A MASTERCLASSS FOR ALL CONDUCTORS: CHRISTOPH VON DOHNÁNYI AND THE PHILHARMONIA IN BERLIN
A MASTERCLASSS FOR ALL CONDUCTORS:
CHRISTOPH VON DOHNÁNYI AND THE PHILHARMONIA IN BERLIN
I have asked myself repeatedly the same question: Why have I never experienced a really inspired performance by a symphony orchestra for many years? Riccardo Muti gave a partial answer in a video recording of his rehearsal of Dvovák’s Symphony No. 2 with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra by bluntly stating that most conductors of today try their best to look inspired in front of a television camera. He was very critical of his own profession, concluding with a devastating pronouncement, “We are a race that should disappear.” I have been disappointed with star conductors like Simon Rattle who at every concert must try to look inspired, and end up with making grimaces to his orchestra, supposedly as the most effective means of communication. Andris Nelsons with the Boston Symphony Orchestra fared no better, with his far from elegant acrobatics which could not match Rattle’s graceful movements. This is all phoney.
What I saw and heard at the concert by the Philharmonia Orchestra of London on 11 September 2015 put my query to rest. Christoph von Dohnányi at 86 was still in perfect health, very agile with his movements, standing upright on the rostrum for nearly 2 hours. I shall never forget his rendering of Schubert’s Symphony, “The Great”, now renumbered as No. 8. It was perhaps the most enjoyable live performance of a classical symphony I had ever heard in my life. Inspiration pervaded the entire performance. The conductors did not outwardly look inspired, but the musicians were inspired in their playing, gave an inspiring performance, and the audience was thus inspired. So inspiration is an inward communicative force, and need not become an outward exhibitionism. Those aspiring (and not inspiring) conductors, who try too hard to compete with circus bandmasters, have wasted their time trying to stage a comedy before us.
Before dealing with the exquisite performance, let me first describe what Christoph von Dohnányi did to achieve such incomparable results. With an orchestra that Karajan was the first to train and later brought to great artistic heights by Klemperer, whose standard has been maintained by a succession of dedicated permanent conductors (including Dohnányi himself) and other distinguished guest conductors, the Philharmonia is a truly professional orchestra that knows its basic responsibility. A conductor can dispense with rudimentary conducting techniques. Last night, I noticed that Dohnányi did not bother to beat time at all. (A baton technician like Zubin Mehta can never allow that to happen!) The orchestra, once set in motion, could take care of itself. He was more intent on giving the symphony a shape, and he used all kinds of movements to communicate with his musicians, including the movements of his head at certain points. The slightest gesture of his hand(s), or his fingers, produced a result that would necessitate other conductors to resort to shaking their entire body or stamping their feet. The fortissimo passages came off very effectively without the conductor physically exerting himself too much, and if the performance had been recorded as a silent film, one would not have observed that the orchestra was playing fortissimo! The most important thing to this conductor was phrasing, and he had various ways of shaping a phrase according to his wish. I had rarely heard a classical symphony so well phrased as in this performance, one well-shaped phrase after another, building up to a unified whole. Anybody present in the Philharmonie last night would agree on one important point: Dohnányi made Schubert sing; yes, it was the singing quality of the music that sustained the almost one-hour performance. And in that singing, various human experiences and emotions are explored by the composer. Dohnányi cared for details, definitely, but the entire structure of this “great” symphony strode forward with conviction.
