Sophie Klussmann, Jürg Dähler, Claire Huangci
Swiss Chamber Concerts — ViaBrahms:
Brahms, Jost, Vassena, Käser, Dayer

Wasserkirche, Zurich, 2020-09-25

4-star rating

2020-10-03 — Original posting



Outline


Introduction

Swiss Chamber Concerts

Another restart after the COVID-19 lockdown! 1999, the three musicians Daniel Haefliger (cello, Geneva and Lugano), Jürg Dähler (viola, Zurich), and Felix Renggli (flute, Basel) initiated the concert series Swiss Chamber Concerts. The goal was to “explore the vastly rich chamber music repertoire in all its facets”. At the same time, the Swiss Chamber Concerts contribute to broadening the repertoire by commissioning new works from Swiss composers.

The Artists: Swiss Chamber Soloists

A key part of the organization “Swiss Chamber Concerts” are the Swiss Chamber Soloists, a group of around 25 top class musicians (not all of Swiss nationality, as the name might suggest), among them the three musicians featuring in this concert:

Jürg Dähler plays a 1893 viola by Raffaele Fiorini, Bologna (1828 – 1898). Claire Huangci’s instrument was a Steinway B-211 grand piano (Musik Hug, Zurich). The lid remained half-closed throughout this concert.

The Venue

The venue for this concert was Zurich’s Wasserkirche, one of Zurich’s oldest churches, just beneath Zurich’s main church, the Großmünster. The location originally was a rocky island in the river Limmat—the eastern arm of the river was later closed in favor of a street. The island allegedly was the place where two of Zurich’s main Saints (Felix and Regula) were executed. Today’s building dates from 1486. After the Reformation, the Gothic church was secularized and subsequently used as library, later also to store crops. Only since a restoration in 1940, it is now used for church services again.


ViaMusica 20/21

The Swiss Chamber Concerts season 2020/2021 runs under the overall title “ViaMusica 20/21“. Concerts are held in Basel, Geneva, Lugano, and Zurich. Each of the events focuses on a particular composer, and so, the individual concert titles are ViaBrahms, ViaKurtág, ViaBach, ViaHolliger, ViaKodály, ViaSchubert, and ViaMozart. Some of the titles are used multiple times, with different programs (there is another ViaBrahms event in March 2021, with different works altogether).

ViaBrahms — The Program

The first concert in the above series in Zurich—at the same time the first concert after the COVID-19 lockdown—focused on chamber music (and piano) works by the late Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897). Between those, the artists performed four world premieres of works (songs / Lieder) by Swiss composers. Three of these were commissions by Swiss Chamber Concerts. The fourth one (by Mischa Käser) was commissioned by the City of Zurich. The overall theme for this concert was “Sehnsucht” (longing).

  • Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897): 2 Gesänge for voice, viola, & piano, op.91
    • 1. Gestillte Sehnsucht
    • 2. Geistliches Wiegenlied
  • Christian Jost (*1963): TagTraum for voice, viola, & piano (2020, world premiere)
  • Christian Jost (*1963): Landschaft for voice, viola, & piano (2020, world premiere)
  • Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897): 5 Lieder, op.107
    • 3. Das Mädchen spricht
    • 5. Mädchenlied
  • Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897): 4 Lieder, op.96 for soprano and piano
    • 2. Wir wandelten
  • Nadir Vassena (*1970): Cenere, o terra for voice, viola, & piano (2020, world premiere)
  • Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897): 3 Intermezzi for piano, op.117
    • Intermezzo No.2 in B♭ minor
  • Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897): 6 Pieces for piano, op.118
    • No.2, Intermezzo in A major
  • Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897): 4 Pieces for piano, op.119
    • No.1, Intermezzo in B minor
  • Mischa Käser (*1959): Die Revolution for voice, viola, & piano (2020, world premiere)
  • Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897): Sonata for clarinet or viola and piano in E♭ minor, op.120/2
  • Xavier Dayer (*1972): Il vient me dire l’impossible naufrage for voice, viola, & piano (2020, world premiere)
  • Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897): 7 Lieder for soprano and piano, op.95
    • 2. Bei Dir sind meine Gedanken
    • 6. Mädchenlied (Am jüngsten Tag)
  • Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897): 5 Lieder for soprano and piano, op.105
    • 2. Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer

The Concert Setup

Jürg Dähler @ Wasserkirche Zürich, 2020-09-25 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Jürg Dähler @ Zürich, 2020-09-25

This year, the Swiss Chamber Concerts received the Schweizer Musikpreis (Swiss Music Award). This allowed them to offer this concert for free (donations were of course more than welcome).

