The Fiddlers … Nebelsteinmusik … Death and the Maiden

The Fiddlers
Violin Concerto in E, BWV1042
Schubert arr. Mahler
String Quartet in D minor, D810 (Death and the Maiden)

Britten Sinfonia
Pekka Kuusisto (violin)

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 1 February, 2007
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The sound Pekka Kuusisto produces – as both soloist and director – is lithe, wiry energetic and clean. It is tempting to suggest that this is a young-man’s timbre – exciting, exuberant, and needing neither rest nor sleep. Yes, this music-making is, above all, awake. It is playing for the early morning, in the bright, bracing Scandinavian sunshine of a perpetual summer.

Kuusisto, just turned 30, looks and moves as if he were 10 years younger. There is something infectious about eternal youth. The Britten Sinfonia was alive to it – and came alive for it. There was a springy radiance to the musicians’ precision>

Einojuhani Rautavaara presents The Fiddlers in five short bursts: they arrive noisily, reflect quietly during the north’s endless summer night, join the organist who doubles as a bell ringer, spot a devil seated on a rock attentive to dark forest sounds, and perform a lively dance, engagingly named ‘Jumps’. As Kuusisto avers, and the ensemble conveys, being a Fiddler (a folk musician) is a question of style and attitude – “a sense of enjoyment, of always being ready to play, whatever the occasion.”

The Bach Concerto was lean, fresh and sinewy – full of earnest zest. Bach, Kuusisto proclaimed, had turned his back on any Italian decoration, sighing or dallying. This was a severe interpretation – forward thrusting, alert to the music’s scaffolding while resolutely omitting phrasing. The result was jolly and entertaining. The first movement had drive but not bounce; the second was wistful yet lacking in heart and the third tore away at speed, joyously.

Nebelstein is a mountain in the woods of Lower Austria. It was a favourite place of Gottfried von Einem, the extraordinary teacher whom H. K. Gruber desires to honour in this piece, commissioned by the Alban Berg Foundation. With spirited relish, Gruber contrasts a diatonic anagram (von Einem) and a serial row emerging as melody (Berg). Von Einem survived the Nazis (Goebbels banned his Piano Concerto of 1944); he loved jazz, responded to a powerful heartbeat and was imbued with “totally unsentimental affection”. With his own pulsing vitality, Gruber paints a lively and affectionate portrait of this inspiring man, culminating vigorously in “stretching large melodic arches over complex rhythmic patterning”, following his mentor. Kuusisto and the Britten Sinfonia conveyed all of this with enjoyment and verve. This was the concert’s high-point.

As for the arrangement of Schubert, in the first instance, Mahler was only concerned to transcribe the second movement of this string quartet – the ‘Death and the Maiden’ melody and variations. The notion works well. The dignified threnody makes further gains in weight and sonority from this treatment. The finale fares well, too – it whizzed about skittishly in the manner of Mendelssohn’s ‘Scherzo’ from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, albeit more darkly. The first movement is the least successful. Schubert’s original is too tortured and too subtle. His shifts and lurches are more sudden that a monolithic string ensemble can accommodate; moments of gravelled agony were not captured, either. This was maybe not surprising, since Kuusisto had, on the whole, skimmed neatly over weightier emotions throughout the evening. I had the impression of his never being down to earth; lacking, in this Newtonian sense, any gravity. The Scherzo brought some redress: the gritty emotion intensified was more manageable because less mercurial. Overall I delighted in the skill, but was unmoved.

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