In concert – Christian Tetzlaff, Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen: Weimar Berlin – Angels and Demons

Christian Tetzlaff, Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen (above)

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
Thursday 26 September 2019

Hindemith Rag Time (well-tempered) (1921)
J.S. Bach arr. Schoenberg Two Chorale Preludes: Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele BWV654; Komm, Gott Schöpfer, heiliger Geist BWV667 (1925)
Berg Violin Concerto (1935)
Hindemith Mathis der Maler Symphony (1934)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

This year the Philharmonia Orchestra have been exploring the music of Weimar Berlin as it was in the 1920s and 1930s, with fascinating results. Their most recent concert, subtitled Dreams and Demons, may have been relatively short, but it gave plenty of food for thought and the musical rewards were considerable.

A rather older composer who worked in Weimar made himself known throughout the concert, for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach was quoted, refracted and alluded to in each of the four pieces on the programme. Firstly we heard the opening notes of the Prelude in C minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, part of an affectionate and brilliantly ‘worded’ joke by Hindemith, whose Ragtime started the concert with a swagger. Esa-Pekka Salonen clearly enjoyed its gruff humour, but found the touches of elegance beneath the surface too.

The Ragtime’s surge to the close in E flat minor blossomed with a cleverly executed join into the first of two Bach chorale prelude arrangements by Schoenberg. Here we wondered at his audacious orchestration, taking on what he saw as ‘the first twelve tone music’ and sharing it around the orchestra with typically inventive pointing towards the melodies. Timothy Walden’s cello probed elegantly at the inner melodic lines of Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, while the exuberant close of Komm, Gott Schöpfer, heiliger Geistdrew heralded the Hindemith work we were about to hear.

Berg’s Violin Concerto quotes from a Bach chorale, Es ist genug (It is enough) at the height of its remembrance of Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler. Subtitled To the Memory of An Angel, the work traverses a wide range of emotions in its thought processes, from brief oases of calm to fraught periods of activity. The clarinets of the Philharmonia, in all ranges, were superb, whether in the lighter Ländler theme of the first movement or the solemn chorale itself, their imitation of a pipe organ ghostly and – when the solo violinist’s harmonics were in play – ethereal. This was because soloist Christian Tetzlaff (above) also brought a wide range of sounds to the piece, from the fragility of the opening strings of the start to the surging faster music where he took the music by the scruff of the neck. His was a technically brilliant yet musically sensitive performance, closely joined to Salonen’s deft work with the orchestra.

All the while this wonderful piece was heading for the final bars and the ultimate rest, the sort of chord you would want to go on forever as Berg’s orchestral colours mingle with the highest note the violin reaches in the whole piece. Together Teztlaff and Salonen ensured the pacing was ideal, helped considerably by the light and shade of the Philharmonia’s contribution.

After the interval came a regrettably rare chance to hear some Hindemith in the concert hall in the shape of the Mathis der Maler Symphony, a three-movement work drawn from the opera of the same name. This oft-maligned composer exerts a good deal of influence on the tonal music of the second half of the 20th century, more than he is credited for, and his own works are instantly recognisable. Nor, as Salonen and the Philharmonia illustrated, is there a lack of colour or personality in his orchestral writing.

This was a superb performance of a piece Salonen clearly holds close to his heart, having conducted it at the Proms and recorded it for Sony in 2004. The expectant hush from the strings at the start was magical, the effect like walking into a sacred building, and this was reinforced by a solemn intonation of a chorale from the trombones, those Bach influences coming quickly to the surface. Salonen’s slower tempo here worked well.

The silvery strings enjoyed the moments of confluence in Hindemith’s writing, with the added note chords allowed to breathe, but Salonen was not above letting the grittier parts of the music off the leash, pushing forward through the faster phrases. The Philharmonia woodwind and brass were superb, the bell-like clarity of their playing bolstered by deeper shades. With all these qualities noted, Engelkonzert (Angelic Concert) unfolded beautifully, with a grand sense of ceremony at the end, while in response Grablegung (Entombment) was initially thoughtful, its ruminative woodwind then replaced by a brass-dominated climax which Salonen controlled immaculately.

Most dramatic of all was Versuchung des heiligen Antonius (The Temptation of Saint Anthony), with a ravishing tone from the Philharmonia strings at the outset. As it progressed the movement had a terrific cut and thrust, its tension released with impressive stature in the closing pages. Mathis der Maler is a wonderful score, one of Hindemith’s finest achievements – and by no means the only peak of his orchestral output. Here it put the seal on a fascinating and immensely rewarding concert, with superb musicianship throughout.

