Sebastian Bohren, Cristian Măcelaru / Romanian Chamber Orchestra
Frank Martin / Georges Enescu / Dmitri Shostakovich

Ref. Stadtkirche, Brugg, 2022-06-05

4.5-star rating

2022-06-16 — Original posting



Table of Contents


Introduction

Venue, Date & TimeRef. Stadtkirche Brugg, 2022-06-05 17:00h
Series / TitleStretta Concerts Brugg
OrganizerStretta Concerts Brugg
Reviews from related eventsConcerts at this venue
Concerts organized by Stretta Concerts Brugg
Concerts with Sebastian Bohren

The Artists

Sebastian Bohren

It was the Swiss violinist Sebastian Bohren (*1987, see also Wikipedia) who invited me to attend this concert. I could hardly reject this invitation. After all, since 2015, I have encountered this artist in numerous concerts, so far only solo and chamber music events, though. For information on the artist’s biography please see my earlier reviews (see the links above).

The artist performs on the 1761 violin “Ex-Wannamaker Hart” by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1711 – 1786). This instrument was formerly owned and played by the late Swiss violinist Thomas Füri (1947 – 2017).

Sebastian Bohren had just returned from a trip to Romania, where he performed in concerts with the Romanian Chamber Orchestra and its conductor, Cristian Măcelaru (*1980, see also Wikipedia). Sebastian Bohren was highly enthusiastic about his encounters with the Romanian conductor and his orchestra:

Cristian Măcelaru

The Romanian conductor Cristian Măcelaru, the youngest of 10 siblings, grew up in Timișoara, where he studied violin. 1997, he moved to the United States, to study at the Interlochen Arts Academy. In 2003, he graduated from the University of Miami, then became concertmaster of the Miami Symphony Orchestra. Further studies at Rice University got him interested in conducting. While being violinist in the Houston Symphony Orchestra, he also conducted the Houston Youth Symphony. And he took master classes with masters such as David Zinman (*1936), Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos (1933 – 2014), and Oliver Knussen (1952 – 2018).

Conducting awards launched his international career. 2011, he became assistant conductor, later associate conductor, finally conductor-in-residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra. 2017, he started working with the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne (first as guest conductor, now as chief conductor). 2018, also first as guest conductor, now as music director, he started working with the Orchestre National de France (ONF). And, of course, Cristian Măcelaru is pursuing an international career as guest conductor, working with numerous, prominent orchestras.

Romanian Chamber Orchestra

The Romanian Chamber Orchestra is located in Timișoara. Founded around 2018, the ensemble now is a cornerstone in the Romanian music life. On its home page, the orchestra states its goal as “bringing some of the best Romanian string players from all over the world to perform together, to share their knowledge with their younger colleagues, through new compositions, written for the orchestra, to enrich the repertoire written for string chamber orchestras”.


Program

The original program started off with the two Intermèdes by Georges Enescu. This would imply two rearrangements (Polyptyque requires two separate orchestra in an “antiphonal” setting). In order to save the audience from one of these rearrangements, the artists decided to put the Intermèdes into the middle of the program.


Setting, etc.

Brugg is the center of Sebastian Bohren’s activities. It is also the home to Stretta Concerts, which emerged upon Sebastian Bohren’s initiative, who is also the artistic director. It was therefore not a surprise to see that the Stadtkirche Brugg was essentially full. My wife and I had the privilege of exclusive seats on the organ balcony, which was otherwise not open to listeners in this concert. With one exceptions (indicated in the description), all concert photos were created for and offered by the Romanian Chamber Orchestra. These are the property of the Romanian Chamber Orchestra, all rights reserved.


Concert & Review

Frank Martin, 1959
Frank Martin, 1959

Frank Martin: Polyptyque, for violin and two small string orchestras (1973)

The Composer

The Swiss composer Frank Martin (1890 – 1974) was born in Geneva. He was the youngest of 10 siblings (just like Cristian Măcelaru!). Respecting his parents’ wishes, Martin spent 2 years at Geneva University studying mathematics and physics. At the same time, he also took lessons in piano, composition and harmony with the composer Joseph Lauber (1864 – 1953), a leading figure of Geneva’s musical scene. In the 1920s, Martin worked with Émile Jaques-Dalcroze (1865 –1950) from whom he learned much about rhythm and musical theory.

