Alain Altinoglu’s Auspicious Debut with the Berliner Phlharmoniker

GermanyGermany Ravel, Bartók, Debussy, and Roussel: Máté Szűcs (viola), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Alain Altinoglu (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 21.9.2017. (MB)

RavelRapsodie espagnole
Bartók – Viola Concerto, Sz 120 (first European performance of new completion by Csaba Erdélyi)
Debussy, arr. Alain AltinogluPelléas et Mélisande: Suite (world premiere)
RousselBacchus et Ariane, Op.43: Orchestral Suite no.2

The Berlin Philharmonic’s prowess in French, or indeed in any other, music should not remotely surprise us. They have a long history together: Rattle, Abbado, Karajan, not to mention guest conductors, foremost amongst whom must surely be Boulez… Even Furtwängler conducted Ravel with them, although, as one of his greatest admirers, even I should have to admit that his recorded performance of the Rapsodie espagnole would perhaps never be a first choice. (Listen to it, though: you will hear things you have never heard before. I have just done so, and found myself liking it far more than I ever had done before.) Alain Antinoglu, in his highly successful debut with the orchestra, proved far closer to what we conventionally expect from Ravel, without that indicating anything remotely routine. Excellent preparation and technique liberate the imagination – and so it was here. What struck me immediately, however unsurprisingly, was the exquisite character to the Berlin sound and then, soon after, the seemingly infinite number of gradations to it, whether in dynamic contrasts or timbre. Balances were throughout perfectly judged, as were woodwind solos, Andreas Ottensamer’s clarinet alluringly slinky. Altinoglu proved himself quite the master in building suspense, not least in always giving the impression of something being held in check, La Valse just around the corner. There was languor, yes, splendidly so in the closing ‘Feria’, but even then it was controlled, just like Ravel’s abandon, if one may call it that. A magnificent performance.

Máté Szűcs joined the orchestra for Bartók’s Viola Concerto, neither in the familiar reconstruction by Tibor Serly, nor in the subsequent edition from Peter Bartók and Paul Neubauer, but in a new version from violist Csaba Erdélyi (2004, revised 2016), here receiving its European premiere. I am not sure that I could tell you much about the differences; it is a long time since I have listened to earlier versions, for it is not, alas, my favourite Bartók work. I had a sense that there was, perhaps, more of an overt effort, really quite successful, to bring the orchestration into line with that of other late Bartók works, above all the Third Piano Concerto. What I can say, although I was still not entirely won over by the work ‘itself’, is that Szűcs, first principal viola in the orchestra, gave an impeccable performance, leaving me want to hear him again soon. (Interestingly, I shall shortly hear Amihai Grosz, also first principal first viola, in the Walton Concerto, under Simon Rattle.) His tone and projection were such as to cut through the orchestral writing – that is partly a matter of the scoring, of course, but only partly – at whatever dynamic level he chose. Clarity and security of line were never sacrificed to ‘atmosphere’; they were sides of the same coin. The passage in harmonics had almost to be heard to be believed. Twilight sections, be they solo, orchestral, or both, made their full impact. And there was a fine impression of the rhapsodic, in the best sense (just as in Ravel). Bach’s D minor Sarabande made for a splendid encore, and an intriguing comparison with Christian Tetzlaff on violin in the same hall a few nights previously.

Altinoglu conducted the new production of Pelléas et Mélisande in Vienna earlier this year. He now offered the first performance of his own single-movement orchestral suite. Previous attempts I have heard to forge something coherent out of the score in purely orchestral terms have never quite seemed to come off; this, I am delighted to say, did. There was, perhaps, one transition that sounded slightly awkward, but even then only slightly. This offered, needless to say, a very different form of, or approach to, ‘rhapsodising’ from Ravel or Debussy. Altinoglu, however, showed himself equally adept at the art of dark anticipation here, not least as we moved towards that fateful well (quite early on). The influence of Parsifal, sometimes bordering on rather more than mere influence, spoke for itself. Indeed, one especially welcome feature of the performance was the way that deep string tone ‘spoke’ without words: post-Wagner, of course, but also, perhaps, with a nod to earlier accompagnato writing. Altinoglu’s selections were intelligent, having one convinced that one passage had ‘naturally’ led to another, even when it must actually have required a great deal of thought to contrive that impression. Off-stage bells at the close were both musically and dramatically apt. (I was interested to note, by the way, that the Berlin Philharmonic’s first performance of the work had been with Rattle, in Salzburg, in 2006. It seems that Karajan, although he recorded it with the orchestra, never performed it in concert with them. In the course of a little research, I discovered, however, that, in addition to performances in Vienna in 1962, Karajan also conducted the work with the RAI Orchestra in 1954, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Ernst Haefliger.)

Finally, we heard Roussel’s second suite, again in a single movement, from his opera, Bacchus et Ariane. The opening viola solo (Naoko Shimizu: what strength the orchestra has here!) perhaps offered a connection with Bartók, but difference was more striking. One might, I suppose, have placed Roussel somewhere between Debussy and Ravel, but that would have raised more questions than it answered; this was music, rightly, relished in itself. Again, the way it ‘spoke’ without words was remarkable. Altinoglu handled transformations of metre and mood with great skill. The orchestra performed with an idiomatic command and security worthy of a ‘repertoire’ piece. There was no doubting the thrill experienced by much of the audience at the suite’s bacchanalic close

Mark Berry

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