Musikfest Berlin 2013 (6). Reverence and Jubilation in Janáček’s Mighty Mass

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GermanyGermany Musikfest Berlin 2013 (6) Lutosławski, Mahler, Janáček: Luba Orgonášová (soprano), Mihoko Fujimura (mezzo-soprano), Stuart Skelton (tenor), Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Christian Schmitt (organ), Tschechische Philharmonische Chor Brno, Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle, Philharmonie, Berlin, 7.9.2013 (MC)

Christian Gerharer Berliner Philharmoniker Sir Simon Rattle-07.09.13-photo-credit-Kai-Bienert
Christian Gerharer, Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle, 07.09.13, Photo Credit-Kai-Bienert


Lutosławski: Symphony No. 2 (1966/67)
Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) (1884)arranged by Arnold Schoenberg for voice and chamber orchestra
Janáček: Glagolitic Mass for soloists, mixed choir, organ and orchestra (1926/27)


The Musikfest Berlin 2013 theme of composers with central European backgrounds was continued with scores by Mahler, Janáček and Lutosławski; the latter is also celebrating the centenary of his birth this year. Although just over eighty years separates the three scores the programme was reasonably varied in genre, style and magnitude.

The previous evening the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Mariss Jansons had given a wonderful performance of Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra, a colourful showpiece and a reasonably accessible work. For tonight’s concert the Berliner Philharmoniker concert turned to Lutosławski’s Symphony No. 2. Completed some thirteen years later than the Concerto for Orchestra the symphony was a much tougher nut for the audience to crack. It might have even been written by a different composer such were the differences. For Lutosławski the political thaw in Poland had eased restrictions sufficiently to allow him to experience a wider range of contemporary influences from the West and consequently his music became more progressive.

The opening movement of the symphony titled ‘Hesitant’ felt rather academic, lean with a curious static quality. Relying on elements containing a sequence of contrasting episodes separated by alternating paused refrains it used groups of reed instruments. Entitled ‘Direct’ the second movement with its denser writing is a move away from the sparseness of ‘Hesitant’. Using blocks of sound, an intensification of tension and forward motion led to a flurry of clangourous climaxes that reminded me of heavy machines operating in a factory. Playing of such clean articulation and precision by the Berlin orchestra under the industrious Sir Simon was achieved by their diligent concentration. By the end I guess the majority of the audience had become relatively accustomed to Lutosławski’s sound world of cool austerity and applauded generously.

Next came Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Wayfarer Songs) a cycle of four songs from 1884. A masterwork of the genre, Mahler’s music was a far easier proposition for the audience. The texts are Mahler’s own being inspired by the unfortunate end of his relationship with soprano Johanna Richter. Sir Simon was using the chamber orchestra arrangement prepared by Arnold Schoenberg. Not surprisingly these early Mahler songs show influences of Schubert and Schumann lieder infused with Mahler’s intense feelings of rejection after his failed love affair.

Baritone Christian Gerhaher currently the Berliner Philharmoniker’s artist-in-residence for the 2013/14 season was an outstanding soloist. This year Gerhaher has released two separate Mahler recordings which include the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. There is a disc of orchestral songs with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal under Kent Nagano on Sony and a Lieder disc with pianist Gerold Huber on RCA Red Seal. Earlier this year I saw Gerhaher sing in the Britten War Requiem at the Philharmonie, Munich and I was mightily impressed. Personally I don’t believe there is another baritone currently achieving his level of performance.

In their chamber orchestra guise each of the four Mahler lieder was sublimely sung by Gerhaher. The intensely moving melancholy given to Ging heut Morgen übers Feld (I Went This Morning over the Field); one of my favourite lieder was sheer delight and so compelling. It was all over far too soon with a sublime performance of Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz (The Two Blue Eyes of my Beloved). Make no mistake Gerhaher is a true artist who doesn’t merely sing the words; he interprets them with palpable sensitivity. I admire his rather serious approach and the way he communicates a gently humility could be copied by numerous artists far less talented.

It was good to have the opportunity of attending a performance of the Janáček Glagolitic Mass, a large scale work for soloists, mixed choir, organ and orchestra which is the composer’s major contribution to Christian ecclesiastical music. For this setting of the Roman Catholic Mass Janáček reached back to Old Church Slavonic script – the earliest written Slavic language that was used in medieval times. Here it could be said that Janáček was highlighting the communion between the Slavic Nations and displaying his patriotic desire for National independence. The Glagolitic Mass is certainly an extremely fine score but probably too uneven in quality to be classed as a true masterwork.

In the Úvod (Introduction) the impressive brass fanfares that open the work strongly reminded me of the stirringly lyrical opening of his Sinfonietta. The secure entrance of the Brno chorus intoning the words ‘Lord has mercy on us’ in the Gospodi pomiluj (Kyrie) felt just perfect. Confident Slovak soprano Luba Orgonášová entered with the words ‘Christ have mercy on us’ projecting her voice with heft and demonstrating convincing reverence.

From his first entry in the Slava (Gloria) with the words ‘Thou, who is seated at the right hand of the father’ Australian tenor Stuart Skelton seemed underpowered, a touch nervous maybe. He soon recovered to give a wholehearted performance of impressive clarity. Why he found it necessary to wear a pair of multi-coloured ‘comedy’ socks with smart formal wear I’m not sure. Especially dark and threatening in the Virago (Credo) baritone Christian Gerhaher opening with the words ‘and the life of the world to come’ demonstrated his rock-steady vocal security conveying an abundance of convincing piety. The glorious music in this movement especially the stunning episode for low strings was admirably performed by the Berlin players.

A master stroke by Janáček in the Virago (Credo) was the very short organ part inspiringly rendered by Christian Schmitt. Opening with a lovely solo violin the wonderful yet highly challenging Svet (Sanctus) with its layers of repeated motifs was strikingly played with such unforced vibrancy. Mihoko Fujimura the Japanese mezzo-soprano contributed to the Svet (Sanctus) but had pitifully little to sing.

The final sung movement Agneče Božij (Agnus Dei) felt suitably sinister and weighty with a typical dark foreboding. Here the Brno chorus and Gerhaher singing ‘Lamb of God you takest away the sins of the world’ was a consummate example of reverential expression at its finest. Making a real impact in the penultimate movement Varhany sólo (Postludium), a dazzling showpiece for solo organ Christian Schmitt provided confident playing despite being tightly wedged in between the organ, located on the stage, and the facia of the balcony. Dominated by timpani and brass in the final movement Intrada (Exodus) Sir Simon who had directed proceedings so effectively brought the score to a jubilant close.

Michael Cookson