Tuesday 14 October 2014

Ensemble Modern - Cerha, Petraškevičs, Schöllhorn, and Schoenberg, 10 October 2014

Wigmore Hall

Cerha – Acht Sätze nach Hölderlin-Fragmenten
Jānis Petraškevičs – gefährlich dünn (world premiere)
Johannes Schöllhorn – sous-bois (world premiere)
Schoenberg – Verklärte Nacht, op.4 

Jagdish Mystry, Giorgos Panagiotidis, Corinna Canzian, Diego Ramos Rodriguez (violins)
Megumi Kasakawa, Patrick Jüdt (viola)
Eva Böcker, Michael M. Kasper (cello)

The Ensemble Modern is an organisation to which we all owe a great debt. Rehearsing an average of seventy new works every year, twenty of which are world premieres, it involves itself in orchestral, ensemble, and chamber concerts, theatre works, dance and video projects. This Wigmore Hall concert fell into the chamber category, although, with eight players in Janis Petraškevičs’s gefährlich dünn, for double string quartet, it was not so distant from the disputed border with ‘ensemble’ territory. The other works were all for string sextet, concluding in what, Brahms notwithstanding, is surely now the most celebrated of all essays in the genre, Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht.

Friedrich Cerha, like Anthony Payne, seems fated to be known first and foremost for his realisation of another composer’s work. And indeed, it is difficult not to think of Berg as a forerunner for much of Cerha’s music, these 1995 movements after Hölderlin included. There is nothing wrong with that; is it possible think of a better model or inspiration? And indeed, what we might consider to be the last gasps of expressionism keep on gasping. The first, slow movement, ‘Fair life! You lie sick, and my heart is/Tired from weeping, and fear is already dimming in me,’ came across as a slow processional, with some high-lying violin writing offering textural contrast.  After its Bergian melancholy, the second movement, responding to the third stanza of the Schicksalslied, as set by Brahms, offered highly rhythmical contrast, the general sense of unease exacerbated by passages of voluptuousness I am again tempted to call Bergian. Terse on the whole, it leads to a brief, inconclusive third-movement attempt to settle, which in turn seem – and certainly seemed, in this fine performance – to set the scene for the scurrying lines of the fourth movement, Presto misterioso. Its lightness registered as almost scherzo-like. ‘The lines of life are different,/Like paths, and like mountain ranges,/What we are here a god can fulfil/With harmonies and eternal joy and peace.’ That inspiration for the fifth movement fulfilled its promise as the beating heart of the work, its sweetness of harmony more than once reminiscent of Messiaen. A highly rhythmical contrast, echoing that between the first and second movements, was offered in the sixth: vehement, even furious at times. I should have defied anyone not to be impressed by the unanimity of ensemble, but such was the level of performance that this simply seemed to ‘be’ the work. Late-twentieth-century Brahms was one thought that came to mind. The slow, seventh movement proved richly expressive: mostly homophonic until a degree of unravelling, presaging what seemed like the new birth of the final movement, with its rapt scurrying. ‘The heart is awake again, but heartlessly/Immense night draws me always.’ If the words seemed almost to suggest Tristan, then the sense of hypnosis did not seem so very distant from Stockhausen.

gefährlich dünn (fragile pieces for double string quartet), by the Latvian composer, Jānis Petraškevičs, is the second piece he had written for the Ensemble Modern, following the 2012 Darkroom. It was definitely for double quartet rather than octet, the two quartets seated as such. Early, rapt – that word again – harmonies provoke intrusions and elicit blossoming of a kind, which does not seem entirely conciliatory. It is a work of considerable intensity and contrast, not least in the audible and visible contrast between those playing with and without vibrato; that intensity and contrast certainly registered strongly in this performance. Repetitions bring to our attention and perhaps also call into question the ‘fragility’ of the pieces, which, through their harmonics and quarter-tones, sing in a tradition of which Cerha and Berg may stand as forerunners.

Johannes Schöllhorn’s sous-bois (as in the French for ‘undergrowth’ or ‘forest floor’) also received its premiere. Is it perhaps an echo of Richard Dehmel’s poem for Schoenberg, and indeed Schoenberg’s response thereto? Here one was led to think that it might be. An arresting, swarming opening set up a contrast, even contest, with silence, employed not necessarily ‘like’ Bruckner or even Mahler, but nevertheless suggestive of the (Bavarian) Alps in which the composer was born. Indeed, more than once, I found myself considering this fascinating work in a post-Mahlerian context: doubtless partly a matter of personal preoccupation, but not, I think, entirely so. For the melancholy one felt was recognisably in such a mould too. There was always a discernible line, even if, at least on a first hearing, I might not be able to explain how. ‘Atmosphere’ there was aplenty, amongst the glissandi, the col legno playing, the tremolandi, the trills, and the other ‘effects’, but they never came across as anything but integral to this progress through the undergrowth, if that indeed be what it is. I should very much like to hear this work again. May we hope for a recording?

Finally, Verklärte Nacht. It had been but a fortnight earlier that I had heard members of the London Sinfonietta give a splendidly modernistic performance of this work at Kings Place. Perhaps inevitably, the programming and the nature of the ensemble tilted this performance also towards what was to come rather than the inheritance from Wagner and Brahms. Yet there was palpable sadness at the opening, in a performance which, like that of the Sinfonietta, gave a strong sense of the six players as individuals, as if members of a quartet. Vulnerable, even halting, this opening contrasted markedly – perhaps not unlike the Cerha movements – with the richness of what to come. Sometimes I longed for a little more expansiveness, but in retrospect I thought the players had been in the right. There were intriguing, far from arbitrary, moments of restraint too. Intonation was not always impeccable, but in context, I was far less distracted by that than I might have been expected; if anything, (relative) imperfection heightened the ‘edge’. And there was no doubting the silvery ‘transfiguration’, imbued with a more than usually powerful sense of musical return. For a performance that refused to treat this as ‘popularly acceptable’ or ‘accessible’, ‘late Romantic’ Schoenberg, we had good reason to be grateful.