DIGITAL REVIEW – The Berlin Philharmonic has been streaming its concerts for many years and so was well-prepared to stream through the pandemic. In fact, while the most determined orchestras offer streamed concerts only on an occasional basis, the
Berlin Philharmonic has been able to stream a new concert almost every week. More than that, unlike most orchestras it has been able to offer world-class soloists and conductors as well as innovative programming. Earlier this year the orchestra presented a well-produced series of concerts under the heading The Golden Twenties, celebrating the exceptional creative outburst that marked the best years of the Weimar Republic in Germany.
After its ignominious defeat in World War I Germany struggled to put itself back together. There were years of hyperinflation and grinding poverty. But by 1924 living conditions had improved dramatically and a phase of about five years began that saw Germany become almost unrivalled in Europe for its artistic creativity. Artists felt free to innovate for the first time in many years, and a feeling permeated most of the arts that life was worth living after all.
This was The Golden Twenties, as it became known. Among the most prominent German composers during this period was Kurt Weill, and in the five concerts that formed the Berlin Philharmonic’s Golden Twenties series his music was featured more than that of any other composer. We heard his two symphonies, the Violin Concerto, and excerpts from both The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. We also heard a short piece by Weill’s teacher Ferrucio Busoni.
In addition, there were works by other German composers active in the period such as Stefan Wolpe, Ernst Krenek, Richard Strauss, Hanns Eisler, and Paul Hindemith. Also on the menu were major works from the 1920s by some prominent non-German composers, among them Stravinsky (Oedipus Rex, 1927), Sibelius (Symphony No. 6, 1923), and Prokofiev (The Love for Three Oranges, 1921). Yet one could cite some startling omissions. Berg’s Wozzeck caused a sensation at its Berlin premiere in 1925, as did Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, which had its Berlin premiere in 1923. Neither composer was represented at all in the Berlin Philharmonic concerts. Other important composers like Franz Schreker and Berthold Goldschmidt also were notably absent.
As one might expect, the standard of performance was extremely high. Music director Kirill Petrenko led off with a fine concert of Weill’s Symphony No. 1 and Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. The Weill is an early work dating from 1921 when Weill was studying with Busoni in Berlin, and would be shockingly dissonant and complex for listeners who know the composer only from his later The Threepenny Opera or American stage works such as Street Scene or Knickerbocker Holiday.
In fact, Weill’s career falls into roughly three parts: the serious and mostly instrumental works written under the influence of Busoni, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky, the German musical theater collaborations with Bertold Brecht, and the Broadway and Hollywood scores written after Weill fled Europe and came to settle in America. Symphony No. 1 is tough stuff, abrasive and densely scored. Weill became known as a gifted tunesmith in later years, but there is hardly a single memorable melody to be found in this work.
His Symphony No. 2, written 13 years later, is much more approachable and was given an excellent performance by the Scholars of the Karajan Academy led by Marie Jacquot, a young conductor clearly on her way to a major career. She is a protegée of Petrenko and currently chief conductor at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Dusseldorf. The Scholars of the Karajan Academy is the training orchestra of the Berlin Philharmonic. It comprises gifted young musicians preparing for orchestral careers. Regular viewers of the Digital Concert Hall will have seen them often sitting in as extras with the parent orchestra. By the time he composed his Symphony No. 2, Weill had already written both The Threepenny Opera and Mahagonny – and it shows. His music is now more accessible and with that unique blend of fun and dark humor that was all his own. The slow movement of the symphony is a haunting funeral march reflecting Weill’s own feelings as he fled Germany after the Nazis came to power.
One of the Golden Twenties concerts was titled “A Night at the Moka Efti” – an attempt to recreate the aura of one of the most popular coffee houses in Berlin during the 1920s and 1930s where a swing band often played jazz or jazz-influenced music. Readers who watched the big-budget neo-noir German television series Babylon Berlin will be very familiar with its version of the Moka Efti: It was depicted as an upscale Berlin night club with lavish floor shows and a brothel in the basement. But this is fiction. The real Moka Efti was a coffee house, albeit a very fancy one with Moorish, Turkish, and Egyptian decor.
This concert included more music of Kurt Weill – Suite from The Threepenny Opera – but also some lesser-known music by Stefan Wolpe (Suite from The Twenties) and Mátyás Seiber (Two Jazzolettes). Between the musical selections, actress Dagmar Manzel read from the writings of Josephine Baker, Trude Hesterberg, and Lotte Lenya. While the Berlin Philharmonic is not a 1920s swing band, under the direction of Michael Hasel it played music from the period with considerable polish and a fine sense of style.
There were several guest conductors for these concerts, among them Thomas Dausgaard leading works by Sibelius and Prokofiev, and Christian Thielemann, who chose a fascinating program starting off with Hindemith’s Neues vom Tage Overture and Busoni’s wonderful Tanz-Walzer, Op. 53, and finishing up with Richard Strauss’ rarely heard work for male chorus and orchestra, Die Tageszeiten (Times of the Day), Op. 76. The Busoni should really be a repertoire piece. Like Ravel’s La Valse, it was inspired by the waltz music of Johann Strauss. While the Ravel is a brilliantly imaginative piece that deserves its popularity, the Busoni is perhaps more subtle if no less entertaining.
Each of the five concerts in the Golden Twenties series was introduced by thoughtful comments from BPO concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley and included an interview on the series theme with each of the soloists and conductors. In addition there was a short film titled Berlin im Licht with extensive commentary on the period and historic film. For more historic photos and a deeper dive into the period, go here. And don’t miss Babylon Berlin on Netflix, either. Although the story is fictional, it is a remarkable recreation of the period.
With all the restrictions imposed on us by the pandemic, it was a pleasure to see such exceptional and thoughtful programming.
And there was more. Just a few months ago, the Berlin Philharmonic found a way to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth last year. In the Digital Concert Hall the orchestra gave performances of all the Beethoven string quartets as well as major works for winds played by different ensembles from the orchestra. The performances were absolutely on the highest level
and represented a stunning demonstration of the depth of talent throughout the orchestra. All the Beethoven, as well as the Golden Twenties series, is still available to subscribers in the archives of the Digital Concert Hall.