Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-70)

Saturday, September 17, 2022

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

This enticing programme opened with a work by centenary composer Iannis Xenakis, Empreintes (1975), written specifically for eighty-five musicians (none of them percussionists, harpists or keyboardists), whereas Jonchaies, included in this year’s BBC Proms, requires an ensemble of one-hundred-and-nine, Empreintes begins with a slow brass introduction, even so combat, a tournament, is suggested, with string glissandos whipping up something supernatural, eerie, and incisive rhythms suggest a storm brewing, brass pulsating in staccatos, woodwinds pecking (calling to mind Morse-code or birdcalls). Empreintes ends all too soon, however, after an eventful twelve minutes, and concludes wittily with a contrabassoon burp.

Bernd Alois Zimmerman’s Symphony in One Movement (1951), premiered the following year conducted by Hans Rosbaud, and revised in 1953, organ part removed, brass given more to do, and changes made to make the score more concise. It was the second version that Kirill Petrenko opted for, a volatile work in terms of tempos and emotions, scored for large forces, including several percussion-players, two being timpanists, with piano, celesta and two harps. Something sinister is in the air, right from the opening arresting gesture, music that exudes tension and conflict, uncertainty, leading to a climactic coda, whether apocalyptic or victorious (it’s difficult to tell, deliberate ambiguity perhaps); what’s more certain is that much happens in fourteen minutes.

Luigi Dallapiccola completed his one-Act, fifty-minute (usually, and as reported) The Prisoner (of the political kind) to his own Italian libretto, with some Latin, in 1948, a dramatic, expressionist opera that is vivid and characterised enough to resist staging, performed here with much intensity, not least by the choir (some of its members needed offstage), the large orchestra (including, ironically, given the Zimmermann, an organ) providing much description, and the DCH gave viewers the text in German and English. It’s a strong score musically, sustaining the listener by invention alone, sung superbly, especially Wolfgang Koch, and conducted with commitment by Petrenko, quite convulsive in fact, enough to last just forty-three minutes, which felt absolutely right.


Wolfgang Koch baritone (Il prigioniero); Ekaterina Semenchuk mezzo-soprano (La madre); Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke tenor (Il carceriere/Il grande Inquisitore); Caspar Singh tenor (1st sacerdote); Oliver Boyd baritone (2nd sacerdote); Rundfunkchor Berlin


“Luigi Dallapiccola created a compelling thriller for the opera stage with his one-act work Il prigioniero. Based on Auguste de Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s story La torture par l’espérance (The torture by hope), the opera is about a political prisoner who manages to escape. However, his joy at his unexpected freedom is short-lived, as he is recaptured and condemned to death: hope as the highest degree of torture. Through this work, which ends in disillusionment, Dallapiccola made a powerful appeal to engage in reality for the freedom and humanity denied on stage – concepts such as oppression, imprisonment and truth had increasingly moved to the centre of his compositional work since the political developments in fascist Italy in the 1930s. 

“The Berliner Philharmoniker and Kirill Petrenko present Dallapiccola’s masterpiece in a concert performance with an internationally renowned ensemble of soloists. The programme also includes music by two other representatives of the post-war avant-garde: Iannis Xenakis’s orchestral piece Empreintes, and Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Symphony in One Movement, which explores emotional extremes, and was written after the Second World War “in a time of collapse that was probably like no other” (Zimmermann).” [Digital Concert Hall]