Friday, August 24, 2012

Two "Men of Systems" open a New Season in the Digital Concert Hall

The Berliner Philharmoniker opened the 2012-2013 season of broadcasts transmitted live through the Digital Concert Hall with a particularly tasty performance of the Symphony No. 3 by Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994); a 30-minute single movement work written for the Chicago Symphony in 1983.

I had the opportunity to meet Lutosławski as an undergraduate student at Ithaca College in October of 1985, two years after the third symphony was premiered. I asked him a very specific question about the construction of its mosaic-like structure. "I am a man of systems," he relied smiling.

These "systems" were on display in the digital concert hall. Rattle assembled complex textures with great clarity. This is no simple task in a work that built from mixtures of controlled improvisation and precise notation. But the "systems" were also voiced so that elements of subtle musical humor and playfulness were able to emerge from, and enter into, moments of great formality and solemnity. This critical quality is frequently missing from performances of Lutosławski's music, but never seemed to be missing from the composer's personality.

The Berliner Philharmoniker listened deeply into these quickly shifting and unusual textures and created a performance enjoyable to hear from start to stop. The production was also carefully considered--as an example, there was a special angle during the first three refrains that showed both clarinets and the bassoon in one frame.

The event began with the Brahms B-flat major piano concerto with Yefim Bronfman as soloist. This performance increased in interest as the work progressed. Beginning with a low string sound that was deep and powerful the second movement it caught fire. Ludwig Quandt played the cello solo in the third movement with stunning elegance, and Rattle took a tempo that was a true andante; fast enough to dance and to move with flexibility. Bronfman played with power and developed a fairly classic interpretation. But there were beautiful moments, like the nocturne in F-sharp minor that emerged half-way through the andante which was balanced beautifully with the clarinets.

Listen to the finale! What fun! It was a very special atmosphere created on the quiet side; playful and sexy.

I have always imagined that Brahms thought of himself as a "man of systems." Brahms and Lutosławski both share a fierce intensity of design, but as we heard in this program, both also enjoyed musical moments of unexpected grace and a good chuckle along the way.
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