Exciting and Unusual Juxtaposition of Debussy and Ligeti by François-Xavier Roth

Musikfest Berlin 2018 (1)

GermanyGermany Musikfest Berlin 2018 [11] – Stravinsky, Zimmermann, Debussy, and Ligeti: Carolin Widmann (violin), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / François-Xavier Roth (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 14.9.2018. (MB)

Stravinsky – Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1947 version)

Zimmermann – Violin Concerto

Debussy – Images, interspersed with:

          Ligeti – Lontano

          Ligeti – Atmosphères

One could hardly go wrong with a programme and musicians such as this; I am delighted to report that expectations were at least confirmed and in many ways exceeded. I could moan, I suppose, about the decision to use the 1947 revision of Symphonies of Wind Instruments, both in itself and given what I took to be the implied tribute to Debussy, but even that had its advantages. Indeed, so puzzled was I by the difference in what I was hearing, without initially having known why, that I perhaps listened with still greater attention, making moreover connections to later works such as The Rake’s Progress and Cantata which I might otherwise not have done. There was certainly no doubting its opening spiky aggression, which in context of the festival as a whole – or at least that part of it I had heard – offered a thought-provoking follow-up to George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill. Chordal responses, in the liturgical sense, hinted as much at the Rake as the Rite; perhaps more than ever, this emerged as a threshold work. With the Berlin Philharmonic and François-Xavier Roth, it lost neither its violence nor its rare beauty; indeed, the two were strongly confirmed as two sides to the same coin.

How to follow that? With a violin concerto, of course, in this case Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s. The orchestra’s inheritance from Stravinsky remained clear, even if the soloist’s response was initially – this is far too protean a work for such generalisations to hold for long – closer to Berg. And so, Carolin Widmann, Roth, and the BPO took us on a thrilling, wayward journey, the first movement sardonic yet unquestionably ‘felt’, its final peroration earth-shattering. Piano incited, invited the violin’s central fantasia, that movement’s celesta enigmatic as ever. Orchestral depth in string unison resounded just as it might have done in Bruckner. Here as elsewhere, Roth’s expert, unassuming handling of climaxes proved second to none. It was rather as if late Prokofiev had taken a trip. Much the same might be said of the finale, although here it was an earlier Prokofiev of the Second Violin Concerto rather than Cinderella. The echoes – one might, uncharitably, put it a little more strongly – of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements came through loud and clear, but they were gone before one knew it, the xylophone having launched into a solo Danse macabre for a new age that had not yet forgotten its pre-war roots. Bach too was to be heard, certainly in the cadenza. What an exhilarating, polystilistic mix!

The second half engagingly interspersed the three panels of Debussy’s Images, in the order ‘Gigues’, ‘Rondes de printemps’, and ‘Ibéria’, and two works by Ligeti: Lontano and Atmosphères. ‘Gigues’ offered mystery that was clear and clear-eyed, rather in the line of Boulez’s Debussy, yet certainly not to be reduced to that. Roth struck a typically fine balance between what Boulez and his generation would call musical ‘parameters’: rhythm against – or with? – insidious harmonies, and so on. Lontano seemed to pick up with respect to pitch, timbre, and more; this was a Klangfarbenmelodie of sorts, with roots. Even a strange electronic interference – a hearing aid? – with the tuba seemed curiously apt, all the more so when I realised that it was in fact the violins! ‘Music of the spheres’ is a cliché, but here it seemed the right cliché. This was as well shaped, balanced, and played a performance as I have heard – at least.

What could not be changed by such listening (and performance)? ‘Rondes de printemps’ certainly seemed to have been. I found myself better able than ever to make connections with ‘Gigues’ too, perhaps especially with respect to relationships between harmony, rhythm, melody, timbre, and so on. Debussy here positively demanded to be heard with hindsight. And yet, his music remained as elusive as ever in a truly mesmerising performance; this is and was no zero-sum game. Atmosphères again offered the challenge only to connect, its woodwind unquestionably Stravinskian, chords emerging that I could have sworn I recognised from Debussy. Did I? Does it matter? Swarming double basses suggested electronic viols. Transformations and contours were once again expertly shaped by Roth – and, of course, by this great orchestra. It closed with one of the most magical fadings a niente I have ever heard.

Not, of course that ‘Ibéria’ is nothing; this was definitely something. ‘Par les rues et par les chemins’ proved sly, sinuous, and razor sharp. That did not mean that lines could not blur, but there was no doubting the intent, the musical meaning behind such blurring. Much the same might be said of ‘Les Parfums de la nuit’, albeit with different colours, temperature, and of course languor. The precision of playing in this atmosphere was just as impressive as in Atmosphères. ‘Le Matin d’un jour de fête’ seemed to unite so many tendencies over the evening as whole: a true conclusion. It was never, however, anything other than itself. The subtle swagger of opposing forces that might confront each other or might dissolve, transmute proved a typical Debussian, yes painterly joy.

Mark Berry

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