Sunday, April 12, 2020

Hokey-Smoke, It's Like We're Actually In Berlin -- Well, Sort Of -- For Easter Week


Here we see (part of) the interior of the Great Hall of Berlin's Philharmonie, the (shall we say) unusual building built in 1960-63 -- under the watchful eye of then-chief conductor Herbert von Karajan -- to house one of the world's elite orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic. Now imagine it even emptier. without anything on the stage floor, and mostly darkened, since at present the orchestra, like so many performers of all descriptions around the world, is unable to perform before live audiences.

Now imagine, in that empty, sparsely lit Philharmonie, Stefan Dohr, the Berlin Phil's principal horn since 1993 (the year he turned 28!), alone on the stage floor in casual dress (jeans, wasn't it?), playing this:

(Yes, that's Stefan! I'm pretty sure -- see the box below.)

by Ken

So here I was a few days ago going on and on about the treasure trove of riches providentially available to us online in our time of crisis, and now I'm spending half my time sharing a week's worth of Easter with the Berlin Philharmonic, absolutely free.

The other Stefan, de Laval Jezierski
It's a moment I won't soon forget, watching Stefan Dohr standing alone on the Philharmonie stage floor, talking to a live-stream camera about the music of Gustav Mahler and the "festival of horns" he bequeathed to the world's horn players in his symphonies, then playing the haunting horn call that opens the first of the two "Nachtmusik" ("Night Music") movements, the 2nd and 4th movements overall, of Mahler's five-movement Seventh Symphony. After Stefan told us that one thing he misses when he practices some of Mahler's great horn solos at home is the echo the composer sometimes provided, usually played by the 3rd horn, he raised his instrument and sounded this gorgeous horn call -- and lo! there were answering echoes! The camera showed us that they were coming from farther-up reaches of the empty Philharmonie, where Stefan's Berlin Phil colleague Stefan de Leval Jezierski could be seen manning his horn. Wow!!!

I'm assuming it's Stefan playing the 1st horn part in that clip, from a Berlin Phil Mahler Seventh recorded live in May 2001 -- in the Philharmonie, of course -- under then-chief conductor Claudio Abbado. In the clip, yeah, I hear the echoes, I guess, but if I didn't know that they were there, I wonder. Since later we're going to hear a performance where the echoes seem to me just as clearly too loud, let's take another moment to hear the effect more the way I imagine Mahler imagined it:

New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. DG, recorded live, Nov.-Dec. 1985


Bear in mind that the Berlin Philharmonic is a democratically run orchestra, which elects its own chief conductor. Claudio Abbado succeeeded the mega-legendary Herbert von Karajan, chief conductor since succeeding Wilhelm Furtwängler in 1954, in 1989 and remained till 2002 (he died in 2014), when he was succeeded by Sir Simon Rattle, who stayed through 2018, even as he was assuming his new post as music director of the London Symphony in 2017, while the orchestra waited for Kirill Petrenko, who was elected to succeed him in 2015, to take the reins formally, which happened in 2019.


. . . via a free live stream from the Berlin Philharmonic's really interesting Digital Concert Hall (and then again via a DCH rebroadcast the following morning, which meant being up and logged in by 7am EDT; thank goodness I'm not in the Pacific zone!), so I could see it all the way through, clear-headed and without uninterruption, Episode 2 of the Berlin Philharmonic's Easter@Philharmonie Festival, this one devoted entirely to Mahler. It was a good show, as you might gather from the fact that I got up at the crack of dawn to rewatch the whole thing. I don't think I looked at my watch till near the end, at about the hour-and-a-half mark.

It's Sarah -- seen here with her horn!
I should make clear that the two horn-playing Stefans weren't absolutely the only live humans in the Philharmonie. I assume someone was operating the cameras and other equipment, and we had an English-speaking host, a Baltimore-born Briton, Sarah Willis -- in fact, yet another member of the Berlin Phil's renowned horn section. On this occasion Sarah was without her instrument, but we saw her in many of the clips that were shown from the orchestra's extensive video archive. (On Saturday, in Episode 3, we got to hear her play! See below.) Sarah has said in interviews that throughout her horn-playing life she has been informed that horn-playing is a man's job, and the fact is that when she joined the orchestra in 2001 she was its first female brass player.

Sarah explained that this week the Berlin Philharmonic was supposed to be playing in its annual Baden-Baden Easter Festival, but like so many performers around the world they've had to cancel all their public performances. So the Easter@Philharmonie Festival was created, drawing mostly on that rich video archive, but supplementing it with a bunch of neat insertions: performances and conversations taking place now, more or less. (I don't know whether these were live or newly recorded for the occasion.)

