A SMOULDERING GYPSY FIRE at the Nieuwe Kerk in Den Haag part of the Februari Festival 2019

Quatuor Van Kuijk
Photo by Nikolaj Lund

The opening of the Februari chamber music festival in The Hague. Over a period of five days, several concerts and masterclasses by renowned chamber musicians take place, all focussed on one composer: Brahms. An interesting opportunity to get to know a composer so widely known for his symphonies, solo concertos and German Requiem from his more rarely performed chamber music side.

The opening evening showcases particularly Brahms’ friendship to Dvorak, whose Slavonic Dances open the evening. Charmingly played by the young Dutch pianists Nicola Meeuwsen and Thomas Bayer, we hear completely new sides of these dances. Particularly in op. 46 # 5 Meeuwsen and Bayer accentuate the central voices, both in the prioritisation of their hands and within the hands and chords themselves. This brings out splendid unexpected dissonances, together with an overall romantic sound spectrum. The classic op. 72 # 7 is played with such remarkable attack, I almost hear Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. Such was the force of articulation and tempi here, totally fitting. With more experience, these young pianists are surely in for exemplary careers.

This is followed by the first large chamber piece of the (long) night, Brahms’ famous Piano Quintet op. 34. The Quator van Kuijk and pianist Ishay Shaer take the stage and perform the following quintet with intelligence and foresight. The quartet’s sparing use of the bow and Shaer’s spanning, romantic and yet never overpowering playing at the piano shine brightest in the second movement. Hear, Brahms demands an arc of suspense not unlike what Bruckner would create years later, where musicians have to carefully dose their energy in order to keep the passion of the thoroughly romantic music at bay. The final movement then becomes a letting loose of that energy, with Shaer’s generous use of the pedal and the quartet’s embracing of romantic texture bring the quintet to an illustrious high point.

Following the interval, mezzo soprano Deidre Angenent takes the stage for gypsy songs by Brahms and Dvorak, with Peter Nilsson accompanying. Angenent’s voice has all the full-bodied potential you could ask for in a Mezzo, displaying completely different images in Dvorak and Brahms. Maybe Brahms seems a little more fitting, because of her exemplary diction, the clarity of the writing and the fact that Angenent gets that Brahms is not a man of overly strong showing of emotions. The final Brahms song ends in blissful silence, before Angenent comes to the Dvorak. Here, Nilsson is also more active in his piano accompaniment and the music brings an altogether more driving vibe, much appreciated by this point in the evening. After the seven songs, we can constitute that Angenent has grasped the mature character of these songs with an uncompromising professionalism, and that we can look forward to many other exciting things from her, from Carmen to Brangäne.

Finally for the highlight of the night: The Alban Berg Ensemble Vienna is the premier ensemble at the festival and is playing Brahms’ famous Clarinet Quintet to round out the night. Stocked with musicians who have triumphed in international competitions and play in top-class orchestras around Austria and Germany, this ensemble is without doubt one of the great chamber ensembles of today, right up there with the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin and other famous formations. As the first gentle chords of the quintet ring out and Alexander Neubauer’s clarinet (deputy principle at the Vienna Symphony) begins its wondrous journey, the ensemble sounds like the Vienna Philharmonic in miniature. A remarkable “Mischklang,” (mixed sound) develops between strings and clarinet, with both elements wrapped in a tight, yet seemingly effortless embrace. That (as any true music fan will know) is uniquely Viennese. The sound is complemented by a light and transparent, but never empty or lifeless string quartet. Combining lightness and lack of heavy brush with a constant gravitas and serious approach to the music is anything but easy: Viennese music-making at its core. The sound spectrum is completely different than to those of the other chamber formations heard before. The brush is full but not heavy, the interpretation flows freely and yet is always clearly thought through. Spontaneity and deep thought, normally two opposites, become one tonight. After the first few bars, one immediately knows what class of performance one is witnessing. This is something else. The audience is clearly apprehensive, and seems to hold its breath during the piece: Little or no coughing; even total silence in the short breaks between the movements. Immediate standing ovations.

After all this great music, a quick final note on the general concert experience. Weirdly enough, it has become commonplace in the Netherlands (and, alarmingly so, even occasionally in Germany) to have a concert or even every single piece of a program introduced by a presenter of some sort. To me that always feels like a disturbing intrusion into that very special atmosphere that comes when everyone sits down, the lights darken before a performance, the public breathes in… And someone starts chatting away about whatever is about to come. I would like to answer with a few words from my hometown and the legendary Walter Kollo, who famously said with all of his Berlin ‘Schnauze’: “What are you about to hear? Well, shut up and you’ll see!” I let that stand as a plea against such events as tonight, when a (doubtlessly sympathetic and well-informed) musicologist proceeded to read the program notes to the public before every piece in a language not everyone in the public understood. Suffice to say, we can read and could have done without. Classical music is not meant to entertain or to serve as the butt of jokes, but to deliver an experience that nothing else can. And for that, we do not need jokes about how well Johannes Brahms’ father played the double bass.

From the musical side, the concert was as impressive as could be, with a world-class chamber ensemble performing a staple of the repertoire with control and brilliant phrasing. The Viennese finish was simply perfection, with the best of Dutch chamber music performing beforehand. A sublime start to the festival, if only it hadn’t been for all the talking.    Yannik Eisenaecher     13th February 2019

Yannik Eisenaecher is the publisher of the blog FreshEarsClassics

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