Petrenko and the Berliners launch into the Golden Twenties with remarkable performances of Weill and Stravinsky

Kirill Petrenko conducting Igor Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex with Berliner Philharmoniker and Rundfunkchor Berlin at the Philharmonie. © Monika Rittershaus

The Golden Twenties online festival of the Berliner Philharmoniker was launched by the orchestra and their Chief Conductor Kirill Petrenko on Saturday with a spot-on programme of two works by Kurt Weill and Igor Stravinsky

In the course of the two-week festival, Berliner Philharmoniker and the Scholars of the Karajan Academy, conducted by Petrenko, Marie Jacquot, Thomas Søndergård, Christian Thielemann and Michael Hasel will revisit the multi-faceted musical universe of the 1920s and its polystylistic invention. 

The opening night paired two intriguing and profoundly different, yet equally fascinating works from the twenties, namely Kurt Weill’s youthful Symphony in One Movement (Symphony No. 1) (1921) and Igor Stravinsky’s neoclassical masterpiece of music theatre, the opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex (1926-27/1948). 

Weill’s one-movement Symphony No. 1 was completed while the young composer was studying in Ferruccio Busoni’s class in Berlin. Although the twenty-or-so-minute score echoes the music of several of Weill’s Austro-German models, including Arnold Schoenberg, Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, it is still highly personal affair, exceeding way beyond mere juvenilia. 

Scored for a more-or-less standard symphonic ensemble, the one-movement score is divided in three main sections, somewhat in the manner of Schoenberg’s first Kammersymphonie (1906), resulting in a fusion of the ingredients of a symphonic scheme within one continuous musical entity. 

Interestingly, while Weill was composing his Symphonie in einem Satz in Berlin, Jean Sibelius was also at work with his one-movement Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105 (1918-24) in Ainola, some 900 miles north from Berlin. Unlike Sibelius’s symphonic summa, Weill’s Symphony received its first outing only in 1958, eight years after the composer’s untimely passing.

Weill’s Symphony opens with a big orchestral gesture, marked grave. The sound of the slow introduction bears the unmistakable aura of the 1920s, with fingerprints of mature Weill all over it. Yet the score stands apart, in many ways, of the music we most closely associate with Weill. 

The orchestral fabric of the Symphony permutes between multi-layered contrapuntal tutti sections and almost chamber-like passages, providing both the full symphony ensemble and solo instruments their moments to shine. For a conductor, the key task is to carefully adjust the balances throughout in order to achieve the transparency needed to make the music intelligible. 

With Petrenko on the podium, the Berliner Philharmoniker provided an astounding performance; their first-ever outing of the Symphony. 

With its transformations from gorgeous full orchestra passages to string quartet textures, the grave – allegro vivace section was given a kaleidoscopic reading, alight with clarity and abundant with sonority, not forgetting the ever-articulated rhythms. 

The vehement allegro vivace eventually cools down to an andante religioso middle section. The music adopts a reflective tone, embellished with intriguing harmonies and Weill’s imaginative orchestration, wholeheartedly embraced by the musicians and Petrenko. 

Bridging to the final section, the andante religioso paves the way for a brilliant fugal writing, weaving the whole orchestra together into dazzling counterpoint, resolving into a resplendent grave climax, alight with percussion, followed by a sublime coda. 

Based on James Holmes’s new critical edition of the Kurt Weill Edition, the performance by Petrenko and the orchestra was a joyful affair; a delightful continuation to their 2019 New Year’s Eve Concert take on Weill’s Symphonic Nocturne from ”Lady in the Dark” (1940-41).

Berliner Philharmoniker and Kirill Petrenko performing Kurt Weill’s Symphony in One Movement. © Monkika Rittershaus

Igor Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex is one of the most fascinating operatic scores of the twentieth century. Conceived in close collaboration with Jean Cocteau, Oedipus Rex seeks to distance itself away from the legacy of Wagner, and its repercussions, echoed throughout the twentieth century music theatre.

”Nobody can understand Wagnerianlibrettos, not even Wagner”, Stravinsky is said to Cocteau, urging him to provide instead a ”libretto for everybody.” It took Cocteau three versions to come up with Stravinsky’s ideal, a ritualized Latin text, with obvious connotations to the Italian opera. 

Cast in two acts of circa 25 minutes each, Oedipus Rex is a compact work. Each of its scenes opens with a narrator explaining the action in the language of the audience, followed by a ritual-shaped musical representation in Latin. 

In addition, there is minimal stage action indicated. With all the operatic parameters thus subjected to the service of the music itself, Oedipus Rex lends itself quite naturally to concert performances. 

Previously performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Rundfunkchor Berlin in June 2016 under the insightful direction of Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Oedipus Rex makes its return under very different circumstances. Sophocles’s drama, set in plague-ridden Thebes, resonates now with a compelling sense of acuteness.

Due to our contemporary Covid realties, the forty-or-so singers of the Rundfunkchor do not share the stage with the orchestra and soloist, but is dispersed throughout the galleries of the empty Philharmonie, turning the hall into one extended ritualistic venue, separated from the outside world, but enthralled by its laws. 

