Counterpoise is a highly acclaimed ensemble consisting of some of the most sought-after instrumentalists in the UK. It was formed in 2008 to give the first performances of a new work, On the Edge, commissioned from the outstanding young English composer Edward Rushton. Its programmes cross musical genres and explore the relationship between music, poetry and visual elements, seeking also to develop aspects of narrative and other extra- musical influences.
The unconventional line-up of violin, trumpet, saxophone and piano enables composers to create new soundworlds and to experiment with challenging fusions of music, text and visuals. Since Counterpoise was inaugurated, the ensemble has worked with distinguished artists such as Sir John Tomlinson, Sir Willard White and Eleanor Bron, and with leading composers in addition to Rushton, notably John Casken, David Matthews, Charlotte Bray and Jean Hasse.
Counterpoise has appeared at the City of London, Cheltenham, Buxton and Newbury Festivals, as well as other significant venues up and down the country including Kings Place, London, and St George’s Brandon Hill. The ensemble’s debut recording, Deadly Pleasures, made in 2013, was highly acclaimed. Future plans include Medea’s Cell by David Blake and Keith Warner with Susan Bullock, and another work by John Casken: a Lear project, again featuring Sir John Tomlinson.
‘delivered by Counterpoise with aplomb’ The Times ‘weird and wonderful’ The Independent ‘crisply narrated ... and deftly played’ The Independent on Sunday
'Counterpoise’s performance is strikingly dynamic ... an ensemble at the top of their game.’ Gramophone [review of CD Deadly Pleasures]
This sequence prepares us for the emotional storms of Kokoschka’s Doll by introducing us to the young Alma: beautiful, intelligent, an accomplished pianist and promising composer. Her first composition lessons were with a blind teacher called Josef Labor. In 1900 she begged to be allowed to study with the composer and conductor Alexander Zemlinsky. Zemlinsky unsurprisingly fell in love with his attractive 21-year-old pupil and Alma was sufficiently enamoured to consider marrying him. But then Mahler came into her orbit and after suffering agonies of indecision, she cast her lot with him. By the terms of an extraordinary pre-nuptial agreement, on which Mahler insisted and to which Alma consented with extreme reluctance, she gave up composing, Mahler fearing that a wife who spent her time being creative would not give him the undivided attention he required.
Alma Mahler’s reputation as a serial, trophy-hunting adultress, alluring and then casting off one artistic giant after another, is probably ineradicable but only partly justified. It is certainly true that in addition to her three husbands – the composer Gustav Mahler, the architect Walter Gropius and the writer Franz Werfel – she enjoyed the favours of a number of talented men. But Alma had a troubled, unhappy childhood (her beloved father Emil Schindler died when she was 12; her mother overwhelmed and neglected her by turns) and the series of more or less disastrous affairs into which she threw herself can be seen as attempts to deal with unconscious sexual conflict by attracting and humiliating a series of lovers. Certain of Alma’s character traits, combined with a penchant for anti-Semitic remarks (despite her various Jewish husbands and acquaintances), make her a complex, perplexing figure worthy of our attention but hard to love.
The present sequence takes the story from Alma’s composition lessons with Zemlinsky (1900–01) to her affair with Oskar Kokoschka (1912–14). It begins with three songs by
Alma that were published in her 1910 and 1915 collections, but which probably all date from 1900–01:
Laue Sommernacht (text by Otto Julius Bierbaum) evokes a mild, starless summer night in the forest, in which a couple discover their love for each other.
Licht in der Nacht (Bierbaum) describes another dark night but this time the hesitant shimmering of a yellow star brings solace to the troubled heart.
Erntelied (Gustav Falke). The poet’s text, entitled Gesang am Morgen, looking forward optimistically to the new day after the griefs of the night, may be seen as a reversal of the day/night dichotomy posited in Wagner Tristan und Isolde. Alma’s own title Erntelied (Harvest Song) is possibly to be understood metaphorically.
The fourth of Alma’s songs, Einsamer Gang, was written in September 1899, shortly before she began composition lessons with Zemlinsky. The choice and setting of the text, by Leo Greiner, about a lonely walk through the fields, reflect Alma’s intense loneliness and unhappiness at this period. The autograph manuscript of the song, which is in the Kislak Center at the University of Pennsylvania, came to light only recently and it was given its UK premiere by Rozanna Madylus and Counterpoise in 2018.
Zemlinsky’s song Selige Stunde, whose sonorous 7th chords were particularly relished by Alma, speaks of the happiness found in the arms of a lover. It dates exactly from the time of Alma’s lessons with Zemlinsky.
The Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No.5 achieved celebrity following its use in Luchino Visconti’s 1971 film Death in Venice. It has also been used to advertise products including Gucci perfume. It was originally written, however, by Mahler as a love song for his wife Alma.
Liebst du um Schönheit, from the Rückert Lieder cycle, was also written by Mahler as a love song for Alma, shortly after their marriage.
In Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (Where the Shining Trumpets Sound), from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a soldier visits his lover on the eve of battle, knowing he will not return. ‘There, on the green heath, where the shining trumpets sound, is my home of green grass.’
Webern’s Trio Movement for clarinet, trumpet and violin (1920) is a 19-bar composition that may have been intended as part of a larger work. The autograph, which is in the archive of the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, was transcribed by Wallace McKenzie and performed at the Sixth International Webern Festival at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on 17 February 1978. It had never been performed again and had not been heard in the UK before the Counterpoise performances in 2017; it remains unpublished. David Matthews’ Transformation continues the movement, effecting a shift of emotional and stylistic register from forceful Webern to something more lyrical and Berg-like. The trumpet solo towards the end is a quotation from Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony.
Träume is the last of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder. ‘Dreams that paint an unfading picture of forgetting and remembering, that give forth their scent and cool upon your breast as they sink into the grave.’
Isolde’s Liebestod is the name Liszt gave to his piano transcription of the final stages of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde.