Josef Suk

Friday, January 29, 2021

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

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

One of the highlights of pre-covid London, February 2020, was catching up with Anna Thorvaldsdóttir’s Aeriality. In my review [] I variously essayed her background, values, inspirations, methodology. Suffice to repeat that she’s a composer of extraordinary sensibility and fantasy, her creativity imbued with that undefinable earthy something which arrests from first sound to last, midnight to high noon.

Commissioned by the Berliner Philharmoniker with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, supported by the Friends of the Berliner Philharmoniker Society, Catamorphosis lives through pathways and states of mind earlier works have prepared us for. Not a new title – the evolutionary theorist Ivan Shmal’gauzen coined the word in 1939, and the Lithuanian Gintaras Sodeika used it in the eighties for a synthesizer organ piece – but, for sure, provocative new fields to ponder.

The vast and the microscopic, molten liquids, the slow tectonics of the lithosphere, harmonies and seed plains, pedal-points, cliffs and undergrowths of sound-design realised acoustically rather than electronically, the infinity of traditional and extended techniques applied to a large orchestra at the quieter end of the dynamic spectrum, sum up something of the work’s subjective impact and undercurrents. A single-movement 235-bar canvas just short of twenty-one minutes, the crotchet beat slow, between 48, 50 and 44.

Signposts. 1) C[K]atamorphosis, catagenesis: “A direction of evolution characterized by the transition of a given group of organisms to simpler relations with the environment, resulting in general underdevelopment and simplification of structure” (Great Soviet Encyclopedia).

2) Programme note: “The fragile relationship we have to our planet. The aura of the piece is characterized by the orbiting vortex of emotions and the intensity that comes with the fact that if things do not change it is going to be too late, risking utter destruction – catastrophe. The core of the work revolves around a distinct sense of urgency, driven by the shift and pull between various polar forces – power and fragility, hope and despair, preservation and destruction. The relationship between inspiration and the pure musical feeling and methods, for me, tends to shift at a certain point in the creative process of every work. The core inspiration provides the initial energy and structural elements to a piece and then the music starts to breathe on its own and expand. In Catamorphosis this point in the process became more apparent and tangible as it aligned with an event that has had such dramatic impact on our lives and reality. The notion of emergency was already integrated into the music and to counterbalance that a sense of hope and belief. The meditative state of being needed to gain focus in order to sustain and maintain the globally important elements in life also became increasingly important and provided another layer to the inspiration. Catamorphosis is quite a dramatic piece, but it is also full of hope – perhaps somewhere between the natural and the unnatural, between utopia and dystopia, we can gain perspective and find balance within and with the world around us.”

3) Performance notes: “My music is written as an ecosystem of materials that are carried from one performer – or group of performers – to the next throughout the process of the work. As you play a phrase, harmony, texture or a lyrical line it is being delivered to you, passed on from another performer – performers – for you to carry on until it is delivered to another. All materials continuously grow in and out of each other, growing and transforming throughout the process. When you see a long sustained pitch, think of it as a flower that you need to carry in your hands and walk the distance on a thin rope without dropping it or falling … This piece is somewhat driven by intensity and urgency which is in turn polarised by gentle stillness and calmness. At certain moments the piece orbits louder dynamics that at other points are echoed by sections in lower dynamics and coloured by ethereal and textural dimensions of sound structures.”

4) The seven “atmospheric sub-sections listed in the score for inspiration”: i Origin; ii Emergence; iii Polarity; iv Hope; v Requiem; vi Potentia; vii Evaporation.

Accustomed as Thorvaldsdóttir is to high-profile premieres, this one was unusual in so far as, isolated in her studio near London, she couldn’t attend. Kirill Petrenko would have welcomed her. “In this piece there are various notes that are not just played but are produced with air. There are different tonguing techniques with the oboes and a particular air-sound with the strings. You don’t often find this in our usual repertory. So I’d have been very happy if the composer had been present”. Sent rehearsal files beforehand, her only comment, he said, had to do with minor points of balance. This was a calibrated reading, the Philharmoniker at its starriest strength and ability, massed forces poetically leashed rather than let loose. By the end, Petrenko’s hands quietly falling, a spell had been cast, a profound, enveloping aura.

