Bernstein at 100, three world premieres and a salute to Hollywood, an exhirating all-in-one by Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker

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Rarely does one come by with an equally inspiring programme as with this week’s concerts by Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle. Throughout the Rattle era, the Berlin concerts have demonstrated exemplary programming of a rich and varied repertoire. 

Even so, this week’s programme stands out with its unique combination of the Leonard Bernstein centenary with Krystian Zimerman, three world premieres and two excerpts of Hollywood Golden Age, Tom and Jerry by Scott Bradley and The Adventures of Robin Hood by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. 

Based on a six-part poem by W. H. Auden, Leonard Bernstein wrote his Symphony No. 2, The Age of Anxiety for piano and orchestra in 1947-49. In 1965 the composer revised the ending to its final form. With its programmatic nature and concertante setup, there is a certain kinship with Hector Berlioz’ Harold en Italie (1834), a hybrid between a concerto and a symphony.

With its portrayal of a search for meaning, identity and faith, The Age of Anxiety is one of Bernstein’s finest pieces for the concert hall. It is set in two main parts, each divided further into three sections, thus corresponding the six-part structure of Auden’s poem.    

The First Part begins with a Prologue introducing the main theme, a sort of idée fixe of the symphony, with the intertwined parts of two solo clarinets. Gradually winds, harp and lower strings join the subtle introduction. Finally, the solo piano makes it entry setting in motion two sets of seven variations, titled The Seven Ages and The Seven Stages, respectively. 

Contrary to a traditional practice of variations based on a single theme, each variation picks a different feature of the preceding one for further development leading to most imaginatively varied sonic landscapes with a certain family resemblance.  

The Second Part opens with The Dirge, a lamentation based on a twelve-tone row leading to perhaps the most brilliant of the six sections, a jazz-infused scherzo, The Masque for piano, celesta, double bass and percussion. Set at the front stage around the piano at the Philharmonie, the jazz ensemble emerged from within the orchestra in a fabulous way with extra spatial effect provided by the pianino placed on the organ balcony. 

The Age of Anxiety concludes with and Epiloque, written in its original form for orchestra alone. In his 1965 revision of the symphony, Bernstein added a cadenza for the soloist leading to the determined and reassured coda, thus enhancing the structural unity of the concertante symphony. 

Zimerman, the orchestra and Rattle gave a wonderful performance of The Age of Anxiety on Thursday evening. The multi-faced solo part was throughly absorbed and conveyed by  Zimerman, who first performed the part with Bernstein himself at London in 1986 with the LSO. Rattle and the Berliners evoked a full spectrum of orchestral colour and rhythmic detail on Bernstein’s tricky but rewarding score. In The Masque Zimerman was wonderfully supported by Matthew McDonald on the bass, Wieland Welzel on the timpani and Majella Stockhausen performing the celesta part.   

After a pause, the three premieres ensued. Performed without a pause, Magnus Lindberg’s Agile, Andrew Norman’s Spiral and Brett Dean’s Notturno inquieto provided the audience the final pieces in a series of commissions by Rattle and the orchestra dubbed as Tapas, intended as appetizers for contemporary music.

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Agile inhabits that universe of subtler sonorities visited by Lindberg in his more recent pieces, such as Era (2013). There are interesting links with Ravelian orchestration too, especially in the lower registers for winds. 

There are familiar Lindbergian elements present throughout Agile, manifesting themselves in the shape and hue of a quasi-impressionistic orchestral tapestry unprecedented in Lindberg’s output. With his impeccable craft of instrumentation and form, Lindberg creates a marvellous six-minute orchestral journey.

Winner of the 2017 Grawemeyer award with his orchestral piece Play (2013/2016), Andrew Norman sets out to study an idea of a musical spiral in his new Berlin commission, aptly titled as Spiral. 

With audible links to the 60s and 70s minimalism and the micropolyphony of György Ligeti, Spiral opens with divisi strings in hushed sul ponticello harmonies resulting in a ever more dense contrapuntal web revolving around itself in fascinating array of orchestral colour. There is a whole universe unveiled in this stunning sonic spiral of unique, unhinged, and at times eerie beauty.

Befittingly for a former Berliner Philharmoniker viola player, Brett Dean opens his Notturno inquieto with two solo violas introducing the melodic material. Sustained cymbals, strings and pulsating winds gradually join the music, evoking an immersive soundscape of nocturnal unrest. 

As the music proceeds, the melodic fragments and orchestral pulses become ever more unstable and anxious leading to a climax followed by a coda gradually fading back to silence.

