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Ionarts-at-Large: Cerha, Lush Romantic at Work

Friedrich Cerha—who looks like something the Grimm brothers might have invented and placed in the deep woods to ask riddles of passing maidens in distress—is bound to be reduced to his association with Alban Berg by way of completing Berg’s opera Lulu. That’s not a bad association to have, but if you are a composer very much in your own right, it might be nice to leave the shadow of mighty Berg every so often. If that hasn’t quite worked by the time you hit 88, you might go the other way.

P.G. Wodehouse, accused of writing about ‘all the old Wodehouse characters under different names’ in his last novels, answered the criticism in the preface to one of his “Blandings Castle” novels thus: “With my superior intelligence I have outgeneralled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make [the critics] feel, I rather fancy”. Perhaps Cerha did something along the same lines when he wrote his Drei Orchesterstücke between 2006 and 2011. Not only the title of the work, which was premiered by the WDR Symphony Orchestra under Jukka-Pekka Saraste in Cologne on Friday, February 7th, and now repeated at the Wiener Konzerthaus’ Grosser Saal, hints of Berg’s op.6, the relatively lush and luscious music, too, seems not so far removed as nearly 100 years of compositional activity would suggest.

available at Amazon
A.Berg, Lulu Suite, 3 Wozzeck Fragments, 3 Pieces for Orchestra,
R.Fleming / J.Levine / MET Orchestra

available at Amazon
F.Cerha, String Quartets 3 & 4 et al.,
Stadler Quartet et al.

The first of the pieces, “Berceuse celeste”, starts with parallel planes of hushed strings and lonely calling voices from deep amidst while faintly familiar woodwinds chime in on a descend towards slow brass-activity. Impatient trombone chatter leads to a first climax, a brief whirlpool of activity that ends with a spooky tic-toc on the xylophone. The central and substantial “Intermezzo” lets its hair down and dare digs in, with brass and percussion and woodwinds all getting excited like juveniles on an unsupervised school trip. Lyricism eventually overcomes the strings while the percussion battery hasn’t quite yet given up its mischievous ways, thwacking away. It jumps, this Intermezzo, and cannot sit still for long, it wiggles and it giggles. It falls into contemplation, too, but never without a restless undertone. To my ears there’s a narrative of life in it, of church bells and babies, houses on fire and maybe fire trucks, success, debauchery and regret, loss and just about everything else of life thrown into it. All that Cerha giveth, he taketh again in the “Tombeau” where the name really gives it all away. Rigid and subdued, spent, it builds up slowly only to ratchet up a bitter-sweet cacophony in which the message of parting and stand-still is hammered home by the side drum before the work very slowly falls asleep.

Hello! When soprano Barbara Hannigan steps on the stage, half the audience is impressed before she even opens her mouth. Her singing duties were Berg’s Wozzeck Fragments for Voice and Orchestra which aren’t so much fragments than they are a deliberate teaser for the opera-to-come (not yet premiered when Berg put this together) that tell the story as a mono-drama centered around Marie. Mme. Hannigan’s Marie went for drama and intensity and size by way of a powerfully pushed vibrato… one reason why it was hard to make out the text she was singing. A touch of electric shrillness arguably appropriate to the character went along with a beautiful voice in a strange mix somewhere between enervating and beguiling while the orchestra played unambiguously handsomely.

In Cologne, this program was daringly ended with György Kurtág‘s Stele, written for Claudio Abbado and his Berlin Philharmonic. The dark and wailing work was timidly substituted in Vienna with a warhorse: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It got a punchy opening from Saraste and band, with shortened phrases for extra kick, right on and snappy throughout. It was played to a very fine standard that—not the least because it is Beethoven—continues still to excite. (Just a little more exactitude would have further benefited this approach.) The punch became a little heavier in the third movement Allegro and in the Finale the mechanical timpani beats over pianissimo strings achieved a life of their own before the long climax lead to the eventual, invigorating finale. The Entracte III from Schubert’s Rosamunde encore clarified that this was a road show. And very a fine one, too.