The Lockenhaus Chamber Music Festival is the brainchild of violinist Gidon Kremer. Once called an “anti-festival,” it is more a gathering of friends bound by a love of all things chamber and a certain haphazard brilliance: its constant cancellations, rescheduling, and daunting thematic choices somehow coalesce into a coherent yearly event. And an event, it most certainly is. As Peter Cossé writes in his liner notes: “In Lockenhaus, awareness, the casualness of a holiday atmosphere, a creative commitment bordering on musical revolution, and even instrumental mishaps that result from nightly round-the-clock socializing induce a shimmering acoustic ‘painting’ that the totally immersed chamber music fan views in alternating states of torpor and enlightenment.” This potent energy and the communal spirit that animates it abound in every note. For this five-disc Lockenhaus Edition, Kremer and coproducer Manfred Eicher have chosen from out of literally hundreds of recordings these highlights from the festival’s 30-year history.
Shedryk Children’s Choir, Kiev
Markus Bellheim piano
Christine Rohan ondes Martenot
Khatia Buniatishvili celesta
Andrei Pushkarev vibraphone
Igor Krasovsky percussion
Simon Rattle conductor
Roman Kofman conductor
Recorded 2001 and 2008 at Lockenhaus Festival
Engineer: Peter Laenger
The Metamorphosen of Richard Strauss (1864-1949) makes for a formidable opener. This study in strings was dedicated to the great Paul Sacher and penned as the doors of the Second World War were closing. In light of its circumstances, one can hardly resist reading an almost Wagnerian shade of grey into its opening gestures, tinged as they are with a certain disillusionment with reality. The music is constantly finding itself through a blurring of conflict and resolution. It is a hall of mirrors where self-awareness is an understatement, in which every vague pizzicato turns the mirrors to new angles. The solo instruments don’t so much arise out of this swirling mass as glint off them. The double bass lines are especially overwhelming, while the violin becomes a looping sentiment curled ever so gently around the throat of trauma. It is as if a single molten thread were running through it, our vision of it but one of countless beads strung along its path. It finds its peace in little dissonances, casting a critical eye on platitudes, and in that way one finds perhaps only in Schubert recedes into the foreground. It is the flow not of water, but of the algae that visualizes the current’s direction. Lovingly played by the Kremerata Baltica and conducted by Simon Rattle, this performance shows Rattle’s eclectic talents in the raw, turning over as he does the sweltering underbelly of this piece. He is an ideal choice, for he knows how to make the lush feel like a drop in the bucket. He sees what the music nests itself in and works his baton around and through every twig. One of ECM’s finest live recordings.
Although Olivier Messiaen (1909-1992) composed his Trois petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine not long before Strauss’s Metamorphosen, its register could hardly be more different. Where the latter is a meditation on memorial, Messiaen’s aural triptych is an unfolding flower of light. The synaesthetic Frenchman has brought a profound imagination into palpable dimensions here. A wistful combination of piano, strings, and women’s voices opens the first liturgy, each the side to a nebulous triangle of forces. The agitations at the keyboard are like a broken crystal, drawing its light from vocal lamentations. The violin seems to rise with a spindly charm that is as alluring as it is self-destructive. We get the internal musings of an ondes Martenot, as well as various percussive accents falling like stardust in the religious imagination. In the second liturgy, jubilation quickly turns into a discomforting beauty, the piano jumping from a subterranean crawl to unmarked flight in but a fluttering of the keys. The third unravels a chant into its constituent lines, each an iridescent tether to sentiments performed rather than spoken. Passages of transcendence sit somehow comfortably alongside dips into magma, ending in a brushstroke of heavenly choirs.
Discs 2/3 (originally Vols 1 & 2, ECM New Series 1304/05)
Gidon Kremer violin
Eduard Brunner clarinet
Oleg Maisenberg piano
Irena Grafenauer harp
Christine Whittlesey soprano
Ursula Holliger harp
Kammerorchester der Jungen Deutschen Philharmonie
Heinz Holliger conductor
Recorded 1984, 1981, and 1982 by Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF)
Engineers: Roland Pulzer and Martin Frobeen
Remix and editing: Martin Wieland
If the first disc was an introduction, then the Quintet in f minor for piano and strings by César Franck (1822-1890) is a rich first chapter. From the opening violin proclamation we are plunged headfirst into the depths of Romanticism proper: the piano as heartbeat, the strings as lifeblood. It is a plaintive world, at once cloudy and broken by light, unnamable except through sound. The piano vies for constant resolution, knowingly situated at the center of an unsolvable debate, sometimes leaping and sometimes falling back into the despair that first gave it meaning. As we tread softly into the distance of the second movement, the young Lukas Hagen displays profound versatility with his clarity of tone and burrowing vibrato. As the central melody emerges into arid light, our ears come into focus as might a pair of eyes. The piano’s high note phrases are like droplets laddering down leaves on a solitary tree. The third movement lays down an almost Philip Glassean ostinato in the strings develops with fractured intensity. The piano promises hope, but settles altruistically into shadow, where pizzicati lurk like a guitar in Death’s hands.
