Germany Musikfest Berlin  – Bach, Berg, Webern, and Schnittke: Anne Schwanewilms (soprano), Erez Ofer, Nadine Contini (violins), Helen Collyer (piano and harpsichord), Children’s Choir of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (director: Ralf Sochaczewsky), Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 5.9.2020. (MB)
Bach-Webern – Musical Offering, BWV 1079: ‘Ricercar a sei voci’
Berg – Three Fragments from ‘Wozzeck’
Webern – Variations for Orchestra, Op.30
Schnittke – Concerto grosso No.1, for two violins, harpsichord, prepared piano, and chamber orchestra
Only connect. Vladimir Jurowski has a longstanding talent for programming that does so — and ensures active participation from the listener in doing so too. Some connections in this programme were obvious, some less so, only revealed in performance and listening (at least for me). Whatever small reservations I may have had about some of Jurowski’s interpretative choices, they were outweighed by the illumination of his programming as a whole.
First up was Webern’s extraordinary orchestration, if we may call it that, of the six-part Ricercar from Bach’s Musical Offering. Clarity, both in itself and with respect to transition of lines between instruments, was a hallmark of this performance. There were times, especially earlier on, when I wished for a greater sense of flow, but Jurowski’s formalistic determination to have one hear processes, here and beyond, had its own rewards. There were many purely orchestral joys, in any case, from the sound of the RSB’s four double basses in pizzicato to any number of solos and transitions. There were also presentiments of much that was to come, the inner dialogue of string principals prefiguring Schnittke’s first Concerto grosso. The glorious full sound at climaxes, truly golden at the close, was moreover never a mere wash of sound, an idea utterly foreign to Webern; it was, like this concert as a whole, the sum of many parts.
Process was strongly to the fore in Berg’s Three Fragments from ‘Wozzeck’, for which orchestra and conductor were joined by Anne Schwanewilms and a thirteen-strong children’s choir — unlucky for some, Wozzeck’s child included — from the Staatsoper Unter den Linden. Jurowski’s deliberate way with this music worked well as an introduction to the labyrinth. In the first piece, Berg emerged in more Brahmsian fashion than I think I have ever heard (save, perhaps, in the songs). It became increasingly difficult not to see an imaginary stage in one’s head, even before the military parade and Schwanewilms’s full-blooded delivery of her part. If not note-perfect — is it ever? — it was vivid in its communication, which is surely the more important achievement. The second movement proved touching as ever, even to the point of the unbearable. Hearing this music after Bach, seven variations and a fugue, was revelatory; it offered a pathway to subsequent Webern too. Schwanewilms’s voice, an instrumental thread like that of the strings, offered musical as well as verbal argument. Workings were again clearly exposed in the final movement, generating musical drama in the absence of staging. That extraordinary build-up to Berg’s D minor climax could hardly fail, in our plague-ridding world, to have profound emotional force; it shattered, as it should, as it must. The orchestra, necessarily smaller than one would often hear, tended towards wind and somewhat away from strings, but that had its own fascination. To hear, finally, the world of children, innocent yet cruel, ready to pass on cruel gossip and doubtless other viruses too, chilled to the bone. Back to school, with that most terrifying of musical stops.
Webern’s Variations for Orchestra, Op.30 followed, tension high from the opening double bass line, initiating such a variety of responses, through to the gestural mirrored intervals of the close. Again, process was paramount. This is not really how I hear the music in my head, or even in the score, but again, Jurowski’s way had its own justification, its analytical strength undeniable, vertical and horizontal unmistakeably apparent. That is not to say that it was cold, far from it, but rather that it was less flexible than Webern’s Romantic heritage — and practice — would suggest. There is no one way, and this remained Romanticism sublimated rather than banished. Different characters were imparted strongly to different variations: more than ever an heir to the Op.27 set for piano. And those harmonies! I wanted to hear it again immediately, for what astounding music this is. Webern remains, as Stravinsky put it, ‘a perpetual Pentecost for all who believe in music’. Now, perhaps, we need that more than ever.
The equally extraordinary, post-war sound of the prepared piano ushered in the Prelude of Schnittke’s Concerto grosso No.1. Its sinister childishness had one recall the close of Wozzeck, yet here, quite rightly, meaning was more enigmatic. Initial, non vibrato string response underlined a sense of the sinister, eventually relieved yet never replaced by violin vibrato: from a cruelly reimagined past to the here and now? Tension gradually screwed up over a chillingly clear pedal. The following Toccata offered fiddling writ large — and writ wrong: quite memerising. And yet, before we knew it, we were once again in a sinister nursery world. Integration of those tendencies, or at least its attempt, unleashed a veritable house of horrors. Machines collapsed, though had they ever been intact? Schnittke’s ‘Recitativo’ properly spoke, ever uneasy, its growing intensity continuing into the Cadenza, which then spun off the rails in other directions, many of them. What could have been a better introduction to the idea of polystylism, whether in work or performance, than the hyper-Romantic surprise of the Rondo? There was nothing remotely amusing about Brahms’s appearance — just as it should be. Incongruity was the name of the game. The closing ‘Postludio’, return of prepared piano and all, seemed both to mean something and nothing. This was a commanding performance, intrinsically the finest of all four, although connection was the key throughout.