Friday, 8 April 2011

To the Philharmonie

...and not to hear the Berlin Philharmoniker - done that once, not one of its best evenings with Rattle grandly impersonating Karajan in Ein Heldenleben and Kozena murdering Ravel's Sheherazade - but the BerGEN Philharmonic under Andrew Litton, who will have to believe me when I say that they were better, not least in giving an idea of what Scharoun's hall can do for an orchestra.

It was a careering visit, last-minute substitute for a proffered weekend in Vienna, which would have been delicious, but more of a known quantity to me (even though I've been to Berlin about half a dozen times over the last 20 years). It started well on Monday afternoon with my first LONG conversation in what would best be described as HundDeutsch with the very genial 60-something Berliner who drove me from Schonefeld to the enormous Maritim Hotel near the Philharmonie. Usually you start in German and the much better English-speaking respondent switches over more gracefully, but not in this instance. And what this driver had to say was worth hearing. In addition to raising the subjects of Anna Netrebko and Sophocles's Antigone, he explained that so many of Berlin's taxi drivers were educated men, out-of-work engineers from the closed-down factories ringing the city, and we talked a bit about the impending hundred-per-cent legalisation of Eastern European workers on 1 May (up to now kosher to off-the-record employment in such cases has been about fifty-fifty).

A quick freshen-up in the hotel, and then it was straight over to the Philharmonie for the concert in this fabulous acoustic (picture above copyright Berlin Philharmoniker/ Schirmer; the top shot through early-spring trees is mine), which like its Birmingham counterpart gives air around the sound and lights up the inner parts. OK, so it's very Karajanesque that the conductor is right at the centre of the universe, but everyone can see everyone else and you really feel the audience is part of the action (below photo copyright Berlin Philharmoniker/ Lauterbach).

Very pleased to see again the German colleague I met in Faro last summer, the Berliner Zeitung's Jan Brachmann, who had interesting things to say about the kind of Rachmaninov Second Symphony he prefers - slow and spacious enough to let the dense orchestration breathe. Which is why his favourite is Kurt Sanderling's with the Philharmonia, clocking in at around 67 minutes; that I must hear.

Litton's interpretation - both interior shots below by the Bergen Phil's 'Informasjonssjef' Henning Målsnes - seems to have become more driven, in a good sense, since those groundbreaking 1989 Rachmaninov symphonies with the Royal Philharmonic (I was there at the Barbican for all three, and I'll never forget the poleaxing impact of No. 1 especially). The special string bowings and portamenti come, as he later told me in an interview which should appear on the Arts Desk on Easter Saturday, from Ormandy's marked-up score, so from the horse's mouth at only one remove, as it were. I loved the speed and elan of the scherzo, billowing out for the big romantic melody but making it unusually welcome second time around; and there was a sense that the slow-motion adrenalin rush - if that makes any sense - right at the heart of the slow movement could have gone on for ever.

Definitely there was something extra going on both there and in the finale, surely not unconnected with the orchestra's getting to play in the holiest of holies (though they were all delirious about Saturday's performance in the Vienna Konzerthaus, a sellout). They're a dedicated and enthusiastic bunch, and though the players come from all over the world, the Norwegian contingent and administration seem immensely likeable and humorous. I was somewhat surprised to hear Henning at the supper afterwards saying 'I know naaaathing' in the tones of Fawlty Towers' Manuel, and found that British TV comedy, unsubtitled, is big in Norway.

No doubt Grieg is staple fare for his fellow countrymen, but I'm certain I haven't heard the four numbers of the first Peer Gynt suite together since the Arthur Davison children's concerts of my youth - and never as seductively or playfully done as this, with plenty of contrast in the repeat of Anitra's Dance. And the Death of Ase is a masterpiece of simple means (even if better still with the spoken text above it, as we got in the unforgettable National Theatre of Iceland's selective Ibsen in the Barbican Pit back in 2007). The string arrangement we know as 'The Last Spring' was the second encore; that, too, is ineffable, though never more so than in the song version as sung by Anne Sofie von Otter with Bengt Forsberg on the piano, one of my desert island Lieder tracks.

The earlier encore, which came at the end of the first half, brought the house down: a rag-arrangement by the prodigiously gifted young percussionist Martin Grubinger. Litton, a fabulous jazz/classical pianist, took up the marimbaphone with esprit. Here's a shot by Henning of the two in rehearsal.

As for the new work, Rolf Wallin's Das war schön for percussion and orchestra is another of those pieces about process which forgets to give us the main events. The opening, for instance, sounds like the third movement of Rautavaara's Cantus Arcticus, not a bad model. But that eventually brings in a broad melody under all the twittering, which never happens here. A little goes a long way, but as Litton later said in the interview, Grubinger is so charismatic that he could probably 'sell' the telephone directory. We'll be hearing a lot more of him - but bizarrely his first CD for Deutsche Grammophon, Drums 'n' Chant, is so far only available on the continent.

