Pause for thought as well as enjoyment in Berlin from RSB’s Mendelssohn and Stravinsky

GermanyGermany Mendelssohn and Stravinsky: Denis Uzun (mezzo-soprano), Berlin Radio Chorus (chorus director: Philipp Ahmann), Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins (conductor). Konzerthaus Berlin, 16.3.2024. (MB)

Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra previously in Konzerthaus Berlin © Stefan Maria Rother

Mendelssohn – Symphony No.4 in A major, op.90, ‘Italian’; Hymne, Op.96
Stravinsky – Symphonies of Wind Instruments; Symphony of Psalms

Mendelssohn and Stravinsky might not seem the most obvious bedfellows, but this Berlin Radio Symphony (RSB) concert, originally planned with Sir Andrew Davis but conducted by Martyn Brabbins, offered pause for thought as well as enjoyment. Both composers had fraught relationships either with Wagner or his music — and, by extension, with that strain of musical Romanticism. (Even Liszt, that most generous spirited of composers, could refer dismissively to the ‘opposition’ as ‘leipzigerisch’.) The nature of their (neo)classicism is far from the same, but it offers an interesting perspective, even when the music performed is not so markedly in that mould. One could certainly spill a good deal of ink in discussing the relationship of the two Stravinsky works here to ideas and practice of neoclassicism. That, you will doubtless be relieved to know, must await another day, but such initial thoughts offered a frame through which to hear the works concerned.

The RSB played Mendlessohn’s Italian Symphony with irresistible élan, string sheen and sunny woodwind a delight throughout. Brabbins was surely on the fast side for Allegro vivace, but many conductors are.  Throughout, he imparted a proper sense of development to Mendelssohn’s writing, nowhere more so than in the featherlight counterpoint of the development section proper, though that certainly continued in the recapitulation. There was Abruzzo-like heat too in a reading full of colour and incident, aptly foreshadowing the processional of the second movement, which similarly benefited from transparent textures and a keen sense of direction. A graceful minuet, replete with trio that went properly beyond it in more than one direction, led to a saltarello both disciplined and wild, its contagion as impressive as its chiaroscuro.

The Op.96 Hymne, ‘Three Spiritual Songs’ (as they are known in the version with organ) plus a concluding Fuga, received a winning performance, mezzo Deniz Uzun and the Berlin Radio Chorus joining Brabbins and the orchestra. Telling detail could be heard without exaggeration, variety in scoring (the opening of the second, an especially lovely ‘hymn’, setting solo voice against woodwind consort) registering in every case. A lively third, with growing sense of jubilation, revealed once again what a fine chorus this is: ideal in weight, balance, and clarity. Much the same could be said of the concluding fugue.

Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments sounded as seductive and rebarbative as ever, a perfect objet trouvé that find itself somehow chiselled to still further perfection. Apparently ossified lines suggestive of The Rite of Spring were imbued with radically new life, the performance as a whole splendidly alive: a liturgy in itself, to which we were permitted audience if not participation. If Boulez was an ideal interpreter (celebrant?) of this hieratic music, I could not help but think Stockhausen must have loved it too. At any rate, it made for a splendid introit to the Symphony of Psalms, whose similar strangeness registered visually in orchestral layout (famously, no violins and violas, nor clarinets) before a note had been heard.

It proved another labyrinth, as full of incident in its way, above all in the first movement, as Mendelssohn’s symphony. Glorious choral sound was well complemented by the orchestra; if there were occasions when the two threatened to go their separate ways, it never quite happened. More to the point, the inscrutability of Stravinsky’s musical devices – utterly characteristic ostinato in the first movement, the double fugue of the second – proved once again to pass all ‘expressive’ understanding, the composer’s ever-surprising ear made musically manifest. What a strange ‘response’ to the text Stravinsky offers in the words from Psalm 150 in the third movement. He would doubtless have said he was not responding at all, but simply setting them. That can readily become play with words, for ‘expression’ here, if hardly Romantic, was no less powerful for being what it was: quite the contrary. Brabbins took the opening daringly slow, providing all the greater contrast with what was to come. Music seeming at times to circle the worlds of the Symphony in Three Movements and even the Circus Polka never seemed remotely incongruous; roots and essence led to a hypnotic, even sanctified close.

Mark Berry

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