Harding and Concertgebouw demonstrate the wonders of the modern symphony orchestra at Berlin’s Musikfest

GermanyGermany Musikfest Berlin [1] – Stravinsky, Messiaen, and Debussy: Renée Fleming (soprano), Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Daniel Harding (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 31.8.2021 (MB)

Daniel Harding conducts Renée Fleming & the Concertgebouw (c) Astrid Ackermann

Stravinsky – Agon

Messiaen – Poèmes pour Mi

Debussy – La Mer 

Size is not everything, yet to hear — and even to see — my largest orchestra for over eighteen months was certainly not nothing. With a string section extending from sixteen first violins to eight double basses, and plentiful wind, percussion, even a mandolin, this was a treat in itself, a sign, dare we hope, of progress in our return to concert life. That the orchestra in question was the Concertgebouw was a distinct advantage too, as was Daniel Harding’s mouth-watering programme of Stravinsky, Messiaen, and Debussy.

Harding’s direction of the orchestra in Stravinsky’s Agon was insistent and precise, likewise the Concertgebouw’s response. Manhattan traffic came to Berlin’s Philharmonie for one night only. The three pas-de-quatre, single, double, and triple increased in their menace, even fury, the composer’s wartime Symphony in Three Movements an unusually immanent progenitor. All the while, audible serial processes did their work both mechanical and human. One could well-nigh see their working out in twin homage to Webern and balletic tradition. I was struck by the utter distinctiveness of Stravinsky’s encounter with the French Baroque: so different, say, from that of Richard Strauss, indeed diametrically opposed to it (as in so much else). For all the claims we often hear of the necessity of ‘period’ colour in, say, Rameau, it was striking that use of a modern bassoon could evoke that composer and a whole world without any such requirement. The more shadowy, hieratic passages — a gestures as courtly as they were ghostly — compelled fascination, as did Stravinsky’s inimitable orchestration. And what combinations of instruments one heard: they could only be Stravinsky, however much they played with other expectations and recollections. Harding and the orchestra played with them too, bringing Stravinsky’s games all the more immediately to our attention.

Renée Fleming joined the orchestra for Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi. There was an unusual note of freedom — not licence, but freedom — to the first song, ‘Action des grâces’, Fleming’s approach perhaps surprisingly verse-led, without sacrifice to rhythm, indeed to its enhancement. Indeed, there was something chant-like to her despatch of melismata. The orchestra evoked liturgy too: for Messiaen, all was sacred. Delight in Creation was to be heard in ‘Paysage’, both as work and performance. So, in ‘Epouvante’ and its knowing successor, ‘Le Collier’, was keen awareness of malevolent forces at work, Act II of Parsifal coming strongly to mind. Sweetness of harmonic mysticism followed in both cases, in ‘L’Épouse’ and ‘Prière exaucée’. The latter’s closing ecstasies, bells and all, proved a resurrection, so it seemed, not only of flesh but also of fleshly desires. Above all, there was wonder in these songs: not only to be observed, but to be felt.

A vividly pictorial performance of La Mer followed. It boasted both precision and atmosphere, Harding’s picture painted very much a landscape, no mere snapshot. In the opening ‘De l’aube à midi sur la mer’, figures proved busily generative. It seemed a brighter, warmer account than is often the case: later in the morning, perhaps. Whatever the horological verdict, conductor and orchestra left plenty in reserve for the movement’s climax. Mystery and a keen sense of play were twin hallmarks of ‘Jeux des vagues’. Clarity of direction, at least in retrospect, heightened both aspects in what emerged as a scherzo taking its place in French orchestral tradition, Dukas included. Darker thoughts, as presaged in the Messiaen songs, haunted ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’; so did further, post-Pelléas ambiguities, up to and including the final blazing of Debussy’s orchestra. Modern symphony orchestras are wonderful things; so is their repertoire.

Mark Berry

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