Lucerne Festival: Berlin Philharmonic in a class of their own

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Lucerne Festival [3] – Schnittke, Bruckner: Tabea Zimmermann (viola), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Daniel Harding (conductor). Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Luzern (KKL), Lucerne, 1.9.2022. (JR)

Tabea Zimmermann (viola) & Daniel Harding (conductor) (c) Priska Ketterer/LF

Schnittke – Viola Concerto

Bruckner – Symphony No.4 ,WAB 104 ‘Romantic’

Allow me, please, to first tell my Schnittke story. I happened to be in Moscow, many decades ago and went to hear a performance of Schnittke’s First Symphony, which I didn’t know. Gennady Rozhdestvensky was conducting a local orchestra. Much of the first half of the concert was given up for a talk by the conductor, in Russian of course, describing the music that was to follow, after the interval. I understood not a word, but there was much laughter in the audience. What then followed after the interval was quite unforgettable and most entertaining. The music itself may not have enthralled, but there were some extraordinary antics on the stage which have stayed vividly in my memory.

Much of Schnittke’s oeuvre is written in his heady brand of polystylism, a mix of musical references and styles – film music, dance music, Russian military music, Russian psychedelia. However, as Schnittke got older (and wiser?) he toned down the quirkiness, and his Viola Concerto, written for Yuri Bashmet, is more conservative. Schnittke suffered a stroke soon after finishing the composition, dying young at 63, and is buried in the same cemetery as Shostakovich. Schnittke had emigrated to Hamburg, from Moscow, some years earlier. The final movement is certainly a reflection of life on the threshold of death, in Mahlerian style. The work also shows the strong influence of Shostakovich.

German violist Tabea Zimmermann was the soloist; her rich tone filled the hall, starting with the theme based on Bashmet’s initials, which permeates the work. The concerto was beguiling, always easy on the ear, and most affecting, particularly at the end when piano, harpsichord and celeste combine with the viola and the music fades away. There is a furious Vivaldi-like central movement. The concerto shows off the entire range of the viola’s possibilities and the soloist’s prowess. No technical difficulty was a hindrance to Zimmermann; she recorded the work in the 1990s under her then husband David Shallon and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. The concerto and soloist were very well received.

Daniel Harding, taking over the concert from an indisposed Kirill Petrenko (a broken toe, his doctors telling him to take it easy before an operation was needed) was happy not to need to change the concerto and showed himself attentive to the detail of the score. However, in the second half of the concert, he preferred to perform Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony in place of the scheduled Shostakovich Tenth.

Harding confirmed his credentials as a seasoned Brucknerian with this magnificent performance of the Fourth Symphony. The Berlin Philharmonic are in a class of their own; they count many renowned soloists amongst their ranks (Emmanuel Pahud and Andreas Ottensamer, to name just two), and yet combine to make a rich blend. Each section just bowls you over; the horns and double basses (led by Finnish Janne Saksala and Australian Matthew McDonald) in particular on this evening. The flawless principal horn, Stefan Dohr, stood out and fully deserved being singled out immediately at the end of the performance by the conductor. The first violins bowed their hearts out, led by American concertmaster (ex-Pittsburgh) Noah Bendix-Balgley. Violinist Bastian Schäfer on the very back desk caught both eye and ear.

Harding was in full control of phrasing and dynamics, the magnificent hall allowing extremes at both ends of the dynamic range. His choices of tempo were just right, though I felt the final page lingered just a mite too long for my taste; it cannot be denied that Harding made the movement sound most noble, quasi-Elgarian.

Harding was agile, jaunty, springy, but without histrionics or idiosyncrasies. His Bruckner is lithe. Clearly the orchestra enjoyed working with him and the huge roars as the symphony ended were testimony both to his skill and the orchestra’s virtuosity.

 John Rhodes

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