In the Mahler episode, in addition to Stefan Dohr's horn talk, there was an incisive performance by soprano Anna Prohaska (a frequent Philharmonic guest) and Israeli pianist Matan Porat of Mahler's devastating Des Knaben Wunderhorn song "Das irdische Leben" ("Earthly Life"). And there was an archival look-back at Claudio Abbado's tenure.

The archival Mahler performances were all worthwhile, and some of them outstanding. The program began and ended with finales from consecutive symphonies: that of the Fifth Symphony, conducted by the energetic Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel in 2018, and the tempestuous nearly-half-hour one of the Sixth, conducted by Kirill Petrenko, who was to have conducted the work in Baden-Baden. The performance we saw was from this past January. It wasn't just finales. Two of the most lively performances were of "middle" movements: a beautifully controlled yet effervescent one by Andris Nelsons (now music director of both the Boston Symphony and Leipzig's Gewandhaus Orchestra) from 2013 of the third movement of the Second Symphony (based on Mahler's cosmically delightful Des Knaben Wunderhorn setting "Anthony of Padua's Fish-Preaching") and a buoyant, luminous one of the fifth movement of the Third by the talented young Swiss conductor Lorenzo Viotti from earlier this year (he was supposed to have repeated the symphony at Baden-Baden) with the boys' choir irresistibly bimm-bamm-ing while the women's chorus and mezzo-soprano Elina Garanča worked through the setting of yet another Wunderhorn song, "Es sungen drei Engel" ("There were three angels singing"). There was a complete performance of the Songs of a Wayfarer conducted by Simon Rattle in 2013, beautifully conducted and played, sung idiosyncratically (tending more toward various sorts of intoning rather than singing, with occasional phrases sung as a sort of effect) but clearly fastidiously thought out by baritone Christian Gerhaher. (Today in the DCH archive I heard him do a group of Mahler Wunderhorn songs that's almost all intoning.)


By the time I finished double-dipping on Episode 2, I'd already discovered that Episode 1, which I'd missed altogether, is already available via Digital Concert Hall, still free -- I hope this means the rest will be following. There's a substantial amount of free content available as well, including all of the large collection of artist interviews, which are often more like real conversations, since they're conducted by members of the orchestra. There are also some free concerts. You do have to be registered for the site, but you don't have to pay anything unless you want to watch some of the regular paid content.

And for a 30-day period once you accept this offer from DCH, you won't have to pay at all. In consideration of the current world crisis, they're offering everyone a free 30-day pass for the site.

To get (and redeem) your voucher for a free 30 days, go to the Digital Concert Hall website.

By the time I finished rewatching Episode 2, I already knew I could catch up on Episode 1, and I did. Here's how it's described on the website:
The Berliner Philharmoniker were preparing their traditional Easter Festival in Baden-Baden when all public events in Germany had to be cancelled due to the corona virus crisis. For the first time, Kirill Petrenko was to have led the festival as chief conductor, including performances of Beethoven’s Fidelio.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be: like everywhere else in the world, the concert halls in Baden-Baden had to remain closed. In this situation, the Berliner Philharmoniker decided to offer their Digital Concert Hall audience an online festival consisting of archive recordings and film clips, as well as new interviews and small chamber music performances produced in the Philharmonie.

The first episode of the series focuses on the history and future of the Easter Festival founded by Herbert von Karajan in Salzburg in 1967 – and which moved to the city of Baden-Baden in 2013. In an interview, Kirill Petrenko talks about his plans for the coming years. In 2021, for example, Mazeppa will be the first opera by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to be staged in the history of the Easter Festival.

The Philharmoniker’s horn player Sarah Willis guides the audience through the episode which among other things includes orchestra members performing French chamber music. In addition, concertmaster Daniel Stabrawa recounts memories of the trips to the Salzach with Herbert von Karajan, and Albrecht Mayer, principal oboist of the orchestra, tells of unforgettable moments with Claudio Abbado, who is also to be seen in rehearsal excerpts from the Elektra production in Salzburg.

Crises sharpen awareness of those aspects of life that cannot be guided or controlled by the individual, that is, the entity known as fate. Not only Ludwig van Beethoven, the anniversary of whose birth is celebrated in 2020, but Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky too considered this again and again in his music. Kirill Petrenko already conducted a celebrated performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony at the 2019 Baden-Baden Easter Festival. The first episode of the Easter@Philharmonie Festival concludes with a recording of the same work from the Philharmonie. It is preceded by a conversation in which Kirill Petrenko presents his view of the work. Accordingly, at the heart of the symphony is the theme that for Tchaikovsky was “the dearest and the worst”: namely “how to face what is called fate”.


