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Brahms and Schoenberg: Berlin Radio Chorus (chorus master: Robin Gritton), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Christian Thielemann (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 12.12.2009 (MB)


Brahms – Nänie, op.82

Brahms – Gesang der Parzen, op.89

Brahms – Schicksalslied, op.54

Schoenberg – Pelleas und Melisande, op.5


What a welcome opportunity to hear these three works for choir and orchestra by Brahms! The uninformed might relegate them to the ranks of the ‘minor’, but they are anything but. To have Christian Thielemann and the Berlin Philharmonic underlined what ought to be their ‘mainstream’ status. (I suppose the Schicksalslied, or ‘Song of Destiny’ might just about claim to have been accorded that in any case.) The Berlin Radio Chorus brought a marvellously smooth choral blend, with greater vigour when required. There were occasions when I considered a little more of the latter might have been desirable, but excellent intonation and diction reaped their own, far from inconsiderable, rewards.

The BPO was on excellent form, sounding pretty much ‘of old’, with rich strings and beguiling woodwind. I was especially startled by an oboe solo, from the Gesang der Parzen, I think, though it might have been Nänie, which set one back a good few years, sounding uncannily like Lothar Koch: a distinctive sound indeed. Inner parts proved their crucial role in terms of Brahms’s developing variation. The trio of trombones sounded, quite rightly, a note of equale-like archaism, highlighting Brahms’s study of Schütz and other early German music. Nänie gave the impression, bar its text (!), of being a lost movement from Ein deutsches Requiem. Warm consolation, with no loss to rhythmic and harmonic drive, was the hallmark of this and much of the Schicksalslied, whilst other sections of the latter and the Gesang der Parzen sounded almost Rinaldo-like, a reminder of the musical drama Brahms never wrote. The first to direct the BPO in Nänie since Helmuth Rilling more than thirty years previously, Thielemann conducted the entire programme from memory.

Quite apart from the opportunity in itself to hear those choral works, they made excellent preparation for what was, quite simply, the best performance of Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande I have heard. Such preparation ensured that one listened with post-Brahmsian ears: a more fruitful approach, it seemed to me, than assimilating Schoenberg’s tone poem to those of Strauss. For this was one of those ‘Eureka’ moments on my part. A work I felt I had never really grasped before clicked into place. (Previous ‘live’ comparisons that sprang to mind were Boulez in the final movement of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony and Barenboim in Brahms’s First.) Sometimes, of course, this is a personal matter of the ‘right time’; that might have been so, but could hardly have been a sufficient explanation. Thielemann’s stress upon the developing variation Schoenberg discovered in Brahms’s work and continued in his own proved the key not only to the musical but also what has been – for me at least – the somewhat elusive dramatic structure. Indeed, the point was that the two came together: perhaps less identical than dialectically related. Like Boulez, another conductor who dispenses with a baton, and with whom Thielemann might seem to have little in common, precision seemed enhanced by the control elicited by his hands. (As Boulez once remarked, a baton is a pretty poor sign of virility. The real point, of course, is that if it works, it works.) There was never any doubt as to Thielemann’s longer-term structural understanding: this was Fernhören as Furtwängler would have understood it; indeed, it made me wonder what Furtwängler could have done in this work. And crucially, the sense of telos, of goal-orientation, was present from the urgent, though certainly far from unduly driven, opening bars.

Thielemann could never, of course, have accomplished such an achievement had it not been for the magnificent playing of the Berlin Philharmonic. Again, it was very difficult to detect the internationalisation of its sound that has intensified in recent years. Without sounding so darkly Germanic as its Berlin neighbour, the Staatskapelle, this was undoubtedly a more ‘traditional’ sound than one now often hears – and surely not so far removed from the expectations of Schoenberg’s mind’s ear. If only the composer had benefited from more contemporary champions who understood his musical background; but he was certainly well served here. The richly-upholstered string sound, both solo and sectional, sounded straightforwardly ‘right’. It was notable how much Thielemann elicited from the violas in particular: perhaps, although this may be mere fancy, a sign of continuing affinity with his former instrument. Once again, the woodwind cast a magical spell. The contrast and inextricable relationship between ‘love’ music and tragedy was a hallmark of this performance, manifold connections with the Gurrelieder and Götterdämmerung highlighted, but within the context of an all-pervasive Brahmsian structural understanding.


Mark Berry

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