A Pair of Philharmonie Concerts Subtly Challenge Ideas of Musical Drama

GermanyGermany Gruber, Bartók, Ravel, and Berio: Emanuel Ax (piano), Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano), Rinat Shaham (mezzo-soprano), Gábor Bretz (bass), Ulrich Noethen, Dino Scandariato (narrators), Members of the Berlin Radio Choir and Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, Paul Jeukendrup (sound direction), Orchestral Academy of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 18.3.2017. (MB)

HK Gruber – Piano Concerto
BartókBluebeard’s Castle, Sz 48

RavelTrois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé
BerioSequenza IIILaborintus II

In this pair of concerts, the first a ‘standard’ Berlin Philharmonic concert, the second a shorter, ‘late night’ event with members of the orchestra’s academy, both conducted by Simon Rattle, we found our ideas concerning musical drama subtly challenged. The ‘principal’ event featured a somewhat odd pairing of HK Gruber’s Piano Concerto, receiving its first German performances, and Bluebeard’s Castle. Many stronger works would pale alongside Bartók’s opera; Gruber’s new offering certainly did. Its opening showed promise, as if straining to remember the 1920s jazz age, muted trumpet and all, then gradually appreciating that it did not need to remember; it could try something new. Except then it did not, at least to these ears. The piano seemed oddly to be on a different track from the orchestra, whether harmonically or rhythmically. In its part, ably performed, so far as I could tell, by Emanuel Ax, there was perhaps something at least analogous to the potential circularity of early twelve-note writing, but it did not seem to move beyond that circularity, to become generative. Otherwise, there was much post-Berg, post-Weill meandering – just as in any other work by Gruber I have heard. Dance rhythms – yes, waltzes and others – came and went. Perhaps the material might have lent itself better to a shorter piece: ten minutes? Two-and-a-half times that felt much too long.

That out of the way, there was a great deal to enjoy in the Bartók performance, Ulrich Noethen’s Prologue (in German) setting the scene nicely, with a fine balance between the theatrical and what a concert can provide much better, the suggestion of theatre. Rattle’s conducting of the Berlin Philharmonic was for much of the time, especially earlier on, unobtrusive, seemingly content (however illusory this impression might have been) to follow the highly dramatic performances, concert garb and setting notwithstanding, of Rinat Shaham and Gábor Bretz. Bretz showed considerable, even irresistible charm, as well as darkness, in a dangerous, silken-smooth performance. Dark violas, piquant woodwind solos accompanied, questioned him, even held him to account, although we knew that we, like Judit, must ultimately submit. His repetitive questioning – ‘Félsz-e?’ – had great cumulative force, as much musical as verbal. Shaham’s wilful yet sensitive portrayal was well matched, equally well contrasted; one followed her decisions, understanding them even as one knew how foolish they were. Her fear was very real, no mere recitation. Their interaction, visual as well as vocal, came across as the key to unlocking the particular secrets of this evening. Without slipping into banal psychological realism, their portrayals treated Bluebeard and Judit as characters, not simply archetypes. Words and, more broadly, drama came first, one felt, but where does the drama lie?

When the orchestra moved, as it were, centre stage, one certainly knew, for instance in the ominous yet never exaggerated ostinato writing following the closing of the iron door behind our unhappy pair. The effect was not entirely un-Wagnerian (Act II of Die Walküre, for instance): not the only time I thought of that particular predecessor in this performance. Each door brought full tragedy a step nearer; one felt that, score and performance telling one so, rather than ‘merely’ knowing it. Golden enchantment would have tempted us all, and doubtless did, all the more so for the fatalism surrounding it. And when that moment, the opening of the fifth door, came, not only did the earth tremble, as it never could on a recording, but the Berlin orchestra glowed – again, as it never could except in the flesh. As the world darkened, the orchestra increasingly took over: not to the detriment of Bluebeard and Judit, but to seal their fate: implacable, irresistible. Here, Rattle’s shaping proved just the thing, alert to the narrative, without imposing upon it. Judit’s pride, as she insisted on opening the final, seventh door, led to quite the orchestral climax, almost Wozzeck-like. Thereafter was the tale, in every sense, of Bluebeard coming home, the evening glow again more redolent of Wagner than of Strauss. The forbidden question of Lohengrin, then, turned dark indeed.

It was unlikely, indeed undesirable, that, having attended the earlier concert, one would not approach the ‘late night’ event with Bluebeard in mind. Berio’s works in particular shone in that light, as well as immediately providing their own illumination. First, however, Magdalena Kožená, the Academy musicians, and Rattle offered us a fine performance of Ravel’s Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé. One cannot but hear these songs and fail to appreciate the depth of Ravel’s response to, as well as his distancing from, Schoenberg. Debussy hovers too, of course, with all the (fruitful) problems of that relationship both in general and with particular reference to Mallarmé. Hearing the instrumental lines so soon after Bartók, though, one also felt a kinship in that respect: twin responses rather than ‘influence’ as such, no doubt, but no less interesting for that. The timbral radicalism of the very opening might almost have come from a chamber arrangement of Bluebeard or The Wooden Prince. Ravel’s word-setting, though, sounded as particular as ever, Kožená, like Shaham’s Judit before her, shaping the tonal universe before her, even as the conductor and instrumentalists might actually have been doing it for her. The precision and style of these young musicians left nothing to be desired; they might have been a crack new-music ensemble, and indeed that is precisely what they were.

Kožená turned Berio’s Sequenza III very much into a piece, if this is not too much of a paradox, of music theatre for voice. (I do not think it is too much, when one considers what Berio is doing both in his Sequenzas more generally and in this in particular.) Language emerged from music, drama from both, but the relationships were never one-way. She was almost a Mélisande torn between her husband (Rattle sat at the corner of the stage, ready to make a percussion intervention) and a younger man suddenly lit up above. She gestured, shouted, sang. Did she decide? Was she even interested in decision, or indeed in those apparitions? The ‘shadows of meaning’ of which Berio spoke were ever apparent, ever new: such is the essence of performance. Drama lay not only in ‘portrayal’, but in the relationship between the performer and her voice, again just as Berio envisaged – yet doubtless, in another sense, quite different. ‘The voice,’ to quote the composer, ‘carries always an excess of connotations, whatever it is doing.’ So it did here.

Laborintus II proved, if anything, more invigorating still. It is, of course, quite an occasion to have opportunity to hear it, to experience it in the flesh. Expectations were not only fulfilled; they were perhaps even exceeded. Members of the Berlin Radio Choir and Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart were, just as the soloists in the Bartók and Kožená in her pieces, active participants in shaping, in making the drama: no mere executants. So too were the instrumentalists. Berio is not a composer to erect barriers; this performance proceeded very much, then, in his vein, wisely directed by the collegial Rattle as first among equals. Musical references from Monteverdi onwards took their place in what one might, perhaps misleadingly, think of as a musico-dramatic collage, but which in ‘reality’, whatever that may be, was both ever connecting with anything and everything else, and yet never anything but itself. Memory rules, it seems: but do we remember or misremember those Biblical genealogies, those journeys of Dante, even the passages conventionally written, as it were, by Eduardo Sanguineti himself? Dino Scandariato proved, rightly, both a sure and questioning guide to our humanistic labyrinth. As often with Berio, Italo Calvino came to mind; La vera storia beckoned. If other works had tended towards music theatre, and if in some senses this might even have looked forward towards a reimagining of opera, this was nevertheless the real music theatre thing, however intangible definition and reality might be. My immediate reaction was to wish to hear it again, except differently; or, as Wagner put it, ‘Kinder, macht Neues!’

Mark Berry

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