Impresii dintr-o altă lume
On a memorable Thursday, September 3rd, 8 p.m., Palace Hall
Berliner Philharmoniker, Conductor: Sir Simon Rattle
Britten – Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge
Shostakovich – Symphony nr. 4 in C minor op. 43
Normally, I shouldn’t say anything more. What could one write? A long enumeration of dithyrambs, all of them justified, no matter how bombastic they could appear, up to triteness. Moreover, only the overwhelming atmosphere, like a claw around your heart, could calm down the pulse that has been rising to 200 beats per minute.
The Berliner Philharmoniker coming to Bucharest has created an extraordinary expectation. Records over records, superlatives over superlatives, let’s leave all this aside. Let’s talk about music and about how it was.
They said the program proposed by Berliner is difficult. Why? Because Britten and Shostakovich are seldom played in Romania? I have already said it, Shostakovich is, at the moment, the fashionable composer in the West. Due to his symphonism, he is compared to Beethoven, a Beethoven of the XXth century. People are humming his waltz on stadiums. This preference great orchestras give to Dmitri Shostakovich’s music does nothing else but attracting other composers in its wake, composers who were contemporary with him. Such as Britten. But also George Enescu, even though his style is totally opposed to that of the Soviet composer, but precisely because of this, because we know that opposites attract. I sometimes think that Enescu might have got to compose as Shostakovich if he had not left for Paris, in 1946. Just imagine for a second.
But let’s start with the beginning. Britten. The Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge are nothing else but ten proofs of love that Britten-the student shows to Frank Bridge-his teacher. Britten took a theme from Bridge and, to each of the ten variations, he attached a feeling of admiration for his teacher: integrity, energy, charm, humour, tradition, enthusiasm, vitality, sympathy, reverence, skill, ending with their mutual affection.
A work for a string orchestra. Berliner Philharmoniker, reduced to its strings, played it as if it were a full-team orchestra, and I am not talking about the volume, but about the roundness of the sounds produced by the string quartet. After all, this composition, that was Britten’s first important success, is connected to an iconic piece in the English music: the Enigma Variations, by Edward Elgar, where each variation was the portrait of one of the composer’s friends. The difference is given by the musical language, that changed and became more modern between 1899 and 1937, the years of the premieres of the two works. Between these years – a world war and a Belle Epoque that soon disappeared. Maybe the names of Britten and Bridge do not have important significations in Romania. But they are important for a British composer, a Sir, such as Sir Simon Rattle. Then just imagine that Yehudi Menuhin would be Britten and George Enescu would be Bridge.
During the concert at the Palace Hall, the strings of the Berliner Philharmoniker excelled in how they managed to enter all at once, as if this was the most simple thing in the world. And their sound was so clear, that the long-discussed “prepared” acoustics of the hall was completely put in perspective. Great orchestras manage to adapt to the hall, so that problems that seem impossible to solve simply disappear. I find it impossible to choose, from the 11 parts of Benjamin Britten’s work, the one that I loved the most. It wasn’t until the end that I realised there had been no woodwinds, no brass, no percussion.
The break came early, because the first part of the program did not last more than half an hour. Next: Shostakovich. In the very hall where, more than 25 years ago, the Romanian Communist Party held its last congress. I suddenly remembered Ioan Holender’s self-irony, as he was forced by circumstances to deliver his farewell speech from the artistic management of Enescu Festival in the same place of “congresses and parties”. One can be calm before a symphony by Shostakovich only if one has never listened to such a thing before. Otherwise, you just ask yourself if you are going to be healthy-minded at the end of the concert. And suddenly, all the Mahler I had heard the days before this seemed completely harmless, benign. What if Enescu had composed a symphony in the ’50s, while staying in Romania? Hm, he was not sarcastic, not even in music. I cannot imagine the labour for doing this, or the result, but maybe he would have produced the most hermetic music ever.
