Coming together – Petrenko and the Berliners united the online audiences with a ravishing European Concert

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Wondrous things can come out of difficult times. On Friday, the Berliner Philharmoniker performed their first live orchestral concert since the mid-March. Conducted by Kirill Petrenko, fifteen members of the orchestra appeared onstage at the Philharmonie, keeping their safety distances, to perform this year’s European Concert. 

Originally, the 30th European Concert was to be performed in Tel Aviv, with a programme including Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (1899-1901/1902/1910) and Rückert-Lieder (1901-02), as well as, Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei (1880). In its Berlin reincarnation, the Mahler symphony appeared in its chamber guise, whereas the first half now included Arvo Pärt’s Fratres (1977/1991), György Ligeti’s Ramifications (1968-69) and Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (1936). 

There is a special connection between Pärt’s Fratres and the Berliner Philharmoniker. For the piece appeared on the legendary 1984 ECM album, inaugurating both the label’s New Series and Pärt’s breakthrough in the West, performed by the 12 cellists of the Berliner Philharmoniker. 

At Friday’s concert, Fratres was heard in its 1991 adaptation by the composer, rescored for for string orchestra and percussion. Probably the best-known example of Pärt’s tintinnabuli style, Fratres is a sublime set of variations, manifesting itself in chord sequences, altering between a recurring percussion cue. 

As the three-voice material gradually unfolds around a static pedal point, luminous harmonic clouds take shape and evaporate, to an alluring effect. While deceptively simple on page, the delicate counterpoint, mostly in mezzopiano dynamics, requires incessant concentration and clarity of expression. 

With Petrenko, the fifteen string players and a percussionist of the Berliner Philharmoniker gave an absolutely enthralling performance of Fratres. Rooted in sublime intensity, the dialogue between the string ensemble and the offstage percussion was brought to sounding reality with utmost beauty and textural clarity. 

An ideal piece to break the orchestral silence caused by the COVID-19, hearing Fratres with Petrenko and the Berliner Philharmoniker was a deeply moving experience. 

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Pärt’s ingenious meditation was followed by Ligeti’s riveting spectral study for twelve solo strings, Ramifications. In the score, the strings are divided into two groups, with the first group tuned a quarter note higher than the second, which performs in standard tuning. As a result, a unique sphere of harmonies emerges, engulfing the listener with thrilling sonorities. 

As with Atmosphères (1961), there is no perceived rhythmic profile in Ramifications. Instead, the eight-minute piece is to be performed as a seamless flow of sound, as if emerging as a single gestalt, stretched in time and space. Like Fratres, the score of Ramifications requires uttermost concentration and refined articulation. 

Performed with virtuoso clarity and expression, Ramifications was pure aural joy with Petrenko and the Berliners. A microcosmos of its own, Ligeti’s one-of-a-kind score resounded with a wealth utterly fascinating sonic detail, clad in tremendous intensity of ever-shifting spectral panorama. 

Closing the first half, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (1936) was heard. First performed in 1938 in New York, with Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra, the Adagio was originally conceived as the second movement of Barber’s String Quartet, Op. 11 (1936). 

Since its premiere, Adagio for Strings has become an iconic cultural item, often performed during times of mourning, from accompanying the announcements of the deaths of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and JFK, to being performed as a 9/11 memorial. In Berlin, the piece was heard as a memorial for the coronavirus victims. 

Written in the form of an extended arch, the Adagio is based on a subtle melodic pattern, ascending and descending in step-wise motion. Instantly memorable, the Adagio is a formidable study in simplicity and communicativeness. Marvellously performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker string players with Petrenko, shunning all superficial pathos, the Adagio provided the listener with a much-needed, consoling experience. 

The second half of the concert was devoted to Gustav Mahler’s incomparable Fourth Symphony (1899-1901/1902/1910). As a remarkable transition from the vast orchestral resources used by the composer in his previous symphonic endeavors, Mahler scored the G major symphony for a quasi-classical orchestra, devoid of heavy brass. 

