Berlin Musikfest (2): Runnicles Pays Tribute to Two Kindred Spirits

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GermanyGermany Britten, Shostakovich: Musikfest Berlin 2013, Klaus Florian Vogt (tenor), Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin/Donald Runnicles (conductor), Philharmonie, Berlin – 3rd September 2013 (MC)


Donald Runnicles Photo by Ashley Wilkerson Photography
Donald Runnicles
Photo by Ashley Wilkerson Photography

Britten: Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia, Op. 33 a/b
Les Illuminations, Op. 18
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 15, Op. 141

This programme performed at the Philharmonie by the Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin and conducted by Donald Runnicles, their music director since 2009, brings together the music of Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich. The friendship of the two composers might seem an unlikely one but they were kindred spirits with a mutual admiration for each other. Shostakovich visited Britten’s Aldeburgh court and Britten travelled to Russia to meet the great man several times.

The opening work of the evening was Britten’s much admired Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from his opera Peter Grimes, one of his most frequently performed orchestral works. Requiring a large orchestra the playing under the assured direction of Maestro Runnicles vividly captured a snapshot of life in the isolated village of the misunderstood outcast Grimes. The Maestro had positioned the Passacaglia, with its explosively dramatic writing including thundering timpani strikes that all fade away to nothing, as a prelude to the Four Sea Interludes. I especially enjoyed the hushed, dark opening of Dawn through to the cool shimmering depiction of Moonlight. The Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin, who had the advantage of playing a number of performances of Peter Grimes last season, were in compelling form.

Next came Britten’s song cycle Les Illuminations for high voice and string orchestra settings of texts by French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Commenced in England and completed in America in 1939 Britten had originally intended this appealing and varied score for the soprano voice, yet the collection soon became the preserve of the tenor. German tenor Klaus Florian Vogt is well regarded having sung Lohengrin at the 100th Bayreuth Festival but in Les Illuminations, although his singing was attractive enough, he seemed strangely disassociated from the French text and failed to engage this listener. On the positive side the unity of Runnicles’ Deutschen Oper string section was impeccable, displaying a resilient vigour combined with a distinctive silken sheen only rarely achieved in performance.

Each time I hear the Shostakovich Symphony No. 15 in concert I become more convinced of its quality and now consider it a twentieth-century masterpiece. Shostakovich wrote the four movement score in a burst of activity in 1971 during a time of his increasingly serious health problems. There seems no doubt that the composer was committed at this time to infusing his music with multiple layers of coded political messages and it seems that the Symphony No. 15 is a wonderful example of that tendency. Whatever is being conveyed in the writing, such as the repeated quotation from the William Tell overture, the music has an authentic, gripping quality from the glockenspiel chimes in the toyshop-like world of the opening movement to the sustained muted string chords that bring the score to its conclusion. The Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin demonstrated their prowess throughout this immaculately prepared and demanding work playing with such irrepressible concentration. Without any whiff of overconfident showmanship Maestro Runnicles held his large forces together superbly with outstanding command of tempi and dynamics. The highlights were too numerous to mention, suffice to say the evening was a resounding success.


Michael Cookson