Musikfest Berlin 2013 (4): Spellbinding Performances of Bartók, Hartmann and Shostakovich

Musikfest Berlin 2013 logo




GermanyGermany Musikest Berlin 2013 (4) Bartók, Hartmann, Shostakovich: Isabelle Faust (violin), Günther Groissböck (bass), Estonischer Nationaler Männerchor, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Marek Janowski (conductor), Philharmonie, Berlin, 5.9.2013. (MC)


Bartók: Four Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 12 (1912/21)

Hartmann: Concerto funèbre for solo violin and string orchestra (1939)

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 13 ‘Babi Yar’ for bass, male choir and orchestra, Op. 113 (1962)


The Musikfest Berlin 2013 is focusing on composers with a Central European background and not surprisingly the music of Bartók and Shostakovich is heavily represented.

Last  night’s concert given by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under Marek Janowski comprised three 20th century works: Bartók’s Four Pieces for Orchestra, the Shostakovich Symphony No. 13Babi Yar’ and the Concerto funèbre by German composer Karl Hartmann in the year that marks the fiftieth anniversary of his death.


Opening the concert was Bartók’s Four Pieces for Orchestra ,a captivating work that only rarely appears on programmes. Beginning life as a set of piano pieces this relatively early score was written in 1912 not long after completion of his one act opera Bluebeard’s Castle. It was almost ten years later before Bartók orchestrated the score and I’m certainly glad that he did. In a work that beguiles and delights right from the opening bars of the Prelude influences of the impressionist music of Debussy were evident, a composer whom Bartók had met a few years earlier. I can still recall the splendid ethereal quality provided by the combination of harps and flutes. Like an early precursor to a Hollywood film score the bold brass rang out threateningly in the Scherzo which ended with a tremendous weight of sound. A rather solemn quality imbued the calm nocturnal character of the Intermezzo and Maestro Janowski ensured that under the surface of the dark and sharp rhythmic Marcia funebre an uneasy sense of foreboding was evident.


Next was the Bavarian Hartman’s Concerto funèbre for solo violin and string orchestra from 1939. Quietly assured, German soloist Isabelle Faust revelled in the long lyrical lines of the darkly yearning writing of the opening movement. As the violin spent so long in its lower registers I did wonder if Hartmann had initially considered writing for a viola. Long lyrical lines continued in the Allegro di molto maintaining a mood of intense sadness as if the defiant soloist was battling against considerable adversity. Faust’s brief rapid fire episodes and her brief cadenza presented no difficulty for this supremely well prepared violinist. Faust and Janowski certainly made the best possible case for this fascinating yet undervalued work. I hope it’s not too long before I hear it again in the concert hall.


It’s widely known that Shostakovich lived and worked under the persistent threat to his own life and family by the Soviet regime. The poem ‘Babi Yar’ ,written by Yevgeny Yevtushenko concerning the 1941 massacre of tens of thousands of Jews by Nazi troops at a ravine near Kiev called Babi Yar, was a stand against Soviet Russian anti-Semitism and highly subversive to the Soviet Government. Even though there had been a slight thaw in the political climate, since the death of Stalin, Shostakovich was still taking a considerable chance by setting the ‘Babi Yar’ verse that had become a symbol for Jewish suffering. Containing five poems by Yevtushenko, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14Babi Yar’ is scored for bass soloist, bass choir and large orchestra. Pulling everything together splendidly Maestro Janowski’s direction of the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, his soloist and Estonian bass chorus was masterly from start to finish. The star of the show was undoubtedly the indefatigable Austrian bass Günther Groissböck with his rich and deeply cavernous voice meeting every one of the considerable challenges in this German translation of Yevtushenko’s Russian text. Often spellbinding the opening movement ‘Babi Yar’ is a fine example of Shostakovich at his best. In the third movement Im Laden (In the store) the bass part has higher territory to negotiate and at one point I wondered if Groissböck was beginning to flag but I needn’t have worried, he soon composed himself and continued to sing wonderfully. There were too many highlights to mention in this marvellously moving yet underperformed Shostakovich symphony and, as with the Hartmann, I hope it is not too long before I hear it again in concert.


Michael Cookson