Wikipedia states: “Martin’s music was often inspired by his Christianity. (…) Martin based his mature style on his personal variant (first used around 1932) of Arnold Schoenberg‘s (1874 – 1951) twelve-tone technique, but he did not abandon tonality.”

The Work

Polyptyque, Six images de la Passion du Christ for violin and two small string orchestras (1973) is one of Frank Martin’s last works. It was a commission by Yehudi Menuhin (1916 – 1999) on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the International Music Council. It also was Menuhin who premiered the work on 1973-09-13, in Lausanne, together with the Zürcher Kammerorchester under the direction of its founder, Edmond de Stoutz (1920 – 1997).

Duccio di Buoninsegna: Maestà altarpiece for the Duomo di Siena, backside
Duccio di Buoninsegna: Maestà altarpiece for the Duomo di Siena, backside

The commission was for a violin concerto, but Frank Martin felt unable to compete with the long series of classical concertos by eminent composers, starting with Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750). It was Bach’s St.Matthew Passion, BWV 244, however, that inspired him to write music on the Passion of Jesus Christ. More concrete inspiration came from the Maestà, the Byzantine style altarpiece painted by Duccio di Buoninsegna (c.1255 – 1319) in 1308 – 1311 for the Duomo di Siena (Siena Cathedral). Martin chose 6 images from the backside of the altarpiece.

Martin stated that he didn’t mean to write program music in the strict sense. Rather, he meant to depict his feelings & thoughts about the pictures. As the performance notes below will show, the music certainly has a strong connection with the images. The violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja (*1977) has posted the images (high resolution), along with detailed comments (in German) on her Website. Essential parts of that information (including the images) are available in English, in an article “Martin’s Instrumental Passion” from the Metropolitana Website. Also the Dutch Wikipedia has additional information.

Ever since its creation, people see “Polyptyque” as one of the masterworks of the 20th century.

The Movements

Interestingly, Frank Martin left out the Crucifixion of Jesus from the images that he “illustrated” through his music:

  1. Image des Rameaux (Palms): Allegro non troppo ma agitato
  2. Image de la Chambre haute (The Last Supper): Andante tranquillo
  3. Image de Juda: Allegro
  4. Image de Gethsémané: Molto lento
  5. Image de Jugement: Largamente
  6. Image de la Glorification: Andante — Allegro moderato

As Sebastian Bohren mentioned in his introduction, it was Cristian Măcelaru who found out that in the last movement, Frank Martin had made provisions for using a bell. The performances with these artists reveal this (so far unknown) option for the first time.

The setting with two separate string orchestras is very likely inspired by Bach’s St.Matthew Passion, BWV 244. That work had a profound effect on Frank Martin ever since he attended a performance at age 12. Note that not for all of the movements it is entirely clear which picture / icon from the altarpiece Frank Martin was thinking of / inspired by. For the Image de Jugement in particular, there are several images that the music could apply or refer to.

The Performance

Sebastian Bohren thanked the audience for “having the guts” to attend this (demanding) program. I don’t think this was pure irony. However, as it turned out, all pieces in this concert “talk” directly to the listener, and wherever they are dissonant, that just feels like their language. The emotional (and pictorial?) content always prevails!

I. Image des Rameaux: Allegro non troppo ma agitato

It only took moments, or the orchestra’s presentation of the theme, to be “in” this music! Yes, it’s dodecaphony. However, in Martin’s “moderate” variant, where the 12-tone space is disguised in the form of motif sequences and shifted imitations. It isn’t tonal, in that it lacks cadences. However, Martin leaves a “scent” of tonality, in that the music is (always?) harmonically anchored, and there is always a “sense of direction”.

The solo violin takes up motifs from the introduction, engaging in a widely spanning monologue (a recitativo accompagnato of sorts). This part is ideal for Sebastian Bohren’s beautiful, dense / intense tone! Of course, not just the sound “beautiful”, but so is the melody line! One should not underestimate the challenges, though. The solo is highly exposed / prominent, the intonation very demanding, given that the orchestra offers little support. Yet, Sebastian Bohren’s playing was firm, authoritative at all times. After all, his part is that of Jesus Christ!

