Sunday, May 13, 2012

A European Union - Janine Jansen and friends play Schoenberg and Schubert

Janine Jansen

The tenth concert of the 2011-2012 subscription series of the Jerusalem Music Centre took place May 10th in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA. In “A European Union”, we heard Dutch violinist Janine Jansen leading her ensemble – violinist Boris Brovstyn (UK), violists Amihai Grosz (Israel) and Maxim Resanov (UK) and ‘cellists Jens Peter Maintz (Germany) and Torleif Thedéen (Sweden).

The program comprised two works, the first being Arnold Schönberg’s (1874-1951) “Verklärte Nacht” (Transfigured Night) for string sextet opus 4, a work composed within three weeks, in 1899. Following its unsuccessful premiering in 1902 (the audience hissed and fist fights broke out), the composer transcribed it for chamber orchestra in 1917, later publishing a modified version for string orchestra in 1943. Schönberg’s first great early work and his first attempt at program music, taking the Wagnerian approach (rather than the Brahmsian) of basing it on extra-musical material, the composer used as his inspiration Richard Dehmel’s lyrical, Romantic poem of the same name. Despite the great admiration he had in his younger days of this highly regarded, pre-World War I modernist writer, Schönberg, in later life, clearly found his earlier liking of the style of Dehmel’s poem embarrassing, and, aware of the instrumental work’s accrued acclaim, he eventually hoped his audiences would address “Verklärte Nacht” as “pure music”. However, Schönberg’s work is, indeed, directly connected to the various levels of the poem and not just by the fact that the work’s form is based faithfully on that of the poem (ABACA) – “A” being the narrator. Beyond the musings of the poem, there are three clearly drawn characters – the narrator, the woman, who is carrying the child of another man, and the man in love with the woman, ready to accept the child - there is duality, nature, the universe, mysticism and, of course, the nitty-gritty social question involved, connected to bourgeois morals. The latter list makes for quite a tall bill to be juggled by any group of players. The sextet at the YMCA concert created a delicate balance between an unbiased awareness of the poem’s text and the fine detail of the musical score, from the initial mysterious, foreboding atmosphere of night, through intense (sometimes frenzied) moments, bitter-sweet Romantic expression contrasted with the more straightforward message of the “chorale”, through a strong sense of Schönberg’s subjective reading of Dehmel’s poem, to the final bright- and fragile lines representing the mystic solution of unity of the man and woman, this “transfiguration” achieved through sympathy, understanding and compassion. The players displayed oneness of intention through constant eye contact and communication, they used precision for each nuance, strategic pacing of gestures and they brought out many shades of instrumental color, also in the smallest of fragments. One sensed the sextet was playing the musical score, free of excesses and mannerisms.

Following intermission, we heard Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) String Quintet in C major opus 163, D.956, a work composed in the last months of the composer’s life and completed a mere few weeks before his death. Premiered 22 years later and published in 1853, the quintet was referred to by the composer as the “product of my genius and my misery…written in my greatest distress…” A work of broad proportions - the first movement is 445 bars long – (Robert Schumann spoke of Schubert’s “heavenly length”) Schubert does, indeed, sum up here so much of his personal- and musical mindset. With the work based in C major, Schubert confronts us with his own key relationships, the composer’s unconventional but characteristic moving to the caressing key of E flat major for the ‘cello duet in the first movement, for example, creating warmth and tenderness, indeed fitting to the Biedermeier salons of genteel Viennese middle class women, in which rooms Schubert’s small-scale works were performed. On the other hand, moves of a half tone, drastically changing the soundscape, are indicative of the fear and torment taking place in Schubert’s inner world. The players weave the mammoth proportions of the first movement in lively spontaneity, the slight flexing of gestures lending a very real aspect to their playing. Intensity, the shaping of small gestures and good taste dominate the performance. And no one, minute, refined gesture misses Janine Jansen’s bow. In the E major Adagio movement, Jansen leads her players through the tranquil, meditative first section via its harmonic development into the turbulent F minor middle section, moving apprehensively back to the first section. In the third movement, with its atypical string heaviness and hunting horn imitations, the players’ reading of each dynamic marking produced astounding contrasts, their treatment of it holding the tension throughout. The last movement, abounding with Austrian- and Hungarian folk melodies, was played with charm and joy, its terse concluding notes a sharp reminder of Schubert’s predicament. Once again, the “European Union” instrumentalists read deeply into the score in performance that was as true as it was outstanding. In their refreshing approach, they stand back from works they perform, allowing audience members to understand the music however they choose. Janine Jansen is one of today’s finest soloists; as a leader, she shines, placing the music first.

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