Fans of Martha Argerich take changes of programming in their stride. But for this particular concert at her own festival in Hamburg, she withdrew completely “in order to properly prepare for the final concert” where she is performing Tchaikovsky The Seasons for the first time. Introducing the programme in the cobalt-blue-lit Laeizszhalle, the welcoming words of Daniel Kühnel, the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra’s Artistic Director, even took into consideration the spontaneous question of an audience member who was angry about the various programme changes that had taken place over the course of the festival. This minor blip did nothing to subdue the happy anticipation of the audience at being able to attend a concert in person again, after so many months of digital-only-fare.

Nelson Goerner in the Laeiszhalle
© Hamburg Symphony Orchestra

Manuel de Falla's Suite populaire espagnole, arranged by Paul Kochanski, was played by violinist Tedi Papavrami and Maki Okada on the piano. This mini-cycle of seven songs, composed in1914, was originally written for soprano and piano and arranged for violin by the Polish virtuoso. It is a classic of the violin repertoire and was served up as a musical hors d'œuvres, with both soloists giving the impression of fulfilling their contract, nothing more. Argerich's friend Nelson Goerner then played various excerpts from Isaac Albéniz' Iberia Suite, his fiery rendition underlined by the now brilliant orange light effects. Next on the menu was Mozart's Violin Sonata in B flat major, K454. For this work, the violinist was Akiko Suwanai and Goerner accompanied her on the piano. Their interpretation was suitably sophisticated and polished to a high sheen – but where was the soul?

Akiko Suwanai
© Hamburg Symphony Orchestra

Finally, the pièce de résistance of the evening: Mussorgsky Songs and Dances of Death, a cycle to the poems of Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov, which was sung by baritone Michael Volle with Daniel Gertzenberg at the piano. Expressive, with excellent Russian diction, Volle's rich baritone fully relished the drama of the lyrics and the music. The four songs draw upon the legacy of the medieval dance of death. Sometimes death is benevolent, when it eases extreme suffering, but sometimes it is malevolent, destroying life at its peak. Love is not often a factor, but deep friendship and loss through death is. Written in the 1870s, Mussorgsky's composition of these four songs in which Death is named and personified was considered a very bold endeavour, since it was popularly believed that just naming Death was an invitation for this event to happen.

Michael Volle
© Hamburg Symphony Orchestra

Something of a stylistic microcosm within Mussorgsky’s entire song output, the cycle displays widely varying and contrasting styles. Parts of Lullaby and The Field Marshal call for more declamatory speech mimicry, while other parts of those songs, as well as Serenade and Trepak, utilise beautiful, luscious, soaring melodies. Martial or dancelike rhythms are deployed at times, while other moments flow in a more impressionistic, nebulous manner. There was a finality in Volle's rendition, our mortality and the inescapability of our own end on this earth, without dipping into any pseudo-sentimentality, making them all the more relevant and real to us today.

Thanks to the meatiness or gravitas of the last work, the concert could be deemed worthwhile... because a meal should not just be a succession of pretty hors-d'œuvres.


This performance was reviewed from the Paramax Films live video stream