Decline

There is no regret, only memories, some bittersweet, some funny. He looks back and smiles, all the time listening to the breeze blowing through the bare branches of the trees. He sees the present, but his reality is in the past, although he no longer reads it as the past, rather as a possible future, or, better, a transition between futures. The present, the spectacle, he does not care much for, there is nothing there to inspire him, to make it worth more attention. In a strange way, he’s immune, to the air du temps, to the vagaries that pass for real in most people’s daily lives: he’s sheltered, wrapped, in voices, melodies and faces that are no more, but still more alive to him than the background noise “they” call now.


She observes his decline, but admires his energy, the way he polishes wood, cleans his boots, prunes the bushes, looks after the car. There is more, but she’s careful to spare those moments, those fragile bridges to the couple they once were. She observes him, does not let him out of sight too long. Best for her, is when he is at his desk, surrounded by Beethoven or Mozart, writing one of his weird and lofty stories. Then, his mind may be far away, but his cherished body is there, visible, close to her, she knows he’s not going to disappear, through the mist. Yet she cares about where his mind is: what would she do if, one morning, he did not recognise her? What would happen to both of them if he lost his sense of time, his sense of humour?

Beethoven in close-up: art of the fugue

To celebrate Beethoven’s 250th jubileum the Berlin Philharmoniker has offered its Digital Concert Hall public a delightful voyage of discovery through the composer’s chamber music works. In four parts, this extraordinary musical adventure takes us from early works for winds ensembles to the early, middle and late periods of Beethoven’s string quartets. For many of us this is a revelation of less well known compositions, over which we are guided by Philipp Bohnen’s cogent and charming comments. We learn about the composer’s youth in Bonn, where he learnt to play the horn, his arrival in Vienna, his admiration for his elders Mozart and Haydn, his progress, over thirty years, to the masterpieces of the late string quartets. We learn also about the particular challenges, for the musicians themselves, of the quartets, the harmonic complexity and sometime unexpected tempo.

As a remarkable proof of breadth and depth of world-class professional talent, the orchestra spawned from its ranks seventeen string quartets and one winds sextet for these concerts. All are accessible on the Concert Hall starting here.

Gnomes 2

I am now certain “they” are out there, and getting closer. Can their intentions be good? All day, unless I play, I hear muted shuffling noises, little sardonic giggles, low whistles. They are mocking me, taking advantage of my present confusion. The terrace may be swept clean for now, for how long?

I could try to trap them, but would it be wise? What I really want is them to go away, to leave me in peace, to let me recover my mental health. And then this: I fear they are acting on orders. I dare not imagine on whose orders, horror. Today the rain stopped, the air is clean and colder. I savour an instant of silence. Perhaps they fear cold. Perhaps they are busy tormenting another poor soul. I have wondered if they feel threatened by beautiful sounds, by music. Or is it just that, when I play, my mind is off the hideous creatures? This is it: I must try harder not to be obsessed by them.

… Last night I saw her, the red-dress temptress. I recalled, vaguely, our first encounter, although I don’t remember where that was, other than it wasn’t here, but in the city. The temptation was pointless, for I am too tired, too overwhelmed by all the changes, the fear, the pain, to be interested in anything, or anyone. Only the music, and the clouds can now move me. But I tried, foolishly, to find out. About them. She pretended not to understand, and she disappeared quickly. Of course, they may well be her creatures. And this was a bad omen. I have been found, located, “they”, and their mistress or master, know where I am hiding.

But I won’t give in. I have weapons, and reliable friends. I am not finished.

Fratres

Neue Wache

The avenues are deserted on this clear evening of May. Furtive passers-by appear to avoid each other, all is silent.

Inside the spacious auditorium the small orchestra is waiting. The soft light illuminates the stage, the delicate wooden surface of the violins and celli. Soon, rapid steps are heard. The conductor enters, and the musicians stand up, as one.

The conductor salutes the orchestra, and, smiling sadly, bows looking at the empty seats: the auditorium is empty. Turning back to face the musicians his composure is calm, religious. A small gesture of the hand launches the first movement of Fratres. As the notes fill the almost empty space, we hold our breath. We, and thousands of others across the world, are not there, but we are, all the same. We watch the concentration on the faces, transfigured, of the musicians.

We are not merely attending, this is a communion. Outside, the illness holds the city in its grip. Its shadow obscures the Spring sky.

“Erwin Stein, a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, arranged a version of Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony for only 15 musicians for the legendary “Society for Private Musical Performances” in 1921. The institution, founded by Schoenberg, presented symphonic compositions arranged for small forces to an audience interested in contemporary music – also because the privately financed association naturally did not have a large-scale orchestra at its disposal.

For different reasons, namely health considerations, the large orchestras cannot perform during the corona crisis, so it looked like the Berliner Philharmoniker’s European Concert, traditionally held on 1 May each year, which was to be held for the first time under the baton of chief conductor Kirill Petrenko, would not be able to take place either. The keenly anticipated trip to the scheduled performance venue of Tel Aviv was cancelled, as was the concert tour planned for afterwards. And yet Kirill Petrenko and members of his orchestra performed on the scheduled date and at the traditional time of 11 am. The venue – in keeping with the general “stay at home” slogan – was the Philharmonie. Due to legal guidelines, no more than 15 musicians were on stage at the same time, taking into account the required minimum distance, all performers were tested for the virus – and of course spectators were not allowed in the auditorium. However, the European concert was also conceived as a media event from its very beginnings. So the 2020 concert, with live broadcasts on television, radio and in the Digital Concert Hall, ultimately reached a large audience around the world despite the extremely unusual circumstances. And in Erwin Stein’s arrangement, the main symphonic work of the concert, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, could also be performed.

However, the programme of the first half of the concert was changed: instead of Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei and orchestral songs by Mahler based on poems by Rückert, they performed compositions by Arvo Pärt, György Ligeti and Samuel Barber for string orchestra. Pärt’s work Fratres, inspired by Gregorian chants, is one of the most famous pieces from the post-war period with its appealing harmony and structure and its ethereal sounds. Ligeti’s Ramifications, with its unusual string playing techniques and ingenious timbre effects, also brings to mind those instruments that could not be played in the European Concert on this occasion. And Barber’s Adagio, considered one of the saddest pieces in the history of music, expressed the worries and hardships of the present situation. The performance could also be understood as a message of support from the European Concert to Barber’s home country, the USA, which has been particularly badly affected by the corona crisis. 

In its original version, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony also uses smaller forces compared to the preceding Symphonies 2 and 3. In contrast to the monumental substance of the previous works, the composer intended in this work to write a musical “humoresque”. Although it does not lack darker elements or irony, the symphony contains many cheerful and comforting passages. The finale, whose soprano solo was performed as originally planned by the celebrated singer Christiane Karg, tells of “heavenly life” in the unmistakable Wunderhorn style.”