Vilde Frang & Friends
Sándor Veress / Anton Arensky / George Enescu
Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 2018-03-12
My first concert encounter with Vilde Frang (*1986, see also Wikipedia) was at a concert in Zurich, on 2015-12-08, where she played chamber music, together with colleagues that she met and worked with at the Lockenhaus Chamber Music Festival. The program back then also featured the Trio per archi by Sandor Veress, which opened this concert. Already in that 2015 concert, she played with the cellist Nicolas Altstaedt (*1982, see also Wikipedia).
After that initial concert encounter, I have also reviewed CD recordings with Vilde Frang—and I have had the pleasure to hear her play at several additional concerts. Most notably, she also led an ensemble performing George Enescu’s Octet (which closed this evening’s concert) in Budapest, and I was very much looking forward to repeating this fascinating experience.
The concert ran under the label “Vilde Frang & Friends”. This time, besides Nicolas Altstaedt, Vilde Frang invited six additional musicians of around her age—musicians that she knows well, and which she has been working with in the past. She obviously is a very well-networked artist!
Venue and Program
The concert was given in the Tonhalle Maag; the only hall in this venue serves both chamber music (and piano recitals), as well as choral and orchestral concerts. This implies that the hall is relatively big for chamber music—however, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the venue was fairly full. This speaks for the excellent reputation of the artists. On top of that, the program started with an “obstacle”, a “tough buddy”, the Trio per archi by Sandor Veress. I vividly remember some of the odd audience reactions in the concert on 2015-12-08. All the more I was pleased to see that this did not keep people from attending this concert.
On top of that, the other two works in this concert aren’t widely know—in particular, the string quartet by Arensky is hardly ever played in concert in our area, while George Enescu’s Octet is apparently about to gain popularity right now—for good reason! Indeed: those who came to this concert “despite” the string trio by Veress (which, after all, is already aged 64!), were in for a real, most memorable treat!
Veress: Trio per archi (1954)
Sándor Veress (1907 – 1992) was a Swiss/Hungarian composer, born in Kolozsvár (now Cluj-Napoca, in Romania). Veress moved to Switzerland in 1949, where he spent the rest of his life (he obtained the Swiss citizenship months prior to his death). His only String Trio (Trio per archi) was completed 1954. I have written about a performance of this composition at a concert in Zurich, also with Vilde Frang and Nicolas Altstaedt playing, on 2015-12-08—see there for more information on the piece. Veress’ Trio per archi features two movements:
- Andante affettuoso
- Allegro molto
I. Andante affettuoso
Not only the piece as a whole could be seen as “difficult”, as a hurdle that one “needs to overcome”—it’s the very beginning of the piece that cause more than just the raising of eyebrows. Veress provokingly presents a 12-tone (dodecaphonic) theme as a sequence of utterly dissonant intervals. However, it paid to listen carefully at how the three artists played these dissonances! We heard these intervals very, very softly, with extreme subtlety and simplicity (no vibrato at all), and with utmost purity.
It may have been a harsh transition from what we hear on a daily basis—but the transition was immediate and complete. It was like stepping into an entirely different musical universe. In my mind, the picture of the antique underworld emerged: in crossing the border, i.e., crossing the river Styx (or Acheron), people, or their souls, had to drink Lethe, the water of the river, which made them forget all of their previous life.
To those who did not instantly reject these sounds, a few seconds my have sufficed to maker those intervals sound less frightening. Maybe, they already started gathering / understanding their particular aesthetics?
After the Shock
After the dodecaphonic theme / introduction, the violin presents a new theme—a melody, actually. This now was with vibrato, expressive, while progressing at a calm, stepping pace. Yes, it was strictly atonal—but still a nice cantilena, and soon, cello and viola joined into what felt like an emotional, expressive conversation between three personalities.
Gradually, the impression of dissonances disappeared, and even dissonant intervals started to feel harmonious. At least for those who did not instantly reject this music. One person did indeed leave the hall—not exactly in the most discreet manner, and exactly when the music was very soft. However, this might also have been a medical or “physiological” emergency.
