Teaming up with Christian Thielemann, Berliner Philharmoniker brought their brilliant online festival, The Golden Twenties, to its ravishing close on Saturday evening. In the course of five concerts, the orchestra and its Karajan Academy have presented us with an uplifting, multi-faceted sonic portrait of the 1920s, from those unique sounding spheres of Kurt Weill and Igor Stravinsky to jazz-tinged coffee-house playlists, not forgetting the spirited musical inventions of Jean Sibelius and Sergei Prokofiev.
To complete the picture, Thielemann and the orchestra had devised yet another spellbinding programme, featuring little-known masterstrokes from three twentieth century giants, Richard Strauss, Ferruccio Busoni and Paul Hindemith. To balance the obscure, the audience was also treated with a splendid selection of Strauss’s best-loved songs, many of them orchestrated around the twenties, fabulously sung by soprano Camilla Nylund.
The evening was launched with the exhilarating overture from Hindemith’s 1929 comic opera Neues vom Tage, a satirical take on modern life, featuring press scandals and marital issues. In addition to the stage score, premiered at the Kroll-Oper under Otto Klemperer, Hindemith devised a concert version of the overture, first performed by Berliner Philharmoniker on 19 October 1930, with Wilhelm Furtwängler on the podium.
Since Furtwängler’s days, the overture has not appeared in the orchestra’s programmes, until now. And what a splendid piece it is! Scored for a peculiar ensemble featuring a full spectrum of winds, including cor anglais, alto saxophone, E-flat clarinet and double bassoon, some brass and percussion, piano, and a small string section with no second violins, the overture is clad in astonishingly vivid sonic colours and virtuoso rhythms.
In its concert guise, the overture follows, roughly speaking, an ABA scheme, with hectic outer sections framing a brilliant fantasia for winds, featuring delightful solo outings for bassoon, piccolo, alto saxophone, E-flat clarinet and oboe, alongside gorgeous ensemble textures. The stings get busy in the fast outer sections, as Hindemith sets out to write passages of neoclassical virtuosity, with cabaret undercurrents.
A swagger of a performance, Thielemann and the orchestra embraced the score with wonderful vitality and tremendous craft. The outer sections were aptly caffeinated and upbeat, whereas the juicy wind parts in the middle were clad in extraordinarily nuanced colours.
Following the Hindemith overture, another enthralling rarity was heard. On 13 January 1921, Ferrucio Busoni conducted world premiere of his Tanz-Waltzer, Op. 53 (1920) with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Since its first performance, played from hand-written parts, Busoni’s Johann Strauss II memorial has reappeared in the orchestra’s programmes only once, conducted by Susanna Mälkki upon her 2017 debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.
Busoni’s twelve-minute homage is cast in four sections, preceded by an introduction of special magnificence, with brass fanfares setting the stage for a whirlwind sequence of waltzes. In the midst of the opening heralds, a double bass beat emerges, summoning the entire orchestra into dance.
Astoundingly scored, Busoni’s waltz tableau is a feast of orchestral sonorities, somewhat in the manner of Maurice Ravel’s famous poème chorégraphique of 1919-20, La Valse. Like the Ravel, Busoni’s score is marvellously cinematic, evoking imagery of some otherworldly dance hall. A feast of invention, Tanz-Walzer makes full circle, closing with a climax of recurring fanfares and orchestral splendor.
Performed with sweeping motion and fine detail by the orchestra, Thielemann’s animated pacing and ever delicate balancing resulted in translucent presentation of Busoni’s riveting orchestral fabric.
As a perfect pairing, Johann Strauss II’s Künstlerleben, Op. 316 (1867) was heard. On a personal level, hearing Berliner Philharmoniker play the Strauss waltzes always strikes a special chord in my psyche. For it were the recorded performances by the orchestra and Herbert von Karajan that first led me into this wondrous musical realm.
As quoted in Roger Vaughan’s biography, Karajan had a special affinity for Strauss’s introductions, which are indeed among the finest in the planet. Künstlerleben makes no exception to the rule. The way the stage is set by the orchestra, evoking its magical sonorities filled with anticipation, never fails to cast a spell upon the listener.
With Thielemann, the orchestra gave a superb performance of the Strauss waltz, from its electrifying introduction all the way to the closing bars. Combined with the Busoni homage, these two dancescapes made a colossal impact.