I mentioned “recitative”: throughout the composition, almost at all times, the solo felt like “talking”, i.e., it was as if the violin was talking in words, phrases (though I’m sure the composer didn’t have any concrete text in mind). And similarly, one could almost directly follow Jesus’ thoughts and utterings / statements!

When the orchestra returned, its narrative (the crowds, the turbae in passion oratorios) seemed equally strong, intense and direct. Not “factual” talking, of course, but a wordless, emotional discourse. The intensity of that discourse prevailed over Martin’s musical / harmonic “language” (dissonances, etc.). Certainly, the orchestra was far more than mere illustration or accompaniment to the solo part.

II. Image de la Chambre haute: Andante tranquillo

The Last Supper: the intensity of the language through music / recitative in the solo part remains. Warm, gentle, comforting and reassuring answers to the anxious, fearful questioning on the part of the orchestra. My notes state that one could almost hear / understand words / phrases. It felt like a stage performance. Even though I wasn’t thinking of concrete language. Never have I heard music being so close to actual “talking”, even though devoid of actual text or a “libretto”. Naturally, though, text from recitatives from Bach’s passion oratorios “almost reached the tip of the tongue”… A masterwork, for sure!

III. Image de Juda: Allegro

Here, the solo violin presumably portrays Judas. Driven, restless, maybe panicking. Strongly rhythmic, motoric, agitated. One could follow how closely Sebastian Bohren was interacting / cooperating with Cristian Măcelaru and the orchestra. Martin depicted Judas’ falseness, his betrayal through odd harmonies. Finally, when the solo plays with mute, one could almost watch Judas stealing away in shame!

IV. Image de Gethsémané: Molto lento

The solo returns to the role of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. A beautiful double-stop solo showing intimate prayer, dedication, building up to intense pleading, even exclamation, finally sadness, giving in to God’s will, resignation, devotion.

Gradually, as ppp in the orchestra, maybe a preview, a vision of transfiguration takes over. Acceptance, culminating in an affirmative outlook, transcending into heavenly sounds…

V. Image de Jugement: Largamente

Another, very pictorial movement. Violent beating, flagellation, cruelty (the crown of thorns), the rage, the fury, the exclamations of the crowd (turba in the left-hand side orchestra). An inexorable course of action, pain and suffering in the solo, facing the dull, mindless furor of the crowd. Jesus’ intense pleading.

This movement, i.e., its “virtual scenery”, the action, is so very intense. It is understandable that Martin did not see a need for further intensification by depicting the Crucifixion. Or was he just closing his eyes, confronted with the ultimate cruelty in Christ’s passion and death?

VI. Image de la Glorification: Andante — Allegro moderato

Jesus’ glorification: the orchestra opens a “new world” with very warm, gentle harmonies. That’s not in pure, conventional major tonalities, but remaining in Martin’s idiom, especially once the solo sets in. The latter seems transcending, lively jubilating in highest positions. Also, now, the “language” in the solo was more abstract, no human-like “talking” in a recitative, but maybe the idea of a world beyond in warmth, harmony, devoid of pain and suffering?

As the bell tolls (very fittingly!), solo and orchestra build up to another, emotional climax. Transfiguration into a new reality, glory, heaven, ascending into eternity…

I can only confirm: a true masterpiece, absolutely unique in its kind, impressive, marvelous!

★★★★★

George Enescu
George Enescu

Georges Enescu: Two Intermezzi (Intermèdes) for string orchestra, op.12

Composer & Work

As Sebastian Bohren explained, he didn’t just perform Frank Martin’s “Polyptyque” in Romania, but he did so in Timișoara, and actually in the same venue in which also Yehudi Menuhin (who premiered Frank Martin’s Polyptyque) had been performing. And Menuhin’s teacher was Georges Enescu (1881 – 1955), so the middle pieces “cloyse a circle”. The Two Intermezzi (Intermèdes) for string orchestra, op.12 are among Enescu’s minor works. I have not been able to locate detailed information on these two pieces, though the list of works at the International Enescu Society Website mentions that they were composed in 1902 and 1903, respectively:

  1. Allègrement (D major)
  2. Très lent (G major)

The Performance

I. Allègrement (D major)

What a contrast to Frank Martin! It’s a big step from dodecaphony to late- or post-romantic tonality. The context made this music sound neoclassical. I even sensed baroque textures, with canon-like imitations, simple polyphony. However, it of course remains in Enescu’s own and specific idiom. It certainly never feels trivial, let alone worn out. That said: Enescu’s melodies are beautiful (if not catchy), the music feels harmonious, intimate, with the scent of nostalgia and melancholy.

