Wednesday 25 January 2017

Metzmacher Elbphilharmonie K A Hartmann Shostakovich

At the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg,  Ingo Metzmacher conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in a programme that might have seemed innocent when it was planned but nowe is disturbingly prescient: Karl Amadeus Hartmann Symphony no 1 "Versuch eines Requiem" with Shostakovich Symphony no 11 "The year 1905", both completed at the height of the Cold War, but with very different perspectives.

The Elbphilhamonie broadcast this concert internationally, online, a harbinger of good things to come. Hamburg invested heavily in the project, realizing that its potential is far greater than for the city alone. While the Philharmonie Berlin is primarily a home for the Berliner Philharmoniker (though other orchestras use it), the Elbphilharmonie could be a game changer, affecting the whole demographic of the business.

This concert also showcased the hall's superb acoustic (read more here).  Anton Webern's Sechs Stücke für grosses Orchester op. 6 (1909) opened the concert. A large orchestra is needed, not for volume, but for extended palette.  Webern sought to express "Klangfarbenmelodie": myriad details of colour and tonality.  Hence the markings "sehr langsam", and "sehr mäßig", unhurried traverses that let the music unfold, revealing subtle shading.  Metzmacher's tempi were by no means slow, but meticulously well judged.  I hardly dared breathe lest the spell be broken. Exquisite playing: a single chord on  harp, muffled drumstrokes, a triplet on bassoon, all perfectly in place and in cohesion. The Viennese are taken for granted in standard repertoire, but here they were revealed as infinitely better musicians than popular cliché might suggest.  On the wide platform of the Elbphilharmonie, there's a lot of space between players, so they're not constrained by being cramped together. They can probably listen to each other for one thing. Sound moves ambiently with this extra "breathing space", quite a distinctive feature of this new auditorium. 

Gerhild Romberger photo Rosa Frank, Vienna Philharmonic

Ingo Metzmacher is the conductor of choice when it comes to K A Hartmann. He's recorded the complete symphonies and with such insight that it's essential listening for anyone interested, not just in Hartmann but also in his period.  Hartmann began this piece in 1936 as a response to the increasing madness of the Third Reich. The first movement is a miserere based on the poem I Sit and Look Out by Walt Whitman. "I sit and look out. upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all oppression and shame"  – men and women suffering, domestically and in war, and tyranny, a famine at sea where sailors cast lots as to who should be killed and eaten that the others might live a little longer.  Yet perhaps the true horror is that the poet can observe but not act. " I sitting, look out upon,/ See, hear, and am silent."  The soloist was Gerhild Romberger, whose powerful, dark timbre articulated suppressed anguish. She's one of the most interesting in her Fach, since she also conveys tenderness and sympathy.  In 2014 I heard her sing O Mensch in Mahler's Symphony no 3 with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra,  truly plaintive, as if she were weeping for the death of the old world and giving birth to the new. Hartmann doesn't set every word in the poem, but his orchestration leaves us in no doubt what's happening. An explosive introduction, a fusillade of trumpets, trombone and percussion: horrors intruding on the isolation of the solo voice.

The second movement "Frühling" references Whitman's When Lilacs last in the Dooryard Bloom'd, mourning the assassination of Lincoln and the American Civil War, but the text is oblique, using the image of a falling star to express the idea of loss.  Hartmann's setting is even less wordy, avoiding Whitman's syntax, which is even trickier in German.  Despite the barrage of sound in the introduction and background, what stands out is the passage where the piano plays quietly, its fragile memory evolving into "starlight" in the strings and winds, the wavering line then taken up by soprano trumpets.  Violin and cello dialogue in the opening theme of the third movement, the piano mediating between them. Gradually, other sections in the orchestra join in – oboes, bassoons and tuba and the strings in succession. The tam tam crashes : reminding us that this relative harmony cannot last.

"Tränen " sings Romberger three times, reflecting the first line of Whitman's Tears.  "O, Wer ist dieser Geist?" she cries, and an apparition materializes in the orchestra, brass blaring, strings screaming, timpani crashing. Romberger's lines growling at the bottom of her register, rise suddenly to the top: she isn't fazed, but totally in control. Again, a quiet passage on piano introduces an unearthly mood. "O, Schatten!" sings Romberger with tenderness.  The shade seems stilled in the light of day.  Metzmacher shapes the long orchestral lines so they pulsate with ominous menace,  gathering strength to strike again.  The night falls. Romberger sings "Tränen", as if falling into hypnosis.  Muted bassoons  then screaming chords of alarm.

Muffled snare drums introduce the Epilogue, a prayer "Bitte", and a return to the apocalyptic traumas of the first movement.  Here the text comes from Whitman's Pensive on Her Dead Gazing, where Mother Earth looks upon corpses in the battlefield. No Valkyries, no Valhalla.  The vocal line is intoned, not lyrical, Sprechstimme, not song.  Then, suddenly, Romberger unleashes her full mezzo power. in a long wail of protest.  Her line becomes incantational again.  "O meiner Toten" she sings. Relentless, repeating figures in the orchestra, then a cataclysmic explosion, the echoes of which carry on into silence. I've written about Hartmann many times – search this site – because in so many ways he's more than "just" a composer but a prophet who intuited the trauma of existence and realized that music is can express human decency even in the presence of evil.  His Symphony no 1 (completed in 1955 towards the end of a long career) bears the subtitle "Versuch eines Requiem", towards a Requiem because the horrors aren't over, and may yet get worse than we can possibly imagine.  No time yet for the resolution of a requiem.  Much respect to Metzmacher, who knows Hartmann's music so well and why it is vitally important. Congratulations too, to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Elbphilhamonie for having the courage to do this piece when feel-good superficiality might be more popular.

Hartmann's Symphony no 1 and Shostakovich's Symphony no 11 were completed at about the same time in the mid 1950's, but the two pieces are radically different.  While Shostakovich had to be careful not to annoy the Soviets, he was a public figure, unlike the far more uncompromising Galina Ustvolskaya, who had to play along with the regime to survive. His Symphony no 11 is a public piece, which won him  the Lenin Prize and great popularity.  The subject matter is unashamedly patriotic, commemorating the year 1905 and the December Revolution which was suppressed but entered the political mythology of that Soviet State. There's nothing in principle wrong with propaganda music, but much of the appeal of this symphony lies in the way it plays on emotions to whip up excitement,  and the avoidance of doubt.  Metzmacher and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra gave a suitably magnificent account, so vivid and full of drama that you could forget that, at heart, this is cinema music as opposed to, say, reflective art.   Is it a soundtrack to an invisible movie? Perhaps we're supposed to suspend judgement and thrill to the images of violence and turbulence.  But where do such feelings lead? After hearing Hartmann, it's not so easy to blank things out. 

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