fantasy programming

At first, what caught my eye was that my favourite viola player was in town. I’ve long admired Kim Kashkashian – all the evidence (given that I’ve never seen her play live, let alone met her) suggests to me she’s everything that a viola player should be – thoughtful,  open-minded, generous, adventurous in her repertoire but not reckless in the way she plays it. Impeccable, really.

So I was already excited at the prospect of hearing her for the first time. It’s not her recital, though. The concert, on 19 October at Wigmore Hall, is part of a year-long series put together by the US pianist Jonathan Biss, Schumann: Under the Influence, that he is taking around the world (the UK legs are at Wigmore Hall, with appearances at Oxford and Cambridge universities and one on Jersey; full schedule here).

Kashkashian’s contribution is in Schumann’s Märchenerzählungen – four ‘fairy tales’ for clarinet, viola and piano – and Kurtág’s Hommage à R Sch for the same ensemble. They are both pieces, incidentally, that she has recorded for ECM (this is another thing about Kashkashian – she’s on the coolest label, and has recorded Bach for them with its most famous artist, Keith Jarrett). Biss has them as the first half of his concert, with the second half comprising Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte with Mark Padmore followed by Schumann’s Fantasy in C.

Now, my tiddlingly insignificant tribute to Kashkashian out the way, here’s the point. The series is an exploration of Schumann’s music. But it’s not some half-arsed enterprise, cooked up to provide some half-baked premise for some concerts. ‘My feelings for this music go beyond love,’ Biss writes on his website, ‘though there’s also plenty of that: silly as it may sound, I feel somehow protective of him.’ This protectiveness is clearly evident in the care with which Biss has assembled his programmes, as if all too conscious that a wrong move will somehow damage this precious music.

So why do so many programmers and performers not take care? Why do they think it’s okay just to chuck 90 minutes of stuff together? By contrast, the more I contemplate this one, with Kashkashian, the more I admire it. It’s perfect, isn’t it? No one piece is overshadowed by another. It’s not too long. The textures from piece to piece are varied, thanks in part to the changing line-ups. There are connections between pieces: Kurtág’s is a hommage to Schumann, Schumann’s piano fantasy is a hommage to Beethoven (written in part to raise funds for a Beethoven memorial, and quoting An die ferne Geliebte, to boot); it begins with fairy tales and ends with a fantasy. On which point, there’s also the order of pieces, Biss avoiding the temptation to end with an ensemble piece or the item featuring the biggest name (Padmore, since it’s Wigmore Hall we’re talking about). And while you’d be unlikely to see Beethoven’s song cycle and Kurtág’s short movements together in the same concert, here they are perfect neighbours – that’s one mark of an ingenious programme.

Indeed, there’s the sense that maybe this is the first time this programme has ever been presented. The same light appears as the one which pings on when you hear a sentence that you suspect may, miraculously, never have been pronounced. But it’s not just random, as if Biss had said, ‘Grilling sheep modems invariably makes mummy cry for nineteen seconds’ and given it to Wigmore Hall to put in their brochure, feeling all proud like a smartarse.

Not that I have anything against eclectic programming. Far from it. One of the problems I have with string quartet concerts – not all of them, of course – is their homogeneity, the lack of surprise, the lack of attention to detail, the conservatism (something that is, I believe, an almost inevitable product of the anti-individual tendencies of the string quartet industry, but let’s save that futile rant for another day). I suppose that’s what really puts me off: when music is given the thoughtless, narrow-minded, mean-spirited, parochial and clumsy treatment. What was that I was saying about Kim Kashkashian again?

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