Friday 7 March 2014

Jaermann/Amaya Trio/Owen/Portugheis - Zemlinsky and Schoenberg, 5 March 2014

Hall One, Kings Place

Zemlinsky – Feiger Gedanken bängliches Schwanken, op.22 no.3; Volkslied, op.22 no.5; Das bucklige Männlein, op.22 no.6; Jetzt ist die Zeit, op.27 no.4; Die Verschmähte, op.27 no.5; Harlem Tänzerin, op.27 no.8
Schoenberg – Verklärte Nacht, op.4, arr. for piano trio by Eduard Steuermann
Schoenberg – Chamber Symphony no.1, op.9, version for two pianos

Marie Jaermann (soprano)
Amaya Piano Trio (Batia Murvitz (piano), Lea Tuuri (violin), Lauri Rantamoijanen (cello))
Charles Owen, Alberto Portugheis (pianos)

Zemlinsky benefited from a better selection of repertoire than he had received on the first evening of this two concert series, ‘Schoenberg – Master and Pupil’. He also benefited from a better performance of the pieces selected. The six songs performed, three from his op.22 set, and three from op.27, showed the mature composer rather than someone ineptly, if not uninterestingly, straining towards Brahms. The op.22 songs were written in 1934, and premiered in that year in Prague. We hear the composer offering a tonal richness partly born of Schoenberg, yet without following him into breathing the air of another planet, and with a relative concision, even toughness, characterising much of Zemlinsky’s later music, op.22 no.3, for instance, seemingly over in no time at all. Similarly for the op.27 songs, from three years later. Earlier preoccupations - the Wunderhorn setting, ‘Das bücklige Männlein’ inevitably puts us in mind of Der Zwerg – and later ones alike, for instance the Harlem renaissance in op.27 no.8, show themselves mutually accommodating rather than contradictory. It would be difficult to consider them works of genius – unlike, say, the Lyric Symphony – but they are accomplished songs, and that is how they came across in concert. Marie Jaermann offered cleanly sung, direct performances, not without occasional moments of shrillness, but giving a proper sense of the songs’ qualities. Alberto Portugheis’s rendition of the piano parts was uninspired, often heavy-handed and bludgeoning, but at least competent – which, sadly, was far more than could be said for his performance later on.

Eduard Steuermann’s arrangement of Verklärte Nacht for piano trio is a curiosity, though not an especially revealing one – unlike, say, the gorgeous transcriptions of Johann Strauss waltzes by Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern (in almost every respect preferable to the originals!) There are passages in which the new instrumentation works well enough, but equally there are passages where it does not. The very opening, heard on the piano, sounds leaden, and there are too many instances where balances do not really work – partly, I think, a problem with performance, but not entirely so. What we heard from the Amaya Piano Trio was for the most part a decent enough performance, but somewhat short of inspired, which is probably what a transcription such as this really needs, if it is to come closer to convincing. Violinist Lea Tuuri’s intonation often left something to be desired; Batia Murvitz and Lauri Rantamoijanen proved more sensitive. There were, however, too many passages in which Schoenberg’s ebb and flow did not seem fully understood, or at least conveyed. This music needs to move like Tristan; here it often sounded four-square, sectional, the rests endured, counted through, rather than ‘played’.

One will generally learn something, hear something new, from transcriptions, even if they do not convince fully. It is certainly of interest to hear, if only occasionally, a work such as Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony in piano guise. I remember learning a great deal from hammering my way through a version for piano solo, as part of my preparations for conducting the piece years ago. Alas that was, at best, what Portugheis seemed to be doing here, a doubly frustrating situation since Charles Owen’s musicianship proved, insofar as one could tell, to be on another level entirely. Indeed, on the odd occasions when Portugheis fell silent, we suddenly, all too briefly, seemed to be in the realm of a real performance: tantalising, even beguiling. Then we returned to a realm of rehearsal speeds, fistfuls of wrong notes, general incomprehension. There seems little point in saying anything much on the performance as interpretation, but someone, at some point, really ought to have advised Portugheis against performing something of which he was clearly so utterly incapable. A long, drawn-out performance such as this would have been more likely to repel than to attract audiences to Schoenberg. In its way, it was as bizarre and as lacking in basic competence as Rick Jones's accompanying programme note, full of nonsense such as this: ‘The 19th century had all but killed off the symphony.’ It read, at best, as if someone had been inhaling air from another planet entirely.