Sunday, 13 January 2019

REVIEW: Verklaerte Nacht - Lecture, recital and String Orchestra Concert - RNCM, Manchester.


Lecture Recital Verklarte Nacht, Carole Nash Recital Room 14.45pm
RNCM String Orchestra Concert, RNCM Concert Hall 19.30
12th January 2019

The RNCM was buzzing with students and guests for the weekend strings festival where lectures, masterclasses and recitals had been taking place all day long including am impressive indoor market with stalls from many leading string instrument specialists. I attended two events on the Saturday – an afternoon talk on Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht and an evening concert with works by Mozart, Fischer and a performance of Verklaerte Nacht.

Henk Guittart gave the lecture, supported by the six artists who were to perform the original sextet version of the piece after the talk. Guittart was a founding member of the world famous Schoenberg Quartet and is an expert on all thing Schoenberg. Verklaerte Nacht (Transfigured Night) was written as a sextet for strings in 1899 when Schoenberg was in his early twenties. It is one Schoenberg’s few tonal pieces. Guittart explained what the piece was based on – a poem by the controversial poet Richard Dehmel. He read the poem to us in English (the original was in German) and then took moments from the score and had the musicians play them for us. He thus demonstrated the famous forbidden chord - an inverted 9th - that had this piece rejected by the Vienna Music Society, and also picked out certain moments – music that represented the various emotions of the protagonists. Guittart used text from Schoenberg himself to describe the piece who mused that although the poem is very strongly connected to the music, a listener need not know the words or the meaning to appreciate the music and in that sense it could be absolute music – music for music’s own sake. It certainly helped, nevertheless, to have heard the poem and to know which parts of the music represented which parts of the poem. The poem itself is about two lovers walking in the woods on a moonlit night. The woman is fraught with worry and proceeds to open up to the man, unloading a heavy secret – in her loneliness she fell intentionally pregnant to a stranger. Her love replies that the child will become his own and love will conquer. The music reflects this very well, with dense chromatic and altered harmonies. The melodic lines play out both speech and emotion in a very convincing way.

Guittart began with an interesting musing on the idea of musical influences. He told us that Schoenberg was heavily influenced by both Brahms and Wagner, and indeed he had watched 18 performances of Tristan Und Isolde, by Wagner, just before he began composing Verklaerte Nacht. The influences are evident, but Guittart concludes that as Schoenberg was mostly a musical autodidact, the influences are more of an admiration of their style than an emulation. I would agree with this – Schoenberg clearly pushes the harmonic language of the late romantic period and gives us a premonition of that of the 20th century.

There was a short break after the talk. Guittart was precise and clear in his exposition of the work, and the talk moved at a good pace. He added humour throughout and made it a very engaging experience. I would have perhaps liked to have asked a question or two and possibly he could have gone a bit deeper in to the work, perhaps outlining the structure or commenting with a bit more technical detail on what made this piece groundbreaking in terms of harmony and structure or indeed the benefit of having six parts in the writing.

After the break, there was a performance of Verklaerte Nacht in its original sextet form. Schoenberg revised this composition and rewrote it for string orchestra in 1917 and revised it further in 1943. Guittart had explained to us that a string sextet is an uncommon ensemble size and that really only a handful of composers had written for sextet. The orchestral versions by Schoenberg allowed for it to be performed more frequently and readily given the lack of sextet ensembles.

I had heard Verklaerte Nacht a few weeks ago at the Bridgewater Hall, performed by The Halle String Orchestra, and so I was intrigued to know what the sextet version would be like in comparison. It was a most enjoyable performance with exquisite phrasing and intimacy. Each musician played with passion and superb technical skills – this is a difficult piece but it must be a real pleasure to play, with great variety in the sonority and techniques needed to perform it successfully.

The first violinist and leader, Lily Whitehurst, was simply superb. While there were so many moments for each musician to relish, Whitehurst displayed great enjoyment and performed with a fantastic tenderness which was almost mesmerising. It helped, of course, that Schoenberg had written such fantastic music for her part. As leader she communicated well with the other musicians providing direction at appropriate moments with an emotional charge.

There were quite a few beautiful moments in this performance, the dynamic range was powerful. The six parts to the music were challenging both technically and emotionally, and there was little respite for any of the performers in the 30 minutes or so it lasted. The final chords really touched home and once more I had a tear in my eye as it ended. What a treat!

Violins – Lily Whitehurst, Cleo Annandale
Violas – Beth Woodford, Rebecca Stephenson
Cellos - Gunda Baranauskaite, Rachel Newbold

The evening concert had various string ensembles perform starting with a chamber orchestra performing Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante. The orchestra was made up mostly of students, with some teaching staff as well. It was conducted by Henk Guittart and the soloists were Sophia Jaffe on violin and Matthew Lipman on viola.

The first chord brought a huge grin to my face as it sounded so Mozartian. This may sound like a strange thing to say, as Mozart wrote this piece. It was a simple Eb major chord and indeed the opening bars were reminiscent of Mozart’s teacher, Haydn, but the manner in which they were played, the quality of the orchestral sound screamed Mozart! This was, without doubt, the result of the direction by Guittart at the baton. A conductor does not simply keep time – in fact, when Mozart wrote this piece, conductors were not typically used and the orchestra was directed by one of the performers or with a keyboard accompaniment – conductors are in charge of the drive, the interpretation, and the stylistic elements that should be employed. Guittart conducted impressively – not a time keeper, but a stylistic director. It was hard to believe that this was a college orchestra – albeit the orchestra of a world class conservatoire, yet I have been similarly surprised in the past by RNCM orchestral performances.

