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Bax in Berlin  Review by Tony Williams

Sir Arnold Bax Website

Chamber Music by Bax  

Wednesday 16 February 2005 , 8pm  

Konzerthaus Berlin  

Maria Graf        Harp

Gérard Caussé  Viola

Jacques Zoon     Flute  

On Wednesday 16 February I attended a concert of chamber music by Arnold Bax in the ‘Kleiner Saal’ of the ‘Konzerthaus’ in Berlin . It is a fine hall for chamber music, almost a replica in miniature of the Main Hall, or ‘Grosser Saal’, where symphony concerts are held. The acoustic was just right for the Bax works involving flute, viola and harp, and there was richness as well as clarity to the sound produced by these  loveliest of instruments in combination. Just occasionally, when the Kleiner Saal had fallen silent, the distant strains of Bruckner’s 4th Symphony as played by the Orchestre National de France under Kurt Masur could be heard from the Main Hall next door. The three musicians of the evening who performed in the Flute and Harp Sonata, the Elegiac Trio, and the Fantasy Sonata for Viola and Harp, were world class. There was Maria Graf, the most distinguished German harpist of the present day. From the opening bars of the first piece performed, the Flute and Harp Sonata, her technical excellence was made apparent by the sequence of arpeggioed phrases, initially loud then soft, with each note as true and clear as I have ever heard before. The flautist was Jacques Zoon from Holland , who has been principal flautist with, amongst other top orchestras, the Royal Concertgebouw, whilst the French viola player Gérard Caussé fully justified his rating by Michael Endres, who was also present at the concert, as one of the three best violists in the world, alongside Tabea Zimmermann and Yuri Bashmet.  

The Sonata for Flute and Harp enabled Jacques Zoon, playing a wooden flute, to display his pure, rich tone, not at all ‘breathy’, even in the whirlwind staccato passages. It was in conveying the music’s wit and high spirits that he excelled, and the last movement sparkled as never before in my experience. I have always felt the heart of this piece to lie in the beautiful, melancholic second movement, which is like a cry of anguish; at any rate there can be a bitter, desperate edge to its elegiac quality. This aspect of the music, however, was not especially pronounced by Zoon and Graf, and their performance here was characterised by understatement.  

Next came the Elegiac Trio, in which the wonderful dark brown tone of Caussé’s enormous viola was heard for the first time, but within a beautiful blend of all three instruments. If the recent Dublin performance of this work was memorable for the youthful enthusiasm of the musicians and their highlighting of the Irish quality of the  second theme, this Berlin performance seemed to strike a deeper, more restrained and yet incredibly rich note, so that the whole work appeared cast in a single darkly elegiac mould.

Finally we heard the Fantasy Sonata for Viola and Harp. This was an absolutely glorious performance, with a great variety of colour from both the viola and the harp (in total contrast to the abject, monochromatic performance in Carlingford in 2003), with a glowing radiance perhaps the most prominent hue. Here too the technical skill and musicianship of Caussé came into its own. Supported to the hilt by Maria Graf, he was master of the work’s divergent moods, wistful, joyous, playful, sombre. Indeed the highlight of the performance was the song-like elegiac slow movement, in which the musicians brought out a whole range of emotions from tender melancholy to something bordering on dark despair, albeit restrained in its expression.  

So far so good. There is a ‘But’. The music was constantly interrupted by readings, initially from ‘Farewell My Youth’, reasonably translated into German, but chiefly from Yeats (on this occasion rhyming with ‘Keats’). Here too the translations were quite good, but the pronunciation of Irish names and words by the speaker Barbara Nüsse was excruciating. The Yeats connection is of course important, but the texts – Yeats on the nature of fairies and two of his ‘Fairy and Folk Tales of Irish Peasantry’ – were inserted as if to raise the expectation that they might in some way be ‘illustrated’ by Bax’s music. I found the readings disruptive and irrelevant to the music, especially as they were placed not merely between the works, but also between movements, and worst of all after the first movement of the Fantasy Sonata, where Bax indicates that the second movement follows on without a break.  It was clear that the musicians had not heard the readings before, nor had the reader previously heard the music, for there were several exchanges of uncertain looks as to whose turn it was! The audience – pitifully small in any case – was equally uncertain: should they clap at the end of a movement, before a reading? Equally the musicians seemed uncertain as to whether they should acknowledge the thin, uncertain applause. In the row in front of me a middle-aged couple kept smiling at each other during the music – well, I thought, Bax’s music has definitely struck a chord with those two – but I came to realise that they were quite new to each other and probably in the afterglow of a recent amorous encounter (though Bax would have approved of that too, of course).  

How I wish, to replace the readings and fill out the evening, Michael Endres could have leapt onto the stage and performed the Viola Sonata with the wonderful Caussé! However, without the Yeats there would have been no Bax, for the concert was part of a series entitled ‘Musik und Märchen’ (‘Fairy Tale and Music’). And can Arnold Bax, in his own lifetime, have ever had these three gorgeous works performed together in a single concert? If that was the prize, I’m sure he would have forgiven the readings! As I draft this the day after the concert, I have forgotten the readings, whilst Bax’s melodies are still ringing in my head.