Friday, 5 June 2009

Of Wagner and some rather good dumplings

This is turning into a funny old year for finally doing musical things that I've dreamed of for around three decades.

In April, it was finally getting to see Ultravox live – and last week, it was seeing the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Indeed, not just seeing them, but seeing them in the Philharmonie, their own home concert hall.

I'd first become aware of the Berlin Phil back at the end of the 1970s, when I was studying music 'O' level at school, and that awareness developed when I started 'A' level studies.

My mother, delighted that I was listening to something other than 'pop', started buying me records at Christmas and birthday. Given the wide world of choice that is available in the classical music world, I had rapidly developed a mantra for her to remember: Deutsche Grammophon, Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan: simple.

I have an absolutely specific memory from the time: we had started 'A' levels and were being introduced to one of our set works, Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. It was a recording by ... well, you can guess. The piece has remained one of my favourites, but as I sat in the tiny attic classroom, listening to this extraordinary music for the first time, I was transported to a pastoral paradise; a world of willows trailing their fronds into gently flowing water, of dappling sunlight and, of course, of a flute-playing faun. It was the most sensual music that I'd ever heard.

So when we booked our trip to Berlin, I leapt at the opportunity to see if it was possible to attend a concert.

If memory serves, they were performing three concerts in the city last week, but choice had been diminished by demand (including for a performance of Debussy's La Mer) so I simply grabbed what I could.

That was to be for the world premiere of a new piece for wind quintet and orchestra by German composer Siegfried Matthus, plus highlights of acts two and three of Wagner's Götterdämmerung to round out a complete programme.

Quick research told me little about Matthus, but I managed to find a recording of his Symphony No2 and Concerto for Violincello and orchestra to offer a taste of what we were getting ourselves into.

Gulp. This was very modern – at least, very atonal.

Now we're not averse to modern serious music, so we simply waited for the night itself.

It was a windy walk to the Philharmonie. We made sure we were in plenty of time. After taking a few snaps of Hans Scharoun's building, I collected my tickets. For pretty much the whole week I'd been in a calm glow – enjoying so much of the trip, but not being overly excitable about anything. At this point, as I came close to actually kissing my ticket, the realisation of just how much it meant started to dawn.

We raided the shop – a number of recordings to add to the collection – and then slowly headed to our seats upstairs. Up a lot of stairs, to be accurate.

As we waited in the remarkable auditorium, famous for its accoustics, my mind drifted back to those school music lessons. At 'A' level there had been just six of us. I wondered if any of the others had continued to listen to – or even play – music. And as the orchestra drifted in, I found myself thinking of Noel McKee, our wonderful teacher, and thinking that he'd be very proud, in his ever so slightly pretend-grumpy way, that at least one of his pupils had made it to where I was sitting.

The Matthus piece was first up. With a substantial orchestra plus the quintet, we were surprised when Sir Simon Rattle took his place at a set of kettle drums next to his conducting podium – and started the performance on these slightly off-tune instruments, before turning to step into his normal position (he returned to the drums to conclude the work too).

The piece was fascinating. It gave us reminders of the Classical, of the pastoral/Romantic and of the 20th century, with percussive sections that owed a great deal to jazz. And all linked by a scuttling theme.

Far more obviously melodic than expected, it seemed to be telling the listener that nothing is new – and that we can never fully escape all previous forms: that history, if you will, is always with us; that everything is a circle. And the idea of a musical past woven into a musical present seemed to perfectly reflect this city of history on every corner too.

This being a world premiere, we were treated to that most unusual sight at a 'classical' concert – the composer, who took his place alongside Rattle at the end for our plaudits.

A fascinating and enjoyable work, I'm hoping it'll be released on disc – not least because I want to actually listen to it carefully again.

And Rattle is an intriguing conductor to watch – his style is almost as bubbly as his distinctive hair; he can hardly stand still. And yet, like all the best conductors – and after eight years in Berlin, Rattle's showing he's no mug at this game – he exudes authority. It's something that I find fascinating. Von Karajan almost always conducted with his eyes closed, sometimes barely moving. Yet he exerted complete control over the musicians (not without a few highly-strung souls amongst them either). On one occasion at a rehearsal, a brass player apparently made a slight mistake. All Von K did was open an eye to look briefly in his direction. The man later recorded that he felt compelled not to make the same error again.

After a break – always interesting to watch the stage hands change things around for different orchestrations – Rattle let the orchestra rip. If anyone was in any doubt that this was going to be full-blown (some would say overblown) 19th century German romanticism, then the presence of an amazing four harps on stage, plus around 45 violins (according to The Other Half, who counted them) should have acted as a warning. It's no wonder Wagner needed to build his own opera house. Although, to be fair, he was hardly the only composer of the period who scored for big bands – Mahler and Richard Strauss were not very far behind.

Now I appreciate that Wagner is an acquired taste, but whilst I'm still not hugely up on the singing bits, the straight orchestral stuff can send me into ecstasy. With added goosebumps. It's music that has a G factor, forceing you back into your seat, holding you there and demanding you pay attention.

And when a clear, piercing brass theme emerged above the quivering strings in the funeral march, I was almost reduced to total mush.

As we left the auditorium, The Other Half asked how I was. "I'm going to try to start breathing again," was all I could muster, as I attempted to make my insides relax.

We walked in silence from the Philharmonie toward Potsdamer Platz. Food was required. Amid the neon and steel and glass, Weinhaus Huth stands as the one remaining pre-war building, but Diekmann, the highly-lauded restaurant there, was accepting no new customers that night.

We found a large, modern venue still serving and settled down with beers (a dark Franzikaner for me – oh joy), trying to order our thoughts, having ordered the food.

Although assorted guides to the city berate the area for its lack of quality eating places (apart from Diekmann), I very much enjoyed a dish of Königsberger Klopse – veal meatballs, served with a traditional caper sauce, plus a gem lettuce salad and, of course, potatoes. The meatballs, I'm delighted to say, were light as a feather and very tasty.

It really was not a bad way to conclude a night I'd waited 30 years for. And are the Berlin Phil really good? Oh yes – very!

1 comment:

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