Friday, November 13, 2020

Berliner Philharmonie, Herbert-von-Karajan-Straße, Berlin

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

We all have landmarks in our lives, the shaping forces that endure. Among my earliest was sixty years ago, September 23 1960, my first encounter with twentieth-century greatness. That history-making Cold War Friday-night the 106-strong Leningrad Philharmonic under Evgeny Mravinsky came to the Royal Festival Hall, the first ever Soviet orchestra to appear in England. Why did we go? Certainly not for the politics, the KGB security, the national anthems (a customary courtesy those days). Nor for the warm-up, Mozart’s Symphony No.33. No, we were there, like everyone else, for the first public performance in Britain* of Shostakovich’s wartime Eighth Symphony, given in the presence of the composer (sitting reticently in the Royal Box, gaunt, bespectacled, edgy, torment-laden) by the grand conductor, the impeccable orchestra, the friends for whom he’d written it. The occasion was monumental, inspiring, nerve shattering. The C-minor tale of Beethoven Five I knew. That of Shostakovich’s Eighth was painfully something else. I was unprepared for such a ‘tombstone’, such a requiem aeternam-dies irae-lacrimosa-libera me for companions lost, for the forgotten dead of the forests and killing fields of the war into which I had been born. I listened, unprejudiced. Open ears, open mind.

As later with the Fifth and Fifteenth Symphonies given in London under the composer’s son, Maxim, certain traits marked the evening, retrospectively the ingredients that elevate a Shostakovich performance beyond ordinary telling into ‘authentic’ narrative. When the music whispered, the world stood dark and frozen. When it climaxed you felt assaulted by the physical ferocity, the tortured, dissonant screaming of the sound. It was like being impaled through your seat: you felt emotionally affronted, you wanted to escape but couldn’t. When the going got fast you risked burning by the naked, high-voltage electricity of it all. It left me in awe. In 1999 BBC Legends released its tapes of the concert. I bought a copy. But it was a long time before I had courage to unwrap it. Would it be as titanic, as intense as I remembered? It was. And more. In the applause my clapping, that of my parents, mixed into history. Re-living it, hearing again the coughs and silences, the cheers, was strangely like unlocking some distant-forgotten sonic diary, passing through a door back to an hour that was once our youth.

Shostakovich Eight has long been one of my Desert Island Discs, all manner of readings having crossed my path. Some disappointing – randomly Previn, Rozhdestvensky, Eschenbach. Others powerfully otherwise – Tugan Sokhiev in Toulouse (filmed in black-and-white, provocatively), Haitink in Amsterdam. When Svetlanov scheduled it with the LSO in 1979 I got the opportunity to write a programme note of a kind and wordage rarely encouraged since by British promoters (different attitudes prevail in America). A decade or so later I narrowly missed out producing Maxim’s Abbey Road recording for Collins Classics. Indeed, it’s a work that’s always been with me.

This Berliner Philharmoniker webcast, fading from/to darkness, orchestra at full strength, violas to the right, empty auditorium, had all the concentration, brilliance and characterisation, the total mastery, of a performance to shape a generation to come. Kirill Petrenko’s sincerity, his belief in the stature and humanist message of this music – his pre-concert interview with concertmaster, Noah Bendix-Balgley, was passionate, fuelled viewing, not a word or thought wasted – made for an extraordinary, unmissable sixty minutes of octane-charged music-making and raw theatre, anguish and hope, life and death hand in hand. His players, thinkers and artists that they are, went with his vision, yet with enough space (and encouragement) to add their own slant and subtleties of inflexion/colour to the melodies and concertante ensembles arrayed before them. Petrenko, poet-philosopher, sees Mahler in these pages, but also Bruckner. His structuring of climaxes (not just their points of arrival) was phenomenal, each department of the orchestra combining like so many engines of an ocean ship fighting currents and conquering adverse winds. The glacial virtuoso peaks, exposed and hair-raising, the roar of unstoppable tuttis, everyone gripped by the experience, at the top of their game, sharing body language, sent shivers. The tempo and individualised phrasing of the longer paragraphs, the prolonged aftermath caesuras following the first and second movements, the sense of forsaken souls wandering bleak steppes at sunset, sent infinite sadness. C-major painted grey/black. Nothingness.

The Eighth is an unforgiving test for conductors. More have failed than succeeded. Triumph, I imagine, isn’t a word Petrenko would recognise or warm to. But triumph he most surely did.

*Henry’s Wood’s UK broadcast premiere, 13 July 1944, was from the BBC’s Bedford Corn Exchange studio, without audience.