Listening to this interpretation – and it was an interpretation – I realized that the Philharmonia and the conductor proved innumerable points that relate to the history of Western classical music. Since the structure of the score, especially the sectional characteristics that conspired to constitute the entire work, became so clear to any attentive listener, there could be no question any longer that in this posthumous symphony, Schubert did master the symphonic writing very well, and one can no longer speak of his deficiencies in musical training. Many have treated Schubert as a lesser figure compared to Beethoven (whom Schubert himself revered). I am not sure that way of thinking is valid. When in doubt, I always fall back on my beloved Johannes Brahms. He too stood in awe before the towering figure of Beethoven, but Schubert was closer to his heart; a spiritual affinity was there that he could sense. He spent a fortune buying up all the manuscripts of Schubert that could be found and studied them. When the young Richard Strauss had the temerity (or impertinence?) to invite Brahms to attend a rehearsal of his first symphony, Brahms advised the young man to go back and study Schubert’s “Ländler” so that he would know what good music is! (Strauss never forgave the older colleague, but he never became a symphonist either.) The C Major Symphony looks forward to future generations, to Schumann who discovered the manuscript in Vienna and gave it to Mendelssohn, who premiered it with the Gewandhaus Leipzig. (And the latest news about this great orchestra is that it will share programmes with the Boston Symphony and engage Andris Nelsons too as its permanent conductor. No sense of history, and no sense of quality, these publicity-ridden modern management tycoons!) Of course, the performance on 11 September was not made to sound like Brahms, but you could sense that Brahms learned a great deal from Schubert, not only in the writing of songs.
Let me begin reporting on the performance with what happened immediately after the last note of the first movement had died down. A few members of the audience could not resist shouting, “Bravo!”, and the larger part of the audience started applauding – contrary to the good convention of not clapping between movements. But it was spontaneous, because the performance of this “Kopfsatz” (a German word meaning literally the “head” movement) was truly irresistible. It once and for all established with utmost conviction that this symphony is monumental. Words fail me to describe how the Philharmonia under Dohnányi played it, but I shall try. The first movement, marked Andante. Allegro ma non troppo, as I heard it, reconciled grandeur with simplicity (which in Mahler, for example, are sometimes kept apart or at best coexist). The horns at the beginning of the movement sounded as though coming from afar, and I was mistaken in thinking that they were played off-stage. This is the wonder of music. Although you are in a concert hall, you are not tied down to a specific time and place. The sounds produced by the orchestra can open up vistas of a world and human experience that can be realized through your imagination. At this concert, the underlying rhythmic vitality provided a firm basis for a forward movement, and what happened in between during that passage of time was rich indeed in its variety of moods and emotions. How could Schubert condense so much into a movement and how could the orchestra and conductor bring off this musical and experiential fecundity to such a amazing degree? No wonder the audience was prepared to transgress the convention of “no applause between movements”.
The second movement, Andante con moto, required orchestral playing of the first order, and the Philharmonia rose to the occasion. The oboe entry, with exquisite phrasing, seemed to be inviting other instruments to join in this feast of sounds, and the strings (much superior to those of the other London orchestras) were the embodiment of sophistication. After an extended pizzicato, the key change was introduced in a quasi-mysterious way, but with a blissful singing quality. The third movement, Scherzo. Allegro vivaci – Trio, was characterized by a superb nuanced playing. Although the overriding mood was joviality, marked by spritely rthythms, the musicians could offer so much variety within that framework. I could see how much Dohnányi enjoyed listening to this orchestra, for he did not have to “physically” conduct much.
The final movement, for me, is something special. Having just arrived to study in the West in the late 1950s, I was lucky to hear the visiting Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig in Manchester under Franz Konwitschny (1901-1962), who ranked as the leading ambassador of the East German music world. A passage, played twice in this movement, with the lower strings doing pizzicato to accompany the rest of the orchestra, produced something that I then identified as the swing rhythm that we all know from American jazz music. I assumed then that the Americans must have taken the cue from this Finale. Allegro vivaci of the “Great” Symphony by Schubert. But scholars of jazz think that it is purely accidental. (See the book, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945 by Gunther Schnuller, 1989, p. 286.) So let it be! Classical music and jazz just happen to get fascinated by the same rhythm. Dohnányi approached it from a different angle, emphasizing the melodic line to such an extent that the underlying swing rhythm was almost inaudible. He did not disappoint me, for his way of playing was convincing to me too. Listening to this musically and emotionally very rich movement made me realize another important feature of a symphony orchestra: the importance of the woodwinds as a link between the strings and the brass. The San Francisco Symphony, 20 years ago, had a weak woodwind section, and it affected adversely the entire orchestra. No need to say that the woodwinds of the Philharmonia were very distinguished indeed. (I wrote about this in my review in the Thai language of the visit of the Philharmonia to the Berlin Festival of 2013.) So the balance of the entire orchestra was perfect. No wonder Dohnányi looked very happy. (Of course I could see his face, because I always buy the ticket for a seat behind the orchestra, preferably veering to the side of the first violins.) He had good reasons to feel that way. In an interview given in Vienna on the occasion of his 85th birthday last year, he said that he had not yet given up conducting because he always discovered new things in works which he had conducted for umpteen times.
