Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Friday, July 29, 2016

In the middle of it

In an illuminating essay that's part of the liner notes for this new Genuin double CD, the members of the Asasello Quartett come up with an analogy for their involvement with Schoenberg's four great quartets:
Immersion is actually a pretty good word for it. The work on the Schoenberg string quartets was not unlike scuba diving: stay calm and breathe steadily as you move along the reefs, marveling at the colorful world-in-miniature. The little coral trees with tiny fish flitting through their branches; then turn your head to gaze into endless blue as a majestic Napoleon fish glides by. Microcosm/macrocosm, it is all happening at once and there is too much of everything because that is how life is, and you feel you could burst with joy and passion but you manage to keep your cool, maintain the balance, stay on top of things as you store the impressions for always. You resurface knowing you would been down there as a guest; you have “felt the force”, seen the indescribable beauty, and are thankful for having been a part of it for a short while. Nature being what it is, no matter how often you repeat the dive, it is always slightly new and different. The wonder, however, remains unabated. Luckily, so does the awe: in deep waters any inattention or recklessness is hazardous.
I thought immediately of a favourite passage in John Eliot Gardner's great book about Bach, Music in the Castle of Heaven:
Imagine ... what it feels like to stand chest-deep in the ocean, waiting to snorkel. What you see are the sparse physical features visible to the naked eye: the shore, the horizon, the surface of the sea, maybe a boat or two, and perhaps the bleached outline of fish or coral just below, but not much else. Then you don your mask and lower yourself into the water. Immediately you enter a separate, magical world of myriad tints and vibrant colours, the subtle movement of passing shoals, the waving of sea anemones and coral – a vivid but wholly different reality. To me this is akin to the experience and shock of performing Bach’s music – the way it exposes to you its brilliant colour spectrum, its sharpness of contour, its harmonic depth, and the essential fluidity of its movement and underlying rhythm. Above water there is dull quotidian noise; below the surface is the magical world of Bach’s musical sounds. But even once the performance is over and the music has melted back into the silence from which it began, we are still left with the transporting impact of the experience, which lingers in the memory. 
That these two descriptions should be so similar is a sign that the shared experience of music-making can have deep connections. That Gardner's magical Bach experience should be so similar to that of the young musicians of the Asasello Quartett belies the common perception of Schoenberg as a systematic destroyer and bringer of what Max Weber called "the distinctive injury of modernity: disenchantment (Entzauberung)". Of course there is magic in this music, and not only in the richly romantic 1st quartet, which reportedly intrigued but puzzled Mahler. More importantly, these performances are full of this magic. This is emphasized by their presentation of the quartets in reverse chronological order, rather than a more conventional move from the richly neo-romantic to the revolutionary systematic, to the cerebral and ascetic style of Schoenberg's maturity. As Gardner says, “ order to present it with full belief and conviction, I try to convey what it feels like to be in the middle of it.” With this important project the Asasello Quartet and soprano Eva Resch have pulled that off.

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