If you can take time to travel in February--and can put up with the
weather--you can enjoy deep discounts on airfare and hotels, as well as
catch the main concert season in Berlin. My wife and I are here for a
week, visiting museums by day and music venues by night. These days you
can even select seat locations from websites of the Philharmonic and the
opera companies and have them in your mailbox in four days or less, even
in the middle of the U.S. I was able to order tickets for four events
in Berlin and Paris less than two weeks in advance. To be sure some
choices are sold out. In addition, I was able to buy ballet tickets on
the day of performance at the Staatsoper (Barenboim,s house, on Unter
den Linden, near our hotel).
In fulfillment of a longstanding wish, I heard the Berlin Philharmonic
in the Philharmonie Friday evening. Donald Runnicles conducted. Leonidas
Kovakas soloed in the Brahms Violin Concerto and in Zemlinsky's Lyric
Symphony the Danish baritone Bo Skovhus and American soprano Christine
Brewer soloed. Our seats were in the second row near the first violins
and the soloists. Ordinarily I prefer to look down at the whole orchestra
but, as it happened, I had a wonderful opportunity to watch the conductor's
signals and violinist's bowing at close range and to get the most out
of Kovakas' pianissimos.
The Brahms was superb. The hall helped, of course, but I have never
heard such sweet tone from a violin section nor such quietude achieved
by a solo violinist. Kovakas has a fine recording of the two verions
of the Sibelius concerto with Osmo Vanska but he surpassed any expectations
on this occasion. He went from the utmost quiet in some passages to a
full rollicking bounce in the finale. At the end he was embraced, not
only by the conductor, but by the concertmaster and assistant concertmaster
as well--something I have never seen before anywhere. After only one
or two recalls Runnicles positively blocked the solois, who seemed both
exhausted and a bit appalled at the prospect of playing another note,
from exiting. The encore he played began extremely slowly and quietly
but built up to doublestopping plus pizzicato at the same time. I have
no idea what it was, but it seemed reasonably recent.
During the concerto, Runnicles was always attentive to the soloist and
showed courtesy to the orchestra in more ways than one. His beat is
very supple. I have never seen or har Runnicles before but I liked him
quite a lot.
Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony is not a work I know well, though I have a
recording of it. Zemlinskz was a friend of both Mahler and Schoenberg.
The Nazis declared his work degenerate--Entartete, along with much other
post-romantic and early modern music. Scored for large orchestra and
two vocalists, in a setting of words by Rabinath Tagore, it is loud, but
hardly offensive in any way I can hear myself. The baritone was very
fine, powerful and impassioned, but without loss of any vocal quality,
which is considerable in his case. The soprano was gentler and quieter,
which I shall attribute to the score and her interpretation of it.
Runnicles conducting was vigorous in this work, as it requires. The
orchetral playing was strond and Runnicles singled out several wind and
brass players in deserved acknowledgment at the end. By the way, the
BPO now has at least a dozen women players, in stark contrast to the
situation a few yearas ago.
Audience reaction to both works was strongly approving, although there
was not the standing ovation I would have expected elsewhere.
COMING: notes on Die Tote Stadt at the Deutsche Oper, Stravinsky's
Firebird and Sacre at the Staatsoper, and four Shostakovich quartets
at the Kammermusiksaal.