No Place to Hide
Alban Berg: Three Movements from the Lyric Suite
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto #3
Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony #4
Emanuel Ax (piano)
Daniel Harding (conductor)
Ask any accomplished musician in this town and they will tell you that even if they have solid positions in major orchestras, what they really want to do is to play chamber music. In this more intimate form of performance the artist is challenged to produce their best intonation, attack and overall tonal quality for the simple reason that everyone can hear them clearly as individuals. Further, the rigors of chamber performance require an advanced sense of listening in order to be an harmonious part of the group sound and experience. Not limited to only the standard chamber repertoire, the relatively new phenomenon of the chamber orchestra (itself a throwback to the medieval consort concept) has embraced a varied spectrum of pieces, from the purposefully little to the scaled down versions of larger works originally scored for full symphonic forces. There are only a scattered few worthy practitioners of this Lilliputian art form and even the bulk of them are embroiled in the period instrument controversy. It was thus a rare treat last evening to hear a small, tightly knit ensemble that does not shy away from either modern robust sound or full-scale orchestral music.
The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie is a relatively new group and enjoys the richness of youth and vitality not usually found in the more staid and entrenched orchestras of Europe. Even the Chamber Orchestra of Europe is more of a training vehicle, a Continental equivalent of our own New World Symphony. But under the baton of the amazingly youthful Daniel Harding, this German import produces a terrific sound coupled with the elan that only a group of under 35-year-olds can naturally muster. Harding is himself quite a story, making his debut in Birmingham as assistant to Simon Rattle at the age of 19. Sir Simon was the perfect mentor for young Harding as he himself had had to bear the slings and arrows of a vicious British press (he was nicknamed "baby rattle" at first) in his early untested days. Being small of stature and crowned with a mop top of blond hair, Harding looks all of 14 on his specially raised podium but his smooth movements and expressive gestures as well as the obvious attention to detail and masterful preparation that he exhibits more than dispel any reservations of an older audience.
Chamber orchestras tend to miniaturize and so it was unusual for Harding to open the program with a sonically expanded work. Alban Berg spent much of his creative life preparing the scores of his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, for use by the Society for Private Musical Performance, taking orchestral pieces and reducing them to odd combinations of instruments which often included the harmonium (they had one at the society so Berg tended to arrange for it) or constructing piano versions of works which would never otherwise be heard in the Berlin of the time. Schoenberg, however, was also interested in the popularizing technique of orchestral expansion, composing a version of his own string sextet Verklaerte Nacht for full string orchestra at the suggestion of Gustav Mahler. Berg followed suit when he took his own string quartet essay, the six-movement Lyric Suite, and arranged three of the sections for full strings. Last night we were presented with yet another version, a quartet expanded into a string orchestra reduced to a handful of individual stringed instruments. The Deutschlanders have only four celli and from this you can extrapolate how small of a group they really are. The performance of the Berg was incredibly tight, echoes of diaphanous phrases building upon one another at sometimes breakneck speeds, creating an otherworldly universe of sound which was oddly reminiscent of Mendelssohn and his fairy empires.
Emanuel Ax is a true presence as a keyboard artist, exuding such confidence and gentleness in his bearing as if to reassure the listener that there will be no wrong notes tonight. He is a master of the Beethoven repertoire and seemed to really enjoy toning down his attack to correspond to the smaller but richer sound of this unique ensemble. Perhaps this is quibbling, but I found the cadenza a little uninteresting, sacrificing the implied rhythmic intensity for a broader world of clarity. But certainly the combination of great artist and aspiring and seriously focused acolytes was highly satisfying and well received by the crowd who refused to let Mr. Ax depart the stage.
Harding has a supercharged conception of the "Italian" Symphony and led his forces through the sunny landscapes as if they were late for the tour bus (not stopping at all between movements one and two or between three and four) but pulled off this feat of athleticism because of the airy nature of his collective instrument and the innate vitality of his charges. A full orchestra version will doubtlessly sound positively elephantine in my ears for a while after my experiencing of this impressive performance. We were also treated to a very dramatic reading of the Coriolan Overture as an encore, stressing the violence of this most bloody of imperial stories. All through the evening these fine musicians exposed themselves and their individual talents and never once did they play less than expertly. Perhaps some may move on, enticed by the siren song of the big orchestras, but hopefully they can be replaced by equally dedicated artists. This was music making of the highest order.
Frederick L. Kirshnit