Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The perfect program

Friday, October 9 2010

Berlin Philharmonic
Eivind Gollberg Jensen, conductor
Vadim Repin, vioin

Sofia Gubaidulina, Offertorium
Sibelius, Symphony No. 1

Some programs just snap together perfectly. The first and second halves make an organic whole, and the intermission functions less like a bathroom break and more like an extended pause between movements of a symphony. At the Philharmonie on Friday night, the languid opening clarinet solo of Sibelius’s First seemed to flow out of the end of Sofia Gubaidulina’s Offertorium, as if the composers met up and decided to collaborate on a concert together.

Offertorium hovers in a strange limbo between concerto and religious ritual, in which the violin plays the role of both celebrant of faith and crazed virtuoso. Recalling Webern’s famous 1935 orchestration, Gubaidulina builds the work around the main theme of Bach’s The Musical Offering.

The piece opens with that tune, passing through the brass in a one-note-per-instrument fragmentation before being picked up by the ruminative violin. Circling around Bach, the soloist obsesses over gestures, dwelling manically on certain notes. Its ghostly reflection infects the rest of the orchestra, as solo viola and later cello imitate the violin. Space-age harmonies and hair-raising harmonics fill the gaps between the violin’s meditation, with an eerily repeating pattern of celeste and glockenspiel which recalls Russian Orthodox church bells.

Towards the conclusion of the work, a glowing chorale emerges, harmonized by low strings. It is a breathtaking moment in a work of haunting complexity, one which affirms Gubaidulina’s religious fervor and does justice to her updating of Bach. Vadim Repin provided a stunning solo line, combining a frenzied attentiveness to detail with a deep sense of crafting an overall narrative through the concerto’s thirty minutes. Jensen, making his Philharmonic debut, tackled the difficult conducting role with ease, drawing upon the orchestra’s rich sounds and creating a tapestry of colors.

Such a stirring performance before intermission, though, did overshadow Sibelius by a bit.

Written in 1898, Sibelius’s First already demonstrates the composer’s unique symphonic vision. In the same decade in which Mahler composed his Teutonic early symphonies, Sibelius began working on a smaller, more refined artistic conception. The progressive narrative standard in the Germanic canon after Beethoven—the development from conflict to victory, from misery to ecstasy, or from misery back to misery again—is circumvented by Sibelius. His symphonies conjure more abstract images, eluding any descriptive story. At times, it is difficult to tell whether the music is exultant or melancholic: shadows flicker in any moment of daylight, and light gleams in every shade.

Jensen mostly captured the Nordic lilt of the music in his conducting. He gave an appropriately weird twitch to the main theme of the first movement, a disproportionately long phrase followed by a quick snap, a stamp of Sibelius’s style which you would never hear in Brahms or Mahler. But he fell short when it came to the truly thrilling moments in the symphony, the really odd accumulations of orchestral effects.

Halfway through the slow movement, an elegantly flowing andante, darkness descends upon the orchestra. Brooding brass and searching strings set a stern pace, harps weave in and out, and ethereal flutes play a string of strange trills, an icy wind blowing through the musical landscape. In the hands of Osmo Vänska or Colin Davis, it is a spectral buzz, one of the most chilling moments in the repertoire. On Friday, the moment lacked its otherworldly eccentricity; Jensen is not yet a master of Sibelius, but it will come. He was at his best in the more conventional parts of the symphony, the hot-blooded flares of Romanticism, and ably steered the portentous finale towards its half-triumphant, half-menacing end.

Edit: apologies for weird formatting, it refuses to change. Just like classical music!

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