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One of the great opportunities afforded to audiences attending a chamber music festival, such as Musica Viva’s, is the chance to hear combinations of artists who wouldn’t otherwise perform together. As if in a musical laboratory, sometimes these collaborations chance upon a magical chemistry, but on other occasions a group of musicians, arbitrarily bolted together, can result in something akin to Frankenstein’s monster, with disparate personalities unable to cohere and a lack of synergy smearing the clarity of the music. For this final concert of the 2015 Musica Viva Festival, featuring two specially formed ensembles from this year’s roster of invited musicians, we would experience both of the afore mentioned examples.
In addition to the larger ensemble pieces however, there was also one last chance to hear some of this year’s most consistently impressive performers in more familiar contexts. Firstly Guitarist Karin Schaupp performing Mauro Giuliani Gran Sonata Eroica: a charming piece, if not a little unremarkable. However delivered with Schaupp’s characteristically bright, creamy tones it couldn’t fail but convince.
Bulgarian violin virtuoso Bella Hristova, joined on piano by Aleksandar Madžar, gave an ardently expressive account of Fauré’s Violin Sonata No 1. Although brutally demanding on both violinist and pianist, these two world-class musicians were unphased by the technical challenges posed by Fauré. Hristova and Madžar, nimble and responsive to each other, offered a deeply satisfying account, allowing the luxuriously decadent Romantic hyperbole of this music to dazzle.
Less convincing, sadly, were clarinettist Narek Arutyunian, cellist Nicolas Altstaedt and pianist Daniel De Borah, performing Brahms’ Clarinet Trio. While superficially accurate and musically concise, they lacked a more sophisticated attention to detail, as well as suffering from some inconsistent balance issues. This was especially problematic at the far ends of the dynamic spectrum, with soft moments lacking in colour and focus, and louder sections at times degenerating into a brute force bludgeoning, made significantly worse by Altsteadt’s habit of over-excitedly stamping along to the music.
Some unnecessarily long pauses between the movements repeatedly robbed this performance of any narrative or emotional momentum, but moreover a sheer lack of communication made this reading decidedly underwhelming. While all three of these musicians are individually astonishing, as an ensemble they failed to achieve the visceral, collegial bond that would have made this adequate performance a great one.
Thankfully, that rare alchemy needed for truly momentous music-making was delivered in spades with the paring of the Pavel Haas Quartet and the Doric String Quartet, joining forces to perform the opening and closing pieces of this Festival finale. The first piece of the afternoon was one of this year’s Festival commissions, and the inaugural piece of the newly established Hildegard Project, Saudade by Natalie Williams. Her brief was to create a piece in memory of the mothers of two of the patrons who helped fund this commission, and Williams has duly written a deeply poignant, thought provoking, and richly expressive work that, in the composer’s own words, is both “a memorial and a celebration.”
Beginning with a quietly energetic, pulsing rhythm, hocketed urgently between the two quartets, the music winds itself up, coiling ever tighter, into a blazingly intense climax. Then, against a glassy backdrop of harmonics, a haunting lullaby, full of yearning and melancholy, drifts plaintively in and out of view. This dissolves into a cascade of resolving cadences that builds into a lamenting, sorrowful, devastatingly impassioned hymn. Finally, bright harmonics, like shards of celestial light, introduce a final, soaring song of joyous remembrance.
Williams’ uncluttered, beautifully direct aesthetic is based on an exhaustive enquiry of relatively basic musical statements, but this simplicity allows us to immediately understand the significance and purpose of certain gestures. But beyond the nuts and bolts of this music, Williams has a spectacularly evolved gift for tapping into a universally shared pathos that speaks to an audience, even on a single hearing, with profundity and depth. Saudade is a piece deserving of much more than just a single outing.
At the other end of the emotional spectrum, the Pavel Haas Quartet and Doric String Quartet, joined by double bassist Kees Boersma, closed this year’s Festival with an exhilarating display of chamber music at its finest. Performing Olli Mustonen’s String Nonet No 2, the keenly sensitive communication between this group of monumentally gifted musicians ricocheted like an electrical pulse, visibly coursing from one player to the next. In the blisteringly fleet final movement, sparks fly, pulses race, and we can but hold on by our fingertips as we’re carried along by the current of this ferociously exciting musical outpouring. Seeing a group of musicians, so palpably in-tune with each other, so clearly enraptured in a performance, is a privilege, and as fitting a conclusion to this weekend of musical celebration as I could imagine.