From nocturnal images to primordial rites with Andris Nelsons and the Berliner Philharmoniker

Andris Nelsons conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker. © Lena Laine

Returning to the Philharmonie podium this week, Andris Nelsons’s latest guest appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker presented the audiences with a splendid programme, featuring three very different works by three very different composers, Jüri Reinvere, Mieczysław Weinberg and Igor Stravinsky.

The program-opener, Reinvere’s Maria Anna, wach, im Nebenzimmer (Maria Anna, Awake in the Next Room, 2021) is a fifteen-minute, intensely meditative tableau for full orchestra. Premiered by Nelsons and the Bamberger Symphoniker at the Mozartfest Würtzburg last summer, Reinvere’s score meditates upon the imagery resulting from the psycology between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his older sister, known to most music-lovers as Nannerl.

Instead of attempting to recreate a Mozartean musical fabric, Reinvere’s score picks up a contemporary tone, yielding to one-movement, gradually evolving sonic scene. Marked Andante molto sostenuto, the music opens with barely audible string hue, joined by air-only breathing patterns from the brass. With the full orchestra of duple winds, triple and quadruple brass, timpani and strings eventually at play, the textures reflect the layers of emotional undercurrents inherent in the setting depicted in the title.

However, Maria Anna, wach, im Nebenzimmer is not programmatic per se. Instead, the delicate sonic tableau invites the listener to reflect the title image from various aspects, leaving all detailed readings behind. In genuinely meditative manner, the musical material evolves through permutations of sublime melancholy, before escaping all sonic realities into silence.

Performed with utmost sensitivity to detail and dynamics, Nelsons and the Berliner Philharmoniker clad the music in textures of sensuous delicacy, unveiled in sounding weightlessness. A collective memory perhaps, the performance commanded the listener’s full attention, as the musical processes entered into listener’s consciousness and unconsciousness. Maria Anna, wach, im Nebenzimmer makes an unlike concert opener, perhaps, but a very effective one indeed. With the composer present, the performance was lauded with generous applause.

Written in 1966-67, Mieczysław Weinberg’s Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra in B flat major is an intriguing piece. Strikingly original, Weinberg’s music was relatively little-known in his lifetime, but over the past ten years or so, a posthumous revival of the composer’s oeuvre has come to pass, gradually shedding new light on a large body of works, conceived with utmost inspiration and craft.

On its sounding surface, Weinberg’s concerto calls to mind some of that caustic wit manifested throughout the Dmitri Shostakovich oeuvre. Yet, on closer look, Weinberg’s music obeys its own inner laws, apart from those applied by Schostakovich, giving rise to a fascinating sonic language, awash with expressive power.

Although this week’s performances of the Trumpet Concerto have marked the first outings for the score with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Nelsons and the soloist, Håkan Hardenberger have been teaming up around it for some time; their 2019 Leipzig take was released last year on Blu-ray and DVD by Accentus Music. With the Berlin performance on Saturday recorded for the orchestra’s video streaming platform, the Digital Concert Hall, the Weinberg concerto gets another fine documentation for on-demand viewers.

The twenty-five-minute score is cast in three movements, more or less based on the usual fast-slow-fast sceme. The first movement, Etudes, is conceived as a series of virtuoso passages for the soloist, each developed in dialogue with the orchestra. Marked Allegro molto, the movement is embedded with biting overtones, resulting in an instrumental satire par excellence.

Titled Episodes, the central Andante grows into a funeral march. Again, several musical images are introduced as the movement unfolds. Towards the end, the music becomes more and more disjointed, eventually dissolving into the Fanfares finale. The concluding movement is derived from a selection allusions and quotations from Mendelssohn, Mahler and Rimsky-Korsakov alike. Joined by percussion, the soloist ventures through the mismatch material, leading the orchestra into an absurd sonic realm. With no way out, the concerto ends in resignation.

An astounding outing from Hardenberger, the orchestra and Nelsons, the Weinberg concerto was well served by its dedicated champions. Ironic and elegiac, the performance was a case in point of the power of instrumental story-telling. One for the records, the teamwork between the soloist, the conductor and the orchestra was simply exemplary.

Håkan Hardenberger, Andris Nelsons and the members of Berliner Philharmoniker onstage after the performance of the Weinberg concerto. © Lena Laine

Although the name of Igor Stravinsky may not be among the ones most readily associated with the Berliner Philharmoniker, the connections between the composer and the orchestra run deeper than often meets the eye. The Berliners first performed Le Sacre du printemps (1911-13) under Ernest Ansermet in 1922, three years before the game-changing score was given its American premiere. In 1924, Stravinsky himself joined the orchestra as soloist, with Wilhelm Furtwängler on the podium.

