On September 8, throngs of fashionably dressed young people waited outside Berlin’s legendary Admiralspalast theatre, spilling out of the large courtyard and down onto Friedrichstrasse, eagerly awaiting a performance by the acclaimed British sound artist Matthew Herbert.
Herbert (who had performed several nights earlier at Berlin’s legendary techno club, Berghain) was on hand for the first performance of his “Recomposed” version of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, which was released on the Deutsche Grammophon label earlier this year.
“Recomposed” is a crossover series on DG where non-classical musicians are invited to leave their mark on classical repertoire. Previous instalments in the ongoing series include recastings of Varèse and Reich by experimental Finnish DJ Jimi Tenor, and Ravel and Mussorgsky redone by techno gurus Carl Craig and Moritz von Oswald.
On the recording, Herbert uses the Giuseppe Sinopoli recording (also in the DG catalogue) with the Philharmonia Orchestra of the roughly half-hour-long Adagio of Mahler’s unfinished symphony. On stage at the Admiralspalast, Herbert was joined by Berlin's Konzerthausorchester, who are in the midst of their own Mahler exploration this season.
The packed event was the tenth anniversary celebration of "Yellow Lounge", the innovative Deutsche Grammophon series that brings classical music (and late-night DJ sets) to club venues throughout Germany in the hopes of attracting new audiences. Previous events in Berlin have been held at many of the city's premier clubs (Berghain, Watergate, WMF) and have included the Emerson Quartet and violinist Vadim Repin.
The performance was aurally and visually oversaturated. Working with a live orchestra, rather than a recording, Herbert dubbed the musicians, added distortions and extra-musical elements (birds squawking, for instance) during a 30-minute performance that also included video projection. Herbert was very busy at his soundboard, but it was difficult to tell who exactly was doing what.
The Konzerthausorchester played from behind a curtain that periodically opened to admit the audience a view, only to close seconds later so the moody video projection could resume. Herbert played back the performance, having just recorded it from inside a coffin that lay off to the side of the stage with a bouquet of flowers on it. It was unclear whether the other gimmicks that Herbert employs in the recording (recording the winding and forlorn andante melody for unaccompanied viola at the composer’s grave in Vienna, and recording a playback of the richer, more dance-like adagio theme inside a crematorium) were being used here, or if he had discarded those stunts with a full orchestra at his command.
Furthermore, the opening and closing of the curtains and the activity of the lights quickly became irritating and confusing. After one had gotten over the bizarreness of the concept and execution, one was left with the suspicion that perhaps the idea of doing this piece live was problematic to begin with. Even so, the audience was incredibly generous with its applause and many stuck around afterwards for the (admittedly low-key) post-concert DJ session.
It is reported that Mahler once said that people should feel free to tinker with his scores after his death if they should find ways of improving them. One feels certain that Matthew Herbert’s “recomposed” of the unfinished Tenth is not quite what Mahler had in mind.