John Storgårds & Matthew McDonald

Saturday, June 4, 2022

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

This latest Berlin webcast opened with Carl Nielsen’s Helios Overture, music that starts in the depths of the orchestra and gradually – via gently calling then proudly proclaiming horns and trumpet fanfares – dawns the sun and arcs it to its highest point to brighten the landscape and invest energy all-round before dusk sets in, if here just a little restrained from the Berliners although John Storgårds is a distinguished conductor of Nielsen’s output, including recording the six Symphonies for Chandos with the BBC Phil.

Following the interval, in Bruckner Six, Storgårds kept the first movement on the move without undermining the Majestoso marking too much while seeking an across-the-whole integration of episodes that generally came off well, although a little more flexibility was occasionally needed, yet there was too much in the coda with something of a spurt to the finishing post. Good balance, however, with brass embedded the strings were always clear. The Adagio was initially a little hasty if soon settling into something sublime and ultimately hushed, followed by a pacy Scherzo and a woodland-exploring Trio. The Finale strode forward purposefully, quite fiery, and with less lingering (to advantage) than has become the norm in the reflective ‘slow moment’ roughly halfway through. The ultimate coda, built towards stealthily, was jubilant.

Two nights ago saw the premiere of Gerald Barry’s From the Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, a Berliner Philharmoniker commission for its principal bassist Matthew McDonald. Barry has returned to Act II of his Petra Kant opera (using as the libretto Fassbender’s screenplay for his film version) and has fashioned an active, sleight-of-hand, concert score that is full of vivid characterisations, such as horns suggesting car hooters (maybe) and wildly trilling clarinets and xylophone as a doorbell, says the composer, who also likens the solo double bass part to an animal burrowing underground. The music, recalling Stravinsky post-Diaghilev and before his severe final phase, is mercurial and incident-packed, mostly fast-paced cartoon-style, of rhythmic panache (every time-signature imaginable must be in there, somewhere) and requires quick ears, the textures enlivened by capricious changes of timbre within the full-complement orchestration in music that is not without humour and cat-and-mouse games. This third performance found the Berliners on top of Barry’s demands, Storgårds’s baton working overtime, and McDonald was utterly brilliant in what is a first-among-equals role, burrowing upwards for an in-keeping cadenza. Maybe this twenty-four-minute creation is a little too long (at twenty I thought that’s enough) but From… is certainly inventive and engaging with plenty to return to. McDonald signed-off with a whistle.