Vladimir Jurowski leads probing Musikfest Berlin performances of Stravinsky and Hindemith

GermanyGermany Musikfest Berlin [3] – Stravinsky and Hindemith: Tamara Stefanovich (piano), Georg Nigl (baritone), Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 4.9.2021. (MB)

Vladimir Jurowski conducts the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (c) Peter Meisel

Stravinsky – Symphonies of Wind Instruments; Abraham and Isaac; Concerto for piano and wind instruments; Variations for Orchestra (Aldous Huxley in memoriam) 

Hindemith – Symphony: Mathis der Maler

A darkened hall, monochrome lighting, considerable distance between conductor and orchestra (strings absent): Symphonies of Wind Instruments, given in its superior, 1920 version, looked as well as sounded hieratic. It was as precise as it was hieratic, only adding to the aggression that lies only just beneath the surface, presaging so much neoclassical Stravinsky as well as echoing the Russian ballets. Strange flute solos recalled the Rite in particular. Combinations of instruments surprised, enchanted, and drove Stravinsky’s quasi-liturgy. In its intense drama of sounds, it looked forward to Birtwistle and others. And yet, Vladimir Jurowski was equally alert to the crucial role of the static. By the close, it was possible that much had changed, but had it? Here was something implacable, unanswerable, quite beyond the Austro-German aesthetic.

When does one have opportunity to hear Abraham and Isaac? In my case, never before this Musikfest concert (apart, of course, from recordings, of which there are few). Webernesque violas met woodwind from the previous piece, introducing Georg Nigl as soloist. Here was a narrative one could follow even if one did not understand it verbally (that is, in Hebrew): a ‘sacred ballad’ indeed. There was no sense of Nigl ventriloquising, but there were times when I fancied I could hear this was a piece ‘for’, or at least first performed by, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (here in Berlin, in 1964). I could not help but notice that time and time again it was the RSB strings that evoked Webern and Schoenberg, wind and voice in almost another world. Canons abounded, as did melismata. Once again, Stravinsky and his performers said all that needed to be said, no more, no less.

Tamara Stefanovich, fresh from her wonderful performance of Movements with George Benjamin and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (review click here), joined the orchestra for Stravinsky’s 1923-4 Piano Concerto. The mock, neo-Baroque ostentation of the wind opening did not mask an underlying darkness that may or may not have been yet another Stravinskian mask, yet seemed real enough — until it too was banished (or was it?) by the energetic vehemence of the piano and new material. It was very ‘white’, irrespective of the keys. If Benjamin’s intriguing Pulcinella Suite had sometimes, seemingly on purpose, lacked bite, it was to be heard here in spades from all in ricochet and incitement. The strange synthesis of material at this first movement’s close pulled no punches either; it was thrillingly immediate. The opening chord of the slow movement teased: it might so easily have become late Beethoven, yet absolutely did not. There was, at least implicitly, a proper note of disdain for that path. Another mask? At any rate, its gravity seemed real. Provocative cadenza writing — where does it lead? — transformed the mood, as we heard when the orchestra returned. Static, like Symphonies of Wind Instruments? It was genuinely unclear, in a good sense. The third movement was very much a finale. What intransigence there was in those ostinatos — and in so much else. Throughout, this was a performance that understood and communicated the very particular qualities of the work. I was no clearer at the end than the beginning whether I liked it, but that is not the point. The final flourish came as a genuine surprise, even when one supposedly ‘knew’.

Much of what we had heard previously appeared both compressed and liberated in the ‘Aldous Huxley’ Variations. Everything counted in a gem such as Stravinsky saw — heard — crafted (Crafted too, for better or worse) in Webern. Here is an imagination just as extraordinary as that heard in the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, and so it sounded. What strange string writing there is too, as one could not fail to hear. It was a labyrinth as enticing as those of Berg, Birtwistle, and others. Jurowski then announced he would play the piece, too seldom heard, again, this time with an illuminating spoken introduction. The character of different sections emerged, at least for me, more strongly than ever, in line with Jurowski’s astute guidance to follow the balletic muse. It was, even on a second hearing, less hermetic, more lyrical, and with all the potential for the visual imagination of Petrushka. More please!

What could be more of a Berlin piece than the Mathis der Maler Symphony, premiered by the Philharmonic and Furtwängler in 1934, a regrettable milestone in both artists’ relations with the Nazi regime and Goebbels in particular. Not that one heard any of that here, though one certainly noted from the outset a very different sound and compositional method from that heard in Stravinsky’s music. The first movement flowed well with no suspicion of worthiness, let alone dullness (however unfair the charge to Hindemith). And then, almost before one knew it, the motoric side of Hindemith kicked in, suggestive less of Stravinsky than of earlier Hindemith, Cardillac in particular. That conflict of material seemed to be what was at stake. Might Jurowski have bowed a little more to the dictates of sentiment? Perhaps, but the lack of sentimentality was welcome. The second movement likewise benefited from clarity and interest in delineating timbre as well as counterpoint. Well shaped, it emerged as an intermezzo almost distinct from its role in the opera. Jurowski imparted to the opening phrases of the finale an almost Mahlerian weight, though the music travelled in a very different direction. Here, as elsewhere, he was aided by excellent orchestral playing, both weighty and vivid. There was drama aplenty. What, after all, is ‘symphonic’?

Mark Berry

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