Friday 21 March 2008

Messiaen and Bach, DSO Berlin/Metzmacher, 21 March 2008

Philharmonie, Berlin

Messiaen – Les Offrandes oubliées
Bach – Cantata: ‘Weinen, klagen, sorgen, zagen’, BWV 12
Bach – Cantata: ‘Christ lag in Todesbanden,’ BWV 4
Messiaen – Trois petites Liturgies de la Présence divine

Julia Kleiter (soprano)
Angelika Kirchschlager (alto)
Andreas Weller (tenor)
Alfred Reiter (bass)
Steven Osborne (piano)
Valérie Hartmann-Clavérie (ondes martenot)
Rundfunkchor Berlin
Simon Halsey (chorus master)

Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Ingo Metzmacher (conductor)

This was the first in a series of four concerts combining works by Bach and Messiaen over the holy weekend. Messiaen’s Les Offrandes oubliées is an early work, written in 1930. Although one could hear the influence of Franck and perhaps Dupré, that most personal of voices was nevertheless clearly apparent. In the alternation of very slow music with eruptions of joy, this was also typically Messiaen. The orchestra sounded surprisingly ‘French’ in tonal quality, especially the strings. Occasionally, I wondered whether in the very high notes at the end, a little less vibrato from the violins would have helped intonation, but this was barely a problem. This early ‘méditation symphonique’ provided an excellent curtain-raiser for an impressive concert.

The first Bach cantata took a little time to settle, although the oboe soloist was first-rate even in the opening sinfonia – and also as obbligato in the alto aria, standing to perform, as a participant in an unfolding drama. Angelika Kirchschlager, here described as an alto rather than a mezzo-soprano, was so expressive in her recitative that it almost sounded like arioso, leading into that wonderful aria, ‘Kreuz und Kronen sind verbunden’. Her imploring tone upon the words ‘Christen haben alle Stunden/Ihre Qual und ihren Feind,’ was deeply moving. The rock-solid continuo of ’cello, double bass, and organ should also be commended. Alfred Reiter, in the bass aria that followed, sounded ever so slightly dry, but this should not be exaggerated. His diction was superb. Andreas Weller suffered a little from a catch in his throat, but nevertheless handled Bach’s unsparingly melismatic writing well. The trumpet chorale accompanying his aria was plangent but steadfast in the surety of faith: perfectly judged. By the time of the closing chorale, the choir sounded in better shape than its somewhat tentative opening chorus had suggested, fuller in tone though able to scale back where necessary.

Christ lag in Todesbanden sounded brighter than it often does, which is not inappropriate for what is after all an Easter rather than a Passion cantata. Here the strings sounded more at ease than they had during the previous cantata, less afraid to use vibrato and even some longer bows. The brass both underpinned and crowned the texture. Kirchschlager and Julia Kleiter shone in their beautiful duet, as did Kleiter and Weller in theirs, imparting an almost Handelian lyricism to Versus 6. Whatever slight problems had troubled Weller in the previous work had now vanished, as was also proved in his mellifluous solo. Likewise Reiter had lost his hint of dryness, and sounded almost Sarastro-like in his solo. The choir handled both homophonic and contrapuntal sections with aplomb, marking a fine performance all round.

Messiaen’s wonderfully bizarre Trois petites Liturgies had the second half to itself, and received a splendid performance. The slight inhibitions some of the orchestra had exhibited during the first half were banished. Augmented by very fine percussion, the DSO Berlin was on very good form. So were the ladies of the Rundfunkchor, who even had a reasonable stab at sounding French. Steven Osborne was luxury casting indeed on the piano, but this definitely paid off. His command of rhythm and colour was dazzling, helping to make this a memorable performance indeed. Equally fine was Valérie Hartmann-Clavérie: the ondes martenot was far more audible than can sometimes be the case, and this really helped to express Messiaen’s ecstatic response to the presence of the Lord. Her glissandi and vibrato were especially notable. At the helm was Ingo Metzmacher, whose guidance had unsurprisingly been more at a remove in the Bach works. Metzmacher clearly has a strong feeling for Messiaen’s music, and revelled, as he had in the first work on the programme, in its moods and colours.