JWR Articles: Live Event - Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Featured performer: Karita Mattila) - September 4, 2010

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

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Challenging festival fare

There’s nothing like the summer to kick back and relax after a long fall/winter/spring full of work.

Sure, there are a lot of arts activities during the “season” that are meant to excite the senses and stimulate the mind. The latest creations (performed or exhibited) are fodder for staying in touch with the current state of any art.

Come summer, it’s time to unwind, smell the roses and—yes—hear some familiar music played at an exemplary level by today’s finest orchestras and ensembles. In the main, that is precisely what Lucerne Festival in Summer does.

For Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic’s last appearance at the 2010 Fest, the program was a fascinating mix of an Eros-infused first half (notably Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs) and an ear-testing avalanche of some of the finest orchestral textures, colours and ideas ever to fall from the pens of the best-loved sons of the “Second Viennese School.”

Following a legato-rich, detail-light Wagner Prelude, soprano Karita Mattila captured the capacity crowd with an emotionally charged performance of Strauss’ final vocal gems. Despite being frequently overshadowed by the Berliners (Rattle was content to let his talented charges forge ahead at full bore—all the more curious given the largely unnecessary paring down of the strings over the past couple of weeks), Mattila soared through the evocative lines—most especially “September”—and spoke to every heart in the hall.

After the pause, Rattle announced the re-ordering of the remaining three works (Schönberg and Webern switched places; Berg remained the closer) and requested the patrons to withhold their applause until the last mighty wooden hammerhead had struck the final blow for tonality-liberated music.

All of that said and heard, this plentiful bounty was clearly too much of a marvellous aural feast for many (the increase of candy-wrapper unfolding, coughs and purse rummaging only increased as Rattle and his intrepid musicians found most of the notes but not enough of the sublime subtext).

Surely 12 unrelated words will suffice to sum everything up!

Cells, much-percussion, intense, too-soft-for-comfort, anger, joy, sarcasm; fear; bombast, quietude, lack-of-breath, relief. JWR

Historical Perspective

Alban Berg, Three Pieces, Op. 6
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Claudio Abbado, London Symphony Orchestra
Five stars

With his mentor’s, Arnold Schönberg, harsh criticism swirling in his brain and the unstoppable cesspool of events boiling over to result in the unbelievable slaughter of World War I, it should come as no surprise that Berg’s first completed work for large orchestra is so anguished in its feeling, brutal in its statements and unrelenting in its tone of despair. For decades, much has been made as to how the “collapse” of tonality (nothing further to say: Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde being the first shot fired in that battle) led to the twelve-tone technique favoured by the Second Viennese School. With the pure application of the system’s principles exceedingly rare, perhaps the sounds that spilled forth out of the imaginations of these ground-breaking composers were merely a continuance of what creative artists have done since Adam and Eve: write about what they know and drape those ideas in the environment of their time.

In Claudio Abbado’s vivid reading from 1971 (with only a slight feeling of unfocus disturbing the first couple of minutes) the case for life’s circumstances informing the music—at least as much as the craft behind it—can be made.

The “Präludium,” bookended by gongs and snares-off drum, snarls its way to the midway big cry that is never far away from the atmosphere of gleaming leather and lovingly oiled guns preparing to make the world a better place.

In “Reigen,” there’s an eerie, ghostly, dreamlike aura that is at one with the notion of reality lost. Its many scraps of emerging themes (often accompanied by “heavenly” harp) only add to the feeling of otherworldliness even as Berg’s own was struggling to exist. A few bells and celeste lead to a beautifully rendered solo cello intervention which soon tries to erupt in further bombast. Quieter voices finally prevail only to be pulled down by the tuba into the growing morass of angst punctuated by col legno, deathly bow strokes and more mocking brass. The half-hearted attempt of normalcy via the waltz further reinforces the sarcasm of injured art.

The closing “March” through Berg’s troubled, desperate world is populated with an array of colourful characters along the route: some impatient, some ugly, some demanding and insisting on being heard. Curious flashes from the brass (Richard Strauss Til Eulenspiegel; Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—neither of which were intentional) support the notion of long-lost art being forgotten as everything “new” (including world order) was admired. Heard again and peering around us in 2010, how interesting (perhaps hopeful) to see the solid return of consonance to music and the relative lack of gargantuan human destruction. No worries: Mother Nature may well fill that void, driving composers into themselves to find a language that might describe that awful fury when fully unleashed. JWR

Between Performances

During the festival’s 38-day run, a wide variety of non-musical activities was sampled both in Lucerne and other parts of Switzerland. Because of the excellent local and inter-city transportation system, there’s plenty to see and do within a day’s reach and still be back in time for the next performance—Cultural Tourism at its best!

Just a short walk (or take one of the many boat trips from the docks in the centre of Lucerne) is Wagner House. No trip is complete without a visit to the Richard Wagner Museum—an ideal experience before attending your next concert! JWR

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Conductor - Simon Rattle
Comparative conductor - Claudio Abbado
Featured performer - Karita Mattila
Prelude to Bühnenweihfestspiel Parsifal - Richard Wagner
Four Last Songs - Richard Strauss
Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16 - Arnold Schönberg
Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6 - Anton Webern
Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6 - Alban Berg
Further information, future screening/performance/exhibition dates,
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Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Lucerne Festival The International Travel Writers Alliance
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