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Mahler Chamber Orchestra happily flirts with Haydn, but Russian composers will make you laugh #hf12

True story. There will be laughed in classical music. At many an orchestral rehearsal, the viola jokes are unrelenting. And in the Concertgebouw, you might catch some mock chuckles. But classical composers are not known for their humour. Except Joseph Haydn.

The Viennese composer brought a cosy witticism to his work here and there. One of his string quartets, part of the series of 'Russian' quartets, even bears the name The Joke. Not that Haydn was referring to any Russian piece of music; he dedicated the work to the Grand Duke Paul I of Russia.

Conversely - a hundred or so years later - there were a number of Russian composers who did refer to Haydn. It is this music that the Mahler Chamber Orchestra brought together in one programme under the title 'A Russian flirtation with Haydn'.



The concert begins with a light appetiser, the Classical Symphony by Sergei Prokofiev. The chamber orchestra, 45 musicians strong, sounds fresh and lucid at the Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ. From the trestle, Pablo Heras-Casado conjures up delightful lifeslaps (even the violas are allowed into the molto vivace frivolous for a while). The conductor builds a subtle orchestral sound, but his rhythm sometimes doesn't really flow. As if he is toiling away at an old water pump.

Comparably 'classical' is the other symphony on the programme, the Ninth by Dmitri Shostakovich, which he wrote at the end of WWII. A moment to celebrate victory, the greatness of his people, à la Beethoven's Ninth. But how different it sounds. Airy turns out clownish, and slowly the feeling creeps up on you that the music is taunting you. (Stalin, of course, called Shostakovich to task.)

Grimmer it is First Cello Concerto By Shostakovich. There is no getting away from the macabre DSCH motif that repeatedly pounds at you. The phenomenal American Alisa Weilerstein, thirty years old, claws her way through the notes like a wildcat. She begins the second movement purring softly, in simplicity; the third equally unadorned, only here desolation overwhelms. Then follows the matchless cadenza and the wait until the cellist once again raspingly cleaves her strings with a rawness that has nothing in the remotest sense to do with a flirtation with Haydn.

After the break, it is laughter with Alfred Schnittke. His Moz-Art à la Haydn derives material from the largely lost score of Mozart's Musik zu einer Pantomime. Fragments of music sound as if they were swirling off a note sheet. Schnittke made stage directions for the musicians as Haydn did in his symphony Farewell. In it, the musicians blow out their candle one by one and leave the stage.

With Schnittke, things are different. Do the musicians emerge as if from a grim shadowy realm? Doesn't that cacophony actually sound like Mozart's hell? The piece ends with two cellists and a double bassist detuning their instruments, while Heras-Casado conducts the silence in vain.

Sometimes a smile frosts your lips, you suddenly realise that around you no one is smiling. Indeed, you see only grimness. This is what Russian music sounds like in the 20th century. With these four pieces last night, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra played Haydn and musical unconcern into the grave. Time for a Requiem of 'classical' classical music.


Schnittkes Moz-Art à la Haydn On Youtube:



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