud’s piece for soprano, clarinet, and prepared piano offered more than mere contrast. Taking its leave from perspectives thrown up by Tony Cragg’s Caldera, which stands in Makartplatz – not, ‘Markartplatz’, as the programme had it, both in German and in English –  Staud’s correspondences between soprano and clarinet, at times almost as one, seem heightened by the piano and ‘active page-turner’, whose lines, in the composer’s words, give ‘depth – a three-dimensionality – to what happens,’ and permit ‘a magma-like proliferation’. I wished that I could hear it by the sculpture itself, on another occasion.