Saturday, January 22, 2022

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

If ever I had to choose just one Richard Strauss opus it could certainly be Alpine Symphony. It represents more than the mechanics of climbing a mountain, and it may well chart Life’s Journey (as some find in it, dawn to dusk equating to birth to death; I wouldn’t disagree), but aside from such a scenario it’s a great piece of music – evocative, painterly, rapturous, thrilling – which tends to bring the best out of orchestras and conductors, and also cues a variety of timings – from, in my experience, forty-three minutes (Pappano, concert) to the extraordinary sixty-seven of Maazel:

The average tends to be fifty (Kempe/Dresden, Previn/Philadelphia or Vienna; Mravinsky’s recording is five more, Solti’s five fewer). Philippe Jordan (son of the late Armin), for whom Alpine is a “special” piece (he conducted it without a score), took, well, fifty, although this was a well-above-average performance. Especially impressive were tempo choices and the feeling that this really is a joined-up organic score – whether contemplative, scenic or, upon reaching the summit, thrilling – but what a shame to be denied the offstage horns, those parts played by the on-stage horn crew; no hunters heard from afar on this occasion. Otherwise, it was an impressive outing, vivid, exciting and poignant, with suspenseful stillness before an elemental Storm, and with detail revealed contrapuntally rather than for its own sake, played to the manner born. When the mountain’s motif returns at the close (trombones) it’s a reminder that climbing it remains a challenge … Life goes on.

The concert opened with a twenty-five-minute sequence from Das Rheingold (compiled by Jordan), from the depths of the Rhine to the Gods striding into Valhalla, very well done as such, voice parts assigned to wind instruments, and retaining Wagner’s orchestral extravagance, not least four harps, but does such a synthesis have much point I wondered, and this one meandered somewhat due to no singing.

There was singing though, from soprano Anja Kampe in Alban Berg’s Altenberg-Lieder (Fünf Orchesterlieder nach Ansichtskarten von Peter Altenberg; Five Orchestral Songs after Postcards by Peter Altenberg), his Opus Four and the first time he had written for orchestra. The scoring is fastidious (large forces, including celesta, harmonium and piano) and the future composer of Wozzeck is evident. Kampe sung these pithy settings – complex yet lucid, lyrically intense – with much word-painting and sentiment as well as beauty of phrase and tone, suggesting that she is, or would be, a notable Marie, while Jordan and the Berliners were forensic in terms of clarity.

Watch Richard Farnes conduct the whole of Wagner’s Ring Cycle,, literally so.