The dissonant intervals of the beginning remain present in the entire movement. It only returns in full form towards the end of the movement—but by that time it did not feel dissonant to me at all.
Throughout the movement, the three artists demonstrated perfect control of tone quality, emotion, balance / dynamics, down to the finest of flageolets on the muted violin. It’s music in its purest, most abstract form, detached from all the noise and turmoil of our daily life, presented out of one single spirit & mind.
II. Allegro molto
The second movement is completely different: sporty, jazzy, extremely active in its poignant, syncopated rhythms. It felt as if the musicians were playing on the seat’s edge. Pizzicato and staccato in perfect coordination, virtuosic sautillé playing—enthralling altogether.Veress included re-occurrences of the initial dodecaphonic theme in the center of the movement, which nicely closes the form.
The intonation was perfect. In silent moments, the music was so full of tension that one might have heard the proverbial pin drop in the hall!
The Russian composer Anton Stepanovich Arensky (1861 – 1906) wrote his String Quartet No.2 in A minor, op.35 in 1894, at age 33, in memory of Pjotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) who died the year before. This explains the sad, melancholic atmosphere in this piece, the quoting of orthodox liturgic songs, and the use of a theme by Tchaikovsky for the variations in the second movement. It may also explain why Arensky resorted to the unusual setting of a quartet with two cellos (rather than two violins). This leads to darker colors.
Arensky’s music is barely present in concerts in Western Europe. So, for most, this music must have been unknown. The quartet features three movements:
- Variations sur un thème de P. Tschaikowsky. Moderato
- Finale: Andante sostenuto — Allegro moderato — Adagio — Più mosso
The artists from the previous piece were now joined by Jan-Erik Gustafsson (*1970):
- violin: Vilde Frang
- viola: Lawrence Power
- cello: Nicolas Altstaedt, Jan-Erik Gustafsson
The loss of Russia’s most important romantic composer made Arensky use a liturgic song (Thème religieux): the viola is the precentor, the other instruments at a lower pitch) mimic the calm murmuring of the choir. It really makes the listener feel in an orthodox mass. The sad, melancholic atmosphere grows even stronger when the violin starts its mourning song.
Emotions, even vivid, lively moment are interspersed with passages full of longing, melancholy, desire, then again with liturgic singing episodes. The movement is full of rapid, sudden changes in atmosphere, in mood. Towards the end, a cello takes over the melody con sordino, creating a strangely mysterious atmosphere.
The coordination was just perfect, through all these changes in tempo and character. Also, the musicians exhibited perfect sound / dynamic control, down to the finest of ppp.
II. Variations sur un thème de P. Tschaikowsky. Moderato
The central movement is a set of 7 variations and a Coda on the Song No.5, “Legend” (легенда) from P.I. Tchaikovsky’s Sixteen Songs for Children (Шестнадцать песен для детей), op.54. The variations vary from retained up to virtuosic ones, full of momentum—and expectedly, the performance was masterful, flawless.
To me, two variations stood out from the others: variation #4, full of pizzicato playing: this felt like a paraphrase on the Scherzo from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4 in F minor, op.36. Then, there was the Coda with its whispered flageolets, which reminded my of Aeolian harps, and the ppp at the end felt like pure, calm breathing.
III. Finale: Andante sostenuto — Allegro moderato — Adagio — Più mosso
With beginning of the last movement, we were back in the world of religion: Arensky quotes an orthodox Requiem, all longing, melancholic. However, that’s just the first 24 bars.
Thereafter, Arensky appears to throw the listener back into the Vienna classics: the Allegro moderato is based on a popular, Russian song, “Russkaya narodnaya pesnya” (Русская народная песня, “Chant national“). This turns out to be (almost) identical to the Thème russe that Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) used in the third movement (Allegretto) of his String Quartet No.8 in E minor, op.59/2, the second one of the “Razumovsky Quartets”. Even with the fugato texture, Arensky appears to follow Beethoven’s model.
