Saturday 18 May 2024

Karajan-Akademie/Petrenko - Mendelssohn and Widmann, 17 May 2024


Mendelssohn: String Octet in E-flat major, op.20
Widmann: Quintet for oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, and piano
Mendelssohn: Symphony no.4 in A major, op.90, ‘Italian’

Kirill Petrenko (conductor)

The Berlin Philharmonic’s Karajan-Akademie, founded on the initiative of the man himself in 1972, is perhaps the ultimate in orchestral scholarships. Its graduates are to be found in orchestras across the world. On the basis of this evening concert whose second part was conducted by Karajan’s successor but two, Kirill Petrenko, it would seem unwise to bet against that continuing. Any good orchestra will excel in chamber music playing too. The first part of the concert, offering a work for strings by Mendelssohn and one for wind and piano by Jörg Widmann confirmed much to admire in that respect as well.

Mendelssohn’s music nearly always lifts the spirits—unless played poorly (which does not bear thinking about). The Karajan-Akademie’s Octet offered no exception. From the off, the first movement had a sense of rightness that implied spontaneity, yet doubtless entailed much preparation. Tempo, balance, poise, and sheer élan characterised the performance that mirrored Mendelssohn’s own extraordinary combination of youth and maturity. Counterpoint was vividly present without congestion of textures. Not that sterner passages, for instance in the development, were undersold. The melancholy of exhaustion and its differentiation told its own tale, as did the revival of spirits for the return. Above all, it made me smile. If Beethoven’s inheritance was not absent in the first movement, it was immediately more apparent in the second. A keen architectural grasp was combined with moral seriousness and due sense of the sublime (without a hint of pomposity). The featherlight, fairytale fantasy of a Mendelssohn scherzo held no fears for these players; their relish proved properly infections. They stepped forward and blended in ensemble like musical actors in a play (A Midsummer Night’s Dream only just round the corner). Beethoven’s influence, worn ever so lightly, also characterised a finale of vigour, rigour, and release, which seemed to delight in the very essence of music. The players’ delight both in their performance and the warmth of its reception were palpable, and rightly so.   

Next came Widmann’s Quintet for oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, and piano, a 2006 commission from the Karajan-Akademie. The combination of piano, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon has as its most celebrated, unmatchable example that of Mozart, although Beethoven’s early work is a fine example too. Schoenberg’s Wind Quintet, op.26, and Suite, op.29 between them contain the instruments, though neither of course matches directly. It was Schoenberg’s music and perhaps also that of his alleged antipode, Stravinsky, that seemed more to haunt on this occasion, for who would dare follow Mozart’s KV 452 directly? Widmann claims to have done so, but that was not so apparent to me, and more to the point, seemed to matter. His longstanding – even then, as the recipient of the Akademie’s Claudio Abbado Composition Prize – preoccupation with German Romanticism registered strongly: not only in its Second Viennese School culmination, but also in Schumannesque (at one remove) piano writing. There was humour; there were what once we might have called ‘extended techniques’; and there was a ‘lost waltz’ that seemed to have strayed from the Vienna of Schoenberg and Berg (perhaps the Wozzeck tavern). Eighteen miniature movements in not much more than twenty minutes offered a vivid, youthful conspectus that again seemed just the thing for outstanding young performers. They seemed to enjoy it too. Piano was exchanged for celesta in the final movement, ‘Flugtraum’, casting a spell of enchantment not only over what had gone before, but also over what was to come.

Petrenko joined a full chamber orchestra (strings for the return of Mendelssohn in his Italian Symphony. Lessons of chamber-musicmaking seemed very much to have been learned, both for the players in their listening and sheer responsiveness, and also for the conductor, who in his wisdom – again, one could also see and hear his enjoyment – knew precisely when and when not to conduct. If one could hear, even in the excellent acoustic of the Kammermusiksaal, this was not an especially large string section, that did not matter in the slightest: it was different, neither better nor worse, and balance with wind was impeccable throughout. The first movement got off to a fine start, as well-judged as the Octet. Fine clarinet solos deserve special mention, though there was nothing approaching a weaker link. Petrenko likewise shaped the second movement well, crucially without giving much impression of doing so. His task was to draw out the musicianship of his players, a task accomplished to a tee. Line persisted, however much the scenery changed: the procession, after all, never stops. The Minuet again gained much from the sense of chamber playing writ large; it is not the only way, of course, but it worked well. Its trio seemed all the more to breathe the air of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Presto Saltarello danced on hot coals, infectious and cathartic as a summer night’s fever. Mendelssohn at last seemed to have turned bad; perhaps it was so, if only in the moment.