Thursday, December 22, 2022

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

From the outset there’s a surreal element to Esa-Pekka Salonen’s large-orchestra Helix. In addition its slow marching tread (over which are expressive woodwinds) promises to becoming quicker, just as the relatively thin textures are likely to become denser. Both anticipations are satisfied, the music swirling into action fuelled by active brass and percussion, although just as you think an explosion of lava is about to engulf all around it, the piece stops. Short-changed? Possibly, although Helix is a compelling nine minutes of rhythm, colour and mounting excitement.

John Adams’s recent piano concerto, Must the devil have all the good tunes?, is more flagrant – a pounding opening full of off-beats, which soon palls, although one admires the mastery of the complex notational skills needed to get so many notes and permutations onto paper, and when the onslaught finally winds down we are enjoying cool summer breezes, the writing ethereal and spare. But tunes? Not many, not any – maybe that’s the point, the Devil has already claimed them – although the sound-world is attractive, and it’s a shame that a Gershwinesque appearance is so short-lived, before pulsations return and are driven along to a black-hole conclusion. There was no doubting Víkingur Ólafsson’s virtuosity and dedication, nor the Berliners’ relish, but quite what this twenty-five-minute piece adds up to is difficult to fathom. In any case it was put in its place by the Bach/Siloti Prelude in B-minor, Ólafsson’s encore, a transporting miniature favoured by such as Emil Gilels.

Following the interval, the balletic-stances and wide-screen baton of Santtu-Matias Rouvali dallied with Prokofiev Five, the first movement a smidge too measured to really hit the spot, lacking epic struggle, although, via the occasional tweak, the coda was given cinematic breadth and Technicolor impact, enough to cue a smattering of clapping, so it was good to see Rouvali extend a censuring hand – crowd control – in order that the Scherzo could proceed without interruption, rallied along until the poco a poco coda, from gawky to 100m dash, with an interventionist delay before the final chord. The slow movement was especially well done – dark, suspenseful, yearning – building to a hard-hitting/cathartic climax, and the Finale tripped along gaily, suggesting all-okay with the World, until the mechanistic coda, Rouvali getting faster through it, somewhat scrambled.