Further listening

You can hear the music played in this concert on the Spotify playlist below, including Salonen’s account of the Mathis der Maler symphony:

This playlist offers a broader view of Hindemith’s orchestral output, with the ballet suite Nobilissima Visione, the Concert Music for Strings and Brass and the vastly underrated piece for piano and orchestra The Four Temperaments:

London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Genesis Suite & Bartók Concerto for Orchestra

Simon Callow, Rodney Earl Clarke, Sara Kestelman, Helen McCrory (narrators), Gerard McBurney (creative director), Mike Tutaj (projection design), London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

Various composers The Genesis Suite (1945)
Bartók Concerto for Orchestra (1943)

Barbican Hall, London; Saturday 13 January 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

Collaboration in classical music is rare. Pop music is full of it – many of the best songs and albums are co-written – but for composers to work together on a single work is nigh on unthinkable. Full marks, then, to Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra for reminding us of an instance when that did in fact happen – no fewer than SEVEN classical composers coming together in 1945, at the end of World War II, to write the Genesis Suite. The project was held together by Nathanial Shilkret, masterminding the project from Hollywood.

The Suite, of course, has nothing to do with the rock band. Yet it is fully progressive, telling the story of the first book of the Bible from creation through to the construction of the Tower of Babylon in the space of an hour, working its way from Schoenberg to Stravinsky via Shilkret himself, Alexandre Tansman, Darius Milhaud, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Ernst Toch.

Rattle and creative director Gerard McBurney collaborated on a series of moving images and audio clips to put the Genesis Suite in modern perspective. These were thought provoking and occasionally daring. The story of Cain and Abel (with surprisingly upbeat music from Milhaud) was played out to a Middle Eastern backdrop, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were prominent during the story of The Flood (Noah and the Ark), while the construction of the Shard against Stravinsky’s music for Babel was a powerful allegory.

Unfortunately the music was overshadowed somewhat by the wordy text, taken directly from the King James Bible, and read as written. Nor was it helped by a lack of ensemble between the starry quartet of narrators. Simon Callow and Helen McCrory stood far left, Sara Kestelman and Rodney Earl Clarke far right – which meant for the audience it was a strain to hear two of the four speakers unless sat directly in the middle, despite the amplification. Some speakers were better versed than others in their delivery, too – and maybe because of my own seated position Kestelman and Clarke appeared to have greater emotional involvement.

The London Symphony Chorus, however, were as one in their powerful contributions, dressed in white to maximise their dramatic delivery. When the men came out into the stalls for the Stravinsky finale the Suite’s tension between creation and what man has done with it reached its ultimate, tense conclusion.

Musically the Suite was inconsistent. Schoenberg’s Prelude stood out for inventive orchestration and far reaching harmonic language, while in a dramatic sense Toch’s dramatic setting of The Rainbow (The Covenant) was a notable high. Creation itself, Shilkret’s contribution, felt hurried, the seven days of creation crammed into ten minutes.

Despite these reservations Genesis Suite made a lasting impression, especially following Rattle’s assertion that all composers except one wrote in exile. After the interval another such composer, the Hungarian Béla Bartók writing in America in 1943, was to light up the concert.

It is very easy to take the LSO’s virtuosity for granted, but in a performance like this they shone from every corner. Rattle challenged them to dig deep technically and emotionally and they delivered on every level, particularly in the work’s deeply felt heart, the Elegia. Rattle and McBurney opted to continue with images, which were slow moving or static this time, depicting the forests Bartók looked on during composition. However the gauze on which the images were shown did on occasion muffle the projection of the brass musicians sat under or behind the screen.

Ultimately this did not spoil a terrific performance, where sinewy strings and percussive outbursts were complemented by outstanding, colourful woodwind playing. The first of the two scherzos brought this out, with pairs of bassoons, flutes, clarinets and oboes outstanding in their delivery, balanced by the trumpets. The finale danced energetically, bathed in a luminous glow which proceeded to leave its spell on the audience.

Further listening

You can see Sir Simon Rattle talking about the Genesis Suite below:

The music from this concert, including Rattle’s own recording of the Concerto for Orchestra, can be heard on this Spotify playlist:

Steven Kovacevich at 75 – Berg and Schubert

Steven Kovacevich celebrates his upcoming 75th birthday with sonatas by Berg and Schubert at the Wigmore Hall

stephen-kovacevich

Steven Kovacevich (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 13 July 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b061fqzz

on the iPlayer until 12 August

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of the music in this concert. Steven Kovacevich has recorded the Schubert but it does not appear to be available on Spotify, so is included here in a leading recording by Maurizio Pollini. The Berg, which he has not recorded, is performed by Mitsuko Uchida:

What’s the music?

