Friday, May 1, 2020

The Berlin Philharmonic's 2020 European Concert was one for the memory books

Up betimes, as Samuel Pepys used to say, to catch the European Concert of the Berlin Philharmonic.
Kirill Petrenko is the music director of the Berlin Philharmonic.

This annual event, celebrating 30 years and normally traveling to distinctive European cities for the orchestra to perform, this time had to stay at home, the Philharmonie in Berlin, and make other adjustments under the unique mandates of the worldwide Coronavirus pandemic. The 2020 concert was scheduled to have taken place in Tel Aviv, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the collapse of another horror.

This was the first live concert I've "attended" in months, shared with many around the world through technological miracles that are helping us stay in touch in this severely isolating era. It was worth being up at 5 to see and hear small contingents of the BPO play to an empty hall under the direction of Kirill Petrenko.

Pepys, the diarist of Restoration England whose intimate chronicles  of the 1660s include details of the plague in London,  provides premonitions of life under Covid-19. The 2020 European Concert was thoroughly under the spell of the pandemic, yet somehow transcended it. Petrenko nodded to the concertmaster instead of shaking hands. The musicians maintained social distance, placed judiciously along three stage tiers. They had been tested for the virus beforehand, the broadcast host informed us.

The concert's first half didn't require changes beyond spacing. It was a triptych of pieces for strings (plus claves as sole percussion in "Fratres" by Arvo Pärt).  "Fratres," a contemporary hit in several versions, has never sounded so moving as it did here. The deceptively simple representation of a procession of monks gained something uncanny in this set-up.

The program benefited from a bracing piece between "Fratres" and the equally solemn, tunefully restrained "Adagio for Strings" by Samuel Barber. It was Gyorgy Ligeti's "Ramifications," a tightly shifting soundscape in which thematic clarity is jettisoned in favor of textural intensity. It was amazing to hear the effect of such a performance hanging together as it must in spite of a seating arrangement that threatened to overemphasize individual voices.

The familiar Barber was given an admirable interpretation. The great high-register climax was not overstressed, as it is in some performances that flip the piece's memorial import, suggesting the wrong kind of climax. I also liked the prominence of the viola countermelody early in the performance, which reminded me of how well Krzysztof Urbanski brought out that passage with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra several years ago.

A brief intermission offered viewers a well-done film documentary of the European Concert's three-decade history, following which was a greater challenge for the musicians: a chamber-orchestra version of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 4. Erwin Stein's arrangement was insightful and true to Mahler's idiom in a modestly scaled work that had to be even more modestly scaled here.

Especially effective was the reading the chamber orchestra gave of the Adagio, said to be Mahler's favorite of all his slow movements. The two keyboard instruments used, piano and small organ, helped flesh out the harmonies, with the organ especially useful in enveloping the solo winds in a sostenuto atmosphere. Episodes in the minor mode were particularly trenchant with these reduced forces.

The finale, a setting of a blissful vision of heavenly feasting, capped the performance in a manner that makes this symphony a favorite of many who normally despise Mahler for lack of restraint and emotional elephantiasis; it was the only Mahler symphony the late Raymond Leppard ever programmed in his long tenure as the ISO's music director.

The solo soprano, Christiane Karg, put across the song that dominates the movement as if well aware of her worldwide audience; the empty hall did not tempt her to mute her expressiveness. I loved the reverent hush with which she sang, and Petrenko lingered on, the line "Saint Martha shall be the cook." Saint Martha, Michael Steinberg explains in his masterly essay on this symphony, "is the patron saint of those engaged in service of the needy."

So the reference to her in Mahler's Fourth took on special meaning, since the concert was dedicated to refugee children suffering particularly from the extra burden of the pandemic as they shelter indefinitely on a Greek island. The musicians had waived their usual compensation to contribute to UNESCO aid for these victims, and the audience was invited to consider similar donations.

The promise in the work's final lines is well-suited to the world's need to sustain hope, both for the resumption of public artistic events and for true solutions to the current plague: "Die englischen Stimmen / Ermuntern die Sinnen! / Dass Alles für Freuden erwacht."  (The angelic voices gladden our senses, so that all awake for joy). May it be so.

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