Last week the Berlin Philharmoniker gave what was by all accounts an outstanding concert in Oxford, commemorating the first of May as the date of their first ever concert. It is an anniversary event they practice every year in a different city in Europe, this year being helmed by Daniel Barenboim for a concert that included Elgar's Cello Concerto, which must have been especially poignant for Barenboim, taking place as it did at the birthplace of his late wife.
Fresh from gracing UK shores the Philharmoniker were back this week at their usual venue, the Philharmonie near Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, for a concert repeated over three nights focussing on Hungarian and Hungarian-influenced music. Again they were in the hands of a guest conductor, this time the American David Robertson, who did a fine job with what he was charged, executing his role with ease and with passion.
I'd been to the Philharmonie before, attending a string quartet concert there where the beguiling architecture was of as much interest as the music. Tonight the hall visually appeared somewhat different, holding as it did the massed ranks of an orchestra, and consequently transmitting a wholly different sound-character to that precise and intimate one of a chamber ensemble.
But the quality was of the same calibre. One got the impression, as orchestra and soloist blazed or oozed through their material, that the sound sought by the works' composers was done justice by the venue in a way that is quite rare. The seating in the auditorium surrounds the stage, so that the players are circumvented on all sides by the audience. The result is a listening venue where all available seats are prime spots, and where there is no great difference in listening experience between sitting in the stalls and sitting in the gods – whose space, indeed, sees these terms somewhat lose their meaning.
The first work on the programme was Liszt's Orpheus. It was in Weimar, under contract as court Kapellmeister, that Liszt embarked on the composition of a new genre of orchestral music, the symphonic poem. This genre was to give full embodiment to the breadth of the composer's aims, philosophical and poetic as well as music. But what at the time must have been vanguard has since settled comfortably into the category of easy-listening as far as classical music is concerned.
Appropriately enough the work opens with two harps acting as mimesis of the Greek poet's lyre. Themes follow each other unevenly, signalling an extension of the sonata form towards something purely evocative, a searching by way of music for something only music can search for. As a concert-opener it's perfect, not too long or demanding, lush on the ears. And here it was brought off well, Robertson measuring the work well in gradually bringing us to the crescendo at the work's end.
This was followed by Ligeti's Violin Concerto. A couple of years ago I saw this work performed by the London Sinfonietta along with its dedicatee and original soloist, Saschko Gawriloff. It was excellent then, but this performance by the Philharmoniker with the young Renaud Capuçon was if anything even better.
Moodily grimacing and jiving upon taking the stage for the first movement, Capuçon looked every bit the Romantic virtuoso, and one wondered whether perhaps he had taken some inspiration from the earlier Liszt. Generally I'm cynical about that kind of thing, as more often than not it's just pose and contrivance. Here, though, you couldn't help but believe that every eyes-closed dip of the head and flourish of the arm was warranted.
Capuçon pulled off the work in an astonishing manner, technically and performance-wise. The standout was the second movement, moving from solo violin aria to tutti choral at the end in a bizarre ocarina-driven chorus. It was after the third, which ends in a tutti tumult of glissando, that the audience as a whole was visibly stirred, and from that point on they were fully behind the work in rapt attention, a pretty rare event for a 'contemporary' work.
So powerful was the performance, the orchestra matching Capuçon every bit along the way, and Capuçon constantly in communication with Robertson, it made me wonder whether the Violin Concerto is the apotheosis of Ligeti's career. Introducing much of his previous compositional innovations into the frame of the concerto, Ligeti in this way reignites the genre in a manner without equal in what any other contemporary composers have done. A redefinition of the genre occurs that takes it off into another space, one beyond any simple ideas of dialectic; and surely it won't be too long before this work takes a similar place in the canon to Berg's concerto.
Afterwards, Bartok's The Wooden Prince felt underwhelming, though it did give the large orchestra the chance to show off its power and colours. When it is fully unleashed the Philharmoniker's blast is of course quite a thrill, and such moments during the Bartok were enjoyable when they came. But for me The Wooden Prince as a work suffers by comparison with what Bartok was later to go on to achieve composition-wise; and the admixing of folk melody with late Romantic orchestral gesture doesn't have enough of interest to sustain the work over its long duration, to this wizened pair of ears at least, the infrequent chromatic sections being of most moment.
By Liam Cagney
Photo credits: Berliner Philharmoniker by Getty Images; Renaud Capuçon by Simon Fowler / Virgin Classics