Tackling coronavirus with Berio and Bartók – Empty Philharmonie clad in life-affirming sonorities by Rattle and the Berliners

Berliner Philharmoniker 12.3.2020 / Berlin

This week, our European lives were turned upside-down by coronavirus. As governments have taken the necessary steps to ensure our health and safety, concert life as we knew it, has come to a halt for the most part. In Berlin, it was announced on Tuesday evening, that all venues with more than 500 seats will be closed until 19 April, as a part of counter-measures for battling the spreading of the virus. 

These new measures resulted in a drastic change for this week’s concert schedule for Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle. With Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, the orchestra and their former chief were originally set out to perform the usual series of three concerts on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with a riveting programme, featuring two outstanding 20th century works, Berio’s Sinfonia (1968-69) and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (1943). 

With the projected three concerts gone due venue closure, the orchestra and Rattle decided to set forth and perform the programme in the empty Philharmonie on Thursday, livestreamed free of charge via the orchestra’s virtual platform, the Digital Concert Hall, with repeats on Friday and Saturday.    

As livestreams from empty halls have quickly become the new normal for concert life, I find it appropriate to reflect the Thursday’s performance in the context of this feature. This may not be a review in the traditional sense, but rather a reflection of a very special moment in our contemporary musical lives. 

On a personal note, I was due to be there at the Philharmonie on Thursday evening. Being among the very first ones I entered into my calendar back in August, this concert was indeed a long-awaited event. With my suitcase packed, I was happily set for yet another Berlin trip until Tuesday evening. 

While a closed concert hall is a minor problem in the midst of all the current events, the situation admittedly called for some re-adaptation on my behalf. Luckily, it was quickly announced that the performance would still happen, albeit in a virtual context. 

One could hardly imagine a more appropriate programme for such a strange situation, as the unique mixture of the two masterpieces by Berio and Bartók.

Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for its 125th anniversary and dedicated to Leonard Bernstein, Berio’s Sinfonia is one of the most iconic pieces of the postwar 20th century. Scored for a large orchestra and eight amplified singers, Sinfonia is a dazzling reflection of history, time and memory. 

The eight soloists are asked to sing, whisper, sigh, speak, shout and grunt various vocal utterances, including quotes from Claude Lévi-Strauss’s study Le cru et le cuit (1964) and Samuel Beckett’s novel The Unnamable (1953). 

At the core of Sinfonia lingers the famous third movement, In ruhig fließender Bewegung. Here, basically the entire history of western music boards the scherzo of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony (1888-94/1903), leading to a wondrous collage of musical quotations, including snippets of Debussy, Ravel, Schoenberg, Berg, Bach, Beethoven, Strauss, Boulez and Stockhausen, alongside spoken fragments of Beckett. 

In contrast to the surreal carnival of free association of the middle movement, In ruhig fließender Bewegung is framed by two wondrous meditations. The second movement, O King, was originally conceived as a standalone homage to Martin Luther King, assassinated in April 1968. However, it was soon incorporated into the Sinfonia. 

O King is rooted in deep, static beauty, clad in long-held vocal lines and succinct orchestral interjections. In similar vein, the fourth movement combines whispers and vocal fragments woven into subtle orchestral textures, resulting in another profoundly immersive meditation. 

In genuinely symphonic manner, the outer movements display most extended musical passages, developed with utmost imagination by Berio. Sinfonia opens with percussion and solo voices, evoking hitherto unknown sonic vistas. As the movement proceeds, the textures become ever more dense, leading to a complex web of sound and harmony, to a stunning effect. 

As text and music fuse together into an organic whole, the opening movement yields to truly one-of-a-kind musical experience, a prism reflecting the fundamental elements of sound and meaning. 

In the closing movement, added by Berio after the October 1968 premiere, the elements form previous movements reappear, in genuinely symphonic manner. With a sense of closure, Sinfonia ends where it begun, following a splendid journey. 

Performed in the vast emptiness of the Philharmonie, the Sinfonia spoke as loud and clear as it did over fifty years ago, in the midst of the sixties zeitgeist. Within the strange conditions of today, the flood of musical and textual images embedded in the Berio’s score shone out with alert communicativeness and immediacy. 

