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Ionarts-at-Large: Munich Chamber Orchestra Opens Season in the Hereafter

available at Amazon
Schubert, Orchestrated Songs (Webern et al.),
von Otter, Quasthoff / Abbado / Ch.O.of Europe
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Britten, Serenade for Tenor, Horn & String Orchestra et al.,
Neil Mackie, Barry Tuckwell / Bedford / Scottish Ch.O.
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Schubert, Symphonies No.7(8) & 4,
Giulini / BRSO
The Munich Chamber Orchestra (MKO) is a local musical force to be reckoned with—so much I knew from their recordings on ECM and the appearances at the ARD Music Competition. At the latter, the orchestra around a core of 25 players and music director Alexander Liebreich, proved that they even play with the utmost dedication when they are just ‘hired hands’, performing repertoire not of their choosing. That’s when an orchestra’s character really shows.

Why I have not made it to any of their concerts in the last two years, I do not know. And had it not been for a colleague’s last-minute reminder, I might have missed their opening concert of the 2009/2010 season, too. It would have been entirely my loss as the program titled “Hereafter” was an enticing mix of superbly played Mozart, Britten, Schubert, and 20th century French composer Claude Vivier (1948-1983). The Don Giovanni Overture already told of the darkly dramatic finale with its explosive and crisp execution; so few musicians, so much sound! One wonders if the whole opera could be played so vigorously (and if, whether they could sub for the Bavarian State Orchestra in the upcoming Don Giovanni production).

Claude Vivier’s “Zipangu” for String Orchestra is music of clear lines and bright repetition over a double bass drone. The mildly Asiatic flavor of his travels to Japan and Iran is faintly audible. The central dirge sounds like lonely birds on a winter day, the increasingly astringent violins approximate chalk on a blackboard. It makes for captivating, not necessarily conventional but ‘tame’, modern music that furthered the ashen mood of the program.

Christoph Prégardien and Franz Draxinger took to Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, op.31. For the Prologue and Epilogue, Draxinger used a natural horn (the MKO’s brass uses original instruments, wherever the repertoire allows), and his performance was no less impressive for the occasional, almost inevitable glitches. Prégardien’s tenor has to rely heavily on technique for the high notes which were not always the last word in security or beauty. Fortunately intelligence can compensate much—limited projection and range, for example—in a work like the Serenade. It did, and the result was very fine… not the least on account of the work’s strength which is difficult to properly appreciate in a recording, but fascinates with ease in concert.

Where is Anton Webern in his Schubert song orchestrations? In the unfailing tastefulness, the clarity, the absence of anything not essential. It’s as if Webern, by orchestrating them, further parsed the songs’ accompaniment down. The result levitates above the singer like a mobile suspended from silver threads the thickness of hair. The brief, dotted touches of color are already pure Webern, even though these are youthful works compared to his more famous orchestral transcriptions. Every note becomes audible, it’s Schubert as nouvelle cuisine. Prégardien was awfully straight in “Du bist die Ruh”, which ended up rather more pale than wan or sallow. No matter, this was still the absolute high point in a concert that was nicely, inconclusively rounded off with Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, formerly known as the Eighth, now referred to as the Seventh.

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