Saturday, October 10, 2020

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

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

François-Xavier Roth, Baroque man, classico-romantic, arch modernist, treads where he wants, putting together programmes others might hesitate at. No baton, just eyes, body language and communicative hands, he’s an informed, emotional, disciplined artist firing up players with his enthusiasm and passion, holding the reins tight but by no means inflexibly.

This programme was a typical outing for him. Compared with say Giovanni Antonini and Il Giardino Armonico, his opening C. P. E. Bach however – the conceptually soloistic D-major first Symphony “mit zwölf obligaten Stimmen” from his 1775-76 set of four published in Leipzig in 1780 (Wq 183, H663) – was possibly a touch heavy-handed, the ‘Hamburg’ humour laid on, the mid to bottom end of the reduced Berliner Philharmoniker (violas to the right) lacking sufficient spring or bounce, the sound oddly emanating from somewhere beneath the stage rather than the air of the auditorium. I’m probably, though, being a little unfair, my perception to an extent coloured by a lifelong discomfort with the venerable Emanuel, having always veered more towards the lighter contemporaneous Italianate/south German style of his young step-brother, Johann Christian, in London, Mozart in Salzburg and the experimental Haydn in Esterháza. I can respect the textural/ensemble intricacy, the harmonic thought and rhythmic freedom behind C.P.E’s invention, the notion of a first movement without repeats, the radical link into the unlikely choice of E-flat for the central Largo (reinforced by Roth with a bridging harpsichord prelude). The old boy was never a foursquare fellow. I’m just not that excited by what he does.

Closing the evening, Bartók’s 1939 Divertimento for Strings – the final orchestral work he wrote in Europe before fleeing to America the following year (Turkey having been his preferred choice) – was another story, Roth and his select band, led with intensity by Noah Bendix-Balgley, putting together a superlative reading. This was a full-blooded realisation of highly dramatised dynamic range, the swells and breakwaters of the structure, the rhythmic tension, focussed through an arresting global overview, the starkness, pain and confrontation of the middle movement photographed in sepulchral, anguished black and white, in fantastical interludes of grey. A ‘symphony’ in substance, a ‘divertimento’ only in the transient frolics of the Finale, seemed to be the message.

“A minstrel entering a merry company displays what he has brought back from foreign lands: songs serious and gay, and finally a dance piece. Like a true musician, he expands and embellishes the melodies, preluding and improvising according to his fancy and ability.” Hindemith’s “Concerto after old folksongs” for viola and small orchestra (omitting the violin and viola sections) – Der Schwanendreher (The Swan Turner). Three movements, four German folksongs, brilliantly imaginative orchestration … boasting a solo part that in an informative, technical, yet engagingly approachable pre-concert interview Tabea Zimmermann described as the most physically demanding she’s ever played, Michael Jarrell’s recent Emergences-Résurgences excepted. Der Schwanendreher is one of those scores where the individual strengths of the ensemble are critical to its integrity and impact. The luminaries of the Philharmoniker, Emmanuel Pahud heading the woodwind, let no-one down, each responding to their solo, chamber and corporate roles with involved, listening dedication, Roth watching and directing with easy fluidity and crisp understanding of the style and detail called for. Leading from the start, the incomparable Tabea, regal and commanding, was in magnificent form – sonorously big-toned, organ-like even, projecting at all levels of the spectrum, alert to nuance and fine-tuned balance, elated and expressive, infinitely energised by the music. She has always been an extraordinary force of nature, a player beyond first magnitude, and this glowing, selflessly giving performance, one of compelling human and artistic honesty, lived up to expectations, going some way beyond her old EMI Munich recording.

For encore, the Andante from J. S. Bach’s Viola da gamba Sonata, BWV1028, with impeccably refined harp accompaniment from Marie-Pierre Langlamet. Such stilled beauty.