Joonas Ahonen, Baldur Brönnimann / Basel Sinfonietta
György Ligeti / Unsuk Chin / Rudolf Kelterborn
Stadtcasino, Basel, 2021-08-29
2021-09-06 — Original posting
Baldur Brönnimann und die Basel Sinfonietta eröffnen die Jubiläumssaison “40+1” — Zusammenfassung
Im ersten Konzert ihrer nachgeschobenen Jubiläumssaison “40+1” präsentierte die Basel Sinfonietta unter Ihrem Principal Conductor Baldur Brönnimann drei neuere Werke. Die erste Komposition, “Lontano” für großes Orchester (1967) des Ungaren György Ligeti (1923 – 2006) dürfte einem breiteren Publikum bekannt vorkommen. Es diente in Filmen von Stanley Kubrick (The Shining) und Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island) zur Erzeugung unheimlicher, bedrohender Stimmungen.
Im Zentrum des Konzerts stand als Schweizerische Erstaufführung das Klavierkonzert der in Berlin lebenden Südkoreanerin Unsuk Chin (*1961). Es ist ein selten aufgeführtes Werk—gilt es doch als “nahezu unspielbar”. Der junge Finne Joonas Ahonen ließ sich davon nicht abschrecken. Er bewältigte den in der Tat intrikaten Solopart mit Bravour. Sowohl das Werk wie dessen Aufführung beeindruckten, faszinierten. Und der Applaus war begeistert!
Nach der Pause folgte schließlich die vierte Sinfonie des im vergangenen März verstorbenen schweizer Komponisten Rudolf Kelterborn (1931 – 2021). Es ist ein zwanzigminütiges Werk in einem einzigen, dreiteiligen Adagio-Satz. Der Komponist bezeichnete das Werk als “absolute Musik ohne außermusikalisches Programm”.
Table of Contents
- Concert & Review
- Ligeti: Lontano, for Grand Orchestra (1967)
- Unsuk Chin: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1997)
- Kelterborn: Symphony No.4 for Orchestra (1985/1986)
|Venue, Date & Time||Stadtcasino, Basel, 2021-08-29 19:00|
|Series / Title||Basel Sinfonietta 40+1 — “Back in the Future”|
|Reviews from related events||Previous concerts with this orchestra|
Previous concerts with Baldur Brönnimann
The Finnish pianist Joonas Ahonen (*1984, see also Wikipedia.fi) covers a repertoire spanning from the Vienna Classics up to contemporary music. The former he often performs on historical fortepianos. Ahonen received his education as pianist from the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, where his main teachers were Tuija Hakkila (*1959) and Maija-Liisa Pohjola (*1936).
Joonas Ahonen has since launched a career as soloist and chamber musician. He has performed with eminent soloists such as Patricia Kopatchinskaja (*1977) and Pekka Kuusisto (*1976). Since 2011, he also is a member of the Klangforum Wien, an ensemble which specializes on the performance of contemporary music. Ahonen’s discography comprises works by Ludwig van Beethoven (Diabelli Variations, op.120, on historical fortepiano), Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, Arnold Schönberg, Charles Ives, György Ligeti, and others.
The pandemic forced the Basel Sinfonietta to change its 40th anniversary season into a virtual one. The concerts in that time were performed without live audience, but streamed online audiences. See my reviews from that period.
Now, even though the pandemic is now in its fourth wave, authorities are gradually getting it under control. Concerts can again happen “almost as usual”, and so, the orchestra put the 2021/2022 season under the label “40+1”. This was the first concert of this anniversary season , featuring three compositions:
- Pre-program: Interview with Unsuk Chin
- György Ligeti (1923 – 2006): Lontano, for Grand Orchestra (1967)
- Unsuk Chin (*1961): Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1997, Swiss First Performance)
- Rudolf Kelterborn (1931 – 2021): Symphony No.4 for Orchestra (1985/1986)
“Almost back to normal”, I’m tempted to say. To me, the audience looked almost as big as in pre-pandemic times with the Basel Sinfonietta. The orchestra was present in full size, filling the podium. And the string players were again playing in “desks”, sharing music stands in groups of two.
