The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Reflections on the Berg Violin Concerto - then as played by Tetzlaff and Metzmacher/DSO Berlin (Bonn/Edinburgh review - Part 2)

In writing about the Berg Violin Concerto - not so much interpreted by Christian Tetzlaff and Ingo Metzmacher as revealed by them - it requires more effort than I can muster to write anything definitive here - between three different performances of it. Some other performances of this, such as conducted by Webern (with Krasner), Sinopoli, have most certainly too included some elements of what I try to address here. I have yet to hear anybody conduct the music of Alban Berg who finds the middle road between the romantic elements of Berg’s scoring and those elements of his music that are progressive so well as Metzmacher does. I first noticed this, upon listening to his Hamburg State Opera recording of Wozzeck (EMI). No piece of Berg conveys more sublimely such internal dichotomy than does the Violin Concerto.

Qualities about numerous good performances of this piece, including some deserving of accolades, I would never suspect before well as so nearly being contrivances. A human element prominent in this work gets neither eschewed in how Berg conceived and wrote the concerto or as to how Metzmacher has interpreted it in several instances addressed here. With especially the laendler and Carinthian folk tune, and also the chorale, there is an element of nostalgia in this work that most certainly draws both listeners and interpreters in alike. There is nothing desirable (or durable) about contrived sentimentalized nostalgia here. Nostalgia is instead here device for its effect on memory to use cinematic language, in deep focus or shallow, alternating between the two to assist in haunting the psyche with it. Should an interpreter take what is written at simply face value, to perhaps even how Berg writes free of serial considerations, as opportunity upon which to be capitalized at length? I have yet to hear this music sound more independent of such preconception, but also without then being turned into something purely cerebral, abstract.

Speaking of the element of nostalgia in this music, to take things just one step further, it should be quite brutally obvious that a solution lies again a pretty good distance from sentimentalizing this music, pardoning very momentary lapse or two that some analyses have been able to find, as Anthony Pople in his commentary on the concerto has pointed out. Nostalgia even must be merely a function of memory here instead, and means to some extent of how we come up with certain constructs in our thinking, formulation of such. Such process is true in Berg having composed this piece, with also those few so quietly, confidently authoritative in interpreting, recreating it as Tetzlaff and Metzmacher, but also how in other contexts we come up with social and other artistic constructs.

The Berg compellingly deterritorializes references to laendler, folk melody and to Bach chorale - material outside of what can be directly derived from serial origins. The inevitably occurring breaking apart of such material through serial procedures has been much commented upon much already. Also a part of this, in pursuing the dialectics of construction of the Berg to a higher plane – with a surplus of overtones thus what tonal implications arise out of the triadic row – is the space, allocation of space provided for how all this interacts. After paradoxically there is the building or foundation of motivic rigor, there is also that space between such delineation that helps one sense a chaos - ever as self-perpetuation of variation on material - as such the ground also thereof that provides grounding to itself through such intricacy.

In Paul Klee terms, to paraphrase him, we are here in the process of not so much rendering the audible but rendering audible. With such having taken place, the territorial or indigenous identity of material used, so transformed is lost, or better yet has become undefined to extent that one instead becomes focussed on what could be before reckoned inaudible. This is true to extent that all reckoning of former identity of deterritorialized material is lost – incidentally a type of alienation experienced lately at Rice Media Center for viewing of the World (film) by Jia Zhang Ke, dealing with infusion of migrant peoples into the capital city of China to work at so-named theme park there. The world described is one for all residents and newcomers alike that has turned postsocialist, but unclear as to where there exist parameters within which people can successfully live and thrive.

Such might be said to be the case – on just a conceptualizing level - with the Berg Violin Concerto and its thematic material; moreover the picture being drawn or painted here in a musical world that is not only post-serial. It is already also in a new sense, post-diatonic, arrived at by further extension, building of the triadic thinking of dialectics and processes thereof, over in effect melodic and harmonic triads. A shift in what Klee might refer to as a ‘cosmogenic line’ may or could have occurred in deep recesses underneath. As such, it is placed there just as likely subconsciously as it is not.

