Michael Spyres (Oedipus), Ekaterina Semenchuk (Jocasta), Andrea Mastroni (Tiresias), Krystian Adam (Shepherd), Derek Welton (Creon, Messenger), Bibiana Beglau (speaker), Men of the Rundfunkchor Berlin, Berliner Philharmoniker / Kirill Petrenko (above)
Weill Symphony no.1 in one movement (1921)
Stravinsky Oedipus Rex (1927)
Saturday 13 February (review of the online broadcast)
Written by Ben Hogwood
“This is no little hicktown. This is one helluva city!”
The words of Bertolt Brecht, writing about his home city in the song Berlin im Licht, set to music by Kurt Weill. It is a sentiment brought to the front of The Golden Twenties, an online festival from the Berliner Philharmoniker running through February, examining ‘a metropolis of contrasts…the epicentre of artistic modernism’.
The festival’s first concert, streamed from the Philharmonie via the orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall, featured the Berliner Philharmoniker’s first ever performance of Weill’s single-movement Symphony no.1 from 1921. This seems like a remarkable historical oversight, even for a work as little-known, but the performance gave this student piece the best possible platform to reach a new audience.
After a thoughtful and revealing introduction from the orchestra’s concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley, the Symphony’s distinctive main motive rang out like an extended peal of bells. With this arresting opening Weill laid out the ambition of his work, writing as a student of Busoni looking to impress. This bold statement was complemented by intricate and intimate solo episodes through the inner workings of the orchestra.
Kirill Petrenko conducted a cohesive and convincing account, making sense of the more congested writing and bringing out the parallels with Hindemith and Schoenberg, which he spoke about in the interval. The work’s fulsome harmonies had plenty of deep colour, and it was revealing to hear the counterpoint in such detail. The double basses made an eerie contribution through a fugal episode which wound its way up through the orchestra at several points in the work, before an impressive climax and a darkly shaded postscript. Petrenko nailed the scope of the piece but ensured there was plenty of room for the phrases to breathe individually.
Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex could hardly have been a more appropriate counterpart for a concert filmed behind closed doors. With its chilling opening statement, ‘The plague is destroying us!’, sung by a socially distanced male chorus from the choirstalls, it was a stark reminder of our current, locked down predicament – and struck an inevitable parallel with the state of the performing arts currently.
This 50-minute opera / oratorio is one of the most notable achievements in Stravinsky’s so-called ‘neo-classical’ period, a dramatic response to Sophoclese‘s tragedy that is not the easiest to digest but which packs an expressive punch.
Petrenko’s incisive conducting brought its message home with a lasting power, and in the performance he was aided by a strong cast of soloists. Michael Spyres’s tenor dominated in the title role, his ringing tones promising deliverance but ultimately winding up in great anguish before the end. He was given ample support by Creon (bass-baritone Derek Welton) and mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk, whose fulsome contribution was made in a bright red dress bringing her into dramatic contrast with the funereal black of chorus and orchestra.
Petrenko kept things moving throughout, with virtuoso contributions from woodwind and percussion in particular. In spite of their social distancing the chorus lost none of their power, playing out the tragic story with detail but an ominous inevitability. Holding the threads together was narrator Bibiana Beglau (above), an excellent choice and with strong proejction in the empty hall.
Highlights could be found in the assertive delivery of Welton in the ‘Avenge Laius’ section, while Spyres gave an impassioned promise that he would solve the riddle of the Sphinx. The chorus alternated between a horror at the plague, a sorrowful realisation of the plight of Oedipus, which was particularly moving, and the cold, regretful end.
This was an auspicious start to what promises to be a revealing celebration of Berlin and particularly Weill in the 1920s. The next concert on 16 February will look at the composer’s better-known Second Symphony, while this and future instalments will include the music of Hindemith, Richard Strauss and Eisler. If the performances are as good as these then online attendance is highly recommended.