Saturday, March 19, 2022

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

The Mendelssohn was his Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise; aka the mistitled Symphony No.2 in B-flat, Opus 52, the composer content with the single German word). Let’s call it a cantata with the first three movements, each non-vocal, suggesting symphonic aspirations. But this is a Symphony-manqué, for following a propulsive first movement (opening with an arresting motif on trombones, given here with a swing, avoiding pomp, which felt right, as did Sir John Eliot’s whirlwind tempo for the Allegro, whipped up by his vigorous gestures, with textures light and airy, shapely phrasing, too, within his on-the-move parameters), then a  flowing intermezzo-like movement, a swaying dance at its core (brought off with affection and gentility) followed by an expressive slow one, and – continuing Mendelssohn’s attacca design – the vocal element arrives (and the trombones’ motif returns), accounting for approximately two-thirds of the (here) sixty-five-minute-work. With words courtesy of the Bible, beginning “All that has life and breath, praise the Lord!”, the Gardiner-formed Monteverdi Choir was in lusty and agile display. The solo singing (arias, duets), these participants placed centre-left adjacent to the orchestral basses and in front of the chorus, was also excellent, and what vibrant timbres the Monteverdi Choir conjured in the exhilarating and uplifting final section to belie its relatively chamber size, circa forty members.

When given with this level of preparation and commitment there is no doubt that Lobgesang is a masterpiece, as it is on JEG’s recording for LSO Live,, and maybe the Berliners can also issue this equally special version.

(By the way, if you happen to be in Vienna on May 7, 8 or 9, the Musikverein is hosting Herbert Blomstedt conducting Philharmonic concerts that include Lobgesang coupled with Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms.)

This Berlin concert’s (short, fifteen-minute) first half consisted of Brahms’s Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny, Opus 54; words by Hölderlin). Sublime and serene music with dynamic dips to somewhere around pppp that are further transporting, played glowingly by the Berliners and relished by the Monteverdi Choir with unanimity and a paintbox of colours, and also plenty of dramatic attack for the contrasting middle section concerned with “poor suffering mortals … no restful haven to find”. Hölderlin’s text ends pessimistically, countered by Brahms with an orchestral envoi that returns us to the radiant and solace-radiating opening. Superb sound throughout.

Lucy Crowe soprano

Ann Hallenberg mezzo-soprano

Werner Güra tenor