They whistle, they compose, they parody and they certainly can play. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then Amarcord Wien are kings of their realm. Since their inception in 2000, the quartet, which is the musical lovechild of a “Schrammel” folk music ensemble and a top-notch string quartet, has found a steadily growing and enthusiastic audience, and for good reason. Comprised of violinist Sebastian Gürtler, accordionist Tommaso Huber, cellist Michael Williams and bassist Gerhard Muthspiel, the ensemble combines all the brilliant technical and musical depth of being firmly grounded in the classical tradition with all the fun and freedom that is normally prohibitive within its strict confines. And having brilliantly dug out their own little niche and musical world, they are able to present very serious music at an incredibly high level in a way that is resoundingly accessible for a much broader audience.

Elisabeth Kulman © Elisabeth Novy
Elisabeth Kulman
© Elisabeth Novy

This evening they were joined by mezzo Elisabeth Kulman, another exceptionally gifted musician who, like Amarcord, has followed the path less chosen in some of her musical choices. Kulman began her career a soprano, singing lyric roles including Pamina before developing more dramatically. She switched for mezzo and alto roles in 2005 and has been widely acclaimed for operatic performances under such personalities as Harnoncourt and Muti singing everything from Cherubino to Brangäne.

This concert was a celebration of the second collaborative effort of Amarcord and Kulman. After releasing a prize-winning Mahler CD together in 2009, they decided to record a disc with a Wagner bent. Unsuprisingly, Wagner was on the programme this evening as well, Kulman singing all five of the Wesendonk Lieder interspersed with other works throughout the evening, to accompaniments arranged by and for Amarcord. “Schmerzen” and “Im Treibhaus” worked particularly well, with Kulman’s amazing lines and velvety vocal quality speaking textures into the melancholy poems.

And what would an evening of Wagner be without one of his most famously passionate disciples, Hugo Wolf? Kulman and Amarcord performed five settings from Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch, and these arrangements by Sebastian Gürtler were absolute poetry. Gürtler was also delectable playing the role of the awkward violinist with whom the protagonist falls in love at the end of “Wie lange schon war immer mein Verlangen”. The accordion stole the show completely as the donkey however in “Schweig einmal still”, establishing as gospel truth Wolf songs accompanied by accordion move from dryly witty to absolutely hilarious without batting a lash. While I could have used more text from Kulman, whose luscious sound often threatens to completely envelop the words, her musicality, honesty of presentation, dynamic variety and rich timbre more than made up for it.

Amarcord not only arrange, but they also compose. The evening opened with Tommaso Huber‘s witty Prügelfuge- fast and slow motion (2013), a musical fist fight pitting Wagner’s choral fugue from the end of the second act of Meistersinger against the closing fugue from Verdi’s Falstaff. Verdi wins, revenging himself posthumously for Wagner’s criticism of his work. Later we thoroughly enjoyed Tristans Tango d’amour (2013), where Gürtler reframes Wagner’s well-known theme, dressing it in sultry, flashy Latin dance rhythms and garb.

Free, instrumental arrangements and reinterpretations of Anton Webern’s Fünf Sätze für Streichquartett Op.5 and Claude Debussy’s Golliwogg’s Cake-Walk (including a whistled “La donna e mobile”) offered variety and interest, and the evening ended a work by Tscho Theissing bearing the moniker Exotenbonusmaterial. Drei Außenseitermusiken von Giuseppe Verdi, Frisch übermalt. Packed with opera and operetta themes by Verdi and Strauß among others, the final movement “La vecchia” featured surprise balcony appearances of Kulman, embodying Azucena and singing a magnificent “Stride la vampa” complete with tambourine.

In short, anyone who has not had the pleasure of witnessing Amarcord in concert is missing out on a rare jewel of innovation, flair and heart. It is refreshing to hear something completely unique, created with inspiration, breathtaking ability and the perfect dose of quirky humor.