Musikfest 4: The Prisoners
Vladimir Jurowski has made numerous appearances as a guest conductor of the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin over the past several years, and the evenings spent in his company have been notable both for the quality of their interpretations and their devotion to works outside the standard repertoire. The announcement that he would be taking over from Marek Janowski as the chief conductor of the RSB was thus a cause for some excitement. For the opening concert in his new position, presented in collaboration with Musikfest Berlin, Mr Jurowski led the orchestra through a fascinating programme structured loosely around the idea of artists as political prisoners and exiles in the twentieth century, a journey that culminated - surprisingly and fittingly - in Beethoven.
Isang Yun, whose one-hundredth birthday formed one of the thematic threads of this year’s Musikfest, completed Dimensionen in 1971, not long after a period spent as a political prisoner in his native South Korea. The piece, scored for organ and large orchestra, started as a study in high pitches, with even the basses straining to wrest the uppermost harmonics from their instruments; the high strings, high woodwinds, and delicate percussion were soon joined by the upper frequencies of the Philharmonie organ. Even when the full orchestra returned following a gripping interlude for organ and percussion, the piece seemed uninterested in exploiting the full tonal breadth of the ensemble, choosing instead to build its not-inconsiderable intensity within a more tightly focussed sonic spectrum.
Schönberg’s Violin Concerto was written in the mid-1930s after the composer had fled his teaching post in Germany - where his music would soon be labelled ‘degenerate’ - and relocated to California. The complexities of the violin part continue to attract adventurous soloists, and on this evening Christian Tetzlaff’s performance was something of a marvel. His usual brightness of tone was matched by a confident lightness of touch, and the sharply etched notes that emerged from his instrument were delicate and fleeting. Yet there was nothing insubstantial in his reading. The cadenza of the first movement used measured outbursts to upend the moments of calm, and the deceptive tranquillity of the second movement was gently disrupted by Mr Tetzlaff’s intimations of volatility. Mr Jurowski, who presided over an exceptional Moses und Aron at the Komische Oper a few years ago, drew an exquisitely detailed sound from the orchestra while never losing sight of the score’s structural intricacies.
If the evening’s first half was never less than wholly compelling, the second had a more obvious emotional immediacy. It opened with Fučik, a work by Luigi Nono written in 1951 as part of a larger unfinished project but only published after the composer’s death. The brief piece, scored for full orchestra and two speakers, concerned the final days of Julius Fučik, a Czech writer and journalist imprisoned by the Gestapo during the second world war, and much of the text was drawn from his writings. The second voice belonged to an unidentified authority – a prison guard? a torturer? – who barked orders. The two voices, however never gave the impression of existing within the same temporal or physical plane; Fučik’s voice – given a haunting performance on this evening by Max Hopp – suggested that he had already shaken the corporeal bounds of the prison and ascended to a world of ideals.
The work began with a few mostly percussive sounds intruding into the silence before building quickly to an unsettling full orchestra passage. The voice of the unseen authority – infused with interrogatory malice by Sven Philipp – delivered many of his lines against the chaotic cross rhythms of various snare drums. When Fučik began to speak, his amplified voice floated above the orchestra with an arresting serenity, even seeming to calm the ensemble with the line ‘ich lebte für die Freude, und für die Freude sterb’ ich’. In his final passage, taken from a farewell letter to his family, he spoke of hearing in his mind a refrain from Beethoven, while behind him the orchestra faded to little more than the distant hiss of a single cymbal. Fučik’s final words were spoken against complete silence. Then, without warning, came Beethoven.
The only problem with Beethoven’s otherwise flawless Fifth Symphony is that it has become too familiar. How is it possible to hear the opening of the first movement with anything close to the wonder and excitement that would have existed in an age before recordings, movies and ringtones. By using the terrifying silence at the end of Fučik as his overture, Mr Jurowski managed the almost impossible feat of rediscovering some of the wild, disorienting magic in what may be the five more famous bars in all of Western music. Mr Jurowski also drew an explicit connection between Beethoven and the twentieth century by using Mahler’s ‘retouched’ version of the score as the basis for the evening’s performance.
As a conductor, Mahler often found it necessary to make minor orchestral revisions to works from the early romantic era – including all of Schumann’s symphonies and several of Beethoven’s – in order to ensure a reasonable orchestral balance when performed by the larger ensembles of the late nineteenth-century. For Beethoven’s Fifth, this meant doubling most of the woodwinds and setting them against a Mahler-sized string section. With so many strings, the first movement couldn’t help but sound grand, but the success of the performance owed as much to Mr Jurowski’s energetic direction as to the exceptional vigour of the orchestra. One could debate the merits of Mahler’s editorial interventions all they wanted … this was, by any standards, an invigorating, evening-enhancing performance of an unassailable masterpiece.
The second movement offered an elegantly shaped introduction and immaculate playing from the cellos. There may have been a few moments where Mr Jurowski seemed to be using the might of the orchestra to heighten the contrasts, but such moments were usually justified by the conviction of the performance; and while the scale of the ensemble seemed to dictate a more stately pace for the Scherzo of the third movement, the strings handled the brisk textures of the trio with an almost surprising agility and clarity. Yet there was perhaps no greater illustration of Mr Jurowski’s control than the magnificent transition into the fourth movement which used a deliberate pace and measured gradations to achieve breathtaking intensity.
Only in the final movement was there a sense that excitability had finally got the better of restraint. The massed woodwinds, now with extra piccolo, were almost too wiry (although this may have been Mahler’s doing) and the brass weren’t quite as focussed. However the trombones were fierce, the middle strings bracing and, while Mahler stopped short of doubling the timpani (or adding a giant hammer), the timpanist brought decisive thunder to an already vast sound. The conclusion was every bit as thrilling as one would have hoped. In a programme which had featured one piece by a political prisoner, one piece about a political prisoner, and one by a political exile, the inextinguishable humanism of Beethoven (as amplified by Mahler) brought the evening to a redemptive conclusion.