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Czech weekend at the Styriarte festival.

Since the mid-1990s, Austria's prominent music festival Styriarte, whose twenty-seventh edition took place from 22 June to 22 July 2012, has not primarily reflected composers' anniversaries but revolved around carefully selected and thoroughly implemented dramaturgic themes. This year, the motif of family, family relationships and family people (Familien Menschen) was chosen.

Accordingly, the festival concerts thematically focused on distinguished musical families and their members (the Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Wagner, Dvorak, Strauss, as well as the Harnoncourt, Sava11 and Kopatchinsky families), families significantly supporting musical culture (the Borgias, Medicis, Habsburgs, Eggenbergs), and also metaphysical transformations of family relationships, be it in the form of the Holy Trinity, Jesus' family, or "relatives" of Jews, Christians and Muslims, descendants of Abraham. As has been a matter of course at the festival over the years of its existence, the pivotal motto was ingeniously fleshed out in chamber and vocal recitals, vocal-orchestral concerts, open-air projects, stage readings and a new format, called soriarteSOAPs, combining vocal and chamber music with stage readings, usually in two one-hour blocks taking the form of theatre performances or television programmes (fictitious texts, together with original texts from composers' diaries and correspondence, were created and compiled by the festival's director Mathis Huber, and Karl Bohmer and Thomas Heft). The festival's guru is the erstwhile Graz resident Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the resident choir and orchestra are the Arnold Schonberg Choir and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, and regular festival guests include leading European singers and instrumentalists. In addition to regional folk music, Styriarte has also been a platform for distinguished early-music ensembles and artists specialising in informed interpretation, headed by Jordi Savall and Harnoncourt's companions from the Concentus Musicus Wien ensemble.

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A chamber monument

One of this year's key projects was the exploration of Dvorak's oratorio Stabat Mater, op. 58, B. 71, which together with the Arnold Schonberg Choir (choir master: Erwin Ortner) and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe was undertaken by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who also participated in another two programmes: Mozart auf Reisen, within the styriarteSOAPs concert series, and Mozart in Stainz (the opera project was skipped this year). Harnouncourt first conducted concerts of Dvofak's sacred music back in 2004, the year marking the centenary of the composer's death, when he performed Ti Deurn and, on several occasions, the Biblical Songs (Thomas Hampson, Christian Gerhaher). Three years later, he and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir explored Stabat Mater, to which he returned this year at the Stefaniensaal at Graz's Casino, a cosier version of Vienna's Musikverein (my review is of the last of the three performances, on 30 June). The limited space necessitated the conductor's choosing a markedly smaller orchestra to play the oratorio, which on Czech stages is usually performed by a full orchestra and choir formation, and is thus many a time unduly opulent. The chamber conception not only manifested itself in the sound but also resulted in a finer gradation of essentially identical tempos (Andante) and a dynamically more restrained performance of the collective ensembles, only attaining expressive sonic apices in the oratorio's first and final parts, immediately broken up by Harnoncourt's signature decrescendos. Sharp brass accents then lucidly framed the inner architecture of the 90-minute performance by carefully emphasising the motifs from which the work is constructed. Sturdy buttresses of Harnoncourt's at times risky execution (the conclusion of the 10th part with perilous general rests in the a capella finale) were the ideally selected soloists: L'ubica Orgonagova, Elisabeth Kulman, Saimir Pirgu and Ruben Drole. The vocal quartet was dominated by the "Slavonically" fervid timbre of the soprano and tenor, whose solo and joint numbers possessed the ardour and earnestness of Baroque religiosity, unusually expressive in the tenor's case (the introductory tenor solo and Fac me vere, initially simple like a children's song or prayer, eventually assuming monumental proportions against the backdrop of the male choir). Another dazzling presence was the superlative Austrian mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Kulman, in my opinion a bright new star in this category. Despite having a narrower lower register, the young bass Ruben Drole rose to the occasion too, although his role was not made any the easier by the conductor's choice of a very slow tempo in the solo 4th section and placing emphasis on the rhetorical figure during the words Fac, ut ardeat cor meum (similarly, the Fac exclamations in the choral Eja mater). The only thing marring this extraordinary concert, which in a delayed broadcast was heard by listeners and viewers of the Austrian Radio and ORF television stations (a DVD recording will be produced) was the sweltering heat in the auditorium, demanding enough for the audience, let alone the singers and orchestra members, whose instruments began disobeying them as the evening progressed. Yet it was a truly unforgettable concert, as confirmed by the standing ovations of the audience who, beyond the traditional framework of the

Easter holidays, were afforded the opportunity to get to know Dvorak's oratorio as the composer's reflection of Mary's pain at the loss of her only son, a sorrow Dvorak and his wife felt acutely when they themselves lost their first three children.

