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Ionarts-at-Large: Rott World Premiere, Widmann & Martinů with the ORF RSO

There was some great programming going on, on part of the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra with Cornelius Meister, last Thursday at the Wiener Konzerthaus. One way you could tell: The place was half empty. Why bother indeed: Only a world premiere by the enigmatic proto-Mahlerian Hans Rott, the Austrian premiere of Jörg Widman’s Violin Concerto with Christian Tetzlaff, and a rarely heard great symphony—Martinů’s Third—to cap it off. If this kind of concert can’t be communicated in such a way to draw a good crowd, there are perhaps dark times ahead for classical music, or classical music marketing… or most likely both. But let’s enjoy it while it lasts, on the willing taxpayer’s expense:

Hans Rott’s Hamlet Overture aims grandly at Shakespeare and succeeds on its own terms—something that Rott himself may not have believed, because he gave up composition after finishing the full sketch and a few pages of orchestration. We can hear for ourselves now, because the 18-year old composer’s work has had its (apparently often cryptic) instructions for instrumentation in the unfinished score turned into a performing version by Johannes Volker Schmidt, which helped it to its world premiere now, 130 years after Hans Rott’s death.

Belated World Premiere

available at Amazon
H.Rott, Symphony in E, Orchestral Suite,
P.Järvi / Frankfurt RSO

Although it’s a much simpler work than the vast Symphony that helped Rott to late and belated fame, it’s a charmer. It opens with a brass chorale over timpani—half Bruckner, half Gabrieli—before the sumptuous strings set in that took the work much closer to the romantic realm that one would expect. Still, the neo-baroque elements persist faintly, and they were especially well played by the brass before later flubs slight marred the picture towards the: this-is-the-piece-we-couldn’t-spend-much-time-in-rehearsal-on status… But all the same it was a committed and sympathetic performance, better than that of the considerably more challenging and ambitious Rott Symphony by the same forces at the 2011 Salzburg Festival in any case. As is usual—because we cannot grant Rott his own voice on grounds of our own unfamiliarity with his limited canon of works (much less mature ones), the need to compare his music to others prevails: Wagner here, Liszt there, and Herzogenberg, perhaps. Issue on CD much hoped for… especially since the ORF recorded and broadcast the performance, anyway.

Onward from highlight to highlight: Jörg Widman’s Violin Concerto is a lyrical tour-de-force in which the violinist—Christian Tetzlaff, who has performed the world premiere in 2007 in Essen and made the recording of it—doesn’t take the bow of the strings for 30 minutes. (Which is why he needs a page turner—perhaps a novelty in the genre.) You can hear the will to make contemporary violin concerto with every chance to enter the repertoire. You enjoy the success of it.

Out of a world filled with the sounds of Mahler (large chords reminiscent of those ‘gate post 9-tone chords’ in the Adagio of his Tenth) and Alban Berg, Widmann created a work so consonant, so appealing, so much heart over brain, that I wonder if his sister Carolin—a modernist of the first water (though also a supreme Schumann interpreter)—might not have initially, instinctively cringed. Actually, I am rather sure she wouldn’t have, because it’s not her style. But you might know what I mean. Widmann’s Violin Concerto fits into the line of fine modern violin concerto that include the above mentioned Berg, Sibelius, Britten, Weinberg, Shostakovich, Schoeck, Bartók, and Martinů.

Electrocution, not Hammers

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J.Widmann, Violin Concerto et al.,
C.Tetzlaff / D.Harding / Swedish RSO

In contrast to the Rott, the ORS RSO now sounded though it spent most of the rehearsal time on Widmann—which is to say: excellent in its decidedly supportive role. The concert in one movement is divided into two parts by a long general rest where everything comes to a stop for a little while, before a violently ripped chord sends the searing concerto onward towards proving it one of the great violin concertos—nay: compositions—of the 21st century. Elegiac throughout, the soloists experiences (as it were) 2 wild and frenzied intervals shake him to the core. Where Mahler uses hammer blows in the finale of his Sixth Symphony, Widman uses electrocution… but dramaturgically the effect is quite the same: two, three strikes of fate, before the violinist finally dissipates into the ether. That fits in with the hints of the nine-tone chords (à la Adagio of Mahler Tenth) that I imagined to hear—even if Widmann suggests that while both Mahler references are plausible, they were certainly not an intentional part of his composition. After the last electrocution, the work ends with a dissipation of itself over flageolet notes, eventually dipping from a quiet cacophony into silence.

Tetzlaff so threw himself into the performance, played so electrifyingly, that nary a listener wasn’t caught up completely by the work. (Something that can be said about the slightly more timid-sounding recording only with—albeit mild—reservations.) The performance was, almost shockingly, the Austrian premiere of the work. Tetzaff beautifully phrased the opening cadenza in dark, viola-esque hues.

Martinů’s Symphonic Bird’s Eye View

available at Amazon
B.Martinů, Symphonies 1-6,
V.Válek / Prague RSO

Martinů got lost, somehow, in the history of contemporary music-reception. He’s reasonably well known, seldomly listened-to, and hardly ever performed. It’s hard to say why or how—he always had considerable champions of his music, much of which is very strong. He wrote much—too much arguably. Not all of it is top-shelf, but that’s too cheap an excuse and almost a cliché. Looking closer at most of his almost 400 works, there turn out to be gem after gem even beyond the reasonably well recorded six symphonies and seven string quartets. The violin sonatas (3+2), the violin concertos (2+3) etc. Perhaps it makes more sense to complain about the relative lack of Martinů-performances in a review of the many, many concerts that don’t perform Martinů, rather than one that actually closes with his Third Symphony. Still, there it is.

Capping a truly terrific program, Meister and the ORF RSO performed said Third Symphony with panache, nicely articulating the internationalist stylelessness of Martinů’s French-American-Czech-and-none-of-the-above idiom. (It is uniquely Martinů; but if a composer absolutely needs to be drawn in for comparison, it might be Carl Nielsen and his symphonies.) The work really has all the makings of an audience (if-only-they-show-up) pleaser. The highlight-filled first movement—full of swinging rhythmic complexity—ends with a terrific bang, there’s a strong, timpani-motored lyrical surge in the middle movement, and the colorfully wily finale rouses even the drowsiest patrons. And it’s no longer than a late Haydn Symphony.