Monday, December 6, 2010

hardcore, grandiose

Thursday, December 2 2010

Konzerthaus Berlin, Werner-Otto-Saal

Sonar Quartett
Helmut Lachenmann, Gran Torso

Paul-Heinz Dittrich, Sttring Quartet No. 2, "Nacht-Musik" nach Novalis

The Konzerthaus’s Werner-Otto-Saal is quickly becoming my favorite place in Berlin to hear new music. Tucked away in the opulent concert hall, a small black-box nook up a few flights of stairs, it has the stirrings of artistic adventure without really leaving the classical world—the Zankel Hall of Berlin. It was the ideal place to hear Jörg Widmann perform Boulez’s Dialogue de l’ombre double for clarinet in October and the piano duo Andreas Grau and Götz Schumacher play Zimmermann’s Monologe last week. Both concerts were part of the Konzerthaus’s ongoing “2 x hören“ series, a smart bit of programming in which each piece is performed twice with freewheeling but mostly informative commentary provided by dramaturge Markus Fein in-between.

On Thursday, I attended my third performance there, a celebration by the Sonar Quartett of composer Paul-Heinz Dittrich’s 80th birthday. It was the kind of program you hardly ever get in America: music by two difficult living composers, hardcore modernism which rarely makes it stateside.

Though Helmut Lachenmann’s legendary status is secured here, he is still barely a presence in the U.S. Dedicated ensembles like ICE and the JACK Quartet bring his music to a wider audience (I saw ICE perform his Mouvement last summer), but most of his music goes unheard outside Europe. His name draws blank stares from most educated classical music fans and conservatory graduates—a ghost of academic journals, obscure CD releases, and Paul Griffiths’ New York Times Christmas recommendations.

And I had never heard of Dittrich before last week. There’s something particularly odd about “discovering” a composer who is 80-years-old and quite clearly well-known in his home country. Dittrich is an East German counterpart to the Stuttgart-based Lachenmann, who is five years younger. Lachemann transforms human performers into dedicated machines, mimicking the electronic clamor of musique concrète with a veritable arsenal of extended techniques, embracing the possibility that every conceivable interaction between the performer and his instrument can be music. Dittrich takes a more conventional approach to high modernism, with a severe atonality which occasional bursts into fits of lyricism.

Written in 1971, Lachenmann’s Gran Torso represents the composer at his best. Each string player goes to the extremes of what is possible with his or her instrument, pushing far beyond any boundaries set by the most far-out modernism of the ‘50s or ‘60s. But what emerges is not always abrasive. Gran Torso emphasizes the quieter spectrum of the string quartet, each controlled gesture barely above a mezzo-piano. The violist caresses the strings of his instrument with the wood of the bow; the violins slide their bows around, evoking the sound of a seashell held to one’s ear. When the occasional normally-produced note does crop up, it sounds like a foreign invader—Lachemann has tipped the scale so far towards non-standard technique that the crazy scratches become the norm. It feels like an entire world is being constructed as you listen.

After the extremes of Gran Torso, Dittrich’s Nacht-Musik (1987/1988) seemed downright conventional, and at times boring. Though Dittrich’s comments in the program notes laid out how he incorporated Novalis’s cycle of hymns into his quartet (breaking down the poem and attempting to mimic the effect and structure of the poem, rather than the meaning of the text itself), the music lacked the haunting beauty of the lyric. Dittrich dwells in clichés, his musical language seemingly lifted from High Modernism 101: angular solo sections, unison glissandi (which lack the ferociousness of Xenakis), super-quiet scurrying passages punctuated by louder notes (it seems like every string quartet written after 1945 has at least one of these moments).

It’s a shame, because the work does have a few gorgeous moments, but simply cannot sustain a length of forty minutes. About halfway through, the cello rocks between two notes as the other three instruments lock into a repeating pattern of squeals, an eerie clockwork which fades away into a shiver of tremolos, evoking Novalis’s “holy, unspeakable, mysterious Night.”

Dittrich’s quartet might have been aided by the Sonar players, who gave both works technically assured but mostly passionless performances. The grand gestures of Lachenmann’s music need to be grandly executed, and Sonar only delivered the notes (or, really, “notes”), not their searing intensity. What this music requires are actors of the caliber of the JACK or Arditti Quartets: musicians so fiercely devoted to the music that their bodies, not their violins and cellos, are the true instruments.

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