28 September 2012

A Mozart pair and jazz age Ravel

The Berlin Philharmonic was out of town on tour, but plenty of seats were available for the Rundfuk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin (Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra - East Berlin) in the Großer Saal at the Berliner Philharmonie. It didn’t seem a challenging program (Mozart-Ravel-Mozart) but I expected we would enjoy it and we did. The hall was from the ‘60s. It reminded us of the Sydney Opera House, but is wider rather than long and thus the experience is more intimate. It’s got similar hanging lighting and PA and stage a generous legroom. And a hydraulic lift that had us and several other audience members fascinated in the break.

This is not a large orchestra. I judge orchestra size by the number of double basses (large=8; smaller=4): this had four. The first Mozart was particularly small: some clarinets, horns and bassoons in addition to strings. The Ravel required more tonal colour and added brass and harp and percussion and piano. The second Mozart was larger than the first but smaller than Ravel. Right from the first notes of the first Mozart, we were in madly attractive and well-known territory. I wouldn’t have recognised all movements of each symphony, but the first movements of each were renowned and widely recognisable. The first was Symphony No 25 in G minor KV183. Apparently this is a Sturm und Drang style, a “proto-Romantic movement in German literature and music taking place from the late 1760s through the early 1780s, in which … subjectivity and … emotion were given free expression in reaction to the perceived constraints of rationalism imposed by the Enlightenment” (Wikipedia). The musical implications are wide melodic leaps, sycopations, bursts of wind instruments and the minor key. I found the performance was nicely steady with stately tempo and strong dynamics. The Ravel was his Piano Concerto in G major and was a different beast. It started with jazz-like lines on piccolo then a devilish snap into trumpet then piano backing a Gershwin melody on oboe to open this jazzy work. Megan and I immediately thought of Gershwin and Rhapsody in blue. Apparently Ravel had recently toured the US and was keen on jazz syncopations and harmonies. Then on to three movements with sudden changes, string pads, jazz-folk harmonies, a few humourous trombone slides and story-telling variations. This is delightful jazz-age fusion. Pianist Kirill Gerstein played an encore solo piece and then the interval. We hung around with a batch of fellow tech-obsessed audience to watch the hydraulic lift take away the piano, then Mozart again with another eminently renowned theme, this time his Symphony No 40 in G minor KV550. I now learn that Mozart only wrote two symphonies in G minor and we heard them both this evening: the Little G Minor symphony (No 25) and the Great G Minor symphony (No 40). The Great is a work in four movements and scored for more instruments that the Little. I noted the first movements as insistent and could hear Beethoven in rolling, falling phrases. The second movement was a minuet in 6/8 with some darker complexion at times, querying and imploring. Wikipedia notes the use of hemiola: I felt quite uncomfortable this with this passage. The third movement is stately, bold 3/4 with unexpected changes and some interesting passages of odd lengths. The final movement was common time with sheets of 16th notes and an odd, open connecting fill in the middle. So, an informative and entertaining pairing of Mozart symphonies and a jazz-age Ravel. Very well enjoyed.

The Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin was conducted by Marek Janowski in the Großer Saal at the Berliner Philharmonie. They performed Mozart’s Symphony No 25 in G minor KV183 and his Symphony No 40 in G minor, KV550 and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major with pianist Kirill Gerstein.

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