One should also not want to draw any serious correlation, hopefully no correlation at all as others misguidedly have done between serialism and Marxism. The triads that form the first eight to nine pitches of the row for the Berg Violin Concerto and especially diatonic and whole-tone scale derivations that can be constructed thereof all derive from the past, from so much that is even traditional from therein. It is imbued however with entirely new meaning now, and is intended even intuitively, psychologically to be perceived as part of not only an entirely new scheme in but some form of new future for music, as of yet not yet clearly defined. On the other hand, the genius of Alban Berg, that not in only composing his late works that all in a way cluster around his second opera Lulu, is such that the human voice in this concerto and in so much else of Berg’s oeuvre speaks very clearly and is not diminished.

Furthermore without - I admit at being a little distance from having it – strong mastery of the serial procedures and derivations so integral and almost full ingredient of the mechanics of writing the Berg Violin Concerto, such issues raised above quickly turn completely banal. Mastery then of doing anything else is incomplete - far less complete than how Metzmacher has grasped it. Of course, room and latitude Berg has provided himself for inclusion of even very low-brow musical elements – the onstage bands in Lulu, the barrel-organ tune to which he sets variations in Act Three of Lulu, and other melodic material to which fits even tawdry lyrics in Wozzeck. He thus, secondarily, expresses a sympathy both and so searing for the disenfranchised and class to which belong so many people.

On the other hand, it has only been just lately become what I can completely reckon clear here what it means to have the final chord to the piece the way it shows up. I have often commented upon this moment as anticipatory of Messiaen, even in how it is achieved in what builds up to it. One can now fully realize that it is integral to the entire construct of the concerto from the very beginning, as bringing to fruition just beyond point of the serial dissolution of the chorale through variation a sense of incorporeality that is built into so much motif-delineating space throughout the concerto. It is thus that not only in a Boulezian sense here that there a process of destruction in an overloading of material, delineated objects in Berg and variation on it thereof. The Violin Concerto, to begin to turn how Boulez has been critical of the work on its head, also begins the process of the dissolution of serial procedures as well. It is by no accident, whim or happenstance that it is there the way it is, but quite yet another thing, the final chord of the Berg, to be able to so reckon that it is not.

Even in the opening measures of the concerto, with its open sonorities, especially as heard from Edinburgh, there was this feeling, including from such warm, resonant clarinets of DSO a sense of empty space evoked by so much space between building of chords and sequences of perfect fifths. The approach Tetzlaff and Metzmacher took in Edinburgh sounded mildly heavier or withdrawn than in Bonn (or earlier in Berlin), for especially the first movement. Some of what was at stake was acoustical as much as anything else. Starkly delineated in Bonn not quite a minute in was the way in which a solo – rocking motion in sevenths – in horn refracts or mirrored the bass line in contra-bassoon. Arpeggi ascending and descending, for instance between cello and bassoons, firmly here, were gently underlined as both overlapping and mirroring each other – with proper adjustments made for the varied acoustics of both halls.

Through development section of the Andante, horn line under animated broken obbligato from the soloist achieved much expressive simplicity, following fine preparation of such from bass clarinet, and both passionate and well scaled terracing from Tetzlaff in thoroughly working all this out and into freely achieved febrile crest over line from the principal trumpet. Metzmacher made supple retransition through the molto piu tranquillo before brief closing section leading into the Allegretto, with expressive horn motifs over still, harmonizing tremolo from Tetzlaff – a haunting moment effortlessly achieved as well.

Tetzlaff was found fluidly supple with the Allegretto, free to find gently flighty, capricious accents in bringing out the character of Manon Gropuis in the process. Marking of laendler motif in bass tuba, so skillfully underlined made its outré effect, and as hardly out of context with all else going on. Immediately contrasting with that was the gentle duet for clarinets lightly marked with very brief harp arpeggios. A very ephemeral sense of what is most charming, gemutlich was made all very sublime, and without sentimentalizing anything.

Tetzlaff’s starkly accented development of laendler theme in bracing double stops made its impact. All would then however turn so liquid in moments of reflection, such as in dazed reverie for flute duet, coming off agitated, stringent soloist double stops. Gently achieved stretto with sequence of appoggiaturas and an uninhibited spin off of arpeggio (marked Liberamente’) quickly followed. Resumption of laendler motif with renewed vitality within – as easy to find in reserve all along - in low tuba underpinning offbeat sextuplet spinning off of arpeggi emerged as free and organically achieved at once. The ‘pastorale’ with Carinthian tune horn breaking in and Tetzlaff in reflective toned obbligato toward end of the Allegretto quickly became all liquid, yet with crisp marking of dissonances in the winds, bringing opening movement to a both dreamy and apprehensive close each time.