So begins a lush pairing of French and Slavonic works, which offers dramaturgical insight into the festival’s vibrant mentality. The former side of things continues with a curious piece by André Caplet (1878-1925), a composer whose orchestrations of the works of Claude Debussy outshone his own musical visibility. Based on Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” Conte phantastique sounds like Maurice Ravel’s Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé turned into an opera, stripped of voices, and condensed into a string quartet. Add to this the aquatic brilliance of Ursula Holliger on harp, and you get a truly distinct experience. Holliger plays pianistically and extracts a profound power from her instrument. The music vacillates between the programmatic and the omniscient. Strings jumble together as the masquerade intensifies, the harp descending like Prospero in gracious intervention. A knock interrupts the action, prompting glassine whispers from the violins. Agitation mounts, only to flutter its eyelids for the last time.
Two songs from “Fiançailles pour rire” make for a fine entry from Francis Poulenc (1899-1963). These somber settings grab our attention with their potency. With empathetic effect, soprano Christine Whittlesey shapes every note with locative color. Her dynamics fall like ripe fruit from a tree of implication, caught in the capable hands of pianist Robert Levin. Every last shred of hope is laced with painterly melancholy, leaving only scars to show for its passing.
Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) was an intensely confessional composer, and nowhere more so than in his string quartets, of which we get his first. From the urgent suggestions and biting interjections of the opening movement to the enigmatic veil of the fourth, we are pulled through a diorama of illusory scenery. Clemens Hagen is especially brilliant here, his cello lighting the way through a fog of folk tales, while second violinist Annette Bik provides moments of rhythmic brilliance. The Quartet No. 1 is a blind spot in the Janáček oeuvre. We accept its disorienting illusions without fear of what lies behind them. We hear carriages drawn by spooked horses, the cries of a forlorn father, the hunting calls of an aristocracy in decline. Thus populated by our imaginations, the music brings us closer to our own internal dramas.
After such inescapable opacities, the neoclassical clarity of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) comes as a pleasant surprise. Scored for violin, clarinet and piano, these three dances from L’Histoire de Soldat show the composer at an evocative peak. Kremer brings characteristic fire to every nuance. His sonorous gypsy acrobatics are a joy to behold. Clarinetist Eduard Brunner peeks in for the opening Tango, offering constructive support. The beautifully syncopated Waltz holds to its core with enthusiasm, Aloys Kontarsky’s occasional high notes adding confectionary flavor. The final Ragtime brings a mounting complexity to these brief but vivacious utterances.
An enthralling performance of Stravinsky’s Concerto in D follows. Under the passionate direction of Heinz Holliger, the Kammerorchester der Jungen Deutschen Philharmonie springs to life with the opening pizzicato. Noticeable idiosyncrasies abound, such as a strikingly textured moment when the inside of piano is plucked for added effect during the Vivace. The flexibility of the second movement is intensified in hands of such bright young musicians, dancing lithely between pathos and fleeting awareness. Plunked double bass accents punctuate every moment of this graceful interlude. The final movement displays an astute sense of division, especially in the solo cello and its immediate refraction. These musicians bring an almost manic sense of multiplicity to music that is already beyond alive.
Who better to end this portion with than Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)? A far cry from the monochromatic intensities of his quartets, the wonderfully Mozartean waltzes for flute, clarinet, and piano glisten with salon-like ebullience. The interplay between Brunner and flutist Irena Grafenauer makes for a clever listening experience. The second waltz is especially alluring in its ascending harmonies, its last flutters eliciting audible smiles from the audience.
The Two pieces for String Octet op. 11 comprise a more complicated diptych. After a dense opening statement in the Prelude, the lower strings spread out as violins dissolve like mist in the dawn. We get a hint of later Shostakovich in the Più mosso. Its mature balance of aggression and delicacy betrays a forward-looking mind. The final passages writhe in agitated beauty. A solo cello draws a long energetic line, accompanied by pizzicati and distant calls. More dissonant pairings and threats of a fall that never materializes draw us into a tensely mystical finish.
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Edition Lockenhaus Vol. 3 is excluded from this set (you can see my full review of it here).
