An ingenious and memorable concert of rarities and hybrids from early 20th-century Vienna, was curated and performed, with friends, by the ever imaginative Janine Jansen, as part of her Residency at Wigmore Hall.

Janine Jansen © Harald Hoffmann | Decca
Janine Jansen
© Harald Hoffmann | Decca
The rarity was the Suite for two violins, cello and piano Op.23 by Korngold. One of several works the composer was commissioned to write by the pianist Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right arm in the First World War and perhaps the greatest of these. Wittgenstein commissioned a number of leading composers in the 1920s and 30s, including Ravel, Prokofiev and Britten, but he largely rejected these works in favour of the works of Korngold and by Franz Schmidt – and how nice would it be to hear that composer’s glorious G minor piano left hand quintet performed by these players.

The Suite is an ambitious work in five movements over forty minutes long. Written in 1930 before the composer’s exile to Hollywood, it displays a forward looking late romantic style with echoes of Richard Strauss as well as Berg and early Schoenberg. But Korngold is his own man and there is a unique improvisatory quality about the music which was so brilliantly captured by Jansen and her group. The fine balance between the more aggressive and quirky passages and a touching Schubertian lyricism was ideally achieved. The unusual structure of the outer movements was brought together with intelligent lucidity, the subtle rubato in the first movement was brilliant in its ease of manner. The central Groteske with its quickfire interplay between the instruments was outstandingly alert and exciting, led by the powerful playing of Eldar Nebolsin on piano. The contrasting luscious middle section was truly exquisite.

This is a work that deserves to be played much more, ranking alongside many great piano quartets in the repertory, hampered perhaps by its fiendishly difficult piano writing and a prejudice that Korngold did not write ‘proper’ music, because of his Hollywood career.

Berg’s own arrangement of the slow movement from his Chamber Concerto for violin, clarinet and piano proved to be another revelation. In its original form the music has a woodwind heavy grittiness which is replaced here by an altogether softer and in some ways more conventional timbre. This was no bad thing in the context of this recital because it emphasised the links with its other composers. The dreamlike effect of the movement was spellbinding and both Jansen and Olivier Patey (clarinet) were inspired in their apparently loose-limbed spontaneity, seeming to effortlessly find the heart of the piece and of the composer in every phrase. An inspired arrangement that should be heard more.

Likewise the final work in the programme, this time Webern's arrangement for violin, clarinet, flute, cello and piano of Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony Op.9, which presented this early expressionist work in a totally new light. Gone are the thick textures of the orchestral version and the feverish fight for themes to be heard. Instead the work is presented with such clarity and poise that you could be forgiven for imagining that the white hot intensity of the original could be lost in translation. But that was not the case. The passion and commitment of the playing was such that not only did the music have the power and definition that it should, but the complex thematic development that sustains its twenty minutes length became clearer and even more satisfying. 

A concert then that ticked all the boxes: a stimulating programme of important rare works, performed with virtuosity, musicality and passion.