Ouija-Connection to Schubert’s Ghost and Ravel’s Never-Ending Hum(m)dinger

GermanyGermany Berio, Ravel: David Robertson (conductor), Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Herkulessaal, Munich 2.12.2011 (JFL)

Berio: “Rendering” – Re-composition of Symphonic Fragments by Franz Schubert
Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé (complete ballet music)

available at Amazon
L.Berio et al, Schubert Epilog,
J.Nott / Bamberg SO

available at Amazon
M.Ravel, Daphnis et Chloé (complete),
P.Monteux* / LSO
[* conducted the world premiere]

Luciano Berio’s Rendering is one of the main ingredients of the excellent 2005 release “Schubert Epilog” that did so much to put Jonathan Nott’s Bamberg Symphony on the map of record buyers again. At its base are fragments of Schubert’s (presumed) attempt at writing a new symphony (after completion of his Ninth) based on earlier sketches. In Rendering, Berio creates a superb synthesis of old and new by erecting a contemporary work in which Schubert is the main ingredient, rather than guesstimating what Schubert may have intended to arrive at. Berio’s music comes in and goes out amid the Schubert fragments, like a well preserved ruin that a modern architect incorporates into a new glass & steel structure; modern but remaining true to the original proportions. The Berio-bits slowly drift apart and disintegrate before our ears, not unlike Alfred Schnittke melting straight chords into figures askew—but with less robust puckishness and much more gracious refinement on Berio’s part.

Late Schubert—extrapolated by another ten years of equal creativity—suggests greatness to the point of incomprehensibility Berio gives us a modern window through which to try… try to imagine a musical world in which Beethoven would have been “that other romantic composer in Vienna” Berio gives the listener an opportunity to glimpse at this most important musical case of “what would have been” not through a reconstruction that would invariably remain a second-guessing game, incomplete, questioned, and a pale shadow of the platonic ideal of a “Tenth” Schubert Symphony. Berio infuses confidence into the music by making the fragments part of a new whole, endowing the music with a new reality. We hear a modern work, but in it the story of the greatest composer that injudicious sex ever took from posterity. David Robertson, taking over the BRSO from the scheduled Riccardo Chailly (the dedicatee of Rendering), brought this expression to life in magnificent form and in all its subtlety, delicacy, and tear-shaped sublimity. Rendering is not a hodge-podge, it is one of the greater gifts of music; it inspires to thanks-giving.

To perform Ravel’s ballet music Daphnis et Chloé afterwards (or pretty much anything else, for that matter) is—to my ears—taking away from this experience. And Daphnis et Chloé—performed in its entirety, not just the two suites—is already Ravel’s longest work…(apparently, inexplicably, also the one Ravel was most proud of).

It’s a lushly expressionist extravaganza with an imaginative orchestration, including wordless choir variously humming (“bouches fermées”)  and aaahhh-ing (“bouches ouvertes”)… but with one has to be in the mood for it, or else it sounds mostly repetitive and loud—a colorful kind of ‘loud’—between lulls of the same color. The BR chorus sounded great in this easy part, but contained two visual blots that were painful to look at and just as hard to avoid. Why chorus members would wear trashy glitter tank-tops on semi-see-through dresses (straight out of casting-rejects from “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”) or ostentatiously flaunt Hedwig-and-the-Angry-Inch hairdo is as baffling as why the rest of the chorus would let them get away with it. Such excesses of narcissism gone horribly wrong, apart from being a distracting, unprofessional aesthetic affront, have no place in a musical group effort where cohesion is the highest goal.

Amidst quibbles and distractions, the orchestra played exceedingly well under Robertson who, if we count Mark Minkowski among them, is among the handful of truly exciting, ever impressive American conductors and one who I am always eager to hear. I should like to hear more of him with the BRSO.

Jens F. Laurson