Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Grüsse aus Berlin!

It’s always nice coming back to Berlin. Just a little less than a year ago I had the time of my life as a cellist and musician playing Pettersson on the stage of the Berliner Philharmonie, one of the great stages in the world of classical music. This time around, it was not to play Pettersson, but to hear it live in concert. Last night in the chamber music hall of the Philharmonie the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin played the Concerto No. 1 for String Orchestra under the direction of Jan Michael Horstmann. 

Many of you might know, especially my German readers, that next to Christian Lindberg probably no one else has done as much for Pettersson’s music as Horstmann. In the past three seasons he has programmed three different Pettersson orchestral works: the Symphony No. 7, the Concerto for Violin No. 2 and the work played last night. I cannot wait to find out what else he has planned. 
As you can see from the photo, the program was about half baroque/classical and 20th century. I really was only interested in the Hartmann (which went very well) and the Pettersson, but I did watch the very first work on the program, which suggested that this orchestra was quite accomplished. 

Even though this isn’t quite the appropriate analogy, once the Pettersson got started I got the impression that the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin was both outnumbered and outgunned. With a string complement of 4-4-3-2-1, you’re not going to get that sound of massed orchestral strings which I think Pettersson had in mind. One section which made this glaringly obvious was the transition between the first and second movements. Two cellos and a single bass slashing away on a low E will not have the same effect as 12 cellos and 8 basses, or even half that amount.

After this concert, I have had the great fortune of having seen a Pettersson orchestral work performed live five times. Each performance reinforces the fact that Pettersson really demanded a lot technically from the musicians, and couple this with the almost definite likelihood that any given orchestra outside of Sweden will be playing Pettersson for the first time. Extreme difficulty and unfamiliarity do not make a good combination. And so it was the case here. While the orchestra put on a valiant effort, this piece might have been too much, at least with the rehearsal time they had. Intonation and ensemble were pretty shaky throughout. There was a sense of tentativeness as well: the sighing motive of a falling half step in the first movement, or the stabbing fourths of the second, need to be terrifying. Nevertheless,  there was certainly a sense of deep commitment to the cause, especially on the part of Horstmann.  

One thing which I found curious was Horstmann’s choice of tempo in the first movement. I have never seen the score of this work, but based on Pettersson’s writings and the overall nature of the piece, I would guess that in the outer movements Pettersson wanted things to move along at quite a brisk pace. At least according to Michael Kube’s research in the liner notes of the BIS release of the first two string concertos, Pettersson said that the tempos in the first concerto should not be reduced to try to get every detail “pedantically” correct. I found the first movement of last night’s performance quite slow (I also found Horstmann’s performance of the Symphony No. 7 in 2010 also on the slow side). However, the last two movements went quite well, despite the problems mentioned above. The repeated D naturals in the second movement were played with nightmarish insistence and intensity, which was exactly the intended effect. Special mention goes to the section leaders, who played wonderfully in their solos.

Next week it’s Norrköping for the Symphony No. 9! I’ll let you know how that goes as well.

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