Sunday, May 1, 2022

Great Amber Concert Hall, Radio iela 8, Liepāja, Latvia

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine forcing a late transfer to Liepāja, today’s Berliner Philharmoniker Europakonzert – a tradition established under Abbado in 1991, marking not only European cultural heritage and common understanding but also the founding of the orchestra in 1882 – was intended to have been in Odesa. Changing country, venue and programme sharpened an otherwise routine fixture. Valentin Silvestrov’s from-the-heart Elegy (for strings). Janáček’s First World War Taras Bulba (Rhapsody) with its Zaporozhian Cossacks from the Wild Fields of Central and Eastern Ukraine. Russian politics, Tsarist to Soviet to Federation. Sibelius’s protest against fin de siècle Russification and censorship in Finlandia. Latvia’s own (Latvia, freed from Moscow’s yoke only in 1991) mirrored through Pēteris Vasks’s Soviet-era Musica dolorosa, resisting repression through beauty (Vasks, son of a “politically undependable” Baptist pastor), and Elīna Garanča’s Berio Folk Songs, the latter incorporating material from Armenia and Azerbaijan, antiquity and fiercely independent patriotism notwithstanding Kremlin-radicalised republics for much of the twentieth-century (Garanča’s dress in the yellow and blue of Ukrainian identity, a gold waistband for hope).

With the Philharmoniker led by Noah Bendix-Balgley, tranquil and dolce in his solos, Kirill Petrenko shaped a searing Taras Bulba (baton) and, in the composer’s presence, a notably intense, rhythmically glowing account of the Vasks (hands), its hammered pizzicato rituals sending a relentlessly time-without-stopping message oddly reminiscent of the end of Schubert’s ‘Great C-major’ Symphony. Vasks wrote the piece on the death of his sister: “This is my most tragic opus, the only one in which there is no optimism, no hope – only pain.” Garanča’s (complete) Berio – eleven numbers, in the 1973 orchestration – was dark, expressive, occasionally earthy, finally exultant. Aristocratically delivered, without recourse to staging or mannerism (Cathy Berberian could be pretty idiosyncratic, abandoned even, in these settings), it’s long been in her repertory: back in 2007 she did the cycle at the Barbican with Mariss Jansons.

The “City where the Wind is Born” Liepāja is a Baltic port. A place of Russian acquisition since before Chopin’s time. A nineteenth-century arboreal, watering playground. A transit station for early-twentieth-century emigrants to the New World. A place haunted by the Nazi-led public massacres of 1941 and, under Stalin, the mass deportation in 1949 of Latvians to Siberia, women and children among the many – “enemies of the people” so-called. Its new landmark multi-function performing space, opened in 2015 and taking its name and the colour of its transparent facade from the amber shards that winter storms wash onto the beach, is a strange visual experience, a leaning, cone-shaped structure that outwardly appears akin to the upper section of a kettle-drum, the skin forming the roof, or a sun-polished gas holder. Judging from the webcast, the main auditorium, seating over one-thousand, is pleasantly resonant, flattering the strings with added body and ringing upper harmonics.

Once edited for the Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall platform, it would be excellent if the interval documentary about Latvia and its culture and choral legacy is retained – movingly informed and filmed, it included telling contributions from Vasks, snow-bound, and the young conductor Aivis Greters, judging from his recent work with Paavo Järvi and the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich a force to be watched.

“Peace and Solidarity” – Berliner Philharmoniker’s Europakonzert 2022 in Liepāja/Latvia.

Berliner Philharmoniker: Kirill Petrenko conducts Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades [live Digital Concert Hall webcast; sung in Russian, with German and English surtitles].