The Klangforum Wien has had its own row of subscription concerts at the Konzerthaus for the past 22 seasons, and a constant during that time has been the regular programming of Austrian composers. Figures like Georg Friedrich Haas, Olga Neuwirth and Johannes Maria Staud now have international profiles and are widely played outside of Austria, but fifteen years ago they were ignored by the music establishment just as the current younger generation is now, and to this day state funding for artists remains skewed towards cash prizes doled out according to seniority, with smaller rewards kicking in around the mid-career mark of 35–40 and a glaring lack of rungs at the bottom of the ladder. It is also at around 40 that the stable income of a composition professorship beckons. In a year which has seen two opera premières and the showcasing of her work at Wien Modern, Olga Neuwirth has raised eyebrows in the Austrian press for confessing that she worries where her next commission will come from. But the source of her concern is easily identified.
The Klangforum’s gift of exposure, both through performances and CD releases, remains to some extent a remedial measure, and before long it will be time for the ensemble to address composers now not that much younger than Neuwirth (up-and-coming names include Lukas Neudinger and Sonja Huber, both 32). The concept for this season’s subscription series seems to acknowledge that crossroads, with focus shifted away from the more familiar Austrian and non-Austrian names ubiquitous in past seasons. The Klangforum’s Euro-centric comfort zone remains – the rubric for the series is “Europa, global” – but while the spotlight in this concert fell on Austria, perennial favourites were set aside in favour of an all-Graz line-up.
Graz has long been more receptive to the pushing of cultural boundaries than Vienna, from the 1906 Austrian première of Salome to the experimental literary and musical movements formed after the 1960 founding of the Forum Stadtpark collective. When Bernhard Lang and Klaus Lang, two of the composers featured in this concert, founded their own press together with fellow Austrian Peter Ablinger, they called themselves “the most unconventional and uncompromising composers of our generation”. With the exception of Ablinger, that nonconformity is however quietly stated and rarely the stuff of provocation. Nor is it particularly intended to be: when I ventured to a remote Styrian church this summer to hear the younger Lang (Klaus) deliver an organ tribute to the recently convicted Pussy Riot, the results were almost comically introverted. The piece performed in this concert, der dünne wal, was just as recognizably Lang’s, with his signature mannerism of rustled shopping bags ushering in, halfway through, the radiant cloud-like stillness he does so well. It was also at this point that the oboe soloist emerged from the ensemble, adding a high-pitched plaintive motif, repeated over and over until its eventual musical and physical marginalization, with oboist Markus Deuter instructed to gradually step back to the fringe of the stage. This is the latest in a steady line of pieces in which Lang’s talent for arranging simple materials in unusually mesmerizing ways is streaked with ambiguity.
One observation Lang makes about der dünne wal – that our perceptions of instrumental strength have little to do with decibel counts – was however more apparent in Peter Jakober’s Dort. There was some intricate electronic manipulation here with live sampling of drone elements from the lower end of the instrumental spectrum, processed into ambient sound imperceptibly notched up throughout the piece. A woman who was coughing loudly at the beginning effortlessly disrupted the initial and fragile pure instrumental texture, but despite no attempt to stifle the distraction she was eventually drowned out quite some time before peak volume – which sounded far from deafening – had been reached. Without the bronchial yardstick the clamour may, astonishingly, have gone altogether unnoticed, though as with Lang, Jakober relies not only on illusion and inertia; two further expansions, adeptly paced by conductor and longstanding Klangforum collaborator Johannes Kalitzke, were marked by thematic development and interesting variations in texture and timbre amid a general atmosphere of turgidity.
Bernhard Lang describes the three movements of his 45-minute-long Monadologie XII as diverse in character; discursive in a tidily joined-up manner may have been more flattering yet. Lapping and eventually surging phrases, unapologetically atonal, become ever spikier as a saxophone-laced jazz feel intrudes; motivic patterns apportioned to the two styles are additive and feature much stopping and starting. When the silences are trimmed to a minimum it becomes clear that the “tearing out of the heart” (the first movement’s title) will be a largely syncopated affair tinged with violence, and though The Rite of Spring goes unmentioned when Lang describes the tearing out as a ritual, the influence is unmistakeable. Attack might have been more acute here and the barrage sustained for some length at the climactic height a touch more threatening, though the Klangforum held nothing back with the more explicit big band style called for in the second movement. Any worries that the piece would descend into one of the stunts routinely pulled by Mark-Anthony Turnage were mitigated by the synthesizing impetus of the final movement, perhaps in some part also a matter of the Klangforum having absorbed the oeuvre of Olga Neuwirth so thoroughly in recent years.
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