Cristian Măcelaru and the orchestra did not try restraining the expression. They jointly indulged in the long, “endless” phrases, letting the emotions bloom in short, but intense eruptions / outbreaks, while also avoiding excessive romanticism. Beautiful music, for sure!

II. Très lent (G major)

The très lent (very slow) is mostly in the steady flow of calmly stepping motifs in the accompaniment. This contrasts with the long, expressive melody in the violins and violas. A Lied ohne Worte (song without words). Earnest, expressive, intense, and again with a melancholic trait. Indulging in distant memories? I noted the diligent / distinct agogics / rubato, and the carefully crafted / shaped dynamics, the beautiful, homogeneous sonority. Gentle, intimate, forlorn in emotions, peaceful, heavenly…

★★★★

I had never encountered the two Intermèdes before. However, I knew (mostly from earlier concert encounters) what to expect from Georges Enescu. And I was really looking forward to hearing these pieces. Indeed, albeit short, the music as such did not disappoint. However, I still felt a slight amount of dissatisfaction. That has very little to do with Enescu’s music. It’s just that going back to late- or post-romantic music from Frank Martin’s masterwork had the scent of stepping down from challenging to “easy”, from an intense spiritual experience to simpler (still excellent, though), worldly “entertainment”.


Dmitri Shostakovich
Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich: Chamber Symphony in C minor, op.110a

Composer & Work

In the review of a concert on 2018-07-27 I wrote a performance of the String Quartet No.8 in C minor, op.110 by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975). In that concert, a presenter described this as “one of the saddest, most sorrowful, depressing compositions of the entire music history”. For simplicity, let me just quote my work description from 2018:

Shostakovich completed this quartet in a mere three days in 1960, in Dresden, in a time when he experienced first signs of a muscular weakness (later diagnosed as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), and at the same time he felt compelled to giving in to joining the Communist Party. It was a time when he had suicidal thoughts. The music refers to these personal catastrophes. A clear sign for this is in the frequent occurrence of his “signature motif”, D-E♭-C-B (D-Es-C-H in German terminology, i.e., D.SCHostakowitsch). Also, the composer uses abundant quotes from others of his works, such as his Cello Concerto No.1, his Symphonies No.1, 5, 10, 15, his Violin Concerto No.1, and others.

The composition is officially dedicated to “the victims of fascism and the war”. Shostakovich’s son Maxim contradicts, stating that in reality it is “a reference to the victims of all totalitarianism”. On the other hand, the composer’s daughter Galina claims that in reality it was dedicated to the composer himself (and that the published dedication was imposed by the regime). There are even claims that Shostakovich wrote this quartet as his epitaph.

The conductor and violist Rudolf Barshai (1924 – 2010) arranged Shostakovich’s string quartet for string orchestra. In that version (performed in this concert), it is now known as Chamber Symphony in C minor, op.110a.

The Movements

The composition features five movements, all following each other attacca:

  1. Largo —
  2. Allegro molto —
  3. Allegretto —
  4. Largo —
  5. Largo

The Performance

To me, also this was a “first encounter” of sorts: so far, from CDs and in concert, I have only heard the composer’s original string quartet version of this composition…

I. Largo —

This desolation, the infinite sadness in the suppressed / muffled 4-part “DSCH” canon! It was instantly clear to me that the orchestral version shifts the focus from personal depression, anxiety and despair to a much larger scale. I could not resist the (obvious) thought about the situation in Ukraine. And at the same time about the current and upcoming crises that humanity is facing. And in the first climax that ends the introduction: almost bursting from intensity, expression on a grand scale!

