Sol Gabetta, pictured
Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga
Iain Farrington’s six-minute BBC commission ‘opening’ this year’s stay-away/archive Proms – Beethoveniana: a conductor-less decomposition “created with over 300 musicians from the five BBC Orchestras and the BBC Singers in lockdown and two dancers in a bubble” – served to remind, should reminding be necessary, of Britain’s calamitous standing in the current mire. Choreographically trendy, technologically capable, but otherwise worthless, footage of Henry Wood adding insult to injury, it was a foolhardy venture, a massacre as illiterate and ill-conceived as Jules Buckley, ex-Guildhall bright boy, telling us on Radio 3 forty-eight hours later that Sibelius’s 1899 Finlandia was written as a protest against the Soviet Union eighteen years on (thanks to Steven Isserlis for the tweet).
In my time at Radio 3 – the William Glock era of Deryck Cooke, Michael Howard, Robert Simpson, Hans Keller, Basil Lam, Leo Black, Robert Layton, Alan Walker, Eleanor Warren – the since-disbanded Music Division, like the Corporation, was about discernment, class, and critical acumen, a university faculty in essence. Imaginative producers generated bold initiatives – Simpson’s Innocent Ear, Keller’s Functional Analysis, Lam pioneering early-music, Layton and the Scandinavians, Walker and the nineteenth-century (pianists have never had the same platform since he left fifty years ago), the wider flowering, under Keller and Glock (a Schnabel man in pre-war Berlin), of Boulez, Stockhausen, the Soviet samizdat vanguard, Alfred Brendel … Fine thinkers, long gone, what are we left with? Committees of rudderless lackeys using the licence fee to nightmare up Beethoveniana. “Watch Beethoven’s nine symphonies stunningly reimagined”? No thank you.
Needing comfort, my weekend surfing took me to the Hochrhein between Lake Constance and Basel. To Olsberg, a picturesque Swiss village with a population of less than five-hundred. Growing originally out of a 13th-century Cistercian convent, Hortus Dei, the Garden of God, the present Klosterkirche was inaugurated in 1453 and renovated between 1971 and 1981. It’s an intimate place where atmosphere, acoustic and art are miraculously the entwined fruit of the other.
Here Sol Gabetta runs her midsummer Solsberg Festival, gathering about her a circle of friends to make music that’s rarely anything but sublime. Covid-19 ensured that this year, the fifteenth running, didn’t happen. Nothing big planned (just ten concerts) but with a scheduled line-up of artists as enticing as in earlier years, the intended pianists including Yulianna Avdeeva, Kristian Bezuidenhout and Alexei Volodin, along with the Hagen Quartet, Voces8 and the Basel Chamber Orchestra. The promise of great chemistry in great masterworks – Schubert’s String Quintet with Gabetta and the Hagen not least. Cancelled. A determined force, Gabetta isn’t one to give in. Somehow, during the last days of June, she managed, phoenix-like, to put together two fund-raising recitals – the resultant 4K videos, supremely filmed and recorded (Johannes Bachmann, camera, Joël Cormier, sound), drawing high viewing figures – more than 135,000 at the time of writing. Conjured seemingly out of nowhere, her guests were the clarinettist Sabine Meyer, and the pianist Seong-Jin Cho, winner of the 2015 International Chopin Competition. With Beethoven all the way, soothing the soul, firing one’s fantasy, stirring the pulse, an encounter unlikely to disappoint was on the cards.
Friday, June 26 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4O1f-X0Fllc&t=12s Two “Grand Trios” for clarinet, cello and piano. The B-flat, Opus 11, and E-flat, Opus 38, arranged after the Septet (published in 1798 and 1805 respectively). First decade Viennese Beethoven. The opening unisons of Opus 11, the ensuing tension, debate and aria, left no doubt as to what we were in for. Meyer spun a liquid mezzo tapestry. Gabetta turned melody, accompaniment and harmony notes into pointed, vibrant characters in the drama, taking us from drawing-room to concert stage to opera house. Attacking, caressing, loving her instrument (a 1730 Matteo Goffriller), the ordinary doesn’t come into her vocabulary. Transitioning from Romantic pianist to Classical ensemble player, Seong-Jin Cho proved ideally up to the task. Whether inspired to lift his game by Meyer and Gabetta (and who wouldn’t be) or by a number of solo and Concerto Beethoven outings in recent seasons, including working with his compatriot Myung-whun Chung, he provided full-throated support, urgent to every gradation – private, public, athletic, dreaming. The cadenza flourishes glittered, the trills (a strength of his) rang like so many glass bells in mountain air, the ‘orchestral’ moments flowered from ‘woodwind’ allusion to tutti assertion. Despite seemingly not holding back, his Steinway D at full stick, he never once misjudged or unsettled the balance. Cello first, then clarinet followed by piano, each speaking with placed clarity and sweetness of tone, the timeless slow movement of Opus 11 – from the same fields that yielded the Adagio of the ‘Spring’ Sonata – touched a gran espressione poetry of breathtaking wonderment.
Correspondingly the second movement of Opus 38, a profound blend of solo, duo and trio incident, with one extraordinarily gauged nuance, the pianissimo at letter Q, Gabetta beginning her crescendo octave Gs earlier than marked, taking the music to a blaze of C-major gloire, nearer fortissimo than fortepiano. Brucknerian. The modest little Minuet acquired a tavern-like ruggedness, Gabetta’s staccato quavers bitingly forward, bow bouncing off strings, anticipating the triplets to come in the Trio section (cello, clarinet). From charmed beginnings to bravura swagger, the Variations personified conversation, exchange and teasing, here courteous, there gruff, every dot and slur telling. The Scherzo, a real Allegro vivace, swept all before it, Beethoven in swarthy mood yet open to lyrical repose (the central paragraphs, pulled back, underlining the point). The Finale burbled and boiled, the reins held tight, cascades of brilliance tumbling rampantly – music originally for the queen of Hungary and Bohemia.
Sunday, June 28 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aWSXFUiDPDQ&t=307s The elation of players without limitation making music without end is the Solsberg message. High on adrenalin and stance, Gabetta’s A-major Cello Sonata, Opus 69 (published 1809), was an emotionally charged, symphonically polarised display, the argument tough, the delivery aristocratic. Her darkly grained solo opening possessed a remarkable basso profundo quality, life itself depending on the perfection and weighting of each interval. The ensuing development, post-Fidelio, metamorphosed into a cauldron of terrifying fortissimo theatre, she and Cho riding Beethoven’s fury as one. No “Sonata per il Clavicembalo con Violoncello” convention here, more a Shakespearean scena for two stentorian actors. Comedic banter, the art of phrase-off, songs for striding, lightness and power from Cho, mellowed pizzicatos from Gabetta, veined the Scherzo. In spirit somewhere between the Waldstein, Appassionata and Seventh Symphony Finales, the closing Allegro vivace – fluid in its tempo adjustments, thrilling at every turn, the semiquaver work disciplined, the staccatos Baroque short – spiralled into a performance of a greatness one doesn’t meet so often, Thomas Mann’s “manifestation of the highest energy … almost the definition of God” spread before one.
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