Still, the pandemic isn’t over, and so, the auditorium was open only to those with a COVID-certificate. And the orchestra was performing with masks, where applicable. The one thing I found puzzling is that the vast majority of people in the audience were not wearing masks. Even though there was no mandate for physical distancing in the audience. To me, that felt risky, given the high transmissibility of the current variants of the virus. And the fact that neither testing norvaccination provide 100% protection. In addition, I found it also disrespectful towards the musicians in the orchestra who were protecting themselves and others.
Concert & Review
Ligeti: Lontano, for Grand Orchestra (1967)
The Hungarian composer György Ligeti (1923 – 2006) is regarded one of the most influential composers around the end of last century. Over the past years, I have had several chances to listen to works by this composer, namely several of his Études for piano, the String Quartet No.1, “Métamorphoses nocturnes“ (1953 – 1954), the Concert Românesc (1951), his “Atmosphères” for grand orchestra (1961), and I have briefly also discussed a recording of his Violin Concerto (1989 – 1993).
A (major) part of György Ligeti’s popularity came through the world of films. Stanley Kubrick (1928 – 1999) discovered Ligeti’s music and used several compositions (including “Atmosphères“) for the soundtrack to the 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey“—without the composer’s knowledge and explicit approval. Kubrick returned to Ligeti’s music for his films “The Shining” (1980, see also below), as well as “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999). Also other filmmakers followed Stanley Kubrick by incorporating compositions by Ligeti in soundtracks to their films.
Also the 1967 composition Lontano, for Grand Orchestra appeared in soundtracks to films. First in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror movie “The Shining“, and later also the 2010 psychological thriller film “Shutter Island” by Martin Scorsese (*1942). In both cases, the purpose of “Lontano” (distant, remote) was, to build up and maintain an atmosphere of suspense, of a strongly sinister threat.
While listening to “Lontano“, I deliberately banned all thoughts about the gory horrors of “The Shining“. I tried reading this as “absolute” music. That does of course not preclude descriptive terms such as anxiety, etc.—in other words: spontaneous sensory impressions.
As the concert handout explains, “as a counter-reply to serialism, the piece primarily works with sound planes, with superimposed chords, vertical and horizontal tonal connection, forming clusters and glissandos. Barlines in the score merely provide orientation for the musicians—they don’t define a metric pattern.”
The beginning is a single tone—A♭—that gradually gains intensity. As it is growing, microtonal companion tones join in, initially causing acoustic beats. A narrow cluster is building up, a widening dissonant chord, sounding like a multitude of alarm sirens. The spectrum gradually widens in slow waves. It builds up to a noise with ear-piercing intensity, converging to a C in many superimposed octaves. This suddenly ends when bass tuba and double basses appear to respond with their own micro-cluster. That now feels like a deep grumbling, a diffuse menace in the underground.
From a pppp in the entire orchestra, in a slow crescendo, a rolling, dissonant chord builds up, densifies into a tremulating, loud dissonance, growing into “life-threatening (harmonic) chaos”, gradually changing colors, again in slow waves. Whenever the sound appears to converge into a harmonious chord, this just turns out the start of a new, emerging cluster.
Suddenly, the fragment of a chorale-like tune appears above a clustered background sound. First in the brass, it then moves into the high strings and woodwinds. That’s just a smokescreen, as the “melody” instantly dissolves into an intense, stinging dissonance again, ear- and mind-piercing. After a climax, a new clustered crescendo is just pretense—it soon collapses into a silent humming that vanishes into silence.
A description of the performance (rather than the music) feels like carrying coals to Newcastle (or owls to Athens). Baldur Brönnimann, as well as the orchestra, have in-depth experience with such music. There was never a hint of doubt whether the orchestra was following the score. It’s always fascinating to watch the orchestra’s focus, concentration and attention in their concert performances.
