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Christian Thielemann [Photo by Matthias Creutziger]
02 Jan 2017

A Vocally Extravagant Saturday Night with Berliner Philharmoniker

One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.

A Vocally Extravagant Saturday Night with Berliner Philharmoniker

A review by David Pinedo

Above: Christian Thielemann [Photo by Matthias Creutziger]

 

In the first concert, Christian Thielemann led four soloists and a choir in Bruckner’s Third Mass with an unexpected light result. Before the intermission, Gidon Kremer performed In Tempus Praesens, Sofia Gubaidulina’s second concerto for violin and orchestra. In the Saturday Late Night concert, Barbara Hannigan joined Simon Rattle and several Berliners in a sensual performance of Gérard Grisey’s apocalyptical Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil.

Fascinated, I witnessed the vastly different, but equally persuasive, styles of Thielemann’s slight aggression in his artistically authoritarian ways as opposed to Rattle’s inviting and democratically inclusive approach.

Kremer appeared to have a Herculean task in Gubaidulina’s enchanting cosmos of extremes. When you see her for the first time, you cannot help but be surprised by her tiny frame as the vessel for such fiery music. She channels her coarse, instinctive energy through an uncompromising intellectual curiosity that makes her compositons sound extreme, yet familiarly approachable.

50124-gidon-kremer---paolo-pellegrin---magnum-photos-7-resized.pngGidon Kremer [Photo by Paolo Pellegrin]

Sophie Ann Mutter and Rattle premiered the work at the Lucerne Festival ten years ago. Then, it was perceived as a nurturing work, but tonight Kremer infused it with an inexhaustible rawness emanating from his aged musicality. Highly dramatic and elaborate, it was not what I expected from the legendary violinist. In fact, tonight’s rendition would have suited the horrors of humanity of a Stanley Kubrick film. Absolutely thrilling!

As if his life depended on it, Mr. Kremer turned into a technical wizard on the violin. The Latvian soloist thrived in Gubaidulina’s states of frenzy, as he crevassed up and down her icy hot spikes. He had few moments where he could catch his breath. In an exhilarating crescendo, passion flowed as Emmanuel Pahud quarrelled with Kremer back and forth on the flute, producing one of the orchestral highlights of the evening. During the cadenza Kremer sustained razor sharp focus. He turned his play into a thirty-minute sprint, rather than a steady marathon.

Containing the violent outbursts from the percussion and the horrifyingly shrieking edges yelped by the trombones, Thielemann kept clear tempi for Gubaidulina. His tight control created a serrated edge to the Berliner sound. In a disorienting novelty, reverberating overtones seemed to dampen each other creating unusual pockets of deafness.

In Bruckner, Thielemann let himself shine as he disclosed his inner-artistic exuberance. The Mass No. 3 in F minor for soloists, choir, and organ was performed with Paul Hawkshaw’s 2005 edition. It includes Robert Haas’s sonorous organ passages. The brilliance and depth of the Berliner strings burned in the “Credo” as they repeated their motifs, a typical building block of Bruckner’s industrialism. Christian Schmitt guested on the organ, his vibrations grounded the Mass, adding heavy depths underneath the light tone of the orchestra.

In the beginning, the Bayreuth soprano Anne Schwanewilms seemed to phone in her performance. She did not hit her stride until the Benedictus, and ultimately proved her worth and then some with the final verse “dona nobis pacem”. Michael Schade’s tenor voice sounded sturdy and decent, but he just did not seem too involved.

On the other hand, Franz-Joseph Selig’s bass charmed with character as an ameliorating contrast to Schade’s missing. And one must not forget, Wiebke Lehmkuhl’s alto role! With her tree trunk of a voice, she grounded Bruckner with an earthy gravitas. When she sang, she became a backbone to the voices, connecting all the branches, bringing about a determined sense of cohesion.

Above all, the Rundfunkchor Berlin prepared by Gijs Leenaars, proved vital. As one breathing organism of Bruckner’s vocal brilliance, this tremendous choir blew me away. In the Gloria and Credo their voices induced a thrilling current in Thielemann’s momentum. Fortissimo and pianissimo, these singers provoked skin crawling effects over my arms throughout the evening.

Now without baton and much more instinctual, Thielemann basked Bruckner in glory. He conducted with both hands free. While leaning back like a painter observing his work in progress, his other hand curved slight nuances on his orchestral canvas. He was clearly more at home in Bruckner than Gubaidulina.

With all the noise from Bayreuth over Thielemann’s reign, the conductor came across much less stolid than I had anticipated. Although in his violently incisive gestures I recognised an authoritarian, I also detected a surprisingly warm heartedness that effectively permeated through the BPO. Thielemann elucidated the many virtues of the BPO, especially from the brilliant brass in the Gloria that might as well have reflected the splendour at Heaven’s Gate.

David Pinedo

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