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14.8.11

Notes from the 2011 Salzburg Festival ( 8 )

Mahler Scenes 7

With its wistful and lyrical opening, lean and beautiful in its classical romanticism, we hear nothing in Gustav Mahler’s youthful, one-movement Piano Quartet in A minor that suggests the Mahler of cut-and-paste inventiveness, stylistic jumble, irony, or Angst manifesting itself in twisted chords and harangued musical question marks.

Part of the “Mahler Scenes” series—exploring Mahler from the fringes rather than through yet another complete Symphony cycle—it was served up with panache by four wonderful musicians: Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Antonine Tamestit, Nicolas Altstaedt, and Alexander Lonquich, all of whose careers succeed on sheer musicality (and skill, of course), rather than glitz and elaborate PR promotions. Tangentially related: Kopatchinskaja hid her bare feet with a long flowing rust-red dress: wisely (assuming purpose behind that), because it helps avoiding accusations of the whole thing being a cheap gimmick.


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Mahler, Schnittke, Strauss, PQ4ts,
M.Roussi, R.Gothoni, M.Lubotsky, M.Hirvakangas
Ondine

The Quartet movement, only some 13 minutes long, simultaneously benefits and suffers from its association with Mahler. Benefitting in the sense that since its publication in 1973 it gets performed for being a Mahler curiositá, a piece of intriguing proto-Mahlerianism, musical Mahler-paraphernalia, lavished with occasional attention for having flowed from the pen of the hyped and loved composer of grand symphonies. Suffering in that it is rarely played outside that context, when just on the strength of its enormous beauty it really ought to have a steady place in the Piano Quartet repertoire. It’s short, but too good to be only a musical Mahler appendix. What surprises most is its clear, especially Schubertian but also Schumannesque flair—quite removed from the density of Brahms or later romantics.

The sixteen-year old Mahler wrote 24 bars of a second movement, too, but presumably abandoned the work despite—even later—taking some pride in however much he had written of it. When the movement was found in the 60s, Alfred Schnittke was approached with the task of a completion of the quartet, took those 24 bars and ran with them. The result turned out echt-Schnittke (‘by accident’, Schnittke explained apologetically), and was not the anticipated Mahler-Schnittke Quartet, but simply a Schnittke Quartet. Even so, Schnittke was the logical choice to finish the work, though, because he is in many ways the Mahler of the 20th century. His “Polystylistics” and use of absurdity, humor, irony, mischief, seduction, and complete independence makes him Mahler’s brother in arms. Like Mahler integrated bits and pieces from his environments to turn them into a symphonic collage, so Schnittke picks up all that interests him on the cutting room floor of Western music and reassembles it in his image.

It’s just that Schnittke is eclectic, even by Mahler’s standards, and after quoting Mahler’s fragment, he creates a work entirely his, with melting chords, askew harmonies, playful dissonances, and juxtapositions of glissandi and note-clusters—baffling and delighting as Schnittke usually does; many listeners the former, some the latter, and most of them some degree of both. Kopatchinskaja – Tamestit – Altstaedt – Lonquich dug into it with all the fervor and committed ruthlessness that Schnittke elicits and demands, from the heights of coy cacophony to the elusive lingering of heartbreaking melodiousness and its subsequent, ultimate quiet meltdown.

Richard Strauss’ Piano Quartet op.12, for all its rarity on concert stages and on recordings, is considerably more readily enjoyable than the comparatively often recorded Violin or Cello sonatas (opp.18 & 6, respectively). Throughout the 45-minute bear of a work, the energy of the players rarely sapped, even if it took its tolls on accuracy. What the audience got was a juicy, impassioned, and most enjoyable performance swiftly stomping through the second movement, aggressively convulsing occasionally, and again a twitching chuckle in the driving intensity finale. The encore followed afoot in form of the third movement of Brahms’ c-minor Quartet, op.60. Gorgeous, of course, among the sweetest and most delicate movements in Brahms and showcasing, as nothing else had that evening, the wonderful tone of Altstaedt, the fragility of him in duet with Kopatchinskaja, and the subtle interplay between them and Tamestit.