An Eclectic Programme from the Members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

19/12/2017

Takemitsu, Strauss, Prokofiev, and Bruch: Members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin, 18.12.2017. (MB)

Takemitsu – Le son calligraphié I-III

R. Strauss – Metamorphosen, in version for string septet by Rudolf Leopold

Prokofiev – Sonata for Two Violins in C major, op.56

Bruch – Octet in B-flat major, op. posth.

Musicians – Daishin Kashimoto, Noah Bendix-Balgley, Luiz Felipe Coelho, Christophe Horak (violins), Amihai Grosz, Naoko Shimizu (violas), Ludwig Quandt, Bruno Delepelaire (cellos) & Matthew McDonald (double bass)

It is doubtless in the nature of such varied programmes, in which the emphasis seems to lie upon variety in itself rather than on a unifying theme, that some works will appeal to any one listener more than others. In that respect, I should count myself fortunate that only – doubtless predictably – Max Bruch’s musically anonymous late string octet that failed to intrigue me. (If, as a Bruch fanatic, should such a thing exist, you prefer: I failed to be intrigued by it.) The date of composition, although it apparently is based upon earlier materials, beggars belief: 1920. It is not so much that it was written eight years after Pierrot lunaire, as that it sounds rather like a talented, yet uninspired attempt to imitate the young, and I mean very young, Mendelssohn. Not that the eight players – all of those listed above, save for Matthew McDonald on double bass – in any sense failed it. Quite the contrary: I cannot imagine it receiving a more committed, enlightened performance, determined to make the most of its craftsmanship, without attempting to turn it into something it is not. The spirit and cultivation of the playing were, from the opening of the first of its three movements, undeniable: far more thrilling than the material itself. It was surely to that, quite rightly, that the audience so warmly responded. There were darker moments (relatively speaking) too, especially in the central Adagio-Andante con molto di moto. And if even these players could not quite convince one that the generic character and/or form of a finale were transformed into something more than that, they did their very best. No one should begrudge such pieces an occasional outing – and who knows? Maybe others heard something in the piece I did not.

Written for the same forces, Tōru Takemitsu’s three early Son calligraphié works (1958-60), proved more fascinating, at least to me. If their miniature status and their spare directness of utterance perhaps inevitably brought to mind Webern and – from the future – Kurtág, the harmonic language, especially in so warm, yet never over-egged a performance proved more suggestive of Berg. It might seem contradictory, and perhaps it is, to speak of spare directness and then to mention languor, but there seemed to be plenty of space, however considered, for that too, timbres often suggestive of a more Gallic sensibility. The wholeness of the players’ conception, combined with attention to (Japanese?) ‘calligraphic’ detail, might have had one think these pieces repertoire works. There seemed to me, at least on a first hearing, no good reason why they should not be.

Strauss’s Metamorphosen is, unquestionably, although not necessarily in this form, the version for string septet by Rudolf Leopold, made following rediscovery of Strauss’s short score and first performed in 1994. The players turned around so as to face in the opposite direction for this, following in the footsteps of many musicians, Daniel Barenboim included, eager to play the hall, even its audience, as a living instrument rather than a mere space for performance. Not for nothing is the Pierre Boulez Saal’s motto ‘music for the thinking ear’. Seven strings will never sound the same as twenty-three. Nor should they attempt to; for, if that were the aim, why not use twenty-three? Here there is, almost by definition, a greater sense of chamber music, but it was a greater sense in performance too, the players seemingly relishing the opportunity to play with the difference, although never to be different merely for the sake of it. What I noticed earlier on was an apparently slower tempo than often one hears. (I say apparently, since it sounded to be as much a matter of holding back harmonically, and have no idea whether it was in terms of accursed metronome beats.) Such was not how it was to be all along, though, for lighter, even relatively brighter passages seemed to gain momentum, both in terms of tempo and harmonic rhythm. (Are the two in fact distinct?) This was a Metamorphosen which, perhaps unusually, had more of late Strauss’s typical Mozartian sonata form balance and dynamism, vis-à-vis dark Wagnerism. It was not, however, a case of one against the other, but of dramatic conflict. Likewise, the balance and generative conflict between harmony and counterpoint sounded almost as if born of a Mozart quintet, rendering transitional passages – yes, I know the whole work is essentially transitional… – especially interesting. The cultivated gravity of return led to a soft-spoken sense of approaching yet never reaching suspension. And yes, the Eroica moment spoke as eloquently as ever, in its new yet old setting: a metaphor perhaps for the performance as a whole.

Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins, played by concertmasters Daishin Kashimoto and Noah Bendix-Balgley, fared wonderfully well, in a performance as dramatic, even aspirantly balletic, as it was razor-sharp of intonation. The bitter-sweet post-Romantic intertwining and separation of instruments in the first movement proved a masterclass, performative as well as compositional, in two-part writing. Bartókian fury, soon transmuted into something else, which in turn was soon transformed, and so on, characterised a powerfully yet never pedantically developmental second movement. Sweetly, songfully enigmatic, the simple, side-slipping pleasures of the third movement delighted. What I thought of as the sincere tricksterism of the finale did so too, in its very different way. It offered both a sense of uniting the work’s strands and yet also questioning them. Strauss was far from the only composer of this period to don compositional mask upon mask.

Mark Berry

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