BY MARTIN CHENEY
We would like to welcome Martin in his first contribution to CutCommon!
UKARIA 24: New Paths
Lawrence Power (curator), Alessio Bax (piano), Vilde Frang (violin), Torleif Thedéen (cello)
Ukaria Cultural Centre, 29 October
British violist and UKARIA 24 curator Lawrence Power stated in his opening remarks to the audience of New Paths that the ensuing hours of music would be a rumination on the sound world of Brahms and the masters that preceded him.
The title of the two-part concert was of course a reference to Robert Schumann’s 1853 article Neue Bahnen, but I couldn’t help hoping it might also be a guarantee of things to come. Genuinely fresh interpretations of hundreds-of-years-old classical repertoire are easy to promise and increasingly difficult to deliver.
These words might have, in lesser hands, heralded expectations of stuffy performances of the day’s program. However, they would’ve flown right out of Ukaria Cultural Centre’s impressive panoramic window with Power’s observation that Schumann’s Six Canonic Études, Op. 56 were originally composed for the since-obsolete pedal piano, which resembled “two mating grand pianos on top of one another”. His impressive credentials notwithstanding, this single sardonic quip was enough to convince me that he and his colleagues (and Brahms et. al.) might just have something new to say after all.
Part One opened with pianist Alessio Bax’s stunning performance of François Couperin’s Les Barricades Mystérieuses, a fitting prelude to the afternoon’s repertoire. Ukaria’s stately Bösendorfer grand piano had never sounded better, each graceful suspension and resolution greeting the audience as a warm embrace — Bax’s touch was just gorgeous.
Violinist Vilde Frang and cellist Torleif Thedéen then joined Bax to form a trio, and the opening minutes of its performance of Schumann’s Études was a puzzling outlier to the rest of the proceedings — stilted communication between the three caused a few moments of untidiness and even fleetingly insecure intonation, uncharacteristic of their intimidating experience and musicianship. (I found immense reassurance in being reminded that even world-renowned professional musicians sometimes need time to warm up.)
The three became visibly more collaborative and warm throughout the performance, and by the fifth étude, this was surely as homogenous as a trio could be. Frang’s exquisite expression and playfulness coupled with Thedéen’s grand lyricism was on full display until the final chord, followed by an agonisingly restrained pause, almost daring the audience to break it with applause.
I have a confession: I wasn’t familiar with Power before Saturday’s concert, so I was initially thrown when he left the stage after his opening address having not introduced himself – I’m quite sure I was the only one present who needed this clarification – and didn’t return to perform the Schumann. ‘Perhaps they have enlisted the services of a Brahms historian to regale us with witty and whimsical anecdotes between each piece,’ I daftly thought to myself. However, it all fell into place when he entered the stage armed with his viola to join Thedéen and Bax for a performance of Brahms’ Clarinet Trio in A minor, Op. 114 (arr. for viola, cello and piano).
Throughout this final stunning performance of the afternoon, Power confidently demonstrated why he was the perfect candidate to curate this weekend’s festival. It’s often said of musicians that their instruments are an extension of themselves — for Power, I would go one step further. His playing plumbed every conceivable drop of expression from the Brahms to the point where it seemed the natural extension of his persona was the very music itself. Even his facial movements seemed to reflect the saying and hearing of actual words, as though he was literally having a conversation with Thedéen and Bax — the synergy between him and Thedéen was moving. This observation was clearly ubiquitous among members of the audience as they hastily made fervent utterances of admiration and relief following the turbulent and dynamic final movement.
Part Two of New Paths began with Heinrich Biber’s Battalia à 10. Had I not learnt my lesson earlier in the afternoon, I might have noted the programming of this early Baroque work from 1673 in a concert titled New Paths with an eyebrow-raise of cynicism, wondering how on earth the two things could coalesce. However, just as he had done a mere two hours earlier, Power once again upended expectations by having Frang, Thedéen, and himself, now joined by cellist Sharon Grigoryan, all sauntering on via separate entrances, playing as wandering minstrels.
The result was something Ivesian, replete with foot stamps, texturally peculiar effects, and a smeared sense of harmony that seemed intentionally disordered across the quartet. It almost felt like a prank — a stunt designed to shock the audience out of its expectation which, looking around at the comically baffled expressions, was entirely successful. However, the concert’s opening surprise paled in comparison to the revelation in Power’s post-interval announcement that the litany of extended techniques was found within Biber’s 17th-Century composition. The polytonality, col legno, sheets of paper threaded through strings: all of it the work of Biber. Even what we now refer to as ‘Bartók pizz’ appears not to belong to its namesake. This was a spectacular way to continue along New Paths, to take assumptions of Baroque precision and order and turn them swiftly on their heads. The relentless tempo and texture changes were handled with a charming naturalism and a surgical precision that is genuinely unmatched by any previous string quartet performance I have seen in my life. Utterly astounding.
As a way of bringing Biber’s theatrical milieu to a close, Thedéen concluded the piece by melodramatically flinging his part onto the floor, signalling a direct segue into Anton Arensky’s towering masterwork String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 35 (for violin, viola and two cellos). This appealed directly to my subversive sense of humour, and honestly should be employed as a page turning method more often.
Frankly, there is little to be said about their performance of the Arenksy quartet other than that it was completely sublime. The piece itself, dedicated to his close friend Tchaikovsky, is like taking the scenic route through just about every imaginable texture available to a string quartet, with breathtakingly deft interchange of melodic lines among the players. Its duration was nearly matched to the entirety of the first half of the concert by itself, but I could have quite happily listened to it for another half an hour. In particular, Grigoryan dazzled with her superb musicianship and generous collaboration with her fellow minstrels. If the recording of this piece becomes available, you must seek it out — surely, this was its authoritative performance. What a treat to witness musicians at the top of their game, clearly relishing the opportunity to be exactly where they are at that time. The feeling was entirely mutual.
Like the legendary gold at the end of a rainbow, so too was there a precious gem at the end of New Paths — Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25. Preceded once again by an exquisitely sensitive pianistic prelude from Bax (this time, Clara Schumann’s Romance in A minor, WoO 28), this seemed to be the culmination of Power’s entire purpose for the day, and even possibly the whole weekend. The four played with a sophistication that breathed new life into the repertoire, each of them embodying a sense of wonderment and exploration more typically found in the performance of a brand-new work. It was a thrilling conclusion to an already enlivening few hours of music, and the audience members unanimously leapt to their feet after the final upbow with unified adulation.
I am a restrained introvert most of the time, and very rarely physically demonstrative, so the fact that I was one of the first 10 people on my feet is proof — if proof were needed — of the mastery we had just witnessed.
In his program note, Power posited that the foremost challenge for performers is to react to the music of the greats — the tried-and-true repertoire that so easily becomes stale and pedestrian — as if they are approaching it for the first time. Power has clearly taken to heart the old adage to practise what you preach.
Images by Ben Nicholls.