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Discs 4/5 (originally Vols. 4 & 5, ECM New Series 1347/48)
Gidon Kremer violin
Thomas Zehetmair violin
Yuzuko Horigome violin
Philip Hirschhorn violin
Kim Kashkashian viola
Nobuko Imai viola
Veronika Hagen viola
Boris Pergamentschikow violoncello
David Geringas violoncello
Julius Berger violoncello
Thomas Demenga violoncello
James Tocco piano
Recorded Lockenhaus Festival 1985 and 1986
Engineers: Peter Laenger, Andreas Neubronner, and Stephan Schellmann
Although one is wont to paint a morose picture of Shostakovich, continues our melodic bridge into the final portion of the set, I think we can hear in these late string quartets especially that within him beat a vibrant heart of passion. Music cannot have been for him so much of an escape as it was simply a voice. We need only cast a careful ear toward the String Quartet No. 14 op. 142 to hear its vibrancy. The distorted jig that works out of the opening crawl is something of an achievement on paper and at the bow. David Geringas at the cello proves to be the ever-present anchor, guiding the quartet as a whole through a variety of registers—from gentle to ecstatic and back again. In the Adagio, his strings throb like ventricles. The more we listen to its words, the less we know of their origins. It is as if they have reached us only light years later, like a star long dead yet still visible. The cello cuts these shadows into a string of glassy shards in the final Allegretto, of which the violins are ecstatic reflections. This movement is more porous and waves its gossamer threads as might a plant to attract insects. Its intimate yet vast cross-pollination achieves something close to transcendence before taking its unnoticed leap into fantasies.
The String Quartet No. 13 op. 138, on the other hand, is a single-movement opus in twenty-two and a half minutes. Its gorgeous beginning unrolls a flat landscape along which a violin comes hopping, not unlike a creature from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Others take up the call in a widening circle of light, launching into a spiral of percussive attacks (which in this performance never come across as declamatory but as clarity incarnate). The congregation disperses as quickly as it came together, leaving solitary voices, though distant, to unknowingly harmonize. And the landscape of mourning through which we have slogged opens itself to a beam of light in the violins, reminding us that sometimes music matters only where it ends.
The Two Movements for String Quartet add yet another hue. These are more majestic and deftly spun through a slow-motion slalom course of light and dark. The higher and lower strings achieve delicate mutuality, seesawing on a fulcrum of potent stillness.
Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), a forgotten ideologue-in-arms of Shostokovich, was an intensely dynamic composer. His music lies somewhere between the Russian and Górecki, and provides a fitting cap to an altogether fascinating Lockenhaus portrait. After an exultant introduction, his opus 45 Sextet wanders varicose paths with trembling caution. The violins shimmer like the surface of a moonlit pond in the second movement, under which glide the cello and viola, each an electric eel that lights up the night. In the chambers of this heart, the only blood is a silence that hangs from the trees, gripped like a branch beneath an owl’s talons. Some stellar pizzicato passages in the third movement add hope to our dreams, puncturing the backdrop until it resembles an artificial sky. The final movement is a fractured look back on the first three, a heavy and romantic flower whose weight barely bends the stem, its desires never spoken louder than a whisper.
A high energy and passionate execution make the Duo for Violin and Cello a true highlight of the entire set. Philip Hirschhorn, along with Geringas, navigates a landscape of varying tensions, moving from the snaking opening lines to crunchier motives for a broad, almost orchestral palette. The piece is always flowing in spite of its sometimes-abrupt movements, and is a testament to Schulhoff’s effervescent spirit. Yet it is in the slower passages where we most hear Shostakovich, lingering like a spirit overcoming limitations of time and space.
Pianist James Tocco turns out another star performance the Cinq Études de Jazz op. 58. These inventive pieces draw more upon the rhythmic than melodic colors of the genre. The result is an exposition that is not only delightful fun, but also one that provides foiled insight (especially in the second etude) into composers like Satie and Poulenc who were keyed into popular music idioms. The third etude has the majesty of a Gershwin yet the bleeding colors of the French impressionists, while the fourth is a romp and a cascade rolled into one, leaving the fifth to return full circle with the verve of the first, drawing a lively signature on which to end.
In an interview, Kremer remarks on the difficulties that inevitably arise in putting together such a festival. Quintessential are the tense circumstances surrounding the Franck Quintet, which apparently failed to come together to the musicians’ satisfaction during rehearsals. In spite of this, they managed to pull off one of the most lauded performances of that year (1984). Such is the spontaneity that Lockenhaus creates, encourages, and promotes. This is an exciting limited edition for reasons too numerous to list in full. Not least among them is the fact that the original recordings marked the debut of New Series stars Eduard Brunner, Thomas Zehetmair, Heinz Holliger, and Robert Levin. It is a stream-of-consciousness narrative linked in the fluidity of real-time recollection, the immediacy of which is only heightened by the superb musicianship and live recording. This treasure trove belongs on your shelf.