Lahav Shani conducts an outstandingly memorable Mahler’s First Symphony at Berlin’s Musikfest

GermanyGermany Musikfest Berlin 2022 [5] – Ligeti, Pijper, Mahler: Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra / Lahav Shani (conductor). Philharmonie Hall, Berlin, 4.9.2022, and livestreamed on Digital Concert Hall. (GT)

Lahav Shani conducts the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra © Fabian Schellhorn

Ligeti Atmosphères

Willem Pijper – Symphony No.2 (1921)

Mahler – Symphony No.1 in D minor

Concerts in this year’s Berlin Musikfest continue to offer interesting repertoire in works which are virtually unknown outside their composer’s homeland. I must confess that the music of Willem Pijper (1894-1947) is quite unknown to me. Pijper is regarded as the Netherlands’s finest composer of the first half of the twentieth century. Pijper wrote three symphonies, many works for chamber and choral groups, and an unfinished opera based on Merlin. For many years he was head of instrumental studies at Rotterdam Conservatoire.

If few have heard Pijper’s music, the same cannot be said of Ligeti’s Atmosphères. Owing to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 – A Space Odyssey, Ligeti’s Requiem and Lux Aeterna also shared in the film score with Khachaturian, and both Richard and Johann Strauss II. This mesmerising piece opened magically on the violins then in the brass, with mysterious bubbling on the four flutes, the oboes and piccolos, rising to almost bursting, with the spell broken by the double basses. Suddenly the clarinet and muted trumpets and horns announced an alarming theme, followed by striking on the piano strings before steadily disappearing into a wintry stillness.

Although he conducted the premiere of Pijper’s First Symphony, Willem Mengelberg rejected the Second Symphony apparently because of the huge forces required for performance. Written for as many as 116 musicians including two pianos, organ, celeste, four harps, six mandolins and extended percussion. It was the composer himself who conducted the premiere in 1922. Later Karel Mengelberg revised the orchestration for performance, however here in Berlin, the Rotterdam Philharmonic gave the first complete performance in Germany.

The first movement (Allegro maestoso) opens with bright woodwind and brass, the initial tentative idea merged with the clarinet and two flutes in a driving tread-like beat. Its spell was broken by a beautiful flute idea in exotic colours and an energetic rhythm on strings interrupted by a lonely idea on the tuba, alongside chords on the two pianos offering a rhythmic idea before closing dramatically on a brass choral. In the second movement (Lento, molto maestoso – Piu leggiero – Piu mosso) polytonal ideas were shared by the four harps, interjected by cello and trumpet solos and then there emerged a lovely rhapsodic colourful harmony with the entry of the organ and the two pianos bringing this eclectic work to an exhilarating close.

Of course, Mahler’s symphonies were at one time as neglected as are Pijper’s symphonies now. However, I suspect that one should not be anticipating a renaissance in this almost forgotten Netherlands composer outside of his homeland anytime soon.

In Mahler’s First Symphony, the opening bars of the first movement (Langsam, schleppend) sounded eery and mysterious as if the fog was clearing on a chilly winter’s morning. The imagery of distant fanfares was wonderfully evoked by the offstage horn, and delightfully followed by outstanding virtuosity on the flute of Juliette Hurel, the oboe of Remco de Vries and Julien Hervé on the clarinet. In the second theme, the strings were magical in portraying the composer’s imagery of an early morning stroll in the mountains. Here I was impressed by the conductor’s rather constrained gestures – Lahav Shani doesn’t use a baton and his carefully measured movements are never overly dramatic or emotional – control is through his eyes, and his deftly sculptured hand and body movements.

In the second movement (a modified minuet and trio) there was energetic strings in an upbeat passage of a playful ländler, assisted by lovely bright brass and woodwind. The third movement opened on the familiar folk theme on bassoon, cello, harp and the violins, while in the middle section, a fragile melancholy emerged in a dream-like interlude before the mood was transformed in a pensively funereal passage closing on the timpani.

In the finale, the Israeli conductor unleashed an exciting sequence of breath-taking playing on the horn and cello, all beautifully directed in the powerful energetic march, while the second theme from the pianissimo violins was like a release from darkness. Then the storm burst forth with both energy and passion – returning to the original key of D major – and before the close, there was a beautiful solo from the bassoon of Lola Descours with the themes of nature returning resplendently to the tremendous closing harmonies.

Gregor Tassie

Leave a Comment