Sunday, August 29
Austrian Cultural Forum
Argento Chamber Ensemble
Michael Galante, conductor
Heinz Holliger, Eisenblumen
Phillipp Blume, S, M, L, XL
Ives, Movement 1 from String Quartet No. 1
Eric Lyon, Sacred Amnesia
The thirty-person audience at Sunday's Argento Ensemble concert was clearly one of connoisseurs. There was the man in the Schoenberg t-shirt reading Style and Idea, the teenager with a book on conducting, and a smattering of other aficionados (and, weirdly enough, a crying baby). I couldn't imagine a better setting to hear this bizarre variety of works, which conductor Michael Galanate grouped under the auspices of a preview concert for the ensemble's Pierrot-centered fall season.
Almost all the music bore some relation to that grand saga of the Austro-German musical lineage, to which Arnold Schoenberg proclaimed himself heir and prophet. With Schoenberg's ghost hovering over the proceedings, it wasn't too much of a stretch to see the connections between the founder of the Second Viennese School and the various works the ensemble performed.
Holliger's Eisblumen plays out a Bach chorale at a glacial pace so that each individual harmony becomes a prism of instrumental colors and effects. The celestial sound of detuned string septet, with each instrument hovering over the wisps of Bach's notes, produced a kind of skeleton chorale. Like Schoenberg in his neo-Baroque works, Holliger creates a dialogue with the past, with antique harmonies gradually coming in and out of focus, updated with extended, icy string techniques.
In the cleverly-titled S, M, L, XL, Phillipp Blume employs a hyper-modern string techniques worthy of Lachenmann in dense layers of polyphony. Individual gestures--a thudding bass slap, a whiplash pizzicato--form an immediate sense of foreground and background, with motives trickling in and out of the opaque fabric. In the end, the music coalesces into something rather pretty: tiny glimmers of tonality float to the surface. These quasi-tonal utterances allowed for a pleasant transition to the first movement from Ives' first quartet, a soulful fugue which has more in common with Dvorak than Schoenberg. Biting dissonances occasionally crop up (Ives wouldn't have it any other way), but the work is mostly genial, and very out-of-place in a series exploring Pierrot Lunaire. That said, the four members of Argento played it with a round and polished sound, fully embracing the radiant ending.
In his 2001 tape experiment Sacred Amnesia, Eric Lyon juxtaposes Wagner and Sousa in a socio-musical commentary which falls flat. Lyon subjects a heated passage from Act II of Parsifal (in which Parsifal cries "Amfortas! Die Wunde!" after kissing Kundry) to a haze of electronic effects, filtered into a weird, half-comprehensible mush; it feels silly, especially when immediately followed by an excerpt from The Stars and Stripes Forever. Lyon's own program notes mis-identify the Wagner as "the opening passage from Parsifal," and it doesn't really feel like he has a solid grasp on the materials he's quoting---pastiche without purpose. The few nice moments, like a held, glowing note and an intriguing metallic buzz, are overwhelmed by the silliness of an auto-tuned Pierrot quote and a Speak & Spell voice describing his income. Lyon would have been better off working with the abstract waves of sound he seems comfortable in rather than mis-representing Schoenberg, Wagner, and Sousa.
In his program notes, Galante makes sure to put down the famous Strauss-was-a-revolutionary Schoenberg quotation, but Metamorphosen is not the work of a revolutionary. It is the art of a man resigned to bid farewell to a half-century of German culture and horror, a man who often overlooked the horror in favor of the culture. It is an epitaph to the idea that great art breeds great people, proven desperately wrong in the twelve years of Nazi Germany. Metamorphosen sags with the weight of solace sought but not found. Strauss looks back to the Beethoven of the Eroica Symphony for his mourning: the entombed hero is not Napoleon, but Germany itself.
The seven-string version of Metamorphosen allows for a greater sense for Strauss's intricate counterpoint as well as a greater freedom for the performers. String unisons become solos, like the richly-hued, weeping cello melody of the funeral march. With twenty-three or seven players, the piece moves like molasses, each moment heartwrenching and inevitable. The strings scale immense heights, stirring up throes of passion which echo the intensity of the Act II love-duet in Tristan. The music comes to a sudden, groaning stop, returning to painful slowness of the funeral rites. Strauss recalls the end of Beethoven's Fifth with the incessant final chords, but they are hollow instead of triumphant: a Doctor Faustus-esque inversion of heroic victory. Argento produced a lush, fleecy sound with incredible intonation; I'm not sure how necessary a conductor was, but Galante gave it a worthy interpretation.
And, finally, Schoenberg. The two string septet fragments, from very disparate parts of his career, were definitely worth hearing. The untitled septet from 1918 evokes the Chamber Symphony, saturated with hard-edged, angular polyphony. Toter Winkel (1899) is like an outtake from Verklarte Nacht, haunting though brief.
Argento's fall season is really remarkable, with a ton of great Austrian modernism you won't get anywhere else in New York. I'm looking forward to Thursday's Haas concert, which I will hopefully review if I have time before heading off to Berlin on Sunday.