Berlin Musikfest (1): Elation at Shostakovich and Britten Performances

05/09/2013

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 Shostakovich, Britten:Berlin Musikfest 2013, Angela Denoke (soprano), Petr Migunov (bass), Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Teodor Currentzis (conductor), Philharmonie, Berlin, 2.9.2013 (MC)

Mahler Chamber Orchestra, credit Holger Talinski

Shostakovich: Prelude and Scherzo for string octet, Op. 11 (1924)
Britten: Phaedra – dramatic cantata for mezzo soprano and string orchestra, Op. 93 (1975)
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 14 in G Major for soprano, bass and chamber orchestra, Op. 135 (1969)

In this Mahler Chamber Orchestra concert from the Berlin Musikfest 2013 the masterwork on display was undoubtedly the Shostakovich Symphony No. 14. A score of high quality which should be a repertoire staple yet is rarely encountered in the concert hall. I guess that the topic concerning various aspects death may be the primary reason for the neglect of this wonderful score. Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) is another such work which I know many people are apprehensive of approaching owing to the sensitivity of its subject and the fear of tempting fate. More of a song cycle than a traditional symphony these settings of eleven texts from four poets Federico Garcia Lora, Guillaume Apollinaire, Wilhelm Küchelbecker and Rainer Maria Rilke were originally chosen by Shostakovich in Russian translations but last night’s Philharmonie performance was sung in German.

Scored for soprano, bass and string orchestra Athens born conductor Teodor Currentzis was in his element with Shostakovich’s light instrumentation without winds employing around thirty strings, a celeste and two percussionists. His polished direction was high on sensitivity and managed to create such a vivid palette of colours that I didn’t think was possible from this score. Assured German soprano Angela Denoke with her impressive projection that carried easily through the hall sang the mournful text with such moving expression. Of the many highlights in the song Der Selbstmörder (The Suicide) where “three tall lilies lie on my grave without a cross” Denoke’s accompaniment by the dark, low strings was quite magical.

Taking centre stage with his elevated level of sheer artistry was Russian bass Petr Migunov who displayed his aptitude to move the listener like few other basses around today. The cavernous depths of his rich, rock steady bass was remarkable and his all-around performance was compelling. In Loreley with the dark clouds gathering as his lover the siren Loreley falls to her death from a small boat into the Rhine it was astonishing how Migunov created such a heartrending and compelling portrayal. I should also mention the marvellous string accompaniment so unfailing throughout. The Andante, O Del’vig, Del’vig was especially glorious with the moving playing of the principal cello admirably complementing the deep sadness of Migunov’s bass.

In the first half of the concert the Mahler Chamber Orchestra opened with the teenage Shostakovich’s Prelude and Scherzo for string octet, a splendid work and one that I suspect the majority of the audience was hearing for the first time. This is such accomplished writing from the student composer with his playful, near-sardonic side never far away. The musicians playing the four violins, two violas and two cellos clearly relished the opportunity to perform this modestly scaled yet splendid score containing some beautiful writing. With a busy role the leader showed her considerable prowess especially in the Prelude and in the Scherzo in which the cello principal played an affectingly mournful section with significant poise.

Prior to this the centenary year of Britten’s birth I cannot recall having seen Phaedra on a concert programme. I have much admired Dame Janet Baker’s ‘London’ Decca recording of the score and was looking forward to this performance of the dramatic cantata. Scored for mezzo-soprano, string orchestra, percussion and harpsichord it is a late work from 1975 by which time when the composer had become seriously ill; and it was to be his final vocal work. For Phaedra Britten based the libretto on Jean Racine’s play Phèdre using English translations by Robert Lowell. Phaedra, the daughter of Minos and granddaughter of Zeus, fell in love with her stepson Hippolytus to tragic consequences and hanged herself.  Taking the solo part Angela Denoke – a soprano, not a mezzo – greatly impressed with this demanding score. At times, mainly in the Prologue, the sound world of the opera Peter Grimes was discernible especially with the dramatic outbursts from the four percussionists including the prominent bell so evocative of Grime’s Aldeburgh. Secure and assured Denoke took the role in her stride and in spite of a slight tendency to rush providing a highly satisfying performance that was fully appreciated by the enthusiastic Philharmonie audience.

At the conclusion of the Shostakovich symphony although the lights went out on the stage serving to darken the hall momentarily for a stage effect the exceptional performance had ignited a powerful sense of elation in many audience hearts. The cheering that followed was deserved recognition.

Michael Cookson

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