Photo – Enza De Paolis
La Gaia Scienza. The Gay Science. Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft. Not many musical ensembles have, as far as I know named themselves after a book by Nietzsche. (Though why not? The Beyond Good and Evil wind quintet from Helsinki, perhaps…) The Gay Science was the work in which Nietzsche first declared that God is dead, and perhaps this ensemble, a piano quartet, uses this name to bring into focus an attitude to composers of the Romantic period which aims to topple them from their pedestals as untouchable deities and treat them as human beings, if indeed supermen.
Last night they played two intensely serious works by Brahms, each prefaced by a single-movement trio by Schubert. The concert opened magically, violinist Stefan Barnesohi and cellist Paulo Beschi seducing us with a gentle, limpid sound over the diaphanous textures of the pianist, Frederika Valli in Schubert’s Notturno. I think Schubert intended this movement to be the slow movement for his wonderful Trio in Bb, D898, which for some reason he replaced with the even more beautiful movement we know today. La Gaia Scienza play on period instruments, so the piano they used last night was a copy of a Graf from the 1840s, midway between Schubert and Brahms in date, and a later model of the piano that Schubert himself played. The use of gut strings, and a more selective and varied use of vibrato than is common in modern playing, allowed this little-known and wonderful piece of music to display, as if of itself, its inner poetry.
Bringing Brahms off his pedestal. In the Trio in B major, and even more emphatically in the Piano Quartet in C minor, the players showed Brahms not as the icon of the Western canon who subdued feeling to form, but as an artist who, like so many other 19th century German composers and writers, including of course Nietzsche, depicted the violent anguish of the soul. They found a letter from Brahms in which he says he sometimes feels a gun at his head when composing, so their CD of the C minor piano quartet has a picture of that on the cover. And they play like demons – we shouldn’t forget that this was the era of virtuosi like Paganini, who pandered to the popular notion that he was diabolically inspired. Though their performances were slightly marred by some splashes in the near-unplayable piano parts (it’s a long flight from Italy), nonetheless the prevailing impression was of untrammelled passion interspersed with brief moments, as if of fleeting memories, of lyrical beauty.
Paulo Beschi played the cello solo that begins the slow movement with a simple tenderness that went straight to the heart. Ernest Broacher’s viola playing, golden and searing at the same time, reminded us of how especially Brahms loved the viola. Then the wild fury of the finale was played so fiercely by all four that the final arpeggiated C major chord sounded like nothing but irony.
Their performance of Brahms made me reflect on the two sides of his music – its formal perfection and its extreme inner turmoil. He was a supporter of Bismarck; one of his main patrons in his later years was the arms dealer Otto Wittgenstein, father (or uncle?) of the philosopher who wanted to abolish philosophy (yes I know that’s putting it a bit simply). In the finale of one of his most famous and public works, the 1st symphony, one can really hear the tanks rolling…Could it be that, like so many other tortured souls, he nestled in the right wing of politics as a perceived refuge from inner chaos?
La Gaia Scienza are playing again at the Festival, on Monday afternoon, Schubert’s Trout quintet. I’m not going to miss it.
La Gaia Scienza
Venue: Adelaide Town Hall, 128 King William Street SA
Dates: 8 March 2017
Tickets: $59 – $30
Bookings: BASS 131 246 | adelaidefestival.com.au
Part of the 2017 Adelaide Festival