Jürg Dähler @ Wasserkirche Zürich, 2020-09-25 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Jürg Dähler @ Zürich, 2020-09-25

At the same time, the pandemic imposed limitations on the number of visitors. The spacious seating arrangement allowed to a maximum of around 60 visitors in this venue. In order to compensate for that restriction, the organizers decided to make this a five-hour, non-stop event, with the above program being “performed in a loop without interruption“, such that more visitors could attend, joining and leaving the concert at will.

The concert leaflet and announcement claimed that the above program would last around 80 minutes, which presumably would allow for at least three loop cycles. The reality looked slightly different: there was a 5 – 10 minute intermission after Mischa Käser’s piece, and an interruption of a few minutes after the last song. However, these breaks were irrelevant—it turned out that the program up to the (first) intermission already lasted just over 80 minutes, the entire program as shown above filled well over two hours. So, in the end, just two loop cycles took place.

Setting, etc.

I first planned to arrive some time in the first half, and then to stay for at least one, better two cycles. In the end, however, I changed my mind: I arrived in time for the beginning of the concert — and I stayed for the entire event, close to 5 hours. Being early allowed me to set up my camera (at the right edge of row #4). Plus, it did indeed allow me to listen through two (almost) complete cycles. More on that below.

Given the complexity of the program structure (and the fact that I attended both loop cycles), I decided top deviated from my usual review structure. I’m first giving some (limited) details on the compositions. In a second part, I’m summarizing my sketchy notes on the actual performance.


The Compositions

The information on the works below is in the order of the concert program. Here’s the list by composer:


Jürg Dähler, Claire Huangci, Sophie Klussmann @ Wasserkirche Zürich, 2020-09-25 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Jürg Dähler, Claire Huangci, Sophie Klussmann @ Wasserkirche Zürich, 2020-09-25 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Johannes Brahms: 2 Gesänge for voice, viola, & piano, op.91

Brahms originally wrote his two songs op.91 for alto, viola, and piano:

  1. Gestillte Sehnsucht (Longing at Rest)
  2. Geistliches Wiegenlied (Sacred Lullaby)

The first one (Gestillte Sehnsucht) is a creation of 1884, on the poem “Gestillte Sehnsucht” by Friedrich Rückert (1788 – 1866).

Brahms originally wrote the second one (Geistliches Wiegenlied) in 1863, for the marriage of his friend, the famous violinist Joseph Joachim (1831 – 1907). The text is the poem “Geistliches Wiegenlied” by Emanuel Geibel (1815 – 1884). For the publication of his op.91 in 1884, Brahms added revisions to the original Lied from 1863.


Christian Jost: TagTraum and Landschaft for voice, viola, & piano

Christian Jost (© 2020, Christian Jost)
Christian Jost (© 2020, Christian Jost)

The German composer, conductor, and pianist Christian Jost (*1963, see also Wikipedia) received a commission from Swiss Chamber Concerts, for two songs using the same setting (voice, viola, and piano) as Brahms’ op.91. These are works from 2020, their performances in this concert were world premieres. Both songs are on poems by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 – 1926):

TagTraum for voice, viola, & piano

The underlying poem (from 1909) by Rilke has the title Ich bin zu Hause zwischen Tag und Traum (I am at home between dream and day).

Landschaft for voice, viola, & piano

The second song uses a Rilke poem Landschaft (Landscape) from 1918, starts with the line Wie zuletzt, in einem Augenblick (As if finally, in the blink of an eye…).

Jost describes the two songs as “composed poetry in the twilight: the image of a lime tree in summer as memory of past summers—or moonlight cutting the blue of an evening like the sword of an archangel”: he tries offering sound to the invisible—a sound seeking the twilight. He interprets the first poem as a dream-like gesture (in sound and rhythm), “as if the voice was lying on a bell, seeking its rim”. The end is rather an awakening than closure. The second song is the swinging out of that bell, like the dissolving of time, or a suddenly emerging memory from childhood. (Freely translated excerpts from the composer’s description in the concert handout)


Johannes Brahms: 5 Lieder, op.107

1886 – 1888, two years after publishing his op.91, Johannes Brahms composed his five songs (5 Lieder). Two of these were part of the program:

  1. Das Mädchen spricht (The Girl Speaks)
  2. Mädchenlied (Auf die Nacht in der Spinnstub’n / At night in the spinning-room)

The text for No.3 of these songs (Das Mädchen spricht) is a poem by Otto Friedrich Gruppe (1804 – 1876).

