The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

DR Kultur: Brandenburg Konzert - DSO Berlin. Ingo Metzmacher, Alban Gerhardt. Inspiring nature evocative program. Erloeserkirche, Potsdam. 13.06.10

Ingo Metzmacher confidently and deliberately set the tone for all to follow with indeed a very special take on Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune. Thomas Hecker’s opening solo on flute was especially dark in color, heavily lingering in making the highly erotic ardor of his sinuous lines speak to open out very realistic profile ahead. While a slightly heavier touch with this then some, what Teutonic feel or accenting, overtly Romantic eloquence got set aside, through very precise placement of all sonorities and emphasis on how such handling of them opened the floodgates for new century ahead. This was no Afternoon of a Faun as passing phase, but instead the gateway as it was when first played and in all truth still for which is milestone. Should one have sought an Impressionistic picture of Afternoon of a Faun, something along lines of musical equivalent to Monet, for instance, one and in an equally Gallic sense for this piece got something with feel of a late Cezanne or approaching Gauguin instead.

Violins taking up slow languorous refrain introduced by woodwinds got placed just a little back to a bit controversially put throbbing two-note ostinato in the winds more forefront than perhaps is expected. Wei Lu’s deftly played solos to follow – to segue in deeper reverie - then made both greater formal and expressive sense than is the norm. Metzmacher was most idiomatic at imparting a very precise internal rhythmic (and formal) sense to all this music. Ever so free was all caprice across sylvan landscape within all coming alive – thanks in part to the excellence of DSO woodwinds. Nothing ever sounded harsh or even especially detached for the progressive character of this music – for time it was written - to simply speak forth. Conclusion to this was ideally pointed, warmly diaphanous (in muted horns), forward looking nearly all at once.

The Debussy, this approach to it, had merely prepared the listener for the Dutilleux to come. Here is music that might have found its Baudelarian text for inspiration after some of it had been written (just as with Debussy's piano preludes, many of them named after being composed as well) but that enfolds it through a variety of layers, from which it extends into being inspiration of a purely musical, equally allusive sense. What then can be pictorially suggested through the Baudelaire by Tout un Monde Lointain, Dutilleux's sole cello concerto (commissioned by Rostropovich) can then become free to suggest any particular imagery or dream landscape of the listener's choosing. Basis for much of the writing is dodecacophonic writing - writing to draw upon what distinctive intervals from the row are present for sake of what sonorities, coloristic possibilities Dutilleux can freely draw from them. As all precisely resonated, measured out (as one might find for instance in etudes of Messiaen) there is all this, plus hint of neo-primitivism we associate with pre-1920’s Stravinsky, with irregularly paced chant or cry from high winds of exotic intervals in Houles (third movement), offset by hammering ostinati from percussion and other instruments as such. Including hint of jazz riff or two, all is enclosed within solid classical frame, toward bringing this music within reach of mid-cult listening accessibility.

The flaw of many performances of this piece is that can so easily relegate Dutilleux to second-tier, which ever so incidentally in this concerto he still is. The worst approach is to treat this concerto as merely a solo vehicle. With its casual approach to rhythm, intonation, and calibration of other elements, the Rostrpovich/Baudo (EMI) falls short, even while carrying what imprimatur it may. From Ingo Metzmacher and Alban Gerhardt, we had here a veritable concerto for orchestra with very brilliant and highly insinuating cello obbligato - orchestral forces, soloists within DSO Berlin and soloist all spinning, sparring, feeding off each other at just about every turn. Alban Gerhardt's ballade shaping of numerous longer arched lines ensured this music a still very human dimension and individually noble profile - no less his sinuous descending lines in Regard (second movement). Metzmacher made often incisive sonorities in highly varied underpinning device very supportive and precise at once – in absolutely no self-regarding way whatsoever. One still could only be amazed.

Gerhardt found some earthiness to much of this piece, with for instance his playing very close to the frog toward the end of Houles (third movement) and the hard but solid tone for strummed pizzicati cutting through often thin laced textures of so much else about in the first. There was always foremost the view of the musical, even dramatic argument therein – of where all must go. All the often Bartokian shimmer of trills, termoli, repeat chord tremoli, for instance through Miroirs (fourth movement) was both overt and given precise placement within the music’s overall design – inculcating very precise hearing, engagement of the dynamics marked in the score. Precise back placement of bongo drums on their simply elaborate upbeats was acute, enhancing a ritualistic feel deep beneath atmosphere built upon much mystery and illusion.

There was even a considerable spirit of agon to playing this, seldom so well encountered elsewhere. Prime example was the double-stop stretto (as if to start a French overture) to open ‘Houles’ as almost retaliatory to the very arched and slightly overwritten climax to close ‘Regard’ - whereas Truls Mork and Myung-Whun Chung make the opening statement of Houles sound effectively as though to have organically emerged from what has just transpired. The seemingly mad gigue ensuing halfway through Houles, with its interlacing of rapid sextuplet arabesque between winds and soloist was as lightly fierce here as to have in mind just the most vivid musical imagery to derive out of it - all as offset by much engaged antiphony between syncopated clatter from light percussion and irregular repeat chord pizzicato stretto in the violins. It all moved inexorably forward with playful ease, as had just similar enough arabesque variation in the first movement. All that got missed here was anything redolent of tired cliche, just as had been the case with the Debussy – for instance of hazy, gauzy all wafting, dovetailed sonorities to all vaguely blend into one another. The tone adopted here instead was realistic – anything specific to be depicted here left allusive, even illusory - as to turn archaic any effort to make this music stuffy or sublime. Plaintive cries from high register flute plus exposed lines in the high violins in' 'Miroirs' openly bespoke something of the primitive to be engaged – offset by irregularly paced unison chorale in the winds.

