Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Magic Brightens the Darkness of the Berlin Winter

22/12/2017

Bartók and Mendelssohn: Vilde Frang (violin), Mari Eriksmoen (soprano), Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano), Ladies of the Philharmonia Chor Wien (chorus master: Walter Zeh), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Iván Fischer (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 21.12.2017. (MB)

Bartók – Hungarian Peasant Songs, Sz 100; Violin Concerto no.1, Sz 36

Mendelssohn – Selection from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, opp.21 and 61: Overture and nos 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 10, and 13

What struck me initially during the first of the two movements of Bartók’s 1933 version for orchestra of his Hungarian Peasant Songs was the sound of the Berlin Philharmonic. Many have commented, whether since the departure of Claudio Abbado, since that of Herbert von Karajan, even since the death of Wilhelm Furtwängler, on how the orchestra has lost ‘its’ sound. Depending on one’s standpoint, there is either a great deal of truth in that or there is none; or perhaps there is a third way too. Certainly the orchestral sound has not remained the same, but has that of any orchestra? Here, I heard – perhaps this has come from hearing the orchestra often over the past year, in the Philharmonie – what I might characterise as a ‘modern Berlin sound’, both in character, rich, deep, and yet translucent, and yet, almost paradoxically, if one is talking about ‘a sound’, adaptable, according not only to the music, but also to the conductor. Am I saying anything at all there? I am not sure, but I decided to mention it, since the thought struck me with some force.

The performance of that opening work sounded very much, well, as the opening to a concert, almost as if it were the aural opening of a storybook, which in a sense it was. Fantastical (at times) orchestration made the original material sound new, just as a Bach orchestration might, and yet, the ‘original’ was still there, just as with Bach. Moreover, one could hear where the later Bartók came from, too; affinities even with the Concerto for Orchestra presented themselves. If I occasionally found Iván Fischer a little laboured, keen to underline, less keen to suggest how the dances of the second movement might hang together, there was no denying the straightforward excellence of the Berlin Philharmonic’s playing – which, I think, Karajan and Abbado, perhaps even Furtwängler, as well, of course, as Simon Rattle, would happily have recognised. And the final dance was unmistakeably a climax.

Vilde Frang joined the orchestra for Bartók’s First Violin Concerto. Her initially haunting solo line truly drew one in to listen. Odd though this may be sound, I barely noticed to start with that other violinists, then other instrumentalists had joined her, such was the unanimity of purpose, almost as if the musicians were part of a giant orchestral keyboard. (I thought, then, of Boulez’s sur Incises, and of his work with this orchestra.) Chamber music thus blossomed into orchestral music, in a truly extraordinary way: all the time, so it seemed, led by the golden thread of a solo line, even when it had fallen silent. The second movement offered a vigorous response, very much in the manner, if not quite the style, of the later Bartók. Fast vibrato from Frang proved no obstacle to the surest of intonation, for her violin playing proved just as commanding as her broader musicianship. Musical connections with Prokofiev, even Szymanowski, suggested themselves, without this singular piece ever sounding quite ‘like’ anything other than itself.

I presume the programming of music from A Midsummer Night’s Dream was intended as a joke, given the date of the winter solstice. At any rate, it brightened the darkness of a Berlin winter. It is perhaps peculiarly difficult to speak of Mendelssohn’s music without resort to cliché. Words for the Overture – that perfect miracle, from a seventeen-year-old – present themselves all too readily, whether in work or performance: aetheral, gossamer, and so on. Those words certainly came to my mind more or less immediately, along with the recollection that Mendelssohn, so wisely, had once remarked that the problem with music was that it was more, not less, precise than words. Perhaps I should give up here, then, but I had better say something more. The aetheral strangeness of those opening chords actually put me in mind a little of Mahler: the chorale in the first movement of the Sixth Symphony, to be precise; the gossamer lightness of the Berlin strings’ response proved a true delight. And if Fischer, to begin with, sounded unduly Toscanini-like, harrying the score somewhat, he soon settled down. He understood – as many, surprisingly do not – that the end of the development here is, as often with Mendelssohn, a point of exhaustion, even if he somewhat overdid that exhaustion. It was, moreover, a joy to hear a full string section (fourteen first violins, down to six double basses) in this music. And who would not melt upon hearing those strings, or indeed Emmanuel Pahud’s flute in the recapitulation?

The Scherzo was as lithe as it had been under Abbado, and at least as full of woodland character (those clichés again, I know). This might sound banal, and perhaps it is, but I was moved to marvel, which I do perhaps less often than I should, at quite what a modern symphony orchestra can accomplish, and in particular at what this modern symphony orchestra can. I was taken a little by surprise at the German in ‘Ye spotted snakes’ or rather, ‘Bunte Schlangen, zweigezüngt!’ Schlegel’s celebrated translation has its own enchantments, though, as of course does Mendelssohn’s score. If I might have preferred a little more warmth initially from soprano, Mari Eriksomoen, that was certainly forthcoming from Kitty Whately and members of the Philahrmonia Chor Wien, who stood up from within the orchestra. And any reservation was more a matter of personal taste, or lack thereof, than anything else; these were fine vocal performances. Fischer let the music run away with him occasionally, but recovered well enough. Wordless drama characterised the Intermezzo, again bringing those Mendelssohnian thoughts concerning the ‘definiteness’ of music to mind. Delectable horns and woodwind came very much to the fore in the Nocturne, just as they must. Fischer’s way with it was slightly on the sectional side, but I should not exaggerate. There was, moreover, great passion to be heard from the strings. A resplendent and, yes, moving Wedding March prepared the way for the mysterious, quirky, Mahlerian foreshadowing of the Marcia funèbre. The final movement bound together various gossamer threads admirably. My only regret was that we had not had more of the music, and indeed the play itself. And there was ambiguity to those fairies too, especially in the delivery of their final line: ‘Trefft ihn in der Dämmerung!’

Mark Berry

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