Olivier Messiaen (1908-92)

Saturday, April 17, 2021

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

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

Zubin Mehta, eighty-five at the end of this month, first conducted Karajan’s Berliner Philharmoniker in 1961, Mahler One (unfamiliar equally to himself and the players) closing the programme. Bruckner’s unfinished D-minor Ninth came ten years later, Mehta in the meantime, not yet thirty, having taped it for Decca with the Vienna Philharmonic, Erik Smith and Gordon Parry (both uncredited) in the Sofiensaal’s control room, the 1965 LP release completed with sleeve notes by Deryck Cooke. Exciting days. Guided by Hans Redlich (a supportive presence) and influenced by Robert Simpson and Cooke (my boss at the BBC subsequently), my formative Bruckner was shaped by Horenstein and Karajan. Mehta’s specifically was about Vienna, Hans Swarowsky (disciple of Strauss and Weingartner), knowing Leopold Nowak (Bruckner’s editor), hearing Böhm, Krips, Schuricht, Volkmar Andreae. At his home in Beverly Hills Bruno Walter, whose 1959 Ninth Symphony Columbia sessions he attended, effectively “taught” him the work. A good basis half-a-century ago to develop understanding of Bruckner’s world and values. Now and again conductor, performer, listener – each becoming the other, moment and memory in the flux – would meet to agree in a concert somewhere, and you’d feel re-born in the chemistry, the spirituality, of the encounter. Experiencing Mehta’s Bruckner Eight in the flesh was always a special, cleansing occasion.

This Berlin Ninth took a leisurely sixty-five minutes or so. Resisting brazen climaxes in favour of grounded subterranean ones, noble in the brass department, receptive to the subtleness of the softer woodwind entries, this was at its most epic and brilliant in the first two movements, the Scherzo taking on a savagery the more frightening for its deliberation – a precision Roman battalion on the march, strings rasping into their downbeat bowings, drums on the attack, the likes of Holst and Shostakovich lurking somewhere in the future. In the interval talk with Stanley Dodds, Mehta recalled as a young man hearing Karajan with the Berliners in the Musikverein – a “magnificent” Brahms Two and Tannhäuser encore. “Worshipping” and “emulating” the Karajan sound, instilling it in the younger generation, remains a priority for him. “Roundness of expression and high points”, not shattering forcefulness, is the crux of his Bruckner voyaging.

Led by Daniel Stabrawa, the orchestra members, at full tilt, watching every motion, gave their all, visibly intoxicated by the adrenalin charge at the end of the first movement. Mehta quaveringly likened the E-major Adagio to the testament of a “creature” misunderstood, “saying goodbye to the world”. Arguably the performance didn’t quite live up to this vision, the repeated climaxes possibly over-insistent (defiant even), not everyone at ease with the intonational demands placed on them, tension getting to the horns come the last unison. Yet there was much to take in, a particular memorial beauty. Without audience, playing to a quasi-resonant room, Mehta, seated, guided the old ship home, a lingering sadness colouring his bowed demeanour and faded gaze in the void following. Hands shaken, people dispersing into camera darkness, silence. Respect.

Prefacing Bruckner Nine with the modern is Mehta’s Berlin way. In 1971 it was Penderecki, in 2014 George Crumb. Commissioned by André Malraux in 1964, its five movements headed by biblical quotations, Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum for wind orchestra and percussion is music close to his heart (he preceded Schubert Nine with it in 1980). Across the years it’s become habitually identified with the concert hall. The drier and more clinical such venues are, however, the least suited they are to the composer’s intentions. “The instrumental writing”, he noted (Berlioz Requiem road), “is intended for vast spaces: in churches, cathedrals, and even in the open air or on mountain tops.” Given the Philharmonie’s distinctive acoustic, Mehta managed it convincingly while, necessarily, not always with the long clearance delays Messiaen envisaged. Some of the pauses and silences proved on the shortish side, and the italicised request in the score for “a silence of approximately one minute between each movement” was only loosely adhered to. The degree of rhythmic precision and textural clarity, the dynamically wide-ranging percussion section keenly attuned and coordinated, was, on the other hand, a tangible bonus. Likewise the overall sense of structure and direction, a master tactician, infinitely wise, at the helm.