Haus Wittgenstein, 29/01/2012
Franz & Matthias Bartolomey, cello duo
Offenbach: Duo for two cellos op. 52, no. 3Popper: Gavotte from the Suite for two cellos, op. 16
Principal cellist of the Wiener Philharmoniker Franz Bartolomey shares a family history with the orchestra stretching back over three generations to 1892. In the first of two concert lectures at Vienna’s Haus Wittgenstein yesterday afternoon he spoke to music journalist Wilhelm Sinkovicz about the family’s rich past and, looking to its future, performed cello duets with his son Matthias, a gifted cellist in his own right.
The first in the line, also named Franz but born Frantisek Bartolomej, had an background uncannily similar to Mahler’s: born in Bohemia to a shoemaker father who came from a family of wine growers (Mahler’s father was an innkeeper and brewer), he was a precociously musical child in a family that wasn’t at all musical. His musical career began in Prague, where he was solo clarinettist at the National Theatre from 1889 to 1892. Not speaking a word of German, he moved to Vienna in 1892 and got a lucky break by successfully auditioning for first clarinettist of the Wiener Hofoper, where he played under Richter and Mahler (his son of course played under Strauss). ‘I was not a Wunderkind, I had to be disciplined and work hard,’ said Bartolomey, suggesting that the same may have been true for his grandfather. But evidence from the time shows that Bartolomey was held in high regard as a clarinettist: in December 1892 he was invited by the Rosé Quartet, who didn’t just play with anyone, to perform Beethoven’s Septett in the legendary Bösendorfersaal on the Herrengasse (by all accounts Vienna’s Wigmore Hall; appallingly, the building was demolished in 1913 for commercial reasons). The Rosés had him back at short notice the next month to play the Brahms Clarinet Quintet – a concert for which Bartolomey replaced an ill Richard Mühlfeld, the most important player of the time, a close friend of Brahms and the work’s dedicatee. The Neue Freie Presse praised Bartolomey’s ‘sweet tone’ and elsewhere he was acclaimed for the ‘dignified beauty of his playing’. Bartolomey also made a significant contribution to the Philharmoniker’s unique pedagogical tradition, an influence which his grandson traced down the line of subsequent clarinettists all the way to Ernst Ottensamer, the Philharmoniker’s current principal. It was with this that the inevitable discussion of the Wiener Klangstil came up, with a regrettable intervention from Wilhelm Sinkovicz (otherwise a great moderator, much better than I expected): ‘you go to Covent Garden and the Met and you think great performance, respectable playing. And then you come back to Vienna and hear how it should really sound.’
I’m well versed in historical sources on the Wiener Philhamoniker from Mahler’s time on, so apart from some of the family history I was familiar with much of what Bartolomey said. But he has done his own archival research (Clemens Hellsberg has competition, it would appear) and revealed many new details I didn’t know. This is all going into a book which will make for an interesting release. My only reservation on the wissenschaftlich side of things was to do with accounts – mostly anecdotal – of the Wiener Staatsoper: the troubles to do with the 1963 Karajan/Freni Bohème seemed accurately reported, but to reduce the house’s history from 1938-45 to geschlossene Vorstellungen for the Wehrmacht and Kraft durch Freude – true, and some pretty grim stuff happened backstage too – neglects new sources which suggest that the director at the time, Erwin Kerber, was not as sympathetic to the regime as was previously thought. But a longstanding complaint about the Philharmoniker is that they aren’t sufficiently critical about their past and what I think Bartolomey proved, as much as I enjoy my Philharmoniker conspiracy theories, is that even if the comparatively much less open Clemens Hellsberg represents majority opinion within the orchestra (as he must if he wants to keep his job), the Philharmoniker isn’t necessarily a lock-step monolith on these issues. For those more interested in the orchestra’s present than its past, the next instalment in this series promises to be similarly critical (for details, see here).
The musical part of the afternoon showed how well the Klangstil has passed from father to son. Matthias, whom I’ve heard a couple of times before, is one of those rare breed players who – and what better way to test versatility than with cello duets – would slot right into the Philharmoniker or could have an interesting career as a soloist. Franz was the less dominant, allowing his son most of the flair and colour, but Matthias blended well – particularly when the Popper goes into G major and a lyrical motif gets rolled from one player to the other. Popper is not a beloved name to most cellists (least of all this one) for his ball-breaking op. 73 studies, and aside from this lyrical moment and Bartolomey senior’s underscoring of the piece’s wit aside, the duets don’t have much to offer beyond their pedagogical value and the connection to the topic under discussion (Popper was another Bohemian-born member of the Hofopernorchester). The Offenbach is a more engaging piece, and very tightly organized despite having everything but the kitchen sink thrown at it in the way of musical devices. Towards the end the melodic line turns operatic and the Bartolomeys made that sound like a convincing development without letting the sudden incongruity pass unnoticed. There was also the incongruity of a senior member of the Vienna Philharmonic giving this material the best performance it’s likely to receive outside of the Musikschulen, which never really cropped up – and without father and son affecting an overly serious demeanour.
|Wilhelm Sinkovicz & Franz Bartolomey|
Image credit: Sophie Bartolomey