The text of No.5, the Mädchenlied (A Young Girl’s Song), is by Paul Heyse (1830 – 1914). The program booklet mentioned that Brahms did not look for “great” poets, nor did he select poems by their lyrical quality. Rather, he was looking for poems where music (melody and accompaniment) had its biggest potential in enhancing the lyrics, i.e., to form a Lied.


Johannes Brahms: 4 Lieder, op.96

As with op.107 and with most of his other songs, Brahms selected poems by lesser known poets for the four songs in his op.96, dating from 1884. The No.2 of these Lieder, Wir wandelten, wir zwei zusammen (We were walking, we two together) is based on a poem by Georg Friedrich Daumer (1800 – 1875).


Nadir Vassena: Cenere, o terra for voice, viola, & piano (2020, world premiere)

Nadir Vassena (© Julien Gremaud)
Nadir Vassena (© Julien Gremaud)

The Swiss composer Nadir Vassena (*1970, see also the German Wikipedia) was born near Lugano. A little over a month ago (2020-08-23), I witnessed the performance of a larger work from 2006 by the same composer, materia oscura for saxophone and ensemble in the KKL in Lucerne. So, this was my second encounter with Nadir Vassena.

Also this work is a commission by the Swiss Chamber Concerts. Cenere, o terra is the title of a collection of poems (2018) by the Swiss translator and writer Fabio Pusterla (*1957 in Mendrisio). It is also the beginning of one of the poems in this collection: Cenere, o terra: mite // alto fusto di platano (Ash, or earth: mild, high plane tree trunk). This is one of two poems that Vassena used for his composition. The other one, from the same collection, begins with Notteri, un volo di braci e sulle rive cenere, o terra oleosa (Notteri, flying embers, and on the shores: ash, or oily soil). Notteri is a part of Cagliari on the island of Sardinia.


Johannes Brahms: 3 Intermezzi for piano

The original concert program called for a performance of Brahms’ 3 Intermezzi for piano, op.117. However, as Jürg Dähler explained, Claire Huangci decided to change that. As both op.117 and op.120/2 were featuring in the concert, she felt it to be adequate also to include (parts of) the piano pieces op.118 and op.119. She decided to select one Intermezzo from each of these collections:

Together with the Seven Fantasias, op.116, all dating from 1892 / 1893, these are Brahms’ last compositions for piano—and almost his last compositions altogether. Only the two clarinet sonatas op.120, the Vier Ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs),, op.121, and the 11 Chorale Preludes for organ, op.122 were to follow. Brahms died on 1897-04-03.


Mischa Käser: Die Revolution for voice, viola, & piano (2020, world premiere)

Mischa Käser (source: trio-iii-vii-xii.ch)
Mischa Käser (source: trio-iii-vii-xii.ch)

The Swiss composer Mischa Käser (*1959). He now lives in his birth town, Zurich, working as guitar teacher, composer, director and musician. His composition also was a commission, this time by the City of Zurich. Mischa Käser uses the 1851 poem Die Revolution (original, German text here) by the German poet Ferdinand Freiligrath (1810 – 1876). What caught Käser’s interest is not the original text, though, but “variations” presented by the German author, poet, translator and editor Hans Magnus Enzensberger (*1929). One of these “variations” depicts the effect of censorship: “The powers are reading along as somebody writes, commenting by suppressing words. This causes people to learn reading between the lines.”

Käser describes his music as a reaction to failed revolutions (rather than a description of the insurgency itself): the short rearing up of the revolution contrasts with the counterpoint of allusions to losses, defeats, and failures. The censored, barred words are indicated by croaking noises from the musicians. (Freely translated excerpts from the composer’s description in the concert handout)


Johannes Brahms: Sonata for clarinet or viola and piano in E♭ minor, op.120/2

Brahms had actually decided to stop composing, when he discovered the beauty of the clarinet as solo instrument. So, he did indeed write the two—now famous—clarinet sonatas, op.120, which he dedicated to the clarinetist Richard (Bernhard Herrmann) Mühlfeld (1856 – 1907). Brahms also liked the sound of the viola, and so, he also created transcriptions / adaptations for viola and piano:

The first of these sonatas is in F minor, the second one—performed here by Jürg Dähler and Claire Huangci—is in E♭ minor and features the following three movements:

  1. Allegro amabile
  2. Allegro appassionato
  3. Andante con moto — Allegro — Più tranquillo

Xavier Dayer: Il vient me dire l’impossible naufrage for voice, viola, & piano (2020, world premiere)

Xavier Dayer (© 2020 Xavier Dayer)
Xavier Dayer (© 2020 Xavier Dayer)

The Swiss composer Xavier Dayer (*1972 in Geneva, see also the French Wikipedia) also received a commission for a song for soprano, viola, and piano, this time again by the Swiss Chamber Concerts. The text to Il vient me dire l’impossible naufrage (He comes to tell me the impossible shipwreck) is Xavier Dayer’s own.