One might argue that rhythmic precision (or the lack thereof) barely plays a role in this particular piece. However, exactly in such pieces with only sporadic rhythmic structure, the conductor’s firm guidance is essential in providing orientation.
Unsuk Chin: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1997)
The composer Unsuk Chin (*1961) was born in Seoul, South Korea. For details on her biography, musical upbringing, etc. see her Wikipedia entry. Unsuk Chin started playing the piano at age 4—self-taught. She studied composition, first at the Seoul National University. as with György Ligeti at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater Hamburg. Unsuk Chin now lives in Berlin, Germany. Her compositorial oeuvre started off with orchestral, ensemble, vocal and choral works, plus works for instrument(s) and electronics.
In the introductory interview, she stated that the Piano Concerto from 1996 – 1997 is her first published composition for piano. Before that, she wrote three Piano Etudes, but she stated that these were deemed “unplayable”. She retracted these since; revised versions (plus three additional Etudes), are now again available.
The performance of Unsuk Chin’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1997), was a Swiss First. The composition is in four movements. And, as conductor and composer stated in the interview, also this concerto apparently has the reputation of being “unplayable”. Or, at least, “hardly playable”.
I (Movement 1)
The program notes describe the beginning of the movement as being based on “four triad-based motifs that are assembled in the fashion of a puzzle“.
That is the view of the composer, and of the musicians. What the unprepared listener experiences is a rapid, intricate, interwoven stream of figures, predominantly in the high descant of the solo instrument. It definitely is highly virtuosic—and extremely busy, dense. The listener can hardly grasp a rhythmic structure in the relentless flow, neither is there a harmonic structure or development. The composition is consequently atonal—without really feeling dissonant. Rather, that fascinating first part reminded me of Gamelan music (“randomized” Gamelan?). Mesmerizing, in a way.
The orchestra accompanies the solo part with initially inconspicuous sound planes. It gradually gains profile, while the pianist moves the left hand to the other extreme of the keyboard. Bass tones complement the very active right hand in the descant. Compared to the latter, the stepping bass feels melodic, almost tonal. The right hand also “tries to be melodic”, but the intricate pattern returns.
I had another spontaneous association: that of a dense water curtain falling from the ceiling of a cave. The latter idea probably stems from the void between the bass tones and the “busy machinery” in the descant…
The soloist suddenly leaves the active (“Gamelan”) pattern to the orchestra (woodwinds, percussion). The piano now changes to a playful sequence of chords and figures, then entering a dialog with the orchestra. The textures momentarily reminded me of minimal music, such as by Steve Reich (*1936). In the solo, the busy pattern gradually spreads over a wider range of the keyboard. One starts feeling jazzy elements. More and more, the listener gets the sensation of melodic components. However, before these can really take over or prevail, the movements ends with unexpected abruptness.
II (Movement 2)
In the program notes: “A composition of sound colors, with a virtuosic intermezzo. […] The intermezzo forms a lively contrast to the static sound planes“.
The solo performs a subtly varied sequence of arpeggiated clusters, mostly in pairs, mf at most. The soloist seemed to be listening to the resonances, the pp responses from the orchestra, initially just celesta and harp. Serene, calm, peaceful, especially when the woodwinds gently join in. And the solo part changes into a more and more regular, almost monotonous sequence of chords. Constant decrescendo, briefly “waking up” to a splash on the tamtam, then returning to the lucid, calm soundscape.
That return is momentary, as the solo part now moves into an ascending crescendo, leading into a sequence of rapid tremolos. These are picked up by harp, celesta, and percussion (marimba). Into these tremulations, the piano starts inserting clusters in rhythmic pattern. Gradually, the texture densifies, getting busy. Despite short eruptions, the piano part overall remains filigree—there is no “keyboard thundering”, except maybe in the short, jazzy climax. The solo returns to its tremolos, while the orchestra tries more percussive eruptions. However, the music soon starts dissolving into isolated arpeggiated chords, then vanishes. A marvel of a movement!
