A Fortnight of Music Nears End at San Sebastian with Schoenberg, Brahms and Beethoven

SpainSpain   Schoenberg, Brahms, Beethoven: Susanne Bernhard (soprano), Gerhild Romberger (mezzo), Christian Elsner (tenor), Michael Volle (bass),WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne, Orfeón Donostiarra, Jukka-Pekka Saraste and José Antonio Sainz Alfaro (conductors). Quincena Musical de San Sebastián (Spain), Auditorio Kursaal, 29.08.2011 (LV)

Schoenberg: Friede auf Erden, Op. 13
Brahms: Schicksalslied, Op. 54
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9

For its last appearance in San Sebastián this summer, Cologne’sWDRSymphony Orchestra, partnered by San Sebastián’s renowned Orfeón Donostiarra chorus, took a surprisingly sober program (for a festival) with some heavy thematic content and had a sell-out audience roaring on their feet after the triumphal close of Beethoven’s mighty Ninth Symphony. Reading the subtitles in Basque and Spanish shown on a screen above the stage made the always surreal emotional experience more hopeful than usual.

The evening had begun with Schoenberg’s thorny diatribe against war, Friede auf Erden, in a performance of unusual inner clarity and even sunlit passion led by Orfeón Donostiarra’s longtime conductor José Antonio Sainz Alfaro. I asked Sainz Alfaro at a reception afterwards how he had been able to create such a moving experience and he answered simply that the impact of the words—and some hard rehearsing—had done the trick. The Brahms that followed, led by the WDR band’s director Jukka-Pekka Saraste, seems miles more conventional and long-winded even if the musical message was more harmonically comforting.

It was after intermission that Saraste and his troops came into clearer focus, filling the unexpectedly warm modern hall (except at very low levels) with volumes of sound that eclipsed even the great audiophile home theater systems from companies like Linn and Dynaudio. There was simply nothing the great hall could not handle. Saraste and the WDROrchestra filled out the familiar dimensions of the Beethoven with logistical precision and instrumental beauty that followed an irresistible, arcing line from the first murmurings in the strings to a concluding last peroration that Saraste prepared with a dramatic, rhetorical pause. His players responded with virtuosity, color (particularly in the glorious woodwinds) and visual drama (each string player looked as if s/he were leading their section). With the chorus and some no-holds-barred singing from the four soloists, the experience defined the collaborative excellence that perfectly suited Beethoven’s inspiring message, and sent the concert-goers out into the night for well-earned beer and pintxos.

Laurence Vittes