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Concert Review/ Eclat Festival: Day 4

img  Tobias

We've spent most of the early hours of the evening searching for a „Besenwirtschaft“ near the Wilhelmsplatz in the heart of Stuttgart. The term indicates a type of restaurant or pub which is run as a sort of hobby or as an aside by private individuals. Typically, opening hours aren't fixed and a broom („Besen“) suspended over the door of the restaurant („Wirtschaft“) will let potential guests know that they'll be able to indulge themselves in Swabian specialties like self-produced Schillerwein (a type of wine which receives its recognisable golden colour by combining red and white grapes in the production process), Maultaschen (a sort of over-sized ravioli), Käs-Spätzle (don't insult any local by just referring to it as „noodles with cheese and onions“) and Schwabenbräu Alkoholfrei (possibly the most delicious non-alcoholic beer Germany has on offer). We finally find the „City-Besen“ at the border of the city's red light district and a couple of metres in to a narrow side-alley, with only a half-delapidated sign telling us about its existence. We descend two full storeys down a Fisher Price-size staircase to arrive at a sort of miniature living room inside a stone cave filled with nothing but three large wooden tables. The lady of the house greets us with open arms, we find a spot at one of the tables, order a drink and strike up a conversation with the other guests. We may have had to search for quite some time to find this place, but it was certainly worth it.

This short story makes for a suitable introduction to tonight's concert. And not just because it is the reason why I arrive at the Theaterhaus Stuttgart a couple of minutes later than originally intended and no longer have enough time to comfortably flick through the program notes before walking into the hall. Also, the comparison aptly applies to the music of Jörg Widmann to be performed tonight. Despite the by now almost impenetrable mass of works the format has inspired over the centuries, Widmann's five String Quartets are without doubt intruigingly peculiar and peculiarly inspiring outposts. While the first was written as far back as 1997, the others followed in an intense surge of creative energy between 2003 and 2005 and mark an interrelated cycle and a series of individual pieces at the same time. These compositions openly refer to, comment on and reinforce each other, quoting from previous episodes just as much as they allude to movements in the future and representing sub-thoughts of one overarching, bigger idea – which, although it is never spelled out in full, will become increasingly clear over the course of the cycle.

Performing all of these pieces on one night, as the Leipziger Streichquartett are doing tonight, is therefore not a question of a compulsive drive for completeness. Rather, it is the only sensible way of presenting this music, which, even though it is by no means fragmentary in its different episodes, inherently longs for unity and wholeness. Because of  eclectic performance techniques and a plethora of compositional methods on display here, these String Quartets essentially constitute a miniature cosmos of new music, which is neither afraid of free- or microtonality nor of post-romantic yearning, employs stupendous irony and stern imagery and doesn't eschew demonstrative effects if they turn out to be benefitial to the cause. Widmann's Quartets are also among the few contemporary works which appear to be both an immense challenge and a lot of fun to play for the instrumentalists and simultaneously a deep, serious and highly entertaining listening experience. They seem to tell us something profound and immensely important while never ignoring immediate cravings for a sense of sensuality. They satisfy demands for progression while never brutally debranching themselves of the rich and renowned tradition they are happily connected to. And they certainly don't require any kind of long explanations to be „understood“, speaking to the subconscious with subtle gestures and delirious screams.

In the beginning, however, there is darkness: All clad in black, the Leipziger Streichquarttet pussyfoot their way into the first String Quartet, tentatively colouring the canvas with nothing but not-quite-tones hatching from a shell of silence into a grey zone at the border of sound. Widmann has conceptualised the piece as being about beginning itself, but even more precisely, it is a solemn meditation on how to begin. Aagain and again, the Quartett launch into new patterns only to abort them one or two measures into a theme. In the end, however, a continous sequence of possible beginnings starts to establish itself, all pointing to potentially prosperous developments which will however never materialise. Possibly that's the trivial thought behind this immensely intricate music: Try not to think too much about the consequences of your actions – getting started at all is the most important thing.

Maybe that is also why it took Widmann six years to follow up on his introduction – the real thinking only sets in after the first indelible footprints have been left in the snow of the imagination. The second String Quartet is consequentially marked by a pensive mood and by the sensation of things drawing to a close when they have only just begun: Embedded into creaking and scratching string palpatations, an eerily beautiful motive is probing ever-new harmonic variations on its search for perfection, just like a dream being dreamed by  different personalities of a multiple-schizophrenic.

The third Quartet („Jagdquartet“) could hardly make for a more drastic contrast: Opening with shock tactics, Stefan Arzberger, Tilman Büning, Ivo Bauer and Matthias Moosdorf scream their lungs out, using their bows like sabres to cut swooshingly through the air. A gaudy foxhunt motive is then gradually dissected, until it dissolves into almost pure noise and solitarily plucked strings.

The fourth String Quartet does the same trick for a hauntingly ascending melody over a backdrop of plantive Pizzicatos, which initially fades away into abstractions and a metaphorical middle section before rising from silence again like a phoenix from a nightmare. On the closing fifth episode, Soprano Julianse Banse joins the fourpiece for a darkly triumphant finale: Gradually, the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, with the Leipzigers combining all performance techniques of the preceeding editions: Playing the body of their instruments with the hairs or the solid wood of their bows, using their own breath as a sound source, harking back to Baroque oppulence in one instance or retreating into avantgardistic sound play the other. It is a dramatic and organic end to the evening, sending shock waves through the audience, which makes the performers come back a full five times before releasing them to their well-deserved back-stage leisure time.

Widmann has written eloquent liner notes to the series, which have been reprinted in the Eclat program. In these, he emphasises the unified character of his Quartets without giving away too much about what their combined meaning could be. The rendition of the Leipziger Streichquartett, meanwhile, without coming to absolute answers, suggests that there is still plenty of meat to be found in the format, if it considers all options open and allows for the integration of effective external influences. Just like searching for a Besenwirtschaft in the heart of Stuttgart, it may take some time. But the effort is certainly worth it.

By Tobias Fischer

Image by Gert Mothes

Homepage: Eclat
Homepage: Leipziger Streichquartett
Homepage: Juliane Banse

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