The Ensemble Resonanz is a Hamburg-based contemporary chamber orchestra committed to finding bridges to modernism amid works from centuries past, and to that end this concert featured Helmut Lachenmann set alongside Mozart, and Beethoven’s Six Bagatelles rescored by Manuel Hidalgo. At times these seemed liked interesting propositions, but in forcing resemblances into resonances and not allowing for similarities and contrasts to arise dialectically this exercise inhibited the connections it was intended to make.

Ensemble Resonanz © Michael Haydn
Ensemble Resonanz
© Michael Haydn

What was Beethoven doing in 1824, Manuel Hidalgo asks, when he wrote the simple Op. 126 Bagatelles between two of his greatest piano works (the last piano sonata and the Diabelli Variations)? If sketches are anything to go by, he certainly took no less care over these miniatures than he did over the larger works, and the argumentation continues along this path until Hidalgo asserts that these pieces form the first postmodern contribution to the piano literature. In arranging them for chamber orchestra his aim was presumably to magnify this observation, perhaps just as Webern grafted Klangfarbenmelodie on to the six-part Ricercar from Bach’s Musical Offering to make diverse points about motivic ordering, abstraction and expression. But whereas Webern’s arrangement remains, in its own curious way, true to Bach while articulating its own timbral structures, Hidalgo’s Beethoven speaks less of our present than it does of the days when Gustav Mahler added thickness of texture to Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet, calling it ‘ideal’ for the times. I don’t believe that excess is all there is to Mahler’s arrangements – which are now ideal for our own times and purposes in that they fit a simplistic turn-of-the-century ‘maximalist’ narrative – but it is hard to avoid reaching a less positive conclusion with Hidalgo’s work. Aside from the heaviness of scoring there is a certain brashness which intrudes without having anything substantial – or even insubstantial – to say, and in the two fast bagatelles (nos. 4 and 6) some glibness to the stridency might well have been welcome. This work received an energetic performance from the ensemble, but any hidden depths which Hidalgo’s arrangement might harbour were not to be found here.

A Hidalgo caveat is necessary as the bracing, raw string tone of the Beethoven was no less pronounced in the Mozart Fantasia in F minor for mechanical organ clock. This is a piece played mostly by organists, and usually with some heft; unlike the other F minor Fantasia (K594) for the same contraption, or the galant stylings of the K616 Andante (for flute clock), it doesn’t seem as suited to the organ clocks which you can still hear in use at Vienna’s clock museum. Experiencing it played by a chamber orchestra might have been yet another improvement, and at least a different way of hearing the piece, but here tone production was pushed to the limits and the sound grated rather unpleasantly.

If the analogy with Helmut Lachenmann, doyen of musique concrète instrumentale, was intended to be perceived not just in the programming but also the playing, then I should add that I never find his unusual soundworlds ugly or mannered so much as beguiling and endlessly inventive. The notational thickets of his scores are not always navigated so smoothly, but the ensemble’s attack and precision in the cello concerto Notturno generally seemed to come up to Lachenmann’s exacting standards, and procedures such as sudden swarm-like movements came off effectively. Conductor Peter Rundel deserves much credit here for keeping things tight while allowing for form to take on breadth. Cellist Francesco Dillon was equally impressive in a part which calls for the soloist to accompany the orchestra, though ‘instigator of processes’ may be a more fitting term here, and the intersection of two aesthetics which Lachenmann writes about – one, put simply, is note-bound, while the other is given over to exploring the instrument’s acoustic properties – didn’t seem a problem; both spoke structurally and a unity was found here.

Dillon’s extended solo in Notturno had been quite absorbing and the playing in the Jonathan Harvey solo piece Curve with Plateaux sustained just as much interest, though I found the writing preoccupied with various tropes – holding the same note on two strings and affecting a pitch-bend went on for quite some time – and ultimately not so satisfying. The one remaining piece, Open Spaces by Georg Friedrich Haas, was, like the Harvey, a late addition to the programme (after the cancellation of original soloist Jean-Guihen Queyras) and didn’t seem the right kind of work to programme in such proximity to Notturno, for reasons of intensity and density of content if nothing else. But like the Lachenmann it received a fine performance, and for those who have enjoyed Haas’ in vain, much in this broadly similar piece will possibly appeal.