In the long list of magnificent concert halls, opera houses, theatres, palaces and castles that organize events in Vienna, it is easy to overlook the Arnold Schoenberg Center. Located a stone’s throw from the Konzerthaus just off Schwarzenbergplatz, the solemn structure quietly hosts a vast number of lectures, symposia, exhibitions and concerts, as well as publishing and housing the extensive Schoenberg archives. Its primary function being educational, the concerts are often combined with lectures and the performance hall and surroundings feel like the inside of a very modern, well-funded institute of higher learning. The acoustics are perfect; the hall laid out in a triangular (or A-shaped) manner to give broader and varied viewpoints of the performers. There are copious programme notes to peruse, ticket prices are exceptionally reasonable and chilled water is served in the interval. It is a gathering place for serious musicians, academics and informed concert goers, and has developed a considerable, steady following thanks to the consistently high level of its events.

Till Alexander Körber © Joachim Schmid
Till Alexander Körber
© Joachim Schmid

Wednesday night was no exception. Performing a programme featuring chamber music by Ligeti, Till Alexander Körber and Brahms as well as Schoenberg, members of the Merlin Ensemble including violinist and director Martin Walch, composer and pianist Till Alexander Körber, horn player Hubert Renner, violist Claudia Hofert and cellist Luis Zorita gave strong, impassioned performances of some incredibly difficult, heady chamber works and talked the audience through the programme with intelligence and charm.

Schoenberg’s Phantasy for Violin with Piano Op.47 led the programme, followed by his Drei Klavierstücke. The Phantasy, a late work of Schoenberg’s from 1949 is characterized by its twelve-tone harmonic language, large leaps and fragmentation of melodic motifs. One can catch snippets of deconstructed waltz themes, as if through a kaleidoscope. The Drei Klavierstücke, youthful creations churned out by the then 21-year old Brahms disciple could not be further removed from the Phantasy in style or sound. The opening Andantino could almost be mistaken for a Brahms intermezzo, tonal and melodic and the final Presto sounds nearly Joplinesque in its virtuosic, mad dance- clearly foreshadowing the Brettl-Lieder, cabaret songs composed a mere seven years later.

Before beginning the Ligeti horn trio, Walch, Körber and Renner pointed out a few of the themes to listen out for in the work, a gesture which takes very little time but yields wonderful benefits for an interested audience. The trio, known for its many technical hurdles, is an amazing creation from its melancholy, broadly scored Andantino con tenerezza, though a Vivacissimo molto ritmico designed expressly to endow the pianist’s left hand with sever carpul tunnel syndrome. The violent, rhythmically impossible alla marcia which follows resolves into a spooky, lamento, then builds, exploring range extremes to close.

After the interval we were treated to Till Alexander Körber’s 2009 Zweiter Gesang der Frühe for violin, horn and piano, with the conductor both playing and occasionally conducting from the piano. The short, two movement piece opens with a majestic horn call, imitating the call of the shofar and plays with the resonance between instruments throughout- pitches are bent, the horn resonances are picked up by the violin, heard in the damper of the piano and explored through doublings and repetitions in and between the instruments.

Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor Op.25, the first of his three masterpieces for this configuration – and one which Schoenberg himself later orchestrated – ended the concert. The quartet is not performed terribly often, despite it being a wealth of beautiful themes and ending in an absolutely smashing gypsy rondo that will stretch the technical abilities of any instrumentalist. Though I have certainly heard slightly cleaner renditions of the piece, Walch, Körber, Hofert and Zorita performed with ability, energy and exceptional skill and were warmly rewarded by its discerning audience.