Saturday, December 5, 2020

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

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

In his mid-forties, the French conductor Alain Altinoglu, of Istanbul Armenian descent (his name translates as ‘Son of Gold’), studied at the Paris Conservatoire, where he now teaches. Since 2016 he’s been music director at the Royal Theatre of La Monnaie in Brussels. In coming seasons Germany at least will be seeing more of him with his appointment next year as chief conductor of the hr-Sinfonieorchester in Frankfurt, succeeding such as Paavo Järvi and Andrés Orozco-Estrada. He first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2017, his programme including the premiere of an aurally heady Suite he’d arranged from Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, focussed around nuance, inflexion and klangfarbenmelodie.

Cutting a somewhat traditional figure in tails, preferring a clear beat to excesses of gesture or body language, he’s an altruistic musician who likes working with detail and rhythm as well as background perspectives, allowing players time to articulate with clarity and shape, to blossom individually. This especially came across in his approach to Stravinsky’s eight-movement commedia dell’ arte Suite from Pulcinella (1947 version), comfortably among the best, more coherent performances I’ve heard in recent years. With the Berlin Philharmonic, violas to the right, fielding a top line-up of principals – led by the veteran Daniel Stabrawa, Emmanuel Pahud (flute) and Albrecht Mayer (oboe) not least among the woodwind section – this was an account that glowed with neoclassical tang and life. Sharply chiselled, the trombone and double bass duet of the penultimate Vivo movement was magnificent. The closing Minuetto, more weighted than the composer’s Columbia recording, had a slow hypnotic glide, the accompanying pizzicato thrusts (following on from the Serenade second movement) stabbing through like some menacing, prowling force – “the blows of Pulcinella’s enemies”.

Steering a course through Bizet’s evergreen 1855 Symphony in C isn’t easy. Too light a hand can turn it into something facile, too serious a one into the near portenious. To my mind Altinoglu got the balance right, reminding in an agreeable pre-concert interview that here was music looking to Mozart and contemporaneous Gounod – First Symphony borrowings – with Rossini in the wings (he might have added Schubert, Mendelssohn too). Bright orchestral C-major, glittering tuttis and lyrical solos, the crispest of slurs and staccatos, a vernal spring in the step, was his take. The 9/8 A-minor slow movement proved endlessly gorgeous: lusciously-toned violin lines breathing their way through rise and fall, acceleration and deceleration, each cadence phrased off operatically; a placed, poised fugato, everyone given space to listen; tellingly emphasised cello/double bass pizzicatos. Elsewhere the viola/cello open-fifth drones of the third moment’s Trio suggested rustic Haydn, an imagined Gallic vielle à roue transporting us to summer pastures. The terse dominant/tonic sign-offs of the flanking movements, timpani Gs and Cs resonating, were of champagne-cork variety, glitteringly inevitable. All in all the delight, the burgeoning flight, of a boy-cum-man, dead by thirty-six, whose life was to run the gamut of emotions from childlike to irascible, from challenging a critic to a duel for ridiculing Wagner to Jeux d’enfants to Carmen. Altinoglu and the BPO should record it.