Chez Dvorak

On 1 July, the Zemlinsky Quartet, performing in the line-up of Frantigek Soucek, Petr Strizek, Petr Holman and Vladimir Fortin, appeared at the festival for the third time in a row with an exclusively Czech repertoire. Within the framework of the family motto, the ensemble played Dvorak's String Terzetto in C major, Op. 74, B. 148, which he originally wrote for his neighbours' and his family's home music-making; string adaptations of the Cypresses, B. 152, a cycle of twelve marvellous songs created in 1887; and the String Quartet in D minor, Op. 34, B. 75, which Dvorak completed shortly after finishing Stabat Mater and dedicated to his later family friend Brahms. The Styriarte festival has become a home from home to the Zemlinsky Quartet: last year they appeared with a programme featuring Smetana, Dvorak and Janacek Quartets at the Minorites Monastery and this year returned to the splendid Planet Hall of the Eggenberg residence on the outskirts of Graz. The matinee, which was recorded by the ORF radio station, flowed smoothly: from the very first bars of the Terzetto in C major, the Zemlinsky Quartet took the audience's breath away, and thus it remained until the last note. The final variation movement of the Terzetto, performed with extraordinarily expressivity, the contrastive and, compared to the executions of other quartets and recordings, livelier tempos of the Cypresses, imbued with beautiful first violin and viola solos (the solo in No. IX Q, duse draha jedinkd, delivered at the border of audibility), and the Quartet in D minor, with a dramatic course of the first movement without repetition, winsome rubatos in the polka second movement, the captivating violin duet in the nocturne third movement and the spontaneous finale, raised increasingly satisfied and appreciatory smiles on the faces of the spectators, to whom the Zemlinsky Quartet bade farewell with the scherzo from Suk's String Quartet in B flat major, Op. II. The gamble of performing in the stifling heat of the first July morning, during which it became virtually impossible to keep the strings in tune, certainly paid off for the ensemble: I simply cannot recall a more impressive chamber matinee, to say nothing of the fact that after witnessing Strizek's ebullient performance, I have vowed never to use the phrase "to play second fiddle" again.

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A Czech-tinted soap

When it comes to the styriarteSOAPs series, I attended a three-hour concert at an improvised TV studio at the Helmut-Liszt-Halle on 1 July, given over to music by Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Besides a superb piano trio made up of Eszter Haffner, Julian Steckel and Alexander Schimpf, the stellar German actors Mavie Horbiger (Clara) and Michael Maertens (Robert Schumann) and the superlative baritone Thomas E. Bauer, the evening was dominated by the outstanding Czech soprano Martina Jankova, who was appearing at the Styriarte festival for the second time. The first half of the performance, focusing on the fraught relationship between Clara and Robert Schumann, opened with seven songs from the cycles Myrthen, op. 25, and Liebesfruhling, Op. 37, in which the two singers took turns; Bauer with a pleasant, higher voice timbre and restrained delivery, and Jankova with a wonderfully rounded soprano and constantly heightened sense of drama. It was interesting to hear Clara Schumann's take on Friedrich Ruckert's poem Liebst du um Schonheit (If you love beauty), by no means eclipsed by Gustav Mahler's far more famous setting (Ruckert Lieder). Another piece created by Clara performed within the evening was the four-movement Piano Trho in G minor, Op. 17, an interesting work, albeit not one kissed by the Gods, at least when juxtaposed with Robert's emotionally charged Adagio and Allegro for cello and piano, O. 70. The second half of the long, yet by no means overlong, evening, during which Maertens and Horbiger (husband and wife) read on stage extracts (some funny, others chilling) from the Schumann ledger and family diary, as well as Clara's own personal diaries and correspondence with Brahms, opened with the baritone Songs from Op. 32 and magnificent duets from Brahms's Opp. 75, 84 and German Folk Songs. Jankova and Bauer's joint performances were a truly thrilling experience, unforgettable not only owing to the perfect integration of their voices but also the sensitive communication and delivery of the sung text. The evening concluded with Brahms's Piano Trio in C minor; Op. 101, which originated against the backdrop of the doomed relationship between the composer and Clara Schumann. When it comes to the instrumentalists, I was above all impressed by the cellist Julian Steckel (b. 1982), a great talent among his German contemporaries (Maximilian Hornung, Danjulo Ishizaka), who also produced a fine tone in unisons with Eszter Haffner. The romantic looking pianist Alexander Schimpf, a sensitive partner to the singers and a superlative chamber player, was dazzling too. A more intimate atmosphere in the spacious Helmut-Liszt-Halle was created by a live video projection of that which was happening on the stage, wittily evoking the atmosphere of a television studio and, at the end of the evening (to the satisfaction of the male component of the audience), updates of the score of the European Championships football final between Spain and Italy.

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If the festival dramaturgy even included the pregnancy of Mavie Horbiger, faithfully embodying the eternally gravid Clara Schumann, I raise my hat to those who planned the evening with a Czech tint. The full-stop to the action-packed Czech weekend at the Styriarte festival was the Monday performance of the Arnold Schonberg Chor (choir master: Erwin Ortner) and the pianist Pierre-Laurent Airnard featuring Dvaik's Moravian Duets in Leog Janikek's arrangement (2 July).

Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducts Dvorak's Stabat mater in Stefaniensaal
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Title Annotation:event
Author:Jemelka, Martin
Publication:Czech Music
Geographic Code:4EXCZ
Date:Jul 1, 2012
Words:1797
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