The dramatic setting of the Ernst Kirchner Museum in Davos couldn’t have been more fitting as a backdrop. Kirchner – who studied architecture in Dresden, and founded the “Brücke” artists’ group in Berlin in 1911 – was to become a foremost representative of the German Expressionist genre. He travelled to Davos to convalesce after a mental breakdown, and it was in that alpine town, from 1917, that he created both the visionary landscapes of life in the Bündner Alps, works that were marked by a distinctive, if tortured, visual vocabulary. That this year’s Davos Festival carried the title “Einschnitt” (“The Cut”) works nicely to reflect the temporal, mental, or sensory “break” that marks an artistic heritage such as his was.

Berlin-Tokyo Quartet © Davos Festival | Yannick Andrea
Berlin-Tokyo Quartet
© Davos Festival | Yannick Andrea

The National Socialists confiscated Kirchner’s work from the museums where it hung in 1916, and reviled his images as foremost proponents of so-called “Degenerate Art”. The defamation of both his person and artistic work intensified the crisis that culminated in his suicide in 1938. But whether in graphic formats, paintings or decorative arts, it was precisely that degree of isolation, social alienation, and loneliness that his work imparted. Something of the same dynamic may well have shadowed and informed perception of a work commissioned by the festival from the young Swiss composer, Stephanie Haensler, whose work for string quintet, Ein Schnitt (A Cut).

Prior to the concert, Haensler explained her work had been inspired by poems of Paul Celan. An accomplished violinist in her own right, Haensler shows her partiality to sound landscapes in her work that traditional “music listeners” might be hard put to define, configurations that pretty much defy any historical order and species. The work she premiered is marked by a vocabulary for strings that includes sustained atonal sequences, unexpected transitions, and riveting – if not often haunting – soundscapes.

Three months ago in Zurich, the composer showed the framework for the piece: on a graphic of some four metres in length, each of the individual instruments’ sequences were defined. Colour-coded to mark the entrances of the individual strings, here was a kind of cerebral modernist exercise that showed the composer marching clearly to a different drummer. Michael Hamburger translates the first from Celan’s poem, Kristal, as “seven roses later plashes the fountain.” The second poem, written at a later date, begins with the same image on which the first poem ended. And it was in a highly cerebral exercise, and a tonal language that was almost other-worldly, that Haensler found a unique spur to her composition. The work was more closely aligned to a dissonant landscape than to harmonies, but portrayed the same kind of temporal “cut” that could be equated with the journey of the poet, or of the hiker, or an ultimate search for belonging.

Premiere of <i>Ein Schnitt</i> © Davos Festival | Yannick Andrea
Premiere of Ein Schnitt
© Davos Festival | Yannick Andrea

Nonetheless, the musicians were united in a commitment to the next generation of music, and the experience of the composer’s sounding board in the hands of five polished string musicians gave the rapt audience a sense of something close to transcendental. The work had its ragged edges; it alternated between the elusive, sometimes barely audible and the “cut” of a wound, and there here were only moments of what once could term a straightforward harmony or logical sequence. But the “seven roses later plash the fountain” arc gave the piece a third and literary dimension that made it more approachable, even if somewhat highbrow intellectually.

The Berlin-Tokyo Quartet was supplemented in the evening’s programme by two fine cellists, Christoph Croisé (for Haensler’s work) and by Benjamin Nyffenegger for the sublime Schubert quintet that followed. From the side of the gallery space, I could only see the faces and finger work of the demonstrative first violinist, Tsuyoshi Moriya, and that of the remarkably expressive cellist Ruiko Matsumoto.

Schubert’s String Quintet in C major, D.956, is a hugely comprehensive work, not just because of its technical demands and length, but for its tonal nuances, unparalleled majesty and tremendous emotive resonance. In choosing instrumentation for this work in the late 1820s, Schubert decided to add a second cello to the ensemble for a darker, almost foreboding sound. From the very start, though, the Davos configuration was demonstrative in its playing; the work living and breathing through the musicians’ gifted approach to its many moods, sublime interludes and spiritual depth. The five string players’ harmonies and volumes were perfectly attuned one another. Their visceral approach to Schubert’s work made for an unforgettable concert experience.