Leoš Janácek, the Contemporary

Rarely Heard Chamber Works Exquisitely Performed at the Wiener Konzerthaus and the Arnold Schönberg Center

On The Town | Matthias Wurz | June 2007

The new production of Leos Janácek’s opera The House of the Dead for the Wiener Festwochen gave rise to a number of concerts portraying the composer’s lesser-known chamber works, offering insights into the delicate, at the same time mature writing, steeped int the Czech idiom.

In the appealingly personal performance space of the Arnold Schönberg Center a few days after the premiere, Janácek was again on offer, complemented with 20th century classics of Arnold Schönberg (1874–1951), Alban Berg (1885–1935) and Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), performed by the Shapiro Ensemble, excellent young players of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, from the pit orchestra for the Janácek opera at the Theater an der Wien.

The program included several intimate chamber works, like Janácek’s Pohadka, a fairy tale for violoncello and piano, performed by Konstantin Pfitz (violoncello) and Paul Rivinius (piano).

This piece is beautifully crafted, bringing out the interplay between the two instruments: As the two lovers - Tsarist son Ivan in the cello and princess Maja in the piano part - engage, the two instruments melt into one another, in a pas de deux of elegant courtship.

The phenomenal performance of Stravinsky’s Octet for Wind Instruments, conducted by the young founder of the ensemble, Philipp von Steinaecker, brought out the virtuosity of the players.

The wit of Stravinsky’s writing in this four-movement set of variations, most pronounced in the playful, humoresque figures in the basoon, was contageous, seeming to give as much pleasure to the players as to  the audience. Even the conductor could be forgiven for some occasional lapses in this fiery performance.

Across the street in the Mozartsaal of the grand Konzerthaus, the Klangforum Wien, well-known ensemble for contemporary music, dedicated a series of three concerts entitled Ein Fest für Janácek (A Festival for Janácek), preceding the opera. Though the performances were those of skillful chamber musicians, the programming was incoherent and for some concerts seemed like a set of choices thrown together entirely at random.

This was particularly noticeable in the first concert, where Janácek’s short wind suite Mladi (Youth) was programmed with Arnold Schönberg’s Lied der Waldtaube from the substantial Gurre-Lieder and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, both performed in original arrangements for chamber ensemble by Schönberg or his students.

The concert was conducted by the Italian Emilio Pomárico, a student of Franco Ferrara and Sergiu Celebidache specializing in contemporary music.

While Mahler and early Schönberg are obvious combinations stylistically, and often even closer in the chamber arrangements, the Janácek-piece was an unequal partner in musical substance, though filled with colorful and sharp-edged, rustic wind sounds.

However, the quality of the music-making by the Klangforum – on some works, performed without a conductor – was overall first rate.

This was evident in the second concert where Austrian composer Friedrich Cerha (b. 1926) led the ensemble in a program that contrasted Janácek with works by the Hungarian composer György Ligeti (1923–2006); the undisputed highlight of the series.

Both Janácek and Ligeti often used folk music as sources of musical material. However Ligeti’s music, particularly the opening Melodien (Melodies) and the substantial Kammerkonzert (Chamber Concert) were much more difficult to grasp. The outpouring sounds, high pitches and cluster chords, seems all one can make out of it, with the effective, programatic color of some of his symphonic music less visible here.

Janácek’s two small-scale piano concerti, the Concertino and the Capriccio are mere reference points for the genre, but nevertheless technically demanding for the soloist. The Capriccio was particularly noteworthy, not at least as the piano part was written only for the left hand, but because of the accompanying instrumentation of a brass choir.

These unusual sonorities took some time to get used to, particularly the contrast of trombones and tuba in unusual high ranges for the instruments that nevertheless, paired with the piano, left an impression on the audience.

The series ended with a phenomenal contemporary instrumentation of Janácek’s substantial song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared. This proved to be the highlight in the Janácek cycle of the Klangforum Wien.

The beauty and lyricism of the songs are complemented with instrumental pieces. One was astonished by the operatic realization of the work, on which the excellent instrumentation had an important part to play. If one didn’t consult the program, one would have easily accepted this as Janácek’s own.

The cycle consists of a series of folk poems, published anonymously, that tell the love story to a gypsy girl. The narrator, sung by the Czech tenor Ales Briscein, revealed operatic qualities, though his high ranges sounded forced and rather shrill. Argentinean Mezzo-Soprano Loreno Espina sang the part of the gypsy girl with a very warm and rich vocal quality that revealed flirteous quality.

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