Above – Richard Tognetti. Photo – Daniel Boud

I got plenty of nothing …

The idea of Nothing for this series of 8 concerts over a weekend at Ukaria Cultural centre called Chamber Landscapes, a regular feature of the Adelaide Festival, was born not for this festival at all, but in 2010 in Slovenia. Richard Tognetti had wanted to stage The Magic Flute but was thwarted by financial constraints, and was asked to find an alternative. He was given three days. He expostulated:

‘I know what to do. Nothing. Entry will  cost Nothing - but you will have to pay to leave. We can include John Cage’s 4’33” of ostensible Nothing, we can get a singer to wear Nothing, and Barry Humphries will perform the Walton/Sitwell Nonsense verses.’

(That reminds me. Nothing to do with this program, but I mis-spelt Barrie Kosky’s name in my recent review in these pages of The Threepenny Opera. My apologies to him and to my readers.)

Of these suggestions, only the John Cage made it to this weekend’s program, but many other Nothings appeared. Richard Tognetti had a lot of fun devising this risk-taking program, and I propose to have a lot of fun writing about it. Nothing I say should be taken seriously (although Nothing should in fact sometimes be taken quite seriously).

Tognetti gathered together a little galaxy of excellent musicians and singers (and one, Satu Vänskä, who was both) for this weekend. They evinced varying degrees of fun as they plunged into the experiment. I’m not sure that it is any string player's idea of fun to be asked to play three late Beethoven quartets on the small number of rehearsals available in Festival conditions; but I give the palm for demonstrating most enjoyment to Donald Nicholson. Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata is to my mind a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing, but Nicholson’s performance of these, in a program largely devoted to music about death by Bach, was of infectious play. He also contributed a moment of pure Dada during one of the Satie performances by riding a bicycle casually back and forth beyond the huge window behind the stage in Ukaria.

Yet that Bach program contained one of the most gorgeous cameos of the entire weekend. The four singers, Chloe Lankshear, Emma Woehle, Louis Harley and David Greco sang an arrangement of Bach’s chorale prelude on Vor deinem Thron with such limpid clarity of line that the audience held its collective breath in delight.

They were an amazing quartet of singers. Before the final concert Tognetti asked them if they knew Beethoven’s silly canon on ‘It must be’, the phrase that forms a central part of the discourse of his very last quartet. They all said no, whereupon Tognetti asked them to sing it anyway. So they said yes, learnt it in a few minutes, and sang it, unprogrammed, just before the performance of op 135!

Nothing was investigated in the hands of Arvo Pärt, a very serious explorer of Nothing. In his Sarah Was Ninety Years Old the rests in David Jones’ drum part were more meaning-laden than any drum-beat, and brought to our attention the importance of the spaces between the notes, the ‘vacant interstellar spaces’ on which astronomers are focussing their attention.

One of the concerts was entitled ‘Nothing on the program’. It was a delightful relaxed business, with wine and canapes, where random performances sprang up amongst the beautiful fragrant gardens of Ukaria. David Jones held antique cymbals to my ears in the Labyrinth, and in the concert hall Kristian Winther and Konstantin Shamray were divinely playing three fantasies by Clara Schumann, over and over again, for anyone who wanted to listen.

Schumann was one of only two female composers to get a guernsey this weekend, the other being the English composer Rebecca Clarke. Her fine music is a mixture of the styles of Brahms, Debussy, and Vaughan Williams, and deserves much more airing than it gets. Her Viola Sonata was given a beautiful and committed performance by the Korean violist Hanna Lee, while at the piano was the inspiring, versatile, ever interesting Shamray, who seemed to be everywhere this weekend.

Janacek’s first string quartet, entitled Kreutzer Sonata, is only indirectly based on Beethoven’s violin sonata. It is about jealousy, and was inspired by Tolstoy’s novella in which a husband watches with increasing despair as his wife, a violinist, plays the opening of Beethoven’s sonata with a pianist he feels she must be in love with. A quartet led by Satu Vänskä gave a thrilling reading of this piece.

