Musikfest inaugurates ambitious Berlin season

A.J. GoldmannMon 26th September 2011
Prometeo: a meditative work - and endurance test (photo: Kai Bienert)Prometeo: a meditative work - and endurance test (photo: Kai Bienert)

From Nono to Mahler, season focuses on large-scale works

Over the past two weeks, Berlin kicked off an ambitious classical music season with its annual musikfest berlin. The theoretical framework for this year’s musikfest, which ran from September 2-20, was the dualism between the human voice and instruments that has preoccupied – in theoretical and practical terms – composers from Wagner and Berlioz to Mahler and Nono.

This duality was mirrored by the ambitious concerts presented at the end of the festival, Mahler's entirely choral Eighth Symphony and Luigi Nono's Prometeo  – Tragedia dell’ ascolto, (“Prometheus – The Tragedy of Listening”), an expansive work that delves into liminal spaces between tone and silence. Wildly different in design and execution, the two works provided contrasting explorations of the human voice as the most fundamental of musical instruments.

Written in 1985, in the final years of the composer's life, Prometeo has become a key work of the avant-garde. Its influence continues to be felt everywhere from concert music to sound installations, opera and sound art.

With its demanding running time (two and a half hours, no intermission), it is a meditative work that blurs the traditional divisions between dramatic and concert genres, between word and tone, and between voice and instrument. Through the combination of scattered chamber groups, live electronic manipulation and spatially distributed singers and speakers (who chant texts by Aeschylus, Benjamin and Rilke in often incomprehensible whispers and mumblings), the sonic combinations in Prometeo are tightly regulated. Whatever change there is in the work occurs mostly on a micro level, where tones are virtually suspended in miniscule intervals. The fragmentation of the score and libretto is mirrored by the distribution of the musical forces.

Playing from various locations in the pentagonal Kammermusiksaal of the Philharmonie (where the work received its 1988 Berlin premiere in the presence of the composer), the Konzertorchester Berlin, joined by musicians from Ensemble Modern, the SWR experimental studio and vocal soloists displayed remarkable control and coordination, led by two conductors.

It is, however, possible to admire all of this and at the same time admit that sitting through a complete performance of Prometeo is a test of extreme endurance. Aside from the blisteringly beautiful Isola Seconda b., and Interdulio Primo, where time seems to stand still, a great deal of the 150 minute-work is insistently inert. I’d be lying if I didn’t confess an urge to join the many listeners who bolted.
 
As Nono was underway, things were getting heady in the Philharmonie’s main hall, with an electrifying performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, which was the first time the Berliner Philharmoniker had performed the work with Sir Simon Rattle.

“Can you imagine a symphony that is sung from beginning to end?” Gustav Mahler asked the music journalist Richard Specht in 1906. Four years later, the musical world was astounded by the first performance of the Eighth Symphony in Munich.

At the performance I attended on Sunday night, the final of three sold-out evenings, there was a regrettable intermission between the first and second movements, apparently necessary for recording reasons (the concert was beamed live into cinemas through Germany and the UK).

The excellently prepared Philharmoniker musicians were supplemented by the forces of the Berlin Rundkunkchor (Radio Choir), Leipzig’s MDR Rundfunkchor and Staats- und Domchors Berlin (a boy’s choir that dates back to 1465). The participants seemed rather crowded on the modest and central stage of the Philharmonie. In fact, the children’s chorus sang from the side-rails of the auditorium, a clever solution that distributed the sound more evenly, even if it resulted in some lack of coordination between the various vocal forces.

In recent weeks, the Philharmoniker had been scrambling to replace soloists who have dropped out. They did well. Erika Sunnegårdh (replacing Christine Brewer), Susan Bullock and Anna Prohaska did excellent work in the soprano department. Finnish mezzo Lilli Paasikivi was a last-minute replacement for Karen Cargill, and sang sublimely, despite a few hesitant moments. The French contralto Nathalie Stutzmann was especially full of Mahlerian schmerz. Among the men, Johan Botha made the absurdly high-lying tenor role sound easy. David Wilson-Johnson (replacing Matthias Goerne) was an effective and dramatic baritone. And John Relyea was a fierce and commanding bass.

As a little appetizer, Sir Simon led Rundfunkchor soloists in short a cappella works by Thomas Tallis and Antonio Lotti that, while delicately effective, was all but forgotten by the time the massive organ played its triumphant final chords. 

These two gargantuan concerts seemed an altogether appropriate opening double-shot to an exciting season here that will see an emphasis on large-scale works. It never fails to amaze me how Berlin’s seven symphony orchestras and three opera houses succeed at generating an excitement and sense of occasion that is often lacking from the humdrum classical programming in other many places.

At the Berliner Philharmoniker, the coming season will see part two of their new Mahler cycle, the first with Sir Simon, which is part of a series dedicated to chamber and orchestral music of the 1890s. Another intriguing, though less accessible, program is a late night series exploring the music of Luciano Berio.

The Rundfunk-Sinfonie and Marek Janowski will continue its acclaimed Wagner cycle with concert performances of “Tristan und Isolde” and “Tannhäuser,” while a parallel programme explores the influence of Slavic music on the German tradition.

And Berlin’s three full-time opera houses will be very busy, presenting 21 new productions, from “Lohengrin” to “Lulu,” rarely staged works from Rihm and Nono and a world premiere from Christian Jost. 

A.J. Goldmann

A.J. Goldmann is a journalist and music critic. He is a Berlin correspondent for Opera News Magazine and Gramophone, and a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal.

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