The fact that Sir Simon Rattle chose Symphony Nr. 4 instead of the much more famous Nr. 5 or 7 or 10 has very logical reasons. It is the symphony that best highlights all the compartments of a symphony orchestra, during long intervals, there is no instrument that does not demonstrate its capabilities and no player who does not show his class. Maybe you know the story of the Soviet composer, still I will remind the fact that this symphony was composed in the years of the Great Purge, 1935 – 1936. It is important to know that the draft had been ready before Shostakovich was attacked by Jdanov in Pravda, denounced as a formalist, and a decadent, before his music was considered as mud. Until then, the musician had been cultivated by the regime, in which he sincerely believed up to a certain point, even though we can find traces of his sarcasm even in his first symphony. Shostakovich is suddenly trapped in the implacable machine of the totalitarian state, very close to being deported to the Gulag. The story says that he was not deported only because the officer in charge with his investigation was arrested before finalising his accusations. This is why Symphony Nr. 4 is more complex than the ones that followed. Each of its parts is elaborated and full of details, colours, you name it… so the accusations of formalism could have been repeated even more furiously. The composer abandons the idea of presenting the symphony, stops the rehersals, quickly composes an autodafé, which is Symphony Nr. 5: “a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism”, in fact a symphony that hides an entire revolt against the system, irony, even sarcasm, compassion for the victims and a very bad taste apotheosis, which is nothing else but a huge laughter amidst the tears of an immense tragedy.
Choosing Symphony Nr. 4 for the concert in Bucharest is, at the same time, a declaration of iconoclasm: Sir Simon Rattle made Shostakovich’s best quality music and symphonism prevail, when they were not yet altered by the political pressures, in front of a speech with painful significations in a post-communist country. Still, it is significant that Sergiu Celibidache, to whom Ioan Holender paid his respects in his speech, was a promoter of Shostakovich’s symphonies when he was the music director of Berliner Philharmoniker, 70 years ago. And this was the period when the Berliners made the most important number of recordings with the Soviet composer’s music.
How was the concert? The first part, Allegretto, poco moderato, was absolutely amazing. How do they do it? How do they manage to play so together, all these musicians, no less than one hundred? The subtlety of this hide and seek game in the sonata form was implemented with serious nonchalance, and Simon Rattle conducted with economical gestures, “dotted” with moments of stillness.
Presto. Violins can sound as if they were one, as long as the two concertmasters, Noah Bendix-Balgley (who was present last night on stage and delivered a concert in itself in the solo of the fourth part) and Daishin Kashimoto, have their own solo careers, who are also important: the first played Beethoven’s Violin Concert in Pittsburgh in 2012, the second one records CD after CD, with Beethoven’s or Fauré’s sonatas, besides their activity in the chamber ensembles where they are members. Or when the third concertmaster, Daniel Stabrawa, plays Vivaldi together with Nigel Kennedy in the Concert for two violins. Laurențiu Dincă, the Romanian in the Berliner Philharmoniker, plays on a Guarnieri. Shall I continue? Yes, with that obsessive gallop of percussion, that returns in the end, in a more elaborate form. Besides the musical tension, besides aesthetics, there is nothing else but the implacable, the difference between dictatorship and totalitarianism. If the first includes a dose of arbitrary, especially in politics, the second one affects all activities in a society, which is now regulated based on an ideological program. Implacable. Those thunders, so difficult from the technical point of view, in that complex rhythm of the symphony, do nothing but stealing your soul little by little.
And then what joy can bring the waltz in the third part, Moderato con motto? Only that of the winds’ perfection. From my seat, I could perfectly see Emmanuel Pahud through the violins’ bows: the most important flute player of the last twenty years. Each of his solos was perfect. The famous basson solos, specific for Shostakovich, seemed from another world and made the sounds of Stefan Schweigert’s instrument have completely unusual colours. And over this extraordinary orchestra ruled a conductor who did not have to push things, but only to require expressiveness. A balanced expressiveness, far from being cold, that came when ordered, naturally, as if this was the only option possible. Expressiveness rewarded by the conductor with smiles.
The last part… Is it the last part already? That’s ok, it lasts nearly half an hour. But it’s a half an hour more and more burdened, more and more tensed. From desolation to sound islands of groups of instruments, that become chamber ensembles, cut by string tuttis, that turn everything into a shiver. Any trace of relaxation disappeared a long time ago. Everything is more and more overwhelming. The last Allegro has been prepared for a long time in order to be simply frightening. Rattle keeps smiling, I don’t know why. Around us, only ashes and slag. The wild percussion stops suddenly, so does the hysteria of the brass. The flute is lamenting funereally and, in the foggy atmosphere of the double basses pulsations, I can see people around me frozen in their seats, perplex, tasting the bitterness in their mouths, like me, many of them looking down, unable to look towards the stage. Rattle stands stone-still. Shy applauses, then going counterclockwise with the music of the last seven or eight minutes. In a few moments, they have become a storm. It’s over.
Photo Gallery – (c) Enescu Festival:
Photo Gallery – (c) Romeo Zaharia