Friday, May 6, 2022

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

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

In this refined programme of masterworks by the so-called First transitioning into Second Viennese Schools, all manner of memories and shadows seemed to ghost the Philharmonie, Mahler and Abbado not least, come like old friends to listen and admire. Antonello Manacorda (pictured left) was Abbado’s leader of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, and in 1997 a co-founder of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. With Jan Mráček, concertmaster of the Czech Philharmonic guest-leading, this was a grand evening of cultured music making, Manacorda among supportive colleagues former and present, making his points quietly without gratuitous drama. The surprise was that he hasn’t appeared with the Philharmoniker before.

Not a man to drag his heels, he opened with a bracing account of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, motif-insistent with sharp tuttis and boldly lit dynamic gestures, the music’s C-minor engine revving in high gear, its great unisons and staccato chords stabbing and epic. The fin de siècle Habsburg aura of Mahler’s “songs of latter days”, his five Rückert-Lieder written nearly a hundred years later, trembled different notes. Orator, sage and story-teller in one, glorious in baritone voice and narrative delivery, floating and soaring the phrases, Christian Gerhaher commanded imperiously, painting words, psychology and philosophy with the clarity, life-experience and presence of an olden bard, Manacorda, a seasoned opera man, catching his every breath and nuance. ‘Ich bin der Welt’, especially moving (harp, cor anglais and solo violin glowing, but not only), faded out the performance in sighs of emotional reflection, ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’, concluding the 1984 Critical Edition (Mas Puttmann’s 1912 orchestration), accorded penultimate place. “The last rueful songs of nineteenth-century Romanticism” Bernstein called these Rückert-Lieder. How right he was. Not to be hurried. “I am lost to the world; I live alone in my own heaven, in my love, in meinem Lied”.

Premiered in New York in December 1940, Schoenberg’s two-movement Second Chamber Symphony for small orchestra (no heavy brass or percussion), revised, lengthened and completed the previous year, was begun in 1906. Scarcely a repertory standard, of lean melodic cut, its late-Romantic chroma-diatonicism urged Manacorda to opt for an essentially linear emphasis, prioritising clarification of texture and timbre, no expense spared when it came to coaxing maximum return out of the tricky woodwind, horn and trumpet parts, especially in the con fuoco second movement.

Period aware but not period fanatic, a pragmatist, Manacorda, as we know from his Sony recordings with the Kammerakademie Potsdam (and from a buoyant 2015 Sixth Symphony with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, views Schubert – with whom, he says, he feels particular empathy (as both chamber player and conductor) – in muscular, unsentimental yet poetically tensioned terms. This reading of the ‘Unfinished’ (first movement repeat, antiphonal violins, felted drum sticks) was magnificent. By no means a routine run-through, more a deeply thoughtful re-assessment, intent on communicating the power, weight and beauty of the score, the independence of orchestration, and the particularities of its invention and statement within the symphonic spectrum. Incomplete maybe but was this not the most original Viennese symphony of generations, he seemed to ask us? An ascent to Elysium for those beloved of the gods.

Digital Concert Hall’s English sub-titled pre-concert and interval interviews – showcasing as much artist as player intellect, arresting in ideas and words, observing and teaching at the same time – are always worth watching. Predictably, Gerhaher and Manacorda had much to say, and say personably well, a quotable quote every other sentence, flair and humour hand-in-hand.