Once in a while you get a concert which raises the question: “How did they sell that?” But, somewhat miraculously, the hall is almost full, the orchestra sounds great, and the audience seems more than pleased to hear some music they’ve almost certainly never heard before—and probably won’t hear again.
That was last weekend at the Philharmonie. The Berlin Philharmonic, beginning to wind down their season, played three works of which you’re lucky to have ever heard : Stravinsky’s arrangement of Bach’s Chorale Variations on “Vom Himmel hoch da komm, ich her”, his Requiem Canticles, and Mahler’s Das klagende Lied. Each benefited from the vigorous conducting of Vladimir Jurowski, a relatively young maestro who already seems heir to podium wizards like Gergiev and Muti (the hair says it all).
In 1956, having reinvented his style by incorporating latest fashions of serialism, Stravinsky essentially recomposed a Bach organ piece as a set of tricky variations. A Bach chorale floats through the brass and chorus and reduced strings and woodwinds unfurl plinky canons. It is the most bizarre Stravinsky I’ve ever heard, and maybe the worst: though I imagine the intertwined counterpoint looks good on page, it is utterly puzzling to listen to, a rigorously-organized chaos of crystalline melodic lines. Jurowski conducted with insight and knowledge of the score, but still couldn’t make any sense of the weird little piece.
The haunting Requiem Canticles followed—the apex of Stravinsky’s late style. In the canticles, Stravinsky trims the fat off of the Requiem tradition, reducing the grandeur of the death masses of Mozart and Verdi to something of a skeleton. We have a vaguely primitive Dies Irae, the eerie trumpet calls in the Tuba Mirum, the groaning sobs of a solo alto in the Lacrimosa—a distilment of the essences of each sequence of the mass. The vocal numbers are bookended by a bone-jangling prelude and an unsettling postlude, in which bells, vibraphones, and a single, droning horn form a kind of musical shudder. The Philharmonic sounded phenomenal and the Rundfunkchor Berlin was in fine form, providing strong rhythmic muscle.
Mahler’s Das klagende Lied, a heavily-revised student work, closed the evening. It is essentially a fairy-tale cantata, spinning out a German story of forest mystery and tragedy: the closest the composer ever came to writing an opera. We hear constant anticipations of Mahler’s later works—much of the music was recycled into the Second Symphony—and the orchestral passages are much more effective than the vocal ones. The style of storytelling recalls Wagner and even Weber but with duller vocal writing, and the soloists (mostly excellent, with mezzo Iris Vermillion as a standout and Christine Schäfer oddly disappointing) narrate the events without seeming to engage in them. Mahler is at his best in the enchanting, silvery choruses and innovative use of divided orchestra, with Ivesian brass and wind groups floating in from offstage. Jurowski held the work together deftly, ignoring the impulse to over-Mahlerize and maintaining an impressive balance between vocalists and orchestra, both on-stage and off.
Last night brought more unlikely Stravinsky to the Philharmonie—the composer’s Four Russian Peasant Songs, piercing arrangements of folk tunes for four horns and women’s choir which exhibit all the tell-tale signs of Stravinsky’s engagement with Russian lore, with vigorous chanting in mixed meters. The brief songs formed part of a particularly Russian-flavored program courtesy of new music master Peter Eötvös, the Hungarian Stockhausen protégé equally adept as conductor and composer. But this was not the heavy, “soulful” Russian interpretations of a Gergiev or Mravinsky. Eötvos brought a startling clarity to Mussorgsky’s warhorse Night on Bald Mountain, with Stravinsky-like sharp cutoffs and especially pungent brass, reining in the composer’s more outrageous climaxes. It was a mixed success: never before did Night on Bald Mountain so vividly anticipate the modernist experiments of the 20th century, but never before did it sound so lifeless—the cleanliness somehow dispelled the music’s heaving romanticism.
The evening was wrapped around the world premiere of Eötvös’s Cello Concerto, with the composer’s compatriot Miklós Perényi as soloist. Loosely based on the Baroque concerto-grosso form, in which a consort of instruments alternates with a main ensemble, the work draws on both Perényi’s brilliant virtuosity and the tandem efforts of the entire Berlin Phil cello section. The concerto opens with Eötvös’ trademark ricocheting, somewhat-comic gestures, with percussionists clapping drumsticks together and sharp motives zooming through the orchestra. Eötvös exhibits the same kind of quirky relationship to tradition as Ligeti, with fierce Bartók pizzicatos (when the strings snap, instead of pluck), snatches of Transylvanian dances, and thumping eruptions of brass and drums both avant-garde and folk-like. Though technically assured and cleverly orchestrated, the music felt a bit empty: only in propulsive, acidic finale, with Perényi sawing away, did it fully engage.
Eötvös saved the best for last: the Coronation and Death scenes from Mussorgsky’s Boris Gudonov. The Philharmonic vividly created the engulfing orchestral fog which opens the coronation (and which shows up in the finale of Pictures at an Exhibition) and the antiphonal offstage bells seemed to recall the spatial effects of Eötvös’s concerto. Italian Bass Ferruccio Furlanetto was thoroughly badass even when he wasn’t singing, the embodiment of threatening regality—his tender but powerful voice perfectly captured the czar’s pained pompousness. The guest Slovak Philharmonic Choir sang with a stirring thickness (I’ll try not delve into national clichés and say that they sounded “heavier” than other choruses). Though the orchestra never quite dove in to the music, the death scene still retained its beautiful horror, especially in the aching moment when Boris intones, “I am still czar”: a last denial before the end.