The myriad delights
The myriad delights which accompany the arrival of summer in Berlin -warm evenings, fresh strawberries, long twilight- will always be offset by the melancholy realisation that the various opera and orchestra seasons have at last come to an end. The night watchman has locked the doors to the Schillertheater, large moth-resistant tarps have been drawn across the stages of the Philharmonie and the Konzerthaus, and summer construction along Bismarckstraße has rendered the Deutsche Oper building inaccessible to visitors. For all of us who won’t be making it to Salzburg or Bayreuth or Munich this summer, strawberries and long evenings are just about the only thing we have in the way of consolation for the quiet months ahead.
If there is a single event that mingles those joyful sensations of midsummer with a decisive sense of finale, it would have to be the Berlin Philharmonic’s annual season-ending concert, a celebration of endings and beginnings set in the sylvan surroundings of the Waldbühne. Here on the western edge of the city, in an interwar interpretation of a Greek amphitheatre -large enough to put the ruins of Ephesus and Pergamon to shame, but also strangely intimate and ringed by impenetrable northern forest- one may sit beneath the fading solstice light and think back on the great concerts and operas that made the 2012/13 season so memorable.
At least, that’s what some people were probably doing. For the rest of us, it was simply a chance to watch one of the world’s great orchestras perform one of the world’s great symphonies outside on a pleasant evening, perhaps with a beer or a bowl of strawberry punch in hand. You’ll have to admit it’s sounding pretty idyllic already, and I haven’t even mentioned that it was the second longest day of the year, that there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky and that the moon, when it finally made its appearance about two-thirds of the way into the concert, was perfectly full. If those things don’t sound like a recipe for a magical evening, well, I suppose there’s just no pleasing some people.
For a concert of this magnitude, one needs the right music; and when one is playing to an audience of over 20,000 people (the official capacity of the Waldbühne is around 22,000), Mendelssohn’s Violin concerto is a reasonably safe opening move. For the season ticket subscribers in the audience it’s a dependable slab of romanticism … and for anyone in the audience who has never knowingly listened to a piece of classical music but quite fancied the idea of going to an outdoor concert, it provides that unmistakable thrill of ‘Oh I know this piece!’ not once (in the very opening bars of the first movement), but twice (in the third movement as well). And while it is true that Mendelssohn’s may not be the most exciting romantic violin concerto ever composed, one certainly could not have hoped to hear a better performance.
Violinist Christian Tetzlaff delivered a reading that was fierce and lyrical in equal measure, moving effortlessly between poles of deep introspection and unchecked passion. So gripping was his performance that, in the quietest solo passages, not a sound could be heard from the assembled crowd. But once the piece had raced to its triumphant conclusion, the audience erupted in a fit of justified adulation. Four bows and a bouquet of flowers later, Mr Tetzlaff returned for a brief movement of Bach which proved every bit as sublime as anything that had come before.
The best, however, was still to come. After an interval, during which the more intrepid members of the audience ventured back up some thirty metres of vertiginous stairs to the concession stands, the orchestra returned to the stage and, almost before anyone had had a chance to settle down, a quiet rumble began to emerge from the cellos and second violins. It is, for all the orchestral music that has come and gone since, still one of the most thrilling introductions a symphony has ever been given. High above the stage, the last of the direct sunlight had disappeared from the tops of the trees. Night was falling and we were immersed in the radiance of Beethoven; could there be any better place in the world to be? As the symphony continued, the answer became an increasingly definitive ‘probably not’. The second movement was especially memorable, propelled by some extraordinary flute playing and an unflagging forward momentum; if the tempo itself was more stately than fiery, the tautness and refinement of the orchestral playing resulted in an enthralling fifteen minutes which lacked nothing in excitement.
Between the second and third movements there was a brief pause to allow the choir and soloists to take their place on the stage, a shrewd piece of stage management which would allow the orchestra to move seamlessly between the symphony’s final two movements. Soon the third movement had started and a profound quiet descended on the audience. If the Ninth symphony is bookended on one side by stormy anxiety and on the other by unmitigated joy, the third movement is the mysterious centre in which the one is transformed into the other by forces that remain elusive. In this regard it is not dissimilar from the Heiliger dankgesang which sits at the heart of Beethoven’s A minor string quartet (op. 132); it manages to describe an ineffable process without ever attempting to explain it. While all this was going on, the moon began to rise; it was as if the music was conspiring with nature to impress us.
Suddenly, the spell was shattered by thunder and tempest from the orchestra; then, after a few teasing hints from the woodwinds, that famous and inexhaustible chorale theme made its first full appearance in the double-basses. Of course we all know what happens next: the choir stands, the bass soloist issues a plea for more joyful songs, and the obliging chorale is tested to the point where many other chorales would simply collapse from the stress. Beethoven’s chorale, however, only ever seems to gain in strength and intensity as the movement progresses until, finally, all the resources on the stage, vocal and instrumental, are forced to concede to its majesty. On this evening, these joyful sounds were summoned into being by an exceptionally fine quartet -consisting of Camilla Tilling, Nathalie Stutzmann, Joseph Kaiser and Dimitry Ivashchenko- and further elevated by the incomparable Rundfunkchor. When it was all over, the audience rose instantly to their feet and delivered the kind of ovation more suited to a rock concert: apart from the cheering, one could see lighters hoisted in the air and sparklers being twirled.
Of course, every ending must proceed according to some ritual practice and so, for the final few minutes of the Berlin Philharmonic’s regular season, the orchestra launched into a ribald rendition of Berliner Luft which occasioned no shortage of clapping and synchronised wolf-whistling from the audience. But then, once the cheering had died down, it was over. The orchestra left the stage, the floodlights in the theatre came on and 22,000 people began their long climb back up thirty meters worth of stairs. Out on the quiet streets around the Olympia-Stadion, a black BMW cruised past blasting the very version of Berliner Luft that we had left behind only moments ago. A few people on their way to the S-bahn stopped to whistle. It had been a joyous evening and no one especially wanted it to end. On the back of the programme for the evening’s concert, there was printed schedule for the Berliner Festspiel’s Musikfest, the three weeks of concerts that mark the unofficial reopening of Berlin’s musical season. However, at that moment, September seemed like a long way off. Until then, we’ll just have to hope that there are enough strawberries to go around.