I am not sure what Johannes Brahms would have said, but I think Franz Schubert would have warmed up to the idea, especially after a few beers at the “Schwarze Katze”, one of his favourite pubs in Vienna: blending blues with the second movement of his String Quintet in C (D.956) and the second movement of Brahms’ String Sextett No. 1. In the realm of emotions, blues and Romantic classical music are immediate neighbours. Both express mankind’s longing for a better world, both oscillate between joy and sadness, both find their expression most of the time in plaintive ballads. So marrying the two can be an interesting experiment. And Schubert was open-minded person, enjoying performing in a small circle of like-minded musicians.
The Norwegian Knut Reiersrud Band embarked on this experiment last night with selected musicians from the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg: two violinists, two viola players and two cellists. Introducing Schubert’s piece by a long blues ballad – what a nice idea! I heard a little early Pink Floyd here and a little Mark Knopfler there. Blending Brahms with a duet of guitar and drums – promising and reminding me at times of the fabuluous music composed and performed by Ali Farka Touré (1939-2006) from Mali, the “Bluesman of Africa”.
Searching for the balance
So yes, there were beautiful moments. But I had the feeling that the Norwegian band was still searching for the right balance. Either the chamber concert hall was too small or the blues band was too loud. Unpleasant at times. While the slow and gentle parts of the performance proved the concept right and gave both the blues and the classical musicians an opportunity to show their talent and dedication to the project, way too often I did not hear the strings. Especially the cellos were drowning at times in the sound of the guitars. At least there were no brass!
Expanding and amplifying the sound and the musical intentions of the classics, as the band puts it, is all very well – within limits. The fun stops when Schubert and Brahms disappear altogether behind the “wild creativity” (Knut Reiersrud Band on the Knut Reiersrud Band) or when the classical musicians are effectively shut out of the creative effort. The amplified strings did their best, but often they were simply overhelmed by the guitars and the hammond organ. A honourable mention goes to Andreas Bye (drums) using restraint and thus harmonizing nicely with the strings.
The Knut Reiersrud Band has released a recording of the two pieces together with the Trondheim Soloists under the title “Infinite Gratitude”.
© Charles Thibo