Vänskä was also the violinist in what I and the audience found to be the best performance of the whole weekend. She was joined by cellist Li-Wei Qin and the ubiquitous Shamray in an absolutely stunning rendering of Beethoven’s Archduke trio. There was fun, as in the middle of the first movement, after Beethoven develops the first 4 notes of the main theme in his usual knotted-brow style, when he remembers the rest of the theme. There was sublimity in the slow movement, whose noble theme is always visible behind the veils of the subsequent variations. And the players obviously loved playing together.

Inevitably there was an overdose of Satie. His music is explicit nonsense. I have never liked it, and am no longer ashamed to admit it. But there was that splendid moment of Dada during the performance of 10 excerpts from his suite (or un-suite, or en-suite) Cancelled, which was played by Konstantin Shamray with readings of nonsense written by Satie himself.

The nonsense was read by Katherine Tomkin, an actor with a wonderful stage presence. She was also part of a new composition by Jakub Jankowski, Nevermore. Whether or not Jankovski refers to Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven, in which that word tolls like a funeral bell, the performance relied on an exquisite sense of timing to negotiate its many silences. Tomkin held this together, an old-fashioned metronome emphasising the need for timing, with great poise.

Well, Nothing sometimes does have to be taken seriously. The weekend was framed by performances of three of Beethoven’s five late string quartets, whose exploration of the limits of human experience is legendary even though he could hear Nothing when he wrote them. They were played by different arrangements of the string players who participated in the weekend, of which Tognetti himself was the only constant.

The opening concert concluded with the Bb quartet, op 130. This work is in 6 movements, of which the last was intended to be the Grosse Fuge, eventually published separately as op 133. Tognetti, impressive musician that he is, knew this, and decided to go with Beethoven’s original intention. He’s absolutely right – the work then appears as a magnificent structure, starting and finishing with two colossal wrestling matches enclosing four exquisite pearls of pleasure.

Vanska and Lee played beautifully together in this performance, but Qin seemed ill at ease, not quite able to generate the range of dynamic of the other players. And Tognetti often played with such soft finesse that you could barely hear it, especially when high up on the E-string. It made me think that someone should have reminded Beethoven that there are other strings on a violin …

It was understandable, but a pity, that the performers allowed themselves a break before the finale so obvious that the audience applauded. Especially in the context of Nothing, the space between the Cavatina and the fugue must be one of absolute silence. Nothing is after all the frame of all music, as Edward Carr reminds us. Yet the fugue was the best part of the performance, all the players tackling the formidable demands of the music with the courage of mountaineers tackling a new summit.

For the A minor quartet, op 132, Tognetti, Vanska and Lee were joined by the cellist Sharon Grigoryan. There was a much more satisfactory balance in this performance. I cannot help feeling that this work, despite its famous thanksgiving for the recovery from a serious illness, is not about recovery but about sickness. It is disjointed throughout, and seems unable to pick itself up from the bed. The performance was full of curiosity, of a sense of insufficiency, except in the Dankgesang itself, where contemplation of the infinite was beyond expression.

The entire weekend closed with a performance of Beethoven’s last quartet, in F major, op 135. For this Tognetti, Lee and Qin were joined by violinist Kristian Winther, meaning that the three quartets were all differently constituted, Tognetti himself being the only constant. It was most engaging watching Hanna Lee leading off the quartet, and interacting with her whole musical self with the rest of the quartet. She is, even in the company of the musicians gathered together for Nothing, an extraordinarily good chamber musician. The piece was performed with whimsy, passion, and subtlety in equal measure, as encouraged by the music of this enigmatic work.

So was the weekend a success? No, said Richard Tognetti, it was an abject failure – instead of Nothing we had an overabundance of Somethings. He said that if he is invited to curate another weekend at Ukaria he will call it Everything. That again will be doomed to failure, of course ...

… and nothing’s plenty for me.

Event details

2024 Adelaide Festival
Chamber Landscapes

Curator Richard Tognetti AO

Venue: UKARIA Cultural Centre | Mount Barker Summit, Peramangk Country, Mount Barker SA
Dates: 8 – 10 March 2024
Bookings: www.adelaidefestival.com.au

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