Saturday, 14 March 2020

Defeating COVID-19 by human decency - Rattle, Berliner Philharmoniker

Simon Rattle (Photo : Doug Peters)
Disastrous as COVID-19 is, can we learn from it ? At the Philharmonie, Berlin, Simon Rattle conducted Berio and Bartók to an empty hall, streamed internationally free of charge. Inevitably sneers from those who still don't know there's a pandemic around, and above all, cannot understand the role of music in difficult times.  It wasn't just any concert : of course there was no encore or applause.  An empty house brings home the message : millions might suffer and die. We can't take life or anything else for granted. And even those who survive will be scarred. (and lose their livelihoods in the economic downturn).  Concerts are live experiences, influenced by circumstances around them. To dismiss the human side of communication is to dismiss the whole point of music.

As Rattle said, there are connections between Berio Sinfonia and Bartók Concerto for Orchestra.  Both deal with memory, and the multiple threads that influence the way composers and listeners absorb their response to life and to music.  Berio's Sinfonia covers a sprawling range of human experience, questioning the way we process  that experience in music.  It is such a seminal work that it gets done very often indeed, and most people know it well, but it's not at all easy to pull off properly. (there are some lousy ones).  It's a Rattle speciality. Of the numerous performances I've heard,  this was a high point : sharper and tighter, extremely focussed.  Berio's  singers were English, establishing the tradition of British-sounding accents, which is relevant because it distances the voices from the German, Italian and other influences in the work. The soloists Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart are "English" enough but also "musical" enough to fit in with the music.  Even if this wasn't a special event concert, this performance would be up there near the top.

Rattle's introduction to Bartók Concerto for Orchestra was typically understated but that made it all the more powerful.  In this world it's not all me, me  me.  Good peoiple don't fight over toilet paper and abuse strangers.  Possibly even worse than the virus is the way it's revealed how deeply entrenched xenophonia is in this world, so endemic that even seemingly normal peopleshow their evil side.

The performance is superb, as to be expected since he's done this dozens of times, but make the time to listen to what Rattle says.  In these times of crisis, this is utterly relevant; humanity and  empathy for others is all the more important. That's why msuiciands are sacrificng their livelihoods and carrers, so the virus doesn't spread. No-one should have to die because some people want to go out.

In 1940, Bartók was a refugee in a new land, cut off from his creative roots. He was despondent, and broke. He was unknown and unwell. Smasll boys used to tease him in the street, as small boys do, alas.  He became ill,  and might have died in obscurity like so many others in his position. Fortunately, Serge Koussevitzky cared about him, aranging that he be treated with  a new experimental drug then only available to military personnel. One man helping another : passing on the flame as in Berio's Sinfonia. The Concerto for Orchestra  was another act of kindness, since it gave Bartók an income and new inspiration.  

Once he began writing, his mood lifted as if he were rejuvenated.  Although there are familiar "Hungarian" themes in the piece, it's not fundamentally nostalgic.  Bartók was looking back on his past, well aware of what was happening in the Europe he'd left behind, and of the right wing extremism in Hungary, whose government aligned itself with Hitler.  Rattle understands the granite-like inner strength in the piece and the firm lines beneath the nostalgia. Perhaps Bartók was drawing on sources in his psyche that went much deeper than folkloric colour. The ethereal opening theme developed until it emerged with expansive confidence. The music seems to oscillate, highlighting the more disturbing undercurrents in the work, alternating with moments of expansive feeling.  Rattle negotiated this constant flux, tempi spiriting along as if propelled by winds of change. This concert's being repeated on the Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall regularly, in the absence of regular programming. 

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