Beethoven, Martinů, Wellesz, Elgar

I felt like I was not getting enough chamber music.  That’s an easy problem to resolve in Vienna.  The Wiener Virtuosen, a chamber ensemble made up of members of the Philharmonic, performed an unusual and fascinating concert in the Brahms Hall of the Musikverein this evening.

Most of the program jumped out of the 20th Century, but Eleven “Mödlinger Tänze” by Beethoven served as a warm-up.  Beethoven did not mean these to become part of his lasting repertory, having just thrown them together for some friends performing at a Fasching party in 1819.  He never published them and did not count them in his inventory.  But even a casual set of works by Beethoven makes an impression.  Nevertheless, works by Martinů and Wellesz were the real reasons to hear this concert.

Bohuslav Martinů’s Nonett, one of the last works he composed before he died in 1959 and premiered at the Salzburg Festival that year, employed complex harmonics and rhythms, with the instruments seemingly moving independently, but when assembled together this remained accessible music.  Chorales – large almost – tried to emerge from the evocative second movement, moving from instrument to instrument.  By the third movement, every time we thought we knew where the music was going, it detoured.  This was a walk in the woods, with no particular place to be, wandering wherever the route looked nicest.  Martinů proved that it is possible to marry such 20th-Century complexities and still make sonorous tones.

Clarinetist Ernst Ottensamer felt the need to introduce the Oktett op. 67 by Egon Wellesz: “don’t be afraid of Egon Wellesz,” he advised the audience before the ensemble started, “it may not be the most melodic work.”  Ottensamer was unfair.  Although composed ten years before the Martinů Nonett (with a premiere at the 1949 Salzburg Festival), this Wellesz piece in many ways developed Martinů one step further in the way it combined new harmonies and rhythms with real musicality.  It opened with a mysterious but forward-driving push, filling the room with a big sound: in part, the big sound came from the ensemble, but in part the music was also dramatic and full.  The second movement appeared to be picked up from Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in parts.  Melodies tried to spring out of the third movement, but only by the fourth movement did Wellesz develop a cantabile section, with gorgeous harmonies.  By the fifth movement, the piece became downright whimsical, a country dance chaperoned by seriousness.

The Wiener Virtuosen gave intelligent readings of these difficult but (when performed this way) approachable works.  To send everyone home with something more traditional, they gave us an arrangement of Edward Elgar‘s Nimrod from the Enigma Variations.  This seems to be the encore of choice these days – I think I’ve heard it performed four times in the last year – but Ottensamer introduced it as “the most beautiful melody in the symphonic repertory of the 20th Century.”  I don’t know about that, but certainly when performed by this group they make a case for it.

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