The author and composer writes: “The music in this piece is in the form of a dialog between words and music. Words are thought as images, inspiration for free chains of inspiration. The words emerged along with the harmonies of the piece. The idea was that of a play of correspondence between word(s) and music, towards mutual questioning and mutual resolution [dissolution?].”

And further: “The piano plays almost without interruption, leading the nightly voices of soprano and viola. The overall form deploys like a cloud, moving forward in fragments, hereby creating a reality that possibly resembles that of a human trying to move forward in total darkness.” (Freely translated excerpts from the composer’s description in the concert handout)


Johannes Brahms: 7 Lieder, op.95

1884, in the same year in which he also published his Lieder op.91, 94, 96, Brahms also wrote his 7 songs op.95, two of which featured in this program:

  1. Bei Dir sind meine Gedanken (My Thoughts Are With You)
  2. Mädchenlied (A Young Girl’s Song)

The poet for No.2, Bei Dir sind meine Gedanken, is Baron Eligius Franz Joseph von Münch-Bellinghausen (1806 – 1871), generally known under the pseudonym Friedrich Halm.

For the song No.6, Brahms selected a poem by Paul Heyse (1830 – 1914) with the title Mädchenlied, starting with Am jüngsten Tag ich aufersteh’ (On the last day I rise again), one of two poems with the same title by Paul Heyse (1830 – 1914). Brahms used the other one in his op.107, see above. A third Lied by Brahms with that same title, op.85/3, is on yet another poem by Siegfried Kapper (1821 – 1879), starting with Ach, und du mein kühles Wasser! (Ah, and you my cool stream!).


Johannes Brahms: 5 Lieder, op.105

Among Brahms’ last songs are the 5 Lieder op.105, the No.2 of which, Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer (My slumber grows more and more gentle), is using a poem by Hermann Ritter von Lingg (1820 – 1905).


Jürg Dähler, Claire Huangci, Sophie Klussmann @ Wasserkirche Zürich, 2020-09-25 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Jürg Dähler, Claire Huangci, Sophie Klussmann @ Wasserkirche Zürich, 2020-09-25 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Comments on the Performance

As usual in my reviews, for contemporary works (in particular, world premieres), my ratings predominantly reflect my impressions on the music, rather than the actual performance. The qualities of the latter are often hard to assess, as there is no (public) access to the score / sheet music, and there are usually no existing / recorded performances that one could use as reference.

There were about 50 people in the audience, filling maybe 80% of the available seats. Remember: this was a late Friday afternoon, the evening rush hour just beginning.

My ratings reflect the first loop cycle of the concert exclusively. The links in the subtitles below refer to the descriptive sections above.

Jürg Dähler gave a brief introduction into the concert. He also added short comments between some of the pieces.


Loop Cycle #1

Jürg Dähler, Claire Huangci, Sophie Klussmann @ Wasserkirche Zürich, 2020-09-25 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Jürg Dähler, Claire Huangci, Sophie Klussmann @ Wasserkirche Zürich, 2020-09-25 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Brahms: 2 Gesänge for Voice, Viola, & Piano, op.91

Right from the first notes I had the feeling that the venue may not be ideal for a modern grand piano, at least for Brahms’ textures. There was less of a problem with the descant, but the church acoustics made the bass register sound unclear, “spongy”. That certainly wasn’t the pianist’s fault: her playing is usually very clear and transparent. Rather, it’s the combination of modern piano sound and Brahms’ left-hand textures. Sure, the bass created a full, rounded and warm sound—but occasionally, Sophie Klussmann’s low register was in danger of drowning in the accompaniment.

A historic instrument similar to those which Brahms used—ideally an instrument by Streicher, or a replica thereof—would have fared far better, thanks to its brighter, more colorful and transparent bass register.

I. Gestillte Sehnsucht

Apart from the somewhat problematic interaction of the piano sound with the acoustics: what beautiful soundscape, what ravishingly beautiful music! The piano actually was in excellent shape, Jürg Dähler’s viola sound was marvelous: warm, full, yet clear, not nasal at all, but clear and full of character. And it always kept its presence next to the piano, over the entire range, produced an astounding volume.

