The Viennese Salon: Innocence and Lust

The Françoise-Green Duo at St John’s Smith Square, Thursday 31st March 2016

  

The five-concert residency at St John’s Smith Square by the Françoise-Green piano duo is exploring the music of Vienna’s musical landscape through its salon culture, from Mozart and Schubert to Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School. Vienna’s unique system of private and public patronage allowed composers such as Mozart to present their music to a select audience via the salon. For Schubert, who did not have the kind of patronage and support Mozart enjoyed, nor publishers eagerly clamouring for his music, performances within the privacy of his own circle of friends was the only way his audacious music found a truly receptive audience. This salon culture became even more pronounced at the turn of the twentieth century, when Schoenberg and his cohort broke away from the Vienna Tonkunstlerverein and built their own community for the performance of their music outside of the mainstream where much of their music was premiered through private performance societies. The Françoise-Green Duo pay a special hommage to this by performing new works which they have commissioned especially for their residency.

Music for piano duo is often, and mistakenly, regarded as “light” – music to be enjoyed at home amongst friends, and the enduring popularity of music for piano duo is testament to its appeal, variety and inventiveness. Both Mozart and Schubert wrote fine works for piano 4-hands, including the latter’s Fantasie in f minor, D940, arguably the most profound work ever written for this genre.

This particular concert, the third in the series, revealed the contrasting characters of Vienna, from the elegance and wit of Mozart through Schubert’s bittersweet Allegro in A minor ‘Lebenssturme’, D947, to the decadence and eroticism of fin de siecle Vienna of Alban Berg, reimagined by British composer Kenneth Hesketh in his Die letzten Augenblicken der Lulu, and the world premiere of ‘Fable’, a new work by Colin Alexander which was dedicated to the duo.

The Françoise-Green Duo are notable for their confident and convincing handling of contemporary repertoire – one has the sense of two musicians who actively relish the challenges, both technical and artistic, that this music presents – yet their opening piece, the Sonata in F K497, written at the end of Mozart’s life, proved them at home in more traditionally “classical” repertoire. In this sonata, the two pianists are equal players, sparking off one another, and creating witty dialogues interspersed with rich orchestral textures. In the softer dynamic range, the pianists brought a tenderness which immediately shrank the large space of St John’s Smith Square to an intimate salon.

Kenneth Hesketh’s work is both a redaction of Berg’s ‘Lulu Suite’ focusing on the main material in the suite, but also providing a flashback of Lulu’s life in the immediate moments before her death. Soprano Sarah Gabriel’s performance in this work was dramatic and vulnerable, and the combination of spoken word and vocal line, culminating in a full-throated scream signifying Lulu’s death at the hand of Jack the Ripper, was searing. The piano part created an unsettling undercurrent, increasing in urgency towards the tragic denouement.
After the interval came the world premiere of Colin Alexander’s ‘Fable’, a work which fully utilised the fine acoustic of St John’s Smith Square, the resonance of the Steinway D, and the duo’s technical assuredness. At times, the sounds emanating from the piano recalled bells, bassoons, horns and chanting, which built in intensity to create a hypnotic whole. It put me in mind of Somei Satoh’s mesmeric Incarnation II, which uses the resonance of the piano to similar effect.
It’s all too easy to ascribe a certain mindset or state of health to Schubert’s music: his illness, syphilis, and its disturbing and debilitating treatment and side effects are well-documented. Whatever the composer’s mental state in the final year of his life, there is no doubt that this was a period of fervent, boundary-breaking creativity. The ‘Lebenssturme’ (Life’s Storm – a title assigned by the publisher after Schubert’s death) opens with a dramatic motif of forte (check) chords which gives way to an ethereal second subject, which Antoine Françoise seemed to float across the upper register of the piano. It’s a substantial work whose structure hints that Schubert might have had something longer in mind and which demonstrates fully the breadth and daring of his creativity in the year of his life. 

For an encore, the duo played the opening movement of Mozart’s Sonata in C major, K19d (dropped from the original programme better to accommodate the new works) Written when the composer was still a boy, yet already bright with promise, witty, colourful, and elegantly turned by Robin Green and Antoine Françoise.

‘The Viennese Salon’ continues at St John’s Smith Square on 7 April with a rare opportunity to hear Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 arranged for piano four-hands by Alexander von Zemlinsky together with works by Mozart and the world premiere of a new piece by Alissa Firsova. Further information here

Recommended.