The Karajan Academy of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra excels at Musikfest Berlin

20/09/2019

Musikfest Berlin [11] – Neuwirth and Grisey: Emmanuel Pahud (flute), Juliet Fraser (soprano), Karajan Academy of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Susanna Mälkki (conductor). Kammermusiksaal, Philharmonie, Berlin, 18.9.2019. (MB)

Susanna Mälkki (c) Simon Fowler

Neuwirth – Aello: ballet mécanomorphe (2016-17)
Grisey – Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (1998)

All good things must come to an end. This year’s Musikfest Berlin has been a very good thing indeed. I had hoped to go to Rusalka in concert performance to round things off, but alas that was not to be. This concert of works by Olga Neuwirth and Gérard Grisey, however, proved if anything a more fitting way to conclude, in performances from the young players of the Berlin Philharmonic’s Karajan Academy, under the wise leadership of Susanna Mälkki, to rival those of many a new music ensemble.

I first heard Neuwirth’s Aello as part of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra’s Brandenburg Project’, in which new works were commissioned to accompany Bach’s six concerti grossi. Then I wrote that it was ‘to my ears, by far the strongest of the new works’. Two years later, my ears found at least as much to fascinate and to enjoy. Having Emmanuel Pahud on flute (later bass flute) is unlikely ever to be a bad thing; it certainly was not here, in a performance of expressive virtuosity. As soloist, or first among equals, he was joined by two muted trumpets (piccolo in B-flat and in C), and three first violins, all at the flute pitch of 443 Hz; three second violins (431 Hz); two violas (443); two cellos (450); synthesiser (433, with guest artist, Majella Stockhausen); mechanical typewriter (Olivetti Lettera 22); hotel reception bell; wine-glass, with unknown (to me) liquid content, at pitch e’’; and small triangle with milk-frother. The machine element, then, is – and, in performance, was – important, acknowledgement no doubt of recent, to my mind highly regrettable, tendencies in Bach performance, from 1950s ‘sewing machine Baroque’ onwards. There was nothing, however, puritanical to what we heard, quite the contrary. Not only were there ghosts aplenty in the machine; they were having fun. Rhythms were tight, in a good way, facilitating metrical, melodic, and harmonic turns. Memories of Bach, often in the foreground, offered a framework for listening, in a fashion that perhaps might recall Berio, albeit without straightforward, evident ‘influence’. One listened, was aided to listen, on several levels at once. A closing climax both mechanistic and thrilling still left space for a fine surprise, whose secret I shall not spoil here, on the final note.

Grisey’s Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, for which the players were joined by the ever-excellent Juliet Fraser, made for an intriguing contrast, evolution perhaps replacing mechanism. (Does that implicit contrast not already, however, beg several questions?) A pattern of almost, yet never quite, imperceptible openings – the first, in the Prélude, surely most so, and not only because one’s ears have yet to adjust – sets up such expectation; though expectations are there to be, if not confounded, then at least developed and questioned. Fraser’s emphatic intonation of her opening pitches received ‘backing’ that might almost have seemed ambient, until one listened. Process was clear: settling and unsettling, almost yet not quite according to one’s strategy of listening. How a voice’s, or rather this particular voice’s, timbre might be echoed, continued, by a trumpet or a clarinet was not the least of the mysteries to be savoured rather than resolved. Tuning, for instance in the Interlude between the first and second songs, continued to unsettle, somehow being both right and wrong simultaneously, the harmonic spectrum working its wonders, yet working them against an occasionally nagging backdrop of what we, or at least I, otherwise ‘knew’. By the time we had reached the fourth song, ‘La mort de l’humanité’, from the Epic of Gilgamesh, I began to wonder whether the change effected on my listening might have negative consequences for returning to the music I love, and perhaps know, so well. A brief, pointless fantasy, no doubt, yet testament to the transformational qualities of work and performance, whose form seemed to have something both natural and magical to them. We had observed, heard, perhaps experienced the deaths of an angel, of civilisation, of the voice, and now of humanity, but that did not necessarily seem to have been a bad thing. There will always, after all, remain ghosts in the machine; or will there?

Mark Berry

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