In Berlin François-Xavier Roth leads two enlivening and edifying concerts in one evening

GermanyGermany Haydn, Bartók, and Varèse: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Sarah Aristidou (soprano), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Scholars of the Karajan Academy / François-Xavier Roth (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 26.10.2019 (MB)

Haydn – Symphony No.59 in A major, ‘Fire’
Bartók – Piano Concerto No.3, Sz 119; Dance Suite, Sz 77
Varèse Arcana (revised version, 1960);

VarèsePoème électronique; Ionisation; Density 21.5; Octandre; Intégrales; Hyperprism; Ionisation; Octandre; Offrandes

Two Berlin Philharmonic concerts in a single evening: such is the cultural desert we know as Berlin. For the first, we heard Haydn, Bartók, and Varèse from the full Berlin Philharmonic, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and François-Xavier Roth; for the second, Roth and members of the orchestra were joined by scholars of the orchestra’s Karajan Academy, a few guest instrumentalists, and soprano, Sarah Aristidou for late-night Varèse that went beyond a mere ‘bonus’. Both concerts proved enlivening and edifying: complementary, yes, yet eminently satisfying in their own right.

Haydn’s Symphony No.59 received, sadly yet far from surprisingly, its Berlin Philharmonic debut. (That is not intended in any sense as a criticism of this orchestra; I imagine it would be the same for many others.) Is there a composer so fundamental to the canon – other, perhaps, than Schoenberg or Webern? – so scandalously neglected? The orchestra and Roth certainly made up for lost time, in a performance as fizzing as it was thoughtful, as charming as it was enthralling. A vigorous opening movement, full of life, released nervous energy rather than – in the manner of so many current Haydn performances – trying to impose it upon the music. Line and disjuncture were revealed to be two sides of the same coin; Beethoven certainly did not come from nowhere. It was full of surprises, even for those who might have ‘known’, so long as one listened – which listening was certainly invited. Harpsichord continuo, so discrete one could barely hear it, was employed, for those who care about such matters. The second movement sounded elegant, yet strange: nothing taken for granted, whether by Haydn, Roth, or the players. Balance or dialectic between counterpoint and harmony? That was the question key to both work and performance. Haydn’s ingenuity is and sounded extraordinary, without exaggeration. Likewise in the minuet, whose structure many, foolishly, might consider merely conventional – that is, again, until they listen. A sotto voce move to the trio again took us by surprise, drawing us in further to savour Haydn’s tonal delights. The finale was everything a finale should be, not least in its brazen particularity. Berlin horns in particular thrilled, but really, this was a showstopper for all concerned. How could one not adore such music, when taken on such a journey, with such twists and turns, and in such expert hands?

Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto has long been a problem work for me. Although it was the first I heard, thrilled by a performance I heard as a schoolboy at Sheffield City Hall – I cannot recall by whom – I have, almost ever since, responded far more readily to the First and Second. I might have known that Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Roth would be the musicians to change that. With this performance, it suddenly made sense to me and I could no longer understand what my difficulties might have been. Exceptional keenness at the opening, from orchestra and soloist alike, promised much and was fulfilled. Again, nothing was taken for granted; again, we were invited, in eminently collegial fashion, to listen, rather than bludgeoned into doing so. (That is partly the nature of the music, of course. There would have been nothing wrong with, say, Beethoven or Mahler compelling us to do so in different fashion.) What struck me, in this first movement and throughout, was the revelation of listening to (this) Bartók in the light of Haydn. Indeed, listening to the relationship once more of harmony to counterpoint, in a not entirely dissimilar way, was invaluable to finding that key to the door that was not Bluebeard’s. Aimard’s phrasing and voicing were second to none: never prominent for their own sake, always in the service of musical expression. This was, moreover, a true partnership between conductor, soloist, and orchestral musicians, all listening to and responding to one another; audience too, it seemed.

There was an almost neoclassical chasteness to the opening of the second movement, Aimard’s responses to the orchestra almost akin to those of the piano in the slow movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, less taming the Furies, if we recall Tovey’s evocative characterisation, than beginning to thaw the intriguingly Stravinskian ice. The night music was both contrasted and rooted in what had gone before, again recalling Haydn’s moves; fantastical and not without the occasional hint of Ravel, it sounded newly strange and yet ultimately familiar. The finale erupted with perfect yet never predictable logic, as if to say, yes, the old Bartók is still here; that is, before it took another, related path, once again bringing Haydn’s surprises to mind. Bartók as Classicist? No. Bartók as fresh renewal of the Classical? Quite probably.

