Daniel Harding conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in an enlightening concert

GermanyGermany Unsuk Chin, R. Strauss, Vaughan Williams: Andrew Staples (tenor), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Daniel Harding (conductor). Livestreamed on Digital Concert Hall from the Philharmonie Berlin, 15.10.2022. (GT)

Daniel Harding conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

Unsuk ChinRocaná (1980)
Vaughan WilliamsOn Wenlock Edge
Richard StraussAlso sprach Zarathustra, Op.30

Composed for huge orchestra, including Japanese temple bells, Javanese gongs, marimbas, dobachi, cencerros, glass wind chimes, a lithophone, a maracas and other instruments, the Korean composer Unsuk Chin’s piece is a work of colours and fascinating harmonies. The title Rocaná is from the Sanskrit words for a ‘room of light’. According to the composer, the title does not have any specific religious or mythological meaning. Instead, it refers to the character of the work as well as to the compositional techniques employed.

Unsuk Chin stated that she has ‘a certain aversion to the soundworld produced by traditional symphony orchestras rooted in nineteenth-century aesthetics, and I feel a great deal of affinity for non-European musical cultures. That is why I always try to introduce a completely different colour into my compositions based on my experience of non-European music.’

The percussion has a special purpose from the very beginning of Rocaná with the fluttering rhythms interrupted by bursts of exciting sound from the harp, trumpets, trombones and tubular bells that at times invoked animals scurrying in the darkness, and graphically low sounds while suddenly the brass proclaimed a disturbing idea against long slides on the violins. This was heard by invoking an almost celestial soundscape with rhythmic tension ascending to richly harmonised pitches of sound before finally plunging into silence. It was lovely at the end to see the still youthful composer climbing over the barrier to join the orchestra on stage and accept the reception from the appreciative audience.

In the week when we celebrated the 150th birth anniversary of Ralph Vaughan Williams, it was welcoming that this world class orchestra should play a piece (On Wenlock Edge) by this great English composer, yet disappointing that it was not one of his nine symphonies. Throughout this performance of the composer’s settings to A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, the beautifully rich harmonies abounded under Daniel Harding’s direction with occasional hints of Ravelian impressionism adorning the performance. The tenor of Andrew Staples proved almost heroic in his singing of On Wenlock Edge with thrilling woodwind playing from the flute of Jelka Weber, creating waves of rhapsodic sound; From Far, from Eve and Morning was finely sung; while Is My Team Ploughing, the horns created an almost menacing idiom; in the charming Oh, When I Was in Love with You there was some idyllic string playing, once again the flutes were outstanding; and in the final Clun, a deeply mourning idiom emerged handsomely performed by the orchestra. The only other piece by Vaughan Williams on the Digital Concert Hall archive is the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Judging from the evident pleasure by the musicians playing this music, hopefully it will not be too long before more of his music is heard in Berlin.

In his pre-concert interview, Harding said of Also Sprach Zarathustra, ‘is there a work where the first minute is so well known yet nothing is known of the other 33 minutes?’ He reflected that the writing was ‘incredibly graphic, and very well thought out’ and there seemed to be ‘a depression or doubt which comes afterwards.’ The ‘Dawn’ of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra opened on a glorious fortissimo with the theme of nature invoked by the bassoons fashioning a darkly mysterious idiom in ‘Of the Backworldsmen’, which was enhanced by the low strings introducing a noble theme of great warmth and feeling. The section ‘Of Great Longing’ was opulently performed by the strings, with notable inflection from the cor anglais of Dominik Wollenweber, and the glorious brass in highlighting ‘Of Joys and Passions’. Rubato was applied by the conductor in his summoning of gloriously beautiful sound imagery before quelling it for ‘The Song of the Grave’. There was world class virtuosity from Jonathan Kelly on the oboe and Wollenweber’s cor anglais.

In the fanciful passage ‘Of Science and Learning’, the fugue was played persuasively by the double basses before swiftly moving to ‘The Convalescent’ with a motif expressed by Jesper Busk Sørensen’s trombone (on two diminished fifths) as if conflicting with the joys of life. I liked the wonderful anticipation in ‘The Dance Song’ from the brilliant woodwind, xylophone and the strings before the Viennese waltz was introduced in a beautiful violin passage heralding the richly luxuriant strings. In the coda of ‘Song of the Night Wanderer’ the bell tolling supplemented by the richly textured string playing descended into an idyllic idiom before dying away without resolve. On this occasion, Harding made certain that as well as the opening bars, his audience had much to take pleasure in from the fullness of Strauss’s masterpiece.

Gregor Tassie

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