Sophie Klussmann’s soprano (lyrical, almost a mezzo soprano) featured a beautiful, warm timbre, harmonious, natural vibrato (never obtrusive), excellent diction and projection. As mentioned, the low register occasionally faced some challenges with the sound of the piano. However, that’s also due to Brahms demanding score. After all, the song was written for alto voice! In the higher register, the voice was radiant, but retained its warmth.

The viola forms a counterpart to the voice. Momentarily, I felt that Jürg Dähler played a little on the soft side, relative to the soprano. But those were rather nuances only.

II. Geistliches Wiegenlied

Also here, the piano seemed somewhat at a disadvantage, because of the reverberation (see above). On the other hand, I truly enjoyed Sophie Klussmann’s timbre, her Gestaltung, the phrasing, the diction. Contrary to what the title seems to suggest, the Geistliches Wiegenlied is the more dramatic of the two, allowing Sophie Klussmann to raise her voice to intense climaxes.

Also, It felt as if soprano and viola had consciously adjusted their vibrato. It seemed a perfect mutual fit in strength and frequency—without being synchronized, of course.

Needless to say that these Lieder are among Brahms’ most beautiful, most intense inventions—touching to tears, really! And: what an opening to such a long, special concert!

★★★½ / ★★★★


Jost: TagTraum and Landschaft

TagTraum

Excellent, how Jost translates the dreamy, if not surreal atmosphere in Rilke’s poem into music! By gently moving her fingers over the strings, Claire Huangci produced very subtle, “cloudy” harping sounds in the descant. Later, she did the same in the bass, producing rolling, soft thundering—distant memories, a reverberation of events of the past day? Jürg Dähler joins in with eerie flageolet tones. The vocal part is beautiful on its own—highly expressive, very singable. Viola and soprano enter an intense, intertwined dialog, while the piano provides the dramatic background, the canvas.

I felt as if Christian Jost wrote this into Sophie Klussmann’s voice!

Landschaft

The piano opens with strong bass accents—the heavy, dark sounds / colors of the soil? The viola adds contrasting linear textures—the lighting in the scenery? The vocal part seems as singable as in TagTraum—atmospheric, rising to dramatic highlights, supported by the colorful backdrop from the viola and piano parts. Sophie Klussmann’s performance is very impressive—excellent in the intonation, firm, intense, gripping (almost catchy!)—as is the composition!

The challenge with this Lied is not in the performance or the composition. Rather, it’s the degree of abstraction, the complexity of the logic in Rilke’s poem: ideally, one would first need to study the text quietly, and in detail. For a first time listener, it was hard enough to understand the words, as the voice moved in large intervals—the lyrical contents remained hardly comprehensible. That’s (beautiful!) music that one needs to listen to after contemplating the message and meaning of the poem beforehand.

★★★½


Brahms: Lieder opp.107/3, 107/5, 96/2 for Voice and Piano

Back to Brahms with these Lieder! I noted that these songs didn’t exhibit the transparency issues in the bass of the piano that I noted in op.91. Either Claire Huangci adjusted her (bass) articulation to the acoustics, or—quite likely—these issues were specific to the combination of (alto) voice, viola and piano in op.91?

Das Mädchen spricht (op.107/3) is lively, jolly, vivid, happy—and so easy to comprehend (even without the lyrics): what a contrast to Jost’s Lied!

The Mädchenlied op.107/5 switches to a minor key—more calm, reflective, even turning a little sad and melancholic in the end: a good example for how Brahms could elevate a simple poem to an artful Lied!

The third song in this group, Wir wandelten, wir zwei zusammen, op.96/2, is the most intimate one. Serene, calm, radiant in emotion—and in Sophie Klussmann’s clear, harmonious performance. The Lied is a real gem—and ideal for this soprano voice.

★★ / ★★ / ★★★½


Vassena: Cenere, o terra

Cenere, o terra: a static beginning, subtle in the piano part, gentle flageolets and pizzicati on the viola, restrained and equally subtle on the part of the soprano, later accompanied by rapid tremolo on the piano. Glittering, scintillating. Sound planes flowing into each other. Strong in the expression, the contemplation on a nature morte, a frozen scenery. Sophie Klussmann’s intonation is excellent, firm, unaffected by dynamic contrasts in her challenging part! A strong composition!

Notteri, un volo di braci: A different scenery, another nature morte (at least initially)—and again with strong expression: light, contrasts, water in motion, a harbor, static, resting, reflective, maybe waiting for things to happen.