All three pieces were performed with beauty and dedication by Rattle the Berliner Philharmoniker. The rehearsal time was well used, as ever, resulting in fabulous premieres of three uplifting pieces with fascinating sonic identities. These were appetizers par excellence. 

The evening closed with a salute to Hollywood. First, the audience was treated with a concert presentation of Scott Bradley’s work for Tom and Jerry. Between 1940 and 1958 Bradley wrote scores to all but one episode of the MGM animation classic.          

A student of Arnold Schoenberg, Bradley considered animation as a fully fledged form of art, putting all his knowledge and craft into creating musical scores for these episodes of classic comedy. Among the key elements of Bradley’s style were various imaginative instrumental effects replacing ones traditionally produced by the sound department. 

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As the original scores contain mostly very short musical cues, they don’t lend themselves easily for concert hall. Luckily, there is a concert edition wonderfully prepared by John Wilson and Peter Morris in 2013, comprising excerpts from a dozen or so episodes of Tom and Jerry into a quasi-narrative whole scored for a large orchestra.

Rattle and the orchestra cast themselves wholeheartedly into Bradley’s whirlwind of swing, dodecaphony and musique concrète. These ten minutes of (barely) controlled chaos were, quite frankly, among the funniest moments I’ve ever experienced within the walls of a concert hall. 

The marvelously varied programme concluded with excerpts from one of the most epic scores of the cinematic Golden Age, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). With an endless flow of sweeping melodies, imaginative use of leitmotivs and breathtaking skill for orchestration, Korngold created not only an impressive series of classic film scores, but in fact the very musical grammar for the silver screen.

Korngold started his Hollywood career in 1934. By the time of scoring The Adventures of Robin Hood, he was already accustomed to the pressing schedules of film production, which required him to compose and record his vast scores within eight weeks or so. Yet, there was extra tension associated with the creative process of Robin Hood, as Hitler launched his Anschluss while Korngold was at work in Hollywood. 

While desperately waiting news of the fates of his friends and family members at his native Vienna, Korngold went on to write the most ravishing music for Robin Hood, filmed in state-of-the-art Technicolor and starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains.    

Naturally extracting a concert suite from the eighty-minute original score poses some challenges. Korngold’s own concert arrangement is in four movements and employs somewhat reduced orchestration. In 2007 John Mauceri expanded Korngold’s suite into a Symphonic Portrait, a fuller representation of the score in its original orchestration. This week’s Berlin performances were based on this excellent edition. 

After the opening fanfare, Old England, a most uplifting movement, Robin Hood and HIs Merry Men, is heard. Consisting of the Main Title march and the quasi-balletic Ambush in Sherwood sequence, there is a full sweep of Korngold’s melodic and orchestral genius at display in this action-packed music. 

The Love Scene is one of the best known pieces of classic Hollywood, and one of the most elaborately orchestrated romantic scenes by Korngold with its imaginative use of alto and tenor saxophones.

The Symphonic Portrait concludes with a battle sequence, Duel, Victory and Epilogue. Worthy of Dance sacrale, this is masterpiece in fierce rhythmic drive with ever changing meters and irregular accents. Various leitmotivs signal the course of the battle within the layers of Korngold’s fabulous orchestration. 

After a victory fanfare there is an apotheosis of the love of Robin and Marian and the restoration of peace and justice as the music glows in its full symphonic warmth and glory. 

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Korngold’s virtuosic score sounded ever so beautiful in the hands of Rattle and the orchestra. The rich, warm, but ever wonderfully transparent sound of the Berliners did full justice to Korngold’s orchestral colour and detail. The tricky rhythms were marvellously articulated. A dream ending for a riveting evening.

 

Berliner Philharmoniker

Sir Simon Rattle, conductor

Krystian Zimmerman, piano

 

Leonard Bernstein: Symphony No. 2, The Age of Anxiety (1947-49, revised 1965)

Magnus Lindberg: Agile (2018, premiere)

Andrew Norman: Spiral (2018, premiere)

Brett Dean: Notturno inquieto (2018, premiere)

Scott Bradley: Tom and Jerry (1940-58, edited by John Wilson and Peter Morris, 2013)

Erich Wolfgang Korngold: The Adventures of Robin Hood. Symphonic Portrait (1938, edited by John Mauceri, 2007)

 

Philharmonie, Berlin

Thursday 14 June 2018, 8 pm

 

c Jari Kallio

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