Wednesday 4 April 2018

Planet Hugill’s roving music correspondent, Tony Cooper, reports on Berlin’s Festtage

Daniel Barenboim, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Photo Terry Linke)
Daniel Barenboim, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Photo Terry Linke)
Berlin Festtage, Debussy: Le Martyre de saint Sébastien, Fantaisie for piano and orchestra, Mahler Symphony No. 7; Martha Argerich, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim; Berlin Philharmonie
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 24 Mar 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Rare Debussy, Mahler's Seventh Symphony and more in Berlin

Every year at Eastertide, Berlin’s Festtage draws classical music and opera lovers to the German capital, a vibrant and happening city that I just love visiting. They come from all corners of the globe and this year (Easter 2018) I was pleased to be counted one of them, hearing Daniel Barenboim conducting Debussy's Le Martyre de saint Sébastien and Fantaisie for piano and orchestra (with Martha Argerich) with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Mahler's Seventh Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as catching the Orchestra of Deutsche Oper Berlin conducted by Michele Mariotti in Glinka, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky.

Initiated by Daniel Barenboim, the inaugural Festtage took place in 1996 and all of the performances take place either at the Staatsoper in Unter Den Linden or at the Berlin Philharmonie situated in the idyllic surroundings of the city’s famous public space, the Tiergarten, a hop, skip and a jump away from Potsdamer Platz.

With Maestro Barenboim at the helm, you expect the best and, indeed, you get the best and this year’s programme ticked my box in every sense of the word especially to the fact that the programme included a rare performance of Claude Debussy’s Le Martyre de saint Sébastien (in an edition by Pierre Boulez and Eiko Kasaba) relating the story of Saint Sébastien, a Roman soldier and early Christian martyr from the third century.

A brilliant, inspiring and large-scale piece, Debussy wrote Saint Sébastien in 1911 as incidental music for orchestra and chorus (with solo parts for soprano and two mezzos) to a five-act Christian mystery play by the Italian writer, Gabriele D’Annunzio, renowned for his extravagant lifestyle, who arrived in Paris in the spring of 1910 fleeing from a posse of creditors in order to forge a new start in life.

Saint Sébastien was designed as a vehicle for the Russian dancer and Belle Époque figure, Ida Rubinstein, who lived from 1885 to 1960 and, for a short while, was mistress to D’Annunzio. Incidentally, Ravel - a bosom friend of Rubinstein - wrote his Spanish-flavoured ballet, Boléro, for her in 1928. She also performed with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes from 1909 to 1911 and then quit his company to form her own.

However, Saint Sébastien showed Debussy to be one of the most original artists of his time inasmuch as the work was not just about music but a combination of words (almost 4000 lines long), sounds and other elements in the sense of a ‘plot’.

Renowned for being a painstakingly slow worker, Debussy still managed to deliver the score of Saint Sébastien in time for the work’s première on 22nd May 1911. It was good going, really, as he only accepted the commission in February of that year. The première took place at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris and was of Wagnerian proportions lasting more than five hours.

As so often is the case problems occurred at the rehearsal stage and chorus director, Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht, suggested on hearing Eugénie (Ninon) Vallin, that she take over the role of the celestial voice as Rose Féart, who had been engaged for the part, fell well short of the rehearsal time. Therefore, Vallin sang the role and Debussy insisted on her singing it in the fully-staged production, presented by the impresario, Gabriel Astruc. Such was Vallin’s relationship with Debussy that she continued her association with him and gave the première of his Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé in 1914 at the Salle Gaveau in Paris, accompanied by the composer.

The sets and costumes were created by Léon Bakst, stage direction by Armand Bour and choreography by Michel Fokine - a trio of ‘greats’. The orchestra was conducted by Debussy’s protégé, André Caplet, who also orchestrated a lot of the material and possibly wrote some of the score.

Alongside Rubinstein as Saint Sébastien, Adeline Dudlay sang La Mère douloureuse, Vera Sargine, La Fille malade des fièvres and Ninon Vallin, the celestial voice while Desjardins sang the role of the emperor and Henry Krauss the préfet.

The production, however, was fuelled by scandal as the Archbishop of Paris requested Catholics to boycott the performance because the dancer playing Saint Sebastien was a woman and, to boot, a Jew. As such, the work did not receive the success it probably would have achieved and, therefore, fell out of the repertoire.

But thanks to Debussy’s riveting and engaging score, Saint Sebastien lives on in the concert version but only just as, sadly, this is rather seldom heard. So thanks to Maestro Barenboim for this performance which, in essence, brought me to Berlin in the first place but, really, I don’t need that much encouragement to come to this vibrant, cultural and well-loved city.

