Written by: Richard Whitehouse
Hall One, Kings Place, 90 York Way, King’s Cross, London
Wednesday to Saturday, 23-26 March 2011
While his status among the leading post-war musicians is undoubted, Heinz Holliger – composer, oboist and conductor – has not enjoyed a profile in the UK comparable to that in Western Europe (collaborations with the London Sinfonietta and London Mozart Players notwithstanding), and it was no mean coup for Peter Millican to have enticed him to Kings Place for a four-concert retrospective that gave a fair picture of who Holliger is and what he does. Moreover, the clear and warm acoustic of Hall One proved an ideal setting for music which, stretching over the Romantic and Modern eras, placed its emphasis on intimate and responsive musicianship.
Each of the four concerts was centred on particular themes, though the music of Holliger and Schumann – to whom the former professes an especial affinity – was prominent throughout. By the same token, the wide pool of musicians featured a core of players who have worked extensively with Holliger – not least Christoph Richter, whose role as curator was evident in the unfailingly thoughtful programme-planning. It is also worth noting that, though all of the concerts lasted nearly two hours in duration, there was never any sense of the musicians having overreached themselves or of audience concentration being at a premium.
The first evening, Souvenirs and Fairytales, duly set the tone for what was to follow. Pierre Boulez may latterly have produced the definitive version of his Stravinsky memorial …explosante-fixe…, but Holliger’s own (1972) realisation remains a wonderfully poised version of this compositional ‘matrix’ and was lucidly rendered by Holliger on oboe d’amore, together with his wife – the harpist Ursula Holliger, violinist Muriel Cantoreggi, violist Hariolf Schlichtig and Christoph Richter on cello. Schumann’s Six Canonic Studies (1845) for pedal-piano are only seldom revived, but Theodor Kirchner’s (1888) arrangement for oboe d’amore, cello and piano makes them an idiomatic complement to the composer’s other sets of miniatures and was wholly pleasurable from Holliger, Xenia Jankovic and Alasdair Beatson. Holliger has produced two sets of Lieder ohne Worte for violin and piano – a selection from the second of these (1994) framing three speculative intermezzi were played with intense commitment by Cantoreggi and Alexander Lonquich. After which the keen wistfulness of Schumann’s Drei Romanzen (1849) for oboe and piano seemed the more affecting, with Holliger and Lonquich a model of unforced interaction.
The opening work in the second half provided a first hearing in this series for the music of Sandór Veress (1907-92) – the Hungarian composer and teacher who, latterly resident in Switzerland and the United States, was the mentor to a whole generation of musicians, Holliger not least among them. Jankovic gave a gripping account of his Solo Cello Sonata (1967), in which serial elements are deftly wedded to rhythmic propulsion often redolent – though never merely imitative – of Bartók. Schumann’s Märchenbilder (1851) for viola and piano may not be among his most cohesive or finely proportioned sets but, when spiritedly characterised by Schlichtig and Beatson, the liveliness of the first three pieces found their natural culmination in the ruminative fourth. In two movements, themselves underlining the polarity between stasis and dynamism, Holliger’s Duo (1982) for violin and cello is one of his most immediately appealing works and was vividly rendered by Florence Cooke and Richter. Rounding off this first evening was Schumann’s Fünf Stücke im Volkston (1849) for cello and piano, perhaps the most varied and certainly the best balanced of his sets of miniatures, given here with a burnished eloquence as well as a robust humour by Richter and Daniel Tong.
The second evening, Darkness and Infinity, accordingly investigated deeper as well as darker musical waters. Following the Berio-like rhythmic genuflection of Holliger’s Trema (1981) for solo violin, incisively played by Cantoreggi, the mellifluous ease of Clara Schumann’s Drei Romanzen (1853) for violin and piano was the more pronounced – elegantly rendered by Cooke and Tong, and a reminder of a compositional talent which scarcely allowed itself to flower further. Nevertheless, it was Holliger’s Romancendres (2003) that proved a highlight of this series. Inspired by contemporary descriptions of a set of ‘Romances’ for cello and piano that Robert Schumann wrote in 1853 and his wife destroyed some four decades later, these intense and acutely contrasted pieces are at once a homage and an act of restitution; imbued with a Schumannesque ethos while being wholly of their own time. Music so densely layered with musical and semantic allusions might easily lose focus, but this is prevented by the sheer emotional intensity of Holliger’s writing – a quality amply in evidence with this spellbinding account by Richter and Beatson. Whatever the likely merits or, indeed, perceived defects of the Schumann ‘originals’, the fact they inspired such a masterpiece is their own, albeit posthumous justification.
Schumann himself featured after the interval: Nachtstücken (1839) may not be the most distinctive or the most arresting collection from his decade devoted to piano composition, but it makes for a varied and attractive ‘suite’, not least when played with the attention to detail evinced by Beatson. Making his only appearance as a pianist, Holliger was unfazed by the crystalline figuration and introspective manner of Elis (1961) – three pieces which embody covert references to the verse of short-lived expressionist poet Georg Trakl. Good that music by the Korean-born though Berlin-domiciled Isang Yun was included, not least as Espace II (1993) for oboe, cello and harp is among the most enticing pieces from his maturity – the Holligers and Richter making the most of its sinuous counterpoint and unforced interplay between Occidental and Oriental traits. György Kurtág is another composer for whom Holliger has great admiration, and a selection from his vast sequence Játekok (Games) provided a fitting end to this programme – Lonquich and Cristina Barbuti teasing out the subtleties as well as an uproarious humour from the sequence, both pianists combining in the eloquent transcriptions of two of Bach’s chorale preludes.
The third evening, Fantasies and Journeys, was in itself a veritable microcosm of the series as a whole. The first half was framed by two Veress works. The String Trio (1954) found him integrating discreet elements of Hungarian folk music with a serial technique stemming from pre-war Viennese Classicism, the result being a tensile and finely argued two-movement piece to which Cooke, Schlichtig and Richter audibly did justice. By contrast, the Third Piano Trio (Tre Quadri, 1963) drew on paintings by Claude, Poussin and Breugel in music whose evocative quality underlined the ‘synthetic’ nature of Veress’s idiom as pointedly as his music’s sheer technical mastery. In between, Schumann’s Fantasiestücke (1842) adds up to a four-movement piano trio whose freedom of design doubtless decided him against giving it a generic title – though Cantoreggi, Jankovic and Beatson were as responsive to its formal cohesion as to its expressive contrasts, while Nicola Eimer made Holliger’s early Piano Sonatina (1958) seem less an apprentice piece than its composer has conceded; though there was no mistaking the presence of Veress in the motivic economy and emotional objectivity of its first three movements, the introspection pervading its ‘Nachtmusik’ finale is an unequivocal statement of intent.
After the interval, Holliger’s Surrogò (2006) for cor anglais and harp brought husband and wife together in a quizzical tribute to Kurtág on his 80th-birthday, and was itself an ideal entrée to the composite that followed. Written for the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Holliger’s ConcErto (2000) is among his most arresting pieces, and features a number of ‘Soli’ that can be heard either singly or as duos and trios. Which is how nine of them were heard on this occasion – given by Holliger, Cooke, Schlichtig and Jankovic, together with horn-player Michael Kidd and trombonist Rupert Whitehead – interspersed with the Soli for cor anglais Kurtág wrote for Holliger as a token of mutual respect. The outcome was a sequence in which Holliger’s meaningful virtuosity found its ideal complement in Kurtág’s laconic rumination, in a continuum which might even have been designed thus. From this pièce d’occasion to a true occasional piece, Schumann’s Andante and Variations (1843) is usually heard in its reduction for two pianos, but the original also features two cellos and horn which, when arrayed symmetrically across the platform, emerges as one of his most touching works. Richard Watkins partnered Lonquich, Barbuti, Jankovic and Richter in ‘Hausmusik’ that has precious few equals for quality of invention.
The fourth evening, Childhood and Encryptions, provided in one respect the most extreme juxtaposition in any of these concerts. While it may not be regarded among his most significant opuses in terms of intrinsic musical interest, Schumann’s Album für die Jugend (1849) has provided generations of aspiring pianists with more than technical food for thought. Heard consecutively, its 43 individual pieces (grouped into separate books for ‘beginners’ and ‘intermediates’) last well over an hour, yet there is no reason why a representative selection cannot be made – which is what happened here, with Alexander Lonquich proving as insightful here as in Schumann’s more-advanced works. His selection was further enhanced by being interspersed with Holliger’s Duöli (2010) – a sequence of 33 miniatures for two violins that themselves induct the performers into matters stylistic as well as technical, and which was taken by violinists drawn from Junior Guildhall under the guidance of Florence Cooke. Ursula Holliger also gave an evocative rendering of Holliger’s Praeludium, Arioso und Passacaglia (1987), its components melding into a sequence at once virtuosic and cumulatively expressive.
From here to Berg’s Kammerkonzert (1925) is hardly a small step, yet the performance of what can seem this composer’s most intractable work crowned proceedings in suitably impressive terms. Those who attended Holliger’s pre-concert lecture would have heard him explain much about the genesis and physiognomy of a piece which nonetheless yields most of its densely embedded secrets only after repeated hearings. Those who heard it from the first time, however, were assuredly starting at the top. Holliger (whose 1989 recording is among the finest) marshalled the 13 wind players drawn from the Royal Academy of Music into an unfailingly well-coordinated unit; one as alive to Lonquich’s flights of fancy in the opening Theme with Variations as to Muriel Cantoreggi’s long-breathed eloquence in the central Adagio, before the two soloists came together in a scintillating account of the cadenza that leads into the Rondo ritmico – the observing of the marked repeat of its greater portion bringing an expressive momentum that justified the decision on musical as well as numerological grounds, and with a coda that did not so much disintegrate as dissolve into silence. In short, a gripping performance of a work such as can only benefit from an exponent of Holliger’s insight and authority.
It was a measure of Holliger’s persona that, faced with an enthusiastic audience response, he drew attention to those taking part almost without thought of his own contribution – a modesty in keeping with his understated presence throughout this retrospective. ‘’This series of concerts is not about me’’, he was heard to remark during one of the intervals, as if intent on playing down the extent to which the selection of music, composers and performers could not have been had he not been at its centre. Hopefully this series has re-established him as a force for good: hopefully it will be possible to mount a similar event before too long – perhaps as the focus of one of the BBC’s Total Immersion days at the Barbican Centre. For now, though, Kings Place can feel justified in its endeavour and by no means self-selecting audiences who, in many cases, stayed the course through four evenings in the endlessly stimulating company of Heinz Holliger.