Then, this sorrow, the intense plea, the sadness and ultimately resignation in the violin solo (Alexandru Tomescu, concertmaster). So touching. And yet, the music is so full of inner beauty that it can’t possibly have left anybody in the audience untouched! However, in all the sadness, there is also hope shimmering through!

II. Allegro molto —

Not only Shostakovich’s personal fear as expressed in the first movement seemed more intense and direct, “bigger” in the orchestral version, but also the outbreak of intense fighting in the Allegro molto. Violent, motoric, brutal aggression, urge. An anxious soul, frightful, scared, full of Angst, cornered, shouting “DSCH” as defense? Very obviously, at least for a big venue (such as this one in Brugg), the orchestral version with its large dynamic contrasts is far more powerful than the original. And the performance by the Romanian Chamber Orchestra was excellent, enthralling, indeed!

Interestingly, despite the violence in this movement, there is still beauty in Shostakovich’s music. In this case, I don’t think this (special) beauty is merely a concession by the composer, in order to get the quartet accepted by the authorities. It’s the esthetics of Shostakovich’s personal idiom.

III. Allegretto —

That personal idiom—so typical / characteristic for this composer at any moment—also prevails in the central Allegretto. After the initial, firm “DSCH statement” in the first violin, the music retracts to a gentle p / sotto voce, while maintaining the motoric motion. After violent interjections, the music returns to the softer “underground motorics”. Throughout the movement: precision, excellent coordination, drive, momentum, full of tension, even suspense in the relentlessness of the DSCH motifs (and their “backward version”). Fascinating (and again beautiful!) music, despite the scary interjections!

IV. Largo —

The peace in the gentle, soft ending of the Allegretto is of course deceptive, as the Largo falls in with cruel, violent and ruthless triple beats. The violin solo momentarily retracts into fearful pp. Angst, fear, pain. Yet, amazingly, Shostakovich manages to create a synthesis of the authoritarian ff and the fearful violin voice. Peace and hope, at last? Or rather resignation and sadness? The latter, rather, as the violent triple beats return.

The next “peaceful” episode definitely feels like immense sadness, and a touching farewell, despite the ravishing beauty of the cello solo (Dragoș Bălan) which is then picked up by the solo violin on the g and d’ strings. The brutal truth is confirmed by the recurring triple beats that end the movement.

V. Largo

But no, the ending of the work isn’t brutal. The final Largo is reviving the DSCH motif. To me, the movement expresses infinite sadness, mourning, even resignation. However, at the same time, I also sensed transfiguration, maybe even hope? Certainly, in all sadness, the beauty of the last bars is otherworldly, ravishing even…

Another masterwork that touched the audience and left a deep impression!

★★★★½

I would not hesitate to concede that at the present, dark times, the intensity, the grand expression of the orchestral version is far more appropriate than the intimate, personal atmosphere of the original version for string quartet!

Cristian Măcelaru, Romanian Chamber Orchestra @ Stadtkirche Brugg, 2022-06-05 (© Romanian Chamber Orchestra)

Conclusions

As outlined above, the present, political (and economic, ecological) situation gave Shostakovich’s op.110 an unprecedented actuality, especially in Barshai’s orchestral version. At the same time, with its clarity and directness in expression / description, and with the tragedy (of Christ’s passion) that it describes, also Frank Martin’s Polyptyque fits into the present time. In a complementary way, though. Overall, the concert was a highly impressive, touching experience.

The one and only thing that I regretted is the shift of Enescu’s Intermèdes into the middle of the concert (see above). I understand the reasoning behind the change. However, I still think this was a mistake. The character of Enescu’s op.12 couldn’t possibly match up to the surrounding pieces, neither Shostakovich’s op.110, nor the Polyptyque. It would have been an excellent beginning, a “tune-in” for the concert. Placing Enescu’s Intermezzi between the two big compositions—giants musically, as well as in expression—belittled their value, made it sound harmless, almost naïve.


Acknowledgement

The author would like to express his gratitude to Sebastian Bohren / Stretta Concerts Brugg for the invitation and the exclusive seats for this concert. In addition, the author appreciates the opportunity to use the RCO’s concert photos in this review.



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