The matching, interplay of much rapid fire flautando, half harmonics between Gerhardt and the strings sounded purely spectral. Single note spiccato tremoli from Gerhardt in the first movement carried such impact. The broad glissandi one also hears in the first movement emerged as a force of nature more than as anything being played. Much very subtle terracing infused the inner workings of the framing, quasi-French overture finale to the concerto, with even within the rapid-fire confrontation that occurs within, a very precise assessment of its sonorities in balance with very forthright rhythmic activity throughout. One possible litmus test of how effective a performance of Tout un monde lointain one has encountered is to what extent does the trill-tremolo from the soloist at its very end resemble a last dollop of virtuosic display, or as happened here, electrical current sizzling forth – as to freely aspire for reach beyond a truly limitless horizon.

Equal to the Debussy above in being an ideal in orchestral chamber music, of at once fecund warmth, sylvan caprice, and realistic clarity was the Beethoven ‘Pastorale.’ This was a ‘Pastorale’, the Beethoven Sixth Symphony, property neither of the aesthete nor the post-modern higher critic, with all irony, higher text criticism, condescending parody we freely associate with the latter, but instead, of the peasant, farmer, forester, shepherd, huntsman, whose voices with which this music simply, mirthfully, joyously speaks. It is hard to imagine anybody to improve upon taking it this way, outside Erich Kleiber on his classic 1950’s Decca recording with Concertgebouw, many virtues of which this Pastorale partook. Remembered most of all thereby are the roots of Beethoven’s inspiration being the two oratorios of Haydn to have not preceded this music by far. Backing off from enveloping sonorities here was not so self-conscious to have to crudely shave such off. Opportunity to envelope them just got allowed in so far, not to return this ‘Pastorale’ to other extreme of sitting urbane or at safe distance. There was nothing to prove here, other than great joy of making music together – in making the utter simplicity of Beethoven’s inspiration speak. – inspiration as learned from rural folk – of generally lower class than to whom Beethoven had to frequently defer.

A pervasive sense of narrative informed even the slow movement, at a convincing walking gait, with gentle rustle of cellos and violas with their leaning into it - giving treble voices and also high trills in violins from behind a very pleasant, relaxed lift toward all moving forward. Individual character of these voices, many of them among woodwinds emerged in very fine relief; the bird calls very close to the end of the second movement really did sound like birds – Metzmacher with all his experience in Messiaen just encouraging them to very openly call out precisely as such.

A fully open-air feel pervaded also the very opening of the symphony, at a moderately breezy pace. Violins played with limited vibrato; shimmer to fill in textures surrounding their lines and those of woodwinds Metzmacher limned only so far to animate his very supple handling of rhythm and make specific his characterization of melodic shape, and variety of harmonic color. Much repeat figuration in the Development section, given in Romantic sense for further sense of relaxation - ease with being outdoors - went far better here than expectation of simply streamlining it all. A bucolic and varied slight roughness with accenting it, through numerous modulations, made it all spring to life here. By then, very fine reminder of the classic Erich Kleiber recording became obvious, but as something thoroughly worked out, conceived on its own. Even quite incisively bucolic were the cellos in their leaning phrase under good spiccato in the violins to make retransition. The violins of DSO then soon thereafter reveled in reprise of the second theme with a most openly singing legato. Even slightly rough quality to opening the coda contributed too to so highly mirt imaginative an interpretation of the first movement.

Moderately rough, incisive vigor was made of strong dance that is the third movement, without having to stop to frame or envelope any of it. The Storm got played very incisively, with room made to imagine terrified reaction from peasants on ground below. A febrile sense of panic and dismay replaced this sounding as oppressively loud as possible, as though to depict metaphysical conflagration of sorts instead. Receding motion of the storm, with rumble of thunder underneath then was highly visceral, to prepare such evocative opening of thanksgiving song serving as finale to the ‘Pastorale.’

It was with much singing quality at literally all times that Metzmacher phrased the finale. It was so much so, that vigorous alternation between variety of bow stroke in violins making way into the recapitulation and then their even lighter pizzicato to accompany reprise of its opening theme, at slightly broad pace, always sounded full of life, never phlegmatic. Voicing of woodwinds on reprise of shepherds’ call emerged in full relief. Full tutti statements of opening theme and broad span through expansive lines to emanate thereof all emerged with plentiful light, shimmer through them all across full range of sonorities. With no hint of editorializing anything, last slower reprise of opening statement in the violins gently extended with great calm pause for benediction over the entire rest of what had transpired, with singing line maintained through brief reach through a refulgent, full final cadence.

The orchestra may not quite have been 1950’s Concertgebouw, but this performance alone, everything on this program actually made ringing endorsement for how next opening at the Concertgebouw for new man on podium there should be filled - for how Messiaen would then sound from there as well. Of course, it is unfortunate what turn of events in Berlin - from bad decision making from upon high there making this turn out to have been Metzmacher’s final subscription concert with DSO Berlin; there should not have been any provocation toward severing this invaluable relationship at all. Let us hope that - not in Berlin alone - the right people responsible for this to have happened will get held accountable. Alone on the minds of orchestra, soloist and Metzmacher on this occasion was just this one further opportunity to make great music – as though thoroughly untroubled by how recent chips have fallen.

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