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?