A Truly Moving Performance of Brahms Requiem by Yannick-Nezet Séguin and the Berlin Philharmonic: My Review

Serendipity

Who would have thought that I end up back at the Berlin Philharmonie so soon after the last concert by Simon Rattle just some days ago? Certainly not me.

This was really pure coincidence. I happened to stroll by the Berlin Philharmonic hall purely by chance. Suddenly, a guy approaches me, and asks “Would you want a ticket for the concert? Brahms, right now?” Well, who can say no to that? So 5 min later I find myself sitting in the Berlin Philharmonic hall watching as the BPO and the Rundfunkchor Berlin reassemble (I only got there during the break).

Ein Deutsches Requiem

I haven’t written that much about requiems yet on my blog. I have a certain respect for this category of music, as I always remember it is written for a very serious occasion, the death of a loved one. Maybe because of this I don’t listen to requiems enough.

I’ve previously mentioned Mozart´s requiem on my blog as part of My Must-have Mozart Albums. The other requiems I really love are Fauré’s (this really would need its own blog post), and obviously Brahms’.

Brahms German Requiem is a particular in many ways. First of all, it was written under very personal circumstances, around the death of Brahms own mother. Second, given Brahms´protestant background (he’s from Hamburg), he doesn’t use the traditional latin text of the catholic requiem, but instead parts of the Bible that are of personal importance to him. These are sung in German, hence the name.

Yannick Nézet Séguin – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra – Rundfunkchor Berlin – Hanna-Elisabeth Müller – Markus Werba

I was indeed very lucky last night. Not only I get to see again the BPO, one of the best orchestras in the world, but also finally get to see Yannick Nézet-Séguin live.

I’ve written a lot about his recordings, from his Cosi Fan Tutte to his FigaroMost recently I did a more ambivalent review of his Mendelssohn symphony box. But taken together, he is one of the most relevant conductors of the 21st century.

Yannick Nézet-Séguinm, The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Rundfunkchor Berlin, Brahms German Requiem Oct 19, 2017
Yannick Nézet-Séguinm, The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Rundfunkchor Berlin

Given his previous recordings, I expected this concert to be a relatively fast and lean performance. Well, from the first measure I was proven wrong. This was BPO beauty in full blast, with relatively slow tempo throughout.

Actually, I’m glad he did. Given the nature of this work, the grandiose and emotionally charged way Nézet-Séguin conducted this just worked out perfectly.

A word about the soloists: they don’t really have such an important role in this work (maybe with the exception of the central soprano solo Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit), and overall the soloists did an good job, but were not the most memorable parts of the evening. The audience seems to think the same: they got decent applause, but nothing out of the the ordinary.

The true star of the evening was the Rundfunkchor Berlin, under Gijs Leenaars.  Their performance was just amazing. Not surprisingly, they received standing ovations at the end. Well deserved

Yannick Nezet Seguin Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem Oct 19 2017
The BPO hall organ was a major player in the performance

 

The highlight of the evening for me was the second movement, Und alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras.  The combined power of the BPO, the powerful BPO hall organ, and the 80+ voices power (but also nuances) of the choir made this a performance I will never forget.

Truly outstanding.

My rating: 5 star

P.S. If you want to see it yourself, and are not in Berlin (note that there are some tickets left for tonight Oct 20 and tomorrow Oct 21), you can also see the Saturday performance streamed live in the Digital Concert Hall.

 

The Cunning Little Vixen – Janáček´s enchanting opera with Rattle´s Berlin Philharmonic

Leoš Janáček

In spite of the fact that I don’t write about them very often, I do very much like Czech composers. I just checked: so far two entries on Dvorak (none of them dedicated to him), another short mention of Martinu as part of a concert review. No entries for Smetana, same for Janacek.

Why is that? I really don’t know. Janacek in a way really flew under my radar screen. I had a couple of his string quartets which I liked, but not much beyond this.

So how do I end up seeing an opera he wrote?

Very simply: I was in Berlin, hadn’t been to see the Berlin Philharmonic for a while, and was able to spontaneously secure last minute tickets. Typically, the BPO with Rattle is booked out, prohibiting spontaneous trips to the amazing Sharoun concert hall.

