Saturday, October 31, 2020

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

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

A fortnight ago the Berliner Philharmoniker and Minkowski were regaling us with ‘period’ Haydn and Promethean Beethoven Last Saturday, in a concert that slipped through the net, Barenboim directed a near full-strength account of Smetana’s complete Má vlast cycle as compelling individually and corporately, sometime more so, as anything you’ll get from the Czech strongholds.

This Halloween evening, hours before the lights go out again for another month of lockdown, isolation and silence around Europe, it was the turn of Kirill Petrenko [pictured]. German/Soviet music 1945 – “Death without Transfiguration” – a touch of latter-day Americana framing the narrative.

To open, Andrew Norman’s Sabina (2020) – originally for string trio, familiar in solo transcriptions for viola and cello, and now arranged for string orchestra, commissioned by the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation. “In October 2006”, Norman writes, “I visited the ancient church of Santa Sabina on Rome’s Aventine Hill. I entered very early in the morning, while it was still dark, and as I listened to the morning mass I watched the sunrise from within the church. The light in Santa Sabina is breathtaking; the large clerestory windows are not made of glass but of translucent stone, and when light shines through these intricately patterned windows, luminous designs appear all over the church’s marble and mosaic surfaces. As I watched the light grow and change that morning, I was struck by both its enveloping, golden warmth and the delicacy and complexity of its effects. I sketched the material for this piece soon after that unforgettable experience.” He recycled it subsequently for the final ninth movement of The Companion Guide to Rome premiered in Berlin in 2010 – “character studies of imaginary people, my companions for a year of living in the Eternal City.”

Norman, a humanist of vision and social conscience, a communicator intent on doing away with gender, community and racial barriers – man as world citizen rather than tribal specimen – is a complex thinker writing complex pages. But he’s enough of a pragmatist not to insist on the impossible, to allow for individual response and solution. In an erratum appended to the Companion, he notes typically: “The way to rehearse and perform Sabina is to play up the hairpins in each part – the polyrhythms get insanely complicated, but if each player plays up the swells to specific beats, and [they] know and listen for when/where each of them has an arrival at the top of a swell, it will hang together and sound organic. In other words: don’t stress about 100% accurate polyrhythmic relationship between parts, instead, sing the long lines embedded in all the figuration by really playing up the hairpins … It’s got to flow and not be too note-y.” Petrenko unfolded a sensitive performance – out of murmurs and climaxes, each to our own understanding and imagining, coalesced a translucent world of cosmic fundamentals and circling harmonics, the sound of light, silence and stone beamed and refracted.

For some years the BP has set the benchmark for pre-concert interviews developing fact, opinion and conversation, not a hint of condescension or audience pandering within earshot. Eva-Maria Tomasi (one of the orchestra’s second violins) had plenty to say from a player’s standpoint … encouraging Petrenko to muse philosophically. Initially the “war-torn world” and Goethe refuge – his 1798 didactic poem The Metamorphosis of Plants – permeating Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen for twenty-three strings. “With Goethe it’s the creation of life, the birth of civilisation, above all the emergence of love. Love is, so to speak, the goal of every metamorphosis. But with Strauss these metamorphoses imply destruction and corruption. Two artists creating something so different on the basis of the same principle.”

Then Shostakovich and his Ninth Symphony. “For Shostakovich there were no victors in this war, only losers, so many lives lost on both sides … He was far too intelligent, far too bound up with his times, to write a simple hymn of praise. [Officialdom] got the exact opposite … He dissected [their] great victory celebrations and bit by bit reduced them to their most absurd extreme. There are only scraps of melody, only motifs, that may contain the potential for victory but they’re distorted. Only a grimace can be seen in them. But in the [two] slow movements, conversely, he struck exactly the right note, one of suffering in war and of grief, a lament for the war-dead.”

His readings – hands for Norman and Strauss, baton for Shostakovich – mirrored the intensity and feeling of his words. The Strauss – old-age “Bavarian ‘wrist’ music” – grew and grew, getting larger and more dynamically anguished, then falling away, each player immersed in the style, giving their all. Come the ‘In Memoriam’ close, the Lombardic rhythm of Beethoven’s Eroica funeral march ghosting through, the body language, colour and weighting of the final low C on double basses ran profoundly deep, within its gravelled core the dust of endings yet somewhere too the seeds, the harmonics, of Goethean beginnings waiting their time. “A Requiem for a destroyed culture”, Petrenko proposed.

The Shostakovich, essentially normal seating and player proximity, was sharp-cut. Fast allegros, slow adagios, black-and-white contrasts, fatuousness and sorrow in jarring confrontation, corpulent Red Square field marshals in brazen salute, destitute, displaced souls forsaken and despairing. En masse, the Philharmoniker was brilliant, with raspingly coordinated brass and percussion. First to take a curtain-call were bassoon, clarinet, flute and piccolo, together with the leader, Daishin Kashimoto – all in exceptional, poetic solo form.

To finish – John Cage’s 4’33”. No-one playing, just the sounds of the environment, Petrenko, his players and the audience responding with utmost seriousness. Music and musicians have been stilled for much of this pandemic year. This moment of “silence” marked the poignancy: “all locomotion should cease, so that, in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance.”