Peak to Peak

Jesse Simon

jueves, 4 de enero de 2018
Berlin, jueves, 14 de diciembre de 2017. Philharmonie. Beethoven: Missa solemnis in D, op. 123. Luba Orgonášová, soprano. Elisabeth Kulman, mezzo-soprano. Daniel Behle, tenor. Franz-Josef Selig, bass. Rundfunkchor Berlin. Berlin Philharmonic. Christian Thielemann, conductor

Over the past few years, Christian Thielemann has been taking the Berlin Philharmonic on a tour of the great sacred choral works of the nineteenth century, including Fauré’s Requiem, Verdi’s Quattro pezzi sacri and, of course, the Deutsches Requiem of Brahms. For this year’s annual wintertime visit he applied his considerable strengths to Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, one of the most difficult works to pull off but also, when successful, one of the great experiences one can have in a concert hall. While Mr Thielemann’s broad-gestured, physically exhausting conducting style suggested a man locked in a constant struggle for perfection, the refined, balanced sounds that emerged from the orchestra, choir and soloists found a simplicity of expression at the heart of Beethoven’s elaborate score.

Mr Thielemann, not surprisingly, had little problem locating the greatness in the work’s grandest moments – the triumphant opening bars of the Gloria, or the ‘Et resurrexit’ of the Credo – but his reading was at its most intriguing in those extended passages when he was engaged in the long, patient ascent toward the work’s summits. He rarely seemed interested in creating a mood of sustained calm; even the more ruminative sections suggested that he already had the next peak in view, and this undercurrent of anticipation gave the performance both its momentum and its strange animation. If Mr Thielemann’s attempts to realise his vision resulted in one or two jarring tempo shifts and a Credo that seemed more than usually episodic, his far-sighted approach rarely lacked focus or excitement.

From the very first moments of the Kyrie, the orchestra established a sound in which the warm, luxurious middle strings were very much to the fore; the winds and brass were generally more restrained, with only the flutes and trumpets occasionally rising above the concentrated sound. The grand organ of the Philharmonie remained a subtle presence throughout the evening, adding richness and depth without making itself conspicuous. Even the timpani, which contributed so much to the evening’s most exciting moments, was played with such intensity of focus as to sound inseparable from the expressions of the massed orchestra. The sense of every instrumental group being held in perfect equilibrium was often extraordinary.

Mr Thielemann, conducting with neither score nor baton, seemed as interested in sculpting the choir as the orchestra, and the Rundfunkchor Berlin gave a highly responsive, wonderfully detailed performance that moved effortlessly from contrapuntal intricacy to invigorating majesty. Their ‘Kyrie’s were bold but emerged with an enchanting softness, and their ‘Miserere’s in the Agnus Dei were intoned with great solemnity; the opening of the Gloria and especially the concluding ‘Amen’s – underscored by authoritative timpani – bookended that movement with expressions of uncontained exuberance. Yet it was the meticulously paced, exquisitely layered conclusion of the Credo that provided the evening with its finest choral singing.

Among the quartet of vocal soloists there were no obvious weaknesses. Elisabeth Kulman’s total command of the Alto part was evident throughout, and her rich tone was nowhere more apparent than in the beautifully woven Benedictus and the commanding ‘Miserere’s of the Agnus Dei. Daniel Behle’s appealingly lyrical voice seemed equally well suited to the piece; his ‘Kyrie’s in the opening were subtly arresting and his contribution to the Gloria even more so. In the quartet sections, Franz-Josef Selig sang with sympathetic restraint, but on his own, in the opening of the Agnus Dei, he provided the evening with some of its most profound exclamations. There were a few moments when one longed for greater projection in the top soprano notes, but Luba Orgonášová’s lower-end depth worked well with the rest of the group, especially in the Kyrie and Benedictus. Indeed, it was the effortless – and selfless – passage of melodic line back and forth between the different voices that proved to be the quartet’s greatest strength.

Yet ultimately it was Christian Thielemann who bound the evening together, and his command of the various forces was apparent in nearly every aspect of the performance. His conscious attempts to heighten the contrast within certain sections could result in unexpected moments: there was something disarming in the second ‘Hosanna’, as though Mr Thielemann was wilfully destablilising the hard-won calm established in the preceding five minutes; and the martial intrusion into the Agnus Dei was driven at such a rapid pace that it came across as a genuine disruption. However the moments of idiosyncrasy in Mr Thielemann’s reading just as often gave the performance its sense of excitement: the drawn-out drum-roll leading into ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’ or the long breath before ‘Et resurrexit’ found an edge of unpredictability within the rigorous formal structure of the score. If Mr Thielemann’s approach to the Missa solemnis was characterised by a probing restlessness, the discipline of the orchestra, soloists and choir provided the evening with its unerring sense of balance. 


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