At the Philharmonie, Maher’s Fourth was heard in Erwin Stein’s 1921 chamber version for string quintet, flute, oboe, clarinet, two pianos, harmonium and three percussionists. A member of the Schoenberg circle in Vienna, Stein was closely involved in organizing the Society for Private Musical Performances.   

For these Vienna performances, Stein produced arrangements orchestral repertoire for various chamber ensembles, including his brilliant take on the Mahler Fourth. 

Chamber arrangements, when properly done, are manifestations of an art form of its own right. Bringing out the essentials of the original orchestral fabric, with sonorities re-imagined in a chamber setting requires craft, imagination and invention, while respecting the original entity as written by the composer. 

Before the advent of recordings, there was a substantial need for all kinds of chamber adaptations of orchestral repertoire. As a result, there  are numerous ravishing arrangements of key works lingering unperformed in the archives. 

While some purists may abhor the idea of performing musical pieces in other guises than their originals, I am assured that each and every one of us streaming the European Concert was delighted to be able to hear Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, thanks to Stein’s chamber version. 

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Stein rewriting of Mahler’s string parts for the five soloist is simply wonderful throughout, as are the rescored wind and brass parts. The two pianos and the harmonium augment the textures, with a splendid illusion of larger forces at play. Completed with a delightful  array of percussion, this is a substantial recreation of Mahler’s original score. 

The Fourth Symphony is cast in four movements, with an opening movement in sonata form, followed by a demonic scherzo and the most gorgeous adagio. The symphony closes, quite unexpectedly, with a song, depicting child’s vision of heaven. 

The first movement is set forth with sleigh bells, paving the way for the entry of the fabulously flowing opening theme, gently altering with the second subject. There is a bucolic hue woven into the opening movement, with darker undercurrents. 

A game of light and shadow, the first movement was performed with admirable sensitivity and gripping intensity by Petrenko and the members of the Berliner Philharmoniker. 

In the scherzo, Death takes the fiddle, as Mahler put it. Inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s 1872 painting, Mahler sets the second movement as a Totentanz, for scordatura solo violin and orchestra. Resulting in a nightmarish dance, the scherzo is one of Mahler’s finest, to a bone-chilling effect.

The violin solos were formidably performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker concertmaster Daishin Kashimoto, with his colleagues and Petrenko as excellent partners in crime. 

The adagio is a set of ingenious variations, in the guise of a solemn procession. Proceeding through distant harmonies, the music resolves in an impassioned climax, followed by a swift coda. 

Petrenko moulded the symphonic arch of the adagio with extraordinary sense of architecture, paving the way for a compelling instrumental drama, as realized by the orchestra.

For the heavenly naivety of the closing moment, the orchestra was joined by soprano Christiane Karg, delivering the most moving rendition of the Wunderhorn text. With the child-like enchantment of heavenly wonders, the symphony is brought to its brilliantly bewildering conclusion.

With the reduced instrumental forces at play, Karg’s vocal line flourished with radiant simplicity and beauty. The orchestral texture was integrated with the solo part with superlative craft and reactivity, leading to an entrancing conclusion.  

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A collective event par excellence, the 30th European Concert lived up to its name, bringing the distanced audiences together in the most beautiful way imaginable. Hopefully there will be more to come in a not-too-distant future. 

 

Berliner Philharmoniker

Kirill Petrenko, conductor

 

Christiane Karg, soprano

 

Arvo Pärt: Fratres (1977/1991) for string orchestra and percussion

György Ligeti: Ramifications (1968-69) for 12 solo strings

Samuel Barber: Adagio for Strings (1936)

Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 4 in G major (1899-1901/1902/1910, chamber version by Erwin Stein, 1921) 

 

Philharmonie, Berlin

Friday 1 May 2020, 11 am

© Jari Kallio

Photos © Monika Rittershaus 

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