As this year marks the centenary of Debussy’s death, hopefully such a milestone as this will change things and spark more interest in Saint Sebastien. And how lovely it would be to see it fully staged. The work, however, has been recorded several times either in an abridged format or just with the symphonic music and the orchestral version (arranged by Caplet and published in 1912), generally described as ‘Fragments symphoniques’. It has been recorded by the likes of Jean Martinon and Esa-Pekka Salonen as well as Daniel Barenboim, from my standpoint the world’s No.1 musician.

Following the acts of the original play, each section is called a ‘Mansion’ and the Narrator sets the scene at the beginning of each section.

La Cour des Lys (The Court of Lilies)

La Chambre Magique (The Magic Chamber)

Le Concile des Faux Dieux (The Council of the False Gods)

Le Laurier Blessé (The Wounded Laurel)

Le Paradis (Paradise)

As one would expect, Maestro Barenboim gathered together a distinguished cast of international soloists comprising the soprano, Anna Prohaska, the celestial voice, who captured so well the nuances of Debussy’s lyrical and utterly absorbing score while Anna Lapkovskaja and Marianne Crebassa, two rich-sounding mezzos, hit the mark all round and were so pleasurable to hear in the confines of the vastness (and comfort) of the Berlin Philharmonie harbouring such good acoustics.

Maria Furtwängler (related by marriage to the celebrated German conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler) acted as the Narrator, her performance articulate, dramatic and convincing to the core while the valuable contribution made by the Staatsopernchor, well trained by American conductor, Martin Wright, proved a major factor in the overall success of the performance.

The concert, however, opened with a touch of class featuring the famed and formidable Argentinian pianist, Martha Argerich (Daniel Barenboim’s childhood friend from their days in Buenos Aires) delivering a brilliant interpretation of Debussy’s Fantaisie for piano and orchestra, a work roughly of 25 minutes in length and, sadly, yet another one of Debussy’s least-frequently performed pieces. Once again, thanks for Maestro Barenboim for giving it an airing.

Although composed between October 1889 and April 1890, it was on the cards for the work to première the year it was completed but it was cancelled when the conductor, Vincent d’Indy, claimed that he did not have enough rehearsal time and suggested that only the first movement be performed which Debussy immediately rejected. .

After the cancellation of the first performance, Debussy, who was extremely self-critical, withdrew the work and stated that Fantaisie will never be published or performed during his lifetime. Therefore, the first public performance didn’t occur until 1919 (a year after the composer’s death) and was given by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with the Franco-Swiss pianist, Alfred Cortot, who was one of the most renowned classical musicians of the 20th century. He was especially valued for his poetic insight into the romantic piano works particularly those of Chopin, Saint-Saëns and Schumann.

The Fantaisie, by the way, is Debussy’s only composition for piano and orchestra and though written in a three-movement form it was not composed as a piano concerto. Debussy kindly dedicated the work to the French pianist, René Chansarel, who was the soloist engaged to play at the cancelled première in 1890.

I found it an extremely interesting, fulfilling and fascinating work and in some ways the concert proved to be slightly nostalgic for me as I have only seen Martha Argerich play on one occasion and that was donkey’s years ago when she made her Edinburgh Festival début in a solo recital in the late 1960s while Barenboim, incidentally, made his début as an opera conductor at the same festival in 1973 with Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Such is the history and importance of Edinburgh.


Earlier in the week I took in a magnificent performance of Mahler’s seventh symphony with Daniel Barenboim conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at the Berlin Philharmonie, the concert providing the launch event to this year’s Festtage.

The work is sometimes referred to as the ‘Song of the Night’ but it’s highly unlikely that Mahler would have known it by this title and, indeed, would have agreed to such an inscription. However, the symphony received its first performance on 19th September 1908 in Prague with the composer conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in a concert marking the Diamond Jubilee of Emperor Franz Joseph.

Often described as being in the key of E minor, the symphony’s tonal scheme is far more complicated. For instance, the first movement moves from B minor in the introduction to E minor with the work ending with an exciting rondo finale in C major.

At the time of writing the symphony, Mahler - who called it his best work and mostly of cheerful character - was enjoying great international success as a conductor but only beginning to find the same success as a composer. His second daughter was born in June 1904 and during his customary summer break from Vienna retreating to his lakeside bolthole at Maiernigg in the Carinthian Mountains he finished his sixth symphony and sketched the second and fourth movements (the two ‘Nachtmusik’ movements) of the seventh while mapping out the rest of the work which he duly completed the following summer.

Between the completion of the score and the symphony’s première massive and dramatic changes were taking over poor Mahler's life. One blow came early in 1907 when the musical fraternity of Vienna turned against him and forced him to resign his conductorship of the Vienna State Opera. Maybe that’s why Prague was chosen for the seventh’s first performance.

On top of all this, Mahler’s first daughter died of scarlet-fever in the summer and whilst she laid on her deathbed the composer was diagnosed with an incurable heart condition. What torment! What suffering! Perhaps this is why the optimism and cheerfulness of the symphony - scored for a large orchestra and like the fifth and sixth symphonies using unconventional instruments such as a tenor-horn, cowbells, guitar and mandolin - was subsequently tempered by the small but significant revisions Mahler made in the years leading up to its première.

