|Bojidara Kouzmanova, Thomas Wally, Julia Purgina, Mara Kronick|
ensemble LUX, with Einspringer Gunde Jäch-Miko (for Wally) & Andreas Lindenbaum (for Kronick)
Georg Friedrich Haas: String Quartet No. 2 (1998)
Beat Furrer: String Quartet No. 2 (1988)
Roland Freisitzer: Pythoness at Tripod – Hommage to Patrick White (2010)
Helmut Lachenmann: Gran Torso (1971/76/88)
The ensemble LUX is a relatively new string quartet, and for the moment their activity is limited mostly to Vienna – which in practice means the Alte Schmiede, where they are the ensemble in residence this season. Their music-making is technically sharp and genuinely felt, and I hope that their rising profile will lead to success on the international contemporary music circuit. It is too early to say at what level, but with two of their members unexpectedly indisposed for this concert the remaining half of the quartet experienced life in the Arditti/JACK/Diotima leagues thanks to longstanding Klangforum members and deluxe Einspringer Gunde Jäch-Micko and Andreas Lindenbaum.
And so to begin with the highlight of the programme, Lachenmann’s Gran Torso, which was flawlessly executed but, more importantly, so much more than mere effect, or concentration of all things fanciful into reticent bursts. The scraping, scratching, brushing and creaking were all there, of course, though never too stern in manner or indeed its apologetic reverse; just powerful advocacy for Lachenmann’s aesthetic and its attendant principles of negation. The pitched notes (some crept into the work in subsequent revisions, lest we forget that Lachenmann’s purely unpitched period was in fact very short) didn’t quite register as displaced or better yet alienated from their more familiar contexts, and though this has transferred well to disc often enough for us to hear a different approach, I missed the way Lachenmann renders commonplace functionality remote, opening up a fresh and sometimes disorientating set of expectations and constraints for it. There was here instead a poetic impulse which, if no departure, compensated to some extent, meshing with structural insight in the guise of subtly underscored thematic mirroring. A thoughtful reading on balance, and intruded on only by a note of mundanity: the last person to use the Schmiede’s restrooms in the interval had left the door ajar and a draft caused the wretched thing to creak B as it opened and G sharp as it shut, ruining Gran Torso’s deathly quiet central section.
Beat Furrer’s second string quartet, which doesn’t proceed much beyond self-contained units made up of tiny gestures, sounds on paper like fully pitched Lachenmann. But while Furrer’s units have some flair – in each small movement there is if not joy in a single breath, then some expressive kernel – things soon get stale, and as with so many of his works there is no substantial development, or even stylized stasis. The one small mercy, a fine performance from LUX notwithstanding, was that we were spared his much longer third string quartet.
Moving on. I think of composers who are happy to toe the party line on big bad integral serialism and its diverse offshoots and yet shamelessly cherry pick from its emporium of expressive riches in superficially mimetic, second-hand and uncompelling ways, and wonder even if high modernism is watered down in the name of comprehensibility or demystification to justify or excuse what otherwise would simply be regarded as mediocre work. And then I think of Georg Friedrich Haas, who doesn’t shy from pitch class organization and yet writes music which if not strikingly original, is certainly striking, achieving an independence of style within familiar forms. Form here is indeed fully derived from pitch, or more precisely pitch collection with microtonal overtones, with explicit historicist intentions (as Haas writes, ‘tradition shines through again and again, but it appears as something lost, distant, clouded.’) Whether indeterminate triads are enough to decouple C major from the foreground is a point of debate, with Haas’s spectralist microtonal expansions never really challenging the rootedness of the piece, as interesting as their luminous accumulation may be. In any case the ensemble approached these elements as kaleidoscopic projections emanating from a fixed point, playing with transparency and clean attack. And yet it would be interesting to hear the work with more of the haze which Haas describes.
Roland Freisitzer’s string quartet ‘Pythoness at Tripod – Hommage to Patrick White’ was new to me and a second hearing is necessary in the most positive sense. The musical language is similar to Furrer’s, provoking something of a double take even though the two quartets had been separated by an interval, and yet Freisitzer isn’t at all disinclined to unpack his materials. That he did so in ways that looked back to lyrically mature Schoenberg was more imaginative in effect than that may sound. The title, incidentally, refers to a nude portrait which features in Patrick White’s Künstlerroman The Vivisector. The ensemble didn’t try as hard as in the Furrer – how the sheer weight of this composer’s reputation in this town works against him – and their litheness of style and rhythmic flexibility was acutely responsive to Freisitzer’s writing.
LUX return to the Alte Schmiede next month on the 20th (no programme announced yet). For details of other concerts taking place in Vienna this year,see this page on their website.