Saturday, October 29, 2022

Kölner Philharmonie

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

Following the Second World War the WDR Sinfonieorchester, formerly the orchestra of Northwest German Radio, was established in 1947. Cristian Măcelaru, its current principal conductor, took up the reins in 2019, succeeding Bychkov (1997-2010) and Saraste (2010-19). He has at his disposal one of the best honed, most disciplined of European orchestras, with a committed contemporary pedigree. This anniversary concert ideally showcased their strengths, a mixture of rawness, refinement and rampant attack adding up to an intoxicating, involving encounter.

Zosha Di Castri [pictured] – Canadian-born, New York-based – is used to the heights (Long Is the Journey – Short Is the Memory opened the 2019 Proms) and classy advocacy (Barbara Hannigan for one). “Composer, pianist, sound artist”. She says that what draws her is “the possibility of creating something out of nothing, of having a voice, and exploring sound in a more experimental, abstract way. I think that there is value in music that pushes the envelope and challenges us to listen in new ways. For me, creating new music is a way of processing the world around me”. Initially something of a neo-Romantic, Debussy’s “imaginative atmospheres … his beautiful colours and original harmonies” and Bartók’s “rhythmic vitality and folkloric roots” proved important triggers. Likewise Bach: “timeless, exquisitely crafted, and very spiritual”. She makes the necessary point, too, that composers today contend “with an extremely wide and varied field of sound possibilities. Whereas post World War II, contemporary music was much more divided into camps with dogmatic agendas, I think composers nowadays have quite a lot of freedom to incorporate influences and techniques from many musical sources (including popular, improvised, electronic, and intercultural traditions)” (2018). She summarises her work as “eclectic, but tends to focus on detailed textures with a sensitivity toward timbre and creative orchestration. At times I incorporate moments of lyricism and rhythmic drive, and I do not shy away from occasional repetition, as I see it as being integral to the way our memory processes form. Often my music plays with the juxtaposition of highly contrasting material. I usually work from a larger idea that informs my compositional decisions – such as a concept, a text, a narrative, or a response to a piece of visual art or literary source” (2019).

Pentimento (2021) – coincidentally sharing its title and aesthetic (over-painting, alteration, sub-layering) with Karl Fiorini’s 2018 Pentimenti for strings and percussion – was commissioned by WDR. “Although”, she writes, “there are musical ideas here that recur with a certain ritual inevitability – such as the snare drum motif, the shrill clarinet duo, or the loop figure which emanates from the cracked pizzicato of the double basses – there are also discrete shifts and variations in the course of the form. One could see a parallel in this to changing the position of the hand when painting, to changing the perspective.” Facets of modern life, sonically, associatively, lurk within: “police brutality, gun violence, the vacillation of politics between extremes, and the devastating waves of the pandemic”. Just short of six minutes, it made an assured impression, witnessing the players in virtuosic, nuanced form, and in Măcelaru a conductor viscerally attuned, tight beat to the fore.

Flanking the war years, Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra (1950-54) and Orff’s Carmina Burana (1935-36) ensured a cumulatively tumultuous evening. Măcelaru is not an extremist, nor is he interested in podium choreography. But he uses eyes and body language to powerfully communicative effect. And he’s not afraid of opening the throttle. The Lutosławski was a blazing tour de force, giving Bartók a boldly handsome run for his money. Precision solos and richly grained tutti fireworks had me cheering, every gesture sabre-toothed.

Carmina Burana suits Măcelaru’s temperament and pulse. Chorally, the WDR Rundfunkchor, NDR Vokalensemble and boys and girls of the Kölner Dommusik (Simon Halsey) bit the words and kissed the phrases. Articulation, pronounciation, shaped women’s voices, gravelled bass tones, heroic tenors, vibrated and illumined familiar paths, every glow and shadow dancing like so many flames and passions among old walls. Of the three soloists Sarah Aristidou (soprano) particularly impressed, enraptured with the moment and standing to the very end, her voice soaring without blemish. Markus Werba (tenor) struck a noble stance. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (baritone), standing in the choir stalls right of stage, brought fevered characterisation and deliriously gauged acting to his contribution, brilliant to watch. Gripping instrumentals and balance. Splendidly responsive 2,000-seater auditorium (opened in 1986). Thoroughbred audio-visuals. Celebratory concerts come no more seismic.

RELEASED TODAY, September 2: Cristian Măcelaru & WDR Sinfonieorchester record Dvořák’s Legends and Czech Suite for Linn.