WHEN UNDERSTATEMENT BECOMES A SIGN OF MATURITY: MATTHIAS PINTSCHER AS COMPOSER AND CONDUCTOR
WHEN UNDERSTATEMENT BECOMES A SIGN OF MATURITY:
MATTHIAS PINTSCHER AS COMPOSER AND CONDUCTOR
Matthias Pintscher is a composer and a conductor. He directs the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris, which Pierre Boulez founded in 1976 to promote contemporary music. His conducting of the Berlin Philpharmonic Orchestra that I witnessed in the evening of 13 September 2015 showed great promise. Will he one day attain status in both capacities as the distinguished Pierre Boulez? In Thai we have an untranslatable expression, “Sia Khon”, which can be roughly rendered into English as “to lose your human qualities”, actually implying the loss of humility or being overly absorbed in one’s own (imagined) greatness. Will Matthias Pitscher be able to maintain his integrity as a musician in a world that can lead you astray at any moment? His performance last night made me feel optimistic. There was a kind of sobriety that pervaded his music making, something totally lacking in the star conductor Nelsons. A German working in France, if he is sensitive to the cultural environment, is bound to learn much. His interpretation of the French repertoire demonstrated that he had formed a concept, not only of the individual compositions, but also of French music. Nietzsche’s dictum, “We must miditerraneanize music”, was not taken by Pintscher at face value: the sunbathed brightness of the South was mollified by a Nordic temperance. His Debussy was exquisite. I shall come to that later.
I did make a remark in connection with the concert by the South West German Radio Symphony Orchestra that immersion in modern and contemporary music could prove to be a boon to musicians who know how to put that kind of experience to good use, especially when tackling the classical repertoire. Pintscher had no strictly classical work on the programme last night, but his reading of the first piece, Gabriel Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande (a third version of the same theme performed at this Music Festival, the other two being those by Schönberg and Debussy) proved beyond any doubt that he had no intention of romanticizing Romanticism. By sheer accident, the orchestra he had under his direction was the Berlin Philharmonic (well-known for its own strength of character and occasional resistance to a conductor’s guidance), and its woodwinds could never, never realize the kind of sound – warm and opulent – usually associated with the French tradition. So this tone poem was narrated, not as a drama with an acerbic theme, but a musical understatement, a rumination on the fate of the hapless protagonists. I am in favour of such an interpretation, for after all Maeterlinck did not want to have everything clear-cut to start with.
At this stage of the concert, I was wondering why Pintscher’s name did not come up during the long-drawn process of selection of the successor to Simon Rattle at the helm of the Berlin Phil.. Perhaps they wanted to see him grow as a composer rather than a conductor. His second Violin Concerto with the Hebrew name of mar’eh was conducted at this concert by the composer, with the French violinist Renaud Capuçon as the soloist. The Hebrew word, according to the composer, means “countenance”, and the meaning can be extended to signify “the aura of a face, a beautiful apparition, something wonderful”. The composer adheres to this concept throughout the work. It reflects the brighter side of life. And there’s the rub. How does a composer exploit the potential of the “king of instruments” to substantiate such a concept? In connection with the solo instrument, Pintscher related that he had been fascinated by the playing of Julia Fischer and wished to explore the expressive power of the violin. He himself had learned the violin and the Concerto was very, very violinistic. But the concept governing the work had to be translated into a composition, and the composer was completely absorbed in the effort of creating sounds from the violin that would respond to his programmatic thinking. The virtuosity was there, like all contemporary compositions for the violin, for most soloists of today have mastered the various facets of the violin technique while still studying in their respective academies. Pintscher had a predilection for the higher register and left the lower register in the cold. Why has he not learned from Bach how to exploit the full potential of the instrument, one would be tempted to ask? We might be enthralled with the tone colours, the ambience created by the composer, the dialogue between the solo violin and the orchestra, but there was little substance that we could grasp.