The Strauss songs heard in Saturday’s programme constituted a well-conceived arch, ranging from Ständchen, Op. 17, No. 2 (1886), Freudliche Vision, Op. 48, No. 1 (1900/1918) and Wiegenlied, Op. 41, No. 1 (1878) to two opus 10 songs, Allerseelen (1885/1929) and Zueignung (1885/1940). This generous selection was a feast of both Nylund’s sublime vocal artistry as well as the delicate orchestral accompaniment by Thielemann and the Berliner Philharmoniker.
The orchestral adaptations of the piano originals, some by Strauss himself, others by Felix Mottl and Robert Heger, are a form of art in themselves; a myriad of colours stemming from relatively modest orchestral setups, ever in service of the subtle twists of the vocal line and the nuances within the texts.
An oasis of beauty, the five-song arch was complemented with a guaranteed encore, Morgen, Op. 27, No. 4(1894/1897). Ever so gracefully sung by Nylund, with spot-on accompaniment from the orchestra and Thielemann, perfected by Daniel Strabawa’s luminous violin solo, Morgen was pure bliss.
The evening concluded with perhaps the biggest discovery in the programme, the first-ever Berliner Philharmoniker performance of Strauss’s song cycle for male choir and orchestra, Die Tageszeiten, Op. 76 (1924-28). Commissioned by the Vienna Schubert Society in conjunction with Strauss’s sixtieth birthday celebrations, Die Tageszeiten took some time to materialize. Based on four texts by Joseph Eichendorff, the score was finally completed by the Franz Schubert centenary in 1928.
As suggested by its title, the four movements, Morning, Afternoon Rest, Evening and Night depict the hours of the day, and various abstractions adhered to them.
An a cappella introduction, a morning-call, sets the music in motion, followed by concertante summonings from the orchestra. A radiant celebration of dawn, the opening movement is a resplendent tableau for voices and instruments.
The second movement is an extended meditation, with spaciously set musical lines evoking images of vast open spaces. Alongside wondrous vocal parts, a gorgeous orchestral bass line stems from the root of the music, providing solid fundament. As the movement proceeds, the otherworldly harmonies echo the metaphysical aspects of the texts with spot-on perfection.
Opening and closing with timpani cadenzas, the third movement sweeps through the choir and the orchestra as a wind in the woods. The rustling leaves eventide pave the way for the fourth movement nightfall, announced by the gentle calls of a solo horn. A fantasy-scene par excellence, the closing movement evokes a mist-shrouded dreamscape. On the closing pages, the music arrives back at the gates of dawn, with rays of first light setting the scene alight and closing the circle.
A superlative performance by the orchestra and the members of the Rundfunkchor Berlin, dispersed throughout the galleries of the Philharmonie. Ever eloquently paced by Thielemann, Strauss’s all-too-rarely heard score was unraveled with solemn beauty. The choral lines and orchestral parts were interwoven with finesse, resulting in a revelatory performance.
A gorgeous closure for an excellent online festival, the Saturday evening concert was surely one of the finest among Thielemann’s Berlin forays, both in terms of programming and performance.
Christian Thielemann, conductor
Gijs Leenaars, choral director
Camilla Nylund, soprano
Paul Hindemith: Neues vom Tage – Overture from the opera with concert ending (1929/1930)
Ferruccio Busoni: Tanz-Walzer, Op. 53 (1920)
Johann Strauss II: Künstlerleben, Op. 316 (1867)
Richard Strauss: Ständchen, Op. 17, No. 2 (1886), orchestrated by Felix Mottl
Richard Strauss: Freudliche Vision, Op. 48, No. 1 (1900/1918), orchestrated by the composer
Richard Strauss: Wiegenlied, Op. 41, No. 1 (1878), orchestrated by the composer
Richard Strauss: Allerseelen (1885/1929), Op. 10, No. 8, orchestrated by Robert Heger
Richard Strauss: Zueignung (1885/1940), Op. 10, No. 1, orchestrated by the composer
Richard Strauss: Morgen, Op. 27, No. 4 (1894/1897), orchestrated by the composer
Richard Strauss: Die Tageszeiten, Op. 76 (1924-28) – Song cycle for male choir and orchestra
Philharmonie, Berlin (via Digital Concert Hall)
Saturday 27 February, 7 pm
© Jari Kallio