Saturday, October 17, 2020

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

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

Early-music man fronting mainline orchestra taking on Classical repertory. Most do well if with occasional eccentricities (Harnoncourt) or bared extremes (Savall). Of Franco-Polish/American extraction, Marc Minkowski, who began his career with René Clemencic, is up there with the best, homaging Bach and humouring Offenbach in equal measure, sailing happily from Stradella to Schubert. Surprising then that despite informed work these last couple of years with members of the Karajan-Academy of the Philharmoniker, this was only his first appearance with the Philharmoniker itself. Jovially ebullient, giving players their head yet conscious of detail and phrasing, he’s an engaging communicator, believing that neither too much confidence nor too much control is good. “One must be natural and honest.”

‘Fire’ unified the programme: Haydn’s A major ‘Feuer’ Symphony No.59 (late-1760s), Beethoven’s The Creatures of Prometheus (1800-01). Extant in an early manuscript violin part, ‘Feuer’ wasn’t Haydn’s moniker, more an identifying tag linking the music with a production of Gustav Friedrich Wilhelm Grossmann’s 1773 play Die Feuersbrunst (Conflagration), staged in Eszterháza during the 1770s. It’s a lively, dynamically active score, arguably more efficient than special – but memorable for a poetically arched second movement, beautifully shaped by Minkowski (a seasoned Haydn man who knows about timing and spacing), and the rasp of trilling hunting horns exchanging with oboes in the Finale. Very Baroque.

The second of Beethoven’s two ballets, Prometheus – last played complete by the Philharmoniker in 1992 – is a heroic allegory based on the myth of the Titan Prometheus, the Forethinker, who steals fire, the “divine spark”, from Zeus, fire and thunder god of the Greeks, to fashion man out of clay. Humankind is ignorant and awkward. Through Apollo, god of the arts, and his appointees, from Orpheus to Terpsichore, Pan and Dionysus, ideas of science and music, comedy and tragedy, dance, are introduced. “Only through the arts [can man] learn to feel and reason” (Susanne Ziese) is the Enlightenment aspiration of Salvatore Viganò’s non-pantomimic libretto. One entertainment-expectant Viennese critic found the whole spectacle “laid out too grandly for a divertissement, which is what a ballet should actually be.” Regardless, it enjoyed more than twenty performances between 1801 and 1802.

Comprising an Overture, introduction (La tempesta – Zeus’s domain, Chaos, the primordial soup), fifteen numbers and a Finale, there is no example in the Beethoven catalogue of such conceptual scope or variety of orchestration. In a pre-concert interview with Minkowski, all manner of images and allusions passed by. A gigantic symphonic chamber work. A Tenth Symphony. Beethoven stealing Haydn’s fire (The Creation having been premiered in Vienna two years before). A complex structure to hold together, prone to bittiness and sectionalisation, it’s more usually broken up into digestible extracts. Benjamin Levy attempted a truncated “concert suite in four movements” in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw back in 2014. Beethoven’s published piano arrangement (1801) identifies a distinct division into two Acts, the second and longer opening with the fourth number, briefly masonic in intonation. In shifting this, introducing a long pause after the Marcia, No.8 (“the processions of Mars”, Roman bringer of war), Minkowski proposed a re-angled dramaturgy.

With violins divided and just four basses underpinning the harmonic engine (Matthew McDonald leading the latter with trademark gusto), this was a bold reading that brought to mind cross-fertilisations of symphony and concertante, operatic scena and sonata adagio, games and dances, old theatrical devices, Handelian glory and Napoleonic tutti. Anyone expecting a lean ‘period’ characterisation will have been surprised by the Romantic lushness, the lack of hurry, the touches of Weber and Brahms, in the Overture’s slow preface, the Berliozian vision, almost Mahlerian weighting, of the Pastorale, No.10. Supremely golden for Manfred Preis’s basset-horn playing was the Solo della [Maria] Cassentini, No.14 – high-carat music-making. Noble, too, was the B-flat Adagio, No.5, with harp, the 6/8 cello solo taken by Bruno Delepelaire – though I did wonder if it was perhaps too precious, Emmanuel Pahud’s flute lead-off a shade too indulgent? (On YouTube there’s a version with Trevor Pinnock and the Royal Academy of Music Chamber Orchestra, showcasing un-named woodwind principals and a stellar cellist of phenomenal musicality, that’s innocently fresher and more immediately, involvingly faithful to the Beethoven spirit – [2015]).

Minkowski’s concern to get rubato, individuals and ensemble together didn’t alleviate transient loose corners. More than once (from the very first stumbled violin attack of the Haydn in fact) you felt that the Philharmoniker was dealing with notes it wasn’t always comfortable with, deliberated carefulness no guarantee to achieving the desired result. Even those rushing E-flat string scales of the country-dance Finale, staple orchestral fare from their re-use in the Eroica, slipped and slid. Never mind. Journey completed, battalion in full cry, the essential message triumphed, Zeitgeist intact. “Here sit I, forming mortals / After my image; / A race resembling me, / To suffer, to weep, To enjoy, to be glad, / And thee to scorn, / As I!” (Goethe, Prometheus, 1774/89).

Berlin customarily delivers state-of-the-art audio-visuals. That the harpsichord continuo (Haydn) was no more than a nominal presence, virtually inaudible, that the kettledrums (Beethoven) were a touch over-reverberant, here and there occluding clarity and definition, puzzled.