III (Movement 3)
From the program notes: “Thirty fragments are put together to form a patchwork. Two recurring tutti chords serve as structuring pillars“.
Isolated ff chords / clusters on the piano, responses by the orchestra, followed by a tremolo on the piano. The latter seems to prolong the resonance—”enhanced reverberation”. The piano clusters evolve into brief, virtuosic cascades, and a tight dialog between solo and orchestra unfolds. Motoric pattern contrast with brief eruptions. Dense, virtuosic textures on the piano and splashing responses in the orchestra (predominantly woodwinds and percussion).
Moments of relaxed lingering in the solo, followed by intricate, seemingly “chaotic” sequences. The orchestral responses now also involve interjections from the brass section. In all its complexity, the solo part still feels playful. Interestingly, the chordal accents in the orchestra manage to retain a calm, controlled atmosphere. Despite the hectic virtuosity on the part of the soloist!
Gradually, the dialog between solo and orchestra dilutes into isolated calls and responses. There are short, crescending tremolos and brief “chatty” textures. These are followed by single tones or accents on the orchestra, separated by pauses. The dialog appears to retract into silence (or into the distance) ending in the long, lingering resonances of the tamtam.
IV (Movement 4)
“A two-minute drone F in the bass, as foundation to a gradual build-up. […] A rhythmic pattern forms in the strings. This leads into a passage of nested, repeated figures. The movement ends in a cadenza on piano, brass, and percussion, followed by a coda.“
The last movement follows attacca, with the pianist repeats the F drone at long intervals—the tolling of a bell. Maybe that’s the actual meaning of the drone F? The orchestra responds into the fading drone tones with narrow, tremulating, murmuring clusters. The piano then forms its own response with bursts of “rolling clusters”. With the drone tone, that segment has a tonal character. The F anchors the harmonies, amidst the growing density of the clusters and whirling, narrow runs. In the end, the drone almost vanishes under the erupting chaos.
The drone and the lower resonances disappear, leaving an “airy” texture. Here, I sensed a description of nature. Gentle wind in the violins, bird songs, maybe? This contrasts with waves of busy life in an industrial world. The latter is ever accelerating, growing in density, erupting into splashes. Out of the last one of these eruptions, the highly intricate cadenza emerges. It’s a kaleidoscope of motifs, whirling figures, with splashing / sparkling highlights from the percussion. The “coda” is nothing but a short crescendo into a final outburst and an abrupt ending.
The orchestra size was slightly below that for the Ligeti piece (fewer strings, in particular). This proved an excellent choice, given the often filigree textures in both the solo part and the orchestra. In fact, nothing in the composition ever felt “loud”, let alone oppressive.
Joonas Ahonen’s instrument was a Steinway D-274 concert grand. The pianist performed with remarkable focus, agility and attention. His familiarity with the solo part was outstanding. His mental, musical and technical reserves allowed him to maintain close contact with Baldur Brönnimann and the orchestra while mastering the complex solo. At the same time he was controlling his tablet computer to follow the score (rather: his part, presumably).
Kelterborn: Symphony No.4 for Orchestra (1985/1986)
This was my third direct encounter with the music of the eminent Swiss composer Rudolf Kelterborn (1931 – 2021, see also Wikipedia.de). The first one happened back in the late ’70s. This was a performance of his 1977 Opera Ein Engel kommt nach Babylon (An Angel comes to Babylon) in the Zurich Opera House. The second one was in a concert by the Basel Sinfonietta on 2019-05-05. It featured the composition Musica Luminosa per Orchestra from 1984. My concert review about that performance also includes more information on the composer. Kelterborn died less than half a year ago (2021-03-24).
