With an almost complete absence of live music in Europe currently, online concerts are a relative godsend – provided you are willing to stare at the same screen you might have used for work earlier in the day. With this in mind, Arcana took the opportunity to visit the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall, with the purpose of watching the orchestra’s Golden Twenties festival.
This celebration of one of the most vibrant artistic periods in Berlin’s history centred on the instrumental music of Kurt Weill (above), with imaginative repertoire choices putting his music into a helpful and contrasting context. His teacher Busoni featured briefly, along with Hindemith, Eisler and Richard Strauss.
More of Strauss later, but having reviewed the first concert – with a fine Berlin premiere performance of Weill’s First Symphony – Arcana watched the symphonic sequel with the Karajan Academy of the Berliner Philharmoniker, energetically directed by Marie Jacquot (below).
Their programme included two fine Weill pieces but began with the Suite no.3 for orchestra by Hanns Eisler. For a composer whose songs feature relatively often in recital, Eisler’s orchestral music is scarcely heard. This is a shame because it is packed with good tunes and more than a dash of humour – which Suite no.3 enjoyed. This brisk, and in some cases brusque piece, had an appealing and gritty determination, with elements of the baroque toccata in its forward momentum. The instrumentation is that of a band rather than an orchestra, with guitar and snare drums taking prominent roles, which also appeals – and the playful rondo worked well, even though it could have had more of a smile on its face. There was excellent musicianship in this bittersweet account, topped by the muted trumpet of a soft-hearted intermezzo.
Weill’s Violin Concerto was next, a substantial work written for soloist and wind orchestra – but with no strings, an innovative set-up predating Stravinsky’s own work for piano and winds. The baleful clarinets in the opening statement reflected the composer’s feelings on the passing of his teacher, Feruccio Busoni. As the movement got into gear the movement was more mechanical, driven on by soloist Kolja Blacher (above), with considerable tension at the end of the first movement. A more playful second movement nocturne ensued, with pinpoint xylophone contributions, before an authoritative cadenza and an affecting Serenata with a high line. Blacher was particularly impressive here, technically secure throughout and broadly expressive. The finale had a strong sense of purpose, again superbly marshalled by Jacquot. A poignant pause ensued but was followed by a headlong rush into the closing pages, the soloist at the wheel, and the orchestra superb in their pithy contributions.
Weill’s Second Symphony followed the interval, a substantial piece which actually received its premiere in Amsterdam in 1934. With a tighter grip on the musical material than the first, it features an economical use of the orchestra. Here there were lovely solos from the woodwind but with a good deal of forward momentum and bite to the strings. Ensemble was tautly defined throughout, and there was a nice element of humour in the unexpectedly jaunty theme for the Largo second movement. Impassioned cello and flute solos led to an intense apex of feeling in the middle. Jacquot, whose conducting was clear and sprightly throughout, urged the players on in a tightly controlled third movement, with bustling rhythms and a longer, meaningful trumpet solo before a quick rush to finish a really excellent concert.
Due to Coronavirus a few adjustments had to be made to the third concert. Replacing Sir Donald Runnicles as the conductor was Thomas Søndergård (above), making his Berliner Philharmoniker debut – which as a result meant the substitution of works from Schreker, Berg and d’Albert with works by Sibelius and Prokofiev.
The scheduled Kurt Weill performance, the suite arranged by Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg from The Rise and Fall Of The City Of Mahagonny, just about kept us in 1920s Berlin. Prior to that we heard the suite from Prokofiev’s opera The Love For Three Oranges, completed in 1919. Prokofiev’s music of this period is all about energy, dissonance and wit, and Søndergård was great to watch as he brought these qualities to the fore in music we seldom hear live nowadays. There was a satisfying heft to the orchestral sound, and while the performance could have gone even further with its sardonic wit, the turbulent finale was very well done, as was a keenly felt slow movement with richly textured strings.
Søndergård specialises in the music of Sibelius, and the Sixth Symphony is one of the Berliners’ most-performed symphonies from his output. This account had sumptuous sound and control as its principal merits, a compelling beginning cutting to an exceptionally fluid faster movement. Similarly the second movement, with a wavelike profile, had wonderful sound, while the scherzo was notable for its clear as spring textures. In the finale the conductor’s use of silence proved key, as did Sibelius’ notes themselves of course. Conducted with passion, this was a satisfying account with a reverent ending.
