Berliners Dance With Acoustics At Elbphilharmonie

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The Berlin Philharmonic, with chief conductor Kirill Petrenko on the podium, played a program of works by Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Stravinsky, and Rachmaninoff at Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie. (Photo by Stephan Rabold)

HAMBURG – Before opening in January 2017, the Elbphilharmonie – a massive brick-and-glass concert hall looming over the port of Hamburg – generated considerable controversy. Not only did it take a decade to complete, it also cost 866 million euros. With such a price tag, one would expect its acoustics to be world-class. The reality, however, is disappointing.

The Philharmonic responded alertly to Kirill Petrenko’s conducting. (Stephan Rabold)

At a recent performance by the touring Berlin Philharmonic, the overall impression of the Elbphilharmonie acoustics was that instruments playing alone or in small groups seemed to have no problem projecting through the space, as shown by the clarity of two crescendoing trumpets in the fourth movement of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s ballet suite from Alagoana – Caprichos Brasileiros. But the high end of the orchestral spectrum (the piccolos in the Zimmermann, for instance) lacked sharpness, while the double basses were barely audible throughout. The hall is indeed an avant-garde artwork, shining high above the city. Yet as a musical venture, it seems to have put form before function.

The Berliners made their stop here on a ten-day trek through Germany under the direction of Kirill Petrenko, who began as chief conductor in August 2019. Along with Zimmermann’s suite, the orchestra performed Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements  and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. The concert took place in the Großer Saal. There is also a Kleiner Saal for recitals.

The Elbphilharmonie is located in Hamburg’s port on the Elbe River. The concert hall seats 2,100. (Michael Zapf)

Composed between 1940 and 1955, these pieces all feature dance elements and share a powerful rhythmic drive. Stravinsky wrote his symphony at the height of his Neo-classical output. According to the composer, the piece provides cinematographic impressions of World War II. There is certainly a jaggedness to the opening movement, with leaping horns and aggressive strings evoking a bellicose mood. Initially conceived as a concerto for orchestra with a prominent part for the piano, this movement features the piano in a soloistic role, performed with aplomb by Hendrik Heilmann.

Although the first movement sounded somewhat reserved at times, the opening of the second provided a welcome surprise, as Petrenko drew out an unexpected coyness in the violins and clarinets. This movement started life as music Stravinsky wrote for the “Apparition of the Virgin” scene for a film of Franz Werfel’s novel The Song of Bernadette.  (In the end, Stravinsky didn’t get the contract, which went to Alfred Newman.) Adding to the militaristic overtones of the symphony, a rumba in the finale (developed from the timpani part in the introduction of the first movement) evokes what Stravinsky described as “movements of war machines.”

German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann (Schott Music)

Connections to Latin America permeate Zimmermann’s suite. Although it does not quote any Latin folk songs directly, it does convey a South American spirit in its intimations of folkloric style. The performance of the first movement of this work was more energized than the Stravinsky, as melodic material in the winds was layered over the crunch and bite of strings playing low in their range and splashes of orchestral color were added by Latin percussive instruments.

An emblematic trait of Zimmerman’s catalog is his interest in juxtaposing musical genres. This was apparent in the third movement, which shifted between a popularly influenced dance idiom and a gloomier atmosphere of slowly crisscrossing lines that reminded one of his final orchestral work, Stille und Umkehr.

Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances were originally intended for a dance collaboration that never happened. The resulting work, however, has established itself as part of the orchestral repertoire. In the piece, Rachmaninoff strips down his romantic style, writing melodies with an appealing candidness. Nowhere is this more evident than the saxophone solo in the first movement, which was played by Jan Schulte-Bunert with such tenderness that you could almost feel the music brushing your cheek. There is also a quotation of an idea from the composer’s First Symphony at the end of the movement that adds to the nostalgic mood. In the second movement, the poignancy became more intense as Petrenko guided the orchestra through waltzes draped with an air of sadness.

Throughout, Petrenko displayed a keen feel for phrasing, as he knew exactly where to push the tempo and how to relax a line into the cadence. The orchestra appeared to trust him as well, responding immediately to even his subtlest gestures. And despite his already lofty reputation, he showed no sign of extravagance.

Tim Diovanni is a graduate student in musicology at the TU Dublin Conservatory of Music and Drama. In March, he begins a full-time fellowship as classical music critic with the Dallas Morning News.