Vassena’s composition leaves a really strong impression! And the performance leaves nothing to wish for: there isn’t the slightest insecurity in Claire Huangci’s piano “framework”: a highly reliable, supportive chamber musician. And above all, Sophie Klussmann’s performance is convincing, compelling, firm and unfailing, despite the fiendish intonation challenges in this music!

★★★½


Brahms: Intermezzi for Piano

Johannes Brahms’ late piano works: so characteristic for his late(st) style! An atmosphere like the twilight of a warm summer evening, an old man’s reflections on his life, re-emerging emotions…

Intermezzo in B♭ minor, op.117/2

Peaceful, wistful, memories, harmonious waves of emotions and dynamics, warmth, wonderful sonority! Yes, the acoustics still slightly blurred the bass—though here, it was less detrimental, as the textures and less dense.

Intermezzo in A major, op.118/2

Singing, serene, transfigured, with flowing emotions that built up to harmonious waves. The middle part appears to introduce slight pain, but that’s just momentary, before the memories, the warm, emotions emerge again in almost rhapsodic playing.

Intermezzo in B minor, op.119/1

Highly emotional—and I really liked Claire Huangci’s tempo: without exaggerations, flowing, excellent at shaping the big arches, keeping an eye on the overall structure. Also the ritardando in the last bars was not overdone—the piece simply retracts into pp, like a question mark…

★★


Käser: Die Revolution

The piece begins with distinctly dissonant, wild outbreaks, shaking clusters, driven by the piano: the revolution, the uprising, obviously—angry, violent. The soprano line is moving in large jumps, exploring a very large range, with frequent jumps to very high notes, alternating with low notes, reaching into chanting (Sprechgesang).

The accompaniment—the viola mainly adding illustrating colors—remains dissonant, erupting waves of unrest: the aftermath of the revolution. It’s music that does not capture attention through esthetic beauty, catchy melodies or rhythmic pattern. There are just very brief moments of tonality, glimpses of motifs that resemble known pattern (e.g., from post-romantic piano music).

Musical Language, Heritage?

Käser does not try to please the ear, consequently following the compositorial paths laid out by his teachers—such as Hans-Ulrich Lehmann (1937 – 2013) and Roland Moser (*1943)—and other Swiss composers in the second half of the 20th century, such as Rudolf Kelterborn (*1931). And of course their forefathers, such as Pierre Boulez (1925 – 2016), Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928 – 2007), Sándor Veress (1907 – 1992).

That said, Käser’s song maintains a dramatic flow even without a persistent rhythmic or melodic line, the action is “thrilling”, the soundscape as such attractive (despite the dissonances). And the piano setting is excellent, the textures of the accompaniment carefully laid out such that they don’t “obstruct” the soprano line. It resembles an artful dance in which the partners carefully avoid stepping onto each other’s toes.

Sophie Klussmann demonstrated excellent vocal mastership across the entire, wide range, with unfailing firmness in intonation. It’s very, very demanding music, requiring utmost concentration and focus from all three musicians. Interesting, enthralling, with a strong narrative, even (as I felt) without considering the underlying poem.

★★★½


Brahms: Sonata for viola and piano, op.120/2

Note: my ratings reflect my experience as a listener / concert visitor, i.e., the ensemble of performance and acoustics / atmosphere. The quality of the music is out of question here. However, as already in the opening pieces, the listening experience in this sonata was somewhat affected by the acoustics. The viola definitely profited from the acoustics, while the piano again was at a slight disadvantage, with f passages in the bass sounding slightly blurred, “cloudy”.

I. Allegro amabile

Ah the sonority of Jürg Dähler’s viola! Such intense singing (especially in the height), a great tone, such a nice timbre, so full of character and “grip”. The acoustic balance was truly excellent, with the viola not dominating beyond measure, but retaining its presence, projecting through the piano sound at all times, and through the entire dynamic bandwidth.