On the night of 11 September 2015, the anniversary of that inhuman act of terrorism, Christoph von Dohnányi proved to himself, to his follow musicians and to his audience that music does not die so easily and has that magic power of self-renewal. A man of 86 persuaded his orchestra to give us a very youthful rendering of a great work of art.
I have deliberately dwelled at great length on the Schubert Symphony because the work and the performance should serve as a lesson for both the performing and the receiving ends of the musical world. The first half of the programme was devoted to the works of Charles Ives and Alban Berg. The Unanswered Question (1908) by Charles Ives is a philosophic statement, pointing to the importance of human dialogue that need not aim at the resolution of a problem (of course, at a dialogic, discursive level.) A question was put forward repeatedly 7 times by the trumpets, and the answer came 6 times from the flutes, meaning that the definitive answer to the question never came. What a terrific idea for an orchestral piece written in 60 bars, lasting 5 minutes? I do think that it is a step forward beyond the usual narrative tone poem. The Philharmonia under Dohnányi played this piece with extreme concentration, and left us dangling in the air waiting for the answer to “the unanswered question” Personally I would rather have a musical innovation of this nature than the musical extravaganza in the form of a tone poem by the early Schönberg, on which I have already reported.
Carolin Widmann, a sister of the composer Jörg Widmann, came to Thailand twice, but nobody bothered to arrange proper concerts for her. The first time she played a recital in a lecture room at the old building of the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University. The audience was not really lovers of classical music. The second time she accepted the invitation of the then German Ambassador to Thailand to perform at the Ambassador’s residence, the invitation being accompanied by a request (or an instruction?) that no modern music was to be played. Widmann, being a champion of modern and contemporary music, offered “an answer to a question”. She played Mozart and Brahms in such a way as to make them sound like Bartók. The joke fell flat, because the Ambassador and most of his guests were not really classical music fans to start with. Thailand has lost a friend that way. She has not been back.
Her Berlin performance was devoted to the Violin Concerto by Alban Berg. She did not play from memory and had a score in front of her, which, to me, is perfectly acceptable. Modern music is difficult to commit to memory. This is a very lyrical work, but with very violinistic virtuoso parts to challenge the soloist. Widman’s rather steely tone did justice to the violinistic prowess required for the first part of the work, but the lyrical parts were not so convincingly executed. The orchestra was not well balanced, which was rather strange, for Dohnányi does not as a rule deliver shoddy work. I suspect he was not in sympathy with the work. The second part was better played, and better supported by the orchestra, although at the place where I sat behind the orchestra, the soloist was drowned at times by the brass. I think every concert hall has its blind spots and I happened to be sitting there. The orchestral playing on the whole was not perfect, especially in the loud passages. But the more ruminating parts were exquisitely played by the orchestra, for example, the dialogue between the concertmaster and the principal violist, both of whom, I am sure, could replace any indisposed soloist at any time; such is the quality of the musicians of the Philharmonia. On the whole, this concert, to me, turned out to be a reaffirmation of my estimation of the Philharmonia as the top British orchestra, and perhaps one of the few leading ensembles of the West. Be that as it may, there were many empty seats in the Philharmonie in the night of 9/11.
12 September 2015