Luckily, like me, the Berlin audience wasn’t familiar with this opera (original title: Příhody lišky Bystroušky) by Janacek at all.

I’m very glad I went, it was a fantastic evening.

The Cunning Little Vixen – Simon Rattle – Berlin Philharmonic – October 12, 2017

To be fair, my curiosity was helped by the fact that there were some amazing lead singers, with Gerald Finley and Lucy Crowe in the main roles, of Forester and Vixen respectively.

Furthermore, the always interesting Peter Sellars was responsible for the staging of the play, which was performaned not at one of Berlin many opera houses, but instead the traditional Berlin Philharmonic concert hall.

The opera itself has been only very rarely performed, you will find only a handful of recordings on your regular streaming service.

I hope this new performance will make it onto a formal recording, but I´ll make sure to check out the Digital Concert Hall of the Berlin philharmonic, where I hope this recording appears soon.

 

Berlin Philharmonic - Simon Rattle - Janacek - Cunning Little Vixen
Rattle during the opening of Janacek´s Cunning Little Vixen

 

The Berlin philharmonic and Rattle really shined, this outstanding music, that changes from sentimental to funny to very introvert by the minute.

The story (sung in Czech, but translated in real time on the displays) is full of double double-entendres and little nuances, and really goes beyond the animal fairy tale nature one could immediately expect looking at the title.

 

IMG_5484
Gerald Finley, Lucy Crowe, and Paulina Malefane

 

As mentioned above, Finley and Crowe were outstanding soloists, but the remaining cast was also very good, only some of the choirs and children roles were not fully up to the same standards, but this didn’t hurt the overall impact.

Peter Sellars didn’t have a lot to work with, there was basically one small stage with only the occasional table and chairs added, and large LCD screens with videos to illustrate the scenery (from a creek in the woods to moving images of chicken).

Sellars also used the entire space, with the chorus occasional singing from above you, and with some of the lead singers freely roaming the entire building.

 

Petter Sellars staging of the Cunning Little Vixen, Berlin Philharmonic
Peter Sllars creative use of space: note the choir on the upper balcony

 

The Berlin public in the nearly sold out hall was as enchanted and enthusiastic as I was, we got more than 10 minutes of standing ovations and cheering.

 

Berlin Philharmonic, Cunning Little Vixen, Janacek, Rattle
An enthusiastic Berlin audience after the performance

A truly memorable evening.

My rating: 5 stars

The Nutcracker – Or Why I Sometimes Do Like Tchaikovsky

The Nutcracker

In my previous post on Tchaikovsky’s symphony no. 5 I’ve stated that I don’t like Tchaikovsky very much. However, I must admit he really did some magical (and not in the Disney sense of the word) melodies in his ballets.

Western Christmas traditions now include regular performances of the Nutcracker. The story was originally a German fairy tale of a prince turned into a nutcracker, by E.T.A Hoffmann, later adapted by Alexandre Dumas. Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere in 1892, and both the ballet and the “best-of” excerpt, the suites, are these days among the most famous of his works.

Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker – Simon Rattle – Berliner Philharmoniker  (EMI Classics 2010)

Tchaikovsky The Nutcracker Simon Rattle Berliner Philharmoniker EMI Classics

My first version was the legendary one by André Previn with the London Symphony Orchestra (also on EMI). That version is still very nice, so I didn’t look for a new recording for years (I basically listen to this work literally once or twice per year, usually some time in December).

However, two  years ago I heard about this relatively new (2010) recording by Rattle on the radio, and I checked it out and I really liked it. Beautiful orchestral colors by the great BPO, and most importantly all the energy that this music really needs (I’m anything but a dancer, but this music makes me want to get up from my sofa and move to it).

You’ll find some excerpts of the recording here, with a nice interview with Sir Simon Rattle and some BPO musicians:

 

Note that some people say that Russian music can only be played well by Russian conductors, and indeed Gergiev did a great job on his Decca recording with the Kirov orchestra from the 1990s.

But still, Rattle did such a fine version that I doubt I’ll ever buy another Nutcracker again (well, never say never).

My rating: 5 stars

You can buy the CD here, I haven’t found a decent lossless download source.