Saturday, February 12, 2022

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

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

Kirill Petrenko’s ongoing Suk crusade in Berlin – beginning with the Asrael Symphony (January 2020) and A Summer’s Tale (February 2021: – has opened a rare window on veins of middle-European late-Romanticism too long veiled in Mahler/Strauss shadow. Bringing to the music a post-Talich intensity and high-status concert-hall profile that somehow eluded the likes of Bělohlávek and Pešek, valiant and impressive though their efforts were, his passion and ability to fire the Philharmoniker into sharing his vision has made each new outing an enlightening journey of awakening and discovery.

The symphonic poem ZráníThe Ripening, Opus 34 (1912-18), is based on verses by the Prague ‘modernist’ Antonín Sova. It’s a work of fanciful imagination, emotional charge, and orchestral intricacy (including extra brass and wordless female choir). In a paper some years ago, “Sound and Structure in Josef Suk’s Zrání” (International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, June 1977), Jarmila Doubravová summed it up as “a musical symbol of the ‘life tree’, where separate parts testify to various moments and stages of life”, the various sections inter-related and cross-referenced as well as self-quotationally subtexted (the tritone ‘death’ motif from Asrael most evidently).

Bemused by Suk’s general lack of modern-day programming while acknowledging the impediment of his music’s practical difficulty, captivated early on by a recording of the work discovered during his student days in Vienna, Petrenko – in a pre-concert interview with the Philharmoniker’s Anna Mehlin, here adapted – speaks feelingly about its “richly varied wealth of colours, power and substance, the way in which ideas are given form and structure. As a violinist Suk knew exactly what he could write for the violins. His writing is very hard but it’s hard in a way that’s grateful rather than thankless. The beautiful passages are incredibly beautiful and colourful. Then there are the harmonies, and the philosophical and very personal background. You can hear the suffering behind this music. [In the Liszt-Smetana-Dvořák-Strauss tradition] The Ripening is in one continuous movement, constructed on the grandest scale, made of up five parts [others discern more sections]: it’s first conductor, Václav Talich [Prague, January 1918], saw it as a five-movement Symphony. I ‘Youth’, II ‘Love’, III ‘Blows of Fate’ – a Scherzo – IV ‘Funeral March’, V ‘Fugue’, conveying the idea of escaping from a crisis through sheer hard work and creativity. At the close, women’s voices [the ladies of Rundfunkchor Berlin]: here, after all life’s blows of fate, we attain maturity thanks to both good and bad experiences. We can let go, as it were. The ending is very muted, cadencing with a chord remote from the tonic. As with [Strauss’s] Zarathustra, it’s completely open. The music suddenly heads [from A] to B-major, dying away, leaving you with a feeling that it’s not yet over. On the one hand there’s a question mark, on the other the prospect of what life is like when everything ceases and you don’t know what’s coming next. It’s not a full-stop but three dots … For a composer to sign off such a complex work in this way [can only] mean that he himself, as a human being, has [found] calmness and self-awareness, a certain courage as man and artist.”

Following two days of rehearsals and a pair of preceding concerts, this account, the first in the annals of the Philharmoniker, rose to the occasion. Nothing melodramatic, a sense of landscapes and soul-states traversed, the tuttis soft-grained rather than edgy, blended refinement, the quietest of dynamics at the finish, B-major barely murmured, celestially suffusing the Philharmonie – “a hymnal affirmation of life shimmering” (Suk). Unsurprisingly, concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley brought grace and tenderness to his solo contribution (JS portraying himself, Petrenko wonders?), London-based Russian Natalia Lomeiko sharing first desk.

“A very small piano concerto.” Leaving finer shaping and balancing to a watchful Petrenko (reduced strings, antiphonal violins/violas, caringly involved concertante woodwind), Sir András Schiff confined himself largely to a scaled-down sketch of Brahms Two, not all notes, gearing or passion in sync. Allowing it to morph progressively into an anaemic, non-committal run-through was unbecoming, de-energised tensions and loose voicings, pursed affectation, a sense of caution, of waiting for things to happen, numbing even cellist Bruno Delepelaire in the Andante, and reducing the Finale to a lackadaisical stroll. Encore-wise, a Brahms Intermezzo, politely delivered but remote, in need of love and heart, didn’t leaven matters.