Memorable Zimmermann and Bruckner from Valery Gergiev

GermanyGermany Musikfest Berlin 2018 [5] – Zimmermann, Bruckner: Michael Rotschopf (speaker 1), Josef Bierbichler (speaker 2), Georg Nigl (bass), Münchner Philharmoniker / Valery Gergiev (conductor), Philharmonie, Berlin, 7.9.2018. (MC)

Valery Gergiev conducting Münchner Philharmoniker, Philharmonie, Berlin © Kai Bienert
Münchner Philharmoniker & Valery Gergiev (conductor) © Kai Bienert

Zimmermann – Ich wandte mich und sah an alles Unrecht, das geschah unter der Sonne:
Ekklesiastische Aktion für zwei Sprecher, Bass solo und Orchester (1970)
Bruckner – Symphonie No.9 (1894) (original version 1894, edition Leopold Nowak 1951)

In my view, tonight’s concert, a mix of a familiar masterwork work by a great composer and a rarely heard work of high quality, makes the ideal programme especially when played by an orchestra of world renown, Münchner Philharmoniker conducted by Valery Gergiev. This year of course marks the hundredth anniversary of Bernd Alois Zimmermann which has prompted performances of several his works at Musikfest Berlin.

Zimmermann’s epic opera Die Soldaten is widely acknowledged as his best-known work; nevertheless, his cantata Ekklesiastische Aktion (an Ecclesiastical Action), his last composition, is a pivotal work in his output. Completed in 1970 just few days before his suicide, ‘Ich wandte mich…’ scored for two speakers, bass soloist and orchestra, was given the title Ekklesiastische Aktion by the composer. For his texts Zimmermann used the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes chapter four coupled with text on the Grand Inquisitor from Russian author Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov as his expression of personal torment at mankind’s perpetual pain and sorrow and the abuse of authority by the Catholic church. It’s a fascinating work, rather episodic in character, that packs quite a punch. Prominent in the orchestra was an electric guitar, making the work sound very much of its time and amplified by a mixing desk in the audience at a level that dominated the sound picture. Never having heard the work performed previously, I’m unsure if the composer envisaged this prominence by the guitar. For the thirty-three-minute duration of the work three trombones playing in unison were positioned in separate passageways of the circle section of the auditorium, facing the orchestra essentially in a large arc. Zimmerman calls for relatively little from the strings although the principal double bass has rather more involvement. Standing out in the orchestration were the frequently employed chorale-like fanfares of the brass section. As the first speaker, Michael Rotschopf displayed his attractive vocal prowess to fine effect and did all that was asked of him, yet was rather lacking in stage presence. By comparison Josef Bierbichler as the second speaker sat down most of the time but exuded personality with an innate presence. His deep resonant, expressive tone was ideal for the role, which the audience relished. Bass Georg Nigl was in fine voice, giving his all to his conspicuous part which was mainly in his mid-range. Nigl’s ability for expression was impressive and he certainly acted the dramatic final section of the work with credit, displaying a believable level of anguish. I doubt Münchner Philharmoniker have much if any experience with Zimmermann’s score yet it all went relatively smoothly with Gergiev pulling all the sections together with skill and assurance.

Whilst Zimmerman in Ekklesiastische Aktion might be said to exhibit his misgivings about the Catholic church, by contrast Bruckner had no such doubts and found much inspiration in his Catholic faith. After the interval Valery Gergiev conducted Bruckner’s final work, his unfinished Ninth Symphony, using the original 1894 version in the Nowak Edition, a performance that took an hour to complete. Torment and anguish plagued Bruckner whilst writing this symphony, a score he intended to dedicate to God but one he never lived to complete. Despite the physical and mental instability of Bruckner’s final years his breath-taking writing feels remarkably assured, technically daring and harmonically formidable.

Undaunted by the scale of the task, Münchner Philharmoniker under Gergiev, its chief conductor, tackled the score with its characteristic smooth sound. Gergiev’s spacious dynamics were masterful, allowing the orchestra to play as quietly as possible, which contrasted markedly with the incandescent climaxes of remarkable potency, so adding to the impact. This power was especially noticeable in the opening movement when at points I felt the surging orchestral force pushing me back into the seat. In the satisfying acoustic of the Philharmonie pleasing was the amount of fine detail which was revealed, so often obscured, especially in the woodwind – a feature so often clouded on recordings. Forming such an integral part of the orchestra it felt as if the blazing brass, including four splendid Wagner tubas, had been dipped in liquid gold. The string section was also playing to its usual elevated standard. Characterised by the intense emotion of the Adagio, the effect of the string playing was at times spine tingling. I am compelled to repeat how magnificent those Wagner tubas sounded! The international reputation of Münchner Philharmoniker continues to grow and Gergiev’s interpretation of Bruckner’s Ninth is undoubtedly one that will live long in the memory.

Michael Cookson

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