Echoes from an Empire
Didactic programmes, even the best of them, can be interesting at the expense of pleasure. Karim Said’s programme here only looks didactic. Yes, it gives us a compelling glimpse of a world compounded of confusion, experimentation, strenuous identification, even, in various ways, empire building; but what makes it so compelling, and so hard to define, is its combination of striking variety and artistic cohesion. For all their diversity and multi-nationality, these works make sense together. It’s as though we’re eavesdropping on a lofty conversation, about the nature, and the future, of musical art. In forging a new language, envisaged as the basis of a new culture, Schoenberg, Webern and Berg nevertheless drew significantly on the music of the past, most conspicuously on Wagner, who made Schoenberg possible. Bartók drew still more formatively on music from a more distant past: the treasury of international folk music.
Said treats every work on its own merits, in its own language. The personality and significance of each composer is subtly etched with remarkable skill. The lush, rhapsodic, roiling late-Romanticism of the Berg, full of lavish, even sensuous coloration, and a near-erotic curvature of line, is a world away from the lean, spiky, rhythmic articulations of the Bartók. And the neo-classical proportions and harmonic daring of the Schoenberg remind us that this uncompromising, world-changing genius saw himself not as a revolutionary iconoclast but as part of a continuum from Brahms. A gripping recital, tellingly designed and very impressively played.