Chetana Nagavajara

 Isabelle Faust

The current Berlin Music Festival has a well thought-out agenda. The emphasis is on American music, most of which is rarely heard. A number of orchestras have agreed to take part, and what is more demanding is that they have to tackle works they most probably have never played before. Therefore, the orchestras and their respective conductors have had to do serious homework, and it is not too difficult to judge which orchestras have done their homework well and which are merely sight-reading these difficult scores. Besides, in structuring the programmes, the organizers have also tried, whenever possible, to place a modern American work alongside a classical piece and to establish some kind of affinity or connection. The concert at the Konzerthaus am Gendarmenmarkt in the “middle” district of Berlin on September 9, 2012 linked Franz Schubert with the American composer Morton Feldman. The programme consisted of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and Morton Feldman’s Violin and Orchestra (1979) with Isabelle Faust as soloist.
The Konzerthausorchester Berlin (formerly the Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester of East Germany) was conducted by the Italian maestro, Emilio Pomarico.

A few days had elapsed since I wrote the first part or the first paragraph of this review. I was hoping to compare notes with German professional critics, but it has turned out that they have very little to say on Feldman’s Violin and Orchestra, apart from relying on the information given in the Programme Notes of the concert. If the professional critics are no help, I just simply have to trust my ears. I am an amateur in the etymological sense of the word, namely, one who loves. As a music lover, I am always ready to give myself an opportunity to listen to something new.

The first thing I have to say about Feldman’s Violin and Orchestra is that, although it is the longest composition for orchestra that Feldman ever wrote, (lasting almost an hour), it did not bore me at all. Although the programme notes told us that the composer wanted to sever all connections with the kind of music generally accepted in the West for centuries, I did not find the piece totally formless. The professed formlessness itself is a new form. As already mentioned in my previous review of his Piano and Orchestra as performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and Emanuel Ax on September 6, Feldman regarded the sound as such as the true essence of music, disregarding all aspects of formalization in terms of structure, rhythm, melody, etc. But we cannot believe everything the composer said about his own music.

Being a Thai schooled in classical Thai literature, I immediately sensed that Feldman was operating in the same way as a Thai poet choosing the verse form of “RAI” as his vehicle, the “rai” being the most flexible verse form with one rhyme LOOSELY linking one verse with another. This is a verse form that gives the poet so much freedom to go on and on, and we have an expression in Thai to describe the way in which a loquacious person never stops talking, namely, “Rai Yao”, meaning interminable speech. Feldman’s music moved along as if no end was in sight, but it kept me awake, because it was impossible to guess what was to come next. The “unexpected” was the guiding aesthetic principle. And this is the strength of his music, which arouses our curiosity all the time, and when the music stops, we need not take that as the most logical conclusion of the piece. (This is a different world from the repeated chords of the ending of the last movement of a Beethoven Symphony.) I found this music enjoyable.

And the sounds! Feldman could produce such a great variety of sounds from a very big symphony orchestra, with many percussive instruments. But unlike Varese or Ives, he is not a friend of fortissimos. A big orchestra was put on stage to prove that a minimum of volume could be produced from a maximum of instruments. I admired those brass players who succeeded in playing very softly, and the percussionists too, whom the score demanded that they were not there to create big bangs. And what about the solo violinist, Isabelle Faust, who was conditioned by the score to shed off all virtuosity? Of course, she was playing a solo part, but it was a solo part that was not to outshine other instruments: a lot of harmonic notes, half tones and glissandos. The relationship between the soloist and the orchestra was a thoroughly horizontal one. The orchestra was not accompanying her. They were engaged in a kind of chamber music in spite of the size of the orchestra. I had made the right decision to secure a seat on one side of the orchestra, and from that vantage point I could observe the conductor and the soloist from behind, seeing her turning the pages of the score. Why did she have to turn the pages so often? Soon enough I discovered that she was not reading just the solo violin part, but was playing from the full score, so that she would know what the other instruments were doing. In other words she was the second person – apart from the conductor – who knew exactly who was doing what in the orchestra. What a conscientious musician is this young lady with the name of Isabelle Faust!

Allow me to digress a little. I had heard Isabelle Faust before at her solo recital in Ludwigsburg on June 16, 2012. That evening she performed all Bach’s solo sonatas and partitas, lasting almost 3 hours, and I was mightily impressed, not by her physical stamina that could sustain such a “Bach Marathon”, but her incomparable concentration that invested each piece with a character of its own. But I must confess that 3 hours of uninterrupted Bach solo violin was a bit much. She was the opposite of Anne-Sophie Mutter, and I even wrote a comment following a comment in a Ludwigsburg newspaper of that recital to the effect that, had Ms. Faust attended a masterclass given by Ms. Anne-Sophie Mutter, the latter might have thrown her out – for lack of passion.
A pupil of Christoph Poppen (who has been to Thailand twice), Faust came from the chamber music tradition (having started her own string quartet at the age of 11.) But certainly, passion she did have, though internalized. Isabelle Faust is an introvert. After the Berlin concert. I did something that I rarely do: queuing up for the artist to affix her signature on the CDs of the complete Bach solos. I told her that I had heard her “FAUST MARATHON” in Ludwigsburg and had gone home to write about that experience. She got my point all right , (the “Faust Marathon” was the performance some 10 years ago of the entire 2 parts of Goethe’s Faust, lasting 21 hours, and directed by the distinguished German theatre director, Peter Stein.)

After that digression, I can now return to the point about the affinity between Schubert and Feldman. All music critics quoted Feldman’s statement that he was an admirer of Schubert.
So what? To admire a predecessor does not necessarily mean that an artist has automatically become part of the artistic lineage. Feldman was closely associated with his contemporary American visual artists, especially the Abstract Expressionists, and shared their artistic aspirations. He was analytical, and could formulate programmatic and theoretical statements very well. (He was a professor too.) He thought what he had in common with the Viennese master was the urge to create “atmospheres”. He had given lectures on this topic and referred specifically to Schubert’s A minor piano sonata. I was questioning myself (or rather, my ears) whether the performance of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony by the Konzerthausorchester under the Italian conductor, Emilio Pomarico, brought out a distinct “atmosphere”. I must admit I am not sure about that. What was most admirable in that performance was the transparency that we rarely hear under other conductors. It was a very well balanced performance, musically and emotionally. The string sound especially was most captivating. No exaggeration anywhere, just straightforward music-making that made you realize that Schubert was of the stature comparable to his great contemporary, Beethoven. This somewhat “Mediterreanized” rendition of the symphony convinced me that Schubert had succeeded in freeing himself from the symphonic hegemony of Beethoven. I must call upon the authority of Johannes Brahms again, who loved Schubert dearly (and possessed the largest collection of Schubert manuscripts), but stood in awe before the towering stature of Beethoven.

Morton Feldman must have understood what Schubert was after and tried to emulate him in seeking a breakthrough, not from any one particular composer , but from the Viennese legacy altogether. It was an ambition that he could only partially fulfill. And that much was already very impressive. I must congratulate myself in having had the opportunity to attend a concert like this one, from which I could learn so much. The Konzerthaus that night was more than half empty. What does that tell you? Berlin, the capital of Western music?