Edgard Varèse Arcana with Andris Nelsons and the Berliner Philharmoniker, from the Musikfest Berlin, available til 31/12 in the Digital Concert Hall. Grab the chance ! Arcana (1925-7)is scored for massive forces- roughly 120 players altogether, 68 strings, 20 woodwinds, 20 brass and a phalanx of percussionists playing 40 different instruments from timpani to castanets. Every performance is a feat of logistics, so it doesn't get done as often as it should be. It's also extremely visual : watching is very much part of the experience. It's not every day you see rows of trumpets and trombones, some muted, some not,playing together, or 8 horns raised heavenwards. Arcana is big, but its bigness springs from its musical function. Arcana proceeds like a gigantic beast, its component parts articulated to move in stately formation, groups of instruments impacting on each other in constantly varying combinations. I've never quite been sure what Varèse meant by its title, but I've often imagined it as a mythical creature brought to life by arcane spells and incantations.
Arcana is relatively easy to follow since it's constructed like a series of variations with interlocking inner cells and permutations thereof. Although it isn't by any means electronic, it functions like a machine, where different sections operate in parallel and together towards a common purpose. Very much the Zeitgeist of the 1920's of Futurism and things to come. Andris Nelson's approach is deliberately unhurried, allowing the monster to waken and walk at its own pace without being pushed. I get a kick from speedier tempi but Nelsons reveals the textures and colours. Watch him beat the inaudible passages bar by bar showing how silence is part of the structure. Instinctively, Nelsons half-crouched, like a feral animal, listening to the world around him before making a move. This was intuitive and almost certainly unconscious, but definitely in tune with the spirit of Arcana and also with the Debussy Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune which preceded it. Consider the connections between the two pieces, and their elusive physicality. Someone could do Arcana as ballet, though they'd need a big budget. It would certainly lend itself to visual patterns and recurring images.
Nelsons' Berlioz Symphonie fantastique op 14, was thus coloured by being heard in conjunction with Varèse and Debussy. Symphonie fantastique is so dramatic that lesser conductors cheat by playing up the dramatic kitsch. We've all heard this piece so often that it's easy to coast along. Not Nelsons. He instead emphasizes the intelligence in the orchestration. Berlioz's genius lay in the way he could use instruments to create myriad textures and colours. He studied instruments for their own sake, and was open to new, innovative sounds like that of the saxophone. Not really all that far from Varèse and his experiments with klaxons and ondes martenot. Yet again, Nelsons emphasized the underlying musical logic and the finesse with which Berlioz built up his palette. The Berliner Philharmoniker are so good that they can do refinement with natural, unforced élan. Like a composer using the tools available to him, Nelsons knows this orchestra well enough to inspire them so they play as if the work were fresh and vivid.
Listen out specially for the quiet passages, like in the third movement, where the shepherd listens to the gentle rustling of leaves and contemplates a moment of solitude. Gradually more complex feelings rush in, but to understand, we must listen attentively, picking up every nuance. Shepherds, like animals in nature, listening acutely to the sounds around them : the faun again, the "creature" in Arcana ? Noisiness dulls the senses. The Dream of the Night of the Sabbath was vivid because our minds had been cleared of detritus. Listen to those crazed winds! Some audiences think music exists to serve the listener, and like conductors who deliver in that way. True artists, though, are more likely to think that they (and their audiences) exist to serve the music. Nelsons and the Berliner Philharmoniker belong in the latter category, most definitely.