Saturday, October 8, 2022

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

For the last couple of weeks the Berlin Philharmonic has been playing at ‘classical’ strength, for elder statesmen conductors, Herbert Blomstedt,, and Marek Janowski,, and their chosen repertoire for these particular visits.

Timpani aside, there has been no need for percussion during this period, trombones appeared just for a few minutes in Janowski’s Schumann ‘Rhenish’, and the only woodwinds needed have been the traditional quartet regulars. For Iván Fischer and Mahler’s First Symphony the Berliners were at full strength: from piccolos to contrabassoon, brass and strings in abundance, with some skin (including two timpanists) and metal to strike and stroke, and a harp.

In the Mahler, preceded by an interesting interview with Fischer, the conductor took at face value the composer’s markings that can be regarded as unusual, eccentric even. The dawn-like opening stole in on a thread of sound, distant perspectives perfectly judged, birdsong waking – picturesque and potent – the exposition (repeated) as time-taken as it can be, a wanderer awed by Nature, contemplating, if gathering resolve, then a spellbinding uplift from valley to mountaintop, or at least ground level for fresh air and open spaces, from chamber music to full orchestral force unhindered by any need to rush or gloss things up – and, anyway, such journeys weren’t meant to be easy. Let’s dance: the Scherzo was suitably pesante and bucolic, although its Trio was stretched close to breaking point. The funereal slow movement, here heavy of tread, opened with an immaculately intoned bass solo from Matthew McDonald, klezmer elements were high-kicked and the middle section was intimately rapturous. The Finale was a feast of (controlled) tempestuousness and (silky string-playing) ardour, richly-moulded phrasing, dramatic interventions, heraldic anticipations of a famous victory, lingering entreaties and passionate climaxes, all leading to the triumphant coda, here grand and resounding … ultimately, with sixty minutes now elapsed, we had indeed reached the summit, although a jerky subito accelerando was needed to get there – I expect it’s what Mahler wanted.

The concert opened with a sequence of Waltzes from Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier – whether composer-compiled or (like the Suite) by another hand I’m not sure – brought off with much charm and panache as well as poignancy (six percussionists plus timpani required, with the basses in a line in front of the battery). Further, much later, 1940s, Strauss followed, his autumnal Duet Concertino, for clarinet and bassoon with strings and harp. Strauss’s craftsmanship is typically elegant, the writing unfailingly fluent, perhaps pictorial in part, music that sings and twirls, embellished and expressive. A passing fancy it might be (it is not as returnable-to as the Oboe Concerto or the Second Concerto for Horn) if given a very sympathetic and highly polished account by Philharmoniker principals Wenzel Fuchs (clarinet) and Stefan Schweigert, accompanied admirably by their colleagues and with an attentive Fischer by the soloists’ side, his podium positioned at an oblique angle. For an encore the duo played a movement – rapid and witty – from Poulenc’s Sonata … and how.