Lockenhaus Chamber Music Festival, founded in 1981 by violinist Gidon Kremer, whose intention it was to eschew familiar programming and champion new works, has been the summer destination for those musicians and listeners who want to avoid the ubiquitous Mozart and Beethoven in favour of Dohnányi and Xenakis – just to name only two in the long list of composers whose music is chronically overlooked and underbooked.

Nicolas Altstaedt © Marco Borggreve
Nicolas Altstaedt
© Marco Borggreve

The festival’s quirky approach, established by Kremer, is not to announce the programs beforehand, as many of the repertoire choices are chosen or changed mercurially as per who’s on hand to play them. Once the engine is running, each day offers three concerts: morning, afternoon, and evening (or late-night candlelight concerts). Many of the original audience members Kremer ‘trained’ to appreciate contemporary works is still the faithful core of ticket buyers.

Located in the verdant hills of Burgenland, Austria, Lockenhaus’ 34th edition (9-19 July) is thematically entitled “Im Volkston” (In Folk Style). The festival, whose venues are a Baroque church and a 13th century Hungarian castle in a small village of the same name, has been under the artistic leadership of cellist Nicolas Altstaedt since Kremer passed the baton to him in 2012. The roster of musicians is the crème de la crème of the young generation, some of whom are members of prestigious European orchestras. As in the past, there have been many whose careers have been launched as a result of making debuts at Lockenhaus.

This year, the composer palette is plump with Dvořák, Bartók, Xenakis, Kurtág, Brahms, Veress, Ravel, Haydn, Janáček, Schumann, Poulenc, Enescu, Schönberg, and works by living composers Thomas Larcher, Wilhelm Killmayer, Osvaldo Golijov, Bo Holten, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, and David Lang. It’s the kind of enviable integration that I wish were on more programs in winter seasons of major cities.

With “In folk style” as the theme, the programming appropriately highlights works by Dvořák and Bartók, both pioneers in researching and assimilating their respective indigenous folk music within their compositions. In Dvořák’s case, in addition to tapping into Bohemian and Moravian folk-songs, he also used the American Negro spirituals he heard during his trips to the USA in the late 1800s. All the works scheduled in the festival’s 11 day scope also related either directly (like a subsequent performance of Berio’s use of a recording of a Sicilian street singer in his Naturale for viola and percussion) or indirectly (like Xenakis’ Dhipli Zyia for violin and cello and his Psappha for solo percussion which are loosely inspired by Greek folklore in his mathematically-based scores).

The opening night program (entitled “Paradise”) offered Wilhelm Killmayer, Dvořák and Enescu – three composers representing different generations of those who took inspiration from their native musical surroundings.

In the Killmayer duo, a continuous ostinato in Piano II, using the interval of a fourth, set up a post-minimalist feeling, while Piano I used simple triadic patterns that proved to be deceptively simple, as the texture gradually morphed into more of an impressionist style with pastel cluster chords and little snippets of dissonances wafting in and out. The overall effect was mesmerizing in its congenial and enigmatic atmosphere – until it ended in a simple E flat major chord – an odd choice that didn’t match the more inspired ‘paradise’ that came before it.

Vilde Frang © Marco Borggreve
Vilde Frang
© Marco Borggreve
The Dvořák trio, on the other hand, was a 19th century paradise of Slavonic-style Schwung, particularly the second movement’s juicy melodies, dreamy sequences, and sumptuous folk colour, plunging the listener into a richly romantic mood. The first movement’s lilting dances, and surprises popping up among the more predictable sequences in the fourth, as well as meltingly tender moments, generated pure joy, especially with Vilde Frang’s lustrous tone, Altstaedt’s superb expressivity, and Alexander Lonquich’s unerring, masterful eloquence.

The most astounding experience of the evening, though, was the Enescu String Octet: a four-movement multi-layered marvel that swept the audience away in a musical tsunami. Much of it, especially the fourth movement, functions like a gigantic wave organ that moves with undulating ferocity. Due to its initial folkloric and colouristic references to Romanian folk music, it’s tempting to consider it updated Dvořák, but its overlay of 20th century thinking definitively places it there.

The Octet’s compositional electricity that flows through its chromatically imbued symphonic heft (despite only eight parts) is propelled like hot lava, taking listeners on a primal musical roller coaster. What an enormous pity this fascinating work is neglected; the players agreed it was worth the dedicated effort it took to perform it, and despite limited rehearsal time. For the stunned audience, it was Paradise.