Compassion: Chamber Landscapes

Compassion: Chamber LandscapesChamber Landscapes is a little festival-within-a-festival, devoted to chamber music. This was particularly welcome this year, when there has been on the whole far fewer purely musical shows than there were last year. They are held at the new Ukaria Cultural Centre in Mount Barker, nestling in the Adelaide Hills about an hour from the city centre.

This is not only a beautiful venue with a huge picture window behind the performance area, but possibly the best acoustic in Australia for listening to chamber music for strings. It seats just over 200 people, not too big to evoke an intimate atmosphere, and has a very high wooden ceiling (wood is so essential for picking up the harmonics of string instruments) and broken up surfaces.

Chamber Landscapes is curated this year by the composer Iain Grandage. Urbane and deeply literate, he gives an introduction to the works to be played that is both analytical and historical, often rushing to the piano to demonstrate thematic connections. He has the enthusiasm of a child showing you a fabulous new toy, and it’s highly infectious.

I was able only to attend the three concerts on Saturday 10th March. The last, a recital by the great Swedish singer Anne Sophie von Otter, was very different from the first two purely instrumental concerts, but since they were held together by a common theme, I thought to write about them together. The common theme was war.

Elgar wrote his Piano Quintet in the closing stages of the first World War. The Australia Ensemble (in this case the Goldner Quartet joined by the lovely pianist Ian Munro) gave a thoughtful and searching reading of this remarkable work. The first movement is one of the finest tableaux Elgar ever achieved, mirroring in its oscillation between many contrasting passages the uncertainty and perplexity of England’s response to the war. For the English then, wars were supposed to be glorious, or a means of putting down rebellions in the colonies at the other end of the world, not losing millions of lives on its doorstep. They lost a few of these wars, but usually won. They were winning this one too, but the cost was appalling. The adagio of the quintet takes the listener into the dark introspective world of Elgar’s personal doubts about his relationship with England. Unfortunately the last movement is in that other vein of Elgar’s music – false confidence in the rightness of empire, the land of hope and glory – and I find this really a stretch.

There were three works, or groups of works, composed during the second world war, which made a fascinating if confronting juxtaposition. Daniel de Borah gave a thrilling, urgent, and committed account of Prokofiev’s 7th piano sonata, written as the battle of Stalingrad was being fought. The march rhythms in the first movement, so much beloved of Shostakovich, were chillingly taut, and de Borah played the finale, often used as a flashy encore because of its difficulty, in a brutal, deliberately un-beautiful way so much more faithful to the spirit of this music. But the slow movement was the emotional heart of this performance, de Borah tolling the bells before the return of the beautiful main theme with fateful clarity over the endless sea of desolation.

Then we were treated to Strauss’ Metamorphosen. I didn’t know that the version for 23 strings which is usually played was not Strauss’ original intention. The performance by the Australian String Quartet, expanded by three members of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, was a re-working made in the 1990s, turning it back into a string sextet which was how Strauss conceived it. Hearing this work in the wonderful Ukaria acoustic was a revelation – it was much more linear and less of a gorgeous wash of sound then the usually heard scoring. It is Strauss’ reaction to the impending defeat of Germany, epitomised by the destruction of Dresden (and all its inhabitants who weren’t in Slaughterhouse 5) by Allied bombing early in 1945. Grandage’s introduction to this work outlined it’s thematic origins in the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica, and enabled me to hear other references in Strauss’ threnody, most notably Siegfried’s funeral march.

Well, yes. And in Anne Sophie von Otter’s recital, we heard music from the other side of the fence, as it were, songs and piano pieces composed by inmates of the concentration camp at Theresienstadt. Von Otter is one of the great singers of our time, and in particular is a wonderful Lieder singer, speaking her texts with utmost simplicity and directness as her voice envelopes these texts with its pure yet warm magic. Her account of these songs, final farewells to homelands, or most touchingly a lullaby to children soon to be murdered in Auschwitz, was completely unsentimental, without anguish, completely transparent to the horror of their plight.