Vilde Frang and her three friends played this with big musical gestures, with lots of emphasis. A second, short “liturgic” episode led into a brilliant, almost furious, very virtuosic ending, full of momentum: enthralling, fascinating!
With the intermission, the program changed to the Romanian composer George Enescu (1881 – 1955). Enescu completed his Octet for Strings in C major, op.7 in 1900. The work, a double quartet (an octet for four violins, two violas and two cellos), features the following four movements:
- Très modéré
- Très fougueux
- Mouvement de Valse bien rythmée
I had the immense pleasure of witnessing a performance of this work—also with Vilde Frang playing the first violin—in the Pesti Vigadó, within the Budapest Festival Academy, on 2017-06-13. This was a “repeat concert performance” with the same lead artist. Therefore, I’ll keep my remarks below short, trying to focus on specifics of this performance (which was just as fascinating and brilliant as the one in June last year).
The ensemble for this performance consisted of the following artists, all with highest qualifications:
- violin: Vilde Frang, Tai Murray (*1982, see also Wikipedia), Gregory Ahss, Rosanne Philippens (*1986, see also Wikipedia)
- viola: Lawrence Power, Lily Francis
- cello: Nicolas Altstaedt, Jan-Erik Gustafsson
Vilde Frang never tried dominating the ensemble—not sound-wise, nor in her function as lead artist: she never put herself into the center—a true, really excellent team player! When her part was pausing, she did not try conducting. In fact, her lead function appeared to be limited to hinting at the beat at the beginning of a movement, and to ensure coordination at the beginnings. For the most part, I even had the impression that the first viola, Lawrence Power as assuming / holding the lead function. Certainly, the beauty of the tone of his instrument was remarkable, outstanding. If there was any instrument whose sound stuck to my mind at the end of the performance, then it’s Lawrence Power’s viola.
In any case, the ensemble did not really need a leader, let alone a conductor: every member contributed equally, shared the same enthusiasm and active playing with the others: fascinating, throughout!
I. Très modéré
Enescu’s music is both simply enthralling, as well as touching. There’s this vast, late-romantic scope of atmospheres: emphatic, highly expressive and virtuosic ensemble playing, down to the most subtle pppp, where a melody almost turned into a mere idea, could just merely be guessed / heard.
There were segments where the music reminded me of Dvořák. Then again, there was this enchanting, short, but dancing melody in the first violin ( and  in the score)—whoever was not touched by this must have a heart of stone!
II. Très fougueux
Very fast, virtuosic, with phenomenal coordination. Très fougeux means “very fiery”, “very impetuous”—definitely what we heard!
A very intense, atmospheric movement, full of deep compassion. There was never even a trace of unrest (or the tempo running away)—up to the point where the emotion gets more intense, builds up. Enescu inserts a short reminiscence from the opening movement, then the scenery appears to darken, with somber clouds appearing…
IV. Mouvement de Valse bien rythmée
… and the last movement offloads the forces of a thunderstorm. Motoric pizzicato drives the music, extremely passionate melody fragments further intensify the movement. Then, there a short reminiscence of past movements, before a short, almost violent Coda closes the work: this music leaves me speechless and out of breath!
In a way, each of the compositions in this concert was a unique and impressive experience of its own kind. Still, in the end, I’m sure that Enescu’s Octet dominated the listener’s mind & memory: it’s music that fascinates, enthralls from the first to the last note!
We were also pleased to note the unpretentious, natural attitude and appearance of every single one of these top-class musicians! Thanks, Vilde Frang, Lawrence Power, Nicolas Altstaedt & all the others for such a rich and lasting experience!
On the photos (right to left): Vilde Frang, Tai Murray, Lily Francis (viola), Rosanne Philippens, Nicolas Altstaedt (cello), Gregory Ahss, Lawrence Power (viola), Jan-Erik Gustavsson (cello)
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. I created the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.