Stanisław Skrowaczewski is a force of nature. Now in his late 80s he led the Berliner Philharmoniker in an energetic and intense program that was transmitted live as part of the Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall.
The program opened with the Gesangsszene for baritone and orchestra by Karl Amadeus Hartmann. Written in 1963 and left incomplete but fully formed at the composer's death, it is a work based on a text by Jean Giraudoux that contemplates the destruction of empires.
Baritone Matthias Goerne joined the orchestra as soloist. I last reviewed Goerne for the Boston Globe in his recital with Andreas Haefliger at Tanglewood on August 2, 2010. In this performance Goerne focused the muscular and presentational elements of the work, very different from the chant-like qualities that Fischer-Dieskau often sought when he performed it.
This is music of isolation, and unaccompanied music, be it the extended solo flute music of the opening or unaccompanied vocalizing, is central to its construction. Skrowaczewski took a tempo precise enough that the Berliner Philharmoniker could create breathtaking blazes of coordinated outbursts. These razor-sharp incisions underscored the sense of abandonment in the text. After a distorted fanfare and a staggering dance that ended with a brief timpani solo there was silence. The solo flute returned making this a work about cycles; about rebirth.
"In jedes Vogellied hat ein grauenhafter Ton sich eingeschlichen;" sang Goerne in the final section of the piece, "ein einziger nur, doch der tiefste Ton aller Oktaven – der des Todes." (In each bird's song a horrible tone has crept in, one only, but the lowest note of all the octaves - that of death.)
As it closed even singing was abandoned as Goerne articulated lines about the end of the world, unaccompanied, and after the final word he froze and remained staring at us.
Goerne delivered the tricky high tessitura of this music with great elegance and his sense of timing led to a powerful and dramatic presentation. There were times within the digital concert hall that the orchestra seemed to push harder than necessary, and in the climactic utterance: "und der Tod," the ensemble didn't allow enough room for him to properly cut through. Would it have been different in the hall itself?
After intermission we heard the 1889 revision of the Bruckner Symphony No. 3.
The Hartmann work became a prism through which we heard new things within the Bruckner. It was impossible to hear the flute solo just before the gesangsperiode or before the development of the first movement without thinking of troubled birdsong.
Isolation is not usually something one notices in this symphony--but it is there. Disconnected phrases from the first proclamation theme interrupt the progress of the development, and there is a startling false return of the gesangsperiod music before the start of the actual recapitulation. The second movement, in E-flat major, felt elevated and floating, and Skrowaczewski allowed full value to each of the unexpected silences cut from spinning motives.
Before leading the orchestra into the third movement, Skrowaczewski paused and smiled at the strings. It was all they needed. Unlike the Hartmann Gesangsszene this work would seek, and ultimately find, reintegration.
Skrowaczewski energetically led the orchestra through the surprising key changes that are used to shock this work out of its minor key opening. By the end of the work it was the parenthetical "Lansamer" interlude in C minor, with its lovely but lonely melody for the cello section, that marked the progress of integration in this performance.
After the celebratory closing, Skrowaczewski paused briefly, then with a flourish he set his baton on the conductor's stand and accepted applause. He was so well received that the audience continued clapping even after the orchestra had left the stage. Skrowaczewski made one last appearance to the delight of the hall, walking to the edge of the steps and waving.
It was a thrill to have the opportunity to hear this great conductor, who represents one of our final connections to an age that is all but lost. How wonderful to have this performance preserved in the archives of the Berliner Philharmoniker.