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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

BERIO Stanze (2003) (New York premiere) and WAGNER Act III from Parsifal John Keyes, Tenor (Parsifal) Andreas Schmidt, Bass-Baritone (Amfortas) Matthias Hoelle, Bass (Gurnemanz) Roberta Knie, Soprano (Kundry), The Philadelphia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach, Music Director and Conductor, The Philadelphia Singers Choral, David Hayes, Music Director, Carnegie Hall, New York City, January 18, 2005 (BH)

In yet another intriguing concept, conductor Christoph Eschenbach paired the final works of two seemingly disparate composers, each of whom inevitably commented on the other. While Berio neared death with some ambiguity and even a bit of gentle humor, Wagner’s plateau is one of quiet reverence and enlightenment. At Eschenbach’s side was the glorious Philadelphia Orchestra, augmented by the men of the excellent Philadelphia Singers Chorale, all of whom responded with glowing, warmly communicative music making that did much to make this listener forget about the frigid temperatures just outside. The weather probably encouraged many listeners to stay home – a shame, since in sheer technical terms, this was one of the best-sounding Philadelphia concerts in memory.

Berio’s Stanze refers not to poetic stanzas, but to rooms, and each of its five sections uses a text from a writer close to the composer, including (in order) Paul Celan, Giorgio Caproni, Edoardo Sanguineti, Alfred Brendel and Dan Pagis. The placement of the singers and musicians is precisely notated according to a detailed plan provided by the composer, with the orchestra divided into three groups, and the chorus on risers behind them, also in three sections. Most of the texts are set to quietly haunting music, as if the composer had a sixth sense that this might be his last utterance, and many of the colors in Berio’s palette, such as the voluptuous opening chord, are just flat-out gorgeous and were ravishingly realized in the hands of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Such texts! The Caprioni poem ends with the striking Ora che più forte sento stridere il freno, vi lascio, amici (Now that I hear the brakes squealing more strongly, I shall take my leave of you, friends), and the Sanguineti begins with Ho parlato da un turbine (I spoke from a whirlwind). The fourth song takes its cue from Brendel’s suggestion that the voice of God can be found in a particular work by Johann Strauss, Jr., and it turns out that Brendel is a rather playful poet:


The news that
in the Tritsch-Tratsch Polka
a very cheerful piece of music
the news that the Holy Ghost lay lurking
was not
for some of us
entirely unexpected.

Although Berio’s scurrying music is not a bona fide polka as such, it nevertheless has the Tritsch-Tratsch rhythm wittily swimming around and underpinning the orchestral texture, very similar to Sinfonia and its homage to the middle movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony. Berio must have had a premonition that he was dying – of course, hindsight and speculation can go hand in hand – but Stanze has an elegant sense of closure and finality. The fifth song, based on Pagis’ “Die Schlacht” (“The Battle”) from his Collected Poems, finds the composer writing in a ghostly mood, with the chorus almost in the background, and often singing unusually quietly, murmuring syllables embedded into the overall texture. The fine soloist, Andreas Schmidt, stood next to the podium but again was used almost as another instrument with the ensemble. Floating above the texture, his voice seemed at one with Berio’s thoughts, right through the poignant closing: None can know who is cursed and who blessed in the burnt dust.

With an immaculate sense of pacing and coaxing impassioned playing from the orchestra, Eschenbach gently launched the last act of Parsifal, also its creator’s final statement. Similar to the Berio, the orchestral fabric encourages the voices to stand alongside the instrumentalists as partners; the group as a group is paramount. Beginning with the luminous introduction by the orchestra’s strings, the Philadelphia players brought majesty and shimmer to this celestial writing that in the right hands can make time stand still. Eschenbach was deliberate in his tempi, his ruminant approach drawing some especially lovely work from Richard Woodhams on oboe, David Bilgers on trumpet, and Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia on cor anglais, not to mention the Philadelphia horn section playing with beautiful, error-free ardor. Special mention to the orchestra’s double-basses, whose dark clarity, concentration and unanimity made a solid foundation for a whole host of glorious sounds. And I doubt I was the only one struck by the percussion section’s superbly eerie bells at “Midday.” The unusual timbre is a great effect – almost startling – and with its placement at virtually the very end, aptly characterizes a complex composer reserving new ideas until his last breath.

Matthias Hoelle is renowned for his Gurnemanz and made an immediate impression, his voice easily filling the hall and capturing the mystical mood. As Kundry, whose work in this act begins with a moan of anguish, Roberta Knie did a beautiful job, rising from a seat within the string section. John Keyes entered as a fine Parsifal, his voice gently ascending with the orchestra, and Schmidt returned as a touching Amfortas. The men of the Philadelphia Singers Chorale added fine-grained work, responsive and precise, as the knights who appear near the end.

In the final pages, as Parsifal kneels before the Grail, the orchestra painted the closing bars in reverential tones, right up to the last moving chords that arrived with supremely gentle confidence. As Eschenbach’s hands stopped in the air, I waited nervously for someone to bellow out a coarse, premature “Bravo!” and spoil the mood. Even the woman next to me, fidgeting alone and looking at her watch, had her hands ready to go, clearly eager to applaud at the first opportunity. (Why, oh why, do people do this?) But thankfully everyone kept the pent-up elation at bay for a few peaceful seconds, and the moment of profound silence capped an evening of exceptionally thoughtful music.

Bruce Hodges




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