The soloists were passionate in their performances and moved about and displayed many different facial expressions to match the music. Some of this was obviously planned and not spontaneous. Initially I wasn’t sure how I liked that ‘intrusion’ of the performer but it was a stroke of genius. The music of the classical period was mostly music for music’s sake – no story behind it, no hidden meaning, just music. That is not to say that the music does not contain drama or emotion – and the soloists portrayed this drama in their behaviour and reactions to the music. Sometimes they looked quizzical, or displayed satisfaction and having resolved a musical question, or simply smiled at an amusing part.

And amusing it was, the first movement was witty, lighthearted, elegant and delightful. Guittart bravely pushed the dynamics in this with astounding effect while maintaining classical elegance. The connection of tone between the two soloists was also impressive, almost sounding like one instrument. In each of the three movements, there was a cadenza duet passage which were played beautifully. The second movement, the slow movement, was played tastefully and not overly dramatically and the third was an energetic flourish which really allowed the orchestra and soloists to show off.

This performance was full of fun and a wonderful energy. It was really engaging and entertaining – I expect it to be as close to what it would have been like to have heard it performed in Mozart’s day.

I managed to congratulate the two soloists in the foyer at the break and I learnt that they had only had one rehearsal session with Guittart , who is a visiting musician to the college, and that the two soloists had never performed together before. Astounding!

The second piece of the night was the UK premiere of Pavel Fischer’s Temperaments. Fischer is, among other things, a string teacher at the RNCM. It was directed by Chris Hoyle, head of the school of strings at the RNCM. This was a larger string orchestra with percussion and included four soloists – soprano voice, violin, accordion and cello. The piece is in four parts representing the four classical temperaments – sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic.

Fischer, who was performing the violin solo part, states that the piece “doesn’t aspire to be a diagnosis, but just a reflection of the psychological world as I perceive it.” While it would always be hard to follow such a magnificent opening to the night, I must say that I was very disappointed with this performance. From the start, balance was lost between the orchestral parts and also among the soloists. There were many times when the soloists were simply not heard. Each movement saw one of the soloists dominate the music, which saw the other soloists play a secondary, supporting, role, and also saw the orchestra play a third supporting role, which was often polyphonic. Most of the time, the soloists playing their secondary part (different to the principal soloist, and different to the orchestra) were simply lost and not heard. It was a real shame, for example, to see the cellist play so much and not be heard at all until it got to her temperament section. Even the percussion was lost almost completely in the third movement. Nevertheless, the second movement, which saw the cello dominate, had some beautiful melodic moments.

In part this lack of definition could be a result of the composition making it all too muddy, but the performances before and indeed afterwards – with the same orchestra and musicians – showed that music with complicated layers could be played well. I wondered if apart from the writing, possibly the conducting had a negative effect on the performance. It seemed that Hoyle was predominantly a timekeeper. The first movement had next to no dynamic contrast – and even if that was scored as such, there was much room for different shades of expression in the orchestra.

Stylistically, this piece reminded me of Aaron Copland. It mixed folk ideas in the melodic fragments although the soloists bizarrely did not play in a folky style. It had elements of a pops orchestra in style, not quite jazzy but certainly poppy in a mid-century way. The lack of folk style in the performance was odd. While all the soloists were clearly very talented, they relied on the notes to convey the folk writing alone. The singer sang in a popular choral style and used scat words throughout. I took a sneaky look at the score afterwards and saw that the soprano part had no words scored, just notes, with a few nonsense syllables hand written in at the bottom of the page. I don’t know if the music reflected any deep meaning regarding the four temperaments and I am none the wiser about Fischer’s perceptions of the psychological world. At face value, this piece had some entertainment and some audience members were clearly engaged, bopping their heads to the music at times, but it was, in my opinion, immediately forgettable and not very well performed.

After the break, Verklaerte Nacht was performed. Guittart mentioned in his talk earlier that Verklaerte Nacht shouldn’t really be performed by a chamber orchestra, but by a full string orchestra. His reasoning was that a small orchestra would be too similar to the sextet, so what was the point. He then informed us that the evening performance would have as many string musicians as they could find – a total of 96!

I was really excited to experience this performance with such a huge orchestra – there were more double basses than performers in the sextet! - and also to be able to compare it to the afternoon’s sextet performance. As before, it was a beautiful performance, with Guittart again leading the orchestra.

The poem was declaimed at the start of the performance, which gave a good context to the piece.

Having guided the sextet performance, there wasn’t much of a difference in interpretation between the two performances, but I will say that the sextet version was much more intimate, freer and even more touching. Perhaps that was to be expected. Nevertheless, delicacy of expression was not lost among the size of the orchestra and again there were many moments that really touched the audience. There were subtle changes in the colouring of the lighting, and a moon was projected on to the side of the concert hall. These were nice touches.

Guittart took us confidently on that moonlit journey and made every note – every melody and every crush and dissonance – count for full expressive meaning. The orchestra must be commended for their performance of such a challenging and relentless piece. The audience received this performance really well and Guittart had to come on stage at least five times before the applause began to recede. It was a real delight to hear this orchestra and an absolute treat to watch Guittart lead and direct this music.

Reviewer - Aaron Loughrey
on - 12/1/19

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