Orchestral music

Berlin Phil/Petrenko: Berg, Beethoven

Date: August 25, 2019
Location: Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg.

Berg – Lulu Suite
Beethoven – Symphony No. 9

Berliner Philharmoniker
Rundfunkchor Berlin

Kirill Petrenko, conductor
Marlis Petersen (soprano)
Elisabeth Kulman (contralto)
Benjamin Bruns (tenor)
Kwangchul Youn (bass)

 

Ushering the Berlin Philharmonic into the Petrenko era was a series of Beethoven 9 concerts, with two concerts in Berlin followed by stints at successive European summer festivals in Salzburg, Lucerne and Bucharest. This review from Salzburg was therefore Petrenko’s third concert as Chief Conductor of the orchestra. The program featured two works that could not be more contrasting in mood and nature: that of Berg, a plot of humanity’s despair and disintegration; and that of Beethoven 9, humanity’s hymn for universal brotherhood.

The Berg’s score, in the hands of an average orchestra, could feel weighty and muddled. But here, instrumental lines flowed in mid-air, with rhythms of four against three and two against three crisscrossing each other, like a feisty swarm of butterflies fluttering their wings vibrantly, yet cleanly and without touching each other. A good example was in the Rondo, with the music in reference to the escape plot to bring Lulu to Paris. Lulu is pretending to be an invalid, and the music that accompanies her act is lightweight, borderline comical. The woodwind counts in two and plays in triplets of notes, while the piano counts in three and plays triplets. The music was moving so quickly that the sequence would have been easily missed. But here, the Berliner’s execution was clean and clear, with rhythms held aloft in a delicious call and response. Another good example was how each long line of the Act 2 trombones, often as anchor or trailer to bright trumpet moments, never seemed muddled. Their exhibition was a masterclass of rhythmic diligence and persuasive phrasing.

Marlis Petersen, as Lulu, gave an impassioned performance. Her voice was suitably prepared at her entrance, as if she had been warming up her voice and singing Lulu’s part anyway while the Suite was in motion. Her diction was clear; and her delivery was supple.

If the ambiguously resolution of the last chords of Berg was intent to sink the audience hearts, the latter piece’s beginning fifths by Beethoven, if purely by its embryonic and yet-to-be-shaped intention, did not immediately prove to repeal the former. It was not until the triple forte section, when the third was finally introduced, that there was no longer any doubt about how, after Berg’s total repudiation of humanity, the evening was about to be rehabilitate. What came after was a rebuilding, chord by chord, layer by layer. Petrenko was patient, taking his time through the first three movements to build up motions, occasionally suppressing them just enough so as to enable a long arch leading to the fourth movement’s climactic end.

The Schreckensfanfare, approached with an unrelenting fury, ruptured the tension built heretofore. The double basses’ introduction of the title theme was so united in intonation, color and clarity, as if the basses were forged into one giant instrument. Tempo picked up slowly with briskness, in a statement of an increasingly vibrant life, even flirting slightly with the rushed side of things, as if to illustrate the vivacity in human emotion. But where the orchestra seemed to be juicing just above comfort, its sound came across more as confidently urgent than blindly hard-driven. When the proceedings got hot, musicians cooled down by playing farther behind the baton, most evidently by Emmanuel Pahud’s solo at the poco ritenente, just before the baritone’s first entrance.

Petrenko was not the only one making a prominent debut on this occasion. Benjamin Forster, who replaced the retiring Rainer Seegers as solo timpanist, made a glorious debut as solo timpanist, in this all-important part of the instrument’s classical repertoire. His playing style was minimalist and scrupulously efficient. And he seemed shy when Petrenko singularly called him out during the extended and thunderous applause.

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Opera

London Phil/Jurowski: Oedipe

Date: September 2, 2017
Location: Sala Mare a Palatului, Bucharest, Romania.

