A rewarding foretaste of the Berlin Philharmonic’s 2024 May Day European Concert

GermanyGermany Schubert, Brahms, and Beethoven: Lisa Batiashvili (violin), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Daniel Harding (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 26.4.2024 (MB)

Daniel Harding conducts violinist Lisa Batiashvili and the BPO © Stephan Rabold

Schubert – Die Zauberharfe, D 644: Overture
Brahms – Violin Concerto in D major, Op.77
Beethoven – Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67

The Berlin Philharmonic’s European Concert has since 1991 taken place every year in a different European location ‘of cultural and historical significance’, also marking the anniversary of the orchestra’s foundation on 1 May 1882. This year, the orchestra will travel with Lisa Batiashvili and Daniel Harding, to the amphitheatre at Tsinandali in Georgia, repeating the concert the following day at Tbilisi Opera House. This will be the orchestra’s first tour to Georgia, a candidate member for European Union membership, at which hopeful status we British non-xenophobes can only nod wistfully. Two performances were also scheduled before departure in Berlin, Harding replacing Daniel Barenboim, for whom health problems alas precluded him from conducting.

Schubert’s Zauberharfe Overture, once thought to have been part of his incidental music to Rosamunde, began promisingly, with grand, dramatic opening chords and broad lyricism from characterful wind and cultivated strings (with, unless my ears deceived me, a little portamento). It was a different sound from that which Barenboim would have drawn from the orchestra, a little more ‘period’, even Harnoncourt-ish, but there is no point in attending a concert wishing it were something else, and I doubt Barenboim would have taken this introduction any slower. For the Allegro vivace, Harding imparted a fine, almost Mendelssohnian sense of release. He drove hard, but it made sense on its own, alternatively Romantic terms, with stylish articulation, the close clearly anticipating the ‘Great’ C major Symphony. Where it fell down for me was in the admittedly difficult transitions, which emerged somewhat stop-start; there was little sense of hearing (and communicating) the piece as a whole.

The Brahms Violin Concerto immediately offered a more ‘traditional’ sound, the depth of the Berlin strings all one could ask for, without forsaking prior virtues. Harding once again showed himself a fine ‘accompanist’, supportive yet doing far more than merely following. He could certainly whip up a storm when required, if occasionally edging into the realm of the rhetorical. Batiashvili’s entry confirmed everything one might have hoped for: dead-centred focus, springing from the orchestra, and asserting her as first among equals. Every note of her part was not only present and correct, but meaningfully so. Harding yielded more than in the Schubert, preparing the way for deepest melancholy in the solo performance. Indeed, the dialectics of Batiashvili’s richly conceived and rewarding reading, arguably Harding’s too, were strongly Beethovenian. Busoni’s cadenza offered a wonderful surprise, beginning with timpani rolls that turned it into a quasi-duet, still more so when strings entered. It was typically fascinating, neither bound by tradition nor out of keeping, more concise than Joachim’s; it made the return of Brahms’s full orchestra all the more poignant, bathed in afterglow. For the slow movement, Berlin woodwind – Albrecht Mayer, Emmanuel Pahud, Wenzel Fuchs – fully lived up to expectations, fruity, post-Mozart Harmoniemusik also offering songful Innigkeit, a slightly backward glance seemingly taken forward by Batiashvili and subsequent interplay.

Balance between structure and spontaneity was well judged throughout; there was nothing rhapsodic here, yet in the best, most secure sense it sounded free. Following a smattering of baffling, rather unsettling applause – there had been none following the first movement – initiative was regained in an incisive and joyous account of the finale, lilt and heft emerging naturally as required. It sounded newly minted, having one wonder how Hans von Bülow or anyone else could ever have thought this a ‘concerto against violin’. The inevitable Bach encore, the Andante from the A minor Sonata, BWV 1003, proved anything but superfluous, as calming as it was rigorous.

Harding’s Beethoven had much to commend it, albeit without scaling the heights of Barenboim’s. The Fifth Symphony is an extraordinarily difficult work to bring off; in my concertgoing experience, only Barenboim has truly captured its spirit as well as letter, though Harding was certainly not disadvantaged by other comparisons. Indeed, the first movement came close to exemplary, urgent without mannerism, born of evident trust in the score and ability to bring it off the page. Rhetoric grew out of motivic drive and cohesion, rather than being imposed upon them. I never cease, save in the worst of performances, to be amazed by its concision; this was no exception. Split violins helped too, as they had earlier and would later. The second movement made for a flowing, highly contrasted processional, although just occasionally, at least for me, that fondness for rhetoric got the better of it. Otherwise, it unfolded with commendable inevitability and a keen ear for detail.

Playing was throughout magnificent, not least splendidly ‘present’ cellos and double basses, which continued into the Scherzo and Trio. Here, especially in the scherzo, and even more so in the transition to the finale, I missed a sense of something deeper, or what the music might mean, with due regard to those whose aesthetics insist vainly that it does not. The trio’s counterpoint fairly flew off the strings, and the scherzo’s reprise was ghostly enough. A musicianly account of the finale grew out of what had gone before; it was well paced, balanced, and articulated. There was little doubt in my mind that Harding achieved what he wanted to, yet the sublime exultancy of light vanquishing darkness for me never really registered. Now more than ever, this seems to be a message only Barenboim – and his impossible yet ever-more-necessary West-Eastern Divan – can offer.

Mark Berry

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