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'Childhood and Encryptions' - Schumann, Holliger, and Berg: Ursula Holliger (harp), Alexander Lonquich (piano), Muriel Cantoreggi, Florence Cooke, Alexander Harris, and Curtis Wilkinson (violins), Wind players from the Royal Academy of Music, Heinz Holliger (conductor). Hall One, Kings Place, 26.3.2011 (MB)


Schumann - Pieces from Album für die Jugend, op.68, interspersed with:

Holliger - Duöli (2008/2010)

Holliger - Præludium, Arioso, and Passacaglia, for solo harp (1987)

Berg - Chamber Concerto

This was the second of two concerts, curated by Christoph Richter, welcoming Heinz Holliger to Kings Place. We did not hear him as oboist, but we heard him both as composer and as conductor - as well as lecturer in a pre-concert analytical talk on Berg's Chamber Concerto. The first concert had been entitled 'Fantasies and Journeys', offering music by Sandor Veress, Schumann, Holliger, and Kurtág. I wondered whether the second, 'Childhood and Encryptions,' might have made more sense in the context of having heard the first. As it was, 'childhood' inhabited the first half, and 'encryptions' the second; it was not always clear what connected the two.

However, there was much to enjoy. Alexander Lonquich offered an excellent selection from Schumann's Album für die Jugend, both precise and Classically alluring of tone; I should have been happy to have heard more, and suspect that I cannot have been the only audience member taken back to my own childhood assaults on Schumann's exquisite miniatures. It was interesting to hear interspersed with the Schumann pieces Holliger's Duöli, the work's title given in his native Swiss German, as were those of the individual pieces. Whether one would wish, outside a Holliger series, to hear all of these violin 'duos' (confusingly, they occasionally involve three or four players) is another question. I am sure they work very well as teaching pieces, rather like Bartók's Mikrokosmos, to which they sometimes sound close in language. There is humour, whether in the titles - for instance, 'It is really not so difficult,' or 'Two Little Pieces that do not quite fit together' - or in the additional noises (cat-song, the canon for two or three snorers) that the instrumentalists are sometimes called upon to provide. Moreover, there are moments of considerable beauty; for instance the droplet music, which sounds as one might expect, or the occasional ventures into Nono-like near-inaudibility. There are also instances of a somewhat soft-centred version of Lachenmann-like re-examination of the violin's possibilities, though without Lachenmann's intensity. It was encouraging to note that two young violinists from the Junior Guildhall, Alexander Harris and Curtis Wilkinson, stood up perfectly well in comparison with their professional colleagues, Muriel Cantoreggi and Florence Cooke. Nevertheless, a selection might prove a better way to programme the pieces, for a certain monotony, compositional variety notwithstanding, sets in.

Holliger's wife, Ursula, opened the second half with the Præludium, Arioso, and Passacaglia. The piece is dedicated 'for Ursula for 8.6 and 7.7'. We are not informed what these numbers signify, but are told that they form a structural role in the music as a whole. (I am afraid I should need to be informed how…) Whatever the meaning of these encryptions, it is a fine addition to the solo harp repertoire, combining neo-Baroque form, or at least an echo thereof, with decidedly twentieth-century style. Ursula Holliger was clearly in command throughout.

Finally - and this was what I had been waiting for - came a splendid performance of Berg's Chamber Concerto. Holliger has good form in Berg: I highly commend his recording of the Violin Concerto with Thomas Zehetmair. Having heard a detailed description of the various encryptions in the earlier lecture, it was all the easier to receive the work as much as a dramatic exploration of various Romantic 'characters' - Berg, Schoenberg, Webern, Rudolf Kolisch, and so on - and their interaction. The performances were certainly impressive, woodwind players from the Royal Academy of Music proving full of drive and character. One could truly relish their engagement with the score - and doubtless with the conductor too. Lonquich proved an estimable pianist, finely balancing post-Romantic expressive considerations with complexity and structure. Cantoreggi played the violin part; initially she sounded somewhat disconnected, taking a little while to get into her stride, but when she did, she proved impassioned indeed. Holliger's overall command of Berg's form was as clear as his attentiveness to detail. I have never understood why some people claim to love Berg's music yet to be put off by this work. In its marriage of labyrinthine complexity and hyper-expressivity it could hardly be more typical of the composer. A very good performance such as this, or the outstanding West-Eastern Divan Orchestra performance at the 2009 Proms , ought to convince any remaining doubters. It was interesting, moreover, to note how different the work sounds in a small hall: much more 'concerto', much less 'chamber'.

Mark Berry

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