The Austrian Cultural Forum hosted an impressive evening of piano works by Egon Wellesz (1885-1974) at the Austrian Embassy on Thursday night (again, reviewed exclusively by Ionarts). A counterpoint student of Schoenberg's from 1905 to 1906, Wellesz wrote the first biography of Schoenberg in 1920. The program notes characterized Wellesz as “half Jewish, half Hungarian, and wholly Austrian,” though one might consider Wellesz a bit English as well after spending the last thirty-six years of his life in Oxford. Austrian pianist Margarete Babinsky performed on the Embassy’s fantastic Bösendorfer.
Wellesz’s inviting piano works may be loosely categorized in two ways: strict and improvisatory. The four-movement Eklogen, op. 11, features materials from both categories. In particular, the first movement, Nänie, which began with dark, ppp roving chords and a rhythmic pattern heard in a variety of evolving contexts – Wellesz’s aversion to repetition turns each work into a compelling journey that always confronts new territory. Movement four, titled Epilog, contains a tune surrounded by light-textured chord clusters reminiscent in color of Debussy. Always tonal and ever Romantic, the twenty-three different movements from eight opus numbers comprising Thursday’s performance offered the audience a welcoming introduction to Wellesz’s style.
Babinsky performed the entire program -- including two encores -- with score. By not parroting the works, Babinsky appeared to achieve a higher level of focus and accuracy as a vessel transferring Wellesz’s music to the audience. The program notes included a quote from Babinsky that indicates the noble placement of the performer in the shadow of composer:
Technique is the tool to be used to awaken life in the music, and one can only achieve optimum results with a perfect tool. But in the end, it is all to do with the musical expression of a work; the interpreter should never believe himself or herself to be more clever than the composer.The Egon-Wellesz-Fonds of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna has more information about Wellesz's work.