Thursday, 1 July 2010

Music We'd Like to Hear I

If I am honest, I can’t say I am particularly enamoured of the violin as a musical instrument. High, shrill, usually played with such ego, it’s not an instrument that I find enjoyable to behold. Still, the first concert of Music We’d Like To Hear, a full concert of music for solo violin, was not something I was going to turn down. It turned out to be a sublime evening which (to an extent) renewed my faith in the instrument and in string instruments in general.

Clemens Merkel (of Montreal’s Bozzini Quartet) played four pieces, beginning with Christian Wolff, and continuing with three works by the concerts organisers: Marcus Trunk, Tim Parkinson and John Lely. Trunk appeared before the concert began and tried to persuade us that this was not an egotistical affair, that Clemens had chosen the pieces of his own bat, and that, besides, it was a 5-year anniversary for the concert series. The music’s quality, however, dispelled any qualms I may have had.

Beginning with Christian Wolff’s piece, The Death of Mother Jones (1977), it became clear that Merkel’s violin tone and the ambience of the Church of St Anne and St Agnes were perfect partners. The violin was warm, resonant, clear, but also evocative and not particularly ‘pretty’. Merkel’s idiosyncratic playing style also came to the fore, and from the very start, this seemed (to me) as everything solo violin music should be. Contemplative, microtonally rich, variously gestured, with excellent weight of expressive idea, willingness to crumble, with some degree of innocence (and a thankful absence of decadent vibrato). Wolff's piece had a conceptual edge linked to folk music; its harmonies showed this directionality, but much of the music was angular and not ‘homely’ at all. Merkel’s playing breathed with absolute integrity, relaxation and concentration.

Next came Markus Trunk’s austere Four Stills (2002/10). Dominated by dwellings on singular tones, this form of composition was suggestive of Scelsi. But beyond that, Merkel’s playing added a distinctly contemplative or reflective element that, while present in Scelsi’s music, is often clothed in mysticism. I was beginning to think that the expression that lay behind this material was humanistic (perhaps the Lutheran church principles were infecting my senses); but nevertheless, I was struck by the wisdom and humility present in Merkel’s playing. The final section of Trunk’s piece was a particular highlight – the bow drawn across the strings half col legno, in tiny, almost inaudible motions. The sound of the violin seemed to melt into the soundscape of St Paul’s – the distant coloured noise of traffic, the occasional ‘crack’ of a sat on pew, the drop of a pencil. The musical sounds contained, and were contained by, the environmental surroundings.

Tim Parkinson’s piece that followed was just as gorgeous, if not more so. Small melodic ideas are given to us, passing us (as Parkinson notes) ‘like slabs on a pavement’. The perfect weight given to these ideas allowed the piece to be contemplative and not drag, yet not speed and ignore the integrity of each idea. Again, Merkel’s beautiful playing carried the musical model to heights.

Finally, John Lely’s piece. Up until this moment, Merkel had played from music stands, organised first on the right, then left, then back. For this piece, he came to the forward and played from memory. This was easy enough, as the piece - The Harmonics of Real Strings (2002) – was made up of a very slow glissando up the A string. A beautifully elegant idea, executed almost perfectly; Merkel allowed the natural fluctuations of the violin to speak, and ignored the Classical mantra of ‘evenness’ (which would have destroyed the work). Using the bridge, Merkel brought out the higher harmonies present in the string (as Lely no doubt indicated to do). At times the shift in pitch was almost imperceptible, but towards the bridge, the pitch had to shift pretty quickly (the distance of the same interval reduces in real terms as one moves up the string). Particularly spectacular was the extremely high tone at the end, and its seamless transition into noise, and that noise’s subsequent fading into environmental sound, the perfect end to a concert of great contemplation, elegance and force. I look forward to the next two!

1 comment:

Tim said...

Really nice review, thanks Lawrence. Hadn't thought of The Harmonics of Real Strings in terms of its relation to classical playing and 'evenness', but I like that idea.