WALTZES WITH DEPTH at the Februari Festival in Den Haag

Alban Berg Ensemble Vienna

The penultimate concert of the Februari chamber music festival in The Hague, with Brahms as its annual theme. This time, the great Alban Berg Ensemble Vienna (which I already had the pleasure of experiencing on Wednesday) opens the evening with two waltz classics by Johann Strauss, arranged for chamber ensemble and harmonium (a protestant version of the organ) by Alban Berg. Between Wein, Weib und Gesang and Rosen aus dem Süden, the second waltz works slightly better. Berg’s arrangement technique works best for lyrical waltzes, where harmonium and the strings combine to form a smooth, undisturbed texture that is not unlike a full orchestra.

Wein, Weib und Gesang is a more rhythmical piece, that intentionally breaks the unity between the actors on stage and has them act on their own. Musically, Berg puts in more dissonances here and combines pizzicato and complicated bowing to really get the string quartet working during the main waltz passage. So while Wein, Weib und Gesang is perhaps more musically exciting, Rosen aus dem Süden gives a more complete and thought-through musical picture. Naturally, both pieces are played with outstanding Viennese temperament by musicians who have simply grown up with this music, know it backwards. The waltzes have just the right amount of sostenuto and just the right accents in the right places, as the Karajans, Kleibers and Thielemanns do it so wonderfully in the famous New Years Day Concerts every year. We had a bit of that in The Hague last night.

This is followed by songs by Brahms and Julius Röntgen, an ardent Brahms –admirer. While the Brahms songs are noticeably more complex in their composition and instrumentation, Mr Röntgen really knew what he was doing. These songs give a complete musical impression, are neither too heavy or too light in character and authentically transmit their texts’ sense of tradition and days gone by. The combination between piano, mezzo voice and viola is especially interesting, it creates a unique sound atmosphere and is an homage to Brahms’ Two Songs op. 91, which have the same instrumentation. Brahms manages to ink out every last bit of potential from this interesting formation, giving particularly the second song, Geistliches Wiegenlied, its own remarkable special flavour.

The music ends in blissful silence, with all musicians on stage doing a stellar job in all four songs. Barbara Kozelj has an enchantingly clear Mezzo voice, with a exciting intonation and pianissimi in all four songs. Hannah Strijbos regulates the bowing and expression of her voila to come as close to a human voice as possible for the instrument. Her instrument and Kozelj’s voice harmonise wonderfully with Peter Nilsson’s nuanced and supportive piano accompaniment.

Hearing young chamber ensembles can be a very exciting experience. In a chamber ensemble, the musical force of the individual musician is less diluted than in an orchestra. The Animato Quartet provides just that exciting experience, playing Dvorak’s Two Waltzes op. 54 tonight. These waltzes go by with such verve and (in comparison to the Viennese) unrestrained expression, that I would have also loved to hear the quartet for the Brahms piano quartet op. 25, which was to follow after the interval. These four musicians are truly in tune with one another (as any great chamber ensemble should be) and produce a coherent work of art that is a pleasure to watch, simply for its well-rounded construction and unrestrained, youthful expression. A wonderful highlight of the night.

The next highlight of the night follows directly afterwards, with the Liebeslied Waltzer by Brahms, for four solo voices and piano 4 hands. Both final pieces (the Liebeslied-Waltzer and the Piano Quintet op. 25) are anomalies in Brahms’ work. This unrestrained emotion, this pathos-laiden expression of highly emotional feelings; He didn’t really ever do this again. Particularly the Liebeslied, with its quite emotional texts show that the old Brahms who swore to restrain himself from emotional outbursts was a different man once. The four soloists are all exceptional, with the returning Barbara Kozelj once again my favourite. An outstanding Brahms evening at the Grote Kerk, with the Animato Quartet showing itself as one of the exciting young chamber quartets of the Netherlands.     Yannik Eisenaecher    17th February 2019

Yannik Eisenaecher is the publisher of the blog FreshEarsClassics

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