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Ionarts at Large: Mozart's Requiem with the BRSO

Frank Martin is not a completely obscure figure, but unknown enough to be considered one of the hidden and neglected gems among 20th century composers. If his time hasn’t yet come, it will—and works like “Polyptyque” will either be the cause or beneficiaries of that change in perception.

Polyptyque, “Six Images de la Passion du Christ” for violin and two string orchestras was requested by Yehudi Menuhin and he considered it the most important work written for him, after the Bartók concerto. At first, the work--performed by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in two concerts on January 22nd and 23rd under Thomas Hengelbrock--wasn’t forthcoming. Martin refused to compose a traditional violin concerto, admitting that in light of the masterpieces written by Bach, he could not comply adequately. He ended up writing a series of six ‘pictures’ on a theme instead and the inspiration was to be the scenes of the Passion of the Christ on the backside of Maestà del Duomo die Siena Polyptych.

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Frank Martin, Polyptyque, Maria-Triptychon, Passacaille, M.Cantoreggi, J.Banse / C.Poppen / German R PO
ECM 173 3930
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W.A.Mozart, Requiem, C.Schäfer, B.Fink, k.Streit, G.Finley./ N.Harnoncourt / Concentus Musicus Wien
DHM 58705
It would be his last major work before he died in 1974. In it, Martin tried to express his religious feelings through music, “even if rationally I did not believe or thought I didn’t. In the end, it was the music that led me back to religion which is something I could not express rationally in a way that would have truly, wholly expressed my innermost feelings.” (When Martin composed Polyptyque, he lived in the fortress town of Naarden that has been at the heart of the Dutch Bach tradition since 1921.)

The exceptionally tender second movement “Image de la Chambre haute, Andante tranquillo”, the short and urgent third movement “Image de Gethsémané”, and the extensive, lyrical solo for violin of the final “Image de la Glorification, Andante – Allegro moderato” find Martin’s language at his most romantic, without Bach ever receding too far into the background. And so it was a more than appropriate idea of Hengelbrock to feature the six movements of Martin’s concerto alternating with Bach chorales. The 45 voices of the Bavarian Radio Chorus—in perfect unison and with the transparency of a chamber choir—combined with the delicately performing orchestra formed a foundation from which the six concerto movements could rise and set them in a contextthat the audience could appreciate.

There are those who will take offense to conductors mixing classical or baroque works with modern pieces—but I’m never quite sure whether that’s because they think that modernists sully the classics or that the romantics disturb the purity of the modern music. Mix-and-(mis)match programs, at their best, can enhance the experience of both, old and new. More likely, one will be called upon in the service of the other: a cigar might be thought of as ruining a fine whisky, but a whisky can certainly enhance a fine cigar. Mixing Bach with Martin was somewhere between. The chorales—themselves of indestructible beauty—did not suffer from being set amid the violin concerto, and the concerto was greatly enhanced by the Bach interjections. Soloist Andreas Röhn, concertmaster of the BRSO, had a big part in that: His performance further underscored the level of individual excellence of that orchestra and the work's challenge had the soloist come out in Röhn—a student of Gingold and Szeryng and Carl Flesh-Prize Winner, after all.

The second half of the concert was given over to Mozart’s ever popular Requiem. The soloists, taken from the chorus, were good enough—the second bass on the weak side, the first mezzo confident and strong-voiced. The potentially awkward trombone obbligato in the Tuba mirum was mastered satisfactorily. Impeccably phrased, carefully controlled bursts of energy, hushed piano passages, happily indulging in the excess in which Mozart engaged, incredibly detailed and tasteful phrasing of choral passages: the performance had seemingly everything, just no purpose. It was an exercise in excellence, but lacked a sense of the sacred or a reverent air. A Requiem for what or whom? Fortunately the music is too beautiful not to be filled with your own meaning--and after a while I thought of something appropriate that added the missing meaning. Sabotaging that attempt, however, was Hengelbrock’s staggeringly inappropriate dress. A gaudy jacket--it would have better suited a Barnum & Bailey lion tamer than a grown man conducting a requiem--distracted vehemently.

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