Unity from diversity
There was no obvious theme uniting the three pieces
that featured on the programme of the Vienna Philharmonic’s recent guest
appearance in Berlin: the first half featured two great composers from the
former Soviet Union, while the Dvořák symphony in the second half was connected
to Gubaidulina’s Märchenpoem through its Czech origins (the latter was based on a
Czech fairy-tale). Yet even without a thematic structure, the programme was
perfectly balanced: between the extraordinary refinement of the playing and the
consistently thrilling direction of Andris Nelsons, the evening was a casually
flawless illustration of how the best concerts invariably arise from the simple
pairing of great pieces with great musicians.
Gubaidulina’s Märchenpoem – written in 1971, and first performed in its revised version for small orchestra in 1992 – is a spellbinding work that draws one into its haunted sonic world from the very opening bars. Although scored for a modest string section, plus flutes, clarinets, mallet instruments, piano and harp, it rarely deploys its full ensemble at full power, preferring to explore the textural possibilities of smaller groupings. Mr Nelsons held the work’s disparate moments in fine balance, drawing a mood of fascination from its subtly deployed trills and quietly off-kilter string clusters.
Among Shostakovich’s symphonies, the Ninth is something of an oddity, a classically proportioned work of unexpected levity sandwiched between the two despairing wartime epics and the cinematic history lessons that launched his later period. Certainly the jovial mood of the outer movements may have perplexed audiences in 1945 expecting a more robust expression of triumph to mark the end of the war; and while the symphony contains nothing to match the anguish of the Leningrad’s third movement or the whirling insanity of the Eighth’s Allegretto, Mr Nelsons offered a convincing argument that the symphony’s light-hearted exterior conceals a similar – if more subtly rendered – core of darkness and uncertainty.
Mr Nelsons, who has recorded the work as part of his acclaimed (and still ongoing) Shostakovich cycle, approached the symphony with an unerring sense of pace. In the first movement, he found considerable charm in the brisk, tightly-sprung rhythms, although the vivacious tempo did nothing to diminish the glorious sound of the full string section. The second movement was altogether more sombre, and even its most placid moments were edged with subtle menace; if the strings in the first movement sounded uncontainably exuberant, in the second they moved forward as though wearied by a heavy burden. The final three-movement sequence opened with fleet woodwinds and a mood of anxiety that darkened into a despairing Largo section which, although brief, was gloomy enough to cast its shadow over the closing movement: the outbursts of brass and drums in the finale seemed more ironic than celebratory. Yet Mr Nelsons generated excitement by setting rhythmic drive against slightly restrained tempi, allowing the orchestra to go forward at full gallop only in the final bars.
The symphony also proved an ideal showcase for the virtuosity of the orchestra’s different sections and principals. In each movement Shostakovich had conceived of instrumental groupings as either dominant or supporting voices, necessitating both skilfully executed solo passages from nearly every instrument as well as highly-concentrated small ensemble playing. The first movement featured animated solo violin, the second opened with a beautifully performed passage for clarinet that turned almost imperceptibly into a clarinet duo before moving to the flute, and the third featured a fiery outburst of solo-trumpet. Perhaps the finest solo playing came from the bassoon, whose mournful lament in the slow fourth movement evolved naturally into the sprightly figure on which the finale is built.
If the Shostakovich highlighted the dexterity of the various orchestral sections, Dvořák’s Sixth – which formed the second half of the programme – showcased the orchestra’s unparalleled unity of expression. With the exception of a single moment in the first tutti, in which the brass seemed to overwhelm the strings, the playing was a model of clarity and balance. Brief solo passages in the woodwinds – such as the elegant flute line near the end of the second movement – emerged just enough to make their presence felt, but never so much as to upset the sense of the orchestra as a single, perfectly tuned instrument.
Mr Nelsons favoured stately tempi in the first two movements, but one never felt that he was slowing things down for the sake of monumentality. Indeed, the first movement unfolded with a natural ease, alternating vigorous thematic statements with moments of pastoral grace. The second movement, perhaps the finest of the evening, used its unhurried pace to luxuriate in the burnished sound of the massed strings and the countless orchestral details that a less attentive reading might overlook. There was, however, no holding back in the Scherzo which built from a series of taut dialogues between strings and woodwinds towards a lusty climax that shared its rhythmic vitality with the liveliest of the Slavonic Dances. After such excitement, the trio seemed especially tranquil, rippling forward with some of the hushed awe that marked the end of the slow movement before making a perfectly shaded transition back to the furious pace of the Scherzo.
In the final movement Mr Nelsons found a pleasing
balance between the rustic animation that give Dvořák’s symphonic works their
unmistakable flavour and the Brahmsian refinement towards which they often aspired.
As in the Shostakovich, Mr Nelsons allowed the coda to proceed at a brisk pace,
imparting energy into the final moments without upsetting the balance which the
orchestra had maintained throughout the evening. While Dvořák’s later
symphonies could never be described as concert hall rarities, performances of
such engagement, delicacy and sheer beauty of orchestral sound are as
infrequent as they are welcome.