Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-70)

Friday, January 28, 2022

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

The Zimmermann was his Photoptosis (Prélude for large orchestra, 1968), compelling as sound (hypnotic and hallucinatory) and dramatic/anguished tidal-wave climaxes (brass, percussion and organ at full pelt), interlaced with quotations from Beethoven (Ninth Symphony), Scriabin (Poem of Ecstasy), Tchaikovsky (Sugar-Plum Fairy!) and Wagner (Parsifal) – leading to dissonant/pulverising chaos (the optional brass-rampaging coda played; I can’t imagine any conductor leaving it out) … abrupt cut-off (possibly prophetic that Zimmermann would take his own life) … overall beguiling, thrilling and disturbing in equal measure. (Next month the Berliners and Kirill Petrenko take Photoptosis to Croatia and Slovenia.)

Lutosławski’s First Symphony was completed in 1947 and premiered in Katowice the following year, Fitelberg conducting. It’s a concise four-movement piece for full orchestra (including celesta, harp and piano) – fast-slow-scherzo-fast – Stravinsky the dominant influence, Hindemith also apparent, with Bartók underlying the second movement: neoclassical, perky, folksy, lyrical, passionate if not without angst, jazzy-shadowy, energetic. It’s a fine piece, intriguing for not giving much if anything away about Lutosławski’s later music, played here with precision, sensitivity and brio, and conducted with enthusiasm.

Petrenko was rather hasty, brusque even, with the first movement of Brahms’s Second Symphony. As the exposition neared its end I rather hoped it wouldn’t be repeated (not my norm in this work): surprisingly, given he is usually punctilious about such matters, Petrenko did indeed pass-over the repetition. The Adagio fared somewhat better, given time to breathe and express itself, and the third movement had courtly elegance offset by quick-witted agility. The Finale went like the wind, on the crest of a Philharmoniker wave, ruthlessness avoided (just) due to nimble playing, subtle dynamics, and a moment of repose. The coda (accelerated into) was exhilarating. Nevertheless, a Brahms Two for the time it took to play rather than tomorrow.


“The word „photoptosis“ is Greek, meaning roughly „incidence of light“. In the Prélude, this process refers to the changes of colour occurring by the way the light comes in: here in the field of tone colours in the broadest sense. The inspiration behind this composition was the monochrome wall areas of the foyer at the Musiktheater im Revier, Gelsenkirchen decorated by Yves Klein.” Bernd Alois Zimmermann

Listen to Photoptosis – Ingo Metzmacher conducts the Berlin Philharmonic, March 21, 2001