Josef Suk (1874-1935) holds a fascination for Petrenko: he programmed the Asrael Symphony during his first season with the Philharmoniker. “With many late Romantics”, he elaborated in a pre-concert conversation with Stefan Dohr, principal horn, “you’ve the feeling that the music is manufactured. With Suk it’s completely authentic. It’s like a synthesis of a clearly Bohemian tradition. There are still phrases in thirds, arching lines, even a few rhythms vaguely reminiscent of dance music. But only a few. There’s then this late Romanticism. Lots of Wagnerian chromaticism: completely bitonal chords, with a minor seventh chord and an entirely different bass beneath it. Late Romanticism and Impressionism. Debussy is quite close. There’s everything from Dvořák’s successors to something close to free atonality. You need your own key for each of these subsidiary styles. That’s really the challenge.”

“An attempt,” Petrenko says, “to re-engage with life, like learning to walk again after being paralysed”, A Summer’s Tale (1907-09) is a five-movement tone poem of Straussian scale. The close-proximity deaths of Dvořák and his young daughter Otýlie, Suk’s wife, lay in its genesis, rejuvenation and awakening in its promise. Prague, Vienna, Suk’s late Habsburg period “was addicted to this music. The Musikverein programme note [of the first Austrian performance under Nedbal] describes the course of a single day from first light until night time before the sun appears once again through the cloud cover. In the first movement Suk tries to make his peace with life and learn to live again. After the sighs, nature arrives with the sound of birdsong. It carries him along, trying to cheer him up. But natures fails. At the end of the first movement he lapses back into a state of delirium. In his delirium he sees a series of images in the second, third and fourth movements. The second unfolds beneath the midday sun in the blazing heat. The third is an image of ‘Blind Musicians’. An incredible solo movement for two cor anglais. An allegory of the loss of a much-loved person: two blind musicians tell of something they cannot see. When you can no longer see the creature who’s dearest to you, it’s more or less what a blind man feels. The fourth movement tells of these phantoms, these ‘Illusions’. They’re goblins and ghostly apparitions. A bit like a Witches Sabbath. Then everything vanishes and you wake up from your delirium. It’s now night, and in this piece night brings peace. Night it calming, it helps us to unwind a little. Then, towards the end of this [final] movement, a new day dawns once again. But unlike the first movement we’re now ready to resumes our lives and to find consolation in life through the world of nature. The ending is very philosophical” – not to say hauntingly beautiful.

Petrenko’s faith in Suk’s mastery is unabated. Recalling an account of near identical length he gave with the Orchester der Komischen Oper Berlin in January 2004 (to the day), this was a cherished, personally intense traversal, a forty-nine minute journey clarifying tough, innovative complexities of invention and orchestration, giving magnificent rein to dreams and figments, walking roads glimpsing characters as diverse as Mahler and Satie (the “Blind Musicians”, English horns duetting hypnotically with harps). Golden poetry, high artistry.

Sandwiched between Thorvaldsdóttir and Suk, Prokofiev’s ‘bad boy’ D-flat Concerto sat awkwardly. Meat and drink orchestrally, of course, and plenty of flash for pianists who want to flash. Daniil Trifonov attacked it with steely relentlessness. As you’d expect, ‘Russian’ tone, big projection and glacial precision at a premium. His flights of fairy-tale fancy, though, smacked of the stereotypical, less inwardly sensed, less mercurially on the wing than Petrenko’s. The ‘that’s how we do it, that’s how you do it’ school. Not always the smoothest of joins or tempo changes. Standing by the end, he pushed the climaxes hard, every bar a bearded hammer blow. All a bit crude.