Tuesday, September 28, 2010

double retrospective, part two

(photo by Kai Bienert)

Having already written about Coro, the Berio work which made the deepest impression on me, I thought I would discuss one less successful. Berio’s Concerto, played in the middle of the festival by the Bayerisches Staatsorchester, comes from the stylistic period of the similarly generic-titled Sinfonia and Coro. Written for two pianos (played stunningly by Andreas Grau and Götz Schumacher) and orchestra, Concerto takes upon the same task as those pieces: to sum up the history of the genre as well as expand it in new directions.

But where the post-modern deconstructions of those works yield to a free-wheeling Romanticism, Concerto dwells in the clichéd tropes of high modernism: scurrying figures, meandering exercises in orchestral timbre, explosive but limited gestures. It holds promise in the beginning, opening with the two pianos playing unaccompanied at an unsettlingly soft dynamic. Starting a concerto with the soloist is a tradition that goes back to Beethoven, which Berio decidedly mocks. In the Emperor Concerto, Beethoven uses the piano to immediately command the stage; Berio’s two soloists are directionless, playing stereophonic games which elude both the audience and the orchestra sitting patiently behind them. It’s a small revenge for all the soloists who have ever had to wait through five minutes of orchestral pomp before entering in their own concertos. Unfortunately, the rest of the piece is rather bland.

Concerto is a work which shows Berio’s affinity with the steely modernism of Boulez. One of the highlights of the festival, a performance by the Konzerthausorchester under the direction of Lothar Zagrosek, drew further parallels and demonstrated each composer’s breadth. Berio was represented by his Sequenza II for harp and Chemins I, a re-working of the piece with orchestral accompaniment. Coro glances back to resplendent tonality; Berio’s Sequenzas push forward in their extremes of virtuosic atonality, setting new limits for each instrument’s abilities. Sequenza II is an icy twinkle with webs of perplexing notes. Chemins I employs the orchestra to explore possibilities within the harp’s strange harmonies, enhancing the atmosphere without overwhelming the soloist. Frédérique Cambreling proved a stunning interpreter and executed both pieces with ease while continuing on as a soloist in Lutoslawski’s manic Double Concerto for Oboe, Harp, and String Orchestra.

Ritual in memorium Bruno Maderna is a dreary, underrated masterpiece and an unusually self-expressive work for Boulez. The Konzerthausorchester was divided into eight groups surrounding the audience, perfect for a hall like the Philharmonie. A memorial to the brilliant composer-conductor Maderna, Ritual creates a funereal procession of muted colors, with the antiphonal choirs resembling something like a community in mourning. The instrumental timbres feel muted, purposefully drained of color, and the regular beating of percussion sounds like the pealing of hollow bells. Pillars of brass, eerily shrieking clarinets, and transfixing gongs evoke the sound-worlds of Boulez’s mentor Olivier Messiaen. It is a distinctly emotional piece for Boulez—one can hear him turning back to the language of his predecessor to find a voice with which to lament.

My final two-concert marathon day at the Philharmonie demonstrated Boulez’s strengths but also his weaknesses. The Ensemble Incontemporain performed Le marteau sans maître, perhaps the quintessential Boulez work. Written for seven performers (flute, viola, mezzo-soprano, and percussion), it creates a dreamy world out of stiff timbres and elegant color combinations. Not a single note resonates; even the part of the mezzo-soprano, singing the poetry of René Char, is as dry as a martini. The economy of means employed by Boulez creates a silvery sheen which makes the work’s 35 minutes feel like ten.

Hearing it on the same day (in a morning concert, paired with an incisive rendition of Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata by Dimitri Vassilakis) as the Bamberg Symphony’s performance of the gargantuan orchestral Pli selon pli showed exactly where Boulez’s skills lie. Pli selon pli, which unites five separate movements written over a 32-year period, lacks a sustainable narrative. It strives for grandeur, with an arsenal of percussion, four harps, and a mass of other instruments, but lacks the rigor of Le marteau or the bleak ferocity of Rituel. It feels indulgent, only fully emotionally engaging in the final cataclysmic Tombeau, in which an enraged soprano snarls words of Mallarmé.


This is part two of my review of musikfest 2010, which took place from September 2-21 at the Philharmonie and Kammermusiksaal in Berlin. You can check out their whole program here; part 3 coming later this week.

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