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Ionarts-at-Large: National Youth Orchestra of Germany rocks Viktor Ullmann

When I saw an e-mail with the following program advertised to go down on Thursday, January 14th, at Vienna’s premiere concert venue, the Konzerthaus (not to be mistaken with its premiere musical museum, the Musikverein)—

Markus Hechtle Fresko. Eine Zuflucht (“Fresco: A refuge”). (2015, Austrian premiere)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Fantasia in C minor, K.475
Viktor Ullmann, Piano Concerto op.25
* * *
Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony Nr.3 “Eroica”

—I reasoned that attendance would be seemly for the following reasons, in order:

#1: V.Ullmann’s Piano Concerto: Viktor Ullmann is one of the great composers of the 20th century. Potentially greatest, at least, if he had written a few more works as good as the few that I know (his Piano Sonatas, Third String Quartet, the haunting melodrama The Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke). I want to hear as much of him as I can, on record and live. Because it is usually such good music, the listening never doesn’t end with me being considerably upset—as I am sure he was, too—that the German authorities gassed him on October 18th, 1944, and threw his twisted body into a ditch of dead bodies, to burn.

#2: H.Schuch: The youngish pianist has steadily and solidly built his unspectacular career on excellent skill and refined taste. There is nothing loud or glittery about him; he will not model underwear. Deutsche Grammophon will not sign him to an exclusive contract; he won’t star in a Nespresso commercial. But he will draw decent crowds of connoisseurs who value a fine touch over garish colors and who appreciate many shades of gray without thinking of grammar-defying housewife-porn. The Ullmann concerto has been in his repertoire for a while (he has made one of only three recordings). To also hear him in the contrasting Mozart Fantasia K.475 (nice to lighten the texture thus) is just about as intriguing. (Schuch previously reviewed on ionarts: Stuttgart, 09/15/2010 jfl; Terrace Theater, 10/17/2015 S.A.)

#3: Here I was going to list Michael Sanderling’s hair, which is the only legitimate successor to Riccardo Muti’s. But Sanderling, the youngest of the conducting clan, had to cancel the tour, and Hermann Bäumer stepped in without changing the unusual program. (I’d not have known him except for a tame Johan Gottfried Mann CD on CPO.) Without disrespect to Bäumer, but that means the Bundesjugendorchester (BJO) becomes the next-coveted attraction because youth orchestras are interesting to hear, the possibility of a bad performance is lower, because I haven’t heard the orchestra in quite a while, and it’s nice to compare this very young band (all hands on fretboards are between 14-19 years old) to outfits like the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra or the EUYO.

#4: Beethoven’s Third, if I have to… but then, with a youth orchestra it should at least be exciting to some degree.

available at Amazon
V.Ullmann (+ LvB), Piano Concerto op.25 (+ PC#3),
H.Schuch / Olari Elts / WDR SO Cologne

I didn’t come for Markus Hechtle Fresko. Eine Zuflucht, but I’d certainly never leave because of it, either. (The group of listeners I overheard later at the sausage stand felt less charitable, but, even though the tepid applause suggested they might, they may not necessarily have been representative.) It opens in hushed triple-pianissimo in the strings before other instruments pipe up and interrupt. For a split second it sounds like we will hear a Sibelius symphony, but Hechtle quickly steers the work into a different direction. Stereo clappers, positioned far left and far right, jolt all those who were prone to spend the ‘overture’ slumbering. Good trick, actually. And so they click and clacked away, at a furious clip, while the strings swelled and the woodwinds whaled and the brass snarled every so often. The whole thing is held in pleasant dissonance, except for the outbreaks and snarls, which have bite, and little micro-corners that, on turning, sounded like the briefest of glimpses of familiar material. In concert, I could listen to this as an orchestral warm-up innumerous times; at home I cannot see myself electing to search for a CD on the shelves in hope of fetching Markus Hechtle’s Fresko.

Herbert Schuch’s C minor Fantasia began daringly slow; well guided through this gentle slowness and convincing enough to immediately quell the impatience that such a slow opening tempo occasionally induces in me, in these times of faster-quicker-speedier. The sound was full, north of mezzo-piano most of the time, the modulating cascade (A minor to F minor) was taken comparatively fast and Beethoven-stormy. It grabbed my attention, it raised my left eyebrow: Perhaps I expected something crepuscular from this specialist for musical nightshade, even at this outbreak. Schuch went right back to the latter, in any case, which made the foregone eruption stand out like a naked, rocky hilltop amid the cloud-softened deep green of the firry surroundings.

available at Amazon
M.Hechtle, Screen, Klage, Fleck, Still et al.
ensemble modern / s.asbury et al.

The Mozart, as was to be expected, given every player and conductor already being in place, went into attacca into the fierce opening of the Ullmann piano concerto. What a piece! The second movement (Andante tranquilo) is the equal of any slow movement composed in the 20th century, Ravel included. Gut-wrenching chromatic tension and release, but elegant textures and unsweetened. Somewhere in the background looms Tristan. Stravinsky doesn’t loom, he dominates the third movement with its Jazzy rhythms. The conversation between orchestra and soloist went off without a hitch.

So far I hadn’t listened to the conductor: too many new sounds and other foci swayed the attention. But in the Eroica, which is rather a familiar piece, that might have changed. It didn’t, because it wasn’t a particularly distinctive performance, to these ears, but it was certainly loud and energetic, never crude and with a nice current running through it. Perhaps one ought to hear the repertoire war-horses only with youth orchestras, because one won’t get a bored or jaded performance, but a fresh, genuinely excited and sometimes exciting (if not totally nuanced) one. The few slipped and cracked notes in the third and fourth movement could lazily be attributed to youngsters having nerves, but I’ve heard too much worse from seasoned professionals to blame it on age.

It is hard to say how many fewer tickets would have been sold (or how many fewer concert presenters would have rejected any even less conventional program in the first place), but even after the decent Beethoven performance the very work felt like a bit of a pandering let-down after an intriguing first half. Couldn’t they have made it an impromptu-memorial performance of Notations, instead? J

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