As Cocteau’s retelling of the myth unfolds in Stravinsky’s unique musical setting, the incestuous drama opens in a series of quasi-religious images, ever self-aware of their theatrical nature. Both the text and the music can be perceived as a commentary, or exploration, of the tradition of opera itself, a compositional device evident throughout Stravinsky’s neoclassical period.  

Yet, at the same time, despite (or perhaps due to) all the ritualization and distancing, the dramatic power of the music is heightened, resulting in one of the most intense pieces of music theatre. 

The drama is set in motion by narrator, followed by a tableau of intense lamentation for chorus and orchestra. Following the opening tutti burst, the music is propelled by a persistent timpani, drumming out the ’fate motif’, appearing in various guises throughout the score. 

Summoned by the lamentation, Oedipus enters, southing his people with promises of solving the riddle behind the plague. It soon turns out the the plague is brought upon Thebes by the murder of King Laius. Once the crime is atoned, the plague will be lifted. 

When questioned by Oedipus, Tiresias the Oracle reluctantly proclaims that the murderer of Laius is a king himself. This lead the terrified Oedipus to suspect a conspiracy to seize the throne by his usurpers. 

These dramatic interactions clad in the most marvellous musical numbers in Stravinsky’s score. The music revisits various operatic idioms, from Gluck to Verdi, transforming them into unmistakably Stravinskyan guises. The intricate solo numbers alternate with compelling entries from the chorus, resulting in a musical sequence perhaps more akin to religious service than conventional opera. 

The arrival of Queen Jocasta marks the opening of the second act. Saluted by the chorus, the Queen questions the validity of the Oracle’s testimony in one of the finest musical settings in the score, again bound by echoes of the relentless fate. 

Jocasta’s account sets forth a fatal sequence of events, laying the harsh truth out bare. Unbeknownst to himself, Oedipus is indeed the slayer of Laius and guilty of incest, for Jocasta is both his spouse and his mother. 

Musically the initial revelation is woven into a heated duo between Oedipus and Jocasta, with the terrified King and Queen at the brink of realizing the scope of cruelty of the fate the Gods have devised for them. With the final pieces of the puzzle delivered by a Shepherd’s testimony, the point of no return is reached. 

Oedipus Rex closes with a crushing lamentation, delivered by the Messenger and the chorus. Jocasta’s suicide and Oedipus’s banishment is set to music with utmost intensity by Stravinsky. Behind their stone-faced narration, the members of the chorus convey the full scale of the tragedy, with intense support from the vehement orchestral fabric. 

Following the monumental return of the opening music, the score closes with a coda of subtly-laid sadness, looking forward to the many musical farewell’s of Stravinsky’s late output. 

Under Petrenko’s direction, the orchestral and choral textures unravel in utmost clarity and detail, with the rhythmic core ever laid out in the most refined manner, highlighting the manifold intricacies of Stravinsky’s writing. With the members of the chorus dispersed in space, extra translucence is gained, with extraordinary balance between the vocal and instrumental lines. 

Kirill Petrenko conducting Oedipus Rex with Tenor Michael Spyres, mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk, bass Andrea Mastroni and Berliner Philharmoniker at the Philharmonie. © Monika Rittershaus

Debuting in the role of Oedipus, tenor Michael Spyres delivers a marvellous performance. His Latin is ever immaculate articulated, with admirable attention to each and every nuance in the vocal line. Spyres’s dynamic range extends from the softest whisper to the most resounding declamation, giving rise to a profoundly moving portrayal of the tragic King. 

Mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk provides the audience with a fabulously animated Jocasta, whose musical psychology is well established by her insightfully expressive performance. 

In the supporting roles, bass Andrea Mastroni makes the most of Tiresias with his memorable performance, whereas the roles of Kreon and Messenger are well handled by bass Derek Welton. Tenor Krystian Adam, in his turn, is a fine Shepherd, making his small, but ever-important contribution at the height of the drama of the second act. 

Another key aspect of the intense performance is provided by the superb narration of Bibiana Beglau, providing the audience with guidance and emotional compass. 

A remarkable performance altogether, hearing all the voices and instruments come together at the Philharmonie to convey Stravinsky’s operatic masterpiece, was the most heartening experience in itself. For a festival launch, one could hardly imagine a more compelling start. 

Berliner Philharmoniker 

Kirill Petrenko, conductor

Rundfunkchor Berlin

Gijs Leenaars, chorus master

Michael Spyres, tenor (Oedipus)

Ekaterina Semenchuk, mezzo-soprano (Jocasta)

Derek Welton, bass (Kreon, Messenger)

Andrea Mastroni, bass (Tiresias)

Krystian Adam, tenor (Shepherd)

Bibiana Beglau, speaker

Kurt Weill: Symphony in One Movement (Symphony No. 1) (1921), first performance of the critical edition by James Holmes

Igor Stravinsky: Oedipus Rex (1926-27/1948) – Opera-oratorio after Sophocles

Philharmonie Berlin (via Digital Concert Hall)

Saturday 13 February 7 pm

© Jari Kallio   

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