Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-63)

Saturday, September 18, 2021

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

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

With Kirill Petrenko, philosopher and humanist, at the helm, and Patricia Kopatchinskaja, free-spirit and explorer, this season’s Artist-in-Residence, life at the Berliner Philharmoniker is a highly charged affair, debate and evaluation, psychological analysis, central to the musical landscape, cauldrons of molten iron, cascades of emotion bursting from within, at the heart of the music-making.

This performance of Stravinsky’s complete Firebird ballet pretty much had everything. I’ve often thought that the nature of the work, while convincing in the theatre, benefiting from movement, staging, scenery and lighting, is something of a death trap in the concert hall, its structure, contrasting the unity of the Suites Stravinsky extracted later, hard to bring off. More bad than good accounts have come my way. Petrenko took the old fairy tale – what child in Russia doesn’t know it – and turned its every strand and incident, nuance and colour, into a fabulous casket of pre-Revolutionary jewels, prismatic and Fabergé-esque. Shadows and suggestions, darkness and whisper, faintest strokes of kolinsky sable-hair framed the picture cinematically. At one with the vision, breathing together, listening and answering, the Berliners, led by Daishin Kashimoto, surpassed themselves. Yes we had the big moments, those magically invoked folk quotations, the look-backs to Rimsky-Korsakov – Petrenko’s “guru of Asiatic sonorities”: what might he do with Scheherazade we wonder? – but the overriding impression was less one of bravura virtuosity than pianissimo virtuosity. Here was a conductor working in the infra-red spectrum with players rising to his every wish, fantasy and wraith-like turn. The new faces in the ranks must have wondered what they were in for. Probably not Clara Andrada de la Calle though, solo flute of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Frankfurt RSO, whose contribution, musicality and distinctively toned low register gilded the woodwind section characterfully. The kind of guest to have at any top table.

PatKop, self-styled, believes intensely in Karl Amadeus Hartmann, the Munich-born socialist and anti-Fascist who, through “inner emigration” – non-performance, “keeping his head above water by means of occasional jobs” (Petrenko) – survived the Second World War and living under the Nazis despite his music being condemned. Played without a break, the four-movement Concerto funebre (originally Musik der Trauer [Music of Grief] 1939, premiered in Switzerland in 1940, revised 1959) was written in reaction to Hitler’s annexation of Bohemia and Moravia in 1938-39. Lament and accusation lie at its core offset by thoughts of a better future. “The chorales at the beginning and end [Hussite and Russian respectively – You who are God’s WarriorsFor the Fallen Revolutionaries (familiar from Britten before and Shostakovich after)] are intended to offer a sign of hope against the desperate situation of thinking people … I wanted to write down everything I thought and felt, and that gave me the form and the melodic style.”

“A composer who from 1933 to 1945, the best years of his life, had not written for anyone but himself.” In a compelling dialogue with Cornelia Gartemann beforehand, furrowed pain in her expression, PatKop (‘Patricia’ still to the Deutsche), who recorded the work in 2018 (her Time and Eternity album), had plenty to say. “This Concerto is Hartmann’s most powerful work. I’ve tried to learn his solo Sonatas for violin – they’re so difficult I had to give them up. But the Concerto is good to play, it sounds great. He evidently knew the instrument very well. And he wrote it from the greatest of all impulses: inner necessity. In this piece there isn’t a single note that’s superfluous or simply decorative. It’s not an aesthetic construct. Behind it lies the spirit of resistance, a sense of despair and outrage at what [politically] constituted it’s [period of composition]. Hartmann was one of the few people to speak out. When Dachau was opened in 1933 there were initially no Jews there, only German intellectuals. Among those arrested were mayors, Communists and dissidents. There was even a hut for clergymen. And one can’t say that no one knew anything about it. There were newspaper articles. Hartmann was a left-wing thinker, from a family of artists. His brother, Richard, was a painter, a member of the Communist Party. Democratically elected politicians simply disappeared from the Reichstag. From an early date he knew exactly what was going on around him. In 1934 he completed a symphonic poem, Miserae [Wretched]. At the beginning is this dedication: ‘To my friends who had to die a hundred times over and sleep for eternity – we shall never forget you. Dachau’. Hermann Scherchen [fellow socialist] conducted the first performance in Prague. After that he was banned in Germany. All that Hartmann wrote [under the Nazis] was simply filed away. That’s why his works are so psychologically charged.”

“Deep down within Hartmann there was this grief, this sadness, this – as he called it – spiritual hopelessness in Germany at the time. This was an enormous weight on him. You can hear a soul screaming out in pain in this piece. You can only perform it with a completely extroverted attitude. You can’t play it in an intimate way, you’ve got to externalize the intimacy” (Petrenko). “You simply lay yourself bare and make yourself vulnerable. The final chord is a knife thrust. It must simply break your heart. And indeed every heart in the room … all improbable human wounds are torn open here … I see these Hussites coming towards me from afar ‘We’ll fight to the end and we’ll win,’ they say. This humiliation, these murders, these wars musn’t be allowed to happen. Human dignity matters, to be defended to the bitter end. This piece is like a mission. It’s not just about beautiful playing. I really couldn’t care less if something goes wrong. What’s important is that the message strikes home. And I want today’s audience to be conscious of this … what the moment is … where the danger lies. And that this danger is always with us” (PatKop).

With reduced string forces, solo violin and ensemble variously focussed/magnified/recessed, here isolated, there involuted, the performance was all to be expected from the ambience of such words. Gravity-laden. Nothing painted. Raw. Blueprint rhythms, open to bending. Instruments scarcely vibrated one moment, violated the next, bow-hair flying. Soundings, timings, decays left to resonate, die, be reborn. Yesterday’s dusk, tomorrow’s sunrise.