When I think about this sonata, I usually hear it with the original instrument, the clarinet. In this performance, however, I felt that the viola is much more subtle, more colorful and differentiated, and particularly more “speaking”—closer to a human voice, indeed. Then, of course, there’s Brahms’ music—the composer looking back at his life, with melancholy, bitter-sweet moments, longing, re-emerging waves of emotions in blooming melodies. Simply beautiful, heart-warming!
★½

II. Allegro appassionato

Dramatic, urging, expressive and highly emote, especially in the virtuosic piano part. Just brief, sudden moments of reflection in an otherwise lively flow, a turmoil of emotions. A general rest makes the music come to a halt—and with a surprising modulation from E♭ minor to B major, Brahms returns to the powerful, rhapsodic language of his piano concerto in D minor, op.15: youthful, stark emotions, initially just in the virtuosic, full-fingered piano part, before the viola joins in, with its singing, intense tone.
★½

III. Andante con moto — Allegro — Più tranquillo

The first part feels close to a folk tune—a serene melody going through a set of (2) variations. To me, this was the best part of this performance, at least acoustically: the simpler, less polyphonic textures in the piano part were largely unaffected by the reverberation.

A 14-bar transition leads into the highly dramatic and virtuosic Allegro: a short, violent eruption in E♭ minor. The concluding Più tranquillo is brighter, slightly less violent, but still instrumental fireworks, a brilliant, though also earnest, determined conclusion to Brahms’ chamber music oeuvre. Up to this last part, I felt that I actually prefer the viola over the clarinet; just here, I don’t think I prefer one over the other.
★★ / ★½

Overall Rating: ★½


Dayer: Il vient me dire l’impossible naufrage

The final one of the contemporary pieces proved to be the toughest one on the listener, as well as on the musicians. Technically, there are some substantial challenges on the instrumentalists. Plus, the irregular rhythmic structure (with the meter often changing with almost every bar) required utmost focus, concentration and attention.

That also holds true for the soprano line. On top of that, Sophie Klussmann also had to master extreme challenges in intonation in this power- and voice-draining piece. She had been singing for the most part of the preceding two hours—nevertheless, her voice showed no noticeable signs of fatigue, retained its impressive volume, projection, presence.

The Listener’s Side

For the listener, Dayer’s song may have felt just as tough as it is for the musicians. That primarily has to do with the lyrics: Dayer’s poem appears to talk in simple, understandable terms, short phrases, single words even. However, the language is highly symbolic, encoded, metaphoric, freely associating. And it’s in French. Sophie Klussmann’s French pronunciation was excellent, as far as I could tell—though here, the acoustics added another obstacle for the audience. The poem itself requires careful reading and reflection, even in a translation.

With all this, the “message” in this text—as vaguely defined as that may be—was very hard to convey. Some explanations ahead of the performance might have helped—but at the same time might just hinder the free flow of association in the listener’s mind.

I superficially followed the poem in the booklet, and at least in the first part, I got the notion of horror, dread, the scare of a ghastly void. The musical language is entirely atonal, resembling the soundscape of certain dodecaphonic pieces—though not really dissonant (at least, not aggressively). Colors, darkness vs. light, describing atmosphere, moods rather than pictures or objects. Yet, in all this abstraction, the music, the performance (around 10 minutes) retained its tension, even suspense, the intensity up to the last note. Interesting and fascinating, to say the least!

★½


Brahms: Lieder opp.95/2, 95/6, 105/2 for Voice and Piano

Bei Dir sind meine Gedanken, op.95/2, and Mädchenlied (A Young Girl’s Song), op.95/6: not only beautiful as compositions, but also in the balance between soprano and piano, and in the interaction of the two parts. Serene, happy, light, untroubled (the second one is a little more reflective, pensive): a stark contrast to the encrypted (non-)statement in Xavier Dayer’s song. An excellent pairing at the end of the concert!

Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer, op.105/2: the last Lied continues on the path of the preceding two: a contemplative, pensive conclusion, bitter-sweet, slightly melancholic, beautiful, with an intense, emote climax (a last challenge for the soprano in the peak note!). In a different setting, I could also picture a more intimate interpretation of this last Lied—but here, it was just fine the way it was presented.

★★


Loop Cycle #2

With the intermission / pauses, the first loop cycle lasted almost 2.5 hours—substantially longer than the 80 minutes that the booklet mentioned. Still, a second cycle was announced—and performed. Most people in the audience left, new listeners arrived. Still, the second loop had no more than around 16 people in the audience. Some people, such as myself, decided to stay through the second loop as well.

Needless to say that this was another rewarding experience. However, it did not quite reach the intensity, maybe also the quality of the first pass, for various reasons, see below.

In terms of repertoire / program, the second loop cycle was identical to the first one. The one exception to this was in Brahms’ Sonata for viola and piano, op.120/2, where only the first movement (Allegro amabile) was performed—the one that shows the qualities of the viola at its best.

