The idea of inviting a Poetry Slam champion to moderate a young person’s symphony orchestra concert was an intriguing one, and had plenty of scope to be a fascinating marriage between punk-inspired verse and classical music.

Georg Friedrich Haas © Universal Edition / Eric Marinitsch
Georg Friedrich Haas
© Universal Edition / Eric Marinitsch

The 19-year-old poet Sophie Passmann acted as moderator for a concert given by the SWR Sinfonierochester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, comprising Ludwig van Beethoven’s seventh symphony and Georg Friedrich Haas’ sound kaleidoscope Limited Approximations.

Despite possessing an obvious talent for her spoken art form, Passmann’s banal, and shockingly uninformed repartee sadly suffocated the programme’s musical content, and the one platform she was given to perform her poetry came directly after the symphony, a bizarre and completely inappropriate point in the evening. It was a shame such an imaginative idea was so poorly executed, as Limited Approximations in particular was riveting, plunging the listener into a totally unique soundscape.

The art of microtonal composition (utilising much smaller intervals than those between the degrees of a western scale) has influenced the majority of Georg Friedrich Haas’ compositional output, and his fascination for the wide tonal boundaries found outside the equally tempered octave is obvious in Limited Approximations, a work for six pianos and orchestra, each piano tuned in twelfth-tone intervals.

The effect of hearing these six specially prepared solo instruments playing as one was staggering. Scales, sounding to the ear like smooth glissandi, swooped their way between the pianos, ethereal and electronic, creaking and prehistoric, landing on beautifully differentiated chords, some raw and sharp, some sonorous and consonant. It was thrilling to hear complex harmonic combinations which one has never heard before.

Haas chooses to use the pianos almost as one giant instrument, each soloist playing similar material throughout, and the rumbling tremolos which gradually expanded and contracted in range were beautifully blended.

The six pianists (Klaus Steffes-Holländer, Chen Pi-Hsien, Florian Hoelscher, Julia Vogelsänger, Akiko Okabe and Christoph Grund) played with an impressive intensity, and the sense of ensemble between them was first-rate, each exhibiting a fine sense of balance. The seemingly endless bed of spiralling tremolos which made up much of the orchestral material was sensitively played by the strings, the highest dynamic peaks effectively punctuated by the excellent trombone section.

The first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 is flavoured by dancing dotted rhythms which were lively and well phrased, subtly coloured by timpanist Franz Lang. For all its sombre melancholy, the opening of the following Allegretto, scored for solo strings, is surely one of Beethoven’s most glorious melodies. It was sensitively played, although I did find myself wishing for a slightly less “present” dynamic.

The Presto which followed was notable for its excellent dynamic contrast, and beautiful woodwind solos throughout. Despite having to take a short unscheduled break between pieces due to his feeling unwell, the movement’s sudden switches between bold forte and whispering quiet passages were masterfully directed by conductor François-Xavier Roth. The melodic figure in the final movement, however, came across a little unclear and rushed in the first violins, and the trumpets were at times rather too dominant.

The sense of mutual appreciation which follows such a work is treasured by regular visitors to a classical concert, and it’s hard to think of an appropriate “happening” to place directly afterwards. It was certainly not the correct moment for Miss Passman’s rather generic and mundane verse, which completely suffocated the symphony we had just heard, and was (sadly for her) delivered to a rapidly emptying concert hall.

The SWR Sinfonieorchester should be praised for trying out such innovative ideas, but should have the good sense to make sure they are appropriately realised in the future.

**111