Patricia Kopatchinskaja & Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra — Image via patriciakopatchinskaja.com

Kopatchinskaja Leads Death and the Maiden

Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra

My memory is not always the greatest, but I am fairly certain that, before Friday night, I had never seen an internationally renowned classical violin soloist come out on stage in a full-body skeleton costume and play furiously while prancing back and forth and making menacing gestures toward the orchestra. But that was just the first of several surprises enlivening a creative and theatrical program performed this weekend by Patricia Kopatchinskaja and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, centered on Franz Schubert’s famous string quartet, “Death and the Maiden.”

Performed without an intermission, the 75-minute program consisted of a series of short pieces woven into a prelude, followed by Kopatchinskaja’s own string-orchestra arrangement of Schubert’s quartet, with additional short pieces introducing each movement. All of the pieces related back in some way to the quartet’s theme of death, with many allusions to the medieval motif of the dance of death. But not for Kopatchinskaja were obvious choices such as Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre or Sibelius’s Valse triste; rather, these were almost all lesser-known pieces, primarily from the Renaissance and contemporary periods.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja & Ruggero Allifranchini — Image via patriciakopatchinskaja.comThe most overt theatrics of the evening were confined to the prelude, which began with August Nörmiger’s Toden Tanz, featuring the above-mentioned skeleton antics. As the orchestra completed the piece, Kopatchinskaja moved to the choir loft to perform two brief, confrontational pieces from György Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments, joined by mezzo-soprano Nerea Berraondo. Next the orchestra performed Carlo Gesualdo’s somber madrigal Moro lesso, al mio duolo, followed by Kurtág again with the almost impossibly still and quiet Ligatura, featuring several musicians scattered about the concert hall. The prelude concluded in a more comforting vein with Brahms’s chorale prelude O Gott, du frommer Gott.

Introducing the four movements of the quartet were a Byzantine chant on Psalm 140, which provided one of the most memorable moments of the evening as Kopatchinskaja played the melody while slowly walking around the orchestra as it provided an accompanying drone; Schubert’s song Der Tod und das Mädchen, the basis for the second movement of the quartet, once again featuring Berraondo; a pavane from John Dowland’s Lachrimae; and Heinz Holliger’s brief Tropfli, performed entirely using the col legno technique of striking strings with the stick of a bow. Altogether, the musicians did an extraordinary job of rapidly switching between pieces of very different styles and origins, weaving them into a coherent whole.

As for Schubert’s quartet itself, Kopatchinskaja and the orchestra seemed bent on drawing out every bit of drama inherent in the work, stopping at nothing to underline its alternating emotions of fear, anger, longing, and despair. This approach had its benefits, keeping listeners on their toes and drawing connections with the other pieces on the program. Sometimes, however — especially in the slow movement — some of the magic of Schubert’s famous transitions was lost in the extremity of the contrasts between sections. One also occasionally longed for the transparency of the piece’s original string quartet arrangement, though Kopatchinskaja’s inclusion of a double bass did add some welcome heft to the more assertive sections.

In any case, Kopatchinskaja has made it very clear that she is not interested in merely mimicking previous interpretations of the pieces she performs, and so I suppose it is no surprise if, sometimes, things we are used to hearing are missing. What were not missing in this weekend’s concerts were energy, inventiveness, and a commitment to finding new ways to present familiar material. Before Friday’s concert, SPCO president Bruce Coppock revealed that the weekend’s performances would be recorded for commercial release. Even without the visual element, this should prove to be a unique recording, introducing broader audiences to the very special relationship that is developing between this soloist and this orchestra.

Photos by Eric Melzer

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.