Resounding success for three avant-garde masterpieces at Musikfest Berlin 2022

GermanyGermany Musikfest Berlin 2022 [12] – Xenakis, Zimmermann, Dallapiccola: Wolfgang Koch (baritone), Ekaterina Semenchuk (mezzo-soprano), Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (tenor), Caspar Singh (tenor), Oliver Boyd (baritone), Rundfunkchor Berlin (chorusmaster: Gijs Leenaars), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Kirill Petrenko (conductor). Livestreamed on Digital Concert Hall from the Philharmonie Berlin, 17.9.2022. (GT)

Kirill Petrenko conducts Wolfgang Koch (The Prisoner) and the Berlin Philharmonic © Bettina Stoss

Xenakis Empreintes
Zimmermann – Symphony in One Movement (2nd version)
DallapiccolaIl prigioniero (The Prisoner) opera with a prologue and one act

Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) gained world fame as an architect following the famous Le Corbusier architects’ school, and was drawn to mathematics, with music another area in his fascinating career. His early years were formed when he was a partisan during the Second World War and the Civil War in Greece. His career as an architect was combined with his musical creativity, and despite success in the former, Xenakis found it difficult to gain recognition for his compositions.

Xenakis’s piece Empreintes (Fingerprints) dates from 1975, and his pre-concert interview Kirill Petrenko said that the work is ‘stochastic’ akin to ‘architecture in sound, like footprints in the sand that we leave behind’. The conductor commented that for him, the piece ‘is powerful and magnificent, abstract and a strand of freedom.’ All three pieces in this concert share a theme of struggle for justice and liberty.

The work opened with a brass choral on a chord of G, invoking the sound of ancient fanfares, with the idea continuing on the strings and wind with the violins playing long slides on their instruments creating an idiom of shadowy menace. The composer said that this music should ‘shock the listener to his senses and must be as striking as […] looking into a bottomless pit.’ The wind instruments invoked the sound of air raid horns, and Andreas Wittmann on the oboe intoned a sound like morse code picked up by the brass and the cor anglais of Dominik Wollenweber. The piccolo, clarinets, and most notably, Václav Vonáček on the contrabassoon provided a vigorous idiom leading to a sudden alarming close.

Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970) embraced neo-classicism in his early period before progressing to free atonality, twelve-tone and eventually serialism. He evolved a style of Klangkomposition or a means of portraying space, and areas of tone-colours in which material from Medieval, Baroque, Classical and Jazz and Pop styles overlap. Zimmermann’s symphony is a product of the Second World War that also reflects on the 1930s in Germany. In his pre-concert interview, Petrenko said that for him, the piece is by ‘one of the greatest composers in Germany after the war, if not the greatest of all.’ The work has ‘real emotional strength.’ This work was composed in 1951 with organ accompaniment, however, he rewrote the organ part for the brass group in its final 1953 version.

The symphony opened with a solemn idea on the strings that was followed by a violent outburst from the brass and percussion, leading to the strings introducing a vehement passage hinting at an alluringly attractive theme, which became increasingly assertive on the woodwind. This promising theme was disrupted by an eruption of fortissimo trombones and trumpets heralding a march-like theme as the percussion, piano, and the two timpani fashioned an exhilarating culmination.

Dallapiccola’s opera is a narrative of love, hope and freedom with an underlying political and social message, which Petrenko calls ‘relevant’ in today’s world, yet although the opera is based on Spain during the Inquisition, this opera is about the 1930s, and the war. Dallapiccola based his opera on August Villiers de L’isle-Adam’s story Torture Through Hope. An adherent of twelve-tone music, Dallapiccola wrote in specific twelve-note sequences of tone-rows for each of the opera’s themes of love, hope, and freedom which frame the musical text.

In this concert performance, the opera’s prologue opened on the brass, and strings in a dramatic idiom, Ekaterina Semenchuk – in a very emotional characterisation – sings of her son awaiting death in a far-off cave, and in a dream-like sequence, a dialogue developed between the mother and her son, in which the Prisoner (Wolfgang Koch) sings of his fear of death, he tells her the Gaoler (Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke) gives him hope, and the Gaoler tells the Prisoner, ‘There is someone who watches after you.’ In a wondrously moving passage, the choir sang beautifully accompanied by the organ creating a heavenly sound.

The Prisoner is allowed to escape through a door into a garden where he meets two monks who are engaged in prayer and who ignore him, he meets the Grand Inquisitor, who takes the form of the Gaoler, who now tells him he will get salvation only through death. The Prisoner sings of his beloved word ‘Fratelli’ – for him, nothing is more important than friendship. As the Prisoner is about to meet his death, there was a beautiful passage on the two harps and strings, and the singing of the choir accompanied by the organ and tubular bells and the Prisoner’s singing ‘Liberte’ closes this tragic operatic masterpiece.

Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s characterisation of the Gaoler/Grand Inquisitor was outstanding with almost every phrase bearing a threatening warning, and in the central role Koch’s Prisoner was superbly acted and sung, as was that of Mother by Ukrainian mezzo-soprano Semenchuk. The roles of the priests were performed commendably by Caspar Singh and Oliver Boyd.

This was an exhilarating concert of three twentieth-century composers all of whom are connected by a common effort to portray the struggles and problems of their time – yet with quite different means and musical styles. The three works were performed here with great mastery and sensitivity by Petrenko and the remarkable Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Berlin Rundfunk Choir, bringing to a close this remarkable 2022 Musikfest in Berlin.

Gregor Tassie

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