Polpelka, Aimard and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra are close to ideal in Schoenberg and Mahler

GermanyGermany Schoenberg and Mahler: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra / Petr Popelka (conductor). Philharmonie Berlin, 9.3.2024. (MB)

Petr Popelka conducts pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the RSB © Peter Meisel

Schoenberg – Piano Concerto, Op.42
Mahler – Symphony No.1

The world’s near silence for Schoenberg’s anniversary year continues to deafen. Perhaps everywhere is waiting for September, when his birthday falls, and all will be revealed in a flurry of ‘new season’ announcements. And perhaps eternal Friede will descend upon the Erde this Christmas. In the meantime, Berlin, mostly at the Philharmonie, where there is an exhibition from the Arnold Schönberg Center in the foyer, continues to do better than most. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who is certainly doing his bit, joined the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (RSB) and Petr Popelka for an outstanding performance of the Piano Concerto, probably the best I have heard live — and a match for the best on record.

The opening was unusual: difficult to put my finger (or ear) quite on how, but Aimard’s solo put me in mind a soliloquy, with a melancholy hint of exile. Perhaps it was recently having seen a dramatization of Exil by Schoenberg’s fellow Californian exile Leon Feuchtwanger at the Berliner Ensemble, though I do not think it was only an external matter. Other voices joined from the orchestra, conversationally, also as if recalling, yet with a distinct hint of foreboding. In general, I have not found Schoenberg’s ‘programme’ for the work especially helpful. Indeed, looking at what I wrote in my ‘critical life’ (here) of the composer, I see I went so far as this: ‘Whether the programme is of any help is highly debatable. Schoenberg, speaking vaguely of war, in a way that could readily be made to fit an almost infinite number of pieces of music, described the work’s expressive content as follows: “1. Life was so easy; 2. Suddenly hatred broke out; 3. A grave situation was created; 4. But life goes on.” Perhaps it assisted his overall conception; there is no more reason for us to dwell on it than Schoenberg had found there was, all those years previously, to dwell on Mahler’s for his Third Symphony.’ (For that, I am afraid you will have to read the book!) Mahler’s programmes are another issue, of course, and I tend to feel similarly about them, probably more so; for whatever reason, the programme of Schoenberg’s concerto seemed to speak more readily than I have previously experienced. The performance was not bound to it; it is not a performance indication. It is also highly subject to criticism, were one to take it too literally as about the world; of all people, Schoenberg knew there was nothing sudden about the outbreak of hatred. Yet here, in this performance, these suggestions and their expressive implications proved almost suddenly precise. It is always good to re-learn something one thinks one knows.

There was close to ideal clarity of texture, which certainly did not preclude weight, but rather proved the key to understanding it. Very much like Brahms, one might say. One could hear the extraordinary ear for orchestration, combinations of instruments sounding as if newly invented, not unlike one of Schoenberg’s Bach transcriptions. Ever-transforming in developing variation, the first section built subtly — and, as Schoenberg does so often, for those who care to listen, it danced too. As the mood darkened, increasing rhythmic angularity made its point in performance as well as work. Echoes of the Golden Calf scene from Moses und Aron were stronger, not only in tuned percussion, than I can recall. It was a (controlled) riot, but there was something still more unsettling behind it. We should not be unduly reductive about such matters, but the deceptions of too-ready communication and the fanaticism it breeds stand with us now almost as strongly as they did in 1942. When the orchestra sang what came across as a great song of protest, it was difficult not to think of current predicaments, all the more so as Mahlerian echoes issued from a twilight zone. All the while, Aimard had a pianistic work-out to give Prokofiev a run for his money.

The Adagio section emerged as consequent, then, as its counterpart in the First Chamber Symphony, reminding us of the deep roots of many of Schoenberg’s formal preoccupations. It was just as songful and soulful too, though seemingly still under assault from all around, Bachian string figures weaponised with terror. They spoke from Hell, and they spread. Aimard’s piano part seemed nonetheless to bind everything together, enabling a turn around. It was not easy, but that made it all the more a Schoenbergian triumph of the human spirit, Popelka’s collaborative stewardship of the orchestra as important in that success.

For an encore – I once heard, in another context, Maurizio Pollini give this as one of several (!) – Aimard played the complete Op.19 Six Little Piano Pieces, introducing them by saying several people had told him, in their hearts, they hated Schoenberg’s music; he however, loved it. (Imagine saying that to anyone. Why would you ‘hate’ music in that way, let alone some of the most influential and rawly expressive music of the twentieth century? There continues, alas, to be no better place to find freely expressed antisemitism than in Schoenberg reception.) If anything, this proved a conception more heroic still, and not only on account of some of the most determined bronchial disruption from around the hall I have ever heard. From the first, heard as if in a single, ever-variegated breath, through a pulverising miniature fourth (its joy is that one cannot become too heavy, its curse that one cannot become heavy enough), to the evocation of Mahler’s funeral bells in the sixth, a bridge to the second half: it was clear-sighted, unsentimental, but imbued with true sentiment in every note and its manifold connections.

Petr Popelka conducts the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra © Peter Meisel

That Mahler’s First Symphony had a performance in many ways admirable, if ultimately lacking the volcanic necessity of both Schoenberg works yet was received with considerably greater enthusiasm by the audience tells its own tale, on which there is no further need to dwell. It certainly suggested that Popelka is a young conductor to be reckoned with, who has already made significant progress in his conception of a work whose difficult corners have defeated many, as well as confirming and renewing the excellence of the RSB. String harmonics, at the opening, imparted a sense of something that has always been there, of Nature – to which (human?) subjectivity had yet to be added, which it was by interjections from elsewhere. The first movement as a whole received a lyrical, characterful performance, which, whilst one should be wary of essentialisation, seemed rather in the line of Bohemian traditions of Mahler performance. Some might have found it too leisurely; for me, there was a keen sense of finding one’s way, perhaps through woodland, and with moments of existential loneliness to match (so long as one listened). Did it sometimes lose its way? I do not think so, though there were occasions when it might have been more clearly traced. That will come, though. And the eight horns of the RSB sounded glorious.

There followed a vigorous, buoyant, ‘naturally’ rustic Ländler: full of character once more, if slightly sectional and just a touch hard-driven at the close of its first iteration. A trio evinced grace and Schwung, though it might have had greater depth. The reprise of Ländler material was on the brash side: deliberately so, I am sure, though veering a little too close to the ‘orchestral showpiece’ tendency driven by the Mahler-saturation of past decades. The third movement came off better, its opening taken (thank God) by solo double bass rather than the frankly idiotic practice suggested by editor Sander Wilkens of employing the entire section. The mood, as it and Mahler’s writing developed, was nicely twilit. Ensuing stylistic contrasts were well handled and integrated, a hushed, languorous sweetness imparted to the second trio. It was, perhaps, a bit listless, but that seemed to be the point, to evoke a world of dreams, disrupted by the return of Bruder Martin. The finale mostly fell into place very well, balance, weight, and momentum well judged, whilst permitting space to enjoy the ride. These are very tricky balances to strike; if at this stage, Popelka’s conception lacked the last measure or two of formal integration, orchestral excellence and compensation offered fine compensation.

Mark Berry

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