Musikfest also gave a chance to evaluate a large swath of the German classical scene. I witnessed nine concerts, six orchestras, two new-music ensembles, and about fifty flower bouquets. One cannot grasp a national musical culture in the course of twelve days, but I could at least see the tip of the iceberg. Nearly every orchestral program was filled out by a work of the repertoire, allowing the opportunity to evaluate the ensembles on more traditional terms. Of course, the Berlin Philharmonic remains in the lead, with incredible precision, warmth of sound, and depth—in both Coro/Pulcinella as well as their second concert, a Boulez-led program of his …explosante-fixe… and Stravinsky’s short opera The Nightingale.
...explosante-fixe... is one of Boulez’s decidedly experimental works, a frantic bombardment of three flutes, orchestra, and electronics, given a razor-sharp performance by Berlin principal Emmanuel Pahud. The Nightingale demonstrates Rimsky-Korsakov’s enormous hold on the young Stravinsky, with its mysterious orchestral mist in the first act. The latter two acts, written after The Rite of Spring, show Stravinsky beginning to shrug off his teacher’s influence, with moments of Rite-esque frenzy. All the parts were well-sung, with excellent contributions from the Rundkfunkchor Berlin and the sensational coloratura of soprano Barbara Hannigan.
Under the direction of Marek Janowski, the Rundfunk-Orchester Berlin had a commanding presence in Stravinsky’s hyper-muscular Apollo and Strauss’s kitschy suite Der Bürger aus Edelmann. The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and the Bayerisches Staatsorchester disappointed, the former with an unpolished Daphnis et Chloe completely lacking in nuance (the only time I’ve ever been dissatisfied with David Robertson), and the latter with an dreadful Metamorphosen courtesy of Kent Nagano. The Staatsorchester maintained their lush string sound in the Strauss, but Nagano drained the tone poem of all its passion in a sterile and disheartening interpretation.
The grandfather of the new-music ensemble, Ensemble Incontemporain, continues to amaze, though I only witnessed seven of its performers in Boulez’s Le marteau. Amazingly, a 2.5-hour concert of difficult works by Cologne-based MusikFabrik, conducted by Hungarian legend Péter Eötvös, held a rapt, attentive, and large audience. It provided the greatest variety of music in the festival, with two very different works by Berio, Xenakis’s vicious but long-winded N’Shima, Pousseur’s rather stale La Seconde Apotheose de Rameau, and Eötvös’s Steine. Berio was represented by the dwelling, sweet Naturale for viola, percussion, and recorded samples of a Sicilian folk-singer, as well as Kol od—Chemins VI, an orchestration of his trumpet Sequenza, given a searing performance by Marco Blaauw. Steine, Eötvö’s clever deconstruction of his role as both conductor and composer, was an utter delight; he led the ensemble by tapping two stones against each other, and the instrumentalists resisted but eventually give in to the peer pressure, creating rhythmic games and visual comedy.