Berliner Philharmoniker 12.3.2020 / Berlin

The performance itself was absolutely top-class, with Rattle shaping and pacing the complex score with thorough understanding, knowledge and craft. Berio’s textures, be they either utmost bare or the most complex, were luminously brought to life by the orchestra. The Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart mastered the multifarious vocal parts with admirable virtuosity and sensitivity. Fused together with impeccable balance by Rattle, all the various elements of Sinfonia yielded to a fabulous whole. 

Following an intermission, featuring what one would imagine as the lowest drink sales record ever accounted during the sixty-seven-year history of the Philharmonie, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (1943) was heard.    

Commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Concerto for Orchestra is an awe-inspiring creation by a terminally ill composer, who had lost his ties to the past due to his 1940 reluctant emigration into the New World, following the outbreak of the Second World War. As an anti-fascist, Bartók had been on a collision course with the Hungarian regime for years, and with the continent sliding into the self annihilation of total war, the situation finally became unbearable.

With the composer mortally ill with leukemia, Bartók’s final works, including Concerto for Orchestra, the Third Piano Concerto (1945) and the unfinished Viola Concerto (1945), would not have come into being without his treatment with penicillin, made possible by Koussevitzky’s plea to the US government to make the treatment that time reserved for combat use only available for the ailing composer. 

Regaining his strength, Bartók set to work with BSO commission with vigorous inspiration. He eventually came up with an outstanding forty-minute, five-movement orchestral score. Originally Bartók had intended to call the work Symphony, but in consultation with his American publisher, Boosey and Hawkes, he arrived upon Concerto for Orchestra instead. 

Given its contrapuntal textures clad in fabulous orchestration, Concerto for Orchestra has proven an apt title for the piece. Still, it is an essentially symphonic work, one of the most splendid 20th century takes on the medium. 

Concerto for Orchestra is based on an ABCBA overall scheme, With fast outer movements framing a core slow movement, interspersed with two playful interludes. At the heart of the piece lies Elegia, one of those unparalleled night-musics of Bartók. Based on three main themes, the movement harks back to the realm of composer’s earlier works, most notably to Bluebeard’s Castle (1911), with an actual quotation form The Pool of Tears appearing on the final pages. 

The profound sadness and longing of the Elegia is balanced by the two intermezzi. The second movement, Giuco delle coppie is, as suggested by its title, a marvellous game of instrumental pairs. Marked allegro scherzando, the music is set into motion with side drum, joined by bassoons and strings. Followed by oboes, clarinets, flutes and muted trumpets, Bartók takes his musical material on a witty journey throughout the orchestra. 

The fourth movement, Intermezzo interrotto, or Interrupted intermezzo, is a brilliantly quirky study of changing time signatures, clad in teasing orchestral guise. In the middle of the movement, Bartók quotes Lehár’s Da geh’ ice zu Maxim from The Merry Widow, a Hitler favourite, also referenced by Shostakovich in his Seventh Symphony (1941). It remains unclear, however, whether Bartók’s parody was aimed at Lehár or Shostakovich. Be that as it may, the movement is, in any case, a case in point of poignant irony in symphonic context. 

The outer movements of Concerto for Orchestra are conceived as gorgeous sonata-allegros. The first movement begins with a slow introduction, gradually emerging from silence. The music is searching its way  through a dark, unknown realm. Melodic fragments start to take shape, only to fall apart few bars later. Finally, the music plunges into an allegro vivace main body, constructed with extraordinary orchestral craft by Bartók.   

The finale is a ravishing sonic journey, with folk material and gorgeous fugato textures embedded, to form a turbulent orchestral dance. Fiendishly difficult for musicians and the conductor alike, the finale is an absolutely invigorating experience.

Berliner Philharmoniker 12.3.2020 / Berlin  

Performed with tremendous energy, clad in amazing sonorities and vibrant rhythms, the orchestra and Rattle gave a life-affirming reading of Bartók’s luminous masterpiece. With the empty Philharmonie resounding, Concerto for Orchestra was the most uplifting experience imaginable, a beacon of light in the midst of these precarious times. Until we meet again, thank you and keep safe!


Berliner Philharmoniker

Sir Simon Rattle, conductor


Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart


Luciano Berio: Sinfonia (1968-69) for 8 voices and orchestra

Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra, Sz. 116, BB 123 (1943)                    


Philharmonie Berlin (via Digital Concert Hall)

Thursday 12 March 2020, 8 pm


© Jari Kallio

Photos © Stephan Rabold

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