Beginning its eighth season at Jordan Hall, A Far Cry once more evinced a carefully constructed stage presence: there’s no conductor; all players who can perform while standing with their instruments do so; the concerts have thematic titles; there’s “informal” chatter from one of the performers preceding the music; and, of course, they call themselves “Criers”. All this self-consciousness might grate, but it is often in the service of truly superior music making. This was fully on display Friday night with the challenging and thoughtful program “Return to the Idyll”, featuring violinist Augustin Hadelich.
A poem about nature, an idyll is pastoral and perhaps sentimental. Thomas Adès’ Arcadiana, written in 1993 when he was 22 years old, evokes the idyllic imaginary realm of Arcadia, but in this seven-movement work that realm is evanescent: as the work proceeds we see it breaking down, washing away and evaporating before our eyes. At the opening we hear fragments of a Venetian barcarolle rock unevenly beneath an evasive melody; as the work continues constant slides into and out of notes blur and blunt the lines, evoking a water-damaged fresco, or weak watercolors losing their vivacity. At the center is a violent “tango mortale” that lurches at moments as if losing its footing. The penultimate movement, “O Albion”, famously alludes to Elgar’s “Nimrod” melody into two-note cells, provoking nostalgia for the theme without ever affording a sense of release or catharsis. It is followed by “Lethe”, a ghostly whisper of bits and pieces that never achieves clear musical statement, but succeeds in inducing in the listener a crushing sense of loss. Adès’ sound palette is breathtaking in its variety – one could profitably spend time categorizing the various roles pizzicato plays in creating specific aural moments. A Far Cry has made its own arrangement for string orchestra of the original string quartet version, giving a depth to the sound that made Adès’ sonic achievement even more astonishing. Though the work demands precise synchronization to achieve its effects, which is challenging enough for a quartet, the Criers’ large ensemble played with uncanny unity, utterly connected to one another, both flexible and precise. They were able to conjure up shades of shadow exactly where needed, while still keeping just enough wildness in play to give the “tango mortale” its sense of mortal danger. The work, the arrangement and the performance itself were all a tour de force, an exquisite surface shimmering with intelligence and innovation.
Augustin Hadelich is garnering growing attention for his breadth of repertoire, technique and individual voice. I didn’t find much to say about him when he appeared in the Brahms Double Concerto last year with the BSO; his appearance on this evening, in a more intimate setting and playing a more intriguing work, made a much greater impression. Shostakovich’s Violin Sonata was written late in the composer’s career, in 1968, and demonstrates the same sense of struggle and despair that is present in so many of his late works. It didn’t really suit the evening’s theme, except (as was suggested from the stage) as a kind of negative example. Ignoring the theme, it did make programmatic sense, picking up the thread of loss and abandonment from the Adès, and relentlessly pursuing it.
A Far Cry presented this piece in an arrangement for string orchestra and percussion attributed in the program to Zinman/Pushkarev. It sounded well made, and although the presence of percussion (snare and bass drum, xylophone, wood block, tam-tam) was jarring at first it was used with restraint. My only other exposure to this piece was a performance by pianist Gregory Biss and violinist Trond Saeverud in Eastport, Maine, where its sense of claustrophobia and suffocation was almost overwhelming, as if what the piece was trying to say was simply too large for its forces. Perhaps it is this sense that encouraged the creation of an arrangement for chamber orchestra. My ears suggest that expanding the piece into the concerto diminishes that powerful sense of struggle. There’s a little too much room: some gestures that carry a threat of violence or an emotional awkwardness in the original now feel conventional. The closing passacaglia movement feels cinematic, and the crashing, catastrophic nervous breakdown in the piano in that movement is simply a loud moment that prepares a cadenza.
The piece is nevertheless a vivid evocation of an inner personal hell through which Hadelich was a powerful and eloquent guide. Despite the fact that the emotional palette in this work is exclusively in dark colors—no joy suffuses it, and the humor, such as it is, is bitter and fleeting—Hadelich was able to project a kaleidoscope of despair, as well an emotional journey in musical rhetoric. His performance was an extended act of story telling, a long unwinding of an unhappy history that demands expression. It was the song of a man with a boot on his neck, sung with a tone that was expressive and dark, but stressed, uncomfortable. The middle movement, with its martial overtones and frantic technical passages gave Hadelich scope to make a thrilling display of breathless desperation. At the hushed end of the final movement Hadelich and the Criers held still for a very, very long time as the hall fell into complete quiet before erupting in an extended ovation.
That silence was due to the artistry of the performance, to be sure, but the audience might also have been somewhat overwhelmed by the demands of the first half. It was therefore welcome to encounter the only true “idyll” of the evening after intermission, the work by that name by the young Leoš Janáček. Written in the shadow of Dvořák, it is an unassuming set of seven movements suffused with folk melodies. The driving, speech-like language of mature Janáček cannot be found here, though a hint of his personality can be divined through what the Idyll is not—it lacks the purely ingratiating quality of Suk, or the melodic ease of Dvořák. The Idyll is plainer, and every now and then there’s a repeated accompanying figure that catches the ear, hinting at things to come. This suite of folk-inspired pieces was played beautifully and unsentimentally by the Criers, producing a sound both crystal-clear and warm, a necessary balm after the unsettling worlds of Adès and Shostakovich.