Saturday 12 May 2018

BERGfrühling (2) – Debussy, Webern, and Mozart, 11 May 2018

Alban Berg Saal, Carinthian Music Academy, Ossiach

Debussy, arr. Michael Webster: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, for flute, clarinet, and piano
Webern: String Quartet (1905)
Mozart: Clarinet Quintet in A major, KV 581

Alban Berg Ensemble Wien (Sylvia Careddu (flute), Alexander Neubauer (clarinet), Ariane Haering (piano), Sebastian Gürtler, Régis Bringolf (violins), Subin Lee (viola), Florian Berner (cello)) 

Continuing to echo, rather to imitate, Schoenberg’s Society for Private Performances, BERGfrühling’s second concert opened not with Benno Sachs’s arrangement of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, but with a version for flute, clarinet, and piano by Michael Webster. It worked very well, I thought, for which much of the credit must of course go to the performers: Sylvia Careddu, Alexander Neubauer, and Ariane Haering. The opening solo goes to the flute, of course; Careddu played it in wonderfully free fashion, as if new, as if without bar lines. She was answered by Neubauer, equally impressive, opening up a fascinating flute-clarinet duet – usually statement and response, but sometimes together – with piano ‘accompaniment’. I am not sure that I did not prefer it to the Sachs ensemble version – or perhaps it was the excellence of the performance.

London buses famously take their time and then appear in twos. Such has certainly been my experience with Webern’s 1905 String Quartet, one of the many works discovered by Hans Moldenhauer after the composer’s death. I heard it for what I think was the first time ‘live’ only this January, from the Hagen Quartet at London’s Wigmore Hall. If anything, I think this performance from members of the Alban Berg Ensemble, resident here at BERGfrühling, was better still. It certainly had me think and think again about this extraordinary early work. (Which, one might well ask, of Webern’s works is not extraordinary? The over-performed Im Sommerwind, perhaps, but that has undeniable charms too.) The first of the single-movement-work’s three sections opened perhaps not unlike it had with the Hagens: still, and yet it moved. Warm yet febrile – an almost unavoidable word with much Webern – this performance had nothing generically ‘late Romantic’ to it. This may not be the Webern of his op.28 Quartet, but it is undeniably Webern.

The players shaped the music’s progress as if it were a repertoire work, which it undoubtedly should be, and perhaps is for them, without taking anything for granted. Schoenbergian tendencies were clear without being overwhelming, thereby mirroring and interpreting the work itself. Then came sweet, yet not too sweet, serenity, which also yet moved. Schoenbergian development soon had the better of that serenity, both in work and performance, furthering a sense of something at least approaching transfiguration (Verklärung). Such was enabled, it seemed to me at least, by a performance that was spacious not in the sense of being slow, but in the sense of an inviting clarity that permitted us to take in the music and its implications: to travel, as it were, with the players, interpreters ourselves. The return to stillness at the close was in essence not a return at all, for this, quite rightly, proved a very different, quite wondrous stillness, finely won.

The Hagen Quartet, joined by Jörg Widmann, had also given us Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in that Wigmore concert. One can never hear that work too often, of course, at least when performed with the distinction it not only deserves but requires. Musical performance is not a competition; at least it should not be. If I give the Alban Berg Ensemble the edge in Webern and the Hagens the edge in Mozart, the important thing is that both offered much – and indeed offered quite different performances. The first movement, not inappropriately for a festival of this name, perhaps evoked spring rather than autumn; there was certainly no hint of sepia, Romantic or otherwise. Perhaps that was partly a matter of our hearing Mozart through Webern, more through programming than performance as such, yet none the less welcome for that – not unlike Christoph von Dohnányi’s revelatory Cleveland recordings pairing the two composers. Developing variation did not, after all, start with Brahms. Neubauer’s liquid tone did not preclude the most alert of musical responses. Indeed, the two incited the other, nowhere more so than in a development section which, with true grit and vehemence, truly developed, before subsiding into a recapitulation in which the old became new.

Serenity, this time more or less unbesmirched, characterised the slow movement. That is not to say that it was without incident, far from it, but that its own developing variation was heard in an almost Wagnerian unendliche Melodie. (The two, as Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern would all show, have far more in common than ‘Brahmsian’ and ‘Wagnerian’ partisans would ever have admitted, or indeed appreciated.) A tone of hushed awe quite rightly drew us in. The minuet flowed swiftly, as if in a single breath. Its first trio relaxed, yet intensified; here, the players seemed to say, is the truly ‘learned’ music. The second trio tellingly mediated between both tendencies. If the finale can readily be taken too insouciantly, we were here reminded that this is serious music, long before the turn to the minor mode. Not that this was unsmiling, but it was perhaps champagne rather than prosecco. Given the location, it was perhaps inevitable that I should think of a mountain lake when we came to the Adagio variation. This was, however, a Lake Ossiach situated in a greater Carinthian landscape, and thus all the more beautiful for it. Before, that is, Mozart-as-not-quite-Papageno rounded things off.