Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

Robin Holloway at 60
Wigmore Hall 4 October 2003

Discussion: Robin Holloway with Paul Driver

Holloway: Fantasy-Pieces (1971) with Schumann's Liederkreis Op.24 embedded
Spring Music for flute, harp and string quartet (2003 - first performance)

The Nash Ensemble/Lionel Friend
Toby Spence (tenor)


Pre-concert talks often disappoint and add little to programme notes. Robin Holloway, resplendent in a white suit soon after the end of the heat-wave, was articulate and interesting, talking about the genesis of his youthful infatuation with Schumann, and introducing a more austere new work, its frugality (though not its length) a homage to Howard Skempton.

He told us that in his late 20s he sought a way out of the prevailing 'dry modernism' and Schumann was his route to re-introducing warmth and expression into his music, which he related to the 'devouring' stance of the cubists, but contrasting with their transformation of 'material without resonance'. Schumann's songs, 'everyone's favourites' were 'emotional dynamite' in his ground breaking Scenes from Schumann of 1970, orchestral paraphrases which created a great stir. Its successor Fantasy-Pieces, revived tonight, had a didactic intent in the embedding of the (then) lesser known Op 24 songs within the chamber orchestral transformations and elaborations of this highly affective material. Paul Driver likened it to Keller's 'functional analysis'. Holloway emphasised that his attitude and approach remained modernistic, the Fantasy Pieces going 'beyond quotation'. Driver remarked how replete in quotation is Holloway's music, outdoing Berio's Sinfonia in the Second Concerto for Orchestra; Holloway riposted that his way is 'quotation of styles'.

Under Lionel Friend's direction, The Nash Ensemble made a fine, rich sound in the ideal acoustic of Wigmore Hall, a rich tapestry of highly expressive music. But the precise allusions to elements of the Schumann songs were likely to have eluded listeners who did not know them inside out (the lights were dimmed, making it almost impossible to follow the texts provided for the complete cycle as given by Toby Spence and Ian Brown).

More problematic was Spring Music, the unexpectedly (over)extended new work for flute, harp and string quartet. Although there was no keyboard, Holloway chose a basic conceit of limiting himself mainly to what would be on the piano (though not on the harpsichord) 'white notes', producing a bland texture not conspicuously ruffled by the single 'poisonous black notes' which he contrived to drop into each of the numerous sections, which play continuously for some 35 minutes.

If its bland surface was compromised with 'poison', the doses were homeopathic. It reminded me how my piano teacher sought to make me feel and convey how amazingly outlandish the harmonies in little pieces by Grieg would have seemed when new. I fear I was not alone in failing to spot each of Holloway's interpolated 'black' notes, nor in finding the procession of pastoral and jauntily rhythmic sections far too many.

By the end of Spring Music the concert had filled a full two hours and (at my first return to a concert hall after two months hospitalised and then housebound with a broken leg) was not minded to hear Schumann's piano quintet so late. The whole concert can, however, be heard on Radio 3 on Tuesday 7 October.

The contradictions in Schumann's personality have also fascinated Wolfgang Rihm, and I append a notice of the Trio Jean Paul at Lucerne. Their recording of Schumann's piano trios and Rihm's Strange Scenes (Ars Musici AM 1241-2) is most highly recommended; Holloway's Fantasy-Pieces (1971) with Schumann's Liederkreis Op.24 is more readily available, on Hyperion CDA66930.

Trio Jean Paul at Lucerne Festival (Schumann, Rihm)

- - Jean Paul's novels were devoured by the teen age Schumann, who aspired to follow him as a poet and writer, but was drawn instead to express his feelings in music. This German piano trio, billed in Lucerne as debutants, proved to be a well established group of experienced recitalists and recording artists in their mid thirties, who had been together for over a decade and made a special study of the piano trios of Schumann.

The Trio Jean Paul introduced themselves at the modern Lukaskirche with Haydn's F minor trio Hob. XV/26, composed in the mid 1790s, around the same time that Beethoven was emancipating the violin and cello in his revolutionary Op.1 trios, the first with completely independent parts for the three instruments. The extraordinary richness of the music of Haydn's piano trios remained unappreciated until the latter part of the last century; because the strings mainly double the piano - they were virtually unplayed professionally during my youth. The Jean Pauls staked their claim to attention immediately, with the heightened expressiveness which is their trademark style, a wide dynamic range, and no respectful reticence from the accompanying string players. The resonant hall was a little probematic for the Haydn - the fluent pianist might better have chosen for that venue a slightly less legato articulation - but Wolfgang Rihm's Fremde Scene II and Schumann's Op. 80 trio in F major were perfectly judged, occasionally (and quite properly) 'over the top', with the whole audience in the palm of their hands, hanging on every phrase and musical gesture. - -

Rihm has written Fremde Blätter (über Robert Schumann), an essay about the strange, sometimes uncomfortably different and wayward nature of Schumann's music, which embraces fantasy rather than complying with academic prescriptions. Extracts from it are included in the exemplary presentation of a fascinating Ars Musici double CD with all the Schumann trios, juxtaposed with Rihm’s Strange Scenes I-III (1982-84), three Essays for piano trio composed in tribute to Schumann. Rihm invents a personal portrait of Schumann and his strange, disordered sound, but without any direct quotations from his 'strange, hysterical pictures' in which 'something is not right'. The trio's pianist, Echart Heiligers, researched the Schumann manuscripts and found that many roughnesses and more extreme dynamics had been 'smoothed over' in the printed edition. They have reclaimed some of those: 'since no source can be found in which Schumann expressly rejects his original version, we decided in favour of it for musical reasons'. That accords with present day interest in and performance of original pre-publication versions (e.g. Sibelius’ violin concerto, Bruckner’s symphonies) and 'works in progress' (Boulez and Rihm). Their choice of these variants fits like a glove the very individual and personal style of playing developed by this trio.

This was an outstanding recital; do try to catch them on tour and explore their CDs. The Trio Jean Paul's 1999 Schumann/Rihm recording [Ars Musici AM 1241-2] is unique and a clear priority; an essential purchase for anyone interest in either composer or both - as here juxtaposed, each illuminating the other. - - (PGW in Seen&Heard)

ROBIN HOLLOWAY's Violin Concerto and Horn Concerto will be released on NMC later this month - Ancora NMC D097


© Peter Grahame Woolf