ARC Ensemble plays The Music of Robert Müller-Hartmann

Today I had the exquisite pleasure of a live encounter with the music of Robert Müller-Hartmann, through the ARC Ensemble at the Royal Conservatory of Music’s Mazzoleni Concert Hall, playing a program to be broadcast by CBC Radio 2. I’ve written recently about ARC Ensemble for their “Music in Exile” recordings for Chandos, such as their October release of “Chamber Works by Alberto Hemsi”, or the chamber works of Dmitri Klebanov in 2021.

As in my previous encounters with the repertoire recorded by the ARC Ensemble, I’m relying upon the excellent notes provided by Simon Wynberg, their Artistic Director. The notion of music in exile is simultaneously exhilarating when we discover someone unknown, yet very upsetting when we look at the life they led, and contemplate what might have been lost. Yes it’s a bitter-sweet experience to encounter the music of a composer whose work is mostly unknown, leading me to wonder (not for the first time) about the process whereby one becomes known, let alone popular.

Born in 1884, a noted composer and teacher, his professional life was disrupted by the arrival of the Nazi race laws in 1933. While Müller-Hartmann was able to get out of the country, settling in England and making some useful contacts including Ralph Vaughan-Williams, yet once the war began his work was again disrupted. In 1939 he and family were interned on the Isle of Man. Although RVW helped secure their release by 1940, he was still not permitted to work as a freelance music teacher until December 1943. In 1950 Müller-Hartmann died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Some people manage to compose under the most adverse situations. One thinks of Hans Krása, or Viktor Ullmann, composers who accomplished amazing things under the adversity of a concentration camp. For whatever reason the works of Müller-Hartmann did not get much attention.

Today’s program:
Two pieces for cello and piano
Sonata for Two Violins, Op 32 (P)
Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op 5 (P)


Three Intermezzi and Scherzo for piano Op 22
String Quartet No 2, Op 38

The “P” above signifies published pieces. The others only existed in manuscript form.

ARC Ensemble: Erika Raum and Marie Bérard (violins), Kevin Ahfat (piano),
Steven Dann (viola), and Thomas Wiebe (cello). (photo: Suane Hupa)

On this occasion ARC Ensemble consists of Erika Raum and Marie Bérard, violins, Steven Dann, viola, Thomas Wiebe, cello and Kevin Ahfat piano. I say “on this occasion” because there have been other players joining this core group as recently as the Alberto Hemsi recording, released just last month.

When something is unique, it may be impossible to understand. Musicians have to learn new pieces, playing them in public only if and when they believe someone might want to hear them. Both of the published pieces (shown above with a ”p”) are fascinating works I’d like to hear again. I don’t know how difficult the string-players’ parts are, which is a possible factor in keeping something out of public view. The two violins are sometimes playing a game of cat & mouse, as though chasing one another, sometimes in imitation, sometimes almost like a challenge, as if to say “anything you can play I can play better”. Yet the two violins sometimes offer one another support. The sonata for Violin and Piano poignantly includes a dedication to “Artur Schnabel with sincere admiration”. I wonder, did Müller-Hartmann know the pianist (one of the great interpreters of his era) and perhaps sought his attention this way? The piece has a fabulous but challenging piano part that might remind you of Richard Strauss, or even Korngold. Pianist Kevin Ahfat was unfazed, playing with tremendous sensitivity to the dynamics, considering some of the immense effects in the score. It almost sounded like a violin concerto, where Ahfat was playing a reduction of an orchestral part. This isn’t to say it’s bad so much as to suggest that this too could be a factor in why Müller-Hartmann isn’t better known, having written something daunting to most chamber musicians: or so it would appear from where I sat.

Impressed as I was by Ahfat in the violin sonata, he came out after intermission to play four solo pieces, works that deserve to be known. The unpublished Three Intermezzi and Scherzo for piano Op 22 drew the biggest ovation of the afternoon, (my big mouth included).

The three intermezzi put me in mind of Brahms, tuneful pieces with conservative tonalities that wouldn’t trouble a listener in the 1880s (when Müller-Hartmann was born). Each one reminds me of a Brahms intermezzo, for example in swift fluid passages (#2) or a folk-tune melody (#3).

The scherzo began with something reminding me of Chopin’s 1st (toughest) scherzo, although this piece sounds even harder on its final insanely difficult pages. It’s like Siegfried’s climb of a mountain surrounded by fire, to step through the fiery curtain into the perfect tranquil calm where you kiss Brunnhilde to wake her up: or of course you crash and burn (figuratively or literally). Ahfat was fearless climbing this mountain.

The String Quartet that closed the program was another piece to puzzle the listener, an astonishing work deserving to be heard, played in a sterling account of music that’s new to everyone and therefore that much harder to articulate. ARC Ensemble gave us transparent performances, their dynamics and phrasing taking us deep into the score as though they were witnesses for the defense: of the composer. Arguably any performance is a proposition, demanding that we pay attention to what’s being played. I was persuaded

I was especially in tears listening to the last movement, which builds in frenetic passage work as though someone is fleeing for their life, as scary as anything I’ve heard in a terrifying film-score: and then suddenly we’re hearing a sweet simple tune as though a reminder of the old country or a former life that’s been snatched away. The combinations are unlike anything I’ve heard although this taste for pained ambivalence reminds me of Gustav Mahler, a juxtaposition of horror and sentiment.

And I was teary-eyed thinking of the composer whose life was disrupted.

The next ARC concert will be April 2nd 2023, playing the music of Alberto Hemsi.

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