Tristan und Isolde – Prelude [arr. Williams]
Lyric Suite [arr. the composer and Verbey]
Michael van der Aa
Up-Close [UK premiere]

Jeroen Willems (actor)

Sol Gabetta (cello)

Amsterdam Sinfonietta
Candida Thompson (director)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 18 March, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Sol Gabetta at The Barbican. Photograph: Mark AllanAlthough well established as a string orchestra of the first rank, the Amsterdam Sinfonietta has not been a frequent visitor to the UK, so making this London appearance as part of its current European tour the more welcome. The programme itself was intriguing – not least in that the first half’s juxtaposition of Wagner and Berg came in the guise of a scenic presentation by Pierre Audi who, for almost a quarter-century, has made Netherlands Opera a powerhouse of contemporary drama such as has few, if any, rivals in Western Europe.

That said, this staging hardly ranks among his successes. Delving into the life and loves of Alban Berg, as revealed through letters sent (during his last decade) to his muse Hanna Fuchs-Robettin – a relationship seemingly more imagined than real, not least in that the composer also maintained a frank correspondence with her husband Herbert – might not be without historical and cultural interest. However these letters, as adapted by Janine Brogt, portray Berg as an essentially vacillating and self-pitying figure who evidently (and not unreasonably!) poured his finer feelings into his music. Nor could the staging offer much in the way of visual stimulus – the hapless protagonist, all too earnestly assumed by Jeroen Willems, wondering aimlessly across centre-stage – glass in hand – in his lengthy monologues and reduced to skirting around the musicians while the music was in progress. Had this interaction been more dynamic or varied, something more might have resulted than the rambling soliloquies that did nothing to illuminate either the composer or his music.

Fortunately, the musical component largely compensated for what might otherwise have been an interminable hour and a quarter. While it hardly made one forget the original, the ‘Prelude’ to “Tristan und Isolde” as arranged for strings by Adrian Williams was an effective transcription; clarifying the contrapuntal aspects of Wagner’s music and conveying at least a modicum of its sombre introspection. The second, third and fourth movements of Berg’s Lyric Suite are at least as well known in the composer’s version for string orchestra as in the string quartet original: all to the good, then, that Theo Verbey’s recent arrangement of the other three movements is scarcely less successful – bringing out the barbed humour of ‘Allegretto gioviale’ as much as the alternating aggression and anticipation of ‘Presto delirando’ or the anguished resignation of ‘Largo desolato’. Playing the music without conductor places a premium on coordination of the musicians which, if not flawless, was still seldom less than impressive – not least owing to the authoritative leadership of Candida Thompson.

The concert’s second half saw a further staged presentation, though this was a good deal more successful all-round – no doubt reflecting the experience of Michael van der Aa as a film-maker and engineer as well as being one of the leading composers of the younger generation. Premiered last year, Up-Close might ostensibly be termed a cello concerto in three movements: the combative first of these prefaced by a lengthy solo introduction and the energetic finale followed by an evocative postlude, with the fugitive slow movement framed by interludes in which Van der Aa’s customary laptop electronics were well to the fore. Moreover, the half-hour piece was complemented by a film (stage-left) which entered into the interior psyche of the filmed woman, with several props common to both the film and the performance acting as a link between these parallel worlds. All of which meant that cellist Sol Gabetta was kept active as she moved with some dexterity between them, but this did nothing to impair her commitment in what was a dynamic and involving account of an imaginative as well as engrossing score. Once again, a musician largely unfamiliar in the UK other than through her well-received recordings (RCA) evinced a presence and musicianship that compelled admiration.

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