Following the interval, Bartók’s Dance Suite – first played by the orchestra under Furtwängler, most recently under Boulez – was immediately characterised by a similar freshness, rhythms sharply etched yet, crucially, never considered separately from other parameters. This was dance music, one might say, rather than musical dance. Flexibility, where apt, was as noteworthy as drive. The Berlin Philharmonic sounded at its most magnificent when truly unleashed, but this was a multi-faceted performance, of fantasy, charm, balletic moves, and ebullience.

Varèse’s Arcana was given its German premiere by the Berlin Philharmonic in 1932, conducted by Nicolas Slonimsky. Its 1960 revision was last heard here as recently as 2016, under Andris Nelsons. Roth proved a worthy successor, setting up a clear, anticipatory opposition and complement between the stark and the fantastical. The Stravinsky of the Rite, but even of the Firebird, was far from dead, but much the same might have been said of Romanticism. It is easy to think of Varèse in such terms in the abstract; it is not always so easy to hear him as such. Here, in a beautifully upholstered performance, a delightful, structured starscape emerged, twin riots as well as rites of spring heard – even, perhaps, seen – in simultaneity. Or was it more summer? Roth’s tracing of the work’s logic and illogic was, at any rate, vividly communicated.

We returned to the hall a little later for Varèse’s Poème électronique. There remains something a little strange to a concert hall, a space for performance, as home for a work without performers (at least in the conventional sense). Percussionists and conductor filled the gap, in a way, entering the hall ready for the following Ionisation, Roth pressing the button on the laptop onstage for the beginning of the electronic poem first ‘performed’ at Expo 58’s Philips Pavilion, designed by Le Corbusier and Xenakis. Now we sounded closer to Stockhausen, though these sounds, this music, could never be mistaken for his. The spatial element was undeniable, of course, but only as part of something more. This was, it seemed, in a very different way both from Arcana and Sirius’s most celebrated son, music of the stars. Memories, the illusion of a heavenly, electronic ‘ensemble’ and much else combined – both just as musical instruments and performers might, and quite differently from anything they might have accomplished.

Ionisation emerged from its shadows – or rays. It was fascinating, disconcerting, even amusing to hear the siren sound as if it were still part of this piece’s fading predecessor, though that fading had, in fact, already ceased. One made connections: perhaps above all of ritual. The hieratic quality heard here, as later with Intégrales in particular, was, however, quite different, revealing a very different musical conception and narrative. Was this a controlled riot, or a riot out of control? As with Varèse’s successor, Boulez – Roth seemed especially sensitive to that affinity – it was difficult, perhaps impossible to tell. Then, before we knew it, Density 21.5, for solo flute, was heard from on high. Initially seductive, Debussyan, in a way that seemed to extend beyond mere sentimental identification with the instrument, it announced the importance of timbre and then revised that initial assessment, suggesting that it had, in fact, been little more than sentimental. For soon, we sensed what the two works had in common too: a fascinating, telling juxtaposition.

Octandre’s instrumental timbres engendered not only different expectations but the musical material itself. It is, in reality, a game of chicken-and-egg, not least since the distinction is arguably false, but such was the impression in context here. The music’s aggression was palpable and powerful, tension at times close to overwhelming. I am not sure that I have heard a double bass sound stranger, and yet I am equally unsure that I could say why.

The starkness of hieratic ritual in Intégrales seemed to foreshadow Birtwistle, albeit initially without explicit, perhaps even implicit, violence. Not that that could be said at the close, growth and transformation powerfully conveyed in an exceptional, disconcerting performance. One might have thought Hyperprism would sound dissimilar; but no, as in the case of, say, two Haydn symphonies written for similar forces, the musical invention was revealed to be very different. Instruments in themselves, we learned, do not create the material: as important a lesson in listening as in composition. Aristidou duly complemented and contrasted with the players for the closing Offrandes, the first song oracular, the second losing its mooring in the ‘old’, whatever that may have been. It was, like its predecessors, a detailed and compelling performance. It asked what might have been, had Varèse taken a different path, and also confirmed the rightness of that he did take: not unlike, then, the rest of this evening’s music-making.

Mark Berry