Saturday, December 19, 2020

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

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

Signing off the Berlin Philharmonic’s Beethoven 250 anniversary week – including four “Beethoven in close-up” programmes featuring the String Quartets and woodwind chamber music with players drawn from within the orchestra – this concert was as perfect and adrenalin-charged as it gets. Not the biggest forces (five double basses, violas to the right), but an immensely rooted sound, with common key (C-minor) and principles underlying both Coriolan Overture and Fifth Symphony – Andris Nelsons opting for a driven, tidally organic, motif-stressed approach strong on pulse and measured, breathed pauses yet with space to offset the gruff exterior of the music with its more lyrical heart. The life and death thrust of Coriolan was as much about Roman General as pleading mother and wife. Likewise the Symphony foiled tough argument, spectres and triumphal marcia with soaring poetry – the oboe cadenza of the first movement, the phrases and cadences of the A-flat Andante, all invested with a beauty and believability beyond time.

E. T. A. Hoffmann’s 1810 words crossed my mind – what Alex Ross calls “criticism in a new key”. “Beethoven’s instrumental music unveils before us the realm of the mighty and the immeasurable. Here shining rays of light shoot through the darkness of night, and we become aware of giant shadows swaying back and forth, moving ever closer around us and destroying within us all feeling but the pain of infinite yearning, in which every desire, leaping up in sounds of exultation, sinks back and disappears.” Berlioz, too, rose before me. “In [this Symphony Beethoven] develops his own intimate thoughts, it is about his secret suffering, his concentrated anger, his dreams full of such sad despair, his nocturnal visions, his outbursts of enthusiasm. The forms taken by melody, harmony, rhythm and the orchestral writing are as substantially individual and novel as they are powerful and noble” (Michael Austin’s translation).

The Fifth has no programme. But it has imagery and symbolism in plenty, affording Nelsons an opportunity to evoke a sweeping landscape rich in unexpected balances and niceties. None of Savall’s rampant battle drums, but things, for instance, like the tensioning presence of those ostensibly innocuous first oboe offbeats from bar 167 of the slow movement. Come the Finale (including exposition repeat, omitted by Barenboim and the masked West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in their Bonn jubilee livestream), high-voltage electricity ensured more than a tingle or two, the Philharmoniker, unmasked but individually distanced, giving its all, a smile or two humanising the concentration. Over sixty years ago, in the Royal Albert Hall, a Slovak memory and the Fifth set me on my musical road. Good to re-live it again in such an account.

With much of his year cancelled – some wonderful moments back in June with Sol Gabetta and Sabine Meyer notwithstanding ( – Berlin-based Seong-Jin Cho tackled Liszt’s A-major Piano Concerto (No.2), a recent addition to his repertory, with elegance and fantasy. Occupying a place in the Romantic canon akin to Beethoven’s G-major in the Classical, this is a work that calls for lyricism, quality of touch, and the ability to throw a note across a hall, to liberate a phrase, no less than grapple with a lion in a cage. Imagined in terms of a Straussian tone-poem, a bravo performance ensued. Purling runs, sovereign chording, high-velocity octaves, expanses of sensitivity, tasteful rubato, stretched prepared cadences. Resounding three-fingered fff notes before the D-minor at Letter C. A special cello duet with Bruno Delepelaire. Heroic clichés. Nelsons, collaborating with Cho for the first time, went along with the vision, a field-marshal alive, like his musicians, to every subtlety of colour and rhythm from night glow to high noon. Grand playing.