Tetzlaff made noble, arched line, rigorously anchored by cellos and brass, out of the opening of the cathartic Allegro, a little more stringent in Bonn. Flutes and Tetzlaff, the former in augmented form and latter in more direct paraphrase, then keenly reminisced on the preceding laendler. Moments later so special, very soon before outset of more open accompanied cadenza was the way in which soloist and Metzmacher worked laendler reminiscence into anticipating the last four notes of the row as further down the line the chorale to follow, as though natural, inevitable consequent to the laendler. Such presented a musical sequence of sorts so internally dichotomous, at least on the surface of things, to strike in such a subtle way at the very core of the work and the dialectics that form much of the impetus behind all of this. Tetzlaff, for his cadenza, with great technical mastery of its triple-stops, got at the very core of the material, with its assimilation of reflection on preceding laendler, as something in deep focus with intimation of the crest of the stretti that open the Allegro. He so subtly worked things to practically dissolving all into continuation of a single line, accompanied by short pizzicati reminiscence of opening perfect fifth arpeggi that open the concerto.

Tetzlaff and Metzmacher understated making climactic the Hohepunkt at crest of developing variations through the Adagio – different than to which one may be accustomed, but all consistent as so how probing and searching an approach to the Adagio they adopted. The question now has been raised whether or not this place exists as somewhat form-defining point of symmetry, ‘dramatic gesture’, as Boulez would portray there, but that possibly being a misconception. Traditional sense of form may not be at all, to partly contradict Boulez, paramount or present, but dialectically merely intricate connection for intertwining lines, spinning out of the triad and whole step infused series.

Tetzlaff made long allargando of playing the chorale for the first time before the winds’ entrance with it. He then limpidly traced ascending arpeggios off the chorale and intertwining arpeggio lacing serial harmonization of an in effect dissolving chorale, cross cut too by laendler motifs – with firm but well vocalized duo between trombone and bass trombone. Tetzlaff’s transition from being soloist into leading the violins of the DSO was as seamless as possible with Wei Lu’s solos underpinning, anticipating Tetzlaff’s final ascent into the blue also played so seamlessly. It was so anticipated and spaced as all of it so in allocation of diastolic space, as to enter in and inhabit a different world altogether.

The quite literal, more arched quasi-period approach that Metzmacher took to the ‘Eroica’ complemented just somewhat the slightly more arched, incisive of these two performances of the Berg in Bonn, whereas the symphonic weight with which Metzmacher infused the Brahms Fourth in Edinburgh was complemented by there being a few more phlegmatic accents in the Berg on that occasion. Both works it at least superficially seemed sounded slightly more supple at home during the spring, if only slightly less definitive or defining in interpretation than what happened the first week of September on tour.

Christian Tetzlaff and Ingo Metzmacher both took the Berg to a level, at best barely approachable by so many, that this music both deserves and inhabits. It is not that that at least one of these performances should be recorded commercially, but must, including I would hope extra tracks for the more classical and so structurally achieved Passacaglia by Webern and finely wrought two Bach unaccompanied Sarabandes from the A Minor and C Major sonatas as encores.

Alban Berg introduced with especially his late works and this concerto a new dimensionality to composing along lines of serialism, all that helped open the door to at least what trends in composition immediately followed 1945. Such include especially those works in neo-expressionism that we find the more humane among them, but not necessarily exclusively so. It is easy enough to simplify even too much what is at hand with this music, yet with what romantic leanings this series of performances may have conveyed, it did not happen at all without what one could strongly conjecture by hearing this was a very thorough mastery of how serial procedures work. It so well took into account as well even such an intimate level on which this concerto was written.

Again, romantic tendencies and modernistic ones played off each other with equal force and so intertwined as to constantly be hard to tell apart or as to develop too much specific identity of their own. No amount of words in describing this gratefully repeat-encountered Berg Concerto can compensate for what this was like – performance to series of such performances of a concerto – to be speaking broadly here – the most significant I have heard this past decade.

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