Wednesday, 13 January 2010
A heart in winter
I was going to be pretentious there and begin in French - well, 'un coeur en hiver' does sound so wonderful, like 'ou sont les neiges d'antan?' which has to be better than Hofmannsthal's German in Rosenkavalier ('wo sind die Schnee von vergangenen Jahr?') It's the title of a French film, not as good a one as the best of the just-departed Eric Rohmer (how well I remember seeing A Tale of Springtime with five other people in the late, lamented Lumiere Cinema on the night of a World Cup quarter-final). To mourn him gently, what could be better than late Faure?
Poor, afflicted Gabriel (pictured above), going deaf, increasingly ill and losing many of his friends to the grim reaper, simply carried on in the line of increased harmonic complexity and chromaticism, allied to polyphonic singing lines in his chamber music. It struck me last night, listening to the very late E minor Quartet from our friends the Helikons who so generously returned to the BBCSO class, that for 1923 this is still amazingly experimental music. It's surely more durable than dodecaphonic Schoenberg, and of course much more melodic, but still hard to grasp. I've just read what my colleague Jessica Duchen has to say about it in her Phaidon Faure mini-biography, and I think she hits the elusive nail on the head:
The off-centre, syncopated rhythms, the extended phrases, the intricate counterpoint and dense textures, the often bizarre harmonies and apparently endless sequential progressions are characteristic of late Faure, but here reach their apex of concentration. Even world-famous string quartets have been known to make certain cuts in the piece which they feel renders it more intelligible to both performers and listeners. However, if performers accentuate the quartet's energy, rhythmic vigour and the nuances and contrasts of its stylistic language, rather than only its seamlessness and smoothness, the music shines out in vivid relief as a uniquely intense, rhythmically intricate and spiritually vigorous, abstract work.
'Our' Helikon Quartet (Patrick Wastnage, Nikos Zarb, Rachel Samuel and Graham Bradshaw pictured above at the end of their session last night), fresh from a day's recording of Debussy arr. Colin Matthews in their other role as BBC Symphony Orchestra players, said they found the finale especially problematic. There they did just what Jessica suggests - accentuated the energy - to get through it. I certainly didn't have a problem with the enigmatic aspirations of the slow movement, where the viola and then the first violin seem to be reaching towards a heaven that eludes their grasp. And one of the students, Piala, rightly pointed out that this was stream of consciousness writing very akin to Virginia Woolf's, and with equal discipline behind it.
After they'd gone, we had a brief and, on my part, not very detailed wallow in more late Faure. I've been listening to Katherine Stott's wonderful set of the complete piano music, marvelling again - as I first did when I came across them with Paul Crossley playing - over the harmonic adventures of the Preludes. We heard Nos. 3 and 4, followed by the colossal lament of the F sharp minor Nocturne from 1913. I was searching on YouTube, and didn't find any great heights in the works I wanted, but perhaps the most magical pianist on there is Marguerite Long in 1936, playing the D flat major Nocturne of 1894.
After our foray into the late piano music, I contrasted the fantastical Allegro vivo of the Op. 115 Piano Quintet with the relatively straightforward finale of the still very beautiful earlier Piano Quartet (C minor, Op. 15). You can hear that in the hands of the glorious Frances Angell and her colleagues in the newly-formed Turner Ensemble at Kings Place on Sunday evening. Their debut programme also includes the Janacek Concertino, and it's not to be missed. After the Loddon Mill experience, I'm also expecting them to be much more communicative than the Borodin Quartet in its latest incarnation - a bit of a disappointment on Saturday evening, which I've written up for the Arts Desk.