Stimulating and fascinating music at the musikfest berlin 2011

GermanyGermany  Pfitzner, Kaminski, Rihm, R Strauss: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Andris Nelsons, Andreas Buschatz (violin); Amihai Grosz (viola); Ludwig Quandt (cello), Gábor Tarkövi (trumpet); Jan Schlichte (percussion).Philharmonie,Berlin, 10.9.2011 (MC)

Hans PfitznerPrelude from act II of Palestrina (1917)
Heinrich KaminskiDorian Music for violin, viola, cello and orchestra (1933)
Wolfgang RihmMarsyas rhapsody for trumpet with percussion and orchestra (second version, 1998/99)
Richard StraussDer Rosenkavalier Suite (1944)

This fascinating and stimulating concert by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Andris Nelsons at the Philharmonie formed part of the musikfest berlin 2011, which is Berlin’s major festival for orchestral music. Each season the festival committee invites a number of famous international orchestras and renowned soloists for this expanding nineteen day festival. Concentrating mainly on symphonic repertoire the musikfest berlin provides opportunities for rarely heard, forgotten or more unusual works and also gives weight to programming interesting contemporary works. Amongst a number of musical threads that pervade the festival this season the spotlight is given to Wolfgang Rihm who is represented by thirteen works, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Franz Liszt and the 100th anniversary of the death of Gustav Mahler.

The programme notes and marketing information for this concert pronounce a theme of “outer space”- a somewhat exaggerated call as not all the music from this concert of 20th century German music contained a cosmic feel. Commencing the concert was Hans Pfitzner’s Prelude from act II of Palestrina, his most famous work,  an opera from 1917 that the composer described as a ‘music legend’. Although Wilhelm Furtwängler would occasionally conduct Pfitzner’s music during his tenure with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1922-54 he only conducted the Palestrina Prelude once and that was in 1949. Dark and shimmering low strings predominate Pfitzner’s opening. Nelsons insightfully directed a calm more reflective passage which soon became fraught and gloomy like a mysterious Planet journeying through space. Ecstatic and passionate love music soon took centre stage and remains in the memory.

If Pfitzner is rarely heard then by comparison the music of Heinrich Kaminski is like an endangered species in the concert hall. Owing to his Jewish origins Kaminski struggled to survive under National Socialism. His music was banned and never seemed to recover from this lack of exposure. Great credit goes to the Heinrich Kaminski Society for promoting his work so enthusiastically. It was in 1934, the year after the score’s completion, that that the Berlin Philharmonic gave their first performance of Kaminski’s Dorian Music under Furtwängler at the Alte Philharmonie. Now seventy-seven years later the Berlin Philharmonic have revived Kaminski’s three movement score and well worthy of restoration it is too. Scored for the unusual combination of violin, viola, cello and orchestra the neo-Baroque language was evident throughout. We didn’t hear the pared-down textures currently favoured by period instrument ensembles but the thicker orchestral textures preferred in Kaminski’s time. Marginally I was reminded of neo-Baroque Stravinsky but without the rhythmic emphasis of the great master. Nelson’s directed an ardently brisk opening ensuring that the string trio were heard thought the orchestral textures. The repetitive nature of Kaminski’s contrasting scheme of fast/slow and stormy/calm became apparent yet it was handsomely realised never becoming wearisome. Nelson’s fresh and impressive interpretation made a splendid case for the score. Rather than a solar system depiction Kaminski’s score reminded me more of fairyland scenes of nocturnal activities in a moonlit wooded glade.

As a backlash from the extremely difficult music by the enfant terrible composers of the 1960s and 70s much contemporary music is treated with apprehension by concert audiences. With featured composer Wolfgang Rihm’s Marsyas there was nothing that an open mind and a reasonable degree of concentration wouldn’t reward. Yet I did see one man sitting throughout with his fingers in his ears. The Rhapsody for Trumpet with Percussion and Orchestra in Rihm’s second version from 1998/99 does not seem to have been designed with a strict programmatic content. Rihm was influenced by the Greek mythological tale of the wind playing satyr Marsyas who challenged Apollo with his lyre to a music challenge only to lose his hide and his life. In Rihm’s rhapsody the impressive trumpet soloist Gábor Tarkövi is represented as Marsyas, the central character, with the role of the percussionist Jan Schlichte on marimba and drums never really fully elucidated. Stormy waters of anxiety and antagonism contrast with an uneasy calm which could easily represent a sense of sympathy even empathy for Marsyas. A jazzy episode that came out of nowhere seemed incongruent leaving me puzzled, thinking what did it mean? Nevertheless the glitzy passage served to assist me to refocus on the writing. Both soloists were on splendid form especially the glowing and growling trumpet of Gábor Tarkövi. I doubt that Rihm’s Marsyas has ever had finer advocacy than the playing from the excellent Berlin Philharmonic. It was good to see the composer called to the stage to take the enthusiastic applause.

The associations to cosmic adventures of Richard Strauss’s tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra are well known, especially the more recent connections to Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. My imagination wasn’t able to discover any empyrean connections in the Suite from Strauss’s comic opera Der Rosenkavalier apart from hearing such heavenly music. It seemed likely it was conductor Artur Rodziński who arranged music into the suite we heard this evening and with this music of Strauss that the Berlin Philharmonic was able to display their excellence. The originality of Strauss’s dense and intricate sound world is astonishing with Nelsons and his players bringing out the sumptuously rich fabric of the writing. Nelsons took a generally brisk pace but was never frightened to let the pace drop to almost a standstill as excitement was never far away. The tightness of the orchestra’s playing was outstanding with the impeccable principal oboist remarkably adept in his solo passages. Embodying the music of Vienna, Strauss’s waltz in the hands of Nelsons was like cruise down the Danube. In the score’s conclusion Nelsons provided a moreish sugar rush of gold medal proportions.

 Michael Cookson