Encore

The second loop cycle ended around 9:30 p.m.—after a performance of around 4.5 hours (short breaks included). That (nor the small size of the audience) didn’t stop the artists from offering an encore! They returned to the very beginning of the concert, closing the circle with the beautiful, touching and intimate Gestillte Sehnsucht, op.91/1. A fitting ending to a long evening, releasing the listeners into a gloomy autumn night, warmth in their hearts.


Conclusions

I think that the artists were aiming very, very high—maybe too high—when designing the program, the concept for this event. The challenges on the performers were enormous:

Piano

Primarily, and above all, the demands on Claire Huangci were inhuman, frankly! The contemporary pieces came with their set of technical difficulties, requiring every bit of attention. The Brahms pieces may sound easy on the listener’s ear—however, this composer’s piano scores are notoriously difficult, power-draining, complex, musically and physically demanding (especially on the left hand, I imagine). And: Claire Huangci performed in virtually every bar over two times over two hours of music—unbelievable!

Undeniably, Claire Huangci did show visible signs of exhaustion during the second cycle. However, one could tell the degree of professionalism from the fact that even towards the end there weren’t noticeable mishaps creeping in, even though I felt some (slight) loss in intensity and presence towards the end. Still: the amount of physical and mental reserves that she can mobilize is astounding. Hats off for such an amazing achievement!

Soprano

I’m equally in awe of Sophie Klussmann‘s performance: not only does she command over a beautiful voice, but she retained her presence, the intensity of her timbre, the projection, the volume—again over 4.5 hours! Yes, she did have breaks during Brahms’ Intermezzi and the viola sonata. However, the human voice is notoriously fragile, the dangers of overloading its capacity in long performances inherent. Also here, it speaks for the degree of professionality and experience that there were barely signs of fatigue in Sophie Klussmann’s voice, up to the last bars.

Viola

One might claim that Jürg Dähler had the “easiest” part—at least physically: his breaks included the Brahms Intermezzi, as well as the six Lieder for soprano and piano. However, that wasn’t really his choice, as the repertoire for voice, viola, and piano is very limited. Indeed, the commissions for this concert added substantial expansions to this genre! With the exception of Brahms’ op.120, Jürg Dähler naturally played more of an intermediate, connecting role. However, even there, listeners could enjoy the beautiful, singing tone of his Fiorini instrument—characterful, very slightly grainy, exceptionally projecting.

Finally —

A last thought: I’m notoriously criticizing classic and romantic chamber music performances where pianists leave the lid fully open on a modern concert grand. Almost inevitably, this causes severe issues with the acoustic balance relative to string instruments. I very much appreciate Claire Huangci’s attempt not to dominate the performance by leaving the lid half-closed. However, here, the piano was a mid-size grand (Steinway B-211) in an over-acoustic venue with substantial reverberation. I wonder whether in this particular case, fully opening the lid would have improved the clarity of the bass register?


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2 thoughts on “Sophie Klussmann, Jürg Dähler, Claire Huangci — Wasserkirche, Zurich, 2020-09-25”

  1. Yesterday: Ian Bostridge and Saskia Giorgini in Amsterdam “Muziekgebouw aan het Y”. The same problem with the grand piano, very often, disbalance beween singer en piano. A pity. Baan en Caroline Batelaan

    Reply
    • Dear Baan and Caroline,
      balance issues are always a pity, because they are often avoidable. In my opinion, the ideal solution usually would be to use a piano (historic or replica) of the time of the composition. In all likelihood, this does miracles for Vienna pre-classics and classics (Stein, Walter, Graf instruments, maybe Broadwood), as well as in most 19th century romantic works (Erard, Pleyel, Boisselot [for Liszt] or Streicher [for Brahms]). In this case, I suspect that one can leave the lid fully open, and the sound should “automatically” be balanced (for Lied or for chamber music).
      Most pianists / organizers don’t have access to historic instruments, unfortunately. With modern grands, I have witnessed pianists who are perfectly able to maintain balance, despite a fully open lid. This may be a matter of articulation, or of adjusting the touch, or both. I take it that using the shift pedal to attenuate the sound is against “pianist ethics” (the shift pedal alters the sound quality).
      If a pianist is not able or not willing to adjust the volume (or the score makes this hard to achieve), then lowering the lid may be the only valid option. However, this concert taught me that lowering the lid may also alter the sound quality: together with church acoustics in this case, it may have caused the bass register to lose clarity and definition. I doubt that an open lid would have solved the problem completely (and I know Claire Huanci’s playing well enough to state that I can’t and don’t blame her); I suspect that here, the main culprit was in the church acoustics.
      Best wishes, -Rolf

      Reply

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