Not many festivals in the world can pride themselves on hosting the Berlin Philharmonic on two successive nights. Needless to say there was a buzz in the air as the capacity audience anticipated the two very different programmes. As the current music director of the Bavarian State Opera, the young 46 year old Russian-Austrian conductor Kirill Petrenko is scheduled to become chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in the 2019-2020 season succeeding Sir Simon Rattle. On the strength of these concerts they have backed of winning horse. The musicians played as if possessed, throwing caution to the wind and, dare I say it the occasional cracked brass note. But what the hell these musicians can and do play their socks off when inspired and who am I to complain.
Concert no. 1 displayed these two attributes perfectly playing what for them is core Germanic repertoire. The concert started with two tone poems of Richard Strauss whose music represents the late flowering of German Romanticism after Richard Wagner, in which pioneering subtleties of orchestration are combined with an advanced harmonic style.
Inspired by Nikolaus Lenau Richard Strauss’ tone poem Don Juan opus 20 is a fresh, arresting and lively start to an evening. This was heroic and romantic in turns with the full orchestra exuding sexual charm.
The music is in many ways anticipating the opening torrid scene of the much later opera Der Rosenkavalier. The next piece was the equally early tone poem “Tod und Verklarung” op. 24 (Death and Transfiguration). This work in contrast opens very quietly and is for the most part tonal. The central section builds up to a huge climax which then subsides eventually in to nothingness. The music depicts the death of an artist. As the man lies dying thoughts of his life pass through his head: his childhood innocence, the struggles of his manhood, the attainment of his worldly goals; and at the end, he receives the longed-for transfiguration “from the infinite reaches of heaven”. The poem lasts twenty five minutes and is separated into four sections.
After the interval we were treated to a virtuoso tour de force Beethoven’s symphony no 7 in A major op. 92. Written between 1811 and 1812 the work in four movements is dedicated to Count Moritz von Fries.
Beethoven conducted the premiere in Vienna in a charity concert for soldiers wounded in the Battle of Hanau. That concert also included the openly patriotic work Wellington’s Victory, exalting the victory of the British over Napoleon’s France. Some of the leading musicians, Beethoven’s friends played in this premiere. The symphony is in four movements and is known for its use of rhythmic devices suggestive of a dance such as dotted rhythm and repeated rhythmic figures. It is also tonally subtle making use of the tensions between the key centres of A, C and F. For instance the first movement is in A major but has repeated episodes in C major and F major. In addition, the second movement (which was encored at the premiere) is in A minor with episodes in A major, and the third movement, a scherzo, is in F major. This was too unconventional for some like contemporary composer Carl Maria von Weber who declared Beethoven “ripe for the mad house”. Truly when played as it was, hell for leather by the Berliners the giddy tempo of the last movement coda sounded noisy and brash. How modern it must have seemed to audiences of Beethoven’s time!
The second concert of the BPO was completely different in repertoire and in many ways as memorable as the first. The concert opened with a rarely performed fanfare by Paul Dukas (1865 to 1935). This was a poem in the form of a dance based on the 1912 one act ballet first performed in Paris, about a man’s search for immortality and encounter with a mythological Peri. This employed a 15 strong brass section for the opening fanfare and the scoring for large orchestra was typical of that of similar impressionistic ballets.
Although this made a fitting and imperious start to the programme what everyone was waiting in eager anticipation was the appearance of Chinese piano prodigy the thirty one year old Yuja Wang. She chose the brilliant and very difficult Concerto no. 3 in C major by Prokofiev which has now become her calling card.
Prokofiev began work on the concerto in 1913 when he wrote a theme with variations which was later to become the second movement. He completed the project in 1921 when spending the Summer in Brittany. He himself played the solo piano part at its premiere in Chicago but the work did not gain immediate popularity until ten years later. It now is the most popular and critically acclaimed of his five concertos. The concerto radiates a crisp vitality with punctuating lyrical passages with witty dissonances while maintaining a balanced partnership between the soloist and orchestra.
The piano part full of virtuosity is brimming with double octaves, powerful scalic chordal passages glissandi and all manner of pianistic tricks and devices. This received a stunning performance by turns virtuosic and lyrical which was easily a highlight of the evening.
Finishing the concert was a symphony by little known Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Schmidt (1874 to 1939). His fourth symphony in C major premiered in 1934 in Vienna was quite simply a revelation. He studied counterpoint with Anton Bruckner at the Vienna Conservatory whose music he most closely resembles. Although his professional life was very successful personally his private life was overshadowed by tragedy. His first wife was confined to a Viennese mental hospital and three years after his death was murdered under the Nazi euthanasia programme.
Their daughter died unexpectedly after the birth of her first child, Schmidt experiencing a spiritual and physical breakdown achieved an artistic revival and resolution in this symphony (which he inscribed as Requiem for my Daughter).
So what a privilege! Two evenings with arguably the best orchestra in the world, one of today’s foremost virtuosi and a new composer to discover!