By Rebecca Schmid
BERLIN — In Julian Anderson’s Incantesimi, a lonely English horn wanders through a landscape in which peace can only reign for so long. Colorful, at times sensuous instrumentation has no chance against growling brass, shrieking woodwinds, and merciless percussion.
Dedicated to Sir Simon Rattle and first performed under his baton with the Berlin Philharmonic on June 8, the work travels to the BBC Proms in September and receives its American premiere with the Boston Symphony in January 2017.
Anderson is as interested in telling a story as he is in exploring sound in and of itself. The title Incantesimi, or magic spells, does not make itself clear. Is the English horn a messenger from the heavens, or is he (or she) contending with an impending apocalypse?
The work opens with slowly moving sound surfaces onto which the soloist descends as if from another realm, banishing percussion and winds for a few measures to enjoy lyrical counterpoint with the strings. But at every turn, the rest of the ensemble is waiting to assert itself.
In one of the most brutal moments, kabuki clappers silence the winds entirely. The English horn manages to rise above a thumping bass drum, accompanied only by a string quartet, but is forced to trail off again, with chirping wind triplets asserting their dominance.
Anderson, a British native whose mentors range from Alexander Goehr and Oliver Knussen to Tristan Murail, is touted in program notes as a cosmopolitan artist. One could easily note a French influence in his colorful orchestration or the German rigor of contrapuntal passages. His orchestral works synthesize a range of influences into abstract sound worlds where new timbres emerge as if by alchemy, pushing instrumentation to new frontiers while maintaining certain structural aspects of orchestral tradition.
But the approximately eight-minute Incantesimi does not work magic. Moments of almost Mahlerian foreboding were too brief to cast their spell, lyrical passages not given time to bloom among the ruins, even as Rattle led the Philharmonic and its sensitive English horn player, Dominik Wollenweber, in a consummate, loving performance.
The effect may have been all the less successful given the rest of the evening’s program. Dvořák’s festive Slavonic Dances, Op. 46, felt almost bombastic following Anderson’s shattered soundscape, not to mention long (the eight dances make for almost five times the length of the new work). All the while, Rattle led the orchestra with rousing energy and authentic use of rubato. Although the F-major Minuet could have been more visceral, the conductor had the players dancing around the table in the c-minor Skočná, a folk dance in 2/4 time.
The first half of the program was purely Romantic but nothing less than luxurious. Soloist Krystian Zimerman joined the orchestra in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, creating moments of intimate chamber dialogue. His light-footed but sensuous playing showed that the soft-spoken sometimes demands the most attention.
Of the inner slow movement — famously branded (by Liszt, Schumann, or the biographer Adolph Bernard Marx) with the image of Orpheus taming the wild beasts — I could only think of an argument between a woman and her angry husband. No matter how potent the orchestra’s interjections, the piano pleaded calmly, eventually causing the larger forces to place their demands more quietly.
The dramatic tension continued into the final movement, Zimerman’s pearly trills and even runs in dialogue with the fiery Philharmonic. Rattle and Zimerman had no qualms about displaying their camaraderie, but the music-making was never ostentatious, always in service of the score.
The lean intensity Rattle coaxes from the Philharmonic’s strings was even more suited to Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro. Not unlike in Incantesimi, a string quartet seems to mourn against the backdrop of a forceful string orchestra. Concertmaster Daniel Stabrawa led the quartet with a gentle tone, while the orchestra made deep, incisive attacks.
On June 16, Rattle presents another new work, A Little Summer Suite, by the Paris-based Betsy Jolas (who replaced none other than Messiaen as a faculty member at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique of Paris). The suite will be framed by Franck’s Variations symphoniques for Piano and Orchestra, with Emanuel Ax as soloist, along with music by Ravel, Debussy, Varèse, and Percy Grainger.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide, and other publications.