Earlier in the day the Australian String Quartet played Brett Dean’s first quartet, Eclipse. I heard them play last year, and found them engaging but perhaps not yet fully formed as a quartet – in the intervening year they have made themselves into an ensemble of great unanimity and finesse. I found their account of the strange, pianissimo effects (glissandi, stroked pizzicato, harmonics on low strings etc) of the first movement quite riveting.

The quartet (the piece, not the ensemble) is Dean’s reaction to the Tampa incident of 2001. It is his horrified response to the inhumanity of the the Australian government to the plight of the refugees, which was complicated by and confused by the War on Terror sparked by 9/11 that year. As we witness horrible acts by people or nations, we sometimes think our reaction is extreme, but then history proceeds to show us that the vileness we saw was just the tip of the iceberg. Kristallnacht and its consequences was just the harbinger of the genocide of Jews; the xenophobic, selfish, and cowardly rejection of the refugees who were picked up by the Tampa has now become mainstream Australian practice and results in the atrocities of Nauru and Manus Island. The Eclipse of Dean’s title has been followed not by a return of the sun but by blackout. The first two movements of Dean’s quartet, one slow, one fast, are both fractured, atonal fragments of sound depicting the terrible anxiety of these refugees adrift on a leaky boat in the middle of nowhere. The final movement, built on intervals of the ninth, is much more lyrical, and seems like a plangent appeal for compassion.

So how did we survive all this? Mainly through the redemptive power of art. But also by the lighter pieces played and sung during the day. Taryn Fiebig opened the day with three limpid Dowland songs, accompanied by the ASQ playing like a consort of viols, reminding us that she is not only a glorious opera singer but retains a fine connection to early music. The ASQ played a work by Oswaldo Golijov entitled Tenebrae, I have been deeply impressed by his music in the past, but I found this piece disappointing. Based thematically on one of the Leçons de Ténèbre by Couperin, it purports to refer to unrest in Israel and the view of the Blue Planet by astronauts. I found difficulty in relating the rather watery treatment of the Couperin material to these themes. No, I’ll be honest – I found it impossible.

Besides the Theresienstadt music, von Otter sang a collection of songs as varied in quality as they were in content. At one extreme was Bach’s Komm, süsser Tod, almost whispered to an entranced audience as her final song; and three Schubert songs, of which the most touching was the F minor arietta from Rosamunde, and the most unusual Who is Silvia. This, a Shakespeare song whose irony Schubert perhaps failed to detect, von Otter transformed into a woman asking, about this Silvia who everyone is talking about, is she really everything she’s cracked up to be? I don’t believe it (but I’d still rather like to see what she looks like).

At the other end of the taste spectrum was Bernstein’s Simple Song from his Mass. It is, to quote a distinguished audience member, garbage. At the risk of sounding like Wagner talking about Meyerbeer, I declare that Bernstein is possibly the most over-rated composer of the entire 20th century. (Well, I suppose there is Lloyd Webber. But he is less pretentious.)

In between were charming songs in Swedish, including four epigrammatic ones by Sibelius. I wish I understood Swedish. Maybe the rest of the audience did. For me, it was frustrating to hear this singer, so perfect at communicating the sense of the songs she was singing, singing in a language impenetrable to me.

I cannot close this review without mentioning von Otter’s pianist, Leif Kaner-Lindström. What struck me about him was his quite extraordinary ear. That might seem a silly thing to say – after all, all musicians have good ears – but not only was his ear for balance incredibly responsive, but I would say that he played, not just the piano, but the acoustic of Ukaria, seemingly without giving it any thought at all. Whereas for Daniel de Borah the piano, magnificently, was his instrument, I had the unusual sensation that Kaner-Lindström was playing the hall itself.

Wonders in music never cease, and this Saturday’s series of concerts at Ukaria was a remarkable reminder of that.

 

2018 Adelaide Festival
Compassion: Chamber Landscapes

Curated by Iain Grandage

Venue: UKARIA Cultural Centre | 119 Williams Rd, Mount Barker Summit SA
Dates: 8 – 13 March 2018
Tickets: $55 – $44
Bookings: www.adelaidefestival.com.au

 

 

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