Berg: Piano Sonata, Op.1 (1908) (10 minutes)

Schubert: Piano Sonata in A major, published as D959 (1828) (37 minutes)

What about the music?

Steven Kovacevich describes the Berg Piano Sonata as music ‘drawn toward the distant future but still tied to the immediate past’. When he finished the first movement of what he thought would be a larger work in 1908, his teacher and mentor Schoenberg encouraged him that if he had said all he needed to say musically, there was no need to carry on. It is a landmark piece as music begins to break with conventional tonality.

While the 22-year old Berg was starting out, the 30-year old Schubert was signing off. Aware that he had not long to live, the gravely ill composer completed a trio of three massive piano sonatas, some of the biggest works ever written for the instrument and still to this day some of the most remarkable music you can hear on the piano. The second of the three in A major is a remarkable piece, contrasting passages of serenity and acceptance with sudden outbursts of temper – as in the second movement, initially slow but unable to contain itself fully. These are pieces that keep on giving in their remarkable construction and memorable melodies.

Performance verdict

The insights Steven Kovacevich has given into piano music over the last 50 years cannot be underestimated, and the sheer weight of experience he brings with him is the result of a lifetime spent performing at the very highest level.

It is this experience that shines through, especially in a reading of the Schubert sonata that is not without its problems. I would have to digress for a moment and ask if there are many 75-year olds who could play such a piece without a score, and think there are very few. Small wonder, then, that Kovacevich has what seems to be a memory lapse in the final movement, and there are a number of minor slips elsewhere. These are still very much worth persevering with because his portrayal of the unfolding drama in the Schubert is special indeed – and in the second movement in any case it is as though Schubert writes in a lot of ‘wrong’ notes.

What should I listen out for?

Berg

2:00 – one of the most intriguing beginnings to a composer’s published output is surely the quizzical opening notes of the Berg sonata, which end up in its supposed ‘home key’ of B minor, but only by asking far more questions than they answer. There is an immediate impression of a new world forming, and the harmonic outlook is constantly changing in music of great density.

The opening theme, however – the first three notes, at least – is distinctive enough to be felt in the development it receives afterwards. The music builds to a weighty climax at 7:51, then scales the heights at 10:42. Berg writes in a single paragraph, the music subsiding to the quiet, thoughtful finish.

Schubert

14:30 – the opening of the sonata is thoroughly positive, a call to arms – though Stephen Kovacevich is slightly understated in this performance. There is a serenity and intimacy that sets the tone for much of the piece.

15:57 – Schubert’s second theme, a lovely moment of introspection but also restfulness. Barely a minute later however there is a lot more audible strife, and things become fraught – until the return of this second theme at 17:41. A crunching chord at 18:07 prepares us for…

18:15 – Kovacevich repeats the movement so far (18:11) as instructed by Schubert. This helps balance the structure of the whole first movement.

23:53 – a return to the material that dominated the opening exchanges – and then, after a protracted and angst-ridden piece, the second theme and a peaceful close at 28:40.

28:54 – the slow movement begins. As with Beethoven, time seems to stand still in Schubert’s late sonatas, and his thoughts are almost of another world. The music here is very subdued but not by any means hopeless.

31:01 – the right hand seems to develop a mind of its own, becoming faster and faster. In response the music moves to distant and rather twisted harmonies – as Kovacevich notes, sounding a prophetic note towards the music of Liszt here. Feelings of anger and frustration come to the boil. The music collapses in something of a heap, exhausted at the end.

35:07 – the Scherzo, a piece of music that sounds like a feather being blown around by the wind. The detached delivery from Kovacevich’s right hand is subtly mischievous.

37:14 – the contrasting trio section begins, but is a short diversion from the main theme itself, which returns again in humour at 38:24.

39:28 – Kovacevich runs straight into the fluid finale but stops himself at 41:12. Then he picks up again at 41:26. To listen to this movement in full it is recommended to forward to…

51:16 – where after applause Kovacevich very graciously gives a re-run of the finale. Listening carefully to the full theme, there is a similarity between this and Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ theme from the Choral Symphony. It is in the main beautifully played, with a magical moment at 57:01 when we hear the theme in F sharp major, a fair way from home! At 1:01:12, however, Schubert arrives at his destination.

Further listening

A natural port of call from the Berg Piano Sonata is Schoenberg’s early piano works, which also dice with removing tonality altogether. These are the quite substantial Three Piano Pieces of 1909 and the tiny sketches that make up the Six Little Piano Pieces. Then to complement the Schubert we have the small but perfectly formed late Allegretto in C minor and three more beefy piano pieces from the last year of the composer’s life, written in a similar vein to the famous Impromptus. Here they are, all played by Maurizio Pollini and tagged on to the end of the concert playlist:

For more concerts click here