A magnificent opening to Musikfest Berlin by Iván Fischer and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

GermanyGermany Musikfest Berlin 2023 [1] – Widmann and Mahler: Michael Nagy (baritone), Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Iván Fischer (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 26.8.2023. (MB)

Iván Fischer conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra © Fabian Schellhorn/Berliner Festspiele

Jörg Widmann – Das heisse Herz
Mahler – Symphony No.7

Musical life in Berlin has been reignited before the summer festival season elsewhere has ended: first the season opening concert of the Berlin Philharmonic (review), after which the orchestra tours to a number of venues, Salzburg included; and the following night, the opening concert of the 2023 Musikfest Berlin, which takes in ‘home’ and visiting ensembles. That concert fell this year to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Iván Fischer, in music by Jörg Widmann and Mahler, joined in the former by baritone Michael Nagy.

Widmann’s short song-cycle, Das heisse Herz, originally written in 2013, was orchestrated in 2018, the new version’s premiere being given by Christian Gerhaher, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, and Jakub Hrůša. Widmann sets five poems, two from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, providing an obvious connection already with Mahler, and one each by Klabund (‘Der arme Kaspar’), Heine (‘Das Fräulein stand am Meere’), and Brentano (‘Einsam will ich untergehn’). Klabund’s poem is the first, an ear-catching opening of harp, celesta, crotales, and other percussion leading us (and the voice) into a post-Mahlerian soundscape in terms both of timbre and harmony without, at least here, regressing. Henze was another composer to come to mind, though this is certainly not pastiche, rather allusion and, later, reference. Here, as elsewhere, the orchestra gave a detailed, indeed authoritative performance, Nagy shaping the vocal line well in a similarly authoritative and communicative account. The Wunderhorn ‘Hab’ ein Ringlein am Finger’ gives a still stronger, arguably explicit, sense of refracted Mahler, via Wozzeck. Heine’s song has something of the raconteur to it: a different, more popular mode of delivery, matched by Widmann’s harmonies and brass writing. ‘Kartenspiel’, the second Wunderhorn song, steps up its predecessor’s demand that the ghost of tonality be acknowledged, though the vocal line in particular still went where it would in a post-tonal universe. A surprisingly jazz-like bass line took us on a path towards more or less fully fledged big band music at the close, via a polystylistic collage of allusion that offered a not entirely dissimilar sense of the disconcerting to Schnittke.

The first four lines of the Brentano song open with solo voice, in folklike, even hymnal manner; I was put in mind, almost certainly coincidentally, of a nonconformist hymn recalled from my childhood. Solo instruments gradually joined to form a Webern-like ensemble on the path to fuller orchestra. There is here a stronger tonal pull, and increasingly so, an expressionist turn at one point rescuing the tendency from bathos. Whether the balancing act Widmann attempts here is entirely successful will probably be as much a matter of taste as anything else. It is rather what one would expect from him, yet never simply a reprise of earlier rummagings around the debris of German (post-)Romanticism. Reception was enthusiastic.

A considerably longer second ‘half’ was given over to Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, in a brilliant performance that confounded expectations and opened up new perspectives on the work. Vigorous, determined, its tread in line with that of its counterpart in the Sixth, the first movement’s notably faster initial tempo (faster than usual, I think) sounded a note of ambiguity that would never be shed, but rather joined by many more such notes. As a desperate fury took hold, Fischer embraced Mahler’s parodies, self-parody included, and respected them by giving them their due without placing them in inverted commas or underlining them. Much the same could be said of his presentation of the way Mahler ‘cuts’ his material, not cinematic, but not entirely un-cinematic either. Those crucial liminal passages beguiled and shocked. Rapt hallucination took our breath away in preparation for a recapitulation that threw everything up in the air and saw where it landed, whilst always maintaining coherence. The Concertgebouw Orchestra, steeped in this music, sounded just right for Fischer’s approach, doubtless informing it too.

The opening of the first Nachtmusik was truly a thing of wonder, both in the perfection of the horn echoes and the way they spread, like a contagion. Fischer’s conception of ‘night music’ was more of a nocturne than a Bernstein-like house of horrors, nonetheless showing ‘lightness’ to cover a multitude of sins, stylistic, textural, and otherwise, and certainly not without irony. All was finely articulated, without the slightest sense of self-satisfaction. It was strangely exhilarating, with a proper sting, even when one ‘knew’, to the close. A fascinatingly malevolent Scherzo ensued, Mendelssohn dropped in acid, with the twin tendencies of control and finish on one hand, and ever threatening to veer out of control, that might imply. Skeletons danced in properly Alpine fashion. Berlioz taking a trip in more than one sense. The ending was similarly equivocal and violent. Listening to the second Nachtmusik, it struck me quite how close we stand here to Webern, but as a process rather than a fixed aesthetic, the orchestra distilled into a Webern ensemble in real time, as it were. A host of solo instruments paraded in a rich tableau of the human, or perhaps the divine, comedy. Whilst one can hardly avoid mentioning the violin and mandolin, this held for so many, including almost the whole woodwind section, that it would be invidious to name names.

The Rondo-Finale’s timpani call-to-arms, or whatever it is, imparted a fitting suggestion of Don Quixote to its entire enterprise, continually upsetting the Die Meistersinger apple-cart in the service of a darker comedy. Perhaps. For there were no certainties here, and justly so. Fischer concentrated on drawing excellent playing from the orchestra and steering the vehicle, declining any attempt to ‘solve’ Mahler’s enigmas. Once again, this was a tale of ghosts at the feast: the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, obviously, as well as earlier movements of this, but also the Second and even the Tenth-to-come: if Mahler had earlier showed a path to resurrection, perhaps purgatory, or even limbo, now seemed more fun, as well as more attainable. Bach, Mozart, and others made their bows, but what did it mean? The nihilist answer, ‘nothing’, was not necessarily right or wrong, it seemed, but there came another suggestion, not to be conflated with it, an affirmation rather of scepticism, albeit from one who truly believed. Perhaps that is the true horror of the Seventh.

Mark Berry

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