Only a few days ago we were treated to the Violin Concerto by Alban Berg, and no-one would have the impertinence to say that there is little substance in that violin piece. From my limited experience of hearing live performances of modern and contemporary violin concerti, I have encountered only one which really had real substance to offer to the public, namely that of Peter Maxwell Davies, which is definitely a neglected masterpiece. When Carolin Widmann visited Bangkok the second time, I had a chance to talk to her and to draw her attention to the violin concerto by one of the leading composers of the “Manchester School”. She did not know it, but promised to look at it. Nothing concrete has come out of that conversation, while she has performed a number of other contemporary works.
The soloist for the evening was the French violinist, Renaud Capuçon. He was flawless. Playing of course from the score, he seemed to be enjoying himself, braving all the fiendish technical demands. The balance between the soloist and the conductor was better than in the Berg Concerto the other night, perhaps because the composer himself was conducting. Apart from the dedicatee, Julia Fischer, the number of violinists who have learned this concerto is not known. I would say that Capuçon did make a great sacrifice in mastering the new concerto. Should he not have spent his time more gainfully deepening his understanding of a great classic like the Brahms Violin Concerto? In music, as in other professions, friendship involves time, energy and dedication. Capuçon demonstrated what real professionalism means.
After the interval, Schönberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 2 was offered. Beginning writing in 1907-08, Schönberg did not finish it until 1940. Much remains of the early super-Romantic Schönberg, especially in the first movement, the mood being somewhat contemplative. The second movement gets more lively. I have been asking myself why Schönberg sounds academic to me. Is it because he was professor of composition at various academies? For all his sophistication, the Viennese background did not equip him in the way that Bartók was richly endowed: folk elements were mostly absent from his music. (Why did he not learn from Schubert, or from Brahms, to whom he did justice by emphasizing the progressive side of the man from the North?) I must try to get to know Schönberg better. It was the aftertaste of my first encounter in Manchester with Verklärte Nacht, (Transfigured Night) that still lingers on in me. It is unfair to the composer whom experts consider as a great pioneer.
It was a very good strategy to conclude this concert with Debussy’s La Mer. As I have said earlier, Pintscher’s approach to French music does make sense. Here is a tone poem of sorts which does not narrate a story in the way that Richard Strauss does, nor does it attempt to convey a philosophical statement like Charles Ives, but it strives to describe in musical terms the elemental forces of nature. The use of a huge symphony orchestra with a plethora of percussive instruments is not meant not to create big sounds just for the fun of it, but because the kind of description he is engaged in will be defective without these instrumental forces. (In the Violin Concerto by Pintscher, a big orchestra was deployed too, but the musicians were not fully employed. We have an expression in Thai to describe such a predicament! “The musicians have time to take turns to hit the mosquitos.”) The Programme Notes, produced by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra management had to be one up on the usual Berlin Festival price of 2.50 euros, and cost 3 euros. (I am not being small-minded, but I think I have been coming to Berlin so often that I know its local culture – or subculture!) The programme writer quotes Debussy’s contemporary, Paul Dukas, as saying, “There is not anymore, as still with Liszt, the dialogue between nature and humanity, there is only that between the wind and the sea, a dialogue between oceans, which excludes everything anthropomorphic, all relationship with a subject.”
Matthias Pintscher would certainly not go along with that. What characterized his interpretation was a sense of wonderment at the elements as perceived by human beings. A strange human warmth exuded from this contemplation of nature, however tempestuous the outside world may be at times. I am not saying that he turned La Mer into another “understatement” like the Fauré piece, but a sense of control was present: getting excited is alright, but you have to remain yourself. It was a rare occasion that the musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic forget their usual exhibitionistic habit and performed so well in keeping with the conductor’s wish that you would not hesitate to rank it as one of Europe’s top orchestras. Sobriety was Pintscher’s hallmark, I would even be tempted to say, maturity, now that he has turned 44. I have no doubt whatsoever that he will make great strides as a conductor. As for his role as a composer, he should not just be looking ahead, but should be looking around as well. My knowledge of contemporary German music is limited, but so far I have been impressed by a young German composer, whose compositions are endowed with solid structures and do not revel in experiments in sounds. His name is Jörg Widmann, and I wrote about him in connection with the Berlin Festival of 2013.
14 September 2015