Musikfest Berlin Reaches From 20th To 21st Century

In the annual Musikfest Berlin, composer George Benjamin conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in his ‘Palimpsests’ plus 20th century works of Boulez, Ravel, and Ligeti. (Concert photos: Kai Bienert)

BERLIN – Programming in the German capital always includes a healthy dose of modern repertoire, but the annual Musikfest Berlin offers a particularly wide range of rarely performed orchestral works at the Philharmonie. The recently appointed general manager of the Berlin Philharmonic, Andrea Zietzschmann, writes in a welcome note that this year’s lineup features a “who’s who of the 21st century,” including George Benjamin, Pierre Boulez, Mathias Spahlinger, Györgi Ligeti, and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Benjamin is composer-in-residence this season with the Berlin Philharmonic.

Arguably more than half of those composers belong to the previous century, and certain works by Boulez and Stockhausen – whose INORI is being given a rare full performance by the Lucerne Festival Academy this season, arriving in Berlin on Sept. 18 – seem firmly rooted in an old-fashioned musical philosophy. Benjamin, whose Written on Skin is perhaps the most successful opera of the past five years, is a different case.

In the first and only set of concerts involving the main body of the Philharmonic, the British composer and conductor (who is composer-in-residence this season) led a program on Sept. 8 juxtaposing his Palimpsests with 20th-century works. He returned to the Musikfest on Sept. 12 with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (which premiered Written on Skin in 2012 and gives the Berlin premiere in November). The Philharmonic season further includes three more concerts of Benjamin’s music with its chamber ensembles and the young players of its Karajan Academy.

The musicians of the self-governing Philharmonic are generally thought to prefer Brahms and Beethoven to composers who use extended techniques, so perhaps it is not surprising that their performance of Boulez’s Cummings ist der Dichter (1970, revised in 1986) under Benjamin came across at times as lackluster. Or did he not draw incisive enough attacks from the strings, which thrive in the full texture of Romantic repertoire? It was intriguing, however, to reconsider Benjamin’s music in the context of a French tradition that he absorbed through Messiaen (who called him his favorite student).

Chorwerk Ruhr performed in Boulez’s ‘Cummings ist der Dichter.’ (Pedro Malinowski)

Boulez, writing for a small choir and chamber ensemble, was always searching for new colors and combinations of sound. The alternation of explosive patterns and sustained atmospheres also reflects a new approach to structure. Benjamin’s intuitive understanding of the score allowed for the voices of the Chorwerk Ruhr to be seamlessly integrated.

Palimpsests – the first half of which was dedicated to Boulez and premiered by him in 2000 – similarly veers from ricocheting, at times violent textures to sensuous color but takes the principle to the next level. As per the title, the approximately 21-minute work illustrates a manuscript onto which a more modern text has been grafted, while the original only exists in fragments.

Benjamin creates a clear narrative arc as the brass interject over faint woodwinds and eventually draw the entire ensemble into a collective scream. The Philharmonic’s technically immaculate playing was ideally suited to bringing out the score’s dynamic extremes, from the strings, which at one point produced a markedly round vibrato, to hollow effects on percussion.

Cédric Tiberghien was the soloist in Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand.

Benjamin’s rapport with the players seemed less strong during Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand. Soloist Cédric Tiberghien, performing with the Philharmonic for the first time, was in his element, drawing at times impressionist textures from the full range of his instrument while also allowing melodies to sing. The orchestra, meanwhile, responded at times with angular phrasing. The march-like final movement gained a sense of spontaneity, yet moments of lively dialogue were few and far between.

Ligeti’s Clocks and Clouds rounded out the program. It was a smooth performance that, as with Boulez, integrated the voices of the Chorwerk Ruhr with instrumental textures. Ligeti achieves an unearthly blend that sometimes evokes the feeling of travel to outer space. The score includes everything from minimalist patterns to complex microtonal harmonies but never feels studied.

If Benjamin’s residency with the Philharmonic does not entirely fulfill its potential, given the scarcity of performances with the full orchestra, his inclusion of Clocks and Clouds allowed this work to be reconsidered as a masterpiece in its own right. A fitting contribution to the Musikfest.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional legacy of Kurt Weill.