Even since my wonderful night out at the young musicians’ festival at the Konzerthaus, far too many weeks ago, I have been trying to find another Berlin concert at which I might get myself a comparable ‘fix’ of the kind of music I am discovering all too late in life. It hasn’t been easy. I have trudged for weeks through the local concert listings, looking for interesting programming – and for me that means nothing too ancient and ‘classical’ but no three vacuum-cleaners and a krumhorn either – and finally I lighted on last night’s concert at the Philharmonie. A building which I wanted to go and discover, anyway. Debussy, Ravel, Mahler and R Strauss. Go for it. Actually getting the tickets was a marathon task, for on-line booking is fraught with German-language dangers and fees, and using a foreign credit card in Germany a perfect nightmare. But – after riding the U-Bahn into town and the office of the Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester -- I got there.
So, last night, after a small supper at Sissi, Paul – my music master by appointment -- and I headed through the falling shades of night for the Potsdamer-Platz and the Philharmonie. I had been told that this concert-hall was something remarkable, so I wasn’t unprepared to be knocked sideways. For remarkable it is. The clean, modern, foyer space is vast, littered with staircases, and – in spite of attendants every ten metres -- you need a map (or good German) to find your way to your seat in the auditorium. But once there! This is probably the most stunning modern concert hall I have visited. Layers upon layers of interlocked seating levels… and we were wonderfully seated both for seeing and for hearing (although Paul says the Philharmonie is aurally great from everywhere). I was, however, distinctly surprised to see the hall only two-thirds filled. Maybe this was because the concert was ‘an occasion’ -- the live-broadcast launch of a new German radio station, Deutschlandradio Kultur – which meant that we had a sizeable chunk of fuzzily-amplified talking from the radio announcer between numbers.
The billed performers for the evening – all young, which could not be said for some of the orchestra! --were Japanese-American conductor Eugene Tzigane, Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan and American mezzo Sasha Cooke. I knew nothing of any of them (nor, I suspect, did anyone else) but was not unprepared for slightly ‘young’ performances. I was unprepared for one stunning performance.
We started gently with ‘L’après-midi d’un faune’. The sound was splendid. The whole orchestra seemed to be singing with one voice. And, whereas in Petrouchka I had missed the visuals and drama of the ballet: here I felt exactly the opposite. I like this piece better without the dancing. We spent a very comfortable faunish afternoon and it served nicely to introduce me to the hall and the orchestra. Gently. Very gently.
The Ravel Piano concerto in G major was new to me, and I wasn’t at all sure, in its opening movement, that it suited me. After the homogeneity of the Debussy, we were suddenly presented with what sounded like an orchestra chopped up into bits, with each bit doing its own thing. The most notable ‘perversion’ was the violently braying introduction of the then (1932) fashionable sounds of America, which seemed to me to be ‘stuck on’ to the work, rather than an integrated part of it. I was happier when we moved to the slow movement, but here I wasn’t sure that the adept but perhaps slightly introverted soloist was quite getting the ‘vocal line’ out of his instrument that he might have. And then, it all came together -- pianist and composer, orchestra and the sometimes rather exaggerated conductor -- in a splendidly vivacious final movement, which brought the first half of the concert to a wholly effective climax.
Well, it would have, if the pianist hadn’t succumbed to the Berlin one-bow-too-many-syndrome, which he topped by coming back and giving an audience which was half on its way to the bar and the loo, ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring’. Climax dissipated, and me left thinking of school competitions.
Part two of the concert proper began with the Rückert Lieder. Five songs in the established Mahlerian vein for orchestra and mezzo-soprano. Here again, I had only a general idea of what to expect, and here my expectations were excelled. The first three songs are delightful, but they do not make you sit up. Miss Cooke sang very, very pleasantly, the orchestra played too often too loudly (the lady is a mezzo, not a contralto, so her low notes, in particular, need to be liberated from exuberant accompaniment, especially brazen), and then ... with ‘Um Mitternacht’ the vocalist went and soared. Oh, did she soar. It is a beautiful voice, clear and even, rich and straight, expressive, sympathetic .. a classic mezzo-soprano that is surely ideally suited in songs such as these. And she performs with no false dramatics, no useless gesture, no grimaces: just a simple, lovely sincerity. When she followed up song number four with the soft, dying final piece of the set ... well, suddenly, the evening had turned into something else. I had written that I was coming to a ‘beautiful concert in beautiful company’. Here was beauty.
As the song’s last notes died away, I grinned gap-mouthed at Paul, he slapped me on the back, and we were up on our feet applauding and yelling. Wonderful stuff, wonderful singing …
How to follow that? Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung was, as a child, one of my and my father’s favourite records, so I was sure I would be safe. I remember how impressive and atmospheric I used to find it. Well ... tonight, I’m afraid my main impression was rather: ‘isn’t it noisy’. And ‘the string-players must have tennis elbow after that’. I didn’t ‘not like it’ – how could one? But I was just a little disappointed that it didn’t live up to my fond memories. And I knew I was being disappointed, because at one stage I found myself transfixed by the antics of the bouncing conductor as he turned – at comically top speed – the pages of his score. My concentration regained, I followed the piece to its end with mitigated feelings. I felt just a little let down.
As we left the hall, I said to Paul, ‘I liked the last two songs and the third movement of the Ravel best. What about you?’. His verdict was identical. So the professional and trained musician (him) and the instinctive, ex-professional and largely untrained me were in accord. Which, I’d say, probably means we were pretty right. Wouldn’t you?
We sat in the Potsdamer-Platz, when the music was done, with a beer, a cigarette and a little analysis of this and that, and watched a bass fiddle and a violin go by, greeted Paul’s young friends of the Berlin music world – Heidi the bassoon, Sacha the clarinet, a piano, an oboe – and managed to keep ourselves from rushing across the pavement like schoolboy film-fans when Miss Cooke passed by …
And then it was time for the U-Bahn ..
Oh dear, in ten days I will be out of here. Flying towards the southern hemisphere. And I feel I’ve only tipped a toe into what musical Berlin has to offer. But since I’m already booked to return for the spring, I guess the next stage of musical education can wait till then.
So, I got my beautiful concert. In beautiful company. For there is nothing like listening to music – especially unfamiliar music -- in congenial and knowledgeable circumstances to make it both comprehensible and memorable. So thank you, Paul. And thank you, Miss Sasha Cooke.