This was like visiting the most eclectic sweet shop in the world. Rather than the shelves being filled with the old favourites, the shopkeeper says “I know you normally like sherbet lemons, but why don’t you try these instead?” Yes, there may have been big name composers on display, but this particular selection box was laced with Anna Prohaska’s penchant for the unusual.

Anna Prohaska
© Reiner Pfisterer

In the opulent yet intimate surroundings of the Ordenssaal at Ludwigsburg Palace, the sounds of Prohaska and Alisa Weilerstein emerged through the total darkness of the hall in John Tavener’s Dante from his ‘sort of cycle’ of six songs on poems by Anna Akhmatova, one of the few artists who stuck it out during Stalin’s purges. Weilerstein’s plaintive cello and Prohaska’s distant haunting chants created an appropriately unconventional setting for the programme, giving way subtly to Janáček‘s Pohádka (A Fairy Tale), for cello and piano. Joined by pianist Iddo Bar-Shaï to navigate Janáček‘s assorted mixture of passionate outpourings and tricky rhythmic passages, Weilerstein immersed herself completely, with a remarkable depth and richness in her playing, balancing the more delicate, floating passages of the composer’s curious journey. The bucolic third movement had both players in jaunty mood, producing a raw and honest account. 

Almost without a break, Prohaska and violinist Veronika Eberle opened their selection of five movements from Kurtág‘s Kafka Fragments while they were still walking onto the stage, and had more or less finished the first fragment by the time they reached their music stands – a few seconds is sometimes all Kurtág needs. Eberle was straight out of the blocks to attack this sparse but vicious score with aggression and nuance, playing right on the edge, Prohaska’s drama creating heightened expression throughout. Her selection of five movements from Janáček‘s Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs mixed things up a bit. Prohaska’s voice was pure and full of character, lending much variety, joy and splendour to the blend of melancholy and vibrant dance-like movements, leaving you feeling both reflective and uplifted. Bar-Shaï was delicate and stoic in support of Prohaska’s engaging story-telling.

Iddo Bar-Shaï, Anna Prohaska and Alisa Weilerstein
© Reiner Pfisterer

It’s just one of those strange curiosities that Beethoven wrote more folksong settings than works of any other genre. The Return to Ulster, taken from his 25 Irish Folksongs, is a setting of Sir Walter Scott’s poem, revealing more of Prohaska’s versatility in both language and dialect. Her crystal clear diction supported an evocative and brooding rendition, with deep intensity in the piano trio, before Eberle and Bar-Shaï followed with a cultured and expansive reading of Janáček‘s Violin Sonata. Eberle’s well-judged gutsy approach contrasted with passages of the lightest of feathery strokes, with Bar-Shaï sensitive and robust. Their performance showed uncompromising determination and revealed some wonderfully unsettling pointed dialogue between violin and piano.

Veronika Eberle, Iddo Bar-Shaï, Anna Prohaska and Alisa Weilerstein
© Reiner Pfisterer

There was an overriding sense of desolation in Shostakovich’s Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok. Each poem captured a different sensation, Prohaska on top form expressing themes of lost love, desperation, fate and suffering, while Weilerstein and Eberle evoked bleakness and devastation, with rare hints of optimism, against Bar-Shaï’s inquisitive and sometimes thunderous piano. 

Winding the clock back once more, the encore was a relaxed rendition of Beethoven’s setting of Sunset from his 25 Scottish Songs, Op.108, capping off an intense and totally absorbing experience.

This performance was reviewed from the Ludwigsburger Schlossfestspiele video stream