Musikfest Berlin 2011: Unusual Liszt and exhilarating performances for viola and organ

GermanyGermany  Musikfest Berlin 2011 – Liszt, Rihm, Liszt and Saint-Säens: Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin /  Leo Hussain (conductor), Tabea Zimmermann (viola), Cameron Carpenter (organ), Philharmonie, Berlin, 13.9.2011. (MC)

Franz LisztTwo Episodes from Nikolaus Lenaus Faust (1857/61)
Wolfgang RihmSecond Viola Concerto (Over the Line IV) (2000/02)
Franz LisztLa Campanella (1851) arranged for organ by Cameron Carpenter
Camille Saint-SäensSymphony No. 3 C minor, Op. 78 ‘Organ Symphony’ (1886)

In this his bicentennial year the music of Hungarian born Franz Liszt is receiving significant attention. Thankfully and somewhat inevitably his output is going through a process of reassessment. Liszt’s universal fame as a virtuoso pianist still overshadows his pivotal role in composition as a musical progressive. One of the most prolific of all composers,  many of Liszt’s unique forward looking scores were experimental in form and extremely daring for their time. A prominent member of the influential ‘New German School’ Liszt cast a monumental influence on the music world paving the way for a broad range of composers such as Wagner; Tchaikovsky; Puccini; Debussy and Bartók.

It was good to have Liszt’s Two Episodes from Lenau’s Faust (ignored scores from his final Weimar years)  on the concert programme performed by the impressive Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Leo Hussain. Certainly rich in ideas, especially melodic invention, they still at times sound dangerously modern. Entitled Night Ride/Midnight Procession, the First Faust Episode is a score of capacious and contrasting moods. In the opening I loved the shimmering low strings and emphatic woodwind from the orchestra. Varying from nocturnal menace and foreboding to an elfin-like brightness Hussain handled with assurance the often rapidly divergent character of Liszt’s music. Remarkable was the spine tingling episode of fury that was soon swept away by eerie pizzicato strings interspersed with troubled horn blasts. Atmospherically conveyed was the depiction of the religious procession with the melody from the hymn Pange Lingua. The Second Faust Episode entitled The Dance at the Village Inn (widely known as the Mephisto Waltz No.1) has been a concert favourite but has become rather neglected in recent years.  Hussain expertly interpreted this devilishly playful romp depicting revelry during a wedding feast in the village inn so convincingly with the Berlin orchestra relishing the drama of the riotous scene. Amid all the carousing the calm solo passages for cello followed by the violin were delightful moments to cherish.

Following on was Rihm’s Second Viola Concerto (Over the Line IV) performed by Tabea Zimmermann. She knows the score well being the score’s dedicatee who gave the world première in Budapest shortly after its completion in 2002. When Zimmermann received the score Rihm had written, “Well, here it is. Once again nothing Paganini-esque…” Not surprisingly this is a complex and stimulating contemporary score and extremely demanding for the soloist who plays almost continuously for its duration of over 30 minutes. After the mournful viola line in the high regions pitted against spare percussion the predominant feel is deeply unsettling writing that shifts up and down the registers. Episodes of stormy turbulence are never far away as the viola attempts to provide a calming influence. Rihm is confident in writing for both full orchestra and smaller groupings and I love the way he provides so many interesting brass and percussion effects. I experienced the moderately challenging Concerto as an anxiety-laden score with shafts of gleaming sunlight. Expressive and coolly beautiful Zimmermann’s playing contained a strong sense of involvement.

After the interval we heard Liszt’s La Campanella in an arrangement for solo organ played and prepared by American organist Cameron Carpenter, a graduate of the Juilliard School in New York. La Campanella (The Handbell or The Little Bell) is the 3rd of the set 6 Grand Paganini Etudes for piano with a melody taken from Paganini’s Second Violin Concerto. This was an outlandish performance that caused  quite a stir both for the buoyant tone of the music together with Carpenter’s predominately white attire with diamante trimmed shoulders and shoes. An overenthusiastic Carpenter started playing as a number of the audience were still taking their seats after the interval. I found the arrangement somewhat clumsy and disjointed, making for uncomfortable listening. Although entertaining it all felt too Vaudeville for me.

The highlight of the concert was the Saint-Säens Symphony No. 3 C minorOrgan Symphony’. Known more for its glorious themes the late Romantic score although containing some novel features could never be classed as groundbreaking. Although cast in two parts the score comprises four conventional movements. Curiously the Organ Symphony is not played anywhere near as often as its quality deserves. There is a connection to Liszt as Saint-Saëns dedicated the score to the memory of the Hungarian composer who had died in the year of its completion. Saint-Saëns wrote about his “Organ” Symphony, “I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have accomplished here, I will never achieve again.” Hussain’s rather balanced opening soon increased in weight and volume with the Berlin orchestra’s endeavours evident to a thrilling degree. The beautiful and memorably uplifting melodies were impressively underlined by Hussain. I loved the dialogue between the organ and strings in the Poco Adagio section so delightfully reflective. There was excitement in the celebrated finale when the organ erupted triumphantly into life creating a burst of vivid colour.

Michael Cookson