Christoph Eschenbach and the DSO Berlin’s Fine Concert Leaves the Audience Wanting More

09/09/2017

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Musikfest Berlin [2] – Mozart, Rihm, and Mendelssohn: Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (soprano), Tzimon Barto (piano), Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin / Christoph Eschenbach (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 8.9.2017. (MB)

Mozart-BusoniDon Giovanni: Overture

Mozart – Concert aria: ‘Ch’io mi scordi di te? – Non temer, amato bene’, KV 505

Rihm – Piano Concerto no.2

Mendelssohn – Symphony no.4 in A major, ‘Italian’, op.90

What a joy it was to hear the Overture to Don Giovanni with Busoni’s 1908 concert ending. Once one has done so, it is difficult to know why anyone would prefer any of the more ‘traditional’ solutions. What a joy, moreover, it was to hear Christoph Eschenbach conduct the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin in a performance that was ‘traditional’ in the best, rather than a lazy, way: no modish – or rather, puritanically orthodox – alla breve introduction, and a full orchestral sound, albeit from really rather a small band. The important thing, of course, was that the spirit was there, both in D minor and in D major – and it was. Busoni then plunged us back into the Stone Guest scene, the music subsiding with dark ambivalence: then the scena ultima, whose banishment was ever a stain upon so many ‘Romantic’ interpretations. The first time I ever conducted an orchestra was in this overture; how I wish I had known Busoni’s version then!

Hanna-Elisabeth Müller and Tzimon Barto joined the orchestra then for the wonderful concert aria, ‘Ch’io mi scordi di te? – Non temer, amato bene’. In the recitative, Müller, Eschenbach, and the orchestra worked closely to convey a myriad of subtleties in Mozart’s writing, every note and every word mattering, yet without pedantry. I first thought of Christine Schäfer (with the Berlin Philharmonic and Claudio Abbado), only for Müller then – ‘Venga la morte…’ – to prove far more hochdramatisch. No phrase, verbal or musical, was taken for granted. Barto’s entry, heralding the aria proper, promised much in tone and touch. Alas, his contribution turned out oddly: at times, sensitive, a true partner, at other times curiously heavy-handed. Everything else, however, came close to perfection, the entwining of opera and concerto – not that they are not entwined already! – as apparent in Mozart’s passages of hushed anticipation as in his bravura coloratura.

Barto seemed on much surer ground in the Second Piano Concerto of another Wolfgang: Rihm, which he and Eschenbach premiered in Salzburg with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra in 2014. Its single movement proves, as is often the case, suggestive also of a multi-movement conception, although never quite predictably. The opening material, piano and orchestral chords initially responding to each other, then fusing, has a harmonic language redolent of, yet never to be reduced to, Schoenberg and Berg. Process, however, is certainly quite different, the line seemingly concentrated in the middle register of both solo instrument and orchestra – Rihm views a concerto as ‘only’ meaning that ‘there is a soloist and a collective’ – with bass clarinet in particular offering commentary, and other lines surrounding. Barto and the DSO Berlin provided welcome clarity, without evident sacrifice to ‘atmosphere’. Climaxes and indeed the piece as a whole all seemed very well shaped, Eschenbach clearly having the piece’s measure. A couple of sweet-toned violin solos suggest an alternative path: neither taken, nor eschewed. Later, more Bartókian material evolves from what we had heard, suggestive perhaps of another, related movement, and apparently more malleable in its nature. Rihm is nothing if not eclectic, and yet never seems arbitrary here (apart, perhaps, from a strange guest appearance from temple blocks, but that may well have been my problem). A cadenza passage, underpinned by double basses, pays homage to ‘tradition’, but then so does much of the rest of the piece, without being hidebound: rather like Busoni, one might say. The quiet ending both ‘spoke’ and ‘sang’.

An exhilarating yet never merely breathless performance of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony was to be heard in the second half. The DSO’s sound (or Klang) sounded just right for this music – as, indeed, it had earlier too, lightness and richness two sides of the same coin, woodwind a sheer delight. There was a great deal of pleasure to be taken in the sound itself, albeit never in a Straussian, materialist sense (and rightly so). Eschenbach ensured that the music breathed without sagging. The first movement’s formal dynamism was, so it seemed, effortlessly manifest, art concealing art. Its development proved, much to its advantage, more overtly Beethovenian than often one hears, the recapitulation no mere ‘repeat’, almost a second development, so much having changed in the meantime. Antiphonal violins certainly paid off in the elucidation and drama of Mendelssohn’s counterpoint. The second movement was on the brisk side, yet retained a strong sense of the processional, Mendelssohn’s mastery of orchestration wondrously revealed therein, not least through a variety of articulation. In some ways, the minuet and trio emerged as more of a ‘slow movement’, although that is only a matter of degree. A necessary – or at least desirable – hint of slight nostalgia for a Mozartian world that has passed was beautifully conveyed, not least in the daringly relaxed trio. And what horn playing there was to savour! There was no doubting the orchestral virtuosity we heard in the finale, but it was quite without self-regard, at the service of the musical argument. It seemed over in a trice, leaving us wanting more.

Mark Berry

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