Here's another phenomenal player bound to inspire the young, as indeed do our own O-Duo and Colin Currie. It was good to see so many students in the Philharmonie, too, one group standing and arm-waving enthusiastically at the end: the payoff, no doubt, of the Berlin Philharmoniker's pioneering education projects. Boy, do we need more of that here: and now it seems we're even less likely to get it if music is excluded, as it may well be on 14 April, from the English Baccalaureate (did you even know there was such a thing? I didn't). Jessica Duchen has been running a very responsible series on her blog featuring comments from key players on the beknighted state of music education in the UK. And they're all right: if we don't give kids a taste of the wonderful world of classical music today, where will the audiences be tomorrow?


David Damant said...

There are performances of Grieg at his house near Bergen and when I was President of my European professional society my Council were taken to a concert there in the middle of the day. The performance was indeed in the house but in those days the audience sat in the open air, and in the first half it began gently to rain ( it always does in Bergen). In the interval I informed my Secretary General that I did not intend to stay....she replied "But you are the President - you can't leave". However I did, by sneaking quietly round a corner of the house. Of course everyone was watching to see what I would do and followed me - very rude of us I agree but ........They have now put up roofs for the audience, I think glass.

The real blow was when we eventually got back to the hotel and found - just when one wanted something strong to warm one up - that no alcohol except beer was sold until the evening. What I have done for European unity!

Raining Acorns said...

I tiptoe in, as my level of knowledge is so rudimentary, just to say how much I appreciate your reviews. I wonder, always, how much my ears would catch of what you describe so wonderfully--and I am in awe at your ability to describe music in words, which I think so incredibly hard to do. In your lovely piece on Edinburgh just before this, you provided a link to an arts desk review, where, even in a piece that you do not give high marks, I think (though the performance clearly did!), you write this, which will stay with me for a long time:

"Then we plunged into the muscly determination of "the Leningrad", and a different sound was upon us even before the wind and brass - lined up antiphonally with the percussion in between them, trombones three and three, trumpets three and four - could make their acid mark."

While, should I listen again to that piece, it will not be the same performance, I will want to have a copy of your review in hand to follow along and see what I can hear.

Philip Garton Jones said...

I must say the record cover you feature in this blog must be one of the most boring and silly in a long time. See May edition of Gramophone for other equally daft record covers from years past.
Philip Garton Jones
ps Exeter, where I live, is very beautiful, with a remarkable range of architectural periods to see for such a relatively small city(with reference to your architecture blogs, passim)

David said...

Thanks, Susan, I can't tell you how it warms the cockles of my heart to have another poster (I lost one) who responds so articulately and vividly to what I think I've got to say...

Not quite sure why that cover's so very bad, Philip - those sticks are what he wields, and it makes him look a bit more, erm, masterful than he is in the flesh. At least they didn't counterpoint him with the monks which make this such a dodgy-sounding venture. I'd say the worst sleeves usually involve unlikely animals. I won't be looking at Gramophone if I can help it...

Agreed, around the cathedral Exeter is beautiful. But too much of it was bombed, wasn't it, and replaced with indifferent 1950s architecture. But the train journey from Exeter to Teignmouth and Dawlish, along the estuary and then the sea, is one of the loveliest in Britain.

DD, I guess the alcohol restrictions must be compensated for by the presence of police in lycra on bikes, as Wanderer pointed out.

David Damant said...

One has to bear in mind that the German nation is fundamentally musical - to an extent scarcely believable over here. I have seen the ushers ( or whatever they are called)in a German opera house crowd into the students' box to hear "In fernen Land" during Lohengrin [I was there having sneaked out of the performance for some champagne so as to avoid the Wagner, but got back a bit early so went to the students' box]. AND they - the ushers - commented amonst themselves on the beauty of the performance ( it must be sung beautifully and not forced a la Domingo). Everywhere in Germany there is a fundamental delight in music as something important - I have heard the remark "more important than politics".

This is not to argue that musical education should not be encouraged here. Indeed there are very strong reasons for this apart from the cultural - music speaks to the subconscious and can have a direct effect. I have heard that music can have a powerful and beneficial effect in mental treatment. Perhaps likely on evolutionary grounds

On a positive note, I was told that many junior baristers listen to Mozart and Bach through ear phones when in chambers and writing their opinions.

David said...

One good reason to cheer: as part of Turku's 2011 City of Culture programme, Finnish doctors are giving out concert and opera tickets as prescriptions for good health...what a marvellous idea.