In the sixties and seventies, Herbert von Karajan recorded five albums of Stravinsky’s music with the orchestra, including two takes on Sacre. In the Sir Simon Rattle era, several of the composer’s works became firmly etched in the Berliner Philharmoniker repertoire. As for Kirill Petrenko, during his tenure by far, Stravinsky’s music has been featured along the way, including a gripping lockdown presentation of Oedipus Rex (1926-27/1948) and, most recently, a gorgeous concertante outing for the complete ballet score of l’Oiseau de feu (1910-11).

Commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Stravinsky’s passing, the composer’s works have been also on the playlists of the orchestra’s guest conductors. Joining the roster, Nelsons concluded his Berlin programme with the Pictures of pagan Russia in two parts that constitute Le Sacre du printemps. Interestingly, over four years have elapsed since the orchestra had last played Stravinsky’s Succéss de scandal. Conducted by Rattle, the June 2017 performance was also attended by this writer, as documented by vivid memories of extraordiary orchestral playing, demostrating captivating intensity and finesse.

Unlike Rattle and Esa-Pekka Salonen, who have crafted their compelling visions under the influence of Pierre Boulez, Nelsons seems to have taken his cues from Leonard Bernstein. Thanks to his Latvian roots and studies in St Petersburg, Nelsons is certainly also thoroughly aware of the Russian performing traditions, not to mention the connections between the musical material of Sacre and the vernacular spring rhymes from Baltic, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, which Stravinsky knew, mainly, from a collection edited by Rimsky-Korsakov.

Thus the performance heard at the Philharmonie on Saturday was one embracing the earthiness of Stravinsky’s score. Driven by propulsive, yet ever articulate rhythms, Sacre was unraveled in tremendous orchestral raiments, brought to their sounding guises with full dynamic scale at play. A feast of textures, the music was alight with primordial imagery, while keeping true to its modernist spirit.

If Stravinsky felt that Karajan’s 1964 recording of Sacre was polished to a pet savage, the one summoned by Nelsons might have provoked the composer to utter another spontaneous ”wow”, as Bernstein’s 1958 album take with the New York Philharmonic famously had done. In both parts, Stravinskys musical arches were laid out with fully-fledged orchestral expressiveness, yielding to several in-your-face moments, balanced by those fine-tuned passages of sublime tension, such as the trumpet duet on figures 84 and 85 in the second part introduction.

The opening of Sacre, with its famous bassoon solo woven into almost chamber-like fabric, was beautifully realized by the Berliners with Nelsons. Paving the way for the quirky orchestral dances to ensue, with shifting accents, the first part was set on an enthralling trajectory. Putting the intense orchestral vehemence to halt, the sudden, eerie stasis of Le Sage was given in a more tactile guise than most performances do, preparing the audience for the roaring eruption of Dance de la terre.

In similar vein, the second part was devised as veritable ritual of sacrifice, clad in berserk orchestral garments. Despite all the primordial wildness, Stravinsky’s complex textures were kept ever aligned, yielding to a celebration of dissonant counterpoint.

Andris Nelsons and the Berliner Philharmoniker performing Sacre. © Lena Laine

In a passage dubbed as Duke Ellington lick by Bernstein, the ancestors are summoned, heralding the self-annihilation of the musical organism, conceived as a breath-taking orchestral labyrinth. With Nelsons at the helm, Stravinsky’s ground-breaking Danse sacrale was never at risk of being reduced into an elaborate rhythmic study. On the contrary, the orchestra was hurled into the maze with full throttle, giving rise to one of the most visceral takes on the brutal brilliance of the last dance accounted in living memory.

An evening of superlative musical story-telling, Nelsons and the Berliners provided the listener with an immense expressive arch, celebrating orchestral performance at the highest level.

Berliner Philharmoniker

Andris Nelsons, conductor

Håkan Hardenberger, trumpet

Jüri Reinvere: Maria Anna, wach, im Nebenzimmer (2021) – Notturno for large orchestra

Mieczysław Weinberg: Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra in B flat major, Op. 94 (1966-67)

Igor Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps (1911-13/1947) – Pictures from pagan Russia in Two Parts

Philharmonie Berlin

Saturday 11 December, 7 pm

© Jari Kallio

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