The seventh has long been a favourite of many composers and, indeed, it seems of Maestro Barenboim. For instance, Arnold Schoenberg admired the score for its harmonic dexterity and its radical approach to structuring huge extents of symphonic music.

‘Absence of context and disintegration of form are two of the main characteristics of Mahler’s work,’ Schoenberg said, ‘and are surely his great strengths. The seventh symphony is the work in which these characteristics are in clearest evidence and it is for this reason that the symphony may surely be regarded as one of the most quintessentially Mahlerian of works. Strokes of genius can be found on every page of the score, in every measure, in every succession of tones and harmonies.’ Praise, indeed!

And praise, indeed, for the musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic, admirably led on this occasion by the Bulgarian (Sofia) violinist, Albena Danailova. I doubt whether their performance of Mahler’s seventh with Barenboim in charge could be bettered. .

A well-drilled orchestra, especially in the 19th-century repertoire, the Vienna Philharmonic has had heaps of praise bestowed upon it, too, by a host of distinguished composers. For instance, Wagner described it as being one of the best in the world, Bruckner called it ‘the most superior musical association’, Brahms counted himself as a ‘friend and admirer’ and Mahler claimed to be joined together with the orchestra through ‘the bonds of musical art’ while Richard Strauss summarised all these sentiments up by saying: ‘All praise of the Vienna Philharmonic reveals itself as an understatement.’ Indeed, it does!


Drifting away from the Festtage programme, I also managed to fit in a concert by the Orchestra of Deutschen Oper Berlin conducted by Michele Mariotti performing a very agreeable programme of works by Glinka, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky.

Glinka’s stirring and emotional overture to his opera, Russlan and Ludmilla, a work that this orchestra must know backwards, got the concert off to a rousing start. Maestro Mariotti pulled out all stops conducting the fine bunch of players that make up the Orchestra of Deutschen Oper Berlin in a positive and forceful way while, at the same time, setting the tone to a popular and entertaining programme which a full house lapped up bar after bar.

The central work in the programme - Shostakovich’s concerto for piano, trumpet and strings - was effortlessly and neatly played all round with the soloists on top form. The Russian pianist, Denis Kozhukhin (who, incidentally, was awarded third prize in the 2006 Leeds International Piano Competition) and the principal trumpeter of the orchestra, Martin Wagemann, captured well the essence and wit of the composer’s delicate and subtle score while Herr Wagemann was heard to good effect with the muted-trumpet passage in the second movement against some still-like, well-controlled playing from the strings with the trumpet’s line later (and quietly) taken up by the piano. It proved to be one of the most rewarding passages of the whole work.

Despite the title, the work could be classified as a piano concerto rather than a double concerto as the trumpet parts are sporadic taking the form of sardonic interruptions while leaving the humour and wit completely down to the piano. The trumpet does, however, assume relatively equal importance but only during the conclusion of the last movement following the piano cadenza which Kozhukhin played faultlessly and at ease showing his technical ability and dexterity at the keyboard.

The soloists delivered an extra treat, too, by a lovely rendering of ‘The Last Rose of Summer’, a well-loved poem written by the Irish poet Thomas Moore and set to music by Friedrich von Flotow’s and used in his glorious 19th-century romantic comic opera, Martha. This is another work that could do with being brought back to life. Humorously or ironically, their encore coincided with the start of British Summer Time.

Tchaikovsky’s lush and romantic F minor fourth symphony ended a very pleasant and rewarding concert. I guess the work is one of the highlights of the composer’s symphonic output due to the way that he continuously builds and pinpoints the strengths of each musical section.

The symphony is grand in so many ways and opens, indeed, in a grand, triumphant and positive way with the trumpets loudly sounding off in the style of a royal fanfare quickly followed by a host of richly-orchestrated passages for strings creating that lovely full-textured sound that is the hallmark of Tchaikovsky’s compositions.

If the second movement begins with an oboe playing a slight variation of the melody used in the opening movement this contrasts greatly to the crashes of thunder and lightning conjured up by the percussion brigade in the fourth and final movement. The cymbal player was having a whale of a time, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. And impeccable playing by the strings stirred the senses in more ways than one especially by their thrilling series of urgently-playing runs where, I detected, a bit of Swan Lake creeping in. What joy!

It’s a lengthy work and the final bars are nothing short of brilliance fused with excitement (that’s Tchaikovsky for you!) but the Orchestra of Deutschen Oper Berlin know how to handle this sort of thing, it’s something they do all the time battling it out in the pit. And, of course, it must be nice for the players to show off and have a fling themselves especially on their own stage. They deserve it and the programme more than suited the orchestra’s temperament and style right down to the ground. Bravo!
Reviewed by Tony Cooper

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