Last time I wrote about the Argento Ensemble, they were taking their audience on a tour of contemporary French composers. On January 31st at Merkin, they extended their range a century and moved a bit northwest. This new program, entitled “Expressionism in Motion,” traced the legacy of Austro-Germanic Expressionism from Wagner and Schoenberg through Stockhausen to Wolfgang Rihm and Georg Friedrich Haas.
Interestingly, Argento chose not to present the works in order of age. Rather, they arranged the pieces in order of increasing instrumental forces. The concert, then, began in the chronological middle with Stockhausen’s “Der Kleine Harlekin” from 1975. “Der Kleine Harlekin,” for solo clarinet, is one of Stockhausen’s dance pieces, and it’s extracted from his larger work Harlekin. I’ve seen several of these dance pieces in score form, but never in performance. On that basis, I was intrigued, but a little worried, to see “Kleine Harlekin” on the bill. On the page, it’s hard not to suspect that Stockhausen’s eccentricity pushes these works over the top. Fortunately, clarinetist Carol McGonnell offered me some immediate reassurance by forsaking the mutli-colored unitards that Stockhausen’s preferred clarinetist, Suzanne Stephens, favors. My initial impression held true once the music started; the work and its performance proved delightful. The motions that Stockhausen calls for cleverly (and often humorously) inflect the equally playful, almost jazzy clarinet lines. About halfway through the piece I discovered that the visual elements had moved to the foreground for me (in a good way). My only complaint is that Argento presented the work in one of its alternate versions – with a drum accompanying the clarinet. The drum obscured many of the sounds of McGonnell’s footsteps, which, as Stockhausen points out in his notes, are central to the piece. In fact, I believe that in Stockhausen’s proposed alternate version the drum is included in lieu of the clarinetist’s dancing (I hope Argento and McGonnell will forgive me if that’s wrong).
After “Der Kleine Harlekin,” Argento departed briefly from the evening’s theme. January 31st also marked the release of Argento’s first CD, Winter Fragments – a selection of pieces by Tristan Murail. To mark the occasion, they inserted Murail’s “Feuilles à travers les cloches” for flute, violin, cello, and piano. The piece is a something of a spectral etude. It dwells for its duration on a bell-like sound produced by resonant piano chords and violin pizzicato with the flute and cello responding to each toll. Its most significant developments are a jump from the piano’s highest register to its lowest followed shortly by a return the high keys. In its stillness, the piece contrasted richly with the titular “motion” of the rest of the program. Look for a review of Winter Fragments soon.
Argento makes a point of championing living European composers, and the next two works furthered that agenda. The ensemble offered the U.S. premieres of Georg Friedrich Haas’ “Nach Ruf…ent-gleitend…” and Wolfgang Rihm’s “Chiffre VI.” Both works deserve repeated performances. The Haas, for wind and string sextet, came first and transitioned nicely out of the Murail by opening with high, clustered microtones. However, the clusters soon fell to the background as the viola entered with a line that, though also microtonal, drank deeply from Romantic waters. This entrance signaled things to come as microtones calmed into just-intonation harmonies. The microtones and skillful orchestration made for a rich, undulating music that was pierced by some moments of particular urgency.
Rihm’s “Chiffre VI” came next. In the work, Rihm pits two violins, viola, and cello in sonic struggle against clarinet, contrabassoon, and horn with the contrabass acting as a double agent. The piece is fierce and ferocious, and, for my money, it conjured up Expressionism more clearly than anything else on the bill. “Chiffre VI” lasts only five or six minutes, but it manages to both fly by and feel like it must’ve been much longer. I’m looking forward to tracking down the other seven pieces of the cycle.
After intermission, Argento presented the program’s two oldest and largest pieces. First came Wagner’s “Vorspiel und Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde as arranged for 15 instruments by Argento’s multi-talented general manager, Kimmy Szeto. Reducing the forces of such a war horse is always a risk, but Szeto and Argento made it work. As the program notes suggested, the chamber orchestra arrangement did highlight the intimacy of the piece. Individual lines really sung, and only in a few, fleeting passages did I miss the full orchestra.
The 15-instrument arrangement of the “Vorspiel und Liebestod” matched its forces with the next piece, Schoenberg’s “Kammersymmphonie No. 1” (presented in its original form). This piece (with which Schoenberg may have coined the ‘Chamber Symphony’ designation) paints a picture of a composer in transition. Though tonal in the long term, Schoenberg undercuts the E-major tonality with whole-tone elements, augmented triads, and quartal harmonies. Schoenberg is clearly straining against both traditional harmony and Wagner’s extension of it. The roots of Expressionism, if not its flowers, are visible here. Argento, again, performed the work skillfully; even its thorniest moments retained a satisfying openness.
All-in-all, the night was another well-performed and well-programmed concert by Argento. For those of you in L.A. the program will be repeated at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on February 15th at 8:00. And keep an eye out for my review of Argento’s new CD on the Reviews page soon.