Chetana Nagavajara

Berlin, 8 September 2014

One year has passed and nothing has changed. I am making use of the opportunity of the research residency offered by Free University Berlin to spend time in concert halls (and sometimes, theatres). Last year I wrote a long article in Thai complaining how pitiable the attendance at chamber concerts was, while symphony concerts were much better attended. The same thing is happening with the Berlin Music Festival of 2014. The chamber concert given by 3 distinguished musicians, Isabelle Faust (violin), Alexander Melnikov (piano) and Teunis van der Zwart (horn), in the Chamber Music Hall of the Philharmonie, was sparingly attended. It started at 5 p.m., and ended just one hour before the evening concert by the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam scheduled for 8 p.m.. I am a lover of both chamber and orchestral music and allowed myself the luxury of attending both concerts, a marathon of sorts.

Isabelle Faust

(Isabelle Faust)

I had heard Isabelle Faust twice, the first time in a Bach-Marathon of sonatas and partitas for solo violin in Ludwigsburg and the second time in Berlin in Morton Feldman’s Violin and Orchestra. I do not hesitate to declare that I have become one of her admirers (and even asked for her autograph after the Berlin concert.) Her playing has the sobriety and nobility that are so rare today when virtuosi want to win over the public by way of exhibitionism. That she studied with Christoph Poppen must have contributed much to her approach to music. She is one of those contemporary musicians who have benefited from the fruits of research, especially research into the 18th century, or to be more precise, into Baroque music. Her solo Bach sonatas and partitas are concrete proofs that research can probe the depths of music of the past and capture its the spirit, and that listeners in the 21st century can enjoy the music played this way.

The musical world has been lucky to have researchers who can also perform, and we owe much to pioneers like Nikolaus Harnoncourt and John Eliot Gardiner. The latter has also attempted to hark back to the performing tradition of the 19h century, including the use of period instruments. Isabelle Faust and her colleagues wanted to show us how Brahms’ contemporaries were enjoying his music in its proper environment, and more ambitiously still, with the kind of instruments that were used in those days. The much-loved Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano, op.40, usually called the “Horn Trio”, which I have often described to my students of German (who were forced to become familiar with a broader range of German culture) as “one of the most beautiful musical compositions that the West has ever produced”, figured as a test piece.

For the Berlin concert on September 6, 2014, a Hammerklavier, and not a modern grand piano, was used by Alexander Melnikov, and Teunis van der Zwart opted to play on a natural horn (with no valves) which Brahms himself prescribed. The violinist could undertake no instrumental change, and this was where the problem started. Her other colleagues could show the audience how they played differently from other musicians, so how could Mrs. Faust reposition herself so as to distinguish herself from other Brahms’ interpreters on the violin? She could not do much with changing the sound, and a stylistic shift was the only possibility. This was very difficult to achieve. In spite of his attachment to classical form, Brahms was a romantic through and through, and perhaps, precisely this Horn Trio happens to be the most romantic of his compositions. Isabelle Faust struggled very hard to go against the grain of Johannes Brahms, probably deluding herself that she was revivifying the genuine Brahms. Her playing was too stylized, too studied. All spontaneity was gone. Those who love Brahms know that in spite of the traditional framework, Brahms’ music has room for a kind of lyrical improvisation that the musician has to be able to achieve by way of empathy while playing the notes on the page. Mrs. Faust would have none of that. But talking about research, we don’t have to go the erudite way in order to know how the music of Brahms was played then: the infancy of recording technology has preserved snatches of the violin playing of Brahms’ closest friend and best interpreter, Joseph Joachim. He was definitely much closer to Yehudi Menuhin than Isabelle Faust who had launched herself on a mission impossible.

Alexander Melnikov

(Alexander Melnikov)

Naturally the other 2 colleagues were left in disarray. Alexander Melnikov, coming from the Russian School, chose to play the way he always does, and at times acted as though he wanted to persuade Isabelle Faust to go back to the Romantic School, to which she yielded at some rare moments. And the music suddenly came to life! As for Teunis van der Zwart, he was hesitant as to how much he should remain himself and how much he should follow Mrs. Faust’s prompting. The result was imbalance, and the horn player suffered most in this attempt at musical historicism, for he was at times too loud and at times inaudible. It was a pity that this wrong strategy should have obstructed the performance of one of the most beautiful creations of Western music.

Teunis van der Zwart was lucky to have an opportunity to redeem himself in Jörg Widmann’s Air for Horn Solo (2005). This is a virtuoso piece which has both substance and offers room for technical experiment. Widman is a clarinettist who has also produced first-rate compositions. (His sister, Carolin Widmann, is a solo violinist who had a programe of her own at last year’s festival, and some of us had already heard her twice in Bangkok.) In such a short piece, Widmann manages to explore a remarkable range of moods and emotions. As for the technical aspect of the piece, I must confess I had never heard some of the sounds produced by the hornist in my whole life. The audience was enraptured.

Teunis van der Zwart

(Teunis van der Zwart)

The programme was well structured in that it included another horn trio that carries on the pioneering work of Brahms. György Ligeti’s Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano (1982) was created as a tribute to Brahms. A non-professional like myself is in no position to specity how the Hungarian composer links up with Brahms. Judging from the sound and melodic structure alone, one has to admit that a tribute is not necessarily an acknowledgement of debt. Legiti belongs to a different epoch of Western music, and his discovery of the Darmstadt School after those years under Communist tyranny must have proved to be an opening to a new world. What I can detect from this tribute are two characteristics that Legiti must have found in music of Brahms. He sees Brahms as an introvert, but an introvert who is capable of breaking into almost childlike merriment. The major part of the Trio is marked by such introversion, but the 3rd movement, “Alla Marcia. Energio, con slancio, ben rilmato” recalls unmistakably the last movement of Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor, op. 25, (and certainly not the very popular Hungarian Dances.) He must have learned from Brahms how to be folksy and sophisticated at the same time. The three musicians seemed to enjoy playing this trio, however difficulty it might be, and Mr. Melnikov, especially, must have been glad to be able to revert to the concert grand.

I have mentioned earlier the physical characteristics of the Berlin Philharmonie and shall round off the subject together with my discussion of the first item of the concert, namely, Three Romances for Violin and Piano by Robert Schumann. This is the sort of music which the composer must have conceived for a performance in a small, private circle, known in German as “Hausmusik” (house music). It demands intimacy. And that is what the new wing of the Philharmonie cannot offer. The Chamber Music Hall is modeled physically on the original Philharmonie. Spacious, with a high ceiling. Isabelle Faust’s way of playing Schumann, elegant and sophisticated, did not fit into the ambience. You need to play the fiddle in the manner of Anne-Sophie Multer in order to fill the space. (Alberto Lysy, the late Director of the International Menuhin Music Academy: IMMA, once described Mutter’s approach to violin playing in the following terms: “She plays like a tank.”) It should be noticed that when Mutter plays a recital in Berlin, she usually chooses the main hall of the Philharmonie! This is not a matter of money. Her playing is loud enough for the big hall. Even Itzhak Perlman capitulated. My wife and I heard Perlman and Barenboim give a recital in the main Philharmonie some 20 years ago; and they were both extremely good then. Even these two eminent musicians could not cope with it. They bored the audience and bored themselves.

By the way, as with last year, I could not find any review in the press. Critics only go to symphony concerts. They are just as bad as we Thai!

Berlin has its problems, and some of these problems are not strictly of musical nature. It yields too easily to the lure of mass society and even has the ambition of becoming its leader.