Sunday, September 6, 2020

Philharmonie, Berlin

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

There’s never been a shortage of masterworks and profile artists at the Berliner Festspiele/Musikfest Berlin. This year from the ‘New Testament’ Beethoven Piano Sonatas with Igor Levit (fresh from his ‘250’ cycle at Salzburg) to the ‘Old Testament’ Bach Cello Suites and Nicolas Altstaedt. From jazz and film to London-born/Berlin-based Rebecca Saunders in focus. Discerning, open-minded programming, “a forum to the artistically extraordinary, but also to the as yet undiscovered, to the innovative, one that is characterized by curiosity and receptivity” (Joachim Sartorius).

Historically informed Baroque practitioner as much responsive modernist, Alstaedt is a gut-string player. He moves little on the stool, his body language conveys a near blank sheet, he steers clear of facial communication. Whatever his inner responses he’s outwardly neither impassioned nor emotive. Citing Bylsma and Harnoncourt among his early influences, he keeps their warmth and humanity, their narrative/dramatic undercurrents, oddly at bay.

Divided between matinee and afternoon recitals, his Bach (baroque bow held well forward of the frog) was predominantly lean, resistent to vibrato (even as an expressive device), the greater the agility the lighter, shorter the strokes, gritty attack furthest from his soundworld. Broadly he favoured an improvisational style of performance. Stretched barlines were not uncommon. Ornaments came in any number of varieties, colours and articulations, from the deliberated to the whispered, ethereally floated. Sitting in a darkening room at the onset of night cloaking the trees, the illusion at times was of a man heard from a distant room, musing and inventing, fading and rising, now a simple line, now a dense texture, flashes of quick dance here, a sombre Sarabande there.

With minimum breaks between movements, the overall impression was of each Suite as an unfolding ongoing entity. Courantes and Gigues were on the fast, capricious side, sometimes at the expense of clarity and poise. Bach the voice of all ages and spirituality was the message of the Sarabande of the Fifth Suite – soul-bared, enduringly extraordinary C-minor music given a particularly lonely reading.

For the Sixth Suite Altstaedt changed instruments to a violoncelle à cinq cordes tuned in fifths from bottom C to middle E. Not entirely comfortably, his intonation, secure elsewhere, at its least positive in the flanking movements.

These “Mystery Sonatas'” three centuries old (Isserlis’s sobriquet) are one of the grand cleansing voyages of Western art. Altstaedt stayed the course, for close on two-and-a-quarter hours seeking out the heights and bastions.