Musikfest 1: A Cautious Return
Few of us could have known back in February how suddenly our concert seasons would come to an end. Even as the first instances of COVID-19 were reported in Europe and governments started bracing themselves for a public health crisis of uncertain scale, there remained a strange optimism among cultural institutions that the whole thing would pass quickly and things would be back to ‘normal’ before too long. A few orchestras and opera houses offered digital broadcasts of concerts in empty auditoriums, and many continued rehearsals for upcoming productions. By early March, however, it was apparent that the pandemic was far more serious than anyone had initially imagined and, within the span of about a week, nearly every cultural organisation announced that the remainder of their season would be cancelled. The musical life of cities around the world fell silent.
In Berlin there were no public performances for nearly three months until in late June, after the lockdown restrictions had started to loosen, the Deutsche Oper delivered a semi-staged production of Das Rheingold in a version for twenty-three instrumentalists and twelve singers, performed in an open-air car park. As welcome and delightful as the production was to an audience of opera-starved Berliners, it also underscored just how much had changed and how far we were from everything being ‘back to normal’. Although most of the orchestras and opera houses had already announced their upcoming seasons, there was still great uncertainty as to whether or not they would go ahead. Whatever happened, it was obvious that if and when we were at last allowed back into the concert hall, things were going to be very different.
During the course of the summer it was announced that Musikfest Berlin, the annual September festival which normally hosts major international guest orchestras, conductors and soloists, in addition to performances from the principal Berlin orchestras, would take place as scheduled, albeit in a reduced form. Most of the international guests, now unable to travel due to pandemic restrictions, had been removed from the programme and, while there were still planned orchestral concerts, there was now a greater focus on chamber and small-ensemble works in order to reduce the number of people on stage and maintain social distancing regulations. The seating arrangement in the Philharmonie had also been altered to conform to new state restrictions on large gatherings: an auditorium which once held over 2000 now had a capacity of around 300.
On the final weekend of August, nearly half a year after the city’s last orchestral concerts, music made its cautious return to Berlin. On the Friday evening Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic gave their season opening concert, and the following evening Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin gave the inaugural orchestral concert of Musikfest 2020 – which, in fact, had started a few days earlier with the first of Igor Levit’s highly anticipated Beethoven Piano Sonata concerts – with a performance of Mozart’s final three symphonies, composed during the particularly productive summer of 1788. Daniel Barenboim has programmed these three symphonies together on previous occasions – memorably with the Wiener Philharmoniker in 2014 – and his ability to illuminate the textural essence of these works remained fairly consistent. What had changed – almost beyond recognition – was the concert experience itself.
The Philharmonie, normally buzzing with activity on the night of any concert, was conspicuously silent. There were no cloakroom attendants, no gift-shop patrons, no chatter of concert-goers enjoying a glass of pre-concert wine; members of the audience were instructed to follow the colour coded arrows directly to their seat block. Inside the auditorium, every second row of seats had been tied shut with rope and in each usable row there were two empty seats between each person. It was as comfortable as anyone could ever hope to be within a concert hall, and there was something reassuring in the knowledge that you would never find yourself in close proximity to an elbower, a hummer, or a cougher. Yet even with all the occupiable seats occupied, the visual effect was that of a nearly empty hall. For the audience it offered a rare intimacy, a sense of communion with the orchestra unhindered by a surrounding crowd; but for the musicians, seeing such a sparsely populated hall must surely have been somewhat disheartening.
The social distancing regulations within the auditorium extended onto the stage. A slightly larger than normal Mozart-sized ensemble – forty strings, plus flute, timpani and pairs of winds and brass – had swelled to occupy the surface area of a Wagnerian orchestra thanks to the ample space between chairs. The musicians had added black masks to their black tie and Mr Barenboim himself took the stage wearing a mask, giving the concertmaster an elbow bump on his way to the podium; the masks may just have been for show, but they were a welcome sight in a city that has thus far refused to take public health precautions seriously.
The spatial disposition of the ensemble and the empty spaces within the auditorium had a noticeable effect on the orchestral sound. The concentrated warmth of the massed strings was replaced with an unexpected brightness of tone, and the tutti passages emerged with an arresting textural clarity and differentiation among the sections. It was not perhaps the sound that one is used to hearing from the Staatskapelle, and if it required from the listener a few moments of mental readjustment, the variegation in instrumental groupings and the predominance of high-end detail often served to highlight some of the subtleties in Mozart’s scoring that could otherwise go unnoticed.
The performances themselves were elegant and straightforward with some license in the tempi but a general avoidance of excess mannerism in the phrasing. The opening movement of Symphony No. 39 was regal in bearing but largely shorn of pomp, guided more by a presiding serenity – a great internal lightness – than a sense of occasion. The unhurried pace, which remained largely untroubled by the transition from introductory Adagio to principal Allegro, set the scene for an immersive slow movement so agreeably leisurely that even its two stormy interludes could not upset the immensity of well-being that underpinned it. Even the lively Menuetto and the comparatively spirited Finale remained broadly sympathetic with the graceful ease of the earlier movements.
Yet those who suspected that Mr Barenboim would take a similarly relaxed approach to the two final symphonies were in for a surprise. The opening bars of Symphony No. 40 were urgent and agitated, sounding all the more driven after the radiance of the previous piece. Nor did the ferocity of the interpretation slacken or mellow as the symphony moved forward: the slow movement, normally a brief reprieve from the turbulent outer movements was propelled by surprising levels of internal momentum. At times it seemed that Mr Barenboim was downplaying the contrast between individual movements in order to heighten the contrast between the three symphonies; the evening’s programme emerged less as a collection of symphonies than a monumental three movement work that moved from serenity to agitation to celebration.
This sense of the programme as a single large-scale symphonic utterance was strengthened by another new feature of pandemic-era concert-going: in order to minimise social contact there is no longer an interval which, on this evening, meant that Symphony No. 41 followed directly on from its predecessor. The symphony, with its bracingly vigorous opening, sounded very much like a synthesis of the previous two, combining the nervous drive of No. 40 with the spacious assurance of No. 39. The result was perhaps the most satisfying performance of the evening. The slow movement simmered, building to a climax of quiet intensity, and the finale had a vitality and internal kineticism that brought the evening to an effortlessly jubilant conclusion.
There was no question that it was great to hear Mozart performed once again by a live orchestra in a real auditorium, but the concert nonetheless seemed more a tentative step than a triumphant return, as though both audience and orchestra were finding their respective bearings in a world that had lost some of its reassuring familiarity. Indeed the civility of the concert hall and the thrill of having the final bars of a Mozart symphony coursing through one’s head on the walk back to the train was clouded almost immediately by the realisation that Potsdamer Platz station was swarmed by the lumpen dregs of an anti-face-mask protest which had taken place in Berlin that same day. As grateful as we may be to have music back in our lives, it is important to remember that, six months after the concert halls first closed their doors, we are still as far from ‘normal’ as ever.