Tuesday, February 15, 2011

von anderen planeten

Most major orchestras throw down with a chamber program every few weeks. A string quartet shows up, cobbled together from the ranks of the second violins and fourth-chair cellos; a wind quintet makes an appearance, playing some tooty Spohr thing; scattered brass blare away at a Piazzolla arrangement. Sometimes, fortunately, these programs are free. Mostly, unfortunately, they are not particularly good. Orchestra musicians are overworked as is and can rarely award Sunday afternoon concerts with the amount of time they need. Even when all four string players have a gorgeous tone, they rarely communicate in the way that even a mid-level professional quartet might: there's simply not enough rehearsal time to develop the intimate relationships which great chamber music demands.

The Berlin Philharmonic has a particular advantage in this department. Beyond the group's considerable conglomerate merits, the ensemble is comprised of musicians who know how to create chamber music within the orchestral fabric. Even the greatest American orchestral players direct their attention exclusively towards the conductor or their music stand. Berliners frequently steal time away from massaging the conductor's ego to forge personal bonds with other sections--a flutist will make eye contact with a clarinetist during a soli passage, an entire cadre of violins will look to the cellos for a tutti.

On Sunday night's chamber program featuring members of the orchestra, the attention to detail and crafting music through communication was particularly evident. An unnamed string quartet (including concertmaster Guy Braunstein) blended consummately in Schubert's fragile Quartettsatz fragment just as well as any Emersons or Brentanos. The late Schubert, a work which stretches classical form to its extremes, made for a natural transition into the brittle sound world of Schoenberg's Second Quartet, which hovers on the edges of atonality before finally plunging into its depths. In Schoenberg's early music, we see less the destruction of tonality than its infinite expansion. A fluidity of form, as in the second movement's ghastly little scherzo with its uncanny asides, replaces any sense of governing structure; we are, so to speak, at sea.

Not only did the Philharmonic players provide a stunning and nuanced performance, but soprano Anna Prohaska delivered a show-stopping rendition of the final two movements, lieder after texts by Stefan George. Her ravishing voice suited the Expressionist mood perfectly, floating serene and untethered above the quartet before lunging into fits of rage. Prohaska swayed and shrieked like a woman possessed, embodying the "wind of another planet" which George's narrator breathes; she is still young at 25, but in a few years will make an astonishing Lulu.

After intermission, three of the quartet members returned with pianist Bishara Harouni to perform Mahler's Piano Quartet, a Brahmsian, unfinished student piece. They gave a hair-raising interpretation, with Harouni endowing particular sensitivity to the flickering triplets of the opening theme. The evening concluded with Schoenberg's strident Chamber Symphony in its original 1906 instrumentation, conducted capably by someone whose name I didn't catch (a last-minute sub for an ill Simon Rattle).

If there is a way to make atonality feel natural, it is programming like this. I doubt any member of the audience noticed that the last movement of the Schoenberg quartet didn't have a key signature; it really didn't sound all that different from the Schubert, and certainly not too different from the Mahler. That doesn't mean we have to buy into Schoenberg's self-coronation as the royal heir of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, the founder of a Second Viennese School when the first one never really existed. We can appreciate the fluidity without the ideology and hear the cracks in tonality emerge without adopting the dogmatism which emerged alongside them.

Even the jagged Chamber Symphony felt almost relaxed in the hands of the Philharmonic mini-orchestra, whose warmth rounded out the sharp edges. The enthusiastic applause of a sold-out crowd gave credence to Schoenberg's famous line, "My music is not modern, it is merely badly played."

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