Salonen and the Philharmonia in Stunning Exploration of Weimar Republic Music

11/06/2019

Weimar Berlin: Bittersweet Metropolis I: The Sounds of Change Angela Denoke (soprano), Emma Davis (lighting designer), Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 9.6.2019. (CC)

Angela Denoke (c) Johan Persson

Berg – Three Pieces from Wozzeck
Hindemith – Concerto for Orchestra
WeillThe Threepenny Opera: Suite (arr. Schönherr)
ShostakovichThe Golden Age: Revolutionary Finale

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s reign at the Philharmonia will be fondly remembered for his stunning programmes. This was the first of a series, Weimar Berlin: Bittersweet Metropolis. Further delights will include the film Metropolis with live orchestra, To the Cabaret! and The Party’s Over (the last of which will include a rare performance of Weill’s wonderful Violin Concerto).

This celebration of the music of the Weimar Republic (1919-33) was remarkable by any standards. Right from the off, from the almost imperceptible yet impeccably controlled string opening of the Wozzeck fragments, the orchestra was clearly on top form, Berg’s counterpoint beautifully yet non-interventionally stated. This was the Expressionist side of the era, Angela Denoke was a fine Marie, vocally in full command, that long, slow descent on the words ‘Laute, kühle Wein’ delicious in is inevitability and control. If one might have asked for more contrast between Sprechgesang and sung phrases in the Bible reading scene, one has to admire the amount of detail Salonen was able to bring out from the orchestra, especially from the woodwind. The arrival on the D for the Interlude that is an ‘Invention on a Tonality’ (that tonality being D minor) was brilliantly timed by Salonen; later in this magnificent exploration of the nature of tonality, trumpets were astonishingly accurate. It was surprising, then, that the actual climax of that Interlude was a little upholstered. A little more edge, a touch more rawness, would have clinched the deal.

Hindemith’s Concerto for Orchestra is not at all well known but deserves more frequent airings than it gets. From the Expressionism of Berg to the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) of Hindemith is a long way. With the organ now bathed in red, the stage was set for that particular dry contrapuntal playing that makes Hindemith so identifiable. There was a splendid contribution from the Philharmonia’s leader, Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay in a challenging moto perpetuo, but what really sealed the deal was the Philharmonia’s chameleon-like ability to move from one world to another.

I suppose one could link the Berg to the Weill via a knife: the one that kills Maria – and which Wozzeck fatally goes in search of – and the famous Mack the Knife (‘Mackie Messer’). Weill is surely the epitome of the Weimar Republic, and the six movements we heard from The Threepenny Opera (Dreigroschenoper) were positively transportative. We heard Max Schönherr’s 1956 Suite (the opera itself was written in 1928). Schönherr was himself a composer and arranger; he had the idea of the Suite while Kapellmeister of a radio orchestra in Vienna. It is an orchestration of the Kleine Dreigroschenmusik, omitting three numbers (‘Anstatt-daß-Song’, ‘Tango-Ballade’ and ‘Dreigroschenfinale’). Favourites are there though, including ‘Die Morität von Mackie Messer’ and ‘Polly’s Lied’. Salonen highlighted Weill’s use of counterpoint in the Overture, linking the music back to the Hindemith. ‘Mack the Knife,’ as the song is better known in English-speaking territories, was ultra-sleek, perhaps a tad restrained.

A trip to Berlin, enabled via prize winnings in the First Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, made its mark on Shostakovich’s output. The ballet The Golden Age is about a football team that travels from their Soviet home to ‘Fasch-landia’ and their adventures, culminating in imprisonment (they are liberated by workers). With a huge orchestra spilling over into the choir stalls, Salonen delivered a performance with the level of exactitude this music needs to succeed.

A stunning concert. When Salonen leaves at the end of the 2020/21 season, he will be sorely missed.

Colin Clarke

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