Audience Cheers as Fischer and Berlin’s Konzerthausorchester Raise the Roof

GermanyGermany Berlin Musikfest 2014 – J. S. Bach, György Ligeti, Gustav Mahler: Vocalconsort Berlin, Konzerthausorchester Berlin / Iván Fischer (conductor), Philharmonie, Berlin 21.9.14 (MC)

Iván Fischer © Marco Borggreve
Iván Fischer © Marco Borggreve

J.S. Bach: Church Cantata, Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht mit Deinem Knecht (Lord, do not pass judgment on Your Servant), BWV 105 (1723)
György Ligeti: Hamburg Concerto (Hamburgisches Konzert) for solo horn and chamber orchestra with 4 obbligato natural horns (1998/99 rev. 2002)
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D major for large orchestra (1884/88)

I’m used to seeing concerts by the Konzerthausorchester Berlin at its Konzerthaus home on the Gendarmenmarkt but the stage of the large hall is currently undergoing renovation work. So it was unusual but felt rather exciting to see the Konzerthausorchester in the Philharmonie – such a very different building in design, but ithe ensemble easily adapted to the different acoustic.

 With an 11 am start this concert comprised the type of programming that I relish: a mix of old and new containing a vocal/choral element. First up was J.S. Bach’s Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht mit Deinem Knecht (Lord, do not pass judgment on Your Servant), BWV 105, a church cantata from 1723 and a product of Bach’s first year in Leipzig. My lack of German rendered it unclear as to just why this particular cantata was chosen but it was expertly sung by the sixteen strong Vocalconsort Berlin with glorious individual contributions from four of its assured vocal soloists Aurélie Franck (alto), Julián Millán (bass), Agnes Kovacs (soprano) and Sebastian Lipp (tenor). Warm and clear the well unified singing so splendidly reverential was a delight from start to finish.

It’s rare to attend performances of György Ligeti’s music in the U.K. so I was thrilled with the opportunity of hearing the Hamburg Concerto for solo horn and chamber orchestra with 4 obbligato natural horns. Composed in 1998/99 with a later revision in 2002 it was in fact the last work Ligeti completed. The Hamburg Concerto was in keeping with one of the themes of the Musikfest Berlin 2014 – that of exploring and highlighting the use of the valve horn and natural horn. Excelling in the music was soloist Marie Luise Neunecker, for whom the work was written, alternating between valve horn F-Bb and natural horn in F. It was fascinating to hear the soloist pitted against the four differently tuned natural horns and the various instrumental combinations of the chamber orchestra. Despite the technical elements of the score with Ligeti using two different tuning systems and hearing the complex pitch relationships it was eminently possible to enjoy the Hamburg Concerto for its absorbing music alone.

After the interval the audience was treated to Mahler’s wonderful First Symphony, such a firm favourite now with concert audiences. Sometimes known as the ‘Titan’, the symphony underwent several revisions before Mahler arrived at the four movement version that we know today. I couldn’t imagine anyone feeling short-changed by Iván Fischer’s inspiring reading. Looking calm and assured throughout Maestro Fischer produced playing from the Konzerthausorchester steeped with vitality generating the greatest degree of drama and sheer exhilaration I have heard in this work for many years. His measured interpretation of the opening movement was almost trance-like containing just a slight but unsettling undercurrent of tension. Valuable contributions too came from the colourful woodwind with their exquisite bird-calls and the excellent split brass section, so deft at maintaining bright and razor sharp playing. Fischer earnestly built up the energy to provide a dramatic weighty climax.

In the Scherzo the stomping Ländler felt expressively eccentric. This lithe music was full of surprises with some succulent textures especially from the horn solos. The slow movement with its lumbering funeral march was handled with a touching degree of subtlety by Fischer resulting in highly refined playing. I loved the orchestra’s portrayal of Mahler’s Klezmer band which felt appropriately tawdry and mocking. Pounding percussion and biting, snarling brass led the way in the shattering first climax of the Finale generating playing of remarkable potency, which resulted in a number of people jumping out of their seats. How I cherished the passage of passionate love music played so irresistibly on the high strings. Assisted by the large bank of eight horns commanded to stand Maestro Fischer unleashed a ferocious power from the Konzerthausorchester to create a triumphant climax of earth-shattering proportions the like of which is rarely achieved. The Philharmonie audience cheered and cheered and many stood up to show their appreciation. I couldn’t help thinking how fortunate Berlin is to have several world class orchestras. The Konzerthausorchester is certainly one of them.

Michael Cookson