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Reviews

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Weimar Berlin - Bittersweet Metropolis: Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra

Strictly speaking, The Weimar Republic began on 11th August 1919 when the Weimar Constitution was announced and ended with the Enabling Act of 23rd March 1933 when all power to enact laws without the involvement of the Reichstag was disbanded.

Weimar Berlin - Bittersweet Metropolis: Philharmonia Ochestra

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Esa Pekka Salonen

Photo credit: Minna Hatinen

 

The Weimar Berlin: Bittersweet Metropolis programme notes gives us a wider timeline - beginning with the Wilhelmshaven sailor’s mutiny (which was to pre-empt the 1918-1919 German Revolution) and ends with the German invasion of Poland on 1st September 1939. These broader dates certainly sit more easily with some of the works included in future concerts in this series such as excerpts from Busoni’s Doktor Faust (at the very earliest end), presumably some cabaret songs, but most notably Alban Berg’s 1935 Violin Concerto.

What is unquestionably the case is that the thirteen years up to the Enabling Act embrace one of the most radical, creative and influential periods of art, philosophy and science in European culture; likewise, the almost equal number of years which followed it, is a period of one of the most savage attempts to unwind, repress or eradicate it entirely - not just from a single country, but from much of a continent, whilst also eliminating a whole race who had contributed so much to it during the Weimar years.

It is perhaps German Expressionism which most epitomises the Weimar Republic, even though some artists and musicians would later oppose its influences. Robert Wiene, F.W.Murnau and Fritz Lang would in cinema explore the disintegration, warped destruction, social fragmentation and chaos of a Berlin in flux - though a decade later Joseph von Sternberg would repudiate this vision in films like The Blue Angel which came as close as any to visualising its decadence through the world of cabaret. Georg Wilhelm Pabst and William Dieterle did as much as any to make films about the prostitution and homosexuality which were openly part of late 1920s German society. If after 1933 Hitler would come to describe these kinds of art as degenerate it was because they often stood for forms of propaganda - and inherently Marxist ones as well.

That the music which Esa-Pekka Salonen has chosen for this series - especially in his first concert - should mirror a wider cultural exploration of Berlin during this period is no surprise, and nor is it one that it should be taken from cities like Vienna (the birthplace of Alban Berg). Beginning with Three Pieces (or, Fragments) from Wozzeck, we’re already tracing the influences of early German cinema with its brutalist, uncompromising sadism - though what film could convey in oblique lines and disorienting angles against menacing shadows, Berg can do with music that amplifies itself through atonalism, varying pitches and drama of searing intensity.

Certainly not the easiest music with which to open a concert - you’d rather expect an orchestra to build up to the kind of impact Berg demands - the performance was extremely compelling. In one sense, Wozzeck is an opera which looks forward, with some prescience, to the horrors of the Third Reich rather than to those of the Weimar Republic - though Berg was using a libretto based on the reactionary horrors from a century before. Its themes of militarism, characters who becomes victims of a society they neither understand nor can escape, sadistic brutality and violence against each other and medical experimentation are indictments of social injustice and, as it happens, rather more relevant than to any single time in history.

The Three Fragments compress much into twenty minutes of music, though it requires a soprano with a gift for narrative and the ability to immerse herself very quickly into the character of Marie to bring it off. Angela Denoke was largely a superb advocate for these pieces, even down to her impressive stage presence which was racked with intensity: the quivering body, the deeply reflective eyes, the moulded hand gestures. Her ability to bring sectional contrast to the first fragment was exceptionally convincing. Denoke could be searing in her lamentation of infatuation for her Drum Major and the guilt of the child born out of wedlock; but in singing a lullaby to the child she became unbearably touching. She was equally telling in the second fragment. Reading from the Bible of Jesus’s meeting with an adulterous woman, Denoke became not just aware of the uncertainty of her own future but of the eventual downfall she was to meet. The violent outburst of ‘Herr Gott! Sieh’ mich nicht an!’ was crushing and seemed to come from nowhere - a searing reminder of the music that dominates the final fragment. But this second piece is entirely written to shore up the contradictions between hope and despair and Denoke was more than equal to doing this.

The final fragment is Berg at his most Mahlerian, though perhaps the climax of this music owes as much to Wagner as it does to Mahler. Perhaps divided violins might have helped a touch here (something Salonen has never much been in favour of) but no matter - the playing of the Philharmonia was scorching, especially in the shattering climax of the lament.

Hindemith’s Concerto for Orchestra, which followed the Berg, felt distinctly anachronistic beside the Wozzeck fragments. More than some of the composers included in this series, Hindemith is a composer who embraced expressionism and then later turned against it - something which was to cause him to have a complex relationship with the Third Reich during the 1930s (though he emigrated before the outbreak of war). This 1925 work looks as far back as the Baroque for its inspiration. The Concerto clearly treats particular sets of instruments in the orchestra as separate voices - in the first movement this is a solo bassoon, oboe and violin; in the second brass and percussion; in the fourth it’s given over to basses. The performance was dazzling.

As compelling as the Berg had been in the first half of the concert, it was Kurt Weill’s Suite from The Threepenny Opera which left a simply unforgettable impression. I suppose one might have regretted the lack of any vocal music here, but Max Schönherr’s 1956 Suite (which drops three items from the original arrangement but adds an additional one) was Weimar from beginning to end. It’s been said of this work that it is “the weightiest lowbrow opera for highbrows and the most full-blooded highbrow musical for lowbrows” (Hans Keller) and Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra rather took this to heart. Big band jazz, played by great orchestras, can sometimes be a fascinating experience (even experiment) but the sheer opulence and ravishing sound we got here was breath-taking. The idea that any of this music, that its Hogarthian depiction of a city, should sound quite this lush is probably slightly repellent but despite the rich strings it felt slightly neutered by Salonen’s nod to Weill’s original orchestration. There was no denying the superb playing on muted brass, the jazzy clarinets and piercing flutes. ‘Mack the Knife’ crooned wonderfully (if over-emphatically); it all felt very stylish, if hardly particularly socialist.

The final work, Shostakovich’s Revolutionary finale from The Golden Age presented a slightly darker side of Weimar Germany. It captures the composer’s fascination with football on the one hand, but scores political goals through its narrative of match rigging, police harassment, imprisonment and the Marxist class struggle. The scoring for this work is like a ballet for soccer players: raucous percussion, blazing brass, strings battling through this maelstrom of sound. Salonen and the Philharmonia whipped up a frenzy of playing which was barely unrestrained in its riotous violence. Shostakovich may well have this ballet end with the solidarity of workers and his football team overthrowing their capitalist oppressors, but the irony of the oppression which was soon to come didn’t quite go unnoticed in this riveting performance.

Weimar Berlin: Bittersweet Metropolis continues on 23rd September 2019.

Marc Bridle

Berg - Three Pieces from Wozzeck, Hindemith - Concerto for Orchestra, Weill - The Threepenny Opera: Suite (arr. Schönherr), Shostakovich - The Golden Age: Revolutionary Finale

Angla Denoke (soprano), Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Philharmonia Orchestra

Royal Festival Hall, London; Sunday 9th June 2019.

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