Musikfest 1: Return to Form
It was a good weekend for Mahler fans in
Berlin. Only two nights after the Berlin Philharmonic kicked off their season
with a performance of the Seventh,
the 2022 edition of Musikfest Berlin got underway with the Sixth, performed by Amsterdam’s Concertgebouworkest under the
direction of their future chief conductor Klaus Mäkelä. Although versions of
Musikfest took place during the height of pandemic closures in 2020 and 21, the
first was on a much reduced scale, while the second, with fewer guest
orchestras able to travel, was clouded by the threat of yet another lockdown. This
year’s opening concert, however – which also featured Kaija Saariaho’s Orion,
a work which ceded nothing to Mahler in orchestral grandeur – signalled a
thrilling return to form for a festival that has long been the highlight of
September in Berlin.
Ms Saariaho’s Orion, written in 2002 and first performed by the Cleveland Orchestra the following year, is a three movement work for a large ensemble in which the usual orchestral sections are augmented by piano, organ and an extensive assortment of bells, chimes and metallophones. Despite the scale of the forces involved – the orchestra was only slightly smaller than that required for the Mahler symphony – they were used sparingly: Ms Saariaho seemed less concerned with extremes of dynamic and technique than in creating highly concentrated yet endlessly varied textures. The result was a quietly multivalent work that drew on two centuries of orchestral tradition to stake out the boundaries of a sonic landscape at once strikingly familiar and decidedly unique.
Mr Mäkelä and the Concertgebouworkest gave the work a performance with exactly the patience and balance it deserved. The opening movement did not seem in a rush to go anywhere or build to a traditional moment of climax, but a subtle steady pulse from the percussion and Mr Mäkelä’s equally subtle sense of forward momentum ensured that the reflective opening section remained slightly mysterious but never aimless. It was only near the end of the movement that the contemplative build erupted into a cloudburst of brass – with organ adding subtle depth to an already vast sound – and every time the full orchestra died away it left only the final reverberations of a bell hanging in the air.
The captivating second movement had even fewer obvious events, but a far more pronounced sense of unease. It built gradually from piccolo and high violins to restrained full orchestra, before retreating to a concluding moment of near silence; but even its moments of greatest orchestral density retained an unnerving calm. If the briskly-paced third movement seemed slightly more conventional, both in its deployment of orchestral forces and its arrangement of episodes, it did little to dispel the haunted mood of the previous movements and, indeed, came to rest on an arrestingly quiet note of ambiguity.
Mahler’s Sixth, which formed the second part of the programme, is a difficult work to perform well, due not merely to its length but to its profound disparity of moods. It requires a conductor who can summon ecstasies and terrors from the orchestra, and who can fashion the work’s unstable emotions into a credible narrative while resisting the temptations of overstatement; there is enough drama in the score that the conductor need only highlight what is already there rather than adding more of their own. Mr. Mäkelä’s reading was impressive as much for its command of texture and dynamic as for its restraint: there were few mannerisms or personal liberties, but if Mr Mäkelä rarely drew attention to his own interpretive decisions, his well-judged details and confidence with the work’s larger structures allowed its heightened emotions to emerge with credible clarity.
In the opening bars of the first movement Mr Mäkelä established a tempo that, for all its urgency, never sounded rushed. Although there was due attention given to the transparency and balance of the orchestral sound – matched by playing of great sensitivity from the various sections of the Concertgebouworkest – what was most notable about Mr Mäkelä’s approach was his ability to introduce considerable changes in mood without sacrificing the momentum that gave the movement its sense of narrative; instead the successive moments of tension and release were woven into a cohesive structure.
Mr Mäkelä placed the slow movement second, which is certainly not uncommon, but after such a concisely argued opening, it didn’t yet feel that we had earned such a tranquil reprieve. It was nonetheless beautifully played, with a sense of purposeful drift that echoed the second movement of Orion. In a symphony notable for its vividly contrasting episodes, the slow movement offers a study in sustained mood that derives its cumulative power more from gradual swells than abrupt shifts. Although Mr Mäkelä constructed the movement from countless subtle fluctuations in tempo and dynamic, everything was geared towards maintaining a presiding sense of spacious calm.
The Scherzo featured a few wilful shifts in
tempo which made the transitions between different sections seem slightly exaggerated;
it was the first time in the evening where one was conscious of the work’s
contrasts being heightened for dramatic effect. The finale, however, returned
to the more balanced approach of the first movement, opening with a passage of
sustained foreboding – punctuated by some unusually violent harp plucks
and elegant playing from the tuba and solo horn – before launching into an
extended section which alternated passages of forceful animation and unexpected
splendour. Throughout the movement Mr Mäkelä was able to hold the diverse
forces in balance, maintaining a high level of intensity without relying on
relentless tempi or excessive gestures. It was a performance of dark excitement
where even the most anguished moments were accompanied by a cathartic thrill.