Willem Pijper (1894-1947)

Sunday, September 4, 2022

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

Beginning with György Ligeti’s Atmosphères, the precisely balanced opening chord promised a scrupulous presentation, and it was duly delivered, the music buzzing and twittering with otherworldly invitation, the highest frequencies, the lowest ones, the quietest possible dynamics, occasional crescendos, the whole luminous and suspenseful, the concluding silence an integral part of the score, conducted as such by Lahav Shani.

The Rotterdam Philharmonic was out in force for fellow-Dutchman Willem Pipjer’s Second Symphony (1921). Its original scoring, used here, includes eight horns, four harps, two pianos, and an organ. The work is rhythmically arresting (militaristic) and expressively alluring (the aural equivalent of French perfume), if difficult to locate stylistically (a mix of the then avant-garde and Stravinsky-like neoclassicism), certainly colourful, if with plenty of variegation, but dark and spare too, numerous solos (including for tuba), clarity of orchestration despite the extravagance (percussion-modest though), with flirtatious dance vying with troubled dissonant outbursts, bar-by-bar contrasts and contradictions. The performance (the German premiere of this version) of an intriguing chameleon of a Symphony (lasting twenty-plus minutes) was hard-worked, eager and polished, music that perhaps reflects the just-ceased First World War and looking to the future with optimism if doubt.

What can one say anew about Mahler’s First Symphony (and with a Proms performance just twenty-four hours away). Not much, I find. But that would be to deny Shani and his Rotterdammers a favourable notice for something vernal (i); rustic and captivating (ii); blackly humorous (solo double bass rather than the questionable tutti that is sometimes now fielded) and sweetly intimate (iii); and, finally, tempestuous, tender, tumultuous, and triumphant. Without whimsy or novelty, if with antiphonal violins, this was impressive.