Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Fractional review

I used to review whole concerts, recently half concerts or performances, for a variety of reasons - today's review of a quarter concert is brought to you courtesy of a clash of appointments and Vilnius city council's traffic management - next time I'll take the bike.

So it was Stein Skjervold (baritone), Mindaugas Backus (cello) and Rokas Zubovas (piano) who at the end of their concert in the Tolerance Centre of the Jewish State Museum performed Lori Laitman's 'The seed of dreams', which followed Brahms' 'Vier ernste Gesaenge', Schumann's Fantasiestuecke and Victor Ullmann's 'Der Mensch und sein Tag'. I would have loved to have heard the Fantasiestuecke on the cello, for which they were written - have probably heard them more often on the viola, most recently in a slightly challenged transcription by Michael Kugel (unexpected drops of an octave where the strings were too short, sort of thing).

Caught the end of Ullmann's piece, which he had written in Terezin. It consists of twelve short verses; the end is very contemplative and - understandably - full of longing for death. The music has a flavour of Schoenbergian angst and anguish, and was performed beautifully by Skjervold and Zubovas.

Lori Laitmann's 'Seed of Dreams' was a very different kettle of (gefilte?) fish. I must admit that when a composer calls their site 'artsongs' it puts my back up. I would have thought that was for other people to decide whether someone's songs are art or not. And how, pray, would you define an 'art'song, as opposed to other songs? Well, all right then, it ain't punk, funk or blues.

I wonder what made her pick up these texts, by Abraham Sutzkever, a Vilnius ghetto survivor (now aged about 95). He wrote these in mostly during his time in the ghetto. It would have been nice to have had the words in the original language, whichever that might be - yiddish? As you would expect, the words are harrowing, about death, the transports, a dying child, and so on. The music is generally quite American. Rather oddly, one of the five songs starts with a slightly distorted habanera, and then sidles off into a yiddish song 'Unter dayne vayse shtern' which, it seems, needs to be shot through at a rate of knots (Senderovas gives this rather a better treatment in his Ghetto soundtrack). Another song had a rather cliched cello line echoing the voice.

But never mind. Stein Skjervold has a wonderful voice and beautiful clear diction, which really made a difference to these very wordy songs. Why does he not get on other stages in Vilnius - is it a closed shop? All three performers put this music together very well.

The encore was a Schubert song with piano and cello. Could not make out the announcement - something to do with 'Ruhe' - and cannot find it on the internet. Was it the way Schubert wrote it, or was it arranged for this occasion with the cello picking up a verse or two? Not sure. Strangely, here I thought we had a conflict between the German language, the 'Ruhe' (peace) and the potentially beautifully singing tones of the cello. The words were produced a bit glottally (like the German language) whereas they could have been more joined to each other in a way that a cello bow can turn without hearing the join. Hence the cello also had to sound glottal when its turn finally came. But it was a beautiful piece with which to end the concert.

A local composer afterwards said the nicest things to Skjervold, about the interesting concert programme, the emotion in the singing and the difficult theme they had picked. Since he had told me the same things before he went off to see the performers he was not just being polite. And boy, can he be scathing if he wants to be. Welldone!


Anonymous said...

The last song was Litanei (auf das Fest Aller Seelen). And, yes, Schubert never wrote a cello part there.. But we thought it good to end without words! Ah! It is hard to keep the legato at the end of a loong concert ;) S