The Hungarian author Oskar Serti loved attending world premieres. He also loved the French pianist Catherine de Sélys, though their relationship was not untroubled. She played her first wrong notes in public when he, utterly absorbed by her playing, leaned too far over the balcony railing and failed to notice his ticket for the next concert slip from his jacket pocket. A draught swept the ticket down to the keys of the piano; Catherine’s fingers slipped. She cancelled the next concert.
Serti (1881-1959) – whimsical, eccentric, passionate and methodical – is the perfect protagonist for Klangforum Wien’s lastest experiment with concert forms. A sound installation and a series of screens transformed the foyers of Cologne’s Philharmonie into a train station as the audience arrived on December 28 for six hours of contemporary music in bizarre settings. A disembodied voice narrated the first of a series of anecdotes about Serti’s life – in this case a perplexing non-encounter between the author and his beloved Catherine at a train station.
With the aid of screens, posters, historical objects and props, the musicians of Klangforum enlived different levels of the foyer with tales of Serti’s exploits – his habits on the day of a concert, the way he listened to music, his knack of describing performances he did not attend with conviction. More conventional chunks of new music in the main hall were interleaved with quirky foyer performances.
Serti, we were told, collected instruments that had featured in particularly important events. A clarinet that had been hurled into the audience at the Paris premiere of The Rite of Spring was a prize exhibit. The instruments, in open-sided cases, could be played from within their boxes. This occasioned a series of solo virtuoso works (Kurtág, Donatoni, Scelsi, Billone, Pintscher, Poppe), followed by Gerald Resch’s Collection Serti (2011) für Ensemble, in which all the instruments of the collection are played simultaneously – an experiment you could wish to see repeated in every musical instrument museum.
Of course, none of it is true. There never was an Oskar Serti, nor even a Catherine de Sélys. But there really should have been. French author Patrick Corillon has created a character you have to love, and Klangforum Wien’s dramaturg Sven Hartberger has given him an endearingly chaotic role on the sidelines of 20th-century music history. By the end of the long evening, the fictitious Hungarian had begun to feel like an old friend.
Amid all the absurdity, Klangforum, conducted by Jean Deroyer, gave obsessively good performances of six major works. From the whispered, stuttering fragments of Georges Aperghis’s 2008 Seesaw to the amplified howls of Bernhard Lang’s 1999 Differenz/Wiederholung 2, this was a programme rich in content and variety, well-constructed, superbly realised and thoroughly diverting. All praise to Cologne Philharmonie for daring to present something more substantial than Strauss waltzes between Christmas and New Year.