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Seen and Heard Recital Review


Mendelssohn, Barber, Mahler, Ann Murray (soprano), Simon Keenlyside (baritone), The Belcea Quartet and friends, Paul Kildea (conductor), Wigmore Hall, 30th October 2004 (AO)


The Wigmore Hall is entering a new era. Along with the new décor, there’s new management and new programming. The venue’s unique reputation rests on the quality of its programme and performers. Its core audience come for state of the art musical excellence. This creates a formidable chicken and egg situation: standards have to be exceptional so it retains a cutting edge over other, larger venues.


The Belcea Quartet, resident at the Wigmore Hall since 2001, symbolise the venue’s spirit: a youthful but spectacularly good group with an affinity for imaginative material. They brought to Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E minor a bracing vivacity. The tight precision of the playing in the second movement hurtled along with a sharp sense of pace.


The Belcea are noted, too, for working with singers, bridging the worlds of song and chamber music. Barber’s Dover Beach, with Simon Keenlyside showed just how fertile this partnership can be. Keenlyside is singing better than ever, and in his early forties he has matured without losing the freshness and imagination he is respected for. His voice, always deep, powerful and dramatic, is ideally suited to this piece. Barber follows the unusual lines of Arnold’s poem with intelligence: “ the tide is full, the moon lies fair/upon the straits: on the French coast the light/ Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand/ Glimm’ring and vast, out in the tranquil bay.” It adds to the mysterious effect of ocean and moonlight transforming a familiar scene. Keenlyside’s clear appreciation of these musical undercurrents brought out the effects acutely. His colouring of the sea imagery was so masterful that when the music called for a sudden change, “Come to the window”, his shift to a lighter timbre was even more expressive.

Barber’s evocation of the ebb and flow of the tides is sophisticated, but Keenlyside and the Belcea made it sound natural and organic. “Listen! you hear the grating roar/ Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling/ At their return, up the high strand/ Begin, and cease, and then again begin,/ With tremulous cadence slow, and bring/ The eternal; note of silence in.” Punctuation in a poem matters, and music reinforces it deliberately. Seldom have I heard performers tackle Barber’s pregnant silences so sensitively. This was a sophisticated interpretation, its understated emotional power all the more profound. The final stanza with its intense anguish and uncertainty seems shockingly relevant to our times, more so perhaps than when Arnold wrote the lines a hundred years ago. Keenlyside’s vocal authority made the final crescendo chilling: seldom has this music sounded so profound. “And we are here as on a darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/ Where ignorant armies clash by night.” This truly was a performance to remember, the sort of exceptional, mould-shattering music making that the Wigmore Hall is all about.


This season opened with the much-advertised “Murray-Mahler Festival”, wonderful publicity because Ann Murray is one of the big names in British music, literally a “Dame Commander of the British Empire.” It’s a lovely idea to honour her, much loved for her triumphs in opera, particularly Handel and Mozart. She was also a founder of the Songmaker’s Almanac in its glory days with Graham Johnson, Felicity Lott and Anthony Rolfe Johnson. Her celebrity puts a glossy shine on the season, even though selling seats is not an issue at this venue, when queues for sell-outs are the norm.


The Series started with the Schoenberg-Riehn transcription of Das Lied von der Erde and continued with a specially commissioned new transcription of songs from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Very high profile indeed. Yet, not a word in the programme notes as to why a new transcription is needed, and what it has to offer. Schoenberg’s transcription was made because it was part of his methods of teaching composers to analyse the essentials in what was then “new music.” The Society for Private Performance was private – audiences were positively discouraged and the sessions had nothing to do with expanding public awareness. Quite the contrary, for they were for musicians studying compositional processes. Rainer Riehn’s completion of Schoenberg’s outlines was commissioned for the Mahler Festival at Toblach, where it was scrutinised by some of the sharpest minds in Mahler studies. It is a distinctive work where the refinement of textures brings details into different focus from the original orchestration. As such, it’s useful in the way Schoenberg intended.


But why transcribe these Wunderhorn songs? Perhaps, like mountains that are climbed “because they are there”, it might be felt that a midway between the piano and orchestral versions might be handy. The Wigmore Hall’s educational workshops are excellent, and part of its reputation. In the session which mentioned the new transcriptions, mention was made of Mahler’s compositional style being “chamber like” in his use of groups of instruments. Indeed, the eminent Donald Mitchell and others have highlighted Mahler’s “Kammermusikton”. Riehn has also transcribed Kindertotenlieder for chamber, for those songs were written around the time Mahler was writing about “Kammermusikton”. Song was most definitely part of Mahler’s symphonic vision. Erwin Stein’s transcription of the Fourth Symphony, done for the Schoenberg group, was an attempt to bring the “song” element in the symphony to prominence. Schoenberg wrote a chamber version of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen which attempts to bridge the piano and orchestral versions and have regard to the First Symphony. Transcriptions are interesting when they show a certain musical logic, or, as in the case of Luciano Berio’s orchestrations of Mahler’s early songs, they bring the creativity of a major musical mind towards understanding the originals. Forgive me this digression, for it puts into context my reaction to the new transcription. James Olsen, the composer, graduated from Cambridge in 2003, and has had his works played at Aldeburgh, Huddersfield, Prague and Klangspuren. He’s worked with Wolfgang Rihm and Julian Anderson, and is currently studying for a Masters degree in London.


Keenlyside was excellent in Revelge, and Der Tambourg’sell, dramatic songs, his voice did great things for. His singing distracted me, for I was trying to listen to the orchestration. Ann Murray retains much of the beauty of her voice, and her technique is firm, so her performance came out well, if somewhat lacking in characterisation. Olsen uses twelve musicians, so the Belcea Quartet was tripled by other very good performers including Emily Beynon and the pianist Lindy Tennent-Brown, here playing harmonium. Some of the songs are presented as duets, even Verlor’ne Müh, where the baritone simply makes interjections, as indicated in the text. In Lied des Verfolgten im Turm, the duet effect is charming, though it loses the double meanings in Mahler’s settings. But this is Olsen’s version, not Mahler’s, so fair enough. As to the overall impact of this new arrangement, it is hard to be definitive on only one hearing, particularly when the scores cannot be compared. There wasn’t anything drastically different in terms of basic forms, just “less” than in the full orchestration. Most noticeable for me was the thinness of the percussion, which in Mahler is important not only for sound but for symbolism. In Mahler’s piano version, the piano makes up in sonority for the absence of other instruments, so the issue doesn’t arise. In a chamber version, perhaps the full blast orchestration would have been too dominant. Yet, muted drum rolls seem a halfway compromise that doesn’t satisfy. Similarly, bassoon and horn can’t quite evoke the richness that a more varied palette can bring. Then, there’s the nature of the songs themselves. They teem with vivid expressiveness and character. Like the songs of Hugo Wolf, the situations they depict burst with life like minute operas. Should a chamber version really be more than “more than” the piano songs or “less than” the orchestrations? Even the Schoenberg Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen comes across as neither here nor there unless performed with unusual character. These performers did well, but little could shake the impression that this was neither Mahler nor Olsen. I think I would have enjoyed it more if Olsen had created something quite new and original, acknowledging it as a variation on a theme by Mahler. That’s why the Berio orchestrations are so involving, and even the Schoenberg-Riehn Das Lied von der Erde has its own character. But a transcription needs to have more to say to validate itself, than simply to exist.


Anne Ozorio

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