By Rebecca Schmid
BERLIN — Contemporary music has been a mainstay of Simon Rattle’s tenure with the Berlin Philharmonic. Not only have new works assumed a prominent role in subscription concerts, but he also has broadened the roster to include composers who do not easily penetrate Germany’s avant-garde enclaves. Thomas Adès’ Powder Her Face Suite, heard at the first performance on May 31 at the Philharmonie, is part of a series of commissions that will accompany Rattle on his final stretch with the Philharmonic.
Starting this fall, he serves as music director both here and with the London Symphony Orchestra. In 2018, he departs from the Berlin Philharmonic for good.
Adês’ orchestral suite – a co-commission with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Danish National Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and Carnegie Hall – follows two other arrangements Adès devised from Powder Her Face, his first stage work (1995): the Dances from Powder Her Face (a 2007 set of three dances for full orchestra) and Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face (a 2015 piano transcription of four scenes).
The chamber opera tells of the Duchess of Argyll, whose husband filed for divorce and left her in financial ruin after discovering her sexual escapades with what he claimed to be more than 80 men. The Suite re-orchestrates the Dances and mixes them with four newly transcribed sections, expanding the emotional scope to reveal the Duchess’ desperation with brooding, atmospheric textures. There are also prominent vignettes for woodwinds, such as the trio of soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, and clarinet in “Scene with Song.”
In the “Ode,” solo clarinetist Andreas Ottensamer stood for a brief soliloquy, only to be silenced by low strings that seemed to disintegrate as they led the way into the “Paper Chase.” Adès’ orchestration is as masterful as ever, from ironic brass textures to carefully timed percussion gestures, such as trotting woodblocks and a plastic battle that is smashed. Rattle was finely attuned to the music’s nuances, whether humorous or violent, leading a lively, balanced performance.
Pairing Adès with Stravinsky is a thought-provoking proposition given the tradition of neo-classicism that the British composer to some extent perpetuates. In the 1909 work Chant funèbre, whose manuscript was thought lost but resurfaced in St. Petersburg in 2015, Stravinsky responds to a Romantic and at times specifically Wagnerian idiom with atmospheric harmonies and horns that call out from the distance. Nevertheless, the musicologist Richard Taruskin has indicated that the motive with which the double basses open the work would reappear in the L’Oiseau de feu, Stravinsky’s first composition for the Ballets Russes.
The 12-minute work Chant funèbre, in its German premiere, reveals how Stravinsky – beyond his neo-classical and serial phases – absorbed all of music history into his own idiom. While the initial chromatic melody persists in various forms throughout the work, the main theme appears with a slowly unfolding solo horn melody that is tossed to the English horn, then to the first violins. The flute is the last instrument to sing the melody before the double basses and contrabassoon begin an ascent into what is unmistakably the beyond, a locale far more peaceful than the uncertain place where the strings tremble in the first measures. The glowing brass, chiseled woodwinds, and rich strings of the Philharmonic made for a luxurious performance. Rattle maintained beautiful transparency, but his excessive use of rubato introduced an unfortunate dose of heart-on-sleeve emotionality to Stravinsky’s pensive score.
Experiencing Le sacre du printemps directly after Chant funèbre gave the 1913 ballet a new context. In both works, Stravinsky was eager to explore the color of every woodwind and brass instrument, but by Sacre, the same material is turned on its head: Rhythm, not harmony, is the main element. Melodies are tossed throughout the orchestra, as in Chant, but they wind up in twisted polyphony. The music follows its own will and dissolves into primitive chaos. The Philharmonic executed the stabbing rhythms with remarkable precision, but that very dutiful perfection gave the performance an aura that was at times too civilized for the final tableau in which the Chosen One dances herself to death.
The evening also included Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C major, K. 503. Although program notes observe that the majestic opening chords indicate a “cementing of the aristocratic order” that would, in theory, provide an interesting contrast to Adès’ commentary on the dissolution of that societal structure, there was little thematic connection to the rest of the program. Soloist Imogen Cooper gave a stately, polished reading, but her forte passages could have been rounder. Rattle drew lean, pliant lines from the orchestra.
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.