So this past month, Berlin has seen a wealth of performances. A wealth, I tell you! Seriously, it was kind of nuts. I ended up missing a bunch of stuff for various reasons—mostly related to a project which will bear fruit soon enough—but caught plenty of awesomeness. I wanted to write it all up, and it seemed that short reviews would be the best way to get it done.
So, here we go:
Wednesday, April 13th: The Concertgebouw Orchestra at the Philharmonie
Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands rolled into town a few weeks back, with everybody’s favorite entourage—the Concertgebouw. Dutch royalty mixed with German politicians, fanfares were played, and national anthems were vigorously conducted (but, oddly, not sung along with?). Native Dutchwoman Janine Jensen gave an intimate, glowing account of the Mendelssohn violin concerto, with the orchestra, under the direction of Mariss Jansons, achieving an appealing lightness in the bubbly finale. Brahms’ Fourth could have used a bit more vigor, but the orchestra’s creamy sound—they use much more vibrato than the Berlin Phil—more than made up for it. Though lacking in apocalyptic momentum, the finale had a burnished sparkle under Jansons’ towering presence.
Thursday, April 14th: Frank Wedekind’s Lulu at the Berliner Ensemble
With the Berliner Ensemble being the child of Bertolt Brecht, it didn’t seem too surprising when a woman came out at the beginning of Robert Wilson’s Lulu staging to announce that what would proceed would be some combination of theatrical catastrophe and wonder. But it turned out that it wasn’t some Brechtian alienation effect or breaking of the fourth wall—the Lulu, of Lulu, could not perform. The show would go on as a musical revue, a cabaret evening of Lou Reed, who wrote the music for Wilson’s production. The cast’s spectacularly dreadful costumes, straight out of Nightmare Before Christmas, fit Reed’s grotesque, comic songs (“I want to see your suicide” was one lyric) to a tee. The evening had a loose, improvisatory feel, with various singers often reading their songs directly off of lyric sheets. At one point, a little old woman came out and sang the Velvet Underground classic “Sunday Morning,” in a quivery voice hearkening back to Threepenny Opera. Reed’s four-piece band played with flair and verve. All in all, more wonder than catastrophe.
Monday, April 21: Leif Ove Andsnes at the Kammermusiksaal
Leif Ove Andsnes is a terrific, intellectual pianist, with a keen eye for interesting programming as well as a warm, sensitive keyboard touch. All of this was evident at his Kammermusiksaal recital, an arch-Germanic affair of Beethoven, Schoenberg, and Brahms. His Waldstein Sonata eschewed heroism in favor of clarity, avoiding the usual tendency to treat the work as battle music, and he achieved a luminous tone in the solace of the final movement. The rarities of the program—Brahms’ Opus 10 ballade and Schoenberg’s Six Little Pieces Op. 19—complemented each other nicely; the Brahms was riveting if somewhat long, and Andsnes teased lush mysteries out of the Schoenberg aphorisms. Andsnes’ account of Beethoven’s final sonata, the majestic Opus 111, though, was both refreshing and disappointing. Most pianists embrace the metaphysical pretensions of the work, using ample rubato to emphasize its swan-song nature; Andsnes played it straight, with his lustrous sound. On the one hand, it made for an invigorating, unusual performance, with Beethoven’s rhythms and ethereal harmonies immediately palatable; on the other, it never quite achieved the grandeur which Thomas Mann and Theodor Adorno so eloquently described in Doktor Faustus.
Wednesday, April 20th: The Leipzig String Quartet at the Konzerthaus
It was a good month in Berlin for late Beethoven. The Leipzig Quartet gave a fluid, exquisitely-balanced account of Opus 132, the composer’s penultimate quartet. Their performance of the otherworldly slow movement—the Heiliger Dankgesang—matched the grace of Andsnes’ Opus 111. After intermission, the quartet presented Othmar Schoeck’s Notturno, a gleaming, eclectic combination of late Romanticism, atonality, and weirdly jazzy licks. Schoeck sets a series of poems by Nicholas Lenau (and, at the end, a short text by Gottfried Keller), with string writing which alternates between mellifluous lyricism and tremendous power. Baritone Stephan Genz initially sounded somewhat harsh, but he gradually warmed into the work, finding a round, creamy glint; the Leipzigers matched his dramatic passion, achieving a sublime beauty in the work’s final moments, a lullaby-like chaconne in radiant C-major.
Wednesday, May 4: Orchester-Akademie der Berliner Philharmoniker
The Berlin Phil’s Orchestra Academy—one of a number of training ensembles in the city (the opera and radio orchestras also have them)—comprises an elite, international group of musicians in their early twenties. I heard them give a breathtaking Das Lied von der Erde a few months ago, under the direction of Simon Rattle, and last night they proved equally excellent in a (mostly) contemporary program. The players exhibited remarkable control in Ligeti’s wispy Chamber Concerto, balancing the composer’s uncannily layered textures with apparent ease and providing fierce commitment in the final movement, a gridlock of ostinatos recalling the clacking metronomes of his earlier Poeme symphonique. Two of Steve Reich’s more generically bouncy pieces—the Duet for 2 violins and strings, and Nagoya Marimbas—were given vibrant, precise readings. An ensemble of winds did justice to the goofiness of Bernd Zimmermann’s frivolous Rheinische Kirmstänze (an arrangement from music written for a radio play), but played a rather unconvincing rendition of the boring, piquant neo-classicism of Stravinsky’s Octet. The evening ended on a literal high note, with Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre, an arrangement of arias for trumpet and ensemble from his spectacular opera—musicians whistled, crumbled newspapers, and shouted as soloist Balazs Toth wailed away on frantic, coloratura-style stratospheric passages.