Oedipus: Paul Gay
Tirésias: Sir Willard White
Créon: Christopher Purves
Shepherd: Graham Clark
High priest: Mischa Schelomianski
Phorbas: In Sung Sim
The Watchman: Maxim Mikhailov
Thésée: Boris Pinkhasovich
Laïos: Marius Vlad Budoiu
Jocaste: Ruxandra Donose
The Sphinx: Ildikó Komlósi
Antigone: Gabriela Iştoc
Mérope: Dame Felicity Palmer

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Choir of the George Enescu Philharmonic
Romanian Radio Children’s Choir

Vladimir Jurowski, conductor
Carmen Lidia Vidu, multimedia director

concert performance, with multimedia projection

Since its premiere in 1936, Oedipe has rarely been performed anywhere, and has only appeared semi-regularly at the Bucharest National Opera (in the Romanian language and not in French, the language as written). This has been a travesty, as the opera is widely considered to be a masterpiece, whether of sophisticated orchestration or of incorporating Romanian folk elements. The reversal to mean started last year, when the Royal Opera staged it to rave reviews. London Philharmonic will open its new season at the Royal Festival Hall later this month. The Thuringian town of Gera will start a string of staged performances, beginning next April. Reviewed here was London Philharmonic’s festival opening concert at the Enescu Festival, with the same cast and crew for their forthcoming season opener in London.

Commenting on Oedipe, his first and only opera, Enescu once said that the opera must keep its momentum, with “no pathos, no repetitions, no unnecessary chatter.” As the opera tells the entire life story of Oedipus, from birth till death, the necessity to minimize over-indulgence on any specific emotion is obvious, lest the proceedings be stretched too long and tiresome. Accordingly, Oedipe is a composition where orchestrations take frequent and dramatic turns: harmony does not linger protractedly in one place, even if certain elemental figures repeat themselves, not necessarily as iconographic motifs but as construction layers upon which the orchestration seems to be built. The result shimmers with lushness and sophistication, in a freely flowing style not unlike Romanian doinas. Certain solo lines, particularly with the flute (Shepherd’s beautiful meander) and oboe, also point to the monophonic traditions and uninhibited rhythms found in doinas. Here, Vladimir Jurowski’s interpretation was hugely satisfying, especially in his ability to bring about dramatic fulfilment embodied in Enescu’s score. The orchestra could sound a little inert and unresponsive in the slower passages, but it came alive as Jurowski’s conducting arms started to animate and the tempo began to pick up. Jurowski’s thrashing arm movements and spirited body lurchings asserted his authority. The orchestra responded well, whether through relentless calamity of the lower brasses or the collective commitment of the eight double basses. In lyrical passages, the glorious flute of Sue Thomas and the wondrous harmony of the horn section held sway. The orchestra sounded unusually forthcoming in the fan-shaped hall that was probably more designed for punchy political proclamations (as Ceausescu did plenty here) than for vocal performance. Perhaps to ensure that the music could reach the upper tier, which had unencumbered views of but was quite far from the stage, the orchestra and the choir seemed ready and willing to dial up their volume. The effect was that some numbers, including the nightingale song, was probably too loud for those sitting close to the stage.

Paul Gay navigated the title role’s fiendishly treacherous lines with finesse and beauty, all the while maintaining dramatically fitting eye contact with other singers, as if they were acting on a real stage with costumes and sets. He donned white shirt and trousers in the first two acts, but changed to a red/black combination in the last two, as if to visually delineate between a life of innocence and that of sin — by way of attempting to defy destiny. In Sung Sim sounded sonorous yet tender enough as Phorbas that he could easily make a career singing roles such as Gurnemanz or Wotan. Ruxandra Donose nourished the role of Jocaste with a buttery voice, but unleashed a searing anguish as the story unfolded and Tirésias’ prophecy finally consumed her. The role of the Sphinx was portrayed by Ildikó Komlósi, who sang into a microphone from one of the side boxes and, through the loudspeaker, was able to produce an eerily chilling voice. Dame Felicity Palmer nursed a motherly but remorseful Mérope. The moribund way with which she walked off stage after her character’s suicide was consuming and chilling. Sir Willard White and Boris Pinkhasovich had the briefest moments as Tirésias and Thésée, but with their fine vocal specimen they evidenced a deep and luxurious cast.

Carmen Lidia Vidu’s videos provided vivid and interesting historical context but did not distract from the storytelling. The audience fell madly in love with the performance, in a hall where Ceausescu has made many proclamations that attempted to defy a destiny that would eventually befall him. Just as Oedipus was eventually consumed and transfigured by his decision to defy destiny, it seems all the more fitting that the opera was performed nowhere else but here.

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