Fruitful Berlin collaboration between Thomas Guggeis and the Boulez Ensemble

GermanyGermany Bach, Hindemith, Haddad, and Stravinsky: Boulez Ensemble, Thomas Guggeis (conductor). Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin, 31.1.2020. (MB)

Bach – Brandenburg Concerto No.1 in F major, BWV 1046

Hindemith – Kammermusik No.1 for twelve solo instruments, Op.24 No.1

Saed Haddad – Sombre, for thirteen musicians (world premiere)

Stravinsky – Concerto in E-flat major for chamber orchestra, ‘Dumbarton Oaks’

My final concert as a European citizen; hereafter, to quote the text of Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony, I shall be ‘ein fremder im fremden Land’. All the more so, of course, when I return, to put it mildly, reluctantly to ein ganz fremdes Land, most likely never to escape it. The twin blows of defeat on 12 December and departure on 31 January have at least cured us of hope, perhaps the cruellest of tortures: coinciding, in typically savage irony, with Beethoven’s anniversary year. To have heard the Ninth Symphony next door, at the Staatsoper, on New Year’s Eve was an experience emotional enough; that, Fidelio, or anything else Beethovenian would probably have been too much. Instead, at the Pierre Boulez Saal, we heard music by the ever-rooted yet aesthetically cosmopolitan Bach and by three other composers who (have) found themselves in fremden Ländern. Hindemith and Stravinsky both spent periods of their lives in exile, while Jordanian-born composer Saed Haddad lives and works in Germany.

This was the first concert I had heard conducted by Thomas Guggeis. He impressed just as greatly as in his work in the opera house. Having the excellent Boulez Ensemble, drawn from members of the Staatskapelle Berlin and West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, did no harm whatsoever, of course, but Guggeis’s preparation, understanding, and communication of that understanding proved equally important for another fine collaboration.

The First Brandenburg Concerto was a case in point, blessedly free of ‘period’ affectation, yet Bach as ensemble music – this is, after all, the Boulez Ensemble – rather than small- or, for that matter, large-scale orchestral music. The first movement offered somewhat odd balances at times, but I think that was in part owed to where I was seated, a little close to the horns. (Perhaps, at last, I had found a minor disadvantage to this performing space ‘in the round’.) At any rate, a bright, energetic, performance benefited from a sensible tempo that sought not to draw attention to itself but rather to permit Bach’s music to come to life – and succeeded. Dignified and well-articulated, with a fine sense of chiaroscuro, the Adagio also benefited from Guggeis’s unobtrusive command of the longer line. Dialogue between Jiyoon Lee’s excellent violin piccolo solo and three similarly excellent oboes (Gregor Witt, Charlotte Schleiss, and Katharina Wichate) proved a fine centrepiece around which the immanent qualities of Bach’s score could happily shine through. There was similar yet different joy in counterpoint, harmony, and their combination in the third movement, likewise in the interplay between solo and ripieno writing, any balance problems now resolved. A courtly and characterful procession of dances brought the work to a close, reminding us that Bach’s idea of progression in a multi-movement work is often very different from ours. Sometimes that can cause problems for modern listeners or performers; here the question never arose. Musically directed virtuosity from oboes and horns (Samuel Seidenberg and Sebastian Posch) in ‘their’ Trio proved but one of many delights.

To hear one of Hindemith’s 1920s Kammermusik pieces immediately afterwards was instructive, perhaps above all because it suggested contrast rather than underlying affinity (at least to my ears). The first movement was frenetic and sardonic, knife-edge precision as expressive as it was impressive: quite the introduction. The second movement calmed down somewhat, if only comparatively. That calming permitted one to savour the estimable musical qualities, which are in truth at least as much harmonic as rhythmic and as anti-Bachian as they are Bachian. The opening clarinet-flute duet (Assaf Leibowitz and Silvia Careddu) sounded as if a slowed-down Twenties sequel to The Rite of Spring, the appearance of bassoon (Mor Biron) only rendering it more so. Here was an oasis of neoclassical calm; and yet it moved. It was tonal, yes, yet closer to something non-tonal in function than perhaps one might expect, at least at times. Such ambiguities were fruitfully explored under Guggeis’s wise direction. The unease of that movement seemed to be inherited by a finale of high tension, maintained and if anything increased until finally something had to give. Its dislocations disconcerted, indeed puzzled. Then all was over, siren and all.

Saed Haddad’s Sombre, commissioned by the Daniel Barenboim Stiftung, here received its world premiere. It seemed to me to speak throughout of an incisive grief, a grief that certainly spoke to me. Nimrod Ron’s opening tuba solo, dark yet not without implied hope, endured slings and arrows surrounding it, evolved into an ensemble danse macabre, subsiding, tuba handing over to bassoon, whose role as solo bass instrument would later be assumed by double bass, and so on. In between, harp, bass drum, and other percussion enlarged the reach of a dark ensemble that yet resisted something external, even deathly. At times, I was put in mind of the finale to Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, though that may say more about me than the work. A viola lament, joined in duet by arabesquing oboe; bells of hope, sweetest yet cruellest of tortures; patterns of material that seemed ready to repeat yet never quite did; a related sense of having to pick oneself up, only to fail: perhaps it was not fanciful to hear this music as tragic. It was certainly an accomplished work afforded accomplished performances; I should be keen to hear more.

Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto rounded off the concert in fine fashion. The busy automation of its first movement seemed still more distant from Bach than Hindemith’s response. That discrepancy is surely where the music’s interest lies – and so it proved in performance too. A little more overt aggression might occasionally have been welcome; however, I can see and hear the case for a more Apolline approach, as in the composer’s earlier Octet. Here, the Rake rather than the Rite beckoned, the controlling mastery of Stravinsky as watchmaker, divine or otherwise, apparent and polemically so at that. Likewise in the central Allegretto, whose spareness usefully highlighted the passing of ideas in mid-statement between different instruments. If one wanted to hear where Stravinsky’s later interest in Webern had come from, here was a strongly suggestive possibility. Aggression was, doubtless justly, more overt in a finale which at times seemed to approach the wartime anger of the Symphony in Three Movements, as well as its sonorous delights. There were no easy answers to be gleaned through the mechanical swing. Art is no mere refuge, however fremd our current Länder.

Mark Berry

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