By this time the ear was yearning for the festival’s main character, Kurt Weill – and the smaller band used for The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny gave us the highlights of the concert. Weill does not tend to feature in Søndergård’s repertoire, so one wonders how long he had to learn it – but he was inside the score with obvious enjoyment, allowing the players to express themselves and encouraging them to play with the tempo stylishly. Trombone and alto sax were excellent in the Moderato assai section, while the interlocking brass in the Molto vivace made a beautiful sound. The final Largo held most of the emotional cards, however, with a driven march bringing us home convincingly.
Christian Thielemann took charge of the fourth concert, a nicely weighted combination of the familiar and the unlikely. Thielemann does much for the Hindemith cause, and the composer’s Neues vom Tage overture was a bracing opener in concert form, laced with humour and packed with melodic interest.
Busoni was an inspired choice, a composer who remains difficult to pin down and who still sounds on the edge of modernity. His Tanzwalz, a colourful tribute to Johann Strauss II, has persuasive rhythms, spicy added notes and rich orchestral textures, which the orchestra thoroughly enjoyed. Thielemann’s conducting enhanced the rhythmic profile and the dance elements of the piece – as it did in the complementary Künstlerleben that followed. The violins really sang in the Busoni, as did the cellos towards the start of the Johann Strauss.
Richard Strauss followed, Camilla Nylund replacing Diana Damrau for a set of typically songs. These were well chosen, ranging from the fervent singing of Ständchen to the walking pace of the serene Wiegenlied, where the orchestra added nicely pointed counterpoint to Nylund’s expressive vibrato. Allerseelen was passionately sung, as was Morgen, with the necessary restraint and a beautiful duet between singer and solo violinist, unfortunately not credited.
We had a choral curiosity from Strauss to finish, the Berliner Philharmoniker’s second ever performance of Die Tageszeiten, published as the composer’s Op.76 in 1928. Written for male chorus and orchestra, this comparatively late work sets four sections of the day, as described by poet and regular Strauss collaborator Joseph Eichendorff in his Wanderlieder.
The men of the Rundfunkchor Berlin used the Philharmonie imaginatively, distanced across the stalls above the orchestra, who sat at much closer proximity thanks to their regular testing regime. The piece began with a call to arms, full of spring vigour, before the warm sunbeams breathed calm on the slower Afternoon Rest, which became increasingly chromatic. The wind was a more obvious presence in Evening, depicted by rollng timpani and restless orchestral figures, while Night made a beatific start, with some lovely singing from the men. The density increased but was tapered by a rather lovely unaccompanied chorale near the end, subsiding to a serene finish which was conducted with affection and satisfaction by Thielemann
While Coronavirus inevitably affected the content and artistic direction of The Golden Twenties, it still proved an interesting and stimulating festival, and it was especially satisfying to to see Kurt Weill’s instrumental music getting more of the recognition it surely deserves.
Eisler Suite for Orchestra no.3 Op.26 ‘Kuhle Wampe’
Weill Violin Concerto Op.12
Weill Symphony no.2
Konja Blacher (violin), Scholars of the Karajan Academy / Marie Jacquot
Prokofiev The Love for Three Oranges Suite Op.33bis
Sibelius Symphony no.6 in D minor Op.104
Weill The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny: Suite (arr. Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg)
Berliner Philharmoniker / Thomas Søndergård
Hindemith Neues vom Tage (News of the Day), Overture from the Opera with Concert Ending
Busoni Tanz-Walzer Op.53
Johann Strauss II Künstlerleben Op.316
Richard Strauss Ständchen Op.17/2; Freundliche Vision Op.48/1, Wiegenlied Op.41/1, Allerseelen Op.10/8, Zueignung Op.10/1, Morgen Op.27/4
Richard Strauss Die Tageszeiten Op.76
Camilla Nylund (soprano), Rundfunkchor Berlin, Berliner Philharmoniker / Thomas Søndergård