Julia Bayer, photo

Thursday, May 4, 2023

Die Glocke, Domsheide 6-8, 28195 Bremen, Germany

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

The Hanseatic port-city of Bremen is an intricacy of surviving antiquity and post-1945 modern, the fifteenth-century barrelled wine cellars and tavern of the Ratskeller a stone’s throw from the twenty-first-century signage of McDonald’s, the narrow lanes of the Old Town, deserted by night, nestling behind wide streets and tramlines, the centre blending traditional dark-red brick, post-war concrete, and efficiency claddings. Budding trees and wet grass reflect off weathered green roofs. Cafes and beer-gardens along the Schlachte do brisk business between sunshine and showers, moored restaurant ships waiting for the twilight hour. Eighty miles east lies Hamburg. Forty miles north the Weser of Pied Piper legend flows into the German Bight. 

Commerce and culture go hand in hand. Robert and Clara Schumann were here. Bruch, Richard Strauss, Wagner and Weber, Heine and Gogol, dined and drank at the Ratskeller. In 1868 Brahms conducted his German Requiem in the Cathedral or Bremen Dom. Here and about in the years before the First World War the restless, questing Rainer Maria Rilke met with the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker and the sculptor Clara Westhoff, his future wife. “I invented a new form of caress: placing a rose gently on a closed eye until its coolness can no longer be felt; only the gentle petal will continue to rest on the eyelid like sleep just before dawn.”

The city is home to Germany’s superstar chamber orchestra, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, founded in Frankfurt in 1980 as originally an ensemble without conductor. Concerts are given in Die Glocke (The Bell), an Art Deco, stepped gable, fourteen-hundred-seater building completed in 1928 and restored in the late-1990s. Adjoining the Cathedral complex, with a peaceful old garden, it’s a venue of character and ambient elegance, replacing an earlier eighteenth-century Künstlerverein room on the site destroyed by fire in 1915. The acoustic glows, violins and woodwind are sharply etched, percussion have clarity, lower-string frequencies penetrate physically, boosted by the occasional subterranean rumble of a passing tram beyond. Karajan rated the venue admiringly, among the top three in Europe.

DKAM is an ensemble of pedigree and aspiration, with at its core a discerningly international mix of musicians. As keenly in accord with their individuality and chemistry as they are with his, Paavo Järvi is now coming up to his twentieth season as principal conductor. The ideal listening collaborator, open to discussion and exchange, always flexible never dictatorial, two of his earliest audio-visual Bremen projects to come my way some years back were immersive cycles of the Beethoven (2004-08) and Schumann (2009-11) Symphonies, the Blu-ray version of the latter (2012) filmed in Bremen’s Pier 2 – a former shipyard where industrial landscape and Apollonian glory converge in bitingly toned provocation.

Haydn’s eighteenth-century swansong, the twelve ‘London’ Symphonies, is Järvi’s latest Kammerphilharmonie project, RCA having just released numbers 101 and 103 https://www.colinscolumn.com/paavo-jarvi-deutsche-kammerphilharmonie-bremen-record-haydn-symphonies-101-103-clock-drum-roll-for-rca-red-seal/. Led by Jonathan Stone from the RAM, this concert, the second of a current run of nine touring Germany and Italy in the space of fifteen days, introduced us to the first and last of the series, 93 &104 – premiered in London at the Hanover Square Rooms, 17 February 1791, and King’s Theatre, 4 May 1795. Antiphonal violins, cellos left and violas right of centre, three double basses and hard-stick timpani, natural horns and trumpets. A=440. Alert to repeats (though – debatable territory – not the da capo ones), these were exultant, richly grained readings, throatily and reedy voiced. Tight articulation, precision dots and slurs, buoyant rhythms, grandly rooted tuttis, breathed solos, civilised conversazione, making the most of accents and hairpin dynamics, alert to the smallest detail and agogic. Beethoven, it’s often generalised, liberated the kettledrums. Järvi proposed differently, focusing them, whatever their limitations of pitch (D, G, A), into virile personalities within the drama. Nothing new for Haydn – as, randomly, 103 shows us, similarly 82 from the ‘Paris’ set where at the end he wants them louder than the rest of the band – yet how often emphasised?

Järvi’s manner and gallantry lit the music at multiple levels. More animated than I’ve seen in a while, coaxing every shade and innuendo from his players, he got the Minuets to dance with an elan and wit inducing smiles. Significant was his mastery of pauses, both the sounding and silent kind. Here emotive, there teasing. Taking them to the edge without breaking flow or tension calls for special refinement not to say elevated skill. One marvelled at their co-ordination in 104 (“comedy is a serious business”). Likewise his crest-of-the-wave staccato in bar 6 of 93’s saltation didn’t merely pass by but had point and climax, its dialect and elongation reminiscent of Reiner’s way with the Strausses, Mein Lebenslauf ist Lieb’ und Lust for the classic parallel. Leaving nothing to chance, carrying off this particular rubato was an interesting priority of the ‘laboratory’ rehearsal beforehand. This after already three days of preparation (two of them under Järvi) and a concert the previous night. “There is always rehearsal before the concert. It doesn’t matter how many times we’ve done the piece. And these are the moments where you tweak, you do little things, you fine-tune … It’s a luxury so few orchestras have.”

104 was the high-spot of the evening. Regal, far-seeking, of the most perfect grammar. Gloriously turned, resonantly mature. Haydn’s Balkan drones – tonics and dominants earthing the moment – in full cry, downbeats veering between grace and vernacular vamping. Järvi necessarily sees the Paris and London series, and Mozart’s final six, as heralds of the Austro-German Romantic Symphony, fully-formed masterworks in the seeds, ideas, rhythms and textures of which lurk a whole waiting century. Without the opening fortissimo call of 104, so elemental, where would Beethoven or Schumann be, he asks, Bruckner correspondingly?

Sandwiching Haydn, Sol Gabetta, a Bremen regular, offered one of her signature standards, late A-minor Schumann (valved brass) – erring on the introspective side. For encore, Lensky’s aria from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin – a masterclass in silken cantabile, delicately supported. “Where, where have you gone, golden days of my spring?”. To close, rounding off serious proceedings with confectionary, Mahler style, a polka schnell from Järvi as coiled yet fleet as Rilke’s “wind from the wide meadows”. In his diary, February 23, 1842, Schumann noted that “the Bremen folk are sparing with their applause; the audience was more like a private club.” Not on this occasion. High spirits, flowers and kisses all round.