As others of Kelterborn’s instrumental works, the Symphony No.4 for Orchestra (1985/1986) is a work of around 20 minutes. The composer let works evolve in his mind, and only when they were “complete”, he started writing them down. It is “absolute music, without extra-musical program”, as the concert handout stated. It consists of a single movement, in three connected parts, as per the composer’s description:
- Adagio appassionato, molto espressivo, cantando —
An Adagio, disturbed and interrupted by an external, very drastic, violently emotional gesture
- Adagio luminoso —
This part is strongly dominated by sonorities. It has a luminous quality. Defined predominantly by harmonies, static. From the inside, it discharges into an eruption of light.
- Adagio mesto
A kind of elegy, a mourning song.
“Luminous” appears in the annotation to the second movement. The composer repeats it in his description. And it also appeared the title of the 1984 work featured in the concert on 2019-05-05. This cannot be a coincidence: Kelterborn apparently liked luminous qualities in music. In my vague memories, his 1977 Opera “Ein Engel kommt nach Babylon“ also fits that attribute (in parts, at least).
The parts follow each other without interruption. All three are in shades / flavors of Adagio: appassionato — luminoso — mesto. With this, the intersections between the segments are not really obvious to the unprepared listener. And as I don’t have a score, the attributions of the comments below to the three sections may be inaccurate.
I. Adagio appassionato, molto espressivo, cantando —
The piece opens with a strong, very long, initially static tone / chord / cluster. Initially a single tone, which then gradually gets “spiced up” into a narrow cluster. This is widening up with the help of the percussion. It appears to grow, but then ends in the long sound of the tamtam. Shifting, low chords are combined with the very high melody fragments of the violins and the percussion. To me, that momentarily evoked the picture of darkness under a starry night sky. However, this is rapidly growing into brassy fff waves, again ending in the fading sound of the tamtam.
Into the tamtam, the violins are singing lovely melody fragments, high up on the e” string. That doesn’t prevent further fff eruptions, violent disruptions in brass and heavy percussion (the “violent gesture” in the composer’s description).
Now, the string instruments propose a melodic theme, mostly in unison. I could not resist thinking of themes by Anton Bruckner (1824 – 1896), such as the opening of Symphony No.7. As in that symphony, the solemn, intensely singing theme is tonal, but seemingly endless, never reaching a conclusion. It ultimately leads back to a soft tamtam beat. After brief chatter from woodwind solos, the string melody resumes. It now form a (kind of) canon with growing intensity, urging, up to a moment of utter anxiety.
Brass and percussion abruptly end this again. The thunder ebbs away. The oboe now presents a melancholic melody. However, that does not last very long. The segment ends in a violent fight, predominantly between percussion, low brass and strings. When the violins return, it’s again in the top register, indicating anxiety, maybe pain? To me, this also felt like a reference to Ligeti’s “Lontano“.
A violent dialog, between the double basses and brass evolves, an intense fight, war-like scenes. Absolute music? To me, this segment felt very concrete!
II. Adagio luminoso —
Soft, even gentle. A peaceful dialog between intertwined voices. Also this evolves, gains volume and color, as bass tuba and trombones raise their voices. As the composer stated: planes, without strong rhythmic backbone. What is the “luminous quality” that Kelterborn refers to? To me, it’s the combination of highest percussion (chimes) with the dark voices in double basses, low brass, and percussion (machine timpani).
A chatty dialog leads into a segment with intense, singing polyphony above a clustered, static layer. A broad climax (the “eruption of light”) is followed by a percusion cadenza with intermittent comments from the brass section.
III. Adagio mesto
Above a tamtam-dominated foundation, the concertmaster (Simone Zgraggen) and the first cellist (Karolina Öhman) present long cantilenas, indicating forlornness, sadness. There is an intervention from the rebelling brass section. The flute tries to continue the mourning song. However, the movement, the progression freezes, and after a holding interval, several tolls from a bell end the symphony.
As expected, the performance by Baldur Brönnimann and the Basel Sinfonietta was compelling, coherent, convincing. Kelterborn’s symphony is fascinating, multi-faceted music. I only regretted that the piece felt a little short, and therefore somewhat fragmented. Like a kaleidoscope that keeps rotating on before one’s mind can capture the beauty, the richness of the passing images.