Though Sir Simon Rattle bid his farewell to the Berliner Philharmoniker last June, after a sixteen-year tenure as their chief conductor, he is still very much part of the Berlin music scene. While committed to his new duties as the music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, Rattle is also establishing closer relationship with the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, and its marvellous house ensemble, the Staatskapelle.
For this season, Rattle is involved in the new production of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, opening in a couple of weeks time. In addition to the Rameau, performed with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, Rattle is also conducting one of Staatskapelle’s subscription programmes, with two performances at the Staatsoper and the Philharmonie, respectively.
Paying homage to the orchestra’s unique history, spanning four and a half centuries, Rattle had devised a fascinatingly imaginative programme, mixing the Janáček Mša glagolskaja (1926-27/1928) with Giovanni Gabrieli’s Canzon septimi et octavi toni a 12 (1597) and Haydn’s penultimate Paris Symphony, the Symphony in D, Hob. I: 86 (1786).
As suggested in the title, the Gabrieli Canzon a 12 is scored for twelve brass players, six trumpets and six trombones, divided into three choirs, dispersed in space. In a church setting, these choirs are to be placed in various galleries thus giving rise to a surround effect par excellence.
At Staatsoper, the three brass groups were placed at the stage left, centre and right. Though not surrounding the audience, a most appealing spatial effect was achieved while keeping the synchronization of the ensemble more practical.
Sounding absolutely gorgeous, the Staatskapelle brass embraced the Gabrielian textures with joy and commitment. Marvellously balanced and paced by Rattle, plunging into the riveting conrapuntal textures of Gabrieli was a profound joy for the Staatskapelle audience.
There was some unintentional comedy too, as the orchestra entered the stage only to discover that there was a trumpet part missing. Discovered after a brief search, accompanied by a good-humoured applause, the performance was ready to proceed.
After the intentional and unintentional pleasures of Gabrieli, Haydn Symphony in D followed. Commissioned for Concerts de la Loge Olympique, the symphony was given its Paris premiere in 1787, with an orchestra of fifty string players, quadruple winds and brass, and timpani.
However, before the Paris premiere, the symphony was performed at Esterházy with Haydn conducting his fabulous Hofkapelle of more chamber-like dimensions. In the spirt of Esterházy, the symphony was performed at Staatsoper with a small string section, without doubling the wind parts. A standard practice today, of course, focusing on the chamber music quality inherent in all Haydn.
Being a most formidable Haydn advocate, there is always that special tingle in a Rattle performance, and this one was no exception. In fact, it was one of the most riveting performances of a Haydn symphony I’ve encountered.
The symphony opens with a slow introduction, leading to a sonata-allegro movement with many surprises in terms of harmony, dynamics and texture involved. From the very first bars on, it was evident that this is Haydn true to the bone, with that ever-important earthiness mixed with the unparalleled musical invention. There was a full spectrum of colour in the expressively nuanced performance of the Staatskapelle, with Rattle taking great care of the overall architecture.
The second movement, a largo bearing, unusually for Haydn, the title of capriccio. Here Haydn makes full use of contrasts in texture, with a most imaginative use of silence. The orchestra and Rattle were ever sensitive to the nuances of the score, providing the audience a marvellous adventure.
In the menuetto and the contrasting trio, Haydn pays homage to the vernacular origins of the act of dance. With Rattle and the orchestra, a thrilling kaleidoscope of dance moods, from court dances to barn-houses and taverns, unveiled to a stunning effect. The contrast between sublime dance hall elegance and a whirling village scene was joyously articulated, without exaggeration, to a must uplifting effect.
The finale, with its rhythmically intriquig figures of five eight-notes, was as spirited as one could ever imagine, with Rattle and the Staatskapelle musicians living and breathing Haydn’s witty textures with great joy of music-making, present on each and every bar.
Almost stealing the show with their Haydn, the orchestra and Rattle were met with roaring applause, duly deserved. Hopefully there is more Haydn to come in the future concerts by the Staatskapelle with Rattle.
