When I heard the name Poppen in connection with a concert by the Bangkok Symphony 0rchestra, I made up my mind to attend, hoping to be delighted once again by the great German violinist, Christoph Poppen (who also proved himself a great conductor when he came to Bangkok a decade ago with the Munich Chamber Orchestra.) When I found out that the soloist this time was to be Diemut and not Christoph, I was even more curious to test out the old Thai saying that “The germ never will desert the clan.” The musical experience in the evening of 17 March 2018 did confirm our Thai folk wisdom.


It was a moving experience. One of Bartok’s last works, the Viola Concerto (Op. posth.), proved to be a masterpiece that demands both technical prowess and interpretative power on the part of the soloist. In spite of his failing health (and he did not live to put the finishing touches on the Concerto), Bartok delivered a composition that could be considered a jewel of the viola repertoire. And it is representative of the seriousness of this leading composer of the 20th century: he always gave his best when accepting a commission. Lord Yehudi Menuhin’s story about the genesis of the Sonata for Solo Violin is worth repeating: Menuhin was trying to help out the ailing and impecunious Bartok with a commission and was expecting something lightweight; what he received from Bartok was a monumental score that still defies great virtuosi of later generations. Menuhin related further with pride that when he tried out the new sonata in front of Bartok, the composer complimented the violinist that he thought it would take many more years after the composer’s death before a work could be performed “like that”. There is humility and wisdom in the remark by Bartok: even the composer himself has no final word on his own composition: a work of art is a potential that will mature indefinitely with subsequent interpretations. That was the impression I got last night from the playing by Diemut Poppen: she was exploring and fathoming the depths of this great composition. She gave no sign of wanting to put finality on her interpretation. And that process of exploration was so SOPHISTICATED. I maintain that I have chosen my words carefully.


Let us face it: this is a fiendishly difficult concerto, and a soloist who aims to impress his/her audience will not be able to resist the temptation to revel in technical bravura. (The version played last night, for example, contains a long devilish harmonic passage that would make any violist shudder!) Diemut Poppen would have none of that. Her approach was lyrical through and through, not only in the slow movement, but in the outer movements as well. Even when the music demanded a certain degree of aggressivity, her playing remained basically lyrical. Those quick passages in the final movement smacked of amazingly lyrical improvisation: its almost gypsy-like allegresse sounded more folksy than, say, the last movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto. This was the first time I heard the Bartok Viola Concerto – despite my frequent forays into concert halls in the West – and I found it a memorable emotional, at times even spiritual, experience. Yet Poppen’s playing betrayed no sign of deliberately trying to squeeze every drop of emotion from the work. But when the right moments came, we could sense her deeply-felt engagement with the music. It all came from inside, transmitted through the instrument, without the slightest exhibitionistic self-indulgence. That is what I call s o p h i s t I c a t I o n.

          All this could not have happened without the support of the conductor and the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra. I know that the orchestra has been struggling very hard to maintain the standard achieved during the golden years under Hikotaro Yazaki. They have been fighting against all the odds, not necessarily of a financial kind. It was a marvel that the orchestra could provide the kind of accompaniment to Ms. Poppen as it did last night, for it was apparent that it could have done with more rehearsals: the dialogue between the soloist and the wind instruments, for example, could have been more precise. And I did notice that several senior members of the BSO were absent. (I learned later that they had been drafted to perform at a state function.) Credit must be given to those young players who tackled a new work with such admirable determination. The Belgian guest conductor Michel Tilkin must be thanked for his remarkable leadership under such trying circumstances.

           The problems I have mentioned must have accounted for Tilkin’s treatment of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. He knew he had to inspire a predominantly youthful orchestra to give its best, and there was no time to work out those fine dynamics. That was why he opted for a highly spirited performance rather than a nuanced one. It worked! The cor anglais solo came off well, although the player might have preferred to give back the honour to his senior colleague (who must have been among those drafted to fulfil a more stately duty). The audience did find such music-making immensely enjoyable, and I also would endorse its warm reception. I have written about the achievements of Michel Tilkin on a previous occasion, the 30th Anniversary Concert of the BSO, on 10 March 2013, when I made the following statement: “My advice to the BSO: Stick with this conductor! He is a worthy successor to Hikotaro Yazaki!” (See my book, Bridging Cultural Divides, p. 439) Although my wish has come through only by half, I am perfectly happy.

          As for Ms. Poppen, we must try to invite her back at the earliest possible opportunity, perhaps for a chamber concert. It is in  t h a t  domain that her sophistication will shine out even more brightly.