Writing on Saturday, I've now seen Episode 3, in which Tugan Sokhiev, music director of the Bolshoi Theater, conducts Prokofiev, Ravel (with pianist Hélène Grimaud), and a grand performance of the above-mentioned Mussorgsky-Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition, and the now-92-year-old Herbert Blomstedt conducts Mozart (with pianist Leif Ove Andsnes) and the brass-popping Scherzo of the Bruckner Fourth Symphony. Among the new empty-hall features: With Bruckner on the brain, three Berlin trombonists play two Aequali, and our new old friend Sarah Willis, now packing her horn (hurrah!), joins three other Berlin horn players (our other new old friends the two Stefans -- Dohr and de Leval Jezierski -- and the Slovenian Andrej Žust) in an arrangement of a Bruckner Andante.

Today there were technical glitches, notably a transmission gap of about six minutes that began while we were hearing the two "1st concertmasters" besides longtime concertmaster Daniel Stabrawa (and there's yet another just-plain-"concertmaster"), Noah Bendix-Balgley and Daishin Kashimoto, who as Sarah pointed out are rarely in the Philharmonie at the same time, play part of the Mozart Duo, K. 424. It looks like I may be on dawn watch again Sunday!

Episode 4, which we now know will be devoted to Beethoven, is still on tap for Monday (at a guess, 1pm EDT -- UPDATE: no, it turns out to be 2pm EDT!) and Tuesday (presumably once again 7am EDT). As of now, only Episode 1 is already available in the DCH, but Episodes 2 and 3 are listed as "available soon." Presumably DCH is stretching out the roll-out with little likelihood of much other new material being added anytime soon. Today, with my free 30-day subscription activated, I watched in their entirety the Blomstedt Mozart and Bruckner performances excerpted in Episode 3, from the same Philharmonie concert this past January: a really bold and beautiful account of Mozart's grand Piano Concerto No. 22 with Leif Ove Andsnes, and an altogether outstanding-in-every-way Bruckner 4. Remember, this guy turned 92 last July!


As I explained last time, I'm experimenting with tacking on a musical post to each post I write. The idea is that the musical bonus isn't necessarily related to the post itself. Today's is, though, and it seems kind of obvious. Generously as Mahler was represented in the Easter@Philharmonie Festival Mahler episode, its only representation of his once-most-cryptic-and-forbidding but now-performed-everywhere Seventh Symphony was horn principal Stefan Dohr's above-referenced sounding (with echo) of the first "Nachtmusik" movement, which I think epitomizes the symphony's profound strangeness and also uniquely Mahlerian wonderfulness.

So naturally we should hear the whole of the "Nachtmusik I" performances we excerpted earlier: from Claudio Abbado's second Mahler Seventh recording and Leonard Bernstein's third (counting his in-between video one with the Vienna Philharmonic). Or almost: From Lenny B we're hearing not the 1985 recording with the New York Philharmonic but the 1965, not because I don't love the 1985 one but because the 1965 one was not only perhaps my favorite installment in Lenny's first recorded Mahler symphony cycle but the recording through which I came to really love the piece — for me Lenny made more complete sense of this so-strange symphony than anybody else I've heard. Finally, as Sarah Willis pointed out, Mahler has been a large musical presence throughout the career of former Berlin Phil chief conductor Simon Rattle, and while I wasn't a fan of his pre-Berlin EMI Mahler cycle (nearly all with his former orchestra, the City of Birmingham Symphony), given that this is probably Mahler's hardest-to-make-sense-of symphony I was surprised how much I liked Rattle's CBSO recording (though surely here the 3rd horn's echoes of the 1st horn's solo are too loud).

As for the Solti and Scherchen versions, well, I was having trouble with two of the other clips and thought I'd have to replace them, and then I found these in the Sunday Classics archive (from a long-ago Mahler Seventh post), and I figured what the heck? By the way, Solti's 1st horn is the Chicago Symphony's legendary horn principal Dale Clevenger.

MAHLER: Symphony No. 7: ii. Nachtmusik I: Allegro moderato

Berlin Philharmonic, Claudio Abbado, cond. DG, recorded live, May 2001

New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. Columbia-CBS-Sony, recorded Dec. 14-15, 1965

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle, cond. EMI, recorded June 21-22, 1991

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded May 1971

Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Hermann Scherchen, cond. Live performance, recorded 1965

Actually there's another item we could have heard as our bonus: the Mahler song "Das irdische Leben" ("Earthly Life"), which I mentioned soprano Anna Prohaska and pianist Matan Porat performed so incisively for the live-stream audience in the empty spaces of the Philharmonie. We've got a bunch of perfomances in the Sunday Classics archive, but that'll have to wait for another occasion.

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At 4:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I’m listening to EASTER@PHILHARMONIE FESTIVAL: EPISODE 2. Brilliant. Thanks so much for your post!!

At 5:05 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Oh wow, thanks! That you're actually listening -- this is one of the nicest comments I've ever gotten. Enjoy!


At 9:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

love these. LOVED the "Nutcracker" one the best. Best music ever written.


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