After the intermission, the Staatskapelle returned the stage with full ranks. Joined by Český filharmonický sbor Brno (the Czech Philharmonic Chorus), four amazing soloists, Iwona Sobotka, Anna Lapkovskaja, Simon O’Neill and Jan Martiník as well as the organist Christian Schmitt, the full ensemble was ready for that unique journey known as Mša glagolskaja.
This setting of the mass text in Church Slavonic is one of those outstanding late works of Leoš Janáček, first performed in 1927. Following the premiere, Janáček thoroughly revised the score of Mša glagolskaja, leading to the final 1928 version, most often heard today.
In the course of the revision process, Janáček augmented the orchestration, elaborated the structural design and commissioned a new edition of the text, with a more scholarly-critical approach to the archaic Church Slavonic. The final version was published almost two years after Janáček’s death in 1930.
In the canon of mass settings, the Mša glagolskaja is surely one of the most original takes on the subject. This originality is due not only to the use of Church Slavonic, but also on a deeper musical level involving the highly original motivic and harmonic language, as well as some extraordinarily tricky rhythmic writing, in the manner of Janáček’s late style.
An orchestral introduction, Úvod, opens the Mša glagolskaja with solemn fanfare-like figures for the brass shining out from the full orchestra. In the Janáčekian vein, there is no development of the musical material in the traditional symphonic sense. Rather, Janáček builds his forms with repeated motives layered upon each other in a rhythmic context of shifting meters.
The compositional principles employed by Janáček result in a fascinating paradox, with textures embedded with simultaneous simplicity and complexity, making the music both instantly accessible and intriguingly interesting.
The chorus and the the wonderful soprano soloist, Iwona Sobotka, enter in Gospodi pomiluj, or Kyrie, to a stunning effect. Even with the archaic text, Janáček’s vocal language remains highly communicative with a full scale of emotions present.
The Gloria, Slava, is a rousing setting for soprano and tenor soloists chorus orchestra, with shimmering textures. Marvellously sung by Sobotka and Simon O’Neill, with chorus, embracing the ecstatic nobility of Janáček’s writing wholeheartedly with Rattle and the orchestra providing their full support.
Vĕruju (Credo), opens with a passionate argument from lower strings and bass clarinet, enhanced through repetition. The chorus enter, first in unison, later in counterpoint with the tenor and bass soli. Searching, yearning, questioning, O’Neill, Jan Martiník, the chorus and Staatskapelle took the audience on an unforgettable journey into the questions of not only faith, bur the very nature of our existence.
In contrast to the struggles of the previous movement, Svet (Sanctus) resides in celestial radiance. Accompanied by the shimmering sounds of harps and celesta, the chorus and the soli, with Anna Lapkovskaja’s sublime alto finally joining, evoke a canvas of otherworldly harmonies, to a stunning effect.
Still, maybe the most effective of all movements in the Mša glagolskaja is Agneče Božij or Agnus Dei. Following by a sublime orchestral introduction, the chorus enters in an otherworldly pianissimo, leading to an outstanding panorama of tranquillity, fabulously performed by the four soli, choir and orchestra with Rattle.
In perfect counterpoint to the sublime intensity of the Agneče Božij, the riveting Organ Solo followed. Superbly performed by Christian Schmitt, demonstrating a splendid combination of fierce rhythmic drive and amazingly clear articulation. Similarly, the orchestra and Rattle provided a worthy conclusion with a gripping performance of the intense orchestral Intrada, a sort of Ite missa est bringing the Mša glagolskaja to its impressive ending.
Sir Simon Rattle, conductor
Iwona Sobotka, soprano
Anna Lapkovskaja, alto
Simon O’Neill, tenor
Jan Martiník, bass
Český filharmonický sbor Brno
Petr Fiala, chorus master
Christian Schmitt, organ
Giovanni Gabrieli: Canzon septimi et octavi toni a 12 (1597)
Joseph Haydn: Symphony in D, Hob. I: 86 (1786)
Leoš Janáček: Mša glagolskaja (1926-28/1928)
Staatsoper Unter den Linden
Monday 12 November 7.30 pm
c Jari Kallio