On returning to Berlin, each year, one of my first jobs is to check the opera and concert schedules for the season.
This September, the concert that stood out above the others was a Mahler Chamber Orchestra Philharmonie concert of Shostakovitch and a previously unknown (to me) Britten cantata, Phaedra. I’m a sucker for a cantata. And for Shostakovitch. So, months ago, we got on the internet to book …
Failure. Too soon? Tried again and again, blamed the computer and tried another. Failure. Wrote to the MCO and to the Berliner Musikfest .. persisted ... but was finally forced to accept ‘best available ticket’. Tricky for me, with my ‘special needs’. But we got in! That was the main thing.
Tonight we rolled up, all anticipatory, to the Philharmonie. A vino with my friendly barmaid in the foyer and then to our seats. Oh. For once, I hadn’t booked top price tickets. 60 euros for a small orchestra and 2 soloists? I settled for 45. And where were we, on this ‘best available’ system? In the front row of the Gods. Thank goodness I had Paul to help me with the stairs. Up and down. Alone, I would never have made it. Never again ‘best available’.
Other people must have not been as dogged as I. The salle was 50% empty. Rows and rows and rows of gaping nobody. And yet the ordinary Konzerthaus show we got turned away from last week ... sold out? Why? Super band, super programme, super soloists ... why? Too dear? Too hard to book? Both, I suspect. Well, it was a shame. And the absent folk were in the wrong. It was a fascinating concert. Even from the crow’s nest.
We started with a taster of Shostakovitch: a string octet ‘Prelude and scherzo’. It was like a little overture: the sweet, wandering prelude, and the vigorous scherzo which worked its way up to a driving finish.
And then, alas, all mood was dissipated by an endless rearrangement of furniture: chairs, stands, podium ... why not have put the 8 players on the forestage?
The Britten was what I was really looking forward to. I discover it was written for an Aldeburgh Festival and premiered by Janet Baker. Odd then, that it was billed as a Dramatische Kantata für mezzosopran. The Janet I knew was absolutely a contralto. And odder still that the soloist for tonight was listed as … a soprano!
Well, the piece has Aldeburgh and Janet written all over it. Beautiful English music, tuneful bits, orchestral features … what it is not, I’m afraid, is ‘dramatische’. Phaedra, especially in Racine’s version, is one of great tragedy queens of European stage history. I don’t know what sort of the reception the cantata originally got in its ultra-English premiere, but here it failed to raise the temperature. It was enjoyable, but it didn’t stun. And, yes, part of the problem was that the soloist, Angela Denoke, the possessor of a beautiful, even, high mezzo, was not a contralto. I don’t care if she has played Kundry. Her lowest notes disappeared into the orchestra, the highest lacked excitement. This is Phaedra, for heavens’ sake.
Phaedra, a not-very-dramatische scena für Alt. Enjoyable, but not stunning. I feel Britten would have done better with Boadicea or Florence Nightingale.
As I wobbled down the 100 stairs at interval, I said slightly disappointedly and greedily to Paul, ‘I want to be thrilled’.
Well, I didn’t have long to wait.
Shostakovitch’s 14th symphony is hardly what I would think of as a symphony. It is a collection of sung pieces, for bass and mezzo/soprano soloists accompanied by strings and percussion, on the theme of death, to words by such (sometimes self-indulgent) specialists on that subject as Lorca, Apollinaire and Rilke. Not jolly. But as set to music: stunning. And you couldn’t understand a word anyhow (what language were they singing in?).
The collection starts with a quiet, pensive De Profundis for the bass (Petr Migunov) and we were immediately on song. What a voice! A lovely soft-grained bass-baritone, with no meretricious effects. Britten would have loved him. I did. But it gets better. A dramatic ‘Loreley’ gave Miss Denoke the chance to get into her proper register, and deliver some cracking singing. While being endlessly pure and warm, she got here the drama and urgency that in Phaedra she had not. And then she topped it off with a beautiful setting, gloriously sung, of Apollinaire’s ‘Trois lys’ (‘Le suicidé’). Migunov brought the work and the evening to its high point with his delivery of ‘O Del’vig’ and ‘Der Tod des Dichters’ … I was getting a bit lost textually here, but just sat back and let the wonderful music and perfect singing spa-bath me! … and just as I was thinking, ‘please let them sing together’, they did. Just for a couple of lines …
I was thrilled. And a happy man. The audience was too. They’d been polite after the Britten, now they exploded. Volley after volley of applause and cheers. Me included. The artists and conductor Teodor Currentzis – who’d produced magic from his little wind-and-brassless band -- were called back again and again. Not ‘German’ calls … real ones.
Well, that’s three MCO concerts for three thrilling nights. I missed Sasha Waltz of course, what a time she would have had with the non-symphony! But I am expanding my horizons each time … thank you MCO. Until next time.
Postscript: message to the celeste player. Please turn off/down your lights when not playing. They shone out like car headlights…